“We will not speak of my mother,” he said, his tone fierce. “I forbid it.”
“And so we find ourselves here,” she said, her tone soft.
“So we do indeed.”
“Will you have me killed?” she asked. “As I am also an inconvenience?”
“You, little viper, have attempted to murder me. At this point you are much more than an inconvenience.”
“As you see it, Sheikh. The only problem I see is that I have failed.”
“You do not speak as someone who values their preservation.”
“Do I not?”
“No. You ask if I aim to kill you and then you express your desire to see me dead. All things considered, I suppose I should order your lovely head to be separated from your neck.”
She put her hand to her throat. A reflex. A cowardly one. She didn’t like it.
“However,” he said dryly. “I find I have no stomach for killing teenage girls.”
“I am not a teenage girl.”
“Semantics. You cannot be over twenty.”
“Twenty-one,” she said, clenching her teeth.
“Fine then. I have no stomach for the murder of a twenty-one-year-old girl. And as such I would much rather find a way for you to be useful to me.” He slid his thumb along the flat of her blade. “But where I could keep an eye on you, as I would rather this not end up in my back.”
“I make no promises, Sheikh.”
“Again, we must work on your self-preservation.”
“Forgive me. I don’t quite believe I have a chance at it.”
Something in his face changed, his eyebrows drawing tightly together. “Samarah. Not a servant girl, or just an angry citizen. You are Samarah.”
He’d recognized her. At last. She’d hoped he wouldn’t. Not when she was supposed to be dead. Not when he hadn’t seen her since she was a child of six.
She met his eyes. “Sheikha Samarah Al-Azem, of Jahar. A princess with no palace. And I am here for what is owed me.”
“You think that is blood, little Samarah?”
“You will not call me little. I just kicked you in the head.”
“Indeed you did, but to me, you are still little.”
“Try such insolence when I have my blade back, and I will cut your throat, Sheikh.”
“Noted,” he said, regarding her closely. “You have changed.”
“I ought to have. I’m no longer six.”
“I cannot give you blood,” he said. “For I am rather attached to having it in my veins, as you can well imagine.”
“Self-preservation is something of an instinct.”
“For most,” he said, dryly.
“Different when you have nothing to lose.”
“And is that the position you’re in?”
“Why else would I invade the palace and attempt an assassination? Obviously I have no great attachments to this life.”
His eyes flattened, his jaw tightening. “I cannot give you blood, Samarah. But you feel you were robbed of a legacy. Of a palace. And that, I can perhaps see you given.”
“Yes. I have indeed thought of a use for you. By this time next week, I shall present you to the world as my intended bride.”
Ferran looked down at the woman kneeling in the center of his mattress. The woman was, if she was to be believed, if his own recognition could be believed, Samarah Al-Azem. Come back from the dead.
For surely the princess had been killed. The dark-eyed, smiling child he remembered so well, gone in the flood of violence that had started in the Khadran palace, ending in the death of Jahar’s sheikh. What started as a domestic dispute cut a swath across the borders, into Jahar. The brunt of it falling on the Jahari palace.
It was the king of Jahar who had started the violence. Storming the Khadran palace, as punishment for his wife’s affair with Ferran’s father. An affair that had begun when Samarah was a young child and Ferran was a teenager. When the duty to country was served by both rulers, having supplied their spouses with children. Or so the story went. But it had not ended there. It had burned out of hand.
And countless casualties had been left.
Among them, the world had been led to believe, Samarah.
Was she truly the princess?
A girl he’d thought long dead. A death he had, by extension, caused. Was it possible she lived?
She was small. Dark-haired. At least from what he could tell. A veil covered her head, her brows the only indicator of hair coloring. It was not required for women in employment of the palace to cover their heads or faces. But he was certain she was an employee here. Though not one who had been working for the palace long. There were many workers in the palace, and he didn’t make it his business to memorize their faces.