The Sultan's Harem Bride

By: Annie West

CHAPTER ONE

‘GIVE IT UP, JACK. This is a wild goose chase.’ Imran’s voice came over the hubbub of vehicles, people and livestock thronging the pre-election cavalcade.

‘No!’ Jacqui shook her head. ‘You’ll see. It will be worth it.’

It had to be worth it. They had a chance to interview one of the world’s most hard to meet opposition leaders, an inspirational reformer the authorities would do anything to silence. It was an opportunity not to be missed.

Yet uneasiness stirred. This jammed street was strangely familiar, as if she’d been here before. The pungent aromas of dust, sweat, spices and dung teased her nostrils. A disturbing sense of déjà vu made her pause.

Jacqui swung round, looking for Imran’s familiar face.

Anxiety speared her. Her nape prickled. ‘Imran?’

‘Right here, Jack.’ She spun round and there he was, large as life, his camera over one shoulder, his laughing eyes narrowed against the sun.

Relief thudded in her chest. For a moment Jacqui had feared... Feared what? Her train of thought dissolved.

‘This is a long shot, despite the tip-off,’ she said. ‘If you’d rather go to the hotel, I’ll try to locate him then call you.’

Imran’s expression didn’t change.

Had she spoken aloud or just thought about it? Confused, she lifted a hand to her hot forehead. Everything felt unreal, strangely distant. Even the faces of the people around them seemed blurred.

All except Imran.

Jacqui blinked and tried to focus. The job. The lead. This would be their best story yet. Their news editor wouldn’t believe it if they came in with this exclusive.

It was an opportunity to reveal the truth about this oppressive regime. Then world powers could no longer plead ignorance and turn a blind eye to the violence.

‘Come on, Jack. Don’t dawdle.’ Imran strode ahead, forging easily through the packed street.

Jacqui tried to follow but her feet seemed stuck to the ground, her limbs weighted. With a supreme effort, she struggled forward a pace. Just one. Around her the crowd slowed too, like a film moving frame by frame.

All except Imran, striding through the barely moving people. Each step took him further away.

Jacqui opened her mouth to call his name, urge him to stop. The déjà vu was back, stronger this time. Her flesh crawled in horrified premonition. Her throat constricted, silencing her strained vocal cords.

Helplessly she watched him meld into the crowd.

Then it came. The nameless thing she’d been expecting without knowing. A soundless judder of vibration on the air. A quake that made the ground beneath her feet shudder and heave.

Then the cataclysmic roar. A deafening well of sound, spiralling round her. So loud her ears rang and kept on ringing.

Finally her stasis broke. She ran, lungs pumping, breath tearing in her throat. Still she couldn’t call out.

She slammed to a stop. Imran’s camera lay on the ground, its shattered lens glinting in dusty sunlight. He held it fast, fingers clamped round it.

Jacqui knelt, her brain trying to make sense of the picture before her. The ungainly jumble of limbs, the shapes impossible to comprehend. An unholy cocktail of dust and bright-red liquid spread all round her, soaking the ground, filling her nostrils.

She put out a hand to touch what had once been the man she knew better than anyone. A man fit, whole...

Finally she found her voice. It rose, filling the air, an anguished, wordless scream.

* * *

Asim stalked the empty corridor and out into a moonlit courtyard. Annoyance lengthened his stride and made the blood steam in his veins.

What had possessed his ambassador to suggest that woman as a possible bride? Or hint to the old Emir that he should bring his niece? This should have been a simple state visit to finalise an energy venture between their countries. Instead the Emir’s visit to Jazeer was a potential diplomatic disaster.

Asim strode past the scented garden and into another passage. The sprawling old palace provided plenty of space to be alone with his impatience.

Not as good as the freedom of a four-wheel drive on the desert dunes but that luxury was denied him. Asim had to remain here to play host to the Emir and his unwanted niece in the morning. He’d need to soothe the Emir’s pride but make it clear his choice of bride lay elsewhere.

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