Hidden in the Sheikh's Harem: Christmas at the Castello(3)

By: Michelle Conder

Rolling onto her side to get more comfortable, she heard the soft whinny of a horse somewhere nearby.

She wondered if it was her father returning from a weeklong meeting about the future of the country. Now that the horrible King Hassan was dead it was all he could talk about. That and how the dead king’s son, the autocratic Prince Zachim, would probably rule the country in exactly the same way as the father had. The prince had led a fairy-tale existence, if the magazines Farah had read were true, before moving back to Bakaan full-time five years ago. As nothing had really changed in that time, she suspected her father was right about the prince—which was incredibly demoralising for the country.

Yawning, she heard the horses gallop off and wondered what was going on. Not that she would complain if her father would be gone for another day or two. Try as she might, she could never seem to get anything right with him, and Allah knew how hard she had tried. Tried and failed, because her father saw women as being put on the earth to create baskets and babies and not much else. In fact, he had remarried twice to try to sire a son and discarded both women when they had proved to be barren.

He couldn’t understand Farah’s need for independence and she couldn’t understand why he couldn’t understand it, why he couldn’t accept that she had a brain and actually enjoyed using it. On top of that he now wanted her to get married, something Farah vehemently did not want to do. As far as she could tell there were two types of men in the world: those who treated their wives well and those who didn’t. But neither was conducive to a woman’s overall independence and happiness.

Her father, she knew, was acting from the misguided belief that all women needed a man’s protection and guidance and she was fast running out of ways to prove otherwise.

She sighed and rolled onto her other side. It didn’t help that her once childhood friend had asked if he could court her. Amir was her father’s right-hand man and he believed that a marriage between them was a perfect solution all round. Unfortunately, Amir was cut from the same cloth as her father, so Farah did not.

To add insult to injury, her father had just banned her from obtaining any more of her treasured Western magazines, blaming them for her ‘modern’ ideas. The truth was that Farah just wanted to make a difference. She wanted to do more than help supply the village with contraband educational material and stocks of medical supplies. She wanted to change the plight of women in Bakaan and open up a world for them that, yes, she had read about—but she knew she had zero chance of doing that if she were married.

Probably she had zero chance anyway but that didn’t stop her from trying and occasionally pushing her father’s boundaries.

Feeling frustrated and edgy, as if something terrible was about to happen, she readjusted her pillow and fell into an uneasy sleep.

* * *

The sense of disquiet stayed with her over the next few days, right up until her friend came racing up to where she was mucking out the camel enclosure and made it ten times worse.

‘Farah! Farah!’

‘Steady, Lila.’ Farah set aside her shovel while her friend caught her breath. ‘What’s wrong?’

Lila gulped in air. ‘You’re not going to believe this but Jarad just returned from your father’s secret camp and—’ She winced as she took in another big breath of air, lowering her voice even though there was no one around to hear her but the camels. ‘He said your father has kidnapped the Prince of Bakaan.’

                      CHAPTER TWO

FEELING HORRIBLY GUILTY that she had been enjoying her own time while her father was away, Farah raced to the ancient stables and saddled her beloved white stallion. If what Lila said was true then her father could face the death penalty and her heart seized.

As if he could sense her turmoil, Moonbeam whinnied and butted his head against her thigh as she saddled him. ‘It’s okay,’ she said, knowing she was reassuring herself more than the horse. ‘Just go like the wind. I don’t have a good feeling about this.’

Riding into the secret camp a short time later, she reined in Moonbeam and handed him off to one of the guards to rub down. As it was dusk the camp was getting ready to bed down for the night, the tarpaulin tents shifting and sighing with the light breeze that lifted her keffiyeh. The camp was set up with mountains on one side and an ocean of desert on the other and she usually took a moment to appreciate the ochre tones in the dying embers of the evening sun.

Not tonight, though. Tonight she was too tense to think about anything other than hoping Lila was wrong.