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Desert Fantasies(3)

By:Trish Morey

She felt a sudden, bewildering pang of regret that she hadn’t had the chance to thank him.

Baffling, really. The man had been arrogant beyond belief, he’d laughed at her every chance he’d had, and her father would have no doubt paid him handsomely for rescuing her—and she was actually sorry she hadn’t had the chance to thank him?

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.


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 …?’


‘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.

Aisha sighed in frustration as she sipped more of the sweet tea, relieved to know where she was, but still left wondering and worrying about the black flags. Maybe the King’s aged mother had finally succumbed to the illness that had plagued her these past few years. The last she had heard, the old queen had not been responding to treatment. The Al-Jiradans would justifiably be sad at her passing, she mused. Queen Petra had been universally loved and adored.

But, beyond that, the knowledge she was in Al-Jirad was welcome. Relations between Al-Jirad and Jemeya—one little more than a patch of bare desert at the end of a sandy peninsular, the other a dot of an island a short distance off-shore—were close and went back centuries. Strategically positioned either side of the only navigable waterway into the desert interior, a deep trench that gave access to shipping, the two had forged a strong bond over the years, their geography assigning them the role of gatekeepers to the inland access route.

And Al-Jirad’s King Hamra was one of her father’s closest friends and allies. This must be one of the several palaces he had dotted across the kingdom.

She bathed quickly, anxious to find out more, and all the time wondering why she’d bothered to ask the girl about her rescuers. Would she really want to see him again, even if he was still in the palace, knowing how he had affected her? Did she really want to thank him?

Because how could she face him and not remember how intimately he had held her? How could she stop herself from blushing when she remembered how good—and, at the same time, how disturbing—it had felt?

No. She dried herself and slipped into a gown hanging in the bathroom. It was better they remained strangers. It was just as well he had never taken off his mask and she had never seen his face. It was far better she had no idea who he was.

She paused by the tray and nibbled on a fat, juicy date while she poured herself more tea, savouring the sweet, spicy brew, feeling more human after her shower and confident that soon she would be on her way home. Then she pulled open the dressing-room doors to find something to wear.

And felt the sizzle all the way down her spine to her toes.

The relief she’d been feeling at being rescued, the relief at finally being safe, started unravelling from the warm ball of contentment in her gut and twisted, tangled and knotted into something far more ominous.

Because the wardrobe she’d been expecting to hold one or two items was full.

Of her own clothes.

Her own gowns and robes met her gaze, her own shoes, slippers and purses. She gazed around the walls of the room, at the shelves and the mirrored recesses where her jewellery box sat in pride of place. Even Honey—the tiny teddy bear she’d had as a child, its ears shiny and bare after years of stroking them with her thumb as she fell asleep—sat jauntily winking at her with his one remaining eye from on top of a chest of drawers. She picked up the worn, well-loved toy and held it to her breast, wishing for the comfort it had always lent as a child before dropping to a sofa, confusion scrambling her brain.

‘What does it mean, Honey?’ she whispered quietly to her toy, just as she had done as a child when she could not understand what was going on in the grown-up world around her. Just as she had done when her father had told her that her mother was never coming home from the hospital where she had gone to have a baby. ‘Why?’

Part of her wanted to run like that child had run, find the girl called Rani and ask her, demand to know this instant, what was happening, what it was she wasn’t telling her. But she was an adult now, and a princess, and could hardly go running around a palace in a dressing gown.

No, that way was not her way, no matter how confused she felt, no matter how much she needed answers to her questions. Besides, there had to be a logical explanation for why all her things had been shipped to a palace somewhere in Al-Jirad. There had to be.

So she would not make a spectacle of herself. She would choose something from her own clothes, get dressed, and only then, when she looked like the princess she was, would she go looking for answers.

And she intended to find them!

A man calling himself Hamzah came for her one interminable hour later. The Sheikh’s vizier, he had told her, bowing deeply, and when she had started to question him he had promised that the Sheikh would answer all her questions. So she duly followed the wiry old man along the shaded cloister she had seen from her window, her impatience building by the minute.