Part 16: Distractions

Chapter 1

March 1989

“Lieutenant Colonel Madari. Congratulations on your promotion.”

“Your majesty.” Madari bowed his head, then turned to the man that stood beside King Atuallah, Prince Zahir, the king’s brother and their Defence Minister. “Sir.”

“And Colonel Rahama.” The king smiled at him. “Always a pleasure. Please, sit, all of you.”

They sat around a long conference table, the four of them taking up only one end of it. The king and his brother sat side by side and were a study in contrast, Madari thought. Both men’s features were quite similar, and they even wore their short neat beards in an almost identical style. But Zahir cut a more imposing figure, taller and wearing flowing white robes and a headdress. The king on the other hand wore a light grey western style suit, and was bareheaded. Shorter than his brother, he even looked younger, though Madari knew he was two years the senior.

“I’m sorry I haven’t been able to see you sooner,” Atuallah said, “But I’m very keen to hear about your trip to England. I’ve read your report.”

Had he? Madari wondered. Or had his advisors read it and summarized the key points? A king was a busy man after all.

“Any questions you have about the report I’ll be happy to answer,” Madari said.

“I have a question.” That came from Zahir. As he spoke, he reached across the table and picked up a blanched almond from a dish. Before he went on, he sipped the tea an attendant was still serving to them all. “Do you really consider it a justifiable expense to send Lieutenant Jahni to be trained in England? Don’t you consider our training facilities adequate?”

“I believe it is now Captain Jahni,” Atuallah said, quietly.

“My apologies.” Zahir bowed his head to his brother.

“I believe it is justifiable, Sir,” Madari said. “He’ll not only be trained himself, he will return ready to train others, ready to set up the Special Forces Group’s unique training program. The Captain and I agreed that his hands-on experience of the SAS Selection and training is worth far more than studying it in the abstract.”

“Assuming of course, that he passes,” Zahir said.

A flush rose to Madari’s face. “I have a great deal of confidence in the Captain. And first hand experience of his abilities. It will be a challenge, but it’s one I think he can meet.”

“I agree,” Rahama said. “One of the best young officers I’ve known.”

“Excellent,” Atuallah said. He stood up from the table for a moment, waved the others to sit again when they went to rise. “It’s so warm today.” He strolled to the open windows, that looked north. “I’ve been thinking about the unit’s training, actually. The report recommended setting up a training base, outside the city.”

“Yes, Sir.” Perhaps he had read the whole thing.

“Yes, that’s a good idea, I think.” The king turned back from the window, taking off his jacket. “Far too warm in here.”

“You spend too much time in the cold, in France, my dear brother.”

Madari glanced at Rahama, who wore a small frown, directed at Zahir. But Atuallah didn’t seem to mind the remark. In fact he laughed.

“Even a king has to work hard to stay on the right side of his in-laws, dear brother.” He turned back to Madari and Rahama. “Now, what I was saying, is that I wondered if perhaps your old base would be suitable as a training centre?”

“The camp?” Madari had never even thought of that for a moment.

“Control of it has reverted to the Royal Guard, I believe. And you obviously had success training your guerrilla force there.”

“Yes… I… it does have some damage.”

“Easily repaired I’m sure, to bring it up to specifications.” He glanced at Zahir. “I’m sure you can allocate extra funds for that.”

“I’d been thinking of the old Air Force base at El Himran,” Zahir said. “It’s in better condition.”

It’s also much older and less well equipped, Madari knew. His men would hardly expect luxury, while training, but they could at least be provided with decent plumbing.

“No, no.” Atuallah shook his head. “Quite unsuitable location. What do you think?” He asked, turning back to Madari.

“Well, there is a good variety of terrain in easy reach of the camp, suitable for training in various environments. It’s remote of course, which is good.” He had to admit, it was a good idea. He hadn’t been back there, since he left for the last battle to restore the king. Part of him never wanted to see it again, and part of him knew going there would feel like coming home. After a moment he smiled and nodded. “Yes, Sir. I think it’s a very good idea.”

“Excellent, arrange to send someone out there to assess the work required. Now then.” He sat down again and pulled a sheet of paper from a folder. “Now, I have several questions about your report.”

Madari quickly concluded that, yes, Atuallah had read the whole thing, and he had enough intelligent and difficult questions to make Madari decide that, yes, it was indeed very warm in here.


“Well, please pass on my regards to Captain Jahni and wish him luck with the training.” The king had walked out to where Rahama’s car waited for the two officers. Zahir, claiming pressing business elsewhere, had already gone.

“I will, Sir,” Madari said, shaking the offered hand. “He leaves in a week.”

“I know he will do you and his country great credit.”

They made their goodbyes and Rahama and Madari got into the back of the car. Rahama closed the partition between them and the driver.

“I think his Majesty had you sweating a little, Faris.”

Madari shook his head, smiled. “He asked some very – ah – incisive questions.”

“He’s a bright young man.” Rahama took a couple of cigars from a humidor built into the panel in front of them. “Here, calm your nerves, my friend.”

They sat in silence for a moment, smoking their cigars. The King and his sharp questions wasn’t the thing playing on Madari’s mind, but rather the attitude of Zahir.

“I wonder if the unit has the full support of his Highness? He doesn’t seem enthusiastic.”

“Oh, I don’t think it’s the unit, so much as its commander.”

“I see,” Madari said, slowly. “Then, given that he is the Defence Minister and has the power to appoint who he wishes to the unit, why am I the commander?” He had initiated the idea of course, but that was no guarantee that he would automatically command the Special Forces unit.

“Because his Majesty wants it. You’re quite the favourite with him.”

“Favourite?” Madari frowned. “I don’t think my position should be based on being a ‘favourite’.”

“Oh, then let me put it another way. He values your counsel, I think you underestimate how much so.”

Madari wasn’t sure if he did underestimate it, he just wasn’t sure he understood it. He’d been called more and more regularly to the palace, ostensibly to report on the progress of the new unit. But the conversation often strayed to other matters, to politics, especially the reforms and initiatives the king was bringing in.

“Well, that’s flattering, but I’m no politician, or diplomat. I can only advise on military matters.”

“I think…” Rahama looked thoughtful for a moment, then puffed out some smoke and went on. “I think he sees you as a sounding board. You value both tradition and progress, without being a slave to either.”

“I don’t see that there has to be any conflict between those two things.”

“Exactly.” Rahama smiled. “Of course. You’re an idealist and a man of rigid principle, so he also needs other advisers. More cynical. More realistic.”

“Like Prince Zahir?”

“No. Like me.”


Madari returned to his offices to find a private piling archive boxes onto a trolley, while Faraj stood at his desk, packing his briefcase. The desk was almost bare now. Only the briefcase and the telephone remained. Jahni sat at his own desk watching Faraj packing up.

His last day, Madari thought. He had forgotten it was today. Faraj was moving to a new office of his own, while this office and those around it, became the headquarters of the Special Forces unit. Madari had stopped feeling guilty about his relief over Faraj’s departure. Instead he hoped it might give them the chance to salvage their friendship. Perhaps working, and for so long even living together, had simply worn them down. Familiarity breeds contempt, the saying went. Some distance could help them all.

The private pushing the trolley left the room and Faraj put on his jacket. The insignia of a major gleamed bright and new. Slowly he fastened the buttons, adjusted the sleeves, and straightened the front of the jacket. He picked up his cap next and after a moment in front of the mirror had that adjusted to perfection. Satisfied at last, he turned back to the desk, and closed his briefcase.

“Well,” he said. “It’s time.”

Jahni rose from his desk and the three of them met in the middle of the floor. Faraj offered his hand, first to Madari and then Jahni.

“It’s been an honour to serve you, sir. And to serve with you, Captain.”

“An honour and a pleasure,” Madari said. “I know you will go on to great things, Idris.”

“Thank you, sir. Good luck with the new unit. And good luck in England, Kahil.”

“I’ll see you again before I go,” Jahni said. “Why don’t we all go out to dinner tonight? We should mark this –”

“I’m sorry, I have plans already, but of course, we’ll try to meet up before you leave.”

He turned away, and Madari wanted to pull him back, grab him into an embrace, hating the formality in their voices. Had all of the warmth gone from their relationship? Where had the Faraj he once knew gone? This one spoke to them like a stranger.

Faraj picked up his briefcase and walked out of the office, without looking back.

Madari didn’t speak for a moment, still watched the door, the empty space where Faraj had been. It seemed no time since he first came into Madari’s office. Barely twenty three, full of ambition, full of honour. Eager to do his duty. Eager to demonstrate his loyalty. He had always done his duty, but somewhere along the way, Madari had lost his loyalty.

“Faris?” Jahni said then, bringing his mind back to the present. “Are you all right?”

“Yes.” He smiled and let himself feel the relief again. “Fetch us some tea and come into the office. We have work to do.”

“Of course.”

He hurried off and Madari went into his office, hung up his cap and jacket, then sank into his chair with a sigh. Despite the relief, he also felt a pang of sadness. He had lost too many friends lately. Noor’s death especially still pained him greatly. Now Faraj was drifting away, their paths diverging. He’d thought Faraj would always walk at his side. But so much changed the last few years. Jahni. He came in now, carrying a tray of tea things. Faraj would disapprove, expect someone else to carry that in and serve the officers. Jahni was different.

And now he was the one that walked at Madari’s right hand. Was that what had driven Faraj away? Did he have no desire to walk at Madari’s left?

Would the paths Madari and Jahni travelled ever diverge? The idea seemed impossible to contemplate. Perhaps temporarily, like in a week from now, when Jahni flew out to London, then on to Hereford and on to Selection and training. If he made it all the way through, they would walk a different path for six months.

“Thank you,” Madari said, as Jahni handed him a teacup. Jahni sat on the other side of the desk and shifted uncomfortably for a moment. His jacket is getting too small, Madari thought. He spends every spare hour in the gym, training to peak fitness. Getting ready. Only a week now. Only a week.

“I’m sorry I’ll miss Hannibal this time,” Jahni said.

“Hmm? Oh yes.” Hannibal’s next consultancy visit would start two weeks after Jahni left. “I’ll say hello to him from you. Oh and his Majesty asked me to pass on his best wishes to you for your training.”

“He did?” Jahni’s face lit up with a smile. “He mentioned me by name?”

“Oh yes. He wished you luck.”

“The king wished me luck.” He laughed. “Oh. Wow.”

Madari smiled at how impressed he was. Only a week now. Only a week.


Faraj arrived in his new office and sat at the desk. The desk did not impress him and he decided he would bring in his own. It was a good sized office though, near to Rahama’s offices, with large windows and a fine view. He strolled over there and stood looking out while the private unloaded the trolley. A clerk had been assigned, he knew, and would take care of filing the contents of the boxes away. A maintenance man would be along to paint Faraj’s name on the door later.

Behind him on the desk, the telephone rang and he turned back, surprised, then strode over to answer it.

“Major Faraj.”

“Well, good afternoon, Major. How’s that new office?”

Faraj smiled and sat on the edge of the desk. “Sayeed, how did you know this number? How did you know I was even here?”

“I have spies everywhere,” Raslan said.

“I’m sure.”

“And I happen to have spied a nice little restaurant that I haven’t tried before. Join me tonight?”

“Of course.” They made the arrangements and chatted for a while. Raslan was easy to talk to. They spoke the same language, and he didn’t mean Arabic. Talking to Madari, or Jahni, or worse, the two of them together, had become a chore, even an ordeal at times. All they talked about now was this damn Special Forces unit of theirs. It had been a relief when they’d been in England for a month, and he’d started spending several evenings a week with Raslan. Such good company. It was still too early to be sure, but Raslan might even be someone who could eventually replace what Faraj had shared with Noor. A bond of equals.

He knew Jahni didn’t like Raslan and that pretty much told him all he needed to know. Probably jealousy. Raslan’s family might not be any more high born than Jahni’s, but he had class. Something Jahni was entirely lacking in. Madari had once had class too, still clung to some vestiges of it. But Jahni dragged him down.

Well, they wouldn’t drag Faraj down with them.

“See you tonight, Sayeed.”


The week passed. Too quickly, far too quickly. Too soon Madari and Jahni were walking through the airport, in civilian clothes, off duty today. Jahni carried his flight bag and a suit carrier with his uniform in it. Travelling light, as always.

They reached the check in desks and turned to face each other.

“Well. Here I go. Oh.” Jahni dug in his pocket and pulled out his house keys. “Nearly forgot.” He handed them to Madari. Madari kept his spare set anyway, but Jahni said he didn’t want to carry his house keys all the way to England, and probably lose them.

“I’ll check the flat once a week,” Madari said, putting the keys into his pocket.

“Okay. That’s great.” He glanced over at the check in desk. Barely a queue now, and not long to go. “I’ll try to call when I can, keep you updated on my progress.”

“I look forward to that.”

What could Madari say, here, in public? Be safe. Call me often. Work hard. Succeed. Call me. Call me.

Jahni laughed, an awkward tone to it, perhaps feeling as inhibited as Madari in these public surroundings.

“Of course, I could be home in a week, or a month, or any time.”

He could be. If he failed the four week Selection, then he’d be back within a month. Or even if he passed that he could wash out of the further training at any time. Madari didn’t know how he’d feel about that. Joy to have him home again? Sadness that he’d failed?

“You won’t fail, Kahil. I have confidence in you. Go there knowing that I believe in you. Both as your friend, and as your commander. Please, take strength in that.” He shook his head, wanted to laugh at his ‘speech’.

Jahni fiddled with the strap of his flight bag, not answering for a moment, then smiled at him, but spoke in a serious voice.

“I will, sir. Faris. I will… think about you – what you said – all of the time.”

At last, they embraced. They had put it off perhaps because it meant the final goodbye. How long did they dare hold each other? How obvious is it, Madari wondered, that I am trying to memorise even the scent of him before he goes?

They broke apart and there were a few more words between them, meaningless ones, about having a good flight, then suddenly Jahni interrupted himself and patted his pockets.

“Oh! I almost forgot. I almost left with it in my pocket!” He took out a small parcel, wrapped in silver gift wrap, with a green ribbon around it. “I didn’t wrap it, they did it at the shop. It’s, well, assuming I’m not back before the end, I’ll miss your birthday. So I thought I’d give it to you now, to hang on to until then.”

Madari accepted the small square parcel. It felt like a box of some kind inside. His birthday wasn’t until July and it was only just coming up to the end of March now. A long time to wait, especially as he was instantly curious to know what was in there.

“Thank you, Kahil. I’m sure I’ll like it.”

“Well, I’ll try and call you then and find out. I hope you will.” He glanced at the big clock over the check in desks and they both knew it really was time to go.

Another embrace might look strange. But a handshake as they said goodbye was acceptable, one that broke only as Jahni walked away, fingers sliding out of each other’s palms.

Of course Madari waited and watched. Watched him climb the stairs, waving, then one last look and he was out of sight, heading to security and the departures hall.

Once Madari had stood in that hall as a victorious commander. Had owned it. Now he couldn’t go into it without a boarding card. Now he was just another man. Nobody knew this was his airport. His airport, and once again, he decided to go to his coffee shop. It was late in the morning, perhaps he’d even have an early lunch in there. That would take about an hour. Jahni’s plane left in about fifty minutes.

Well, if he was going to be in the coffee shop alone for an hour he’d need something to keep him occupied, so he stopped at the kiosk that sold newspapers and magazines. A paper, perhaps, but he’d already read his daily paper today. It had been full of a lot of hysterical nonsense about the king’s latest round of law reforms, giving women equal pay and employment rights. Apparently this heralded the fall of civilization as they knew it.

A magazine then. He scanned the racks, and one caught his eye. A falconry magazine. Now that was something he hadn’t read anything about for years. He’d taken quite an interest in falconry when he was younger. Ahmed had enjoyed it, and had taught him a lot. But after Ahmed died, like many things they had shared, Madari had lost the heart for it.

Well, perhaps he’d see how things had changed since he was last interested in the subject. He paid for the magazine and headed to the coffee shop.

Chapter 2

April 1989

“Falconry?” Hannibal said, looking up from the magazine he was reading as Madari came into the living room with coffee. “I didn’t know you were interested in that.”

“It’s something I used to be very keen on,” Madari set the tray down. “I’ve recently taken it up again. In fact I’ve bought a bird.”

Hannibal looked around the room, then back at Madari. “It’s keeping quiet.” He grinned.

Madari rolled his eyes, but laughed too. “I don’t keep it here, it’s not a budgerigar.”

He handed coffee to Hannibal, then went to fetch the humidor and they both lit cigars and relaxed in their seats. Hannibal had been here over two weeks now. He’d offered to stay in a hotel, said he didn’t want to be under Madari’s feet. But Madari was happy to have him around. He was an undemanding guest, but still filled the emptiness here. Youssef had moved out now, lived in the village and worked only part-time.

With Kahil gone, Madari’s social calendar felt empty. He now realised how much he relied on Kahil to spend time with, and how many other invitations he’d turned down in favour of Kahil. If you turned down enough invitations, people eventually stopped asking.

“So, tell me about the bird,” Hannibal said.

“I only bought it a week ago. It’s a peregrine falcon, quite young. She’s named Ruya.”

“Where is it?”

“At a falconry centre. I pay for her upkeep and go up there to train with her. If we get some time I’ll take you along to see.”

“Yeah, sounds good.”

“It’s one of those things I used to be so interested in when I was younger. But somehow, over the years…” He shrugged and gazed off into the distance for a moment, gazed down at the long years, since he was a dashing young Lieutenant, with his life ahead of him. So long, and yet gone so fast. In a few months he’d be forty one. He glanced at the bookshelf, which held the small parcel Kahil had given him at the airport. Do not open until July 25th. He sighed. “It was a long time ago.”

“The years, they do slip right on by,” Hannibal said, a sigh of his own escaping him.

A pensive silence stretched between them. Only the whir of the ceiling fan broke it, a soothing sound that made Madari’s eyes feel heavy. He hadn’t slept well the night before.

“Faris,” Hannibal said. “How are you doing, in yourself?”

He’d asked the same the last time he’d been here, and he asked it in his letters. And he didn’t let Madari get away with evading the question. Only he could ask, Madari thought. Him or Kahil of course. They were the only ones Madari didn’t consider it an impertinent question from. Because Hannibal knew exactly what he was asking about. And he could give, well not comfort the way Jahni did, but a kind of reassurance, and advice. And just… himself, his strength, was an encouragement.

He made it back, I can make it back. I can be strong.

When Madari didn’t answer at once, Hannibal spoke again. “I’ve heard you cry out a couple of times, during the nights I’ve been here.”

He hadn’t come in to Madari’s room. Perhaps he understood Madari would not want anyone but Kahil to see him so vulnerable and distressed.

“It is still difficult. I’ve had psychiatric treatment, as you know. I’ve learnt methods to cope, to deal with the lingering problems. But…” He sighed. “Only time can make the real difference.”

“That’s right. You do what your doctor has taught you to do and it will get better. Believe me, I could have used my own advice back then. I didn’t take enough notice of the doctors, didn’t take the time to work on it. And I paid for that later.”

Even now, so long afterwards, the pain was there in his eyes. He was strong, but not because the pain was gone, but because he had conquered it. Tamed it.

Madari would keep on fighting to do the same.


The telephone call came at Madari’s home, only a short time after he arrived back there late in the evening.


“I’ve tried to call a couple of times. You must have been out.”

“I went to a concert.”

“Oh. On your own?”

“Yes, though I met some friends there. How are you?”

He sat down with the phone. Jahni had called only twice in the five weeks he’d been away now. He’d been very busy of course.

“I’m… well, pretty sore and pretty tired. But I did it. I passed Selection.”

“Kahil!” He’d suspected that would be the subject of the call. “Congratulations!” He stood up again. “I’m so proud of you.”

“Thanks. It was tough.”

Madari laughed. “I’m sure that’s an understatement.”

“Yeah, probably. So, well, now I go on to the continuation training.”

“Yes.” Madari sat again. He hadn’t allowed himself to think too much about what happened after Selection. What happened when he had to face up to months without Jahni at his side. Now it was real.

“So how are you anyway?” Jahni asked. “How’s that falcon?”

“We’re both well. I’m keeping busy, there’s so much work to do of course.”

It occurred to him suddenly that he hated talking on the phone to Jahni. He hated the impersonal nature of it. Jahni’s voice was his comfort and his strength, but somehow it wasn’t the same when it came filtered through phone lines from tens, or hundreds or thousands of miles away. It only served to remind him of the gulf that lay between them.

For a moment he felt heat rise in his face, behind his eyes, and tears welled up in them. Damn, where was his self-control? He blinked, not letting them fall. He was tired, that’s all, and the surge of emotion had overwhelmed his self-control for a moment. Those raw emotions he was once able to bury so deep now lay too close to the surface. When he was sure his voice was steady he spoke again.

“I look forward to telling Colonel Rahama. He’ll be very proud of you too. Now, tell me everything about it.”

“Well, there were several times I thought I was actually dead. But I realised I couldn’t be in that much pain and actually be dead, so I kept moving.”

“Of course.”

“It’s… strange. Different to most of the training I’ve done. So much of it is spent alone, getting across country from one point to the next within the time allowed. There’s no instructors yelling at you to go on. You don’t have other soldiers with you, so you can’t keep encouraging each other to keep going. You’re alone, and sometimes you’re so tired you want to just lie there and sleep, and there’s nobody except yourself to make you get up. To make you take the next step.”

He went silent for a moment, and Madari tried to imagine him out there in the wilds alone, pushing himself on through force of will, when his body was ready to give in.

“I think,” Jahni said eventually. “That it’s as much a test of motivation as it is of fitness and stamina and the rest.”

“And you passed the test.”

“Nearly killed me, I’m sure.”

“Are you making friends?”

Jahni laughed. “Most of the time we’re all too tired to even speak to each other. But yeah, the lads are okay. I think with me, I’m not direct competition, since even if I get through the training, I’m not competing for a place in the regiment. So that helps. They call me towel head and camel shagger and stuff, but you want to hear what they call each other!” He laughed again. “It would shock you rigid the way they talk.”

“I’m sure. Don’t you pick up too much bad language.”

“Me? Of course not. Look, I want to talk for longer.” His voice went quiet. “I do miss you, and I worry about you.”

“I’m fine, Kahil. I miss you of course. But you must stay focused on your training. Don’t worry about me. Do you need to go now?”

“Yes, I’m sorry, but there’s no break you know, straight from Selection into the continuation training, so I’m already up past my bedtime.”

“Then as your Commanding Officer I’m ordering you to go to bed.” He let the smile show through in his tone, imagined the answering smile on Jahni’s face.

“Yessir, wilco. Over and out.” They both laughed then, and said goodbye. Madari counted one, two, three seconds, before he heard the dial tone. Slowly he replaced the receiver, then stood up.

He walked to the wall, where a calendar hung. Five more months. If he made it that far it would be September before Jahni came home. Madari sighed. Perhaps the time would go quickly. He had his work, he had the falcon to train with, and the warm summer nights ahead. And there were always cultural and musical events in the city to attend. He would be a fool to sit at home and pine for Jahni like a lovesick girl.

The silence oppressed him and he switched on the radio. Should he sit and read for a while? He browsed his bookcases. No, it was late, he should go to bed. As he turned away from the bookcases, he stopped for a moment, and picked up the gift from Jahni, the little box that awaited a day months ahead yet. Curiosity almost overwhelmed him and he wanted to open it now. But he wasn’t a child, he could wait.

He replaced the box on the shelf and went to bed.


Late May 1989

“Faris,” Rahama said, “please permit me to introduce you to this lady.”

Madari turned from the window at the sound of Rahama’s voice. The crowded room had started to get to him and standing by the window was more acceptable than walking out of a reception at the palace. The invitation was flattering, but still, large parties were not to his taste.

The lady that Rahama referred to was a Westerner, in her thirties good looking, with a dark, Mediterranean look, Madari thought.

“Signora Sophia Giordano,” Rahama said, “Lieutenant Colonel Madari.”

Madari bowed his head to her, but she offered her hand to shake and he took it.

“Signora,” Madari said. Signora meant she was married, he knew, but he saw no wedding ring on her left hand that held a glass of sparkling water.

“Signora Giordano is interested in falconry,” Rahama said. “When she mentioned that, I thought you two would perhaps like to chat.”

“Well, really it was my brothers who took the main interest,” she said. “They both still compete back in Italy. I hear you have a bird of your own.” She smiled at Madari. “Perhaps a saker?”

“A saker?” Of course, in classical falconry, the bird flown by a knight. “No, just a peregrine. Did you ever fly a bird yourself?” He smiled too. “A merlin perhaps?”

She laughed, and clearly understood the reference. A merlin for a lady. “I did fly a bird for a while, when I was younger, but a Harris.”

Rahama had looked rather blank at this exchange, now he smiled at the two of them. “Well, if you two are going to make mysterious falcon jokes at each other, I think my wife is looking for me.” He hurried off.

Madari frowned after him, then turned to Sophia again. She smiled up at him, looking him in the eyes. He cleared his throat.

“Um, do you live here, in Qumar, Signora, or are you visiting?”

“I live here in the city.” She paused and pushed a strand of her uncovered dark hair behind her ear, revealing a gold earring that hung from the lobe. Its delicate spiral caught the light. “I came here with my husband a few years ago and quite fell in love with this city and the people.”

“Your husband works here in Az-Ma’ir?”

“He did, but when his work took him back to Italy I decided to remain here.”

Well, there had to be a lot more behind that, Madari thought, than just liking the city. So she didn’t live with her husband, and yet she said husband, and not ex. Italian of course, so almost certainly Catholic. No longer together, but no divorce.

“You must have made many friends here to want to stay like that.”

“Many. And I’m a friend of Helene.”

“The queen?”

“Yes.” She laughed. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to name drop. It’s funny to think of her as a queen now. I knew her older sister from university and visited her family a few times. I knew her as a girl, long before she met Atty.”

Madari choked into his drink when she referred to King Atuallah as “Atty”. She laughed nervously then and blushed.

“I’m sorry, that sounds disrespectful. His Majesty, I mean.”

Madari took no offence. It sounded more affectionate than disrespectful. The king wasn’t her monarch and if she’d known him as just another young man courting her friend’s sister, then her relationship with him might indeed be more informal than Madari’s.

“Perhaps at the next briefing session I have with him, I will try calling him Atty and see how it goes down.”

“And what will you do after you flee the country?”

He laughed then. “I don’t know. Make a living as a itinerant falconer, perhaps.”

“Please, do tell me more about your falcon.”


Who was that woman? Faraj wondered, watching Madari from across the room. He turned to Janan, who was talking babies with some other women.

“My dear.” She turned to him when he spoke. “Who is that lady talking to Lieutenant Colonel Madari?”

Janan looked over and nodded. “Sophia Giordano. She’s a friend of the queen.”


“Italian. And married.”

Faraj raised his eyebrows. “Really?”

“But her husband lives back in Italy. She lives here.” She gave him a look that implied no more needed to be said.

“What does she do here?”

“Entertains, goes out a lot. Oh and she raises money for a charity.”

“That sounds… Worthy, um work.”

“Well after all, she can’t spend all day in the beauty salon. Even if she looks as if she does.”

Faraj glanced over again. She certainly looked very… polished. The kind of well groomed look that took time and money. He knew that, since a fair amount of his money went that way each month, when Janan’s bills came in.

“Can I steal you away for a moment?” A man’s voice startled him and he turned to see Prince Zahir at his elbow. “Excuse me, Madame, please.” Zahir bowed his head to Janan.

“Of course,” she said, and Faraj followed as Zahir took his elbow and moved him away from the group.

“I’m sorry to take you away from your wife,” Zahir said, as they stopped by a large etched mirror on the wall. Zahir looked into it, smoothing his moustache and beard.

“Oh, that’s all right. To be honest, it’s quite strange to see the women here anyway.”

“I believe my brother’s wife insisted on wives being invited.”

“Is your wife here?” Faraj asked, glancing around. He’d had to persuade Janan to accept the invitation, saying it would be disrespectful to refuse, even if it was a little different than the norm.

“She is not,” Zahir said. He finally turned away from the mirror to look at Faraj. “I suppose we have to expect that with my dear brother married to a French lady some of our traditional ways may be cast aside.”

Cast aside seemed to be putting it a little strongly. It was only a party after all. And to celebrate the birth of the King and Queen’s new daughter. Women probably liked to celebrate babies more than men did anyway.

“I worry sometimes,” Zahir said. “About the influence of some of the foreign ideas my brother picks up from her. Not about parties.” He smiled, waving a hand. “But more serious matters. The latest employment law reforms, for example.”

“I’m sure his majesty would never be influenced by a woman’s political views, not even those of his wife.”

“Ah, Idris,” Zahir touched his arm, squeezed it a little. “You are such a loyal man. But you see, to me he is not just my king, he is my brother. I see his flaws more than you do.”

Faraj nodded. “Well, of course, you know him best.”

“Perhaps I was wrong to suggest that he gets his modern ideas from his wife. After all, he met her when he was at university in Paris. It’s as likely he picked up all kinds of foreign ideas before he ever met her.”

“And of course, he has influenced her in return,” Faraj said. “She has converted to Islam.”

“After they became engaged… Yes.” Zahir smiled. “After my father made it very clear that without a Muslim wife he would not ascend the throne.”

Faraj didn’t answer, looked away, into the mirror, and spotted the woman in question across the room. People had questioned the sincerity of the queen’s conversion before, of course, and rumours that Atuallah and Zahir’s father had insisted on it still circulated. It had been a close run thing, apparently. The old king had died only a month after the marriage. If there had been any delay, if she had refused to convert, and Atuallah had wanted to marry her anyway, then Zahir might be on the throne now. And his brother probably living in France.

“Of course,” Zahir said, lowering his voice, moving closer. “Some men have a… thing for foreign women don’t they? Those women are less… inhibited. So I’m told.”

Faraj took a drink of his iced tea to cover his blush and, again using the mirror, looked across the room. Madari was still talking to that Italian woman.

“But, what was I saying?” Zahir said, as if recollecting himself. “Ah yes, the new employment laws. You employ a number of women in your household, don’t you. I hope the new equal pay legislation won’t hit you in the pocket too much.”

“I think we’ll afford it.”

“Of course.”

“Still, it’s…” he shook his head. “It’s not my place to comment.”

“Of course it is, Idris, my dear friend. You’re an influential man, I value your counsel.” He nodded across the room at Madari. “As my brother does that of Lieutenant Colonel Madari.”

Madari had been called to the palace quite often lately, Faraj knew. For briefings about the Special Forces unit of course, and progress reports on Jahni’s training. But was the King discussing other matters with him too?

“Come, Idris, give me your opinions of the new laws.”


“I’m so pleased to have met you,” Sophia said as she and Madari shook hands to say goodbye. The party was breaking up now.

“It’s my pleasure. I hope you’ll accept the invitation to visit the falconry centre with me.”

“Of course. I have your telephone number.” She patted the tiny bead trimmed bag she carried. “I will call and arrange a time. I’m looking forward to meeting Ruya. And I hope in return, you’ll accept my invitation to a dinner party I’m hosting this Saturday.”

“Oh, yes, thank you, that would be…” He hesitated, not sure what it would be. What kind of people would be there? Did he want to spend an evening with strangers? But a lady as gracious as this one would know how to choose an interesting and amusing mixture of guests. “That would be very nice. I’m free that night.” Of course he was free.

“I’m looking forward to it.” She nodded a last goodbye to him and turned away. He watched her go, thinking she cut rather an elegant, though still modest, figure in her long jacket and trousers suit.

When he lost sight of her, he looked at the card she’d given him with her name and address printed on it. She had visiting cards. She was what they called a “society lady”, he thought. The card had the details in Arabic on one side and Italian on the other, and he turned the small white rectangle over and over in his fingers. For a moment he held it closer to his face and caught a whiff of scent on it, before he put it in his pocket.

Saturday should prove to be interesting for sure.


Zahir strode into a dark room, next door to the one the party had been held in. That room was emptying slowly now, as he could see through the large two way mirror that he’d been standing on the other side of with Faraj earlier. Someone spoke in the darkness.

“What a lovely party. Such a shame I wasn’t invited.”

Sayeed Raslan looked up from where he sat on a chair, watching the room beyond. He had a notebook on his knees.

“You got fed, didn’t you?” Zahir said, waving a hand at the empty plate and cup by Raslan’s feet.

“Not what you were having.”

Zahir chuckled. “One day, my impudent young friend. One day you’ll be in there with the rest.”

He stood beside Raslan and looked out of the two way mirror. Madari still stood near the window, he seemed to be turning over a piece of white card in his hand.

“I’ve planted a seed,” Zahir said.

“I saw you.”

“Of course. Now, you need to cultivate it. Faraj is the man, he’s in the right place to get us what we want.”

“It won’t be easy to turn him,” Raslan said, with a note of caution in his voice.

“You don’t know him as well as I do.”

“You might be wrong.” When Zahir glanced at him, Raslan added, “Sir.”

“Go on.”

“Actually, you already started it just right,” Raslan explained. “Talking about Madari and the king. You will find it hard to turn Faraj against the king, but it will be easy to turn him against Madari.”

“Surely it’s the other way around?”

“No. Trust me, he’s almost there already. A few more steps. And once he turns against Madari and he knows Madari is having an influence on the king…”

“Ah.” Zahir smirked. “I think I need to suggest my brother invites Madari here even more regularly.”

“An excellent idea, Sir.”

“You meanwhile will handle Faraj.”

“That will be a pleasure.” Raslan grinned, and Zahir drew away from him slightly. Useful this one, very useful, but that useful vicious streak Zahir saw in him could make a man shiver when he stood beside Raslan in the dark.

Once this was all over Sayeed Raslan’s usefulness might come to an abrupt end. The man was all alone in the world, according to what Zahir had managed to find out. Nobody would miss him if he were to simply vanish back to the obscurity he had emerged from.

“Where did you come from, Raslan?” Zahir asked, partly as a joke, partly out of sheer curiosity.

Raslan smiled. “The end of the rainbow, Sir.”


Madari chose to wear one of his Western style suits for Sophia’s party. It wasn’t a very formal affair, she reassured him, but he knew it would be a sophisticated one, and there’d probably be other Westerners there. So he picked out a charcoal grey single breasted suit he’d bought in California and wore a white, collared shirt and a tie in dark and light grey stripes.

It looked smart, he thought, checking himself in the mirror. Rather sober, but then, he was a rather sober man wasn’t he? He sighed. Was this really a good idea? He liked Sophia, they had talked for some time when she called to arrange a time to visit the falconry centre with him – that would be next Saturday. But would her friends think him rather a stiff and stand-offish man?

Despite his family’s wealth and influence, they’d never really been “society people”, not the same way as Faraj’s family for example, or even Rahama’s. Small talk had never been part of Madari’s training.

Then he snorted and turned away from the mirror. He strapped on his watch, found his car keys and then left the house.

The Madari family were not society people. They were warriors. And they were not afraid of a tableful of civilians.


Sophia’s flat was in an expensive and fashionable area of the city, not far from Faraj’s home. The apartment block lay behind a high-walled compound with a locked gate and he had to call her on an intercom. She opened the gate for him and he climbed the stairs to the third floor, to find her waiting to greet him at the door.

“Faris, I’m so glad you could come. Please come in.”

He’d invited her to call him Faris during their phone call, earlier in the week. Well, she wasn’t in the Army, it was silly to expect her to use his rank.

Here in her own home, she wore Western style clothing, a knee length black dress, in a simple but elegant cut, with one strap over the left shoulder. A diamond and jet bracelet glittered on the wrist of her bare arm.

“I… these… Ah, these are for you.” He handed her the gift he’d brought, a small box of fine chocolates, as he passed through the door.

“Thank you,” she said as she accepted them. Madari glanced around at the floor by the door and she smiled at him. “It’s all right, you can keep your shoes on. Now come through, please.”

She put a hand on his arm a moment to guide him, though let go quickly, and led him through the hallway to a reception room. Only two other people were there, both Westerners, a man and a woman. Madari knew he was rather early. Military training meant punctuality was not an option.

“Faris, this is M’sieur and Madame Surette, Pierre and Louise, Lieutenant Colonel Madari.”

They looked as if they already knew who he was and M’sieur Surette shook hands with him vigorously while they both stared at him, curious.

“Well, I must check the food, please get acquainted. Faris, there are hor d’ourves and drinks here.” She indicated a table with trays of food and drink. “Please, help yourself. The drinks on the right have no alcohol.”

“Thank you.”

“And cigars and cigarettes are over there, feel free to smoke.”

“If you don’t mind, Madame,” he said, to Madame Surette.

She didn’t and a moment later, he’d picked out a short cigar. When Sophia went back to the kitchen Madari turned back to his fellow guests and again started to wonder if this was a good idea.

The flat was beautiful. The hor d’ourves and drinks delicious. The cigar was excellent. But as the Surette’s started asking him questions about the guerrilla campaign, wanting to hear exciting military anecdotes, he frankly wished he was here alone with Sophia.

That thought caught him by surprise. But as other guests arrived and the room started to fill up, he understood why. In his opinion, the best conversation involved only two people. Of course, in his case there was one particular other person who would always be his number one choice for a good conversation. But after the long telephone call a few days ago, he began to think that Sophia Giordano might be an interesting substitute while the first choice was not available.

Of course there was a very superficial element to the conversation. They barely knew each other. But still, as he watched her greet the last guest to arrive, he just wished all these other people would get out of the way.


Eventually, they did. Later, after the excellent dinner and some more stimulating chat from the carefully selected guests, Madari found himself the last one there. He emerged from the bathroom as she saw the last of the other guests out.

When she turned and saw him, she smiled. “Oh, I was beginning to think you had slipped away without saying goodbye.”

“No. Am I the last?”

“Yes. But don’t feel in any rush to go, it’s barely eleven-thirty. Perhaps you’d care for another coffee?”

He hesitated, thinking of the long drive home, that he should start, and that he had no desire to start yet. Voices from the kitchen, of caterers or servants, reassured him they were at least chaperoned, and he nodded.

“Thank you, that would be very nice.”

“Will you have Arab coffee or espresso? I prefer espresso myself, but I know you like it stronger than that.”

“Thank you, I’ll join you in an espresso.” Given his usual coffee habits, espresso might as well be warm milk or camomile tea for him.

She went to the kitchen, while he walked back into the reception room. The food and drinks were all cleared away now, and he waited for her, strolling around, looking at her pictures and books. Many of the books were on art history, which she had told him she studied at university.

After a moment she returned, carrying a tray with the small cups and the box of chocolates he’d brought as a gift.

“If you have room, I thought we’d try your chocolates.”

They sat, on two sofas set up on opposite sides of a coffee table, and she handed him the coffee and offered the box of chocolates. Both coffee and chocolate were excellent. Jahni had an espresso machine in his flat, but he was still learning to use it. This was much better and he wondered if she or the caterers had made it. She had, he decided. She was Italian after all. The idea of taking Italian lessons crossed his mind. He spoke some tourist Italian, but it was a beautiful language, and merited study.

So did she, he thought, watching her sip her coffee. So polished. So perfectly elegant and graceful. But he saw more to her than that. She wasn’t just a superficial trained hostess. She was intelligent and sophisticated, and she wasn’t afraid to talk to him. It was a long time since he’d known a woman like that. Had he ever known a woman like that who wasn’t a foreigner? His ex-wife perhaps.

That thought brought his mind to the subject of her husband, and he had to wonder if he paid for this flat, and her clothes and jewels and the food they ate tonight. For a moment the espresso lost its taste. She’s another man’s wife.

Well? He was only thinking of her as someone he found he liked to talk to. He didn’t have any other intentions. Did he? No, he insisted to himself. She was attractive, no question of that and he found himself glancing rather often at her legs. But it wasn’t appropriate to think of her in that way.

And it’s appropriate to think of Jahni that way? A treacherous voice hissed inside him.

“Are you tired, Faris?” She asked. “You’re very quiet. Please, don’t let me keep you if you want to go home now.”

“No,” he said. “No, just thinking.” He sat up then, smiling. “I wonder, if I could have another espresso?” He held out his empty cup.

“Really?” She laughed. “You must never sleep at all!”

Sometimes he wished he didn’t. Then he’d escape the dreams. Other times he longed for the oblivion of sleep. But not tonight. Tonight was more a night for escaping the dreams and perhaps talking for a while. A long while. He could no longer talk to Faraj. Not like this anyway. It was an ordeal. Rahama, well, the man was a good friend, but his commanding officer, and besides, he was always busy.

And anyway, they all knew about his… baggage. It was relaxing to talk to someone who was still learning about him. Someone he could talk to about impersonal things. Skate on the surface, rather then crack the ice and plunge into the dark water beneath.

“Have another chocolate,” she said, as she rose. “While I fetch more coffee.”

Coffee and chocolate and good conversation. He added a cigar, lighting it and enjoying the curl of the smoke into the air. Right now, he could almost forget how much he missed Kahil.



She wasn’t a substitute, he realised that after a while. She didn’t give him what Jahni gave him. She was something else. A distraction. Without that he honestly believed he would have gone half mad from loneliness. The realisation of how dependent he was on Jahni’s companionship unsettled him enough to seek out the comfort of hers instead.

She had come with him to the falconry centre the Saturday after the dinner party, and though tentative about the rather skittish Ruya, she had put on a glove and fed the bird. Ruya must have liked her, making only a half-hearted attempt to strip the flesh from Sophia’s hand. She came with him several more times after that to watch, while he trained.

Within a month of meeting, they were seeing each other several times a week. The falconry, her parties, going riding together, and eventually, to concerts and plays and the cinema. That felt a little odd to Madari, to be seen out with a woman he wasn’t related to. It felt mildly scandalous.

Of course there was nothing for there to be a scandal about. They were only friends after all. They were barely ever alone together.

He noticed that as time went on, when he called her to arrange to meet, she would say she had to check her diary, would call back. But she kept her diary by the phone, he’d seen it. So he knew she wasn’t simply checking it. She would call back a few minutes later to say she could join him, and he realised that she was rearranging or cancelling other engagements. She was making time for him.

Well, it felt good that someone was. Faraj, on the other hand, seemed to have dropped him completely. They saw each other in passing at the barracks and had short conversations. He still attended any large parties Faraj and Janan held, but the small, informal gatherings of friends, those Madari no longer received an invitation for.

Someone else did though, according to what he heard from others. Apparently Faraj spent several evenings a week with Raslan. Madari had even seen them himself, out dining together. That bothered him. Raslan was not to be trusted. He would have some kind of agenda for cultivating Faraj’s friendship. But Madari knew that Faraj wouldn’t listen to any warnings about him.

He did his best to stop worrying about Faraj. It wasn’t easy to do that. He still felt responsible for everything Faraj had suffered since his arrest. But he could hardly force Faraj to revive their friendship. It seemed that their paths had finally diverged forever.


Summer came quickly, his new interests and new friend helping the time to race by. Jahni wrote and called when he could, still working hard, still doing well in his training. Madari took to carrying the air mail letters around in his pocket and taking them out to read when he had a moment.

July came and towards the end of it, his birthday approached. That week leading up to it he suddenly found himself missing Jahni strongly again. He had shared two of his birthdays with Jahni now, one as a prisoner, one as a guerrilla. Neither had exactly lent itself to a celebration. And now they’d be parted entirely. He started carrying something else around. The present Jahni gave him before he left. And he waited for the day to come, so soon now, when he could open it.

On July 20th, five days before his birthday he attended another party at Sophia’s. During the day this time, a fundraiser for the charity she worked for. She looked beautiful he thought, coolly elegant, in a fine, pale green linen tunic and white trousers, with a long string of pearls around her neck.

As usual now, he lingered as the party ended, trying to be the last to leave, as that so often led to them spending time talking, which he still preferred to sharing her with a roomful of people.

She smiled to see him still in the living room, as the catering staff cleared away glasses and plates from the buffet.

“Some iced tea?” She offered and he nodded. No espresso this time, the weather was far too hot. She gave an order to one of the caterers, then turned back to Madari. “Let’s take the air.” She gestured towards the French windows that led onto the balcony. In a moment they stood there, looking over the city, enjoying the cool breeze.

That gave him a pang, as he thought of Jahni and his little rooftop haven. He remembered he needed to go and check on Jahni’s flat again soon. That never felt like a chore somehow, though it couldn’t help but remind him of the empty space at his side. How much longer could he stand that emptiness?

His train of thought was broken, as the woman filling that empty space slipped her arm into his, making him turn to look down at her, startled.


And then she startled him even more. She stood on her tiptoes and kissed him. Just briefly, but on the lips. He closed his eyes on instinct, then opened them again as she moved back.

“I am sorry if I shock you, Faris,” she said, her face serious. “But you’re an old fashioned and quite infuriatingly proper sort of gentleman.”

He shook his head, with a wry smile. “I am those things, though I’d dispute the infuriating part.”

“You’re not in my shoes.”

“I don’t think your shoes would fit me.”

She slapped his arm, a playful and intimate gesture, then turned serious again.

“Please, tell me if I shouldn’t have done that. I don’t mean that it was… improper… I mean, that you didn’t want me to. If that’s the case then I won’t do it again, and I hope we’ll continue just as before.”

Did he want her to do it? If he was honest, her attentions flattered him, and he had let his thoughts wander that way over the past few weeks. He could respond to her, he thought. He was attracted to her. Propriety and other things had kept him from pursuing that attraction, but now she had made the move, made it clear she welcomed it…

And Kahil?

Was not available. Even the thought of that was a sin and he knew it. This was different. Natural, and it surprised and delighted him that he could still have these natural feelings.

“It might have been improper,” he said at last. “But, yes, I wanted you to do it.”

He heard her sigh, and saw the slight relaxation of her shoulders, before she raised a hand and rested it on his arm. It remained there for longer than she had ever touched him before. She had permission now.

“I won’t rush you,” she said, her voice low, and her eyes gentle. And he wondered how much she knew about what had happened to him. He was at least a little famous. Someone who moved in the circles Sophia did could no doubt pick up details not known to the general public. But he wasn’t sure he liked to be thought of as so fragile, certainly not by a woman. Only one man, well perhaps two – he thought of Hannibal – still had the privilege of glimpsing his fragility.

He laid a hand over hers and she rested her other hand on top of that. Her manicured fingernails, their tips painted in perfect white arcs, fascinated him. They appeared even more elegant against his own ugly and distorted nails. How could such a woman, so cool, polished and sophisticated, want someone like him? Yet she did. Life had no explanation.

“It is your birthday in a few days,” she said. “May I organise a party for you?”

“Oh, well, to be honest, I don’t really like parties.” When she looked surprised, he laughed. “I know, and yet I come to so many of yours. But really that was only so I could see you. When we talk afterwards, alone. Well, that’s the part I like most.”

“Then if that’s what you prefer, that’s what we should do. We could have a quiet dinner here, alone.”

“Alone… Ah… Perhaps we should go to a restaurant.” Propriety forced him to suggest it.

“Oh, restaurants are for being seen in, not for enjoying each other’s company. Anyway, all the parties you’ve been to here have been catered. I think that for once I’d like to cook for you myself.”

“You can cook?”

He got another playful tap on the arm for that. “Of course I can cook. And now I insist you let me prove that.”

He laughed. “I would like that.”

“Wonderful. Now the twenty fifth, that’s Tuesday, isn’t it?”

“Yes… But, oh.” He frowned. “I actually have duty that night, some field testing. I’ll be leaving in the afternoon and gone several days.”

“The Monday then, I’m sure we’ll be up late enough to see in your birthday, since you never actually sleep do you?”

Chapter 3

Madari was late, and almost ran up the steps to Sophia’s flat, cursing as the flowers he carried lost a couple of heads on the way. The heat in his car had wilted them a little. It had wilted him too, stuck in a traffic jam, the road closed by a demonstration up ahead.

The radio told him it was a protest against the new employment laws that came into effect today and he had turned the radio off in disgust at that. What was the matter with people? Must they live in the past forever? And why must they make this kind of fuss about it all, trapping him in a jam of honking horns, and smothering hot air? The setting sun glared into the car through the windscreen and his tension rose along with the temperature.

But he was here now, and he took a moment to calm himself and straighten his clothes and hair, before he knocked at the door. When Sophia answered it, he hoped he looked a little less frazzled. She seemed a little frazzled herself, he thought, though she covered it quickly and smiled, quickly smoothing her hair.

“I’m so sorry I’m late,” he said, as she invited him inside. “Traffic.”

“Oh, that’s quite all right. To be honest, dinner is taking me longer to make than I expected. Let me get you something cold to drink, you look quite flushed.”

She led him to the kitchen, the first time he’d been in there, and after giving him a glass of iced tea, she found a vase for the “charming” flowers.

He stood and drank his tea, watching her bustle around expertly in the kitchen. She wouldn’t let him help, and his culinary skills weren’t up to it anyway. So he just watched the show. It was worth watching. She wore another knee length dress, red this time, though with a white apron over it at the moment. The sight of her, the aroma of the food, their easy talk, and laughter. What better way to celebrate his birthday than with such good company?


“Idris, my dear friend,” Zahir said. “Ah, Captain Raslan, how good to see you again.”

“Sir.” Raslan bowed his head as he and Faraj were shown into Zahir’s private apartments at the palace. Faraj glanced at him.

“You know each other?”

“The captain is quite a rising star in Military Intelligence. And of course I take an interest in promising men in the military.” Zahir waved them to chairs. “Like you, Idris. Even when I first met you, I knew you were a man who would go far.”

“You flatter me.”

“Deservedly so.”

Faraj bowed his head in acknowledgment, but he wished Zahir would get to the point. The man was a master at social niceties and small talk, but sometimes that could be infuriating. And Faraj knew there must be a point. This had been a summons, he thought. Not the usual invitation from an old friend, to spend some time together. He was here for a reason. And Raslan was here too, also summoned. Something was up.

“Did you see the demonstration this evening?” Zahir asked.

“Yes, sir,” Raslan said, for both of them. “We got caught up in the traffic jam. The police took a long time to restore order.”

“People feel strongly about this issue,” Zahir said. “And they feel angry that my brother pressed ahead with this radical law, despite the overwhelming public sentiment against it.”

“After all, he is the king,” Raslan said. “He doesn’t have to listen to anyone.”

“Ah, but I think he does listen to some people, but to the wrong people. To those with ideas even more liberal than his own.”

Faraj nodded a couple of times as they spoke. He was rather surprised at Raslan’s being so comfortable speaking to the Prince like this, but he couldn’t help but agree with a lot of what they said. In fact he and Raslan had talked a lot about this over the past few months.

“But my brother is a determined man.” Zahir laughed then. “Perhaps next he’ll give women the right to join the Royal Guard, eh, Idris?”

“That wouldn’t be… easily accepted.” An understatement for sure.

“Old Rahama would probably accept it. I imagine the old goat would like a few ladies around the place.” Zahir roared with laughter, Raslan joining in. “Ah, but I mustn’t speak disrespectfully of such a venerable old soldier. A man with such a long record of service.”

“He is a fine Colonel in Chief,” Faraj said.

“Is he? A rather political appointment, I always thought. A reformer, like my brother. But he will be retiring soon of course. Who do you think will take the reins then, Idris? Who do you see as Commander of the Royal Guard?”

“It’s not my place to say, really.” Faraj hesitated. “Of course, many people think that Lieutenant Colonel Madari will follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.”

“And I’m sure Rahama would appoint him, since they agree on so much. But really, do you think he is a worthy successor? How old is he now? Forty? At that age his grandfather was already a senior colonel. This Madari? Well, without his good friend in charge, would be not still be a major?”

“He is a fine military commander,” Faraj said at once, trying not to raise his voice. “What he did, as a guerrilla leader…”

“Oh, in the field, yes, a useful man,” Zahir said. “But suitable to command the regiment? A man with so many modern ideas, would he fit as the leader of such a traditional regiment, with such a proud history?”

“I… don’t know.” Faraj said.

The idea that one day Madari would command the Royal Guard, did secretly worry him. Madari did have some ideas Faraj found hard to stomach. And what would that lead to? Him grooming Jahni to be his successor? The Guard commanded by the son of a goat herder?

“Do you have someone else in mind?” Faraj asked.

“Yes, Idris, I have.”

Zahir looked at him for a long moment. Faraj wanted to look away, the gaze starting to unsettle him, but that was disrespectful. He had almost forgotten Raslan at his side, but was reminded, when he felt the same intense gaze from him too.

“How would you like to command the Royal Guard, Major Faraj?”

Faraj frowned, not really understanding.

“Me? Well, of course I’ve thought about it, that one day…”

“Not ‘one day’,” Zahir said. “Soon. Before this year is out.” His face had become serious now.

“I don’t understand, sir,” Faraj said. “I’m only a Major. There are many more senior men in the regiment.”

“And you should let me worry about them.”

“I still don’t understand.”

Zahir bent forward and beckoned Faraj to do the same. As he did, Faraj felt Raslan’s hand on his back and wasn’t sure why he was doing that. Some kind of reassurance?

“Idris, my brother’s law reforms so far are just the thin end of the wedge. He has many more radical ideas he wishes to put into effect. Ideas that all good men, good Muslims, must oppose.”

“You intend to fight his reforms?”

“I intend to do more than that. I intend to put a stop to them. The only way I can do that is to put a stop to his reign.”

Faraj couldn’t speak, tried to, but the words choked him. Zahir nodded gently, then reached out and took Faraj’s hand.

“And I’m asking you now, my dear friend, for your help.”


After dinner Madari and Sophia took coffee in the lounge. The food had been good. Not quite as good as at the catered parties, but he appreciated that she had made the effort to cook for him herself.

And he appreciated the excellent Arab coffee she made afterwards. He’d become used to drinking espresso with her, but sometimes she made the coffee Arab style and must have had plenty of practice. He wasn’t sure he could have made it better himself.

After she brought in the coffee she sat beside him on the sofa. A change to the routine. Normally they sat opposite, with the table between them. Now there was no barrier and they sat close together.

He knew what she was probably expecting of him. And he felt as shy as a bridegroom about it. If it happened, it would be the first time he’d had sex since he was tortured. It would be different than before, he felt sure of that. His self confidence in most other areas of his life had returned to something resembling normal. But in this one? He’d never had a lot of confidence in that arena anyway.

And she had only seen the scars on his hands so far. He had so many others, and he feared she might be horrified and repelled by them. If she was, if he saw a look in her eyes that showed that, then he could only leave here and never come back.

“Faris?” She said. “Are you all right? You’re so quiet. And you’re normally just getting into your stride about now.”

Yes, she was right there. But his nerves kept him quiet. “I’m sorry. I’m a dull guest tonight.”

“You are never dull.” She put down her coffee cup and turned to face him on the sofa, tucking one leg up under her. “Faris, I find you a fascinating and charming man. And I want you to stay here with me tonight. I’m sorry again if I shock you. But if I wait for you to ask to stay, I think we’ll both die of old age first.” She reached out and stroked his hand. “I like your old fashioned manners, and I appreciate how different I am, how difficult. But I don’t want those differences and difficulties to keep us apart.”

“Sophia.” He took the hand she was stroking his with. “You are another man’s wife.”

“Yes. But I’m not asking you for marriage. Or even for love. All I’m asking for now is tonight.”

“There are so many things you don’t know about me. So many reasons why this is difficult.”

“You can tell me.” She moved closer now, and reached up to touch his face and stroke her fingertips through his hair. “You can trust me.”

“I know.” He could, he believed that. Not rely on her in the same way he relied on Jahni, but trust, yes. Trust her not to do anything to hurt him. He could trust her to be patient.

The thought of Jahni gave him a stab of guilt then, though he knew it was absurd. He and Jahni could not be intimate like this. In other ways certainly. But not like this. She moved into his arms now and he bent his head down and kissed her. His hands slid around her waist, sliding over the silk dress, enjoying the warmth of her skin through it.

No, it couldn’t be like this with Jahni, and he had to accept that. This woman was not a substitute, he remembered thinking, but a distraction. He felt pretty distracted now as he responded to the kiss, his skin flushing, his breathing growing faster.

After a moment, she pulled away and stood up from the sofa, holding out her hand.

“Will you give me tonight, Faris?”

He would. And he wouldn’t think beyond tonight, not until morning. He wouldn’t think of anything but this beautiful woman. The choice made, he stood and let her lead him into her bedroom.


Madari woke to the sensation of something walking across his legs. He turned, from where he lay on his stomach to see a long-haired white and grey cat trying to settle on the edge of the bed beside him. He could swear it gave him a dirty look.

After a second of confusion, he remembered he was in Sophia’s bed. The other side of the bed was empty and he laid his hand on it to find the sheet barely warm. Somewhere else in the flat he could hear music. The radio, and sometimes her voice as she sang along to it.

Madari turned onto his back and sat up. He reached down to stroke the cat, then picked it up and drew it onto his lap. Its long hair tickled his bare chest and stomach.

“Am I taking your space, my friend?” He recalled Sophia mentioning the cat, even seeing it around the flat a couple of times, but it didn’t seem too keen on guests and kept out of the way at parties. Its name escaped him, and it wore no collar. Never mind. He scratched its head gently and it started to purr.

Madari thought that if he were a cat, he’d purr too. The morning sun shone through the gauzy drapes and he felt lazy and comfortable and contented. Last night had been… What? Satisfying? Successful. Yes. Successful. None of his fears had been realised. His scarred body had not disgusted her.

What now? He had proven something to himself, but where did he go from here? He wanted to continue seeing her, he knew that, he enjoyed her company. Perhaps when Jahni came home, they’d see each other less often. But until then.

But there was more to it now than company. So now he had several choices. He could stop seeing her entirely. Well, a certain type of man did that, courted a woman, got her into bed and stopped seeing her. He was not that type.

Or they could try to go back to the friendship they had before this happened. Could that work? Sex changed things. Would she feel he had rejected her? Would she even want to see him then if he did?

Or he could pursue this and continue sleeping with her. What was the relationship though? She’d said it herself that she wasn’t expecting marriage from him. And he didn’t want that anyway. He could never fully commit to her, he knew that in his heart. He loved someone else. Someone he could never be with, certainly, but who owned his heart, nevertheless.

He sighed again, though not with pleasure this time, and closed his eyes, still stroking the cat.

Would she be happy with a relationship on such a basis? She didn’t know his feelings for Jahni of course. Though perhaps… He thought about the gossip Raslan had warned him about. She had probably heard that gossip. Of course, if he did continue this, became her lover, then the gossip might change.

His eyes opened suddenly. Yes, indeed it might. Oh, yes indeed. He smiled then and gave a soft laugh. Gossip about the fact he was sleeping with a woman, even a little scandal, because she was a married woman, well that would surely scupper all of those rumours about him and Jahni, wouldn’t it?

She came in then, carrying a tray, and smiled to see him awake.

“Happy birthday, Faris. I see you’ve become acquainted with Giotto.”

Madari laughed. He’d actually forgotten it was his birthday.

“Oh, we are becoming fast friends,” he said, of the cat. It belied that at once by moving off his lap and getting in Sophia’s way when she tried to find space to put the tray down.

“Scat, you pest,” she said, nudging the cat gently with her knee until it jumped off the bed. Then she placed the tray down and sat. She wore only a white linen robe, and her hair was straight and flat, but she had on some makeup already. Only a little, but Madari suspected she would never let him see her without any.

“I wasn’t sure what you liked for breakfast, so just made eggs. And the bread is fresh.” She buttered a piece and passed it to him, on the edge of a plate of scrambled eggs. Then she poured some cream into a saucer and put it on the floor beside the bed. Giotto at once came trotting back over. “Oh, I forgot the coffee. Excuse me a moment.”

She hurried out of the room again and he ate his bread and eggs, and thought of her cooking for him, then imagined cooking for her, in his kitchen. Taking her to his home and sleeping with her in his bed. She had been quite gentle last night, sensing his nervousness. He would like a chance to show her a less fragile side of him. With some confidence restored, he felt sure he could be a little more assertive next time.

She came back in, carrying the coffee pot and singing. She seemed so happy. Had he made her this happy? It was a good feeling to believe that. But again he had to wonder, what now? If he did pursue this, yet never made a commitment to her, not emotionally, then was he simply using her? If he was in this relationship purely to deflect gossip away from him and Jahni, then there was no question that he was using her. It would be good for him. It would be good for Jahni. But for her?

“Sophia, I… do you want to go on seeing me. Um, like this? Doing this I mean?”

She put down the coffee cup she’d been sipping from, her smile turning to a more serious expression.

“Yes, I do. But you need to understand, Faris, you need to be certain. My husband and I cannot divorce. If you want marriage, you must look elsewhere. And I…” she looked away for a moment, then back at him. “I told you last night, you are fascinating and charming, and you are. But I’m not in love with you.”

“I see.”

“If you can accept that, then I want to go on like this. If you can’t, then please, be honest with me.”

He couldn’t be honest, not entirely. But to hear her say this reassured him. He wouldn’t be leading her on if they continued like this. Fondness for each other would surely deepen to a stronger friendship, but love was not expected. That shocked him a little too, but it worked for him. She wasn’t expecting an emotional commitment that he couldn’t give her. She was satisfied with what they had.

“Would you be, um…” He trailed off. Did he have the right to ask this? “Would you be faithful to me?” Was faithful even the right word? Exclusive perhaps? Perhaps he didn’t have the right, but he had his pride. To go from being gossiped about as a deviant to being gossiped about as a cuckold would not be a pleasant change.

“Would you be faithful to me?” She asked in return.

“Yes.” He said it at once, and knew it was true. Physically at least. In his mind, his thoughts, well, that might be different. But she wasn’t asking for that. But physically, he would. As he’d thought before, his sexual drive was lower than it had once been, perhaps between the effects of the torture and of his age, it had started to wane. One woman would be quite enough for him to handle.

“Then I will be faithful to you,” Sophia said. “Now.” She smiled. “Enough of the serious talk.” She moved a napkin from the tray and revealed a gift wrapped box there. “Happy birthday.”

“You didn’t have to do that,” he said, taking it from her. He opened it to find a handsome leather wallet, monogrammed for him. “Thank you, it’s beautiful. Ah, had you noticed mine is rather tattered now?”

“I had, and I knew you’d wait until it fell apart before buying a new one.”

That was true, and he chuckled as he explored all the pockets of the brown leather wallet. Interesting, he thought. A practical sort of gift. A woman might give such a gift to a male relative, or a friend. So she hadn’t been certain that she’d be giving him this gift as his lover. If she had, it might have been something more intimate, like jewellery.

Well, he hadn’t been certain he’d be receiving it as her lover. And her gift of course made him think of the one from Jahni, currently in the pocket of his jacket that hung in the closet beside the front door. He would wait until he left here before opening it. He wanted to be alone with it.


Faraj did not sleep after he returned home from the palace, but instead paced the house. He watched little Javid and Mehdi sleeping in their rooms. When the baby cried, Faraj picked him up and did the feed and then walked with him until he slept again.

The future of his sons filled his mind. Nothing was more important to him than that. He wanted them to grow up in a country that was strong and proud. He wanted them both to wear Royal Guard uniforms and know they were part of a long, fine tradition.

Was Zahir right? Was the king preparing to destroy the chance of that happening, with his misguided reform program? Would he really turn them into a pale imitation of the Western countries he seemed so fond of?

It seemed incredible, yet Zahir had outlined all his brother’s plans and Faraj could not see how else things could turn out.

And as for the Royal Guard itself, the plans of Rahama and Madari to modernise the regiment would destroy everything it had once stood for. Madari would betray the very traditions his own grandfather had maintained. He’d betray his own blood.

But it was speculation. Zahir might know about his brother’s plans, but what could he know about Madari’s?

It wasn’t hard to guess though was it? Rahama and Madari went to the palace more and more often now. They influenced the king and vice versa. This Special Forces unit was an obvious illustration of that. Perhaps Madari planned to turn the whole of the Royal Guard into soldiers of that sort. And if he did, then one day the regiment would be fit to be commanded only by someone like Jahni.

The sunrise found him outside on the terrace, smoking a cigarette. And another and another.

Treason. It was a hard thing for a loyal soldier to contemplate. But where did his loyalty belong? To the king, or the country? A king was a temporary thing. The land endured. Perhaps it would endure better with Zahir on the throne, and Atuallah in exile in his beloved France, with his foreign wife and half-French children.

That stuck in his craw. That his sons, fine Arab boys, fine Arab men one day, would bow to and serve a half-breed king.

In the house he heard people getting up, preparing breakfast, getting the children dressed. Nobody disturbed him. They knew better than that, when he was in this mood.

At last he threw the last cigarette butt away and strode into the house. He did not go for breakfast, but to the telephone, where he dialled a number from memory.

A sleepy voice came down the line. “Raslan,” it said, through a yawn.

Faraj had been told he needed to say only one word. No more than that. Especially not on the phone. He said it now, expected it would wake Raslan right up.



Madari unlocked the door to Jahni’s flat and slipped inside, trying not to step on the mail piled on the floor. He closed the door behind him.

And he felt.

He stopped thinking and analysing. He stopped skating on the surface of his mind and he started feeling. The loneliness and pain of his hopeless love. The ache in his heart, the emptiness at his side. That last would pass, he knew, when Kahil came back. But what he knew availed him nothing now.

He felt.

After a moment he calmed his mind enough to do what he had come here to do. First he collected up the mail and sorted through it quickly, into the ones he would open and deal with and the ones he would leave for Jahni’s return.

Then he checked each room for anything wrong. He found nothing. A fine layer of dust lay everywhere, disturbed by the passage of his feet and by the hand he trailed along the tops of pieces of furniture. He planned to hire a cleaner just before Jahni was due home, make the flat polished and ready. And he would stock the fridge, that now stood unplugged and empty. No welcoming light greeted anyone opening its door.

The flat felt as empty as Madari’s heart. Waiting for Jahni to come home and reclaim it.

He walked into the bedroom.

The bed was stripped, down to the bare mattress, and that gave it a cold, unwelcoming look. Very different to the bed Madari had left only an hour ago. Which would he choose though, if he had that choice to make?

It wasn’t really a question.

He walked on, continuing his checking. The living room, where he’d spent so many hours, talking the moon down, now stood as quiet as the rest of the flat. Sometimes during these weekly checks, Madari would turn on the radio in there, just to fill the gaping silence.

Then he decided it was time, and took the small gift-wrapped box from his pocket. After all this time waiting, he didn’t know if he should rip the paper off, or unwrap it slowly. A moment longer would make no difference.

He compromised. First he pulled slowly on the green ribbon to loosen it. When it came off, he wrapped it around his fingers, then, unable to resist, he tore away the paper, and let it fall to the floor.

The box inside was square and flat, and hinged. It bore the name of a jeweller. Madari opened it carefully and found a wristband, of worry beads, as Ahmed had called them. Prayer beads, his father had said. They were a warm golden-yellow colour, well polished and when he took them from the box and held them up, the light shone through them onto his hand.


He slipped the band onto his wrist. It felt light, and already warm against his skin. He tugged on a bead and let it go to bounce back against the one beside it with a soft click.

He’d never used fingering beads for prayers or just contemplation as many men did, and yet now he wondered how he hadn’t been wearing this wristband all his life. It fit. It was part of him already.

“Thank you, Kahil,” he said aloud, wishing Jahni was there to hear his words. He’d say them on the phone later, but that wasn’t the same. “I love them.”

Time to finish checking the flat. He picked up the wrapping paper he had dropped and crushed it into a ball that he dropped into his pocket.

One last room to check, the bathroom. He flushed the toilet a couple of times, then checked all the taps in the shower were still closed tight. He ran a hand down a fold of the shower curtain, then shook it out, until dust danced in the light.

Last of all, he went to the hand basin. He could have just checked the taps were off. But instead he filled the sink with water and picked up the soap that stood in a dish by the sink. Wrapped packets of the same soap lay on the windowsill. One packet sat on a mesh shelf in the shower. Waiting, like everything else here.

The soap by the hand basin was quite dried out, and took a moment to lather, but when it did, Madari soaped his hands well. Then he raised them close to his face and breathed in deeply.

The scent of the soap, the scent of Jahni, that he’d memorised at the airport, filled his mind.

He felt.

So many things, jumbled together, forming a lump in his throat, burning his eyes.

“Kahil.” No more than a whisper. Not far from a sob, enough of a catch in the voice to betray him.

Madari took a deep breath, then another. The lump in his throat went away, the burning behind his eyes cooled. Control returned.

He rinsed the soap from his hands, washed the sink, then dried his hands and left the flat.