I’ve included the first chapter below for anyone who is curious about the book. Enjoy reading!
Chapter One: Present Day
Ashes. If the world is ashes, I am a fire, slowly consuming the earth until I run out of flame.
Al-Ahmar and I blaze a trail through the desert of Sahrahn, the sultanate of Haya-Maa looming in the distance. My stallion brays a battle cry and I push him faster, over the ocean of sand and towards the largest dune, which is our goal. Zahid and Aalee are behind us, though not as far behind as I would like. He has chased me once before through these dunes, but now it is his pride at stake, and not my life.
I let out a proud laugh. Faster and faster I urge my stallion, and soon not even Zahid is in my mind’s eye, nor Haya-Maa. There is nothing but a vast spread of sand and sky. I am a champion. I am the queen that has conquered the warlord Quasim, the man it was said no one could defeat. But I am not the average person, as Zahid has made sure to remind me many times. I am Queen Bennua, ruler of Haya-Maa, and now I soar above the desert as if I am ruler above all.
There is a small dip in the ground and Ahmar jumps, soaring through the air. Time seems suspended for us both and we hover there, breathless, before he comes crashing back down with hooves made of diamond and stone. I glance behind me and Aalee is far away, struggling to keep up. It seems impossible, but Ahmar has grown even faster in the past few months. Since I’ve turned eighteen, I’ve made it a habit to take him out and run him as much as possible.
I come to a halt at the top of the dune and Ahmar rears on his back legs, whinnying out a victory. I raise a hand and let out a wild cry, feeling like the pharaohs of old. No matter how many times Zahid races me, I always win.
My future husband comes trotting up the dune, looking winded. Although it was Aalee who did all the running, he’s gasping for air. He shakes his long bangs out of his shimmering, mischievous eyes, throwing a side glance at me. One stare from him makes me lose my own bearings. Even though we’ve been engaged for quite some time now, nearly six months, Zahid never fails to take my breath away.
“I don’t understand why I even try,” he says, laughing as he brings Aalee to my side. “Your stallion rides upon the wind.”
“Because you will never give up,” I say playfully. A small gust of wind rises up and Zahid and I turn to oversee our kingdom, the beautiful sultanate we have built together. Things are coming together surprisingly quickly, for a realm being ruled by a woman. It practically glistens in the sunlight. Things are close to being back to normal since Quasim’s raid on the palace a few months ago.
The cry of a noble bird rings high above me. I look up. There is that same black falcon soaring through the clouds, the one I always see each time I come outside the palace to ride. My mouth rises up into the smallest of smirks.
“Bennua,” Zahid says, already knowing what I’m going to do. “Don’t chase after impossible things.”
I’m off before he has the chance to stop me. The falcon, almost on cue, takes off. I chase after it, longing to defeat the creature of the wind and air. I am Bennua, Queen of Haya-Maa and defender of the weak. I do not slow for those who stand in my path. I journey into lands both political and adventurous where no one has gone before. I am not afraid to be brave and reckless.
Ahmar and I nearly catch up to the falcon before the bird puts on a burst of speed and leaves us trailing behind. I slow Ahmar up, coming to a gentle walk as my stallion breathes heavily through his nostrils. He wants to catch the falcon as much as I, I’m sure. It is only a matter of time until we do.
Zahid comes jogging up to me on Aalee, shaking his head. “There you are again, acting like you’ve lost your head in the warm desert sun. Not even the great Queen of Haya-Maa can defeat the sky, Bennua.”
“One day Ahmar and I will race with the falcon and we will win,” I tell him. “And I’ll make sure that you’ll be there to see it, to deflate your big head.” I take a cheerful swat at him and he ducks, giving me a sheepish grin.
“Careful now, my Queen. I taught you that,” he says coyly. “And as hard as it is to believe, I am wondering if you are not growing just as big a head as I.”
“That would be impossible,” I laugh, turning Ahmar towards Haya-Maa at a casual walk. “Why should I not be proud? Our sultanate is becoming the most powerful in the land. With the bond between Ashana and our borders, abundance flows. Our trade route is booming. All of the sultans of the Sahrahn wish to barter with us.”
“Due to the changes you’ve implemented, I might add,” Zahid says.
“That wasn’t all my doing. You had much to do with the economic decisions,” I tell him. “Your idea to turn the area around the small river into a farming community was ingenious. Haya-Maa is known the world over now for our precious fruits, and now that Ashana is finally beginning to turn out silks the industry there is booming as well. Royals are practically throwing coins at us to get a rare taste of our delicacies.” I give a little laugh.
In only a little while, Zahid’s ideas to turn Haya-Maa and Ashana into trading countries has made both of our kingdoms into two of the richest cities Sahrahn has to offer. There is little to worry about lately, which is miraculous in itself. I had been wary about making Zahid sultan due to his loathe for power and attention, but even though he hasn’t been declared sultan yet, he’s the best ruler Sahrahn has ever seen. He’s has good ideas, and Haya-Maa and Ashana are flourishing because of them. If being a ruler is this easy, I’m sure I can convince Zahid to stay sultan forever.
“We might be rolling in money, but I believe that you have done the real work,” Zahid says.
I wave a hand. “I did what was needed. All of our children should be educated, and all women should choose for themselves the veil or not. I feed the hungry and have instructed that the Onaari is open for everyone to read. These are basic rights that all people should have. If all of us are well fed and well taught, we shall be the most powerful nation in the world.”
“I believe we already are,” Zahid says, taking my hand lightly and giving it a kiss. He leans over to whisper in my ear. “Though I believe it would be better if the Queen were to remove her veil, and let all the world see for itself that she defies the ancient laws that have no place in our kingdom.”
I blush, even though there is no one around to see. We might be engaged, but it would still be a scandal if anyone caught Zahid and I being affectionate, even out in the middle of this desert. Zahid is always nagging me to take my veil off, but I always ignore him. I feel naked without it around my hair, so this is one command from the future sultan that must be left unnoticed.
Zahid catches my bashfulness and says, “What’s wrong, my Queen? Afraid that someone will see us holding hands in this barren landscape?”
“Hush now, and behave,” I tell him sternly, though I can’t keep a small giggle out of my voice. “Royals don’t act this way.”
“I think you’re forgetting that I am the Raider Prince, and you are the Queen of Haya-Maa. We make the rules now, my dear.” He leaps off his horse and tackles me to the ground, rolling so he takes most the hit. I laugh and Zahid wrestles playfully in the sand with me, pinning me down.
“What is this?” he says, swishing his hair out of his eyes. “A betrayal? It’s the dashing Raider Prince, here to steal our dear Queen away from the city so he can take her all for himself!”
“You’ve already done that once,” I remind him, chuckling.
“Shh!” he insists. “I’m in half a mind to throw you on the back of Aalee, leave this city behind and hide you in a small shack on the corner of the ocean, simply so I won’t have to share.” He then leans very closely, so his lips graze mine. His voice sinks down into a whisper. “Or perhaps I will take you here in the sand, as I wish.”
I try not to tremble. I don’t want him to let him know he has me.
“What must I do to avoid such a terrible fate?” I say, voice wobbling.
“I will let you go, beauty of Sahrahn, if you promise me one thing,” he says.
“Oh anything, great Raider Prince,” I laugh, rolling my eyes and playing along.
His eyes lock onto mine. “Tell me that you will love me until I am old with silver in my hair, until Sahrahn is a land devoured in fire. Tell me that we will be as one, together, always. That is my only wish.”
I am so in love with him. I count myself lucky that I am able to marry a man I love. Only a year ago I was destined to marry the most vicious and cruel man alive. Zahid is such a blessing, the treasure of my life. I am determined never to let him go. “I will be yours if you will be mine,” I say, raising my fingers to caress his cheek. “No other man will ever capture my heart as you have, for you have stolen me away the minute I set eyes on you.”
He leans down to give me a kiss, stroking back my hair. “That was certainly more than what I was hoping for.”
“Was it?” I say, getting up off the sand and mounting Ahmar and heading back to the city. “And why was that spectacle necessary for me to proclaim my love to you?”
“I wanted to hear you say it,” he says, leaping onto Aalee. “And I know it would be impossible to convince you otherwise.”
“I would cry your name from the tops of mountains, if only you would hear it,” I tell him gently. “You know I am not a woman who opens her heart to everyone. This is my promise.”
We enter the gates of Haya-Maa, and no one bats an eye. Zahid and I wander out into the desert disguised as commoners more often than we should. It is a wonder no one has recognized Ahmar’s splendor, but we come and go at times when the city is quiet. We leave our horses at the stables and then continue up to our rooms, looking forward to a bath after being covered in sand.
“Where have you been?” The screechy voice of my mother echoes throughout the hall and I suppress a groan as I see her, staring tight-lipped at Zahid and I. My mother doesn’t approve of us wandering about unsupervised and alone, but what can she do? I am the Queen.
“We were out riding the horses,” I say. “Ahmar is restless, being cooped up in the stables at all hours of the day while I am in council meetings.”
“Then let the servants ride him. Queens should not be frolicking about in the desert, their hair all tangled and looking poorer than a beggar!” She gestures to me and my dirty clothes.
“Yes, Mother, but I am no ordinary Queen,” I tell her with a sigh.
“I am well aware.” She turns to Zahid. “And you! Breaking tradition, by seeing your bride on the day before your wedding! Shoo, shoo!” She waves at Zahid as if he is a pesky fly, and not the future sultan of our country.
“Of course,” he says, nodding to her and giving a little bow. My mother turns away to head into my room, grumbling all the way. I let out a huffy sigh. She never fails to try my patience.
“I love you most with your skin full of sand and the sun in your hair,” Zahid says, kissing me lightly on the side of the cheek before anyone sees. “Don’t let yourself forget that in the presence of your mother.”
“I won’t,” I say lightly. “And you don’t forget we have a council meeting tonight.”
Zahid grimaces. “I will remember.”
He then walks away. As much as I am with Zahid, all hours of the day, it is exhausting when I am without him. When he is gone you might as well have removed my stomach, or my liver, or another one of my organs. I am not as fully formed as I should be without him. It will be wonderful when we are finally married. I follow my mother into my room, where my sisters are sulking about and complaining as usual.
“Get off that!” Mother cries, waving my cat Jalal away from my wedding dress. It is the same one I was meant to marry Quasim in, although this time it has been altered so it fits me properly. The pink and the green colors are coming together this time instead of clashing horribly. It will make me look pretty tomorrow.
As I gaze at it, a strange thought pops into my head. The time has come. Tomorrow, I will marry Zahid.
“Bennua,” Jabirah snaps. “Have you looked at any potential suitors for me yet? Many have come calling!”
I hesitate to snap at her. My sisters haven’t stopped annoying me to find them new husbands ever since theirs died in the raid on Haya-Maa. It’s obvious none of their previous suitors have gone missed.
“I will find you all new husbands when I am done marrying mine,” I say, taking a brush and combing out my tangled mess of hair. “Please do not ask me again. I cannot make men fall from the sky.”
“Does Zahid have a brother?” Istilah says dreamily from the window, looking at the clouds and playing with a scrap of fabric absentmindedly.
“As far as I know, he’s an only child.” Istilah has taken too much of a liking to Zahid. I’m not jealous, as I know Zahid would never stray, but I sometimes wish that my future husband was a little less handsome. I’ve found more than one lady eyeing him in the palace as he struts by in that arrogant way of his. I’ve been taken by it myself, more than once.
“Bennua won’t find suitors for us until we’re old and withered away,” Pottina says, fanning herself while she lies by the window. “All my beauty will be wasted for nothing.”
As un-Queenlike as it is, I really want to throw something at her. Pottina has such a big head from being the prettiest sister. With her double chin, thick thighs and large, round stomach, she’s the center of attention every time a man comes to court. She’s the perfect picture of a woman of Sahrahn, voluptuous and divine. After all, men like large women. It shows they have wealth to spare.
When I was little I prayed I would turn out heavy like her so others would call me beautiful, and I ate as much as I could to speed along the process, but I never gained any weight. It’s one of the reasons it took so long for my father to find a willing groom to marry me. Pottina had dozens of marriage offers the minute she turned thirteen. With my flat stomach and my thin figure, it’s a wonder that Zahid finds me attractive at all.
Ah, well. Alshams cannot make us all beautiful, I suppose.
“Hurry up and change,” Mother says. “The council is waiting for you.”
My maidservant Nuri bustles about, bringing out a new dress for me to wear as well as a fancy veil. Not for the first time, I’m grateful to have her. She’s saved me more than once in the past few weeks from public humiliation, after I’ve nearly run out the door with my hair a mess or my dress rumpled.
As I watch Nuri skim around the room like a bird drifting over a small fire, I’m once again astonished at how much we look alike. We are the same age, and are so similar in facial features that when I’m looking directly at her it appears that I’m gazing into a mirror. She has the same brown, slanted eyes that I do, same tan skin and long, dark hair. It would be easy to mistake us for identical twins.
Nuri came to us a few months ago. A group of servants found her wandering the streets of Haya-Maa, out of her mind, with no recollection of who she was or how she got here. She looks so much like me they brought her back to the palace, thinking I was her. Needless to say, it was a very confusing situation for everyone when two of me were running throughout the palace. But the situation soon righted itself when Nuri and I came face to face. Although she was lost and confused, she gave us no hardship. She was so grateful we had taken her in, she performed all her servant duties exceptionally well. I gave her the name Nuri, meaning “light” or “little fire,” because she was such a light to me, a small, shimmering fire that brightened up the palace whenever she was in my presence. I quickly promoted Nuri within a few days, giving her the job of being my personal maidservant.
Our identical features have proved useful more than once. I’ve disguised her many times in my own clothes when I want to go out amongst the people and need the council to believe that I’m in the palace. As well as a wonderful maid, she’s an excellent body double.
As of yet, she hasn’t recovered her past. We’ve tried encouraging her to think about where she came from, but her mind is empty. I hope she remembers someday. But for now, she seems happy to serve me, so I won’t pressure her into creating memories that do not exist.
I stride into the council room a little while later after leaving Nuri behind, scanning the various faces around me. I hate being in here, as this was the room my father died in, but I have no choice. This is where business must be done. I look around the council room but find that Zahid isn’t there. I suppress an aggravated hiss. He has a habit of skipping out on these things. I know how much he hates diplomacy, but for as much as he despises politics, he’s good at them. It would be nice of him to at least make an appearance, instead of leaving me to deliver our decrees to the council alone.
Hashna gives me a smile. Most of the councilmen look pleased, and why wouldn’t they be? Things have been going spectacularly, far better than they were under Father’s rule.
But I can tell that not everyone’s happy. Despite our overflowing coffers, not all of Haya-Maa has been thrilled with the changes implemented. There are some rebel groups in the districts that have banded together to refuse my rule. The council had an uproar when I demanded that the Onaari be open for everyone to read, and they insisted I had lost my mind when I made the veil optional, but with Zahid and Ashana backing me up they had no other choice. The rebel groups hate that I am putting education and food into the hands of some of our most underprivileged people, especially women. It has only gone to show that, to some people, a girl with a book is the most terrifying thing in the world.
It does not matter. Whatever cannot be satisfied with personal belief can be satisfied with coin, and I have made my council members very rich through our booming economy. Despite their morals, they’re more than willing to turn a blind eye when the treasury is involved.
“My Queen,” Yousef starts. “We hate to bring you bad news on the eve of your wedding, but the rebel groups are getting stronger.”
“They are gaining strength on the south side of the city,” Halil adds. “It will only be a matter of time before they advance on the palace.”
Yousef and Halil hope their words will be unsettling, I know. Their petty attempt to rattle my emotions does not bother me. I am sure both of them are involved with the rebel groups, and are probably leading them from the inside.
Out of all the people in Haya-Maa, these two have profited the most from uneducated people, as both of them have tricked individuals to build houses for their construction business, without paying them later. Yousef refuses to let his daughter learn to read, and Halil has his wife locked up at all times of the day. They both are unintelligent with anything that doesn’t come to coin, and think too highly of themselves. Somehow I’ll get them off the council, even if I have to banish them for a small reason. I don’t trust them. I know they do not have the minds of the people at heart.
“You have received more death threats, my Queen. From many peasants under your rule, and some other kingdoms,” Yousef adds. “They are asking that you surrender your throne, or be put to the sword.”
“My father received many death threats in his time, I’m sure,” I say with a small laugh. “I’m not going to relinquish the throne simply because a few stubborn commoners and foreign kings whine about my place on it.”
“But my Queen, the rebels...”
“I do not concern myself with a few rebels. Let us get on with it,” I say, sitting up straight so neither of them dares to question me again. Yousef and Halil appear insulted, though they don’t say anything.
Good. It’s about time they learned their place and stopped badgering me. People have threatened, and even tried to kill me before. It is nothing new, so I’m not bothered by it. If any of them plan to assassinate me, I welcome them to walk into the palace and try. I can defend myself well enough with a sword.
Throughout the meeting, I keep hoping for Zahid to show. He never does.
I don’t understand why there needs to be a pre-wedding feast, as there will be one the next day, but I let my mother have her day. She’s been far too lonely since Father died. Planning all these weddings for me and my sisters will be the only thing keeping him off her mind.
I miss Father. I miss my brother, Bashur. I miss both of them being around the palace and around me. I’ve been so busy ruling the sultanate and preparing for my wedding that I don’t have any time to grieve. But when I do, my pain hits me like a sandstorm rising over a dune. Even though my father thought me silly, I still loved him dearly. It has been hard, learning how to rule without him to guide me, or my brother to help me, as he was the one who was being taught to take the throne.
But I suppose if either one of them were alive I wouldn’t be Queen today, so here we are.
I notice Zahid flitting around the dining hall and talking to people during the feast. I should be, too, but I feel far too tired to make small talk. Taming the council proved to be a monumental task without Zahid’s help, as usual.
I leave the feast as early as I can without appearing rude and trek up to my bedroom. I don my nightgown and Jalal rubs against my legs, purring. I pet him gently and look out my window. For as tired as I am, I can’t sleep. Thoughts of everything that could go wrong with my sultanate go rushing through my head. I know everything is going well. However, that could all end tomorrow with a single flip of a coin, and I am the first woman in Sahrahn to actually rule. I want to pave a secure path so other women can come into power later down the line. If I fail, they’ll never let another woman be Queen again. I know that for certain.
The garden my mother planted looks lovely under the moonlight. A quick walk around it should be enough to calm my nerves.
As I walk amongst the plants, I see a silhouette in the distance. Zahid is leaning casually against a stone wall, lounging back and looking at the stars. I take a minute to observe him. He is such a handsome man. I love the way his hair falls into his eyes, the way his muscles peek out from his shirt. I look up and down his form, which is strong and sturdy. He’s so very young. You wouldn’t think it, the way he commands everyone’s attention, but the Raider Prince still has much to learn about life.
Even so, I think he knows a little more than me. Maybe it’s a good thing that two young people who haven’t been ruined yet by the world are running a kingdom. It hasn’t been done before, but so far, it’s worked out in everyone’s favor.
He sees me coming before I’ve stopped appreciating him, though I can’t fool myself. I could stand here forever gazing at his beauty. “Bennua,” he says, shifting. “I thought you’d be in bed.”
“I’m rarely in bed these days,” I say, giving a light chuckle. “What about you?”
“I thought I would enjoy my last night as a single man,” he says with that cocky, self-assured smile.
“So you are enjoying your last night as a bachelor, alone on the roof and looking at stars?” I say humorously. “I would suspect you would be chasing after maids in some harem.”
“Why would I need to flatter maids when I have the most dazzling Queen in all the world to call my bride?” Zahid says.
My heart flutters a little before it drops in my chest. As much as I hate to admit it, I am frightened. Not of the rebels or my council, but of Zahid. He’s the only one that can truly hurt me.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” I ask with slight hesitation. “You can still leave, if you wish...”
“Bennua,” Zahid says, and he puts a finger underneath my chin, raising my eyes to gaze into his own. “I’m staying.”
“I want you to know that if you want to go back home, you can. To Ashana,” I protest.
“This is my home. You over think things, Bennua. If your thoughts were sand, Sahrahn itself wouldn’t be able to hold all the grains.” He gives me a kiss on the forehead. “Our wedding will be beautiful. I would never marry a woman I wasn’t absolutely enchanted with. If I hadn’t had a good enough reason to steal you away when I heard Quasim was going to marry you, I would have done so anyway for your beautiful soul. You have a kind and gentle spirit. That more than anything has caused me to fall in love with you, as your people have.”
My anger at him dissolves. I know I should be furious with him for skipping out on the council meeting, but what can I do? Zahid is a free creature. I can’t keep him locked inside a room with a bunch of stuffy old men who will protest everything he says, who will beat him down and reinforce his beliefs of those in power being cruel.
I am the one who will enforce his ideas. I am a powerful ruler myself. I must have faith in me.
“I will be the happiest man in the world to make you my wife tomorrow,” he says, and he leans down to give me a kiss. “For the rest of my days, and whatever comes after, I want you by my side. I promise that.”
“I promise that, too.” Our hands slowly drop as he drifts away, heading for bed. I watch him go. I am unsure what I have done to deserve such a wonderful man, one who respects me and believes in what I need to do.
As he leaves me, I’m struck with a sudden thought. Zahid and I have snuck across the halls at night to sleep in each other’s beds, but we have never lay with each other. The farthest we have ever gone is kissing deeply in Ashana, spending the night together holding hands in the garden where his mother was buried. I was too afraid to go beyond that.
The sultanate needs heirs, someone to lead if something were to happen to Zahid and I. Zahid probably wants sons. If I’m his wife, I’m the one who has to bear them.
Everyone expects that after tomorrow, I will no longer be a virgin. That thought terrifies me.
...Do I want to give my virginity to Zahid?
Yes. I know that more than anything, I want him to be the one to do it. Yet I’m scared, as silly as it sounds. I know it will hurt, but that’s not what frightens me. I’m afraid that once I consummate the marriage, I will change.
Or worse, Zahid will change. He won’t want me anymore.
I shake my head. Do I really think so little of him? He’s not that type of man. Zahid loves me. But I’m also sure he’s had more than his fair share of women as well. What if I fail him in some way? I don’t know what to do. My parents certainly never discussed things with me, and my sisters simply giggled when I asked how it worked. I know the mechanics, of course, but there aren’t exactly books on the subject I could read. Even if there were, my father would have banned them from the sultanate long ago. Finding them now would be impossible.
Alshams help me. I want Toshana. She is who I really need. She would know what to tell me. At the same time, I don’t even know who Toshana is. Not really. Ever since she left that pile of ashes and the red feather in my room, I have been confused about everything.
I know she is Alshams. There is no doubt in my mind that she is the phoenix god. I don’t understand why, or how. The Onaari never mentioned anything about Alshams being a woman. I’ve talked to Zahid about it, but unbeliever that he is he won’t admit anything.
He believes Toshana is Alshams as well, I know it, however he will not say it aloud. He hasn’t told me this, but I know him well enough to understand that he is afraid. If Toshana is the phoenix god, he is scared she was judging him on everything he said and did while they traveled together for so long.
I know Toshana better than that. I love Alshams with all my heart, just as much or maybe even more than I love Zahid. And I love Toshana. Somehow, it’s all connected.
She’s just not here to make the connection clear to me.
I let out a great sigh. Alshams, hear my prayer, I think silently. Please help me tomorrow.
She can’t talk to me, but I can talk to her. Somewhere, I know she hears me.