Izdihar was just leaving her tower room when she heard footsteps coming round the corner. Adviser Sayyid appeared, and his mouth curved into a cold smile when he saw her.
“Ah, Princess Izdihar... “
Izdihar forced a smile. She couldn’t bring herself to speak.
The adviser stopped in front of her. “How are you these days, Princess? I haven’t seen much of you since your father’s return. It’s a shame.”
Her insides were squirming uncomfortably. She couldn’t meet his gaze. “Yes... I, er... I’m afraid I’ve been quite busy lately... I’m on my way out now and –“
“Not to worry,” said Adviser Sayyid, with another smile. “I’m just on my way to see your father. I must hurry, in fact, wouldn’t like to keep the king waiting. Good day, Princess. I’m sure we’ll see each other again soon.”
He bowed his head and then passed her. Izdihar hurried away, with the uneasy feeling that Adviser Sayyid had known exactly what had been going on in her head.
When she reached Shahrazad’s flat, Tommy opened the door. “Welcome,” he said, a big grin on his face, and Izdihar had the distinct impression that Shahrazad had just taught him the word. She couldn’t help but smile.
Sakina was already there, in conversation with Shahrazad, who was finishing off the cooking of one of her spectacular feasts. Sakina, an accountant who lived on the seventh floor, was the only other close friend Izdihar had. The meal at Shahrazad’s was an old tradition that they had done regularly at one time, but it had been a long time since the last one, what with Izdihar’s worries about her father, and then the appearance of Tommy... but Shahrazad had decided to invite them both round this weekend, thinking that now more than ever they needed their friends... and one evening of normality.
Izdihar said hello to her friends, and then followed Tommy into the main room, where he started to show her some of his drawings. In the safety of Shahrazad’s cosy little flat, away from the palace and with the company of her friends, the anxious knot in her stomach soon subsided.
The meal that Shahrazad had been preparing all afternoon, after spending the morning at the market with Tommy picking out ingredients, was served, and for a while it was just like old times, chatting and catching up on gossip together. But by the time they had finished eating they had started to run out of safe subjects and Shahrazad could feel the unmentioned worries floating heavy in the air between them.
“Come on, Tommy, why don’t you get washed?” she said getting up and taking his arm. Tommy grumbled but followed her into the bathroom. Shahrazad returned and refilled her friends’ wine glasses.
“Your eye’s looking a bit better,” said Sakina to Shahrazad.
“I still can’t believe Mazin can do that to my friend and get away with it!” said Izdihar angrily.
Shahrazad absent-mindedly put her hand up to her bruised eye, which had faded a little now. “Oh, don’t worry about this... How are you doing, Izdihar?”
“I’ve managed to avoid Sayyid for a while, but I saw him on the way here. He said we hadn’t seen enough of each other since Father has been back, or something... “
The other two exchanged panicked looks. “What did you say?” asked Shahrazad.
“I said I was busy... but he didn’t seem to care. If anything he seemed amused. It was like he knows I’ve been trying to put him off but it doesn’t matter to him...”
“Have you spoken to your father? Found out how he’s getting on with a plan?”
“I doubt he’d talk to me about it. Anyway I’m kind of scared to ask him. I don’t want to find out that he’s got nothing...”
“I’m sure he’s thought of something,” said Shahrazad.
“Have you decided what you’re going to do?” asked Sakina.
“No.” Izdihar took a sip of her wine, put it down and sat staring into it. “How can I refuse? How can I say no when it could mean saving the kingdom? How can I let my father down? But I just don’t know if I can go through with it. I know Father said it would just be an engagement but... I’m so scared.”
“You shouldn’t have to do this,” said Shahrazad quietly. “You’ll be giving Sayyid just what he wants...”
“Exactly. I can’t help but feel like Sayyid is playing with us all. He’s got us just where he wants us...”
There was a silence, and then there was a creak from the other side of the room. They all looked over to where Tommy was poking his head round the bathroom door. He padded in, bare feet and wet hair, smiling at them.
“Yeah. What Shahrazad does now?”
“We’re just having a chat. You should get to bed, okay?”
Tommy pulled a face. “Can I have a drink?”
“Ok, go and get one then!”
He disappeared into the pantry.
“How’s it going with him?” asked Sakina quietly.
“He’s doing great. He’s such a clever little boy. You can tell he understands almost everything you say now. His writing’s coming on a bit more slowly, but he can chat away to you. And he’s staying in, thankfully. I’ve been taking him out every so often so he doesn’t get too bored. I took him to market earlier. Luckily no one paid him any attention, it was way too crowded.”
“He’s so sweet,” said Izdihar, smiling. “He showed me a picture he drew of the two of you.”
“I know,” said Shahrazad, and she suddenly looked sad. She sighed. “I feel like he’s mine. But he should be in his own kingdom, with his real family. He should be at school. I can’t look after him forever... Hello again!”
Tommy had come back with a cup. He sat back down next to Shahrazad.
“Why you sad?”
“Who’s sad, Tommy?” asked Shahrazad.
There was a silence. The three girls stared at the little boy, no one knowing what to say.
“Is because of the bad men?”
“Yes... It’s because of the bad men.”