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Pump his body full of narcotics and fall into blessed oblivion? Or suffer a fitful sleep and welcome the madness within to take over?
Abuse his body or torture his mind?
It was a choice Ayaan bin Riyaaz Al-Sharif, the crown prince of Dahaar, faced every evening when dusk gave way to dark night.
After eight months of lucidity, and he used the term very loosely, he had no idea which he would favor on a given day.
Tonight, he was leaning toward the drugs.
It was his last night as a guest in Siyaad, the neighboring nation to his own country, Dahaar. He would be better off knocking himself out.
You did that last night too, a voice whispered in his ear. A voice that sounded very much like his older brother, who had spent countless hours toughening up Ayaan.
Stepping out of the blisteringly hot shower, Ayaan dried himself and pulled on black sweatpants. He had run for three hours straight tonight, setting himself a pace that lit a fire in his muscles. His body felt like a mass of bruised pulp.
He had kept to lighted grounds, to the perimeter of the palace. And every time he'd spotted a member of the royal guard-both his own and Siyaadi-his breath had come a little more easily.
Walking back into the huge bedroom, he eyed the bottle of narcotics on his bedside table. Two tablets and he would be out like the dead.
The option was infinitely tempting. So what if he felt lousy tomorrow with a woozy head and woolen mouth?
Another night would pass without incident, without an episode. Another night where he accepted defeat, accepted his powerlessness in his fight against his own mind.
He picked up the plastic bottle and turned it around, playing with the cap, almost tasting the bitter pill on his tongue.
A breeze flew in through the French doors, blowing the sheer silk curtains up. Dark had fallen in the past half hour, the heat of the evening touched by its cold finger.
Peaceful, quiet nights were not his friends. Peaceful, quiet nights in a strange place were enough to bring him to his knees, reducing him to a mindless, useless coward.
He was still a bloody coward, afraid of his own shadow.
Powerless fury roared through him, and he threw the painkillers across the empty room. The bottle hit the wall with a soft thud and disappeared beneath an antique armoire.
A quiet hush followed the sound of the bottle, the silence beginning to settle over his skin like a chilly blanket.
He grabbed the remote and turned on the huge plasma TV on the opposite wall. He had specifically requested the guest suite with the largest TV. Flipping to a soccer game, he turned the volume up so high that the sounds reverberated around him. Soon, his skull would hurt at the pounding din of it, the echoes ringing in his ears. But he welcomed the physical discomfort, even though at this rate, he would be deaf by the time he was thirty.
Walking around the room, he turned off the lights.
As his eyes became accustomed to the dark, he got into bed. A pulse of distress traveled up his spine and knotted up at the base of his neck. He curled his fists, focusing on the simple act of breathing in and out. He willed his mind to understand, to stop looping back at its own fears and feeding on them.
Sleep came upon him hard, a deceptive haven capable of snatching control from him and reducing him into a cowering animal.
Zohra Katherine Naasar Al-Akhtum slowly made her way through the lighted corridors toward the guest suite that was situated in the wing farthest from the main residence wings of the palace.
Her feet, clad in leather slippers, didn't make a sound on the pristine marble floors. But her heart thumped in her chest, and with each step, her feet dragged on the floor.
It was half past eleven. She shouldn't be out of bed, much less roaming around in this part of the palace where women were expressly forbidden. Not that she had ever heeded the rules of the palace. She just hadn't needed to be in here until now.
now she had no choice.
She straightened her flagging spine and forged on.
The fact that she hadn't encountered a guard until now weighed heavily in her gut instead of easing her anxiety. It had been easy to bribe one of the maids and inquire which suite their esteemed guest was staying in.
Suddenly there she was, standing in front of centuries-old, intricately carved, gigantic oak doors. Zohra felt as if cold fingers had clamped over her spine.
Behind those doors was the man in whose hands her fate, her entire life, would lay if she didn't do something about it. And she couldn't accept that. If she had to give offense for it, take the most twisted way out of it, so be it.
Sucking a deep breath, she pushed the doors and stepped in. The main lounge was quiet, the moonlight from the balcony on the right bathing it in a silvery glow. But the bedroom in the back, the sounds of a
soccer game boomed out of it.
Was the prince having a party while she was getting cold sweats just thinking about her future?
Straightening her shoulders, Zohra set off toward the bedroom. Flashes of light came and went, the sounds so loud that she couldn't distinguish one from the other.
She neared the wide entrance, crossed the threshold and came to a halt, her gaze drawn to the huge plasma screen on the opposite wall. It took her a moment to see through the flashes of light, to realize that there was no crowd in the room.
Scrunching her face against the loud noise from the speakers plugged in overhead and around the room, she searched for the remote. It was enough to give a person a pounding headache in minutes.
Flinching every time another roar went up, she walked around and found the remote on the bedside table. She quickly muted the television, the light from the bright screen casting enough glow to let her see the outline of the room.
With silence came another sound she hadn't heard until now. A sound that turned her skin clammy. The hairs on her arms stood up. It began again. A low, muffled cry, tempered by the sheets. Like a scream of utter pain, but locked away in someone's throat. She shivered, the agony in that sound crawling up her skin and latching on to the warmth.
Every instinct she possessed warned her to turn around and leave. She half turned on the balls of her feet, her neck cricking at the speed of it.
But the next sound that came from the bed was pure suffering. This time, it wasn't locked away. Neither was it loud but more gut-wrenching for the accompanying whimper it held.
The sound ripped through her, breathing the anguish of an unbearable pain into the very air around her.
She wanted to curl up, brace herself against it. Or at least run far from it.
And yet the agony in that cry
she would never forget it in this lifetime.
Zohra turned around and reached the bed. She almost tripped on the heavy stool that lay at the side of the bed in her hurry. Clutching the silk sheets with her fingers, she hefted herself onto the high bed.
Her blood running cold in her veins, she pushed through the sea of crumpled sheets, until her gaze fell on the man.
For a moment, she could do nothing but study him. His eyes were closed, his forehead bunched into a tight knot and his hands fisted on the sheets with a white-knuckled
White lines fanned around his mouth, a lone tear escaping from his scrunched eyes. His forehead was bathed in sweat, as he thrashed against the sheets.
Pushing the sheets away, Zohra reached for his hands and gasped. He was ice-cold to the touch. Another soft whimper fell from his mouth.
A wave of powerlessness hit her. Shoving it away, she grabbed his shoulders, even knowing that trying to move him would be truly impossible. With strength that surprised even her, she tucked her hands under his rock-hard shoulders when his muscled arm shot out.
That arm hit her jaw with a force that rattled her teeth. She half slipped, half tumbled to the edge of the bed. Darts of pain radiated up her jaw. She swallowed the lump in her throat and pushed herself back onto the bed.
This time, she was prepared for him. She moved to the head of the bed, avoiding his arms and placing her hands either side of his face. A groan escaped his mouth again, and his fingers clamped over her wrists.
His grip was so tight but she ignored it and shook him hard. And then tapped his cheek, determined to break the choking grip of whatever stifled him.
She couldn't bear to hear that tortured sound anymore, not if there was any way she could wake him up.
"Wake up, ya habibi" she whispered, much like she had done with her brother Wasim when her stepmother had died six years ago. "It's just a nightmare." She ran her hands over his bare shoulders, over the high planes of his cheeks. She kept whispering the same words, much to her own benefit as his, as he continued to turn his head left and right.
"You need to wake up," she whispered again.
Suddenly his thrashing body stilled. His gaze flew open, and Zohra was looking into the most beautiful golden bronze gaze she had ever seen.
Her heart kicked against her ribs. With his hands still gripping her, she stared at him as he did her.
He had the most beautiful eyes-golden pupils with specks of copper and bronze, with lashes that curled toward angular cheekbones. But it wasn't the arresting colors of his gaze that made her chest tighten, that made it a chore to pull air in.
It was the unhidden pain that haunted those depths. His fingers caressed her wrists, as though to make sure she was there.
He closed his eyes, his breathing going from harsh to a softer rhythm and opened his eyes again.
It was as though she was looking into a different man's eyes.
His gaze was cautious at first, openly curious, next sweeping over her eyes, nose, lingering on her mouth, until a shadow cycled it to sheer fury.
It lit his gaze up like the blazing fire of a thousand suns.
He released her, pushed her back and she fell against the headboard with a soft gasp. He pulled himself up to his knees, his movements in no way reminiscent of the nightmare he had been fighting just moments ago. "Who are you?"
His words sounded rough, gravelly, which meant he had been screaming for a while before she had arrived.
Her chest tightened. "Are you okay?" she whispered, taking in the sheen of sweat on his forehead, the infinitesimal tremble in the set of his lean shoulders.
"How is that any of your business?" he roared. "I dismissed the guards hours ago. I was informed no one would be allowed into this wing per my orders. So what the hell are you doing here?"
That's why no one had stopped her. And he had the volume on the TV set to that earsplitting level as if he had known.
Zohra frowned. "I saw you thrashing on the sheets. I had to help."
"I could have hurt you."
She instantly tugged the sleeves of her tunic over her wrists.
His face could have been poured from concrete for the tightness that crept into it. Only the slight flare of his nostrils and the incandescent rage in his gaze said he was still a man and not one of the concrete busts of long-gone emperors and warriors scattered around the palace. "Turn on the lamp."
She leaned over and turned it on, her entire body feeling strangely awkward. The lamp was on her side and cast just enough glow to illuminate his face.
Ayaan bin Riyaaz Al-Sharif, the new crown prince of Dahaar was not what she had been expecting. The Mad Prince, that's what she had heard the Siyaadi palace staff whisper about him. Yet there was nothing remotely mad about the man staring at her with incisive intelligence in his eyes.
There had been only a single picture of him, a grainy one, eight months ago when Dahaar had jubilantly celebrated his return. He had been pronounced dead five years ago along with his older brother and sister-victims of a brutal terrorist attack.
But nothing more about him had been revealed, nor had he appeared anywhere in public. Even the ceremony where he had been declared crown prince had been private, which had only fueled the media and the public's hunger for information about him.
He had remained a shapeless, mindless figure at the back of her mind.
Until she had visited her father this afternoon. Weakened by a heart attack, the king had sounded feeble and yet his words had rung with pride and joy.
Prince Ayaan has agreed to marry you, Zohra. You will be the queen of Dahaar one day.
Suddenly, the Mad Prince had become the man who could bind her forever to the very world that had taken everything from her.
The reminder, however, did nothing to stem the quiet, relentless assault his very presence wreaked on her. She could no more stop her gaze from drifting over him than she could stop breathing.
He had a gaunt, chiseled look that added to the rumors swirling about him.
His face was long with a severe nose, a pointed chin, with cheekbones that were sharp enough to cut. His wavy, black hair curled onto his high forehead in an unkempt way. As if he had threaded his fingers through it and tugged at it viciously. The moment the thought crossed her mind, she knew it was true.
The tendons in his neck stood out. He was lean, bordering on thin and yet what flesh there was to him looked as if it had been carved out of rock.
A pale, inch-wide scar stretched from his left shoulder all the way to his ribs on the right side and beyond to his back. What could wield such a painful-looking scar?
Her empty stomach rolled on itself. How could a man withstand so much without. going mad?
The thought swept through her like a fierce cold wave, and she shivered.
His scrutiny as intent as her own, he said, "Hold out your hands," in a tone that held raw command.
Zohra sucked in a breath and tucked her hands behind her.
He moved on the bed with lithe grace that would have been beautiful to savor if her heart hadn't crawled into her throat. She was taller than the average Dahaaran woman and yet he towered over her.
The scent of him had a tang to it that made her suck in a quick, greedy breath even before she knew it. He tugged her hands forward in a sudden move.
Her skin stung where he had gripped her at even the slight friction of his fingers. He sucked in a deep breath.
As though he was bracing himself. His fingers gentled as he pushed the sleeves of her tunic back.
Dark impressions framed each wrist. A chill surrounded them, and she had the strangest feeling that his emotions were at the center of it.
She tugged at her hands but he didn't let go. "How long were you here before I woke up?"
The tension emanating from him rendered her mute.