"I appreciate your patience, my lord," Princess Tamina told the Persian king as they observed the repairs being made to Alamut, her city. Truth be told, she was a little eager herself for the work to be done, and actually looking forward to her wedding to the man's intriguing son, Dastan, but her people's welfare came first.
"Not at all, my lady -- it is I who am thankful to you, for your forgiveness and understanding," King Sharaman replied sincerely. "Your city's walls should never have been threatened in the first place! If not for my brother's lies, or the eagerness of my sons ...."
The princess felt a great pang of pity for her soon-to-be father-in-law. She was sad for the people that were lost -- both amongst her own people and his, and for the fact that he lost one dear to him, the very same brother that betrayed him. A moment's disgrace likely would not easily erase a lifetime of love. The poor man's heart had to be well-shattered.
"Your late brother bears the blame, not you," she assured him. "Indeed, I am grateful that we gain the blessings of friendship and love from his foul intentions! As for your sons, they did what they did out of love for you and your people, and out of misplaced trust regarding their uncle. How can I fault them for being loyal? Moreover, they have proven that they can cool their youthful hotheadedness with wisdom, and learn from experience. See how hard and sincerely they work to make amends!" she added, gesturing to the princes Tus and Garsiv as they passed by, carrying a sizable piece of timber together.
"Morning, Father! Morning, Tamina!" the princes intoned as they passed.
"Good morn, my sons! But where is Dastan?" Sharaman asked, glancing about as they followed after the princes.
The two brothers set their load down on a pile and turned to their father.
"Dastan was sleeping like the dead when we arose a few hours ago," Garsiv offered.
"We decided he deserved to sleep in, as reward for the calamity he averted," Tus added.
Tamina noted that the eldest prince would not meet her eyes; her pity extended now from father to son. "It surely has been hard on you all, discovering your once-beloved uncle's treachery. I heard about your own brave blow against him, Tus; if not for it, Dastan would be truly dead now, and not just sleeping," she pointed out. "And if the attack on Alamut had not played out as it did, your uncle's plot may not have been found out in time. I'm sure my people would have suffered much worse sorrow, if that were the case."
"Dastan is blessed to have such a wise and forgiving woman accept his proposal of marriage," Tus replied, taking her hand and kissing it.
Tamina smiled genuinely at him, and at Garsiv. Despite recent events, she found she liked these men that she would soon be calling family, and wanted to get to know them better before they returned home, as they would soon after the wedding. "You must be hungry -- shall we all see if your brother has rejoined the living and would break bread with us?"
"Dastan??" Tus wasted no time, running the few short steps down the hall and into the room that he and Garsiv had shared with their youngest sibling, Garsiv just a step or two behind him. In all the time they had been brothers, Tus could not remember Dastan ever screaming like that, in tones of pure horror and desperate grief -- not even as a young boy. The sound flooded the king's heir's limbs with fear, making him feel like he was trying to run on water. Thankfully, his knees waited until he'd actually reached Dastan's side before buckling.
Tus noted Garsiv in the periphery of his vision; the second-eldest prince was checking the room for dangers, leaving Tus free to focus on their little brother. "What is it?" Tus asked the youngest prince, laying his hands on the man's shoulders, scanning for injuries. Seeing none, relief began to edge out the fear; as it steadied him, he noted how Dastan trembled in his grip, how the princeling's skin was feverish and slick with sweat, his breathing harsh as if he'd been running. The young warrior's legs were tangled in his blankets. Clearly his brother had still been asleep very recently; a nightmare, then? About the princess?
Dastan seemed disoriented, looking about as if he didn't know where he was, until he focused on his eldest brother, gripping Tus by the arms in turn. "Tus...? You're alive!" the young prince noted weakly, eyes and smile brimming with obvious relief. Before Tus could ask what he meant, Dastan was crushing the air out of him in a fierce hug. "And Garsiv!" Dastan added, apparently spotting their brother now.
"Dastan?" came Tamina's rich voice from behind Tus, the sound shrouded in worry.
Dastan pulled back enough to see the princess, a hand still gripping his brother's tunic, as if he was afraid Tus would disappear otherwise. "Tamina ..." Dastan exhaled.
While Dastan had seemed happier to see Tus and Garsiv just a moment ago than Tus could ever remember the boy acting before, Tus wasn't sure his youngest brother had been as happy to see anyone in his entire life as he seemed to be in setting eyes on Tamina right then -- and the eldest prince didn't think for one moment that it was just because the woman was almost impossibly lovely. Tus had seen his own father look at his mother, the only wife the king had truly loved, in such a way. The Heir of Persia smothered a stab of envy at the notion that Dastan could have fallen in love so deeply and easily with his very first wife -- and before he'd even married her! Of course, Tus supposed he shouldn't be surprised: aside from being beautiful, she had shown herself to be wise, compassionate, and a strong leader; Tamina wasn't exactly hard to like in any respect. Even as he was envious, though, Tus was very happy for his brother, and believed firmly that he had made the best choice in suggesting Dastan be the one to marry the princess.
The youngest prince trembled still, but Tus was sure it was in relief now, not terror. Dastan even laughed a little, smiling wide as he called out, "Father!" As their king and patriarch knelt before the youngest prince, Dastan reached out and grabbed the man's extending hand in his free one, in a grip that made the old man wince. The prince quickly released him again, clearly chagrined.
The Lion of Alamut (as Tamina's own people had apparently named Dastan) finally released Tus then, still smiling as he drew his knees up, propped his elbows on them, and rest his head in his hands, sighing deeply. "It was just a dream," Dastan whispered.
"I'm not so sure about that," Tamina replied, eyeing her betrothed curiously as she settled beside Dastan, opposite Tus.
Dastan straightened up and made a motion that suggested he wanted to touch Tamina -- at the very least, to confirm she was real and well, but Tus suspected the young man wanted far more than that. Dastan seemed to catch himself, though, looking unsure as to how much contact was proper or welcome.
Tamina took one of Dastan's hands in both of hers, and smiled encouragingly, if a bit uncertainly. Dastan brought her hands to his lips and kissed them, then laid his brow against them, eyes closed, perhaps against the tears Tus has seen forming.
Tamina stared intently at Tus himself next, then at their father and Garsiv each in turn, biting her lip. A moment later, she nodded, seeming to have come to some sort of conclusion.
Extricating a hand, she stroked her betrothed's hair, wonderingly. "Dastan ... you know the secret of the dagger. Don't you." It was more of a statement, Tus believed, than a question.
Tus saw Dastan give his family all a furtive glance, then nodded to Tamina almost imperceptibly.
"Wait ... you mean that dagger Dastan gave you?" Garsiv asked, kneeling beside her and his younger brother. "I thought it odd that he said it belonged to you ...."
Truth be told, so had Tus, but she'd herded Dastan outside just after that, and Tus had since forgotten about it. "Was that the treasure that our uncle sought, then?" Tus asked.
"It must have been," Tamina replied, Dastan nodding agreement only after she'd responded.
Dastan obviously knew something -- something that, after Tus had fallen for Nizam's ploy, Dastan was reluctant to confide in his own family about! Tus felt like an elephant had suddenly dropped into his stomach; in trusting Nizam and acting on the man's word, he and Garsiv had apparently lost Dastan's faith in all of them.
Well, perhaps they'd won Tamina's trust, and through her could win back Dastan's ....
"Dastan, I assume that the dagger was used in such a way that Nizam almost destroyed the world, didn't he?" Tamina asked.
Tus blinked in confusion, and found Garsiv and their father similarly befuddled. When had Nizam had the dagger? And there had been no earthquakes, no storms, no plagues, no fires -- "What do you mean, Nizam almost destroyed the world?"
Tamina gave them an enigmatic smile. "I am sure that, by the end of Dastan's story, all will become clear to you. To that end, I ask that you trust your brother's word, no matter how confusing or impossible what he says seems. As you listen, remember that I am putting a great deal of faith in you in asking him to share this tale, so that you will not attempt to take Nizam's path once you learn all of what the dagger can do. The dagger is in my people's safekeeping -- and now Dastan's -- for a reason. Your brother must have a true and noble heart -- it is the only possible reason we all sit here now, alive and well. I am trusting that your hearts are more like his than Nizam's."
She hadn't asked for confirmations, but Tus found himself -- and Garsiv and their father -- nodding vigorously.
Tamina pressed her hand against her betrothed's cheek."Dastan, will you tell us what happened to disturb your dreams so?"
Dastan licked his dry lips, looking to his future wife for reassurance. "They're going to think I'm insane -- hell, I'm not sure I'm not...."
Tus realised this was a pivotal moment. "We won't!" he insisted. "If the simple fact that you are my brother were not enough, you were right about Nizam. I would hear the tale that led you to the truth about him, and I will trust, as Tamina has asked, that anything that may seem ... mad will be explained by tale's end."
Like Tamina had, just moments ago, Dastan regarded his family, then nodded, decision made. "There was a time when the events that unfolded after we claimed the city did not happen in the way you know they did. The dagger we speak of allows the user to change times gone. Nizam was going to use it to go back to the day that he'd saved Father from the lion, and let him die instead."
Tus, Garsiv, and their father all let out various breaths of astonishment, but were careful not to question the youngest prince's claim. If Dastan said the dagger did this, then that is what it did, no matter how impossible it sounded. Until a few days ago, Tus would never have believed that Nizam would betray them, but the man had; by simple virtue of attacking Dastan, their uncle had proven Datsan's words were true.
"Nizam did not care that, in using the dagger that way, there was a greater chance that he would destroy the world instead," Dastan added pointedly.
Tus saw the words for what they were: a warning, like Tamina's, that if greed should lead them to covet the dagger, it was very likely that they would destroy all they had, rather than gain anything. Tus nodded that he understood and was taking the warning to heart; he was pleased to see Garsiv and their father do the same.
"In the original turn of events, of course, I did not know of Nizam's treachery," Dastan continued, growing hesitant and contrite. "We approached the princess as conquerors, with ... well, with Tus intent on making her his next wife." Datsan looked at both Tamina and Tus with apology in his eyes, for different reasons.
For his part, horrified at his other self's actions, Tus felt the need to apologise as well. "Lady Tamina, I--"
She quickly pressed a silencing finger against his lips. "You have already apoligised for attacking Alamut. As for your other self's intentions towards me, it is pointless to apologise for actions that no longer exist, save in the memory of one man. It is the Tus of Dastan's memory that owes the Tamina of that same memory that apology. We are neither of those. Continue, please, Prince Dastan."
The thing was, this Tus had had such thoughts, the notion of forcing Tamina to be his next wife, himself, before the invasion. The pointed look she gave him now suggested she knew that, and did not feel it worth discussing any further.
Oblivious to the silent exchange, Dastan nodded in reply to Tamina's request. "When father arrived, he was ... well, just as in this reality, he wasn't happy with Tus for attacking without concrete evidence. Tus was determined to find that evidence. Before he left to do so, he'd given me a ceremonial robe, so that I would have something to gift our Father with, and charged me to introduce the princess to him. I had a ... not-so-pleasant meeting with the princess, then met with Father. First, I ... I presented him with the robe." His voice was gravelly, his eyes downcast; Tus wondered why this point seemed to grieve his brother so. "Then I presented the princess to him, saying how Tus intended to marry her. Father decided that I should marry the princess instead -- although why either of you seem to think I make a good offering of apology is beyond me!" Dastan smiled wolfishly at Tus, but sobered quickly.
"Then the robe ..." Dastan cast his eyes to the ground again, but not before Tus saw the glimmer of tears there, the sorrow that both haunted the young man's eyes and caught in his throat. Tus could guess, then, what was coming, why Dastan had been so joyous to see them all alive. Even the fact that they were all sitting here, safe and hale before the young prince, was not enough to erase what time itself had eradicated.
"It was poisoned." Dastan manged, finally. "It started to ... to smoke .... His ... his skin began to burn .... I wanted to help Father, but G--everyone believed I had poisoned it myself, and attacked me."
The flicker in Garsiv eyes, the stricken look on his face, told Tus that the elder of his two younger brothers had caught the slip as well. Garsiv and Dastan had often bickered; Tus knew of no one who could get earn Garsiv's ire faster. It was clear that Garsiv, in this other reality, had declared Dastan guilty and sicced the court on him. And yet Dastan had withheld that information, doubtless out of love for his brother, regardless of the alternate-Garsiv's action against him.
As Tus -- and Garsiv, it seemed -- had these thoughts, Dastan, meanwhile, took a moment to compose himself. Tus could only imagine how Dastan must have felt while watching their father die, especially so horribly! Tus felt the sting of tears in his own eyes, the mere mention of the phantom of such a loss grieving him -- as did his brother's pain.
The king scooted closer, taking his youngest son's face in his hands. "My boy, I am touched that the thought of my loss grieves you so, but I would not see you in such pain. Please, cast these sorrowful images from your mind henceforth!"
Dastan nodded, and the king released him.
"Bis started herding me towards the window -- and lost his life, trying to protect me, so I could run away." Dastan's words dripped with self-contempt, and he wiped a tear from his eye.
They all knew Bis was alive and well, but for Dastan, Bis would always have lost a life for his sake. Tus put a comforting hand on his brother's shoulder, and could swear he could feel shame radiating from the young man.
Tamina seemed to read his mind -- or perhaps she just had a gift for knowing just what to say. "Do not forget, Dastan, that, in escaping to live, as your friend Bis wanted you to, you later saved him -- and your father, and, I would venture to guess, many others."
"But I did not know that at the time," Dastan pointed out.
"But Destiny did," she assured him.
Dastan gave her a weak smile. "I think you and I will be arguing until the end of time about that."
Her smile was stronger. "I truly hope so, dear prince. For now, though, at least accept that you knew your father's killer had to be found -- and that you had to be alive to do that."
Dastan reluctantly nodded. "The princess was by the window -- we jumped to freedom together. She insisted on coming with me. I stole Garsiv's horse--" Garsiv made a choked sound at this, his horse being his pride and joy, "--and we went as far as we could -- arguing much of the way," he chuckled, "--before finally making camp."
"Arguing?" Garsiv asked with a grin.
"Yes, to be honest ... we didn't get along much at all at first. In fact, that's how I learned how the dagger worked. She tried to kill me that night in order to get it back -- not that I blame her, seeing as I did lead an assault on her people and put her in a terrible position," the princeling hurriedly added. "And I accidentally activated it."
Tus was stunned -- for a moment. He'd seen the strength in Tamina, though, and her dedication to her people. With that in mind, it wasn't so unbelievable -- especially if the dagger was so very dangerous!
Dastan looked at Tus then, grief in his eyes. "I thought that Tus had set me up. That he had led the assault against Alamut because he'd found out about the dagger and wanted it for its power, and that he was the one who had poisoned the robe. I was wrong, of course."
Tus gripped his brother's hand, hard. "I do not blame you for thinking it. Were I in your place? I would have suspected it as well -- especially under the stress of such grief. Besides ... I'm guessing that I, in turn, believed you to be the murderer?"
"And I?" Garsiv chimed in quietly, looking as sorrowful as Tus felt.
Dastan averted his eyes and nodded.
"Do not let him get so ahead of the story," the princess chastised Tus and Garsiv, then turned to her betrothed. "You said that you learned that night how the dagger worked? Explain it to them."
"I learned some of it -- I didn't learn the rest until later," Dastan corrected. "You saw how the dagger hilt is clear, with a gem at the end?" he asked his family. "The hilt can hold a special sort of sand -- the Sands of Time. Press the gem, and it allows the bearer to turn time back as much as one minute, yet retain memory of what happened before. My awareness was pulled from my body, and time went backwards before my eyes. I was able then to avoid Tamina's attack.
"The next day, I was determined to bring the dagger back and prove my innocence to Nizam, to show him that the dagger was the real reason Tus wanted to attack Alamut, and his motive for killing father. I couldn't just leave the princess stranded, though, so I brought her with me -- and when my guard was down, she tricked me." Dastan gave the princess a smile that was part chagrin on his own behalf and part pride towards her. "She pretended to faint, and when I went to check on her ... she, ah, hit me with a human leg-bone she found in the Valley of the Slaves."
Tamina's eyes grew wide, and she reached out to touch her bertrothed's head, as if to see if it still bore the goose-egg she must have given him. "I'm so sorry! I hope it wasn't too painful ...."
Tus couldn't help but be amused that she was more concerned over the head injury than her attempt to kill him. "You didn't do it, remember?" he reminded her.
Dastan had a silly grin on his face as he took Tamina's hand from his head and kissed her fingers. "Tus is right, my love."
It was her turn to look chagrined -- although Tus thought maybe the blush on her cheek had as much to do with his brother calling her "my love" as her being embarrassed by her alternate-self's actions.
"Well, now that that's settled, get on with the story," Garsiv growled.
Dastan obliged. "I woke up surrounded by the minions of a merchant, a shiek named Amar. I, ah ... well, I offered them the princess in exchange for supplies." He coughed; Tamina smirked at him with a raised brow. "It turned out, though, that Tus has offered a bounty on my head, one Amar wanted to collect on. So once again, Tamina and I found ourselves escaping together.
"We went to Avrat, where I hoped to find Nizam at Father's funeral. I managed to arrange a meeting, but when I tried to tell him what I thought Tus had planned, I discovered that Tamina had filched the dagger from me. Then I noticed that Nizam's hands were burned." Dastan's eyes grew hard, his voice choked again, this time with anger. "He claimed that he had burned them whilst trying to remove the robe from our father. Then I was attacked from above. I was chased through the city, and barely escaped with my life."
Tus suspected that chase involved Garsiv; Tus knew himself, knew that he would have made sure Garsiv had led their men in searching for their brother even while attending the funeral. Again, it seemed Dastan had omitted some part of the story for love of his brother. A glance at Garsiv revealed that this fact had not escaped him, either. They could both only try to remember what Tamina had said: they did not commit these deeds, and now never would. They were blessed, getting the chance to learn from their actions and suffer no consequences for them. Well, none save for guilt over what their alternate selves had inflicted on their younger brother -- and there was surely nothing they could do to atone for that, though Tus was determined to try anyway.
"I tracked Tamina down in the desert, running the memory of my father's death over and over in my mind as I travelled. Nizam hadn't touched the cloak, I was certain: I clearly remembered him pulling Garsiv away from father and holding him. The truth became clear to me. When I found Tamina, I told her of what I suspected, and demanded that she tell me more about the dagger, so that I could understand what Nizam wanted with it. She told me how it came to exist ...."
Dastan looked to Tamina then, who proceeded to share that history with the rest of them, and how the dagger, in conjunction with something called the Sandglass, might be used to turn back time for longer than the hilt alone allowed but at great risk that the Sands of Time could destroy the world. After hearing it, Tus had to wonder how anyone would dare to use the dagger -- or how he could share blood with such a raving mad fool as Nizam must have been!
The princeling resumed his tale. "I understood then that stopping Nizam was vital -- and that the best way to do that was to help Tamina get the dagger to the temple. Unfortunately, Amar caught up with us, determined to get the reward for my capture. But luck soon turned in our favour: that night, we were attacked by snakes and, using the dagger, I saved Amar's life. Between that and Tamina's promise that the temple was full of gold, Amar agreed to escort us where we wanted to go.
"When we got there, we found the temple's keepers all dead. Garsiv arrived soon after, with orders to bring me back for a trial, but when I explained everything, he believed me." Dastan shot Garsiv a grateful look, and Garsiv clapped a hand to the younger man's shoulder, nodding once. "It seems Nizam had tried to talk Tus into having me killed on sight, which planted the seed of suspicion in Garsiv's mind. Unfortunately, just after I'd convinced Garsiv of my innocence and loyalty, the Hassansins attacked--"
"Hassansins??" their father hissed. "But I disbanded them!"
"They were working for Nizam; Tamina believed that he learned of the dagger through one of them who had pretended to be one of her people," Dastan explained.
Their father squeezed his eyes tight and pinched the bridge of his nose. "And the snakes that attacked your group -- they were sent by the Hassansins."
"Oh! Yes, I ... I guess I forgot to mention the dervishes I saw before and after the attack, didn't I?"
Garsiv gave their youngest brother an incredulous look. "Yes, you did! You are a terrible storyteller, Dastan!"
Their father sighed. "We need to find the Hassansins and get rid of them, before they can bring us any more grief. Before the wedding, even."
Tus nodded, and Garsiv grunted an affirmative.
"Yes," Dastan agreed, a note of reluctance in his voice as he glanced at Garsiv.
Tus felt a chill race its spider's-legs down his back.
"Well, that is talk for another hour," the king told them. "I pray you, son, please continue."
"Right," Dastan agreed, then hesitated a moment more before blurting out, in a gravelly voice, "Garsiv was mortally wounded by the Hassansins."
Ah. So that was why Dastan didn't seem to want to go after the Hassansins. Suddenly, Tus wasn't so keen either.
Garsiv squeezed Dastan's shoulder, reminding their brother silently that he was alive and all was well. Dastan laid his hand over Garsiv's hand a moment and squeezed back, smiling gratefully.
"We fought the Hassansins alongside Amar's men for while," Dastan continued, his voice still rough with grief. "Then I saw Tamina making her way into the temple, and I followed her." Dastan paused. "We were attacked, then, and a Hassansin got the dagger. We--"
"Hold it right there, Prince Dastan," Tamina commanded, an immaculate brow arched. "I think you've left something out."
Odd, Tus had felt like Dastan was skipping a part as well. But why?
"I--it ... it's not essential," the princeling hedged.
"Oh, but I disagree," she returned. "You see, I know what should have happened in that cave, and as it involves me, I want to know why it didn't."
"I told you, we were attacked!" Dastan had never been a very good liar.
"You paused in your story," she accused. "I think that means something else happened before that, and you were debating whether or not to speak of it."
"So do I," Garsiv agreed.
Dastan looked to their father for aid, but the man only looked back expectantly, clearly just as keen in hearing the answer. When Dastan looked his way, Tus was merciless, giving the same reply as their father.
Dastan sighed and ran a hand through his hair, irritated. (Tus mused that his youngest brother would go bald early if he kept that up.) "Fine. Just before Garsiv had arrived, Tamina had revealed that she would have to sacrifice herself there, in order to destroy the dagger, so when I caught up with her in the temple, I ... I stopped her."
"Why?" Tamina asked with what was clearly feigned innocence; she wanted confirmation of a suspicion. Although, with the way Dastan had called out her name in his sleep, Tus didn't think they really needed that confirmation, so maybe she was just trying to get the princeling to face the situation head-on, rather than letting him keep dancing around it. "It was my destiny," she elaborated. "I have always been prepared to die if need be for the dagger. Why would you need to stop a veritable stranger, one you didn't even like, from doing her duty?"
"Because you weren't a stranger anymore!" he protested, falling into her trap. "We had grown close during that journey to the temple, and I ... I couldn't bear the thought of losing yo--her, especially not after just--" his voice broke, and he closed his eyes "--just having lost Garsiv, and Bis and Father not so long before that."
And me and Nizam, after a fashion, Tus reflected, his own eyes stinging.
Tamina looked pleased, but also oddly sad. "So why did you not tell me all this before now? You had to know that I would know you spoke truth."
"I don't know, I ... I guess I didn't want you to feel like you ... had to love me back."
She smirked at him and shook her head in fond exasperation. "And it never occurred to you that, once I'd said yes to being your wife, this story would be a kindness? Something to make it easier for me to love the man who would be my husband?" Her face softened. "But even if it did, you would have wanted me to fall in love with you more naturally, so that you would need not doubt my feelings for you if I said I loved you."
He bowed his head and nodded. A tear slid down his long nose, making an audible splash on his leathers.
Tamina reached out and cupped Dastan's face with her hand, brushing away another tear with her thumb. "The moment we met, I was struck by how much love was in your eyes -- which baffled me, because it seemed true and deep and familiar, not an instant infatuation based on my appearance, as I have seen in so many men before. But the love I saw was not just for me, but for your brothers at your side. You seemed truly surprised that Tus offered me your hand; I believe that you expected still that he would marry me -- and that you would have suffered heartbreak in silence for his sake."
Dastan closed his eyes and nodded.
Tamina smiled gently. "And your demeanor expressed, too, love for your brothers-in-arms all around us. In that regard, I saw a willingness for you to love my people as your own. As I understand it, you attacked without your brother's blessing -- not for glory, but in hopes to limit casualties in both sides. You are brimming with potential for love, of all kinds. That was why, even as my head balked at trusting my city's conqueror, my heart bade me say yes to its savior." She carded his hair with her fine fingers, and kissed his brow.
Dastan looked as hopeful as one might expect, under the circumstances. "You mean ...."
"You need never worry if my love for you is true," she assured him. "You'd shown yourself worthy of my own love before this tale. Now, though, I would hear its end. You were saying that the Hassansin attacked and took the dagger ...?"
Dastan nodded, dazed, his new hope apparently warring with the despair of his memories. "The Hassansin had knocked Tamina unconscious. I fought him, chasing the man outside -- where Garsiv saved me from him ... just before my brother died himself." Dastan blinked tears from his eyes and sniffed a little.
"Yes, yes, I died heroically, and my dear Dastan wept on behalf of all Persia," Garsiv teased, waving a hand in mock boredom. His ploy worked; Dastan laughed. "So then what happened, little brother?" Garsiv prompted.
"Tamina revealed that the dagger had been taken from her; I promised her we would get it back. We returned to Alamut, with Amar and his friend Seso accompanying us. Seso was a master knife-thrower, the only one with the skill necessary to defeat the spike-throwing Hassansin that guarded the blade. And he succeeded -- Seso sent it out the window of the tower it was kept in, but ... we believe he died in the effort."
And so there was yet another loss weighing on Dastan's soul.
"Well, doubtless this Seso is alive again, like everyone else -- perhaps we might meet him, and this Amar," Tus suggested.
"Yes, we might!" Dastan agreed, his eyes lighting up. "We can go to one of Amar's ostrich races!"
His enthusiasm reminded Tus, for a moment, of when Dastan was a boy; on impusle, Tus ruffled his brother's unruly mane.
Datsan laughingly and half-heartedly pushed his brother's hand away. The cheerful moment was all too brief, though: he quickly sobered, casting his eyes to the ground and resuming his story. "With Amar providing a distraction, I brought the dagger to Tus. Understandably, he thought my story madnesss. I knew I had to demonstrate how the dagger worked -- and I could think of only one way to do it. I told him that it was no ordinary dagger, that he should to press the gem to see what I meant -- then stabbed myself in the heart."
"You what?" all four of Dastan's listeners chorused.
Tus could picture it all too easily: his brother, the selfless hero, blood draining from him like sand from a broken hourglass, the light in his eyes flickering and dying like a fading candle. Tus understood even better now how Dastan was feeling; Tus didn't think that the image his imagination had just conjured, which wasn't even real, would ever leave him. Worst of all, though, was the thought that Dastan had found it necessary to act so desperately, that he had feared Tus would not believe him. That this alternate-Tus indeed hadn't believed in him, for a while, anyway. The possibility that any version of himself could have put his beloved brother to death robbed the current Tus of his morning's hard labour's-worth of appetite.
"Relax, relax -- obviously my plan worked, or none of us would be here. Tus used the dagger, and kept me from dying." Dastan gave Tus a quick, fond glance before studying his knees again, the tension in his shoulders visibly magnifying.
Tus wondered if Dastan knew just how important that knowledge was to him: that, when it counted most, his alternate self had trusted Dastan after all, and saved him.
"Then Nizam attacked and sl-sli ..." He swallowed hard. "Slit your throat, Tus. One of the Hassansin's attacked me just then, pinning me to the ground, and Nizam took the dagger from me before I could save you."
And thus Dastan had lost the last of his family -- and gained another horrific memory.
Tus scooted closer to his youngest brother, throwing an arm around the princeling and resting his right temple against Dastan's left. "You keep forgetting that you did save me -- saved all of us. But then, I always knew you were thick-headed." He tapped his brother's skull gently for emphasis. He couldn't see Dastan's smile from that angle, but he could feel it. "So. I was momentarily dead. What happened next?" Tus asked gently, trying not to think of how much pain his alternate self must have caused his brother even before he'd recieved his deathstroke by Nizam's hand, by putting a price on the poor lad's head. He shifted so that he could study Dastan's face once more.
After a shakey intake of air, Dastan answered him. "Tamina helped me fight off the Hassansin. We then hurried to the the temple beneath the city, through a secret passage that Nizam didn't know about. Once there, the ground began to crumble beneath us, creating an endless pit, and we had to fight off yet another Hassansin." Dastan paused for a moment, looking at Tamina with a wistful look; Tus had a suspicion of what Dastan was remembering but choosing not to share. Tamina's expresssion suggested that this, too, she would get out of him -- just in privacy, next time.
"I was struggling with Nizam at the Sandglass, when a bolder fell and nearly knocked me into the chasm that had formed around it. While I was hanging from a ledge, Nizam shoved Tamina over it. I managed to catch her hand, but ..." Dastan's voice was barely above a wisper now, his focus internal; Tus knew Dastan was reliving a horror now, not just remembering. "She'd been saying all along that it was her destiny to protect the dagger ... but just then, she told me that it was really mine. She said she wished we could have been together, and ... and then she let go of my hand, a-and I couldn't hold on to her." Dastan stared at the offending appendage, the hand that had failed him so spectacularly. "She was so brave, but so terrified, too -- she screamed as she fell, and I ... I .... Forgive me, I need a moment." He pressed a palm to his brow, leaning on it, and closed his eyes tightly, trying to regain his composure as he let out ragged breaths.
Tus knew Dastan would likely never forget the sound of Tamina's scream. Ever. Even worse, the sight of Dastan's lady-love falling beyond his reach, to her doom, would surely haunt the young prince until the day he died.
Such a sight could drive a man to madness.
Tamina smoothed her betrothed's hair back. "Is that what your were dreaming of, just before we arrived? When you called my name?"
Dastan nodded, eyes still closed. Tus felt sick and helpless; Garsiv and their father looked pale, and Tus suspected that he himself looked similar to them.
"Dastan, look at me," Tamina gently commanded.
Dastan hesitantly obeyed.
"The wish you said I made -- did you wish it as well?"
His voice was almost inaudible, yet his answer all the more heartfelt for it. "Yes."
"Then the gods have rewarded us both. I may have fallen, but not to my death; thanks to you, I was caught, after a fashion. If you should ever again see that vision of me, in that moment, then think of this, and remember where I ended up -- safe in your arms once more."
With that, she kissed him.
After a moment's surprise, he slipped his arms around her and kissed her back.
"Save something for the wedding, you two," Garsiv teased after a few moments more.
While the kiss was gentle and sweet, it also somehow seemed searing. "Perhaps we should check to see if the desert sands have melted into glass," Tus suggested with a grin, getting to his feet and heading for the door, his father and Garsiv following. They could ask for the rest of the tale another time.
With their army helping, it wasn't long before they found and captured all of the Hassansins that Dastan knew of, that very same day. Late that evening, they celebrated. After much dancing and merriment, Tamina went out onto the balcony for a breath of cool, refreshing air -- and found Garsiv leaning against the rail, heavy in thought.
Tamina rest her arms on the rail and looked out at the city. "Is it Dastan's story that weighs so on you, keeps your feet from being light-footed?" she pried gently.
After a moment, Garsiv nodded. "I have always tried to accept him as my brother, as my father wished, but from that first day Father brought him home, there has been a part of me that resented him. I have long recognised this fact, and it has shamed me. And to see now that I was willing to act on it ... that there is something of Nizam in me ...." He shook his head. "Dastan has been a worthy son to my father and brother to Tus and me from the beginning; it is I who am unworthy."
"I'm fairly certain that Tus feels the same way about himself -- as do I, in regards to being Dastan's wife. It seems we all can only remember the bad reflections of us within his story, and none of the good -- yet we only see the good in his actions, and none of the bad."
Garsiv turned to her, puzzled. "How do you mean?"
"Well, for one, Dastan refused to return my property to me and was willing to trade me for supplies," she reminded him, her lip quirking in amusement, showing that there were no hard feelings. "He also admitted that he, too, believed his brother had killed your father. Therefore, what you consider a flaw in yourself, he also bears. Yet you seemed to have missed the part where you gave him the benefit of the doubt and saved his life. The same goes for Tus: instead of following Nizam's advice, he'd insisted on Dastan getting a trial, and his love for Dastan made him act quickly enough to save his brother when Dastan took his own life."
Garsiv considered that silently for a long moment, eventually nodding thoughtfully. "So what about you? "
She sighed. "I have to remind myself, too, that Dastan is not perfect -- because he looks at me as if I am. He is in love with the me that he had this wondrous adventure with. What happens if he realises that I am not that same woman -- I only look like her?
Garsiv eyed her shrewdly. "Do you think he fell in love with the events or the woman?"
She pursed her lips in thought. "A little of both, I suppose."
"Does that mean you don't believe he could ever love you otherwise? Do you think yourself so unlovable?"
Her lips twitched. "I suppose there is still a chance of it."
"What about that girl he fell in love with? Were just those few days they were together the whole of her? Or did she share many years of life with you?"
She tipped her head to him. "Point taken."
"Further, what defines you, princess? I should think the protection of the world plays a big part of it, yes? And it seems to me that it was the woman who was willing to sacrifice herself for the world is the one that made him fall in love. Are you so different from her?"
"I suppose not," she admitted, feeling a knot of anxiety within her start to unravel.
"I know you said that it's foolish for us to apologise for things that we didn't do in this reality; I agree with that to an extent, but ... I think we must also accept that these possibilities still reside within us." He took a coin from the purse at his belt and held it up. "We are like this coin. The two faces of it will always be separate, individual, yet will always be a part of the same whole, made of the same ... mettle, if you will," he said with a smirk at his own wordplay. "So on one side, Tus and I would do well to remember that, in this reality, we did not betray our brother, and take heart in the fact that those other versions of ourselves supported him at our ends. On the other side, we must also never forget that we have the potential inside us to act as we did in that other reality -- and we must not forget how those other selves wronged him. In your case, while you accept that you are not the woman Dastan fell in love with from the standpoint of not being the one he travelled with in another reality, you must also remember that she did what you would have done. You are only different in that you have not needed to do those things. Ergo, Dastan has every reason to love you as he loves her, because you are the same woman in all the ways that truly matter."
"So ... you're saying that you must believe that you can choose to be better than those other selves, whereas I must believe that I can be as good as mine."
"Yes, that's it exactly. And I promise to do that," he vowed. "I mean, let's face it, this moping about isn't going to do my father or brothers any good -- or find me any wives," he added with a grin. It softened into a warm smile. "How about you? Do you vow to believe that Dastan loves you, not just the version of you he saved the world with?"
She smiled back. "I do." She meant it -- because Garsiv had helped her, finally, to believe it.
"Here, hold out your hand," he told her.
She did as he asked, and he laid the coin on her palm, closing her fingers around it. "Consider this a wedding present: a reminder of our conversation, for if ever you start to waver."
She nodded once, slipping the coin into her bodice. "And what of you? What will be your reminder?"
"Dastan. All I'll have to do is look at him and remember that if there hadn't been a part of me willing to save him, that chose to be better than that part of me that resented him, none of us would be here. I'll remind Tus of his own moment of heroism as well. It's gone, by the way," he added.
"The part of me that resented Dastan. The jealousy might still be there, what with him about to make the most beautiful woman in the world his wife," he added with a wink, "but I'm glad to see him so happy, and I'm proud to call him brother," he finished softly but sincerely, turning back to the crowd. A broad, genuine smile suddenly lit his face.
Tamina followed his gaze, ready to dance with Dastan again, this time with nothing weighing down her steps. She spotted Dastan immediately; he approached them with his father and Tus to either side of him, all three men smiling as warmly as Garsiv.
She returned the smile -- mostly to Dastan, but with a bit to spare for the other three men whom she now considered family.