Duty and the Beast(7)

By: Trish Morey

She didn’t care. She had chosen smart travelling clothes over one of her cooler silk abayas for a reason: she wanted it to be clear that she intended travelling home to Jemeya the first chance she got, today if it was at all possible. They could pack up and send her clothes after her.

The merest hint of a breeze, cooled by the fountains and the garden, tickled the patch of bare skin behind her neck, making her thankful she’d knotted her hair behind her head. Cool serenity she had been aiming for in her look, which was what she most needed. Along with confidence. Which she had for the most part, she felt, until she thought about the mystery of the clothes so neatly filling the dressing room and the absence of any kind of answers to her questions.

The strangeness of it all once again sent skitters down her spine. No matter how much she had tried to find a logical reason, to try to explain what possible reason they had sent her entire wardrobe here, it made no sense at all.

She shivered despite the warmth of the day, the relief she’d felt at escaping Mustafa’s desert camp rapidly dissipating in the wake of all of her unanswered questions.

And in the shadow of a growing suspicion.

Something was wrong.

The vizier led her deeper into the palace, through a maze of corridors; between walls lined with beautiful mosaics set with gemstones, the colours leaping out at her; past rich wall-hangings and tapestries of animals frolicking on the banks of rivers. And water, water was always a theme—in the murals, mosaics and in the tiny fountains, trickling from stone jars in every corner over rocks, making music with water.

It was beautiful.

No doubt designed to be quite restful.

If you weren’t already seething with impatience, turning every watery tinkle, every babbling and burbling rivulet, into the sound of someone scraping their nails down a blackboard.

By the time they came to a set of carved doors that rose imposing and ominous before them, she was ready to scrape her nails down anything.

Strange; she wasn’t normally a violent person or prone to biting or scratching.

‘Can you run as hard as you bite?’

She remembered the laughter in his words and she wished she’d bitten down harder. Then Hamzah beckoned her to follow, and she promised to put that man out of her mind once and for all. He was gone, probably busy blowing his reward at the nearest casino or flesh-pot.

Mercenaries would be like that, she figured. In it for the money. The thrill of the hunt. The quick buck.

They entered a library, the floor and columns of the massive room decked in marble, smooth and cool, the occasional chairs and tables gilt and inlaid with precious stones, the walls lined with books and manuscripts. And there, in one far corner of the room, sat a man behind a computer, his hair shining blue-black under the lights.

He looked up as they approached, his eyes narrowing as he sat back in his chair. A secretary, she assumed with a sigh, wondering how long it would be and how many more layers of bureaucracy she would encounter until finally she found this mysterious sheikh and maybe even someone who could answer her questions.

‘Princess Aisha.’

She stepped forward, her patience having reached its limit. ‘Can you answer my questions? Or can you at least point me in the direction of someone who can? Because, as much as I am grateful for your hospitality, I need to know why I am not already on my way home to Jemeya but instead find the wardrobe in my room stuffed full of my clothes.’

The older man reared back as if he’d been physically struck. ‘Excellency, I am sorry.’

Her eyes snapped around to the vizier. Excellency?

‘Thank you, Hamzah. I’ll handle this now.’ And something in his voice made her turn back to the man in the chair, even while the older man withdrew. Almost in slow motion, it seemed, he pushed back his chair and rose to his full height.

Tall, she registered. Broad-shouldered.

And there was something about that voice …

Her mouth went dry.

It could not be him! She must be going mad if she imagined this man to be her rescuer. That man was a mercenary, sent by her father to rescue her. And this man was some kind of … royalty?

‘Why did he call you Excellency? Surely that term is reserved for King Hamra, the ruler of Al-Jirad?’

She swallowed as he rounded the desk, long-limbed and lean, before propping himself against it, crossing his arms over his broad chest as he coolly surveyed her with dark, unreadable eyes. His hard face was constructed of too many harsh angles and too many dark places to be considered conventionally handsome. And, with the dark blue-black shadow of his beard, he looked—dangerous.

‘So, who are you?’ she asked, raising her chin in defiance, willing her voice not to crack. ‘Why is it so impossible to get answers to my questions?’

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