She’s standing outside the air station.
Her bird’s nest hair is chopped just above her sharp chin, her bangs uneven and with no real sense of direction. She has a dagger belted to her side, easily accessible for the seedy back-alley moments street urchins are subject to.
She’s just a girl. Plain, dirty. I have treaties to think of, and wars, and the princes who would be my suitors. My eyes should pass through her as if she were a ghost.
She’s not a ghost. She’s a sweaty desert Goddess and I can’t look away.
A toothpick hangs from her mouth. Her teeth are white and all intact, to my surprise.
She probably drinks men under the table, grasping the glass with dirt-stained hands and only crescents left of her chewed off nails, and drinks until she can’t see, or walk, or speak. She stumbles out the back door and onto the streets, cursing anyone who dares cut their eyes at her.
She doesn’t know what it’s like to have courtiers and advisors with eyes sharp as knives constantly stabbing her, keeping her in line.
The hot, dusty city unfolds before her as she walks, working off the beer. She sobers up as she trails the maze of barren streets with drying clothes hung up like gonfalons. There’s a boy with tanned skin and sun-bleached hair waiting for her—a boy who doesn’t mind the fermented wheat taste of her breath. He doesn’t mind the sweat dewing on her skin, or the dirt that catches in her callouses. He loves the curses that fall from her mouth and the torn and ratty clothes she wears because she can afford no others.
They don’t care if someone catches them as he presses her against the brick and adobe walls. They ignore the children who giggle and point on the balconies above.
My body aches for her threadbare trousers. I’m shackled by expensive silk that refuses to stretch, heavy velvet that clings to my damp skin, the hot fur of some poor animal wrapped around my throat.
My lady-in-waiting dabs at me and my muscles tense with the desire to swat her away. Her constant dabbing is demeaning, embarrassing. Perspiration would prove I am human too; that underneath my makeup I am that girl, only richer, cleaner, and lonelier. And we cannot have that, can we?
I know what my fate is. I am bargaining material. One day my father will negotiate the price of my body with some middle-aged king who, no doubt, will beat me if I dare have an opinion. The poor, sweet desert rose trampled under yet another overbearing man, just like my mother.
He will sign my life away easier than he would sign a tax decree.
My lady-in-waiting tells me it isn’t my fate to meet a boy with sun-kissed skin, to have a man look at me with stars glinting in his eyes instead of coins. She says I shouldn’t think of bars and beer, or wander the plain, yet enchanting tangle of streets. Such things are a waste of time.
“Princess,” the guard says gently, prodding me forward with his hand at the small of my back. “We must go.”
She doesn’t know there is a cloak packed away among my things, hidden beneath the frocks and corsets. There is a knife at my side too, stolen from its case in my father’s sitting room. The stable boy gave me a rope, just long enough to reach the ground from my balcony.I don’t believe in fate.