by for LM.
Hassana's job was at once the simplest and most difficult one you might imagine. Most of her days were spent in continual refinement - of her figure, her charm, and her skills. The first two were a chore to be endured - her diet and physical strain constantly adjusted to maintain the ideal frame, her conversation and charm tested endlessly, teased out so that every little flaw of character, every tiny imperfection, might be flushed out before the next performance. The third, however, was a particular pleasure of hers - song and dance, poetry and historic tales. Singing of great heroes as she lost herself within the fine details of her playing - half-notes, fourths, sixteenths - Hassana would dream of times long since past, dreams so vivid they could have been recollections; she sometimes wondered if they weren't, but Hasan would ever be there to remind her that paradise was the only destination one could hope for after death. Having no argument, Hassana would meekly bow her head and murmur some agreement.
She was named after him, of course. Hasan bin Sabbah, the great king in the shadows, had found her in an orphanage when she was six years old; struck by her unusual eyes and the mark on her cheek, he had adopted her at once. She was formally named in his honor, but only others ever used that name; her father had nicknamed her al-Zarqa, the blue-eyed girl - and, despite her later protests that her eyes were actually gray, referred to her by only her nickname since that time.
That was the difficult part of her job, but also the most important, the purpose and culmination of all their rigorous training. Her father was a devout and disciplined man, but not above manipulation and trickery for a greater cause. It was for such a cause that Hassana and her fellow virgins had been brought and trained, deceptive though it was to pretend as they did.
The cause in Paradise was loyalty unto death; new recruits would be drugged and brought to the grounds unconscious, while all was prepared around them. Servants polished the marble floor, scattered fresh flower petals in the gardens and the fountains, and sweet draughts of alcohol - strictly forbidden for devout Muslims - were prepared and brought out on great serving trays. Lanterns were lit, exotic delicacies and fragrant sweets were prepared, and the virgins of Paradise dressed and decided upon the order of events - who would play, who would sing, who would dance, how they would distribute themselves throughout the palace, and all the other nuances that needed to be perfectly coordinated throughout the evening.
When the men awoke, the virgins would overwhelm them with perfection and luxury. They plied them with liquor, fed them all the delicacies prepared by the cooks, performed for them, charmed and seduced them. After a few days of this treatment, they would again be drugged and returned to Hasan. "You have seen Paradise," he would say to them as they awoke, "and you will return there one day - but you must serve as my knife in the shadows until your death if you would gain God's favor once again." And who could say no, having tasted such delights? Hasan bin Sabah's spies and killers - the Hasanin, or Hasasin, as some called them in his name - were feared as much for their secrecy and determination as for their actual killings; and their unwavering loyalty, owing to their desire for Paradise, ensured that no information, no secrets, would ever reach the ears of the people to tarnish their legend.
One such night was approaching, and Hassana sat in her chamber, making herself ready, as dozens of other girls and boys were doing in theirs. Having bathed and perfumed herself and then combed out her long, dark hair, she selected her finest rida: a gauzy, sky blue silk veil with intricate gold embroidery around the edges, and gold jewelry to match. Taking a deep breath, she stood up and moved to the door of her room, running into her father in the process.
"Father?" she inquired. "Is something wrong? I was about to go to the courtyard to await the arrivals."
There was a mixed expression on his face as he spoke that Hassana could not interpret; she tried not to show her trepidation. "You will not be participating in this evening's festivities, al-Zarqa. I have another plan for you this time. I was just coming to get you now." He hesitated before continuing, only increasing Hassana's anxiety. "Come with me now... Daughter."
Hassana swallowed hard; he only referred to her as daughter when something serious was happening. Still, she nodded obediently and followed as Hasan led her out the door and through the palace, toward one of its many reception halls - one that would not be used this evening, it seemed.
"...Father?" she ventured once again as they reached the door to the hall, hoping for some bit of knowledge that would ease her anxiety. Her voice trembled.
Hasan's expression softened a bit. "Do not fear. My plan for your future, I believe, will be greatly desired by you as well. Behind this door awaits a stranger from afar - he comes tonight to meet you, and if you please him, he will take you for his bride."
Hassana felt her face heating as the blood rushed to her cheeks. "What do you mean he-" she began incredulously, but he silenced her.
"I know this comes as a surprise to you, but I have known this man for some time now, and he is good and true. I spoke to him once of your beauty, and you seem to have won his heart already. Go now and see him - obey your father."
Overwhelmed, Hassana felt hot tears at the corners of her eyes. She stared at her father for what felt like an eternity, before bowing her head obediently once more and moving to the door.
As her hand reached for the handle, Hasan suddenly grabbed it and pulled it away. "Hassana..." he lowered his voice. "I want you to pay every respect to this man, and obey my wish, but... if you really feel... well... we can... make other arrangements if necessary."
He was back in his original position as quickly as he had shifted, but Hassana couldn't help but smile a little. She knew enough from her education that not many daughters were afforded such a choice, and she resolved to be brave and trust his judgment. "What is he called, Father?"
"Theodoric. He comes from the West."
She nodded. "I will go to him now." It was all she could manage.
Self-consciously, she pulled her rida over her face, veiling herself as she entered the room. She found a man, seated calmly on a cushion, dressed in layers of white linen still dusty from the desert sands of his journey. He looked like no man she had seen before - though dark eyes were common enough in Alamut, his hair, the palest yellow, was a strange new sight for Hassana. Nervously, she approached him, sitting demurely opposite the stranger. She wanted to greet him somehow, but all her charm, all her training, suddenly felt false and useless, and she found herself with nothing to say.
Gazing at his face, Hassana felt a sudden twinge of sadness - and something else, something warmer and more comforting. Both feelings confused her as the man began to speak; he had a strange accent, though his understanding of her language seemed perfect.
"Hello Hassana..." he began. "It's a pleasure to... meet you." He spoke haltingly, as though choosing his words very carefully and changing his mind several times. "I am Theodoric. I... have heard many things about you, and perhaps we might... know one another a bit better this evening."
Hassana bit her lip. Why was this suddenly so difficult? How many men had she spoken sweetly to, not even knowing their names? "I could... play for you. I enjoy singing songs." She felt as awkward as she had on her first day of training, her cheeks flushing again.
Theodoric looked almost sympathetic. "Yes. Of course. I would like that very much."
Nervously, she stood and walked to where some instruments remained from some other virgin's recent practice. She selected the oud, her favorite, and returned with it to her seat. She had to clear her throat to calm her nerves, and then she began. She sang him one of her favorites: the song of Layla and Majnun, the star-crossed lovers. She sang of Majnun's great love for Layla, a love so strong that the tribesmen deemed him a lunatic and her father refused the marriage, sending Layla to another man instead. She sang of Majnun's sorrow at their loss, of his departure to live in the wilderness with his memories, and of Layla's death from heartbreak. She slowed when she reached the final verses, Majnun carving verses of his love and staying by Layla's grave until his own death, determined to see her again.
She began to feel strange. Theodoric was gazing at her so intently, his jaw clenched so tightly, that she wondered if she was upsetting him. She almost stumbled through the final verse.
"I pass by these walls, the walls of Layla
And I kiss this wall and that wall
It's not love of the houses that has taken my heart
But of the One who dwells in those houses."
She finished, setting the oud aside, and an uncomfortable silence descended upon them. Hassana felt like there was something important that needed to be said, but she couldn't quite remember what it could be.
"That was beautiful," Theodoric finally ventured in a strained tone. "Thank you."
"Yes... um, that is... well, where do you come from?" she ventured, scolding herself mentally for asking such a silly, inelegant question.
Theodoric smiled. "Many places. Where I was born is a different kingdom now, and so I travel, and I search."
"What is it that you seek?" she asked, surprised by her growing comfort with this conversation.
"I was hoping you could help me with that," he said after a moment's silence. "If I might be so rude as to ask that you lower your veil, I think perhaps we can answer that question together."
Hassana furrowed her brow. What could that have to do with a search? Still, she obeyed, pulling her rida back from her face. Theodoric's eyes searched hers, then flitted elsewhere along her face, but he froze when he saw the birthmark on her cheek, the pink streak that had been there since birth. She wondered if the mark had changed his mind about her beauty, and began to steel herself for the inevitable rejection.
He flew to her side instead, grabbing her shoulders and pulling her to him. Hassana gasped. "It is you," he exhaled. "You, and still alive... I have found you."
And then he kissed her.
She had never felt certainty like this before, except when singing her favorite songs. Although his lips were surprisingly cold, his kiss felt white-hot against her skin, and she found herself unwilling to retreat. A warm haze seemed to cover them both; the kiss grew frantic and feverish, and then subsided to a slow, familiar warmth. Hassana's head began to fill with memories - other places, other times, other lives. She was so many women, so many stories... and he was always there. He was always there... at her death. And yet...
"Theorn," she finally whispered, tears filling her eyes again. She was still confused, the memories still flooding back, disjointed and out of order, but it seemed correct. "You have come. God is great."
He laughed, gently wiping her tears with the cloth of his sleeve. "I have. And we will go together now. I will speak with Hasan immediately." He kissed her again, then stood and started for the door. Theodoric hesitated once along his way, fear crossing his face, and he looked around the hall suspiciously. Finally, seeming satisfied, he glanced at Hassana over his shoulder, speaking once more before leaving. "Wait for me right there. Please."
She nodded as he left, still smiling through her confusion. Her heart was beating like a drum, and she felt a strange new energy thrumming in her body. Everything would be wonderful now, she somehow knew. He would be wonderful, and she would do her best to please him, and it would all come back to her sooner or later, and he would wait patiently, as he had this evening.
A deep, honeyed voice startled her out of her thoughts.
"'Twas sweet the flowing cup to seize,
'Tis sweet thy rage to see;
And first I drink myself to please;
And next - to anger thee."
A woman with everchanging eyes, and hair a deeper black than that of any of the other girls in Alamut, emerged from the shadows of the room as she recited the verse. Her rida was deep purple silk, and her clothing was shorter, fitted more like a man's - a flaw that no one at the palace could ever scold out of her. Hassana recognized her; she was one of the more recent arrivals at the palace, already known as much for her bewitching eyes as her strange talent for words and seemingly infinite knowledge of poetry.
"Mayya? What are you doing here? You should be with the others...?" Hassana had meant for the final declaration to come out as a command, but wavered at the cold, predatory look in the other woman's eyes.
"Ensuring that your little love story ends correctly," Mayya sneered, and then lunged for Hassana with a speed unnatural.
Hassana's skin burned, flowering out from the pain in her neck. Maya had bitten her, but she'd done something else as well, and she reeled as her blood ran down, staining her blue silk crimson. She tried to call out, but her mouth felt numb, and she could feel her throat beginning to tighten already. There must have been poison, she thought in a brief moment of clarity, and then collapsed. Hassana grabbed frantically at Mayya's silken veil, pleading wordlessly for mercy, but she merely stood, silent and still, gazing down at her and waiting.
The doors flew open.
"Maya! not again- please not again..." Theodoric cried, flying to Hassana's side. Her vision was fluttering away, bursting crimson and then fading to black around the edges. She couldn't speak, her breathing becoming ever shallower. Everything seemed to be happening in flashes, and she thought she might be falling in and out of consciousness. Theodoric - no, Theorn, and her memories of him were becoming clearer as her life faded further away from her - was weeping over her now, pulling the needle from her wound, staring at it in his trembling hand. Then he was shaking Hassana, calling out to her in a strange language that she remembered but could not understand. She tried to reach a hand to comfort him, but could not lift it more than a few inches; she was so very sorry that she could not stay, and as her life began to join her other lives, she was sorry for many more such scenes. And angry. So angry. She remembered Maya, too.
"God is great!" Mayya exclaimed from somewhere with a cruel, delighted laugh, and then her voice was gone as well.
His bitter sobbing was the last thing Hassana heard.
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