A ripple seethed in the ranks and drew Muhammad’s attention. The men stood apart from each other and soon revealed the black-veiled woman who had intruded in their midst. Sandalwood perfumed the night breeze. Despite her concealment from head to toe, except for the whites of her eyes, Muhammad would have known her anywhere.
“Why are you here, Aisha?”
As she drew closer to him, each warrior bent and bowed his head. Murmurs of “Sultana” soon arose and filled the air like the drone of bees. Muhammad took a step backward and his mouth fell open at the signs of their devotion.
The faithful eunuch Al-Siddiq stepped out from behind Aisha and made his obeisance. “Master.”
Only Ibn Hadid stood stalwart before her. Then when she and Muhammad glared at him in unison, the commander finally made obeisance, with a soft grunt.
Aisha still stared hard at the top of the warrior’s head before she spoke with Muhammad. “Permit our allies entry, my son.”
“I shall not.” Muhammad pressed one fist against his hip. “They have intruded into my city. My father’s city. They will not pass beneath the gates of Al-Qal’at al-Hamra on this or any other night so long as I am here.”
Her deep sigh rustled the silk arrayed around her face. “This is no time for your stubbornness. You risk offending the Sarraj chieftains, who’ve fought for you—”
“Don’t compound your actions tonight with lies! The Sarraj are here for you. What did you promise them, exactly?”
She blinked twice and touched her breastbone. “Muhammad—”
“What were the terms of the agreement with the Sarraj chieftains? Have they captured the rest of my father’s territories? Where is he? Do they hold him and the other Sultana, with my younger brothers and Al-Zaghal the regent for ransom? Do you know what’s become of my father? Do you even care?”
She gaped at him in determined silence.
His brow throbbed as he bent toward her. “You say I am your Sultan now. You will answer me, as the lord of your life. Or I’ll have you confined to your rooms at the summer palace until you do.”
Her audible swallow reached him. “You wouldn’t hurt me, son.”
“You wanted a Sultan, never a son. One to wreak vengeance upon his father for ancient slights against you. This night and my existence served as the instrument of your retribution. I am the bitter consequence of a long fight between my father and you.”
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