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Chapter 8

The Prince sighed inaudibly as he sank into the water. The heat soothed his protesting muscles and aching legs, and he leaned his head back against the edge. Closing his eyes, he remembered another bath, long ago, with a supple young woman, and his gut twisted in a familiar longing. He opened his eyes and rolled his eyes, then ducked under the water and swam a few strokes, emerging at the other end of the long pool. Shaking his wet hair from his eyes, he noticed the slave waiting patiently for him and growled under his breath.

'What is it?' He demanded, his even mood completely gone.

'My prince, the king desires your presence in the Strategy Room.' The prince raised his eyebrows.

'I will be there soon.' He swam a few more lengths, then heaved himself out of the pool and got dressed. With quick, purposeful strides, he made his way through the palace and stopped to knock at the required door.

'Come.' The kings voice rumbled from beyond the door, and the prince entered the room. His father looked thoughtful, sitting at the head of a large mahogany table. His brothers sat on either side, along with the Vizier, and the prince took the last seat, facing his father across the long table. The King held a long wooden pole in his hand, topped with a flat piece of wood, and scattered across the table in various positions were carved figures, denoting the location of various troops and borders. The map was embossed into the leather top of the table, showing the Persian Empire and its bordering countries, and a few beyond them that had been gleaned from various reports. The king raised his gaze and met his son's eyes. 'Shah. We have reports that Caucasus has attacked our northern border. What would be your course of action?' Shah leant forward, his elbows on the table and his expression thoughtful.

'I would send scouts to assess the situation, no more than three as we don't want to raise suspicion. Then, depending on the report, send a battalion to reason with them, forcefully.'

'Absolutely not!' Abazar burst out. 'Father, why waste time with scouts when we should march over there and show them Persia's might? These fools have dared to attack us, and we must teach them that they cannot take such liberties!'

'I agree with Abazar, Father.' Marathat spoke forcefully. 'What a surprise' thought the youngest prince with a sneer. 'Persia is a strong empire – we must show that she will not tolerate insubordination.'

'That is a stupid idea.' Shah countered. 'Force is not always the way to do things Father. We all know that Caucasus is struggling in the grip of a drought. They are probably hungry and trying to-'

'Trying to steal from Persia, from us! Your mind is as soft as your unused manhood, little brother!' Abazar sneered. 'You have no spine for ruling an empire, why are you even bothering asking him?' He asked his father, gesticulating hopelessly.

'Oh, real mature Abazar, got anything else from the archives you can throw at me?' Shah snarled, his temper rising.

'Enough!' The king stood quickly, scraping his chair against the marble floor, and the princes turned to him. 'I will have no more of this bickering. Thaseem, thoughts?' Thaseem leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, one hand rubbing his chin as he always did when he was thinking hard.

'I believe both my brothers have a point. I would-'

'My lord!' Thaseem was interrupted as a soldier burst through the doors and bowed low, his chest heaving.

'Easy man, get your breath back.' The king soothed, waving his hand to the guards who had followed him through and sending them back to their posts. The soldier braced his hands on his knees and sucked in large gasps of air. When his heart rate returned to a better level, he straightened up, then bowed again. 'Now, what is the meaning of your intrusion?' The princes watched him with interest.

'My king. My unit and I were scouting the Eastern border, and have spotted a large caravan approaching. In the time it took us to return to Babylon, they will have reached Persepolis.'

'Military?' The king asked sharply.

'Not that we could see sire. It looked to be a delegation, from India by the banners they were flying.' Shah's heart hammered in his chest, and his eyes flickered to Thaseem. His brother glanced at him, and realisation crossed his face as his thoughts fell in line with Shah's.

'Thankyou. Go to the barracks, get yourself cleaned up and fed. Well done, this is useful information.' The soldier bowed and retreated out of the room, the doors closing in front of him. The king turned to the Vizier and his sons. 'And now we have a new problem. Thoughts, anyone?'

'My king, this may perhaps be a blessing in disguise.' The Vizier spoke softly, his melodic voice humming through the room. 'Our previous attempt in India was thwarted, and this may be an opportunity to add another jewel to the crown, this time without bloodshed.'

'An alliance?' Abazar scoffed. 'That is not Persia's way.'

'Perhaps not.' Thaseem mused. 'But even you, Abazar, must admit that Persia has been stagnating. We have not expanded our borders for nearly two years sire, and that is not for want of trying. Perhaps it is time for a new tactic. An allied country, as opposed to a conquered country, can provide us with more options.' Shah kept silent, his mind churning, and the king absent-mindedly watched him as he thought. A smile slowly formed across his youngest son's face, and the king became intrigued.

'Shah, your thoughts?' The prince jumped slightly, and Thaseem snickered softly, earning himself a glare from his brother. Sharaman watched as his son finally answered.

'Welcome the delegation. As the Vizier has said, this could be a blessing in disguise. Meanwhile, send a contingent to our northern border to reinforce our men up there and settle the border dispute.' The king nodded his appreciation.

'Father, allow me to lead the troops.' Abazar thumped his fist on the table. 'I will see that the battle is short.'

'No.' The king's voice brooked no argument. 'We are needed to welcome the delegation. I will not send you away when we have a diplomatic situation arising.'

'But Father-'

'I have spoken.' Sharaman glared at his eldest. 'You will not fight me on this, Abazar. You may be my first born, but you must learn that politics can win a battle before a sword has been raised.' Abazar cast his eyes downward, a mutinous look on his Persian features. Shah watched quietly, trying to keep his features composed as the king rubbed his face tiredly. 'Vizier. Make sure that the palace is in order to receive the delegate. Spare no expense. We need a show of our finest soldiers, but not so much to be threatening. Abazar, Marathat, you will choose and arm the contingent to go to the north. Thaseem, Shah, you shall deal with the security of the vault, the armoury, and our guests. Enough to dissuade problems developing, but not enough to make them uncomfortable. Dismissed.' The table stood and bowed, holding their positions as their liege left, his Vizier in tow. Abazar smirked.

'Security Shah? Try not to get too bored.' He left chuckling, Marathat on his heels. Thaseem made a rude gesture at his departing back, and turned to his little brother.

'Shah, you ok?' The youngest prince nodded.

'I'm not sure this is a good idea after all. What if Farah is amongst the delegation? What do I do?'

'Little brother, I never figured you for one with nerves!' Thaseem chortled.

'I'm serious As! I can't stop thinking about her as it is, and now she might walk right into my lap? Allah has a twisted sense of humour.' The prince ran his hands through his hair and slumped back into his chair. Thaseem took pity on him and leant against the table, crossing his feet.

'Whoever comes with that caravan, you cannot interfere with, you know that. It is a diplomatic, and dare I say it, daring strategy. Whoever is orchestrating it is a very clever opponent, and we have to step extra carefully. If she is in the caravan, you cannot touch her, you understand? Despite the fact that she would be a guest, if anything were to happen, with you a prince and she a princess, the scandal would ruin Father, and damage the empire's stability.' Thaseem watched him, making sure that his brother was listening. Finally, Shah nodded and stood up. Sighing, he fixed a rakish grin on his face and spread his hands.

'Lets go talk security!' He grinned, slinging an arm around Thaseem's shoulders, and together the two princes went in search of the palace guard captain.

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