Leaning back onto my hands, I pushed my feet into the cool water. My raw, blistered skin welcomed the relief.
“What do you think they’re doing?” Firoz asked, nudging me with his own submerged foot.
Soldiers from Madinat Almulihi stood across the large pool. I would have assumed they were cooling themselves, too, but the longer I watched, the more I saw that there was a pattern—almost a rhythm—to the way they dipped their hands into the water and pressed it to their brows, wrists, and necks.
“Praying,” a voice said from behind me. A voice so achingly familiar it took all of my strength not to jump from the ground and rush to him.
Slowly, I turned to Saalim.
In our few days of travel, I had come to understand that he and his men behaved differently from my father and his court. It still surprised me that their king—my king—could appear so unlike a royal. His dark sirwal was rolled at his calves, his feet bare. He wore no weapons, and the black tunic across his chest was dust-covered and almost tattered at the edges; the guthra that loosely wrapped his face, equally worn. Had Saalim himself not told me tales of the wealth and allure of Madinat Almulihi, I would not believe that it was a city worth seeing at all.
“Eiqab will strain to hear,” Firoz said.
Saalim looked away from his soldiers down to Firoz. “We worship the giver, not the punisher.”
“Wahir,” I said. How strange it was to see someone praying to the lesser god. How wrong.
Saalim’s gaze met mine.
A rush of cold and hot, longing and desperation, and . . . Sons, how didn’t he feel it? Couldn’t he see me as I saw him? I felt as I had the first time he looked at me after he became human again, when he had killed my father and his eyes locked on mine. I stared back, willing him to feel, to remember as I did . . . the set of his jaw hard beneath my fingers, his lips against my own, his breath warm as I pulled it into my lungs. His hands so careful against my skin, his heart beating against my breast, the tremor of his voice as he said my name.
“Emel, isn’t it?” he asked.
The memories scattered. I bent my head to the ground, not wanting him to see my grimace. He felt nothing, remembered nothing. Sons, he did not know me at all.
Masira was a devious goddess, giving so much but taking as much in return. Damn her magic that she unfurled like a woven rug! Something beautiful to cover all of the ugly scars and secrets, to distract from them. But that was all the magic did, wasn’t it? What it tried to remove, it did so sloppily. Everything still lay underneath the threads.
“Yes, she is Emel,” Firoz said loudly.
I looked back to Saalim, brushing away my thoughts like sand on my palms.
Saalim continued. “Today, you and . . .”
“Firoz,” he said.
Saalim paused at the name, his brow pulling together slightly before he continued.
“Firoz. I am still learning. You both will help with the cook-fires.” Then he turned from us and continued around the water’s edge.
“Well, I at least know food is cooked on a fire. What do you know about cooking?” Firoz chuckled. His mother always cooked for his family, and I had had no business working in the palace kitchens as an ahira.
I forced a laugh as I watched Saalim walk away.
“What bothers you?” Firoz asked.
I shook my head.