"Well, I suppose since Mirage did get the bloodthirsty quirk from me, it only made sense." She reminisced. "I take great pride and comfort in the fact that my brother's head is currently floating as an empty skull on the bottom of the Rehbartaj River."
Salar's thoughts skidded to a halt. What?
"I had him beheaded, dear." She said to his shocked expression which she took for confusion. "I lost it. Sarosh and Sepehr were standing outside with the guards. They heard me call them; I told them what I wanted; which they dutifully obliged with. I didn't want to look at him alive any longer."
Salar stayed silent. The world seemed to have stopped for a second. "I- I can't believe it."
"Yes well, it happened. I couldn't take it anymore. Even though he was my brother, I couldn't conceive someone hurting my child. It was why I had all the children's quarters shifted to other areas. I didn't want them near his place. It was demolished that same week. But after that, I spent some time blaming Mirage for my brother's death. I know I was cruel." She sniffed.
Salar rubbed his face roughly. He just could wrap his head around the fact that someone had done so much to Mirage. No wonder she couldn't trust anyone. His mind went to Captain Jahanshah's warning. This family is a madhouse, He thought out loud.
"I agree." Queen Nadira nodded. "But dear, you mustn't let this affect your feelings for my daughter."
"It doesn't." Salar looked up at her angrily, "If anything, it makes me understand why she's like this in the first place. Your family was insane, from your neurotic mother to your insane brother; you all were a piece of work, weren't you? You were jealous of your own daughter, and you chose to ignore her cries for help; I mean, what kind of mother does that? You know, for all the days she was away from you on that ship, she was at her most happiest. You said she only talked to her guards? Well, she talked to me too, because; and I know she would never admit to that fact and would kill me if she knew; she wanted me there for her protection. She laughed freely and she talked to me because she never got what she needed from you. She's close to me and she told me so many things that I'm sure even you don't know about. And I'm pretty sure she chose me to be with her because she knew I'd understand her point. Jeez, what is wrong with you? She only got a ruthless tyrant for a father, and mother who ignored her own daughter. And did you really blame her? Is that what you said before? That you blamed her? And for what? For being innocent?"
Queen Nadira stepped back. She chose to ignore his insults at the moment. He was angry and he was a big man, she didn't have the quick reflexes her daughter had.
"No." She said in a small voice, "I blamed her because I lost someone I love. Sometime later, I started understanding what she had gone through, but it was too late for that. I never got a good enough chance to tell her how sorry I was."
"Sure." Salar said scornfully.
"But that's why I kept her near her male friends. Her ladies-in-waiting came a long time after in her life, but she was close to those boys. That's why I made sure they'd always be around her." She threw down the handkerchief, "And I've done so much to help her stay sane. Why, even that incident a while back with Tatiana? I solved it."
Salar snorted. "Oh and how's that?"
Queen Nadira pursed her lips, trying to contain her irritation. "Follow me." She jumped up, went to the door and wrenched it open. Shaking his head, Salar followed. He kept up with the Queen as she practically sprinted to the other side of the villa.
She hopped down the steps leading to the servant's quarters and Salar frowned, unsure of what her plan was. Was she going to ambush him and kill him because he had talked his mouth off at her? Well, she had another surprise if she thought he'd given in as easily.
He eyed her at the door of a small cottage at the far end, which she slammed open. Queen Nadira was talking to someone inside the cottage, and eyeing Salar, gestured for him to look inside. Uncertain, nevertheless he looked inside and he felt Queen Nadira push him in and close the door. He saw who it was, and his mouth fell open in horror. Would the surprises and shocks never cease? Is that how this family was? Pushing on big shock over the next nonstop? No wonder Mirage hated them all. His eyes went wide. Oh Allah, it has to be a ghost, he thought astonished.
"But you're dead." He blurted and stopped, as Tatiana put down a kettle of tea on the table and stood up, smiling. She nervously ran her hands through her short spiky hair. It suited her.
"It's alright. I'm not a ghost." She said kindly although she seemed to be controlling her laughter.
Salar sought a chair and shakily sat on it, not taking his eyes off Tatiana. She seemed healthier, instead of slim and gaunt as what could be expected from someone who had risen from the dead. Her robes were spotless and she actually seemed happy. Her smile flared him up.
"Was it a joke? Was all that just to teach Mirage a lesson?" He asked, bug-eyed.
The Queen casually strolled forward and taking the teapot, poured some out in a china cup. She and Tatiana sat down. "No, it was not a joke." She handed the cup to him and poured out two more cups. "Sarosh was stark-raving mad and he wanted something to be done. He couldn't stand to be made a fool of. After the introductory session with the princes, he called Tatiana and told her that he knew it was her idea for Mirage to run away… He had a dodgy informer." She said smiling, and patted Tatiana on the arm who smiled back.
"Well, I found out just in time. Poor thing was in the dungeon; they had draped her in chains, and cut off her hair. She looked terrible. I couldn't have my husband so blindly kill Tatiana when he wasn't even sure she was the one to blame. So I hid her away." She picked up the cup, put it in a saucer and handed it to Tatiana who accepted it graciously. Salar eyed this transaction with fascination. "Mirage knows nothing of the Rehbartaj castle or how many secrets it holds. I had a small antechamber in the back of my closet. I smuggled Tatiana out of the dungeon and hid her there for the meantime. As for pleasing Sarosh that Tatiana was dead, I had someone else executed. No, no dear, that someone had murdered her whole family; she didn't need the rest of her life to wallow in grief and guilt so I really did her a favor." She replied to Salar's shocked expression.
"Anyway, I had wanted to talk to Sarosh after the bonfire, tell him about his mistake, sooth his anger for the time being, but then…" The Queen sighed, feeling sorry for herself.
"Then it all just fell apart." Tatiana continued, "Mirage ran for it. She took you with him, you both got married, and then… King Jahanshah… It just wasn't the right time. One disaster rolled into another."
Salar took his wife's side, "You cannot seriously blame Mirage for running away. Who'd want to stay in a place like this? And why didn't you tell Mirage that you were alive?"
"I didn't get the chance…" Tatiana tried but Salar shouted, "YOU WERE AWAY FOR A WEEK! YOU HAD SEVEN DAYS TO TAKE A CHANCE."
Tentatively, Tatiana reached out and took the remainders of the cracked cup from his grasp. Waving his hand away impatiently. "You all make each other's lives so difficult and frustrating. Everything that happened could have been solved, but you deliberately lengthened it out!"
Tatiana snapped and stood up. "Tell me Salar, what do you think Mirage would have done if I had told her what King Sarosh was going to do to me? I was in that dungeon for 5 days before her Highness even found out." She gestured to the Queen. "I was unconscious because of hunger and weakness for two days. When I woke up, I was in the antechamber. And the Queen didn't tell Mirage because Mirage would have snapped. She would have burnt the whole castle down and then blamed her mother for what happened."
Salar jumped up, "are you seriously taking her side over Mirage's? Mirage loved you like a sister."
"I am not taking the Queen's side, no offence intended, your highness." Tatiana turned to the queen who sat down her cup of tea and reached for a scone, "None taken."
"My point is, firstly, I didn't get a chance to go to Mirage and the Queen couldn't because it would have caused such a disaster for the king." Tatiana's voice lowered, "Think about it, Salar. Mirage would have gone to the Queen, insulted him and she might even have fought with him."
"And what about Mirage? Did you consider her feelings into account or is she someone who is so easily moldable?" Salar asked menacingly.
"I would have controlled her." Tatiana sighed, "You saw what happened at the bonfire. She's impulsive, she doesn't stop to see who's around her, and she just does what she wants. And in her case, she would have actually drawn her sword at the king."
"Or she would have done what she did that night. She would have washed her hands off him and taken off. It is a miracle no one found out about the marriage. She would have made a spectacle of herself." The Queen interjected.
"Why's that?" Salar glared.
The Queen who daintily munched on the sponge of the scone. "She's going to be Queen, as everyone keeps reminding me, and she did something so immature. It would have caused the other newly occupied countries to revolt. No one wants someone that impulsive for a ruler."
Salar scoffed. "And your husband is a shining example of maturity and wise decisions; is he not?"
Queen Nadira looked at him evilly. "We are not here to talk about my husband. I told him what I had done, how I had saved Tatiana. And after I had explained his mistake to him, he accepted that he was in the wrong, which is why I brought Tatiana with me, so that I could take her to Mirage."
"Wait, what?" Salar stared at the Queen unbelievingly. "You can't spring something like that on her. Do you have any idea how stressed and disturbed she is? First, she loses her best friend; about whom I will decide when she should meet Mirage." Salar raised his voice as Tatiana opened her mouth. She grumpily snapped it shut.
"Firstly, she loses her best friend. Secondly, she marries me without even the slightest idea of who I am or I could be. She's lucky that she even met me; half the princes would have sought their chance and killed her, had she chosen them. And third, did you even see her injuries? She's only just started her road to recovery; she won't be able to take it."
Tatiana shook her head at this. "Mirage is strong, she'd be overjoyed."
"No, she won't. She's not in the right mind, she's exhausted and she needs rest. Do you know she was practically ripped open? He paused as Tatiana winced. "Yeah, she was tortured, but the torture wasn't some fist beating. She was torn apart with whips, scourges and canes. She lost a lot of blood and she's still alive, which might tell you that she is strong, but what you don't know is that she almost died. She was out for four days before she woke up today. She doesn't have enough strength to even stand, and even then she's not showing it to you. So no, I don't think she'll be overjoyed."
The Queen dabbed the corner of her mouth with a frilly napkin, "He's telling the truth, Tatiana." Salar and Tatiana turned to stare at the queen. "She won't welcome you with open arms as she would have before. I've noticed that Mirage isn't the same as she was when she left this castle, she's changed."
"How?" Tatiana sat back down.
"She cried." The queen said gravely and Tatiana gasped.
Salar stared from one woman to the next, "No, that's not it. I'm just saying…" but the Queen interrupted.
"No, you don't understand. Mirage isn't the type to cry. The last time I saw her cry was when she was eight. After that, she never weakened. But today, when she met her siblings, she cried. She held onto everyone and she cried."
Tatiana's mouth set in a small 'o'. The Queen looked back to her and nodded, "He broke her."
Salar shook his head in frustration, "What does that even mean?"
Both women turned to look at him, "Did Mirage cry in front of you?" Tatiana asked, enthralled by this information.
Salar rattled his head, "Sure, she cried… a little." He didn't want to mention how he had cradled her in his chest.
"How many times?"
"A couple." He fidgeted uncomfortably.
"Oh Allah…" Tatiana covered her mouth with her hands and looked back at the Queen who nodded, "See?"
"Look, I'm her husband, if she can't be herself around me than I'm of no use to her, am I?" Salar reasoned. "And really, it's none of your business now. I'm taking care of her and you don't know but she is more mature than you think, she has great plans for the country and the fact that 't know you don't that shows how ignorant you really are."
"Salar, please don't be so defensive. We're trying to tell you something." Tatiana said quietly.
"What? What are you trying to tell me?"
"That she really must love you in order to open up to you like that." The Queen said, smiling.
Salar stared at her, gobsmacked. Well, it was not that he didn't feel elated at this discovery, but he did feel comforted that he hadn't made it; that it was evident to those who looked at her.
"She allows you in every hour when you come to see her, even though she hasn't even seen her sisters or even her father yet. And you were the one she chose to go with. It was you who she opened up to. And I know you both had decided on each long before you were introduced formally." Salar raised his eyebrows and the Queen smirked, "I caught that little wink she gave you." Salar felt himself go red.
"You're the only one who made her smile. Her face changes when you come into the room, it's like she's relieved." A glimmer of sadness went across the Queen's face. "And she wasn't at all happy when I took her away from that godforsaken hotel room. She seemed quite happy holed up in that tiny cave with you."
The Queen stood up and brushed her clothes. "Salar, I regret my actions. I want to be a better mother but that time has gone. I cannot apologize for what I was. You're the only one she seems to trust now. You need to show her that you will not break her trust."
Salar straightened up. "Of course I won't."
The Queen nodded solemnly. "You seem to have broken my daughter. Before, she seemed to be made of stone. But now, ever since she returned, in this short time, she's a changed girl. She looks forward to your arrival, she cries when she's feeling sad, and she seems smitten with you. She asks for you. She looked like she wanted to kill me when I rejected your offer to ride along with us from the hotel. You are her primary person. So I want you to know that my little girl has suffered enough. You will be there for her, you will take care of her and you will keep her happy."
Salar resisted the urge to roll his eyes, "What do you think I've been doing these past few days?"
Queen Nadira's jaw set. Salar huffed, "Look, you can't expect me to talk to you like you didn't do anything wrong. You don't need to tell me anything. I can take care of her, but why don't you do me a favor and stay away from my wife? Because whenever you're near her, she looks like she's in physical pain."
The Queen gasped, "She does not."
Salar shrugged. "Have it your way. I just told you the truth, but of course, you won't accept it. I won't bother Mirage about anything since it's not her mistake but you really need to keep your head clear."
Tatiana shook her head at the argument. "Salar, please. Do not talk to the Queen that way."
"I'll talk to her any way I want. She's my mother-in-law, so please Tatiana, stay out of this." He growled at her.
Tatiana blinked and obligingly took a step back, her face aflame.
"You've told me everything and I've told you all I know. It doesn't make a difference to me what happened to her. I won't hold it over her head. She wasn't in the wrong here. You were. So thank you for telling me the whole story, your highness and even though it was completely unnecessary; because I know Mirage herself would have told me eventually; I think you should stop worrying about the fact that I won't take care of her. You look after your other children. Mirage has me now." Salar stepped back and bowed. "I can take it from here. Your services are no longer needed in Mirage's case. As for you", he turned to Tatiana and paused. "I'll think about it, but for now, stay away from Mirage."
Tatiana numbly nodded.
He heard the queen sputter in outrage as he opened the door and ran smack into Sepehr. He stumbled back and looked at Salar in surprise. Salar hitched a thumb behind him.
"The Queen's inside. Maybe you should escort her back to her room. And congratulations about Tatiana, I'm happy for you." And with that, he strutted away to check on Mirage, leaving Sepehr absolutely dumbfounded.