Part 29: Acts of War

Chapter 1

September 1994

No tears.

Not now, on the plane home. There’d been tears back on the ground. However strong a man, he shouldn’t be ashamed to weep for a fallen friend while the smoke was still drifting across the battlefield and his ears still rang from the gunfire and explosions.

Jahni glanced at the three body bags in the back of the plane and then back around at his men. Quiet, grim-faced on the benches, strapped into their harnesses. Nobody slept. Usually most of them did on the way home, but not tonight.

But no tears. That time had passed. Hours ago, as the attack on the training camp ended and they counted their dead and wounded.

The wounded had already gone ahead, airlifted in helicopters, leaving the rest behind to bring home their dead. A surge of bile rose in Jahni’s throat as he thought of the first time they’d attacked one of these training camps. How he’d felt disappointed at finding it deserted and not getting a fight. What a damn fool he was. Three more in the year since then and a harder fight every time. And last night, the first deaths.

He looked at Madari, on his bench seat, but not in his harness. Dammit, he could be hurt if we hit turbulence. His legs were stretched in front of him, sprawled almost, as if he’d simply dropped into his seat untidily and stayed in that position. Like everyone else he was silent, grim, eyes staring off into the distance. A blood stain on his face, the tracks of tears through it, reminded Jahni that they’d had no time to clean up since they came down from the mountain. And it reminded him that the stain was another man’s blood, placed there as Madari held the dying soldier, the man touching his commander’s face, even as he called out for his father and mother and then fell silent before medevac could reach them.

I will not weep. Not now. That time has passed. But he hadn’t wept then either. He’d felt rage and grief, but he’d determined to stay strong for the men. Madari could show his grief with tears and the men loved him for it, knew it meant he loved them, would mourn any of them. But Jahni had to stay strong.

Madari must have sensed his gaze. He turned his head, some of the hollowness vanishing from his eyes as they met Jahni’s. Jahni didn’t turn away. Yes, he’d been staring. He didn’t try to deny it by looking away guiltily. He kept looking. Asking with his eyes. Are you okay? What can I do? Nothing. He could do nothing. Not here. And not when they landed back home either.

This journey would happen again, Jahni knew. They had stationed men in the mountains now. Experts in wilderness survival, living out there for weeks at a time, like the nomads, they’d soon found more like that first training camp. Interesting tactic, Madari had observed. Rather than one big camp, many small ones, so it’s harder to eliminate them, and it trained the men to work in small bands, just as they would work in small terrorist cells back in the city. So far the questioning of prisoners indicated that most of the men knew of the locations of only one or two other camps. One man could never betray the whole network.

Well, perhaps one man.

Saifullah. His name had started to appear daubed on walls in Az-Ma’ir. And in pamphlets decrying the modernising of the country. Calling the King an enemy of Islam. A traitor.

Bastards. They’d pay. For Jahni’s dead men. For the pain in Madari’s eyes. They’d pay.

The terrorists trained in the hills, but Jahni knew they’d then come back to the city, or to other towns all over the country, forming cells, planning atrocities. There had been three bombings in the city this years. Twenty-six dead civilians.


Madari leaned across suddenly and spoke softly to Jahni.

“Are you all right?”

The question startled Jahni. What had been showing on his face? Anger? Pain? He couldn’t allow the latter. He needed to be strong.

“I’m okay.”

“Try to sleep,” Madari said, glancing at his watch. “There’s still at least two hours before we land.”

To keep Madari happy, Jahni closed his eyes, though knew he wouldn’t sleep. It wasn’t the noise of the engines, or the vibration of the wall at his back, or the uncomfortable seat. It was the bodies. How could he sleep with the bodies there? Though hidden in body bags, Jahni could only see them as he had on the battlefield – bloodied and broken. Lying on the dusty ground while their comrades avenged them and then cried for them when the enemy was defeated.

He saw nothing else for the rest of the journey.


Transport waited at the airport. Madari talked to the men before they climbed into trucks or cars to head back to the barracks or their homes. Jahni waited for him, sitting sideways in the passenger seat of Madari’s staff car, feet on the ground, too numb to do anything useful. Could only watch as, inside a hanger, a staff officer from the barracks supervised the removal of the bodies.

Rahama would have an officer at the house of each of the dead men’s families already and Madari would have to go to pay his own respects to the families too. Should Jahni go with him? There was no specific protocol that said he should, but he’d like to be there to support him, however hard it would feel for himself, to face the wives, parents or even children… He couldn’t even remember if any of the dead men had children.

Madari’s driver, Sijad, waiting beside the car, spoke suddenly. “I’ve got a flask of coffee in the car, Captain. Would you like some?”

Jahni looked up into a worried expression on the man’s face. “Thank you, Sergeant.” As Sijad handed him the small cup, the van carrying the bodies drove away and men closed the hanger doors, cutting off the light that flooded from inside.

Perhaps now I can weep. In the darkness.

No, it wasn’t dark enough. The interior light of the staff car and the airport’s lights, gave enough illumination for him to see Madari coming over to the car, the other vehicles all gone now.

“Let’s take you home,” Madari said, resting a hand on Jahni’s shoulder.

In a few minutes they were speeding through the dark streets in the direction of Jahni’s flat. Still his same little flat. His inheritance money remained almost untouched.

Madari surprised Jahni by putting an arm around him and he glanced forward at Sijad then at Madari, with a warning look. But Madari took no apparent heed of the warning. Didn’t even seem to notice it. For that matter, Sijad didn’t seem to notice anything either.

“Kahil, the mission was a success. Don’t forget that. You led the men well, as you always do. The enemy was perhaps better trained than we’ve encountered before. You can’t blame yourself for the casualties. We knew this day would come.”

They’d lost so few men so far. But their work was changing. They faced better-armed, better-trained and more ruthless enemies now. This – and worse – would happen again.

“I want you well away from the combat zone next time,” Jahni said. “You were too close tonight.”

“We’ll discuss that at the debrief.” He looked up as Sijad stopped at Jahni’s building and they both got out of the car, Jahni again taken by surprise. “Please, rest, Kahil. Take your forty-eight hours and don’t let me see you before then.”

“You’ll be in, won’t you?” Jahni said.

“I don’t have a choice,” Madari said. “Not this time.” He added the last part in a near whisper. Of course, he’d have to go to visit the families.

Jahni didn’t say anything to the effect that he’d be in too. It would sound like a challenge and he didn’t have the strength for a fight. He looked up at his building and back at the car, knowing where it was taking Madari after this and wanted to ask him to stay here. Let Jahni hold him and take away his grief and pain. But of course, he couldn’t do that. Someone else had that privilege.

In lieu of that he embraced Madari. A reminder. I’m here, when you need my strength. When yours and hers isn’t enough. Madari at once returned the embrace and his voice whispered softly in Jahni’s ear.

“I know. I understand. Please rest, Kahil.”


Madari waited until he saw the light go on in Jahni’s flat before he got back into the car and told Sijad to drive on.

“Captain’s taking it hard,” Sijad said after a few minutes. His voice was cautious, but Madari didn’t reprimand him for impertinence. Sijad had taken them home after various missions, he’d seen them at their weakest and Madari trusted him.

Besides, he was right. Kahil seemed so fragile that it had been hard to leave him alone. But Madari could hardly have gone up to the flat and told Sijad to just go back to barracks. He couldn’t trust his driver’s discretion quite that far.

“We’re all taking it hard,” Madari said. At least he had some comfort to go home to. Jahni was alone. A mad urge to tell Sijad to turn around and take him back there rose. He stamped it back down.

“Colonel Rahama said to ask you to report to him at eight tomorrow, sir.”

A glance at his watch told Madari it was almost two. Would he manage to sleep tonight anyway? Would exhaustion force him to?

He stayed quiet the rest of the way to Sophia’s. His temporary home while the hole blown in his roof underwent repairs. Actually the repairs were finished, according to the builder. But he decided some redecoration was in order too. So he was still staying with Sophia. Almost a month now.

The flat was dark when he let himself in with the key she’d given him. The bedroom door stood open though and he stopped there, saw her stir in the bed, though he felt sure he’d been silent.

“Faris?” she said, a little fear in her voice at the sight of a dark figure looming at her bedroom door.

“Yes.” He wanted to walk in, fall into her arms, but he needed to get out of his bloodstained clothes and wash the dirt and blood from his skin first. “I’ll take a shower. I’ll just be a few minutes.”

The warm water washed away the blood of his wounded and dead soldiers and the tracks of his own tears for them. Jahni would already be done with his shower. And gone to bed? Or pacing, images of battle still too raw to allow sleep?

The images were raw for him too, but Madari had to sleep. Jahni had orders to rest for forty eight hours, but Madari had to report to Rahama in less than six. His sleeping pills sat in the bathroom cabinet and, after he towelled himself dry and put on pyjama trousers, he swallowed two with a gulp of water from the tooth glass. His gaunt face looked back at him from the mirror when he replaced the bottle and closed the cabinet.

Just need some rest. Though fragile looking now, he felt stronger than he had for many years. Albania had seen to that – seeing Sevchenko die. And bringing his friends here to protect them, all standing together to fight off the attack. He’d felt so strong that night.

He would not let this loss unman him now. He’d lost men before. Any commander who couldn’t deal with that would go mad. He had the strength. For the unit, and for Kahil.

Rubbing a hand over his gritty-feeling eyes, he walked into the bedroom, to find Sophia had the bedside lamp on and was sitting up, waiting for him. She pulled the sheets back to let him into bed and took him in her arms. She knew, he thought. Some kind of female instinct perhaps, to see right into a man’s heart.

“Was it very bad?” she asked softly.

“We lost three men.”

Her lips pressed softly to his forehead. “I’m so sorry.”

“Kahil is taking it badly.”

“And you?”

“I’m the commander. I cope.”

“With me, you’re only Faris. You don’t have to cope.”

He turned his face to press into her shoulder and she held him. When his tears stopped and he felt his eyes were too heavy to keep from closing he managed the words, “I must be up at seven,” before the exhaustion and the drugs pulled him down into the darkness.


Another woman might have let Madari sleep beyond seven, and say Rahama would have to wait, but Sophia understood him and the demands of his military life better than that. She woke him at seven with coffee, though she didn’t look pleased about it.

He couldn’t say he was pleased either. How pleasant it would be to stay here in bed and rest, with her taking care of him. But he wasn’t only Faris. He was the commander and he had to cope. At exactly seven-thirty he left, carrying the memory of her worried look.

Rahama looked grave when Madari reported to the office and continued grave through the debriefing. When it was over, Madari rose.

“If you’ll excuse me, sir. I need to check on the wounded and then I need to go and visit the families of the deceased.”

“One more thing. Sit down.”

Madari did so, nervous of Rahama’s now stern expression. What had he done to deserve that look?

“I almost changed my mind about bringing this up with you now, after what’s happened. But if not now, when?”


“Faris, I’ve been trying to drop hints for some months now, but for a man who is usually quite sensitive you seem to be entirely oblivious.”

Hints? What would Rahama hint about? He was the commanding officer. If he wanted Madari to do something he would simply give an order. Unless it was about something personal. Were people talking about his situation living with Sophia? No, that had only been a few weeks, not months. Surely it couldn’t be about –

“Regarding Jahni.”

Madari’s stomach lurched. No. Surely Rahama couldn’t have seen anything. There’d been nothing to see.

“It’s time you promoted him. It was time a year ago in fact.”

Relief, like the cold water of the plunge pool after the Turkish bath, flooded Madari. “Oh,” was all he managed, fearing his voice would shake and reveal his agitation.

“I didn’t like to say anything earlier, because you know I like to let my commanders make their own choices about promotions. But I have to say something.”

“I see.” His heart slowed from its sudden racing. He took a couple of long, slow breaths.

“I understand you’ve always been careful never to show favouritism to Mr Jahni, but don’t go the other way and hold him back to preserve your own reputation.”

Had he been doing that? Quite possibly. He had thought a few months ago that Jahni was due promotion, but then forgotten it again.

“You should be aware that the commanders of other companies have been trying to get hold of him.”

“What?” Outrage tinged Madari voice. His momentary panic was forgotten, swept away by anger.

“Some of them would try to entice him to transfer by adding a promotion as a sweetener.” Rahama smiled. “It’s flattering to you as well as him. You’ve brought him on so well that the other colonels are trying to poach him.”

“It’s absurd. Jahni’s a specialist now.”

“And you have any number of promising officers who could take his place as your second. Colonel Rahban was the canniest. Requested him on a six-month secondment, to take charge of a new training project he’s working on.”

Madari let the anger drain away and allowed pride to take its place. When Jahni came into the regiment, other men sneered at him as not being Royal Guard material. And look at him now. So good they try to poach him for their units.

“Your faith in him is vindicated,” Rahama said. “Faris, we both know that Jahni doesn’t want to serve under any other commander but you, and I’d be a fool to split up one of my best teams. But don’t make him pay a price for his loyalty, by not allowing him to further his rank when he deserves to.”

“I’ll organise the promotion immediately,” Madari said. “He’s off duty for forty-eight hours now, but when he comes back, I’ll tell him at once. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, sir. I never intended to hold him back. Sometimes time just slips away.”

“Indeed it does. Dismiss, Colonel.”


Jahni took that day to rest and then reported back to barracks the next morning. Thirty-six hours. Close enough, he decided. First, he visited the wounded, then toured the dormitories and flats of all the men who’d been on the mission, making sure they’d all made appointments with the unit’s counsellors. A couple of the other officers who’d been on the mission had also reported back early and he spent an hour talking with them over coffee in a briefing room, discussing about how to help the unit through this.

Only at eleven-thirty did he finally go to Madari’s office, even though he’d seen a message for him to see Madari as soon as he returned. They’d spoken on the phone the night before, and Madari had offered to come over if Jahni wanted to talk about the mission. But he sounded tired and Jahni suggested he just went to bed instead.

To bed with Sophia. Though he’d long ago got past his jealousy about that, the fact Madari was still living at her flat had started to make Jahni nervous. What if he decided to stay there permanently? Sometimes a person didn’t even have to make a conscious choice about something like that, he could just drift into it.

But Jahni had to stop thinking about that. Had to stop brooding about the fact she was the one who comforted him for the deaths of his men, while Jahni lay sleepless in his flat, longing to hold him and soothe him. Sophia could comfort him, but Jahni could share his pain.

He tapped on the office door, hoping to see surprise and welcome, and instead seeing annoyance on Madari’s face.

“You’re supposed to be resting,” Madari said.

“I’m fine.”

“It’s not only your physical health you need to take care of.”

Jahni shrugged. “I’m fine,” he repeated. The counsellors would help him too if he needed it. Madari needed him here, not trying to sleep in the daylight. “You wanted to see me about something.”

“Close the door and sit down,” Madari said, waited until Jahni did so, before he continued. “It’s been brought to my attention that I should have promoted you at least a year ago.”

“Brought to your attention,” Jahni said. Only one person could have ‘brought it to his attention.’

“By Colonel Rahama,” Madari went on, confirming Jahni’s guess. “I’m sorry if you feel slighted or overlooked. That’s never been my intention.”

From nowhere, rage swept over Jahni. Our men lie dead and last time I saw you, you had the blood of one of them on your face and you left me alone while you went to her to hold you. And I can smell her scent on you – don’t think I missed that. And you think I care about promotion? Fuck you, Colonel!

The rage vanished as fast as it appeared, leaving him gasping, as if he’d been knocked down by a wave in the sea. What the hell was that?

“I’m sorry,” he blurted, suddenly fearing he’d said the insane words aloud.

“For what?”

“I mean, um, I’m sorry, could you clarify?”

Madari frowned at him, perhaps wondering if Jahni was paying attention.

“I’m promoting you to major, effective immediately.”

Well that was clear enough. “Thank you, sir.”

Madari sighed and shook his head. “I know it’s not the best moment to do this, but we don’t have the luxury of taking the time to mourn. Life, work, it all goes on.”

“Yes. Of course.”

“I’ll make it a round of promotions. Give me your recommendations by the end of the week.”


“And congratulations. I wish the circumstances were different. We’d celebrate, but as it is…”

“I understand.”

“At least come to dinner tonight. Sophia will want to congratulate you, too.”

“I’d like that.”

Madari regarded him closely, looking for something behind his robotic answers. Jahni only wished there was something. The strange surge of hot rage had given way to ice. Heart and soul frozen. Numb again.

“I’m going to a meeting at the defence ministry with Rahama this afternoon,” Madari said. “It could be useful if you attended. Unless you want to go home and rest again.”

Jahni supposed he could do that. He’d done the important things he came here for and had no burning desire to spend the afternoon in some boring meeting. But he couldn’t face his empty flat.

“I’ll come to the meeting.”


Rahama’s large staff car pulled out of the barracks, the men inside unusually quiet. Rahama had congratulated Jahni on his promotion and then busied himself with a folder of papers, only raising his head to ask Madari a question now and again. There were no cigars offered, there was none of the lively conversation Jahni would usually expect.

He sat on one of the fold down seats, his back to the driver, facing Madari and Rahama, but stopped watching them after a while, instead looking out of the window at the city streets going by. He’d started to regret his choice to be here instead of going home. After all, he didn’t have to go home and sleep. He could take a walk through one of the city parks. Or drive out to the desert and lose himself in its loneliness.

Lose himself? He frowned. What did he mean by that?

The blast of a horn ahead of them made Jahni turn to see a car had pulled out of a side street ahead, bringing the traffic to a sudden stop. Madari threw his arm across Rahama as they lurched forward in their seats.

“Idiot,” the driver growled. “Come on, move.”

The car hadn’t pulled out and driven off. It had stopped, broadside to the traffic. And the man inside got out and… ran away.

What the hell?

Jahni’s gaze whirled around the street and he saw them – three men approaching from doorways, carrying rifles.

“Everybody down!”

The three officers in the back hit the floor in a heap and the driver ducked down, lying across both seats. Jahni found his pistol in his hand, with no intervening memory of having drawn it. Madari held his too.

Rattle of machine gun fire and Jahni flinched and expected pain, but. . . nothing. No pain, but strange sounds as the bullets struck the windows and bodywork and were deflected away.

Bulletproof. When had Rahama got a bulletproof car?

“Get us out of here!” Madari ordered the driver.

“We’re boxed in!”

He was right, cars behind and in front and no manoeuvring room for the big and, with its armour plating, very heavy limousine.

“Drive over them if you have to!” Jahni yelled.

“This isn’t a tank, Captain Jahni!”

“That’s Major Jahni.”

Insane. But if he died today, at least he died Major Jahni.

“Kahil!” Madari shouted in protest when Jahni popped his head up to look out of the window, but Jahni trusted the bulletproof glass. Chaos out there. Screaming. Some cars trying to get away, others abandoned, the occupants running for their lives. And the three gunmen calm in the middle of it all. They weren’t firing on the screaming and running civilians. All their attention was on Colonel Rahama’s car. No random terrorist attack, a targeted assassination attempt.

Attempt? Would it remain that? Were they safe here behind the bulletproof glass and armour-plating? Safe from the guns, perhaps, but then he saw one the men bend down and understood his movement from the number of times he’d seen it before. He was pulling the pin of a grenade.

“Out!” Jahni yelled. One.

The terrorist set the grenade rolling toward the car. “Out!” Two.

Front and back doors on the side away from the gunmen open. The driver leapt for it. Madari and Rahama throwing themselves out together. Three.

Jahni dived after them, trying to get as far away as possible. Four.

The grenade exploded, and the car left the ground as its petrol tank ignited. The roar of sound filled Jahni’s mind, and the shock of the blast flung him forward onto his face, hands over his head. Am I on fire? Hair? Clothes? Skin?

Where were the others? Where was Faris?


His voice made no sound to him, ears deafened by the explosion. But his mind heard nothing else.


The billowing black smoke stinking of petrol caught him and made him choke and his eyes stream. Must get away. Must find him. He got as far as his knees, coughing on the smoke.


A figure stepped out of the roiling smoke. Faris? No. Raising a rifle. Jahni’s pistol was already raised. It seemed to have a will of its own, beyond his conscious control. It fired and the assassin fell, his rifle blasting into the air.

Jahni made it to his feet, stumbled a few steps further from the burning car. No more assassins appeared in the smoke. Sounds came to him now, dim, beyond the ringing in his ears. Sirens. A helicopter. Screams.


He heard himself that time, and then his screaming prayer was answered. There, kneeling over Rahama who lay on his face, Madari. Alive. Madari saw him too and their eyes locked for an instant. Jahni took a step toward him, but Madari shouted something and pointed. Jahni spun around, looking for another target, but instead saw Rahama’s driver, blood streaming from his shoulder, pistol in his good hand. Jahni ran to him as he fell to his knees.

“Are you shot?”

“Shrapnel,” he gasped, his voice still competing with the clamouring of bells in Jahni’s ears. “I got one of the fuckers – begging your pardon, sir.”

Jahni wanted to laugh, stopped himself, afraid of hysteria. “I got one of the fuckers too. But there were three –”

“Saw the last one run off. How’s my colonel?”

Jahni glanced back at Rahama, who hadn’t moved. “Mine’s looking after him,” he answered diplomatically.

He looked back at the car. Flames consumed the twisted wreck and oily black smoke rose high into the sky.

I wasn’t even supposed to be here.

Chapter 2

“You can’t use that in here,” a nurse said, nodding at Madari’s cell phone. “It interferes with the equipment.”

Madari, sitting sideways on a gurney in an emergency treatment room, scowled at her.

“Madam, I’m an officer of the Royal Guard. I need to organise a response to this terrorist attack. The city needs to be put on high alert.”

“There’s a payphone in the hall.”

Her words struck him dumb. Damn medics. His injuries were minor, he had to get out of here. He needed to make sure roadblocks were set up, to catch the men who escaped. The airport and train stations must be monitored. The King needed to be briefed. The Royal Guard itself needed to be told of the condition of their commander – in surgery for shrapnel wounds, along with his driver – and he needed to get a guard over here to the hospital right now. His unit should be on high alert, ready to respond to more attacks and to apprehend suspects.

“I can’t stay here,” he said, trying to get off the gurney. “Where’s Major Jahni?”

“He’s next door,” she said, nodding at another treatment room. “And behaving much better than you, I might add.”

That shamed Madari into sitting still again. Very well, let the medics do their job and then he could do what he had to do. Check on Rahama first. If they’d killed him… More than Madari’s commander, his friend and mentor. If they had killed him Madari’s revenge would be something spoken of in hushed tones of awe for years to come, he swore it.

There was a blind over the window into the treatment room next door, but he could make out dark shapes moving behind it. Kahil. He’d yelled the name as he raised his head again when the shockwave and the blast faded away. Kahil! Wanted to go and find him, but had to stay with Rahama, especially when he saw the piece of metal sticking into his side.

A doctor bustled in, looking put-upon. The four of them from the car weren’t the only injuries of course. The explosion had driven shrapnel into the bodies of innocent bystanders. Men, women, children. Two were already dead at the scene. Revenge. It was a physical thirst. He needed it like he needed water or air.

“Colonel Madari?” the doctor said. “Let’s take a look at you.”

“He’s in a big hurry to get out of here,” the nurse said.

“I understand, sir,” the doctor said. “But you have a number of lacerations to your back. I don’t know how you’re not feeling them more.”

“Adrenaline, doctor.”

“Ah, quite.” He and the nurse eased Madari’s jacket and shirt off, and as the shirt peeled away from where it had stuck to the wounds, he did begin to feel some of that pain. Shrapnel had peppered his back as he flung himself across Rahama, trying to protect him from the blast.

“We’ll get those cleaned out and stitched up,” the doctor said. “I’ll going to give you a painkiller before we do that.” The nurse handed him a prepared syringe and Madari looked down as the doctor injected him. The hypodermic emptied into his arm.

Madari looked at the doctor. “That might not have been a good idea,” he said

“Is there a problem? I checked your records for allergies.”

The doctor’s voice faded. The room was full of smoke. Not the choking black smoke of the explosion, but sweet. Curls of it rising through still air. Jasmine.



“Colonel? Nurse! Catch him!”


His mother often burned jasmine scented incense, sitting in the women’s room, reading, with the fragrant smoke drifting around her. Sometimes Faris would return from school, and sit with her. He knew that eventually he would no longer be able to. Once he became a man, not a child, he’d have no place in the women’s room. But until that day came, he’d sit at her feet, while she stroked his hair and read aloud to him. The light would slowly fade and eventually he’d hear his father’s voice making them both turn, smiling, to see him standing outlined in the doorway, not crossing the threshold.

He sat at her feet now, but he was a man. He didn’t belong here. But the jasmine kept him here, made him a boy again. Her hand rested lightly on his head and stroked his hair. She held a book and read aloud.

“I can hold you only in the darkness. I can kiss you only in my dreams.”

“Don’t.” His voice was choked, painful to speak at all.

“The words hurt you?” Her voice. Or was it? Was that really the way she’d sounded? She’d been gone so long he could no longer be sure if his memories of her were reliable.

“They hurt me.”

A voice speaking his name made him turn to the figure outlined in the doorway. Not his father.

“Kahil. Come inside.”

He didn’t. Dressed all in black, ready to fight, he stayed in the doorway, his body outlined against the light. He turned his head and the setting sun caught the glisten of tears on his face.

“His love for you is killing him,” his mother said, making him stare at her. “It’s killing him an inch at a time.”

“It’s killing me.”

“No. It isn’t. You’re the strongest you’ve ever been.”

He looked at the doorway again. Kahil was gone. Madari ran out into the blinding light of the desert, searching for him.

“Kahil! Where are you?”

Faris was on a horse, trotting at Ahmed’s side. Ahead of them, smoke and noise. Battle hidden somewhere beyond the smoke.

“You gave my sword to Murdock,” Ahmed said.

“Are you angry?”

Ahmed laughed, roared with laughter as always. He never did anything by halves. “No, Faris. I’ll only be angry if you give away your own sword.”

He wore that, Faris realised. His dress sword was in its scabbard on his hip. “It’s only ceremonial.”

“It was. You’ve fought with it now. First blood.”

“I drew my first blood a long time ago. And not with a sword.”

“Weapons change. Men don’t. War is starting, Colonel. Draw your sword.”

He obeyed, brought out the sword, the sun making it burn as he raised it. The smoke was close now, the battle still invisible behind it. But he could hear it, knew it was there and knew he belonged there. He needed no further orders.

The scream came from his throat first, Ahmed’s second, as they spurred their horses to the charge, plunged into the smoke, screaming the battle cry.

Madari opened his eyes.

Where? The hospital, he realised, remembering the doctor injecting him and then… being elsewhere. A dark figure paced the room, spoke to him.


Kahil. He wasn’t dark, Madari just wasn’t seeing too well. He rubbed his eyes and focused better. Kahil. Small dressings on his face, his jacket worn over his bare chest. How strange.

His love for me is killing him an inch at a time.

No time to think of such things now. Need to get to barracks. He sat up, to find he was sprawled in an ungainly way on a bed. He wore a hospital gown, though saw with some relief that he still had his trousers on.

“What happened?”

“They gave you too much painkiller. It knocked you out for a while.”


“Still in surgery. His driver is out now and in recovery.”

“Good.” He swung his legs off the bed. Where were his clothes? “Is Rahama’s wife here? Has someone brought her?”

“I don’t know. Lie down. The doctor said you’ll be shaky for a while.”

“No time.” He saw his jacket and shirt folded on a chair beside the bed, and stepped towards them, but his knees gave out and he grabbed at the bed for support. Jahni was there in instant.

“Will you just do as you’re damn well told?” He hauled Madari up to sit on the bed again.

“I want my clothes.” He pulled off the gown to find a few small dressings on his chest, guessed there were more on his back, but was too numb to feel them. Jahni grabbed the shirt and jacket, threw them on the bed and went back to pacing.

The shirt was stiff with blood and shredded. Repelled, Madari dropped that to the floor. The jacket had less blood, though was also torn up. Better than nothing. He slipped it on.

“We need transport back to barracks,” Madari said. “Have you organised that?”

“Sijad is on his way. The traffic is all screwed up.”

“You should have arranged a helicopter instead.”

“Well, I’m sorry, I didn’t think of that! I was too busy having jagged pieces of metal tweezered out of my flesh!”

Madari winced at the rage in Jahni’s voice. The moment of the explosion came back to him. He’d shut it out so far. The roar, followed by the silence of deafness. Merciful deafness, so he couldn’t hear the screaming. He shut it out again now, pushed the images away. Pushed away the mind-destroying terror he’d felt before the smoke cleared enough for him to see Jahni alive. Time later for that. Must be strong now. He found his cell phone in his jacket pocket and started to dial.

“They don’t let you use them in here,” Jahni said. Madari remembered the very impudent nurse telling him the same thing.

“Then I need a payphone.” He braved standing up again and wobbled towards the door. He actually had his hand on the knob, opened it a fraction, when Jahni suddenly slammed it shut again and glared at him.

“Will you just sit down!”

“I can’t sit down. I have to call the barracks, there’s too much to do.”

“I told you, Sijad is coming. We’ll be back at barracks soon. Until then, just… please…”

The rage in him turned to pleading and Madari put a hand on his shoulder, mutual support, needing to hang onto someone to stay on his feet. Jahni had always been his rock.

“Kahil, hold yourself together. I know it’s hard. But I need you now and the regiment needs us both.”

“I don’t care about that.” He shook his head as he spoke quietly. “I know that and I don’t care. Not now. Soon. When we get back there, but please, give me this time. Let me, us, just be alive.”

“I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“I couldn’t see you!” It was a shout of anguish, seemed to be wrenched from his soul. He grimaced and lowered his voice, but that seemed to simply compress all that pain into a smaller space. “I couldn’t see you. You were dead. Not dead. Both. I couldn’t see you and now I can’t escape from there, from that moment when you were dead and I was choking.”

“Kahil, you’re just in shock. Maybe you should sit down.” He moved his hand from Jahni’s shoulder and down to his elbow, tried to steer him over to a chair, but before Madari could stop him, Jahni grabbed him, pulled him close. Madari gasped at the sensations, the scratch of braid and the hard cold of metal buttons on his bare skin.

But the kiss wiped away all other sensation. Jahni’s mouth on his. Fierce and desperate. He didn’t even consider resisting, but opened his mouth knowing he was as hungry for it as Jahni.

Not since Africa. Those dreaming, precious afternoons they spent in each other’s arms and indulged in kisses they both vowed they’d never allow again. Broken that vow now. And others.

As his drowned senses resurfaced he realised they had their arms around each other, under their jackets, hands on bare skin. Skin interrupted with bandages and tape, reminding Madari of the reason they’d just given in to this insane surge of desire. He ended the kiss, needed a breath, needed to look into Jahni’s eyes. Would he see regret there? No. Only that desperation still.

“I want to go somewhere it rains in the afternoons,” Jahni said quietly. “Like it did in Zaire. When Sijad comes, tell him to take us to the airport. We’ll take a plane. Any plane. Somewhere else. That’s all I want. Somewhere else with you.”

“Kahil…” For a moment he pictured it, as he had many times. The two of them somewhere else. Somewhere they didn’t have to be afraid. But he was a soldier. He couldn’t run away from his duty. Not even for love. “It’s impossible.”

“No. It can happen. We’ve got money. Enough to live anywhere.”

Oh God, that’s why he’d so carefully squirreled away his restored inheritance. He thought one day they could put that together with Madari’s money and use it to build a new life together. Tears sprang to Madari’s eyes, a weakness he blamed on shock and drugs, as despair filled him for the dashing of Jahni’s hopes.

“One day, perhaps. But not today.”

“Why not? We could…”

A knock on the door made them gasp and push each other away. Both tottered as they moved back. Madari grabbed the bed to stay upright and then straightened up. With shaking hands he buttoned his jacket. Jahni was doing the same, not looking at Madari, taking the moment to compose himself. Once they both at least had their jackets fastened Madari called out.

“Come in.” His voice was shaky, but that was only to be expected. A concerned looking Sijad looked around the door and came into the room. His face changed to show considerable relief when he saw them both on their feet, though returned to concern when he looked more closely at them.

Madari shivered to imagine his expression if he’d come in without knocking and seen them in each other’s arms. Sijad’s loyalty and respect had never wavered, however weak and distressed he’d seen Madari in the back of that staff car. That special bond between a sergeant and his commanding officer prevailed. To lose that and see contempt and disgust on his face would be unbearable.

“Are you ready to come back to barracks, Colonel? Major?”

Rahama was still in surgery and, Madari wished he could stay here. But that fact itself meant he could not. He glanced at Jahni. Head down, saying nothing.

“We’re ready.”


As soon as they arrived at the barracks, Madari sent Jahni straight to the Special Forces unit’s buildings, with orders to prepare the men.

“One gunman escaped and so did the man who drove the car that stopped the traffic. Find them,” Madari ordered. Jahni nodded. He hesitated for a moment, but then turned away and rushed off. For once, Madari didn’t watch him go. No time for that. He strode to Rahama’s office.

Officers tried to stop him on the way, ask about the attack, but he had no time for them either. He found Rahama’s office suite full of senior colonels, milling about, some talking on the phone. When he walked in they all started on him at once, demanding updates. He raised a hand to quiet them, and walked behind Rahama’s desk.

“Colonel Rahama is in surgery, though that’s expected to finish soon. He’s not thought to be in any danger. His driver is recovering in a ward. I want a car and driver assigned to that man’s family.” He addressed that to Rahama’s secretary, Corporal Imad, who’d been with the colonel for years and wore a look of intense relief at Madari’s words. For a moment he looked startled, but then wrote Madari’s order down.

“Yes, sir.”

“I want an armed guard at the hospital and the Colonel’s home. Assign a junior officer to assist his wife.”

“Yes, sir. Anything else, sir?”

“Have someone bring me up a clean uniform.”

“Yes, sir.” The Corporal hurried away. Madari turned to the rest of the officers in the room, who had gone quiet now, some of them staring at him.

“Madari,” one said. “Did Colonel Rahama –”

“Put me in charge? No. But someone has to take charge and I’m doing so. Any objections?” They looked too stunned to object, so he pressed on. “My unit will spearhead the search for the surviving terrorists and anyone sheltering them, but I know that all of you and every man in the Guard will want to track down the bastards who tried to murder our commander. I know I’ll have the full cooperation of every company of the regiment.”

Kahil had once told Madari that he knew just the right thing to say at the right time. That skill had not apparently deserted him.

“Did you say, ‘surviving terrorists’?”

Madari smiled, though felt nothing humorous in the situation at all. “Major Jahni and Rahama’s driver each killed an attacker at the scene. Two other men escaped. We will find them and kill them too.”

“Or capture them?” Everyone looked at the man who’d spoken and the stared defensively. “They can tell us who did this.”

“I know who did this,” Madari said. “Gentlemen, please return to your companies. As soon as there’s any further news about the Colonel, I’ll inform you.” He sat down and pressed the intercom. “Corporal, place a call to the palace for me.”

The other colonels continued to stare and he looked up and really hoped he wouldn’t have to say ‘dismiss’. Thankfully, his look broke the spell and they broke up and left, muttering to each other. Perhaps wondering where the hell he took his authority from. He may not the most senior colonel in the regiment, but given the fact his unit were the anti-terror specialists, he judged that he was the best man to take charge now.

And he had the will. Oh, yes, he had the will. The thirst for revenge would be slaked. Try to kill my CO, my friends, my second, my lover, me? He wanted to smile. That car had been awfully crowded, hadn’t it?

Before his call to the palace he had one piece of personal business he should take care of, because he wouldn’t get a chance later. He called Sophia’s number. When she came on the line the hoarse tone of her voice told him she’d been crying and he fought the urge to rush to her home and take her in his arms.

“It’s me. I’m safe.” What else did he say?

“Faris. Oh, thank god. I knew you were alive. A friend of Colonel Rahama’s wife called me from the hospital.”

How like Madame Rahama to remember Sophia would not have been officially informed about anything. He must thank her later.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t call earlier.” Earlier? He looked at a clock to see only three hours had passed since the explosion. It felt like a day.

“I understand. Is Kahil all right?”

A pang of guilt like a piece of shrapnel right into his heart made Madari hesitate before answering. “He’s shaken of course. But he’s coping.” He’d have to think later about what happened at the hospital and what it meant for him and Sophia. “Sophia, I don’t think I’ll get home for some time. Days I mean. Please, try to stay indoors. And I’m going to send a man to guard your door.”

“Do you think that’s necessary?”

“I’d rather be safe than sorry. It’s likely that I was as much the target as Colonel Rahama himself.” The intercom buzzed. “Hold on.”

“I have your call to the palace, sir.”

“Thank you. Put it through.” He turned back to the phone. “I have to go, Sophia.”

“Please call me again when you can.” Her voice caught and he knew she must be about to cry again, but he couldn’t stay on the line to comfort her. Duty called.


“He’s sleeping.”

Jahni looked at Corporal Imad, sitting at his desk outside Rahama’s office. He’d clearly been there all night, like everyone else. Now at six in the morning he looked gaunt and hollow eyed.

“Go and get some breakfast, Corporal. Come back in an hour and find someone to relieve you for the day.”

Imad glanced at the office, but obeyed the order. Jahni put his hand on the door, which stood slightly ajar. The office beyond was dark, but in a moment he made out the shape of a man sleeping on the couch. It wasn’t quite long enough for a man of his height, so one foot rested on the floor, the other over the armrest. He had an arm flung across his eyes.

Jahni knew he couldn’t go in. Because to stand over him, bend over, touch his shoulder to wake him, it would be too easy to lean too close, or to make him think…

No, he couldn’t go in. Instead he opened the door the rest of the way, the light from the outer office moving across him, showing up his lean body, dressed in clean clothes now, green battledress, not day dress uniform.


Madari stirred at the sound of his name, raised his arm from his eyes.


“Yes.” He stayed in the doorway as Madari peered at him, waited for him to wake up fully. “I’m sorry to wake you. I have some news.”

Madari sat up and stretched, then came to his feet and twitched open the curtain beside the sofa. Jahni turned away and went to the coffee filter machine that sat in the corner of Imad’s office. He began setting that up and a moment later heard movement and glanced over his shoulder to see Madari standing leaning on the door frame looking rumpled and sleepy.

This was too hard. How could they act as if nothing had happened? The kiss… well that he could ignore. The kisses happened sometimes, when things got too much. But he’d said more than he should have, begged Madari to come away with him. He should never have made his feelings so plain. Now Madari would question his loyalty to the regiment, the king, the country. How could he not? Jahni had made his priority clear.

“Any news from the hospital?” Madari asked.

“The colonel had a comfortable night and he’s been conscious.”

“That’s good,” Madari said. “What’s the news you have?”

“Two things. One, the police SWAT team are coming in for a briefing, I’m setting up a joint operation with them.” He smiled at Madari’s speculative look. “Yes. They think they’ve found the bastards.”

“Excellent. Do you want me at the briefing?”

“Only if you want to come. I’ve got it in hand.”

“I’ll leave you to deal with it then, Major.” He smiled as he used the new rank. “What’s the other thing?”

“Reports from our men up north in the hills. They’ve found another training camp.”

Madari’s expression hardened. Another camp where more men like those who’d perpetrated yesterday’s attack trained for their missions.

“I’ll start putting a plan together,” Jahni said, closing the lid of the coffee machine, starting it working. “Once we finish our operations here, we can head out there.”

“No,” Madari said. “Destroy it.”


“Destroy it. Completely. Not a raid, an airstrike. Helicopter gunships. Destroy it and leave nothing left alive.”

Jahni stared at him, into the intense gaze. Fury and hatred stared back at him from the darkness in his narrowed eyes. He’d never been afraid of Madari before, but in that moment he shivered. For all his sensitivity and liberal values, deep inside, Faris had the soul of a warrior. The hunger of a warrior for revenge.

“Two civilians died,” Madari said, voice cold. “Our commanding officer and his driver are still in hospital. Many were injured. Their blood will be paid for. No prisoners.”

He turned and strode back in the office. Jahni waited by the coffee machine until the carafe filled with enough for two cups and took them into the office.

“Sir, um, just two things,” he said as he gave one cup to Madari, who was standing by the window, watching the sun rise. “I’m not certain you have the authority to order that.” He refused to wilt under Madari’s glare. He wouldn’t see Madari lose his career because he overstepped his authority here. “Also, we don’t actually have any helicopter gunships.”

Madari’s glare softened. “Yes, those are both good points.” He sipped his coffee. “Wait a moment.” Sitting behind the desk again, he flicked through the Rolodex and then began to dial a phone number.

“Can I just point out that it’s six-fifteen in the morning,” Jahni said.

“I have a watch. Ah, General Jumale. It’s Madari. Yes, I’m fine. I’m sorry to call you so early.” He stopped and laughed. “No, I haven’t. General, I need some help. I wonder if you could help me lay my hands on some attack helicopters.”

Jahni smirked and walked away while Madari continued. Jumale would help them. An old ally from their days as guerrillas. It still alarmed him, to see such fury in Madari, but he couldn’t deny it would be satisfying to have that camp simply razed to the ground. No messing around. Kill them all. The cowards deserved it.

He raised his cup and winced as the movement pulled on one of the fresh dressings on his back. When Madari ended the call, Jahni turned back to the desk.

“I’ll have the intelligence passed to General Jumale’s office,” he said. “Sir, you should go to the infirmary to get your dressings changed, and then get cleaned up.” Though his uniform was clean, it was badly creased, and his hair was lank. He needed to shave. “And get some breakfast,” he added. When Madari hesitated, Jahni went on. “There’s barely anyone around, they’re all trying to catch up on some sleep. You have time.”

Madari nodded. “Thank you. Good idea. What time is your briefing with the SWAT team?”


“Report to me when it’s over. And Kahil, the same orders go for this as for the camp. We already know that it’s the Saifullah group who did this. We have no need to question anyone.”

Jahni knew what that meant. He had no problem with it.

No prisoners.

Chapter 3

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.

“We kissed.”

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.”

“Another promise.”

“An… intention.”

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.

“I understand.”

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.

“Of course.”

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.

For now.