The much anticipated sequel to the breathtaking The Wrath and the Dawn, lauded by Publishers Weekly as "a potent page-turner of intrigue and romance."
I am surrounded on all sides by a desert. A guest, in a prison of sand and sun. My family is here. And I do not know whom I can trust.
In a land on the brink of war, Shahrzad has been torn from the love of her husband Khalid, the Caliph of Khorasan. She once believed him a monster, but his secrets revealed a man tormented by guilt and a powerful curse—one that might keep them apart forever. Reunited with her family, who have taken refuge with enemies of Khalid, and Tariq, her childhood sweetheart, she should be happy. But Tariq now commands forces set on destroying Khalid's empire. Shahrzad is almost a prisoner caught between loyalties to people she loves. But she refuses to be a pawn and devises a plan.
While her father, Jahandar, continues to play with magical forces he doesn't yet understand, Shahrzad tries to uncover powers that may lie dormant within her. With the help of a tattered old carpet and a tempestuous but sage young man, Shahrzad will attempt to break the curse and reunite with her one true love.
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The girl was eleven and three-quarters.
Three very important quarters.
They’d been of consequence when her father had left her in charge this morning, with an important task to accomplish. So, with a world-weary sigh, she pushed up her tattered sleeves and heaved rubble into the nearby wheelbarrow.
“It’s so heavy,” her eight-year-old brother complained, as he struggled to move a piece of debris from their home. He coughed when a cloud of soot rose from the charred remains.
“Let me help.” The girl dropped her shovel with a clang.
“I didn’t say I needed help!”
“We should work together, or we won’t finish cleaning everything before Baba returns home.” She braced her fists on her hips while glaring down at him.
“Look around you!” He threw his hands in the air. “We’ll never finish cleaning everything.”
Her eyes followed his hands.
The clay walls of their home were ripped apart. Broken. Blackened. Their roof opened up to the heavens. To a dull and forlorn sky.
To what once had been a glorious city.
A midday sun lay hidden behind the shattered rooftops of Rey. It cut shadows of light and dark across angry stone and scorched marble. Here and there, smoldering piles of rubble served as a harsh reminder of what had taken place only a few short days ago.
The young girl hardened her gaze and stepped closer to her brother.
“If you don’t want to work, then wait outside. But I’m going to keep working. Someone has to.” Again, she reached for her shovel.
The boy kicked at a nearby stone. It skittered across the packed earth before crashing to a halt at the foot of a hooded stranger standing by the remains of their door.
Tensing her grip on the shovel, the girl eased her brother behind her.
“May I help you . . . ?” She paused. The stranger’s black rida’ was embroidered in silver and gold thread. The scabbard of his sword was finely etched and delicately bejeweled, and his sandals were cut from the highest-quality calfskin.
He was no mere brigand.
The girl stood taller. “May I help you, sahib?”
When he did not answer right away, the girl raised the shovel higher, her brow taut and her heart hammering in her chest.
The stranger stepped from beneath the sagging doorjamb. He threw back his hood and raised both palms in supplication. Each of his gestures was careful, and he moved with a liquid kind of grace.
As he strode into a weak slice of light, the girl saw his face for the first time.
He was younger than she expected. No more than twenty.
His face approached beautiful. But its angles were too harsh, his expression too severe. The sunlight on his hands revealed something at odds with the rest of his finery; the skin of his palms was red and cracked and peeling—evidence of hard labor.
His tired eyes were a tawny-gold color. She’d seen eyes like that once. In a painting of a lion.
“I didn’t mean to startle you,” the stranger said softly. His eyes shifted around the ruin of their one-room abode. “May I speak to your father?”
The girl’s suspicion gripped her once more. “He’s—not here. He went to stand in line for building supplies.”
The stranger nodded. “And your mother?”
“She’s dead,” her brother said, stirring from behind her. “The roof fell on her during the storm. She died the next morning.”
There was an unassuming quality to his words that the girl did not feel. Because to her brother, the words were not yet real. For after they’d lost nearly everything in last year’s drought, the storm had taken its final toll on their family.
And her brother had yet to grasp this most recent loss.
The stranger’s severity deepened for an instant. He looked away, and his hands fell to his sides. After a beat, he looked back at them, his eyes unwavering, despite his white-knuckled fists. “Do you have another shovel?”
“Why do you need a shovel, rich man?” Her little brother marched up to the stranger, accusation in each of his barefooted steps.
“Kamyar!” His sister gasped as she reached for the back of his ragged qamis.
The stranger blinked down at her brother before crouching on the packed-earth floor. “Kamyar, was it?” he asked, a trace of a smile adorning his lips.
Her brother said nothing, though he was barely able to meet the tall stranger’s eyes.
“I—I apologize, sahib,” the girl stammered. “He’s a bit insolent.”
“Please don’t apologize. I rather appreciate insolence, when it’s dispensed by the right person.” This time, the stranger did smile, and his features softened.
“Yes,” her brother interrupted. “My name is Kamyar. What is yours?”
The stranger studied her brother for a moment.
“Why do you want a shovel, Khalid?” her brother demanded again.
“I’d like to help you repair your home.”
“Because when we help one another, we are able to accomplish things faster.”
Kamyar nodded slowly, then canted his head to one side. “But this isn’t your home. Why should you care?”
“Because Rey is my home. And Rey is your home. If you could help me when I needed help, would you not wish to do so?”
“Yes,” Kamyar said without hesitation. “I would.”
“Then it’s settled.” The stranger stood. “Will you share your shovel with me, Kamyar?”
For the rest of the afternoon, the trio worked to clear the floor of charred wood and waterlogged debris. The girl never gave the stranger her name and refused to call him anything but sahib, but Kamyar treated him like a long-lost friend with a common enemy. When the stranger gave them water and lavash bread to eat, the girl dipped her head and touched her fingertips to her brow in thanks.
A flush rose in her cheeks when the almost-beautiful stranger returned the gesture, without a word.
Soon, the day began bruising into night, and Kamyar wedged himself into a corner, his chin drooping to his chest, and his eyes slowly falling shut.
The stranger finished arranging the last of the salvageable pieces of wood by the door, and shook the dirt from his rida’ before pulling the hood of his cloak back over his head. “Thank you,” the girl murmured, knowing that was the least she should do.
He glanced over his shoulder at her. Then the stranger reached into his cloak and produced a small pouch cinched shut by a leather cord.
“Please. Take it.”
“No, sahib.” She shook her head. “I cannot take your money. We’ve already taken enough of your generosity.”
“It isn’t much. I’d like for you to take it.” His eyes, which had appeared tired at the outset, now looked beyond exhausted. “Please.”
There was something about his face in that moment, hidden as it was in the play of shadows, in the lingering motes of ash and dust . . .
Something about it that signified a deeper suffering than the girl could ever hope to fathom.
She took the small pouch from his hand.
“Thank you,” he whispered. As though he were the one in need.
“Shiva,” she said. “My name is Shiva.”
Disbelief flared on his features for an instant. Then the sharp planes of his face smoothed.
“Of course it is.” He bowed low, with a hand to his brow.
Despite her confusion, she managed to respond in kind, her fingers brushing her forehead. When she looked up again, he had turned the corner.
And disappeared into the wending darkness of night.
THE WATER LIES
It was only a ring.
Yet it signified so much to her.
Much to lose. Much to fight for.
Shahrzad lifted her hand into a stream of light. The ring of muted gold flashed twice, as if to remind her of its mate, far across the Sea of Sand.
Her thoughts drifted to the marble palace in Rey. To Khalid. She hoped he was with Jalal or with his uncle, the shahrban.
She hoped he was not alone. Adrift. Wondering . . .
Why am I not with him?
Her lips pressed tight.
Because the last time I was in Rey, thousands of innocent people perished.
And Shahrzad could not return until she’d found a way to protect her people. Her love. A way to end Khalid’s terrible curse.
Outside her tent, a goat began to bleat with merry abandon.
Her temper mounting, Shahrzad flung off her makeshift blanket and reached for the dagger beside her bedroll. An empty threat, but she knew she should at least fight for a semblance of control.
As if to mock her, the shrill sounds beyond her tent grew more incessant.
Is that a . . . bell?
The little beast outside had a bell around its neck! And now the clanging and the bleating all but ensured the impossibility of sleep.
Shahrzad sat up, gripping the jeweled hilt of her dagger—
Then, with an exasperated cry, she fell back against the itchy wool of her bedroll.
It’s not as though I’m managing to sleep as it is.
Not when she was so far from home. So far from where her heart longed to be.
She swallowed the sudden lump that formed in her throat. Her thumb brushed against the ring with two crossed swords— the ring Khalid had placed on her right hand a mere fortnight ago.
Enough. Nothing will be accomplished from such nonsense.
Again she sat up, her eyes scanning her new surroundings.
Irsa’s bedroll was neatly stashed to one side of the small tent. Her younger sister had likely been awake for hours, baking bread, making tea, and braiding the contemptible goat’s chin hair.
Shahrzad almost smiled, despite everything.
Her wariness taking shape in the gloom, she tucked the dagger into her waistband, then stretched to her feet. Every muscle in her body ached from days of hard travel and nights of poor sleep.
Three nights of worry. Three nights spent fleeing a city set to flame. An endless fount of questions without answers. Those three long nights of worry for her father, whose battered body had yet to recover from whatever damage it had incurred on the hilltops outside Rey.
Shahrzad took a deep breath.
The air here was strange. Drier. Crisp. Soft bars of light slanted through the tent seams. A thin layer of fine silt clung to everything. It made her tiny world appear as though it were fashioned of diamond-dusted darkness.
On one side of the tent was a small table with a porcelain pitcher and a copper basin. Shahrzad’s meager belongings were perched beside it, wrapped in the threadbare carpet given to her by Musa Zaragoza several months ago. She knelt before the table and filled the basin with water for washing.
The water was tepid, but clean. Her reflection looked strangely calm as it stared back at her.
Calm yet distorted.
The face of a girl who had lost everything and nothing in the stretch of a single night.
She slipped both hands into the water. Her skin looked pale and creamy below its surface. Not its usual warm bronze color. She fixed her gaze on the place where the water met the air, on the strange bend that made it seem as though her hands were in a different world beneath the water—
A world that moved more slowly and told stories.
The water lies.
She splashed some water onto her face and dragged her damp fingers through her hair. Then she lifted the lid from the small wooden container nearby and used a pinch of the ground mint, white pepper, and crushed rock salt stored within to cleanse her mouth of sleep.
“You’re awake. After you arrived so late last night, I didn’t think you would rise so early.” Shahrzad turned to see Irsa standing beneath the open tent flap. A triangle of desert light silhouetted her sister’s slender frame.
Irsa smiled, her gamine features coming into focus. “You never used to wake for breakfast before.” She ducked into the tent, securing the tent flap closed behind her.
“Who can sleep with that damnable goat shrieking outside?” Shahrzad flicked water at Irsa to divert her inevitable onslaught of questions.
“You mean Farbod?”
“You’ve named the little beast?” Shahrzad grinned as she began plaiting the tangled waves of her hair into a braid.
“He’s quite sweet.” Irsa frowned. “You should give him a chance.”
“Please tell Farbod that—should he persist in his early morning recitals—my favorite meal is stewed goat, served in a sauce of pomegranates and crushed walnuts.”
“Ha!” Irsa took a long stretch of twine from the pocket of her wrinkled sirwal trowsers. “I suppose we shouldn’t forget we’re now in the presence of royalty.” She bound the length of twine around the end of Shahrzad’s braid. “I’ll warn Farbod not to further offend Khorasan’s illustrious calipha.”
Shahrzad glanced over her shoulder into Irsa’s pale eyes.
“You’ve gotten so tall,” she said quietly. “When did you get so tall?”
Irsa wrapped both arms around her sister’s waist. “I’ve missed you.” Her fingertips grazed the hilt of the dagger, and she pulled back in alarm. “Why are you carrying—”
“Is Baba awake yet?” Shahrzad smiled overbrightly. “Can you take me to see him?”
The night of the storm, Shahrzad had ridden with Tariq and Rahim to a hilltop outside Rey, in search of her father.
She’d been unprepared for what they’d found.
Jahandar al-Khayzuran had been curled in a puddle around an old, leather-bound book.
His bare feet and hands were burned. Red and raw and abraded. His hair was falling out in clumps. The rain had gathered them in the mud, smashing the strands against wet stone, like so many discarded things.
Her sister’s dappled horse was long-since dead. Its throat had been slashed. The blood had drained in rivulets from a vicious wound at its neck. Veins of mud and drifting ash had melded with the crimson to form a sinister tracery across the hillside.
Shahrzad would never forget the image of her father’s huddled body against the red-and-grey slope.
When she’d tried to pry Jahandar’s fingers away from the book, he’d cried out in a language she’d never heard him speak before. His eyes had rolled back into his head, and his lashes had fluttered closed, never to open again, not once in the four days since.
And until they did, Shahrzad refused to leave him.
She had to know her father was safe. She had to know what he had done.
No matter what—or whom—she’d left behind in Rey.
“Baba?” Shahrzad said softly, as she knelt beside him in his small tent.
He shuddered in his sleep, his fingers wrapping tighter around the ancient tome clutched in his arms. Even in his delirium, Jahandar had refused to relinquish the book. Not a soul had been permitted to touch it.
Irsa sighed. She stooped next to Shahrzad and handed her a tumbler of water.
Shahrzad held the cup to her father’s cracked lips. She waited until she felt him swallow. He muttered to himself, then turned back on his side, tucking the book farther beneath his blankets.
“What did you put in this?” Shahrzad asked Irsa. “It smells nice.”
“Just some fresh mint and honey. Also a few tea herbs and a bit of milk. You said he hasn’t eaten anything in a few days. I thought it might help.” Irsa shrugged.
“It’s a good idea. I should have thought of it.”
“Don’t scold yourself. It doesn’t suit you. And . . . you’ve done more than enough.” Irsa spoke with a wisdom beyond her fourteen years. “Baba will wake soon. I—know it.” She bit her lip, her tone lacking conviction. “Calm is needed to heal his wounds. And time.”
Shahrzad said nothing as she studied her father’s hands. The burns there had blistered alongside bruised purples and garish reds.
What did he do on the night of the storm?
What have we done?
“You should eat. You barely ate anything when you arrived last night,” Irsa interrupted Shahrzad’s thoughts.
Before she could protest, Irsa removed the tumbler from Shahrzad’s hand, hauling her to her feet and dragging her into the dunes beyond their father’s tent. The scent of roasting meat hung heavy in the desert air, the smoke above them an aimless cloud. Silken grains of sand sifted between Shahrzad’s toes, just near too hot to bear. Harsh rays of sunlight blurred everything they touched.
As they walked, Shahrzad glanced around the Badawi camp through slitted eyes, studying the hustle and bustle of mostly smiling faces; people carrying bushels of grain and bundles of goods from one corner to the next. The children seemed happy enough, though it was impossible to ignore the gleaming assortment of weaponry—the swords and axes and arrows—lying in the shadow of curing animal skins. Impossible to ignore them or their unassailable meaning . . .
Preparations for the coming war.
“And I shall take from you these lives, a thousandfold.”
Shahrzad stiffened, then drew back her shoulders, refusing to burden her sister with these troubles. Such troubles were meant for those with unique abilities.
Those like Musa Zaragoza, the magus from the Fire Temple.
Though it took effort, Shahrzad shrugged off the curse’s interminable weight. She walked with Irsa through the enclave of tents toward the largest, at center. It was an impressive structure, patchworked though it was: a hodgepodge of sun-worn colors, with a faded pennant at its apex, gamboling about in the breeze. A hooded sentry cloaked in roughspun stood at the tent’s entrance.
“No weapons.” The soldier’s hand clamped down on Shahrzad’s shoulder with the force of a lifelong aggressor. The sort who enjoyed his role far more than he should.
Despite her wiser inclinations, Shahrzad’s response was immediate and automatic. She shoved his hand away, her scowl set.
I am in no mood for boorish men. Or their warmongering.
“Weapons are not permitted in the sheikh’s tent.” The soldier reached for her dagger, his eyes glittering with an unspoken threat.
“Touch me again, and I’ll—”
“Shazi!” Irsa moved to placate the soldier. “Please excuse my—”
The soldier pushed Irsa back. Without a moment’s thought, Shahrzad slammed both fists into his chest. He staggered to one side, his nostrils flaring. Behind her, she heard men begin to shout.
“What are you doing, Shahrzad!” Irsa cried, her shock at her sister’s recklessness etched across her face.
Enraged, the soldier took hold of Shahrzad’s forearm. She braced herself for the coming fight, her toes curled and her knuckles clenched.
“Let go of her immediately!” A tall shadow loomed upon the soldier.
Shahrzad winced, a flash of guilt warring with her fury.
“I don’t need your help, Tariq,” she said through gritted teeth.
“I’m not helping you.” He strode closer, aiming a brief but quelling stare in her direction. His unconcealed pain was raw enough to rob her of mettle.
Will he never forgive me?
The soldier turned to Tariq with a deference that would, under normal circumstances, irritate Shahrzad immensely. “Apologies, sahib, but she refused to—”
“Release her at once. I didn’t ask for excuses. Follow orders or be met with the consequences, soldier.”
The soldier released her with reluctance. Shahrzad shoved off his grasp. Steeling herself with a breath, she faced those nearby. Rahim stood at Tariq’s shoulder; several young men were at his opposing flank. One was a reed-thin boy sporting the guise of a much older man. His beard was growing in patches over a long, lean face, and his comically stern eyebrows were cut over ice-cold eyes.
Eyes that watched her with abject hatred.
Her fingers shifted toward her dagger.
“Thank you, Tariq,” Irsa said, since Shahrzad had yet to offer a shred of gratitude.
“Of course,” he replied with an awkward nod.
Shahrzad chewed at the inside of her cheek. “I—”
“Don’t trouble yourself, Shazi. We’re beyond such things.” Tariq knocked the cowl of his rida’ back and ducked through the entrance of the tent, sparing himself more of her company. The boy with the ice-cold eyes glowered at Shahrzad before following suit. Rahim paused beside her, his expression grim, as though he had expected better. Then he stepped closer to Irsa, his head tilted in question. Her sister sent half a smile his way. Sighing softly, Rahim trudged past them into the tent, without a single word.
Irsa elbowed Shahrzad in the ribs. “What’s wrong with you?” she admonished in a whisper. “We’re guests here. You can’t behave in such a manner.”
Chastened, Shahrzad nodded curtly before striding through the cavernous hollow.
It took her eyes time to adjust to the sudden darkness. A series of brass lamps hung at lazy intervals from the wooden rafters above, their thready light pale after the desert sun. At the far end of the tent was a long, low table, crafted of roughhewn teakwood. Worn woolen cushions were thrown about in haphazard piles. Screaming children scurried past Shahrzad, blind to all but their single-minded quest for the most esteemed position at the breakfast table.
Seated at the very center of this teeth-rattling tumult was an old man with a keen pair of eyes and an unkempt beard. When he saw Shahrzad, he smiled at her with a surprising amount of warmth. To his left was a woman of similar age with a long braid of muted copper. At his right sat Shiva’s father, Reza bin-Latief. Shahrzad’s stomach tensed, her flash of guilt resurfacing. She’d seen him last night, but in the clamor of their arrival the exchange had been brief, and she was not yet certain she was ready to face Shiva’s father.
So soon after failing to exact revenge for the murder of his daughter.
So soon after falling in love with the very boy who had murdered her.
Deciding it was best to avoid unwanted attention, Shahrzad kept her head down and took the cushion beside Irsa, across from Tariq and Rahim.
She avoided the gazes of those around her, especially that of the boy with the ice-fire eyes, who took every opportunity to burn through her with the heat of his discomfiting stare. The desire to draw attention to his behavior was always at the forefront of her mind, but Irsa’s earlier admonition continued to ring true: she was a guest here.
And she could not behave in such a reckless manner.
Not with the welfare of her family at stake.
A leg of roasted lamb was placed at the center of the well-worn table. Its serving platter was an immense affair of hammered silver, dented on all sides from age and use. Thick slices of barbari bread, coated with butter and rolled in black sesame seeds, were left in baskets nearby, alongside chipped bowls of whole radishes and slabs of salted goat cheese. Squabbling children reached for the radishes and tore hearty chunks of barbari in half before grabbing at the meat with their bare hands. Their elders crushed stems of fresh mint before pouring dark streams of tea over the fragrant leaves.
When Shahrzad chanced to look up, she found the old man with the keen eyes studying her, another warm smile pooling across his lips. The gap between his two front teeth was pronounced, and, at first glance, it made him appear almost foolish.
Though Shahrzad was not the least bit fooled.
“So, my friend . . . this is Shahrzad,” the old man said.
To whom is he speaking?
“I was right—” The old man cackled. “She is very beautiful.”
Shahrzad’s eyes flitted down both sides of the table. They stopped on Tariq.
His broad shoulders were rigid; his chiseled jaw was tight. He exhaled through his nose and lifted his gaze to hers.
“She is,” Tariq agreed in a resigned voice.
The old man quirked his head at Shahrzad. “You’ve caused a lot of trouble, beautiful one.”
Despite the reassuring hand Irsa placed atop hers, Shahrzad’s ire rose like embers being stoked to flame.
Aware she lacked grace in that moment, Shahrzad chose to say nothing. She rolled her tongue in her mouth. Pinched her lower lip between her teeth.
I am a guest here. I cannot behave as I desire.
No matter how angry and alone I may feel.
The old man smiled again. Ever wider. Ever more gap-toothed.
“Are you worth it?”
Shahrzad cleared her throat. “Pardon?” she said, keeping tight rein on her emotions.
The boy with the ice-fire eyes watched with the rapt attention of a hawk.
“Are you worth all this trouble, beautiful one?” the old man repeated in maddening singsong.
Irsa wrapped a pleading hand around Shahrzad’s fingers, cold sweat slicking her palm.
Shahrzad could not risk her sister’s safety. Not in a camp filled with unknowns. Unknowns who could just as soon as toss her family into the desert for an errant word. Or slit their throats at a misread glance. No. Shahrzad could not put her father’s dubious health in jeopardy. Not for all the world.
She smiled slowly, taking time to subdue her fury. “I think beauty is rarely worth the trouble.” Shahrzad gripped Irsa’s hand tighter in sisterly solidarity. “But I am worth a great deal more than what you see.” Her tone was airy despite the veiled rebuke.
Without hesitation, the old man threw back his head and laughed. “To be sure!” His face shone with merriment. “Welcome to my home, Shahrzad al-Khayzuran. I am Omar al-Sadiq, and you are my guest. While within these borders, you will always be treated as such. But bear in mind: a calipha in silk or a beggar in the street makes no difference to me. Welcome.” He dipped his head and brushed his fingertips along his brow with a broad flourish.
Shahrzad released a pent-up breath. It escaped her in a rush of air, taking with it the tension from her shoulders and stomach. Her grin stretching farther, Shahrzad bowed in return, touching her right hand to her forehead.
Shiva’s father watched their exchange with a blank expression, his elbows folded against the table’s weathered edge. “Shazi-jan,” he began in a somber tone.
He caught her just as Shahrzad reached for a piece of barbari. “Yes, Uncle Reza?” She lifted her brows in question, her hand hovering above the breadbasket.
Reza’s features turned pensive. “I’m very glad you are here— that you are safe.”
“Thank you. I’m very grateful to everyone for keeping my family safe. And for taking such excellent care of Baba.”
He nodded, then leaned forward, steepling his hands beneath his chin. “Of course. Your family has always been my family. As mine has always been yours.”
“Yes,” Shahrzad said quietly. “It has.”
“So,” Reza said, lines of consternation bracketing his mouth, “it pains me greatly to ask you this—as I thought you might have been remiss when you arrived last night—but I have swallowed your insult for as long as I can endure it.”
Shahrzad’s entire body froze, her fingers still poised above the bread. The tension renewed its grip on her body, guilt coiling around her stomach with snakelike savagery.
“Shahrzad . . .” Reza bin-Latief’s voice had lost any hint of kindness; any warmth in the man she’d considered a second father was gone. “Why are you sitting at this table—breaking bread with me—wearing the ring of the boy who murdered my daughter?”
It was a cutting accusation.
It sliced through the crowd like a scythe through a sea of grain.
Shahrzad’s fingers pressed tight over the standard of the two crossed swords. Tight enough to cause pain.
She blinked once. Twice.
Tariq cleared his throat. The sound echoed through the sudden stillness. “Uncle—Uncle Reza—”
No. She could not let Tariq save her. Not again.
“I’m . . . I’m sorry,” she said, her mouth dry.
But she wasn’t. Not for this. She was sorry for a hundred things. A thousand things.
An entire city of untendered apologies.
But she would never be sorry for this.
“Don’t be sorry, Shahrzad,” Reza continued in the same cold voice. The voice of a stranger. “Decide.”
Mumbling her regrets, Shahrzad pushed to her feet.
She didn’t stop to think. Clinging to the remains of her dignity, she stumbled away from the table and into the blazing desert sun. Her sandals caught in the hot sand, hefting it behind her, striking her calves with each step.
A large, calloused hand took hold of her shoulder, halting her.
She glanced up, shielding her eyes from the blinding light.
The soldier. The lifelong aggressor.
“Get out of my way,” she whispered, fighting to leash her wrath. “Now.”
His lips curved upward with a leisurely kind of malice. He refused to move.
Shahrzad grabbed his wrist to shove it aside.
The rough-spun linen of his rida’ rolled up to his elbow, revealing a brand seared into his inner forearm.
The mark of the scarab.
The mark of the Fida’i assassins who had stolen into her chamber in Rey and tried to kill her.
With a gasp, Shahrzad ran. Clumsily, mindlessly, her only thought, of escape.
Somewhere in the distance, she heard Irsa’s voice calling for her.
Still, she refused to stop.
She ran into their tiny tent, throwing the door fold shut with a resounding slap.
Her shallow breaths rebounded across the three walls. Shahrzad raised her right hand into a shaft of light filtering through a tent seam. She watched it catch on the muted gold of her ring.
I don’t belong here. A guest in a prison of sand and sun.
But I need to keep my family safe; I need to find a way to break the curse.
And return home to Khalid.
Alas, she did not know whom she could trust. Until Shahrzad knew who this Sheikh Omar al-Sadiq was and why a Fida’i assassin lurked in his camp, she must remain careful. For it was clear she did not have an ally in Reza bin-Latief as she once had had. And Shahrzad refused to put her burdens on Tariq. It was not his place to keep her or her family safe. No. That duty remained with her, and her alone.
Her eyes flashed around before fixing on the pool of water in the copper basin.
Exist beneath the water.
Move slowly. Tell stories.
Without a thought for sentimentality, Shahrzad yanked the ring from her finger.
She closed her eyes and listened to the silent cry of her heart.
“Here.” Irsa dropped the tent flap and moved to Shahrzad’s side. She needed no direction. Nor did she offer any kind of reproach. In a trice, she’d unraveled the length of twine binding Shahrzad’s braid. The sisters locked eyes as Irsa took the ring from Shahrzad’s hand and fashioned a necklace from the twine.
Wordlessly, Irsa secured the necklace behind Shahrzad’s throat and tucked the ring beneath her qamis. “No more secrets.”
“Some secrets are safer behind lock and key.”
Shahrzad nodded to her sister, Khalid’s words a low whisper in her ear. Not in warning. But in reminder.
She would do whatever needed to be done to keep her family safe.
Even lie to her own sister.
“What do you want to know?”