Maybe it was a bad idea to have the council when she was already tired and stressed; perhaps this made it inevitable that she would say something thoughtless. But the fact was that between Persian invasions and unwanted marriage proposals and worries about the dagger, she'd been tired and stressed for a long while and she was going to be tired and stressed for a long time to come, so she held the council anyway and tried to ignore the threat of a headache lurking just behind her eyes.
Three Persian princes faced her from across the table. Dastan was there, of course, looking far more pleased and eager than he had any right to; someday when she didn't have a thousand other things on her mind, she'd find out why this near stranger looked at her like the sun rose and set in her eyes. Tus came as well, representing the absent king in their negotiations. And who knew why Garsiv decided to attend? Maybe he was there to defend the honor of Persia, should it be threatened. Maybe he was supporting his brother. Or maybe he'd just hoped that someone in the throne room would need to be stabbed. That would explain why he'd brought his sword, anyway, although at Roham's insistence he'd left it at the door.
Roham led the council; Tamina would have preferred to negotiate for her own destiny, thank you very much, but after long discussion she and her trusted advisor had agreed that it gave weight to their demands if they were spoken by someone other than the princess, to emphasize that these were not her personal desires but the demands of their city, their gods, their way of life. She had no desire to wed a Persian prince, but if it had to happen, it was going to happen on her terms.
"We are here to discuss the marriage contract of Princess Tamina and Prince Dastan," Roham began. "A tricky task indeed. Persian princes, we know the might of your empire, the glory of your cities, the honor of your history. But Alamut, although small, has an even longer history still, steeped in tradition, and as a religious city it makes many demands on any who intend to ally themselves to the head of its government and its faith."
"We understand," said Tus with an incline of his head, and Tamina thought it was rather rich of him to pretend to be so magnanimous when he'd just killed her people with no cause or justification.
"First," said Roham, "Princess Tamina must reside within the city, even if her husband is prince to another kingdom. If Prince Dastan is to marry her, he must make his home here as well."
"We understand," repeated Tus, but this time it was with a bit of a resigned sigh and a sad smile at his brother. Garsiv gave his little brother a similar smile, and with a start Tamina realized how much these three loved each other. So that was why Garsiv came to their council. "But we can visit back and forth," Tus added as Dastan smiled at him.
"Of course," said Roham.
And Tamina, because it was the politic thing to do, added, "And as my brothers, you will be welcome to Alamut at any time." All three brothers smiled up at her and it was rather irritating to see these barbarian invaders acting they were all friends here, so she found herself adding, "But next time we'd very much prefer you ask to be let in."
Tus and Dastan both looked uncomfortable but Garsiv laughed loud and long. Tamina wasn't sure which reaction annoyed her more.
"Second," said Roham, "although we do understand that Dastan is a prince among your people and an heir to the throne of Persia, in Alamut he will be the princess's consort and no more. He will retain the title of Prince but have no formal political power or authority beyond what Tamina grants him on a temporary basis should she so desire. And as the throne passes only through the female line of the family, neither he nor any member of the Persian royal family will ever have any claim on it."
"Good," said Dastan with a laugh. "I don't want it."
Roham ignored him and went on. "She is our ruler and our high priestess and her word on political and religious matters is final. How they organize their personal lives is a personal matter, but in the public sphere he must never try to undermine or override her authority, or even question it publicly." And then he fixed the three princes with a serious gaze. "We mention this specifically because men from outside our city, especially men who are accustomed to power, have often found it difficult to come here and be subordinate to a woman."
Tus nodded seriously, but Garsiv leaned over and whispered something in Dastan's ear which made him blush and shift uncomfortably; Tamina could only assume that he'd said something lewd and had to fight hard to keep from rolling her eyes.
"Dastan, can you agree to this?" asked Tus.
"Yes," said Dastan quickly, and then he locked eyes with Tamina, giving her that look that said he was perfectly content to have her near, the one he gave her so often that it was starting to make her uncomfortable. "I'm happy to agree to it."
"Third," said Roham, "although Prince Dastan may continue to practice what faith he will, all future children must be raised in the faith of Alamut—the eldest daughter to prepare her to become our high priestess, and the others to prepare them to become members of our order."
This one did make the two older princes slightly uncomfortable, and they muttered with Dastan for a moment. Finally, Tus said loud enough for Tamina to hear, "All right, but you have to be the one to explain to Father," and then looked up at Roham. "Agreed."
"Lastly," said Roham, "our princess must take a consort so she can produce an heir; this is a law of our faith. But once she has taken that consort, he must remain faithful to her at all times for the rest of her life, in order to keep her pure. Prince Dastan may never take a second wife—"
"Never," agreed Dastan quickly.
"—or a concubine or a mistress, no matter how short or casual the dalliance."
"No worries there," Garsiv laughed. "Dastan doesn't know what to do with one woman, let alone a whole harem of them."
Dastan flushed again and Tus chuckled, and suddenly the headache that had been simmering behind her eyes came pouring out to flood her head with pain as she glared at them. Couldn't they take anything seriously? "This is not a laughing matter," she snapped. "This is one of the most important doctrines relating to the high priestess, that she remain untainted. I know respect for holy things is not one of your strengths, but do you suppose you can respect this one?"
All the laughter went immediately out of Dastan and Tus. "I can respect this," said Dastan earnestly.
But next to him, Garsiv continued to fight back his laughter, and it only fed Tamina's irritation. "Do you understand, princes, that should Dastan ever touch another woman, the marriage will be voided and Dastan banished from our city?"
"I understand," said Dastan, and Tus shot an angry glare at Garsiv, which didn't help him stop laughing.
"Do you understand that if he does break the marriage contract this way, we will have no choice but to consider all peace with Persia to be at an end?"
"I understand," Dastan repeated, sounding surprised and a little exasperated. "Tamina—" she hated the liberties he took when he said her name, like a caress, like a whisper in the dark— "I understand your being cautious, but what kind of man do you think I am?"
She stared at him, surprised, shocked that he couldn't see why she didn't trust him, that he thought she'd just pretend nothing untoward had ever happened. And that was when she snapped out something the diplomat in her immediately regretted: "I think you're the kind of man who invades an innocent city and then demands they offer him a pretty woman as the price for peace."
Dastan couldn't have looked more shocked if she'd struck him over the head with a club. He stared at her a long moment, while Garsiv finally started to look apologetic and Tus looked more uncomfortable than she'd seen him yet, then stood up from the table. "If that's who you think I am," he said, fixing those serenely blue eyes on hers, "then the last thing I want to do is force you to marry me." And he strode away, his footsteps echoing through the stone hall.
The remaining four inhabitants of the room stared at each other a long shocked moment, and then Tus spoke. "Princess, allow me to go speak with him—"
"No, I'll go," she said with a sigh, and slipped away quickly out a side door. Luckily she knew the palace much better than he did, and by cutting across one room, she caught up to him almost immediately. "Prince Dastan!" she called as she turned a corner and saw him disappearing in the distance. "Please wait!"
He paused but didn't turn around and she hurried after him, cursing herself under her breath. She didn't want to marry Dastan, certainly, but she did want to fulfill her duties as princess, and she knew that marrying him was the best thing she could do for her city, by giving the people of Alamut a powerful ally in the Persian empire. And she knew that her fatigue and headache had made her unnecessarily short and abrupt with him, and for someone who prided herself on remaining in control, that was unacceptable.
His back was still to her, his shoulders tense, and she decided that of all the roles she had been taught to play, the polite, placating princess was the way to go. "Forgive me, noble prince," she said softly, "I spoke hastily and without cause—"
"No," Dastan cut her off, "that's the first honest thing you've said to me." And he turned to her, his eyes pained, and added, "And you can stop acting like that. The simpering thing doesn't really suit you."
"Fine," said Tamina, "you want honesty?"
He nodded, and Tamina found it rather exciting to have permission to speak freely for once. "Then, speaking honestly, I don't understand why you're so upset. What that I said of you was untrue?"
There was that hurt in his eyes again, mixed with confusion.
"You invaded my city and demanded my hand," she pressed. "Did you think I would have forgotten that?"
"I stopped the invasion," he corrected, "and the proposal was all Tus. I only agreed to it because I thought . . . when we were out in your garden you seemed . . ." He looked away. She raised her eyebrows at him, waiting for him to finish, and with embarrassment evident in his voice he concluded, "interested."
And with a sudden start of surprise she finally understood Prince Dastan. He felt tenderly toward her, and he'd hoped that their marriage would not simply be a political one. He'd hoped theirs would become a marriage of love, one where they spent time together outside of formal events and those nights he was allowed to come to her room, one where she saw him more than was strictly required to fulfill her duty. And as she processed this unexpected idea, she found herself flopping unceremoniously down onto the nearest bench.
He sat carefully next to her but didn't meet her eyes, which gave her time to study him—the tousled hair, the bowed head, the sinewy arms that even his formal robe failed to disguise. He was a prince, the Lion of Persia, but just at this moment he was a lovesick little boy.
And she still wasn't happy with any of this, but she could speak gently to him right now. After all, she was not, by nature, a cruel person. "I don't know you, Prince. I see the way you look at me, and I don't understand it. I've spent only a brief time with you, spoken only a handful of words, and yet you seem to feel . . . a bond with me. Which is a feeling I do not return."
Though she could only see him in profile, there was no mistaking his reaction to that: he flinched. He was hurt. And strangely, she was sorry to have hurt him. He was loud and too informal and Persian and an invader, and yet, she had to admit to herself, she could see in his actions that he had a good heart. He loved his family. He tried to do what he thought was right. He showed consideration for her feelings and concerns.
So she added, "Yet. I am not saying it is impossible I should ever feel that way. Just that I do not yet."
He hesitated, and then he turned to look at her. "What do you want, Princess? Not what we've forced on you, or what you think you ought to do. What do you want?" Like she had been that first day in the garden, she was astounded that a voice so gentle could come from such a man.
What did she want? She blinked in surprise. She hadn't been asked that question in a long time, and to hear it from this stranger's mouth, this barbarian's mouth, was astonishing. And as she pondered the question, all the fight went out of her.
What did she want? That wasn't something she allowed herself to think about much, and she had to consider a long while before she knew her answer. "I want to serve my gods, and I want to keep my city safe. And I know that doing so requires my marriage. My faith requires that I marry and have children, so that my daughter may become high priestess after me. And my political position requires that I make a strategic alliance that will secure Alamut's protection."
He seemed to have moved closer without her realizing it. "Is that all you want, Tamina?"
There it was again, that way he said her name that felt more intimate than a touch. And she had to admit, she appreciated him asking. No one ever asked. So perhaps that was why she admitted what she did next. "I've long known I might have to make a political marriage," she said, looking down because she couldn't meet those piercing blue eyes any longer. "But despite my position and duties, I still want the same things anyone would want. So I have long hoped that the match I would have to make might eventually come to be more than simply . . . strategic."
She was still not looking at him, but when he spoke, she could hear the smile in his voice. "You want to be loved?"
She shifted uncomfortably and said nothing.
He pressed on. "And your gods would allow that of their high priestess?"
A smile touched her face. "Yes, they would allow that. My parents were deeply in love. They had been betrothed from a young age, and grew up knowing each other, so it was easy for them to fall in love."
"And you want that?"
"Good," he said simply. "I love you."
That was what finally made her turn and face him. "How?" she demanded. "How can you possibly? After knowing me so short a time?"
He gave her a lopsided smile that, she had to admit, she found rather adorable. "Didn't you tell me in that garden to be open to the idea of destiny? Maybe you and I are each other's. Maybe we're meant to be together. All I know is, from . . ." and he seemed to hesitate slightly. "From nearly the first moment I met you, I knew I wanted you and no other."
She couldn't say the same thing about him, but she could admit that having him so close, having him look at her like that, made her pulse accelerate.
He hesitated, maybe waiting for her reply, but none was forthcoming. So he carefully asked, "What are you thinking?"
"I think you might be crazy." She paused. "But perhaps I am as well, because I think I might believe you. That you really do love me, for some reason."
He grinned broadly, almost blindingly, and she was quick to cut in before he got too pleased. "This doesn't change that your army invaded my city and killed my people. This doesn't change that I don't know you."
But he would not be swayed; he turned and took her hands in his. "Then I will fix that. Persia will pay reparations, help with reconstruction efforts, and keep our own guards around your city until your forces are back on their feet. You will see how sorry we are. You will see that we are doing everything in our power to make it right."
She couldn't tear her eyes away from their joined hands—her tiny, pale, smooth ones in his large, tanned, chapped ones. She had never touched a man like this before. "And the other thing?" she asked, a bit distracted by the feeling of his skin on hers.
He hesitated, then smiled. "I will convince you to love me like I love you."
His self-certainty made her want to roll her eyes. "How do you intend to do that?"
"I will court you," he said. "The way people do when they're not royals. I'll bring you gifts and take you on moonlit walks."
It sounded overly sentimental. It sounded like a poor use of her time. It sounded . . . nice.
He went on. "We'll go in there and finish the marriage negotiations but not sign them. And you don't have to sign them until you want to. Unless you want to. And I will sweep you off your feet until you do want to." The man was impossible. Impossible to believe, she meant—this royal prince who wouldn't marry a princess he was betrothed to unless he was sure it was what she wanted. Impossible. Unexpected. But not unwelcome.
"All right, I agree to your terms," she finally said, fighting a smile. "And in that case, we really should rejoin your brothers." She stood from the bench and dusted off her white dress, and Dastan offered her his arm to walk back down the hall. He was a comfortingly solid presence, warm and alive and strangely compelling. And she found herself adding, "Allow me to give you a hint to get started, Prince Dastan: I enjoy music."
He looked over at her, surprised, and then a happy light came into his eyes. "Understood, Tamina."
And the prince and the princess both smiled.