Bless this garden that never closes
-Lyrics from 'Tenderloin' by Allen Lanier
Sneaking through the streets like a common thief and taking to the rooftops when blockades and debris rendered them impassible the Prince made his way through the city. Babylon, the home he had abandoned years ago was so achingly familiar and yet so alien that it was hard for him to keep his mind on the here and now. His mental passenger, for he refused to think of it as a part of him despite what it may have claimed, remained silent to better allow him to listen for the sounds of approaching foes and the distant noise of the struggle being waged all around him. This part of the city was abandoned, gutted by fire and relatively safe, yet he could not afford to let his guard down. The vizier's monstrous soldiers still patrolled it, searching for survivors who might organize to fight the invaders.
He had chosen this path not because it was the swiftest way to where he wanted to be, but because it was the most obvious rout to the palace. That was where Farah had said that she was going when they last met and he hoped to intercept her before she arrived. What exactly he hoped to accomplish he had yet to figure out, but he felt the need to say something before they went to face the vizier. After all he had been through the thought of losing her again after so recently rediscovering her was a constant concern.
The by now familiar wind-through-dry-grass hiss started in the back of his mind, accompanied by an almost subliminal sensation of pressure behind his eyes let him know that it was stirring, preparing to say something unhelpful no doubt. Not wanting to invite trouble he chose to ignore it, when it wanted to speak it would, trying to start a conversation would do him no good.
His left arm itched where the bladed chain was embedded in it. The injury itself was starting to heal, if what was happening could be thought of as healing. Where the taint of the Sands had spread rough coal black flesh met smoothly with the metal. Further up, where there was still normal, human skin the bleeding had stopped and the injury had scabbed over, bright flecks of Sand sparkling amidst the dried blood. He supposed that he should be thankful that no mundane infections had set in, but when he pressed his thumb against the lowest segment of the chain and it remained immobile, thoroughly fused to his body as though a part of him, it was impossible not to feel revulsion.
"You worry too much," for once its voice was soothing rather than scornful, "You're letting distractions get in your way."
"Would you rather things be as they were before?" he responded, too ready to argue with it to concede that it may have had a point.
A long silence followed, during which he was certain that he could actually feel it thinking, then the hissing and pressure faded. It had gone back to wherever it was when it chose not to speak and he found his thoughts wandering to new worries. Where did it go when it was silent? Was it lurking in the dark corners of his mind, occupied with its own dark thoughts or was it enviously watching the world through his eyes? Could it read his thoughts while he remained unaware of the workings of its mind?
"While I'll admit that I was more fond of you when you had a sense of purpose and would take action without worrying over every little thing, no, I don't miss the past as you do. To the contrary," it gave a bitter little laugh, "I'd much rather you moved on rather than mooning over what might have been."
It had snuck up on him out of nowhere and he found himself on the defensive, as often happened with it, "You're mad because I'm looking for Farah."
"Hah!" it snorted, "That's one way of looking at it, but it's not her that I'm mad at, it's you. The moment you saw her you lost all conviction. You've idealized her to the point where you can't even think of her as a woman. When she's around you go from being a Prince out to reclaim his right to rule the mightiest empire on earth to acting like some fool boy who has just discovered his manhood and doesn't know what to do with it."
"I do not –"
"No," it cut him off, "You do and you do it all wrong. Let's say you found her right now, what would you do? What can you do?"
It was his turn to fall silent. There was so much that he wanted to tell her, but what could actually say? He remembered her fondly, while she saw him as a stranger and at best tolerated his help with a sort of exasperated patience.
"You see," it laughed, "You have no clue what you're doing. When I tell you to forget about her I mean that you should stop looking to a past that never was as far as she's concerned and try to focus on what she is. Farah is a woman, nothing more and nothing less."
When it was right it was right, not that he would admit that to it, not that it seemed bothered in the least by his silence. It went right on talking, gleefully lecturing him as he made his way through the city streets.
"You keep telling yourself that once you kill the vizier it will all be over, everything will be set right and the world will be good again. Well I have a secret for you Prince, it won't. Things will never be as they were and what you remember is a lie you've told yourself so many times that you believe it. Think back to the circumstances under which you first met Farah and try telling me that those were good times. She was a captive, a prize of war and you were part of the conquering army, triumphant and ready to enjoy all your conquest had earned you to the fullest. You took everything from her Prince, and then you fell in love with her. Now tell me that everything was right then, that you were pure and blameless. Oh you mourn for the halcyon days that never were, what a shame. I would cry for your foolish naïveté if I was able," its voice turned harsh, "Stop deluding yourself and focus on what matters."
"And what matters?" he snapped back, weary of its pretentiousness.
"Killing the vizier and reclaiming your kingdom," it said flatly, "That should be the beginning and ending of your goal. Everything else that happens will be a result of your success or failure at one or the other."
"That's what I'm trying to do,' he growled back at it, taking to the rooftops when a glimpse of movement in an open window caught his attention.
"No Prince, you lie," it said with an air of long suffering patience, "You've added something to that, the notion that things must go back to normal between the first and the second. It's foolish to even try arguing with you so I'll leave you with this to think about: What if it doesn't work that way? I'll be willing to give you the benefit of the doubt and say that everything goes perfectly up until the moment you slay the vizier, but what then? Your city is still in ruins, there's an invading army to contend with and what if the Sands are still there? What if I don't go away? How far back will you have to turn back time to fix that and will you be able to do it if you find Farah tonight? Let's say that you're right and she's in that building up ahead and you go in there and talk to her and win her over. Will you be ready to lose her again to set everything back to what you think of as right? She's left you conflicted, torn, unable to make any decision right or wrong out of fear of consequences that only matter to you. You tell yourself that your goal is to do the right thing, but you can't do it because you don't even know what's right to begin with. No matter what you do Prince, you'll lose."
Having spoken its mind it fell back into silence.
As much as he hated it for lecturing him, he hated it more for being right. He had built his whole plan around a goal that could very easily prove to be impossible and exactly as it had said, he began to worry about that possibility. When survival had been his only goal he had never put himself though so much agonizing over all the things that could happen in the near future. Well, even if he had no desire to follow its advice, now was as good a time as any to start. He would find Farah, talk with her and whatever would happen next would happen.
Settling down in the shadows of an overhang he watched for another glimpse of movement. Before he went ahead and jumped to the next rooftop he wanted to be sure that it was her and not some other survivor hiding from the vizier's monsters. In his current condition taking one of his subjects by surprise could prove dangerous since in the fading light the glow of the Sands emanating from his left arm was increasingly noticeable, especially given how far it had spread. By now it reached well past his elbow and there were places beneath unchanged skin where he thought he would see something shimmering, marking where glowing lesions would soon open.
Concealing his infected arm as best as he was able he waited, his patience eventually rewarded by further movement from inside the building. This time a distinctly female silhouette was revealed, the proportions and attire hinting that it was Farah, especially since as far as he could tell she was alone. No other woman could manage on her own during times like these, or so he told himself. Yet despite his certainty he hesitated, waiting as the shadows deepened before finally dashing from his hiding place and leaping to the next building, the one where Farah waited.
Despite his earlier intentions he found himself hesitating yet again, simply clinging to the window ledge and looking in on her as she slept. What would he say? How could he hope to explain himself? If things went poorly perhaps it was better to savor the moment for a time, memorize every line and curve of her form in case afterwards they parted company for good.
Even in sleep she was not truly at peace, her brow furrowed in a frown and she tossed and turned, her hands clenching and unclenching, grasping for her bow, which lay within easy reach. How he longed to brush back the strand of hair that fell in front of her face, to take her hands in his, to hold her until her restless tossing and turning faded into deep, restful sleep.
Memories of that single night they had together sprang unbidden to his mind and he raged at the unfairness of it all. What he would give for there to be a chance at another night like that.
It was the thought of that night in Azad that finally got him to act. Perhaps he could think of a way to tell Farah what had happened, to convince her that it was real…