“I think that day had that effect on us all. But I’m sorry to hear that.”
“You apologize frequently for what happened. Do you mean it?”
“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t.”
“But do you feel it?” she asked. He was so monotone. Even now, even in this.
“I don’t feel anything.”
“That’s not true,” she said, her eyes locked with his. “You felt fear last night. I made you fear.”
“So you did,” he said. “But we are not talking about me. Tell me how you went on after your mother died.”
“I continued on the way I always had. But I ended up finding work at a martial arts studio, of all places. Master Ahn was not in Jahar at the time of the unrest, and he had no qualms about taking me in. Part of my payment was training along with my room and board.”
“I see now why you had such an easy time ambushing me,” he said.
“I have a black belt in Hapkido. Don’t be too hard on yourself.”
“A Jaharan princess who is a master in martial arts.”
She lifted a shoulder. “Strange times we live in.”
“I should say. You know someone tried to murder me in my bedchamber last night.”
“Is that so?” she asked, taking a bite of lamb.
“I myself spent the ensuing years in the palace. Now that we’re caught up, I think we should discuss our engagement.”
“Do you really see this working?” she asked.
“I never expected to love my wife, Samarah. I have long expected to marry a woman who would advance me in a political fashion and help my country in some way. That is part of being a ruler, and I know you share that. You are currently a sheikha without a throne or a people, and I aim to give you both. So yes, I do see this working. I don’t see why it shouldn’t.”
“I tried to kill you,” she said. “That could possibly be a reason it wouldn’t work.”
“Don’t most wives consider that at some point? I grant you, usually several years of marriage have passed first, but even so, it’s hardly that unusual.”
“And you think this will…change what happened? You think what happened can be changed?” she asked. And she found she was honestly curious. She shouldn’t be. She shouldn’t really want to hear any of what he had to say.
“Everything can be changed. Enough water can change an entire landscape. It can reshape stone. Why can’t we reshape what is left?”
She found that something in her, something traitorous and hopeful, something she’d never imagined would have survived all her years living in the worst parts of Jahar, enduring the worst sorts of fear and starvation and loss, wanted to believe him.
That the pieces of her life could somehow be reshaped. That she could have something more than cold. More than anger and revenge. More than a driving need to inflict pain, as it had been inflicted on her.
“And if not,” he said. “I still find the outcome preferable to having my throat cut. And you will have something infinitely nicer than a storeroom to sleep in. That should be enough.”
And just like that, the warm hopefulness was extinguished.
Because he was talking as though a soft bed would fix the pain she’d suffered. The loss of her family, the loss of her home.
He didn’t know. And she would have to force him to understand. She would make him look at her pain, her suffering. And endure it as she had done.
“Yes,” she said, smiling, a careful, practiced smile, “why not indeed?”
NOT FOR THE first time since striking the deal with Samarah, Ferran had reservations. Beautiful she was, biddable she would never be.
She was descended from a warrior people, and she had transformed herself into a foot soldier. One he’d rather have on his side than plotting his death.
She’d been a little hermit the past few days. But he was under no illusion. She was just a viper in her burrow, and he would have to reach in and take her out carefully.
Barring that, he would smoke her out. Metaphorically. He wasn’t above an ironhanded approach. He supposed, in many ways, he was already implementing one. But the little serpent had tried to kill him.
There was hardly an overreaction to that. Though, there was a foolish reaction. Proposing marriage might be it. And there were the reservations.
He walked up to the entry of her bedchamber and considered entering without knocking. Then he decided he liked his head attached to his shoulders and signaled his intent to enter with a heavy rap on wooden doors.
“It’s Ferran,” he said.
He was met with silence.
“If you have forgotten,” he said, “I am the sheikh of Khadra and your fiancé. Oh, also your mortal enemy.”