The king came to see Izdihar later that morning.
“I’m sorry, Izdihar,” he said, shutting the door of her chamber behind him and coming to sit next to her. “You were brilliant while I was away. Thank you.”
She smiled weakly at him.
“And you were right. You have a right to know what’s going on.”
“So you’ll tell me what happened? Where you went?”
“Yes. I didn’t want to worry you with it all, but I see now that I was wrong. I have got a lot of things wrong...”
He sighed deeply, staring straight ahead. Izdihar waited.
“I have known for a long time that Adviser Sayyid is set on taking over the city. I knew something had to be done about him, so I journeyed over the mountains to look for help. And in the kingdom I found...”
“What was it like?” Izdihar breathed. He had never once told her about what lay beyond the mountains.
“It is a huge kingdom, far bigger than ours. Their city is surrounded by little clusters of houses - they call them villages - all set in an enormous valley. And there, everything is green. It is covered in grass, shrubs and trees. Flowers of every colour grow. Everywhere there are rivers and streams running down from the mountains. And there are no towers, just countless little houses.”
Izdihar’s mouth was open. The thought of such a civilisation, just on the other side of the mountains... No one had ever heard of such a thing before! Her father smiled a little at her astonishment.
“I went to see the king there, to ask if he would help me. My original plan was to send Sayyid over the mountains for something, where the king’s soldiers would ambush him and he would be taken prisoner there. They were suspicious of me at first, but eventually, the king agreed, and I returned home. But as I tried to think of an excuse to send Sayyid into the mountains, I started to doubt more and more that he would believe it. And, I realised, if he did go, he wouldn’t go alone. I couldn’t ask the king to fight my battle for me. I returned to speak to him, and we discussed luring Sayyid over the mountains somehow. But the only thing he is interested in is power. He wanted the city for his own. And so he’d never leave.”
“But you’re the king!” said Izdihar. “Why couldn’t you just have him arrested?”
The king sighed. “I wish it were that simple. But I only have a certain amount of power over the adviser. And once an adviser is elected, he is the adviser for life, unless I could prove treason. But Sayyid is very clever, and this would be virtually impossible. Besides, by the time I returned for the second time, he had become even more powerful. He had trained up more men for his guard while I was gone, and I discovered that he was corrupting members of my own guard. If it came to a fight, we would be outnumbered. The people would have to be involved. Many of them would be too scared to fight, and those who did would most likely be killed. I couldn’t do that to my people.
I had to travel back over the mountains and ask the king there to send some of his soldiers here. He wanted to help, and I set off from their city, after some preparation, with a contingent of soldiers. I had learnt enough of their language in the time I had spent there to be able to lead them. However, as we crossed through the mountain pass to come back here, a messenger caught up with us. A village at the edge of the kingdom had been attacked by men from a neighbouring kingdom...”
“There are more people there?”
“Of course. The soldiers were called back to defend their city, and I had to make my way back alone.”
“And that’s where you’ve been all this time?”
“There must be something else you can do! If you stood up to him...” said Izdihar, desperately.
“Izdihar, you must understand. The only thing preventing Sayyid from taking over the city by force is his will to become king legitimately. And for that, he needs to marry you, and kill me. That is why I must keep peace with him, why I cannot stop all of his new laws and taxes. He knows that I see his intention, but I have to carry on as if I don’t.”
“I can’t marry him!” she choked, a lump in her throat. “I just can’t...”
“Izdihar, I’m sorry. I wouldn’t ask this if there was any other way, but... You would only have to be engaged, just to buy us some more time. I wouldn’t let the wedding go ahead.”
Izdihar was looking down at her hands, trying not to cry. Her father put his hand on her arm. “It might not even come to that. I’m going to come up with a way to stop him. We just need to put him off for as long as possible. Stay out of his way as much as you can, and be polite.”
“I have to go. Try not to worry.” He hugged her before standing up and leaving the room.
Izdihar stayed where she was, frozen in place. She had already known, or suspected, much of what her father had just told her, but hearing him say it all like that... She felt the full weight of their impossible situation crushing down on her. How could she marry Adviser Sayyid? It was an idea that didn’t bear thinking about. And yet... She took a deep, shaky breath. Her father was right; it might not even come to that. But suppose he did propose to her? Could she really go through with it?