Zafirah binte Asim stood under her tent's awning, unable to rest in the midday heat. Her golden eyes strained against the intense sun, picking out tiny wavering figures among the distant white dunes. The specks became black-clad riders. Her hands clenched. Allies... or enemies?
The oasis' perimeter guards lounged under a tree, their vigilance relaxed. Zafirah would not risk disturbing her father. She pulled her black veil across and rushed through camp.
"Look!" She pointed toward the horsemen, hands shaking. The sentries merely smiled. Their unconcern fueled her urgency. "Fools! Riders come."
The alarm brought men boiling from the long, black tents. Zafirah, Asim ibn Khalil's bastard daughter, scurried into the background. The camp rang with Asim's commands. Armed and seasoned warriors thundered out into the dunes.
Aziza, Zafirah's beautiful half-sister, glided up in a cloud of musky, cloying perfume. Her soft voice purred distaste and condescension. "Stirring up trouble again, Zafirah?"
Zafirah ignored her. Aziza, an Abd al Sami tribal princess, reveled in Zafira's distress. With a gloating laugh, Aziza returned to the tent's depths. Zafirah swallowed her torment and stared out with blinded eyes at the shimmering sands.
Eighteen cycles ago, Asim had captured a rival's chieftain's daughter a mere three months after he wed rich and vain Nawar. Aziza's mother had bitterly resented Melek. She ignored the fact Asim never married his prize. Nor did it matter the captive gave her life birthing Zafirah. Despising the intruder's daughter allowed Nawar a safe outlet for her affronted pride.
Careful never to let Asim see her displeasure, Nawar infused her fierce jealousy and hatred into her only offspring... Aziza. Even in childhood, the fair girl daily bathed Zafirah in her dam's poison. Zafirah learned early to accept her life of castoffs and contempt or suffer the consequences.
Rifle shots and shouts rent her cloud of misery. Asim, her chieftain and father had returned. At his side rode his allies, Faruq ben Hakim and his son, Sedil. The people clustered around, loudly greeting their friends and colleagues. Zafirah clutched her excitement close and hung back, drinking in Sedil's form. Her father held up a hand for quiet. His deep voice pierced the crowd's hushed murmurs.
"Our friends have come for more than a visit. King Faruq seeks to unite our tribes with stronger ties than those of affection. One of my daughters will wed his son, binding us by blood as well." Cheers burst from Asim's tribe at this announcement.
Zafirah sucked her breath in sharply, biting her lower lip until she tasted the sharp tang of her own blood. Sedil, her prince, sought a proper wife from Asim's eligible daughters. Precious dreams of him shattered like the yarikm's fragile eggshell.
In Zafirah and Sedil's childhood Faruq had called upon her father nearly once in every moons' circuit. During these visits she and Sedil had played together among the horses. The summer of Zafirah's thirteenth cycle she entered the world of women.
When Faruq brought Sedil that last time, the sun had stood high above the dunes. While the chieftains talked of trade with the Abbas tribe, Sedil sought out his friend. He found her drawing water for the horses and helped her with the task.
As they worked, he crowed about completing his fifteenth-cycle manhood rites the month before at his celebration. Zafirah's rapt attention to his words puffed Sedil's youthful chest and she suppressed a giggle at his strutting.
She glanced over at her father's tent. One of Faruq's warriors watched them, a frown on his face. He straightened and pushed through the flap. Zafirah's light-hearted day turned somber. Would the guard's duty require him to call attention to her relationship with Sedil?
Sedil stepped closer at her worried expression. Before he could ask what bothered her, their fathers erupted from the tent. Concern darkened Asim and Faruq's faces and the fathers yanked apart their nearly adult children without explanation. One of her father's kinder wives had answered her tearful questions. She could no longer spend time alone with young men.
Since then, Faruq and his son had seldom called. In the last five years, Zafirah had only seen Sedil from a distance. She concentrated on learning ways to mend physical hurts from the tribe's healer and turned to the horses for companionship.
Despite her withdrawal, she found herself straining for a glimpse of Sedil on his rare appearances. Her sisters tittered over her mooning about and she retreated deeper. Her heart ached with the knowledge the chieftains had most likely feared Sedil would want the unsuitable daughter. The severance had come too late for Zafirah's peace of mind. Sedil lived in her soul, but he must marry a princess.
How much easier for her life if he had stayed away. She could have kept her illusions. In those, he spurned her smug and spiteful half-sisters. There, he chose Zafirah to walk his path. With his appearance, brutal reality tore away one of the few pleasures she eked out from her stark existence.
As she watched him duck into her father's tent, Zafirah vowed to avoid him. She busied herself tending the goats and horses and looking after the inevitable minor burns, cuts, and scrapes around the camp. Despite this, she could not escape the gossip and speculation.
Each day Sedil met a different sister. As Zafirah sat beneath the palms watching the animals forage, the sound of drums and cymbals floated toward her. Her eyes squeezed tight against the pain. She could almost see one of her detestable sisters dancing before her beloved as he lay within her father's tent. How she longed for the same chance.
Worse yet, that night the girl would feed him with henna-tinted fingers. Later, before bed, her stories would entertain him. Envy gnawed at Zafirah like a desert palm's rattah. Her fingers itched with the need to perform such intimate tasks for her love.
While Sedil listened to ancient tales, Asim and Faruq negotiated terms. Zafirah huddled in the passageway between the two rooms, gazing out at Barakah's two moons, Iamar and her smaller sister, Manara. Her father's voice rumbled through the canvas. Zafirah's hands fisted and she gritted her teeth as he extolled her self-important sisters' virtues.
Despite the futility of her longing, a rash flicker of optimism burned in Zafirah. Sedil had not voiced his own wishes to her father. Perhaps he might yet ask for her. The tenth day Faruq arranged Sedil's joining to Aziza and snuffed out Zafirah's hopes. All rejoiced... except Zafirah. She mourned and hid away as the camp scurried to prepare for the nuptials.
The night before the wedding, an uproar woke Zafirah. Women screamed, men shouted, and hooves thudded in the sand. She slipped on a caftan, then rushed outside. On the dunes, torches raced away. The chieftains' combined forces pursued the rapidly disappearing lights.
Nawar wailed, "Aiee! They've taken my Aziza!" The other women comforted her as she wept and wrung her hands. Reluctantly, she let them herd her back into the tent.
Zafirah returned to bed, wrestling fear and guilty jubilation. Of her eight sisters, Aziza treated her worst. A niggling voice whispered perhaps Aziza wished to leave. With a self-derisive laugh, Zafirah punched her sleeping pillow.
She could not understand how any girl would not want to marry Sedil. And yet... Aziza had not appeared overjoyed at her selection. Zafirah snuggled into her bed and tried to still her mind.
The camp quieted. Even Nawar's weeping calmed. Zafirah tossed and turned, feeling every wrinkle in the fabric of her basket-pillow. What would Sedil do if Aziza did not return? Would he choose another, or wait? A stifled groan reached her as she stared up at the tent-ceiling's stitching. She lay still, uncertain if she should investigate.
The pained sound echoed again and this time, a desperate calling of her name fluttered in her mind. Troubled, she rose. Someone close to her had fallen ill or suffered injury. But whom? Few in the camp touched her mind in such a way and none near enough she could hear their cries.
Zafirah slipped into the hallway. She peeked into each sleeping cubicle in the women's section. The soft snores of her sisters and her father's wives assured her none of them had called her. Her mouth tasted of metal as she moved toward the far end of the huge tent.
Most of the warriors had gone with the search party or she would not have ventured into the men's quarters. Another low cry assured her the sufferer lay within. Zafirah stood for a moment until the cry sounded again. Determined to assuage whatever hurt she might find, she moved toward the last room.
She pushed aside the curtain, waiting for her eyes to adjust to the darkened interior. Glimmers of torch light from the hall dimly lit the room. A low moan pulled her gaze toward the huge, bowl-like wicker sleeping basket. Zafirah drew closer and peered in. Sedil writhed in agony against the confining bed.
"Oh!" Her hand flew to her mouth, too late to check her surprised sound.
Sedil looked up, his glowing green eyes unfocused. Not a word passed his lips, but once again she heard her name. She knew then why he had not ridden out with the other men. The Burning possessed him, demanding satisfaction or death. He had reached out to her in his need and her nurturing temperament suffered with him. She moved to stand beside him.
"Shall I call the others?" she asked.
"No! Leave me," he managed between gasps.
Zafirah frowned down at him, gnawing her lip. How she wanted to rail at him, ask him why he had not chosen her. Yet she would not. He required her and as long as they had known each other, she had never refused him anything.
"I will not go without you. Come." She offered him her hand.
For a moment, he hesitated, then let her help him up. She draped his arm over her shoulders and together they stumbled toward her room. Zafirah inhaled deeply at the heat of his body held closely against her own. She struggled against the arousal his scent incited, fighting the liquid fire threatening to melt her bones.
Tradition said the Burning induced like passion in the pledged woman. How could this happen between her and Sedil? No bonding ceremony had joined their souls.
Her entire body throbbed and she fought to reach her room without collapsing beside Sedil. She feared if that happened she would allow him to take her on the carpets in view of any who awoke and chanced to leave their room.
Zafirah took another deep breath and guided Sedil into her quarters. Once inside, he all but fell into her bed. He curled away, shamed at his condition. Her voice soothed him as she joined him on the pillows. She stroked his smooth, dark skin. He turned toward her, his black hair glistening with sweat.
"Why?" His deep voice rasped with pain.
"I will not let Aziza's betrothed suffer." She avoided his gaze for fear her eyes would reveal the truth. When Aziza returned, Zafirah would lose him forever. Trembling, she pushed a lock of hair from his eyes.
Hunger replaced his pinched look. He pulled her atop him. The Burning did not allow time to fire a partner. Thus the bonding tied the woman's emotions to her mate's appetite. Sedil, aware Zafirah and he had no such ritual, battled it. His lips burned as they moved against hers. His hands trailed fire against her cool skin. Zafirah's gloomy thoughts fled at his first touch. She returned caress for caress, seeking to relieve the shared craving.
Suddenly, bruising paws separated them. His huge household guard-woman glowered at Zafirah.
"Wicked seed thief," the giantess snarled. She slung Sedil over her shoulder and turned.
Sedil's torment-etched face angered Zafirah. Her voice rang with her father's authority. "Stop!"
The woman spun, her eyes radiating implacable hatred. "He is Aziza's, not yours." Her words, low but menacing, chilled Zafirah.
Zafirah's chin lifted, her voice haughty as Aziza's. "You would see him suffer? As his kin, you can do naught for him. I can relieve him without expecting more, as none of my sisters would. Unless he couples, he dies. Who knows when they will find Aziza?"
The woman glared, but set Sedil down. She nodded, then padded away.
Zafirah waited until certain the woman would not return. She opened her arms and whispered to Sedil, "Come, love."
She scarcely breathed until he returned to the bed. Although lines of stress still carved his brow, a knowing smile curved his generous lips as he climbed in beside her. Too absorbed in pleasing him, she did not realize she no longer shielded her eyes.
The driving force had eased somewhat in him, as though transferred to Zafirah. She curved toward him, pulling at his body in a torrent of desire. He rose above her, magnificent in his arousal. Proud and tall, he pulsed with life. He was Zafirah's until sunrise. Though not her right, she loved him. He touched her face.
"For the comfort you give, I would return some." He slid over her, his weight welcome.
Her heart pounded as they united. She arched against him. Thousands of lights exploded as he moved within her. Consumed with her own completion, Zafirah still sensed when he threw back his head, his face contorted with his release. Hot and sticky, they clung to each other.
Sedil said not one word, but rolled to his side and tucked Zafirah beside him as though she was his precious jewel. She strove to stay awake, but without success. Wrapped around him, she protested sleepily when he removed himself. As in a dream, she felt his lips against her own and a whispered endearment puffed against her face.
Zafirah rose and washed quickly the next morning. She rushed out toward to the old healer's tent and collided with Sedil as she rounded the corner. All around them people went about their daily tasks. Zafirah held her breath until he released her with a tiny smile.
"I beg forgiveness, Prince," she managed, wanting badly to hold him. With an impersonal dip of his head in acceptance of her breathless apology, Sedil moved away toward the other men.
She forced herself not to watch him walk off, filled with conflicting emotions. Though she knew he could not acknowledge their relationship, it hurt he greeted her as if she had not been his childhood friend. Throughout the day she worried the thing like a sore tooth. Her distraction caught the healer's attention.
"If you cannot keep your focus, perhaps it would be best for you to seek some other task." At her dazed look, the old man indicated the child's burn he had given to her to tend. Zafirah had almost slathered a stinging ointment used for warts on the injury.
"Forgive me, master." She quickly replaced the medicine with the proper unguent, determined to concentrate on the work before her. Though she made no further mistakes, the day seemed to go on and on.
Nightfall brought no word from the men looking for Aziza. Zafirah ate little and tried to close her ears to the conjectures her sisters and father's wives made regarding Sedil's position. Fatima, one of her younger siblings, giggled at the suggestion he would take her if Aziza did not return.
"Don't be silly. He liked Oma better than me. Still, I can't help remembering the way his eyes followed me as I danced." The foolish girl made a satisfied moue and the others laughed. Nawar glared at them.
"If the prince is honorable, he will wait until his chosen returns. No matter how long." Her disapproval quieted the group and the evening meal finished in silence.
Zafirah waited until they left, then helped the servants clear the low table. Though not required to do so, she often assisted them. They accepted her work without accepting her into their world. None would speak to her except in formal terms.
After all these years, she had hoped she would find one friend among them. Though her efforts had come to naught, she continued to perform certain lowly duties until her presence was no longer remarked upon.
Not servant, not royalty, not warrior caste... Zafirah felt completely apart. Sedil alone had made her feel welcome and she could never call him hers. Her feet dragged as she retired to her lonely cubicle. The other women would sit in their spacious communal room, talking, laughing, and embroidering on their wedding robes or shirts for Asim for hours.
The few times Zafirah had attempted to join them she could almost feel the temperature drop several degrees. With the possibility Sedil might seek her again, Zafirah would not waste the time. The thought of him hastened her to her room. She discarded her robe, washed in a bowl of scented water, then donned a fresh gown. Zafirah paced restlessly across the tiny space. Sedil would not come until the others slept.
She paused, straining to hear the other women's voices. Silence lay heavy in her father's tent. Cautiously, she moved into the hall and peered into the sitting room. The place lay dark and empty. Nawar's anger and distress at the earlier banter must have put the others off their usual idle chatter.
Zafirah slipped back into her room, chafing her chilled arms. She climbed into her sleeping basket with a frown. If Sedil came to her she would not appear to expect him.
A strange pain settled in her throat and chest. He might choose another to relieve the Burning. Someone more versed in bedding pleasures. She scrubbed her eyes against the stinging tears and turned from the doorway. In a vain attempt to sleep, she lay rigid and uncomfortable.
A voice whispered in her mind. She shook her head.
Zafirah, I need you.
She shivered at the raw urgency in those words. Aware of the consequences if caught, she got up and crept toward the men's quarters again. Halfway there, Sedil met her. In the shadowed hall, he held his arms open to her. Hungry for his touch, she ran into them.
"I thought you would seek another," she mumbled into his chest.
He pulled away enough to look into her eyes. "Never. Come, let us retire to your room."
Zafirah followed him, her heart singing with joy at his words. Once again, they joined their bodies and souls. They would not allow the reality of what would come to intrude into their private world.
Though he continued polite and distant by day, Sedil sought Zafirah every night of Aziza's absence. He controlled the mating fever and often remained to talk after easing his physical need. Only the guard-woman knew of his condition and his visits. To Zafirah's surprise, she said nothing.
The warriors returned Aziza within seven days. Zafirah's sorrow and envy threatened to swallow her. Sedil must have said or done something, for his father watched him closely. He could not even say good-bye. Zafirah wept at night and tried to hide the ravages. Lover and friend lost. Such was her fate. Two days later Sedil married Aziza and left.
The twin moons veiled and revealed their faces twice before Zafirah admitted to herself Sedil's child grew within her. She hugged the knowledge close. She could not hide her state for long, even behind the billowing robes of her people's women.
Shortly after her discovery, Sedil arrived with a heavily armed escort. They carried word of an attack on his father's camp. Faruq's fanatic enemy, Aswad, had nearly slain the chieftain. Asim scowled at the news.
"Come, man. How could Aswad take your camp by surprise? I know you and your father have taken great care to protect your people," he demanded.
Sedil hesitated, then ground out his answer. "The son-of-a-jackal had help."
"Who would betray your father? Show the dog to me and I will help you slay him." Asim's anger and disgust made Zafirah glad she was not the object. She glanced around in hopes no one had spotted her lingering outside her father's quarters. Her worry flew away at Sedil's next words.
"No man, my friend. A woman. One who had the temerity to leave with the fiend of her own accord. Before my very eyes, she took his arm and mounted behind him as Aswad and his men left our burning tents."
A heavy silence settled. Zafirah bit her fist, fighting the cold certainty flooding her. Not even Aziza would act in such an evil manner! It must be some other woman. She closed her eyes, hearing the pain in Sedil's voice as he told of his loss.
"It sorrows me, Asim, to tell you of Aziza's betrayal with my father's nemesis." Sedil cleared his throat. "I have treated her well, but she has repaid us with this treachery."
Asim did not answer and Zafirah could stand the quiet no longer. She stepped closer and peered through a slit in the tent wall. Her father sat in his accustomed place, stroking his graying beard with a brooding look in his hooded eyes. Sedil moved into view and Zafirah fought back a gasp. A newly stitched wound slashed his once smooth face from left eye to chin. He stood beside Asim, who nodded with a grim smile for his son-in-law.
"So be it. For now we look to vengeance against Aswad. Our best warriors will join in pursuit." Asim called to the guard and began giving instructions.
Zafirah crept away, devising her own plans. Sedil and her father would spend all day together. She would find no chance to speak to Sedil alone. Her lips thinned. Despite the danger, when the men left the next morning, she would ride out behind them. Her love must know of their child.
In the cold, crisp dawn Zafirah rose. She ate, then packed bread, cheese, and water in a goat-hide saddlebag. After she added another robe against the chill air, she hurried out to the remaining herd.
Though not hers, Zafirah favored Rasha, the bay mare with a star on her forehead. As Zafirah approached, Rasha moved toward her with a soft whicker. In the golden light of early day the horse's dark coat gleamed with good health and Zafirah's grooming.
Zafirah looked back at the camp. At the far side, shapes moved against the rising sun. Her hands shook as she saddled the patient mare and slung the saddlebag over Rasha's rump. Hurry, hurry, her pounding heart demanded. The men had mounted and ridden toward the glowing orb. She could not afford to lose them or have the others see her leave.
Careful to avoid those left behind, Zafirah chewed on a piece of bread as she followed the tracks in the sand. Allah smiled on her that day. No sand storm swept away their trail. The sun climbed high as they rode through the dunes, then traveled behind them. Zafirah thanked the study little mare for her stamina as she plodded along. The hill country's winding canyons appeared none too soon for Zafirah. She had no desire to spend the night alone among the shifting sands.
The afternoon sun slanted deeply as the column of men and horses entered Aswad's stronghold. Zafirah shuddered at the eerie shapes carved from the blood red gorge's walls. All around her dwellings rose, hacked from the rock's flesh. She could almost hear the earth's wails against the assault. The horses' hooves rang through the abandoned homes as the warriors trotted further into the canyon.
Zafirah dismounted near the entrance to wait for the men to return. Her plan did not seem so wise in the deepening shadows. A dank smell emanated from the place and seeped into Zafirah's nose. Rasha snorted and rolled her eyes as if sensing her mistress' unease. Zafirah tried to calm her, but trembling hands did nothing to soothe the spooked mare.
The horse shivered beneath Zafirah's touch. While Zafirah did not wish to enter any of the holes, which marked entrances, she feared remaining in the open more. She led Rasha through one of the larger openings. Once inside, Rasha calmed and headed for a corner.
In the dim light Zafirah spied dried droppings and hay littering the floor. She smiled at Rasha's contented munching and continued her perusal. To one side, a niche created a bed, possibly for the one who tended the horses. Unlit torches hung from the walls, greasy smoke trails indicating long use.
Zafirah debated removing Rasha's saddle and settled for taking off the saddlebags. She prayed Sedil would not battle Aswad. Still, she knew neither he nor her father would rest until they served their vengeance. Perhaps they would not find him and would return soon. A wry smile twisted her mouth. The best she could expect would be if they camped here and continued their search later. She shrugged and went to share water with Rasha before she ate.
A thin cry echoed against the walls outside. Rasha lifted her dripping muzzle with ears pricked forward. Zafirah froze beside her. Had the wind made such a sound? Surely only a child would cry thus. She waited. Again, and yet again the pitiful sobbing called her. Zafirah ran outside. The clamor emerged from the dwelling above her.
A ladder stood against the outside of the stable, leading to the level above. Zafirah climbed it quickly and entered the door. She breathed deeply and frowned. A cloying musk scent persisted in the empty room. Only one she knew wore the heavy perfume, yet Aziza could not be here. The squall began again and nearby.
Within a food basket, she found a delicate girl-child of perhaps eight months. Zafirah picked her up. A note fluttered from the bedclothes. Aziza's shaky handwriting leapt up to strike Zafirah.
This child is mine and Aswad's. Please care for her as though she were your own. Aswad is entirely crazed and would kill his own blood. I fear for my life. May Allah forgive my blindness and preserve me that I may beg forgiveness of my husband and my family. Aziza
Zafirah clasped the babe close, rocking her while murmuring soothing nonsense. The sound of footsteps faintly penetrated her shock. She stared at Sedil as he ducked through the doorway. Dazed, she said nothing. The note crumpled in her hand. She stared at her beloved, and burst into tears. Sedil knelt beside her.
"Why did you follow?" He looked at the child. "Who is this?"
Zafirah bowed her head, unable to speak, and clutched Aziza's daughter closer. Sedil gently took them into his arms. The note crackled against his chest and Zafirah allowed him to take it from her nerveless fingers. His face darkened as he read it.
"I will put her aside. If she survives."
"No! She regrets her mistake."
"That treacherous daughter can never repay what she has cost me." He scowled, his grip painful. His gaze met Zafirah's. A fiercely tender expression crossed his face. "I should have taken you instead. You cared enough to spare me pain, gave yourself and asked nothing. Perhaps Asim will allow us to wed--"
A harsh laugh startled them. Aswad stood in the doorway. His eerie gray eyes held an unholy gleam.
"A bit premature, I think. I don't intend for Faruq or any of his get to survive." He sneered and waved his energy weapon. "I press a button. Farewell house of ben Hakim."
Sedil lunged toward him. Aswad slipped out the door. When Sedil followed, a blast hurled him back. Zafirah ran to him. Sprawled on the floor, he struggled for breath. A smoking hole bloomed from his chest.
"Sedil," she choked out.
"Take Aziza's child. Aswad has his wish. My family will cease."
"You will not die!"
His laugh ended in a painful cough. She caressed his face.
"I carry your child. If a son, your line will endure."
"Only wish... could be with you. Love you. No matter if I... live or die, you must continue." A ghost of his smile appeared. "Kiss me, then go. Find my men."
When she leaned over him, her bitter tears washed his face. Sorrowing, she fled as he asked.
To her dismay she found Rasha had broken her reins and galloped back home. Trapped, Zafirah sought refuge in a cave near the stronghold's entrance. Horses pounded past her hiding place. She feared they were enemies and clasped Aziza's daughter tight, praying for escape. The child whimpered but no longer cried, as though aware of their danger.
Rocks rattled occasionally and kept Zafirah in hiding until the canyon lay deep in evening shadow. When Aswad's maniacal laughter echoed through the cliffs, she had edged into the canyon. She pulled back as the cackles ended with curses. Explosions boomed within the rocky walls. In horror, she watched him destroy his stronghold.
Weeks passed and the weather turned cold with winter. Zafirah huddled in the wreckage of the cliff homes, snow drifting through the shattered walls. She did not know if Sedil lived, for when she returned to search for him there was no trace of his body in the rubble. Though her belly had become rounded, both she and Aziza's child, Yasmin, were thin with lack of food. Little remained of the abandoned stores she scavenged from the ruins.
A horse's whinny brought her head up. Fear rushed through her. Had Aswad returned to the ruins? She snatched Yasmin into her arms, then peered over the broken windowsill into the canyon floor. A group of mounted men passed beneath. They wrapped their robes and burnooses tightly against the cold. The lead rider lifted his face to the sky with a shout.
"Sedil?" she whispered, her eyes burning with tears. He had survived Aswad's attack. She set Yasmin down and struggled to her feet. Near weeping, she cried his name, and waved.
Sedil jerked his horse to a stop, the beast rearing back against the pain in its mouth. With a leap from its back, Sedil tossed the reins to one of his warriors and raced up the shattered steps. Zafirah met him halfway. He swept her into his arms, careful of her mounded stomach.
"Beloved, I came as soon I regained my strength."
"I thought you dead, Sedil. I feared Aswad would return and I had no way to get home or search for you." She shivered and the child within her reacted with a strong kick. Sedil placed a gentle hand over the babe inside.
"Aswad will not trouble anyone again."
"Aswad strangled her just before I thrust my sword through his black heart."
Zafirah wept. Her sister had been a thorn in her side for years, but no one deserved such an end. A child's wail wavered through the canyon walls.
"Yasmin." Zafirah twisted from Sedil's arms and started back up the stairs.
"No. I will fetch her." He placed a hand on her arm, then raced past her.
Yasmin squirmed against him until she saw Zafirah. The little girl held her arms out. When Sedil released her, she clung to Zafirah. Sedil frowned.
"Let us leave this frozen place." As though they weighed as little as a bedroll, he picked them up. "Yasmin, you must ride with Amin. Your mother needs her rest."
The child looked up uncertainly at his scarred face. He returned her serious gaze with a gentle smile. Finally satisfied he would not hurt her or Zafirah, Yasmin allowed him to put her before the young warrior. Zafirah sat enfolded in Sedil's arms, joining him for warmth in his robes.
They rode in silence until they reached the desert's sands. The dunes radiated heat from the midday sun. The warmth seemed to thaw her tongue. Zafirah asked what she feared most.
"What of our fathers? Will they not demand you marry another princess?"
"I will not take another. I wanted you for many years. Then, as my time for the Burning neared, my father tried to convince me I needed a full princess for my wife. That only one of the true blood would satisfy me." He smiled at her, his eyes gleaming with hunger. "He lied. Only you satisfy me. Aziza, despite her talents and breeding, never compared with you. You are my victory. Only you will I wed."
Zafirah snuggled against him, feeling his child move within her once more. Never again would anyone relegate her to the shadows, the fringes. Sedil loved her and she would belong to him in the world's eyes.