09:12 P.M.

SAFIA KEPTher breathing shallow.

She had no phobia of snakes, but she had learned to respect them while exploring dusty ruins. They were as much a part of the desert as the sand and wind. She sat perfectly still in the bath. The waters cooled as she waited…or maybe it was the fear chilling her.

The carpet viper draped over her left breast seemed to have settled in for a good long soak. Safia recognized the roughness of its outer skin. It was an old specimen, making the shedding of its skin especially difficult.

Again movement caught her eye, beyond the window. But as she searched, the darkness lay still and quiet.

Paranoia that often preceded a panic attack, an all-consuming anxiety that saw threat and danger where none existed. Her attacks were more commonly triggered by emotional stress or tension, not physical threats. In fact, the surge of adrenaline from immediate danger was a good buffer against the electric cascade of a panic episode. Still, the strain of outwaiting the viper had begun to wear thin the veneer of Safia’s buffer.

The symptoms of a carpet-viper bite were immediate and severe: blackened skin, fire in the blood, convulsions that broke bones. There was no known antidote.

A small tremor began in her hands.

No known antidote…

She forced herself to calm.

Safia slowly exhaled, again watching the snake. She inhaled even more slowly, savoring the sweetness of fresh air. The scent of jasmine, a pleasure earlier, was now cloying.

A knock at her door startled her.

She jumped slightly. Water rippled around her.

The viper lifted its head. She felt the rest of the snake’s body harden against her bare belly, tensing, wary.

“Mistress al-Maaz,” a voice called from the hall.

She did not answer.

The snake sampled the air with its tongue. Its body slid higher up, pushing its triangular head toward her throat.

“Mistress?”

It was Henry, the household butler. He must have come to see if she had fallen asleep. The others would be in the dining hall. There was no clock in the room, but it felt like the entire night had passed.

In the deadly silence, the sound of a key scraping in the old lock reached her. The creak of the outer door followed.

“Mistress al-Maaz…?” Less muffled now. “I’m sending Liza in.”

For Henry, ever the efficient English butler, it would be unseemly to enter a lady’s apartment, especially when the lady was in her bath. Tiny, hurried footsteps crossed the rooms, aiming for the back bathroom.

All the commotion agitated the snake. It rose up between her breasts like her venomous champion. Carpet vipers were notoriously aggressive, known to chase a man a full kilometer if threatened.

But this viper, lethargic from its soaking, made no move to strike.

“Hello,” a timid voice called just outside the door.

Safia had no way to warn the maid off.

A young girl kept her head bowed shyly as she crept into the doorway, her dark hair braided under a lace cap. From two steps away, she mumbled, “I’m sorry to disturb your bath, mistress.”

She finally glanced up, met Safia’s eyes-then the snake’s as it rose higher, hissing in threat, coiling in anticipation. Wet scales sawed together with a sound like sandpaper.

The maid’s hand flew to her mouth, but it failed to stifle her scream.

Drawn by the noise and movement, the snake surged from the water, flying bodily over the wide tiled lip of the tub, aiming for the girl.

The maid was too frightened to move.

Safia was not.

She instinctively grabbed for the viper’s tail as it leaped, catching it up in midstrike. She yanked it back from the maid and swung its length wide. But it was no limp piece of rope.

Muscles writhed in her hand, hard under her fingers. She felt more than saw the snake coil around upon itself, ready to strike at what had snatched it. Safia kicked her feet, trying to gain purchase to stand, to get some advantage. The slippery tiles kept betraying her. Water slopped across the floor.

The viper struck at her wrist. Only a quick twist and whip of her arm kept fangs from flesh. But like a skilled combatant, the old snake contorted for another attempt.

Safia finally gained her legs. She spun around in the tub, swinging her arm wide, using centrifugal force to keep the snake’s head from reaching her. Instinct made her want to fling it away. But that didn’t ensure the end of the battle. The bathroom was small, the aggression of the viper notorious.

Instead, she cracked out her arm. She had used a bullwhip before, having given one to Omaha as a silly Christmas gift, playing off Kara’s persistence in referring to him as Indiana. She used the same technique now, snapping her wrist with a well-practiced twist.

The viper, dazed from the spin, failed to react in time. Its length responded to age-old physics and whipped outward. Its head struck the tiled wall with enough impact to chip ceramic.

Blood spurted in a spray of crimson.

The body convulsed a beat in her hand, then dropped limply, splashing back into the bathwater around her thighs.

“Mistress al-Maaz!”

Safia turned her head and found the butler, Henry, in the doorway, drawn by the maid’s scream. He had a hand on the terrified girl’s shoulder.

Safia stared down at the limp snake, at her own nakedness. She should have felt shame and tried to cover herself, but instead she let the scaled body slip from her fingers and stepped from the bath.

Only the trembling of her fingers betrayed her.

Henry collected a large cotton towel from a warming rack. He held it open. Safia stepped forward, and Henry folded her into its embrace.

Tears began to flow, her breath shortened painfully.

Through the window, the moon had risen, peeking over the palace wall. For half a breath, something darker fluttered over its surface. Safia startled, but then it was gone.

Just a bat, the nocturnal predator of the desert.

Still, her trembling grew worse while Henry’s arms grew stronger, holding her up, carrying her to the bed in the next room.

“You’re safe,” he whispered in a fatherly fashion.

She knew his words could not be further from the truth.

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