Thin fingers clamped on her wrist, but she stifled the yelp in time. A wild-eyed, dark gaze rose to meet hers. She slipped backward and wrenched against the unrelenting hold, almost painful. The gray wool fell away, revealed a fettered hand with the arm pale, and covered in scratches. Aisha stared into features so like hers. Surely, this mirrored face before her provided a glimpse of the future and womanhood. The high forehead beset with slender, dark brows, firm lips, and apple-round cheeks. Something fierce and regal dwelled at the same time in the expression, all except for the saddened eyes, quite unlike Aisha’s own.
She whispered, “So, this is Nuzha. The mother denied me these thirteen long years.”
A gleaming grin exposed worn teeth blackened at the base. Nuzha seemed to stare in childlike wonder. She released her hold and a furtive touch alighted on Aisha’s cheek. Nuzha stroked and patted the flesh. A solitary tear coursed down her face.
Aisha repeated Nuzha’s gesture and brushed the moisture away. “Don’t cry….”
She could not bring herself to call the stranger Ummi, not yet, although Nuzha could have been no one but her mother. Slight streaks of gray threaded through familiar black hair, a familial trait of every Nasrid woman since the time of Jazirah, who had been Nuzha’s paternal grandmother. Even in Nuzha’s timeworn visage, evidence of her beauty remained at the age of almost fifty, one among few facts Aisha knew of her mother. The last child of the second Sultan Yusuf, Nuzha had never known her father, who perished in his imprisonment at the fortress of Shalabuniya seven months before her birth. The daughter of a cruel sovereign, destined to be little more than a pawn in the games of her husband and his second wife.
Why had Aisha’s father abandoned the queen once beloved of him? Aisha needed to understand. If she did, she might also perceive why her father had disregarded the children his Sultana had borne him, and didn’t love Fatima or Aisha.
So many questions filled her mind, which her father could answer if he had chosen. She recalled her audacity at once having asked him. Nuzha petted the same cheek he had struck. He had bellowed at Aisha to get out and never come into his sight again until summoned. Almost two years had passed before he remembered her and permitted her presence again.
Fierce wind intruded and blew the shutters back on their hinges. The noise startled Aisha, but she kept her gaze on Nuzha’s and forced herself to match the smile offered her. The woman’s hand glided down, beneath the black hair Aisha had inherited from her. Then her fingers closed on Aisha’s throat. The chain rattled.
Panic ensued before Aisha released a breath. “Not so tight. You’re hurting me—”
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