Faraj stepped out of his car, the dust of the road settling around it. A couple of small boys appeared seemingly from nowhere to goggle at the Mercedes. He gave them a warning look not to touch it and walked up to the door of Youssef Anbar’s house.
He had made sure, before he left the barracks, that Madari was on duty. It wouldn’t do for Madari to be at home today and just happen to see Faraj here in the village.
But Madari was there, so Faraj was here. A second nearly sleepless night, after Raslan’s horrible revelations told on him, and he had almost fallen asleep at the wheel driving here.
Youssef opened the door and stared up at Faraj. “Major?”
“May I come in?” Faraj asked.
“Of course, of course.” He moved back, bowing his head. “You honour my house, sir.”
In a moment Faraj was sitting at a table, with Youssef fussing around bringing him coffee and offering him food. Faraj accepted the coffee, hoping it would help him stay awake on the drive back to the city.
“Please sit down,” Faraj said, after Youssef gave him the coffee. “This is not a social call. I have something important to talk to you about.”
Youssef looked alarmed then, putting down the sugar bowl abruptly.
“Did something happen to Lieutenant Colonel Madari?” His eyes went wide and fearful, and Faraj realised what it must look like, an officer, in uniform paying a call. If a soldier in the Guard was killed or injured, an officer would go to tell his family, a courtesy Rahama would almost certainly extend to Youssef, who had known Madari since he was a boy. That only made this harder.
“No. Please, don’t alarm yourself, he is fine.” He waited until Youssef relaxed and sat down. “But I did come to speak to you about him. I have to ask you something. Something you may not want to answer.”
He drank the coffee in a couple of quick gulps then put it down.
“Youssef, I looked up your records and decorations. Your service in the Royal Guard was exemplary.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I read the late Colonel Madari’s commendations for you. He said you were the best soldier of the Royal Guard he ever served with.”
Youssef just looked down, and Faraj didn’t push it. He hoped he’d established what he wanted to. Reminded Youssef of where his first loyalty lay. To the Guard.
“I need to ask you something that as a servant in Lieutenant Colonel Madari’s home you may have special insight about. You know him so well. Until recently, you lived there with him.” He took a breath, while Youssef looked at him, waiting for the questions. “I need to ask about his relationship with Captain Jahni.”
“The Captain? Well, of course, he visits often.”
“He’s even stayed there sometimes.”
“Yes, after he was shot. And after the Restoration.”
“And while he was there, or at any other times, did you ever see anything untoward?”
“Untoward?” Youssef said, puzzled. “I’m sorry, sir, what kind of thing do you mean? Captain Jahni is a fine young officer.”
“Yes, he is. But he and Madari, they are very close. Perhaps… Did you ever see anything that concerned you, about that closeness?”
Youssef stared then, as he got what Faraj was asking him about. Then he dropped his head and wouldn’t look at Faraj.
“Sir, I really don’t know what you mean.”
“I think you do. You’re a man of the world as I am. These things are unpleasant to talk about, but for the sake of the Royal Guard it’s very important that you tell me.”
“It…it’s not my place to question what officers, gentlemen do…”
“It is your place. You must tell me, please.” He stood, and when Youssef looked up again, he shrank back from the taller man leaning over him. Faraj resisted the urge to move back. If he had to use his height, his rank and his uniform to intimidate Youssef, then he would. This was too important to be squeamish about.
“Youssef.” The question now, the big one. “Did you ever see them in bed together?”
Youssef covered his face with his hands. His voice became almost a wail. “Please, sir, I can’t talk about that.”
“That? Then you did? Is that what you’re saying? Answer me, Sergeant.”
“But, it wasn’t anything like that, I’m sure, sir.” He looked up at Faraj. “The Major, he was still a Major then, just after he came home after the Restoration. He had a nightmare. Oh, he suffers so much in the night, sir. It breaks my heart.”
“Go on,” Faraj said, hardening his own heart against sympathy for Madari’s nightmares. Was he the only one with nightmares?
“And, Captain, well Lieutenant Jahni, he went to calm him and he helped him back onto the bed and… That’s all I remember, I left then.”
There was something else, Faraj knew. What Youssef just described was distressing but not untoward. Faraj had seen the nightmares, and seen Jahni soothe Madari afterwards. No man would read anything sinister into that. So there had to be something else. Faraj guessed at it.
“Sergeant, look at me.” He used the trained voice and Youssef obeyed at once, even after all these years out of the Army. “Jahni was still there in the morning, wasn’t he?”
Youssef cringed away from the question, the thought, the memory.
“I’m sure they just fell asleep,” he whispered.
“I’m sure they did.” Faraj almost growled the words.
“The Major explained to me. He said it was nothing, that Lieutenant Jahni always helped him after his nightmares. He said that I shouldn’t think anything else about it.”
And he would claim he didn’t think anything else about it, Faraj knew. But in his heart, he knew, just as Faraj did. Both of them had denied it for such a long time. Youssef still did. Only his deference to Faraj had allowed him to say these things. He would never have volunteered this. Anything he could explain away, he would. Nothing short of seeing them… Faraj didn’t let himself think the rest. Nothing short of that would convince him of what they were really getting up to.
They had slipped up that night, falling asleep, so Youssef saw them together in the morning. Careless. Or arrogant perhaps, Madari thinking he could easily control the old man.
“Thank you, Sergeant. You have done the Royal Guard a service today.”
“But, sir, I… please.” His eyes shone with tears. “I don’t intend any harm to the family, to Master Faris.”
“I know that. But you had to tell the truth. No man should ever apologise for telling the truth.”
He took his leave then, and drove away from the village, fast. The wrong way. Not towards the city, but towards the desert, deep into the nothingness where he had lived for two wasted years, serving a man he now knew to be no more than a liar and a deviant.
At last, a long way from the village, no sign of any other vehicle, he stopped the car. After a deep breath he jammed his hand over the horn and let it drown the scream of rage that he could no longer control. No longer wanted to control.
“Hmm?” He looked over at Sophia, where she lay beside him in bed. She had been talking, but he had lost track, his mind going back to the dinner with Jahni two nights ago now. Jahni had been less tense since then, but still not entirely himself. Although Madari had seen him on both the evenings since, tonight they had said goodnight early and he had come here to Sophia’s.
She was certainly more relaxing company than Jahni at the moment. She massaged his back and shoulders and then they made love. It helped.
“I’m sorry,” Madari said, pulling himself together and paying attention to her. “I’m sleepy. What did you say?”
She shook her head, smiling at him. “It’s good to see I can wear you out. I was just saying I would like to organise a welcome home party for Kahil.”
He changed his mind suddenly about her helping him to relax, as his whole body tensed up again.
“And you’d, um, want to attend the party?”
She laughed and poked his shoulder “Of course I’d want to attend. I’m not a caterer!”
“You want to meet Kahil?”
“Half the city wants to meet him! The first ever Qumari Special Forces soldier. He’s quite a star.”
“Really?” Madari smiled. Well, that’s what this had all been for, hadn’t it? To make Jahni the best soldier in the Army? He deserved to be feted.
Still, Jahni and Sophia, in the same room, meeting… He knew it had to happen, he’d just put off thinking about it. He and Jahni mouthed words about how Sophia made no difference to their friendship, but of course she did, and Madari knew why, and supposed Jahni did too. Unspoken always, now, forever, but they both knew. Undeniable.
But they had to meet. If they didn’t it might look as if he was keeping them apart, and then the speculation would start again. The very thing he’d started this to counter.
So he smiled at Sophia and reached out to touch her face.
“My dear, far be it from me to deny you the chance to organise a party.”
“Hello, Idris. His highness will be here soon.” Raslan frowned at Faraj, who looked as if he hadn’t slept in days. “Are you alright? Come and sit down.”
Faraj shook his head, refusing to sit in one of the hotel suite’s plush chairs.
“I can’t believe he lied to me for so long. Right to my face.”
“I’m sorry you had to find out this way.” Whatever Faraj had done to confirm Raslan’s fake report it had obviously convinced him, which interested Raslan. How could a man confirm a lie?
“The things I sacrificed for that bastard. Two years of my son’s life and of my marriage that I can never get back! It makes me sick to think that I’ve had him in my house, around my children.”
Raslan didn’t speak, but knew Faraj wasn’t really listening anyway. He kept quiet and he let Faraj rant. And he listened. He listened very carefully. Faraj stopped and clutched his forehead, further messing up his already untidy hair.
“Oh god, that soldier, that poor bastard we tortured. Just so Madari could get Jahni back. Back into his bed.” He spat the last words.
“Tortured?” Now this sounded especially interesting.
“Jahni was captured,” Faraj said. “We ended up taking a prisoner who knew how to get into where they had him. Javid and I, we… I can still hear his screams!”
“Madari ordered you to torture a man?”
“After he tried to bribe the man with all the money we had at the camp. Money that we needed for supplies. Of course that didn’t matter as long as he could get Kahil back.”
“Given his history,” Raslan said, “it seems hard to believe he’d order a man to be tortured. It seems so… hypocritical.”
Faraj snorted. “Hypocrite is exactly right! Puts on such a show of high principles, and all the time he is corrupt in one of the worst possible ways.”
He paced again for a while. Raslan watched the clock. Zahir would be here soon. Tonight, he’d said, they would review the final plans. The coup was close to launch.
“I want to expose him,” Faraj said. “We have to expose him.”
Raslan’s attention snapped back to Faraj, his eyes wide. Oh hell, no we don’t. That’s the last thing we want. Not now.
“I’m going to go to Rahama,” Faraj said.
“That’s not a good idea.”
“No, Sayeed, don’t you see, this could change everything. If the King finds out one of his closest advisors is a deviant, it might make him re-evaluate his policies. Deter him from making the reforms Madari supported.”
“But… Zahir.” No, dammit, no, he couldn’t let Faraj follow this path.
“Zahir wants to stop the reforms, I know. But this way we can do it without any bloodshed.”
Zahir wants the power, you fool. Spare me from the good men. Raslan echoed Zahir’s words in his mind. How could he head this off? Inspiration struck him.
“Idris, you can’t go to Rahama. You can’t even go to the king himself. Don’t you think they already know?”
Faraj stopped pacing and turned to stare down at Raslan.
“That cannot be true!”
“Remember I told you that my superiors suppressed the dossier about Madari. Where do you think those orders came from?”
“No. Rahama would never…”
Raslan stood, and came to put his hand on Faraj’s shoulder. Faraj had grown even paler. He looked ready to start weeping.
“It’s almost impossible to imagine, I know. But remember they are old friends. Rahama has protected Madari for years now.”
“I… he has always shown favouritism to Madari…” He shook his head. “But the King?”
“Owes Madari a debt for his contribution to the Restoration. Whoever Madari is sharing his bed with, he helped the King regain the throne, and that’s all Atuallah cares about. He wants Madari’s counsel. He wants the Madari family name on his side.”
“So he tolerates this?” Faraj’s voice sounded faint, soft. “Condones it by protecting Madari?”
“I’m sorry,” Raslan said. “About Rahama too. I know you respect him, but you know it’s time for him to go too. Time for a younger man to take the reins.”
Faraj nodded and now set his jaw, a determined look reappearing in his eyes. “Yes. If he has allowed this to go on, unquestioned, then the sooner the Guard is rid of him, of all of them, the better.”
He sighed then and sat down heavily on the bed, dropped his head into his hands. Raslan at once sat beside him.
“Are you all right?” He put concern in his voice. “You look very tired. I can ask his highness to postpone this meeting if you want to go home.”
“No. No.” Faraj sat up. “I’m fine. Just not sleeping well. But I feel… I feel as if tonight I will sleep.”
He caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror and grimaced. Quickly he slipped a comb from his pocket and fixed his hair. Then he stood and smoothed down his uniform. Just in time, as a moment later Zahir arrived, sweeping into the room. He dismissed his bodyguards after taking his briefcase from one of them.
“My friends,” he said, shaking their hands. “I have made the final plans. Now I need your feedback on them.”
They cleared a table and Zahir began taking papers from his briefcase.
“The date is set,” Zahir said, as they pored over the papers. “Major, the men you have moved to the old prison camp are in place. My brother is still scheduled to be at the summer residence as planned.”
He looked up and Raslan knew what was coming. The parts of the plan he hadn’t fully explained to Faraj yet. The parts they’d been holding back, for fear he wasn’t quite ready. Zahir caught Raslan’s eye and Raslan gave a tiny nod. He’s ready. Zahir smiled.
“The force will move from the camp and take up position outside the residence, here.” He pointed at the large scale map of the area. “And begin the artillery bombardment. After that the men will move in, secure the area, and deal with any survivors.”
Faraj stared at him and spoke quietly.
“You have changed the plan, sir.”
“Yes.” He held Faraj’s gaze. “We need a more decisive outcome. We need to eliminate the possibility of my brother launching a counter-coup. We need to eliminate him.”
“And his family?”
Zahir sighed. “Something I regret deeply, but these are harsh choices that I must make, for harsh times.”
Faraj looked down for a moment, at the papers, but not seeing them, Raslan guessed. Perhaps he saw the faces of the King’s children, and the faces of his own, so close in ages.
“After all,” Raslan said, quietly. “They are half-breeds.”
Faraj frowned at him for a moment. Not in disapproval though, more a thoughtful look. Then he nodded. All of the doubt vanished from his face at last. Only resolution and determination there now.
“What do you need from me?”
“Captain Kahil Jahni, Signora Sophia Giordano.”
Madari wore a nervous smile as he introduced them. Jahni even thought he could see Madari’s hands trembling. He took Sophia’s hand to shake it briefly.
“Please, call me Sophia,” she said, “And may I call you Kahil? Faris talks about you so much that I feel as if I already know you.”
“Of course.” Jahni nodded. So Faris talked about him to her, did he? Shame he hadn’t done the same the other way around. At least a mention of her existence would have helped. The bitterness that had started to subside, rose again.
“This party…” Madari waved a hand around his living room, at the small crowd of people. “Was Sophia’s idea. She organised it all, including the food.”
“Faris told me all your favourites. This is your party after all.”
“Organised so quickly too,” Madari said. Jahni nodded. Yes indeed, only a week ago he’d been at a rather more rowdy party, on his last night in the UK.
He thought Madari was sweating now, watching them. Or maybe it was only the lighting in here. Were they ‘getting along’? Was he trying to? She seemed to be, but the conversation felt stilted. Well what else could they do besides mouth polite small talk? He could hardly come out and ask her the things he really wanted to know. Do you love him? What do you want from him? What do you really want?
He glanced around the room. Many of the guests were Royal Guard officers, friends of his. But he felt a distance from them now. Fellow soldiers yes, but none with the training he had been through. And Madari? Of course, he hadn’t had that training either. But they’d fought side by side. No stronger bonds existed than those formed between men who faced death together.
So he and Sophia could perhaps learn to get along, but if Madari expected them to be friends, he was too optimistic. Women were… interesting in their own way. But not for friendship. Not of the same kind as he shared with Madari. Even without the complication of his carefully repressed feelings for Madari, he could never be Sophia’s friend.
Still for Madari’s sake, he made an effort to get along. If she gave Madari some happiness, he had to be glad about that. If it was happiness Jahni couldn’t give him, then he had to be, well perhaps glad wasn’t the word. He had to tolerate her.
So they talked. She asked about Britain. So very discreet though, not asking him about his training. Not that she could possibly understand that anyway. But general things, about the country, the people, the culture.
Madari joined in the conversation only minimally, and sometimes hurried away to see to other guests. He always came back quickly though, as if he feared they would end up fighting if he left them alone too long.
They didn’t fight. In fact the longer the conversation went on, the more Jahni began to relax. The more he started to laugh at himself for being a fool. He still had questions about the two of them, perhaps one day he’d dare to ask them. But one thing became clear to him the more he watched the two of them interact.
They were not in love.
Madari barely touched her. She barely touched him. Of course, he didn’t expect them to be all over each other, in public. But two people in love, found ways to touch. He knew that. In fact, Madari didn’t even look at her as much as Jahni thought he would. Even when she was talking, his eyes flickered to Jahni most of the time, as if gauging his reaction.
Jahni wanted to laugh with relief. He doesn’t love her. Whatever his reason to be with her, he doesn’t love her.
This one realisation made him the happiest he’d been since he first saw the photographs of the two of them. Much happier than the night he’d spent with the American woman, Lisa. That hadn’t helped him much. A physical release, no more. Is that all Madari felt with Sophia? He blocked that path in his mind. There were limits to the things he could think about the two of them, if he was going to continue to be accepting of her.
“I think it’s time to open the buffet,” Sophia said, glancing at the clock. Jahni smiled. Yes, time for the buffet. Suddenly he had his appetite back.
“Thank you for tonight,” Madari said, standing at the door with Sophia. She was one of the last people to leave. “I think Kahil enjoyed it.”
She laughed. “He certainly enjoyed the food.”
“He has a hearty appetite.” He reached for her hands, held both of them in his. “I am happy you two can be friends.”
“I am too. I know how important he is to you.”
No, he thought. You don’t. But he appreciated her words anyway. Time to say goodnight now, let her get away. It was a long drive to the city and already quite late. He hesitated a moment, knowing they weren’t alone in the house inhibited him. But then he bent to kiss her quickly on the lips.
“Goodnight, my dear. Please, drive carefully.”
He watched her leave, watched her car drive out of the open gates. One last car waited in the yard. Madari closed the door and walked back through the living room. He glanced into the diwanya, but it was empty.
“Kahil?” He called out.
“Kitchen.” The answering came back and Madari followed the voice to find Jahni standing over an ibrik on the stove
“I thought I’d make a coffee before I left. You’ll have one I suppose?”
“Not an espresso?” His voice had lost the sulky tone it had carried for a few days. The question didn’t seem to be a jibe, more a joke even.
“No,” Madari said, “No espresso, thank you.”
“So you still prefer Arab to Italian?”
Now that… Was that a joke? Again, not a jibe, but a strangely phrased question all the same.
“Yes,” he said, slowly. “On the whole, yes I still prefer Arab to Italian. Though espresso is nice on occasion.”
“Of course.” Jahni stirred the coffee, not looking at it, but rather at Madari and smiling slightly. “It’s just not quite as intense is it? Not as strong.”
“No. No, it’s not.”
Jahni nodded, his smile widening into a grin. He turned back to the coffee and Madari sat down at the kitchen table. A few moments later, Jahni poured the coffee and brought it over to him, then took a seat himself.
“I hope I’m not too out of practice,” Jahni said. “Though next time you come to mine, I’ll make you some tea, British Army style. It’s no wonder those people conquered a quarter of the world. Drinking that stuff makes you feel ready to take on any army.”
“I look forward to it.”
They sat quietly for a moment, sipping their coffee.
“You seem more, um, relaxed now, Kahil. Are you adjusting to being back home?”
“Yes. It was harder than I thought it would be.” He grimaced. “I know I’ve been out of sorts. And I’m sorry if I’ve been irritable with you. I had no right to be.”
“I think you had some right to.” He looked down. Yes, he had.
“Faris,” Jahni said, making him look up again. “I’ve got something I should tell you about.”
“What is it?”
“Well, not so much tell as show.” He stood up and Madari stared as he began to unbutton his shirt.
“Kahil…” His voice came out hoarse and he cleared his throat. “What are you doing?”
Jahni undid the buttons about halfway, and then shrugged the shirt off his right shoulder. He turned around, showing Madari a black oval with some kind of stylised bird like shape in it on the back of his shoulder.
Madari stood up, still staring. “A tattoo?”
“Had it done three months ago.” Jahni looked back over his shoulder. “What do you think?”
“Well come and have a proper look.” Jahni said, grinning now.
Madari moved closer, slowly. He wanted to touch it, his hand already rising from his side, as if controlled by someone else. “You do remember that tattoos are haraam?”
“Yeah, I remember.” Jahni shrugged.
Madari stood close to Jahni now, his hand raised, but not touching the design.
“Go on, touch it,” Jahni said. “It doesn’t feel any different. Not now it’s healed.”
Madari stared at him, and then cleared his throat again.
“Is it some kind of bird?”
“Don’t you recognise it?” He laughed. “You of all people… It’s Batman. Well the symbol. The Bat signal.”
“Batman? From the comic books?” He couldn’t resist any longer and touched the tattoo, just a light brush with the tips of his fingers. It felt no different, just the same as normal skin, warm and firm. The curves of the bat shape and the oval enclosing it moved as Jahni’s muscles flexed beneath the flesh.
“Batman,” Jahni said, “sometimes called ‘The Dark Knight’.”
“Dark knight?” Madari frowned at him. What are you trying to tell me?
He touched the shape again, traced his fingers along the curve of the oval shape. Jahni sighed softly and Madari gasped and snatched his hand back, suddenly, realising what he was doing. That was a caress. Stop now. Goosebumps rose on the exposed skin, giving the tattoo a roughened appearance as the bumps caught the light.
“You’re… cold,” Madari said. “You should put your shirt back on now.”
“Of course.” Jahni pulled it back over his shoulder, concealing the tattoo, and turned back to face Madari.
“Did it hurt much?” Madari asked.
“Plenty,” Jahni said, buttoning the shirt. “But you don’t show that of course.”
“Of course. So…” He backed up a bit, and sat down again. Jahni stayed standing, his shirt still had a couple of buttons undone and he raised a hand to slide under the collar and rub his neck. Madari tried to remember what he was saying. “Um, yes, well, you had better make sure you keep it concealed as much as possible. Some people wouldn’t approve.”
“That depends who you’re asking. As your commanding officer, I have to say no.”
“But, well, otherwise, I don’t really mind. It’s quite, ah… striking I suppose.”
Jahni smiled. “Good. I was thinking of you when I got it. What you’d think of it, I mean.”
“Really?” Madari leaned back in his chair, folding his arms and raising his eyebrows now. “I assumed you weren’t thinking of very much at the time. I assumed you were drunk.”
“I was not!” Jahni protested.
Madari laughed, shaking his head at the vehement denial. “I’ve never understood why anyone would get one of those things while sober.”
“I was not drunk. They’re not allowed to tattoo you if you’re drunk.” He winced at the memory and rubbed his shoulder. “Believe me I’d rather have been drunk. Or preferably under a general anaesthetic. Of course, I can’t deny that I was very, very drunk very soon afterwards.” He took their empty coffee cups from the table and started to wash them up.
“I hope you didn’t overindulge too often.”
“No. I tried to behave. And you know I’ve no head for beer. The lads called me ‘cheap date’. ‘Couple of pints and you’re anybody’s’.” He said it in English, imitating some general northern British accent.
Madari thought briefly about their stay with the Southern Rangers, and how Jahni had drunk wine that night, and how close they had come to… No. Must not think about that.
“Kahil, leave them,” he said, rising, as Jahni began to dry the cups. “It’s late, you should be heading home.”
Jahni nodded, and left the cups beside the sink. He turned to Madari.
“Thanks for the party.”
“I had to say ‘welcome home’. Had to say it properly.”
“It is good to be home.” He sighed. “It took me a few days to appreciate that. But now I do.” Then he shook himself and looked at his watch. “Yes, you’re right, I’d better get on the road.”
They walked to the front door, where Madari took Jahni’s jacket from the row of hooks and helped him into it. And Jahni took him by surprise with an embrace, pressed close for a moment, spoke softly, almost inaudible, but then stepped away quickly, and out of the door.
“Goodnight!” Jahni called, turning back, raising his hand to wave, before getting into his car. Its headlights came on, and music with it. Too loud. Then the lights flickered a salute and the car drove out of the gates. Madari walked over slowly to close and secure them. By the time he’d done that, the distant sound of Jahni’s car had faded.
He walked back to the house. In his mind he went over and over what he thought he’d heard Jahni say, during that last embrace. He could have misheard, it was just a whisper. Yet it had sounded like two words.