I have dedicated this chapter to my very own ladies-in-waiting. Sheen, there is a surprise for you in this chapter. Reg! X
The fireworks flared up in the sky but there was no one to appreciate them. After a few minutes as the people began to look out admirably from their windows, the fireworks came to a halt as one last firework pathetically made its way a little further up in the sky before disappearing without a bang. The bonfire was doused with water and the smoke heaved into the air like a Red Indian's smoke signals. The servants discreetly picked up the wreckage and threw them in the wheel barrels to take it away. The castle was buzzing but quietly. King Sarosh sat in his study, irritated at his daughter's behavior. He hadn't expected her to react so harshly. Why, she had called him a bastard in front of everyone, his own daughter! And for that worthless servant girl!
He had tried to keep the tempo mellow as Mirage's entourage had raced off but obviously the merriment was now finished. Everyone had looked at him so angrily, as if he had done something wrong. Now that he thought about it, maybe he should have told her about her little friend after the bonfire, but he wanted to show her that he wasn't as intimidated by her as everyone else, after all, she may become queen later but he was still the king, he still had power. She had learned her lesson now, she wouldn't cross him, and she'll learn her place now and rightly accept his decision to marry Arya, prince of Qushaab. They had the largest oil reserves of the East, but with a useless government to overlook them, the reserves had almost gone to waste. Better for Rehbartaj to occupy them and put them to good use. His merry train of thought was interrupted by a firm knock on the door and without waiting for his permission to enter, the knocker burst in. King Sarosh looked up in annoyance at his wife who stalked up to him, her face blazing.
"What in the world gives you the right to treat our daughter that way?" She hissed quietly.
King Sarosh raised an eyebrow, "She needed to be taught a lesson. And I am her father; I can do whatever I want."
"By causing her so much pain? In front of everyone?" Queen Nadira's voice raised an octave. "How could you do that?! Tatiana was the one person who had made Mirage come out of her shell. She was the closest person Mirage came to during her life and you… How could you?"
"She'll survive." The king said firmly and stood up. "She's Mirage. She'll always recover."
"She wouldn't recover from this trauma." She flailed her arms in exasperation. "You…" She paused as if searching for a word. "You are a terrible father."
King Sarosh chuckled, "And that is why you will never be a better ruler than I am. Terrible father…" He came around his desk to his wife and put a hand on her shoulder. "Now stop being like this, you know what anger does for your headaches. I'm sure Mirage is thinking of a way to cause more problems right now but I tripled the guards around her tower. She won't escape. Why; even her ladies are hiding in their quarters."
"Probably because Mirage doesn't need them anymore." A voice came from the door and both turned.
Razin and Rayan stood in the doorway, Razin holding onto the rope of hair his father had gifted to Mirage. Their expressions were angry; solemn. The king's arm fell to his side.
King Sarosh frowned a little. "And why wouldn't she? Has she taken off on another hunt then?"
"No. She's gone." Razin said grimly. "We went up to her room as soon as we could but by the time we got there, she had disappeared. Her room was a mess and her old clothes were missing."
Queen Nadira's eyes widened. "Where has she gone off to now?" She asked, panicked.
Obviously, the twins had seen the Mirage leave the docks and judging from the absence of her personal crew and the presence of her ladies-in-waiting, she had finally had it with her father's lunacy. If only they had gotten there sooner, they would have gone with her.
Razin straightened. "I won't tell you even if I knew."
Rayan piped up, "Me either."
King Sarosh looked from one twin to the other. "Stop playing games. She hasn't left the castle. She couldn't have." He said angrily.
"She has. And it's a good thing too. After what you did to her, I wouldn't want to stay here either." Rayan said, defiantly stepping forward.
King Sarosh stared. "And why is that?" He asked tetchily.
"We all adored Tatiana, father. She was like a sister to all of us. And quite frankly, the level of your maturity in this situation highly resembles that of a two-year old and its dilemma with which type of mud to eat." Razin said archly.
King Sarosh stared still, his breathing heavy as he tried to control his temper.
They all stayed quiet until Rayan murmured, "It means we think your judgment was abysmal and thoughtless."
"I KNOW WHAT IT MEANS!"King Sarosh screamed. He turned to Queen Nadira, "IS THIS WHAT YOU TEACH OUR CHILDREN? THIS IS HOW THEY SPEAK TO THEIR FATHER! THESE ARE THE MANNERS THAT REPRESENT THE REHBARTAJ CROWN?! IS THIS WHY MIRAGE IS SO STUBBORN? BECAUSE YOU SPEND MORE TIME LOOKING AT YOUR OWN FACE IN THE MIRROR RATHER THAN SEE WHAT'S GOING ON WITH THESE IDIOTS?!"
Queen Nadira, quite famed for her patience, finally snapped. "I LOOK AFTER THEM ALL THE TIME. IF YOU COULD TAKE YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR…" She clenched her fists as she tried to control her cursing, "…GLORIOUS DREAMS OF GLOBAL POWER AND BLOODSHED, YOU WOULD KNOW THAT WE ARE PERFECTLY FINE. IT IS YOU WHO IS THE IDIOT!"
King Sarosh stared, stunned. Queen Nadira had never screamed at him before. He couldn't believe it. In their 30 years of marriage, this was the first time that Queen Nadira had raised her voice at her husband, by which he was truly shocked. The children; who were more accustomed with their mother's shouting and scolding; ogled at their mother with disbelief nevertheless.
"And never call my babies idiots." She concluded defiantly, and sweeping her robes around, she took the rope of hair from Razin's hand and threw it at the king's feet. "Take it; so that you will always remember what you did to your daughter." She said disdainfully.
This had to be the strangest day of King Sarosh's life. Queen Nadira took Razin's and Rayan's hands and was thinking of shooing the maidens who took their care, away from the corridors where they inevitably stood to escort the princes back to their rooms when she came face-to-face with Abid, the Vazir.
He stood passive as if nothing had occurred during the past 10 minutes and bowed. King Sarosh gazed at Abid and didn't say anything.
Finally, sighing exasperatedly, the queen asked, "What news do you bring?"
Abid nodded, "It is indeed true. The princess is nowhere to be found." Queen Nadira gasped and backed into an armchair that the twins helped her into. "Her protective team, along with the Mirage is also missing."
The king leaned his back against his desk and tried to relax. Had he really done something so wrong?
"Look, she runs away all the time… She always comes back." King Sarosh tried to reason.
"I'm afraid this time is not like the others, your highness." Abid cut in, "She also took one other person with her."
"Who?" The king hooted.
"Prince Salar of Sahilibur, and according to my estimates, she's probably heading there and she's also already married by now." Abid said.
"No." Queen Nadira gasped and covered her face with her hands. Razin and Rayan caught each other's eye, alarmed. Mirage was to marriage what spice was to a wound. It would be oxymoronic. "There has been no Khastegari! We didn't even take the proposal to them! Not even an engagement, or a marriage ceremony!" She exclaimed sorrowfully through her fingers. "I had planned such a wonderful Aghd for her. This is a disaster, this cannot happen. It's all ruined!"
"Not now, mother…" Rayan hushed and turned to Abid, "Who said anything about a marriage?" He said; leaning down to put an arm around his mother's quivering shoulders.
"Her head guard Sepehr informed the soldiers at the docks." He raised a hand to stop Sarosh who jumped up, ready to roar, "She had already chosen Prince Salar and since the princess was to take over the kingdom on the day of her marriage, she chose to be low-key about it. The marriage ceremony took place at the boat, and she took off to take her place as Queen in the new capital."
They all stayed silent as they swallowed this bit of shocking information. Shakily, King Sarosh asked, "What about the Imam? There's supposed to be a qualified imam to authorize their marriage, where did they get one?"
Abid looked back and gestured towards the room. An old man, around Abid's age entered the room. His long beard and shiny eyes glowed in the candlelight. Dressed simply, he bowed in front of the others, not able to look up into his majesty's murderous eyes.
Abid spoke gently. "Tell them what you told me."
Quivering, the man started speaking in a low voice. "I am the leader of the prayer at the Royal Mosque, your highness. Her Majesty's head guard called upon me in urgency. When I arrived at the boat, everything was already set up. Her Majesty commanded me to perform the ceremony. She said that I was under no rule to judge her relationship and that since I knew her well; I would know that she did not want to have a grand affair for her wedding. She said it was your idea all along so she went with it. Her friends along with two other maidens were the witnesses." He omitted their names since he obviously knew them. "The prince did not hesitate to accept her, your highness. I regret to tell you that they are legally married."
Queen Nadira whimpered as King Sarosh's mouth opened and he let out such a roar that the Imam back out in fear. Abid shooed him away quickly, in case the king drew his gun.
"THIS IS A DISGRACE. SHE HAS MADE A LAUGHINGSTOCK OF THIS KINGDOM!" Suddenly, he stopped and turned to Abid as if he had just remembered something, "WHO SAYS SHE'LL BE QUEEN ONCE SHE GETS MARRIED?" King Sarosh screamed at Abid.
"Why, you did; your grace." Abid said, bemused at the situation. "The princess herself came to me with a long announcement with your signature on them."
King Sarosh looked confused, "I signed no such thing. I don't trust her enough to actually even get my signature; I know she'll forge it." He ignored his wife's enraged call of his name.
"She brought it to me a day before she went to Saulta." Abid said indulgently.
Suddenly, the king's mind flashed to the time when Mirage had come to his office and talked to him about her marriage and how she had celebrated with him over a few tumblers of alcohol over the plans to make Sahilibur the capital. He vaguely remembered throwing a parchment at her; explaining how she was supposed to act on the day of the princes' arrival. The parchment had had his signature on it. She hadn't read it and he hadn't noticed its disappearance. It wasn't on his desk or in his office after she had gone away.
"S-So that's what she did…" King Sarosh staggered back, shell-shocked.
"It stated that your decision was absolute. And since it had your signature on it, I didn't bother you with the details. I sent it with the family portraits the next day." Abid continued. "Upon your commands, now that she is married, she is Queen. She'll only need a coronation and she'll take your place."
King Sarosh couldn't wrap his head around it all. His own daughter had betrayed him; taken his throne from under him.
Queen Nadira roughly rubbed her face and stood up. "How long before she reaches Sahilibur?"
"It could take two days or a week or even a month. It all depends on her highness's desire." Abid shrugged.
"She isn't queen yet." King Sarosh growled.
Queen Nadira looked at him sharply. "You should be ashamed of yourself! Jealous of your own daughter!"
She turned back to Abid. "Prepare transport and arrangements. I won't go by sea, I get sick. I have to take care of her; I have to take care of the mess she has created." The wheels in her mind turned. "Send the announcement. Prince Salar and Mirage were engaged tonight and it was not celebrated due to Mirage's shyness. Also, make all the children vanish, send them to the capital… discreetly." She said to Abid who nodded, "We cannot let anyone know what has happened. We'll say that the children are with Mirage on the boat to Sahilibur where they will spend their holidays on the islands. Send Mirage's ladies-in-waiting tonight. We'll just perform a mock ceremony for the public once we reach Sahilibur."
She turned to the twins who were looking at their temperamental mother. "Tell your servants to pack your luggage. You are going to Sahilibur, you and everyone else."
As the twins grinned, King Sarosh cleared his throat. "Enough of all this planning." He raised his voice. "You seem to forgetting that I am the one who makes all the decisions here, not you." He narrowed his eyes at Nadira. The twin's smiles vanished.
Queen Nadira gazed at him and said carefully, "And would you plan anything any different?"
The king looked at her intently before sullenly admitting, "No."
"Fine than" She whipped around. "Firstly, we need to meet with King Darius and congratulate him over the union and brief him over the verdict. Oh and congratulations Sarosh…" She smiled at her husband cruelly, "You're a father-in-law now." With that, she glided out with determination, the smirking twins following her out. The door closed and Abid stood to one side.
King Sarosh stayed silent and leant back against the desk and crossed his arms. He didn't want to admit it, but perhaps he had committed a mistake.
"Was I wrong?" He asked Abid.
Abid replied promptly, "Yes sir."
Sarosh's shoulders drooped. "Then why didn't you stop me?"
Abid smiled at him kindly, "Could I have, sir?"
Sarosh pursed his lips and looked away sadly. "No."
King Sarosh took a deep breath. "This couldn't get any worse."
Abid stifled a guilty smile and said, "Actually sire, I suppose now is as good a time as any to tell you, that the soldiers and prisoners that were taken during the Kasra war were released two days ago under the Princess's command. I got their letter of gratitude today…" And took a precautionary step back as the king's face started turning an alarming shade of puce.
Mirage looked up at the night sky. The gentle sound of the waves made her sleepy and she closed her eyes. She balanced her bottom over the ship railing and rolled her shoulders. She was away from the crew who had the good sense to leave her alone when they were supposed to. Sepehr was still inside the captain's room, hidden from view and she didn't blame him, for he was now a widower and it was all her fault.
She felt a presence beside her and calculating the others' movements; concluded that it could only be Salar, her husband, who would bother her at this moment. Aryan and Navid were at starboard, carving blocks of wood with their handy knives. Azin, Sam and Rostam were on the upper deck, studying the maps while Shaya and Emad were handling the sails. No one was talking or even looking at Mirage.
"This is a beautiful ship…" She heard Salar say.
She stayed still and when she didn't feel him move away from her, even after 5 minutes, she simply rolled off the railing of the ship and pushed herself into the water below. Salar's eyes widened in panic as he saw her disappear and yelled out, extending an arm to grab her. He looked at the water frantically as he heard a splash… She could have banged herself against the side of the ship, Salar thought and turned to the other men who went on working as if their charge hadn't just jumped off the boat and probably killed herself.
"What are you all doing? We have to get her back up, she could be killed!" He exclaimed angrily, and when he saw no response, started shrugging off his shirt, "Well, if you won't do it, I will… Bunch of nothings…" He pulled his shirt off his head and made to jump over the rail when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned to Navid who had an unfinished block of wood and his knife in one hand.
"She can swim…" He said, reassuringly. And surely enough, a little further away from the boat, at last he saw her head bob above the water and she extended her arms above before floating away on her back. He felt the ship slow down as the men scandalized the sails.
"She doesn't like anyone talking to her when she's in a bad mood." Navid said, and looked out at Mirage. "Give it time. You'll get used to her ways soon enough."
Salar looked out, "You know her very well?"
Navid took his hand away and sat on a barrel beside Salar, throwing the strewn shirt back at him. "Of course I do, we take care of her." He went back to carving the block of wood.
Salar pulled the shirt on and leaned on the railing, keeping his eye on Mirage. "You didn't even know what she wanted; when she came on the ship." He said as Navid raised an eyebrow.
"We do what she wants, we are at her disposal." Navid said, looking surreptitiously at the other men.
Salar eyed the others and turned his back to Mirage. "How long have you worked for her?"
Navid stopped working and looked at Salar as thought he had just insulted them all. "We don't work for her. We're her friends."
Salar tilted his head, "But you're her guards."
"That's just a title given to us so that it doesn't cause any scandal among the subjects. Unofficially, we are all her friends… childhood friends." Navid said, looking down at his knife.
Salar gazed at the other men. "Are you?" He asked, bemused.
Emad dusted his hands as he threw the ropes down by Salar's feet and straightened up. "Look, we knew her from the day she started her training. We were with her all the way, and we all care about her, but we're men… and she's a woman; along with being a princess." He scratched his baldhead and rubbed his hand down his face over a scar, which went from the back of his head to his right eye and down his neck before disappearing into his shirt. He was younger than Salar, probably around Mirage's age, but looked menacing; a trait all of Mirage's entourage had in common.
"Men aren't allowed to gallivant around with an unmarried girl, especially the way Mirage is. She's a danger to her own self… And she's close to all of us. She's like a sister…" He said, gesturing around. "The Queen understood that, so she made us her guard… so Mirage could stay close to us."
Salar snorted. "That's ridiculous. So what if she couldn't talk to you anymore. She should have understood that being a princess had its costs."
"She's not like every other girl. She was different." Shaya said quietly as he pulled on the sail.
"Different how?" Salar asked.
"She was tortured. And we saved her." Said a voice from behind him and Salar turned.
Sepehr closed the door of his quarters and strode past his men before stopping by the rail and looking out at Mirage who was still floating on her back a little far away. He emitted a high-pitched whistle and Mirage raised a hand, waved without looking at them, and disappeared under the water.
"Never do that with her. You're not allowed." Sepehr said through gritted teeth.
"What? That you whistled at her like a dog and she came running?" Salar said; feeling irked at being kept out of the loop that the others were obviously in.
Sepehr's jaw set. "It is a signal. Look." He pointed towards the right beyond the bow of the ship. They were nearing a bend in the river and the ship was gathering speed.
"You know the seas better than I do. You know there is a dip in the current before we head north. It could pull her in. Or did you want that to happen?" Sepehr sneered.
Salar chose not to say anything. He had no idea why Sepehr was being such a pain and was not interested to find out. He just wanted to know what Sepehr meant about Mirage being tortured.
Swallowing his pride, Salar spoke, "Of course I didn't. I apologize. I'm just not in the right state of mind. I'm confused."
Sepehr's eyes softened. "The men will explain it to you." He said and strode away to the helm.
"Explain what?" He heard Mirage's voice and turned to see her hop over the rail and onto the ship. He spied the rope ladder behind her and grimaced.
The men didn't meet her eye. "Explain what?" She demanded again.
"Why am I here… I was asking them that. But I think even they don't know the answer to that." He said; his eyes straying to the wet material clung to her body. Instantly, she was covered with a huge blanket, which Shaya had apparently fetched for her and was now glaring at Salar with anger.
"Of course they do. Don't you?" She looked at Shaya and he slowly shook his head. "Don't any of you know the plan?" She asked, feeling helpless.
Suddenly she screamed. "YOU'RE ALL USELESS! I EXPLAINED IT PERFECTLY WHEN WE WERE ANCHORING AWAY BUT NO ON LISTENED. NO ONE ASKED. WHY CANT YOU HAVE JUST ASKED ME AGAIN? NOBODY EVER QUESTIONS ME OVER ANYTHING! THAT'S EVERYONE'S PROBLEM! MY FATHER DIDN'T ASK ME, MY MOTHER DIDN'T ASK ME, EVEN MY BEST FRIENDS DIDN'T ASK ME AND NOW THEY'RE ALL SCARED OF ME!" She screamed; her drawn face ablaze with sudden anger and she stalked away to the Captain's quarters. Salar followed as the men parted to make way for her, their expressions of those who had experienced Mirage's wrath one too many times. He noticed that the three men studying the map didn't even noticed the entire scene and were still studying the maps with their heads down, their brows furrowed.
The door banged open as Mirage burst into the room, angry at the injustice. Throwing the blanket off her onto the bed, she went to the table where a bowl of fruit and a knife stood, jammed into the wood. She forced it out and stared at it, ignoring her shivering hands. That was everyone's problem; they always expect me to come up with such amazing plans, as if I'm some sort of mastermind in all this stuff. I took Salar with me because I wanted to, I wanted to see him, I had chosen him, and now that Salar and I are married, I'm out of the woods. And father killed Tati, so I'm going away as far as I can, what is so difficult to understand about that?! She heard a noise and turned to see Salar closing the door behind him. She ignored the feeling in her heart; as if she was so glad to see him… which she was not.
They both stayed silent as Mirage chose to ignore him and went to her bed, flopping on top of it and stooping down to take off her boots. Salar kept gazing at her, his hands folded behind his back. She wiggled her feet impatiently until each of her boots went flying before she pulled her soggy blanket over herself and settled down in bed. She could hear him breathing and was getting irritated at the intrusion. Why couldn't he just leave her alone for now?! He has me forever now, why can't he just go away!
She heard him speak. "You still have the knife with you."
"It's to kill you if you come near me." She mumbled.
Salar raised his eyebrows. "Now even I know you can kill me without a knife."
Mirage turned and huffed until she was on her back, staring at the canopy above her bed. "I could, yes" and holding out the knife, she let it go. The knife shot through the wood and quivered.
Salar breathed deeply. "Can we talk now?"
She sighed. Maybe she should have chosen someone else to be her husband.
"Tell me. Why'd you jump ship? " He gestured behind him.
"You were annoying me and I wanted to get away from you." She snapped. "I jumped off the deck because of you, didn't you get the point?"
Salar shook his head, and grabbing a chair, picked it up before depositing it beside Mirage's bed and taking the knife away from his feet, placed it on the bedside table. "I'm not going anywhere now so you might as well just tell me. I was actually asking about everything that happened with your father." He peered at the nail marks on her face. The water having had washed off the kohl and blood, now she looked eerie and innocent; the scratches prominent.
Mirage didn't say anything and closed her eyes, and turning away from him, snuggled into her wet sheet of hair.
Salar sat back. "I'll stay here until you tell me."
He saw Mirage's back quiver and wasn't sure whether she was laughing or crying, and he wasn't about to put a hand on her in case she had another knife stashed up somewhere on her person. She tried controlling her breath as a wave of grief went over her, she couldn't let go of her composure. Finally, she turned back to him, her eyes slightly red but her voice clear.
"You know that girl who was with me the night we met?" She studied his blank face. "Don't you remember the one with brown curly hair?" Really; are you that much of a mindless idiot?!
"Tatiana." Salar said, recognition dawning. "The one who knows about us."
Mirage nodded and didn't say anything. The wheels in Salar's mind turned.
"Oh." He murmured as everything fell into place. Poor Tatiana!
"Why?" He asked, thoroughly confused.
Mirage threw the blanket off and sat up. "I was missing for three days before you came." She hiccupped, feeling the tears burning behind her eyes as hazy images of Saulta came into mind.
Salar stayed silent as Mirage went on. "I felt suffocated in the castle, so I took all the girls away with me for a breather, somewhere where we could be ourselves."
"That seems logical. Where did you go?" He asked.
Mirage smiled sadly. "It doesn't matter now. Anyway, my father thought that it was Tati who had told me to run away, and to teach me a lesson, he…" She trailed away as she remembered the bloodied hair and hung her head, looking down at her still shaking blue hands.
Salar followed her gaze and looked at her hands. Taking them from her lap, he settled her hands into his much larger ones. They were as cold as ice. She didn't flinch at the contact and swung her legs off the bed. She scraped the floor with the nail of her big toe, lost in thought.
"It's not your fault." He said gently.
"But it is." Mirage replied, her tone flat. "I took them all away and father didn't even think to come and ask me properly. He just went and had her killed. He probably tortured her first." Her voice broke and Salar looks at her alarmed. Her body shook as a tear slipped out and she took a deep breath to compose herself.
Salar gripped her hands tightly as he felt her fingers unstiffen from the warmth. "Listen to me." He said, looking at her until she looked back at him in the eye.
"Your father was wrong and he knows it. You were in trouble and I get your point, but you can't think that it was your fault. You did what you could." He watched her eyes widen and her lip quiver. "No one told you what to do, everyone expected you to simply be who you were told to be… That's the problem with being who we are; people think we don't have any feelings of our own… That we're not humans… but they don't know…"
Mirage looked at his hands. "I felt guilty." She whispered. "For what had happened during the war. I couldn't face them. I couldn't face you."
Salar, having almost suspected such a thing, nodded. "I know. You can't expect to feel happy after everything that's happened."
"Exactly..." She shrugged.
She looked back at him and studied his trusting face. He had taken her hand without even asking what her plan was for him, and had followed her into the beyond. He didn't even care about his father or what the people might say. Suddenly she had the urge to hug him, to seek comfort from him.
Slipping off the bed, she took away her hands from his and snaked her arms around his neck, resting her head beside his. Salar sat back, shocked at her sudden show of physical emotion. Gently, he lowered his arms around her waist, felt her knee seek a spot on the chair between his legs, and stood up. Her feet hung in the air as he felt her nose brush against his neck and squeezed her harder.
He didn't care that she was as wet as a fish and raising a hand; he touched her hair. He could feel her tears against his skin and didn't react. All of this was very new to him, this touchy-feely Mirage. This was not the Mirage people were scared of, this was just a girl, grieving for her dead friend. He stroked her shaking head as she opened up the gateway to her tears and sobbed uncontrollably. He wanted to kill King Sarosh for making her cry.
He didn't know how long she stayed like this. He didn't remember pulling Mirage in his arms so she was snuggled up into his chest as he walked to and fro in the tiny cabin, cradling her in his arms like a small child. That moment when she wiped her nose discreetly against the lapel of his shirt and he didn't even mind was when it hit him like a brick. He might have been lusting for Mirage before, but at this moment, when she was in his arms and he could so easily manipulate her to get her into bed; his primary goal now was to comfort her, love her. Their marriage had been a necessity but now that he felt his brain go haywire, he understood why he hadn't objected when she had told him that he better clean himself up because they were getting married.
"Damn!" Salar exclaimed, feeling gobsmacked.
Mirage raised her head. "What's wrong?" She sniffed, her nose comically puffy and red.
He looked into her eyes, "Nothing…" He mumbled as Mirage rubbed her nose from the back of her hand and slid her hand back into place around his neck. He let her down gently but she didn't let go and smiled as he quickly grabbed her from the waist to stop her from falling.
Not meeting his eyes, she looked down shyly. "You're so tall." She said, with a hint of admiration as she looked over her shoulder at her hanging feet. A hand roamed across his chest.
"I am." He smiled, not letting her go, pleased to feel that she wasn't trying to squirm away from his grip.
Unconsciously, her hand roamed up to his hair. "You know, Sepehr has let loose a bit of gossip in the kingdom."
Adjusting her with one arm, he leaned back against the post of the bed and reached up to wipe the stray tears off her face. "And what's that?"
"That you and I are married." She murmured, running a hand through his spiky mane.
"Hmm… but we are married." And slowly, he reached down and kissed her on the cheek from where a tear refused to budge. He felt the salty water touch his lips and she lowered her head. Why shouldn't she allow him to comfort her?
"Thank you." She whispered, "I don't think anyone has ever held me this way for a long time. I guess everything was a little too much for me."
"You have every right to be upset." He said against her skin.
"I do." She replied softly.
Mirage got a sudden flash of what it would be like to feel his bare skin when she felt his lips slide against hers. A bit clumsy at first, her eyes flew open as she felt his teeth graze against her lips, and she closed her eyes, grabbing onto his shirt and trying to pull apart from him with all her might. Perhaps that was what she thought she should be doing, instead of pulling him in ever closer by his collar. That's when she realized that she was experiencing her first kiss. She had no idea what she was doing and when she felt his arm twine around her waist while the other made its way to her face and into her hair; she nipped his lower lip with her teeth. She heard him groan as she felt his tongue tentatively touch her lips and when she opened up her mouth, waves of ecstasy ran through her body as his tongue slid in. She felt something ease out underneath her and relaxed her back as the softness and coldness of the bed and blanket wrapped her back. She could feel Salar's weight on top of her and her heart excited as he pulled her arms above her head, pinioning her there. He finally broke away from her and stroked her cheek with his nose.
"You're ruining me…." He breathed and she felt a delicious shiver run up and down her spine. She obviously knew how to break away from his vice-like grip but just didn't want to do so and helplessly, she tried to wriggle her arms away.
"You… have no idea what I want to do right now." He said, willing himself to stop as he kissed her again. He released her hands and grabbed her from the waist, a hand gripping her curve while the other behind her neck, arching her back.
"I think I have a pretty good idea…" She breathed against his lips, smiling.
So perhaps we're hoping to consummate the marriage before we even get to know each other. It simply doesn't matter, we're stuck with each other for life anyway, what's the big deal if we consummate the marriage now! I'll feel a whole lot better, that's for sure. She thought, unaware that Salar's thoughts were in overdrive over the same point as he heard Mirage moan against his mouth and felt her drag her nails against his back. A faint glimmer of his subconscious rose up as she dragged her nails down towards his nether regions and he realized that this was a girl on the cusp of desperation for comfort. She had just run away for good, left her family, and had until a few hours ago thought that her best friend was alive and well. She wasn't in the right mind and it would be wrong of him to take advantage of her emotions. He wanted her now, but knowing that she had only given herself to him because she felt bad might make her regret it, she would not have the same respect for him. He didn't blame her for wanting him right then; she wasn't thinking straight.
He lifted his lips from hers with a smack and looked at her. She was lying beneath him, her eyes were on fire, her breathing heavy. Her hair were fanned out above her head and her face was pink, filled with color, even her dilated eyes and plump pink lips seemed as though they were only for him, which of course was true. Knowing so was the most erotic thing he had ever come across.
With all his strength and then some, he gently removed her hands away from him and stood up. Her confused eyes cleared as he straightened his clothes; a reoccurring habit of his around Mirage. He especially didn't want her to see what was going on beneath them; he'd never live it down if she found out. Meanwhile, Mirage's anger was rearing its head as she saw Salar moved away from her.
"What are you doing?" She asked incredulously as she sat up, not even thinking to pull down her shirt. He got a good view of her taut stomach. She knew, obviously, but didn't care. All she wanted at that moment was him, all of him, and here he was acting like a virtuous girl.
"Look… this is the wrong moment for you. You're grieving. I can't do this to you. Not right now…" He said, disgusted over his pleading tone.
Mirage stood up and looked at him, her eyes wide with disbelief. "You're turning me down?"
Mirage's wide eyes were starting to get to him. She couldn't believe he was turning her away. Her! Men lusted after her and here he was, backing away from her like she was a wild animal who should be chained.
"You can't do that. That's against moral law. You can't deny me my right." She bristled and when Salar didn't move, she tilted her head after some thought. "Are you afraid you might disappoint me?"
Salar balked. No woman had ever said that to him before. "Of course not!" He exclaimed indignantly.
"Why so scared then!" She shrilled. "Or are you afraid that you might not be able to take it?"
Running out of ideas, he grabbed her from the waist towards him before picking her up and slamming her against the cabin wall as she uttered a squeak. Pining her arms against her side with his, he closed in on her. He could feel her rapid breathing against him, and smirked as Mirage wiggled against him, protesting over the invasion of her personal space when she was actually begging for it a few seconds before.
"I could take you right now. But do you even know what you should do?" He breathed, inhaling the salt and faint rose scent from her body. She grimaced as she remembered that she may be feeling incredibly attracted towards him, she had no idea what she had to do if he did proceed to seduce her, or worse, try disrobing her.
"I'm pretty sure I won't disappoint you. What I'm not sure about is whether 'you' can take it!" He growled and felt a satisfactory triumph as he saw the light of hunger in Mirage's eyes. He felt his resolve weakening. What he didn't know was that he had roused a fear in Mirage's heart. He was right. She wasn't ready for it, for him. She couldn't take him, she'd probably rely on her defensive skills and knock him out in fear since she didn't know what was going on. She felt scared that this man, who was so close to her that she could make out his muscular structure and more with her own body, would see her without her clothes, naked and vulnerable. And in that moment, nothing frightened her more. She needed help and something clicked in her mind.
On the top of her lungs, she screamed, "BUNSHARA!"
She looked back at Salar's confused expression before she heard the rapid thuds of a dozen feet. The door burst open and Sepehr stood, pointing his gun at Salar. The men were right behind Sepehr. Salar let go of Mirage instantly as Sepehr stormed in, the last thing that Salar remembered was a thud and a sudden blinding ache in the back of his head then darkness.
Mirage looked out over the bow of the ship. They had crossed the borderline of Rehbartaj and were heading upstream on their way to the Islands. Not wanting to see another person's face for some time, Mirage had ordered the men to make a stop at one of the Islands for a few days to gather provisions. That had been five days ago. She frowned as visions of that fortunate moment flashed before her eyes. She remembered as the men dragged an unconscious bleeding Salar out of her room.
What she didn't like was how Sepehr had berated her for trying to cause trouble for him and the crew because she didn't know how to control her husband, he even told her that it was wrong to cause Salar so much confusion. She wasn't the only one suffering, and that if she had left her home, so had he. Then he berated her even further for missing her last prayer of the day, and how she should probably ask for forgiveness, which she obviously wouldn't get. She would have knocked him out had he not slammed the door in her face. However, feeling extremely guilty now that she was alone, Mirage had grudgingly washed up and offered her prayer, asking for forgiveness and strength with all her might. She had felt very light-hearted afterwards; and knew in her heart that Allah had forgiven her. She didn't need to tell anyone else about it. It was her life; her forgiveness; her and her Lord's business.
Perhaps now she should go and see what Salar was up to, after all, he had been chained in the hull of the ship for so long without any food or water that she wanted to see whether he was alive at all.
"You could just give me some food, you know…" Salar grumbled as Aryan, the youngest of the men smiled at him.
"I can't go against orders." He said, and went back to counting the gold coins steadied on top of a barrel. "And you're a soldier. We soldiers can live for days without any food and water. Don't tell me you're getting soft."
"I am not getting soft. I'm just hungry." Salar said, leaning back against the wall of his tiny prison in the hull of the ship. He couldn't even get up without banging his head against the iron rods. The cell's former occupant must have been an animal, since only a four-legged creature could make the mess that greeted him when he opened his eyes that morning. Now he was hungry, wearing the only clothes he had on him; the moments when he was so close to Mirage seemed miles away.
Salar tried another trick. "Look, I'm the king now, so let me out of here before I kill you for keeping me in here like this." He said menacingly.
Aryan looked at him intently for a few minutes then snapped back to his relaxed position. "Sorry. I don't believe you." Salar sighed and sat back.
Aryan finished counting the coins, filled two bags up to the brim, and tied them up. "You know, Mirage is a real handful, I don't get what she sees in you."
"What do you mean?" Salar asked warily.
"She's a fighter. And you couldn't even react quickly enough when Sepehr attacked you. You just fell." He laughed.
Salar looked away towards the wall. "I was pre-occupied."
Aryan chuckled. "Yeah, we all saw what was occupying you."
Salar resisted the urge to roll his eyes. "Why are you talking to me, kid? Won't your queen kill you if she sees you down here?"
Aryan shook his head. "She won't. She likes me. And I like you. You didn't question her when she asked you to come away with her. You even married her without any objections. I don't know why she chose you, but I suppose she probably thought you'd support her best."
"Yes." Aryan nodded eagerly. "She needs someone to support her. She's a wonderful person. It's just that people find her a bit intimidating sometimes. But she really is quite extraordinary."
Salar raised an eyebrow at the young man. He looked much younger than the others did; with his full face, bright grey eyes and black hair; same muscle feature as the others though.
"How do you know Mirage?" Salar asked, twisting in his spot to take a better look at Aryan.
Aryan started juggling the two bags of coins. "Well, Sam is my older brother and Mirage is like my older sister. Our mother was her mother's nurse during all the births." He said, distracted. "And my wife's her friend. You saw her at the ceremony with our mother."
Salar looked surprised as the image of a woman with a much younger girl came to mind. "You have a wife?"
Aryan stopped juggling, his face wounded. "Of course I do."
"Well… you're young." Salar said carefully.
Aryan's face lightened. "Oh… well, we got married when we were young."
Salar nodded. He really didn't want to know the whole happy story.
Obviously, Aryan didn't take the hint. "Her name is Shireen. She's the daughter of the royal Gunsmith but she grew up to specialize in swords. She loves them. That's how we met. I had to have a sword made for Mirage. I didn't even know before that the royal swordsmith was a woman; she kept her hair all tied up and always looked so dirty, but she had the most amazing eyes and her smile, and she was so perfect…" Aryan babbled on as Salar sighed with exasperation.
Little food, no water, and now he had an excited chimp with him for entertainment.
"… then when I told Mirage about it, she sneaked behind me and talked to the gunsmith and the girl, who said they had no problem if I married her. I didn't mind because she made my job easy so we simply got married." Aryan happily concluded.
Salar nodded miserably.
"You want to see her?" Aryan asked, and before Salar could say anything, Aryan pulled out a piece of parchment from his chest pocket and handed it to Salar through the bars.
Humoring Aryan, Salar unfolded the parchment with a heavy sigh and gazed at the portrait and recognized the eyes. She was beautiful. Shireen had long curly brown hair, large brown eyes and an angular face, quite a contrast to her title of the royal swordsmith. She looked as much as a princess as Mirage did.
"I drew it myself." Aryan piped up as Salar's eyes roamed.
"Flashing that portrait around again, I see?" Mirage asked as she climbed down the stairs. "You know you're not supposed to do that." Not wearing gowns was such bliss sometimes; she could move much easily without them, her old clothes fit her perfectly.
Aryan grinned and took the portrait from Salar. With a jerk of her head, she signaled Aryan to leave who discreetly took the two bags of coins and trotted up the stairs. Mirage took the recently vacated spot beside Salar's cage.
"Don't be that way with him." She said, anger reflecting in her voice. "He's young and newly married and he's proud of his wife. You should at least try and act interested."
"Why should I act interested in his marriage when mine is already so full of adventure!" Salar said sarcastically, not bothering to look at her as the boat swayed.
"Look, that's beside the point, you know why I had shouted for them." Mirage said with a barely suppressed grin. She loved controlling such a beast of a man. It showed who had the power in this relationship, if that is what you call it.
"Don't act like you didn't want me to take you." Salar said flatly.
Mirage chose to say nothing and smothered a smile. She couldn't let him know that lust was becoming her weakness. Instead, she got up and pulled a key out of her trouser pocket.
Unlocking the cage door, she moved to the side as Salar looked up. "Seph was a bit drastic in locking you up like an animal. I apologize."
She looked away as Salar looked up at her intently for a moment and frowning, made to move out. He stood up and frowned as his back emitted a popping sound.
"Just don't manhandle like that in front of them. My friends are very protective of me." She said, gingerly stepping away from him, inching towards the stairs.
Salar snatched her elbow. "You kept me locked up in there like an animal. I couldn't sleep, I couldn't eat, I couldn't pray. And you're acting like it's the most normal thing in the world."
"Behave and you'll see soon enough that this is the way I operate. You are a necessity; otherwise, you wouldn't be here. Now I've told the men to treat you nicely, after all, I owe you my gratitude, so just take what you get and tone your attitude." She snapped, snatching her arm back.
She felt his eyes follow her as she disappeared up the stairs. The cold wind greeted her as she strode up to the helm towards Navid and Sepehr who were silent. It had been so long, almost nearing a week, and Sepehr had only spoken four words to her. It was beginning to get to her. The more she looked at Sepehr, the more she felt the loathing in her heart grow for her father. She missed Tatiana, but Sepehr was her husband, he must obviously miss her more. She took the wheel from Navid who smiled at her.
"How's your pet?" He asked.
"He'll live." She said, looking up at the sky.
"I wasn't too sure about that. Seph hit him hard with the gun. I thought we might be performing a funeral later on." Navid murmured to her as Sepehr moved away, not even looking at Mirage. It pained her.
"It's all right. He has a hard head." She said distractedly. She caught Navid's concerned look and bristled. "What?"
"Are you all right?" He asked tentatively.
"It's difficult, but I'm going with it." Her voice shook as a sudden wave of nostalgia hit her and she coughed.
Navid looked awkward. "You never cried before... You're changing. Has this man done something to make you like this?" His tone was accusatory.
Mirage burst out laughing. "You know that cannot happen." She didn't notice Salar come up from the lower deck, his face white with anger. He was outraged. He had been submissive towards her for long. Acting like he deserved such treatment was the last straw. It was time she learned some manners.
He stomped up the stairs and was momentarily blinded by the bright rays of the sun. Blinking rapidly, he searched for Mirage as faces swan in front of him. He spotted her near the helm beside Navid and her peals of laughter made their way with the breeze towards him.
"JUST TAKE WHAT I GET?!" He shouted. Pride triumphed newfound love and spotting a spear, he grabbed it and threw it in her direction. Mirage heard the swish of the spear against the wind and by instinct, Mirage spun away as the spear went by her head. It hit a barrel of gunpowder with a twang.
Instantly, Salar was tackled by the guards. He was kicked to the ground and felt the blood pool in his brain as Aryan pulled him in a headlock; his earlier happy mood forgotten. The others had pinned his limps to the floor and he grunted as he felt the weight on his muscles. He couldn't let those men get the better of him. Screwing his arms inwards, he felt the weight pressure his wrists, and sensing Aryan's breath by his ear, he jerked his head back where it slammed into Aryan's teeth. Aryan's grip loosened and it was enough for Salar. With all his might, he rolled and grabbing the men's wrists, he pulled them together and grabbing their necks, slammed their faces into the floor. The men by his feet received well-aimed kicks at their knees and they fell as Salar grabbed them both by the ears and threw them away from him.
"Salar, stop fighting!" Salar heard Mirage and instantly froze. Detaching the spear from the barrel where it had lodged itself, she stared back at Salar, not believing that he had actually just tried to kill her. The scraping of the spearhead against the wood sounded and he turned. Mirage had the spear in her hand and the rest of her crew stood silently behind her, as if she had everything under control. Sepehr was standing by the ship's rail.
She had the spear in her hand and her expression was so wounded that Salar felt guilty for a moment. Then he remembered the past three days and his anger flared up anew.
"Why did you do that for? You could have hit me with it." She asked, her voice nearing hysteria.
"YOU KEPT ME DOWN THERE FOR FIVE DAYS! DO YOU REALLY NEED AN ANSWER?" He bellowed.
Undeterred, she screamed straight back. "YOU DESERVE IT!" The men around Salar slowly got up, but did not approach him.
"YOU CAME ON TO ME! YOU CRIED IN MY ARMS! YOU WANTED ME! AND WHEN I TRIED TO HONOR YOU, YOU HAD ME IMPRISONED!" He yelled back.
"I DID NOT WANT YOU!" She shrilled and threw the spear at him.
Catching it, he broke it in two. "You want to fight on this?"
Mirage stared at him, thinking. She had had enough of this stupid behavior. It would be better just to kill him now and just lie about his demise when they would make port. Taking a few steps back, she extended her hand towards Sepehr without breaking eye contact with Salar. "Hand me your sword."
"You cannot be serious…" Sepehr said, folding his arms.
Mirage did not say anything, just stood waiting for him to hand over his talwar. Sighing, Sepehr took out his sword and handed it to her. Taking her own saber out, she flipped it and held it by the blade for Salar.
"If it's a fight you want, then a fight you shall get." She said gravely.
Salar stared at the double-edged blade in Mirage's hand. He had one just like it at home. His mother had bestowed it upon him. Pushing the somewhat painful memory out of his mind, since what 7 year old wanted a sword for his birthday, he took it from her. Salar weighed it in his hand and felt it fit in his grip perfectly. Mirage stepped back, one foot behind the other, the other folded at her back, the sword pointed towards him. She looked at him coolly.
"Begin." She said, waiting for him to lunge.
Instantly, Salar started laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation. "I am not going to fight you like this."
Mirage straightened, "Are you scared?"
Salar grimaced and handed the sword to Rostam. "I am not. This is your ship." He gestured around. "Even if I come near to beating you, your men will kill me. So I've lost anyways. It would be useless."
"He makes a point." Sepehr mumbled.
Mirage ignored him. "Well then, it is incredibly stupid of you to back out of a fight. They won't do anything until I say so… we could fight with our skills. You'd need your fists for that, not your sword."
Salar shook his head. Then he'd be responsible for disfiguring that pretty face and he couldn't have that on his head forever.
Mirage's sword fell limply to her side. "Fine! You can go back down then."
"Oh, I am not going back down there." Salar said, amused.
"You'll do whatever I want." She replied archly. "In fact, if you are not fighting; then you are forfeiting and I always have a special place for forfeiters on this ship." Around him, the men reluctantly smiled. Sepehr shook his head disapprovingly.
"Tell him where that place is." Aryan cackled behind Salar.
Smiling, Mirage pointed out towards the front of the ship. "There have been exactly 15 people who have posed as figureheads at the prow of the ship. You'll be the 16th."
Salar glared at her. "That's insane."
"That's the point of it." Mirage shrugged. She was enjoying this. Her face was not betraying her feelings.
Salar weighed down the points of it. He was in no way going to become the figurehead, it was madness, so he had only one other choice. He held out his hand to Rostam who handed him back the sword.
"After I win, I'll want something in return." He said, testing the grip of the word in his hands.
Mirage eyed the sword, her own grip tightening on hers. "And what's that?" She knew he wouldn't say no to that.
"Respect." Mirage snorted at his answer. "I want you to respect me. You know your place. You are a princess, and you will be queen. But I am a prince too, although you've forgotten that. I will not stand by while you treat me as an ingrate. I kept my mouth and my manners in check while you went around acting as if your actions had no consequences. Now, you need to understand something. If you want me, than you'll need to know that while you'll be ruling your people, I'll be the one whose word will be law for you."
Mirage stared at him. How vulgar! Did he really expect her to act like her servants with him, catering to him? To act like he was her only world and that she couldn't live without him? They've only just gotten married and his demands are already starting! The insolent fool! Lifting her sword, she assumed an en garde position. "Keep dreaming."
She lunged at him and he snapped at her sword with his. They circled each other as the crew backed up, providing an appropriate ground for them, some of them cackled menacingly. Sepehr took hold of the wheel, looking straight ahead.
Salar followed her, not breaking eye contact. "Is this really what they teach you? I'm surprised you're still alive if this is how you fight." She lunged again and he parried, trading places with her in their imaginary circle.
Mirage glared at him. "You're not fighting."
"Oh I will when the occasion calls for it." He chuckled and was awarded with a thrust of her sword near his abdomen. He swiped his sword against hers and turned, back in his original spot, their predatory circling not broken. The ship swayed and Mirage saw him adjust his footing. She had gone on several voyages on this ship so her footing was fine. Trading feints, she whirled as Salar's sword came to within an inch her head and the clip holding onto her hair broke as it came in close contact with the flat edge of the blade. The sheet of hair flew down to her waist and she looked down at the pieces of her clip with a few strands of her hair. They blew away as the wind came and her vision blurred. She heard the swipe but couldn't react in time. The blade sliced into her side, although only touching and through instinct, she swung her sword at an angle, nicking Salar on the shoulder. She could feel the pain spreading through her body. She held up her hand to the men who made to move forward. Because of the looseness of her shirt, Salar didn't realize that he had cut her, and ignored the slight pain on his arm. He had gone through worse. Mirage swiped at Salar. Salar parried and counter swiped. She arched her back against his attack, and jabbed, finally finding her target, spraying blood from Salar's leg across the deck.
Salar held back his howl of pain. That jab went in deep and his leg wobbled; blood ran down his leg into his boot. Mirage pointed her sword at him and with the other hand, gingerly dabbed at the cut to her side. Bastard! Good thing it's only a flesh wound. She thought and looked up at him as he attacked. She swung her sword and feinted, twirled around him, and lunging, he slowed down at Mirage's stab, and as he brought his sword down against hers, she did something he had never seen anyone do. As the sword went against hers, she took away hers and shot an arm, grabbing the blade. Her crew jumped up, their expressions of shock prominent.
Sepehr let go of the wheel, his eyes wide. The blood slowly dribbled from her palm down to her wrist. She looked into Salar's eyes. There was no pain there although now that she thought about it, it probably wasn't a good idea to stop the fight with her hands. Salar looked at her hand and then back at her.