“Naturally,” he murmured, breathing into her neck. “Otherwise you would not still be here, would you?”

The two continued embracing and it was clear as the minutes passed that, as impassioned as their kisses were, they were not going to go beyond second base… Thank God.

Now I realized why, even in the presence of all those harem ladies, Cyrus had kept his pants on… so to speak. And man. With an ass like that, I couldn’t blame him. It was ironic—as surrounded by women as he was, he could not experience the pleasure that even a beggar could.

My mind continued to turn over, reverting to Hortencia’s story. When he’d disappeared those four days before the contest to win the throne, had it been for this? He somehow managed to turn himself into this? Half scorpion? And was that why, in the arena, the scorpion had made no attempt to attack him? And why he had been able to stomach the poison so easily when his brother could not?

But how? How had he been able to turn himself into such a—I recalled Horatio’s words booming through the court just a few hours ago—an abomination?

Whatever the case, Hortencia sure hadn’t been joking. “Everyone has something to hide.”

Some more than others…

Ben

My brain was exploding with so many questions, I was almost tempted to leave right now and return to Horatio to get some answers. But I stayed watching until Cyrus made a move to leave.

Then I darted out of the apartment and emerged in the corridor. Horatio had drifted further up the hallway, leaning against a wall, one hand planted over his right pocket.

“Horatio,” I whispered hoarsely as I approached.

He led me to another apartment—apparently his own apartment this time—and into a sitting room, where he closed the door behind us. Solidifying myself, I wasn’t even sure which of my hundred questions to ask first.

Aisha crawled out of Horatio’s pocket and resumed her jinni form. “What happened?” she asked tensely, her eyes wide.

I was still quite speechless as to how to even describe the monstrosity I’d just witnessed.

Horatio eyed me darkly.

“He’s…” I swallowed. “A scorpion mutant. H-half scorpion.”

Aisha’s jaw hit the floor. “What?”

“How is it possible?” I asked Horatio.

He shrugged. “I am certain of when it happened, but not how. Just before his coronation, before the test that his father set for him and his brother.”

“He… he metamorphosed,” Aisha gasped.

“Yes,” Horatio said. “Permanently.”

“How could he have done it?” Aisha asked, repeating my question.

“I doubt anybody knows how he actually pulled it off,” Horatio replied. Noticing my bewildered expression, he added for my sake, “As I’m sure you are aware, jinn can morph themselves into various forms—be they animals or humanoids. But these are only temporary manifestations; jinn must always return to their original forms sooner or later… but not in the case of my father. I’m not sure that he could turn back even if he wanted to.”

“And what exactly does he want Nuriya for?” I asked, recalling the king and queen’s conversation.

Horatio’s eyes darted toward Aisha’s fearful face. He heaved a sigh before continuing to answer me in a low tone. “All the children my father has—me and all my siblings—were begotten before his coronation… as you may imagine, given his mutation. But he is not satisfied with us alone. He has been trying to have children since. It’s tradition among the Drizans that each new generation must be more powerful than the last—the bar must be raised higher and higher to ensure that we remain the undisputed leaders of The Dunes. Since his turning into a monster, he’s wished to create progeny just like him: toughened, robust… poisonous. He believes that this is the true way forward for our race. But in order to create such heirs, he is in need of a female jinni who is capable of adopting the same, permanent form as his. She must become half scorpion. My father believes that Nuriya is the female destined for this.”

My fear for Nuriya increased tenfold, and Aisha looked like she was about to pass out.

“W-why would he believe that?” Aisha stammered.

“She is of impeccable lineage,” Horatio said. “The Nasiris are renowned for their intolerance of inbreeding, and as she is the youngest of the Nasiri king’s daughters, he believed—and still believes—that if any female is capable of surviving the turning and bearing his young, it is she… Hence, when he discovered that she was in love with another man, you can imagine his fury.”

“He told you all this?” I asked, frowning.

Horatio shook his head, scoffing. “Never. The only two still living—apart from me—who have seen his scorpion half are my mother and stepmother; but that in itself is nothing unusual, if you know anything about jinn culture… I only discovered his secret after walking in on him and my mother unexpectedly one day. Even then, after I’d seen him, he made me swear secrecy and refrain from telling any of my siblings. He refused to give me any kind of explanation. Bit by bit, however, I managed to wear my mother down until she caved in and revealed to me more history.”

“H-how would he turn Nuriya?” Aisha stammered.

“As I said,” Horatio replied, “I do not know how he metamorphosed himself, let alone how he would inflict it on others. But whatever the method, he has tried it on his first seven wives… none of whom survived.”

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