The following is an excerpt from my novel-in-progress, GARDEN OF THE STARS, a space fantasy that follows two sisters (Nahita and Alaleh) as they search for each other across the breadth of an unforgiving empire.

 

BUKRAH OF THE RIGHTEOUS PATH, NUHR

"Mother Hinda's going to have us whipped," I hissed, as I stumbled along the pitch-black tunnel. Merciful Mar'izad, but it was dark down here. Darker even than the room Fariq used to lock me in. "Are you even listening to me, Yas? Yas!"

"What?" came the muffled reply from up ahead. Burning stars, she wasn't even bothering to keep her voice down.

I rushed to catch up, sandals scraping against the gritty floor of the tunnel. I slowed when the tips of my gloved fingers brushed against the folds of her bandi. "We have to be back before the sunset prayer."

"I know, I know," Yas said, loud enough that I could hear her. Loud enough that the whole bukrah could probably hear her. I couldn't see her face, but I could imagine the look of exasperation.

She knew I hated the dark, yet she'd dragged me down here anyway, promising that whatever lay at the end of this tunnel would be worth the risk of neglecting our duties. Then she'd gone charging ahead, abandoning me to the blackness.

I fumbled for her hand. "Don't leave me."

"Never." She gave my fingers a reassuring squeeze, then pulled me farther into the gloom. How could she even see in this cursed darkness?

The tunnel ended in a steep set of steps. By the time we reached the top, my breath was coming in ragged puffs, the folds of my bandi soaked with sweat. Yas hardly seemed winded. She let go of my hand and pushed open a pair of rotten-smelling wooden doors, letting in the brisk afternoon air, a scatter of pine needles, and a flood of golden light.

"Come on then." She offered me her hand again, hauling me up into a clearing, of sorts. Gray-barked pines towered all around us, standing straight as Imperial soldiers, their spindly branches stretched toward the heavens. Silver mist twisted among the gnarled roots, an icy wind stirring the thin, persistent layer of snow that dusted the ground. Summers on Nuhr were chilly affairs. Yas, however, didn't seem to feel the cold. She tossed her head back, letting her inky hair fall to her shoulders in lazy waves, her headscarf already tucked into the sash of her bandi. Merciful Mar'izad, but she was beautiful.

"Where are we?" I asked. Gooseprickles shivered up my bare arms, the sweat on my clothes already starting to freeze. I hugged myself for warmth. If I'd known we were going outside, I'd have brought my cloak.

Yas rubbed my shoulders and gave me a slow, sweet kiss. "Somewhere no one can find us," she said, when our lips parted.

I shook my head, unable to believe such a thing possible. "What is this place?"

She let go of me and stepped back, so I could see the long, lyrical laugh that followed. If I hadn't known better, I'd say she was mocking me. "You always need to know everything, don't you?" She gave an exaggerated sigh and took my arm, leading me into the trees.

I glanced back at the clearing, where the doors to the underground tunnel lay open and unconcealed, resting on the needle-strewn earth. Without my spectacles, I could only just make out a pair of flowering trees carved into the crumbling wood—one on each door, with a narrow path between. If anyone were to happen upon the opening, they could easily wander into the bukrah unchallenged.

"Shouldn't we…" I began.

"I want to show you something." Yas tugged my arm insistently. I had no choice but to follow, my mouth slowly twitching into a grin, despite my misgivings. I hid it as best I could, not wanting her to see how easily she could win me over.

The trees thinned, and Yas led me to the edge of a low ridge. The buildings of the bukrah lay scattered below us like blocks of type tumbled from a printer's case. I'd never seen them all at once like this. The last time I'd set foot outside the walls had been nearly four years ago, when Mother Hinda first brought me here. And that had been in the dead of night.

The dormitories huddled against the southern wall, while the kitchen, refectory, and infirmary nestled against the west. To the north lay the gardens, and to the east—closest to us—the library, where our little adventure had begun. In the center of it all stood the dignified dome of the mar'bad, and the prayer tower where blind Jabir offered his daily devotions. Ascetics wrapped in crimson bandis and woolen cloaks bustled from one building to the next, eager to finish their duties before the evening meal, so they might have some time for quiet reflection.

ashari empire.png

In the pale sky above the bukrah I glimpsed the sand-streaked crescent of Ashar, seat of the Empire. A constant reminder of the life Mother Hinda had saved me from.

"Well, what do you think?" Yas offered me an impish smile, her eyes the broiling blue of summer storms in Sij.

"It's beautiful," I said, "but…how did you know about the tunnel?"

Yas shrugged. "I read about in one of the histories. It was originally built so ascetics could flee into the forest, should brigands come raiding." These days, with so many of the Empress's soldiers stationed on Nuhr, such measures were supposedly unnecessary.

I folded my arms, as much against the cold as to keep my anger in check. "So, other ascetics could know about this place," I said. "Mother Hinda could know."

This time, Yas's laugh was clearly meant to sting. "No one reads the histories. Least of all Hinda. If it doesn't concern scrubbing floors or mucking out latrines, she doesn't give two shits about it."

I ground my teeth. She was probably right, but it did little to set my mind at ease. We'd been growing careless for weeks now—snatching glances in the refectory, stealing kisses in the courtyard when we thought no one was watching. It couldn't go on. Sooner or later, we'd be caught. What if one of the other ascetics scurrying about down there were to look up at us right now?

Yas seemed to sense what I was thinking. "You worry too much." She took my hand and gently pulled me down beside her onto the snowy grass.

"And you don't worry enough," I said.

I let her unpin my headscarf. I let her kiss me, hair tumbling down around our cheeks. I even let her remove my gloves, and trace the scars snaking across my palms.

I let myself forget, for just a little while.

#

Later, as we lay in the grass—her bandi stretched beneath us, mine draped on top for warmth—I tried to work up the courage to tell her what was in my heart.

"Yas—" The words caught in my throat. How could doing the right thing feel so completely and utterly wrong?

"I'd love to visit Ashar someday," she said, staring up at the bright curve above us, as if I hadn't even spoken. Unlike me, Yas had been born on Nuhr, had lived her entire life here. She'd been sent to the bukrah when she was only twelve, the youngest daughter of third-generation colonists, with no marriage prospects and nothing to offer her parents but another mouth to feed. "To see Sharsahra, the great mar'bad, the Empress's palace…"

"It's not as wonderful as everyone thinks," I said.

Her face darkened. She started to say something, seemed to think better of it, and closed her mouth.

"What?"

Her jaw muscles clenched. "You know what. Why don't you trust me?"

"It's not about you," I said, choosing my words carefully. I didn't want to get drawn into this argument again, especially when there was a much more pressing argument we needed to be having. "I just…I hardly trust anyone."

She rolled onto her side to face me. "How can we have a future together when I don't know a thing about your past? And don't give me that drivel about a mining accident again."

"Yas," I said gently, slipping my bare hand into hers. "I love you. But there is no future for us. Not in the bukrah, anyway. If we're caught—"

Yas pulled away. "For the last time, we're not going to get caught!"

"But if we are—" I pressed.

"What?" Yas snapped. "What's the worst that could happen? Hinda expels us from the bukrah? It's not like they can hang us. Nuhr isn't under Imperial law."

"Not yet," I said, "but laws change. Besides, I like it here."

"What's there to like?" she scoffed. "Every day is eaten up by menial tasks and meaningless devotions. When is there time to write or draw or laugh or love? Why do we have to sneak around like deviants just to find a quiet moment alone?"

I shifted uncomfortably, blades of grass pricking me through the snow-dampened cloth of Yas's bandi. "I like feeling safe," I said, hating that I had to justify my feelings to her.

"Safe from what?"

"There's a whole world—whole worlds—out there you know nothing about." I tried to keep the anger from seeping into my voice. It was easy to forget she'd never known another life than this one. She didn't realize just how good we had it in the bukrah.

"Then tell me!" she implored.

In the distance, I thought I heard a faint screeching sound. Probably an eagle-owl, getting an early start on the night's hunt. Beyond the bukrah, the sun was just starting to sink beneath the trees, bathing the buildings in lavender fire. We had to be getting back.

I screwed my eyes shut, felt a tear streak down the side of my face. Couldn't she see I was trying to protect her? "Another time, Yas. I promise." I turned away, knowing I wouldn't be able to bring myself to say the rest if I had to watch her reaction. "I think…I think we should stop seeing each other, stop sneaking off. Just for a season or two. Then, when the time is right, we'll leave the bukrah on our own terms."

I turned back and opened my eyes, expecting to find her filled with rage. Instead, I only found resignation.

"This is about Hinda, isn't it?"

"Mother Hinda," I said. "And yes, it's about her. I owe her my life."

Yas let out a snort. "What did she ever do for you? Save you from a load of cloaks that needed washing?"

I shook my head. "You judge her too harshly. She's a good woman. If we're going to leave, then I want to make sure I give her the best of me before we do. I want to finish my illumination of Divine Revelations, and a few other projects I've been working on. All I'm asking for is a little more time, and a lot more caution." I cupped her cheek with my hand, the pink scars on my palm livid against her brown skin. "I don't want to lose you, Yas."

She sighed. "I don't want to lose you either." She placed her hand over mine. "Two more seasons?"

"Two more seasons," I promised. "Then we can make a new life for ourselves."

I thought I heard another sound, a haunting melody this time, drifting over to us from the direction of the bukrah. It took me a moment to recognize the opening tones of Jabir's call to prayer. Only then did I notice just how dark it had become.

"Burning stars!" I was on my feet in an instant, hastily wrapping my bandi around me. "If we're quick, we can make it back while everyone's still at prayer, pretend we lost track of time, that we didn't hear the call. Where are my gloves?"

I started back toward the clearing, grabbing clothing as I went. When I realized Yas wasn't following, I stopped and turned to face her.

She stood in the grass, naked as the night, clutching her bandi to her chest, her figure silhouetted by the setting sun and the visible sliver of Ashar in the sky above. She looked so young. So innocent.

"Don't leave me, Nahita." Her words were so soft I could hardly hear them, could barely make out her lips in the fading light.

"Never," I said, slipping back and taking her hand.

Together, we hurried into the trees.