The next morning, Aara, the second oldest of the ladies stumbled into the room under the weight of more than a dozen large scrolls of parchment and then some. The others took the scrolls away from Aara and helped her put the rest on Mirage's bed. Saulta had her private quarters made on top and she often disappeared off to her special domain whenever the castle and her family would make her feel suffocated. In contrast to her tower, the Saulta room was stuffy yet cozy and decked in crimson velvet, gold-tinted furniture and a glass ceiling. It was Mirage's childhood dream to have an utterly girly and rich room. The ladies were draped at the numerous settees and divans around the room. Relaxed; listening and watching Mirage who was standing on the bed having pulled up her shirt and vest to reveal her taut stomach was showing them a long scar on the side of her stomach which had resulted from an unfortunate tumble from her horse and was reminiscing about her training days when Aara had stumbled in, victorious in her mission.
"Did you get them all?" Mirage asked excitedly, jumping from the bed and running up to her.
"It was difficult. Your room looked terrible. The dresser was missing. But I got you…" She struggled to discard a large bag slung off her back and Mirage snatched it from her. "And I had some trouble getting the portraits from your father's study but a guard helped me. You were right. Since I'm not new, no one even noticed me come in and go. Because we are so many, they couldn't place my face correctly." She giggled.
"Oh thank goodness. I missed you." Mirage cooed at the stash of sweets in the bag. "We'll need Saulta to get a new desserts chef, write that down, Tati." she said, handing the back to Tatiana who just nodded.
She went back to her bed and flopping on it, sat against the footboard. "Well, let's get this show on the road. Show me the first contestant." She called out to the girls who had each taken a scroll from the total of twelve in their hands while the rest settled back.
"Who's first?" Mirage asked in general.
A simple looking girl in brown clothes stepped forward. "This is Prince Omid's portrait, your grace." And unfurling it, she started as Mirage burst out laughing.
"That's Omid? God he's gone ugly." Mirage remarked at the portrait of a man in his thirties, with dead grey eyes and a bald head. His features reminded her of a bald eagle.
"Next." Mirage waved her hand dismissively.
Aara stepped forward. "Prince Sina." and unfurled the portrait. Mirage straightened. "I like…" She murmured. She had seen Sina almost 7 years ago on an expedition to Kasra where he had mistaken her for her brother Razin since she had had her hair cut to her ears and was wearing men's clothes. She had even made up her face to look a bit rough. That day had been her first public outing in her life. She still remembered his friendly slap on her bottom and his priceless expression when she had turned and grabbed his arm, twisting it behind his back. He wasn't as dashing then. Yet, after an intense fist fight, she grew to like him because he was the only one who knew who she was and had kept it a secret.
His wavy black hair was bound in dreadlocks. His eyes; sharp and brown looked at her from the portrait as if they were alive. She looked at his full lips which she had been oozing blood the last time she had seen him. His skin was chocolate-y brown. Mirage smirked. He'd be a great candidate. I don't know why I didn't think of him before.
"Next." She shouted. This went on for quite some time as they all enjoyed making fun or drooling over some of the portraits.
"I saved Sahilibur for last." Tatiana said, indicating to the scroll in her hand.
"Why?" Mirage asked, amused.
"I've seen the prince before. Three years ago, when your father and mother went there for some economic meeting; I saw him attend it and I know you'll like him."
"Will I? Show me then." She grinned and waved the girl away who was just about to show the portrait of Prince Arya from Qushaab. She knew him already and had called him a 'lily-livered swine' at their last meeting. Arya had just gone red, since he had begged her not to kill him but take the rest as her prisoners. She had punched him. Her father had loved it.
Tatiana grinned back and standing up from her usual place beside Mirage on the bed, stepped back and threw the portrait open with a flourish. The girls looked at Mirage who was now staring at the portrait, wide-eyed.
Finally after a few moments of silence, Mirage sat up, spread her arms wide and announced, "Ladies, I think we have a winner!"
The good times had gone away like a snap. It was the night of the 3rd day. She had to go back. Her companions were becoming antsy. Reluctantly, Mirage said goodbye to her host and climbed on her horse and looked up at the Rehbartaj castle which cast a huge shadow on the village. The moon was full and looked beautiful.
Right under his nose and he doesn't even know it, Mirage thought and feeling instantly better called out to the girls to open the stable doors behind the Saulta club.
"I told you this stable would come in handy." Mirage said to Tatiana who reluctantly smiled.
As the horse trotted out, Mirage wondered what her father would say to her now. No one outside of the castle knew than Mirage had run for it. She remembered back to the last three days; how procession after procession had crossed the streets into the castle, camels and elephants struggling to walk, their backs laden with what she assumed were gifts for the royal family. She even caught sight of the potential grooms and couldn't help giggling like a little girl at the thought.
Even she had to admit, some were as handsome as their portraits made them out to be. Few stayed inside the carriages, heads down, not acknowledging the crowds outside, while the others seemed to spilling out, waving to the people, nodding their heads to the people's greetings and smiling as if that's what they'd been trained for their entire lives. Crown Prince Arshia from Zalbana was from the latter. He was lean with shoulder-length brown hair and cheerful eyes, not betraying the pain he still felt from his legs. He had been one of those who had been captured and tortured during the invasion and his release had been Mirage's personal work. She remembered his face and how she had been the only one who had noticed that although he was hanging out of the carriage window, with his stomach supporting him on the ledge; his legs were planted firmly inside.
One of the last two princes was arriving any moment now. Prince Salar from the much famed Sahilibur and Prince Sina from Kasra. Earlier, she had been very much surprised when she had seen two carriages go by, each carrying her former friends, Princess Goli from Royasheen and Princess Azila from Asalzin. Both refused to acknowledge the crowds outside and with noses in the air, they didn't even notice that at both times, Mirage was at the front of the crowds, staring at them, open-mouthed. Before; their arrival would bring her joy. Now she squirmed at the thought of facing them. She had done the ultimate betrayal, stabbed them in the back. Maybe her father had called them because he thought that their presence might calm her. Idiot, she fumed.
She had had a close call earlier that evening when she had bumped into one of the guards in the street. Now that she was publicly known, and since her damn eyes were one of a kind, she knew that many people would recognize her. She had used a scarf to hide her entire face but after a night where she had an unfortunate incident with a fire torch and too much alcohol, she used a simple shawl. When she had bumped into the guard, she had let go of her shawl thus exposing her face. The guard turned to look at her and in an instance; she was shoved into an alley, a vice-like grip on her arm. As she adjusted her shawl, she became aware that discreetly, her ladies were making way towards her, Tatiana within arm's reach and she felt relieved. The guard took a right and when they were between the backs of two houses, he let her go and stared at her. Mirage wasn't angry at being manhandled like that because she already knew who the guard was, and as soon as the guard had let go of her shoulders, she had launched herself into his arms.
Not caring that she was probably going to hell for touching an unrelated man since she never did, she slung her arms around the man's neck, and squealed, "When did you get back? I was so worried."
She let go of Sepehr and straightened smiling sheepishly and feeling a bit hurt that he didn't hug her back. He'd gone with the visiting team to Sirganjh.
Sepehr glared at her, his gaze murderous "Where have you been?" He said through gritted teeth.
Giggling, she reached out and wiggled his cheek, "Hiding, my dear. Now tell me, how was it?"
Taking her hand and shoving it away, he closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Stop asking me! You know your father wanted to kill me. He screamed that because of me, you get such hare-brained ideas." He said; his eyes closed as he tried to regain his composure.
"That doesn't make sense. You weren't even here." She snorted with derision.
"He meant that I had spoiled you. You were simple minded before. For Allah's sake, Mirage, I leave you alone for a month and you almost bring the castle down. What were you thinking?!" He shouted in her face.
She stood silently and looked at him, too happy to care that she was being scolded. She was just happy that Sepehr was back. Sepehr and she had had a long history, and along with being her head bodyguard in the team of her 8 bodyguards, he was also Tatiana's husband and Mirage's best friend. They were also Mirage's dream parents. Mirage had been the one who had matched them together, her first proud act of girlishness 7 months ago. Their marriage had been a topic of great controversy and envy. Tatiana had reveled in it since many girls lusted after Sepehr.
Having had accepted the home religion by the time she was 12, she had chosen the name Niki but since she was Tatiana to too many, her actual name stuck. Everyone knew her as Niki but really, she would always be Tatiana and soon Niki was forgotten. Sepehr was 8 years older than both Tatiana and Mirage and really looked like a huge block of muscle. Mirage had once challenged him to a full course marathon when he was 12 and after that; Seph had liked exercising so much that he had gone overboard with it. Now he looked like he had taken the muscles of 3 men and placed them on his body. Bald, with a short beard and mustache, black eyes and a rather large nose and mouth, he stood at a good 6 feet 5 inches, and would look comical if he didn't always have such a menacing look on his face. Tatiana was the only person who could make him melt with one look.
"You are going back, right now. I won't hear anything against it. And what have you been doing? Why didn't you stop her?" He asked Tatiana, turning towards her.
Tatiana's eyes hardened, "You think I had a choice?! It's not my fault, you know how she is."
Sepehr stared at her and Mirage could actually feel the tension between them, though the way they were staring at each other, she wasn't sure it was angry tension.
Clearing her throat, she broke the connection between the two and smiled, "She's right. It's not her fault, and you know how I am."
Sepehr reluctantly tore his gaze from his brazen bride and looked down at her, "Yes I know. You're going home, right now." He repeated.
Mirage pursed her lips and tilted her head. She raised her eyebrows about a fraction and kept looking at him. A women's hard gaze was Sepehr's undoing.
He kept glaring at her and then after a moment, sighed. "Tonight than." He stated. He knew Mirage was stubborn.
Smiling sweetly, Mirage nodded, and said, "I'll go back to the procession. You two need a moment to…talk." She said, waving her hand at Tatiana, "And be sure to tell me all about Sirganjh."
She directed her ladies to the street and waving; wandered off back to the throng as a cheer went up. An open carriage went by and she tilted her head as a handsome dark-haired man dressed in blue caught her eye from the carriage, seated beside her brother-in-law, Cyrus. He vaguely reminded her of Prince Salar but it couldn't be him. He wasn't due to arrive for some hours. So she stared back at him as the carriage went past. The man stood up in the carriage to look at her and was instantly yanked back down. That's when she remembered that her eyes were still on display. Pulling the shawl up to her eyes, she smiled goofily as she felt the timid hands of her ladies-in-waiting on her elbows guide her back towards the general direction of Saulta. She didn't wait for Tatiana, who Mirage knew would arrive back after a good hour, judging from the way a grinning Sepehr took Tatiana's hand and dragged her away into the alley, a smirk on Tatiana's face.
Salar looked out at the vision before him. Rehbartaj! It was as beautiful as he had imagined. Grudgingly, he accepted that the setting sun; which was a famed sight in Rehbartaj did make the ocean look like it was on fire behind him and the light it cast on the kingdom showed that it indeed did look like God's crown. Looking over at the pier, he grinned smugly. There was the king's son-in-law, Cyrus standing beside the armed personnel to escort him and his father to the castle.
"Stop smirking, you look like an ass." Behroz grumbled behind him and prodded his back to move him forward.
As the gangplank was lowered, Salar gave himself time to think. Now that he knew who every person in the castle was; he'd have no trouble locating and seducing this Mirage and make sure that she was head over heels for him. He hadn't yet met a girl who was unaffected by his charms, and although she was known to be somewhat of a hard-headed person, Salar was sure that would pose no challenge for him.
He was finally in front of Cyrus. Cyrus bowed slightly and looked up in his eyes, and he didn't know why but as Salar shook Cyrus's hand, he had a feeling that he liked this man.
"Right this way," Cyrus directed, "And welcome to Rehbartaj."
Salar smiled and walked the short way up to the handsome open-air carriage with seats for four. It was brown and simple. Behroz said in a low voice as he passed by Salar to get to his horse, "At least it's not decked with flowers and ribbons."
Glancing at Salar's expression, Darius huffed, "You always think the worse in everything." He said as Salar stroked the wheel of the carriage with his long fingers and gripping it got in, seating himself beside Cyrus as his father climbed in. The driver chirruped at the horses and they broke into a steady trot, making their well-rehearsed way to the castle.
He could hear the people chattering, the throngs excited to see the latest cut of meat for their darling princess. The crowds grew bigger as the procession carried on to the castle. He looked around at them all, taking in the energy and their expressions. He kept meeting Behroz's eye who just shook his head and gestured Salar to ignore the cheering crowds. What he had expected was smugness, hostility and rudeness, but in reality, it seemed like the people weren't making fun of the princes but were actually excited that they were coming. Either they were being sympathetic or didn't know the full details about what had happened at the invasion. He knew that none of the countries had actually said anything against this marriage plan.
Salar felt it was a weird decision on King Sarosh's plan. Maybe he's lost it, he thought. Suddenly, his eye caught something and he turned his head. There, in the middle of it all stood a girl at the back of the crowd, covering her face with a black scarf. Only her eyes were visible, and it was those which caught his attention; big, whitish blue and shining. He immediately recognized her as Mirage. Staring at her, he couldn't believe it. What was she doing in the middle of the crowds? He wasn't even supposed to meet her until tomorrow. The carriage went past her and without thinking; he jumped up onto his feet, still looking at the unblinking eyes.
Darius took Salar's hand and pulled him down, "What are you doing?" He asked, keeping his temper in check, but Salar knew he would have probably hissed.
"It's nothing. Sorry." Salar muttered, flustered.
Ignoring the fact that he was slightly breathless and his heart seemed to be going erratic, Salar smoothed his shirt and straightened up. If only her eyes seemed to have such power over him, Salar felt a bit confused as to what would actually happen when he would present himself to her the next day.
Behroz rode to Salar's side and nodded his head, asking Salar what was wrong. Salar stared pointedly in the general direction of the girl but as soon as he turned to look back, she had disappeared; dissolved in the damn crowd. I'm losing it now, I should have never seen her portrait, she keeps popping up everywhere, Salar thought grumpily and as they approached the castle, he glanced up at it and his curiosity made the decision for him to go for a little tour tonight after everyone else had gone to sleep so he could do a thorough investigation into the veracity of the princess's residence.
Mirage hopped off her horse, the moments in Saulta a distant memory. It was quite late, around 2 in the morning and she was still thinking about her father's expression. What he would say when she'd shamelessly walk up to the breakfast table, not acknowledging the fact that she'd been gone, she chose to ignore at the moment. The gaggle of girls behind her ushered her into the castle doors and up the main stairs past the guards who remained motionless but had slight frowns on their faces. Mirage stared rudely at one who grew red in the face as she hurried past. Even the guards have an attitude now, she thought angrily.
"I can walk." Mirage snapped at the ladies holding onto her arms.
"We know you can but it'll be better if you just go up fast. If someone sees you it'll be my head on the chopping board." Tatiana hissed as she grabbed hold of Mirage's elbow.
Snatching her arms back, she fell back a bit so she was in the middle of the group. "Happy? Now people will only see all of you, and not me. I'm just another face." Mirage said, massaging her arm, "So don't come near me."
Tatiana resisted the urge to roll her eyes in exasperation.
After a few minutes of hushing along, the guards thinned to nothing and the ladies started whispering happily amongst themselves as they rounded each corner and advanced towards the tower, relieved that they wouldn't be caught since there wasn't anyone else on the upper floors. Over the past few days, they had gotten to know Mirage well and were now relaxed that Mirage wouldn't mind if they talked to each other in her presence.
"So far, so good." Tatiana whispered beside Mirage as she steered her by the small library and took a right. Just then, there was a gasp from the front part of the group and they all halted, pulling their scarves up to hide their faces. Mirage; who wasn't scared to death a minute ago was near hyperventilation as Tatiana started shaking with dread. The girls stayed frozen for a few seconds when there came a voice.
"I am sorry, ladies. I was lost. Could you please direct me to the kitchens?" It said. In that instant, Mirage forgot everything about being scared. This was an unfamiliar voice. It was obviously one of the princes however, judging from the deep and somewhat sultry smooth voice.
The girls in the front of the group said nothing, but bowing and stepping aside, one of them pointed towards the end of the corridor behind them. All the girls hastened to part to either side to make way for him. That was when Mirage caught sight of the man. She had to bite the inside of her lip to hold her sudden giggle, which she couldn't for the life of her pinpoint where it came from. It was the man from the portrait; and the carriage, the one who couldn't get enough of her. On close inspection, the man was easily more than 6 feet, and broad, Mirage noted with satisfaction. She liked that in a man. Thighs clad in black trousers which did little to show his modesty in his appearance since they hung from his hips, gently contouring his muscles. His tunic; slightly open at the top was dark green and same as his trousers; showed that he liked how he looked since he seemed to be ripping out and the green of his shirt shined a light in his emerald eyes, his tousled jet-black hair gently gleaming from the candle lights. His face was rugged, with a square jaw, full lips and high cheekbones; and she could see the hint of a deep scar on his neck running to his back. Mirage involuntarily shivered. Oh yes, you'll do just fine, she thought as was just about to step in front of him when he smiled. It was mischievous.
"Isn't it a bit late for you all to be roaming around the castle at night?" He asked, amused and then his eyebrows rose a bit as all the girls but one stepped aside. A girl at the right side did a double-take and emitted a groan. The one in front of him had her entire face covered. She was dressed like a commoner in her numerous skirts and cheap vest. He was a bit uncomfortable at her stance. Was she stunned that I'm talking to them? Not the first one to be like that but still… He thought to himself but the next moment his mouth fell open as she let go of the scarf that covered her face and there she was; standing in all her glory; Princess Mirage of Rehbartaj.
She enjoyed his face change as he registered her identity and snapping his mouth shut, he bowed. Smirking slightly, Mirage stepped forward and daringly put a hand on his shoulder. The physical contact sent a strange current along her arm straight to her stomach but ignoring it, she stayed her ground as the prince straightened up, himself ignoring the fact that she was standing so close to him.
The girls behind Mirage bristled at the contact. Pursing her lips slightly, she chose to deal with them later and said to the prince, "If you need food than you could have just asked any of the guards or the numerous servants who were waiting on hand and foot. You shouldn't have troubled yourself."
The prince looked startled. Blinking, he nodded and gave her a slight crooked smile, "If I may be so bold, if I had done that than I wouldn't have had this rare opportunity to meet with you without an audience. A larger one, I mean" He gestured towards her ladies who didn't meet his eye.
"It's all right; you're not bold at all." Mirage said, tilting her head. "You wanted to talk to me about something; something that couldn't be said tomorrow?"
He stared at her. As unhinged as he had become for a moment at seeing that it was Mirage, he was becoming more unsettled over the fact that she wasn't blushing, stuttering or giggling in his presence. This had never happened to him before. He was famed for his ability to render a woman speechless in lust just by his appearance. That's why he'd thought of wandering about the castle in those God-awful clothes, hoping he'd catch the princess during his sneak session. The prince nodded, "Well, if I could."
Mirage nodded and stayed silent, thinking. What the hell, what have I got to lose! Saves me days and grueling hours of looking at the others… she thought and sighed as if she was coming to a decision.
"What is your name?" She asked.
He clicked his heels together, "I am prince Salar."
She stayed blank. Better not let him feel that I've already lusted after him in my dreams.
"Of Sahilibur" he said tightly.
Recognition dawned on her and she nodded eagerly. "Oh yes. I've met your father… Nice man." She added. She had seen someone fitting the description of King Darius at the feast but hadn't had a chance to talk to him properly, having only exchanged slight pleasantries. A pig, but a somewhat nice pig, she chose to not add.
Prince Salar smiled, "Yes he is."
"Well, let's not just stand here. I hate such pleasantries." Mirage said suddenly, snapping out of her princess-y state of good manners. Pointing towards the library behind her, she said, "Shall we get this over with?"
Salar stared at her than at the library door. The girls behind her were all staring at him; the girl who had groaned at the princess was shaking her head at him frantically, a few curly brown locks peeking from underneath her scarf.
He shrugged, "Sure", not bothering to be formal.
Turning, Mirage went to the library door which was opened by the brown-haired girl. She glared at him as he went in. He heard Mirage whisper something to the brown-haired girl who seemed to be arguing with the princess. Looking around, his eyes adjusted to the darkness. The moon shone on the leather spines of the books on the shelves opposite to the huge glass window. The room was huge and books were scattered here and there.
"I know my way around the castle, Tatiana. Leave. NOW" He heard Mirage say. "That goes for all of you. I don't want anyone listening at the door." He turned to see the girls back away, alarmed. The girl called Tatiana stared at Mirage and after a moment said something to Mirage in Greek.
Mirage rolled her eyes and replied something back with ferocity than switched to normal, "I can take care of myself, now shut up." She said, "And good night." And finally, she shut the door in Tatiana's face.
She spun around to look at him and after a few silent moments as they heard the ladies' footsteps falter away, she said in a clear voice, "You can drop the act now."
Salar's eyes widened, "Forgive me, my princess, but I don't know what you mean."
Rolling her eyes, she walked past him and removed her scarf from her head before flopping down into an antique burgundy armchair by the window. Her long hair tumbled down her back and she took a great deal of satisfaction as he eyed her with a hint of lust before he blinked, and the lust was gone.
"I know you hate me. No need to act so civilized. You want to curse at me?! Berate me?! Go ahead. I'm all ears." She said, sounding bored.
Salar gaped at her. This wasn't what he had expected. He had expected her to swoon in his arms, but then he mentally slapped his head. She's not like most girls, he thought, Stop messing it up, Salar.
He stayed where he was and said in a low voice. "I'm not here to harm you or curse you in any way, princess."
Mirage raised an eyebrow skeptically. Sure, and cows sing in the opera. Wait, they do… Focus! She chided herself.
"I'm not."Salar said, taking a step forward and suddenly kneeling down in front of her. She didn't back away. "I know what happened was fate. It had to happen. No one could have stopped it. What happened was for the betterment of the future." He ran a hand through his hair, "I came here to make sure that you'd know that even though you might feel alone, I will never judge you, because you weren't the one who wanted all this. You wanted peace, and if the others think that all the bloodshed, all that sacrifice was done with your consent, than they are mistaken, because looking at you, I feel. No, I know, that you are different and that you'll make a great Queen."
His breath was minty and his expression open. She knew a con artist when she saw one. Oh really. Well, let's see what you'll do next, Mirage thought. Mirage gazed at him and for a second got the sudden image of stroking his jaw.
Tilting her head, she leaned forward instead with another thought. Salar froze.
Whispering, she tested him, "I took everything." Her voice suddenly seemed laced with venom. She put her elbows on her knees and settled her chin in her hands, moving even further so that they were almost nose to nose, looking into each other's eyes; his blank and hers narrowed.
Salar stayed frozen. What's wrong with her? Where's she going with this? He thought.
"I took your country right from under you. While you slept in your dainty little beds, my soldiers barged in and violated your country. Your freedom!" She whispered; her voice making his spine shiver as her slight breath hit his lips, "You think you're so clever, making yourself into this seemingly intimidating hulk of mindless muscle. You think I'll be impressed by all this stupidity?"
Salar breathed, gritting his teeth slightly as he tried to compose himself. She's trying to provoke you, stay CALM, he thought.
"You'll never be king. You'll never know what it's like anymore; to look out over the balcony at your adoring people, knowing that you're responsible for them, their lives." Reaching out, she gently placed a finger under his chin, "I don't care about the bloodshed. I don't care about sacrifice. I wanted to make Rehbartaj the most powerful country in the world." She scoffed.
Salar stared at her, his mind blazing with fury. Like hell it'll ever be the most powerful country, you poisonous little snake, he thought, looking at her eyes widen with her insincere smile.
"You think I care that your people or someone else who got killed? No, I don't." Mirage said cruelly. "I planned everything. Who to kill, who to let live, and who to torture. I told the armies to move ahead and kill on sight. I was the one who was giving orders and if you think that by sweet-talking me; and appealing to my sensitive side will make me like you than you are sorely mistaken! I have no sensitive side, and even if I am going to marry, don't think for a single minute that I'll ever grow a heart and suddenly start caring, so you can take your feelings and your promises of understanding me and shove it where the sun will never shine!" She snarled, grabbing his chin and whipping it aside.
Salar snapped. His hand reached out and in an instant, his hand was on her throat, the armchair had been upturned and her feet were dangling from the air, pinned against the glass window. The glass behind her head cracked. He tilted his head forward, looking into her eyes. Her hands were hanging loose on her sides, and despite her lack of oxygen, her expression was passive. In that moment, she looked sad and disappointed when really she was just thinking, how wonderful! He cares!
"Tell me one good reason why I shouldn't just squeeze the living daylights out of you?" He growled. "Why shouldn't I kill you now? There are no guards to stop me. You didn't care about anyone so you shouldn't even stay alive. You don't deserve to die in battle or with honor. So please, you'd better give me a reason to let go otherwise I'll kill you with my bare hands and take much pleasure in throwing your dead body to the sharks." He said, tightening his grip around her throat.
Mirage's lips started paling. Gently reaching up, she put both of her hands on his hand and softly, she stroked it. Caught unaware by this, Salar looked at her as if she had lost her mind. She whispered hoarsely, "I don't think you'd do well in a test at all." She gasped.
He looked intently into her eyes than her hands. Her nails were brittle as if she had chewed on them but her fingers were soft. Looking back, he panicked as the light behind her eyes slightly dimmed and he let go. Mirage slithered down on the floor, collapsing into a heap, coughing and breathing heavily.
"This was a test?" He asked, feeling incredulous.
Mirage didn't say anything but kept breathing heavily. Impatiently, Salar scooped her up in his arms, his subconscious thoughtfully telling him how wonderful she felt so near him. Looking around, he spotted the desk and strode up to it, shoving everything to the floor and depositing Mirage on top. She sat up, her hand on her throat, the grip marks becoming visible. Mirage looked up at him, I'm mad, she thought. Her heart was beating like crazy and she felt light-headed and yet, the moment when her finger had touched his chin, the small ball of desire which had erupted in her gut had exploded when he had thrown his hand towards her throat.
Running a hand through his hair, Salar looked flustered, his mind coming to terms with his actions. Father will kill me! He thought. I just tried to kill her; father will very well yank my heart out my throat for this!
Kneeling down in front of her, he bowed his head, "Forgive me princess. I don't know what came over me. I lost control of myself."
Mirage looked down at him, massaging her throat. Apart from almost killing her a moment ago, she couldn't bring herself to loathe him. She just wanted him to touch her again. That's when she felt her brain pull into gear and she saw him with a renewed light. So this was desire, this is perfect then. He is perfect then. He'd everything I need. Someone a bit rough around the edges is exactly what I'll need in that throng of peacocks to shake things up a bit. She thought. Her mind strayed to Sina, the prince from Kasra. He was said to be exactly like her in spirit, but right now, all she could see this devil. Salar was someone who was willing to kill her because she had bad-mouthed his nation, and someone like this was exactly who she needed for the plan which had been stewing inside her for the past 3 days. Of course; his physical attributes were a wonderful bonus. Better play the honesty card then. She thought and nodded slightly to herself.
"It's all right." Mirage breathed, feeling the skin around her throat tenderly and winced.
Salar looked up at her, "It is?" He looked up, disbelieving.
Mirage cleared her throat and smiled. She twirled around to the corner of the table delicately and leaning over, opened a cabinet and took out a small empty glass and bottle of amber liquid.
Holding both out, she said, "Fill this for me."
A bit unraveled from this sudden mood change from intense to almost relaxed; as if nothing had happened, Salar stood up and taking both, pulled the cork out from the bottle and splashed a bit of the liquid into it. He immediately recognized it as alcohol.
Handing it to her, she downed it all in one sip and held out the glass for another. He felt dumbfounded. What is this woman?! He thought as he poured a bit into the glass.
"Be generous. There's more where that came from." She scolded him softly and he poured a little more. "And take a swig from it, you look like hell. Don't beat yourself up too much. It happens. You lose control of your emotions. It happens to the best of us."
Salar blinked hard. He had never felt so confused before. And without thinking, took a long swig from the bottle.
She smiled as she watched the liquid pass down his throat, a small trickle running down his neck and front. Oh yes, he'll do nicely. She thought wickedly.
"Better?" She asked. Salar looked down at the bottle in his hand and instantly felt relaxed. I love alcohol. He thought greedily.
"Who doesn't?!" Mirage smiled widely, raising her glass at him.
Salar didn't say anything. He hadn't realized that he had said that out loud.
"People will try to control your mind. Your emotions. I wanted to see for myself if you really were so loathsome towards me, and now I know that you are. But you hate me because you love your country which is what I want to see in a Prince." She explained, "However I must say, I am a bit disappointed. I thought you might say something different to me. I didn't know you just wanted to butter me up."
Salar put the bottle down in the clutter of stuff he had thrown off of the desk. "I didn't. I just… I don't know what I actually wanted to say. I forgot." And moving back from her, he lifted the armchair back into an upright position and sat.
Mirage tilted her head, looking at him intently. Putting her glass down, she slowly got off the table and the atmosphere changed. He watched as she floated towards him and held out her hand. He stared at it. Leaning down, she took his right hand and made him stand up. He towered over her and shadowed her, the moonlight beaming from either side of him. She looked so small in front of him; her eyes shining like diamonds in the darkness. She held his hand loosely; and he noted that even though she was a bit calm a few seconds ago, her chest was slightly heaving now.
"It's all right to feel this way. I know this is a sudden change for all of us." She said, "And I know now how you feel for your country. It was a test; yes. What I did before. I wanted to see that you really were angry at my father's actions. My actions." She looked up at him, her breath against his neck.
Salar looked down at her, suddenly acknowledging the fact that if her scarf wasn't draped across her shoulders, he could have seen down her bodice. FOCUS! He thought.
"I am sorry." He emphasized on 'am'.
"Are you?" Mirage asked. He looked at the angry welts around her neck. How could she be this calm?! She's crazy! He did want to kill her, but in light of the fresh confession that she was doing, he didn't know where to go from there. Except now he wanted to actually throw her down on the desk and not exactly kill her but do something that required equal strength… and pleasure. He felt her fingers slide a bit further in his large hands as if she had read his mind.
"I want to change. I want to change everything after I become Queen." She said, gripping his hand. "I already know about all the others. Their countries were doomed to failure, but yours was thriving and father almost destroyed it, and for that, I am sorry."
Salar couldn't believe his ears. She was saying sorry?!
"My father is a manipulative man. He wanted everyone to feel worse about losing their country." She said, "This marriage may be a union, but he really is killing two birds with one stone. He's keeping me in check while making sure that no one says that King Sarosh is a ruthless marauder and cold-blooded killer. Because he's giving every kingdom chances to be just like us. To be free and live a life of luxury, to be royalty. And also because by doing so, he's giving a message that he can even sacrifice his daughter for his greed for power."
Salar asked, "Why are you telling me this?"
"If I want to marry someone, I'll have to choose someone who is as passionate about their country as I am. And when I become Queen, I want that person beside me who will think about making his country thrive more, and not because they'll just marry me to bring their countries back from the grave." She whispered.
Salar raised his eyebrows. "That's a bit selfish."
She shrugged, "That's politics." He looked down at her lips, so inviting. And so close.
Suddenly, Mirage spun around and went to the shelves and started looking for a book. The spell broke. His eyes followed her as she reached up to look for something and stroked the spine of a book. Her skirts glittered as she moved here and there gently.
Tempting! Salar thought as he stayed still, studying her. Beautiful, he thought. That dress really doesn't do that body any justice. Than his mind snapped, "Wait, what?"
Pulling a large book out of the shelf, she looked up at him as she leafed through it. "What?"
His mind reeled. Well, that escalated quickly. She just said she wants to marry me.
"You want to marry me? But we just met!" He exclaimed.
Mirage smiled, and shook her head, "No of course I don't want to marry you."
Salar frowned, "But you just said…"
"I say a lot of things." She said, and opening a page, beckoned him to come forward. Stepping forward, he gazed at the page. It held a detailed map of the East continent.
She moved a bit so the light shone on the book and she murmured, pointing at all the kingdoms. "Look at them. Qushaab, Miranas, Zurban, Royasheen, Jalehpur, Giviraj, Asalzin, Shawra, Kasra, Sirganjh, Zalbana, Norasaab and Sahilibur." She tapped them all and stopped with her finger on Sahilibur. "Out of all these, which one do you think I'll choose? They're all graveyards, except for Sahilibur."
Salar rounded and stood beside her, their shoulders touching. "You could choose Azadania… or Kasra." He whispered. She snapped the book shut and looked up at him as if he was an idiot.
"Armaan is two years younger than me. And Sina…" She quieted.
Salar caught her tone and raised an eyebrow. "Sina is a soldier." He said.
"Sina is a warrior… and a friend but I know he can't forgive me for the invasion." She said. "He'd kill me in the blink of an eye."
Shaking his head, he asked, "And the others?"
She straightened, "Why should I be made to choose anyone when I already have you?" She smiled crookedly.
Salar couldn't make head or tail of her conversation. He backed away a bit so that he was leaning against the shelf.
"You just said you don't want to marry me." He said; his voice smooth in contrast to his heart which was suddenly growing erratic. For Allah's sake, she's the girl. Why are YOU acting like one?! He screamed at himself in his head.
"I like watching a man blush. I've never seen one do that before. You do know that when you're confused, you blush, right?" She said, looking amused.
"I didn't blush." He said, indignant.
"You're doing it now." She said; her teeth showing as her smile spread. Now she was just teasing.
Salar couldn't take it anymore. Reaching out, he grabbed Mirage around the arms and whirled her around, slamming her back against the books and coming to stand close to her. She was still smiling mischievously. To hell with all the rules, she just came out with all of it; I can't hold it against her now. Come here! He thought.
"You are the most irritating, confusing, double-minded person I have ever met." He growled, "And I'm being polite. Why do you think you want to marry me?"
Her eyes pierced into his. Suddenly, she reached up and grabbing his collar pulled him close to her so that they were nose-to-nose. Actually, his chest to her nose if you were going into details. "You know you can go to hell… or prison for touching me." She said intrepidly.
"I'll deal with it. You can go to hell for touching me like this too, you know" He replied, wanting to touch her more.
"I'll deal with it." She echoed his words, "Look, you haven't run out screaming at my double-mindedness and I've broken down the patience of many a generals' because of my attitude. You have passion…" She grinned, "For your country and I think we'll do great together."
"Will we?" He breathed, wanting to run his hands along her curves. Their thighs touched as Salar moved even closer to her, and gently, he pulled Mirage up so that they were face-to-face. Her hair pulled behind her and tugged her head back, revealing her face to him. Her hands which were on his collar had moved to his chest while his were still on her arms as he rubbed his thumbs against the cloth.
"Yes we will. But now that we've already decided quite suddenly that we are attracted to one another, I want you to do something for me." She said.
"And what's that?" He asked, entertained. This is going very well. He thought confidently.
She whispered, "Seduce me."
"What?" He was so startled that he let go, and she landed on her feet. Her hands made their way down to his abdomen as she slid down.
"You think I'll let you have me so easily?!" She said, her tone challenging. "Fine. We have decided upon each other, but I'll still want to be seduced properly. You make me see that I'll be as happy as I am at this moment when I'm with you than I'll agree with you. If not, then I'll have no choice but to choose someone else in the end."
"I'm fine with that but will I have power?" He said brazenly. "After we're married?"
Nodding, Mirage let her hands roam up to his chest and enjoyed him stiffen. "Of course! I'll make sure that my husband will have almost enough if not equal to my power. With Sahilibur, we'll reach the top. And with you; I'll have a wonderful supporting husband in my arms."
Salar gazed at her. Either she was playing with him, or was actually serious. Again, she read his mind. "I'm serious in all this. I'm not playing any childish games with you."
Salar nodded slightly. She was still in his arms though, and leaning down, he asked, "Why me again?"
"You're the early bird." She said and reaching up, she did the one thing that made Salar realize very later on that a woman could be a great manipulator if she wanted to be. She stood on tip-toe and kissed him beside his mouth. Her lips were soft and smooth. Salar eyes almost closed on the touch, wanting to move his face a fraction so that he could give her a proper kiss but didn't.
She peeked at him through her long lashes. Alana was right, all men can be manipulated. He's a goner. Mirage thought triumphantly.
"Do this little thing for me and we'll be of a great advantage to one another." She whispered.
"And then, you'll change the rule? How?" He asked; his voice uneven.
"I'll give Sahilibur back its freedom. You won't be our slaves or anyone else's. We'll be allies, of course. And we will rule both countries together. We have the rest of the kingdoms. With your resources and my armies, we'll rise. And with our marriage, we'll be extraordinary." She uttered, reaching up to finally stroke his jaw, allowing him to move his hands to her waist which he did delicately, their gazes locked.
"You must have been so angry. When your father had told you about the invasion, you must have wanted to kill me." She traced his jaw line with her finger, her skin scraping against his stubble.
"I did" He answered as he reveled in her touch. Never had he wanted to touch a woman as strongly as he did now. "Then."
"And now?" She spoke nonchalantly.
"I'm not sure." He declared.
"Take that anger, and use it to the greater good. What's done is done. Now, we have to look to what we can conquer." She said, dipping her finger down his throat to rest at his collarbone.
"You're very confusing, you know that? I don't think a princess is supposed to act the way you're acting right now." He said.
"And should a prince be holding onto a princess in the way you're holding me right now?" She giggled. He caught a slight sound of her girly-ness peeking out from her exterior. He looked down to his hands which had encircled her waist, his knee between her legs.
"Whatever it is. We're doing it to each other. And we'll soon be married. So that's alright." He smiled.
"But we've only just met. Should we make such a promise?" She asked, her tone mocking him. His grip tightened and she squirmed slightly.
"If you want." He said, leaning down so their lips were close. He wanted to yank her up in his arms but he had to control his raging desire. "If not, I know how to get rid of you." She smirked.
"You won't get rid of me." His breath hit her lips and she parted them, her eyes suddenly dilated.
"Let's hope." She said, breathless, wanting to reach up and meet his lips with her own. She had no idea where this desire had come from, even though she had just kissed him before.
They stayed that way for a few minutes. Finally, because he couldn't help himself, he said, "Can I do one thing? Since we've unofficially become betrothed to each other?"
Mirage asked, "What?"
Bending over, he kissed her on the neck on the angry red finger marks. "I'm sorry." He whispered. His hands travelled to her back as she arched her spine on the contact and he gently stroked his lips down her neck.
This is so wrong. So wrong! Stop! Ooh... don't you dare stop. Mirage thought as his kisses became a bit urgent. So this is what my sisters were talking about. This is heaven! She smiled dreamily. His mouth reached to her jaw and she looked at him, a bit startled at his eyes which were hazy and blazing at the same time.
Oh Allah, Thank you for sobering me up. I'll never drink alcohol again. She prayed and coming down to Earth, she slowly pushed him away. Salar felt her push him away from her. She looked at him, hunger in her eyes and he couldn't help but reach for her again but she put a hand on his chest.
"Go to your quarters. It's a miracle no one has interrupted us right now." She stated, and started adjusting her skirts and vest. He hadn't noticed that he had been holding her on the inside of her vest. Even her skirts seemed ruffled. She was breathing heavily.
Best three days ever. Mirage thought with glee.
Salar glared at her and suddenly came to his senses. All this was fun but he wasn't married to her. Apart from that, she was the princess. She could easily pin it all on him if they got caught. So clearing his throat, he stepped away from her.
"You're right. You're right. Behroz must be looking for me around the castle." He said, running his hand through his hair. Mirage's eyes followed his hand. You do that when you can't understand something, she noted.
"Behroz?" She asked casually.
"My… friend." He said, not wanting anyone to think of Behroz as just a bodyguard.
"Hmm…" and with that, she went to the door and opened it wide. Thankfully, it was empty outside, not a lady or guard in sight. "Now go" She said, gesturing towards the exit.
Salar made way and looking up the corridor, he looked back at Mirage who stepped out and closed the library door.
"Our conversation was quite enlightening." He said, smiling at their secret agreement.
"Quite." She echoed and then she was back, her princess exterior back on as soon as she had stepped out of that blessed library.
Bowing to her, he turned and walked away to his quarters, feeling a bit dazed. Mirage didn't stay to watch him and turning back, she hurried up to her room. Keeping watch for any family member, she felt a wave of relief as she neared her tower and saw that there were no guards in sight. Jumping two steps at a time, she banged open her bedroom door and smiled. Apart from her new dressing table, everything looked the same, and beside her table, stood Tatiana with her arms crossed, an angry look on her face.
"What. Have. You. Done?!" She breathed.
Mirage went to her window, spying a fragment of wood on the window sill. Picking it up, she played with it, her expression nonchalant, her cheeks red. "I just got myself a husband; which my father wanted me to do."
"He didn't ask you to let a prince fondle and touch you." She said through gritted teeth.
"I don't care. I've chosen him anyway." Mirage said.
"Prince Salar?" Tatiana asked, frowning.
"Granma always said that only the early fishermen catch the best fish. She was wrong but I kind of understand what she meant now. I liked Salar's confidence and quite frankly, I didn't want to have a choice." Mirage said, examining the shard. "And it's a good thing you didn't barge in when he tried to throttle me. I wanted to see how far he'd go and now that I know, I think he'll be perfect." Mirage said, and throwing the shard out the window, she unraveled her scarf from her shoulders and dropped it on the floor.
"I wanted to come in. I had my sword and gun ready. But you didn't give me the signal, so I knew you'd be alright." Tatiana said defensively.
"I know. It's a good thing he doesn't speak Greek!" Mirage chuckled and reluctantly, Tatiana smiled. Their signal was always, from their childhood, a whisper or a shout of the word 'Bunshara', a word they both remembered from their baby years which was their appointed name of the ill-fated baby chick. Tatiana had reminded Mirage to use that word if anything happens and Mirage had told her to stay outside the door, just in case. She had let Salar stare at her for a few seconds before thinking about opening the library door until she had heard the too-familiar grunt of a stone step at the end of the corridor and knew Tatiana had high-tailed it.
Picking up the scarf, Tatiana draped it over a divan in the corner. "You still shouldn't have let him touch you. You know it's wrong." She murmured disapprovingly.
"The forbidden fruit is always tasty." Mirage said, wagging her finger at Tatiana as she reached down to take off her slipper. "You should know what I'm talking about. After all, your beloved Behroz is here too and I know you're tempted to go and see him."
Tatiana went red, "I'm married now. And happy; I don't care about him." Then she sighed helplessly, "What are we going to do with you? You run! You hide! You meet princes in the middle of the night! Unsupervised. How will you be queen?!"
Mirage didn't take offense. "The kingdom will have an entertaining and loving queen. That's enough for them." She declared.
"You're so modest." Tatiana tutted.
"I am, aren't I?" Mirage said in mock helplessness.
Salar rested his head on his pillow. You're useless, he mouthed to Behroz who was sleeping soundly in the corner on his own bed.
What a day! She's mine and I didn't have to do a thing. People were wrong about her. She's wonderful. And I'm not hungry anymore either. He thought and smiling, he reached up to put his hands behind his head and closed his eyes. The moon does things to people. He reveled in the natural light spilling on his face from the open window opposite him.
This is just perfect. She's perfect. And thinking about her soft skin against his lips, he nearly slipped into sleep before his eyes flew open. Oh God! He wondered. I just agreed to marry that nutcase just because I can't get enough of her and it was only one night. A few minutes with her in my arms and I'm hooked. I'm in trouble.
Than his mind back to life, No, no I didn't. She made sense. All her plans made sense. I didn't make a mistake. I'm fine. I'm completely fine. Relax! He felt his spinning head slow down.
Behroz said from the corner, "Apparently not." He heaved himself out of bed and went to Salar. "You really have to stop thinking out loud."
Looking at Salar's face, he raised an eyebrow. "What happened?"
And as Mirage settled into her bed, feeling quite happy that the competition was over before it had even started; Salar told all to Behroz who simply shook his head at Salar's ability at not being happy for a getting his cake and eating it too.