Part 33: Walkabout

Chapter 1

September 1996

Jahni woke to the distant sound of a dog barking. He sat up in bed and raised a hand to shield his eyes from the bleached sky overhead. A few feet away stood a set of French windows. No walls surrounded the windows, merely the desert, stretching away in every direction.

Movement made him look round to see Madari lying beside him, under a crisp, white sheet. He stirred, but his eyes stayed closed, his face relaxed in sleep.


Jahni reached towards him, but stopped short, afraid he’d vanish at the touch, like a popped soap bubble.

The dog barked again, making Jahni turn towards the windows. Where was the dog? He slid off the bed, and his bare feet touched cool, polished wood. A strip of it lay between the bed and the windows. When he got closer to the windows the wood grew warm where sunlight touched it through the glass.

He realised he was naked and grabbed a white cotton robe that was suddenly under his hand and put it on. Pushing aside a gauzy curtain over the window, he opened the doors. Sand stretched ahead of him for a couple of hundred yards, to the ocean. Morning light twinkled on the surface of a sparkling blue sea. The warmth of the morning sun touched Jahni’s skin, along with the caress of a sea breeze, which carried the ocean scent with it.

A woman was jogging along the beach, blonde hair in a bouncing ponytail, with a Labrador dog running at her side. When Jahni stepped out onto the deck she waved to him and called out.

“Good morning, Kahil!”

Automatically, he raised a hand to wave back. The dog barked in his direction a couple of times, then raced ahead when the woman tossed a Frisbee for it to catch.

“She’s our neighbour.”

He spun around to see Madari sitting up in bed, bare-chested, his hair disarranged from sleep, chin rough with stubble.


“Tessa. She lives down the beach. When we moved in she brought around a basket of fruit. The dog is named Barney.”

“When we moved in?”

“Face found this place for us.”

Madari looked around, as if surveying a room. But this ‘room’ consisted only of the bed, a little bit of wooden flooring, and the windows. And outside those windows… the Pacific Ocean.

“When we left Qumar, after the assassination attempt on Colonel Rahama. You asked me to leave, remember, at the hospital?”

Of course he remembered. “You said no.”

“I said yes. So we came here to LA. It’s taking a while to get our immigration status sorted out, but Hannibal has friends in high places.”

“You didn’t say yes! You said no!” Jahni took the distance between the windows and the bed in two strides, grabbed Madari’s arms. “I begged you but you said no!”

“What would you like for breakfast?”


“While you decide, let me have a little taste of you.” His hand stroked up Jahni’s arm, over his shoulder and neck, sliding into his hair bending his head down. Madari’s eyes closed lazily. Their lips touched.

Blackness. Did time pass? He thought so. The darkness was hot and stifling and on the edge of it something dazzled him, like sunlight glaring off windows. Couldn’t move. Too hot. Heavy. He wanted the beach house again. He wept tears that dried almost before they fell. Wanted that cool sea breeze, that wooden floor under his bare feet, wanted Faris asking him…

“What would you like for breakfast?”

He was standing by a French window again. This one opened onto a balcony, not a deck. And in front of him, not the sea, but a parade ground. One he recognised, but hadn’t seen in many years.

The Southern Rangers barracks. His old regiment before he took the transfer to the Royal Guard to be with Faris.

“Kahil?” The voice that had just asked him what he wanted for breakfast spoke again and he turned to see a woman – a quite lovely woman – holding up a buff-coloured uniform jacket, brushing fluff from it.

“Who are you?”

She smiled at him. “I’m your wife.”

“My what?”

“Here,” she said, bringing over the jacket and helping him into it. He looked around as she put it on. This room seemed more substantial then the last. Solid walls, more furniture. A double bed, still unmade, as if they’d only risen from it a short time ago. The room… he recognised it. Married quarters at the Southern Rangers barracks. Pleasant flats he’d been into a few times, visiting fellow officers. So long ago.

The jacket bore the insignia of lieutenant colonel. But he’d never been more than a lieutenant in the Rangers.

“Haven’t got used to it yet?” the woman… his wife said, doing up his buttons.

“Not really.” His back was burning. As if he sat in front of an open oven. Yet he could hear the room’s air conditioning unit running.

“It was long enough coming. I think some of the others are jealous of you.” She ran a hand through his hair. “And I know their wives are jealous of me.” Her arms circled his waist and she lifted her face to his, eyes closed, about to kiss him. Her hair smelled of flowers and he buried a hand in its softness just for an instant, before she vanished.

A blink and the warm, solid woman in his arms vanished along with the room.

He was crawling. The sand was hot under his hands, like burning glass sticking to his palms. He should leave a trail of blood, he thought. Shade. He’d left it too long. The sun was up and he couldn’t find shade. The sun would kill him. He crawled.

“Kahil! Come over here! The children can get along without you for a minute!”

Children? He stood up, hearing a squeal of protest as a small boy jumped down from riding on his back. Six children, boys and girls of various ages ran around, or sat on the ground at his feet, playing with toys. The voice that had called to him came from a few yards away. A table stood there, under a shady umbrella. Shade!

His parents sat at the table.

Hypnotised, he walked there, waiting for this mirage to vanish, but he arrived to find them still there. His mother was pouring tea and handing around cake, to his father and to a young woman who sat there with a sleeping baby in her arms.

“Who are you?” he asked the woman.

“I’m your wife,” she said. She wasn’t the same woman from the Rangers barracks. How many wives did he have?

“Only me,” she said. “We’ve been married for five years. Your poor mother was quite in despair about how long it took you to get around to it. But the grandchildren have made up for that.”

He looked back at the group of children playing in the middle of the desert as if they were in a garden. Their laughter and high voices floated across on the hot wind.

“They’re all mine?”

“Of course not!” She laughed. Like the other, she was quite lovely. At least he had high standards in imaginary wives. “Only two of them and this little angel.” She looked down at the baby in her arms.

“The others?”

“They’re ours.” A new voice made him turn to see two young women sitting at the table. He didn’t recognise them… except he did, he knew exactly who they were.

His sisters.

Two men sat with them, their faces strangely blurred so Jahni couldn’t make out their features. Their husbands. The husbands they might have had if they’d had a chance to grow up and marry. The children they might have had played with his own, their cousins. None of them real.

“Sit down, Kahil, eat something, take some tea,” his mother pressed him, handing him a cup and pushing a plate towards him. He knew suddenly that he was overwhelmingly thirsty, drank the tea in a single gulp and grabbed the one in front of his ‘wife’, drank that too.

“More!” he gasped.

“Someone’s dry,” his father said, chuckling. “Pour him some more.”

“Eat your cake, Kahil,” his mother said. “You know I make it especially for you.”

He picked up the cake. Yes, his favourite. Or it had been his favourite, the way she made it. But he hadn’t tasted it since she died. And now she sat there, already cutting him another slice.

He took a bite of the cake, expecting the taste of almonds and honey and that sly hint of cinnamon. It tasted of nothing. It was nothing. When he took a bite, that piece of the cake vanished. It wasn’t in his mouth. It just vanished.

“Have some more, son,” his mother said, putting another slice onto his plate.

“Stop it, dear,” Father said. “You know Kahil says he wants to lose weight.”

Lose weight? A glance down told him his Rangers uniform had gone, and he wore civilian clothes. Also gone was the familiar muscle bulk around the chest and shoulders, but instead he had some unfamiliar bulkiness around his waist. Definitely not muscle.

“Where am I?” he asked. “Father, who am I?”

“You’re the Kahil who never joined the Army.”

He understood now. Like the Kahil at the Rangers’ barracks; had he never gone to prison? Or had he come back to the Rangers after the Restoration? Had he come back with the memory of one precious night consummating his relationship with Faris?

How many different paths that he never took were there? Was there a path where he didn’t take that assassin’s bullet meant for Madari and instead saw him die? A path where he failed Selection and never became an elite soldier? A path where that explosion that put him in the hospital in a coma left him permanently brain damaged? A path where he asked Karen to marry him? Paths made by his own choices, or other people’s. Paths made by random chance.

And all those times he and Faris had come close to giving in to their desires. On how many of those paths had they given in? Were lovers – in every sense? And on how many of those paths were they stripped of their commissions, disgraced, jailed or banished?

Could he stay on any of these paths? Slip between worlds? Take his own place in another one? A better one.

“No. Goodbye, son.”

“What? No! Wait!” But they were gone. All of them. He looked around wildly, looking for the table, the adults, the children. Nothing. Only the desert.

Jahni screamed and fell, the darkness swallowing him up. Cold now. Deathly cold.

“One more path.”

He looked up an unguessable time later. A man walked through the glare of noon. Madari. Splendid in his uniform. Tall and handsome. Heat haze shimmered off the sand all around him, yet he walked through it, as cool as ice water and held out his hand to Jahni.

“Come with me.”

“Where?” Jahni said, taking his hand.

An instant later he knew where. The desert vanished. They stood on a dark street, which glistened wet from rain. The scent of bread from a nearby bakery filled the air. Traces of dawn touched the city’s rooftops and outlined the familiar shape of the Eiffel Tower.

“No,” Jahni gasped. “No, not here.” If he’d taken this path would Madari be married now?

“Look.” Madari kept hold of his hand, to stop him running. “Up there.” He pointed up at the balcony of a hotel.

Madari stood there. Another Madari, wearing a bathrobe, drinking a cup of coffee and gazing out over the city.

“You and he just made love for the first time,” the Madari at his side said. “And now he is considering if he really will go through with his plan to marry Sophia.”

“Faris!” Jahni yelled. “Faris!” But the man on the balcony didn’t react.

“Perhaps you should have had more faith in yourself, Kahil. Perhaps you should have believed that you could make him change his mind. Instead, you sulked like a child and you didn’t even try.”

“I did not sulk! I was angry! I had every right to be angry!”

“There’s no use in arguing with me. I’m not real.” He vanished.


The city ignored his yell. Nearby the river lapped and car horns honked a few blocks away. He wanted to throw himself in the river. It would be cold. Water. He wanted water more than anything in the world now. More than he wanted Faris. More than he wanted to see his family again. More than he wanted to take any of these paths that ran parallel to his but that he could never reach.


The river. He ran across the road, slipping on the wet cobblestones, and climbed onto the railing.

“Kahil!” Someone grabbed him, tried to pull him down. It wasn’t Madari; it was a dark figure, a man all in black. Two of them! Attacking him! Assassins! Jahni screamed out a battle cry and launched himself at them from the rail.


Water. A soaked cloth pressed gently against his face. Stray drops trickled, deliciously cold against his burning skin. Was it Faris? Soothing him gently? Please let it be…

He opened his eyes and cried out at the pain that caused the raw skin of his eyelids. Or rather, he tried to cry out, but only a cracked squeak came from his throat. At once someone lifted his head and pressed a cup to his lips.


Water. He gulped it greedily, dizzy with relief. It felt like drinking diamonds. There had been some earlier. He remembered, in fragments, people around him, saying his name and telling him to drink. Tried to and coughed up a lot of it before his inflamed and raw throat would accept it.

He’d fallen back into darkness before he knew who gave him that earlier water, but he soon learned who was giving him the water now. A face leaned in out of the dimness. Dark, squinting eyes, creased with concern, above a patriarchal grey-streaked beard. Halais.

“You must drink more, Kahil.” Halais pressed the cup to Jahni’s lips again and Jahni drank until he emptied it. Feeling more human than he had a moment ago, he tried to look around, but that hurt too much. His muscles ached, but worst of all was the pain of his skin.

“You’re in my tent,” Halais said, saving Jahni from having to look around any more. The fabric ceiling over his head confirmed this. “My sons found you.”

Halais and his family had been there for the wedding, Jahni remembered. They must have joined the search.

“I have sent Ghulum to tell Colonel Madari that you are safe.” Halais picked up the soaked cloth again and ran it gently around Jahni’s face and shoulders.

Should he say ‘thank you’? Had he wanted to be found? Or had he gone into the desert to die? He didn’t know if he’d taken that path. Not of his own volition anyway. Something had compelled him. Called to him. He’d gone looking for something.

“How long?” he asked, voice still a cracked whisper.

“Six days in the desert. A few hours here.”

Six days? “How… how am I still alive?”

Halais gave a rather self-satisfied smile. “You obviously learned many lessons from us. You know how to survive. You know how to find water and shelter.”

True. But he didn’t remember doing so. He remembered nothing besides the… visions… mirages… dreams. Whatever they were. So his body and brain must have done the surviving. His soul had been busy. Of course, that’s what he’d gone to find! His soul. The one that had slipped away the night before the wedding.

“Here,” Halais said, bringing another cup to Jahni’s lips, distracting him from his thoughts. “Drink this. It’s a tonic the women make. To recover your strength.”

It tasted foul. It must be made with goat’s milk, which he didn’t like much, but he tasted many other disgusting ingredients in there. Halais held him firmly, easily quelling his feeble struggle to push it away. Since Jahni had no more strength than a kitten, he could only swallow the horrible stuff and get it over with.

When he’d finished, Halais let him go and he coughed and spluttered and begged for more water to wash the taste from his mouth.

“That was revolting,” he moaned, slumping back, exhausted by the coughing.

“I think it works by motivating you to get better as quickly as possible so that you can fight off anyone trying to give you another dose.”

“I believe you.”

“But you must rest,” Halais said. “You were half-dead from thirst when they found you. Your skin is coming off in sheets and your brain has no doubt been fried like an egg. Though how we are to tell if that makes any difference to you, my crazy friend, I don’t know.”

Jahni turned his face away, not wanting to start explaining why he had done something so insane.

“Despite that, you still fought your rescuers. Abdul has a black eye he won’t live down for some time.”

Ah, the assassins on the banks of the Seine were actually Ghulum and Abdul-Aziz, Halais’s sons, Jahni’s old friends.

“They had to knock you out in the end, brought you back here flung over the saddle horn of Ghulum’s horse. Not a dignified position.”

Jahni cracked a smile and winced – which hurt too. “I’m grateful to them,” he said, since it seemed the right thing to say. “And I’m sorry I delayed your return home.”

Halais waved a hand, dismissive. “We had to stay anyway. Abdul’s wife had a baby earlier today. It came a little earlier than expected.”

“Are they all right?”

“Both are well.”

He dipped the cloth in a bowl of water, wrung it out and began to run it around Jahni’s face and neck again. Jahni sighed as it soothed some of the agony of his burnt skin.

“Has there been a big search for me?” he asked after a moment.

“Oh yes. Many men. Helicopters. Planes.”

Jahni groaned. It would serve him right if they sent him the bill for it. “Ghulum has gone to bring Faris here?”

“No,” Halais said. “He has gone to say you are alive and safe. Not where you are.”

“What? But why would you…”

“Kahil, you have always somewhat been touched by the sun, but never actually a madman. I am sure you had a reason for what you did. And that the reason may involve Colonel Madari. So it is up to you to decide if you want him to know where you are.”

Jahni stared at him, processing that. “Are you offering me… sanctuary, Halais?”

“You are in my tent. You’re my guest and under my protection. I can’t give a guest up to his enemies, you know that.”

“You think Colonel Madari is my enemy?”

“I may be only a simple nomad,” Halais said, being only half truthful. “But I know what cause and effect is.” He smoothed the cloth around Jahni’s face again, then gave him some more water to drink. “Now, rest my friend. I must have something to eat, but I will be back soon.”

He left. But even with him outside Jahni felt safe enough to try to sleep again. Halais would protect him with his life if he had to.

Sleep didn’t come easily, despite his exhaustion. His mind began to chase itself around the thought he’d had earlier, about finding his soul in the desert. Somehow that didn’t feel quite right. To go into the desert to find one’s soul was traditional enough – but among prophets and the religious. God hadn’t kept him alive out there. His training and skills did that. More like… more like a Spartan boy sent out into the wilderness to finish his training, face his final test.

Was the soul Jahni found the soul of a warrior?

Chapter 2

Jahni woke, aware that he’d now had enough water to need to find the latrine and hoped he could do so on his own feet. He pulled back the sheets to find he was naked, but found a white thoub folded up beside the bed. He pulled that on over his head and climbed to his feet to let it fall down to his toes. Too long for him. Still feeling wobbly, he grasped the tent’s central supporting pole until he had his balance and believed his knees would hold.

Careful, slow steps, trying not to trip on the robe, took him to the tent flap and he lifted it, needing both hands – it seemed to weigh a ton – and ducked under it. Outside the camp lay in darkness, with a hint of dawn light in the sky to the east.

“Hello, Kahil,” someone said, and Abdul-Aziz appeared from the shadows. “Do you need some help?”

“Latrine,” Jahni said, hoarsely.

Abdul steered him in the right direction. When Jahni returned, Abdul was standing by his father’s tent again, smoking a pipe. Noticing the bruise around his eye, Jahni grimaced. He’d done that.

“I’m sorry I hit you, Abdul.”

Abdul shrugged and handed him a water skin. Jahni drank and handed it back with thanks. As he did, he suddenly remembered something else Halais had told him earlier.

“Oh! My congratulations on your new… ah…” Had Halais mentioned if the baby was a boy or a girl? He couldn’t remember. “Baby,” he finished.

Abdul smiled and shook Jahni’s offered hand. “My first daughter,” he said, taking his pipe out. He had three sons already if Jahni recalled correctly. “Would you like to see her?”

What Jahni really wanted was to lie down again, before he fell down, but he didn’t want to make an enemy for life by saying ‘no’ to that offer.

“Of course,” he said

Smiling, Abdul took his arm and led him to another tent. As he stepped inside, he pressed a finger to his lips. Jahni stayed quiet as he waited outside. Abdul’s wife must be sleeping and Jahni had no wish to disturb her.

Inside the tent he heard Abdul speak softly. “Just me. Rest. I’m taking her outside for a moment.”

“Keep her out of the sun,” his wife replied, sounding still almost asleep.

“It’s still night, my dear.”

“Keep her out of the moon.”

Jahni smiled at that, the drowsy voice telling him she’d barely roused from sleep and didn’t know what she was saying. Perhaps she’d been given some kind of ‘tonic’ too. He’d bet it didn’t taste as bad as the one Halais gave him. Abdul emerged, adjusting a blanket to keep his little girl protected from the chilly night breezes.

“Here,” he said, handing her to the rather taken aback Jahni, who’d expected to only have to admire from a distance. He held the child awkwardly, while Abdul led him to a blanket near the campfire and they sat.

“She is beautiful, isn’t she?” Abdul said. Actually, Jahni thought, she was still rather crumpled and red faced and had that odd pointed head newborns had. In a couple of days she’d be cute, he supposed, but meanwhile…

“She’s an angel.”

Meanwhile he exercised his diplomatic skills. They sat in silence. The baby slept, but every time she made a tiny movement or sound Abdul glanced over, just checking. The baby’s power awed Jahni suddenly. So helpless and vulnerable. Yet she held Abdul, her mother, her brothers, the whole tribe even, in her power. They’d die to defend her.

So much power, and so much potential, in this tiny form. All the paths of her life lay ahead of her. She’d made only one journey so far, the shortest, perhaps the hardest. And the rest waited for her to choose.

It felt like holding a bomb. Vast potential contained and waiting for release. Her life-force burned. She made her short, hard journey, while Kahil made his own. Trying to find his path.

“What are you going to call her?” he asked.

“We haven’t decided yet.”

It should be a name that held the world, the sun and the moon in it. The sun that was rising now, lighting the desert sands Jahni had wandered in. Dreaming. Lost. Dead.

No, he wasn’t dead. Others must have thought him dead though. Like that moment, after Rahama’s car exploded, when he couldn’t see Madari and in that moment he knew Madari was dead.

Until the smoke cleared.

Another path. One he might have walked alone. But hadn’t he? Since then? Wasn’t that when they started to lose their connection? When Madari stepped up into Rahama’s shoes, didn’t he also step away from Jahni?

For many years Jahni’s career had been so important to Madari that he had neglected his own. And now… he no longer neglected his own. His ambitions for himself had come back. Had Jahni become a burden to him? A drag on those ambitions?

He shouldn’t complain. Madari’s patronage had helped him develop as an officer, gain his rank, reach his potential. Did he need a mentor any more?

The scent of coffee made him look up to see Halais approaching with two cups.

“An exchange?” he said, offering a cup to Jahni.

“Hardly a fair one,” Jahni said. “You’re taking advantage of me.” But he swapped the baby for the coffee cup and he and Abdul drank while Halais held the baby, his casual ease a contrast with Jahni’s nervousness in the same position.

“Halais,” Jahni said. “Would you really let me come and live with your tribe if I asked?” Abdul looked at him with momentary surprise, but then nodded at his father, clearly not surprised he’d make the offer.

“I would.”

It was a path worth considering. He could survive out here and make a contribution to their community. But would he be allowed to? He’d already gone AWOL. To run off with the tribe would constitute desertion. The Army would come after him. Madari would. Or worse – the enemy. He couldn’t do that to Halais and his people.

“I would only bring you trouble.”

“Every sunrise brings some kind of trouble.”

He seemed sanguine about it. As if it was nothing they couldn’t deal with. Again, there was temptation. Perhaps even for a while. A month. A year. To think. To see clearly again.

A soft whinny and the stamp of a hoof reminded him of one drawback to that idea. He didn’t like horses much. That could be a problem.

Anyway, it was cowardice. Avoidance. Desertion. He set his empty cup on the sand and looked up at Halais.

“Will you please send a message to tell Colonel Madari where he can find me?”


Jahni woke when someone shook him gently. Abdul.

“He’s here,” Abdul said.

There could only be one “he”. The man whose arrival Jahni had been anticipating for sixteen hours now, since one of Halais’s men set off to call him. Anticipation might be the wrong word. Dread might be better. Jahni had spent most of the time sleeping, in Halais’s tent, but felt sure only exhaustion had allowed him to do so.

“There’s water here,” Abdul said, pointing to a bowl of water and a bar of soap lying on a cloth beside it. “And your uniform.” That lay on the bed. “I’ll give you ten minutes.”

“Thank you.” Jahni nodded and dipped his hands into the warm water as Abdul left him alone.

He washed, but didn’t dare shave with his skin still so painful. That done, he stripped off the robe he’d been wearing and put on his trousers and shirt. The collar hurt his neck where it touched the burned skin. The women must have washed the uniform, even mended some rips, but it wasn’t well pressed and certainly wouldn’t pass inspection on parade. Did it matter? He may never wear it again. His watch and comb sat in a small basket beside the washing bowl and he put the watch on—actually smiling for a second at the band of unburned skin where it fitted perfect—and then combed his hair.


Madari’s voice outside, a question in it. Jahni straightened up, put his hands behind his back.

“Come in,” he said.

Madari pulled the tent flap back instantly and stepped in, ducking his head. He stopped, just inside, staring at Jahni in the light of the electric lamp. But he regained his composure after a second and stepped forward. He wore his uniform and that made Jahni wonder if he should salute. Or would that seem like mockery?

The moment became a held breath as he waited to see what Madari would do. Would he embrace Jahni or strike him? For that matter, would he arrest him? Jahni should be on duty right this minute.

“What have you told Murdock?” Madari said.

The question couldn’t have been more unexpected. It struck Jahni dumb.

“He yelled at me,” Madari went on. “That this is all my fault. That if you were dead it’s all my fault. What have you told him?”

“Murdock’s still here?” The team had been due to return home the day after the wedding.

“Of course he’s still here!” Madari’s voice rose. “All of the team. Murdock has been searching for you for days in a helicopter; the rest of team has been searching on the ground. Clive is still here! And I almost had to have Karen deported to keep her from being AWOL herself!”

“We’re in a tent,” Jahni reminded him, glancing past him to the tent flap swaying in the evening breeze. Madari glared, but then sobered. Of course, they couldn’t have a screaming argument here with the whole of Halais’s family listening. Not that Jahni intended to do any screaming. That was over. The hoarseness in his throat he’d had since first waking up here was not only due to thirst, he felt sure. He’d done enough screaming.

“Then let’s go.” Madari looked at his watch, and Jahni imitated him. Close to midnight. Another time someone might have suggested they should stay in the camp overnight rather than travel the desert in the dark. But not tonight.

Without another word, Madari turned, flung the tent flap aside and strode out. He didn’t stop and hold the flap open for Jahni. Jahni found his jacket, and followed him out. A Royal Guard Landrover stood on the edge of the camp, its headlights stabbing through the darkness, a hard-edged glare, different from the gentle flickering of the fire, or the soft pools of light created by lanterns.

Jahni only had to say the word and he could stay here. Halais would offer him protection. His code would never allow him to give a man up to his enemies. Was Madari now Jahni’s enemy? He hadn’t arrested Jahni, or given him an order even, but he’d certainly do the latter and possibly the former if Jahni refused to come with him.

Madari had been talking with Halais and now shook his hand, taking his leave. He strode past Jahni and snapped, “Make your goodbyes quickly.”

That almost made Jahni change his mind right then. Horses or no horses, trouble or not, and however much of a fool he’d been, Halais had never spoken to him with that mix of rage and disgust. But he stayed calm, watched Madari get into the Landrover and heard the engine roar into life. He had to go. Anyway, he wanted to hear about Karen having to be deported.

He made his goodbyes to Halais and his sons, with long handshakes and embraces, and more expressions of congratulations for the new baby. Some of the children, escaped from their beds, gathered around to say goodbye, too. Jahni glanced at the car. He couldn’t see Madari’s face past the glare of the headlights, but he’d bet it wore an impatient scowl.

Let him wait. Jahni took his leave at last and walked to the car. The passenger door opened as he approached and he climbed in. Madari reversed, fast, before the door even slammed closed.

They drove in silence for a while, Madari scowling fiercely ahead, as he navigated the narrow track that lead to the main road. Too easy to stray off this unmarked path in the darkness. Only once they reached the road did Madari speak.

“Do you have anything you want to say to me?” His tone was tense, but quite neutral.

“Are you looking for an apology?”

“No, an explanation, for this… insanity.” The neutrality began to slip.

“Perhaps that is the explanation.”

Madari snorted at that. “You’re not insane.”

You didn’t see me point a gun at an innocent man in a changing room.

“I’m not sure that I’m entirely sane either.”

“That’s for the psychiatrist to decide.”

Oh. Of course. They drove on in silence for a while.

“Where am I going?” Jahni asked eventually. “The infirmary, or the glasshouse?”

“It would serve you damn well right if it was the glasshouse!” No neutrality now. And no tension. The tension all released, the rage pouring out. “You were AWOL! I could put you on a charge!”

“Are you going to?”

“Don’t you even care? Dammit, Kahil, are you trying to destroy your career?”


He grabbed at the dashboard when Madari slammed on the brakes and the Landrover screeched to a halt. Madari turned to Jahni, raising a hand. For an insane second Jahni thought Madari really was going to strike him. But instead he reached for the interior light over his head and turned it on. Now Jahni could see the depth of rage in his eyes and it almost unmanned him. He had to fight an impulse to beg forgiveness.

“Do you understand what this tantrum of yours has led to?”

“Tantrum?” The air became hard to breathe. It seemed filled with chips of ice. Any urge to beg forgiveness vanished.

“The Special Forces unit is in turmoil. Half the Guard has been out looking for you. All our helicopters –”

“And yet it took nomads on horses to find me.” He couldn’t deny some pride in that. Clearly his ‘Escape and Evasion’ skills remained as sharp as ever. Madari ignored the smart-alec remark.

“Your friends are all frantic!”

“And you? I’m so sorry my little tantrum interrupted your honeymoon.” The tone of his voice invited a punch in the face. Did he want to provoke exactly that? To end their relationship? Make it impossible for Jahni to serve under Madari?

Madari didn’t punch him. Instead he flung open his door and stepped out onto the road, back turned, shoulders high and stiff. Jahni stepped out of his own door, but stayed on his side of the car. Madari turned at the sound, his face stark and pale in the car’s lights.

“I thought you were dead!” The shout was rage and anguish combined. “Or in the hands of our enemies being tortured! I lived that for six days! How could you do that to me?”

“To you? You think I was… what? Punishing you?”

“Don’t tell me that you weren’t! I know what this is about and yes; it’s my fault. I didn’t realise how fragile you are. If I’d known… You should have told me!”

“I told you! I told you a hundred times! I told you when I begged you to come away with me. But you chose your career instead.”

“I chose my duty to the King!”

“Yes. It’s taken me some time to realise that,” Jahni said, calming down, folding his arms. “But I see now that I need to accept it. What we had…” He stopped, went on after a pause, more quietly. “What we never had. What we might have had. It’s gone.”

“It’s best that you do accept that, Kahil,” Madari said, sounding cautious of the reasonable tone of voice. He hesitated and then spoke again. “You didn’t answer me about Murdock. What have you told him?”

“No more than you told Sophia. And you don’t have to worry – Murdock is very good at keeping secrets. He’ll keep this one.”

“He was very angry at me.”

Jahni wished he’d seen that… discussion. “He’ll keep the secret for as long as I ask him to.”

Madari frowned. Did he hear a threat in that? That one day Jahni might decide he had no reason to protect Madari any longer? Jahni didn’t intend any such threat, but he didn’t feel like reassuring Madari.

“I’m very tired,” he said, quite truthfully. “Can we go on? I haven’t the strength to argue any more. I just want to go home.”

“Get in,” Madari said. “But you’re not going home. You’re going to barracks. And you had better hope that the medical officers agree with your assessment of your sanity.”

Jahni just nodded wearily. If he was going to be court martialled he hoped he’d have time to press his uniform first.


Jahni woke from a doze on his bed in a small room in the infirmary. Morning light came through the thin curtains, but he’d only been resting here for a couple of hours. First the doctors had examined him and then the regiment’s psychiatrist talked to him for a long time, until Jahni was too exhausted to go on.

A few minutes after Jahni woke, a nurse brought him in some tea, bread and honey. Madari arrived just as the nurse left.

“Have the medics told you?” he asked Jahni.

“Indefinite medical leave until the psychiatrist signs me fit again, yes. They want me to rest for a month before they even begin the therapy sessions.” Jahni sipped his hot tea, deciding it was both tastier and more beneficial than Halais’s horrible goat’s milk tonic.

“How can you be so calm?” Madari demanded. “Don’t you understand that this could be the end of your career?”

“What do you suggest? That I rampage around like a lunatic? That I smash up this room maybe? How is that going to help?”

“I should never have brought you into the Guard.” Madari said it quietly. Not an accusation, but in a voice full of sadness and guilt. Yet it made Jahni angry.

“Why? Because I’m not Royal Guard material? Is that what they’re all saying? That I broke down because I’m not the right sort.”

“I put you in this position. Perhaps I pushed you too far. Perhaps I was wrong about your potential.”

“This has nothing to do with the work!” Jahni slammed his teacup down on the table beside the bed. “Don’t try to shift the blame!”

Madari winced and glanced back at the door, that the nurse had left partly open when he left. “Not here…”

“Not here, not anywhere. Not anymore. I’m going to Australia.”

“What?” Madari froze, startled at the sudden announcement.

“I’m on medical leave with orders to rest for a month, so I’m going to go and rest in Australia. I’ll stay with Karen.” That was a little presumptuous, he hadn’t arranged to do that, but he knew she was based in Sydney right now and staying with her aunt. He felt sure she wouldn’t turn him away.

“But you can’t go to Australia!”

“I’m subject to the orders of the doctors now, not you. I need to decide if I ever want to be subject to your orders again.”

Madari stared at him open mouthed, completely stymied by this turn.

“I’m going as soon as the doctors release me from here.”

Would Madari try to make the doctors refuse him permission to travel? Or would that seem strange to everyone else? Feed the rumours? Even now, with any chance of the long-hoped-for relationship between them dead, they had to keep up appearances. To disguise their animosity now, not their love.

“And are you planning to come back?” Madari asked quietly.

Perhaps he’d come back married? Give Madari a taste of his own medicine. But no. Even if he could persuade Karen to marry him, he could never use her as an instrument of revenge.

“I don’t know yet,” he answered honestly, losing the insolence and sarcasm of some of his earlier words. “I need time to think.”

“I see.” Madari nodded a couple of times, arms folded, then glanced back at the door. “Please… come back. The country needs you. I… still need you.”

Before Jahni could answer, Madari turned and strode out.

Chapter 3

Jahni woke when the announcement came over the plane’s PA system that they were about to land in Sydney. A long flight had given him much time to brood. But he was also still recovering and his brooding had quickly turned to sleeping, interrupted only by the food service and PA announcements.

After far too long getting through customs, he left baggage reclaim with his suitcase and spotted Karen waiting for him, in uniform. She waved and ran to him.

“Kahil! I’m hugging you. I don’t care if you don’t approve of that, stand still and be hugged.”

“I totally approve,” he said, dropping his bags and letting her fill his arms, holding her close.

“You daft bastard,” she said, quietly, her voice a little choked. “Putting us all through that. Thought you were a goner.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I never intended to upset people, I just… can’t explain it all here.” He let her go, looking around at the bustling terminal. “I’m sorry to land on you like this. You know I can go and stay in a hotel.”

“Oh, sod that. I told you on the phone – you’re staying with us. Jacks can’t wait to meet you.” She grabbed his flight bag and he took his case, following her towards the car park. “I’m trying to wangle a couple of days off, so I can show you around Sydney,” she went on. “But don’t worry, even when I’m not there, Jackie will keep you busy.”

“She doesn’t have to entertain me.”

“Who’s talking about entertaining?” Karen said, grinning. “There’s a lot of gardening and some heavy jobs that need doing around the house.”

“Oh, well, I’d be happy to help.”

“I’m joking!” she said, shaking her head at him. “You’re convalescing. The colonel called and I got the feeling if I don’t make sure you rest that he’ll have my guts for garters.”

So Madari had called her, had he? What else might he have told her to do besides make sure Jahni rested? Report back to him perhaps? And would she do what he asked her? She was loyal to Madari and inclined to take his orders, Jahni knew. But then again, this was her home turf and he wasn’t her commanding officer any longer. And he knew first hand that she had a lot of initiative – as a good junior officer should. She’d do what she thought best for Jahni.

They found the car that she said belonged to her aunt and she drove him through Sydney, taking a scenic route, pointing out sights, promising to give him a proper tour before he went home again. The day’s heat was cooling now in the early evening. A spring evening, he had to remind himself. Autumn back home, but spring here. Strange. Like travelling in time.

If only he could go back and erase this last summer, reset to the spring, take another try at it, walk another path.

They left the centre of Sydney with the tail end of rush hour traffic, driving into a suburb of mostly one-storey wooden houses, with large gardens and yards. No high walls surrounded them, the Australians clearly not as mindful of privacy as his own people. Many of the gardens had children playing or adults relaxing in them. The scent of cooking would drift across now and again from someone having a barbecue dinner on this fine night. Sometimes there’d be snatches of music from radios and TVs in houses with all the windows open.

Domestic bliss.

Was this his path? A life like this one. A nine to five job, then coming home to relax and enjoy the evening. Getting fat. He smiled. He’d skip that part. And who would share that life with him? Faris? Karen? No-one? Solitude was one path to peace.

“Here we are,” Karen said, turning up a driveway and parking outside a well maintained house, painted pastel blue, with cream coloured door and window frames accenting it. A green lawn lay out front, the weather not yet hot enough to parch it to brown as it would later in the year. That grass invited him. He wanted to take off his shoes and walk on it barefoot, equally tired of sand and of city streets.

A woman opened the screen door of the house and hurried out. Hard to gauge her age, Jahni thought, her clothes perhaps too young in style for her. But the smile on her face made her younger.

“So, this is Kahil, eh?” She held out her hand to shake his. “Jacqueline Lawson.”

“Ms Lawson,” Jahni said, cautious about the title, unable to recall if she was still married. Karen had probably mentioned it, but he had forgotten. “Thank you for inviting me into your home.” He bowed his head to her.

“Strewth,” she said, staring a moment, then smiling. “Bit of a formal sort, isn’t he?” she said to Karen.

“It’s just his way,” Karen said, unloading his bags from the car. “Very polite these Arab fellas.”

“Well, you can drop the ‘Ms Lawson’ at least,” she said. “And it’s Miss anyway. But you can call me Jackie, or Jacks, whatever tickles your fancy. Come on, you both look choked. Let’s have a cold one.”

“A cold what?” Jahni asked Karen as they followed Jackie inside. She chuckled.

“Beer, you daft bugger. Beer!”

Beer wasn’t all she offered in the kitchen. Soon, Jahni was sitting at the table with Karen, both drinking chilled lagers, while Jackie bustled around making Jahni an enormous sandwich, ‘to keep him going until dinner.’ He thought it might keep him going until breakfast, but accepted it with gracious thanks and was glad when Karen scrounged some of it. He cut off a good third to give her.

“You’ve remembered not to give him any pork, right?” Karen said, examining the sandwich suspiciously.

“Of course,” Jackie said. “Though I thought you fellas didn’t drink beer.”

“I’m not very religious,” Jahni said. “I think I only really avoid pork out of old habits now. I sometimes think…” He stopped. That he should try it? Was this the place to do that? And what exactly would it mean? He’d lost his faith long ago; it wouldn’t mean anything about that. But would it mean he was giving up even the customs of his homeland? Then he might as well stay here after all. “Well, I just don’t really eat it anyway.”

“Okay,” she said. “Now, Karen, what have you got planned to keep our handsome guest here busy?”

He sat and watched them bantering back and forth, and saw the similarities there. Not only in their looks, though there was a resemblance in their profiles he thought, though Jackie was smaller and darker than Karen. But the outlook and personality. He saw now where some of Karen’s had come from. And if Jackie had, as Karen had said before, taught Karen everything she knew about having fun, then this could prove to be a very entertaining visit.


They didn’t rush into entertaining him. He still needed to rest, recovering from his ordeal in the desert, so they let him take the time to do that. Karen had to go on duty anyway, spent most of her day on her base, arriving back in the evening. Jackie had a job a few blocks away and came home at lunchtimes to make sure Jahni was okay. He spent a lot of that time sleeping, or brooding, often on a sun lounger in the garden.

At first he couldn’t sleep well out there. Any sound – a car driving past, a barking dog, a child bouncing a ball – woke him with his heart pounding and his hand reaching for his absent sidearm. But after a couple of days these non-threatening sounds barely even disturbed him anymore. On the fifth day, Jackie had to walk up and shake his shoulder to wake him.

On the sixth day Karen woke him, in his bed, not the garden, at six-thirty in the morning. He was sleeping on a cot in the living room, though Jackie had hinted that if he wanted to sleep in Karen’s room she had no objection. Jahni hadn’t presumed so far, and Karen hadn’t offered, perhaps cautious of his state of health, mental or otherwise.

“Come on,” she said, not in uniform today, just shorts and a T-shirt. Her day off, he recalled. “Wanna get on the road before the traffic builds up.”

“Where are we going?” he asked, rubbing his eyes and following her into the kitchen.

“Picnic,” she said, plonking a mug of coffee in front of him. The toaster popped and in a moment he had a plate of scrambled eggs on toast in front of him too. “You get that lot down you and have a shower, while I put the food together.”

“Is Jackie coming?” Jahni asked, salting his eggs.

“Nope, just you and me. I know a lovely quiet spot.”

A lovely quiet spot didn’t seem like Karen’s ideal place. Which meant she was probably going there for his sake.

“You know I’m all right now,” he said. “I know I’m sleeping a lot, but that’s just… things to work out in my mind. Physically, I’m fine.”

“Yeah, now you’ve grown a new layer of skin on your face,” she said. “I’ve seen some sunburn in my time, but bloody hell, Kahil, you looked like a boiled lobster when you arrived. I wanted to cover you in drawn butter.”

“That sounds like fun.”

“Don’t start, it’s too early in the morning.”

He smiled and ate his eggs as she moved around putting their picnic together. If this wasn’t about him getting some more rest, then what was it? The other things on his mind, it must be. She wanted him to talk. Bloody hell.

He took a shower and got dressed, suddenly annoyed that all of his western style casual wear was black. They were going on a picnic, not a raid into enemy territory. Karen apparently thought the same thing when he came out onto the drive to find her loading a cooler into the boot of the car. She looked at him and grimaced.

“Do you have anything in your wardrobe that isn’t from the designer ninja collection?”

“Sorry,” he said with a sheepish grin, passing a hand self-consciously over his tight fitting black T-shirt.

“Never mind,” she said. “If you’re ready, hop in.”

“I’m ready.” He put on his sunglasses and while she popped back into the house to say goodbye to Jackie, he got into the car. Karen returned a moment later and started the engine.

“Blue Mountains, here we come.”

The lovely quiet spot turned out to be all she promised, nestled in a small valley in the foothills of the Blue Mountains. A shallow river gurgled over rocks, the banks on either side a carpet of lush grass and scattered flowers. The actual lovely spot itself lay nearly a mile from the road and they had to walk there, lugging their picnic basket, cooler and a blanket to sit on. But both had sturdy walking shoes and were in good shape.

Jahni would have been hotter, but he’d swapped his black T-shirt for one Karen bought him at a gift shop on the way. It had a kangaroo wearing sunglasses and carrying a beer on it, along with the words, ‘Welcome to Australia’ above that.

“Here we are,” Karen said, stopping at a well-sheltered spot with a flat area of riverbank to sit on. “Let’s get comfy.”

They spread the blanket, tuned in a radio she’d brought and lounged on the blanket, drinking cold beer.

“Don’t let me have any of these after lunch,” Karen said, waving her beer can. “I have to drive back.”

“Okay,” he said. It was late morning already, but they’d taken a slow drive up here, enjoying the scenery and chatting about nothing much. That wouldn’t last, he felt sure. In fact she had a speculative look on her face now, as if working up to asking him some awkward questions. So he jumped up and pulled his shirt over his head.

“I’m sweating from that walk!” he declared. “I’m going to splash some water on me.” He dumped his shoes and rolled up the trouser legs to mid calf.

“Careful! Don’t slip.” Karen said, as he stepped into the stream of surprisingly cold water.

“This water is freezing!”

“Mountain run off,” she said. “Cools you off all right.”

He clowned around for a while, making her laugh, keeping her distracted from her mission to Make Him Talk. She joined him after a bit, leading to much horsing around until both of them were thoroughly soaked.

“Great,” Jahni said, getting up after falling down, as she doubled up with laughter at him, climbing out onto the bank, her own clothes dripping wet. “Now I have to sit around in soaking wet jeans. They’ll need to be cut off me!” He climbed out onto the bank and tried to squeeze some water out ineffectually.

“Take ’em off and hang them on a tree branch,” she said, following him out. “Sun will soon dry them.”

He looked at her, wondering where this might be going. Well nothing could happen here. They were in a public place, even if it was isolated. There could be hikers or anyone around.

“Don’t be shy,” she said. “It’s not like I haven’t seen what you’ve got before.”

He blushed at that, but shrugged and stripped out of his jeans. Karen took them and hung them over a tree branch where they’d catch the sun.

“What about you?” he asked, but she answered him by unselfconsciously shedding her shorts and T-shirt to reveal a bikini underneath.

“I should probably have taken them off first,” she said.

“Um, yes, it might have been a good idea.” His gaze fixed on her body, as lean and toned as ever, and his mouth seemed suddenly parched. “I could use another beer.” He hurried to the blanket, retrieved one from the cooler and lay on his front while drinking it, until things had… cooled off.

Karen sat down beside him, leaning back on her elbows, her hair loose, the ends of it wet and hanging down behind her. Eyes closed, enjoying the sun, she sighed.

“It’s nice here,” Jahni said.


“Thanks for letting me come to stay.”

She turned to him, a kind smile on her face, different than her usual cheeky, teasing or just purely joyful one.

“That’s okay. You’re always welcome.”

He could reach for her; he knew that. She’d casually mentioned a couple of days ago that she wasn’t seeing anyone right now – no time she said, so busy with her career. But she’d welcome him again. Her body enticed him as usual, and the mad plans came into his mind again. Ask her. Make her his wife. It didn’t have to be revenge. It could simply be the choosing of a new path. A new companion to walk that path with, now he’d lost Madari.

His throat closed at that and his eyes blurred, an extraordinary weakness, and he turned away from her to rest his face on his arm. Her hand touched his shoulder, sending a thrill down his spine in reaction to her touch. The hand moved to stroke his damp hair.

“What happened, Kahil? Why did you go into the desert?”

He didn’t answer for a long time, but she didn’t press him, just went on stroking his hair. At last he found words.

“Because of the wedding. Because I… lost him.”

“Colonel Madari?” She was silent for a long time. Her hand stroking his hair faltered for a moment. “Oh! You two? Oh. Wow.” She started stroking his hair again and sighed. “But it’s impossible, isn’t it?”

“Yes.” He turned his head to look at her. Her hand didn’t move away, went on stroking his hair, traced around the curve of his ear. He sat up, face to face with her and took her hands.

“A while ago, I asked him to leave with me. But he chose not to. I don’t think I really understood what that meant until… the wedding. He’s chosen his future. I’m not part of it. At least, not in the way I want to be.”

“So, you went into the desert to what? Die?”

He shrugged. Not an answer. A maybe. But she knew him too well to accept that.

“No. That’s not it. If you wanted to die, well, you have a gun, don’t you? You’d be dead. But you left your gun in the lockbox.”


“That had everyone baffled when they found it.” She frowned again, bit her lip, still working through this puzzle. “And even without a gun, well, why didn’t you die? You were out there six days; you should have died of thirst, or heat stroke. The fact you didn’t means you found water and shelter. You were trying to survive. You even evaded the search parties. You didn’t go there to die. What were you looking for?”

That final question was in the officer voice. Had she learned that from Madari or did it come naturally? It straightened Jahni’s spine and he wanted to stand at attention. But he smiled, glad she’d worked it out. Glad someone understood him well enough to do that.

“My… self.” Soul didn’t sound right. Sounded like something else. “Part of me was lost and I had to find it.”

She nodded. “Interesting. Sounds like you went on a walkabout.”

“A what?”

“It’s a kind of… spiritual quest. The Aborigines do it, a kind of coming of age ritual. Friend of mine said that you have to walk until you meet yourself.”

Jahni smiled. Yes, he supposed that’s what he’d done. Met himself; several versions in fact.

“So, did you find what you were looking for?”


“And now?”

“Now, I don’t know. I’m still deciding. I wanted to leave… but with him. Without him, why bother? But to stay there, so close to him, working with him. I don’t know if I could stand it.”

The feeling of freedom, talking about it was heady. Different from with Murdock, when it felt forced from him and he’d feared a disgusted reaction. Was that because she was a woman? Because they’d been lovers and he didn’t have to prove anything to her?

“So you came here. To think it over? Or because you think maybe Australia might be a nice place to live?”

“Australia certainly seems like a very nice place to live,” he said with a smile, looking around. “But, I haven’t made any plans to stay yet.”

“I’d help you work it out if you did decide that. Immigration can be kind of a hassle, but hey, I’ll marry you if I have to.”

He flushed, but smiled. “Karen!” God, if she only knew.

“That’s assuming you’re bisexual that is. Because, I think I can assume that, right? Since we’ve slept together.”

“I… don’t really know about all those labels you use here. But, if you mean was I sincere when we went to bed together? The answer is yes.”

“So, there you go then. You fancy girls too, so we could get married. And I think the colonel tried to matchmake us a couple of times already,” she said, then frowned. “Which is pretty weird now I think about it. What the hell was that about?”

“Karen, it’s a very long, and ridiculously complicated story. And I want to eat now.”

She laughed at that. “Okay. But after we eat, you’re going to tell me.”

He thought he would. All of it. From the prison camp to Paris – that he went to only in his mind. Tell her all that he and Madari had been to each other, because it was over and perhaps someone else ought to hear the story before it vanished at the hands of an enemy bomb or bullet.

Chapter 4

Jahni woke, disoriented. Where was he? He realised after a second that he was lying on the couch in Jackie’s living room. The blinds were drawn, but it was still light outside and in the distance he could hear music and voices.

The barbecue must still be going on. He’d been in Sydney ten days now and yesterday had expressed some disappointment that they hadn’t had a barbecue yet. Wasn’t this Australia?

Jackie and Karen arranged one for the next day. A Sunday, so many neighbours and friends were free to come around. Children ran around, women gossiped, Karen ran the grill and beer flowed. A little too much beer for Jahni, not used to it, and he’d come inside to crash on the couch for a while when his head began to spin.

Familiar voices sounded close by, Jackie and Karen in the kitchen, talking about food. He froze when Jackie looked into the darkened living room.

“I think he’s still asleep,” she said and moved away from the door. “Your boy Kahil’s got no head for beer.”

“He’s a bit of a lightweight,” Karen said. “And he’s not my boy. Pass a bowl for these peanuts.”

“Do you want him to be?” Jackie said. He heard the clink of crockery, a cupboard door closing.

Jahni listened hard for Karen’s reply, despite feeling guilty for eavesdropping, letting them go on thinking he was asleep. She took a moment to reply.

“He’s somebody else’s.” Their voices faded away. They must have gone back outside. Jahni lay on the sofa, sprawled rather untidily and considered Karen’s answer. He knew an evasion when he heard one. Everything he’d told her about his past must had led her to draw conclusions about the future. Did she believe that, despite recent events, he’d always belong first to Madari? And she wasn’t prepared to take second place the way Sophia was. Different generations. Different cultures he supposed. Sophia might be a westerner, but Italy wasn’t Australia.

Karen would never agree to marry him. Perhaps she’d accept him in her bed as a lover sometimes, but she’d never agree to be his wife. And he’d never ask. Because as different as she was from Sophia, so he was from Madari. They shared a culture, but close to a generation separated them. Enough to make the difference. Enough for Jahni to place an importance on love and passion in marriage that the previous generations didn’t. They accepted their lot. They made “good” marriages and hoped for some affection at least. Not him.

Never. And not Karen. He wanted her friendship. He wanted her body sometimes, if she was generous enough to invite him. But nothing more.


“Kahil, wake up.”

He woke, blinking muzzily at Karen, who was holding the phone.

“It’s Colonel Madari,” she said, putting the phone into his hand. Jahni sat up. Still on the sofa, still dressed. But it was dark outside now and the house was quiet. They must have let him sleep through after the barbecue ended.

“He said it’s urgent,” Karen said, when Jahni took a moment to prepare himself, yawning and rubbing his eyes. That woke Jahni up a lot faster. He put the cordless phone to his ear and spoke in Arabic.


“Have you seen the news?” Madari’s voice was distant and distorted, but Jahni still heard the tension in it. He stood up.


“It might not have made the television news there, I wasn’t sure. But it’s on CNN, I’m looking at that now.”

“Hold on.” He turned to Karen, switched to speaking English. “Could you turn on the television, please? Find CNN.” They had a satellite dish and he’d seen CNN on the TV a couple of times while flicking idly through the channels. “What’s happening?” he asked, back on the phone, back in Arabic.

“A bombing. The king…” Madari’s voice faltered and Jahni’s knees weakened. “He’s injured. Alive. They think he’ll be all right, but it was…”

“You were there?” Now Jahni had to sit down again.

“Yes. It was the King’s birthday today, remember. The parade.”

“Yes, of course.” Every year a regiment paraded their colours for the King on his birthday. It hadn’t been the turn of the Royal Guard this year, but senior officers from many regiments attended the event. It would have been packed with important military men, the perfect target for a terrorist bombing.

“My God,” Karen said, staring at the television, which showed pictures taken from a helicopter of a smoking parade ground, while headlines ran along the bottom of the screen. Dark shapes he realised were the bodies of men and horses lay on the ground.

“How many dead?” Jahni whispered.

“Twenty-four confirmed. Dozens injured. It was a soldier.”


“In the parade. He broke out of formation and ran towards the stand where the King was, and then…”

A crackle of interference drowned his words, but Jahni didn’t need to hear them. A soldier. A man sworn to protect the king had tried to kill him. He saw the words “suicide bomber” scrolling along the screen.

“Saifullah has claimed responsibility.”

Of course. Those bastards. But beyond the horrors of this day the implications were terrifying. They had men in the Army. Infiltrators? Or once-loyal soldiers corrupted and turned into traitors?

“General Jumale is one of the dead.”

Jahni didn’t speak, choked with shock and anger at the loss of an old comrade and ally.

“That’s not the worst of it. All three service chiefs were killed. Half the general staff is dead or seriously injured. It was… carnage.”

Dear God. Jahni was glad he was already sitting. The bomb had decapitated Qumar’s armed forces in one blast.

“How close were you?” Jahni stood up again, going closer to the television.

“I wasn’t on the stand with the king and the others. The senior officers of other regiments were in a pavilion across the parade ground. None of us were injured.”

Karen, who had left the room, came back in and gave him a cup of coffee. It was only instant, but he sipped it gratefully, easing his choked, raw throat.

“What’s happening now? It must be chaos there.”

“Rahama is the new Army Chief of Staff.”

He said nothing else for a moment, letting that news settle on Jahni. Jahni knew what it meant.

“You’re taking command of the Guard?”

“Effective immediately. Rahama is already at the Defence Ministry. We can’t be seen to reel from this blow. We must show strength.”

“Of course.”

“I can still command the Special Forces unit for a few weeks, with some delegation. But I need an effective commander in place as soon as possible. That means I either need you fit and back on duty or I need to replace you. Which of those will it be, Major?”

It was a challenge, to make Jahni choose right now which path to take. He couldn’t put the decision off. If he didn’t go back now, he might as well not bother. And if he wasn’t going back then Madari had to know that now.

“I’ll come back at once.” They wouldn’t allow him back on duty yet of course; the small matter of proving he hadn’t lost his mind had to come first. “I’ll be signed fit again as quickly as I can make it happen.”

“Make it within six weeks and I’ll give you a promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.”

Jahni frowned and some of his anger came back. Madari still didn’t understand. He thought Jahni could control this. That he’d chosen to walk out into the desert. Now he wanted Jahni to, what? Fool the doctors? Repress the evidence of his pain and put a brave face on?

But, isn’t that exactly what he should be doing? Isn’t that what a soldier did? A commander especially. Well, if that’s how it had to be, so be it.

“I’ll be home by tomorrow.” He put the phone down and turned to Karen. She put her arms around him before he said a word.

“Is the colonel okay?”

“Yes. He was there, but he wasn’t hurt. Karen, I have to go.”

“I understand. Of course you do. I guess you guys are at war now.”

“We have been for a while. But it’s escalating. And I have to be there. It’s my duty.” It was good that the relationship with Madari was over. He could concentrate now. Focus on doing the job he was trained for. The job he was born for. This was his path.

But he took this moment to hold Karen. A remarkable woman. A friend, a comrade in arms, and a lover. Strange. The relationship he’d been trying to have with Madari, he did have with her. Why couldn’t that be enough for him?

“Be careful,” she said, her voice more quiet and serious than ever before. “And if you can’t be careful, be bloody good.”

He smiled. “I’ll only commit to the second of those.”


Jahni hadn’t seen Madari since arriving home the day before. He’d been unable to face the idea of visiting him in his marital home with Sophia. Anyway, he was probably at the barracks all night.

Still officially on medical leave, Jahni drove to barracks the morning after arriving home and found a changed city. Police and military checkpoints barred his way several times. Even producing his military identity card didn’t stop them looking at him suspiciously.

He wore civilian clothes, and wished he’d at least worn fatigues, as he stuck out like a sore thumb on the way from the barracks car park to the infirmary, to report to the medical officers. They weren’t expecting him, but after making him wait for a while, they killed time by giving him another physical check up, and signed him physically fit and allowed to resume training in the gym. Good. It wouldn’t do to let his physical fitness slide while he endured the therapy sessions.

That done, they left him in a treatment room to wait for the psychiatrist. He’d been told before that the therapy would only start after he’d rested for a month. But he no longer had that kind of time and hoped he could convince the doctor to start straight away. Whatever they needed him to do, he’d do. He’d look at all the ink they could blot, weave enough baskets to go into the basket business, but he’d get himself back on duty as fast as possible.

A knock on the door made him expect to see the psychiatrist, but instead it was Madari. He was pale, and his eyes were dark-circled as if he hadn’t slept for a couple of days. Probably hadn’t.

Jahni slid off the treatment bed he’d been sitting on. Being out of uniform, he didn’t salute, but he unconsciously found himself standing at attention.

“At ease,” Madari said, frowning, his voice strained.

Realising what he’d been doing, Jahni went with it and took up an at ease stance.

“The gate told me you’d come on base. I thought you’d come to report to me first.”

“I’m still on medical leave, sir. The doctor is my CO right now.”

“Right now.”

“Until I’m signed fit again, sir.”

He wasn’t sure why he used the ‘sir’. Every time he said it, he saw a muscle twitch in Madari’s face. Using such cruel barbs was beneath him and he tried to suppress the bitterness that caused that cruelty. Whatever had happened, that was over. On the path ahead, he had his duty. Madari was not an enemy he had to fight, but the commander he had to serve.

“I hope you’ll be back soon,” Madari said. “The unit needs you.”

“I intend to be back on duty as soon as possible,” he said, biting off another ‘sir’ before it escaped.

“Good. We’re going to be in the vanguard of this war. Everything Rahama has done the past few years, his reforms, the men he’s put in charge of the various companies and the methods they’ve brought in, the equipment he’s bought. All of that has made us the regiment most ready to deal with this threat. And the Special Forces unit will be key in that.”

He looked at Jahni with some doubt in his face. Did he believe Jahni was strong enough to lead such a crucial force? Or had Jahni’s weakness destroyed his career? Would having Madari himself as commander of the regiment make a difference? Would he trust Jahni the way Rahama might not have? Or would it mean the opposite? With everything he knew, would he be more inclined to doubt Jahni?

“I’m ready for the challenge, sir.”

This time the ‘sir’ wasn’t a barb, but respect from a soldier to his commanding officer.

“Not yet,” Madari said, stepping closer to him. He raised a hand as if to put it on Jahni’s shoulder, but stopped. “Not until the doctor says you are.”

“He will and soon.”

Madari smiled, and Jahni did too, hearing a voice from long ago in his tone. The young lieutenant with fire in his belly, ready to fight the world if he had to.

“That’s good to hear. Kahil…” his voice dropped. “I am sorry for the way things turned out for us… personally I mean. I’ll always be your friend and you’re always be welcome in my house.”

“Thank you,” Jahni said, nodding. The fire in his belly was out. He was a major now. “I’m sure it was for the best in the end. Duty is more important.”

“Yes. Good. Thank you for coming back, Kahil. I… feared you wouldn’t. I feared losing you so much.” His face was strained and the distress in his eyes almost heartbreaking, but Jahni hardened his heart. He wouldn’t weaken again, because now he knew where it led – into the screaming heart of the desert.

“Faris, let me make something very clear.” He took a breath, to help him steady his voice. His control wasn’t as good as Madari’s. Not yet. “I came back to fight the enemy. I came back for the unit and the regiment. I came back for the king. I did not come back for you.”

No mere barb, but rather a crossbow bolt to the chest. For just an instant Madari’s face twisted with shock and pain. But then he regained control and took a step away from Jahni, straightening up. He gave a curt nod.