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Mirage of the royals

Novel By: Regina De Corda
Romance



The story of a Persian warrior princess who overcomes her father's tyranny and threatens to destroy the kingdom with her will, while finding her true love and purpose in the most unexpected place. View table of contents...


Chapters:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27

Submitted:May 4, 2013    Reads: 28    Comments: 1    Likes: 1   


NOTE FROM AUTHOR: For a better understanding of this chapter, please read the previous chapters. :) Reg! X

Two months later after the wedding

"This is a disaster." Mirage ran her fingers through her hair in frustration.

"They've taken over the northern borders here." Queen Nikoo from the former country of Kasra traced her finger along the line of the former countries of Miranas, Azadania, Royasheen and Zarbun. Apart from Royasheen, the other three countries were famous for their tourism and agriculture. Mirage shuddered to think what the situation was like down there. Her troops were probably there, fighting against their own brothers.

"All four kings were imprisoned, with the king of Royasheen executed publicly." Cyrus spoke softly from behind a document, sitting in a corner armchair.

"Publicly?" Mirage echoed.

Cyrus lowered the document and nodded. "Yes. He took your father's side in the invasion. So he was probably the first target. They stormed the castle in the middle of the night and took control of it. The Queen is safe, and so is the princess, but her brothers fought alongside their father and were consequently captured."

Mirage nodded slowly, her eyes roaming across the desk. Dozens of reports, newspaper clippings, telegrams, letters, messages in Morse code from the war, along with the details of the injured and the dead littered the desk in her private study. At this moment, Mirage was missing the familiarity of the Rehbartaj castle. This new study seemed cold and unwelcoming. Nikoo and Mirage stood on either side of the desk, basking in the glow of the afternoon sun from behind the rain clouds. Cyrus read more papers in search of information. Abid, her mentor and her father's advisor stood by the arched bay windows, looking out, lost in thought.

"Also, contrary to the news, his sons were not killed that night. I found out about it and they're being kept in prison." Cyrus looked up at Mirage who nodded again.

"I have to say, this is quite unusual that the soldiers revolted, something about their movement strikes me as very odd." Nikoo said and regarded the young queen with concern as Cyrus stood up and came to stand beside Mirage, waiting for Nikoo to continue.

"And what's that?" Mirage asked distractedly as she stifled a yawn.

"It seemed to me as if the soldiers stationed in those areas had been planning their move for a long time. I checked the results and the number of casualties in those countries was far less than the casualties in the other countries. They gathered their ration, they didn't fight nor did they cause any damage, but as soon as it was confirmed that the war was over, they started revolting. Also, these countries agreed to surrender to Rehbartaj. They didn't have anything to be afraid of since they were taking your side. I mean, even here, there was no revolt. Sahilibur was the first country to surrender, apart from the other four. Eight countries fought." Nikoo ignored Mirage's frown.

"It just seems to me as if this was pre-planned." Nikoo shrugged and Mirage looked up with a frown.

"Whose plan do you think that would be? This revolt was a sudden act of emotion. They had had enough of the war. All the people who fought were brothers by spirit, and they killed each other because of our orders. The protests started in those countries because many people believe that if they hadn't surrendered in the first place, then they could have beaten the Rehbartaj army." Abid's voice floated towards them from the windows as he stroked his beard thoughtfully.

"Look, even if that is the case, it's not like Rehbartaj had a huge army. It was the people's choice, and the countries which surrendered were protected by law. I just don't understand what the catalyst would be." Mirage shrugged.

"They've got weapons. They're spreading like wildfire. They're using the same tactics that they used in the invasion, but because they are small in number, it's taking a longer time for them to reach the other countries. Aren't you afraid of the consequences if this increases, your Highness?" Nikoo asked, ignoring Mirage's questions.

"I don't think I need to be. I have my army, along with Sahlibur's. I have enough ammunition to blow them up to kingdom come, and I have the armies of the eight other countries ready to attack on my word. Why should I be worried?"

Nikoo shrugged. "Well, you said it was a disaster."

Mirage was starting to regret her decision of calling Nikoo over to discuss the new kingdom's condition. She was also regretting her decision on making Nikoo her advisor. She had not yet decided whom she'd like as her advisor, but she kept the people she trusted the most near her at all times.

However, at the moment Salar, the one she trusted the most wasn't even in the city. He had gone off to the outskirts of Sahilibur which was right next to the country of Shawra. Near the north-eastern territory of the newly occupied land, Shawra had a booming business of fruits and timber, since almost 90% of it was occupied by tall trees and deep forests and beautiful villages with concave lakes which mirrored the sky. The country was beautiful and the people there were educated and peace-loving.

During the war, they had protected their borders and had a body count of only three horses that had died after being pulled into a patch of quicksand. They hadn't accepted the money King Sarosh had offered them and had simply pulled out of the war with an agreement that Shawra was to be provided protection and in return, they would provide medicine and shelter to the soldiers. Their agreement had been made on paper instead of the battlefield. Salar had been dispatched with the task of convincing the king of Shawra, King Rasa that should a time come when they would have to chose sides, then they should take Rehbartaj's side. Much to Mirage's surprise, Salar had agreed to go and be Rehbartaj's representative and explain the whole state of affairs to the King Rasa. She was already thinking of making him in charge of foreign affairs.

Mirage looked into Nikoo's challenging eyes. "Look. This is a disaster because their occupation of the northern borders is cutting in on our trade. Azadania controls our agricultural sector. If we send in the troops to sniff them out, it would cause a lot of damage to the land. We've only just started to settle from the last war, I don't want to cause more damage than there already is. I had asked the leader of the group who are causing this unrest to come and meet me and he had agreed. He was one of my own officers so he knew I was open to a compromise but when my father found out about this meeting, he sat up his soldiers to capture that man as soon as he entered the state. Papa thought he could cover it up but I know that 29 people died that night. And a fat load of good it all did for us. The news that the leader was dead reached the borders anyway and now they're coming for us in the droves because that killing convinced the rebels that we don't care about their opinion, we just care about power." Mirage said archly.

Nikoo felt stunned. "I didn't know about this. When did this happen?"

"Of course, you didn't know about it. It happened two days after my wedding. I had to go down to the border-line to see to it myself and I had to quiet down the people who were scared to death there, they thought the world was ending. I wanted to talk to the other troops but then I had to back away because the protests were getting out of control." Mirage sniffed. She went around to the other side and sitting down, took out Abid's knife from the desk drawer, fished it from its cover and started playing with it.

Nikoo stared unbelievably. "You went there yourself? But your Majesty; that would have been so dangerous for you."

Mirage shook her head irritably and pointed the dagger at her. "Nikoo, please don't pull that concerned shit over me. Just talk to me straight."

Nikoo stared, shocked at Mirage's choice of words and her sudden outbursts, and nevertheless obliged.

"Alright your Majesty, well, you shouldn't have gone there anyway. What if it had been an ambush? You could have been killed and you haven't yet arranged or announced for an heir to take your place if God forbid something happens to you." Nikoo asked in a flat voice.

"It wasn't an ambush." Mirage said firmly. "Anyway, the leader, officer Karim was killed in action. And I suppose that's why this group of revolutionists destroyed more than half the houses in the capital in Miranas last week." She stabbed a telegram lying in the middle of the desk from the army office in Miranas which explained the situation, and offered it to Nikoo.

"But that's a big city. How did they do so?" Nikoo asked as she took the telegram and scanned it.

"There are a lot of people who hate me right now, more so because of officer Karim's death. I suppose they got help. I mean, the villagers in Miranas wanted to fight, while the rich folks conceded to surrendering. Of course, this caused a lot of anger and now, the farmers and the villagers found someone to blame for the death of their leader. If they hadn't been so quick to surrender to Rehbartaj, then they might have had a chance at defeating us. Or so they think, as Abid there tells us." Mirage reached for a map, tossing the dagger back on the table.

"Well, so let's just see what we have here. We have 5 countries where the soldiers who occupied them are now in favor of giving the countries their freedom back; they've stopped any trade that goes into the occupied lands. The other eight countries which fought against you are mostly in such deplorable conditions that it will take months before they can come back to normal, our sources are slowly dwindling because we're cut off from the east and along with that, and we all know that if those rebels reach the other lands, or if the people in those occupied countries stand up to you than there is going to be a hell of a war. And along with that, we just got news that there seems to be a threat to your life from within the family itself." Nikoo ticked off the list on her fingers.

Mirage sighed. "There is always a threat to my life. And I'm telling you that the threat is not my husband."

"How can you be so sure?" Nikoo spoke darkly and Mirage looked heavenward.

"Look, I'm telling you. It's nothing. My husband had many opportunities to kill me. If he wanted to, he would have left me on my grandfather's boat. My father's warning is baseless." Mirage tried reasoning but Nikoo was already nodding her head.

"The threat is not your husband. It is your husband's father. And it is not only for you, it sis for your entire family." Abid turned to look at them.

Mirage rolled her eyes. "That man is useless. First, he thought he could play up Salar's hatred for my father by telling him that my father wanted me killed, and then he told my father that Salar wanted to kill me. He was just playing it all up for a fall. The man thinks I don't know anything."

The room was silent for a moment. It was stunning at times how Mirage knew so much that was supposed to be kept a secret from her. "How did you find that out?" Abid asked in a somewhat strangled voice.

Mirage shrugged nonchalantly. "I've started to make up my sources."

"How so?" Cyrus asked; his shot of vodka poised in mid-air.

"Well, in times of great peril, people must choose sides, don't you think? My sources chose the more powerful side." Mirage said simply.

Nikoo looked around at the others and coughed. Okay, so the new queen was a little cleverer than she thought.

"Well… Oh yes, another thing, there is the problem about your grandfather. Now that it's all out in the open about King Jahanshah, how your father helped him escape. Many people are wondering how you would cope with the title when your own father betrayed the nation, they don't know if they can trust you. What are you going to do about that?" Nikoo asked.

"Well", Mirage looked around, "I was thinking that since my father has already abdicated from the throne and since the only people who found out about King Jahanshah are the people in this room and my guards, I don't think there's anything I need to do about it. Even though my grandfather didn't die, my father did the right thing by taking his place and helping the country back up on its feet. Although", Mirage started to slowly walk towards Nikoo. "I would really like to know just how many people are wondering about my ability to rule." Nikoo didn't meet Mirage's eye. "I really do hope you haven't talked to anyone about it."

Nikoo cleared her throat. "No, your Highness. I haven't. But since I got the news from someone else, I figured that everyone already knew."

Mirage tilting her head, a small smile spreading across her face. "And who told you?"

Nikoo didn't say anything but looked furtively at Cyrus who looked back with a raised eyebrow. He had been the one who had briefed Nikoo on the conditions. Nikoo busied herself with reading a map. Taking the map from Nikoo's hands, Mirage looked at her intently.

"Nikoo, if you think that I cannot carry my job well then you need to say something now instead of hiding it behind other people's names." Mirage said in a low voice.

Nikoo looked up. "No, your Majesty. I have no doubts in your abilities."

Mirage could hear the underlying layer of sarcasm in Nikoo's voice. "I chose you for a reason, Nikoo." Mirage said dangerously. "I chose you because your people fought the hardest against mine. Your son fought against me, and you didn't bow down when my father came to you with that pittance he called a price for your freedom. You didn't let him buy you out. You fought, and we defeated you."

She paused as she saw a tremor of pain run across Nikoo's face. "We defeated you, and as much as I hated it, I suppose it was because of your stubbornness that you lost so many lives. You still thought you stood a chance against us. You should be grateful that I was holding you and your entire family as a prisoner in your own castle. I don't think you would have wanted to switch places with any of the prisoners whom I just released."

Nikoo stared into Mirage's eyes. Insolent child! Her father chose the wrong heir. I cannot believe I have to grovel to her. She's Sina's age and she's queen. She could have chosen my Sina to wed, but she probably knew he'd kill her as soon as her back was turned. Mirage could see the hatred in Nikoo's eyes, and reveled in it. She'd have great fun in making Nikoo jump through hoops to become her advisor. In time, they'd both develop a love-hate relationship which would probably work for Mirage. If not then it wasn't as if Nikoo was indispensable, Mirage could get rid of her with a snap of her fingers. Besides, she hated Nikoo because Kasra had been the most difficult to take over and she had lost many good men there.

"Now, I think you should stop thinking whether or not I deserve my title and my power and concentrate more on the fact that according to this map, Kasra is next on the list for that group to occupy and I need your full support if a time comes where you have to choose sides. You know the loss of so many lives was your own fault. I asked you three times to stand down but you didn't, and it wasn't like I wasn't going to fight back." Mirage looked at the map.

"Up to a few months ago, your men were my prisoners, but now since I've released them and given them back their livelihood by opening up the borders to them, most of the people in your country are on my side. They think that since the war, the situation has actually become a lot better. So, I don't think I'd like any conflicts in such a… passionate country. Now, I've already stationed my armies on the borders of the other eight former countries. There are no weapons, no food or water for the prisoners to use there, I run a tight ship so there are no spies or money-mongers for the prisoners to bribe. I pay my soldiers enough." Mirage handed Nikoo the map. "Now, I'm sure you've thought this through, but as an extra precaution, I had extra security set up around Kasra too so there aren't any problems for you or me. I want you to work with me because even though you weren't better than me, at least you showed promise that you cared about your subjects, but if you think that this is a problem you can't handle, than I can very well have someone else do the job instead."

Nikoo's chin jutted. "I can take care of it, your Highness."

Mirage nodded sweetly and whipped around. "Very well, if you say so."

"I can talk to my subjects." Nikoo insisted.

"You mean my subjects." Mirage corrected Nikoo and her jaw tightened.

"Yes. Your subjects. I can talk to them. Convince them that your coming into power will bring many positive changes for their future." Nikoo spoke.

"Well, why don't I do that myself?" Mirage picked up a pen and pushed the nib into the tip of her little finger.

Cyrus butted in. "And how will you do that?"

"Well, it's not like I have a parliament who is going to make a decision for me. If only there was some way I could talk to them all at once." Mirage said wistfully. "But what I want to do, I suppose, is bring in the people from each of the thirteen countries to a… sort of conference. Make them all meet each other; broaden their horizons and their minds. Businessmen, farmers, miners, housewives, children; it should be a festival. In the end, I'll meet them all personally. After the coronation, I'll go on a tour of the new kingdom. I've already chosen representatives from the former royal families who pledged their allegiance to me as caretakers of the new states. I'll need them all to come to that festival so that we can plan the next attack." Mirage threw the pen down and jumped up on the desk, seating herself on top of the papers.

"Your plan sounds very easy when said but there are many complexities to look after." Abid said calmly.

"Well, that's what I have you for." Mirage eased back and balanced herself on the palm on her hands.

Abid pursed his lips in a disapproving way. Mirage flicked her hand at him and turned to Cyrus. "You can take care of the security, can't you?"

Cyrus stared at Mirage as if she had just sprouted horns, which in his opinion might actually be the case. "I can, but Mirage, this is going to be on a huge scale, what you're asking us to do. We have to call upon the people, make them believe that this is not just some scheme to trap them, arrange for their transport, security, food and residency. You can't seriously expect us to…"

But Mirage waved him away. "Details."

Cyrus's mouth set in a grim line. Mirage could obviously see that Cyrus was not happy with this sudden decision. Nikoo was pissed at being talked to like an imbecile and even though he didn't want to, but Mirage could see that Abid wanted to talk to her about something important.

Out of curiosity, she hopped off the table and went to the door. Opening it, she turned to Cyrus and Nikoo.

"I'm tired now. I need to talk to Abid about my father's trip to the Sahilibur Islands." She lied. "Go."

Nikoo and Cyrus looked at Abid and then back at Mirage who just raised her eyebrows. Nodding, Nikoo inclined her head towards Mirage in what she classified as a bow. Since Mirage didn't expect Cyrus to indulge himself in such pleasantries, he gathered up some documents from the desk and huffed out of the door, following Nikoo out.

"We shall continue this discussion tomorrow morning. Until then, I think we should keep your current plans under wraps." He hissed as he stalked out.

Mirage grinned. "Whatever you say."

Closing the door, she turned to Abid and dropped her smile. Abid was looking at her rather seriously. She hated it when he did that. He had that same expression three months ago when she had finally met him after running away. She had told him to spare her the lecture and had walked away. After that, time had flown so quickly that she hadn't gotten the chance to apologize for her behavior.

She sighed and went up to the drinks trolley. Splashing some whiskey into a tumbler, she held it up in offer to Abid who frowned. Shrugging, she went to her seat behind the desk and slumped down sulkily like a reluctant child, sipping her drink. Abid floated towards her desk and sat in a seat opposite her.

They gazed at each other for a few moments. When she couldn't tolerate the silence any longer, she banged her now empty glass on the table and cracked her knuckles.

"Well?" She asked and Abid gave her a sour look. "Aren't you going to ask me anything?"

When Abid didn't say anything and kept gazing at her in a polite but disinterested way, Mirage settled into her chair and folded her arms, looking away grumpily.

Finally, Abid spoke to her directly. "How you are going to control your life is beyond me. You're still just a child."

Mirage mumbled. "I am not."

Abid smiled crookedly. "Never in my entire life would I have thought that your father would actually choose you to replace him."

Mirage turned and glared at him.

"At least not until he was dead." He added. "After that, I knew it would be you who would control everything."

"Now you're just contradicting your own words." She mumbled.

"Not really. I'm just stating the fact that I thought you would take over the throne many years later. Perhaps after your father was dead." He said.

Mirage frowned. "Well, he's not dead. And I'm queen."

"I can see that." Mirage could hear the smile in his voice.

"Fine." She straightened and looked at him in the eye. "What do you want to talk about?"

Abid regarded her with interest. "How about the future, rather than the past?"

"Fine by me."

Abid sat up and leaned forward with his elbows balanced on his crossed knee. "Are you happy with that boy?"

Mirage bristled. "First of all, I am ordering you and anyone else who matters that Salar will be referred to as 'His Highness, Prince Salar' or simply, 'Prince Salar'. If I hear someone call him 'that boy' one more time, I swear, I am going to slit that someone's throat."

Abid looked taken aback. He had no idea the queen was so taken with the prince.

"Of course, your Majesty." He obliged, noting that Mirage didn't ask him to call her by name as she used to do before she was queen.

Mirage didn't realize that she had stood up. She grabbed her tumbler glass and went to the drinks tray again. Abid's eyes followed her. She seems healthy enough, she's much healthier than before, her face isn't fixed in a passive expression anymore, and she's smiling a lot too. Perhaps Prince Salar presence did have some effect on her Majesty's behavior; not all of it negative, as King and Queen Sarosh had informed me.

Coming back with a rather large amount of whiskey in the small tumbler glass, she looked at him impatiently. "Good, now that that little irritation is settled, what would you like to talk about?"

Abid gazed at her. "Will you be able to manage the state affairs without-" But Mirage cut him short. "Yes, yes, I'll b able to manage the country's affairs without a parliament. It's been done that way for almost 100 years; I am not going to change that fact now because some people think I am too young to think straight."

Abid nodded and tsked inwardly. Such a temper these days.

"And? What else would you like to ask?" She asked and threw the drink down her throat. Abid hated her habit of drinking but it was the only thing she did some times to relieve herself of the stress.

"A new sort of revolution is brewing in the villages and rural areas. Do you really think that by holding a festival, you will be able to win them all?"

Mirage snorted. "Of course not. But at least it's a baby step. I'm not calling in the royalty, or the rich folks. I'm calling in the people who matter. It's going to take some time but I'll win them over."

Abid nodded again and spoke. "You were speaking earlier about the catalyst of the revolution."

Mirage gazed at him over the rim of the glass. "I did, yes."

"Do you want to know what it was?" He seemed eager to tell.

Mirage felt bored. "Sure."

Abid sat back. "It was the time you saved your father when you were young."

That stopped Mirage's tracks. She let go of the glass she was playing with and looked up. "Care to explain?"

Abid felt triumphant. "Well, firstly you need to know that the news of King Jahanshah's death could not be kept a secret. Baltoti is huge island. The news was sent to the rebels in Royasheen by the time you were awake."

"But their protests started a long time before that." Mirage mused.

Abid cleared his throat. "Yes, but they were small-scale."

Mirage settled her elbows on the desk and twiddled her fingers. "Carry on."

"The current situation is that when the news of King Jahanshah's death reached the rebels, they figured that this was probably your plan. Your father betrayed his own father and took over the throne. You pushed your father into a war which would have ruined the kingdom had we been defeated. Now, you are taking over the throne while your father is still alive. To many, it seemed like a takeover." Abid stopped as Mirage rolled her eyes.

"People cannot really be that stupid. King Jahanshah almost ruined the entire nation because he did nothing. Why are they thinking about him for? And father almost ruined it because the whole nation wasn't enough for him!" She exclaimed.

"It was your idea." Abid quipped.

Mirage took her elbows off the table and took the empty glass in her hand, examining it. "He could have executed it differently."

Abid chuckled. "On the contrary, I read your case on the invasion. It seems he did exactly as you told him to."

"And look where we are now!"

Abid tutted. "We are getting nowhere in this conversation."

Mirage set the glass down. "Look, what I see here is that the catalyst couldn't possibly have been my grandfather's death. If the whole world and their dogs know about the fact that grandfather is alive, than they would also know how we came about them. Then they'd know about my marriage, and the torture that my grandfather let Hami inflict on me and Salar. But that's not the case. How can you possibly make the connection?"

Abid took a deep breath. "It's not, although they think you killed your grandfather out of spite."

"Oh and how's that?"

"Many people consider king Jahanshah's era to be better than your father's and yours." Abid said quietly.

"How can they even consider that? More than half of those soldiers weren't even born then!" Mirage was near exploding and at the moment, all she wanted to do was kill that bastard who had started this rebellion and then go to bed with a large beef fillet.

"Because at that time, there wasn't any bloodshed. There wasn't any sacrifice. They could have lived their lives any way they wanted." Abid continued. "Mirage, humans are a very conservative creature. They live their lives in a very… rightist pattern. Change is inevitable, but when faced with such a change where their future is so drastically affected? Well, it creates a wall around them which they built themselves. They will stay with you as long as you read their minds and do exactly as they wanted. In king Jahanshah's era, there was leisure; there was a routine. When you and your father came along, things started to change. Do you remember the time your father was attacked and you managed to kill the attacker yourself?"

Mirage, who had luckily heard his last words since she had tuned him out, nodded. "Yes, I was 16."

Abid nodded at her and Mirage tried to remember the details. "I went to my father's study around evening. When I got there, I heard a struggle and when I opened the door, I saw my father's badly bruised and bloody face." She squinted her eyes and looked out in mid-distance. "He was really hurt and the assailant was about to plunge a dagger into my father's neck when I came up behind him, knocked the dagger out of his hand and broke his neck before he even realized what had happened."

"Exactly." Abid was nodding eagerly now and Mirage looked at him, amused.

"You saved your father but did you stop to think about the man who had attacked him?"

Mirage shook her head.

"It was one of your grandfather's supporters. Your grandfather wanted to go back to the throne after your father had exiled him. That was the first time you had posed a threat to him. When news of your heroic act reached him, your grandfather counted you as an enemy and so did his supporters." Abid said but Mirage interrupted him.

"But wait a minute. Abid?" She seemed far away. "Weren't you one of my grandfather's supporters? You switched loyalties when my father brought down the throne."

Abid's face grew dark. "I 'was' a supporter. Now, I am entirely at your father's service and I suppose yours as well."

Mirage didn't say more on the subject.

Abid continued. "This little rebellion started at the moment you twisted that man's neck and saved your father. Had he killed your father, King Jahanshah would have returned to the throne and have you all executed. He still had supporters at that time. The new generation was more on your father's side than your grandfather's."

"This is insane. How could this have been going on for so long? And why didn't you put a stop to this?" Mirage said angrily.

Abid spoke; his voice low. "We thought we did. But I suppose all these years, they kept it a secret. They needed something. An incident which would affect the people as a whole. The war was solution to their problems. Once it started, they fought, but only to get to where they wanted. You won, and that created a lot of enmity amongst the people against you. But then, after the mourning period, your father announced that you were going to be queen and that you were to be married."

"At that moment, I suspect the rebels were standing watch. They wanted to see what you would do. But then, the whole fiasco with your ladies-in-waiting happened and you took hold of that- Prince Salar and then we all know what happened." He concluded, as Mirage's eyes grew wide.

"And then I killed… my grandfather, and they were left without the one person they were all fighting for." She said, feeling dumbfounded. "But then shouldn't they stop?"

"On the contrary. They found it as an inspiration. They took your grandfather's name and used it to their advantage. They want a new democratic government and they want a leader who makes them happy. You're not it." Abid said, although with a twinkle in his eye which did not go by Mirage.

"But I haven't even started yet." She said, rather childishly.

"They don't care." He retaliated. "Do you know what they call themselves? Sons of Jahanshah, they really don't care about Jahanshah now though. New leaders are a dime a dozen to them." Abid said.

"But that's not fair." She faltered.

"That's politics." He shrugged. "And do you want to know who it was who provided the rebels with weapons, supplies and provisions for all those years?"

Mirage looked at Abid warily. "Surprise me."

"King Darius." He said, letting his glee escape for a millisecond before switching to his somber expression.

Mirage had caught that. This was a new thing to her. Abid was never gleeful about anything. Then suddenly, it hit her like a punch to the gut. She gulped. He was right. She didn't know what to say. Things that she had found out about just a few days ago unraveled slowly. She had been betrayed by her own people. People who came to her with a smile on their faces but sneers and murderous thought behind her back.

She looked up at Abid. All those years of his mentoring swirled in her mind. Abid once said that sometimes, sacrifice was necessary because even though the life of one human was important enough above the rest, sacrificing that one life could result in the bliss of a million other lives. She had no idea why he had said something like it at that time, perhaps it was because, coincidentally, she had asked about her grandfather, but now here she was. She was looking into his innocent, trusting, and concerned face and all she could feel was her breath leaving her lungs and not coming back. Her heart was hammering against her ribs. So this had been the plan all along. She hadn't expected such high levels of betrayal from someone she knew. Probably because she didn't think they were smart enough. No wonder pride was a sin.

And yet, she was too proud to let anyone believe they had gotten to her, even if it was her mentor.

Abid sat back and waited for Mirage to say something. He could see the anxiety in her eyes. He didn't want to do so but the child needed to know all the details, most of them at least. Her face was like a kaleidoscope of emotions when suddenly, her face smoothed into a passive expression.

Mirage finally sighed. "I was right. This is a disaster."

"One which you will fix. You need not worry so much about the situation at hand."

Mirage stared. "I think that's kind of my job."

"It is. But I have trust in you. When your reign starts, people will realize what your true intentions really are and for that, they'll take your side." He said soothingly.

Mirage gazed at him blankly.

Smiling at her expression, he got up and bowed. "Your Majesty. I have another appointment. May I be excused?"

Mirage gazed at him more before blinking slowly, "Sure." She breathed and Abid, gathering the papers and various stationary, retreated.

Reaching the door, he turned to ask her a question. Mirage was still staring at him.

"Your Majesty, I must ask. I got a report saying that King Darius hasn't been seen in the Rehbartaj castle for a few weeks now." He said, observing her for any change in expression but getting none.

Still in that blank expression, she said in a flat voice. "Oh… I had him killed."

Abid stared, shocked.

Slowly, her slightly raised eyebrows relaxed and blinking, a smile appeared at Mirage's lips and getting up, she picked up a document and reading it, turned her back to him.

Abid smiled back and exited, but even he knew that when talking to Mirage, you could never know whether she was telling the truth or not.

~0~

Mirage stretched in her sleep and reached to Salar's side, but not finding him, she grabbed his pillow and flung a leg over it and slept on.

He was due to arrive in the morning, and she wanted to be well-rested before she has to meet him. Not that it was going to do her any good. She hardly looked at herself in the mirror any more; she knew she had huge dark circles under her eyes, probably because she was up almost every night looking over the documents, maps and what not in her study. Not to mention that she felt very over-weight. She didn't like what she saw in the mirror if she ever caught a glimpse of herself. Just that night, after shooing all the maids away, Mirage had bravely stripped off her clothes and stared at herself in the mirror for a long time. Grabbing a handful of fat from her waist, she cried in dismay. It was funny, she had never cried before. In fact, she was always proud of her body. Although, she supposed that she deserved it. She had started eating like a pig during the past couple of months and the food obviously had to go somewhere and it wasn't like she was taking care of herself at all. It was a wonder Salar still found her attractive. She supposed the one good thing that came from being healthier than before was that her breasts were bigger, which she secretly counted as a thrilling victory against her genes and mother nature.

Still, feeling depressed, Mirage had pulled on one of Salar's long shirts which went down to her knees, and snuggling into her bed had promptly fallen asleep.

The sound of the scuffle didn't disturb her. She couldn't hear it. Her room, or rather Salar's room had so many anti-chambers, and she had chosen the one which was the deepest. It was strategy really, in case someone tried to attack them.

The scuffle turned into a sword fight. The twings and twangs of metal against metal echoed through the halls where they were joined by the sound of boots trampling against the stone floor. Shouts were heard. Suddenly, the sound of a gunshot rang and Mirage's eyes flew open. Quick as a cat, she had her robe on and her sword and pistol in both hands. The sounds of the swordfight continued, and another bang reverberated, stronger than before. Mirage looked around. The window was open. Marching up to it, she looked out. She was high up in the air. She could see the soldiers swarming the castle. It was pandemonium down there. Suddenly, the double doors blasted open and Mirage twisted to see Sepehr and her guards flood her room. All had their swords at the ready with a gun in their other hand, like Mirage.

"What's going on?" She looked around as the men flocked around her and moved her away from the window, slamming the door shut behind them.

Sepehr had a bloody nose. "There are at least 30 to 40 of them out there."

"Who?" She threw a look at the door as the shouting outside grew near.

"Rebels. They're here for you." He dabbed at his nose gingerly and snatching her arm, dragged her to the closet. Throwing it open, he pressed his hand to the back of the wall, searching for something. Mirage stared at him as if he had lost his mind.

"But how did they even get inside the castle?" She asked, askance.

"They must have had an inside source. There's no way they could have gotten so close without actually getting any help." Aryan blew his hair out of his eyes as he spoke. Pushing Sepehr aside, Aryan stuffed his hand amongst the clothes and suddenly, the painting hanging above the fireplace shook and groaned. Mirage stared in shock as it vibrated and opened in the middle to reveal a large and wide passageway. She felt the men push her towards it and she obliged wordlessly. Climbing on the mantel, she scurried in after Sepehr into the tunnel which steeply led her down. She could hear the men climb in after her and felt a bit reassured.

"But that's crazy. How could they have gotten here?" She ogled back at them and heard the painting vibrate back to its original place. In unison, kerosene lamps lit up the passageway and Azin poked her in the back to carry on walking. Aryan and Sam turned their backs to them, their guns at the ready, covering the rear.

"Well, we'll find that out once they catch them." Sepehr gestured back to the painting.

They fell silent as various sounds came back to them. The rebels were coming close to them. She could hear them through the walls.

"We have to go out and fight; we can't just stay here and do nothing!" Mirage stopped and turned around but Sepehr shook his head. Sam and Aryan blocked her path instinctively.

"Mirage, you are our prime responsibility, along with theirs. You cannot go out. We have to protect you." Sepehr said grimly and made to walk on.

"But-"

Sepehr whipped around. "Mirage, you are a queen now. You have to be protected. For Allah's sake, you need to think. Do you know what will happen if you are killed? They'll take over; they'll kill anyone who is associated with you, which means a bloodbath in Rehbartaj and here. They'll kill all those in favor of the war, and they won't care whose dying, whether it's a child or an old man. If you go out there then it's over, because they'll kill you, they'll kill us, they'll kill your whole family and then they'll move on. Those rebels have no idea what's in store for them, they've started a war when we really don't have the energy for one and they know it. Those people out there are illiterate, they're following the preaching of a man who believed that champagne and women were the two orders of the day. And they want that luxury, and I'm telling you, they won't let anyone stand in their way!" Sepehr deflated as he caught the look of shock on Mirage's face and suddenly looked taken aback by his own outburst.

Mirage felt a sudden panic spread across her limbs. "But what about my family?" Her question seemed childish, even to herself.

Shaya gently pushed a stunned Sepehr back amongst the men and cajoled her. "They are being taken out of the castle as we speak. I don't know if this passageway is interconnected with the rest of them, so I don't think you'll be able to meet them, but they're safe. Come on now, we have to keep going if you want to meet them." Taking her hand, he led her forward. In her heart, perhaps it was a selfish thought, but Mirage felt comforted by the fact that at least Salar was away from it all. One less person to worry about, she thought.

Feeling uncertain, Mirage carried on. The steps were very steep and broken at a few many places. The passageway grew narrower as they went on. Many times they'd hear a scream echo through the castle and Mirage would pray that whoever it was wasn't dead. Stopping for a minute, Mirage looked up at the walls. They were old and decked with cobwebs. And up there, she could see a loose stone with a ray of light shooting in through the gap.

Pulling Rostam, the tallest of them towards her, she made him kneel and stood on his shoulders to look through the gap. At first, she couldn't see anything but bright light. Adjusting to it, her eyes focused. She was looking directly into the corridor leading to the dining hall. She could see a couple of bodies lying on the floor, and judged from their clothes that they were probably part of the rebel group. It was strange how brightly lit the castle was. Suddenly, she saw Abid stride purposefully through the corridor to the hall with his own sword in hand and a gun strapped to his belt. His sword glistened with blood. Her eyes followed him as he looked around, probably for more rebels. Slithering down, she tied her robes tightly around her waist and stomped down the stairs, anxious to get out.

The men followed suit and trooped on. They must have been near the dining hall when it happened. Mirage felt the walls growing closer and concentrated on moving forward when suddenly Shaya's arm shot out and they stopped, not even moving an inch. Mirage's ears strained to hear what Shaya had just heard. She heard a rustle and Sepehr moved close to her, his breath against her hair. Cocking his head to hear what Shaya had heard, he narrowed his eyes in concentration. Finally, he heard it too, and his eyes met with Shaya. Mirage could see horror mirrored in their eyes.

The men behind her looked confused. Mirage chewed on her lip. She knew better than to speak now.

Shaya and Sepehr looked back at the other men and they all shuffled forward, sandwiching her in between. And that's when she heard it. A faint but clear scream. Words from a female. Help. Murder.

Shoving Shaya and Sepehr aside, Mirage ran down the steps, almost slipping once or twice. Who could it be? Could it be her mother? Or her siblings? Or Tatiana? She felt Sepehr's hand grip her arm and she turned.

"I HAVE TO GO THERE. I HAVE TO SEE WHO IT IS. I CAN'T STAY HERE!" and with that, she tore down the rest of the steps. She couldn't just run away. Allah knew what was happening in the castle. She didn't know whether her family was being hacked to pieces as that very moment or were they being safely smuggled out of the castle. She didn't know whether she would see Salar again. Her heart panged. She didn't even know if she would see her mother again. It was physically hurting her that she might never speak to her family.

Finally, she saw it and her heart sank. It was a dead-end. The damn tunnel had led them to a dead end. Mirage struggled for breath as the others caught up with her.

"WHAT… DO… WE… DO… NOW?" She asked between gasps of air.

Reaching across her, Sepehr handed her back to the men and she felt someone pat her on the back and she coughed. Reaching up to the ceiling, Sepehr fumbled for something. Finally, he found what he was looking for, and pulling on a rusty thin chain, he stepped back as the wall opened with a thump. Pushing the door open, Sepehr looked about for any signs of danger. Mirage looked over his shoulder and gasped.

People were running all over the place. She could see a couple of her own ladies-in-waiting scurry away, their faces streaked with tears and fear. Soldiers pushed them towards the exits as they entered the castle. She must be near the entrance. Many of the soldiers were injured; even one's eye was gashed. They were all running into the castle. Mirage felt Sepehr pull her to him and he draped his large coat on her shoulders. Pulling a scarf out of his pocket, he wrapped it around her face.

Pulling her out, Sepehr blended in with the crowd of soldiers. The other men followed and kept close as they came near the castle entrance. She could smell the wet scent of the rainforest. She could feel the wind against her cheeks. And yet, she knew she had to go back in. She couldn't leave. And that's when she saw him. Abid skulked towards the direction of the halls as discreetly as he could. That meant he knew where her family was. She had to go to him.

She was steps away from the entrance when she suddenly slipped her arms out of Sepehr's coat, and turning, ran in the opposite direction. She heard Sepehr's yell of outrage and dodging the swipes her men made at her, she serpentine-d her way back in. Pulling the scarf off her head, she wrapped it around her waist to keep it tight. She could hear people's gasps as she ran for it. Abid had taken a left nearby. She could hear her friends running after her. After all, how could she miss the sound of eight pair of stomping feet amongst the light thumping of the frightened servants and bravado-fuelled soldiers?

Out of the corner of her eye, she finally caught Abid taking a right turn and followed. She had to get to him as quickly as she could. Her guards would catch up with her soon enough. She could imagine what was going through Sepehr's head right then. She didn't want to think about it. Her mind went blank as she ran. Adrenaline rushed through her body. She heard the swipe of a sword before she saw it, and without warning, she slashed her own sword into the air. The blade ripped right at the attacker's neck. He didn't stand a chance. Mirage twirled and caught sight of her men. She was right, they were right behind her. Angry and outraged, but still doing their job. She turned the corner around which Abid sprinted and disappeared. Rounding the corner, she halted. It was like a battle field going on. The hall which had been used for her wedding was now splattered with blood. Bullets were being fired, swords were being swiped into the air, and bodies were falling. Thankfully, none of the bodies were clad in uniform.

She saw Abid run off behind the pillars to a door hidden in a corner. The door opened and Abid disappeared inside. As soon as she heard Sepehr scream out, 'DON'T YOU DARE,' she shot straight through the fight. She hacked and ripped at the rebels in their signature grey clothes, catching the shocked expressions of the soldiers as she flew by. Her men had no choice but to follow and fight. They entered with a roar and Mirage looked back. They were like thick trees; the poor rebels didn't stand a chance. She saw Sepehr grab a man by the neck with his bare hands and throw him against a pillar, smashing his spine. She had taught him to do that. She felt a wave of emotions run through her. She spied Behroz at the balcony, twisting a man's arm into a very peculiar angle. He had volunteered to stay behind for her protection. She felt her heart contract. She should have gotten the men to bring him along. But right now wasn't the time for that.

She felt elated. She didn't even feel any pain from the flesh wound on her thigh she must have sustained which was now bleeding, and suddenly, she was near the door. She'd be with her family. She'd protect them. All she had to do was open the door.





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