The Sheikh's Impetuous Love-Slave

By: Marguerite Kaye

Princes of the Desert

Chapter 1

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 predated 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 that they keep 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 reinforced.

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 onto 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 semiprecious jewels, as was his headdress 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.’

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