Mariyeh Karimi is getting married. To Sheikh Salim of Abuqir. A man she’s never met but already hates. Not because they want to. Not because they are in love. No, this marriage is all about political alliances and military threats. So Mariyeh is entering this marriage with eyes wide open and mouth tightly shut. She’s marrying Salim to spy on him and seduce him into sharing political secrets. Only she’s not a good spy and she’s even worse at seduction.
Salim doesn’t care who he’s marrying, just as long as he can take the throne of Abuqir away from his father before he thrusts their country into a pointless war with their neighbours. It’s a shock to discover his innocent little bride spying on him, but that’s just the first revelation. After a lifetime of being shielded from power and responsibility, both are suddenly thrust upon him and Salim is rushing to catch up.
He needs to protect his people, prevent an unnecessary war, and win the loyalty of his treacherous little wife. Winning her love will be an unexpected bonus.
Sheikh Salim presented his offer with such a cool lack of emotion that Mariyeh actually shivered. To say it was a proposal would imply an element of romance which was wholly absent from their negotiation. No, this was a proposition. A business transaction. And it wasn’t even directed towards her. The sheikh was negotiating with Mariyeh’s brother, Shah Zayd, ruler of the small country of Kurastan. Mariyeh was no more involved in the discussions than the vast marble-topped table between them.
Mariyeh gripped the seat of her chair and tried not to mind being spoken of as if she weren’t in the room. She’d never been the kind of girl to dream of the romantic fairytale. She hadn’t wanted a handsome prince to sweep her off her feet. Mariyeh had always preferred the exciting tales, the ones with fire-breathing dragons, marauding armies and heroic deeds of courage. And in Mariyeh’s childish fantasies, the glorious moment of victory belonged to her. She didn’t sit around waiting for a man to ride in and slay her dragon. No, she’d wield her own sword and save the people herself. But in the fantasies, she’d never had to marry the monster.
The adult Mariyeh was learning that sometimes dragons came in human form, sitting in the Council Chamber, wearing all the appearance of sophisticated civility. He might not have come with a marauding army, but the supporting ranks of politicians behind him made a chilling substitute as they negotiated a truce between the two nations. A political alliance with a very personal involvement, to be ratified on the day when Sheikh Salim, the Crown Prince of Abuqir was married to Mariyeh. Her marriage would be the heroic act of courage that would protect the people of her beloved Kurastan.
So this wasn’t a good time for Mariyeh to discover that she wasn’t quite as brave as she’d once blithely assumed.
Never let the enemy see your fear.
It was a silly thing, a line that her online gaming friends said to each other before launching an attack on another tribe. But now, facing the man she was going to marry, with her chest tightening against every breath, and her knuckles gripping blue-white, she was surprised to find that it helped. However scared she felt, she wasn’t about to let Sheikh Salim see it. Taking her cue from the politicians around the table, Mariyeh forced her features into an emotionless facade. She relaxed her shoulders and silently counted her breaths, keeping them slow and even. Her fingers uncurled and she rested them on the table, unconcerned, unafraid.
Until she made the mistake of risking a glance in his direction. Deep, dark eyes met hers with a cynical glint that sent her gaze skittering away and set her heart racing. Swiftly, she looked away, and clasped her hands on her lap so that no one could see them trembling.
The crisp white robes he wore only served to emphasise the strong masculinity of his features: sharp-cut cheekbones, a dark beard, and a large, hooked beak of a nose. Mariyeh didn’t wonder that women from a dozen countries or more chased after Salim. The pictures she’d seen online and in the security files hadn’t done him justice. On the page he was handsome. In person, he was overwhelming.
She steeled herself to take another look. In two days’ time she would be married to this man. She would be alone with him. Naked with him. She had to be able to look at him without being reduced to a quivering wreck.
He was still watching her, but something in his expression had softened slightly. As she reached for her glass of water, she thought she saw the hint of a curve at the corners of his mouth. Was he smiling at her? Did that mean the dragon was human, after all?
Heat rose in her cheeks. No man had looked at her like that in years. Not that
she had wanted them to. She hadn’t wanted to be the object of any man’s desire. Content with her teaching job and her circle of online friendships, she hadn’t needed anything more intimate. Only now, Sheikh Salim had smiled at her, just barely, and her pulse was skipping and her mouth was dry. With fear, certainly, but also with an unsettling desire that was bringing back all kinds of memories Mariyeh would rather have kept hidden.
She took another gulp of water and tried to think about it rationally. She was going to be married to this man. More than that, she was going to be in his bed. Desire for one’s husband wasn’t a bad thing. Not even in a marriage such as this. They were going to have to have sex and it would surely be better if they both found it a pleasurable experience.
Better for Kurastan, too. Mariyeh remembered the agonisingly awkward training session she’d had with one of the female intelligence officers. Seduction techniques to get a lover to spill political secrets. Ways to distract him during important conversations so that he didn’t realise she’d been listening to every word.
Her meeting with the IT team had been a whole lot less uncomfortable and much more interesting. They’d shown her how to install keylogging software that would give the Kurastani officers direct access to Salim’s computer. She’d memorised the keycodes for sending encrypted messages back to Kurastan. It had been fun to crack the challenges they’d set her, though she guessed it wouldn’t feel quite like that when she was doing it for real.
Ever since the marriage had first been proposed, the Kurastani intelligence service had been gathering information on her future home and husband. Every night she’d studied the dossiers they gave her, learning that Salim preferred sweet foods, that he excelled in languages, but achieved only mediocre grades in mathematics at school, that his great passion was horses and his favoured pastime was polo.
When she’d asked why she needed to know such trivial details, Zayd had told her simply, “Information is power. It is impossible to know in advance what piece of information will be needed. Perhaps the password to his computer is the name of one of his horses.”
Mariyeh had flicked through a few more pages of the report. “No, it’s A78czJ4217. Good choice. Only a fool would choose the name of a pet.”
Zayd had rolled his eyes at her. “Only a geek would choose a password that’s impossible to remember.”
“I can remember it.”
“My point, exactly.”
Passwords were one thing, but the reports had contained endless minutiae about Salim’s favourite books, the names of his former girlfriends, the colour of his underwear. Well. Public speakers were supposed to imagine their audience in their underwear in order to help overcome stage fright. And perhaps it did help a little bit to know that under all his robes, the man looking down on her from the other side of the table was wearing black Calvin Kleins. He was just a man, after all, not a monster.
The studying had been the easy part for Mariyeh. She’d always enjoyed reading, learning, passing exams. But that wasn’t going to be enough in this situation. If she was going to be effective in passing on intelligence of real significance, she was going to have to convince Salim to trust her with his secrets.
“Seduce him,” Zayd had said, with a little grin. “Make him believe you have fallen in love with him.”
She’d choked on her drink and told him, “I think you’ve picked the wrong person for that. I have no experience with men.”
It was almost true. She didn’t have any experience that she could tell her brother about and none that was relevant. One disastrous night at a gaming convention while she was a student had hardly equipped her to seduce a man like the sheikh. Her one and only lover would laugh at the very idea of it.
“Nevertheless, you are a woman and a beautiful one, ya danaaya.” Zayd had tried to reassure her. “You can do this. Once he trusts you, he will not guard his tongue in your presence. We need this. We need to know what they are planning.”
She gritted her teeth again at the thought of it. Zayd could not know how much he was asking of her, nor how unlikely she was to succeed.
Mariyeh hoped it would be different this time. She was older now, and even if she didn’t have any more sexual experience, she did have a better understanding. She’d done a lot of reading, and if nothing else worked, she had a better motivation to fake it. Her country needed her to do this. To face her dragons. The ones inside her as well as the one sitting opposite her.
On the other side of the table, the elderly cleric cleared his throat. The politicians came to attention as the mullah first addressed Sheikh Salim, with all due deference.
“Will you give your consent to this marriage?”
Looking down his hooked nose, the sheikh shrugged slightly as he replied, “I will.”
Mariyeh took a deep breath and remembered the role that had been scripted for her: naive, biddable, unobservant. A woman who would pose no threat to Sheikh Salim or to his country. So she put on her blandest smile and turned to the mullah, when he addressed the same question to her.
“Yes, I give my consent.”