Continued from Chapter 6
She withdrew her hand from the sword, and winced slightly, thanking Allah that the blade hadn't simply cut off her hand. The sword stayed suspended in the air. All the men around her had their hands on their swords or guns, ready for battle. Her hand was bleeding profusely but she didn't to tear off a piece from her own shirt, it was her favorite, or had been before Salar had so ruthlessly slashed through it. Solemnly, she went over to Sepehr and handed him her sword, giving him a smile as he looked at her unblinkingly. Coming back to Salar, she gently put a hand on his, lowering the weapon. Reaching towards him, she took hold of the corners of his shirt and applying some force, tore off a scrap. Wrapping it around her hand, she looked up at Salar. His eyes were wide and he was staring at her hand, horrified. Judging from the awkward looks the others were giving him, Mirage knew that they were beginning to wonder why a soldier was standing there looking petrified at the sight of blood. She didn't know why but she didn't like how they were looking at him. She smiled at Salar. She had won the fight and he had taken out his anger. He'll be alright by now.
"You ruined my favorite shirt." She accused mockingly, "This was the finest silk in the province."
She looked back at the other men. "I forgive him. Give him some clean clothes and good food. He'll be dining with me tonight" and with that, she walked away towards her cabin. Sepehr snatched Mirage's sword from Salar's grip and slapped him on the back of the head. Salar snapped out of the trance her blood had put him in and unconsciously grew red. He was never going to understand this woman, and from the look the other men were giving him, he had to explain to Mirage why he; who had taken countless lives during the past wars, had frozen on the sight of a woman's blood.
"You like what you see?" Mirage asked across the table. She felt loose, her voice didn't yet have the slur and she was in a very easy mood. She had a wine glass in one hand and a strawberry in the other. She had changed her shirt into something less bloody and her hand was bandaged. After being cleaned up, she had told Rostam who had taken the task of being the ship's chef to make up a scrumptious meal for her and Salar. That moment when Salar had seen the blood dripping for her hand, Mirage had spied a look in his eyes. He looked terrified. Of course, blood was supposed to stay in the body rather than out but the way he had seen her seemed to tell more about his story than she already knew. It affected him directly and she had to find out what it was.
Salar gazed at her, his mind hazy. After attending to his rather serious wounds, Salar was given new clothes and clean water to wash himself up. Sepehr's parting phrase, "You smell like shit" was indeed true. Now he felt clean, groomed and full. He had wolfed down the food like a dog, and after so many days of starvation, he didn't care about manners and it seemed, neither did Mirage, who had folded her legs up as she munched on a chicken leg with all the elegance of a wild hyena. Now, she leaned back in the chair, her feet draped on the armrest, a languid smile on her face. Salar is looking delicious tonight, she thought as he took a sip of his own wine.
"It's perfect." He replied lazily.
They silenced as they each took little sips, savoring the wine. After a while, Mirage spoke.
"Are we alright?" Her tone was anxious.
Salar watched her intently. "Of course we are. Why do you ask?"
Mirage held up her bandaged hand and Salar's brows furrowed. "I apologize for that. I can assure you that that will never happen again. I was just a bit disoriented; I wasn't thinking straight, I would never want to harm you."
Mirage placed her hand back in her lap carefully. "let's hope so." She said, raising her glass to him. They became silent again as they both looked into their glasses. Suddenly, Mirage remembered what she had actually wanted to ask him in the first place.
"Why are you so afraid of blood?" She regarded Salar who coughed a little in his glass.
"I'm not afraid of blood." He declared, wiping his chin with a handkerchief.
"But you froze when you saw mine." She said, interested.
Salar looked away, frowning a little. Swinging her legs off the armrest, Mirage strolled up to him, and jumping up, sat on the table beside his plates. Salar looked at her with annoyance and she raised her eyes, waiting for answer. When he didn't say anything, she sighed.
"Oh come on, tell me." She pouted.
Salar looked up at her, and unable to resist her pout, reluctantly smiled. She gave him a triumphant look and went back to her wine.
Eventually, Salar spoke. "I'm not afraid of blood. It's just… a woman's blood. It brings back some memories."
Mirage widened her eyes, "Can you tell me about that memory?" She asked, interested. A woman's blood? Well, it's a good thing that he doesn't know about the time of the month then. She smiled at the thought and Salar caught it.
"I mean…" He said quickly, "I just can't see a woman suffer such harm that she'd draw blood."
"Oh?" She took the last sip and put her glass down beside his. "That's very noble. But what's the reason behind it?"
Salar looked at her. He might as well tell her. Taking a deep breath, Salar spoke. "When my mother gave birth to my little brother, she… had some complications. I was excited to see Salud so I sneaked into the room when I saw that no one was looking. I could see Salud but then I noticed that my mother was barely awake. She was lying in a pool of blood. I don't know what the complication, the women around her were trying so hard to stop the bleeding, but they couldn't. Mama didn't even get so see Salud, she had died as soon as she had given birth. She only had a couple of minutes in which she spoke to me."
Mirage looked shocked, and suitably so. This was terrible. She knew that Queen Suri had died while giving birth, but to know that a child had seen it all, to know the reality of the situation made her feel horrified. Her own mother had once cut her finger while slicing an apple; Mirage had screamed the house down, the servant who had handed the Queen the knife had to be taken away because Mirage had accused her of trying to kill her mother. She was only five at the time, so she couldn't very well control her speech and actions.
She gazed at Salar with renewed interest and affection. Salar was looking in the distance, his gaze unfocused. "What did she say to you?" She asked delicately.
"She called me to her. The women were so angry that I was there but even when my mother was dying, she just gave them a look and they retreated. She didn't have the strength to say much, but she told me… she told me to never regret my decisions. I couldn't understand what that meant when she said"
"She had never looked so weak. I had never seen her that way. Covered in blood, her hair messy…" He gestured to his own hair. "She was always beautiful but I just cannot take that image out of my head. She died holding my hands…" Mirage chewed on her lip, wanting to pull him into her arms. She was a sucker for such emotional tales.
"When I kill men, it is different. They die for a reason. My mother didn't have a reason. She didn't have to be with a child." He said angrily, "She died because my father wanted a son, another son. Well, he got one, but he lost his wife in the process... And today, when I saw your blood…" He looked at her, "It reminded me of my mother in so many ways. She was the commander of the army, she taught them all that she knew, and she never backed away from a fight. To see your blood, it reminded me that you are mortal. You could die just like her, and my childhood perception that those who I love are immortal, that moment just contradicted everything."
He didn't seem to notice that he had just counted her among the people he loved, neither did he notice Mirage's sharp intake of breath. He continued.
"Only a few people in the world know of this, my friend Behroz, my brother and my father. The women who had been with my mother that day were loyal. They don't matter, but to me, there are only three people who knew of this, and now you know too." He smiled sadly and Mirage felt her heart skip a beat. She couldn't stand to see him so sad, even if he had tried to kill her a few hours before. Mirage slid off the table and hugged him. Caught by surprise, Salar hugged Mirage back, careful not to touch her at the wound on her waist.
She withdrew after a while, smiling. "You know you just proved to me that you're human. That can be dangerous."
Salar said simply. "We're married. By right, you should know everything there is to know. After all, you are my wife."
Mirage smiled broadly. That was true, she was. She hopped back up on the table and carefully leaned back for the wine bottle. Salar rested a hand on her knee to stable her and she grinned. Salar had to admit, she could handle her alcohol. There was no slur in her speech, no wobbling in her walk.
Mirage filled both glasses to the middle and sat the bottle down. "Do you still not know what she meant by her last words?" She asked as she picked up her glass and swiveled the liquid around.
"I do, yes." He said, picking up his own glass, "She knew how I'd be later on. She knew I'd blame father for her death. She knew I'd hate Salud. Her words made me understand something. She didn't regret her decision to have Salud, even though she knew she would die in the process… She wasn't strong enough on the inside." He answered Mirage's raised eyebrows.
"She told me to be strong in what I believe and so I did just that. I have always been straight in my decisions, and I have seldom been wrong." He took a sip of wine and sat the glass down. He wasn't in the mood.
"Are there any decisions that you do regret?" Mirage asked as she gazed at him in wonderment.
Salar sat back, "I regret the fact that I misjudged you." He said seriously.
Mirage smiled, "You did?"
"I thought of you as nothing more than a devious, blood-thirsty, greedy and vicious bully who took relief in knowing that other people were suffering. I thought you to be a copy of your father, but I was wrong." He said simply.
Mirage mumbled, "You really have a way with compliments."
Salar nudged her leg with his foot, "It's what I thought of you before. What I think of you now is totally different."
"Is it?" She asked.
"You're a different person. You're moody, calculating, temperamental, and you like things done your way. You don't listen to other people." He said softly.
Mirage sat her glass down quickly, knowing that if she kept hold of it, she'd throw it in his face and hopped off the table, "I'm afraid I must take a break from all these compliments, I might swoon." She said archly and made to move away. Salar reached out and took her hand. Pulling her back towards the table, he gestured her to sit down but she stood, and snatching back her hand, folded her arms in front of her chest, waiting impatiently.
Salar sighed, "With all those qualities, you still have a heart. You still cry when you hear something sad, and you still want things to end happily. You have a good heart, and you're modest about it. You don't think you deserve what you have and that is something that people of our stature rarely think about. You leaped before you looked, but even then, you don't want there to be any violence. I'd say all that is what makes you a lot different than what I thought you to be before."
Mirage stared. No one had ever said something like this to her before and the fact that all of it was completely true, made Salar even more appealing than before. Confused, she mumbled, "A simple 'You're as beautiful on the inside as you are on the outside' would have done justice as well."
"Ah but you are not one to fall for such clichéd sentences, are you?" Salar said, squeezing her hand.
"I suppose not." Instead of sitting back on the table, Mirage pulled him up from the chair. She led him to the bed and jumped on it. Snuggling into the pillows behind her, Mirage patted the space in front of her and Salar awkwardly sat down. He was used to sleeping and sitting on the hard mattresses, and for the past five days, on the ground.
"So…" Mirage said, not meeting his eyes. "Is there anything you want to ask me?" She didn't like the fact that she was making herself vulnerable but Salar had told her such a secret that she felt honored to know it, she only felt that she had to return the favor.
Salar slowly nodded. "I do actually. But they are not the usual ones that are burning people's curiosity."
Mirage raised her eyes. "What do you mean?"
"Sepehr said something that day, when you went for a swim to get away from me." He stopped as Mirage grimaced. She didn't want to say it but she knew she had over-reacted. He was only trying to be nice.
"He said that they were your friends from childhood and that the reason you clung onto them was because they saved you from torture. Can you explain what that means?" He asked, and judging by her facial expressions, he had brought back some tragic memories.
Mirage turned her face down and closed her eyes. He could have asked her anything, why did Sepehr say that, why had he even mentioned her past in front of Salar! He had no right. Then she thought back, Sepehr had personally seen to everything, he had every right to say anything he wanted, perhaps he thought that now was the time to bring Salar in on the secret, but it was so shameful, how could she reveal such a thing to him? She didn't know what to do.
Salar leaned in, "is it really the cause of so much anguish that you cannot even speak of it?"
Mirage merely nodded.
They both stayed silent as Mirage took a few deep breaths to calm herself down, and finally Salar spoke gently, "Then now is not the time to tell me about it. When you feel that you can tell me, you tell me. Until then, I won't pester you."
"How can you be so sure that it is not something so destructive that you might want to leave me after you find out about it?" Mirage asked, hearing the fear in her own voice and wondering if Salar had felt it too.
Salar moved closer to her, "Because you wouldn't let anything destructive happen to yourself. And whatever it is, it is something that happened without your consent. For that, I cannot hold you responsible."
Mirage gazed at him, dumbfounded. "You know that is something that is impossible for men to believe. How can I trust that you won't change?" Suspicion made her anxious.
Salar chuckled and drew away from her, "Hey, you are looking at a soldier who froze on the sight of your blood. Now that's shameful. If I change, use that piece of information against me. I permit you."
Mirage rubbed her nose and reluctantly smiled, "I don't need your permission to use it against you."
"So we don't have a problem then, do we?" He sat back with ease, folding his legs beneath him. "Now, since we only know such trivial things about each other, we should know the simple ones too. You tell me all the basic things about yourself."
Mirage giggled, "Like what?"
Salar tapped his chin, thinking. "What's your favorite color?"
"Okay", Mirage sat up, and pulling a pillow onto her lap, bounced happily, her earlier mood forgotten. "What's your favorite food?"
"I love Tah-chin. I can eat it all the time. I started eating it during my training. Papa said I'd get sick sooner or later but I never did. He even got mad over that." He said, laughing.
"That happened to me when I got a taste of Dizi and Kufteh Tabrizi. I ate it so much, and mama was always telling me how I'd hate them afterwards but I never got enough of them." She couldn't stop giggling.
"I remember one time, I was 9 maybe, I made Salud eat some caviar and I told him later that since they were fish eggs, they were going to crack open and then the fish would live in his stomach like it was a fish bowl and he'd be their mom. He tried puking so much after that that he got a throat infection from the gagging." Salar chortled as Mirage burst into her giggles.
"I did something of the same sort. I gave some seeds to Rayan and Razin and told them that a tree will grow from inside. They cried for two days before father shouted at them for being stupid." She said gleefully, "We truly are terrible, aren't we!"
Salar snickered and shook his head. "We're wiser than the others, it's not our fault they were so naïve."
"That's exactly what I say." She said, spreading her arms. "I always said that. No one listened to me."
Nostalgia kept them awake until five in the morning. Both had so many childhood stories to tell one another and their shouts of laughter kept the crew comforted that they were not killing each other inside the cabin. Sleep remained a foreign concept them for both. Mirage told him all about Saulta, how she had financed it, secretly given the money to have a room built especially for her. She felt herself tear up when she remembered her beautiful Saulta burning in the bonfire and Salar told her that she could have as many replicas of Saulta built in Sahilibur as she wanted and now that she was Queen, she could have her Saulta rebuilt in Farajtah. He told her about his childhood dreams, his many idiotic adventures with Behroz and about his grandmother Dara. Mirage smiled indulgingly as Salar sat up, excitedly telling her about the time when his grandmother had beaten him up for selling her beloved jewels and how she had felt so bad afterwards that she had bought him a horse. She had even bought another horse for Behroz who had brought back the jewels. She told him about her sisters; how they used to fight with her each other so much that the Queen had to relocate the children's room to the four corners of the castle so they wouldn't stay near each other long enough to fight. She laughed alongside him when she told him about her secret sweet stash which everyone knew about. They debated about the story of the dead princess in the tower and Salar told her the legends of his own home country.
On a whim, Mirage told him about Sina and how they had first met. Mirage sat, amused as Salar tried his best to control his anger that someone had touched Mirage that way, although he had to reluctantly agree that it was not Sina's fault that Mirage had chosen her first visit out of the castle to exhibit her rebellious form. He was at least satisfied that Mirage had fought back instead of liking the touch.
Later, good-humoredly, each apologized to the other for their actions before. Mirage had a lot to be sorry for, and with much stiffness and reluctance, she asked for forgiveness, which Salar granted immediately and in return, he asked for forgiveness for throwing the spear at her and almost cutting off her hand. The wound was deep and Salar felt ashamed that he was the one who had caused it. Kissing it, he pulled Mirage in his arms and leaned back so that she was lying on top of him. Grudgingly, Mirage rested her head against his chest and felt herself drift into relaxation. Her married life was off to a good start.
Thinking that she should act on her inner instinct, she gently pulled herself up so that they were face-to-face and summoning up her courage, she took his face in her hands and leaning down, she rested her lips against his. His arms went around her and he rolled so that he was hovering over her. He didn't want her to stretch the wound on her side. Mirage reached down and pulled his leg up, the one she had wounded so that it rested on top of her. The lap of the waves and the compactness of the cabin gave them such an auditory surrounding, that when Mirage gave an involuntary moan against his mouth, she heard it back and it flamed her desire up even further. She could feel Salar against her as he moved on top and she stroked his arms, tenderly fingering the cut on his arm. They didn't move further than kissing, even thought Mirage knew how much Salar wanted to, since at times she'd feel his hands wander over her body and pausing at certain areas where they'd linger for quite some time. She didn't object. The convulsions of pleasure his touch were giving her were too great for her and she greedily let them flow over her.
Eventually, as she felt Salar tentatively pull her shirt up as he kissed her neck, they both heard a knock on the door. It was time for the Morning Prayer. Silently, they both washed up and prayed. Salar prayed first as Mirage waited. They should have prayed together but Salar knew Mirage's pride would never let her stand one-step behind a man, even if that man was her husband, and really, Salar didn't mind. He was beginning to understand her. She wasn't proud by choice. She was a princess, now queen. She was supposed to be proud. As she prayed, Salar gazed at her. No one would ever suspect Mirage to bow in front of anyone but the simple fact that even her pride was nothing when it came to prayer made Salar respect her more. He knew his own father, King Darius ran away from prayer. It was the most irritating thing about him.
After her prayer, Mirage beckoned him towards her and when he sat down beside her, she took his right hand and started reciting some prayer words since her own right hand was covered. She smiled shyly at him as she murmured the words and cleared her throat to ease her awkwardness. Such a gesture was a very intimate one.
When they had finished praying, Mirage yawned widely and Salar pulled her away to the warmth of the bed. They had all the time in the world, or at least until twelve. Suggestively, Mirage let Salar place his hand on her waist underneath her shirt and he pulled her into him and kissed her. He slowly slid his hand to her bare back and stroked it, feeling her spine as she arched her back against his hand and lightly, she reached down to unbutton his shirt. The kiss deepened as the last button finally gave way and she felt his skin against hers. His chest was smattered with light downy hair and his smooth abdomen felt hard against her hand, result of years of training and exercise.
She gasped as his hand touch against her breast and she stiffened. This is it. No going back now. She thought as his nails scraped against her tender skin and hover over her chest. Suddenly, a firm knock sounded on the door. Mirage's first instinct was to ignore it but as the knock turned into hammering, she was about to get up when Salar, apparently annoyed at the interruption, moved away from her, and quickly buttoning up his shirt and smoothing his hair, yelled out, "All right, all right. Wait a minute."
Mirage sat up and straightened herself up. Nodding at Salar, she walked to the door as Salar opened it and there stood Navid. He looked troubled, and pink in the face. The rest of the crew was moving around at top speed.
"What's going on?" She asked, confused as she spotted Sepehr at the bridge, turning the wheel hard aport. The ship lurched towards Mirage's right and she held onto the door.
"We have trouble." He said frantically.
Mirage groaned. "What sort of trouble? These seas are safe."
"Look", Navid pulled her out of the cabin and pointed out beyond port. In a distance, Mirage made out the outline of an Island. The morning fog made it a bit difficult to make out but she was sure it was an Island.
"That's Baltoti. It's one of Sahilibur's Islands, the one farthest away from the country." Navid said, handing her a telescope so she could see. Holding it up to her eye, she made out the vibrant colors of the island, which had given it its name.
"But that's a good thing that we're so near it, so what's the problem?" She asked, feeling a bit angry at Navid for disturbing her over nothing.
She felt an arm around her waist as it turned her around. Salar took the telescope from Mirage and looked beyond the Mirage.
"I think there is your problem." He said. Mirage turned to ask him when her vision cleared. A ship. Almost as big as the Mirage. But it couldn't be. They had a good two days advantage before her father could send any troops to bring her back. When she voiced this fact, Salar shook his head.
"The fog is too thick, I can't make them out." He frowned.
"It could just be a passing ship. Why is everyone freaking out so much?" She asked, exasperated and grabbing the telescope, pointed it towards the stranger ship. She could make it out as a frigate. It was moving fast and Mirage felt her stomach drop as the frigate adjusted its course. Suddenly, the clouds parted above her and a ray of sunlight shone on the ship. That was when she saw it and her blood ran cold. She had seen it before and her mind flashed back to a moment in time when her father had pointed out that sometimes, you needed to test those you trust and when they'd fail to rise up to the challenge, you'd known that they were your enemies all along.
She lowered the telescope as the predatory ship sliced through the water. The Mirage didn't stand a chance. They'd catch up to her soon enough.
"Did you see it? Who is it?" Salar asked and when she didn't reply, he shook her arm. "Mirage, did you see it?"
Azin asked in passing, "Is it your father?"
Snapping out, Mirage shook her head and took a deep breath. "It's not my father. It's… The queen of the sea." Everyone stopped what they were doing and just stared at her for a second. It was just their luck.
Salar breathed, cursing his fate. "Pirates." And as the first boom of a cannon sounded across the ocean, Mirage prayed one last time for the safe return of herself and her loved ones and jumped as the cannonball made contact with the deck of the ship.