The dream came to him again. It was an assault of the senses
and of memory, a tangle of images, grasping hands, the
choking sea. Aarif Al'Farisi slept with his eyes clenched
shut, his hands fisted on his bed sheets, a sheen of sweat
glistening on his skin.
'Help meâ€¦help meâ€¦Aarif!'
The desperate cry of his name echoed endlessly, helplessly
through the corridors of time and memory.
Aarif woke suddenly; his eyes opened and adjusted to the
darkness of his bedroom. A pale sliver of moon cast a jagged
swathe of light on the floor. He took a deep, shuddering
breath and sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed.
It took a moment to calm his racing heart. Each careful,
measured breath steadied him and made the shadows retreat.
For now. He ran a hand through his sleep-tousled hair, still
damp with sweat, and rose from the bed.
From the balcony of the Calistan royal palace he could see
an endless stretch of moonlit sand, arid desert, all the way
to the Kordela river with its diamonds, Calista's lifeblood,
mixed treacherously in its silt. He kept his gaze on the
undulating waves of sand and the promise of the river with
its guarded treasure, and let his breathing return to normal
as a dry desert wind cooled the sweat on his skin.
He hated his dreams. He hated that even now, twenty years
later, they left him shaken, afraid, helpless. Weak.
Instinctively Aarif shook his head, as if to deny the dream.
The reality. For the truth, stark as it was, was that he'd
failed his brother and his family all those years ago, and
he was destined to relive those agonising moments in his
mind whenever the dreams visited him.
He hadn't had a dream like this for months, and the respite
had lulled him into a false sense of security. Safety. Yet
he would never have either, he knew. How could you be safe
from yourself, secure from the endless repercussions of your
Letting out a sigh of frustrated exasperation, Aarif turned
from the balcony and the inky night spangled with stars. He
moved to the laptop he'd left on the desk by his bed, for he
knew sleep was far off now. He would redeem the night
He opened the computer and the machine hummed to life as he
pulled on a pair of loose-fitting cotton trousers, his chest
and feet still bare. In the mirror above the bureau he
caught a glimpse of his reflection, saw the remembered fear
still etched in harsh lines on his face, flared in his eyes,
and he grimaced in self-disgust.
Afraid, after all these years. Still. He shook his head
again, and turned to the computer. He checked his e-mail
first; there were several clients he had appointments with
in the next week who needed careful handling. Calista's
diamonds were precious, but the island did not possess the
vast reserves of Africa or Australia, and clients needed to
be countedâ€”and treatedâ€”carefully.
Yet there were no e-mails from clients in his message
in-box, he saw, just one from his brother, King Zakari of
Calista. Aarif's brows snapped together as he read his
I must follow a lead on the diamond. Go to Zaraq and
fetch Kalila. Ever your brother, Zakari.
The diamondâ€¦the Stefani diamond, the jewel of the Adamas
Crown, split in two when the islands' rule had been divided.
Aarif had never seen the diamond in its unified whole of
course; the Calistan crown held only half of the gem. The
other half, meant to be in the Aristan crown, was missing,
and proving to be utterly elusive. By tradition, uniting the
diamond was believed to be the key to uniting the kingdoms
of Aristo and Calista for ever. Aarif had seen how
determined Zakari was to retrieve that precious stone, and
with it gain a kingdom.
So determined, in fact, that he now delegated this new
responsibility to Aarif. Zakari's e-mail message contained a
simple directive, yet one fraught with decisions, details,
and potential disaster. For Princess Kalila Zadar was
Zakari's betrothed and their wedding was in a fortnight.
The retrieval of a royal bride was a complex and cautious
affair, one that rested on ceremony, courtesy, and
tradition. Aarif knew he would have to play his handâ€”and his
brother's handâ€”very carefully so as not to offend Kalila,
her father King Bahir, or the people of Zaraq. The alliance
with Zaraq was important and influential, and could not be
Aarif pressed his lips together in a hard line before
touching his fingers to the computer keys. His reply was
simple: I will do as you instruct. Your servant, Aarif.
There was never any possibility of questioning Zakari, or
refusing his brother's demand. Aarif did not even consider
it for a moment. His sense of obedience and responsibility
were absolute; his family and kingdom came first. Always.
Aarif glanced up from the screen. Dawn was beginning to
streak across the sky, pale fingers of light that
illuminated the mist-shrouded dunes below. In that eerie
grey half-light Aarif caught another glimpse of his face in
the mirror, and for a moment he was startled by his own
reflection, still surprised even now by the puckered finger
of scar tissue that ran from his brow to his jaw, for ever a
reminder of how he'd once failed in his duty to his family
He would never do so again.
Kalila woke from a restless sleep as the sun slanted through
the window of her bedroom in the Zaraquan palace, the gauzy
curtains stirring lazily in the hot breeze.
Nerves jumped and writhed in her belly, and one hand stole
to her middle and rested there, as if she could calm the
thoughts and fears that raced through her.
Today she would meet her husband.
She swung her feet over the side of the bed and padded
barefoot to the window. The sky was already hard and bright,
an endless stretch of blue without a single cloud. Beneath
the sky the desert rolled away to the sea, little more than
a pale blue-green shimmering on the horizon, marked by the
slim stretch of verdant fields by the water's edge. The rest
of Zaraq, a small kingdom, was desert. Dry, barren, and
unproductive save for a few copper and nickel mines that now
provided nearly all of the country's revenue.
Kalila swallowed. And that, she reminded herself, was the
reason she was marrying at all. Zaraq needed Calista. Her
father needed the security of Calista's diamond mines, and
Calista needed Zaraq's stability of over a hundred years of
uninterrupted independent rule. It was simple, depressingly
so. She was a pawn, a bargaining chip, and she'd always
Kalila rested her forehead against the mellow, golden stone
of the window frame, still cool with the memory of night,
although the sun slanting onto her skin was hot.
What would Zakari look like after all these years? What
would he think of her? She knew he wouldn't love her. He
hadn't seen her since she was a child, skinny and awkward,
with too much hair and a gap-toothed smile. She barely
remembered him; her mind played with shadowed memories of
someone tall, powerful, commanding. Charismatic. He'd smiled
at her, patted her head, and that was all.
Until nowâ€¦when the stranger would become the bridegroom.
Today she would see him at last, and would he be pleased
with his intended spouse? Would she?
A light, perfunctory knock sounded on the door and then her
childhood nurse, Juhanah, bustled into the room.
'Good! You are awake. I've brought you breakfast, and then
we must ready your beautiful self. His reverence could be
here by noon, or so I've been told. We have much to do.'
Kalila suppressed a sigh as she turned from the window. Her
father had told her yesterday just what kind of reception
Sheikh Zakari must have.
'He must see a traditional girl, well brought up and fit to
be a royal bride. You need not speak or even look at him, it
would be too bold,' King Bahir warned, softening his words
with a smile, although his eyes were still stern. 'You
understand, Kalila? Tomorrow's meeting with Sheikh Zakari is
important, and it is crucial that you present the right
image. Juhanah will help you with the preparations.'
Not even speak? Every Western sensibility Kalila had ever
possessed rose and rankled. 'Why can't Sheikh Zakari see me
as I am?' she protested, trying to keep a petulant note from
entering her voice. She was twenty-four years old, a
university educated woman, about to be married, yet in her
father's presence she still felt like an unruly child. She
moderated her tone, striving for an answering smile.
'Surely, Father, it is just as important that he knows who
his bride really is. If we present the wrong impressionâ€”'
'I know what the wrong impression is,' Bahir cut her off,
his tone ominously final. 'And also what the right one is.
There is time for him to know you, as you so wish,
later,' he added, and Kalila flinched at the blatant
dismissal of her desire. Bahir lifted one hand as though he
were bestowing a blessing, although it felt more like a
warning, a scolding. 'Tomorrow is not about you, Kalila. It
is not even about your marriage. It is about tradition and
ceremony, an alliance of countries, families. It has always
been this way.'
Kalila's eyes flashed. 'Even for my mother?'
Bahir's lips compressed. 'Yes, even for her. Your mother was
modern, Kalila, but she was not stubborn.' He sighed. 'I
gave you your years at Cambridge, your university degree.
You have pursued your interests and had your turn. Now it is
your family's turn, your country's turn, and after all this
waiting, you must do your duty. It begins tomorrow.' Despite
the glimmer of compassion in his eyes, he spoke flatly,
finally, and Kalila straightened, throwing her shoulders
back with proud defiance.
'I know it well, Father.'Yet she couldn't help but take note
of his words. Pursue her interests, he'd said, but not her
dreams. And what good were interests if they had to be laid
down for the sake of duty? And what were her dreams?
Her mind wrapped itself seductively around the question, the
possibility. Her dreams were shadowy, shapeless things,
visions of joy, happiness, meaning and purpose. Love. The
word slipped unbidden in her mind, a seed planted in the
fertile soil of her imagination, already taking root.
Loveâ€¦but there was no love involved in this union between
two strangers. There was not even affection, and Kalila had
no idea if there ever would be. Could Zakari love her? Would
he? And, Kalila wondered now as Juhanah bustled around her
bedroom, would she love him?
'Now eat.' Juhanah prodded her towards the tray set with a
bowl of labneh, thick, creamy yoghurt, and a cup of
strong, sweet coffee. 'You need your strength. We have much
to do today.'
Kalila sat down at the table and took a bite. 'Just what
are we doing today, Juhanah?'
Juhanah's chest swelled and she puffed out her already round
cheeks. 'Your father wants you to be prepared as a girl was
in the old days, when tradition mattered.' She frowned, and
Kalila knew her nurse was thinking of her Western ways,
inherited from her English mother and firmly rooted after
four years of independent living in Cambridge.
When Kalila had discarded a pair of jeans on the floor of
her bedroom Juhanah had pinched the offending garment
between two plump fingers and held it away from her as if it
were contaminated. Kalila grinned ruefully in memory.
'His Eminence will want to see you as a proper bride,'
Juhanah said now, parroting her father's words from yesterday.
Kalila smiled, mischief glinting in her eyes. 'When shall I
call him Zakari, do you think?'
'When he is in your bed,' Juhanah replied with an
uncharacteristic frankness. 'Do not be too bold beforehand,
my love. Men don't like a forward girl.'
'Oh, Juhanah!' Kalila shook her head. 'You've never left
Zaraq, you don't know what it's like out there. Zakari has
been to university, he's a man of the worldâ€”' So she had
read in the newspapers and tabloid magazines. So she
'Pfft.' Juhanah blew out her cheeks once more. 'And so, do I
need to know such things? What matters is here and now, my
princess. King Zakari will want to see a royal princess
today, not a modern girl with her fancy degree.' This was
said with rolled eyes; Kalila knew Juhanah thought very
little of her years in England. And in truth, she reflected,
sitting at the table with the breakfast tray before her,
those years counted for very little now.
What counted was her pedigree, her breeding, her body.
Zakari wanted an alliance, not an ally. He wasn't looking
for a lover, a partner. A soulmate.
Kalila's mouth twisted in bitter acknowledgement. She knew
all this; she'd reminded herself of it fiercely every day
that she'd been waiting for her wedding, her husband. Yet
now the waiting was over, she found her heart was anxious
Aren't you hungry, ya daanaya?' Juhanah pressed,
prodding the bowl of labneh as if she could induce
Kalila to take a bit.
Kalila shook her head and pushed the bowl away. Her nerves,
jumping and leaping, writhing and roiling, had returned, and
she knew she would not manage another bite. 'I'll just have
coffee,' she said, smiling to appease her nurse, and took a
sip of the thick, sweet liquid. It scalded her tongue and
burned down to her belly, with the same fierce resolve that
fired her heart.
The bridal preparations took all morning. Kalila had
expected it, and of course she wanted to look her best. Yet
amidst all the ministrations, the lotions and creams and
paints and powders, she couldn't help but feel like a
chicken being trussed and seasoned for the cooking pot.
There was only Juhanah and a kitchen maid to act as her
negaffa, the women who prepared the bride; the
Zaraquan palace had a small staff since her mother had died.
First, she had a milk bath in the women's bathing quarters,
an ancient tradition that Kalila wasn't sure she liked.
Supposedly the milk of goats was good for the skin, yet it
also had a peculiar smell.
'I wouldn't mind a bit of bath foam from the chemists',' she
muttered, not loud enough for Juhanah or the kitchen maid to
hear. They wouldn't understand, anyway.
As Juhanah towelled her dry and rubbed sweet-smelling lotion
into her skin Kalila felt a sudden pang of sorrow and grief
for her mother, who had died when Kalila had been only
seventeen. Her mother Amelia had been English, cool and
lovely, and it would have been her loving duty to prepare
Kalila for this meeting with her bridegroom.
She, Kalila acknowledged with a rueful sorrow, would have
understood about bath foam. They could have teased, laughed,
enjoyed themselves even with the pall of duty hanging over
her, the knowledge of what was to come.