Rania’s gasp echoed. “They are here. He has come.”
Aisha whirled. “Who are they? Who has come?”
Instead of an immediate reply, Rania rushed to the window and gripped the sill. Then she whispered, “The army of Muhammad al-Sagir.”
Aisha flattened her palm against the adjacent wall and swallowed a cry. The reason for the absent sentry call became apparent. The usurper had returned at last, the son of her father’s rival. Prince Muhammad al-Sagir, lord of the city of Al-Mariyah, had sworn in his youth to avenge himself against Aisha’s father, who had murdered the prince’s father.
Aisha had oft heard Muhammad al-Sagir’s name whispered by the harem’s frightened servants. They called him ‘the firebrand’, for the flame-colored hair inherited from his mother, and for his fury. He once vowed to destroy the royal line that had ruined his family and future. A promise of retribution would now demand fulfillment at the tips of flaming arrows and Toledo steel.
Rania grasped Aisha’s shoulder and shook her fromreverie. “We should return to your room, child.”
“No, we can’t go back there!” Aisha’s shrill voice reverberated through the chamber. “We must find pathways into the foothills behind the summer palace. Kissenga prepared Fatima and I after the last flight. He’ll know where to meet us.”
“There is no need, child.”
Aisha shook off Rania’s hold as a tingle coursed through every muscle. “Have you lost your senses? What do you think Muhammad al-Sagir will do to me and my sister when he captures us?”
Rania shook her head. “Then, you do not know? Is it possible you remain unaware of your father’s plans for Muhammad al-Sagir?”
“Has the Sultan ever revealed his mind to me?” Aisha bristled, for her father had clearly confided in Rania.
“This is no place for such talk,” Rania insisted. She held out a creased hand, deep furrows crisscrossing her pale palm. “We must return to the harem. Your father will be aware of Muhammad al-Sagir’s arrival by now.”
Aisha did not budge from her position along the wall. She gave a slow, disbelieving shake of her head. How could Rania remain so calm in speaking of Muhammad al-Sagir and Aisha’s father? Even the old woman’s tone lacked urgency as if the consequences held no concern for her. Did she no longer care whether the Sultan lived or died? Had her loyalty to him been a ruse all along?
Rania slapped her thick thigh and glared at Aisha. “None of your defiance now, child. We have no time! If we were in danger, I would have fled long ago. Right now, my concern is solely for you. The Sultan’s displeasure would be great if he knew your whereabouts. Do you want him to know you’ve been here?”
“My fate has never mattered to you before. Won’t you tell him the truth regardless?”
Rania’s husky laugh washed over Aisha. “And risk his ire falling upon me as well? You think of me as little more than an ignorant Christian, but I have not survived so long among Muslims without wit and discernment.”
Aisha could have chided herself for stupid fears. There would be no betrayal tonight. Of course, Rania would never mention Aisha’s presence in the tower, not if the tale roused the Sultan’s anger or made him question Rania’s role as his children’s warden.
Still, Aisha could not resist a final retort. “I’m not afraid of my father.”
Rania’s delicate, curved brows lifted above rheumy eyes once greener than olives. “It is possible. You’ve ever been too bold and foolhardy for my liking. Just like the Sultan. If only you both knew how much your sentiments mirror each other, your Nasrid pride.”
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