The king is dead.
That bitter truth sinks further into my gut as I hurry along the torchlit streets, making my way towards the palace. Normally I would have run as far as possible from the mourners and the courtiers crowded around Ur's palace gates, but now I have no choice but to wade into the fray.
The blue silk from Tamina's dress dances across my legs, exposing more skin than I’m used to. But Tamina is a professional mourner, and the only way to get into the palace is if I am one of them.
Just being a palace dancer isn’t good enough.
She was rather reluctant to lend me her best dress. After all, she won’t be getting it back. But after careful persuasion, she allowed me to take it with only a gold coin for compensation.
I inhale the spiced air as I round a brightly painted corner and pull myself to a halt. The last time I was at this palace all was perfect. It's horrible to think that, just three days ago, all had been well.
Now the king is dead.
The fire from the torches is my only light as I feel my way down the wall, praying I am not too late. If I am and the deed has been done already…
A shudder runs down my spine as I find the latch and tug on it, stepping into a narrow passage, the place Fahim and I used to meet. The intimacy we had shared, the stolen kisses and whispered secrets, the sweet poems he had written on the spare pieces of parchment and the dances we had done pale in comparison to the trial we are about to face.
I let the wailing of the hired mourners be my guide, and soon, I am stepping out of the hall into a large foray. The ground is covered with crushed flowers and palm leaves, their scent rising into the hushed air as I round another corner to the king's court.
All seventy-four of the doomed exist in the gold-crusted room. Some sing, some dance, some sit on the ground as they wait for their fate.
My eyes wander across the throne room before finally falling on my beloved. His wise and knowing form sits there, knees bent, adding ink to his papyrus sheet, most likely writing a farewell to his family.
He must sense my presence, for he looks up as I hesitantly make my way over to him.
Casting a glance around the court, he scrambles to his feet. “What are you doing, Saphiyra?” he hisses, reaching out to grab me by the elbow. “If they mistake you for a courtier, you'll be forced to drink the poison too.”
I nod my head, signaling that I already know the risks I take. Then I catch him by his calloused hand and lead him away from the hubbub of the doomed.
Fahim follows me without hesitation. “Saph––”
He cannot finish his sentence because I cut him off with my lips against his, pleading for him to listen. I cannot let him drink the poison, I will not let him be buried in the King of Ur’s tomb. When I draw back, I drop my voice to a murmur, glancing cautiously around the court. “We have to leave. Now.”
“Wait, what?” he pulls away, his dark brows furrowing. “I can’t do that. When I became the king's scribe, I signed a contract that––”
“So what?” I snap, cutting him off. “You never agreed to drink poison. That was never part of the deal. It was just some harebrained order the king decided on because he didn't want to die alone.”
“No!” I grip his hand, sidling closer. “What about your promise to me? Does that mean less than the king?”
I feel him stiffen, and after a moment, he shakes his head. “You mean everything.”
A grin spreads across my face as I pull the black fabric over my lips and gesture across the way. “If we leave now, we may be able to escape.”
“If you do this,” Fahim begins, his brilliant brown eyes filling with tears. “If we get caught… You will be subjected to death too.I can’t do that. Saphiyra, I couldn’t bear to-”
“I know,” I state, squeezing his hand. “But I want this.” Living without you is death anyway.
The wailing of the mourners seems to get louder as we leave the hall behind.
My heart beats wildly in my chest and I keep glancing over my shoulder to make sure no man has followed. If they do, it's the end.
Fahim makes no noise as we squeeze through the passage once more and emerge into the star-studded night. I pause and inhale sharply, trying to catch my breath, even though my lungs feel like they're turning inside out.
“If we go west,” I manage, standing to my full height, “we might be able to cross the border into Babylonia within one weeks time.”
Fahim doesn't look convinced. “Should we not get your mother?”
“Tamina promised to care for her. You and I both know she gets more gold than the two of us combined.” I rub the gooseflesh on my arms, handing him a black scarf to cover his face before I quicken my pace as we round the corner into an uninhabited alley. “I have a cousin in Babylon. Surely she will accept us.”
Fahim uses his long legs and catches up to me in no time. I don't even stop when I feel him lift up my hand and press his lips to each of my fingers.
There is no time to stop.
We have to keep going.
I'm just about to open my mouth when a shout rings out from behind.
“The scribe has escaped!”
My heart somersaults in my chest and Fahim grows still beside me. If they found out he has left so soon, how long will it be before they find us, two people traveling on foot in the dead of night?
Suddenly, I'm not sure what to do.
“Come, Saphiyra,” Fahim commands.
His hand crushes mine as we begin to tear down the dusty pathway, our feet hitting against dirt, our chests heaving, our eyes on the glittering horizon.
We must get out of Ur. Then we can run across the golden sands.
Maybe I hear footsteps behind me and the snorting of angry horses as they pull along golden chariots, or maybe it’s just my own heart trampling itself over and over again. Either way, I don't dare look back, and I don't dare stop.
Ahead, I can see the stone gates of Ur. A glimmer of hope rises in my chest, and I push myself to run faster, despite the fact that my legs screech in protest.
We reach the gate. Fahim stops, gasping as he tosses a look around the clearing. His eyes rest on a black horse tied to the gate. A smile piquing his determined lips, he strides across the way and untethers the horse, mounting it quickly.
I accept his hand as he gallops past, and Fahim proceeds to swing me onto the horse, just behind him. Laying my head on his back, I inhale his spicy scent as he leans forward and nudges the horse into a full canter.
One moment, we are within the city walls. The next we are out in the vast ocean of sand, the horse kicking up the fine grains, the starlight our only guide in a world that seems so dark.
I close my eyes and send a prayer heavenward, begging for safety and freedom, as the wind whistles through my hair, blowing my blue covering off and exposing me to the world. But I don't care. Right now, it’s just me and Fahim.
That's all that matters.
Shouts cause my eyes to fly open. Glancing back, I see half-naked guards running across the golden waves, their faces determined.
They're coming for us.
“Fahim,” I shout, the wind nearly stealing my words from my throat. “They’re coming!” I can taste the poison already.
He says something in return but his response is incoherent.
Through my curtain of thick, black hair, I can see their pursuing forms. Their daggers and knives glint in the moonlight, their stances determined.
Oh, if we cannot run, we have no hope.
Fahim grunts and leans forward, nudging the horse with all his might.
Everything seems to slow down as the horse kicks its hind legs, sending me and Fahim flying over its neck and crashing into the sand below.
All is quiet for one, blessed moment.
And then the shouts of the palace guards resonate behind me and I scramble to my feet, searching in the ever-moving darkness for my beloved. I find him sprawled on the sand.
Casting a glance at the pursuers, I move over and nudge him. He gives no response. Desperation arising in my chest, I place my hands on his chest, hoping, praying, waiting for a heartbeat.
My prayers are answered with a dull thud. But what good is it now that Fahim isn't awake and I cannot carry him?
Holding my breath in my constricting throat, I edge down, feeling in his cloak for the dagger he always keeps hidden. No, it will not save me from our enemies, but it may buy us some time.
The guards come over the rise like nightmarish demons, brandishing their long weapons, their eyes glittering with hatred. From their point of view, I am just a poor dancer at the bottom of the dune who has dishonored her recent king by trying to escape from his death-wish.
But how could I not?
It was either loyalty to the king or Fahim, and I will pick Fahim every time.
Swallowing against the sand on my tongue, I hold up the knife. “Don't come any closer!”
One of the guards laughs. “Dear girl, you cannot defend yourself with that.”
He's right, I know that. Still, indignation rises within me. “You're not taking him back to die.”
“No, you're right,” the same guard responds. “By order of the King, may he live on in our memory, you are both to follow him into the afterlife.”
I nudge Fahim with my toe as the guards descend. Though I am a good dancer, I have never held a weapon in my life, let alone fought with one.
The largest of the men grabs me by my collar and throws me to the ground. My head swims feverishly as I crawl back to my feet. The second blow comes; this time it’s a hit to the head. I fly back, my head throbbing, my body hitting the sand. Still, I do not cry out.
I will not give them the satisfaction of seeing my pain.
The soldier leers over me. “You're the dancer from the palace, are you not?”
I cringe, propping myself up on my elbow. “That is only part of me.”
He laughs and shakes his head. His dagger extends and brushes against the bare skin on my arm, not enough to sever muscle, but enough to give me a taste of what torture I will receive if I refuse them much longer.
“My dagger can go so much deeper,” he hisses.
“It is not the way of a man to mess with an innocent girl,” an infuriated voice says from behind them.
They all spin around in unison to see Fahim staring at them angrily. “Let her go.”
The guard gives a growl before he reaches down and pulls me to my feet, aiming his dagger at my throat. He tickles the skin there and warm blood oozes from where he cut. “It's over for you, scribe. There is no escaping fate.”
Fahim's shoulders droop, and I'm the only one who catches sight of a single tear that falls down his jagged, clean-shaven face.
The guard jerks his head at some of the other men and they step up to bind his hands.
I catch Fahim’s eyes and, within them, there is a heartfelt, loving apology before my entire world goes black.
They dress me in finery and laden my body in the finest jewels I have ever worn. Whether they do this to mock me or to honor my attempts at life, I do not know. Staring sullenly at my reflection, I allow them to dab pomegranate juice on my lips and line my eyes with kohl.
Then they lead me to the burial chamber, where, already, some have drunk the poison and now lay in their designated spots.
I swallow hard as a kind-looking man hands me a coiled ribbon, gesturing to my head like he expects me to put it on before he limps off.
The guards lead me over to a silk mat that has been spread over stone.
My heart hammers in my chest as they help me lay down and situate my gown like I am some goddess they are setting free.
And who knows? Maybe I am.
Then one of the guards hands me a golden goblet filled with tainted water. I'm about to lift it to my lips and accept my fate when a shout rings out.
Throwing the goblet aside, I sit upright and search the tomb just as Fahim shoves past three guards. He is clean shaven, kohl lines his eyes, and his clothes look like finery made for a king. He crouches beside me, his eyes wild, taking my face in his hands.
“Saphiyra, I am sorry,” he whispers. “So sorry.” Fahim bows his head. “I promised you we would spend the rest of our lives together.”
I smile, visions of the night before running through my mind. Then I lift his head and plant a kiss on his nose before moving down to his lips. I pull away and look tenderly into his eyes. “We did.”
Tears slide down his cheeks, smudging the khol, yet making him look more human. “I love you, Saphiyra.” His lips meet mine in one last, passionate kiss. Fahim's hands grip my face with an intensity as if he never wishes to let go.
I kiss him back with equal passion, hoping he knows that I do not regret what I did. I regret none of it.
A guard pries Fahim away and shoves a new goblet into my hands.
Sadness sparkles in my beloved's eyes as I lift death to my lips.
That is the last I ever see of Fahim.
Yet, as I lay there, the poison slowly enveloping me, I see my life dance before my eyes. I see my mother, Tamina, Fahim, and dancing. Dancing. Dancing until death.
I clutch the ribbon in my hands in one final act of rebellion. Yes, I was supposed to put it on, but I do not. I'm still holding it when a smile pulls over my face and the world goes dark.