Prince Kuresh hurried from his mother’s reception hall and rushed outside. An urgent message had arrived instructing him to meet his father in the courtyard of his mother’s white-washed palace. Only one time before had his father visited him in this manner, and the news had been tragic; his sister had died from fever. So, preparing himself for the worst, he prayed for his remaining seven brothers and sisters and paused at the top of the stairs leading down to the garden.
The stairs were decorated with small tiles painted with dozens of colorful tulips, the symbol of his father and mother’s home. Theirs had been a love-match, a rare gift to Ottoman nobility. He breathed in the fragrant air, the mixture of roses, crocuses, and tulips in full bloom. High walls surrounded the private place used mostly for celebrations, where his mother and sisters could go uncovered and enjoy the heat of the sun.
A wading pool and fountain graced the center of the courtyard, deep enough to sit in or to simply wade through on the hottest of days. A cool breeze ruffled his hair as he descended, finding his father, Lord Kalil, his two half-brothers, Cyrus and Naseem, and several advisors who accompanied his father everywhere, waiting.
“Father.” Kuresh bowed. “I came as soon as I could.”
The lord acknowledged him with a nod. “Fear not, I do not bring news of death.”
Relieved, Kuresh relaxed a little. Why were his half-brothers there? And the advisors—they should not have been granted access to the inner sanctum of the harem. What if one of his sisters or his mother decided to go for a walk and these men saw them? The punishment for such an offense included the gouging out of eyes or death.
Lord Kalil’s compound consisted of four palaces connected through an intricate system of courtyards and gardens and surrounded by a ten-foot wall. Each palace housed one of his father’s four wives and their children. Outsiders were forbidden.
“Do you love me, my son?” his father asked.
A strange question. Kuresh respected and even feared his father, but love him? The idea had never occurred to him. The emotion had never been fostered between them. “I honor you in all things,” Kuresh said, meaning it. As the first-born son of his father’s second but favorite wife, Kuresh had indeed benefitted from his father’s position of power and wealth. And next month, he was to take his own wife. “Is there something I can do for you, Father? Name it, and it will be done.”
The lord fingered his beard. “I am pleased to hear it.”
Kuresh bowed, then looked at his brothers skeptically. Upon closer inspection, he noticed their hands were tied together by silk cords. “Have my brothers committed crimes?”
His father smiled. “Nay. The cords are ceremonial, symbols of my surrender.”
“Surrender?” Kuresh did not like the sound of that at all.
“One of our enemies paid a mercenary infidel to execute me, Kuresh.”
Kuresh’s hand immediately sought the handle of the scimitar he always wore at his hip. Let the bastard try and hurt his father again. He’d take his head with one mighty stroke of his weapon and present it on a silver platter as a trophy to his lord. “Where is this dog?”
His father gestured at the great iron gates beyond the courtyard. “Waiting outside.”
“He is here?” Kuresh drew his sword.
“Stand down, my son. In the heat of battle, I became exhausted and dropped my weapon. The infidel took advantage of my weakness and overpowered me. The moment he would have sunk his blade into my chest, I begged for mercy.”
His father had begged for his life? Shame crept into Kuresh’s heart and mind as he lowered his weapon. He would not protect a coward. “Why is the man here?”
“To claim the reward I offered in exchange for my life.”
Perhaps one of Kuresh’s beautiful sisters? But then he eyed his brothers again. “What price were you willing to pay for your life, Father?” Kuresh swallowed the bile in his throat.
“I have always favored you, Kuresh,” his father said. “And I regret what I promised the infidel. But the law of this ancient land requires I keep my word. You, Cyrus, and Nasim are to be handed over as slaves.”
Slaves? Kuresh would sooner kill himself than serve an enemy. He’d sooner kill his own father and suffer the most painful death—weeks of torture, rotting in a maggot-infested cell, and public execution than slavery. Never. He raised his sword again, staring incredulously at his once honorable father. “Why have you done this?”
All of the men turned to find his beloved mother running down the stairs into the courtyard, uncovered.
“Mother.” Kuresh ripped his linen belt from about his waist and met his mother at the base of the stairs, covering her nose and mouth with the material. “Strangers are in the courtyard, you must return to your rooms. Please.”
Deep brown, tear-filled eyes gazed up at him. “But…”
He kissed her forehead, his affection and love for her more powerful than anything he’d ever felt. She had given him life and so much more.
“Is it true?” she asked.
“Emine,” his father scolded her. “Do as your son has bidden. Go inside.”
Kuresh took his mother’s hands in his. “Do not fear for my life, Mother. I swear to return here a free man, God help me.”
She squeezed his fingers, cast a dark look at his father, then climbed the narrow stairs back to the palace.
Every step she took shattered another piece of Kuresh’s heart. He swung around and faced his lord. “When has one life ever been worth three?”
Kalil frowned. “When I realized how much I have to lose. Look about you. Would you give this up easily?”
Kuresh refused to answer.
“Very well,” his father said. “Put your hands together and let Raffi tie them.”
Kuresh growled. “Touch me…” He glared at the advisor. “And I will take your worthless life.” Then he turned to his father. “I will do as you ask, but I will meet this infidel as I am now, free.”
Kuresh had never challenged his father. Silence rose between them.
“Follow me.” His father started toward the outer gates.
Guards swung the iron gates open, revealing the stranger that was to be Kuresh’s master.
“I present to you my three sons,” Kalil said. “My eldest son, Nasim. Kuresh. Cyrus.”
The stranger with dark hair considered Kuresh and his brothers. “You dinna lie to me, Lord Kalil. They are young and strong.”
The infidel spoke Kuresh’s language with a funny accent.
“And if I refuse to go?” Kuresh blurted, anger building inside him. No one had disarmed him; he could fight.
The stranger blinked at him and said, “Then I will kill your father.”
Kuresh could not stop from smiling. His father deserved to die. He gazed back at the palace he had grown up in—a happy life filled with laughter and music, luxury. The kind of comfort few ever experienced. For some unknown reason, he did not want to be a part of it any longer. With the exception of his mother and siblings, who would be safe now that his father’s life had been spared, there was no reason to stay.
“Will you resist?” the stranger asked. “Fight me for your freedom?”
“What do they call you?” Kuresh asked.
“And where are you from?”
“The Highlands.” Alexander pointed in the direction of the harbor. “Another world. Another lifetime.”
“Is it as beautiful as I have heard?” Kuresh knew of the barbarians and their island-home. The snow-covered peaks and heather-strewn valleys, the red-headed women and blood-thirsty warriors.
“Tis the most beautiful place I have ever seen.”
Kuresh offered his sword to Alexander, then kneeled. “I will serve you without question.”
“Stand before me, Kuresh,” Alexander commanded. “I am no’ in need of a servant. I require fierce warriors at my side. Walk as a free man, fight for me.”
Kuresh rose to his feet and sheathed his scimitar. He refused to live upon his knees as a slave and turned to his father. “I curse you. Disown you and everything you possess. If I ever set eyes upon you again, I will kill you.”