Kingdom of Bharym, Arabia, June 1815
Dawn was gently breaking as Rafiq al-Antarah, Prince of Bharym, trudged wearily out of his stables after another tense, all-night vigil. The outcome had been tragically predictable, the loss of another of his prized Arabian thoroughbreds to this mysterious new sickness. Inas on this occasion, a beautiful chestnut mare, her suffering brought mercifully to an end when it became obvious that there could only be one outcome. Eight of his priceless breeding stock lost in just six months, and the only mare to have contracted and survived the seemingly random infection left utterly debilitated. Would there be no end to this torment?
Leaning against the wooden picket fence which bordered the empty paddock, Rafiq surrendered momentarily to the fomenting mixture of grief, rage and frustration which consumed him. It was enough to bring the strongest of men to their knees, enough to make even the most stoic weep. But a prince could not countenance displaying human weakness. Instead, he clenched his fists, threw back his head and roared impotently at the fading stars. His beautiful animals were innocent victims, punished for his crime. His and his alone. He was certain of it. In this darkest hour which was neither night nor morning, when he felt himself the only man alive in this vast desert region, he had no doubt at all. The fates had visited this plague upon him in retribution, making a mockery of the public pledge he had made to his people, the private vow he had made to himself. Reparation, in the form of restored national pride and a salved personal conscience, were both in danger of slipping from his grasp.
He had to find a cure. If nature continued to wreak her havoc unrestrained, it would destroy everything he had worked so tirelessly to achieve. He and Jasim had come to recognise the tell-tale symptoms, but even his illustrious Master of the Horse, whose claim to be the foremost trainer of Arabians in all of the East was undisputed, even he had been powerless.
Turning his back on the paddock, Rafiq rubbed his eyes, which were gritty with exhaustion. When he had inherited the kingdom from his father, the stable complex had been quite derelict, Bharym’s legendary Arabian horses, whose blood lines could be traced back through ancient scrolls and word of mouth to the purest of antecedents, long gone, lost in the course of one fateful day. A day that destroyed his father personally and sullied the honour of the entire al-Antarah royal family. A day that his people believed to be the blackest in their kingdom’s long and proud history. A day of humiliation that dealt a fatal blow to their sense of national pride and his own. The day that the Sabr was lost.
Rafiq had been sixteen, on the cusp of manhood, as he stood amidst the smoking wooden embers that were all that was remained of Bharym’s stud farm. He had sworn then that when he eventually came to power, he would make good the loss. For six more years, he had been forced to witness his father’s slow but terminal decline, and the resultant decline of his kingdom’s fortunes.
Eight years ago, just days after his twenty-second birthday, he had inherited the throne and a kingdom that seemed to have lost its way and its sense of identity. He had promised then to make Bharym a better place, a richer place, a kingdom fit for the new century, but his changes, improvements, renovations, were met with apathy. Nothing mattered save the restoration of the Sabr, the tangible symbol of Bharym’s pride and honour. Until the Sabr was won, his people would not fully embrace the bright future he wished for them. Until the Sabr was won, it seemed that Bharym had no future worthy of mention.
And so it came to pass that, that five years ago, he made a solemn vow to deliver the one thing his people longed for above all else. He had been certain that his honourable intentions more than compensated for the cold bargain he had struck in order to deliver on that promise. Only later, when the true, tragic price had become clear had Rafiq’s resolve faltered. To continue on a path that had extracted such a terrible cost went against every tortured instinct in his being. But as darkness segued into a grey, gloomy morning on that tragic day, he knew he had no choice but to carry on. The return of the Sabr was not irrelevant in the face of such loss, it was doubly important. To give up would make the tragedy utterly futile.
A soft whinny carried on the breeze through an open window. Above him, the sky was turning from grey to the milky-white shade which heralded sunrise and a new day. Rafiq drew himself upright. He would not concede defeat now, or ever. He was Prince of Bharym, ruler of all he surveyed, one of the most powerful men in Arabia, and not yet entirely helpless. There was still time to hear word from the renowned English expert to whom he had turned in desperation – more in hope than expectation, if truth be told. Perhaps even now Richard Darvill was on his way, the royal travel warrant which Rafiq had enclosed with his letter helping to speed him towards Arabia. Even Jasim, fiercely resistant to any outside interference in what he considered his personal fiefdom, grudgingly conceded the English horse doctor’s reputation was unimpeachable, his fame well-earned.
It was reputed the man could work miracles, bring horses back almost from the dead. Rafiq certainly needed nothing short of a miracle now. These stables, the thoroughbred racehorses within, had to be protected at all costs. He owed it to his people to be the prince they believed him to be. He owed it to his father’s memory to repair his reputation. Most importantly of all, Rafiq owed it to himself to honour the debt he had incurred. He had carried the burden of his guilt for so long, he would not permit the fates to extend his punishment any longer. His atonement would be made. He could not alter the past but he would ensure something positive emerged from the darkest chapter in his life. It could never be enough, but it was all he could do.
Two Weeks Later
The end of Stephanie’s long journey was finally in sight. The dhow in which she had sailed the length of the Red Sea from Egypt docked at the closest port to her land-locked destination just as dawn was breaking. On the quayside, a tall, austere-looking man scrutinised her papers before beckoning her to follow him.
A small train of camels awaited them at the end of the quay. Stephanie’s cumbersome baggage was secured on the accompanying mules while she was assisted into the saddle of a camel with brusque efficiency. The official then took the reins, indicating by means of hand gestures that he would lead her mount. His inscrutable expression faltered only when she spoke to him in his own tongue, informing him that she understood him perfectly well and was grateful for his assistance. But if Stephanie imagined that her command of his language would encourage the man’s demeanour to soften, she was mistaken. The official responded to her overture with a formal bow before turning his attention back to the four men who accompanied them. His short, sharp instructions were immediately and efficiently obeyed. Within half an hour of setting foot on land, Stephanie was once again aboard a ship. Only this time, it was a ship of the desert.
They traversed the bustling port, a chaotic melee of people, camels, mules and goats. Wagons piled high with goods fought for space on the stone jetties. A cacophony of bleating and braying and shouting filled the air, the clatter of hooves and wheels on the rough-hewn roads competing with the cries of the drivers and riders, the sailors and dock-hands, and the excited knots of children who followed anything and everything, for no other reason, it seemed to Stephanie, than for the simple joy of adding to the noise and the crush.
As they left the coast the sea breeze quickly died and the briny air gave way to a burning heat. The sun rose and the wide road which led them inland narrowed to a rocky track which opened up onto an expanse of true desert, as the air around her grew hotter and drier. Her face protected from the worst of it by her wide-brimmed hat, Stephanie nevertheless began to feel as if she were sitting inside a huge kiln. Occasional gusts of wind blasted red hot sand onto her face like the fiery breath of a lion. The light cotton jacket and blouse she wore felt like it was made of thick pelts of bearskin. Perspiration trickled down her spine, pooling in the small of her back where her wide belt cinched her waist. Her undergarments and stockings clung unpleasantly to her damp skin. Her eyes, her mouth and her nose were gritty with sand and dust. Inside her long riding boots, her feet throbbed.
Sometime around noon, when the sun had reached its zenith, her guide informed her that they had crossed the border into the kingdom of Bharym. Here, they made the latest in a series of stops for refreshments, just at the point where she thought she might die of thirst. She, who had refused to wilt under the blazing heat of the Spanish Almeria in the height of summer, was struggling not to drink the entire contents of her goatskin water flask down in one gulp. This furnace-like heat, this desert terrain, should not be alien to her. It was in her blood, for goodness sake, she had reminded herself at the second stop, trying in vain to mimic the measured sips taken by her escorts. But the heat in Alexandria and Cairo had not prepared her for this. She shook her flask, aghast to find it almost empty already. When the silent but obviously observant official handed her another, she was too grateful to be embarrassed.
As the day wore on and the rolling gait of the camel took its toll on her stomach and her head, Stephanie ceased to care what he thought of her. All she wanted was for the journey to be over, for then she could clamber down from this animated fairground ride and out of the blazing sun. Yet on they travelled.
Finally, the imposing walls of a city reared up, nestled snugly in the foothills of a range of flat-topped mountains. Constructed of red stone decorated with paler swirls which reminded Stephanie of an elaborate cake, and surmounted by wide ornate battlements, the parapets were triangular in shape rather than the more traditional rectangular design. Like ravening teeth, she thought with a shudder.
The city gate was an enormous, soaring stone arch with a fortress-like tower set on either side, two impassive sentries. Though every other camel and mule and cart on the road passed through it and into the city, Stephanie’s caravan continued onward, following the contour of the city walls before beginning to climb the wide, clearly-marked route which led upwards, and her final destination came into view.
The edifice which could only be the royal palace stood on the plateau of a hill overlooking the city below, enclosed entirely behind a set of soaring square walls. Tiny rectangular windows were inset at regular intervals on the lower level and seemed to monitor her approach, making Stephanie feel distinctly uncomfortable. The excitement which had gripped her since this undertaking had first been proposed gave way to acute apprehension. She was not expected here. Would she be welcome? Behind those shadowed windows, many pairs of eyes might be watching her arrival. Her presence must inevitably be giving rise to speculation.
The shame which had been her constant companion for the last year crept stealthily up on her. She caught herself as, instinctively, she bowed her head. She had travelled half-way across the world in order to leave it behind. Here in far-flung Arabia, whatever else may become of her, she would not be publicly branded a scarlet woman, a harlot.
Stephanie sat up straight in the saddle and turned her attention back to the present. Much larger arched windows were set higher into the walls of the palace, which replicated the design of the city walls. A decorative band was cut into both the walls and battlements, formed from what looked like dazzlingly white stone. Alabaster? The fang-like battlements took on an air of menace as she drew nearer, the many hooves of the caravan resounding over the piazza, where the marble floor was veined with something that glimmered like gold, but couldn’t possibly be. Well-travelled as she was, she had seen nothing to compare with this palace. It was intimidating, stark, yet utterly exotic and magically beautiful.
As the double doors swung open her stomach knotted with nerves, making her forget her travel-weariness and discomfort. The prince who lived behind these walls must be wealthy beyond her comprehension. Of the man himself, she knew only what she had gleaned from those who considered themselves experts in such matters, that the prince bred and sold his thoroughbreds only to a privileged and chosen few, personally vetted by him. To own one of Bharym’s Arabians was fast becoming an honour which no amount of gold could buy. Clever and cunning prince, she had thought cynically. Men, especially rich and privileged men, always wanted what they were told they could not have, be it horse or woman. Was she not living proof of that? And proof too, that once obtained, the object of desire quickly lost its lustre.
No more, Stephanie reminded herself sternly! There would be no more looking over her shoulder. She had had a year, time enough to come to terms with her shame and her guilt, to curse the lack of judgement which had led to her downfall. She had paid a high price for her sin, and inflicted a great deal of pain on the two people in the world she loved most. Now it was time to make amends by taking control of her own life, mitigating the effects of her foolishness by putting the past firmly behind her.
If, that is, the prince accepted her proposition. Stephanie shuddered, reminding herself that the prince knew nothing of her disgrace, nor need he. The parting words of encouragement spoken to her rang in her ears, reinforcing her determination to live up to those expectations and by doing so repair some of the heartache she had caused. She was here now. It was up to her to grasp the opportunity and make of it what she could.
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