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There was no reason why a scorpion shouldn't be lying dead on the groundbut not when Eleni had only just swept the yard. She stared down at its curved black shape and a certainty which defied logic whispered its way in a cold chill over her skin. It was an omen, surely. An evil portentcoming moments before her father's mysterious guest arrived. She swallowed. For wasn't desert legend full of signs as ominous as this?
Her father's shout echoed through the hot, still air and Eleni tensed as she tried to work out what kind of mood he was in. At least the tone was steady, which meant that he was sober, but it was impatient, too and her heart sank for that could mean only one thing. That he was eager to begin his game of cardsand that his fellow players were growing impatient. Loud, laughing men who were stupid enough to gamble away everything they had worked for.
'Eleni!' The voice had now become a roar. 'Where in the desert's name are you?'
'I am here, Papa!' she said, quickly kicking the scorpion to a dusty grave in a small pile of sand outside the stables and then hurrying towards the house, where Gamal Lakis stood waiting in the doorway. His wizened and sunburnt face was sour as he looked her up and down.
'What are you doing that keeps you away from the house and your duties?' he criticised.
It was pointless telling him that she had just come from the stables, where she had been speaking softly to his beloved horses. And that such constant care and vigilance kept them in prized and peak condition making Gamal Lakis one of the most envied men in this desert kingdom. She knew from experience that there was no explanation thatwould ever satisfy this most discontented of men.
'I'm sorry, Papa,' she said automatically, lowering her gaze to the ground before looking up once more to flash him a reassuring smile. 'I will come and bring refreshment to your guests immediately.'
'No, no. We cannot yet drink, nor eat the food which has been prepared,' said her father unexpectedly. 'For we await the arrival of our guest of honour.' His faded eyes glinted and he gave a rare and crafty smile. 'And do you know who this guest is, Eleni?'
She shook her head. The visit had been shrouded in mystery for days now, but Eleni knew that it was not her place to ask. Women were told when men deemed that the time was right and not before, especially in households like theirs. 'No, Papa, I do not know.'
'No less than one of the most important men in the whole of Calista!' he boasted. 'I wonder if you would like to make a guess just who that might be?'
Eleni took her cue, asking him the question he clearly wished to be asked, though his wild extravagance was now making her wonder whether her father was quite as sober as she had first thought.
'Won't you tell me who he is, Papaso that I may wait on him with due deference when he arrives at our home?'
Gamal's thin lips gave another wet and triumphant smile, pausing like a man who held the trump card in a high-bidding game. 'What would you say, my daughter if I told you that a royal prince was coming to the home of your father?'
She would say that he had been drinking, after all. But never to his face, of course. If Papa was having one of his frequent flights of fancy then it was always best to play along with it.
Eleni kept her face poker-straight. 'A royal prince, Papa?' she questioned gravely.
'Yes, indeed!' He pushed his face forward. 'The Prince Kaliq Al'Farisi,' he crowed, 'is coming to my house to play cards with me!'
Her father had gone insane! These were ideas of grandeur run riot! And what was Eleni to do? What if he continued to make such idle boasts in front of the men who were sitting, waiting to begin the long night of card-playing? Surely that would make him a laughing stock and ruin what little reputation he had left.
'Papa,' she whispered urgently. 'I beg you to think clearly. What place would a royal prince have here?'
But she was destined never to hear a reply, even though his mouth had opened like a puppetfor there came the sound of distant hooves. The steady, powerful thud of horses as they thundered over the parched sands. On the still, thick air the muffled beat grew closer and louder until it filled Eleni's ears like the sound of the desert wolves which howled at the silver moon when it was at its fullest.
Towards them galloped a clutch of four horses, and as Eleni watched, one of them broke free and surged forwards like a black stream of oil gushing out of the arid sand. For a moment, she stood there, transfixed for this was as beautiful and as reckless a piece of riding as she had ever witnessed.
Illuminated by the orange gold of the dying sun, a colossus of a man could be seen, with an ebony stallion between his thighs as he urged it on with a joyful shout. The man's bare head was as dark as the horse he rode and his skin gleamed like some bright and burnished metal. Robes of pure silk clung to the hard sinews of his body and as he approached Eleni could see a face so forbidding that some deep-rooted fear made her wonder if he had the power to turn to dust all those who stood before him.
And a face so inherently beautiful that it was as if all the desert flowers had bloomed at once.
It was then that Eleni understood the full and daunting truth. Her father's bragging hadbeen true for riding towards their humble abode was indeed Prince Kaliq Al'Farisi. Kaliq the daredevil, the lover of women, the playboy, the gambler and irresponsible twin son of Prince Ashraf. The man, it was said, could make women moan with pleasure simply by looking at them.
She had not seen him since she was a young girl in the crowds watching the royal family pass by. Back then, he had been doing his military service and wearing the uniform of the Calistan Navy. And back then he had been an arresting young manbarely in his twenties. But nowa decade and a half onhe was at the most magnificent peak of his manhood, with a raw and beautiful masculinity which seemed to shimmer from his muscular frame.
'By the wolves that howl!' Eleni whimpered, and ran inside the house.
'Highness!' simpered Gamal, and as the Prince's horse entered the battered gates he bent as low as his creaking bones would allow.
Kaliq dismounted with the same speed and grace as he would remove himself from the body of a woman he had just made love to. Jumping to the ground, his riding boots dusty beneath the fine, flowing robes which denoted his high status, he glanced around him, making no attempt to hide the faint curve of his lips as he took in his surroundings.
It was as he had thoughta hovel of a place! Lowly and roughbut a place which promised him something which he hungered for. Indeed, his heart's delight. His gaze flickered over the stable door before returning to the grovelling figure before him.
'Get up, Lakis,' he ordered.
Gamal obeyed, rubbing at his back and wincing slightly. 'May I say how honoured am I to have the most venerable prince partake of my'
'Cut the smarm,' snapped Kaliq, with the arrogance he had learned at one of the many international schools he had attended. An arrogance which had been necessary to protect him from the greed and ambition of those who craved royal patronage. His eyes glittered as he tempered his curt reply with the silken charm which his sister Yasmine complained could lure the birds from the trees.
'I have not come for your craven admiration, Lakis,' he admonished softly. 'But to play cards with a man and this I have on good authoritya man who is unbeatable at cards. Are you that man, I wonder?'
Gamal smirked and puffed up his chest. 'It has been said, Highness.'
Kaliq drummed an impatient finger on his riding crop. Was the fool not aware that a commoner should never boast of superiority to a royal prince? Idly, he tossed the crop to one of his bodyguards, who was only now just climbing down from his horse and looking a little shamefaced.
'We shall see how unbeatable you are,' Kaliq said carelessly. 'And I am in the mood for good sport tonightbut first I wish to drink. Do you have nothing to offer to quench the parched throats of these travellers, Lakisfor we have ridden long and ridden hard across the desert from our royal palaces?'
'Oh, forgive me, Highness, forgive me,' stumbled Gamal. 'You will please enter my humble abode and anything you desire shall be brought to you.'
The smoke-filled salon was lit by oil-lamps with a bright, spotlight glare over the poker table and Kaliq dipped his head as he entered the room, noting that one of his bodyguards had slipped in before him. The faint scent of incense mingled with the smell of tobacco and the deep voices grew silent as the assembled men sprang instantly to their feet.
Kaliq's smile was wolfish as he waved at them to resume their seats. For wasn't the number one rule of defeating the opposition to first give them a false sense of security? 'No, no. Tonight you do not stand on ceremony; tonight we are as equals,' he instructed softly. 'For the cards cannot be played properly if one insists on hierarchy. Tonight I am not a prince of your land I am simply a man, just like you, Lakis.'
Standing just outside the door and summoning up the courage to enter the room, Eleni wondered if her father knew what he was up against. Because as she listened to the prince's drawled statement, it somehow didn't ring quite true. As if this powerful prince would ever desire that these ruffians should be his equal!
She was just about to call, 'Yes, Papa,' when she heard his next words.
'My servant girl will bring us food and drink! Eleni come now!'
In spite of her nerves, Eleni almost smiled. How wily her father was. Not only was he elevating his status in front of the prince by bringing in an extra, female servantbut by using his daughter he would guarantee absolute discretion. As well as not having to pay her anything!
Sucking in a deep breath, Eleni entered the room, keeping her eyes down and resisting the terrible overwhelming instinct which made her long to look at the prince again, which wasn't easy since servants were never permitted eye-contact with a member of the ruling family of Calista. She knew too that protocol demanded she make a deep curtseynot something she was used to doing.
'Your Highness,' she said softly, and, bending one knee behind the other, she made a sweeping kind of bowglad that all her years of riding had given her a certain grace. 'What does my master request that I should bring to his honoured guest?' she added quietly.
Kaliq glanced over at her, his antennae automatically alerted by the sound of a woman's voice. It was soft and soothing, he thoughtlike cool, running water running through this oppressive and stuffy room. And it was curiously fluent for a servant. His eyes narrowed, but he could not see whether she was plain or beautiful.
Her head was covered with a veil and the clothes she wore were drab and concealingand while they were entirely appropriate for a woman of her class and status, he would have preferred to feast his eyes on something attractive. Some buxom young thing with her breasts half spilling out, who would pleasure him with the yearning in her eyes!
'A drink,' he ordered curtly, forcing his thoughts away from the subject because he was here tonight to play cardsnot to lose himself in the delights of a woman.
'You will drink some Zelyoniy with us?' questioned Gamal hopefully.
Kaliq suppressed a shudder. As if he could bring himself to drink Zelyoniy ! The potent green spirit made from cactus plants was banned in most of the country, though he knew that its use was still widespread in the rougher regions. But might it not assist his game if his partners were partial to hard liqueur? 'Not for me,' he answered silkily. 'But the rest of you must drink what pleases you. Bring me pomegranate juice instead,' he told the servant girl.
'At once, Highness,' said Eleni, and hurried off.
Kaliq leaned back in his chair as the dealer opened the new pack of cards and a familiar excitement began to steal over his skin. He wanted to win, yes, because he loved winningbut more important than victory was the risk involved. He shouldn't really be here, associating with these low-life racehorse breeders and trainers but that, of course, only added to the evening's appeal. The sense of the unknown, the forbidden and the elicit.
Because sometimes Kaliq grew bored with his privileged lifea life which took him to cities all over the Western world. Cities where he could slip easily into the role of the playboy sheikhas the international newspapers were so fond of calling him. Impossibly rich from the wealth of his country's diamond mines, he could have anything he wantedand mostly he did.
But sometimes he wanted harsh contrast and that was what brought him to places like this. Where the hardships and toughness of desert life made the flesh-pots of Europe fade into insignificance. As the cards began to be dealt around the table Kaliq felt the familiar thrill of expectation.
'You will take food, Highness?'
Kaliq glanced up. The servant girl was standing before him and putting a goblet of pomegranate juice before him. He shook his dark head impatiently. As if he would eat with people such as these!
'No. I have no appetite for food.' And then he glanced at the drink. 'But my thirst is great. Taste it,' he instructed the girl.
Eleni's heart raced in confusion. Surely the prince did not intend her to drink from his glass? 'But'
'I said, taste it,' he repeated softly. 'Or I will begin to worry that you are trying to poison me.'
With nervous fingers Eleni lifted the heavy cupher father's bestto her lips and sipped at the sweet, tangy juice, the tip of her tongue automatically removing its sticky trace from her lips. How horrible for the prince to have to live with such terrible fears, she thought, her heart giving an automatic little tug of compassion. Did he have to watch his back, wherever he went, she wonderedafraid that some unknown assassin was lurking in the shadows?