“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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…
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?”