Once Upon a Time, Mirabelle sat in The Grand Library of The Caliphate and stared at the growing stack of books which Asra deposited on the table in front of her.
‘Isn’t there a way you could just tell me what to do?’ Mirabelle said.
Asra beamed and shook her head. She deposited the last four volumes of Riz Al-Jabar’s diaries and stood back with her arms folded across her chest.
‘You will tell others what to do Mirabelle, but you will understand why.’ She said.
The rigours of the library were the work of The High Colleges across the water, men who sacrificed land and title to further knowledge but she noted the shimmer of headscarves as men and women acted on Asra’s will. She reached to retrieve a book but Asra shook her head and passed over a pair of black velvet gloves to her. Mirabelle slipped the gloves on and flexed her fingers.
‘These books must be old.’ Mirabelle said.
Asra swept to Mirabelle’s right-hand side and put her mouth to Mirabelle’s ear.
‘Poisonous too.’ She said.
Mirabelle shivered and folded her arms across her chest.
‘I’m not sure about this.’ Mirabelle said.
Asra untied the ribbon around a sheaf of papers and uncurled them onto the desk.
‘Always a good place to begin.’ She said.
Mirabelle peered at the writing, symbols arranged into groups of three or four, surrounded by ornate patterns of single slashes and dots which drew the eye with their intense detail. She looked up, feeling her cheeks flush as Asra traced along the patterns with her index finger.
‘I don’t understand it. I can read and write but this is High College work.’ She said.
Asra sighed and shook her head.
‘Knowledge is too precious.’ Asra said.
Her knowing smirk made Mirabelle’s cheeks hot. Mirabelle followed Asra’s finger as she translated the patterns.
They left the library, squinting against the light of the afternoon so Asra could partake of her prayers and then a light lunch served in the gardens. Mirabelle’s head swum with the dense, accumulated knowledge. A procession of horrors and myths which had reached out from the past to gouge their names onto the present. Mirabelle thought the food was delicious, but it turned to ashes in her mouth as she remembered the sick, ugly light of the arrow and the afterimages of the symbols carved into it.
She remembered her father’s final expression of shock and disbelief.
Asra noted how she pushed her plate away and gestured to the food.
‘My fears used to go to my stomach too.’ She said.
Mirabelle blustered and picked up a cube of beef, dripping with a fragrant pomegranate and cumin sauce.
‘I’m sorry.’ She said.
Asra rested her hand on top of Mirabelle’s and gazed into her eyes. Mirabelle stared back, the dark, almond shaped eyes fringed with long curled lashes set into her fine, strong features were beguiling.
‘A coward and a hero have the same fear. Which are you?’ Asra said.
Mirabelle set the meat down and slipped her hand from Asra’s.
‘I’m neither.’ She said.
Asra tutted and shook her head.
‘In private yes, but before your people, you must appear to know the way of things.’ She said
Mirabelle looked away and Asra’s hand reached out to take hers again.
‘There is something else, isn’t there?’ she said.
Mirabelle swallowed and gave a small, tight nod.
She told Asra about Eilhu. To her surprise, she watched a slow wave of heat travel up her throat and into her cheeks.
Asra sat back and put her fingertips together.
‘Well that is fascinating. Did your father know?’ she said.
Mirabelle shook her head and blushed as hard as Asra. Asra leaned forwards, her full lips curved into a warm smile.
‘We go to such pains to deceive our fathers when we become women. Father had no choice to accept me as I am.’ She said.
Mirabelle agreed but her mind was awash with memories of Eilhu, whispered touches and the grand, rolling heat of desire.
She had known such warmth with him, and despite the distance, his attention still spoke to the hidden places within herself. Not a princess, not a queen but a woman.
She wondered if she would have his forgiveness if they survived these events.
‘Would you tell me about this man?’ Asra said.
Mirabelle’s mouth was dry and she gulped from the goblet of water to her right before she nodded.
‘Oh Asra, I’m sure your stories are more entertaining than mine.’ She said.
Asra gave a soft chuckle and leaned into Mirabelle’s space.
‘Yes, but I’ve heard all mine. Come, if we are to face darkness then we must know the flavour of light, do you agree?’ she said.
Mirabelle’s heart thumped, the internal conflict of grief, guilt and desire spun gossamer webs within her bones as she took a deep breath and spoke.