Sultanaâs embrace, head against her breasts, as her mother had held her long ago, and no one since, Shakira was overwhelmed.
âYouâre safe here,â the Sultana said again, as if she understood everything. âItâs all right.â
The Sultanaâs gently smiling face bent comfortingly over her, and that tore away the last vestige of self-control. Shakira wept and wept. She wept for Hani, she wept for Shakira, she wept for her loss, and she wept for her homecoming. She wept because she was torn with a confusing mix of grief and joy, and she wept for shame at her unaccustomed weakness.
She lifted her head at last, her face streaming, while her breath settled down with long, shuddering sobs. She felt ashamed, and didnât know what to say to regain face. Hastily she lifted the hem of her T-shirt to wipe her nose and face, and gave the Sultana a nervous, tentative smile.
âOh, you are so like Ash!â Dana cried. âI can see how you knew her, Sharif!â
âAm I?â Shakira asked, partly because it was so completely thrilling to think that she shared a family resemblance with someone living, and partly because, even now, she doubted what was happening. Could it really be true that she was not only part of a huge family, but also that this family was the ancient royal house of Bagestan?
The others crowded round, and added their voices to the Sultanaâs. âYes, look, sheâs just like the portrait of Grandfatherâs sister!â
âYouâve got Ashâs eyes, for sure! Hi, Shakira, Iâm your cousin, too! My nameâs Noor. Welcome to the family!â
âI donât think weâll introduce everyone now,â Dana said, sensing too much tension in the thin little body under her hands. âLetâs take Shakira home. Sheâs tired from a long trip. And her foster family, too.â
The Sultana turned to where Farida stood next to Sharif, Jamila clinging to her leg, the baby in her arms, and put out her hand. âWe are so very grateful to you for your friendship with the Princess. Of course you will come and stay with us at the palace for as long as is necessary for us to find your husband.â
Farida moved a fist to her heart and bent her head respectfully.
âExcellent Lady,â she began, âI am honoured by your hospitality. Haniâs place is with you, that is her home. But my home is my home, and I long to go there at once. There is no need to trouble you further. If your generosity will allow us only a little food and water for the journey, we will walk. I knowthe ferry boat captainâhe will agree to carry us when he knows our story. My husband will pay him when he returns.â
Shakira sensed rather than saw the glance that the Sultan and Sultana exchanged. Dana smiled at Farida again. âI am so sorry. There is no ferry now, and nowhere on the island for you to live. Nothing has been rebuilt yet. But you are very welcomeââ
Shakira suddenly stood straighter. âWhy is Farida not allowed to go home?â she demanded, the Hani in her suddenly taking the opportunity to exhibit strength after the terrible show of weakness her tears had been. âShe wants to go to the island, to Solomonâs Foot! Do you think to be on Solomonâs Foot without a roof can be worse than to live in Burry Hill Detention Centre?â
âCousin,â the Sultan intervened, âit is notââ
Shakira could not have defined the feelings that now drove her.
âWhy canât she go home?â she demanded hotly.
They all went still, looking for a way to deal with this unexpected challenge, but before anyone could muster a response, Sharif stepped out to face her, offering himself as a target. There was a kind of indrawn breath amongst those who watched, because now it was between these two, and they wondered how the Cup Companion would handle it.
She was quick to take him up on the offer.