Hidden in the Sheikh's Harem: Christmas at the Castello(4)

By: Michelle Conder

‘What are you doing here?’ Amir asked curtly as she approached her father’s tent, his arms folded across his chest, his face tense.

‘What are you?’ She folded her arms across her own chest to show him she wasn’t intimidated by his tough guy antics. He’d been her friend once, for Allah’s sake.

‘That’s not your concern.’

‘It is if what I just heard is true.’ She took a deep breath. ‘Please tell me it isn’t.’

‘War is men’s business, Farah.’

‘War?’ The word squeaked out of her on a rush of air and she let out a string of choice words under her breath. Amir looked at her with the disapproving frown he wore ever since he had asked her father for her hand in marriage; the boy she had once played with, and who had taught her to use a sword when she’d been twelve and full of anger and despair over the death of her pregnant mother, seemingly long gone. ‘So it’s true.’ Her voice dropped to barely a whisper. ‘The Prince of Bakaan is here?’

Amir’s lips tightened. ‘Your father is busy.’

‘Is he in there?’

She’d meant the prince but he’d misunderstood. ‘He won’t want to see you right now. Things are...tense.’

No kidding. You could have cut the air in the camp with a knife. ‘How did this happen?’ she demanded. ‘You know my father is old and bitter. You’re supposed to look out for him.’

‘He is still leader of Al-Hajjar.’

‘Yes, but—’

‘Farah? Is that you?’ Her father’s voice boomed from inside the tent.

Farah’s insides clenched. As much as her father’s controlling and chauvinistic ways chafed—a lot—he was all she had in the world and she loved him. ‘Yes, Father.’ She swept past a disgruntled Amir and entered the plush interior of her father’s retreat, lit from within by variously placed oil lamps.

The roomy tent was divided into sleeping and eating areas with a large bed at one end and a circle of cushions at the other. Worn rugs lined the floor to keep out the night-time chill and silk scarves were draped from the walls.

Her father looked tired as he sat amongst the cushions, the remnants of his evening meal set on a low table before him.

‘What are you doing here, girl?’

Looking out for you, she wanted to say but didn’t. Theirs had never been an overly demonstrative relationship even when her mother had been alive. Then, though, at least things had been happier and she’d tried so hard to get that feeling back in the years since.

Frown lines marred his forehead and his hands were clasped behind his broad back, his body taut. If she’d been a boy she would have been welcomed into this inner sanctum but she wasn’t and maybe it was time she just accepted that. ‘I heard that you have the Prince of Bakaan here,’ she said in a ‘please tell me it isn’t true’ voice.

He stroked his white beard, which she knew meant he was thinking about whether to answer her or not. ‘Who told you?’

Farah felt as if a dead weight had just landed on her shoulders. ‘It’s true, then?’

‘The information needs to be contained. Amir, see to it.’

‘Of course.’

Not realising that Amir had followed her in, she turned to him, her eyes narrowing as she noticed that one of his eyes was blackened. ‘Where did that come from?’

‘Never mind!’

Farah wondered if it was from the prince and turned back to her father. ‘But why? How?’

Amir stepped forward, his jaw set hard. ‘Prince Zachim arrogantly assumed he could go dune driving in the middle of the night without his security detail.’

Ignoring him, Farah addressed her father. ‘And?’

‘And we took him.’

Just like that?

Farah cleared her throat, trying not to imagine the worst. ‘Why would you do that?’

‘Because I will not see another Darkhan take power and he is the heir.’

‘I thought his older brother was the heir.’

‘That dog Nadir lives in Europe and wants nothing to do with Bakaan,’ Amir answered.

‘That is beside the point.’ She shook her head, still not comprehending what her father had done. ‘You can’t just...kidnap a prince!’

‘When news gets out that Prince Zachim is out of the picture, the country will become more and more destabilised and we will be there to seize the power that has always been rightfully ours.’

‘Father, the tribal wars you speak of were hundreds of years ago. And they won. Don’t you think it’s time to put the past to rest?’