Good luck to the man who winds up with this jinni…
Horatio’s fists clenched into balls. His breathing became labored, his face so wounded and insulted, his pain was almost tangible.
Aisha’s words had hit a raw nerve. Perhaps he realized that he had been a coward. For not standing up to his father, or at least leaving his father’s palace. No matter how much he complained to his mother or raged in front of his father, by staying in the palace and being an onlooker, he was essentially a part of his father’s atrocities.
The hurt in Horatio’s eyes gave way to resentment. His face darkened in a scowl.
“Even if you’re right,” he breathed, “it doesn’t change anything.”
“Why not?” Aisha shot back. Her tone hadn’t gotten any less severe.
“I cannot go against my father,” he said. “My siblings and I only have so much sway. The only thing I could conceivably do is leave, but… he would find me. You do not know me, Aisha—”
“Clearly not,” she interjected.
“I have considered these things many times over.”
“Then why didn’t you attempt any of them?”
“Because it would kill me,” he said. “I know my father better than anyone. His leniency, even with his children, only stretches so far and… escaping… my sister Yalisha already tried it.”
Recognition sparked in Aisha’s eyes. “Yalisha?” she said in a hushed tone. Another childhood friend of hers, I supposed.
Horatio swallowed hard. “He killed her for it.”
That silenced the girl.
“We are the children of royalty. Escape would bring humiliation to my father; for how is a king who cannot command obedience from his children ever to be respected by his citizens?”
Aisha found her voice again. “Well… if you don’t escape, at least you could help us. I know you don’t want my family trapped in there. You don’t even have to do anything. Just throw me a bone. Your father would never know.”
Horatio swallowed hard. Aisha, suddenly gentle—timid, even—reached out a hand and touched his arm. Horatio’s cheeks flushed.
“Is it true that the only way to my family’s freedom… and yours… is to kill your father?” she asked quietly.
Horatio frowned. “Who told you that?”
Aisha cast a furtive look my way before shrugging. “It’s a logical assumption,” she replied, to my relief. I didn’t know how Horatio would react if he knew Lucas and I had been creeping around his home spying.
“Your relatives are bonded to my father, but… I don’t think killing him is the only way to free them,” he said, running his tongue over his lower lip. “But if I ever revealed it to you… his secret… he would not hesitate to murder me with his bare hands.”
“I would not want to put you in danger,” Aisha said. “But how would he ever know that you told us?”
“Because there are only very few who know. I found out quite by accident. If you acted on the information that I gave you, it wouldn’t take him long to suspect me.”
Aisha withdrew her hand from his arm, crestfallen.
Horatio, on the other hand, looked conflicted, in spite of his words—as though he were fighting a battle within himself.
He heaved a sigh. “But,” he went on, “perhaps I’ve been a coward long enough.” He cleared his throat, gazing down at Aisha. “Maybe… Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s time for me to take a stand… regardless of the consequences. If I don’t do it now, when will I ever?”
Aisha’s eyes brightened. “So you’ll tell us? What this mysterious weakness is?”
Thoughtfully, he shook his head. “Rather than telling you, I think it’s best that you see it for yourselves…”
“I think it’s best that you see it for yourselves…”
I was burning to ask what “it” meant. But I would have to be patient a little longer.
In the end, not only did Aisha manage to persuade Horatio to lift her ban, he agreed to take us back down to the palace and show us what he was talking about. He said we should get the opportunity to see it today—in less than an hour—for Cyrus was due for his daily visit to one of Horatio’s stepmothers. I had no idea what we would witness, but I was just thanking my lucky stars that we finally appeared to be making some progress. Though if our “progress” continued at this slow pace, we were sure to miss our deadline. I had to hope that after this, every progression we made would be far swifter, otherwise all would be in vain. I didn’t want to consider the consequences.
I took a moment to kiss River and let my family and the others wish me luck. There was hardly any point in them being here in the first place, but of course I understood why they remained. After having lost me for so long, they wanted to stay as close to me as possible.
I decided that it was best for Lucas to stay behind this time, since Aisha and me accompanying Horatio was enough. The three of us left the islet and returned through the portal. Aisha breathed out in relief as she floated over the black dunes. As hostile as this environment was for her, it was her home after all. We zoomed across the sand and as we neared the palace entrance, Horatio called us to a stop. His eyes roamed Aisha. “You can’t come like this, obviously.”
“What do you propose?”