The female guards are gentle but firm. They guide me back into the elevator, then down several hallways before depositing me into a room. No, I realize as I look around. Not a room. A suite.
Although this is only one of several rooms on the third floor of the palace, it is larger than many penthouses I’ve been in. And that’s saying something. There’s a separate section for the bedroom, a kitchenette, and a huge open seating area filled with silk-covered pillows and a huge wrap-around couch. I bet it could fit at least twenty people, easy. Everything is richly-colored in warm hues ranging from deep orange to fiery pink. And other than an ornate medallion-print carpet, every surface, including the wallpaper, features satin, silk, and/or straight up gold-leaf.
In the middle of all the opulence are two dark-skinned women in cap-sleeved shirt dresses. They greet me with lowered eyes, hands placed over their hearts, and earnestly introduce themselves as Raima and Nabida. Both women titter when I say “hey” and introduce myself as Prin. Their “we know who you are” is implied as they place their hands over their hearts again and nod.
Soon after, I’m led into a two-story bathroom with a Japanese toilet, marble floors and walls, and a bathtub that’s not quite large enough to qualify as an Olympic-sized pool but could easily give Michael Phelps a place to do some practice laps. It’s filled with lavender-scented water that undulates invitingly.
“We will attend to you during your bath,” Nabida says, waving a hand toward the swimming pool-disguised-as-bath. “May I assist you with your dress.”
“No, I got it,” I answer, reaching around and pulling down the back zipper.
I should probably feel awkward about stripping down in front of two strangers…but I’m still recovering from a 13-hour flight plus three additional hours in heels. So, I kick of my white wedges and step out of my dress without a second thought. The water is warmer than I expect, and once I’m in it, I can also pick out a sweet woodsy scent, I’ll be told later is frankincense and myrrh. In any case, the bath is the perfect balm for my overused body and mind.
As it turns out, “being attended to” in this suite means being fed and pampered within an inch of my life. Raima appears with a plate of fruit. I inhale every last piece. Thing is, I’d been so busy trying to nab a private convo with Zahir, I barely ate a thing at the post-wedding celebration. I don’t realize I’m damn near starving until all the food disappears a few nanoseconds after I dig in. Raima returns and removes the plate before Nabida approaches with a gold wire basket containing a neatly arranged selection of beauty products.
“We will first take care of your skin and then attend to your nails,” she explains, placing the basket on a ledge beside me.
“Hey, thanks!” I say, lying back in the warm, scented water. “I haven’t had my nails done in a salon in, like, forever…”
But for all my enthusiasm, I doze off before Raima has even finished applying my face mask. I vaguely recall the combined scents of avocado, lemon, and honey before I succumb to sleep. When I come to, I’m still in the tub and Nabida has one hand wrapped firmly around my upper arm. She and Raima are speaking in Arabic, their voices low and urgent.
“Wassup? Everything okay?” I ask, trying to shake off my fatigue.
The women exchange a look before Nabida carefully says, “You are extremely jet-lagged and we fear you are in no condition to receive his highness for breakfast in two hours as instructed.”
“We are trying to decide how best to relay this message to him,” Raima adds, her tone more to the point and brisk than Nabida’s.
I have a few ideas how best to relay the message…beginning with “eff” and ending with “you.” But I’ve already learned too many hard lessons about respecting other cultures in the past twenty-four hours, so…
“Breakfast is in two hours?” Truth is, I can’t believe it’s already morning.
“Yes, you have been asleep for some time and became upset when we attempted to wake you...” Raima answers.
“We waited with you to ensure you came to no harm in the bath,” Nabida adds with a sympathetic smile.
Ah. That explains Nabida’s hand around my arm.
“Sorry,” I say for what feels like the thousandth time that day. “I’m stupid bad at mornings. That’s why I have to keep my phone in the bathroom now. Lost too many of them, throwing them across the room when they tried to wake me up.”
The women titter at my 100% true comment as Nabida helps me from the bath. She hands me over to Raima who wraps me up in an unbelievably warm, fuzzy robe.
As a team, they direct me to a skirted ivory chair seated before a large vanity dripping in gold-leaf. More pampering. This time hair and nails. I guess my earlier tub nap wasn’t enough because only a few minutes pass before I doze off again. When I open my eyes for the second time, my nails are coated in a peach-colored polish and Raima’s put my long sew-in weave hair in one of those piled-on plaited styles favored by duchesses in BBC historical dramas.
“We are grateful we did not have to wake you,” Nabida says, shooting me a teasing smile in the mirror before Raima adds, “We were afraid you might throw us across the room.”
They work so well together I have to ask, “How long have you had this attendant gig?”
“Since the sheikh returned from abroad,” Nabida answers with a demure nod.
“So…what is this place?” I gesture to the surroundings. “Is this, like, the concubine room?”
“You are not a concubine,” Raima points out.
Maybe… but I note she didn’t answer my question. She leads me into a walk-in closet filled with clothes that aren’t mine. Beautiful kaftans and pants suits and at least 10 iterations on the long-sleeved maxi dress. But to my disappointment, Nabida pulls out a pair of joggers and a wicked exercise tee for me to wear.
“The sheikh has graciously agreed to give you time to acclimate to our time zone before your training begins,” she says. “We will stay and assist you until you are less fatigued.”
As it turns out, they are totally serious about assisting me in my jet lag recovery. After serving me a light Western-style breakfast of toast and eggs, they direct me to some gym equipment set up at the farthest edge of the room. There’s a treadmill, a stationary bike, a set of Barbie weights, and a moving staircase. I wonder, yet again, about the woman or women who occupied this room before me.
“After the sheikh deems you acceptable, you will exercise for an hour every morning before breakfast. But for now, twenty minutes on the stationary bike will do,” Raima says, pulling out a stopwatch.
I hadn’t planned to keep up with my gym routine during this trip. Hell, I’d barely clocked two sessions a week with a full gym membership back in Jersey. But I get on the bike figuring it’s a way better alternative than being trained by their “gracious” sheikh over breakfast…whatever that means.
The next few days feel like a reprieve and a delay of the inevitable. I spend them almost exclusively in Nabida and Raima’s company…eating meals at a set time, exercising, and studying for the bar until my eyes start to droop. Then they take me outside for a walk around the grounds until I’m awake again. I’m allowed one thirty-minute nap after lunch, after which I don a pair of what looks like running shorts and a rash guard but turn out to be the Jahwar version of a bikini.
A second set of female guards then escorts me downstairs to a private lagoon on the western side of the palace, and I splash around until I’m fully awake again. After that I get in squeeze in a few hours of study followed by a delicious dinner of curried chicken and rice. Then it’s back to bed.
“Seriously, you should start a business in the States,” I say on a yawn one night after they tuck me in. “Rich kids would totally hire you to help them study for their exams.”
It’s true. Aside from the complete lack of music, which I like to use to stay focused while I’m in the books, this regime of distraction-free study will definitely help me ace the bar exam. I’m beginning to wonder if Holt wasn’t right about my six-month sentence turning into the perfect study break.
“What’s up with the construction project over there?” I ask Raima one morning while I’m earning my breakfast on the stationary bike. I nod out the bedroom’s city-facing window toward the incomplete commercial building hogging up the Jahwar skyline. The site is huge, spanning at least ten to twenty city blocks. But although it’s surrounded by a ton of construction cranes and towers, I can’t see any work being done on it.
“Oh, that’s the Kingdom Mall project. It was begun by the late sheikh,” Nabida replies. She throws the dormant worksite a sympathetic look, like it is an abandoned puppy. “It was supposed to be the largest mall ever in all of the UAK. Sadly, Sheikh Majid died before it was completed, and Sheikh Zahir has put the project on hold.”
“I wonder why?” I ask between pants.
“It is not for us to say,” Raima answers, and I can sense her silently willing her more talkative co-worker to say nothing more.
This is not the first time I sense her shushing Nabida, and I am sure it won’t be the last. By the end of my second recovery day, we’ve gotten into a sort of routine. I ask a question, Nabida begins to respond, and Raima cuts her off with a look and a tight, “it is not for us to say” just as Nabida gets to the juicy part.
By day two, I know Zahir has an unfinished construction project on his hands—a joint venture between his late father, Sheikh Majid, and his maternal grandfather, Najib Zaman, an Indian billionaire who was also the grandfather of Zahir’s cousin, Rashid—little Aisha’s father. That same Indian billionaire gave Zahir’s mother to Sheikh Majid as a first wife. But only four years later, the sheikh took another wife because… Raima: “It is not for us to say.”
Anyway, Zahir and his Indian cousin, Rashid, were “thick as thieves” while growing up. However, Asir, is not related to the Indian billionaire grandfather, but because Zahir uses his grandfather’s last name while living and traveling abroad, so does he, though technically both brothers are al-Jahwari. Anyway, Zahir—not Asir or Rashid was being groomed by his grandfather to take over as CEO of the Tourmaline Group, but… Raima: “It is not for us to say.”
In any case, the late sheikh’s unexpected heart attack gained Zahir the throne a good two decades earlier than expected. And now his cousin, Rashid, who is married to Mahirah, one of Asir’s aunt’s on his mother’s side—his mother is the oldest daughter of the Ardu Alzuhuwr sheikh and Aisha’s mother is the youngest—anyway he is being groomed to succeed their grandfather as the Tourmaline Group’s new CEO.
“And where does that leave Asir?” I ask during my afternoon swim.
Nabida and Raima exchange a consternated look. Nabida carefully answers, “I believe his highness is still deciding what Sheikh Asir will do when he finishes his schooling this year.”
I arch an eyebrow, not needing the cool lagoon water to keep me awake now. “Oh? And you’re sure he’s coming back?” I ask, thinking about Asir’s now five years deferred music dream.
“It is not for us to say,” Raima answers on cue.
But on our way back into the building, Nabida points out Asir’s palace in the distance. “It was built for him as a high school graduation gift, but he was only in residence for the acceptable period of mourning after his father’s death. Which is unfortunate, as his mother hoped he might stay on in Jahwar and take more of an interest in royal life—”
“Not that it is for us to question the prince’s decision,” Raima inserts before Nabida can continue.
In any case, Zahir became the king of Jahwar—though like his father, he prefers to be addressed as sheikh in honor of the original tribe upon whose land the kingdom was founded.
The little information I glean about Zahir and his family is all a bit daytime soap opera—filled with confusing family trees and secrets I’d have to watch a ton of past episodes to figure out. But I was beginning to get my bearings and by day three, I was fairly sure I had all the “bin’s” in Zahir’s official name memorized.
“Very good!” Raima cheers when I recite it by heart during my morning bath.
“If he makes me take a pop quiz I’ll definitely pass,” I joke as I step out of the tub and into the now familiar fuzzy robe.
But instead of laughing, Raima and Nabida exchange a look.
“What?” I ask, shifting my gaze from one to the other.
“You did not fall asleep yesterday,” Nabida begins.
“Therefore, you will breakfast with Sheikh Zahir today,” Raima finishes.
“Oh…okay,” I say, trying to act like I’m not at all unsettled by the carefully blank looks on their usually expressive faces. “That’s…um…cool. No big deal.”
No big deal. I breathe and try to believe my words as I watch Raima take down my pile of braids. Once she has finished, she pulls out a curling iron and runs it over each plait before undoing the braids. The resulting style makes me look like an Instagram model with wavy mermaid hair rather than a first-year associate who only wears a weave because she wanted something easy she could pull back into a ponytail.
Meanwhile, Nabida produces an aluminum makeup case filled with M.A.C products and starts brushing and sponging it on with the expertise of a certified makeup artist.
“Do I really need, like, full make up to have breakfast with him?” I ask when she busts out the airbrushing tool.
“It is not for us speak of the sheikh’s preferences,” Raima answers, right before Nabida puts the photo finish on my Instagram-ready look.
Speaking of preferences, a full-on waxing table appears and I soon learn that like most guy’s I used to date, the sheikh prefers his ladies neatly trimmed to full baldy.
“You will please take this pill every morning,” Raima informs me, dropping a tiny pill into my hand along with a glass of water. “However, you are not to take the placebo pills. Only the hormone pills so that you may skip your woman’s time until you depart the palace.”
My eyebrows raise. Well, I guess that answers my question about whether or not Zahir expects me to sleep with him. I take the glass from Raima and down the pill, not because I’m actually planning to sleep with him, but because I don’t feel like arguing with her and no periods for the six months I have to spend in this foreign country doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Handing the now-empty glass back to Raima, I make my way to the walk-in closet with a slight pause to drop the robe in the hamper before stepping through the closet door…only to stop short.
The huge walk-in is completely empty. And I do mean empty. All the silver hangers are bare, and there isn’t a lick of clothing in the drawers. No bras, no underwear—not even a pair of shoes on the floor-to-ceiling shelves. Swear to God, the walk-in now looks like the display model for a luxury closet store.
“Um…Nabida? Raima?” I ask, wondering if my jet lag might not be finished with me.
There’s no answer.
I turn only to realize the two women are no longer behind me. They aren’t the only things missing. The laundry hamper has mysteriously disappeared, too. Along with my robe.
“Nabida? Raima?” I call out again, coming out of the closet which sits just off the bathroom. Where the hell are they?
“They have left,” a voice answers. A very familiar voice.
Zahir is seated in a chair at the same mosaic-motif table I’ve been using to study for the bar exam. But like the clothes, the hamper, and Nabida and Raima…my study materials have vanished. Along with the three chairs additional chairs at the table.
There is only Zahir, and he places both hands palm down on the table as he says, “Now, it is time for your training to begin.”