“Where is the princess?” Sheikh Altair ibn Tariq Al-Tahan didn’t like to ask questions more than once, and since this was the second time he’d asked, it took his mood from already annoyed directly to foul.
Not a good sign for anyone who valued their continued existence.
The black-robed Bedouin chief did not seem to realize this, studying Altair with expressionless dark eyes.
Around them were Altair’s royal guard, ready to step in should he command it, and a number of robed tribesmen who weren’t making any effort to hide their weapons. More than a few cradled rifles. They weren’t overtly hostile but neither were they particularly friendly.
“What princess?” Sayed’s voice, when he spoke at last, was as expressionless as his weathered face.
But Altair hadn’t spent all day in an SUV in the middle of the desert as they tried to locate Sayed’s camp, only to waste more time arguing with a disrespectful tribal chief. He had a princess to find and bring back to the capital immediately. Both the fragile peace of his country and his own position as ruling sheikh depended on it.
“Do not play that game with me,” he said coldly. “You know what princess I’m talking about. Safira bin Yvette al-Kashgari. The one you’ve been guarding for the past fifteen years.”
Sayed’s expression didn’t change. “I know nothing of such a girl.”
Long years of hard fighting had left Altair with an extremely short fuse on his patience when it came to obstacles standing in the way of something he wanted. With some men this meant exploding into rage. With Altair, who saw no point in such wasteful displays of emotional energy, it meant taking action quickly, coldly and cleanly.
These days he didn’t even need to bother with a command; his men knew him too well.
As one, his guard lifted their rifles.
At last the expression on Sayed’s face flickered.
“I realize you have been protecting her,” Altair said, his voice level. “And I realize this is a hard habit to break. But her mother put her into your care to keep her safe, until such a time as her country needed her. That time has come. I am here to bring her home and I will do so with or without your agreement.”
The desert chieftain shifted, glancing at his own tribesmen. They too had their rifles at the ready, but there were only a small number of them. They would be no match for the palace guards should it come to an out-and-out firefight.
Tension gathered. The Bedouin camp was silent, but for the bleating of the goats tethered by the oasis.
Altair didn’t move and neither did his men. He’d garnered a reputation for cold ruthlessness in the years following his taking of Al-Harah’s throne from the rebels, a reputation that was well deserved. And he would be ruthless now if the situation demanded it.
Being away from the capital with unrest still on the city streets had been a calculated risk, but the longer he stayed away, the riskier it became. The insurgents who disputed his claim to the throne wanted him off it, and their tactics would soon turn deadly if he wasn’t careful. Luckily he was always careful.
Al-Harah couldn’t afford another war. The peace he’d forged with a single-minded determination on par with any dictator was tenuous at best and could be broken at any time.
Finding Princess Safira was his last option.
Officially, she was dead along with the rest of the Kashgari family, killed in the palace bomb blast that had plunged Al-Harah into civil war. But unofficially? Well, he’d spent the last three months tracking down rumors that the princess, the last of the Kashgari line, wasn’t dead after all. That her mother, the Russian oligarch’s daughter Sheikh Amir had married, had sent Safira into the desert with allies of the sheikh, the night before the bomb blast. Rumors he now knew were true.
Safira was alive. And that made her hugely valuable.
For ten years he’d fought in the war that had nearly destroyed Al-Harah, finally ousting the rebels who had killed Sheikh Amir and his family. He’d then taken the throne in order to rebuild his once proud country. The past five years had been hard ones, trying to stamp out the last of the rebels, healing his people’s war wounds, getting the economy back on its feet. But he thought he’d gotten over the worst of it. Until a band of insurgents started calling for his blood, wanting to return the throne to its rightful owners. They’d proved to be both remarkably vocal and remarkably difficult to get rid of, and it was clear that his government was sympathetic to them. Loyalty to the Kashgari family, who’d ruled Al-Harah for generations, ran deep and for many it wasn’t enough that Altair’s own father had been the old sheikh’s closest advisor, Altair’s family Sheikh Amir’s staunchest supporters. Those people wanted the old blood to rule. They wanted a true Kashgari on the throne.
Unfortunately for them, that was something they could not have. Regardless of whether Princess Safira was alive or not, Altair was not giving his throne to anyone, still less an untried young woman brought up in the desert tribes. His work rebuilding his country and protecting it from further conflicts was unfinished. Which left him with only one option to both appease the loyalists and ensure peace.
First he had to find Safira. Then he would marry her.
Luckily he’d done one of those things already.
“What do you want her for?” Sayed asked after a long, tense silence. He didn’t give Altair any honorifics; the desert people in this part of the world didn’t bow to anyone, which would have been impressive if it hadn’t been so damn annoying.
The early afternoon sun was ferocious, beating down on Altair’s head, but he ignored it. He’d lived out in the desert before; it didn’t bother him.
“Her people need to know she’s alive,” he answered. “They need to see her restored to the throne.”
The older man’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re abdicating?”
“No, of course not.” Altair kept his tone cold. “She will be on the throne as my sheikha.”
“Ah.” Sayed gave him a knowing look. “So your claim is disputed.”
There was a world of satisfaction in his words, which Altair did not appreciate and in lesser men would have been punished. But he didn’t have time to punish Sayed now and, besides, alienating the desert tribes in such a way wouldn’t be prudent. His country had to stand together; the time for fighting was past.
“Al-Harah needs a strong hand. I am not giving it to an uneducated girl, no matter how loudly the insurgents shout.” Altair wasn’t accustomed to explaining himself, but now that Sayed had given him the truth about the princess, the old man deserved some kind of explanation. The chieftain had been protecting her for fifteen years after all. “But what Al-Harah also needs is peace. We’ve been fighting too long; the time now is to heal. Marrying her will legitimize my claim to the throne and give us that peace.” He let the words sit there for a moment, then he added, “Unless you want to plunge us all into another civil war?”
Sayed’s gaze narrowed. “You’re not the only one who knows she’s alive. Zakir has had people out this way asking after her, wanting her for himself.”
Altair cursed silently. He too had heard those rumors. Zakir ibn Rashiq Al-Nazari, the new sheikh of neighboring Al-Sakhra, was looking for an alliance to prevent his own country from sliding into ruin. That he had his sights set on Safira wasn’t a great surprise—the two countries had long been rivals and though Al-Harah had been through a terrible war, they were richer by far than Al-Sakhra. Zakir probably thought Safira was the key that would drag his country out of the dark ages.
Sadly for Zakir, Altair had found her first.
“I would think very carefully before you look to sell her to the highest bidder.” Altair allowed an icy, dangerous edge to creep into his voice. “She is your princess. Her place is here.”
The chief’s expression darkened. “You insult me, sheikh.”
The guards on either side of Altair tensed, but he raised a hand for calm. Sayed’s reaction had just told him more than anything else the man had said: she would be safe from Zakir; that much was certain.
“It was not my intention,” Altair said. “Your service to the Kashgari family has been noted and your protection of the girl will be rewarded. But the time for such protection is at an end. Now, do you wish to do this the easy way? Or the hard way?”
The chieftain stared at him in silence for a long minute. Then abruptly he jerked his chin in the direction of one of the tents. “She’s in there.”
Wasting no time on triumph, Altair looked the tribesman in the eye. “I won’t hurt her; you have my word.”
It was only then that a strange hint of a smile turned Sayed’s mouth. “That’s not what you should be worried about, sheikh. It’s the other way around that should concern you.”
The words made no sense, so Altair dismissed them, moving past the chieftain toward the tent the man had indicated.
The flap was open and he walked straight in, his guards at his heels.
As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, a couple of dirty-looking children ran past him, heading outside laughing. In one corner, lounging on cushions, were a teenage boy and one pre-pubescent girl. The girl, far too young to be his quarry, quickly got to her feet, lowering her eyes respectfully as she dashed out of the tent, perhaps in hot pursuit of the children.
That left the boy, sitting cross-legged on a cushion, delicately peeling an orange with what looked like a small machete. He was robed, a red-and-white keffiyeh wrapped around his head, and Altair didn’t miss the rifle slung casually over his narrow shoulders.
The boy didn’t look up, absorbed in finishing peeling his orange then pulling it apart into segments. He put one into his mouth, chewing for a moment, before finally leaning back and looking up at Altair.
“Your Highness,” Hamiz, his advisor, murmured from beside him.
But Altair already knew.
The impact of the boy’s bright turquoise eyes hit him like a punch to the gut. Because there was no mistaking that legendary color. Or the delicate line of the jaw. The straight dark brows, the full curve of the mouth.
And deep inside Altair a long-buried and long-forgotten emotion stirred. A familiar emotion. Guilt.
The boy was not a teenager after all.
The boy was not a boy.
“I suppose,” she said in a soft, husky voice, “that you are here to bring me back to the palace.”
Altair crushed the stirring guilt flat. He would not feel it, he would not let it take hold. That was the past and he could not think of the past when the future—she—was sitting right here in front of him.
“Yes.” He met her intense, blue gaze. “It is time you came home, princess.”
She stared thoughtfully at him for a moment as she chewed and swallowed the segment of orange, the expression in her eyes unreadable. Then abruptly she raised the machete and brought it down into the center of the wooden table in front of her with a hard thunk. The weapon vibrated there for a second.
She sat back. “No,” she said.
End of Excerpt