No prisoners. Not one taken in either the destruction of the camp, or the raid on the house where the last of that terror cell had been hiding out.
And of course, someone had to have a problem with it. That damn reporter, Hamin, once again asking in the Az-Ma’ir Sunrise’s leader column if it had been necessary to kill all of the terrorists. They should take him along on the next mission, Madari thought. Let him see for himself how necessary it was to kill them. He sipped coffee and glared at the newspaper again. He didn’t need this.
Jahni came in with a report and a worried expression. His gaze fell on the paper.
“Ignore it,” he said. “That man is a fool.”
“He says I acted out of a desire for revenge and am allowing pain and anger to drive me.”
“And that’s a bad thing?”
Madari looked up at him, the hard expression on his face. Was it a bad thing? His decisions should be made on sound tactical grounds, not influenced by emotions. And he’d started to feel he wasn’t in control of those emotions, with little sleep for three days now.
“What’s the situation in the city?”
“All quiet. There was a small protest last night, but it broke up without much trouble. Faris, you look exhausted.”
“You don’t look much better yourself. You should be off duty.”
“And I think it’s time you were, too.”
They looked steadily at each other, at pale faces and dark-circled eyes and Madari nodded. No wonder he couldn’t control his emotions. He needed rest. The crisis had passed. Madari could leave the regiment in the hands of one of the other colonels for a few hours at least, while he got some proper sleep.
A picture came into his mind, of his bed at the lodge in Zaire. Of himself and Jahni spending those afternoons in each other’s arms, sleeping, talking, or just silent, at peace. Perfect happiness.
Something he couldn’t have now. He could go home, he supposed, out to his house in the desert, but it was a long way and he feared dozing off at the wheel of his car. He knew where he had to go.
“Go home, Kahil,” he said. “I’m going to go, too. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
It took him nearly an hour and a half to get out of there, while he handed over to another colonel and made sure everything was in order, before he finally left and drove to Sophia’s.
Had he put off leaving for reasons other than doing his duty? What happened at the hospital, the kiss… he needed to tell her about that. For too long he’d given himself excuses why he shouldn’t mention those incidents with Jahni, but that couldn’t go on. He had to tell her the truth.
Not right away though. When he reached her home the prospect of the bed made him almost fall asleep on his feet and she asked nothing of him after she held him and kissed him when he came in the door.
A few murmured words of reassurance that he was okay, and then he was swaying on his feet and she took him into the bedroom, helped him out of his clothes and into bed. She rested his head on her lap and stroked his hair until he fell asleep.
He woke at nearly four in the afternoon, alone in the bed. He took a shower and then put on his clothes, because he couldn’t have this conversation in his robe. When he went out into the living room, Sophia seemed surprised to see him dressed.
“I hope you’re not rushing straight off again, I’m making some tea.”
“Thank you. No, I’m not rushing off.”
Looking pleased, she hurried to the kitchen and came back with a tea tray. He’d have the tea first, and answer her questions – the ones he could – about the nightmare of the last few days. As they talked she kept an arm around him, the story of the brush with death seemed to make her want to hold on to him, make sure he was real, had really survived. He didn’t return the embrace and she drew away after a while.
“Faris, are you sure you’re all right? You seem very distant. Cold. That’s not like you.”
“I have to tell you about something.” He put down the now empty teacup he’d been hiding behind and took her hands. “Something happened at the hospital. Jahni and I, he…”
He was going to say ‘he kissed me’, but he couldn’t claim he hadn’t responded, or that this was somehow Jahni’s fault. ‘He started it’ only worked as an excuse for children.
She looked down at their joined hands, biting her lip. “I see.”
“It’s not the first time it’s happened. I mean not the first time since I told you about us, what we feel.” She looked up at him, her eyes blazing with anger for a moment, and then flooding with grief and despair. Tears misted in them and he knew his relationship with her was over.
“Why didn’t you tell me before about those other times?” She didn’t yell. Another reason he knew it was over.
“Because I was afraid. Because I care for you and don’t want to lose you and I know that I will. That I have.”
“And why have you told me now, when you didn’t before? Are you…” Her eyes widened. “Faris, are you going to leave? Go somewhere else, to be with him?”
Part of him wanted to, more than anything in the world. Flee without looking back. When Jahni had begged for that Madari hadn’t even thought about Sophia in that moment.
“No, Sophia, no. I promise you that I have no intention of pursuing a romantic relationship with him.”
“You’ve made promises before.”
“And I’ve broken them, more than once, I know. I’m sorry. It’s not because of you. I think you’re the finest woman I ever met. If things were different, I’d have already asked you to be my wife.” She gasped at his words, but he continued before she could speak. “But things are what they are, and if I don’t face them, I am a coward.”
She looked into his eyes. Her tears had not fallen yet. “Is he your lover?”
The answer was yes, but not in the way she meant it. “We’re not having sex. We’ve never had sex. We never will.”
She jerked her hands away from his, with a sudden movement as if only just noticing they were still there.
“I can’t trust you, can I? Please be truthful with me. I can’t trust you and I can’t trust him. Your intentions are good, but temptation is stronger than intentions. Love is stronger than either.” Her voice caught and now her tears escaped.
“No,” he said, in a voice dulled with gloom, inevitability. “You can’t trust me. I want to be strong and you’ve helped me to be strong. But I’m not strong enough to say it won’t happen again.”
She stood, moving away, putting the distance between them. He waited for her, while she took a cigarette from the holder on the mantelpiece, lit it with a shaking hand and turned to him.
“I can’t allow a man I don’t trust to share my bed.”
Despite the shaking hand, her voice was calm. She had decided this already, he knew. All that was left was to put it into words. Madari knew that would be the case. She hadn’t been able to trust her husband and had exiled him from her bed. Now Madari faced the same exile.
He stood. Should he plead for her? He’d said that in other circumstances he’d want her to be his wife. If he felt so strongly, shouldn’t he plead for her now? But what use would it be? She deserved better.
“I’ll go at once,” he said, provoking only a nod from her. She was holding in her emotions, he saw that, needed privacy. “Sophia, I hope this doesn’t have to mean we never see each other again. You’ve been more than a lover to me, you’re a good friend to me and to Kahil. I don’t want to lose you.”
“I need time to think,” she said, voice strained.
He bowed his head to her and left the room to fetch his things, cramming them quickly into his bag. When he returned to the living room she was standing by the window. Did he dare to go and touch her, even just on the shoulder? No. It would not be welcome.
“May I call you in a few days?” he asked. “I want to make sure you’re well.”
“Fine,” she said, without turning from the window. “Faris.” Her voice stopped him as he began to turn away. “Your secret is safe. I won’t tell anyone.”
“I never thought for a moment that you would,” he said, bowing his head again as she turned to look at him. “Goodbye, Sophia. I’m sorry I…” What? Couldn’t love her as much as she deserved. “I’m sorry I let you down. I love you.”
She stared at him and gasped at the unexpected words. They took him by surprise as much as her, but he recovered himself.
“Perhaps I should have said that before. Or not at all. It’s how I feel, but it’s not enough. I’m sorry.” He did love her. But not enough. “I’m sorry.” He said it one last time, then turned away from her and left the flat.
Jahni walked into a hotel bar at just after ten in the evening. He’d woken a couple of hours ago from a long sleep, but still felt restless. The kind of restlessness that brought him to the hotel bars every few weeks.
Madari was sitting at a table in the corner, with a teacup and a newspaper in front of him.
Paralysed by the disconnect, Jahni froze. It couldn’t really be him, could it? The man at the table wore civilian clothes and had his head down over the paper. Surely it was just someone who looked like Madari. At any moment he’d look up and he’d be nothing like him really and Jahni would laugh at his own foolishness, telling himself he saw Madari everywhere.
The man looked up and stared with surprise at Jahni. It was Madari.
Jahni wanted to run, like a child caught somewhere he shouldn’t be. Claim later that of course he wasn’t at the hotel. Why would he be at a hotel? But that was ridiculous. Anyway, he needed to know why the hell Madari was here. Was he having dinner here with Sophia? Was she in the ladies room? But he had only one tea glass in front of him.
Too late to run, Madari has started to rise and Jahni shook himself from his paralysis and hurried over there. He shook Madari’s hand when he reached the table, startling him somewhat, but making their interaction more natural looking. They both sat.
“I think we both get to say the same thing here,” Madari said. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to get a drink,” Jahni said. Though that risked some disapproval, it was better than the full truth. “What about you? Are you here with Sophia?”
“No, um. I’m staying here.” He stirred the almost empty tea glass. “Ah, the fact is, Sophia and I have broken up.”
“What?” Jahni voice was a cracked whisper. The rest of the bar vanished into a haze of muffled sound and blurred pictures, nothing in focus except Madari. But he got no immediate answer as Madari turned to a waiter who’d come to the table.
“A fresh pot and another glass please. Charged to my room.” He turned back to Jahni as the waiter hurried away.
“Why?” Jahni asked in the same cracked whisper, still too stunned to know what he felt about this. All he could feel now was shock.
“I told her about…” He looked around. “I don’t think we can talk here.”
“We can go to your room.”
Madari stared. “I really don’t think that would be a good idea.”
He had a point. “Then let’s take a walk.”
Cancelling the tea order on the way out, they left the hotel. Madari didn’t have a jacket, but it was a warm enough night and they walked down the street, away from the lights of the hotel, to darker areas, shops closed up for the night, few people around. There was a park nearby and Madari steered him in that direction.
“What did you tell her about?” Jahni asked after they’d been walking in silence for a while.
“The hospital. The kiss.”
Jahni nodded. Had he also mentioned what Jahni had asked him to do? His heart raced suddenly. My God, what if he’d broken off his relationship with Sophia because he intended to do that? Now the crisis had passed they could… No. Absurd. This was only one crisis. There’d be many more. And what if Rahama never returned to duty? What if the regiment needed a new commander?
“And that it had happened other times that she didn’t know about,” Madari added.
“And that was always initiated by me,” Jahni said, the thought occurring to him suddenly that he’d been the instigator of every incident except the first one. Madari had responded, certainly, but Jahni had been the aggressor. He flushed with shame at that thought. Was he forcing his attentions on Madari? Madari wasn’t unwilling as such, but he’d made it clear he didn’t want to pursue that side of their relationship. Why couldn’t Jahni respect that?
“It doesn’t matter who initiated it. We both participated.”
“Did you tell her that it won’t happen again?”
“I told her I didn’t intend for it to happen again. But we both know that I’ve said that before.” He sighed. “She can’t trust me. I can’t blame her.”
“But it’s my fault! I started it. Look, I promise this time, it will never happen again.”
They stopped at the gate to the park. Madari looked at him and shook his head. “It almost certainly will. Whatever our intentions. I look at you now in the moonlight and think you’re beautiful and I want to kiss you. I don’t know how long I can hold out against such temptation.”
“I’m sorry.” Jahni choked the words past a lump in his throat. “I don’t know what to do. I know I’m not strong enough either. Maybe I should just go away somewhere. I don’t know.”
“Actually.” Madari stopped, then went on. “Colonel Rahama mentioned that other commanders in the regiment have been trying to get you transferred to them. Maybe you’d like to consider it?” His voice shook as he went on. “I’d hate to lose you, you know that, but –”
“No!” Jahni shouted it, startling Madari and making him step back. “No way!” Not a shout this time, but emphatic, as what transfer would mean suddenly impressed itself on his mind. “Transfer away from my unit? The unit I built? My men, who I hand-picked. No way in hell.”
“You, ah, did just offer yourself that you’d go away,” Madari said.
“Well, I was talking crap! I’m not going anywhere.” He scowled and set off walking through the park, Madari catching him up a moment later.
“Then we have to be on our guard every moment we’re together,” Madari said. “I’m glad to hear you so committed to the unit. After what you said the other day, I was worried.”
“That my loyalty was elsewhere? Well it’s not. Not in this universe. If you can wave a magic wand and make things different, then my loyalties might be torn. But for now, I’m going nowhere.”
“Good. Kahil, you know as well as I do that the situation here is only going to get worse before it gets better. Our work has only just started. We mustn’t be distracted. Rahama will retire soon, perhaps sooner than expected. I intend to succeed him.”
Jahni looked at the determined expression on his face. It was the first time he’d heard Madari actually state that as an intention, rather than a distant possibility.
“Good,” Jahni said.
“By then, you will be ready to command the anti-terror unit yourself and you will be my right hand man.” Madari smiled. “As you have been for so long.”
He slipped his arm into Jahni’s then, and they strolled on. Was this a distraction? Jahni’s stomach fluttered in a way it didn’t when Rahama or any other male friend took his arm or his hand. Did it have the same effect on Madari? Was that a flush in his cheeks? Impossible to say in the darkness.
“I’m making some other changes,” Madari went on. “I thought about them after I checked into the hotel. I need to simplify my life. Prepare myself for the war that is coming.”
“What kind of changes?”
“I’m going to sell my house and move into the city, so I can be closer to the barracks. Halais will buy my horses. I know a man at the falconry centre who has offered a good price for Ruya.” He glanced at Jahni with a sly smile. “I’m even going to buy a new car.”
Jahni laughed. “At last we find out that it takes almost being blown up to make you buy a new car. If I’d known that I’d have sent you a small letter bomb years ago.”
He wondered how a new car counted as simplifying Madari’s life. Perhaps there was more there too. The Colonel in command of a regiment was expected to maintain a certain lifestyle. That rusty old Volvo didn’t match such a lifestyle. But Sophia did match it, so it surprised him again that Madari would choose his moment to get too honest with her.
Unless… what if he intended to look for a more respectable woman, one he could marry, who could be a society hostess for him? No. He was honest with Sophia because he felt she deserved it, that was all. He was a good man. He wouldn’t have been ashamed of having her at his side as he cut more of a figure in society. Jahni shook his head. His speculation could run wild sometimes.
“Are you okay about Sophia? If you’re upset, we can talk.”
“Thank you. But I think I’ll be fine.”
Jahni nodded. “This might be for the best, Faris. I mean, if things get as bad as you believe they will, she could be in danger too, if she’s with you.”
“That’s true,” he said, with a sigh. “It would be selfish of me to expect her to risk that.”
They walked on in silence for a while. Madari’s hand slid down Jahni’s arm to take his hand, an exquisite torment to Jahni.
“Kahil, do you often go to the hotels to drink?”
Jahni winced. Damn, he thought Jahni was drowning his stress in alcohol. The concern in his voice was more than that of the commander though and Jahni could only be honest with him, to stop him worrying.
“I don’t go there to drink. I meet women. Foreigners.”
Madari faltered and stopped. Jahni turned to face him, the shock in his eyes breaking Jahni’s heart.
“I’m sorry, Faris. But I’m not made of stone.”
“Of course not. Ah, well, that’s your own business.” He blushed then said quietly, “Only women?”
Jahni blushed too, knowing what he meant and knowing what he feared. But Jahni wasn’t going to bring down a scandal on the regiment like the one that had engulfed the mayor’s office.
“Definitely only women.” The double standard sickened him. There’d be some scandal if it became known publically, but he was a single man, and he knew many men would be quite jealous of his conquests – as long as they were always women. Was Madari jealous of them? For different reasons of course. Just as Jahni was jealous of Sophia even when he’d told Madari to stay with her.
“Does it help?” Madari asked in a soft voice.
“Sometimes. It takes the edge off when things get too much.”
“That’s good then. I don’t think the same solution would work for me.”
It wouldn’t. Not with his romantic soul. He’d fall in love with too many of them. Fall in love, just not enough.
“Let’s walk back now,” Madari said, turning around. “I still have sleep to catch up on, to get back to work in the morning.”
“Me too,” Jahni said. “Walk me to my car.”
They walked arm in arm again, slowly, enjoying the moonlight and each other’s closeness. The only closeness they dared have. But Jahni felt less bitter about that than he usually did. This was the frankest they’d been with each other for some time. Something was happening here. Not just tonight, but in the last few days, since the bomb. They’d stopped hiding from each other. The distractions they used as barriers between each other were falling away.
“I feel like we’ve really cleared the air, talking like this,” Madari said.
“You must have read my mind.”
It was good. It made sense. Now they had to be closer and stronger than ever, as they faced battle shoulder to shoulder.
“What’s that?” Jahni said to Madari as they gathered in Rahama’s office with the other senior officers. Madari was no longer behind the desk. Today, two weeks after the assassination attempt, Rahama was coming back to work. Only for half a day and only really to be seen to still be in charge, to show he would be back.
Madari held up the item he carried that Jahni had asked about. “It’s Ahmed’s old swagger stick. I found it when I was packing boxes last night.”
“Are you going to start poking the men with it?”
“I’m going to give it to the Colonel,” he said, with a mock frown at Jahni’s smirk. “He gave this to my grandfather when he made Colonel. I thought he might like to have it back.” He handed it to Jahni to inspect.
“Nice.” Jahni ran a hand along the ebony cane and then buffed it on his sleeve. “Sorry. It’s beautiful.” He held it up, looking at the silver cap, turning it around and then frowning. “Is it…”
But the sound of applause interrupted him and he gave the cane back to Madari as Rahama appeared in the doorway, moving slowly, but smiling, raising a hand to greet his officers as he came in.
Various pleasantries followed. Toasts were made to Rahama’s health. Messages from well wishers, including the king, were read. After all of that, Rahama rose from his chair again, raising a hand for quiet.
“Thank you, gentlemen, your warm welcome back has made me wish I’d returned sooner. But I know I didn’t need to rush, because I know all of you have done your duty to the best of your ability during my absence. And I particularly want to thank Colonel Madari for his work at this time.”
Murmurs of approval, that Madari hoped were at least mostly sincere, followed Rahama’s words.
“This has been a difficult time for all of us,” Rahama went on. “And I wish I could say that it is over. But this has been the opening salvo in a war. I know that the Royal Guard is ready to fight that war. We still have work to do to restore our good name. That work starts today. I have some announcements to make over the next few weeks about changed priorities, new ways to deal with the threat we are facing. I know all of you are ready to do whatever it takes to meet that threat.”
He sat down again, looking pale suddenly, but put on a smile as the officers applauded his words.
“Now I believe I have some paperwork to catch up on,” he said, making them laugh, and start to move out of the room, talking of course, speculating about what his announcements would mean.
“Faris,” Rahama said softly. “Stay a moment. And you, Major Jahni.”
“Did you want a full debrief now?” Madari said as they sat.
“No, no. I’ll read your report first. I just wanted to thank you personally for the way you handled things here. I’ve been receiving regular reports.”
“I was afraid that I might have overstepped the mark, taking charge the way I did on my own authority.”
“It was a bold move,” Rahama agreed, “but one that I would expect of you now.”
Now? So he wouldn’t have in the past.
“Faris, I don’t favour you because you’re an old friend, but because I know you’re ready to face what’s coming. Some of the others are not. They don’t understand what is happening, or they don’t know what’s required to deal with it. You do. You and Major Jahni are my most valuable men.”
Madari caught Jahni’s eye, seeing him trying to hide a pleased smile behind a serious expression. His jacket buttons strained over a chest puffed up with pride.
“I hope I can live up to that confidence you have in me, sir. I know Major Jahni can.”
Jahni bowed his head in acknowledgment of the compliment, then he glanced at the swagger stick Madari held across his lap, reminding him of his plan to present it.
“Colonel,” Madari said, rising and holding out the cane. “I thought you might like to have this. I know my grandfather was always very fond of it. I think he’d be happy to see you carrying it.”
Rahama took the stick, smiling. “Well now, it’s been many years since I saw this.” He looked at Madari as he sat again. “Surely you’d find it useful yourself though.”
“Well, I’ve never really used one.”
“Yes, but…” He stopped, looking at Madari puzzled and then smiling. “You don’t actually know what this is, do you?”
“What it is?”
“Ahmed never showed you?” He chuckled. “That sly old soul. See the small studs under the cap? Press one of those, twist about six inches down and… it’s, a little stiff, needs oiling. Ah. There we go.”
The cap and six inches of ebony slid away from the rest of the cane, forming a hilt for a long, thin blade, at least eighteen inches long.
“Bloody hell,” Jahni said in English, under his breath.
Madari just stared, dumbstruck as Rahama looked up at the blade, turning it to catch the morning sunlight.
“No rust. It will need sharpening of course. A nice ace in the hole for a man with assassins on his tail.” He looked at Madari. “Are you sure you don’t want to keep it for yourself?”
He held it out, and Madari rose and took it, staring trancelike at the sword. Was it long enough to be called a sword? Was this the sword Ahmed had told him to draw? A concealed weapon. One for close quarters, and for taking the enemy by surprise. That made him glance at Jahni. Yes, even his men were such weapons.
“Colonel, you’re right. If you don’t mind, I will keep this for myself.”
Rahama handed him the scabbard and Madari sheathed the blade.