Izdihar jerked out of her fitful sleep and stared ahead into the darkness. There was a dark figure in front of her bed. She nearly screamed, until a familiar voice froze her to the spot. But it couldn’t be...
The man at the end of the bed lit a lamp, and she saw her father’s face looking at her, his eyes glinting in the light from the lamp.
“Father!” she said joyfully, leaping out of bed to embrace him. “You’re really here!”
She felt tears prick the back of her eyes, and buried her face in his shoulder, filled with a warm glow of relief. She really wasn’t dreaming.
“Come on, let’s go somewhere we can talk,” he said softly, leading her to the room where he would normally talk to members of the public who came to see him.
“Where have you been?” asked Izdihar. “Why have you been away for so long?”
“There were... complications,” he said heavily, and she could tell from his face that whatever he had set out to do, he had not been successful. “But that doesn’t matter now. How have things been here?”
“They’re getting worse. Adviser Sayyid raised his tax again, there was nothing I could do. And... oh Father... I think... I think he’s going to ask me to... to marry him!”
She didn’t know what reaction she had expected, but it wasn’t this. Her father’s grave face showed no hint of surprise. He looked down at the floor.
“What can we do?”
The king sighed heavily, and looked back at her. It was only now that she noticed how his beard was overgrown and shaggy, and flecked with silver. He had big pouches of grey beneath his eyes. She had never seen him looking so weary, or so old. Her heart was beating very fast.
“You’re not just going to let him marry me? You can’t!”
“Izdihar, I’m afraid there isn’t much I can do.”
“So that’s it?” Izdihar was gripping the sides of her chair hard, cold with fear.
Quietly, he said “If I say no, he will take the kingdom by force. We will lose, and many of my people will be killed...”
Izdihar was breathing fast. Her heart was gripped with panic.
Her father tried to take her hand, but she shot out of her chair, hot tears spilling down her cheeks. “All this time... I needed you. And now... Where did you go? What good did it do?”
He stood up too. “You don’t need to know about that.”
“Yes I do! I’m not a child anymore! You left me, all on my own, to deal with fighting farmers and riots at market and water shortages and Adviser Sayyid wanting to pass new laws every other week... All those weeks, worrying about you. You could have been dead! And you don’t even give me any explanation?”
Her father was silent. She turned and fled from the room, sobbing.