‘I WISH THAT it had been you!’
Princess Leila Al-Ahmar of Surhaadi froze as finally Queen Farrah voiced her truth.
Deep down Leila had always known that her mother would have preferred for it to be Leila, rather than her sister, Jasmine, who had died on that terrible night. Having it verified though, hearing her mother say the words that no parent ever should, felt like an arrow was right now being shot through Leila’s heart and caused an agony that even she hadn’t properly anticipated.
Not that Leila showed it to the woman who was now staring her down.
Only at night, only in sleep, did Leila cry for a love she had never been shown.
The absence of love in her life had made Leila resilient though, so she stood, unflinching, as her mother poured boiling oil onto already raw wounds. Only it wasn’t just resilience that made Leila stand proud and silent—quite simply she was too stunned to react.
For all of her twenty-four years Leila had done everything she could to avoid this moment, but she had finally stopped running from the truth tonight.
After dinner, instead of heading to her suite, instead of disappearing, Leila had taken up her beloved qanun—a small harp that was so much more than an instrument to Leila. It was both her friend and her companion. It was gentle and pure and wild at times too, and when she played it Leila knew for sure that love existed.
Even if she had never known it from her parents.
Farrah loathed that her daughter adored music so.
Jasmine had played better apparently, Farrah said as she took up her embroidery. It was the same tapestry that she had been working on for more than sixteen years.
Night after night she unpicked the threads and resewed, going over and over it and refusing to finish as Leila’s father sat silent in the chair.
No, she hadn’t played better than me, Leila wanted to scream, for she knew that was not true.
Jasmine, her mother goaded, had held a note until doves lined the palace windows just to hear her play.
Tension had been building for years, yet on this night Leila had refused to give in and obey her mother’s silent command to remove herself. Instead she had continued to play—plucking the qanun’s strings, refusing to be quiet, as was the unspoken rule in the palace.
Had her older brother, Zayn, been here he would have, by now, defused the situation. Zayn would have diverted their mother somehow.
But Zayn wasn’t here tonight.
Soon he would marry the woman whom he had been betrothed to since childhood, Leila thought.
Even though she was twenty-four Leila’s marriage had not yet been arranged—it upset her mother too much to get around to it, for Jasmine would have been such a beautiful bride, Jasmine would have had such adorable babies.
Jasmine, Jasmine, Jasmine.
She would be a spinster forever, Leila thought. She would be here alone in this palace with them until the day that she died.
Night after night spent hiding in her suite would be her life and so she brought things to a head tonight in the only way she knew how.
Leila said with her fingers, with each pluck of the strings, what could not be voiced by her mouth.