She was a product of that, as was he. And her actions now had nothing to do with that connection from back then. He should throw her in a jail cell and show her no mercy.
And yet he didn’t want to.
It made no sense. There was no room for loyalty to a would-be assassin. No room for pity. Putting your faith in the wrong person could have a disastrous end, and he knew it well. If he was wrong now…
No. He would not be wrong.
This was not ordinary compassion leading him. There was potential political gain to be had. Yes, Jahar had suffered the most change during that dark time sixteen years ago, but Khadra had suffered, too. They had lost their sheikh and sheikha, they had been rocked by violence. Their security shaken to its core.
The palace had been breached.
Their centuries-old alliance with their closest neighbors shattered. It had changed everything in a single instance. For him, and for millions of people who called his country home.
He had never taken that lightly. It was why he never faltered. It was why he showed her no mercy.
But this was an opportunity for something else. For healing. One thing he knew. More blood, more arrests, would not fix the hurts from the past.
It had to end. And it had to end with them.
“Can you kill me instead?” she asked.
“You ask for death?”
“Rather than a prison cell?”
“Rather than marriage,” he said.
Her nostrils flared, dark eyes intense. “I will not become your property.”
“I do not intend to make you my property, but answer me this, Samarah. What will this do to our countries?”
“I almost bet it will do nothing to mine.”
“Do you think? Are you a fool? No one will believe one girl was acting alone.”
“I am not a girl.”
“You are barely more than a child as far as I’m concerned.”
“Had I been raised in the palace that might be true, but as it is, I lived on the streets. I slept in doorways and on steps. I holed up in the back rooms of shops when I could. I had to take care of a mother who went slowly mad. I had to endure starvation, dehydration, the constant threat of theft or rape. I am not a child. I am years older than you will ever live to be,” she spat.
He hated to imagine her in that position. In the gutter. In danger. But she had clearly survived. Though, he could see it was a survival fueled by anger.
“If you kill me,” he said, “make no mistake, Khadra will make Jahar pay. If I imprison you…how long do you suppose it will take for those loyal to the royal family to threaten war on me? But if we are engaged…”
“What will the current regime in Jahar think?”
“I suppose they will simply be happy to have you in my monarchy, rather than establishing a new one there. I suspect it will keep you much safer than a prison cell might. If you are engaged to marry me, your intentions are clear. If you are in jail…who knows what your ultimate plans might have been? To overthrow me and take command of both countries?”
“Don’t be silly,” she said, her voice deceptively soft. “At best, I’m a lone woman. Just a weak, small ex-royal, who is nothing due to her gender and her gentle upbringing. At worst…well, I’m a ghost. Everyone believes me dead.”
“I am holding a knife that says you’re far more than that.”
“But no one will believe otherwise.”
“Perhaps not. But it is a risk.”
“What do you have to gain?” she asked.
It was a good question. And the main answer was balm for his guilt, and he had no idea where that answer had come from. The past was the past. And yes, he had regretted her death—a child—when he’d thought she’d been killed. But it had not been at his hand. He would have protected her.
He would protect her now. And in the process, himself, and hopefully aid the healing of a nation too long under a shadow.
“Healing,” he said. “What I want is to heal the wounds. Not tear them open again. I will not have more blood running through this palace. I will not have more death. Not even yours,” he said, a vow in many ways.
Sheikha Samarah Al-Azem was a part of a past long gone. Tainted with blood and pain. And he wanted to change something about it. He wanted more than to simply cover it, and here she presented the opportunity to fix some of it.
Because it had not been her fault. It had been his. The truth of it, no matter how much he wanted to deny it, was that it was all his fault.
It was logic. It was not emotion, but a burning sense of honor and duty that compelled it. He didn’t believe in emotion. Only right and wrong. Only justice.
“What’s it to be, Samarah?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest.