Twenty-FourMature

It was the night of the ball and Izdihar was in a deep purple and blue sari given to her by her father, with swirling patterns of a sparkly material. She was staring into her mirror, filled up with nerves. She vaguely registered that it was probably about time to leave, but couldn’t bring herself to look at the time, instead staring blankly at every aspect of her appearance, her hair, hair dangling earrings, the kohl around her eyes, the drape of her sari...

The door opened and she jumped. A guard had stepped in. Her heart leapt when she saw that it was Faruq and she remembered the vision of him that had popped into her head when talking to Shahrazad.

“I... I’m sorry... I did knock.”

“Don’t worry.”

“Your father is waiting outside. He wants to know if you’re ready.”

            Izdihar nodded. Suddenly she couldn’t speak.

            The two continued to stare into each other’s eyes for a minute before Faruq looked down shyly and Izdihar walked past him to join her father, unable to summon even a smile as a goodbye.

            “Are you alright?” Her father asked softly when she came out of the room, Faruq behind her. She nodded again, though the tension in her body was already making her feel exhausted. Her heart felt like a rock inside her chest.

            “Come on.” He took her arm and they made their way downstairs to the bridge connecting their tower to Adviser Sayyid’s.

            “It’s going to be alright,” said her father in her ear as they made their way across. One of Sayyid’s guards met them on the other side, and led them down some stairs.

            “Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you their royal majesties King Basir and Princess Izdihar,” he said as they walked out onto the stage of Adviser Sayyid’s magnificent banquet hall, full of guests in their best clothes, all now bowing. Next to them, a band were standing up by their instruments and bowing too. King Basir and Izdihar bowed their heads, and Adviser Sanjit came forward to the bottom of the steps to welcome them as they came down from the stage. The sight of him was a jolt of fear for Izdihar. She didn’t like the way he was looking at her, and moved away as quickly as she could.

Most of the room was cleared into a dance floor, with some low tables and cushions set around the edge. It was lit by lamps on the walls and a huge candelabra hanging from the ceiling. The band started playing and a few couples started to
dance. The king was soon set upon by various important men, and went off to try and talk to as many people as possible. Izdihar spotted Sakina with her rich parents in the corner of the room and went over to them, having to stop to greet everyone she passed on the way.

            She exchanged pleasantries with Sakina’s parents, until her father saw a friend of his and they left them alone, in silence. Sakina, who unlike her parents knew what was happening with Adviser Sayyid, was looking at her anxiously.

            “Shall we sit down?” said Izdihar, and they went to sit at an empty table.

            “Are you alright?”

            Izdihar nodded. She took a deep breath. “It’s just the waiting for it. It’s killing me. I just want to get it over and done with now. But at the same time... I don’t.”

            They both looked over to a table on the other side of the room where Sayyid was laughing in the midst of a group of men, mainly rich banker types but including Mazin. Izdihar sighed. “Let’s talk about something else.”

            So Sakina launched into relating the latest gossip about anyone she saw walk past, but Izdihar struggled to really listen. Her eyes kept going back to that table across the room. It was less full now. The dance floor was starting to fill up. Mazin was still sitting next to Sayyid, with a couple of men opposite. He looked up and Izdihar quickly looked away.

            “Why can’t someone ask me to dance?” said Izdihar. “I don’t want Sayyid to.”

            “They’re all intimidated by you,” said Sakina. “Not brave enough to ask the princess to dance!”

            Sakina had barely finished speaking when a young man came over and asked her to dance. She blushed and looked at Izdihar apologetically. “Maybe the next dance?” she said to the man.

            “Don’t worry, go,” said Izdihar, not wanting an audience for the moment when Sayyid would inevitably come up to her. She’d rather cope with that alone.

            So Sakina went to dance and she watched her move across the dance floor, eyes flicking over every so often to where Sayyid was sitting. At the end of the dance Izdihar watched another young man approach Sakina.

            “Princess Izdihar.”

            The voice was like an electric shock. She looked up. Somehow Adviser Sayyid had come over without her noticing.

            “May I have this dance?”

            Izdihar stood up hurriedly. She nodded, and belatedly forced a smile. Sayyid held out his hand and she took it, letting him lead her onto the dance floor.

            They started to dance and Izdihar was hyper aware of just how close they were, his shoulder under her hand, his touch on her waist, his intense gaze on her... It made her skin crawl.

            She went wrong and stumbled. Sayyid laughed and tightened his hold on her. “Oops!”

            After that she forced herself to think of nothing but the steps, looking at her feet and not up at his face at all.

            When the band changed to some faster music, Sayyid stopped and said “Would you like to take a walk, get some fresh air?”

            Izdihar nodded and took his hand again. She felt sick. He led her out onto one of two balconies off the huge hall.

            There was a guard standing by the archway that led out to it. “Make sure we aren’t disturbed,” the adviser said in a low voice in his ear.

            He led her to the edge of the balcony. They stared out at the city below, at the stars sparkling in the night sky. Izdihar remembered standing on her own balcony with Faruq and it hurt.

            She forced herself to look at Sayyid. “I have something to ask you, Princess,” he said.

This was it. Adrenaline kicked in. It was as though she was outside her body hearing his question as though from far away, watching someone else smile a simpering smile and say “Yes,” and hold out her hand so he could slide the diamond ring he was offering onto her finger.

“You look stunning tonight. I’m sure you’ll make an excellent wife.” He stepped closer. “Well aren’t you going to give your future husband a kiss?” And he was all of a sudden kissing her, his hands at her waist. His beard was rough and scratchy on her face. She forced herself to stay still though she wanted more than anything to pull away. It seemed to last forever before he pulled away, and with that slightly amused smile, said “I believe we have an announcement to make.”

            Izdihar was in a daze as they walked back into the hall and Sayyid stopped the band and led her onto the stage. Only odd words of his announcement jumped out at her “...important announcement... engagement... my wife...”

            There was a few seconds of slightly shocked silence and then the hall burst into applause. Izdihar looked out over the crowd, blinking back tears, two faces standing out clearly – Sakina, looking very grave, and her father, clapping along with everyone else, smiling around at them all, but the smile not reaching his eyes.

            The night went on far too long. Izdihar spent most of it standing between Adviser Sayyid and her father while countless of the guests came up to congratulate them. A few people, loyal to King Basir and aware of the danger Sayyid posed, were gathered in small groups discussing in low worried voices what this announcement could mean for the kingdom. However, a lot of the important people at the party were sympathetic to Adviser Sayyid, more than Izdihar would have thought. She wondered what he might have offered them as he rose in power.

            At last the party started to die down. Izdihar was exhausted, but she and her father had to wait until the hall had emptied before they could leave. “I look forward to seeing you again soon,” said Sayyid as they said goodbye, in his smooth cold voice, smiling at her.

            “As do I. Good night,” said Izdihar.

            “Good night,” said Basir and took her hand. “Until tomorrow,” and a guard showed them back up to the bridge.

            Outside Izdihar’s tower room, her father gave her a hug. She buried her face in his chest.

“Thank you, Izdihar. I promise you, this isn’t going to last long. Soon it will be over.”

            Izdihar could only nod, before retreating into her room.

            Suddenly she wasn’t tired anymore. She undressed and lay on her bed anyway, but couldn’t stop the night’s events replaying in her head. It was like she could still feel where Sayyid’s lips had met hers. Faruq came into her head and she burst into tears.

            When she finished crying she felt empty, hollow...

Eventually, when it was nearly morning, she drifted off to sleep.

The End

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