After Youssef cleared lunch away Madari went in search of metal polish and rags to polish the swords. Probably they needed sharpening too, but he preferred to take them to a specialist for that. For now they only needed to gleam.
As he walked back into the living room, hands full, he found Jahni standing by one of the bookshelves.
“Looking for something new to read, Kahil?”
Jahni laughed. “Well, it would take me some time to run out of things to read in here.”
“A lot of them were my father’s books. He was a great reader. And a writer.”
“I saw…” Jahni rested a hand briefly on some small volumes. “These have his name on them, as the author, I mean.”
“Some of his poetry was published.” Dropping the polishing gear on the table he walked over to stand beside Jahni and took out a couple of the books his father had been so proud of, despite Ahmed’s scepticism. His father, the soldier poet.
“What’s this one?” Jahni had taken out a journal-like book, with no title printed on it. A red ribbon tied it closed and Madari saw Jahni frown at the rather complicated knot. Jahni wasn’t a horseman, so he didn’t recognise the knot and certainly couldn’t recreate it. He didn’t attempt to untie the ribbon.
“That is also poetry by my father. I found it in my mother’s effects after she died. It’s hand written, love poetry. For her.”
Jahni looked almost awestruck and he handed the book to Madari, who replaced it carefully on the shelf. The two of them walked over to begin working on the swords, first laying them on an old sheet to protect the table.
“My father wouldn’t have had any idea about how to make such a romantic gesture,” Jahni said. “Oh, I know he loved my mother, I think they were happy, but I can’t imagine him writing poetry!”
“People can surprise you,” Madari said, pouring polish onto a rag and reaching first for Ahmed’s sword.
“I know that for sure.” Jahni nodded, picking up Madari’s dress sword and starting to polish it, watching Madari’s hands as he did so, following the movements he made. “Do you still miss your father?”
“Yes.” It seemed impossible, the man had been gone almost thirty years, yet Madari still longed for a chance to speak to him just once more. Ahmed had ended up having more of an influence in him, on making him who he became. But he thought his father, Razaq, perhaps had more of an influence on his soul. “You must still miss yours terribly.”
Jahni went quiet, bit his lip. He spoke again after a while.
“Sometimes he could drive me crazy, all the ambitions he had for me.” He smiled. “Of course you know about what that is like. But I realise it’s because he knew what I was capable of, perhaps more than I did. Once he accepted that I wanted to stay in the army I feel sure he started picturing me as a general.”
Madari laughed. “Who am I to argue with him?”
“He was just so… Well, determined I think is the best word. And I admired him for that. He made things happen.”
“Tell me the story about his childhood.”
“Oh, you must have heard it ten times now.”
Probably more, Madari thought, all those months as prisoners with little to do but talk. “I enjoy it,” he said.
Jahni sighed, as if he felt put upon, but started to talk anyway.
“He was a foundling, left as a baby at the door of the village head man. Nobody could find out who his mother was, she might have been passing through rather than from the village.”
Or the head man might have been his father, Madari thought, though didn’t say anything. Chickens coming home to roost.
“An old couple, whose children had all grown up and left home took him in and raised him. But they both died by the time he was thirteen. Their children passed him around between their families for a couple of years, but he knew they didn’t want him. So one day he just decided to go to Az-Ma’ir and make his own way in the world. He said he walked a hundred miles to get there, on bare feet.”
Madari smiled. It sounded to him as if Jahni’s father could give Ahmed a run for his money when it came to tall tales. But he listened, enjoying it, as Jahni went on, relating how his father had started out trading in trinkets on the street and ended up with a successful import export business.
“All that money,” Madari said, “from his business. That’s yours now, you realise?”
“I… I suppose,” Jahni frowned. “I never really thought about it.”
“We can go to his bank tomorrow if you want,” Madari suggested, then laughed. “Perhaps we should go to a barber on the way though, so we won’t look like a pair of bandits there to rob the place.”
Jahni smiled, a rather wan effort.
“Yes. All right. I’ll need some money to get back to my regiment anyway. I’ll have to get a train, I suppose.”
They sat in silence for a few moments, went on with the polishing, making the steel gleam. Madari felt the oppressive weight of the future starting to press in on them. They had to face it eventually though. They couldn’t hide here forever. Jahni couldn’t stay here forever. People would notice that, start to question his presence. A few days, while they rested, that they could get away with. But eventually it would start to look suspicious.
And it was dangerous too. In the camp there’d been little privacy, but here, behind his high compound walls, when Youssef went out for the evening and they had the house to themselves? Privacy gave him too many opportunities for temptation. The danger of losing control became too great.
So to talk about the future now meant they took their first steps towards it, towards the inevitable parting. He wanted to cry “don’t leave!” to Jahni, and wondered, hoped, that Jahni longed to hear it. But to give in to the temptation to say those words would destroy the very future they had to face up to.
He couldn’t do that to Jahni. When he’d called Jahni his best soldier that had been the truth. And he agreed with Jahni’s father about what he was capable of. He had a limitless future in the Army. Madari had his own ambitions and they were, well, his own ambitions were his own affair, he could throw them away in a moment of madness. But to destroy Jahni’s too? He would never forgive himself for that.
Jahni awoke with a gasp when he heard the first scream. For a moment his unfamiliar surroundings frightened him, but then he remembered where he was. The scream came again. He knew it only too well. Scrambling out of bed, he ran to Madari’s room.
It was the worst he’d seen Madari in a long time. When Jahni ran in he found Madari off the bed and curled against the wall, his hands over his head, crying out, begging, pleading for mercy. Jahni dropped to his hands and knees, close to Madari, but not touching him yet.
“Faris, wake up. Wake up. It’s a dream, you’re safe, wake up now.” He heard a sound behind him and turned to see Youssef at the door, reaching for the light switch.
“No!” Jahni snapped. Too late. The harsh electric glare filled the room and Madari screamed, clawed at the wall.
“Turn the light off now!” Jahni ordered. “Turn it off!”
Youssef responded instinctively to the tone of command from the young officer and flicked the light off again.
“What’s wrong with him?”
“He’s having a nightmare. I can handle it.”
“Should I get a doctor?” Youssef sounded frightened.
“No, that’s not necessary. Just let me help him.” Just go away and stop asking questions, he wanted to yell.
Youssef did stop asking questions but he didn’t go away. Jahni turned back to Madari who still sobbed in terror. Slow, careful, he moved closer, until he held Madari, all the time keeping up a stream of soothing comforting words. At last Jahni managed to coax him back onto the bed, where he lay down beside him holding him from behind. Madari clung to Jahni’s forearms, as if afraid of being swept away.
“It’s all right now. I won’t leave you,” Jahni whispered. The room darkened suddenly and he looked up to see Youssef had backed out and closed the door behind him cutting off the light from the hallway.
On the bed, Madari’s body still felt tense against Jahni’s, still trembled.
“Sleep, Faris,” Jahni whispered. “You’re safe. I won’t leave you.” He rested his forehead on the back of Madari’s head, breathing in the scents of soap and sweat mingling now in Madari’s hair.
“Kahil,” Madari whispered, before his trembling body finally stilled. Jahni, careful not to move around too much, pulled sheets and blankets up around him, keeping him warm, keeping him safe.
I should leave, he thought. Now he is asleep, I should go.
I don’t want to leave.
Madari woke to soft words.
A second later he heard the sound of rapidly retreating footsteps. He blinked, raising his head from the pillow, seeing the small coffee cup on the bookcase beside him, saw the door closing, and turning to his left, Jahni’s sleeping form beside him.
He almost leapt out of the bed, heart racing. Jahni, his legs tangled in the bed sheets, partly on top of them, partly under them, stirred as Madari moved. He turned onto his back, one hand resting across his stomach, but didn’t wake. After a moment he lay still again.
Madari stared at him, at Jahni, wearing only pyjama trousers, sleeping beside him, in his bed. The memory came back, of the nightmare, of Jahni’s reassuring presence, his strong arms encircling Madari and that voice speaking calming, soothing words. He remembered Jahni helping him back onto the bed, holding him as they lay there together. They had both fallen asleep, Madari realised.
Madari leaned back against the wardrobe where he’d backed up to when he’d jumped out of bed. He moaned softly and pressed the heel of his right hand against his temple, where a pounding pain had started up.
Nothing happened, he told himself. Nothing happened. He comforted you, as he has so many times before. And then you slept the rest of the night with him, in his arms and woke at his side, and something could have happened. In the darkness, how easy to let it happen, let the darkness conceal and deny it.
He should walk out of this room now, he knew. At the very least, he should stop looking down at the barely clothed body of a man he could no longer deny he wanted. Wanted to make love to, his mind insisted on forcing him to be honest. Stop trying to avoid the truth now.
You want him as your lover.
Since he’d been a young man he’d sometimes felt attraction to other men, as well as women. Such feelings were totally forbidden, so he’d never acted on them. But he wanted to now, more than he ever had. In the past, the feelings, the attraction had never seemed to be more than a passing madness, not worth indulging. Not worth the risk.
But what he felt for Jahni was so strong that he felt as if every moment of every day he was deciding if the risk of disgrace and dishonour might just be worth taking. Would it be? If it meant he could take Jahni in his arms, tell him what he felt, and, please, please, see joy and acceptance in his face? Kiss him? Not in his dreams, but here, in the light? Could he, both of them, risk everything for that?
What did he risk? Certainly if they were found out they’d be thrown out of the Army, stripped of their commissions. The king had outlawed the old punishments; in his grandfather’s day, they’d have been at risk of fifty lashes and then prison. But there’d only been so far even the king and his liberal views could take the laws. The lashing was gone, but the prison sentences remained.
Would I risk all of that, my future, his too? Our good names, our reputations, the honour of our families? For love?
Jahni stirred on the bed and Madari looked up with a gasp, saw Jahni lift a hand to rub his eyes, already nearly awake. Madari didn’t wait for him to wake fully, to open his eyes and see where he was. He walked out of the room, as fast as Youssef had.
Youssef. Madari froze as he closed the door. He had come into the room, had left coffee for Madari, and then retreated quickly. But he’d been there last night, hadn’t he? Madari felt sure he recalled the old man’s voice mixed in with the memories of his own screams and Jahni’s gentle whisper. Surely he understood, that their falling asleep together had, at least on the surface, an innocent explanation? Madari would have to speak to him, make sure he understood that.
He moved again, walked on into the bathroom and took a long, long shower.
When he went back to his bedroom, Jahni had gone.
Jahni sank down onto his bed, his knees shaking.
When he’d opened his eyes to find himself in Madari’s bed, it had taken a long moment to remember how he’d ended up there, and when he did remember, then for a second he had felt disappointment. Nothing had happened. Nothing inappropriate. Nothing illegal, unacceptable, against regulations had happened.
But he knew that he wouldn’t have objected if it had. If Madari had turned into his embrace, pressed close against him and touched Jahni’s lips with his own, Jahni wouldn’t have pushed him away.
That was wrong, he knew that, he’d been taught that, since he was a teenager, warned against men who might try to touch him with intentions that were… inappropriate. But he longed for it now. He refused to suppress the feelings any more, even if he had to suppress acting on them, he could no longer deny what he felt.
He couldn’t have acted on them last night though. If Madari had initiated it himself, then Jahni would have given in to the temptation. But in that state, so vulnerable, who knows what horrible memories filling Madari’s mind? If Jahni had made a move, initiated anything, he might have terrified Madari. So last night had not been the right time.
Would there be a time? Before they had to part? And would Jahni have the nerve to respond? Or if he had to, would he have the nerve to actually make it happen?
“I brought a newspaper, sir,” Youssef said, laying the paper on the table.
“Oh, thank you,” Madari said, not sure how sincere his thanks were. He glanced at the paper, but made no move to pick it up. Jahni sat across from him, not talking much, and not tackling his breakfast with his usual enthusiasm. He showed no interest in the paper either, just gazed off into space most of the time.
When Youssef hurried from the room Madari frowned after him. The old man’s demeanour had been awkward as he served their breakfast. When Madari finished his meal he took the plates and cups into the kitchen.
“Please, sir, there’s no need.” Youssef sounded nearly as pained as when Madari had started to wield the shovel. “I can get them.”
“I know, but I wanted to speak to you. About last night.”
Youssef looked away. “I shouldn’t have intruded, sir. But you sounded so frightened. I was worried.”
“Of course you were, that’s natural. Let me explain –”
“That’s not necessary.”
“I think it is. What you saw last night must have looked very strange to you. Must have shocked you, I need you to understand.” He paused a moment, looking down, then looked up again. “You have noticed my hands. The scars.” He had his arms crossed over his chest, his hands out of sight.
“Yes,” Youssef said quietly.
“I was tortured after I was arrested. My fingernails were pulled out.”
“Oh, master Faris.” Youssef’s voice cracked, as he used the childhood name.
“I was in their hands for three weeks before I was sent to the prison. And I still have nightmares about those weeks. And sometimes even during the day I have attacks. The memories overwhelm me and I relive events.” Flashbacks, he hated the word. He’d not had one of those for some time though, had begun to hope he never would again.
“I’m so sorry, sir. Would a doctor be able to help?’
“Perhaps. The main thing is time. I’m slowly getting better. Anyway, in the prison, and later once we made it our base, my officers helped me, supported me when I had the dreams and flashbacks. Lieutenant Jahni has been an especially important support for me.”
“I’m sure he is a fine young man, sir.” His voice still held a trace of doubt.
“He is.” Madari’s voice held no doubt. “We have become good friends. Please don’t think that what you saw last night was anything but him supporting me as a friend.”
“I understand, sir.”
“Good. Thank you, Youssef.”
Had he convinced him? Madari wondered and then frowned. Convinced him? That made it sound as if what he’d just told Youssef was a lie. Was it a lie? Youssef looked happier though, and Madari felt relieved about that, knew that whatever Youssef’s loyalty to the family he wouldn’t stay in the house if he thought there was something immoral happening. And though Youssef wasn’t a gossip, Madari knew he wouldn’t lie if questioned.
“We are going out,” he told Youssef. “Will be away at least until this afternoon. Would you see if you can get the telephone reconnected?”
Perhaps the time had come to reconnect with the world outside.
The first stop they made in the city was at a barber’s shop and they emerged looking almost entirely respectable now, Madari clean shaven again, both with neat hair and their clean clothes. They drove on towards the bank Jahni recalled his father using. The city looked nearly normal. There were some troops still on the streets, but commerce had resumed, people still had to earn a living.
At the bank the name “Madari” produced the miraculous effect of sweeping aside anyone waiting ahead of them. They were soon in the manager’s office, being served tea, while the chief bank officer brought them the information they needed. And it was what Madari had feared.
“It’s all gone?” Madari glanced at Jahni, who showed no reaction to the news. “The government took it all?”
“I’m sorry, sir.” The manager looked at Madari and not Jahni. “They emptied the accounts. We couldn’t stop them. I wish there was something I could do. The late Mr Jahni was a good customer of the bank for many years. If we could do anything to help the Lieutenant we would. But there is nothing.” He finally looked at Jahni. “I’m so sorry.”
“All right.” Jahni stood up. The other two men rose.
“If there’s anything else,” the bank manager said, “any business you wish to transact with us, I will personally ensure it is handled favourably.”
Jahni shook his head and started to walk out of the room.
“Kahil,” Madari called, making Jahni stop and look at him. “I’ll be a moment, please wait for me.” Jahni nodded and left the room.
“I’m sorry,” Madari said. “It is a difficult period for him. For all of us. This transition back to normality.” Normality. Reality. Yet this normality felt so unreal. Felt almost absurd. Airport managers, bank managers. He’d not had to deal with such people for so long.
“I understand, sir.”
No, you don’t. “My lawyer may contact you shortly, I will be instructing him to see if the money can be recovered. The bank will I’m sure give their full cooperation.”
“Oh. Um, of course.” The bank manager looked worried, but shook Madari’s hand when he offered it.
Madari found Jahni outside in the banking hall, waiting. Probably without realising it he was watching the area as if on guard for an attack. When Madari appeared he snapped to attention.
“Let’s get some lunch,” Madari suggested. Jahni just nodded.
Jahni barely spoke as they ate lunch at the tables outside a café. They ordered tea after their lunch and drank it in the shelter of the large, dark green umbrellas over the tables.
“What now, Kahil?” Madari asked that question again.
“I suppose it’s time to go back to my regiment. At least they will put a roof over my head.” He looked at Madari, into his eyes. His voice became almost a whisper. “But I… I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to leave you.” He reached across the table and his hand brushed against Madari’s for an instant.
He could have taken Madari’s hand. No one would have remarked on it. But that tiny, fleeting brush of skin against skin felt far more exciting, to Madari, more frightening and…
Fighting for control, Madari swallowed the lump in his throat and tried hard to keep his voice level.
“Well, you don’t have to make any quick decisions. Sleep on it. Come home with – I mean come back to my house for now. You are still welcome to stay as long as you need to.”
“Thank you, sir… Faris.” Jahni smiled. “I would like that.”
When they stood up Madari’s legs were trembling. They went back to the Mercedes and drove out of the city.
Jahni stayed quiet most of the journey back. He had come so close there to speaking, to telling Madari what he wanted, really wanted. Last night came to his mind again. He’d been prepared to let it happen.
When had he become so shy of the word? Perhaps when he started to seriously consider, to think about, dream about, sex with a man, this man. He’d never felt that desire before, yet now it filled his mind.
Could he really leave without ever experiencing that with Faris? Because after this, after he left and they only saw each other occasionally, spoke on the telephone, wrote letters, then surely they would grow apart. The intensity their relationship had now, the heat, would wane. This whole thing, the prison, the guerrilla campaign, had been a kind of insanity. Once he left would his head cool off, his sanity return, and make him start to wonder how he could have felt this way? Perhaps. But if that happened would he always regret not finding out what it would be like to pursue that side of their relationship?
If it stayed a secret forever then why not let it happen, he thought. Nobody else ever has to know of it. He knew the risk, the terrible consequences if that secret should be revealed. This was something forbidden by law, by their culture, their religion.
Religion. He snorted, making Madari glance over at him. Jahni didn’t say anything. Religion. That could be a problem. Not for him, not any more, but would it deter Madari? Just how sincere were his beliefs anyway? An intelligent man, rational, sensitive. Was his religious observance only habit and appearance? Jahni wished he had the courage to ask that.
The car sped on, eating up the miles, not far from the village now. The house, where he might spend only one more night. He recalled Madari saying that Youssef had tonight off and felt sure Madari would insist the servant took that time. They could have the house to themselves for several hours.
It’s going to happen, Jahni decided. I’m going to let it happen, make it happen. No, not ‘make’, that would be too aggressive. With his memories, the things they did to him, I can’t risk frightening him. I will invite it. Make it clear I welcome it. He glanced at Madari again, who had his eyes fixed on the road. I’ll let him make the choice to accept my invitation or not.
I love you, he thought. If one night, no, one evening, is all the time I have to show you, then I must accept that. I must make it an evening we will never forget.
“So it begins,” Madari said softly as they drove into the compound, to find it full of parked cars. In a moment they found the diwaniya full of men, most of them in uniform. Youssef darted around providing them with coffee and tea.
“Idris!” Jahni cried as they went in, Faraj’s height making him stand out from the crowd.
Faraj seemed surprised to see Jahni there, but embraced him and Madari. Like them, his hair was freshly cut. His clothes were of a more fashionable and elegant cut than theirs though. Probably new, Madari guessed.
“It is good to see you, Idris, and to see you looking like yourself again,” Madari said, happy to see Faraj return to the immaculate and elegant appearance he had maintained before their lives had changed so much. “Your family?”
“Home, sir. Safe and well. Mehdi…” He smiled, shaking his head. “He is so big now.”
“And as handsome as his father, I am sure.” This came from a short, slightly plump man in his fifties, with white hair and beard. He wore the uniform of the Royal Guard, the insignia of a colonel. “Hello Faris. His majesty told me about the strange company of bandits who greeted him at the airport. And the wild-eyed ruffian who led them. I knew right away that had to be you, my old friend.” He embraced Madari, and then offered his hand to Jahni.
“Colonel,” Madari said, “Allow me to introduce Lieutenant Jahni. Lieutenant, this is Colonel Rahama, I’ve spoken of him to you.”
“An honour, Colonel.” Jahni bowed his head as he shook the Colonel’s hand.
“The honour is mine. Your name is not unknown to me, Lieutenant Jahni. Your courage and daring are famous.” Jahni blushed, looking pleased and surprised.
“The king has named Colonel Rahama as Colonel in Chief of the regiment,” Faraj said.
Madari stared and then grasped Rahama’s hand and shook it again.
“Thank you, Faris.” Rahama smiled. “Old Ahmed always said I showed promise, I hope I am living up to that promise.”
“He would have been proud of you,” Madari said.
“And of you, Faris. Now come along, you must tell me first hand of your exploits.”
“You didn’t expect to be hosting a party today, did you, Faris?”
Madari turned from where he stood with a coffee cup in his hand, by the living room window, watching the sun setting. Rahama stood behind him.
“No, sir.” Madari sighed, but then smiled at his old friend. “So you know all about what I have been up to. Tell me what you have been doing for the last two years. I know you have been living in Paris.”
“Yes. His majesty was gracious enough to accept my counsel. I did what I could to help the resistance efforts here at home. Organised shipments of weapons and supplies.”
“Then you have my gratitude,” Madari said, bowing his head. “You must have enjoyed living in Paris.”
“Indeed.” Rahama sighed. “It is the only truly civilised city in Europe. “But,” he went on, “I have not spent the whole two years in art galleries and restaurants. Last year I made the Pilgrimage.”
“Then I must call you Al-Hajji.” Madari lifted his coffee cup in salute, but as he did he saw Rahama react to the sight of his scarred hand. Rahama looked into Madari’s eyes and Madari saw pity there. And something else. Guilt.
“I’m so sorry about what happened to you, Faris.”
“Don’t, Sharif. Don’t apologise.”
“I brought you into the conspiracy. If I hadn’t…” He looked away towards the setting sun and they were silent for a few moments, then Rahama turned back to Madari. “I meant what I said before. Old Ahmed would have been very proud of you.” He took one of Madari’s hands in both his own. “You will be rewarded, Faris, for what you have suffered, for how bravely you fought. His majesty is talking of all kinds of honours and promotion for you.” He laughed, forced cheer in it. “Perhaps I shall soon be calling you ‘sir’? Perhaps it will be General Madari?”
Madari shook his head. “I don’t see how I could accept any promotion that is not based on my regular duties.”
Rahama frowned at him, a stern look Madari saw only rarely, and let go of Madari’s hand.
“Major, you are an officer of Royal Guard. You serve the Royal House and if the king wishes to honour you then you will accept it graciously. If you refuse any reward you will look churlish and vain, and I don’t believe you are either of those things, Faris.” He lost the frown then and some of the twinkle came back into his eyes. “I can see you have changed, my friend. That you have lost some of that arrogance we all loved so much in you.” Madari winced. A fair assessment, he thought. “But do not make a vice out of modesty.” Rahama went on. “I will keep in mind what you said about promotion though, if you feel so strongly about it. If you wish to remain a Major for now then you’ll have your wish.” He chuckled. “Did you just have a new batch of stationery printed up?”
That finally elicited a smile from Madari and the mood softened. Rahama laid a hand on Madari’s arm, squeezed it for a moment, a small reassurance perhaps.
“Sharif,” Madari said, using the given name deliberately, calling on their long friendship. “I have another matter I wish to ask you about.” The idea had come to him as soon as he heard Rahama, his friend and ally, now commanded the regiment, had the power to help him, perhaps to make this happen.
“What is it?”
“Lieutenant Jahni. He is a superb officer and was one of my most valuable men. I know he is still young of course, but he has so much promise.”
The word ‘promise’ made Madari remember his first meeting with another young lieutenant with ‘promise’ so long ago. Taking a breath, he asked the question. The question whose answer would change so much in his life.
“Would you approve of him transferring into the Royal Guard? I think he could make a great contribution.”
Rahama nodded slowly. “I have heard glowing reports of him. From Captain Faraj for one.”
“I think he could become the best officer I have ever met.” He gave a short laugh then went on. “Except my grandfather of course. And you.”
“I have every confidence in your judgement, Faris. And given the way the king is talking about you at the moment, I think refusing you anything would be unwise and possibly illegal. Have you asked Mr Jahni yet?”
“What’s his current regiment?”
“Ah, Omar Mohd, a good man. I shall telephone him tomorrow and put the wheels in motion, if Mr Jahni wishes to join us.”
“Thank you so much, Colonel, thank you.” He held out his hand and Rahama shook it, smiling at Madari.
“Well go and ask him then, no sense in delay.”
In the living room Jahni and Faraj were the centre of attention, as they recounted stories of the campaign. But Jahni fell silent, letting Faraj continue a tale alone as he saw Madari come back in. Madari caught Jahni’s gaze, as he passed through the diwaniya, then stopped at the door into the rest of the house.
He made a small gesture, for Jahni to come to him and Jahni obeyed the summons at once.
“Kahil, I have something to ask you,” Madari said, when Jahni reached him. He spoke quietly, his face serious. “Please come through here.”
They went into the living room and Madari waved Jahni towards a couch. For a moment, he hesitated beside the couch, but then didn’t sit. Instead he walked over to the wall, where the swords had been returned to pride of place. The scabbards gleamed, hiding blades that now shone after the polishing Madari and Jahni had given them last night.
Madari looked at the swords for a while, his hands behind his back, then he reached out and for a second touched the hilt of his grandfather’s sword. He seemed to straighten up, Jahni thought, as he touched the sword. At last Madari turned to him and smiled.
“Don’t look so nervous, Kahil.”
I look nervous? Jahni thought. With an effort he smiled.
“I have some good news,” Madari went on. “At least I hope you think it’s good news.” He nodded. “I think you will. I have asked Colonel Rahama if he’s prepared to let you transfer into the Royal Guard, and he has agreed.”
Jahni stared at him, his voice gone in his amazement. Transfer? Into the Royal Guard? To stay at Madari’s side.
It blew all of his other plans out of the water. If they had been about to part he’d have risked offering to share Madari’s bed tonight. But now, now they would have to continue as before. And that was… That was wonderful. Nothing could make him more proud, more happy than to go on serving with Madari, being close to him as a friend.
When he saw Madari look at him, worried, and start to speak again, voice faltering, Jahni realised he should have answered by now and not just sat there gaping like a landed fish.
“If… if you want to of course. I feel sure it would be a great opportunity for you. And I know you would –”
“Yes,” Jahni exclaimed, then grimaced at interrupting him. “I’m sorry, go on.”
Madari didn’t continue with what he’d been saying, seemed to forget it. “That is… You will do so well, I know it.” He gave a wide smile and it made Jahni smile in return.
Jahni started to stand up, but then sank down again as Madari approached and sat down on the couch beside him. Now he wiped off the smile and wore the serious expression on this face again. Madari took both of Jahni’s hands, both of them, in his own.
“Kahil, this is… Things will be very different now, than they were at the camp. We will have to be different. Do you understand?”
Yes, Jahni thought, yes I do. And I understand what this means. If we’re to serve together then anything I planned for tonight cannot, no – must nothappen.
“Yes, Faris.” He spoke softly. “I understand what you mean. And I… I want to thank you, for thinking I’m worthy of serving in the Royal Guard.”
Madari waved his hand, waved away the thanks.
“You are more than worthy. You are a fine officer and you honour me with your service and your loyalty. And…” he hesitated and bit his lip, seemed nervous. “And you touch me with your friendship, your love, Kahil… I… I value it deeply.”
Faraj’s voice came from the doorway through to the kitchen. They turned to look at him and Jahni felt Madari withdraw his hands, quite quickly.
“Your guests getting ready to leave, sir.”
“Ah.” Madari stood up, smoothed down his shirt. “I have good news,” he said to Faraj. “Kahil is going to transfer into the Royal Guard. We will all serve together.”
Faraj looked astonished. “Kahil?” He stared at Jahni, who smiled at him, nodded.
“I see,” Faraj said, frowning. Madari didn’t remark on that, just hurried from the room. Jahni went to follow him and Faraj blocked his path, stood with arms folded
“Idris?” Jahni raised his eyebrows with surprise at Faraj, who scowled back at him.
“This transfer is a mistake, Kahil.”
“Faris doesn’t think so.” Faraj’s eyes widened when Jahni used Madari’s given name. Jahni tried to lighten the mood, tried to joke.
“Worried I’ll outshine you, Idris?” Perhaps his tone had too much teasing in it, but the joke didn’t amuse Faraj. He still stood, barring Jahni’s path, his arms folded.
“Are you living here?” It sounded less like a question, more an accusation.
“For now.” Faraj still didn’t move and Jahni lost his patience, snapped out his words.
“Idris, if you have something to say to me, then say it. If not then let me pass.”
After a moment, Faraj looked away stepped to the side. Jahni smiled at him in what he hoped came across as a friendly way, but it didn’t seem to help. As Jahni followed Madari into the diwaniya he could feel Faraj’s eyes on his back all of the way.
Madari had no nightmare that night, because he barely slept. He lay awake staring at the ceiling. The joy of starting the process to bring Jahni into the Royal Guard had started to fade and doubt took its place. Had he made a mistake? They would serve together, as before. Outside of work they could spend as much time together as they wanted. In private places, where danger lay only an arm’s length away.
He sat up, unable to bear lying down any longer. A cotton robe hung on the back of the door and he put that on, then prowled the house, checking the doors and window shutters, moving silently on his bare feet. At one point he stood by the door of the small room where Jahni slept, fancied he could hear him breathing, whispering softly in his sleep. He laid a hand flat against the door. Should he go in and talk to Jahni? Say it had been a mistake, a bad idea, that Jahni should leave after all? And before he left, might something happen? Something that Madari couldn’t allow to happen while they served together, remained friends. He knew the choice he had to make.
Could he give up the time they could spend together in the future, give up his friendship, his comradeship, so that for one night they could share a bed?
Well not tonight, that’s for sure, he thought, glancing at the door that led to Youssef’s room. His chaperone. His conscience. Madari sighed and walked to his study, found his humidor and sat in a leather armchair, relaxing into the chair as if into the embrace of an old friend. The chair was ten years old, and had adapted to his body. Nobody else ever sat in it.
He sat in the dim light of a lamp watching the cigar smoke curl up.
The question was one of control. Self-control. Self-discipline. If Jahni came into the Royal Guard, served under Madari, if they continued their friendship then however careful they might be, opportunities to give in to temptation would crop up many times. Did Madari have the strength to resist that temptation?
Yet he had, for months now. Since the day before they took the camp he had known he loved Jahni. No, he had known long before, since the moment he saw him. Certainly that day before the liberation, he had finally admitted it to himself. But in all the time before and since that realisation, despite moments he could have given in to his urges, he had never done anything to act on those feelings. However close he had come he had always stopped, even at the last second.
Was that enough? After all he’d restrained himself partly because he feared Jahni would reject him, would be horrified by a sexual advance. Now he dared to believe that wouldn’t happen. He dared to believe Jahni felt the same temptation, felt the same love. But to know the approach would probably be welcomed made things worse, increased the temptation.
But did love, even romantic love have to find sexual expression? They could remain friends despite the desires they felt. Intimate, intense friends, certainly, but they did not have to be lovers just because they felt that desire.
Surely there were other ways to express love? They could express the strength of their feelings in other ways, other actions. They already did that, through their loyalty and kindness to each other. Through the things they’d done for each other. Not all of them kind. With a shiver he turned his thoughts away from what he’d ordered Noor and Faraj to do to that soldier, for Jahni’s sake.
A question of control, but also of priorities. Weren’t companionship and loyalty as important as sex? Perhaps more so? And sexual relationships… well, they didn’t always last. What if he dared risk everything, took Jahni as his lover and in a few months they broke apart in bitterness and even hatred? Would he not rather have Jahni’s friendship for the rest of his life than a brief affair?
Something else he had to face. Although he desired Jahni physically, he couldn’t deny that his sex drive had never returned to the same level as before he was tortured. Jahni on the other hand was a young, healthy man, whose physical needs might very well be more than Madari could meet.
He closed his eyes for a moment as shame washed over him. How could he sit here and think such shocking, forbidden things? But after a moment he opened his eyes again. Shameful the thoughts might be, but he had to admit. If he denied them how could he deal with them? Control them? They would control him and he would not even know it.
I can do this, he thought. I know I can control my urges. Any civilised man controls his urges all of the time, or else he’d simply grab whatever he wanted all the time, rampage around in a frenzy of lust and greed. I have been controlling my base urges all of my life. Now I have to work at it harder, but I believe I can do it.
It should be easier now, not harder. Back in the camp, the campaign, the rebellion, they had been so far removed from reality that looking back, it already seemed like a kind of dream. As if he’d been insane for a while. He laughed then, very quiet. For a while he had been.
When he saw Jahni in uniform, that would help, he thought. The uniform was a signal. Off limits. A soldier might be more than his uniform. But with a uniform a man became more than just a man.
No, he decided finally. He had not made a mistake. He had certainly given himself a challenge, but he had the strength to meet that challenge.
I am strong. I have discipline. I am a soldier.
At seven o’clock in the morning, Youssef found Madari asleep in the armchair in the study.
Madari rubbed his eyes, confused for a moment, but then fixing on the important word he had just heard. Coffee. He took the cup Youssef was offering.
“Thank you. Make more. A lot more.”
“Didn’t you sleep last night, sir?’
“Not very much.” He sipped the coffee, then called out to Youssef, who had started to leave the room. “Youssef.”
“Please lay out my uniform.”