Talia al Ghul did not remember her mother. She died when Talia was young, and her father swore never to love again. He raised Talia himself, to his ideals, and though he was often stern with her, and rarely affectionate, she felt honored to have so much of the great man’s attention. Everyone around her feared or worshiped Ra’s al Ghul, and the fact that he gave her so much of his time told her she was important to him. That feeling of importance was the strongest emotion she could remember from her early childhood: cherishing the knowledge that he cared for her.
Instead of taking another lover, Ra’s found other ways to sate his needs. Talia discovered the harem long before she understood its purpose, and she sometimes spent time with the women there. Most of them were kind to what surely seemed like a lonely little girl.
Much of her time was taken with learning the things her father deemed essential. History, philosophy, psychology, and martial arts, mostly. His guards and mercenaries were instructed to spar with her whenever she requested, and ordered not to hold back when they did so. Aware of the high standards she was being held to, Talia learned quickly. By the time she was twelve, she could hold her own against most of them until adult strength and stamina wore her down.
Ra’s noticed, and told her she was ready for a test. Talia did not know the nature of that test until it came to her: a hired assassin, not of her father’s caliber, a mere street-level killer. The man had been paid to capture her if he could, kill her if he could not. Once she knew her life was truly in danger, Talia retaliated with every ounce of training she possessed, along with a generous serving of fear. Ra’s found her standing over her first kill, praised her, and then suggested a few ways in which she might accomplish the same without getting quite so much blood on his marble floors.
At thirteen, her monthly courses began. The only women in Talia’s life were a few of her teachers and her father’s harem, and fortunately the latter had explained the facts of a woman’s life to her. She told them the news, and they shared it with her father, who gave her the only instruction he would ever give her in matters of womanhood and love: “Let no man touch you. They are unworthy.” After that, she avoided the harem, feeling somewhat betrayed that the women had spoken to her father on such matters.
By the time she turned sixteen, Talia had killed a half-dozen of Ra’s men who found themselves too tempted by the demon’s daughter to be sensible. The first was a trainer who pinned her down while sparring, and then couldn’t resist kissing her. The last had ingratiated himself to her first, pretending to be her friend, but his hand on her breast told her his true intentions. She killed them all, with sword or gun or her bare hands, and Ra’s approved. His approval washed away any uncertainty she felt, and she took pride in her prowess and her untouchable status.
Still, at sixteen she was temptation personified, nearly impossible to resist. Long-legged, narrow-waisted, high-breasted, with brilliant flecks of yellow-green in her dark eyes, and dark hair that fell in waves to the middle of her back. Talia walked with an unconscious sway in her step, she lined her eyes with kohl and glossed her lips, and knowing the perfection of her body, she saw no reason to swathe it in unnecessary clothing. She dressed for ease of movement and comfort, which often meant figure-hugging pants and midriff-baring tops.
Talia adored her father, and kept to his command. She allowed no man to touch her in that way, and if they tried, she killed them. But at sixteen, she yearned for something more. She had felt a faint glimmering of it whenever one of her father’s men succumbed to temptation and kissed her, and while she was yet a virgin, she was not innocent. She knew by then what the harem was for; she had read all of the texts in Ra’s library, even the explicit ones; and she had spied on the men and their clandestine lovers. Talia had a good idea what it meant, the heat that fired her loins and made her breasts ache.
Still, Ra’s had commanded that she let no man touch her, so she burned and suffered in silence. Only later would she realize why he’d given that order: he planned to use her virginity as a bargaining chip in making alliance with someone he found worthy of being his heir—if, indeed, he ever found a man worthy of that honor. By the time he did, of course, it was far too late.
With men denied her and adolescent hormones overwhelming her, Talia followed the only course open to her. She went to the harem again, surprised to see new faces. It was one of those she approached, a gorgeous woman with dusky skin and green eyes, only a few years older than Talia herself. The woman bowed to her, and Talia asked, “What is your name?”
“I am Majida, my lady,” she said, and her husky voice sent a shiver down Talia’s spine that she barely managed to suppress.
“You serve my father, do you not?” Talia asked.
“I have that honor, my lady,” the woman purred.
“It is your duty to please him, as a woman pleases a man.” Majida nodded. “Do you also know how to please a woman?”
Majida smiled, slow and wicked. “My lady, there are a score of us, and your father, great man that he is, can lie with at most four or five in an evening. Of course I know how to pleasure a woman.”
Talia had never truly been nervous, and didn’t understand the fluttery feeling in her stomach. Whenever she was the slightest bit unsure, she retreated to arrogance, an attitude in which she felt safe. She tilted her head up, looked imperiously down at the kneeling woman, and said rather more sharply than was necessary, “Today you shall serve me, then.”
Majida ducked her head almost shyly, but when she looked up she was smiling. “It shall be my pleasure to do so, my lady Talia.”
As it turned out, though, the pleasure—which began with a massage of scented oils, and ended with incandescence roaring through Talia’s body as Majida’s tongue danced between her thighs—was all Talia’s. After that long, exalted afternoon, the sway in Talia’s step was no longer unconscious, and when she met the eyes of the men who stared after her, her gaze was bold and full of challenge as well as warning.
She didn’t realize she’d taken a lover at first. It simply never occurred to Talia to approach another of the women, not when Majida so exactly suited her needs. She began to come to the harem daily—never at night, for that was when Ra’s sought his women. Although she did wish for more time, and once offered the opinion that she might be able to sneak Majida out of the harem and into her own rooms.
“Ah, that would be delightful, Talia,” Majida purred, idly stroking Talia’s belly. She had ceased calling her mistress by her title shortly after it became clear that Talia found her irresistible. “But I fear my absence would be noted.” And then she explained that she was one of Ra’s favorites, too. Talia flushed at the thought that perhaps her father chose Majida for the same talents that made her melt so easily.
She stifled embarrassment as easily as she stifled fear, and spent her afternoons with Majida. Long, lazy, delicious afternoons, filled with many delights. Majida taught her many things, some of which were not even in the books in Ra’s extensive library. Talia felt almost drugged with pleasure, and not until much later did she realize how very vulnerable and suggestible she was during the afterglow.
Talia came to look upon Majida as a friend and confidant, and shared her frustrations with the men who still looked hotly after her. “Why do you not take one of them as a lover?” Majida asked. “You are not one who despises the touch of men and seeks women as a man does. So why would the most beautiful woman in the world come to the harem to sate her desire?”
She knew better than to take the flattery to heart, but it made her smile nonetheless. “They are unworthy of me,” Talia said, with queenly haughtiness. And then, almost as an afterthought, she added, “My father commanded me not to let them touch me. So I have not.”
“I see,” Majida said, her green eyes sparkling, and then she drove all thought of the conversation out of Talia’s head.
Later, months later, Majida began to talk to Talia about finding a worthy man. “What qualities would such a man have to possess?” she asked.
Talia stretched out in her bed like a sleepy cat, her first hunger satisfied but still anticipating the second round that often came after a brief interlude. She considered the question lazily, and finally answered, “Courage. Honor. Wisdom. Nobility. Wealth. Charisma. And power, of course.”
“What sort of power?” Majida asked.
“All sorts of power,” Talia purred back, arching her spine at the thought. “The kind of man whom strong men respect, weak men fear, and women worship.”
Majida took that as her cue, and kissed her way down Talia’s flat stomach. “I know such a man.”
“You do?” Talia replied, breathless, and Majida startled her into a gasp before she could continue. “Ohhhh … who is he, then?”
Majida’s answer was broken up because her mouth was otherwise occupied. “In all my life … in all my travels … of all the men I have known … I have only ever known one … even heard of one … who was all … that you require.”
On the ragged edge of release, biting her lip to hold on, Talia managed to demand in a low voice, “Tell me who he is, Majida!”
Another kiss, just where she couldn’t ever hope to resist it, and Talia nearly whimpered with the need she strained to hold back. Majida’s breath was hot when she murmured, “Ra’s al Ghul,” and before the last syllable completely left her lips Talia was shuddering with fulfillment.
When she came down from the fierce intensity of it, Talia was furious. “You dare, Majida? He is my father!”
“Have I ever spoken falsely to you?” Majida asked, impassive in the face of Talia’s rage.
That gave her pause. Talia pushed sweat-streaked hair away from her eyes with quick, flicking gestures, a sign of her irritation and uncertainty that she wouldn’t have allowed herself to show in battle. “It is impossible.”
“Not impossible,” Majida said, but the fury in Talia’s eyes silenced her. By way of apology, she got up and poured iced mint tea for them both, sweetening it with honey. Talia found it difficult to stay angry when her whole body wanted to melt into a pool of contented satiation.
They didn’t speak of such things again, but Talia found herself paying attention to Majida’s remarks about her father. “He is such a powerful man,” she whispered one afternoon, both of them exhausted but not sleepy. “His gaze captures a woman’s soul. To have his full attention fills me with awe—and fear. His eyes are like a leopard’s eyes; they burn with more ferocity than any mere mortal man.”
Talia pretended to be half-asleep, but she listened raptly. Majida’s voice lowered. “Being with him … it is like being made love to by a god. All of that strength, all of that power, I tremble at his touch. And I know of no other man who understands so comprehensively what women desire….”
The idea—the terrible, blasphemous, wicked idea—preyed upon her mind. Ra’s had raised Talia to accept no less than the best, and he was the best of all men, was he not? Where would she find his equal—and would she have any hope of finding such a man before her best years were behind her? She had all the impatience of youth; she wanted an end to this exquisite suffering now.
The thought grew like a cancer. Alone of all Ra’s followers, Talia could watch him unobserved, and she soon found herself watching with the eyes of a lover, not a daughter. She observed muscle and sinew, strength and grace, and the piercing eyes that not even she could meet for long. The only thing she did not see was Ra’s with his women. Majida enlightened her. She showed Talia faint bruises on her wrists, on her throat: the marks of fingers and mouth at the height of passion. Those recitations were often a prelude or intermission to their afternoon delights, and more than once Talia found her imagination swept up in images of Majida with Ra’s…
…and then, inevitably, herself with Ra’s. She tried to deny those thoughts, but with Majida’s hands and mouth on her body, seeking out every hidden pleasure, she had no control of her mind. Her ecstasy was much more intense when she gave in to the images crowding her thoughts.
He was her father … but the very forbidden nature of it made the craving that much stronger. Ra’s began to invade Talia’s dreams, such that she woke in the night with sweat-stippled skin, her body aching, aching. She was helpless before that lust; it was a fire that must be quenched before it scorched her to death. Talia buried her face in her pillow to hide her shameful blush from the empty room. But oh, those stolen hours in the middle of the night, when she knew her father was taking his leisure among his concubines, she closed her eyes and imagined herself one of them, and burned like the heart of a star there in her bed. If only she had not been his daughter!
She was able to cut her sparring sessions short sometimes, going to see Majida morning and afternoon. “You must have a man,” the older woman told her after one such hasty, hungry morning. “I am but a poor substitute for what you need, Talia. You must….”
“Do not tell me what I must and mustn’t do,” Talia snapped irritably, pinning Majida down. Biting at her neck as she never had before, images behind her eyes of Ra’s doing this to Majida … to Talia herself. Angry, desperate, torn, she was rough and demanding, and Majida moaned aloud so gratifyingly that it almost soothed the unholy fire burning in her loins.
Nearly a year after they first spoke of it, Talia came to Majida in the afternoon and said, “You told me once it was not impossible.” She almost hoped that Majida would have forgotten that conversation; they had never spoken of it since. Talia was nervous, a state that had been largely foreign to her a year ago.
Majida looked at her appraisingly. She had not forgotten. “It can be done. Without his knowledge, or the knowledge of the other women. We must be careful, very careful, but it can be done. All depends on one thing: can you sneak out of this compound, and spend a full night away, without him discovering it?”
“I can,” Talia said rashly. She decided swiftly, in that very instant, that she would do this once and put it to rest, exorcise the demon that had taken over her heart. Then she might have peace as she’d had before.
Majida would not allow her to rush. She demanded that Talia prove her assertion, several times. Only when she’d slipped out of and into the compound ten times, all unnoticed, would Majida move to the next phase of the plan.
She showed Talia a small container in which floated two blue contact lenses. “The light will be dim; he prefers lamplight, and that is in our favor. You have distinctive eyes, though, and he might know them even in the dark. So you shall wear these. And more, I can show you how to paint your face so that he would never recognize you, even in full daylight.”
Talia was almost sick with anxiety. “Then let us do it. Tonight.”
Majida smiled at her like a child who asked to open gifts early. “No. Have patience, Talia. Let me prove to you that he shall not know you, first. Only then will I tell him I know a girl from the village who might be worthy of his bed.”
So it was that that very night, Talia was in the harem when her father came to take his pleasure. Heavily veiled, clothed as if she were one of the women whose courses were upon them, her eyes darkly lined and lips painted a red she would never have worn, she was invisible. Not even when she was close enough to smell his skin, the clean scent of him. Talia’s heart nearly stopped. He did not choose Majida that night, and she was free to show Talia where she might stand and watch all unobserved.
And she watched, late into the night, until she trembled and the fear was gone, leaving only desire in its wake. Nothing else mattered. “Are you still certain?” Majida whispered to her.
“Yes,” Talia murmured back.
It was not the next night, nor the next. Majida bent Ra’s’ ear with tales of a stunningly beautiful girl in the village, one who was shy and pure despite her loveliness. Meanwhile she prepared Talia for the event, telling her, “There will be pain. Men must have it so, pain and blood, but it will be less for you than for some ignorant shepherd’s daughter of the hills. I have seen to that—and he will expect it. He is not like some men, who only wish a beautiful object to plunder. He has no interest in taking that which is not freely, gladly, offered.”
Ra’s finally told Majida to find this girl and bring her to the compound, so he might judge her beauty for himself. Talia was already outside the compound and in disguise; it was easy for Majida to meet her and bring her back. The guards didn’t recognize her, and she made her way to the harem as if she’d never set foot in it before. Majida pulled her aside and whispered some final advice. “Remember, you are no longer Talia al Ghul, the demon’s daughter. You are Daniyah, a girl of the village, and all you know of Ra’s al Ghul is that he is the most powerful man in the world. If you fear him, a little, he will not be surprised. Do not look him in the eye until he insists upon it, for no woman of your station would be so bold.”
Talia nodded her understanding. Her hands were shaking, and she was torn between the urge to get on with it already, and to flee. She waited while Majida went to speak to Ra’s, unable to follow their conversation until she heard him say, “Bring her to me.” A moment later Majida was at her side, taking her hand and all but pulling her into the room.
She dared not look up at him. Contacts or no contacts, veil or no veil, she was struck by the thought that he would know her face and be outraged. Makeup had subtly changed the shape of her eyes and the contours of her cheekbones, but it was an illusory effect. And if he saw past it, how could she explain this? Panic thundered in her heart, and he had to speak to her twice before she heard him. “Come here, child. I will not hurt you.”
Still not looking up, she knelt and lowered her head as the peasants did before her father when he visited the village. “Up, up. Do not be afraid. Here, sit beside me. Majida, wine.” His voice was gentle, cajoling, and she obeyed it even as Majida did.
She hesitated with the wine cup in hand, and he spoke again. “Remove your veil, Daniyah.”
“Yes, my lord.” Pitching her voice softer, lighter, unlike her own. Then, taking a deep breath, she took off the veil, and sipped her wine to cover her nervousness. The moment of truth had arrived. If he did not know her now….
For a long, terrible moment, he was silent. And then the words she dreaded. “Look at me.”
She couldn’t. “My lord….” He took her chin, so gently, and lifted her face so that she had no choice but to meet his gaze. She looked at him with trepidation, but there was no recognition in his expression. Instead a light she’d never seen gleamed in his eyes.
That light seemed to strike a spark in her, and the spark became flame. “So beautiful,” he murmured. “As beautiful as an houri, Daniyah.” He leaned in toward her, and she let her eyes slide closed.
Daniyah. Not Talia. Tonight I am Daniyah, and he is my lord, not my father. Thinking that, she kissed him.
Afterward Majida led her, stunned mute, from the bedchamber and into a bath. Talia sank up to her chin in perfumed, steaming water, her eyes wide and unseeing, and let Majida wash her hair. “So, was he everything you desired?” the older woman finally asked.
Talia only nodded, caught up in memories. His beard, rough but not unpleasantly so, against her cheek, her throat … her thighs. Her hands tangled in his hair, her voice pleading wordlessly, him telling her, “Patience, this is to be savored.” Not caring anymore about anything, not thinking about who he was or who she was, her mind focused only on his weight above her, his mouth on hers, the way they moved together. Savored indeed, over hours.
“Was there much pain?” Majida asked softly.
Talia shook her head. By the time he finally claimed her, she had been so eager that the pain was only fleeting. The pleasure, on the other hand, was still echoing through every nerve.
Majida rinsed her long hair carefully and worked a rich conditioner into it before speaking again. “Because this was your first, he will allow you at least three days to rest. Soon after, though, he will be asking me to summon you again.”
“Again?” Talia whispered. She’d promised herself it would only be this once….
“Oh yes, again. He seems quite taken with you. I’ve never seen him quite so ardent with one of us.” Majida’s voice sounded just a little envious.
She blinked, remembering. Just at the penultimate moment, he had breathed something against her neck, words that were harsh with exertion and desire. “You remind me of my wife.” And no wonder, was it, since he’d often said the same of her own mother? That was why he’d loved her so much; her mother had reminded him of the love he’d lost so many centuries ago.
The truth of what she’d just done crashed down on Talia in that instant, and she gasped, shuddering. I seduced my own father—or let him seduce me, it makes no difference which. And now, now all I want is to have him again. And again. Terrified, she looked up at Majida. “What am I going to do?” she pleaded, seeking safety, security, guidance—perhaps simply a way out, or a way forward.
The older woman smiled. “Go to him when he calls for you. It is what you want, and what he wants. There truly is no other man worthy of you; perhaps he might even realize that himself, in time.”
“No,” Talia insisted. “He cannot know.”
Majida tsked at her. “He claims ancient noble lineage. Surely he knows that royalty married their nieces, sisters, and daughters as often as not. If he would place himself in that same station, who else could aspire to join him there if not you?”
Talia shivered. She couldn’t stand the thought of Ra’s knowing the truth—but she also couldn’t face the idea of stopping with this one night. Not when she’d only just been fully awakened to everything she desired from a man. In spite of her soreness, she still ached with longing for him.
The misery of indecision and the desperation of lust would become all too familiar to her in the near future.
In the end, she used Majida’s ruse to cope. By day she was Talia al Ghul, the demon’s daughter, trained to be his right hand in the running of the League of Shadows. Deadly, efficient, and unswervingly loyal. She kept herself trained to a peak of mental and physical readiness that made her dangerous to cross, and something in her eyes finally warned the men away from her so that she no longer had to spill their blood to make her point.
By night she was Daniyah, the demon’s lover, at his service for anything he could desire. Passionate, beautiful, and utterly insatiable. She met his hunger with her own, and the role she played allowed her to vanquish both fear and guilt. After all, Daniyah would feel no such thing—Ra’s was her lord, not her father. What passed between them was transcendent, glorious, exalting, and she could not get enough.
All was as well as it could be for a few months, and then he murmured something as she lay nestled in his arms that brought it all crashing down. “Perhaps I have finally found a woman worthy of wedding,” his voice low and contemplative.
Her lidded eyes shot open. It was on the tip of her tongue to say, You swore you would never marry again, you never even wed my mother for all you loved her so, but that was a Talia thought, and if she spoke it as Daniyah then everything would end in flames. She trembled, aware for the first time since that first night of exactly what she was doing, and who she was doing it with. That was her father’s hand on the curve of her bare hip, the purpling love-bite on her neck held the shape of her father’s mouth.
Ra’s took the trembling as a sign of anxiety, and kissed her. “Hush, Daniyah. Do not fear. I am not as other men, to buy a wife and treat her as chattel.” And then, very softly, so that she was almost unable to catch the words, “I could love you, my beautiful one, light of my eyes.”
“My lord, I am unworthy,” she managed to whisper shakily, but he only held her closer.
I am damned, Talia thought, as she curled herself into that embrace with a yearning she still—still—could not deny.
“Majida, it must end. Now.” She cornered the woman alone the very next morning. “Say the girl is married off, or that her family went on pilgrimage, or something. But let it end immediately.”
“Why?” the older woman asked, cupping her chin and looking into her eyes. “Has he hurt you, my dearest?”
“No, no, nothing like that. He … he said….” She had to turn away, biting her lip. “He said he loved me. He wants to marry me. Majida, this was madness from the start! We must end it before he knows. It would kill him to know….”
“Oh, it was madness indeed—your madness. And yes, it would kill him,” Majida said, and her voice was much colder than Talia had ever heard it. “It would break his soul if he knew the girl whose body he desires so blindly is his own flesh and blood. He might even fall upon his sword if I were to tell him how he has violated his own daughter—and worse, that it was your idea, that you begged me to arrange for your ravishment at his hands.”
“Mine—!” Shocked, Talia wheeled, and saw Majida’s cruel smile.
Her mocking laughter rang hellishly. “You naïve little fool. How dare you come to me and make demands? I have waited years for my revenge, and now you shall be my instrument!”
“Majida, what…?” Talia’s heart raced with panic, her brain unable to keep up.
The older woman grabbed the front of her blouse and yanked her close. “Listen, then. When I was younger than you are now, Ra’s al Ghul demanded tribute from my tribe: guns, horses, flocks, men to fight for him, and women for his bed. We refused to pay his cruel tithe, and he killed the headman’s family. All but me. With my father’s blood drying on my skin I pressed my face into the dust and swore him fealty. And he, fool that he is, spared me.
“The rest of our people bowed to him and paid his tribute. He took charge of me, and sent me away to be educated. Perhaps he thought he could win my loyalty. When I asked to join him here and serve him, he agreed. All men are fools for a beautiful woman; they believe what they want to believe. He thought I was sincere, but I have held vengeance closer than any lover for all these years. Still, I have never found an opportunity to kill him—we are allowed no weapons, and even the dinner knives are counted.
“Then Fate smiled upon me. You chose me, out of all of his concubines. I made you my blade, Talia al Ghul. I forged and sharpened your lust for him, and it was I who thrust you through his heart. He has fallen in love with you, stupid girl. All I need to complete my revenge is to tell him who you really are.” With that she spat full in Talia’s face.
She was so stunned that she could only stagger back, wiping the spittle from her cheek. Fear, never a frequent visitor to Talia’s heart, now ruled there. She had no time to process the information or to plan a way to mitigate the situation. “No, Majida, please. Anything you want, anything, only don’t tell him….”
Majida laughed again, her eyes agleam with an evil light. “Perhaps. Perhaps it might be enough to ruin you, the only thing in all the world he loves as much as power. We shall see if I can be satisfied with that.”
She named a price, in American dollars and diamonds, a price that took Talia’s breath away—but thankfully, a price she could meet. “You shall put that sum into my hands, and you shall arrange my escape from here in three days, when Ra’s has left for his holdings in the east. Once I am free, I will give you a place and a time where you shall bring an equal sum, once every year for the rest of your life, or until I feel my vengeance is incomplete. Do you understand me, Talia, demon’s whore?”
At that word, Talia felt herself grow cold, everything standing out with crystalline clarity. Fear froze into terrible determination. Play her game, for now, an icy voice in the back of her brain told her, and she nodded, letting tears spill down her cheeks. There was only one way out of this now, and it depended on Majida thinking she was still terrified. “A-Anything you ask,” she stammered.
“Good girl,” Majida purred, and then slapped her face deliberately. Talia let herself flinch from the blow, not striking back, and Majida hit her again, harder, using her fist this time. The older woman was breathing heavily now, her eyes alight with more than vengeance, and the third time she struck, Talia let herself be driven to her knees by it. Majida laughed and caught her chin, forcing her to look up. “And now, Talia al Ghul, today you shall serve me.”
Talia closed her eyes, and part of her went away. This moment could not be avoided, and it was best borne with as little emotion as possible. She had plans to make for the future….
An hour later, Talia carefully rubbed liniment cream into the bruises on her face. It stung, making her eyes water, but she ignored the pain. She had already brushed her teeth and rinsed her mouth to rid herself of the familiar taste that now sickened her. Her analytical mind was swiftly turning over all the variables she’d need to account for to salvage this situation.
One thing was clear: she had to wait, to do whatever was necessary to keep Majida silent, until Ra’s left. She could bear that, she decided. No matter how cruel or degrading Majida became, she would bear it with a semblance of cowed terror. If the older woman thought her weak and craven, that would play right into Talia’s plans for her.
The next morning she sought out Majida, as she’d been ordered to do, and was at her beck and call all that day. At least the older woman didn’t lay hands on her again; the still-visible bruises seemed to frighten her. Talia knew from experience that the liniment cream would dissolve them in a day or two, and until then she could explain them as injuries acquired in training. But Daniyah would have no such excuse, and Majida was as relieved as Talia when Ra’s did not call for her that night.
The morning of the second day, Majida was in a foul temper. Talia kept her eyes subserviently downcast in the woman’s presence, but she seemed anxious and quick to anger. “You will bring me the diamonds today,” she hissed, when Talia brought her breakfast.
“Yes, Majida,” she murmured, and left to get them. She already had the money and the diamonds—and a stash of extra jewels , in case Majida got greedy at the last moment—hidden in her rooms.
When she came back, she was almost at Majida’s door before she heard Ra’s speaking. Talia quickly hid, hardly daring to breathe. If Ra’s found her here, all was lost. “I will leave on the morrow, Majida. Bring Daniyah to me tonight.”
Majida’s voice was honeyed and conciliatory. “My lord, your will is my command, but would you rather not have me at your side this night? I have missed you so, since Daniyah came.”
“Not this night, Majida. I have not forgotten you. Only bring me Daniyah.” With that he left, and Talia waited before creeping into Majida’s room. She offered the diamonds before the older woman could speak.
Avarice gleamed in her green eyes. “Magnificent, magnificent. And if these are glass, I shall write to your father and tell him who his favorite whore really is.”
“They are true diamonds, Majida, and flawless,” Talia murmured, looking down to hide the hatred that simmered in her.
“Hmm. We shall see.” Majida slid the pouch of jewels up her sleeve; they would no doubt be hidden in her rooms once Talia left. “You missed your father by only minutes, Talia. He wants you tonight—he always wants you, and keeps company with the rest of us only enough so that we do not resent him. So it seems you must be Daniyah again before I leave.”
Talia had been weighing this moment since she overheard the conversation, but her course still wasn’t clear. She allowed her voice to tremble. “No, I cannot … Majida, I cannot do that. Not again. Put him off, make some excuse….”
Majida dared not slap her for fear of leaving marks, but she grabbed the front of Talia’s blouse roughly and shook her. Talia let it happen. She could have killed Majida a dozen times over by now, but then she would have to explain why. No explanation she could give would fool her father for long, and he could not learn the truth.
Raving, Majida snarled, “Do you still think you give orders to me, little fool? I command you! Even if he had not asked for you, I would send you to him tonight, so you will remember why you should fear me. After I am gone he will have no way to find his beloved Daniyah, but tonight you will lie with him again.”
Talia nodded, shakily, and let a tear track down her cheek. The sight of it seemed to cool Majida’s fury—for the moment. “Meet me at the village well at sundown,” she muttered, and Talia only nodded again.
That night, as she walked into the harem again, she was not Daniyah. She was Talia, all Talia, merely dressed as the other, but her mind knew precisely who she was and what she was about to do. That was an exquisite torture, but knowing it was the last time was something of a relief. She dared not try to slip into her alter ego’s mindset—and in any case, Majida would not have let her.
At the door to the bedchamber, Majida grabbed her arm and hissed in her ear, “Go now and let your father fuck you, Talia. Moan for him like the whore you are. And when you spread your legs for him, remember that I made you my revenge. Think of what it would do to him, to know.”
She managed, with superlative effort, to shove that aside as she stepped into the room. Here, in this room, in this bed, it was only herself and him. The rest of the world ceased to exist. “Daniyah,” Ra’s murmured, making a benediction of the name, and she went to him. “I must leave, beautiful one, but I shall return. And perhaps I shall have a gift for you when I arrive.”
“A gift, my lord?” she whispered as he took off her veil.
He kissed her, long and searchingly. Even knowing, even without the shield of the ruse, her blood rose in answer to that kiss. She was well and truly damned—but she might yet save him. “A gift of silver, perhaps,” he said.
Silver was the traditional bride-price of a nobleman’s daughter. The last time, Talia thought to herself, and made it count for something.
Ra’s left the next morning. The women of the harem were permitted to go to the village market daily, but they went under guard. Ra’s had taken the best of his guards with him for the journey, and Talia added a mild sedative to the shared morning coffee of the remainder. They were drowsy and lax in the heat as the women did their marketing.
It was simple, almost too simple, for Talia to fetch Majida away and hide her. She gave her the money and the rest of the jewels, and exchanged burqas with her, taking Majida’s place on the return trip. The older woman’s mocking laughter echoed in her ears all the way back to the compound.
Once inside, Talia went to Majida’s room first, then slipped from the harem and to her own rooms. She dressed for the desert and snuck out. Majida would not get far without a guide, but she had the funds to hire one. Luckily for Talia, any guide worth his price would want to travel by night, when the sands were cooler. And by night, Talia could track as well as a leopard.
There were only so many routes Majida could choose from, and Talia circled the village, watching and waiting. A large caravan left for the east, but she didn’t see Majida with it, nor did she suspect the woman would head in the same direction Ra’s had taken.
Finally, a small party left for the north. Talia watched them mount their camels, and saw one rider was having some difficulty—as if she’d never been astride such a beast before. She smiled. Talia knew Majida’s gait and stance, and that was definitely her.
She returned to the village, where earlier she’d bought two horses with their tack, provisions for the animals, and skins of water. The guide would keep on the trail until they reached an oasis, where he would shelter the party through the heat of the day. Talia knew where the likely stopping places were, and with two mounts she could ride one and rest the other, making better time than the camels and not having to stop when the one she rode grew tired. It might not be the next night, but she would get ahead of them.
The first time they stopped, the guide and the other travelers were on guard. Bandits haunted these hills, waiting for unwary travelers. Talia went ahead of them until the sun was high and then camped in a dry wadi, gave her horses water from the skins, and rested. When the afternoon began to cool, she mounted again and rode to the next oasis. She refilled her skins and let the horses drink at their leisure before seeking a place to hide them, scouting out the oasis in the process.
Majida’s party arrived in the dark of night, but the guide insisted on stopping to water the camels. Talia, concealed in the lee of a stone, heard Majida arguing with him. “For the price I paid you, I expected to move faster!”
“Have you traveled the desert before, woman? If we ride in the heat of the day we will need to stop more often to rest the animals, we will need more water, and we will advertise our existence to every bandit with a spyglass for leagues. No, we stop here, and move out before sunset tomorrow.”
That did not please Majida, but the other men turned out to be guards she’d hired—she was spending Talia’s money freely—and they agreed with the guide. Angrily, she ordered them to pitch her tent, and then went into it to sulk. Meanwhile they meant built up a fire and sat around it to talk and smoke. They soon had a pot of water boiling for tea. One of their number was posted on watch while the rest settled down to eat.
Talia could have easily slit the back of the tent and killed Majida where she sat, but that wasn’t enough to repay the insults she’d suffered. At the same time, she had no particular desire to kill all of the men. So subduing them without alerting Majida would be a challenge.
Only a small challenge, for the daughter of the demon. Talia eased up on the watcher silently, and when his back was to her she took him down, fast and quiet. He never had time to struggle, rendered unconscious by a powerful nerve strike. She left him bound and gagged so he could not alert the rest.
That left four, three guards and the guide. Talia gathered a handful of pebbles and started tossing them behind the group of men. Two got up and went to see what was making the sound, with blades drawn. She led them on, at home in the dim moonlight, faintly rattling the branches of a dry shrub and tossing a few more pebbles. Once they were out of sight of those at the fire, she struck.
The first man went down without a sound, but the other shouted and whirled on her. Talia was more than a match for him and brought him down, leaving both of them tied, but the noise had alerted the camp.
One guard and the guide, Majida still cowering in her tent. The guard had drawn a gun and was looking wildly around, shouting for the bandits to show themselves. The guide was scrabbling for a weapon, too. No time to play, and Talia came out of the darkness in a blur of deadly speed. Her sword struck the gun out of the guard’s hand, and he swiftly drew a blade. His steel and skill were no match for hers, and she disarmed him in seconds. Striking with the flat of her sword, she knocked him out and went for the guide.
He’d found a knife, but one look at her and he dropped it. “Forgive me, Lady al Ghul,” he stammered, dropping to his knees. “I know not how I have offended you—”
She stepped forward until the tip of the sword hovered at his throat. “How do you know who I am?” she asked softly.
“There is but one woman in this land who can defeat four hired guardsmen like it was child’s play, and she is the daughter of Ra’s al Ghul. Please, I meant no disrespect….”
Actually, Talia thought several of her female teachers might have done this as easily, but apparently the locals only knew of her. She smiled faintly. “I have no quarrel with you or these men. The woman you guided betrayed my father. I come for vengeance.”
“Then may vengeance be yours, my lady.” The guide was practically melting with relief.
“Also I desire that the fee she gave to you and these men be repaid to me. The money was stolen, and your services are no longer required.”
He trembled. “I spent some of the money on provisions, and these surely—”
“Give me what is left,” she commanded. With most of the money returned, she stalked to the tent, standing to one side as she flung the flap back.
It was empty, the black night showing behind a large rent in the back of the tent. So Majida had fled. That didn’t worry Talia. They were more than a day’s ride from civilization, and Majida was on foot. She searched the tent, finding the cash and diamonds swiftly. Majida must have known she wouldn’t survive until morning, to have left them behind. Talia disappeared back into the night while the guide was still untying guards. Mounting her freshest horse, she circled their camp and set out to track Majida.
The woman knew the desert well enough to head for bare rock that would disclose no footprints, but Talia had the advantage and knew it. A broken branch, a patch of disturbed sand, a fallen scrap of cloth told her where Majida had been, and within the hour Talia found her.
Majida turned at bay, putting her back against a large boulder. She had a large knife, and it was clear she knew how to use it, but she was no match for Talia’s sword. “Come, then,” she snarled.
There was no hurry; that curious coldness of mind had descended on Talia again, swathing her against the anger and pain she felt. She dismounted calmly and hobbled the horse at enough of a distance that Majida would not try to charge her, and then walked up slowly, the naked sword in her hand. “You should not have betrayed the al Ghuls, Majida,” Talia said, her voice quiet, almost friendly.
Majida bared her teeth like some cornered desert rodent. “It matters not. I shall have my revenge nonetheless. I left a letter to your father, telling him everything. You are ruined—and so is he.”
Talia smiled and drew a folded piece of paper from her sleeve. “This letter?”
Majida’s eyes went wide. “You—you—”
“Did you really think I trusted you to keep your word?” Talia asked lightly, and tore the letter. Once, twice, a third time, and then pocketed the scraps to burn later. “Of course I searched your room before I left. I am not the fool you think me.”
Incredibly, Majida laughed. “Oh, yes you are. And what will you tell him when he returns with silver for your bride-price, hmm? What then? Or, if Fate answers my prayers, what will you tell him when you grow heavy with his child?”
At that, Talia struck without warning or hesitation. Majida had the knife up in a defensive position, but Talia feinted to one side and then slashed it out of her hand, Majida yelping as the sword severed her thumb. Talia stepped in and thrust, the blade slicing into Majida’s gut, the tip popping out of her back.
She screamed, and Talia withdrew the blade carefully. Majida staggered and fell, clutching at her stomach. Blood pumped out of the wound. Feeling nothing, Talia knelt beside her, careful to pick up the knife Majida had dropped. “You will not die immediately,” she said, her voice low and her eyes ablaze. “A gut wound such as this is always fatal, but it will take time for you to die. Time to reflect on your sins.”
Majida coughed, and then she smiled, blood on her teeth. “It matters not. You are ruined, and that will be vengeance enough for me. You will never lie with a man that you do not see your father’s face, and … you will never lie with a woman … that you do not see … mine.” Pain shortened her breath, but she managed to fling one hand out as if to grab at Talia.
She had chosen a prudent distance, and the mutilated hand fell short, but Majida’s blood spattered her. “So I curse you, Talia al Ghul, daughter and lover of the demon,” Majida gasped, and broke into an insane laugh.
“You are no witch or djinn to curse me,” Talia said flatly, but the hair at the nape of her neck rose in trepidation.
Majida only smiled, and rage broke through Talia’s icy calm. She stood up, staring down at Majida, and then threw her head back in a wild howl. The older woman flinched. “What are you doing?” she gasped hoarsely.
The call was answered by another howl, close by, and Talia’s horses neighed fearfully. The one not hobbled started to bolt, but it was tied to the saddle of the other. Talia went to them quickly, catching their bridles and whispering reassurances. They knew what was coming; they had shied as they passed the den among the rocks on the way here, the bleached bones and scat clear to Talia’s eye, but not to Majida’s.
A low, chattering laugh came from the darkness, echoed by another, and Majida tried to struggle to her feet. Talia turned and threw Majida’s knife, the blade sticking in the woman’s calf. She fell again, screaming and cursing.
The horses were still snorting and pawing. Talia sliced the hobble and mounted the fresher one, forcing it to back away instead of turning tail and bolting. The moonlight revealed a pair of grayish, humped shapes approaching Majida, their heads bobbing up and down as they caught the scent of her wound.
The larger of the two animals turned and cocked its ears toward Talia. “For you and your mate and children,” she said aloud, watching the beast flinch from her voice, though it did not run away. “Dine well, dhubba.”
The smaller one moved toward Majida, who shrieked and tried to ward it off. She succeeded only in losing most of the fingers of her hand to its powerful jaws. Then, apparently deciding that the two terrified horses and the mounted human were no threat, the larger one turned to the kill.
Talia finally allowed her horse to turn, but she heard Majida’s screams behind her as the striped hyena pair devoured her alive.
Ra’s returned only two days after he left. Talia had spent the ride back preparing herself as well as she could to face him. Her peace of mind was considerably restored by the start of her courses that very day; what Majida had said about carrying his child had preyed upon her mind relentlessly.
His men reported first, and she waited for them to leave the room before speaking to her father. He smiled to see her. “Daughter. How goes it with you?”
“I am well, Father. I have unfortunate news for you.”
His brows drew together. “What news?”
“The concubine Majida is dead.” Talia spoke flatly, calmly.
Ra’s was clearly taken aback. “What? How? Why did none of the men report this to me?”
“None of them knew. Majida escaped the compound. I found her in the desert, and left her there for the scavengers as befits one who would betray al Ghul.”
“You hunted her and slew her. Why did you hide this from the men?”
She had prepared an answer ahead of time, trying to anticipate any question he might ask. “Because their time was better spent here, guarding your assets, than in chasing one foolish woman amongst the hills. It was a simple matter, Father.”
Ra’s regarded her steadily. “And yet none of them reported to me that you had left the compound.”
Talia lifted one shoulder negligently. “Again, they did not know. I told my teachers I wished to rest for a day or two.”
“I do not like you sneaking out of the compound,” Ra’s said sternly. “Henceforth I shall notify the guards that you are free to come and go as you please—since indeed, you already are. Talia, I would prefer to know when you are safe here, and when you are not.”
She bowed her head. “Thank you, Father.”
He rested his hand on her shoulder, and she managed not to flinch from the touch. Fortunately Ra’s was distracted, and dismissed her.
Talia went to her rooms and collapsed with relief. She’d gotten away with it, saved her father and herself from Majida’s vengeful machinations. This business of Daniyah was finished, too. She was safe. Talia fell asleep at that unaccustomed hour, basking in her reprieve.
Two hours later Ra’s was at her bedside, shaking her awake. “When Majida escaped, was there another woman with her?” he demanded.
“No, Father. Only a guide and some hired guards, whom I released. They knew not who they accompanied.” Talia fought the urge to pull a coverlet over her; she had fallen asleep fully dressed, but felt naked under his furious gaze. She would never again be comfortable with him in her rooms, especially not her bedroom.
“Yes. I would not have missed another’s tracks.”
He swore under his breath. “These peasants … I will go down to the village myself, then.”
Ra’s was on his way out of the room when Talia called after him, her heart racing with trepidation, “Father, why? What in the village could possibly demand your personal attention?”
He turned at her door and looked at her. “Majida brought me a village girl, Daniyah. And now the villagers claim they know of no such girl, by that name or description. I will have the truth from them. I care not whose daughter she is; I will have her.”
He was gone before he saw the terrified look in Talia’s eyes.
Talia went to the village with him and his guards, her stomach churning. Ra’s had sent his men to search, looking into the eyes of every woman in the village, but they found none with blue eyes. When he arrived in person, he looked into their faces himself, but found Daniyah nowhere among the terrified women. Then he grew wrathful, summoned the men of the village to him in the square, and demanded the girl Daniyah. “I will pay the bride-price in silver. I care not if she is betrothed; I will double the price. Bring her to me, now.”
“My lord, there is no girl,” the headman said.
Ra’s growled. “I have seen this girl. One of my women brought her to me. She is fairer than any angel, a magnificent beauty. Her name may not truly be Daniyah, but surely you would know a blue-eyed daughter of marriageable age. Those eyes are rare among your people.”
“My lord, please, there is no girl,” the headman repeated.
“Has she been married already? I care not. Bring her to me.” He raised his voice so that all the men could hear. “Bring Daniyah to me, and I shall pour out silver until the heap reaches the height of the crown of her head. The man who brings her shall have the silver, and her father shall have three times the bride-price, again in silver. But bring her to me!” His voice rose to a roar, and the village men cowered.
The headman bowed his head to the dust three times. “Please, my lord, we would not deceive you. If you want one of our women then she is yours for the asking. But I swear to you, upon my life, there is no such woman as you seek among us!”
“On your life be it, then,” Ra’s growled, and whirled on him, sword flashing. The man did not flinch, but a woman screamed from the watching crowd. A wife, perhaps a daughter.
“Father, no,” Talia cried, and the blade stopped an inch from the headman’s throat. “He is too terrified to lie. This girl cannot be among the village women. The betrayer must have deceived you.”
Her heart pounded as he stared at her, and then he sheathed the sword. Without a word, Ra’s stalked away, his men following. He did not speak until they arrived back at the compound, and then he only snapped her name. Talia followed him to his rooms, where he paced angrily. “Majida was the only one who knew of this girl, and you killed her,” he said, his voice harsh.
Taking a deep breath, Talia replied, “Majida wished to kill you, Father, and barring that, escape with whatever secrets she knew.”
“Take a party of trackers and find her body. If even her skull remains, I shall find a witch who can extract the knowledge from her very bones.”
It took every ounce of well-trained composure for Talia not to be sick at that moment. “There will be no bones, Father. I passed a den of hyena on the way back, and they leave nothing when they have cubs to feed.”
He cursed again and struck a side-table. “Must I empty this country to find Daniyah? You took too much upon yourself, Talia!”
She took a cautious step toward him. “Father, we have no idea what secrets Majida concealed. The girl could have been a vision. And even so, it is only one girl. You have a score of women. Surely you can—”
“You did not see this girl, Talia. She was….” He sighed and stopped his pacing, staring into the middle distance. “She was such a vision of loveliness as I have never beheld. Perfection. And not like these women who fear me in their secret hearts; she was bold and clear-eyed and glorious. Magnificent. Like your mother was … like my wife was so long ago. Such a woman as that, Talia, I might have wed.”
“You swore you would never marry,” Talia said, her voice shaking. She could almost hear Majida’s ghostly laughter. “You said to marry again, even to marry Mother whom you loved, would dishonor the memory of your wife.”
“Daniyah was almost like having her back again,” Ra’s murmured, more to himself than to her, and Talia could not tell if he spoke of her mother or that long-dead wife. “She had something of that look about the eyes.”
Talia’s breath caught, and she held herself still only by immense self-control. Her own eyes had a faintly Oriental cast; she resembled her father’s people more than her mother’s mixed ancestry, but the slight tilt of her eyes gave her away. It was a trait her mother had had in common with the wife of his youth. Please, please do not let him discover, she prayed to a god she didn’t believe in.
“I had not loved so, before or since, but Daniyah….” Ra’s trailed off, lost in reminiscence, and Talia remembered Majida’s blood spattering her arms, her face. So I curse you, the ghostly voice whispered.
No. She would not let that vile woman destroy them both. With new strength, Talia said, “Let it go, Father. Majida would be delighted to know she had unsettled your mind. Do not give her the victory.”
He sighed and sat down like a man wearied, which Talia took as a good sign. He kept a pitcher of spring water in his room, and she set about pouring some for him, still watching his face surreptitiously for any hint of what he would do next.
Ra’s, meanwhile, was watching her. He saw her pour the water, and his eyes flicked to her wrist, bared beneath her sleeve. His pupils dilated, and Ra’s sprang to his feet, seizing her arm. “Who has touched you?” Ra’s demanded, turning her wrist up.
Talia gasped. She had been so focused on hiding the truth from him that she had forgotten to hide the evidence. There on her wrist was a fading bruise, the mark of his own hand. That last night, the last time, she had raked her nails across his back in desperate passion, and he had pinned her wrist down roughly to keep her from bloodying him further.
Since then she had given no thought to it, wholly absorbed in plotting to kill Majida and keeping her father from finding out just what he had done. The liniment she automatically applied had faded the mark, but Ra’s was terribly strong, and it had not yet disappeared. If he remembered having marked his Daniyah so….
“No one,” Talia retorted, jerking her arm back, but he would not let go.
Ra’s pulled her close, practically nose-to-nose, and scowled at her. His nearness made her pulse thunder, even as his anger frightened her. “Did I not tell you these men were unworthy of you? Did I not command you to keep yourself pure? Which of them defiled you? I will have his head on a spike by sundown!”
It was you. It was you, and I gloried in it. I am your Daniyah; I am the lover who has driven you half out of your mind. No other man is worthy of me, save you; you are the one for whom I burn like the desert sun. Forget that I was ever your daughter and give in to what you desire. Call me Daniyah if you must, take me here upon the very floor, only give me what I crave. The words were on the tip of her tongue, but she bit them back along with the terrible desire to kiss him. One kiss, and he would know. No matter what Majida had said about ancient kings, she knew there was a line here she dared not cross. Not again. “No unworthy man has touched me, Father,” she told him, her voice low and strained.
He hesitated, just for an instant, and Talia added, “It is but a training injury, half-healed. I am surprised you did not notice it before you left.”
“Of course,” Ra’s said, visibly relieved. “Forgive me, Talia. I am … I have not been deceived by such as Majida for centuries. It has left me unbalanced.”
“She was a most skillful liar,” Talia said, relief flooding her, too. After this she could sleep for a week. “Do not blame yourself, Father. Majida is dead, this … sorcerous vision can bewitch you no longer, and we shall have peace in our house as we had before.”
“Indeed. Peace would be most welcome at this moment. Thank you, daughter.” Safe, they were both safe, yet when he kissed her forehead in parting she had to bite her tongue.
It was over at last, Talia told herself.
A week later Talia woke from a muddled dream. The night was hot, and she had tossed and turned in her bed until she’d kicked the sheets down, baring her flushed, overheated skin to the air. She woke to the certainty that someone was in the room with her, feeling someone’s gaze on her nude body, and reached for the dagger beneath her pillow before she even thought of pulling the sheets over her.
Talia reached for the lamp … and hesitated, her gaze searching the room. Something told her not to turn on the light. She felt as if doing so would reveal something she’d rather not see. Even as a little child, the dark had held no terrors for her, no ghosts or demons lurked in her imagination. But now, fear seized her.
The trepidation was so strong, her conscious mind began to rationalize it. After all, no one could conceal themselves well enough to hide from her even in the dim half-light thronged with shadows. Talia was too well-trained to miss an intruder. Besides, she heard no rustling of cloth, no breathing.
Who would have done such a thing, anyway? Only she and Ra’s had a key to the door. Perhaps the lock might have been picked, but her father’s men knew all too well the price they would pay for intruding on her. And an assassin would have struck when she awoke, trying to catch her in the instant while she was caught between dreams and the waking world. Dismissing it as an artifact of her dream, she lay back down, pulled the sheet up to her waist, and drifted back to sleep.
Just as she crossed the line between drowsiness and slumber, she heard her door softly shut, and a click as a key turned in the lock.
A few days after that, Ra’s informed her that he was sending her away to Cairo to further her education. Talia never let herself make a connection between her strange dream—it was only a dream, only ever a dream, brought on paranoia—and her father’s sudden decision to send her away from him.