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A Thousand Nights
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“A story threaded with shimmering vibrance and beauty, A Thousand Nights will weave its spell over readers’ hearts and leave them captivated long after the final tale has been told.” — Alexandra Bracken, New York Times best-selling author of The Darkest Minds series
A dazzling retelling of Arabian Nights, A THOUSAND NIGHTS is a tale of family, love and power that would not feel out of place if Scheherazade herself were telling it. And maybe she is…
Lo-Melkhiin killed three hundred girls before he came to her village, looking for a wife. When she sees the dust cloud on the horizon, she knows he has arrived. She knows he will want the loveliest girl: her sister. She vows she will not let her be next. And so she is taken in her sister’s place. Night after night, Lo-Melkhiin comes to her and listens to the stories she tells, and day after day she is awoken by the sunrise. Exploring the palace, she begins to unlock years of fear that have tormented and silenced a kingdom. Lo-Melkhiin was not always a cruel ruler. Something went wrong.
Far away, back in their village, her sister is mourning. Through her pain, she calls upon the desert winds, conjuring a subtle unseen magic, and something besides death stirs the air. Then at the palace, the words she speaks to Lo-Melkhiin every night are given a strange life of their own. Little things, at first: a dress from home, a vision of her sister. With each tale she spins, her power grows. Soon she dreams of bigger, more terrible magic: power enough to save a king, if she can put an end to the rule of a monster.
We do not know why we came from the sea to this hard and dusty earth, but we know that we are better than it.
The creatures that live here crawl beneath a crippling sun, eking what living they can from the sand before they are returned to it, as food for the sand-crows or worse. We are not troubled by the sun, and sand is but a source of momentary discomfort to us. We are stronger, hardier, and better suited to life. Yet we struggled here, when first we came.
The humans were many, and we were few. We did not understand them, nor they us, and they feared us for it. They came at us with crude weapons, heavy stone and bright fire, and we found that our blood could stain the sand as easily as theirs could, until we learned to build bodies that did not bleed. We retreated to the desert, away from the oases, to sun-baked places where they could not follow. From there, we watched. And we bided our time.
They died, and we did not. As our lives measured on, we learned more about them. We watched them tame the aurochs and then the horse. We watched them learn to shear the sheep and card the wool. When they spun, we felt the pull of each spindle’s twist, and when they wove, we felt a stirring in our bones.
We coveted the things they made, for though we had nothing but time, we had little inclination to master handiwork ourselves. Always, it was easier to take. And so we took. Weavers we kidnapped and brought to our desert homes. We fed them sand and they thought it a feast, and before they died, they made marvels for us. Coppersmiths we pulled from their beds, and set them to fires so hot they blistered their skin. They crafted baubles and blades before they paid with their lives, and we decorated ourselves with their wares.
When they worked, we found ourselves enlivened; and before long, those youngest of us ventured forth to prey upon other artisans. They returned with strength and power, and necklaces made from the finger bones of those whose hands they used to achieve it.
It was never enough for me.
I craved more.
And one day in the desert, I met a hunter who had strayed beyond the reach of his guard.
And I took.
LO-MELKHIIN KILLED three hundred girls before he came to my village looking for a wife.
She that he chose of us would be a hero. She would give the others life. Lo-Melkhiin would not return to the same village until he had married a girl from every camp, from every town, and from each district inside city walls—for that was the law, struck in desperation though it was. She that he chose would give hope of a future, of love, to those of us who stayed behind.
She would be a smallgod for her own people, certainly, in the time after her leaving. She would go out from us, but we would hold on to a piece of her spirit, and nurture it with the power of our memories. Her name would be whispered with reverent hush around new-built shrines to her honor. The other girls would sing hymns of thanksgiving, light voices carried by the desert winds and scattered over the fine-ground sand. Their parents would bring sweet-water flowers, even in the height of the desert wilt, and pickled gage-root to leave as offerings. She that he chose of us would never be forgotten.
She would still be dead.
Every time, the story began the same way: Lo-Melkhiin picked one girl and took her back to his qasr to be his wife. Some in his keeping lasted one night, some as many as thirty, but in the end all were food for the sand-crows. He went to every corner of the land, into every village and city. Each tribe, every family was at risk. He consumed them the way a careful child eats dates: one at a time, ever searching for the sweetest. In turn, he found none of them to suit.
When he came to my village, I was not afraid for myself. I had been long ago resigned to a life in the shadow of my sister, my elder by ten moons and my year-twin. She was the beauty. I was the spare. Before Lo-Melkhiin’s law, before the terror of his marriage bed reached across the sand like a parched gage-tree reaches for water, I had known that I would marry after my sister, likely to a brother or cousin of her betrothed. She was a prize, but she was also loath to separate herself from me, and it was well known in our village that we came as a pair. I would not be a lesser wife in her household—our father was too powerful for that—but I would wed a lesser man.
“You are not unlovely,” she said to me when we saw the desert burn with the sun of our fourteenth summer, and I knew that it was true.
Our mothers were both beautiful, and our father likewise handsome. From what I could see of my own self, my sister and I were very much alike. We had skin of burnt bronze, a deeper brown than sand, and duskier where it was exposed to the wind and sky. Our hair was long enough to sit upon, and dark: the color around the stars, when night was at its fullest. I had decided the difference must be in our faces, in the shape of our eyes or the slant of our mouths. I knew my sister’s face could take my breath away. I had not ever seen my own. We had little bronze or copper, and the only water was at the bottom of our well.
“I am not you,” I said to her. I was not bitter. She had never made me feel the lesser, and she had only scorn for those who did.
“That is true,” she said. “And men will lack the imagination to see us as separate beings. For that I am sorry.”
“I am not,” I told her, and I was not, “for I love you more than I love the rain.”
“How remarkable,” she said, and laughed, “for you see my face every day and do not tire of it.” And we ran together, sure-footed, across the shifting sand.
We were strong together, carrying the water jar between us to share the weight. Its thick ceramic sides made it heavy, even without the weight of the water, but there were four handles, and we had four hands. We learned the trick when we were small, and were rewarded with candied figs for spilling so little water as we walked. Even when we were old enough to carry a jug each, we did the chore together, and more besides. In most things, from weaving to cooking to spearing the poisonous snakes that came to our well, we were equal. My voice was better at the songs and stories our traditions gave us, but my sister could find her own words to say, and did not rely on the deeds of others to make her point. Maybe that fire was what made her beautiful; maybe that was what set my sister’s face apart from mine. Maybe that was why I did not tire of it.
I feared that Lo-Melkhiin would think my sister’s face was something, something at last, that he too would not tire of. He had married only beautiful girls at first, the daughters of our highest lords and wealthiest merchants. But when his wives began to die, the powerful men of the desert did not like it, and began to look elsewhere for Lo-Melkhiin’s brides. They began to scour the villages for women that would suit, and for a time no one paid mind to the host of poorer daughters that went to their deaths. Soon, though, the smaller villages tallied their dead and ceased trade with the cities. From thence, the law was struck: one girl from each village and one from every district inside city walls, and then the cycle would begin again. So many girls had been lost, and I did not wish to lose my sister to him. The stories were very clear about two things: Lo-Melkhiin always took one girl, and she always, always died.
When the dust rose over the desert, we knew that he was coming. He would know our numbers, and he would know who had daughters that must be presented to him. The census was part of the law, the way that men were able to tell themselves that it was fair.
“But it isn’t fair,” whispered my sister as we lay underneath the sky and watched the stars rise on our seventeenth summer. “They do not marry and die.”
“No,” I said to her. “They do not.”
So we stood in the shadow of our father’s tent, and we waited. Around us the air was full of cries and moans; mothers held their daughters; fathers paced, unable to intervene, unwilling to circumvent the law. Our father was not here. He had gone to trade. We had not known that Lo-Melkhiin would come. Our father would return to find his fairest flower gone, and only the weed left for him to use as he saw fit.
My hair was unbound under my veil, and both blew wildly around my face. My sister had tied back her braid and stood with straight shoulders, her veil pulled back and her black hair gleaming in the sun. She was looking out at the coming storm, but there was a storm brewing in her eyes that only made her more beautiful. I could not lose her, and surely once Lo-Melkhiin saw her, she would be lost.
I thought of all the stories I had heard, those whispered at my mother’s hearth and those told in the booming voice of our father when the village elders met in his tent for council. I knew them all: where we had come from, who our ancestors had been, what heroes were in my lineage, which smallgods my family had made and loved. I tried to think if there was any one thing in the stories that I could use, but there was not. The world had never seen another like Lo-Melkhiin, and it had no stories to combat him.
Not whole stories, but maybe there was something smaller. A thread in the story of a warrior who laid siege to a walled city. A fragment in the story of a father who had two daughters, and was forced to choose which of them to send into the desert at night. An intrigue in the story of two lovers who wed against the wishes of their fathers. A path in the story of an old woman whose sons were taken, unlawfully, to fight a war they were not part of. There were stories, and then there were stories.
No single tale that I could draw from would save my sister from a short and cruel marriage, but I had pieces aplenty. I held them in my hands like so many grains of sand, and they slipped away from me, running through my fingers, even as I tried to gather more. But I knew sand. I had been born to it and learned to walk on it. It had blown in my face and I had picked it from my food. I knew that I had only to hold it for long enough, to find the right fire, and the sand would harden into glass—into something I could use.
My sister watched the dust cloud for Lo-Melkhiin, but I watched it for the sand. I took strength from her bravery in the face of that storm, and she took my hand and smiled, even though she did not know what I was trying to do. She had accepted that she would be the one to save us, the one to be made a smallgod and sung to after her time of leaving. The one who died. But I would not allow it.
By the time the village elders could see flashes of bronze armor in the dust cloud, and hear the footfalls of horses that rode, too hard, under the sun—by the time the wind pulled at my sister’s braid and worked a few strands loose to play with, as though it, too, feared to lose her—by then, I had a plan.
WHEN LO-MELKHIIN CAME, some of the girls rent their veils and cut off their hair with sheep-shears. I looked at them and felt their fear. I was the only one with a sister the right age, the only one who was a spare. I could stand beside her and be unseen. The others had no one to shield them this way. They would face Lo-Melkhiin alone, and they disfigured themselves in the hope that this would put them beneath his attention.
Lo-Melkhiin did not always notice, not anymore. Now that he no longer took only the most beautiful, it seemed that he chose at random. It was not as though his bride would last. Our father had heard tales when he was out with the caravan, that Lo-Melkhiin would take his new bride away, to his qasr in the Great Oasis, and she would be given new silks, and perfumed so that she no longer smelled of the desert. It did not matter what she looked like in the dust of her village, for dust could be washed away. But if there was a girl who was like my sister, who drew the eyes of men and smallgods when she walked past with the water jar balanced on her hip, Lo-Melkhiin would be sure to take her.
My sister was dressed in white linen that blistered the eye with the sun’s glare. She looked simple and striking, and all the more so because she was surrounded by girls who keened in terror as the horses drew near. I knew that I must work quickly.
I went into her mother’s tent, where my sister had been made and born and learned to dance. Her mother sat upon the pillows of her bed, weeping quietly. I went to her and knelt beside her, extending the silk of my veil should she need to wipe her eyes.
“Lady mother,” I said to her, for that was how mothers who did not bear you were called. “Lady mother, we must be quick if we are to save your daughter.”
My sister’s mother looked up and clung to the silk I offered to her.
“How?” she said to me, and I saw a desperate hope burn in her eyes.
“Dress me in my sister’s clothes,” I bade her. “Braid my hair as you would hers, and give me those charms she would not grieve to lose.”
“She will grieve to lose her sister,” my sister’s mother said, but her hands had already begun the work. Like me, she was eager to save her daughter, and was not thinking too much of the cost.
“Someone must be chosen,” I said. I was not yet afraid. “My mother has sons.”
“Perhaps,” my sister’s mother said. “But a son is not a daughter.”
I did not tell her that a daughter is less than a son. She knew it, for she had brothers of her own. Her daughter, my sister, had no brothers left, and her marriage would be what kept her mother alive should our father die. My mother would survive without me, but without my sister, her mother had no such assurance. I would save more than my sister, though that had not been my intent. I never thought that maybe, maybe, my mother would grieve for me, for no reason other than her heart.
My sister burst into the tent as her mother was fastening the last gilt necklace around my neck. I wore her purple dishdashah, bound at my wrists and waist with braided cord. My sister and I had done the black embroidery on the collar, chest, and arms ourselves, stitching a map of the whispers we spoke to one another as we worked. It had taken us the better part of our fifteenth winter to do it, from raw threads to finished cloth. It was to be her marriage dress, and I had nothing like it. She had told me, as we stitched, that because I had put my hands to making it, it was as much mine as it was hers. There were secrets in this dress—dreams and confessions we had kept even from our mothers—in the weave and weft, and in the decorations and in the dye. It was to be hers, but since she wished us to share it, I looked beautiful, cased in purple and black, and beauty was what I needed.
“No,” my sister said to me when her eyes lost their desert-sun haze and she saw me standing clearly before her. She knew, for one time only, the eyes that looked at us would slide past her and fix on me. “No, my sister, you must not.”
“It is too late,” I said to her. “Lo-Melkhiin’s men come for us.”
“Thank you, daughter of my heart,” my sister’s mother breathed. She had always been fair and kind to me when I was a child. She had taught me the ways of mourning alongside my sister, but at that moment I knew that she loved me also. “I will pray to you, when you have gone.”
My sister took my hand and pulled me into the sunlight so that Lo-Melkhiin’s men would not have cause to drag us from the tent. I would walk to my fate, and she would walk beside me. For the first time, I was the one who drew looks. We rejoined the other girls, all of them staring at me as I walked past them in my finery. I stood at the very front, dark and bright. My sister, who had been so radiant in her simple garb, now looked unfinished at my side. Lovely, but second. I could hear the men whisper.
“Pity,” they hissed. “Pity we did not notice she was as beautiful as her sister.”
I did not look at them. I held my sister’s hand, and we led the way toward the horses that stamped and sweated by the well. We passed the tents of the other families, those with fewer sheep and fewer children. The girls followed us, staying close. They sensed that they could hide in my shadow, my purple oasis, and perhaps be safe. We drew our lives from the well, and now one of us would go to her death by it.
Lo-Melkhiin did not get down from his horse. He sat above us, casting a shadow across the sand where we stood. I could not see his face. When I looked up at him, all I could see was black and sun, and it was too bright to bear. I stared at the horse instead. I would not look at the ground. Behind me stood the other girls, and behind them the village elders held the girls’ mothers back. I wondered who held my mother, with my father and brothers gone, but I did not look back to see. I wished to be stone, to be resolute, but fear whispered in my heart. What if my sister was chosen, despite my efforts? What if I was chosen, and died? I pushed those thoughts away, and called on the stories I had woven together to make my plan. Those heroes did not falter. They walked their paths, regardless of what lay before them, and they did not look back.
“Make me a smallgod,” I whispered to my sister. “When I have gone.”
“I will make you a smallgod now,” she said to me, and the tack jingled as Lo-Melkhiin’s men dismounted and came near. “What good to be revered when you are dead? We will begin the moment they take you, and you shall be a smallgod before you reach the qasr.”
I had prayed to smallgods my whole life. Our father’s father’s father had been a great herdsman, with more sheep than a man could count in one day. He had traded wool to villages far and near, and it was to him we prayed when our father was away with the caravan. Our father always returned home safely, with gifts for our mothers and work for my brothers and profit for us all, but sometimes I wondered if it was the smallgod’s doing. For the first time, I wished that our father was here. I knew he would not have saved me, but I might have asked if he had ever felt the smallgod we prayed to aiding him on the road.
“Thank you, sister,” I said. I was unsure if it would help me, but it could not harm me.
Lo-Melkhiin’s guard closed his hand on my arm, but I followed him willingly toward the horses. His face was covered by a sand-scarf, but his eyes betrayed him. He wanted to be here no more than I did, yet he did his duty, as did I. When he saw that I would not fight him, he relaxed, and his hand became more a guide than a shackle. I stood straight and did not look back, though I could hear the wails behind me as my mother began to grieve. Perhaps I should have gone to her, instead of my sister’s mother. But she would not have helped me. She would have done what my father could not, and she would have tried to keep me safe. She would have cost me my sister.
“I love you,” I called out. The words were for everyone, for my mothers, and the words were only for my sister.
My sister was on her knees when they put me on the horse, her white linen browned by the sand and her hair falling forward across her face. She chanted in the family tongue, the one my father’s father’s father practiced when he tended his sheep, the one we heard at my father’s knee as he taught it to my brothers and we sat close by to overhear. My sister’s mother knelt beside her and chanted too. I could hear the words, but I could not make them out. I knew they were for me, for I could feel the way the wind pulled at my veil, curious to see the face of the girl who received such fervent prayer.
Lo-Melkhiin sat atop his horse and laughed, for he thought she wept to lose me. But I knew better. I could feel it, in my soul.
LO-MELKHIIN’S HORSES WERE SWIFT, like the wind circles that danced on the sand. Our father’s tents, and the tents around our well, were swallowed up by the sky before I had time to look back at them. They had been my whole world, before the guard lifted me into the saddle, and now they were lost to me. Never again would I tell my sister stories, using the warm light of the lamp to make shadows with my hands on the canvas. I would be a queen, for however short a time, and I would never live in a tent again.
Lo-Melkhiin rode at the head of the party, and his guards arrayed themselves around me in a loose formation. They need not have bothered. I was new to riding, and spent my concentration staying upright. Even had I been able to get away, I had nowhere to go. If I went home to my village, the guards could simply follow me there, and if I tried to flee into the desert, I would be food for the sand-crows sooner than if I stayed my course. So I watched the guards, how they sat and how they held their legs against their horses’ flanks. I did my best to mimic their seat, and after a while my muscles ached. I was glad my veil hid my face. I had no wish for them to see me suffer.
When the sun was high, we halted to water the horses. They were desert-bred, and could ride all day if they had to, but their way would be easier if we let them rest. Lo-Melkhiin wore no spurs. I had always thought that horses must be expensive, because even our father did not have one, and now I knew they must be, because Lo-Melkhiin was kind to his. He held the beast’s head himself, and raised the water skin to its lips for it to drink. His hand was light upon the horse’s face, and I began to wonder.
What sort of man could have so much blood on his hands that he could choose a wife within moments of seeing her, and know that she would soon be added to the litany of the dead, but would call a halt on the ride home to spare the horses? I had not stopped to think, in my haste to save my sister. I had thought of her life, of her mother’s happiness, and I had not thought about what was to be my marriage. One night or thirty, I would know Lo-Melkhiin, who laughed at my sister’s tears and watered his horse with his own hands.
We had spoken of marriage, of course, my sister and our mothers and I. We had stitched the purple dishdashah I wore, and filled it with the hopes and dreams of our future. We knew that someday, our father would announce my sister’s match, and then mine soon after, and we would move into the tents of our husbands’ families. There would be a feast, and songs, and all the old traditions. And there would be the wedding night. I would have none of that, now, except the last.
I looked down from my perch on the horse’s back. No one had come to help me dismount, and I was determined not to fall trying. The guard who had pulled me away from my sister was tall, and wore riding leathers much more suited to the desert than my dress. He came toward me, holding out a water skin. I took it from him, drinking only a little before handing it back, and he did not meet my eyes.
“Salt,” said Lo-Melkhiin. It was the first word I heard him say.
The guard passed up his salt canister, a small ornate box he carried at his waist. When I held it in my hands, I realized it was wood, and worth more than the cloth I wore. Inside it was the precious mineral that would keep us all alive in the desert sun. I licked my finger and coated it in the coarse white grains. I knew it would taste foul, but I slid my hand under my veil and forced myself to eat it all, and then the guard passed me the water skin again. I took more this time, to cleanse my mouth of the taste, but I was still able to watch him stow the canister away, carefully, securely. Almost lovingly. It was worth more than wood to him.
“Thank you,” I said.
Too late, I wondered if that was permitted. Some men did not allow their wives to speak outside the home, and certainly not to other men. I was not a wife yet, but I was as good as wed, and Lo-Melkhiin might be the kind of husband who expected a demure, retiring creature.
“You are welcome,” the guard said, and there was no fear in his voice. He still did not look at me, and I knew it was because he pitied me. He pitied my death.
Lo-Melkhiin swung back into his saddle, his heavy robe billowing behind him, and his light boots tucked against the belly of his horse. At that signal the other guards remounted. I shifted, trying to find a place on my seat that did not feel bruised, but could not. I ground my teeth behind my veil, and we rode on.
Time is an odd thing in the desert. They say that in the city, the Skeptics have found a way to measure time with water and glass, but in the desert, the sand goes on forever, and takes time with it. You cannot tell how far you have come, or how far you have to go. The sand is what kills you, if you die in the desert, because the sand is everywhere, and it does not care if you get out. So we rode for hours, but it felt as though we rode for days. We were not on a caravan route, so we passed no travelers or other villages. Had I to guess, I would have said that we were riding in a straight line back to Lo-Melkhiin’s qasr, where other travelers would have followed the circuitous route made safe by the oases. But our direction, like our duration, was blown about with the sand.
As the sun drew near the horizon, and the sky turned from blasted blue to a dark and darker red, I saw a distortion in the distance, and knew that we were, finally, close. Lo-Melkhiin’s father’s father’s father had built the qasr of white stone. Our father and brothers had told us of it, for they had seen it when they were out with the caravan, and now that my mother and my sister’s mother no longer traveled, they liked to hear tales of the world. In the daytime it gleamed, gathering the sun’s rays into itself, heating slowly as the day progressed. As night approached and the desert cooled, the heat came out of the walls and tried to find the sun again, but since the sun was setting, the heat moved in weaving lines, seen from a distance like through a veil of the finest silk, blurred and indistinct. But it was no false vision, seen by one sunstroked and delusional. It was solid, and we were drawing near.
The city was made of three parts. At the heart was the qasr, where Lo-Melkhiin lived, met petitioners, and where the temple stood. Around it were the crooked streets and pale houses, the dust and dirty tents. And around that was the wall, high and strong. There had not been invaders in generations, but the wall was from a less peaceful time. We prospered under Lo-Melkhiin—or, men did, and it was men who kept the accounts of everything, from grain and sheep to life and death.
The city gates stood open, for Lo-Melkhiin was expected. I imagined that at one time the people had come to see Lo-Melkhiin’s bride to wish her well. In my village, we sang for prosperity and long life when the bride went past. Those songs were not heard inside the qasr, not for me. There were people in the streets, come to see their momentary queen as I passed under the towers, but they were quiet and did not sing. Most did not look at me for very long. Mothers pulled their children away, hiding them in doorways instead of behind tent flaps, though they looked and dressed the way our mothers did. The guards rode close by me now, but Lo-Melkhiin rode by himself. He had no fear of his own people; most of them he did not rule harshly.
"A story threaded with shimmering vibrance and beauty, A Thousand Nights will weave its spell over readers' hearts and leave them captivated long after the final tale has been told."—Alexandra Bracken, New York Times best-selling author of The Darkest Minds series
* "Detailed and quiet, beautifully written with a literary rhythm that evokes a sense of oral tale-telling, this unexpected fantasy should not be missed."—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"This is an unexpected gem of a book about storytelling, magic, and relationships, and romance buffs in particular will find the conclusion immensely satisfying, as hard-won, gradual love has a chance to flourish once the wicked force has been defeated."—The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books
"A powerful read."—Publishers Weekly
"This fantasy, rich with layers of legend and meaning, will captivate readers ready for an adventure. . . Johnston's writing is densely lyrical, evoking the legendary tales of One Thousand and One Nights, from which this story derives."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Sep 6, 2016
- Page Count
- 352 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers