Duty and the Beast(5)

By: Trish Morey


What mattered now was that she was safe! Relief that they had got away turned to exhilaration running through her veins. She had been rescued from her kidnappers and the sick promise of a marriage to that pig, Mustafa. She let herself collapse back into the pillows with a sigh.

She was free.

She looked around the dimly lit room, searching for clues. Where was she? A palace or a plush hotel, given the dimensions of the room and the opulence of the furnishings. A palace with a bed almost as comfortable as her own at home, a bed she couldn’t wait to reacquaint herself with tonight.

She was still wearing her robe, she realised as she slipped from the bed. Whoever had brought her here hadn’t bothered to change her, merely put her to bed in the robe she had been wearing when she was rescued.

The man who had cradled her in his arms on his horse?

She stopped, halfway to the window, turned and looked back at the big, wide bed. Had he been here, in this room, leaning over to lay her softly on the bed, cautious not to wake her? Had he gently pulled the soft quilt up to cover her and keep her warm?

She shivered, remembering the warmth of his breath against her cheek when he had held her in the tent, remembering the solid thump of the heartbeat in his chest.

And then she remembered the way he had laughed at her, and she wondered why she was wasting so much time thinking about him when there were far more important things to consider.

Like going home.

She padded to the window, curious for a glimpse outside if only to give her a clue as to where she was. Maybe her father was already here, anxiously waiting for her to wake up so he could greet her.

She curled her toes into a luxurious silk rug as she pushed aside a curtain. She squinted into the bright sunlit day—later than morning, she estimated from the height and power of the sun. How long had she slept?

Blinking, she shielded her eyes with her hand and peered out again, letting her eyes adjust. Below her was a large courtyard garden, filled with orange trees and flowering shrubs, pools of water running between and a fountain in the centre, its splashing water sparkling like diamonds. Around the square ran a cloistered walkway beyond which the palace spread, grand and magnificent, topped with towers and gold domes that shone brightly in the sun. The scene was utterly beautiful.

Except for the black flags that flapped from every flagpole. She shivered in spite of the heat of the day, a sense of foreboding turning her blood cold.

Why were they all black? What had happened?

There was a knock on the door and she turned as a young woman bearing a tray entered, her eye drawn to the window. ‘Oh, you’re awake, Princess.’ She bowed, put the tray down on a table and poured a cup of hot, aromatic liquid. ‘You’ve slept almost the whole day. I’ve brought tea, some yoghurt and fruit in case you were hungry.’

‘Where am I? And why are there black flags flying on the flagpoles?’

The girl looked as if she didn’t know how to answer as she held out the cup of steaming beverage. Aisha caught the sweet scent of honey, spices, nutmeg and cinnamon on the steam. ‘I will let them know you are awake.’

‘Them?’ She took a hopeful step closer as she took the cup. ‘Is my father here?’

The girl’s eyes slid away to a door. ‘You have slept a very long time. You will find your clothes in the dressing room. Would you like me to select something for you while you bathe?’

She shook her head and put the cup aside. ‘No. I want you to answer my question.’

The girl blinked. ‘You are in Al-Jirad, of course.’

Al-Jirad? Then not far from Jemeya. No more than thirty minutes by helicopter from the coast, an hour from the inland. ‘And my father? Is he here, or is he waiting for me at home?’

‘Someone will come for you shortly.’ The girl bowed, looking uncomfortable and already withdrawing, heading for the door.

‘Wait!’

She paused, looking warily over her shoulder. ‘Yes?’

‘I don’t even know your name.’

She nodded meekly and uncertainly, her hands clasped in front of her. ‘It is Rani, Princess.’

Aisha smiled, trying to put the girl at ease. She had so many questions and the girl must know something. ‘Thank you for the tea, Rani. And, if I might just ask …?’

‘Yes?’

‘The man who brought me here. I mean the men who brought me here. Are they still somewhere in the palace, do you know?’

The girl looked longingly in the direction of the door.

‘I wanted to thank them for rescuing me.’

The girl’s eyes were large and wide, her small hands knotted tightly together in front of her. ‘Someone will come for you, Princess. That is all I can say.’ And with a bow she practically fled, her slippered feet almost soundless on the floor, the door snicking quietly closed behind her.

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