King Xavian Al’Ramiz read the letter again.
It was one of many wishing him well for his wedding day.
It was from King Zakari of Calista, extending his congratulations and saying that he was looking forward to greeting him formally next week at the official reception.
It was the third letter.
The first had offered condolences on the death of his parents and invited him to stay as a guest at the Calistan palace.
Xavian had not responded. That letter he had burnt.
Then another had arrived, to thank him for the Qusay people’s gift on the birth of their son, Prince Zafir.
Still Xavian had not replied, though he had kept the letter for a few days, taking it out and reading it over and over till finally it had been tossed into a fire.
And now this.
There was nothing untoward about it, Xavian told himself as he read the letter for perhaps the hundredth time. He did not know what he sought from the words.
There were hundreds such letters, offering good wishes, yet Xavian couldn’t help himself reading between the lines of this one…
His bride was waiting for him, he was already unforgivably late, yet still he pondered over the page.
It was a formal letter from King Zakari of Calista and his wife Queen Stefania of Aristo. Their union had reunited the Kingdom of Adamas. So why, Xavian pondered, had Zakari, instead of using the Adamas crest, chosen instead to write on Calistan paper? Xavian stared at the coat of arms, ran a finger over the crest, and could not fathom why it troubled him, it just did.
He had been troubled since Queen Stefania’s coronation, since she had looked into his eyes and he had registered shock…
No, Xavian told himself, not shock. She had been close to fainting, and he had spoken to her till her husband had realised there was a problem and gently led her away. She had been pregnant, as it turned out, which explained everything.
Except it didn’t.
Because the trouble in his soul had started before Stefania had greeted him—as King Zakari had made his way down the line. The rapid beat in his heart had started…a rapid beat that woke him at night, that was here again at this very moment.
Though he could not quite accept it as such, it was fear.
All is ready, Your Highness.’ Xavian didn’t turn his head as Akmal, his vizier, came into his suite. ‘Your bride awaits.’ He could hear the slightly uneasy note in Akmal’s voice—after all, his bride, Queen Layla of Haydar, had been waiting for a while now, the proceedings were ready to commence, and yet the groom so far had not made an appearance. Akmal had come yet again to the royal chamber himself, to ensure nothing untoward had occurred, only to find the groom where he had left him last time—still standing at the French windows, still holding the letter and staring broodingly out to the ocean.
‘I will be there shortly.’
‘Your Highness, may I suggest…?’
‘Did you hear what I said?’ Only then did Xavian turn, his black eyes furious at the intrusion, shooting the aide down and reminding him who was King. Dressed in the full military uniform of Qusay—superb olive cloth, his chest decorated with medals, his legs encased in long black leather boots, a sword at his side and golden thread holding on his kafeya—Xavian cut an imposing figure. But then, Xavian always did—standing six feet two, with broad shoulders and a strong, muscular frame, he did not need medals or swords or royal gold braid to command respect.
‘She can wait till I am ready.’
‘Your Highness.’ Akmal knew better than to argue, so instead he gave a small bow and left. Alone again, Xavian carried on gazing out to the ocean.
She would wait. Xavian knew that.
She had already waited a decade for this day. Betrothed to her since childhood, he should have married her ten years ago, but he had chosen not to—he had concentrated on enjoying his freedom instead.
Only now it was over.
Xavian walked out onto the balcony and wished that it gazed to the desert, not the ocean. To the desert, where he found rare peace, to the desert, where he would take his bride tonight.
How weary he was at that thought.
Since his parents had been killed in a plane crash, his advisors had been working overtime. His playboy ways were to end—he was King now, and kings did not live as princes. Kings married and produced heirs, and it was time for Xavian to do the same. After three months of deep mourning, the wedding that he had been putting off must now occur.
It would be a subdued affair, given the circumstances—huge celebrations deemed inappropriate so soon after the country’s loss. The people would be informed tomorrow that the King had married, and he would retreat with his bride to the desert before the official reception. After another suitable period of mourning the coronation would take place, and then the people would celebrate. A double celebration, perhaps? The elders had been light on discretion: nine months from the wedding, it would be nice to have a prince on the way.
Xavian had been advised by Akmal to refrain from sexual encounters for a week prior to the wedding—to ensure his seed was plentiful and potent. It was advice Xavian had absolutely chosen to ignore.
Always it was plentiful!
This was a business arrangement and no more. Haydar was struggling under a woman’s rule, and Xavian’s strong, albeit occasional presence would help guide the troubled country.
Of course he would take a mistress—several, perhaps.
He had no intention of sleeping alone at night.
The unease Xavian felt now wasn’t down to wedding nerves, and it wasn’t pride that made him deny that he was uneasy. Long before the wedding had been announced, long before his parents had been killed, there had been a deep unrest in his soul.
Trouble he could not define.
A place within that he didn’t want to visit.
Sometimes as he stood and stared at a letter, as he did now, searching for clues that surely didn’t exist, he actually though he was going mad.
Sometimes at night he would wake with his heart racing. He would feel the beauty in the bed beside him, feel her coil around him, yet he would shrug her off, get up and dress himself, or send her to the mistress chambers. It was not how he wanted to be seen. His heart was racing now, his breath tight in his chest as his black eyes studied the rolling ocean. He felt nausea rising as if he were out there. He could feel sweat beading on his forehead, could feel his body rolling with the waves. The thick scars on his wrists burnt and itched, as they did at times. His eyes scanned the vast ocean, searching for what he didn’t know, and then he dragged his gaze away, willed his heart to slow down, for the madness to stop. He comforted himself not with the thought of a virgin bride, but with the solace of the beckoning desert.
He would get the wedding over with, take her to the desert, consummate the marriage and then tomorrow he could wander—tomorrow he could take guidance from the heart of the land he now ruled and ask it to bring him peace.
Happier now, he walked from the balcony and through his chamber, the letter still in his hand. He paused at a thick pillar candle and stood watching the heavy cream paper curl and the Calistan crest flare as the flames licked around it. Then he tossed it into the ancient fireplace—just as he had done with the other letters—and with that ritual over he headed to his wedding.
As he opened the door Akmal practically fell inside. Xavian paused for long enough to give his vizier a withering look, and then strode confidently through the palace, past the paintings of his ancestors, down the long corridor and out to the gardens, ready now to get on with his duty.
The elders were seated, but stood when he entered, His bride did not look round. She stood in a shimmering gold robe, her head veiled, and kept her eyes down as Xavian approached.
He was not looking forward to this!
Haydar was rigid in its ways. The women were covered and robed till they were wed. But even the generous layers of fabric could not disguise her rather rotund shape.
Joy and double joy, thought Xavian wryly. A fat, inexperienced lover to impregnate. Was there no end to his duties?
In a rare concession to modern times the Haydar elders had agreed the announcement would be accompanied by photos—this was not a time for grand feasting and celebration, but it was still much needed good news for the people of Haydar and Qusay.
The judge spoke, asking Layla if she would be a loyal wife, if she would serve her husband, provide him with children, nurture him and their offspring.
Her voice was soft when she agreed.
Again the judge asked her.
Again she said yes.
For the third time it was repeated, and Xavian watched her eyes blink, though still she did not look up at him—as was right.
And then it was Xavian’s turn.
Would he provide for her?
It was all that was asked, and only asked once.
A King did not have to repeat himself.
She glanced up, and the eyes that met his were a deep violet, then long black lashes swept down again. Xavian found himself slightly appeased—they were clear and bright and really rather pretty—perhaps he could ask her to keep them open tonight!
It was over in moments. Their eyes had met for less than a second, yet that was the image that had been captured and would be beamed around the world in the morning. Sheikh King Xavian Al’Ramiz of Qusay and now of Haydar, and his bride Sheikha Queen Layla Al’Ramiz of Haydar and now Qusay.
The long-awaited union was now official.
‘We will leave for the desert in an hour…’ For the first time he addressed his wife. ‘I trust my staff are being helpful?’
She didn’t answer. Her eyes still downcast, she gave only a brief nod.
‘Is there anything you need?’ He attempted conversation, at least tried to put her at ease, but all he got for his efforts was either a nod or a shake of her head. She was refusing to give him even a glimpse of those pretty violet eyes, and Xavian gave a hiss of irritation.
‘I will see you in an hour.’
Clearly, Xavian thought, stamping up to his suite, the clip of his boots ringing out on the polished marble floor, it was going to be an extremely uneventful night.
‘I am not spending a month there!’ Xavian frowned at Akmal as his dresser helped him out of his military uniform and into desert robes in preparation for his honeymoon. ‘I agreed only to a week in Haydar.’
‘I understand that, Sire, but our advisors are merely responding to what they have heard from the people…’ He gave a slightly uncomfortable swallow. ‘The Queen was checking the press release and asked that—’
‘What?’ Xavian’s head spun round. He had been admiring himself in the mirror, but Akmal’s words demanded curt response. ‘Why would you worry her with such details?’
‘She asked to see it.’ Akmal’s lips pursed tightly, so tightly it took a moment for him to release them enough to continue speaking. ‘She has also asked that you stay for a month in her land…She feels that the people of Haydar will want to see their new King in residence for a while, so they can fully grasp that you are there for them too. They need this union, Sire…’
Xavian was less than impressed. A week in the desert—that he accepted was necessary. A week: with his new bride at nights, and wandering in his desert by day. After the reception, to appease the people, he had agreed to spend a week in Haydar—where he would formally greet his new people, sign essential documents, and then, apart from necessary formal appearances and the occasional night together at her fertile times, they could get on with their own jobs.
There was unrest in Haydar, though. Xavian knew that. The meek, silent woman he had just married would hardly command respect from her aides, let alone her people. But Xavian was tough. At times there was immense pressure from his elders, from Akmal—just a complete resistance to change—but Xavian was a strong ruler, assured in his role. He never doubted, never questioned that he was right. Yes, he listened to his advisers, he pondered, sought counsel from the desert at times, but always he made his decisions—and once they were made he would not be swayed.
No one would dare try.
It must, though, Xavian decided with a smirk, be hell being Queen!
‘Two weeks…’ Xavian made a rare compromise, but Akmal’s brow knitted into a worried frown, for he had already spoken with the Queen. ‘Tell her I am prepared to stay in her country for two weeks…’
‘I think that a month in Haydar would be wiser…’ A soft voice filled the room, and the dresser and Akmal stood aghast as Layla walked, uninvited and unannounced, into the King’s chambers!