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They called themselves Al Asheera. The Tribe. Revolutionaries with crimson veils that masked all but the bloodlust in the deepest black of their eyes.
Like desert locusts, they poured from the darkness, swarmed over the palace walls. Consuming. Destroying.
Some carried the poisoned spears and the tapered broadswords of their ancestors, while othersthe youthsheld the submachine guns and grenades of their allies.
But all were intent on one objective: to kill the Royal Family of Taer.
Quamar Bazan Al Asadi pressed his fingers to his eyes, while a litany of screams pierced the darkness around him. Their mounting pitch taunted him with their unrelenting rhythm. They were the cries of the scarcely livingsouls lost somewhere between terror and death.
He thought of the servants, the guards. His cousin, King Jarek, and Jarek's wife, Saree. Their baby son, Rashid.
Rage rose in his throat, forcing Quamar to draw short, bitter breaths through his mouth. The wind had stopped. Its strength boggedfirst by the familiar stench of blood and battle, and now by the sweeter scent of hashish and cremated bodies.
A handful of Al Asheera soldiers swaggered around the palace grounds in small groups, confident in their success. Some patrolled, others stood watch from the palace's silk-draped windows while most celebrated in a drug-induced euphoria.
Quamar moved, half-crouched, to a nearby abandoned jeep. From his position, he observed the courtyard. Bodies littered the ground, strewn about like blood-spattered rag dolls among the marble statues and mosaic-tiled fountains.
His gaze stopped on a dead Al Asheerasoldier, who lay slumped in the jeep's passenger seat, his crimson scarf torn from his face. Quamar noted the acne that spotted his cheeks and the soft, youthful jawline that hadn't yet touched the sharp edge of a man's razor.
A boy. One who wasn't a day older than fifteen, Quamar realized. His gaze rested on the knife tucked in the boy's belt, the sword propped under his hand. Shaving wasn't a prerequisite when it came to butchery.
The Al Asheera recruited the young. Not surprising, considering the promise of riches and rewards appealed mostly to those born poor and who hadn't suffered the horrors of war.
Frustration filled him, fed his anger. Only cowards made war against women and recruited children to kill. For that atrocity alone, Al Asheera would pay.
A dull throb started at his right temple, but Quamar ignored it. Instead, he shifted deeper into the shelter of the darkness, monitoring his surroundings. He was a big man, wide in the shoulders, with the broad, hard-boned features of the Arabic, the muscle and meat of the Italian.
carved from its wind, sand and heat. He was a soldier by fate, not choicea man hardened but not cruel, dangerous but not treacherous. His beliefs were his ownthis by his choicedeeprooted in faith, tradition
And justice, Quamar thought with grim satisfaction.
More than half of the palace guards had secretly joined the Al Asheera ranks. Traitors who attacked from inside, catching those loyal to King Jarek unaware. Several had died for their betrayal, but not near enough for Quamar's liking.
A stretch of ground lay between the courtyard's rear entrance and the palace itself. A few hundred feet. Half a football field.
In the middle lay a cluster of olive trees. Just beyond, fires burned in horrific pillars, their greedy flames fed by the dead.
It was a contemptible testament fromAlAsheera. Muslim law forbade cremationconsidered it abhorrentand in doing so, Al Asheera denied the people of Taer their rightful place with Allah.
In the distance, curses mingled with loud bursts of laughter. Quamar leaned forward, his gaze shifting until a circle of Al Asheera soldiers, six in all, crossed his line of sight.
At their feet lay an older man, his worn, leathered features barely distinguishable under the blood that coated his dark skin.
A servant? A soldier?
The Al Asheera bound the man's hands and stripped him down to a pair of mud-stained linen pants. Even from a distance, Quamar saw his arms were thick. Yet, where once there was strength and sinew, the muscle now slackened with old age. But it wasn't until they ripped off his turban that he saw the shock of gray hair, the deep-set brow.
In the flickering light, the Al Asheera soldiers dragged the old man, Jarek's Captain of the Guard, into the middle of the courtyard, then shoved him against an aged, gnarled olive tree.
Quamar edged closer, shifting toward the jeep's front tire, careful to hide from the glow of a nearby fire.
A rebel tied the rope to Arimand's secured wrists, then threw the loose end around a branch overhead. Within moments, they hoisted the guard off the ground and left him suspended mid-air with his arms stretched above, his shoulder sockets straining under his weight.
The smoke blended with the night, making the air thick and murky. For a few moments the Al Asheera poked and prodded Arimand with hot sticks and knives. But soon they tired of their game and drifted to the nearest fire for warmth.
Quamar flexed his fingers, felt the reassuring rush of blood to his hands. One against twenty was never good odds. But with every passing moment, the rebels'hashish slowed their reflexes, dulled their thoughts.
If the number equaled fifty, it would not matter. First and foremost a soldier, Quamar had come to terms with death long before.
He grabbed the boy's turban and scarf. His home had been assaulted. His family decimated. And because of this, he waged his own personal war. Quickly, he secured the material over his head, then around his face.
A war that took no prisoners.
ANNA CAMBRIDGE STAGGERED through the underground channel. Cobwebs snared her hair, covered her face. She shoved them away. The first two or three had frightened heralong with the rats that scurried and screeched. But no more.
How long had it been since she'd escaped through the passageway? An hour? Maybe two. It seemed a lifetime.
Her steps were slow, cautious by necessity, not preference. Mud oozed between her heels and her slippers while the coarse sand clung to her pajamas, saturating both her tank top and bottoms. The cottonuseless against the cold edge of the tunnel's draftadhered to her skin like a moist, sticky cocoon.
Her only warmth came from the baby snuggled low in a sling against her belly. Prince Rashid Al Asadi.
There had been no time to change clothes. No time to prepare. Al Asheera had laid siege too quickly.
Using her hand, she guided herself through the pitch-black, sliding her palm over the wall's damp, jagged grooves, which cut and tore at her fingers.
The carrier acted more as a small hammock al looped around one shoulder, then down Anna's back to her waist, allowing the baby to hang semi
Her free hand tightened protectively over the wide strip of woven linen. The baby lay quiet in his sling. There had been no whimper, no movement for over two hours. Alma, his nanny, had warned her he'd possibly go six. Anna frowned. He'd been drugged for his own protection and hers, long before Alma had found her. Still, Anna slipped her hand between, felt the soft beat of his heart beneath her fingers.
"Not much longer, little man," she murmured, knowing the words were more of a hope than a pledge. Alma's instructions had been desperate but insistent. Hide the baby until his father, King Jarek, or Anna's father somehow rescued them.
Then Alma had shoved a knife into her hand. "Protect His Highness," she had whispered, and was gone.
No problem, Anna thought derisively. All she needed to do was find her way out of this underground maze, slip past the soldiers, over the wall, then through the Al Asheera-occupied city.
The scent of stale earth and decayed rodent slapped at her, enough to make bile rise in her throat. Her heart pounded in fear. Another dead end?
She continued along the passageway, cursing herself and the darkness. She'd made so many missteps alreadywrong turns, impasses. Still, she couldn't turn back until she was sure.
A little boyonly months under ten, blond and slightly builtflashed across her mind. Her brother, Bobby, with his blue eyes wide with trust, his face pale with fear.
"I love you, Anna," he whispered against her ear, tears he'd bravely held back getting the best of him, dropping his voice to a hoarse whisper.
"Don't go. Don't leave me." Anna pushed the memories away. But the echoes of his voice remained, riding a familiar wave of anxiety that rolled deeply within her.
She had left him. And her brother had died. Cautiously, she shifted her foot forward, searching for the dead end with her toes. Anna stopped, steadying herself. The air had turned, sending a faint breeze skittering across her ankles.
A mistmore fog than lightcrept across her path.
Blinking hard, she forced her eyes to adjust in the semidarkness, then used the soft haze to guide her.
At the base of the stone, no more than two feet square, lay a vent, its opening blocked by a wrought-iron grate.
Anna braced her back against the wall and slid downward, ignoring the burn of the sandstone against her bare shoulders. "Don't worry, Rashid, we're going to make it." Or die trying, Anna added silently. She looked down at the baby, using his warmth to ease the knots in her stomach.
With a free hand, she tugged on the grate. "Looks like they sealed it with cement," she murmured. After sitting back on her calves, she nestled the baby across her thighs. "I'm going to need both hands, handsome, so we're going to have to make you comfortable."
Outside, bushes flanked the vent, but nothing blocked the hole itself. Anna exhaled, not realizing until then that she'd held her breath.
She pulled Alma's knife from her back waistband, noting how the cold steel felt foreign beneath her fingertips.
"Here we go." After stretching across Rashid, Anna set her shoulders and began to scrape between cement and iron. Her movements were awkward and slow as she tried to keep the baby protected from bits of flying mortar. "If we're lucky, this stuff has been decaying for a hundred years." She dragged the knife around the four edges, applying pressure until her arms shook, her muscles ached.
As the daughter of the United States president, Anna had been around politics her whole life. At twenty-seven, she understood that greed undermined the rebels' strike on the royal family. Al Asheera would fail. She had to believe that.
But not before hundreds more died.
At every pass, she dug the blade farther in, scraping and jabbing, trying to separate the grate from cement. The wind picked up, drying the film of perspiration into a tight mask, making her skin itch.
A chunk of cement fell from the top of the grate. With a small cry, she dropped the knife, wedged her fingers between the metal and wall, uncaring when her nails broke. She tugged at the metal until, noiselessly, the grate fell into her hands.
Trembling, she tossed the grate to the side. "Okay, sweetie, time to run."