Lash’aal, Arabia, 1816
“The tribal delegation has arrived, Highness.”
Sheikh Khalid al-Raqam, Prince of Lash’aal, continued to study the sketch of the shrine recently discovered on the site of the lost city of Persimmanion. The ruined temple fascinated him, for it pre-dated the rest of the city by many centuries. Perhaps it was the reason for the city’s existence in the first place? Khalid picked up the latest artefact to be uncovered, a little gold idol in the shape of a female goddess, most unusual for this region of Arabia. He smiled to himself. The more superstitious of his subjects, including Farid, his man of business, now waiting deferentially for instructions, would think it some sort of portent, but Khalid was above such childish notions. He was fascinated by the past, not haunted by it.
He rolled the tiny antiquity in the palm of his hand. Persimmanion was proving rich in such finds. It was vital they kept its existence quiet, lest the European vultures get wind of it and attempt to loot Lash’aal’s precious heritage, as they’d already done in Egypt. Khalid’s hand tightened on the golden goddess. He would not permit such desecration on his sovereign territory .
“What do they want, this delegation?” he asked Farid irritably.
“An audience, Highness. They have travelled five days across the desert to pay the debt of honour owed for your assistance in settling the border dispute. You would not wish to cause offence by keeping them waiting too long.”
Khalid sighed and carefully rolled up the drawing. “Very well, I’ll see them now.”
Farid bowed. “You will receive them in state, Highness?”
It was phrased as a question, but Khalid knew better. He sighed again. “If I must. As always, Farid, I rely on your counsel when it comes to matters of protocol.” Three years into his reign, Khalid still found many of Lash’aal’s customs, the pomp and ceremony in particular, irksome. But the peace which he had fought hard to bring about within his kingdom was still fragile, and with so many different tribes ready to rise against each other at the slightest provocation, it was vital that his status as the ultimate source of power, justice and, if need be, retribution, was publicly re-enforced.
It was a heavy responsibility and it exacted its own price, isolating Khalid as it did, from other mere mortals. His duty was to be infallible, invincible, all-powerful. Though he was now thirty-two years old, more than past the age for thinking about siring an heir, choosing a bride for him from one of the many factions which made up his kingdom without offending the others had so far defeated even Farid’s legendary powers of diplomacy. Since Khalid himself was largely indifferent to the choice, based as it must be on the needs of Lash’aal rather than any more personal desires, he had been content to remain unwed. The burdens of state were better borne alone – or so he told himself as he donned his heavy formal robes in his private chambers.
The midnight blue silk tunic with its heavy edging, designed to weight down the long, full sleeves, had a high neck braided with the same passementerie, made from thread twined with silver and pearls. The belt which he fastened around his waist was embossed silver, decorated with turquoise and sapphire. Into it was thrust the ceremonial state scimitar, also made of silver, and on to his finger went the ring of state, the legendary Lash’aal sapphire set in white gold. The cloak which was draped around Khalid’s tall muscular frame was also midnight blue, also weighted with precious and semi-precious jewels, as was his head dress with more silver thread in the igal which held it securely in place. By the time he had finished dressing, Khalid felt as if he were literally bearing the weight of his kingdom on his shoulders.
The magnificent throne room of the royal palace of Lash’aal was eighty paces long, the bright light flooding in the oriole windows reflecting endlessly off the walls, which were tiled with mirrored glass. Khalid took his place on the throne which was positioned on a dais at the head of the room as Farid barked an order and the double doors were flung open. A motley crew of tribesmen shuffled nervously in, bearing a large bundle between them. It looked like a carpet, and judging from the ragged ties at each end, and the dusty condition of it, not a particularly fine example either. Khalid raised one eyebrow questioningly.
One of the tribesmen stepped forward, bowing repeatedly. “Highness, we come to pay homage and bid you accept this most unworthy gift from your eternally grateful subjects.”
“I am delighted to accept,” Khalid said with a nod, “but I cannot disagree with your description of the quality of your offering.”
The tribesman looked momentarily baffled before breaking into a broad grin, revealing a set of yellow, mismatched teeth which a camel would be proud to own. “The carpet? No Highness, that is but the wrapping. The real treasure lies within.” He clapped his hands loudly and the other tribesmen unrolled the carpet onto the floor with a flourish.
The voice was indignant, foreign, and most definitely female. The owner, her dirty, tattered clothes revealing a surprisingly shapely form, with long hair black as night and eyes as stormy as a winter sea, struggled with her bonds and raised herself to her knees to glare at him insolently.
Juliette de Montignac’s eyes stung as they adjusted to the blaze of reflected sunlight after the oppressive darkness of the carpet in which she had been confined. She was in some sort of enormous, formal room. Her eyes focused on the man standing before her. A tall man. His feet were clad in jewelled slippers. A very rich man, judging by the fine clothes he wore, and a very well-formed one too. Beneath the thin silk of his tunic, she could see that his body was toned. Muscled, even. The ornate belt with its vicious-looking scimitar was fastened to a slim waist, unusual in a land where girth was perceived to be evidence of wealth. She raised her eyes further, past the solid wall of his chest, his broad shoulders, to meet his eyes. Startlingly blue eyes, deep set, with fine lines fanning out at the corners. A face more striking than classically handsome, with sharply defined cheekbones. A tiny cleft in his chin. A thin scar slicing through one eyebrow. A memorable face.
Formidable was the word which leapt into her mind. A shiver of something akin to fear shook Juliette, taking her by surprise. A lifetime spent with her father on archaeological digs, living rough in tents and mixing with every sort of scoundrel had, she thought, inured her to such girlish emotions, but this man was somehow different. Not a man to make an enemy of.
Looking covertly around at her ornate surroundings, the gold throne upon the dais, and back to the autocratic man before her, Juliette realised she was being offered by her captors as some sort of gift. Garnering all her courage, determined that he should not see even a glimmer of her trepidation, she met, full-on, the gaze of the man scrutinising her. “Je m’appelle Juliette de Montignac,” she said, her voice emerging with reassuring authority from her parched throat.