7:14 A.M.

SAFIA MARCHEDbeside Kara down another tunnel. The Rahim clan spread out ahead and behind them, traveling in groups, carrying oil lanterns in the darkness. They had been walking for the past three hours, stopping regularly to drink or rest. Safia’s shoulder had begun to ache, but she didn’t protest.

The entire clan was on the move. Even the children.

A nursing mother strode a few steps ahead, accompanied by six children, whose ages ranged from six to eleven. The older girls held the younger ones’ hands. Like all the Rahim, even the children were bundled in hooded cloaks.

Safia studied the young ones as they sneaked glances back at her. They all appeared to be sisters. Green eyes, black hair, burnished skin. Even their shy smiles carried the same dimpled charm.

And while the adult women varied in minor ways-some were wiry, others heavier built, some long-haired, others shorn short-their basic features were strikingly similar.

Lu’lu, the tribal hodja, kept pace with them. After announcing their journey to the Gates of Ubar, she had left to organize the clan’s departure. As guardians of Ubar for centuries, none of the Rahim would be left out of this momentous occasion.

Once they were under way, Lu’lu had gone silent, leaving Kara and Safia plenty of time to discuss the revelation of their sisterhood. It still seemed unreal. For the past hour, neither had spoken, each lost to her own thoughts.

Kara was the first to interrupt the silence. “Where are all your men?” she asked. “The fathers of these children? Will they be joining us along the way?”

Lu’lu frowned at Kara. “There are no men. That is forbidden.”

Safia remembered the hodja ’s comment earlier. About how Safia’s birth had been forbidden. Did permission have to be granted? Was that why they all looked so identical? Some attempt at eugenics, keeping their bloodline pure?

“It’s just you women?” Kara asked.

“The Rahim once numbered in the hundreds,” Lu’lu said quietly. “Now we number thirty-six. The gifts granted to us through the blood of Biliqis, the Queen of Sheba, have weakened, grown more fragile. Stillborn children trouble us. Others lose their gifts. The world has grown toxic to us. Just last week Mara, one of our elders, lost her blessings when she went to the hospital in Muscat. We don’t know why.”

Safia frowned. “What gifts are these that you keep mentioning?”

Lu’lu sighed. “I will tell you this because you are one of us. You have been tested and found to harbor some trace of Ubar’s blessing.”

“Tested?” Kara asked, glancing to Safia.

Lu’lu nodded. “At some point, we test all half-bred children of the clan. Almaaz was not the first to leave the Rahim, to lie with a man, to forsake her lineage for love. Other such children have been born. Few have the gift.” She placed a hand on Safia’s elbow. “When we heard of your miraculous survival of the terrorist bombing in Tel Aviv, we suspected that perhaps your blood bore some power.”

Safia stumbled at the mention of the bombing. She remembered the newspaper reports heralding the miraculous nature of her survival.

“But you left the country before we could test you, never to return. So we thought you lost. Then we heard of the key’s discovery. In England. At a museum you oversaw. It had to be a sign!” A bit of fervor entered the woman’s voice, so full of hope.

“When you returned here, we sought you out.” Lu’lu glanced down the tunnel, voice lowering. “At first we attempted to collect your betrothed. To use him to draw you to us.”

Kara gasped. “You were the ones who tried to kidnap him.”

“He is not without talents of his own,” the old woman conceded with half a smile. “I can see why you pledged your heart to him.”

Safia felt a twinge of embarrassment. “After you failed to kidnap him, what did you do?”

“Since we couldn’t draw you to us, we came to you. We tested you in the old manner.” She glanced to Safia. “With the snake.”

Safia stopped in the tunnel, remembering the incident in the bath at Kara’s estate. “You sent the carpet viper after me?”

Lu’lu halted with Kara. A few of the women continued past.

“Such simple creatures recognize those with the gift, those blessed by Ubar. They will not harm such a woman, but find peace.”

Safia could still feel the viper draped over her naked chest, as if sunning on a rock, content. Then the maid had walked in and screamed, triggering it to strike at the girl. “You could’ve killed someone.”

Lu’lu waved them onward. “Nonsense. We’re not foolish. We don’t stick to the old traditions in that regard. We had removed the snake’s fangs. You were at no risk.”

Safia slowly continued down the tunnel, too stunned to speak.

Kara was not. “What is all this about a gift? What was the snake supposed to sense about Safia?”

“Those who bear the blessing of Ubar have the ability to project their will upon other minds. Beasts of the field are especially susceptible, bowing to our wishes, obeying our command. The simpler the beast, the easier to control. Come see.”

Lu’lu stepped to the wall, where a small hole opened in the sandy floor. She opened her hands. A gentle buzzing floated about Safia’s head. From the hole, a small vole emerged, blind, whiskers twitching. It climbed, as docile as a kitten, into the hodja ’s palm. Lu’lu caressed it with a finger, then let it go. It dashed back into its hole, surprised to be out.

“Such simple creatures are easy to influence.” Lu’lu nodded to Kara as she continued down the tunnel. “As are those minds weakened by abuse.”

Kara glanced away.

“Nevertheless, we have little control over the wakened mind of man. The best we can manage is to cloud and dull their perceptions when we are close at hand. To hide our presence for a short time…and then only of our own form. Even clothes are difficult to whisper away. It is best done naked and in shadows.”

Kara and Safia glanced at each other, too amazed for words. It was some form of telepathy, mind bending.

Lu’lu adjusted her cloak. “And of course, the gift can be used on oneself, a concentration of will directed inward. This is our greatest blessing, securing our line back to Queen Biliqis, she who was our first and last.”

Safia remembered tales of the Queen of Sheba, stories found throughout Arabia, Ethiopia, and Israel. Many involved fanciful embellishments: magic carpets, talking birds, even teleportation. And the most significant man in her life, King Solomon, was said to be able to speak to animals, like the hodja claimed now. Safia pictured the leopard that attacked John Kane. Could these women truly control such beasts? Was such talent the source of all the wilder tales surrounding the Queen of Sheba?

Kara spoke into the stunned silence. “What happens when you direct your gift inward?”

“The greatest blessing,” Lu’lu repeated with a wistful edge to her voice. “We ripen with child. A child born of no man.”

Kara and Safia shared a look of disbelief.

“A virgin birth…” Kara whispered.

Like the Virgin Mary. Safia pondered this revelation. Is that why the first key, the iron heart, had been hidden at Mary’s father’s tomb? An acknowledgment of some sort. One virgin to another.

Lu’lu continued, “But our births are not any birth. The child of our body is our body, born afresh to continue the line.”

Safia shook her head. “What do you mean?”

Lu’lu raised her staff and passed it forward and backward, encompassing all the clan. “We are all the same women. To speak in modern terms, we are genetically identical. The greatest blessing of all is the gift to keep our line pure, to produce a new generation out of our own womb.”

“Clones,” Kara said.

“No,” Safia said. She understood what the hodja was describing. It was a reproductive process found in some insects and animals, most notably bees.

“Parthenogenesis,” Safia said aloud.

Kara looked confused.

“It’s a form of reproduction where a female can produce an egg with an intact nucleus containing her own genetic code, which then grows and is born, an identical genetic duplicate of the mother.”

Safia stared up and down the tunnel. All these women…

Somehow their telepathic gift allowed them to reproduce themselves, genetically intact. Asexual reproduction. She recalled one of her biology professors at Oxford, how he had mentioned that sexual reproduction was a relatively strange thing for our bodies to do. That normally a bodily cell divided to produce an exact duplicate of itself. Only the germ cells in ovaries or testicles divided in such a manner to produce cells with only half of their original genetic code-eggs in females, spermatozoa in males-allowing for the mix of genetic material. But if a woman could somehow, by sheer will, stop this cellular division in her unfertilized egg, the resulting offspring would be an exact duplicate of the mother.

Mother…

Safia’s breath caught in her throat. She stopped and searched the faces around her. If what Lu’lu said was true, if her mother was from this clan, then all around her stood her mother. She was seeing her in all her possible incarnations: from newborn babe suckling on a teat to the mother who nursed that child, from the young girl walking hand in hand with her older sister to the elder at her side. All her mother.

Safia now understood the cryptic words of the hodja earlier.

All of us. We’re all your mother.

It wasn’t metaphor. It was fact.

Before Safia could move or speak, two women marched past. One carried the silver case holding the iron heart. The next bore the iron spear with the bust of the Queen of Sheba. Safia noted the iron countenance on the statue. The face of Sheba. The face of these women.

Sudden understanding struck Safia, almost blinding her. She had to lean against the tunnel wall. “Sheba…”

Lu’lu nodded. “She is the first and the last. She is all of us.”

An early exchange with the hodja echoed in Safia’s mind: We are the Queen of Sheba.

Safia watched the cloaked women march past. These women had been reproducing themselves asexually far back into history, tracing their genetic code to one woman, the first to produce a child in this manner, to regenerate herself.

Biliqis, the Queen of Sheba.

She stared into the face of Lu’lu, into the green eyes of the long-dead queen. The past living in the present. The first and the last.

How was this possible?

A shout rose from the front of the line.

“We’re through the mountains,” the hodja said. “Come. The Gates of Ubar await.”

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