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Darkness surged in his veins. It exhaled wisps from his fingers and feathered his every glance. And when he thought too hard too fast, it bled up his arms in streams of black.
Fear becomes you.
The high sun drew Nasir Ghameq’s shadow across the planks of Jinan’s ship as he slid, for what felt to be the thousandth time since they’d left Sharr, the crate’s lid back in place. A steady pulse thrummed against his fingers, emanating from the four hearts resting inside. Hearts that once belonged to Arawiya’s founding Sisters of Old, sourcing the kingdom’s magic from the five caliphates’ royal minarets, amplifiers that rationed morsels of magic to the masses. And until the organs were restored, magic was as good as gone—as it had been for the past ninety years.
Yet magic continued to exist in him, a fact he couldn’t keep to himself because of the shadows ghosting his presence.
“The fifth heart isn’t going to materialize the harder you look. Neither is he, for that matter,” Kifah said, lithely climbing down the crow’s nest. The cuff on her upper arm glinted, the engraved crossed spears a reminder of who she once was: one of the Nine Elite who guarded Pelusia’s calipha. With a pang, Nasir realized he was waiting for a certain golden-haired general’s response to her lightning-quick words. Something silly, or clever, followed by an endearing One of Nine.
The silence that echoed was as loud and unsettling as the Baransea’s crashing waves.
Nasir made his way to Jinan. The gash across his leg, courtesy of an ifrit on the island of Sharr, forced him to limp about the ship.
“We’ve been at sea for two days. What’s taking so long?”
The Zaramese girl squinted at him from the helm. Unruly dark curls slipped from the folds of her checkered turban, the cloth casting her brown eyes in a reddish glow. “‘Anqa is the fastest ship there is, your highness.”
“Not that there are any other ships, kid,” Kifah pointed out.
Nasir tucked the crate with the hearts safely into a nook near her as Jinan frowned. “I’m not a kid. ‘Anqa means ‘phoenix.’ You know, like the immortal bird made of fire? Named after my favorite star. My father—”
“No one cares,” Nasir said, gripping the rough wood as the ship rocked.
Jinan gave an exaggerated sigh.
“How much longer?”
“Five days,” she pronounced, but her pride deflated at Nasir’s withering stare. “What, his highness’s ship took six days, at most? Forgive me for not having the sultan’s might at my back.”
“My ship,” he said slowly, “took less than two days to reach Sharr, even with the dandan we defeated along the way.”
Jinan whistled. “I’m going to need to take a look at those ship plans when we get to the fancy palace, then. What’s the rush?”
Irritation flared beneath his skin, and a streak of black unfurled from his fingertips. Jinan stared. Kifah pretended not to notice, which only irritated him further.
“Did you go to school?”
Jinan’s eyes narrowed. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Then you would know how dire it is when I say the Lion of the Night is alive,” said Nasir, and the assassin in him reveled in the fear widening her eyes. He didn’t tell her of the heart the Lion had stolen. He didn’t care about that, or even magic—not as much as he cared about Altair, but the girl wouldn’t understand. Nasir himself didn’t understand the strange compulsion in his blood, this concern for another human that he thought had faded with his mother’s supposed death. “Did you think Benyamin tripped on a rock and died?”
Jinan turned away with another frown and Kifah leaned against the mast, crossing her arms as she studied him. “We’ll get him back.”
It wasn’t Benyamin she spoke of.
“I wasn’t worried.” He didn’t look at her.
“No, of course not,” Kifah drawled. “I’m just reminding myself aloud that he’s Altair and he can handle himself. He could talk so much the Lion would beg us to take him back. I wouldn’t be surprised if he left the bumbling fool somewhere with a sign saying ‘He’s all yours.’”
It was a lie, and they both knew it. Uncertainty rang painfully clear in her normally grounding voice.
Nasir looked to the sea beyond, toward the island of Sharr. Part of him expected to see another ship in pursuit, dark and fearsome as the Lion himself. A fortnight ago, Nasir had been ready to kill Altair—he was ready to kill anyone in his path, but when he closed his eyes now, he saw the blinding beams of light extending from Altair’s open palms. He saw the sharp facets of the Lion’s black stave protruding from Benyamin’s heart.
Sacrifice, Benyamin had murmured. Sacrifice was nothing but death in a romantic farce. Nasir knew—he’d been born for death and darkness, and it was hard to have a heart when one had stopped that of so many others. It was hard to do good when it would be shadowed forever by his wrongs.
Somewhere on Sharr his heart had found a beat, and he intended to keep it going. He intended to make himself worthy of it, even if it meant restoring the very magic that had destroyed his family.
And he would start by rescuing Altair and vanquishing the Lion.
He looked at Jinan. “Five days is too long. Make it three.”
Jinan sputtered. “That’s impos—”
He was already turning for the steps leading belowdecks. “Make it three and I’ll double Benyamin’s silver.”
The young captain’s shouts were instant. Chaos erupted as her ragtag crew leaped to attention, the rough inflection of Zaramese at home with the crashing sea. He didn’t know what the girl would do with so much coin, but he didn’t exactly care. The throne had enough to spare.
Nasir limped down the steps. Three days was still three days too long. Now that the Lion was no longer shackled to the island, he had no reason to remain there, particularly when the Jawarat—the key to what he wanted most—was getting farther and farther away from him. The zumra needed to reach shore before the Lion did, or their troubles would be infinitely worse, and if there was anyone who could quicken their journey, it was no mortal girl from Zaram.
The must of burning oil clung to the salty air within the ship. Lanterns flickered as Nasir made his way past cabins cramped one against the other like a mouthful of teeth, bolted beds and other sparse furnishings dark in the dim, reminiscent of the palace.
His exhale broke and suddenly he was standing in front of Ghameq, telling him of the mission. How he’d failed to kill the sultan’s general. Failed to kill the Hunter. Failed to bring back the Jawarat.
Failed, failed, failed.
He shook his thoughts free. It was different now, he reminded himself. The leash between him and his father had gnarled, tangled in the lives of many more. Zafira, Altair, Kifah, his mother, and most important, the Lion of the Night, who had sunk his claws into Ghameq, controlling his every move.
His gaze flicked to the farthest end, where Zafira’s cabin stood like a ledge just out of reach.
During her rare emergences on deck, the Jawarat was always clasped to her chest, her gaze distant and detached. It worried him, seeing the ice in her eyes fading as something else took its place, but coward that he was, he couldn’t approach her, and as the insanity of their final moments on Sharr continued to recede, Nasir didn’t know how to halt the rapidly swelling distance between them.
He paused to rest his leg, leaning against a splintering beam. The Silver Witch—his mother, rimaal—had chosen a cabin just as far as Zafira’s, and when he finally reached her door, a dark gleam on the floorboard made him pause.
He tugged his glove free and touched two fingers to the splotch, bringing them to his nose. Sharp and metallic—most certainly blood. He wiped his fingers on his robes and lifted his gaze, following the haphazard trail.
To where it disappeared behind the door to the last cabin: Zafira’s.
Text copyright © 2021 Hafsah Faizal