King are fighting when I return.
“I’m just going to break the shaft!” she snaps at him. “Stop being so ornery!”
“Get your hands off the arrow! I am perfectly capable of getting it out myself!”
I try to avoid looking at the bodies I’m stepping over. But one body, one with an unruly mass of curls atop his head, sends my gut churning. I’m not sure what I should think or feel, so I tear my eyes away and walk past him. The numbness of my limbs has spread to my mind and heart.
“You have three arrows in your chest. How are you not dead, you giant shadow freak? You are in no position to be tending your own wounds.”
“Stop projecting your mortal limitations upon me! I am a fae with healing magic, you thief.”
“Well, it clearly isn’t working as fast as it needs to!”
“Because you won’t give me any room to breathe!”
They stop when I approach. Eshe pulls back from where the Neverseen King leans against the courtyard’s middle arch. His eyes shoot to me. I ignore their scrutiny, despite how it burns into my skin. Instead, I drop to my knees beside him.
“Nadira—” Eshe starts.
“Jabir’s dead. The rest of the men are gone,” I say. “We can’t tend these wounds here. It’s too dark. Eshe, I’ll need you to find me—”
Something crackles to my right. I look up just as light flares in the Neverseen King’s palm. I wince at the sudden brightness, but my eyes adjust quickly as he holds it up. Enough that I can see the dark blue tunic he wears. A tunic stained with blood.
Part of me dies a little to see those arrows still there, rising and falling with each of his labored breaths. How did he not die? Are his internal organs made of iron?
“Don’t worry about me,” he says, and despite the pain roughening his voice, there’s something soft in his tones. “I can deal with this.”
My vision goes suddenly blurry. “And I suppose you were going to deal with that army too? You’re the Neverseen King! You can’t die in a stupid way like this!” I choke on a sob, and it’s a helpless anger and hurt that floods me. “What was I supposed to do if these arrows had killed you? Were you just going to let them keep shooting you? Why did you even let them shoot you in the first place? What is wrong with you? If you’d died, I would never have forgiven you!”
The Neverseen King stares at me.
Eshe stares at me.
I twist my face away, grinding my teeth together and trying to swallow my tears. I go to wipe my eyes with my hands, only to realize they’re covered in blood. The tears fight harder against my resolve.
“I’ll . . . go find some water,” says Eshe, getting to her feet and hurrying away.
“Be careful of the House’s defenses,” calls the Neverseen King after her.
Just like that, we’re alone. The Mourner and the Neverseen King.
I swallow my tears and lock them away. There is only the barest quaver in my voice when I speak. “I know you can do this on your own. But please, let me help you.”
His lack of protest is answer enough.
He holds his glowing ball of light in one hand, illuminating his chest but doing nothing to penetrate the shadows around his face. Maybe another day, I’ll have space to be hurt that he still hides his face from me. For now, I’m just thankful he’s alive.
I lean forward and use one of my knives to slice open the collar of his tunic. Between my shaking hands and my care to avoid jostling the arrows, it takes me several minutes to cut the fabric away.
He says nothing, only breathes harder when I peel the fabric away to reveal his bloodied flesh. Another time I might have ogled the muscular definition of his torso or wondered over the strangely golden cast of his skin in the light. As it stands, all I see is blood. Blood, and those wretched arrows.
He could have died.
If they’d succeeded . . .
I shudder. Then I grab the first arrow shaft, the one that seems to be the shallowest. “I’m going to break this. It’ll hurt.”
He grabs my wrist, stopping me. “Nadira . . . I’m sorry.”
My eyes flick up to his, to the darkness wreathing his face.
“I’m sorry I doubted you. I’m sorry I frightened you with these arrows. I wasn’t expecting them to shoot when they did, And then I couldn’t . . . my magic—it was blocked. And I’m sorry—”
“Shh, don’t talk. Let me get this—”
“—for bringing you here at all.”
I stop. “What?”
His breaths become ragged, the hand holding the light shuddering. He’s in so much pain. Why won’t he just sit still and let me deal with these arrows? Then he can heal himself if he’s able.
Nevertheless, his free hand lifts. Two rounded knuckles brush my cheek, skate under my jaw, until he catches my chin. My lungs freeze. My heart, however, gallops away like a horse freed of its rider.
“Nadira,” he murmurs. “This world is so broken. I want nothing but for you to find someone you can be safe with. Truly safe. Someone who can be everything you need while you wrestle with the darkness of your past. Someone who doesn’t have their own demons.”
“Are you telling me to leave?”
His gaze holds mine.
“I’m fine,” I growl. “I survive. That’s what I do. That’s what I’ll keep doing.”
“But life is so much more than surviving, Nadira. I want you to experience how good and beautiful it can be. You won’t find that with me.”
I take hold of the arrow shaft and, before he can stop me, break it. He grunts, his light flickering as he draws in a long, agonized inhale.
His hand doesn’t leave my face, however. Slowly, while I use his tunic to staunch the fresh flow of blood, he tucks my hair behind my ear. “I want you to be happy.”
“I don’t care about being happy.”
“That’s because you don’t know what it’s like.”
I blink back more blurriness. “That’s probably good. It makes me more pragmatic than you.”
His shirt isn’t enough. I unwind my sash and turn it to the inside layers where strangers’ blood hasn’t soaked through. I press it against the wound.
“Actually, there was a moment I was happy,” I whisper.
His attention is hard on my face. Waiting.
I snap the shaft of the second arrow. His head tilts back, a low groan escaping his clenched teeth. I break off the third before he has a chance to expect it. The sound he makes is sharper, louder, and I grit my own teeth as I stuff fabric against the wounds.
“I was happy when we danced. The first time,” I say briskly, then add: “After you ignored me all night.”
“You cannot still be angry about that. I told you exactly why. And it isn’t ignoring if my awareness and attention was on you all night, no matter who I danced with.”
“Your definition of ignoring is wrong. You cannot purposefully ignore something you’re unaware of.”
“What?” I demand, scowling at him.
He reaches up again, cupping my face with his hand. “It’s alright to cry.”
I last an entire second before I crumple into pieces, folding over myself and bursting into rivers of tears. It’s miserable—he can’t even hold me. Not until those arrowheads are extracted from him. So I lean my head on his stomach as I weep, as my shoulders shudder.
He lays his hand on the back of my head and strokes my hair.
I killed so many people. Dozens—in one fell swoop. Jabir is dead, but there’s no relief. No relief from the constant hollowness inside me. Killing him could never bring back my parents. It fixes nothing. Nothing, except buying my freedom.
And Kolb. Kolb. He was stupid, so stupid. Even so, he was one of the only friends I’ve ever had. I didn’t mean to kill him. To think, I could have killed Eshe too.
Safya is dead. Gaya, Dabria, Itr, Hulla, Fathuna, Mahja.
Death follows me everywhere I go. No matter where I run, it hounds my steps.
What do I do?
There’s no escape.
I’m not sure how long we stay like that. Eventually, my tears dry up. Still, I don’t move. I stay leaning against him, letting him stroke my hair. And I believe my favorite delusion, that somehow I belong with him. That our stained souls deserve the torment of each other’s nearness.
“You’re free to go,” he says at long last. “Jabir is gone. He won’t touch you again. You’re a free woman. I want you to leave and find happiness.”
I push myself upright. When I speak, my voice is soft but hard. “Do you want to marry me, Sultani?”
He seems to stop breathing for a moment. Then growls, “I’ve told you a thousand times. What I want doesn’t matter. It never has, and it never will.”
“Do you want to marry me, Sultani?”
“Nadira, for all that’s—”
“Do you want to marry me, Sultani? Stop evading me and answer the question.”
He glares at me, a look no less potent for being unseen. He curses under his breath, sharp and low. Then he extinguishes the light in his hand, shoves up, and catches me by the back of the head.
And pulls me into a kiss.
His lips capture mine with force, with a wretched determination that shatters me to my core. I fall into his kiss, a whimper dying in my throat as tears I didn’t think I had left find their way down my cheek and over his knuckles.
Just when I think he’s about to pull away, his hand fists in my hair and he lets out a growl, kissing me harder. Fiercer.
Then he lets go.
I sit there, stunned. My lips buzz. My whole being buzzes, like lightning cutting across the desert sky.
“There’s your answer,” he says darkly, raking a hand through his hair. “Since you were so determined to have it. Now please, if you would just leave, it’ll be easier for me to think through my options here. Take your freedom, Mourner, and do with it whatever you will. Find a good man—if you want—and forget we ever met.”
“I’m not leaving.”
“Then you are a fool.”
“Well, so are you!” I snap back, glaring at him. “You could have just answered yes to my question instead of kissing me!”
“Are you angry I kissed you?”
“I’m angry that you won’t stop telling me to leave long enough for me to tell you that I’ve decided to marry you. Stars and sands!”
“I agree to marry you.”
He goes deathly still. “You—no, you will regret it. There’s nothing here for you. You need to leave. You and Eshe both. See what happened to the rest? Safya is dead. Gaya is dead. If you stay, you will die.”
And somehow, this is the last piece of assurance that I needed. Before, I was afraid he would use me up, spend me like coppers in the market. I was a tool to him. All this time, I’ve been desperate to know that he would fight for me. For my life. I wanted assurance that I was worth more to him.
Now I have it.
Because he would rather give me up if it meant I would have a greater chance at living.
I close my eyes. Perhaps I am a fool. But I’ve made my decision. Live or die, I want to do it by his side.
My eyes flash open just as I hear Eshe’s pattering footsteps coming toward us, punctuated by the familiar splash of water in a bowl. Once we sterilize my knife and I’ve washed the blood off my hands, I’ll cut these arrowheads out of him, and then he can use his magic.
My gaze latches onto his, and there is hope, desperation, and utter dread swimming in the shadows facing me. “I will marry you, Neverseen King. That is my final decision.”
He’s silent for a very, very long time.
Finally, at last: “Then tomorrow at dusk, I will take you as my bride, Nadira al-Risya.”