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His Royal Highness Prince Alexander of Lydia stood at attention in the palace courtyard, his back extra straight, his arms practically immobilized by the stiff sleeves of his dress uniform. The classic-cut olive-green suit was reserved for formal occasions, and Alec hadn't realized until he'd squeezed into it for this evening's state dinner just how long it had been since he'd last worn it.
About fifteen pounds of muscle ago, judging by how tight the shirt felt around his neck. He couldn't take a deep breath, and he felt a tingling sensation in his fingers every time he tried to bend his arms at the elbow. The warm weather of the June evening didn't help, though Alec was at least accustomed to heat.
His last deployment, a humanitarian mission in the deserts of North Africa, had required daily physical labor. Alec hadn't appreciated how much the work had transformed him until he'd returned home to Sardis, Lydia's capital city, the day before and found that none of his old clothes fit the same.
The limousines began to line up for the motorcade, and Alec watched his parents descend the palace steps with the rustle of sashes and silk. His father, His Majesty King Philip, waved Alec away from the head car.
"You'll be sixth in line." He pointed him farther down the queue.
"Why sixth? Who's in between us?" Though Alec didn't want to sound presumptuous, he was, after all, heir apparent to the throne of Lydia. While that didn't mean he had to ride in the front car, he certainly found it odd that he'd be placed so far down the line.
"State officials. Regional dignitaries. Guards."
"Yes. Guards on motorcycles, guards in every car." King Philip motioned to a group of gun-bearing men. "You'll have one riding with you."
"A bodyguard?" Alec looked down at the young man who'd stepped forward. The kid wasn't small, but Alec was considerably larger, and he guessed, more experienced. "Father, I'm a soldier. I can take care of myself."
The king was halfway to his car, but as he looked back, he seemed to notice for the first time that his son had grown, and he deflated a little. "Fine. You can ride alone. But stay close. Stay safe." The king appeared as though he wanted to say more, but the cars and guards were waiting, and he ducked inside the limo after the queen.
Alec watched the door close after his parents, and their car rolled forward.
What was that all about? Stay close? Stay safe? Alec blinked at the abundance of men who filled the waiting vehicles and perched on their motorcycles, ready to go. Behind him, he spotted his sister Isabelle giving her bodyguard the cold shoulder as he held open the door to her waiting limousine. She'd told Alec that her request to have the guard removed had been turned down by their father.
Something strange was going on. When he'd first arrived home, Alec had assumed everything felt foreign simply because he wasn't used to it anymore. He'd acclimated to desert life, and no longer felt like he fit in with Lydia's aristocratic circles. In fact, until the announcement at tonight's dinner, when his father had promised he'd learn what his next assignment was, Alec didn't figure he'd feel as though he fit in anywhere.
But all the extra security, as well as his father's odd behavior, left Alec questioning what was going on. Sure, he was used to men with gunsbut there weren't usually so many of them swarming the palace, were there? And whereas these events of state tended to be stressful for his father, today the king seemed downright jumpy.
Alec slid into his car, but he couldn't relax, in spite of the sumptuous leather seat of the limousine he was riding in. Too much about the situation bothered him.
Besides that, in a seated position, he could hardly take a breath.
His car crept forward, and Alec strained to see through the darkly tinted windows to the vehicles ahead of him. He hadn't seen any officials or dignitaries in the courtyardno one had entered the vehicles ahead of him except for a few guards.
What was going on?
The motorcade progressed down the narrow streets of Sardis. Alec watched warily out the window, trying to sort out what had made his father, usually a self-assured ruler, act so skittish.
Crowds lined the sidewalks and people waved from balconies and open windows as the motorcade passed down the first few blocks. But the farther they went, the thinner the crowds became, and Alec craned his neck up ahead in time to spot uniformed men waving people inside.
More guards? Alec strained to see, but between the distance and the dark glass, he couldn't recognize their uniforms. Still, they looked like
Alec lowered the window to get a better look. Without the sound of cheering crowds, he could hear the Lydian national anthem being projected from a low-fidelity speaker somewhere.
The window glass was a third of the way down when suddenly, it started moving up again.
Alec looked at the driver. Had he closed the window?
Rather than hit the intercom button to ask, Alec opened the door and stuck his head outside. As he squinted at the soldiers, the car slowed to a stop. Now what?
His father never allowed the royal motorcade to come to a complete stop. Had so much changed since Alec had been gone? Before he could sort it out, the uniformed men ahead of him shouted, leaping inside the nearest buildings.
Alec didn't have long to wonder at their actions. A dissonant, mechanical scream filled the air. Alec ducked behind the open door and pinched his eyes shut as a brilliant flash erupted in front of the motorcade's head car, its searing light penetrating his closed eyelids with its red glare. The moment it passed, Alec snapped his eyes open, following the grenade's trajectory upward to its source.
Two blocks ahead, he spotted a soldier on a high balcony, his assault rifle equipped with an under-barrel grenade launcher.
In the time it took the man to reload, Alec sized up the situation. Based on the sound and the blinding flash, he was nearly certain the soldier had shot a stun grenadea sound- and light-emitting device designed to incapacitate targets by causing immediate but temporary deafness and flash-blindness. The weapon was technically classified as nonlethal, but only when used in an environment free of combustibles.
Given the number of vehicles in the motorcade, and the likelihood they were all carrying full tanks of fuel, the diversion grenade could be plenty lethal. Immediately Alec feared for the safety of his sisters traveling in the limousines behind his.
Before the soldier got his weapon raised again, Alec made his decision. The royal limousines were lightweight-armor plated. For budget reasons, King Philip had never deemed it necessary to commission defensive countermeasures or military-grade armor. The car would offer little protection against a stun grenadeand Alec had no guarantee that's all the soldier would be shooting. If a fragmentation grenade struck the motorcade, it could kill everyone in a ten-meter radius.
Rather than wait to find out what the soldier had used to reload, Alec sprinted for the cars behind him, where his sisters were. He had to reach them, to help them find cover before the blasts became deadly. Stun grenades were a tactical weapon, often used for clearing the way for the big guns. He might not have much time!
A squeal rent the air above his head an instant before another stun grenade hit the rear of the motorcade, spewing thick smoke for dozens of meters in every direction. Was this what his father had been nervous about? Had the king somehow gotten wind that an attack was being planned? Had the royal family been specifically targeted?
Alec could see no sign of his sistershe could hardly see the cars through the heavy smoke. He prayed for their safety as he staggered forward, uncertain whether he was even still heading in the right direction, disoriented by the eruptions. Isabelle had been wary of the bodyguard who'd been appointed to protect her, and Stasi Come to think of it, he hadn't even seen Stasi.
Another deafening squeal filled the air, the sound tearing at his ears as it approached, closer this time. Alec flung himself backward instinctively, diving away from the eruption, praying for some form of cover.
Heat swelled behind him as he felt the stone of a limestone wall. A building! He turned away from it, pushing himself back into the heat and smoke and chaos. His sisters were back there. He had to reach them. He had to find them!
His ears throbbed, too traumatized to hear, but he felt the vibrations of the next incoming eruption, closer this time, and more powerful. He spun around, bracing himself to run, to dive toward his sisters' cars, but there was no time. The concussion caught him before his feet hit the ground, propelling him sideways, the shock wave pulsing through him like an electrical fire.
Then all was black, and silent.
The ringing in his ears began slowly, and Alec peeled his face away from the weathered limestone, blinking as his eyes focused on a red smear across the cream-colored stones.
Why was there blood on the stones?
He looked down. Blood splashed against his suit. Where was he? What was happening?
Stumbling forward, he tried to remember.
He'd been attacked, surrounded.
He had to escape.
He had to survive.
Lillian Bardici turned and ran down the alley for her rented rickshaw as the sound of another blast erupted, nearer this time. Heat from the blast sizzled down the alleyway, swelling past her as she ran. Okay, so maybe watching the royal motorcade pass by hadn't been such a good idea. Maybe she should have listened to her parents, who wanted to set sail earlier in the afternoon. They could have been in the middle of the Mediterranean by now, far from the explosions on the street behind her.
Glancing back over her shoulder, Lily saw a man in an olive soldier's uniformdifferent from those of the officers who'd waved her back from the street. He'd barely made it to the opening of the alleyway when another blast struck.
Lily ducked back into the thick stone archway of a limestone doorway. Waves of heat plunged past her, and she caught her breath, praying.
Dear God, help me! Help that soldier!
Her heart pinched at the thought of the handsome man who'd had no chance to escape the blast. As soon as the first swell passed by, Lillian peeked out.
The soldier leaned against the wall, a red streak of blood painting the creamy limestone behind him, marking the place where his face had grated against the wall. He raised his head just as she looked at him, and she saw disorientation in his eyes. He staggered forward a few steps.
Lillian couldn't leave him. If another blast hit, he'd be done for. She ran forward. "Hurry. You've got to get out of here!" The scream of another incoming explosive buried her words, but thankfully, the blast struck farther away. Though it shook the ground beneath them, she felt none of its heat.
The man seemed to find his feet and trotted forward, his expression determined in spite of the blood that marred the left half of his face.
"Can I help you?" Lily asked as he reached her. She stumbled along beside him. "You need to get to a hospital."
"No." He stopped, his earnest blue eyes boring into hers. "No hospital. I've got to get out of the country. It's not safe here." He took another step forward. "Hurry. Don't let them find me."
"Don't let who find you?"
Another distant blast erupted, and the soldier plodded past her, toward her rickshaw that sat at the end of the alley. Lily caught up to him just as he paused next to it.
Again, his eyes met hers. "Help."
Unsure what he meant, Lily reached for his arm, steadying him as he sagged into the back passenger seat of her tricyclelike rented rickshaw.
She looked at him for only a second, his eyes closed, his body slumped down. From her medical training, Lillian knew the concussive shock waves from explosions could cause tremendous internal injuries, often with no external harm. The damage was likely catching up to him already.
Goaded on by the eruptions behind them, Lily hopped onto the bike and pointed the handlebars downhill. Between the added weight of the soldier behind her and the downward slope of the streets as the city gave way to the sea, she had no trouble getting her bike moving.
The marina was a mere three blocks away, all downhill. Her parents had already said they wanted to cast off that afternoon, but Lillian had begged them to stay long enough for her to watch the motorcade pass by. Her father hadn't been happy about it, insisting that they should leave before the state dinner. But when she'd pointed out all the other promises he'd broken in the past few weeks, he had reluctantly agreed. She'd promised to return immediately thereafter, and return the rickshaw at the stand at the head of the pier. They could leave immediately.
Since she'd personally run all their errands while they'd been in port in Sardis, renting the bike so she could haul fresh stores of food and water, it had seemed only fair that she be allowed to stay a little longer. And she'd promised they could be gone before the state dinner began.
Now Lillian questioned the wisdom of her decision as the rickshaw picked up speed, careening toward the pier. She laid on the brakes as she blew past the rickshaw rental stand, and just managed to skid to a stop next to her parents' yacht.
"Lillian!" Her mother, Sandra, gasped when she saw the soldier's bloody form slumped on the back of her bike.
Her father's jaw dropped.
But by the time he found his voice to insist that Lily take the soldier right back to where she'd found him, Lillian had already dismounted from the bike. The rail of their yacht bobbed a little higher than the dock, but the bike sat higher still. Lily tipped the rickshaw, and the unconscious soldier keeled toward the cushioned bench that encircled the deck of the yacht.
"Lily, no!" Michael Bardici demanded, rushing forward to stop her, an instant too late.