Part 36: The Enemy of My Enemy

Chapter 1

October 1997

“What are they looking at?” Jahni asked as he and Madari came out into the darkness.

They’d travelled to the village where Madari used to live to attend a wedding party. It was almost over now and, leaving the bride’s father’s house to drive back to the city, they found some of the other guests watching the night sky, sometimes pointing.

“Meteors,” Madari said. “There’s an annual shower. Didn’t you read in the paper that tonight is a good night to see them?”

“You know I only read the sports pages.”

They’d come in Jahni’s car. After some final goodbyes, he drove it out of the gate and set off south towards the city. The lights of the village soon vanished behind them and the absolute darkness of the desert swallowed the car.

Madari glanced at Jahni a couple of times, concentrating intently on the road, travelling more slowly usual with only his headlights to show him the road ahead. This must be the first time Jahni had been out this way since the day he drove out into the desert, left his car and walked away from the road. Did the memory prey on his mind now? He was quiet, but with the dark road to navigate that was understandable.

“Do you want to stop and look at the meteors?” Jahni asked, breaking through Madari’s wonderings. He didn’t look around, kept his eyes on the road. “You seemed interested.”

Madari was interested. He had few opportunities to do something like watch meteors. But he could spare a few minutes tonight.

“Yes. Let’s stop. This is the ideal place. No lights.”

No moon either. When they stepped out of the car and the interior light went off, Madari gasped as the darkness engulfed them like a blanket.

It took his eyes a moment to adjust and he groped his way along the car while they did, gasping again when he collided with a solid body in the dark.

“Sorry,” Jahni said, catching his arms.

“Kahil! I wish you’d make more noise when you walk!”

“Sorry,” Jahni said again. “You’ve got your balance?” He still held Madari’s arms.

“Yes.” Jahni let go and Madari thought he heard a small sigh.

As Madari’s eyes adjusted he made out the shape of Jahni stepping back. The stars gave just enough light to see the shapes of Jahni and the car. The light caught a glint from its chrome trims here and there. Now he had his night vision, he moved away from the car, Jahni following him, onto the hard packed sand at the side of the road.

“Far enough,” he said after they walked a few yards. Didn’t dare go further. He had a tiny flashlight on his key ring, but it cast only enough light to allow him to find a keyhole in the dark. It wouldn’t help much if they got lost in the darkness. “Let’s sit. I don’t want to get a crick in the neck.”

He sat on the sand, leaning back, hands flat on the ground behind him, and began scanning the sky for a telltale streak of light.

“Don’t we need a telescope or anything?” Jahni said, dropping down to sit beside him.

“No, not for meteors. You need to see the whole sky. The naked eye is best.”

“I suppose you used to watch them with Ahmed?” Jahni said, with just a hint of teasing.

“No, with my father. Ahmed would be more interested in lecturing me about the uses of air power in warfare. My father just liked to see the shooting stars.”

They watched the sky in silence for a moment and Madari pointed suddenly. “There’s one! See it?”

“I see it,” Jahni said. “Does it explode or anything? Or smash to the ground in a huge fireball?”

Madari rolled his eyes, hearing the teasing again. “Was there somewhere in particular you were hoping it would smash into?”

“I can think of a few people’s houses I’d like to see it land on.”

They went quiet again, watching the sky, sometimes spotting a meteor streaking across, other times just watching the stars.

Madari glanced at Jahni, his eyes large and dark, gazing into at the sky, the planes of his face highlighted up in soft, silvery outlines. Did it remind him of those days and nights he wandered out here alone? Had he looked up at the sky then and felt small and frightened? Did he even remember, or had the memories vanished?

“I’d forgotten,” he said making Madari stare as Jahni seemed to answer his thoughts. Madari heard him move around and then Jahni’s fingers found his, entwined them. The sand sticking to his skin was gritty against Madari’s palm and fingers. “I’d forgotten how incredible the sky looks out here. I see it and am always surprised. Then I’m back in the city and forget again.”

“We should have a regular trip out here,” Madari said. His heart was beating fast at the touch of Jahni’s hand, the warmth of his fingers.

“We could bring a picnic.”

“Of course, you’d think of food.”

“Something hot, because I’ve forgotten just how damn cold it gets too!”

Madari laughed. “A picnic in the dark under the stars. It sounds…” He stopped. He knew how it sounded.

“Romantic.” Jahni finished the sentence. Silence for a second. Madari held his breath. “Sorry,” Jahni added.

“We should go back to the car,” Madari said. “It’s too cold to sit here.”

Had he defused the dangerous moment by not responding in any way to the word? It had been more difficult than ever in the months since their precious three weeks. So much for getting it out of their systems—it just seemed more deeply embedded now. Like a fever in the blood which sometimes lay quiet and sometimes flared up.

Memory had become the problem now. Before it had been curiosity—not knowing what it would be like between them. Now he knew how Jahni looked and sounded in that most intimate time. Far from satisfying his hunger, it increased it.

Despite the memories and the temptation to relive them, they had maintained their discipline. There’d been no more sex. But once or twice…

Three times now, because they walked back to the car holding hands, and the contact sent a surge of desire through Madari. In the darkness the temptation was to decide it didn’t count, wasn’t real and Madari couldn’t stop himself as they reached the car, suddenly pressing Jahni back against the side of it.

Their mouths found each other easily now, instinctively, always knowing with precision exactly where the other was. A hint of beard growth scraped Madari’s skin, rasped against his own. The scent of smoke clung to Jahni’s clothes and hair. Unusual for him, but the bride’s father had been generous with the cigars and the smoke had curled and drifted in a thick cloud over the heads of wedding guests.

Jahni made a small sound of protest, but it was perfunctory, insincere. He responded quickly, pulling Madari close against him, arms around his waist, hands pulling at his shirt, sliding under it to touch skin. His hands were cold, making Madari gasp.

Madari blamed the night sky. Too strong a reminder of the old days at the camp, when life was hard and yet simple. When they were first in love and it gave them so much pain. A pain they’d thought they’d exorcised, only to choose to take it back into themselves.

Chose to… Madari pulled back, snatching his hands away from the buttons of Jahni’s shirt.

“No!” He snapped the word at himself, not Jahni. Or perhaps at both of them. “No. I’m sorry. I lost control for a second. I won’t—”

“Forget it,” Jahni said in a forced casual tone, but his voice shook and he was breathing fast. “My fault.” He opened the car door and Madari raised a hand, dazzled by the interior light. The electric light broke the spell the darkness and the stars had cast on him.

Now he had to get back into the car with Jahni, whose eyes still cast their own spell. If they were in the city Madari might well decide to take a cab home now. Too afraid of his own weakness to get into the car with Jahni and sit so close to him. But he had no choice. Jahni turned away and got into the driver’s seat.

Madari took a deep breath, trying to bring himself under control. He still trembled with barely restrained passion. When he got into the passenger seat his hands fumbled as he fastened his seatbelt. But he needed the seatbelt. The strip of nylon reminded him of the restraint he needed to exercise. The fastener locked and he sighed with relief.

Jahni had watched him fasten the belt and at Madari’s questioning glance, pulled his own across his body and clicked the fastener smoothly into place.


Jahni spared a glance now and again at Madari, but mostly he kept his eyes fixed straight ahead on the road. They hadn’t spoken since they resumed their journey. The radio played quietly to break the uncomfortable silence.

A little music couldn’t break the tension though. They’d just come the closest so far to breaking their promise. It had lasted only seconds but they’d been so close to touching each other again. He’d had his hands on the bare skin of Madari’s back and desire had been building in him, a swirling ball of heat. If Madari hadn’t pulled back, then in a moment they’d have been on the back seat of the car—breaking their word.

So it was good that he had pulled back. They had the strength and discipline to go so far and yet still stop. They could wait. Until Saifullah’s death. When he’s dead they’d be free. Jahni reminded himself about the promise several time a day. It had become his mantra. When he’s dead. When he’s dead. When he’s—

Several loud bangs splintered his thoughts and the car hurtled forward, sparks pouring from the wheel rims.

What the fuck? All four tyres were gone!

Instinctively he hit the brakes, the steering wheel juddering under his hands. The car slewed around, Jahni trying to steer into the skid, realising he had no control. The wheel rims screamed as the car slid across the road before it careened off the tarmac. The screaming cut off, the wheels buried themselves in the sand and the car stopped. Heart racing, blood pounding in his ears, Jahni turned to Madari, saw his pale face furrowed in a deep scowl.

“Turn the engine off!” Madari snapped. He had his Browning out, his seatbelt off already. Jahni pulled the keys from the ignition, plunging them into total darkness as the headlights went off. He drew his own gun and felt the seatbelt slither away across his body, as Madari released it for him.

Movement and lights out there. Flashlights. Several men visible, seven, eight…how many more that he couldn’t see? Madari had told him to turn off the engine to give the two of them a chance to move unseen, but they had no more advantage than whoever was out there. And if the enemy had night vision goggles…

“Do we stay in the car or get out?” Jahni asked as he reached into the door pocket for the flashlight there, heard what sounded like Madari doing the same. The car offered some protection, a defensible position, but could easily become a trap too, since it couldn’t move now. If the enemy had grenades, or simply set the car alight, they’d die in here.

“Out is better,” Madari said. “Get past them into the darkness. In here, we’re sitting ducks.”

“They’re coming,” Jahni said, seeing flashlights moving closer.

“They’ll expect us to come out of the front doors.”

“Then I’ll take the sun roof and you take the hatchback.”

“Split up and get as far into the desert as you can,” Madari ordered. “Go!” It was a desperate plan, and Jahni especially disliked the part about splitting up, but what choice did they have but to try to get past the men and let the darkness swallow them?

No time to waste arguing about it, they moved. Madari clambered over the seats towards the hatchback door, Jahni surged up to burst out of the sunroof with a yell. He found targets fast, his pistol bucking in his hand three times before he was even fully out of the hatch. More shots came from behind him, Madari emerging from the hatchback and trying to clear a path through the men coming at him.

Yells and a couple of rifle shots came from the attackers, but the shots were into the air, the muzzle flashes in the darkness gave that away. Trying to scare them into surrender? Jahni had assumed this was an assassination attempt, but could he be wrong?

He scrambled down from the roof, slipping over the windscreen and bonnet and launched himself at a man close to the car. His screaming battle cry alone was enough to make the man flinch back even before Jahni hit him and they crashed onto the sand together. The man lost his flashlight, but hung onto his rifle, struggling and yelling as Jahni tried to wrest it from him.

A yell—Madari’s yell—from back at the car made Jahni’s heart freeze, because it wasn’t a battle cry. Oh god, was he shot? No way to know. Other men were coming at Jahni, dark shapes and bobbing lights. He punched the man underneath him hard in the jaw, then leapt up from the limp body, holding the rifle, raising it into position.

A sound, not a shot, a strange whoosh and something struck him, more like a dart, two darts, a stinging pain, but not a hard impact. Then something hit him. Not a thing, not a solid projectile or weapon, but a wave. His body jammed, as if every muscle had cramped at once, and pain, blunt pain, hammered at his back. The rifle fell to the ground, jerked from his hands.

Taser! Fucking Taser! Can’t breathe! His eyes were closed tight, and couldn’t open them for the world. The instant the paralysing wave ended he felt the crush of men around him, grabbing at him.

Too many, even for him. With control of his body back, he landed some good blows, felt blood splash on him, warm and sticky, heard cries of pain. But then a needle jabbed into his leg, and despite his effort to pull away from it, within a few seconds his head swam and nausea overwhelmed him. The sky wheeled over his head. The men’s hands on him seemed to become tighter, rougher, the night wind colder, the smells of the men, tobacco, garlic, coffee, unbearable strong.

His knees gave out and he slumped, would have fallen, but they held him up. His head dropped forward and the darkness swept into his mind.

He hit the hard metal floor of a truck with a jarring blow and opened his eyes again. Hands and feet tied with rope now. Head still spinning. Where was Faris?

Someone else hit the floor beside him, back to him, but he recognised Madari’s shirt. No blood on his back. Madari didn’t move. His hands and feet were tied too.

There were men all around, climbing into the truck, settling on benches along the walls, talking and laughing. Jahni recognised the same tones of relief and triumph in their voices as he heard in the voices of his own men when they completed a mission successfully.

And they’d completed this one successfully! Damn, had it been careless to come out here, just the two of them? But how could the enemy even know? They didn’t publish their social calendars in the newspapers! How could the enemy know they’d be travelling out to attend a village wedding?

The doors slammed. Someone shouted through to the driver’s cab and the truck moved. The lurching almost made Jahni sick and he closed his eyes, let the darkness enfold him again.

Jahni’s eyes opened. Still moving. How long had they driven? How far from where they started? Had their captors moved his car or left it there? It would be hard to move with the tyres shredded. Last time he’d left his car at the side of the road people thought he’d been abducted. Now he really had. Madari too. He could only hope he wasn’t now considered the boy who cried wolf.

No, the condition of the car would tell the authorities it was an ambush. Not too unlike ones he’d participated in himself back in the old days on their guerrilla missions. It seemed like yesterday, bending nails and welding them together to make caltrops to use to stop enemy vehicles. He shook away the nostalgia. No time. They weren’t dreaming of the old days under the night sky now, they were in deep shit here!

Focus! What about Madari? Was he okay? He didn’t appear to have moved from when they first dropped him to the floor. Was he hurt or just unconscious from the drugs? He was sensitive to sedative drugs of course, it didn’t take much to knock him out. Jahni, on the other hand, though weak and fuzzy-headed, found himself winning the battle to stay awake.

He should be doing something useful, he thought, like listening to their captors, for clues. Anything he could use later. So he lay quiet, eyes closed, listening, trying to keep from drifting back into unconsciousness. Almost failed, until he heard the name.


Jahni’s eyes opened. He knew these must be Saifullah’s men of course, but how close were they to him? Sent by him? Or a squad who’d taken advantage of a tipoff? The latter he decided after listening for a couple of minutes.

“Just wait until we make the call!” one man said in a triumphant voice. The others cheered.

“Will he come himself?” another voice asked.

“For these two?” The speaker kicked Jahni, who forced himself not to react. “Are you kidding? He’ll come. He’s sure to have something special planned for our very good friends of the Royal Guard.” More cheers and some laughter.

Jahni knew what he’d just heard should make his blood run cold. They were in the hands of a ruthless enemy, who’d stop at nothing to achieve his ends. Jahni should be preparing himself for inevitable suffering and death. But instead he wanted to join his captors in their cheering.

He’s coming. Saifullah himself is coming. Now Jahni had his chance. He could kill him. Kill Saifullah and they would be free. There was the small matter of somehow surviving in order to enjoy the freedom, but he’d figure something out. He wished Madari were conscious so he could share in the good news.

A second later Jahni berated himself for overconfidence and tried to cool down, start making plans, not dreaming up fantasies. But still, for a man lying bound and drugged on the floor of a truck, he felt damn good.

He’d heard a saying before and only now fully appreciated it. Every crisis is an opportunity.

Chapter 2

Madari woke with every muscle aching and his head pounding. He groaned and turned over on what proved to be a hard, cold floor and not his own bed. Flashes of earlier came back to him, but in a jumble.


Movement, a mere blur in the darkness and someone who smelled of cigar smoke came to his side. Jahni, still carrying traces of the party with him.

“I’m here.” He helped Madari sit up, clumsy in the darkness, feeling their way around each other, something Madari might have enjoyed in other circumstances. But a wave of nausea almost knocked him back to the floor and he lay in Jahni’s arms, supported against his chest, miserable as his head spun sickeningly.

“Are you okay?” Jahni asked quietly.

“Sick. Feel sick.”

“They drugged us. First they hit us with Tasers, then they drugged us.”

The Taser explained why his muscles ached so much. Clearer memories came back now, his body frozen, out of his control, frightening him.

“Are you hurt?” Madari asked.

“No, I’m fit to fight. You? I’ve checked you over for breaks, but I’m working in the dark here.”

Madari didn’t feel fit to fight, he felt nauseated, thirsty, weak and aching, but he didn’t think anything was broken. He’d be fit soon—if he got something to drink.

“Is there water?” He moved a little, staying in Jahni’s arms, but not leaning against his chest.


Madari sighed, but pulled himself together as the nausea receded slightly letting him think more clearly.

“Report on our situation.”

“They brought us here in a truck. I don’t know how long we drove for, I was in and out of consciousness. When we arrived we stopped, there was some talk outside the truck, then we drove a short distance again, so I think we came through a gate. I pretended to be still unconscious when they carried us in here. But I’ve counted at least twenty men. We’re in a stone room, with some small windows too high to reach, too small to get out off. It’s still dark outside, but dawn’s coming.”

Madari could see the windows now, as patches of grey light, that floated in a ghostly fashion at a height he couldn’t gauge. Far from helping him feel better by giving him something to focus on they just swam in his vision, making him dizzy again.

“Anything else?”

“Oh yes. I don’t suppose it’s exactly a shock to you that these are Saifullah’s men?”

“Damn,” Madari said, drily. “I’d been hoping they were just very persistent life insurance salesmen.”

Jahni snorted. “Like either of us could get life insurance. But the best part is, he’s coming here. I heard them discussing how they were going to call him.”

A thrill of anticipation shot through Madari. His dizziness almost forgotten he sat up straight, Jahni letting him go. He reached out and put a hand on Jahni’s shoulder, both for support and just to orient himself in the darkness.

“That is good news. What plans have you made so far to kill him?”

The absurdity of it struck him as soon as he asked the question. They were in a cell, unarmed, outnumbered and at the mercy of people who hated them and wanted them dead. And yet his blood sang the way it did during a charge into battle.

“If they’re stupid enough to let him near me with my hands untied I can snap his neck in two seconds. Of course, they’d shoot me dead right after.” Jahni sighed. “It’s not that I’m afraid to die if I get to take that bastard with me, but…”

Madari knew the rest without the words. Jahni wanted to kill Saifullah so this war could be over and they could be free. But to be free he would have to kill him and survive. That may not be possible.

“He has to die. For the good of the country. For Sophia.”

Jahni didn’t speak for a long moment. “Yes,” he said eventually. “He has to die. Whatever it costs us.”

“But don’t act hastily,” Madari said, squeezing Jahni’s shoulder. “We could have the chance to do it and escape. And I have faith in the unit. They’ll find us if we don’t escape first.”

“Of course. Yes, I’ll… bide my time. Whatever they have planned, it’s obviously not just killing us, they could have done that on the road. So we should play it by ear, see what they want and how we can use that.”

“Very good. Yes. What actually happened on the road? I still feel hazy, it’s a blur.”

“You didn’t hit your head at all, did you?” Jahni asked in a worried voice.

“I don’t think so.” But he submitted to Jahni’s hand finding its way up his arm and then onto his head.

“I checked your skull earlier, but tell me if you feel any tenderness.”

Madari smiled as Jahni’s fingers moved gently through his hair. Oh yes, my love, much tenderness. Though quite sure he had no head injury he let Jahni work systematically over his head, stroking through his hair, leaving Madari’s skin tingling with the touch. His face felt hot and he blessed the darkness that hid his blushes.

“Okay,” Jahni said when he finished his examination. “No bumps except old ones. It’s probably just the drugs. Okay, the ambush. It started when all the tyres burst. Not quite at once. Thinking back I’m sure the front two went first and the back a second later. So I’m betting we hit a stinger.”

“A stinger? Like the police use? Where would they get hold of one of those?”

“The same place they got the Tasers, I’d think.”

“If they have men in the Army, they’ll have them in the police.” Madari sighed.

“Or they could have improvised one. Easy enough. A rubber strip, some nails. I could make one in fifteen minutes.”

“How did they know we were coming?”

“My guess is that someone who knew we’d be at the party betrayed us. That bastard’s supporters are everywhere. And I don’t think they just called tonight. This wasn’t an off the cuff operation. It was well planned.”

“But if it was planned, then why wasn’t Saifullah already here waiting for us?”

“Maybe they decided not to tell him until they’d pulled it off. Or he didn’t think they could pull it off and said call me if you actually succeed. Who knows? I suppose he’s a busy man.”

“I’m sure,” Madari said, bitterly. “Do you have any idea when he’ll arrive?” He shook his head. “No, how can you? Never mind. We will, as you said, play it by ear.” He rubbed a hand over his gritty-feeling eyes. The drugs had left him not only nauseated, but exhausted, no real rest in the forced sleep. Should they rest now, waiting for their chance? Should one of them stay on watch? “Have you been awake long? Do you want to sleep while I stay on guard?”

“You rest,” Jahni said. “You know what you’re like with sedatives. You’ll need to get them out of your system.”

He wanted to protest, but Jahni helped him find his way over to the wall and they settled there, Madari lying with his back along the wall. Jahni sat beside him, one hand resting in his shoulder.

“Wake me in an hour to take the watch,” Madari ordered.

“Right,” Jahni said, which Madari knew for sure was a lie. He was too weary to protest though and closed his eyes. One of his hands found Jahni’s on his shoulder, rested over it, the warmth of his skin enough of a comfort to help him sleep even in this cold place where they might well die.


“Bring them out.”

Madari woke as light poured into the cell when the door banged open. He sat up, shielding his eyes from the glare. Jahni did the same and started scrambling to his feet.

“They’re untied!” a man shouted, with an edge of panic in his voice.

For the first time, Madari noticed the raw skin of his wrists. It had just been one more pain among the rest before. Now he could see why it hurt. Rope burns. They must have been dumped in the cell still tied up and Jahni had got them both untied.

Men piled into the cell to overpower them. “Get the ropes! Tie their hands!” one man ordered. Jahni resisted, Madari doing the same, but knew it was at least partly for show. Neither were in a hurry to leave before they met their host.

With enough men to quell their struggles, they were wrestled to the floor and their hands tied behind their backs again, before they were hauled roughly to their feet and dragged along. Slaps and punches encouraged them to move and wary men on the edge of the group covered them with rifles.

His eyes no longer dazzled, Madari tried to take in his surroundings. A house, he thought, a large one. Once a home, but now stripped of domestic comforts, the floors bare or with rush matting on them, sparse, basic furniture. They passed an open door and he glanced through to see a large room filled with cots in two neat rows against the wall.

Neat rows. The house was stripped of its former luxuries, but still clean, the stone floors swept, the walls clean, none of the smells that came from rotten food, unwashed men, or bad sanitation. Disciplined. Like his own prison camp base all those years ago. Guerrillas with discipline.

They reached a large room, with arches all down one side, open to a courtyard that had a fountain in the centre. It wasn’t running but even so, it reminded him of how thirsty he was. He wouldn’t give these men the satisfaction of asking them for water though. They knew how long it was since the prisoners had been given water.

His guards shoved him to his knees on the floor. A second later, Jahni dropped to his side. They caught each other’s eyes, a quick check and a nod.

Jahni glanced past Madari and Madari saw his eyes widen, stare. He followed the gaze and saw a man rising from where he’d been sitting at a table, a book in front of him. Madari knew him at once.

Basit al-Shehade. The man who called himself Saifullah. The Sword of God.

The man responsible for Sophia’s death. For killing Greta Holstein as she protected Sophia. For killing the defence chiefs. For murdering Sami. For almost killing the King. For attempting to kill Madari and Jahni several times.

“Hello, Colonel. Major,” Saifullah said, in the mild, well-educated voice Madari remembered from the video interview. “I’m gratified to meet you both at last.”

If Madari’s hands had been free he’d have leapt at the man and ripped his heart out. As it was he wondered if he could manage to rip out Saifullah’s throat with his teeth, like a wolf. Of course he’d die a second later, but it would be worth it.

The hatred that seared through him frightening him. Not only rage for the people this man had ordered killed, but the burden it gave him and Jahni. This man denied them their freedom. He made them prisoners of their uniforms.

For all the years of pain and frustration, Madari would take revenge even if it meant instant death. Even if it meant damnation. Forget biding their time. His adrenaline surged, he felt himself coming up off the floor, about to aim himself at Saifullah, strike at him like a hawk.

In five seconds he might be dead. Find me in Paradise, Kahil. Or find me in hell.

A rifle butt slammed into his shoulder, knocking him back down again, making him cry out and slump forward, dizzy from the blow and the pain. Jahni swore and struggled at his side. His voice was cracked, as Madari’s was, both with dry and burning throats.

“Give them some water,” Saifullah said, perhaps hearing their thirst in their cracked voices. “I’m sure I said they were to be properly treated until I arrived.” A hint of steel in the voice. A man who expected his orders obeyed, but not one who lost his temper and ranted about it if they weren’t. A man who had to have ways of punishing those who didn’t obey so he would never have to raise his voice.

The edge in the voice made the water come very quickly, in plastic water bottles. Madari gulped his down fast, fearing choking, but fearing even more that they’d take it away before he got all he needed.

“Enough,” Saifullah said and the water bottles were pulled away, leaving both of them gasping and coughing from drinking too fast.

Madari straightened himself up, determined to retain his dignity. The water they’d spilled made his shirt feel heavy, sticking to his chest. Jahni pulled himself together too and they exchanged another checking glance. Not too long, don’t allow the enemy to see it, gain an advantage from it. Though he feared it was too late to worry about that. Their friendship was well known.

“Are you recovered?” Saifullah asked, but he didn’t seem to expect an answer. He glanced at a man, who hurried to the corner of the room and brought over a large floor cushion. Saifullah made himself comfortable on it, close to Madari and Jahni, but not close enough to attack, even supposing either of them could break away from the guards.

“I was wondering what you thought of this base,” Saifullah said, waving a hand to indicate the room. “If you gave it an inspection I hope you’d find not unfamiliar.”

Madari frowned, looking around. “I don’t know what you mean. I don’t recognise this house.”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t clear. I simply meant that you might find it resembled your old base during the campaign against the Soviet backed regime.”

The words startled Madari as he’d thought the same only moments ago. The house was no surprise though. They knew from the efficient and neatly kept training camps they’d captured in the mountains that Saifullah’s guerrillas were a disciplined force.

“You see, your work during the resistance campaign has been a great influence on me. I even managed to get hold of copies of the reports you wrote then.”

“They’re lodged at the defence ministry,” Jahni said. “How could you get hold of them?”

“Those details are no use to you now.”

He had sympathisers in the Army. Everywhere. They must have allowed him access to Madari’s reports from the camps. People used to smile to see him writing those. Guerrilla warlords don’t write reports. But officers of the Royal Guard do.

“The reports were very useful,” Saifullah said. “I have to say I learned an enormous amount from them about commanding irregulars and turning civilians into soldiers.”

“Bullshit!” Jahni snapped. “Your men are terrorists, not soldiers.”

“That’s a matter of perspective isn’t it, Major?”

“No, it isn’t! It’s a matter of fact! Soldiers don’t pack a car with explosives and explode it in a crowd of innocent civilians.”

“But a soldier might launch a shell or a missile that kills civilians. How is that so different? Colonel?” He turned to Madari. “Do you have an answer?”

“Do you believe I’m interested in bandying words with the man who ordered the death of my wife?” Unlike Jahni’s explosive, angry tone, these words came out in a low, cold voice. A voice as black as the rage that still filled Madari’s body, still begging for release.

“That foreign, infidel woman was not your wife. You never had a Muslim marriage ceremony with her. You should thank me. The longer you had lived with her in sin the longer you would have spent in hell for it.”

“She was my wife.” Madari’s voice stayed calm. He wouldn’t be provoked by the words. He and Sophia were legally married. Religion had nothing to do with it. She was his wife and this man had her killed. Honour demanded retribution.

“You vicious bastard!” Jahni yelled. “She was an innocent civilian! So was her bodyguard! So were the innocent bystanders who died with them! You’re the one who will go to hell and burn!”

“Major Jahni, how interesting to hear you forecast my damnation when you are no more a Muslim than she was. When you are worse. An apostate. A hypocrite.”

How did he know this? Jahni had been more discreet lately about his lack of faith, Madari had noticed, whether because he’d gained the maturity to see the value of such discretion, or was more conscious of his social position as he rose in the ranks. Still, anyone who observed him for even a few days would see his lack of practice.

“You know nothing about me,” Jahni snarled.

“I’m quite sure I know more about you than you do about me, my old university fellow.”

“I never met you then.”

“I know. I don’t recall ever meeting you. I knew many of your sort though. The ones who spent their time and their father’s money on drinking, gambling and whoring.”

“Major, don’t,” Madari said, when Jahni opened his mouth to reply. “Don’t waste your time speaking to this man. He wants your reactions. He wants your anger. Don’t give him anything he wants.”

Jahni subsided, resting back on his heels, glaring, but not speaking.

“Very wise, Colonel. And you’re right. I didn’t come here to, what did you call it, bandy words? I’m here on business.”

“I suppose you think you can force us to give you information.” Madari’s chest tightened at the thought, but he kept his face and voice defiant.

“No. There’s no point in wasting time on that. My information sources are excellent. I doubt there are many secrets you can tell me I can’t find out by making a telephone call.” He glanced between the two of them. “Perhaps only personal secrets rather than state ones.”

Madari tensed, thought he saw Jahni do the same. What could Saifullah know about them? Only the rumours surely and those were hardly state secrets. But the rumours had almost died out. His marriage had seen to that. Saifullah couldn’t know anything else. If their enemies knew about those three weeks they’d have exposed it and disgraced them already.

“Do you think about the power of television, Colonel?” Saifullah asked, leaning forward, temptingly close, so close that Jahni tensed, coiled, ready to spring. “I’m sure you remember my taped interview when I showed my face for the first time to the people.”

Madari could hardly forget it. He must have seen the tape a thousand times.

“And your own television appearance, after your men murdered my soldiers on that plane made quite an impression I recall.”

“If you mean the night my men foiled a hijacking and saved innocent people from your killers, then yes, I remember.”

“And again, we come back to the question of perspective. All that controversy in the Sunrise about your shoot to kill policy.” He smiled. “And you’re quite right to have one. We do. I’d respect you more if you admitted to it, frankly.”

“Really?” Madari said. “Well, why don’t you release us and I’ll go back to my office and put it in writing in the standing orders immediately?”

Saifullah laughed and Madari bit his lip. No, dammit, no bandying words!

“I thought you said you were here to do business,” he said.

“Quite right,” Saifullah said, nodding becoming serious again. “Television. Video tapes. As I said, my own made quite an impression. So much so that I want to make another. But this time, I won’t be the star. You two will.”

Jahni snorted, “You must be mad. You think you can force us to confess to some made up shit on tape? You’re a fool.”

“That’s exactly what I think, Major. Oh, I’m quite sure it won’t be easy to persuade you. But we will in the end. The Colonel knows that, doesn’t he? That everyone breaks in the end.”

Madari couldn’t answer and even dropped his gaze from Saifullah’s. His stomach felt packed with ice chips. He could face death, or general ill-treatment at the hands of these men without begging for mercy. But torture?

“You have that wrong,” Jahni said. “Everyone breaks in the end at the hands of a professional.” He swept a contemptuous glance at the men in the room. “I don’t see one here.”

“We’ll see, Major. We’ll see. What I want you to say on this video recording is to denounce the regime of the king as corrupt. To confess the crimes you’ve committed under the cloak of ‘duty’. To confess to your personal sins.”

“And what would those be?” Jahni asked, still sneering.

“Sexual deviance, of course. A man would have to be a fool to be unaware of the stories told about you two. Confirm them.”

“Fuck you.”

Madari smiled at the words, hearing the defiance in them, Jahni’s courage bolstered his own, which he knew was faltering. Torture. He couldn’t stand it again, could he? It drove him almost insane before. It would send him all the way to madness this time.

He’d always been determined he’d die rather than be tortured again, had even made preparations should it come to that. Now he had nothing. Damn, how could be have been so stupid? He should have carried a suicide capsule. Not only to spare himself the suffering, but because he had so much valuable information.

But so did Jahni. Did he want Jahni to carry a cyanide pill? The thought chilled him. But the thought of Jahni suffering torture too, experiencing at first hand the horror he’d helped Madari to recover from, froze him to the bone.

“And you, Colonel?” Saifullah said. “What do you say to my proposal? You know exactly what you face if you refuse, don’t you?” He paused, smiling, waiting, perhaps thinking Madari would agree without anyone touching him. Perhaps thinking the KGB had already done the work for him.

He thought wrong. Madari straightened his back, glared back at Saifullah and echoed Jahni’s words.

“Fuck you.”

Saifullah frowned and waved an impatient hand. “Take them back to the cell. Give them food and water. Be sensible, gentlemen. Spare yourselves inevitable suffering.”

They were dragged away back to the cell, their hands untied and given some bread and water, with paper cups for the water and no plates for the bread. The door clanged shut leaving them in the dark again.

Madari gasped as Jahni touched his hand in the dark and urged him to move, his words muffled, as if he carried his lump of bread in his mouth to free a hand. They found their way to the wall and sat down against it. Both hungry and thirsty, they ate and drank before speaking, needing to regain some strength.

“So…” Jahni said when he’d finished chewing the dense, coarse bread. Madari was still eating his own. He used that as an excuse not to answer Jahni’s vague conversational gambit. “So,” Jahni said again. “I suppose at least this buys us some time.”

Madari smiled. “You can even look on the bright side of being tortured. I am impressed.”

“Don’t joke about it!” Jahni snapped, sobering Madari at once. “You think this will be easy for me?”

“Of course not. But you are so strong, Kahil. And you’ve had resistance training. You’re right, this does buy us time, because I know you will hold out.”

Jahni didn’t answer straight away. When he did it was almost in a whisper. “I meant it won’t be easy for me to see you tortured in front of me. If that’s what they do then I don’t think I could hold out. I’d confess anything to keep them from hurting you.”

“Kahil, you must hold out. We must buy time. The Army will be looking for us by now. They’ll find us. We must hold out until that happens.”

“Or until we get a chance to kill him.”

To Madari this idea seemed more like a mad fantasy with every moment. “The best chance of that happening will be in a raid by the Special Forces unit. We have to keep Saifullah here until they arrive.”

“Does it even matter if we make his damn video?”

“What?” Jahni couldn’t see him, but Madari stared in his direction anyway. “Denounce the King? Confess to being lovers? Are you mad?”

“But nobody would believe anything we said! Everyone will know we’ve been coerced.”

“Some people will believe it, despite the coercion. And even if they don’t, it still works for Saifullah, because it frightens people. You’re the commander of a Special Forces unit, trained to resist torture. You’re one of the toughest men in the country. To break you would be a propaganda coup for them, whatever people believed about what you say.”

“I didn’t look at it that way.” Jahni sighed. “He wins either way.”

“Not if we hold out long enough for rescue or…”

“Or what?”

“They’ll run out of patience eventually if we hold out long enough.”

“And then?”

He must know the answer. Madari replied anyway. “They’ll kill us.”

“On video.”

“Most likely.”

Jahni was silent for a moment. Madari found his hand in the darkness, and the touch was like an exchange. A promise to give each other strength as their fingers entwined.

“If rescue doesn’t come in time, they’ll kill us in the end anyway,” Jahni said. “Better to die with honour intact I suppose.”


Jahni went silent. After a moment, he shuffled slightly closer to Madari. “They might come through the door at any moment to drag us out and start on us.”

“Yes, they might.”

“Before they do…” His voice dropped to barely audible. “Can I kiss you?”

Kiss him goodbye did he mean? If they weren’t rescued and didn’t escape then this might indeed be the last chance.

Madari’s answer was a kiss. Instinctively finding his lover’s mouth in the darkness. Fitting together naturally. Always knowing where he was. If Saifullah could video them now he’d have all the propaganda he needed. But they were alone, in the darkness and might be saying goodbye.

Chapter 3

They had hours alone to think about it. A smart tactic, Jahni thought. Anticipation is part of the softening up process. As the hours passed the tiny windows, which turned out to actually be vents, grew bright with sunlight, beams of it piercing the room, a few dust motes dancing in it. Not enough to fully illuminate nor warm the room, it remained dim and a chill clung to the stone walls and floor.

Jahni even slept. He saw Madari staring at him when he woke, as if amazed a man about to be tortured could lay his head down and sleep. But as much as his mind wanted to turn around and around like a dog chasing its tail, his body was exhausted.

Madari didn’t have time to ask him the obvious question, “how can you sleep at a time like this?” because it was voices outside the door which woke Jahni and a second later, the door opened. He scrambled up, old instincts making him stand in front of Madari and push him back towards a corner. Protect the commander

But now a horror loomed he couldn’t protect Madari from the way he once had. It would be even worse now. Not only his commander and friend, but his lover. How could he stand to see the man who meant all those things to him tortured? He dropped into a fighting stance as they approached.

One lunged at him suddenly, using a Taser again. Not from a distance this time, but rather rammed into his gut, throwing him backwards and to the ground. The stunning waves went on as men loomed around him, and he heard Madari yelling as more of them went after him.

Too many men. Even when the Taser turned off, freeing his body, he could do no more than struggle in their grip as they dragged him up and out of the room.

A different room than the last one they’d been brought to. No mats on the floor. Tall windows with blinds not only drawn but taped around the edges so not a chink of light showed. Four bare light bulbs shone from an elaborate but unshaded light fitting over their heads. They were strong, making a bright glare and deep, black shadows.

Saifullah waited there for them.

“Be careful,” he said as his men wrestled Madari and Jahni into a pair of straight-backed chairs. “Don’t mark their faces.”

Jahni knew that wasn’t for any kind of consideration for their looks. If they agreed to make the video and looked battered, not only did it make the coercion obvious, it might evoke pity and anger in those viewing it.

No, Saifullah would want them looking their best for their video debut, which made Jahni want to head butt the nearest man’s fist to give himself a black eye. Anything to make it harder for the enemy. But nobody came close enough. Once he was secured they all moved back and Jahni looked around the room they’d turned into a torture chamber.

It hardly compared to the elaborate laboratory of pain he’d seen in Sevchenko’s basement in Albania. The two chairs faced each other, a few metres apart, and to the side between them stood a small trolley, which held an improvised electro shock machine, powered by car batteries. A bundle of long wires trailed from the machine, ending in electrodes. Jahni sneered at the amateur setup, hiding his fear.

More men had finished securing Madari in his chair in the same way as Jahni, hands cuffed behind him, legs chained to the chair legs and a strap tight around the chest. Madari seemed calm, calmer than Jahni. He didn’t struggle, saving his strength perhaps, knowing there was no point in fighting. Though he met Jahni’s eyes, he didn’t… connect. Jahni couldn’t think how else to say it. His eyes has a faraway expression. He looked through Jahni, not at him.

Could Jahni do the same? Not see the man he loved over there? See him hurt and not feel what he would if he let himself recognise Madari? His commander. Friend. Lover.

No, he couldn’t. He wrestled with his bonds when they simply dumped a bucket of cold water over Madari and barely noticed when they did the same to him. When men began to attach electrodes to Madari, Jahni thought he would start to rave like a lunatic.

Me first! Do it to me! He wanted to scream. The guilt would destroy him if they made him watch before they did it to him first. He didn’t have the strength for this. Once he might have, but not now. The man who’d run away into the desert didn’t have the strength to face this.

Do it to me! He could stand that. The pain would take him to another world anyway. A world with no room for anything else to fit. Where he couldn’t see or hear anything else.

He half got his wish. They attached electrodes to Jahni too, tearing his shirt to secure them to his chest.

Now would be the time to employ what he’d been taught about resisting interrogation, Jahni thought. But having Madari there made it harder. He’d learned ways to take himself elsewhere, distance himself from the pain. But with Madari sitting right there, his lean face pale in the glare, water dripping from his hair and that absent look in his eyes, it became close to impossible. Madari held him here in reality.

In his worst nightmare.

Saifullah stood between the two chairs, arms folded, hands inside the sleeves of the opposite arm, as if cold. It was cold, Jahni felt it more now with cold water on his skin, his clothes wet and sticking to him.

“This is your last chance to change your minds,” Saifullah said. “There’s no need for you to go through this.”

Neither answered. For a moment, Madari’s eyes changed. He was here again. Connected with Jahni. Jahni almost wished he was not. Let him be elsewhere, so he can’t be hurt. But he was here and he spoke.

“Kahil, you are the strongest man I know.”

Saifullah’s voice, quietly cutting between them. “Proceed.”


A bucket of water to the face woke Jahni, gasping. Were they keeping the water on ice somewhere? It was always well chilled. He’d had several buckets so far, when the pain knocked him out. At this rate they’d drown him long before they got around to shooting him.

How many buckets? How long? How many times had he passed out? Not as many as Madari. Every jolt Madari took, he passed out from. Jahni suspected it was deliberate. As if he could will himself to faint. Perhaps he held his breath. He hadn’t screamed as much as Jahni, who screamed when the electricity hit him and in-between ranted and snarled like a rabid dog.

Those in-between times frightened him. He felt so beyond control. Snarling like a dog. Like a wolf. If he got free he would tear his tormentors apart with bare hands and teeth. Feast on their hearts. Paint his skin with their blood. Scatter their body parts into the desert for the vultures and insects to feed on.

He tasted blood in his mouth and knew it was his own, from biting his tongue, but enjoyed the taste anyway. Wanted more. Like a vampire. Like a beast.

Bloodthirsty. He understood the word at last. People had called him bloodthirsty before, when really they only meant aggressive. This was something else. The pain brought out an animal side of him, buried deep from the days before fire and words.

The shocks were almost random. Sometimes the jolt would hit Jahni, sometimes Madari, sometimes both at once. Sometimes no shock came at all after the man at the machine pulled the switch and he’d smirk at them, as if he’d just pulled a good trick.

A respite. They were trying to revive Madari, who still slumped in his chair even after they threw more water on him. A man raised a hand as if to slap him, and Jahni’s snarl almost downed the word from Saifullah.


No, don’t mark them. Must look fit and well when they confess their crimes and sins. How tempted Jahni had been so many times now. How many schemes had he come up with? Like agree to make the video, then somehow—he needed to decide exactly how—destroy it before they could broadcast it.

How would it feel, to confess in front of these men that he and Madari had been lovers? Would he feel shame? No. Part of him wanted to yell it from the roof. I made love to him. We shared our bodies. We fucked. It frustrated him beyond measure to keep it secret.

But he wouldn’t have the secret forced from him. Criminals and sinners confessed. The world made him a criminal and a sinner, but he refused to think if himself as either. One day, one day he would not confess, he would declare himself.

Or possibly not, since he stood a very good chance of dying within a few hours.

They still couldn’t bring Madari around and Jahni’s stomach began to knot itself into a sick and tight ball. What had they done to him? Could electric shocks cause brain damage? A stroke maybe? These idiots might have the voltage too high.

A young man stepped forward, and held up a syringe.

“No!” Jahni’s hard and clear yell actually startled some of the men, including Saifullah, who whipped around, frowning at him. “He has unpredictable reactions to drugs,” Jahni said, marvelling at how he had become sane again so quickly, hearing his rational words. But hearing the plea in them too and knowing it was a mistake. “You might kill him!” As if they weren’t planning on putting a bullet in his head later anyway.

Still, right now, Madari was no good to them dead. He couldn’t make a video dead and they couldn’t use him to pressure Jahni if he’d gone beyond the reach of their torments. Saifullah was clever enough to appreciate that. He held up his hand and said something to the man with the needle, who stayed beside Madari but didn’t inject him yet.

Saifullah came over to Jahni and bent down close to him, spoke quietly.

“You’re right, Kahil. It’s a risk. We could reduce the dose, but even then, drugs are so unpredictable. Especially after all he’s been through. He might die.”

Jahni didn’t reply, though he thought his heart might burst right out of his chest, it pounded so hard, felt so big as if it filled all the space in there, squeezed out his lungs, so he couldn’t breathe.

“You know how you can stop us from giving him the drug, Kahil,” Saifullah said. “Protect him, as you always have. End this now and he’ll be safe.”

“Safe? When you’ve had what you want from us, you’ll kill us.”

Saifullah shrugged. “Maybe. You don’t know that. I may have other plans for you. You’re valuable bargaining chips. Would you see him die here from an accidental overdose? Or take the chance that you may both live for some time yet?”

“Death before dishonour,” Jahni whispered. The words sounded foolish, old-fashioned and inspiring all at once. Saifullah couldn’t understand. He sent men out to die a dishonourable suicide’s death attacking innocent people. He knew nothing of honour, whatever he thought of the glory of his deluded pawns.

“A shame you worship a man instead of God,” Saifullah said. “I’d have liked to have you on my side.”

“Go to hell.” Even if he still had his faith he couldn’t imagine himself becoming a follower of this man who didn’t attract the merely faithful, but the fanatical.

Saifullah waved his hand in a signal and Jahni held his breath as the young man with the needle stuck it into Madari’s arm and depressed the plunger. Held his breath. Waited. For what? Convulsions perhaps? But Madari merely jerked in his chair and then his head came up off his chest, eyes wide, face flushing.

A stimulant of some kind, Jahni supposed. To keep him awake and perhaps even make him feel the pain more. The thought made him groan.

Confess now. Don’t watch him go through any more. Don’t feel another jolt yourself. This is madness. Nobody would believe a word they said in any forced confession. Madness to resist and go through this. The window blinds were dark now, the daylight gone. How deep into the night was it? How long had he held out so far?

A jolt of electricity came out of nowhere then, too busy with his thoughts to see Saifullah had signalled his torturer to resume his work. Catching him off guard, he screamed louder than he had so far and heard Madari call his name, his voice agonised. Be strong, for him. Don’t let him see how bad it is.

Hadn’t he done enough? Both of them? Hadn’t they earned a moment of weakness? Was it so dishonourable to read out a forced confession? He was only a man. He couldn’t suffer forever without breaking.

Everyone broke in the end. Faris broke in the end. Gave up his friends.

And suffers shame to this day. And it took them days and they had to mutilate his hands to do it. Not even a whole day and night had gone by yet. Madari hadn’t broken. Jahni would not. He would not. He would not!


It took the KGB three days to break him last time and Saifullah’s men didn’t have that much time. Madari sensed their frustration and nervousness growing as the hours passed and still he and Jahni refused to make their video.

Since they gave him a stimulant of some kind he’d been wide awake, unable to find refuge in oblivion as he had been doing so frequently. He didn’t even know how he’d been doing that. Suspected it wasn’t voluntary, but rather his mind rebelling at the situation and knocking him out to save him from it. But now he was forced to stay awake, feel his own pain, see Kahil—his love, his soul—thrash and scream in his chair.

So proud of him though. He had the strength not only to resist his own pain, but Madari’s. Hadn’t given in and let them use Madari against him. It would shame them both if Jahni gave in to spare Madari the pain, or vice versa. Better death than that. Die together at least.

And now it seemed they would indeed die together. Saifullah told his torturer to step away from their improvised device. They’d had to change the batteries a couple of times and Madari took an irrational pride in that.

We took all you could give us and ate it!

Saifullah turned to Madari. “The only reward for your stubbornness is a swifter death. Sending the press a video of your execution is not my first choice, but it will serve as Plan B. You’ll be shot at dawn.”

“Dawn?” Jahni said, his voice a hoarse and painful rasp. “Perhaps making films is what you should stick with. You’ve got a sense of drama.”

Saifullah didn’t look back at Jahni, but his mouth compressed into a hard line and his face worked for a moment. He expected to be dealing with broken men by now, Madari thought. He underestimated us. Or overestimated himself.

“Leave them here,” Saifullah said and took most of the men out of the room with him. Two stayed on guard by the open door and one of them turned off the light. Madari almost smiled at that, remembering their own rationing of their electricity back at the camp. Another tip Saifullah had undoubtedly picked up from Madari’s reports.

“Are you okay?” Jahni asked, voice still hoarse and barely above a whisper.

“Aside from the torture you mean?”

The weird spluttering sound Jahni gave might have been laughter. Madari smiled at him. The smile hurt, all his muscles exhausted and cramping from the shocks, but he wanted Jahni to see it. I’m okay. Alive, sane, whole. Still strong.

“I’m proud of you, Kahil. Never forget that.”

He wanted to say more. I love you. You’re the finest man I know. The most beautiful. So much to say to him and he couldn’t, because of those men standing at the door.

Outside the door more men moved around, walked past carrying a video camera. Would they take it outside? Would they shoot Madari and Jahni up against a wall, with a firing squad? As officers, they were entitled to that. Or would they be forced to their knees and each get a bullet in the back of the head? Strange to sit here and hope for a firing squad.

He doubted he’d get it. Saifullah was an educated man, he’d be aware they could appear noble and brave that way. He wouldn’t allow it. He’d shoot them on their knees.

When he looked up at the still-dark window blind, Jahni must have guessed his thoughts.

“How long until dawn?”

Madari shrugged. No way to tell.

“Long enough to pray.”

He prayed, and then like Jahni earlier in their cell, Madari slept. He didn’t want to sleep. If he was to die soon he wanted to spend his final hours looking at Jahni. Even if they couldn’t say the things they wanted to say to each other, he could say them in his mind, hope what he thought showed in his eyes.

But exhaustion made it impossible to do anything but sleep. He dreamed of Jahni. Of good times. Fighting together, laughing together, loving each other. Now they’d die together. It was at least a consolation, to be together. He hoped the fatal shots would be simultaneous. A last mercy.

“Faris, wake up!”

Jahni’s voice and other voices, shouts, brought him from an uneasy, restless sleep, yet reluctant to leave a dream where he lay with Jahni in his arms, skin naked and warm against each other. No sound but the rain on the windows.

“Wake up!” Jahni said again, louder and Madari lifted his head, snapped open his eyes when gunfire rattled somewhere away in another part of the house. He found he could barely see. The door was closed and the lights still off. Two voices spoke rapidly. The guards, concealed inside the room now. The gunfire went on. Rescue? Was this rescue?

“Faris, wake up!”

Jahni couldn’t see him, he remembered.

“I’m awake.”

A voice in the dark, one of the guards snapped at him to shut up. Should he obey? Or should he yell to bring the rescuers to this room. If he did would the guards shoot him on the spot to silence him? That would be a tactical error—he and Jahni were valuable hostages the two men could use to bargain their way out of this room alive. But would they think rationally now?

Shouts and yells close outside the door now and Jahni’s voice rang out, a louder yell than Madari could manage, his throat raw and aching from screaming. The yell must have hurt Jahni, his throat could be in no better shape, but his shout was like a grenade exploding.

“We’re in here! Two armed guards!”

Those armed guards yelled and pistols fired several shots. The muzzle flashes and the sparks as the bullets ricocheted on the walls painted white streaks across Madari’s vision. He flinched down on instinct, but his bonds restrained him. He cried out Jahni’s name, fearing he’d been shot.

“I’m okay,” Jahni said, voice normal, if hoarser than usual. The shots had gone wild in the dark, striking walls, floor. A smashing sound might have been one hitting the infernal torture machine.

The gunshots brought whoever was out there to them even faster than they might have come just from Jahni’s shout. The door burst open, bringing no light, and no men, but Madari heard something rattle along the floor and closed his eyes tightly. Flashbang? Teargas? Smoke? He wished his hands were free to cover his ears if it was a flashbang. A hissing sound told him it was tear gas and he kept his eyes closed tight, despite the temptation to look at what he could hear going on, a struggle, yells and curses.

His eyes did open, involuntarily when someone came up close to him, but closed again and he flinched away as a light shone into his face. A flashlight, pulled away again quickly. Before his eyes could sting too badly from the gas something came over his head, enclosing his face and making him cry out and struggle for a second. But the man who was no more than a dim shape in front of him spoke in a loud voice.

“Gasmask, Colonel.”

He knew the voice. Kadry. One of the first men into the unit. A sergeant now and one of the best of the best. Madari wished his hands were free, he’d embrace him. On the very heels of the thought, his hands were free, someone behind him with bolt cutters. He didn’t embrace Kadry though. He couldn’t. His arms flopped loosely, aflame with agony as he tried to bring them back to the front.

The shackles at his feet clattered to the floor. The strap around his chest came loose and he would have fallen right off the chair, but Kadry caught him.

“Jahni,” Madari said, voice muffled by the gasmask. “They were firing.”

“He’s fine. Sit still, sir.”

Madari obeyed. When a sergeant gave an officer an order there was generally a good reason and an intelligent officer would obey. Kadry knew more about what was going on than Madari did.

He wasn’t too convinced by Kadry’s answer about Jahni, but along with all the yelling from outside, he heard Jahni’s voice, positively ranting, demanding a report. Probably wanting to take immediate charge of the operation. He certainly sounded alive and well.

“Major Jahni,” Madari called. “Stand down.”

Jahni shut up abruptly as if realising he was being foolish and must accept that his role here was rescuee, however unnatural that felt to him. The gunfire only lasted a few more seconds, before the shouts of his men, Jahni’s men, started to come through, close by and over the radio.

They’d won. They’d taken the house, secured the hostages, must have killed many of the hostiles, but had they…had they…

“Saifullah,” Madari said, voice croaky, muffled. Frustrated, he hauled up the gasmask. “Saifullah is here!”

Kadry didn’t answer, but his eyes widened behind his mask. While Madari pulled his own mask back on as the remaining gas stung his eyes, Kadry stood, turned away, speaking into his radio headset.

A large hand gripped Madari’s arm when he wobbled on the seat and he turned to see the biggest man in the unit, Private Zahal, holding him in place. If he couldn’t stay on his feet when he tried to stand up Zahal could carry him out like a child. He thought he’d like to avoid that.

The lights came on. The harsh glare made more than one man groan and shield his eyes. Some of them wore night vision goggles and pulled them off. A man appeared in the doorway, as anonymous as the others in the black combat gear and wearing a gas mask. He stepped into the room, pulling the mask off.

Raian. Of course, he’d be in charge, fighting in the close quarters of a house was his specialty. He looked at Madari and Jahni with a mix of relief and concern.

“Bring the medics in now,” he said into his radio.

“Did you get him?” Jahni demanded. “Saifullah. Did you get him?”

Their future rested on Raian’s next words.

“I don’t know,” Raian said. “We haven’t checked all the bodies yet. Kadry! Take care of that. Check every face. Dead, wounded and prisoners. Find him.”

“Sir!” Kadry rushed out of the room.

Two men lay near the door, dead. The two guards. A soldier, unrecognisable with his gasmask still on, turned them over, checked their faces. He shook his head at Raian. Madari hadn’t expected either of them to be Saifullah, but still gave a sigh of disappointment.

The medics showed up, checked Madari and Jahni quickly, a preliminary examination only. Were they fit to move? They were, but neither of them could stand unaided and a man on either side helped them up and out of the room. Working their way slowly through the house, they came across many dead men, all of them Saifullah’s, none of their own. The unit did have some wounded and more medics were treating them in what looked like quite a neat little infirmary.

Very good of the enemy to provide such good facilities, Madari thought, feeling mildly hysterical from relief and-light headed from standing up after so long, and from hunger and thirst. He must have swallowed some of the water thrown at him through the long night of torment, but not enough.

“Water,” he said. “Jahni too.”

“We’re putting you on a helicopter with the medics,” Raian said. “They’ll give you water on there.”

When he said ‘helicopter’ a sound Madari had been vaguely aware of seemed to clarify itself. Helicopter blades whirring. It must be right outside.

It was, actually inside the large compound the house stood in. More dead men out there and more soldiers from the unit, still in a state halfway between relaxed and combat mode. Alert for any last trouble, but knowing the job was done. They had their gasmasks off and they smiled or nodded to Madari and Jahni as they passed.

Kadry moved among the bodies, turning them over and shining his flashlight into each face. He glanced over and shook his head. Madari longed to break away from the men helping him and start turning over bodies himself, but knew he’d fall down without support.

No talking possible, over the racket of the helicopter, Madari glanced around to see Jahni was still behind him, still okay. He didn’t catch Madari’s glance, looking past him at the helicopter, frowning. Then men inside the chopper started hauling Madari up into it, Jahni after him.

Raian boarded too, but only to check they were safe aboard. “See you back at barracks!” he shouted over the noise.

“Wait,” Madari called, throat hurting as he shouted. “The wounded! Aren’t the rest of the wounded coming on the chopper?”

“No, sir. We have another, this one is for you two.” That seemed odd, but Madari didn’t argue, hadn’t the strength.

“Find Saifullah!” he managed to yell as Raian turned away. “He was there. Find him!”

“Yes, sir!”

Raian jumped back out of the door and hurried away. A soldier closed the door, and the helicopter took off. It cleared the walls of the compound, rose above the house and banked away across the desert.

A couple of men with medics patches on their uniforms came over. Jahni looked at them, frowning, then leaned across in his seat to Madari.

“This isn’t one of our helicopters.”


“It has Army markings on it, but it’s not one of the unit’s choppers. It’s not even Royal Guard.”

Madari looked around at the interior, though wasn’t as confident he could identify it as Jahni could. “Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.”

What the hell did it mean? Did it matter? The medics weren’t very helpful. Army medical corp, they said they were, not Royal Guard, they couldn’t say anything about why this wasn’t a Royal Guard helicopter. Madari quickly grew tired of trying to question them, unable to stand shouting over the noise of the helicopter with his ravaged throat.

They flew on into the East. When the medics finished and left them with water to sip slowly, Madari and Jahni looked out at the first glow of a dawn neither of them expected to see. On the arm between their seats Jahni’s hand touched his. Didn’t take it, but the back of his hand rested against the back of Madari’s. Warm skin, browned by the sun. It had to be enough. They were alive.

Madari didn’t know how long they’d have to fly to reach the city, but it couldn’t be too long and he expected to see it appear on the horizon at any moment, the tall buildings, the sprawl of homes surrounding the centre.

He didn’t see them. Instead he saw a dark patch in the desert ahead of them, which became a large house, a very large house, surrounded by a walled-in estate. A road snaked away into the distance, but the house—make that a palace—was the only building visible for miles around. The helicopter started to descend.

Jahni sat up in his seat, trying to see better out of the front. “What the hell? We’re landing here? What is this?”

It wasn’t one of the King’s houses, Madari knew. There was something familiar about it, but between not even knowing what area of the country they were in and the strangeness of the aerial view he didn’t recognise the estate.

In a few minutes the helicopter came down to land, on a marked helipad at the back of a grand, white stone house, made warm and pink by the morning light. Welcoming, both for its elegant design and its promise of beds, showers and food. But bewilderment kept Madari from anticipating those things.

The medics and soldiers helped Madari and Jahni out of the helicopter. They could stand now, though held onto each other, still weak. Every one of Madari’s muscles ached, from the forced contractions of the electric shocks and from strains caused by thrashing against his bonds.

A small party of men stood nearby, waiting at a door into the house, and the party from the helicopter approached them. Behind them the rotor blades slowed, the gale whipped up by them subsiding.

The man in the centre of the waiting group, wearing white robes and headdress, came forward, the other men following him, but staying a respectful step behind. His headdress fluttered in the last of the wind from the slowing rotor blades. He smiled as he came close, holding out his hand and Madari heard Jahni stifle a curse. For his own part, he gasped.

“Good morning, Colonel, Major. Welcome to my home.”

Madari finally recognised the house and the extensive estate. Recognised the man, with his snowy white clothes and his neat beard.


Chapter 4

Jahni said it first. Only the name, seemed too shocked to say any more at the sight of the King’s supposedly-exiled brother, standing here large as life in his old home.

“Your Highness,” Madari said, wishing his voice didn’t croak so much. “You’re under arrest for conspiracy to commit treason.”

Zahir stared at him, and then burst into laughter. The small group of men around him joined in. Madari’s knees wobbled and he held tighter to Jahni to avoid falling. My God, what had happened? Had Zahir come back and overthrown his brother as he’d tried to before?

“I can see why my brother finds you so useful, Colonel Madari,” Zahir said, smiling. “You never forget your duty.”

Finds. Madari hung onto the present tense in that word. Not found you useful. Finds. Which meant Atuallah was still in a position to find Madari useful.

“What the hell is going on?” Jahni demanded.

“Please,” Zahir said. “You’re injured and exhausted. Come inside. My personal physician will take care of you and I will explain.”


They didn’t get their explanation for nearly an hour. First Zahir’s ‘personal physician’ took them to a small infirmary and treated cuts and bruises, gave them a full examination. After that, two male servants helped them clean up and gave them loose, linen trousers and long shirts to wear and soft slippers for their feet. Another servant, who was presumably Zahir’s personal barber, shaved them, Jahni relieved to be rid of the itchy stubble.

From the infirmary they were led to a large, cool sitting room and installed on comfortable couches, where servants brought them food and cups of hot, very sweet tea. Morning sunlight filtered into the room through gauzy drapes over the floor to ceiling French windows, which were closed. Locked, Jahni would bet.

He wondered briefly if handmaidens to peel grapes for them and bearers to wave fans would appear next, but he was too impatient to think about such nonsense for long. Though the couch was very comfortable and the food delicious—he had to mind his manners not to wolf it down—he still fretted as they waited for their host.

Zahir appeared soon after they arrived in the sitting room. He dismissed the servants aside from one guard who remained by the door, wearing an expression which said he wasn’t going to remember, or even hear, anything said in this room.

“I hope you feel more comfortable now,” Zahir said. “Please, go on eating while we talk, I’m sure you must be hungry.”

“Tell us what is going on,” Madari said, in a cold voice that was just barely respectful.

“Of course. Yes, I’m sure it’s a shock to you to see me here. My brother advised me he hadn’t told you about the negotiations.”

“What negotiations?” Madari asked. Jahni kept quiet, let Madari take the lead. He ate warm, fresh bread and wondered where the vehicles were kept if he and Madari had to escape the estate.

“Gentlemen, I don’t have to tell you what a precarious situation the country is in at the moment. I know your unit, Major, your whole regiment, Colonel are doing fine work combating the threat. But you are only one regiment. Not all of the others are up to your standards. And to be frank, Military Intelligence and the Defence Ministry itself are in no way equal to the challenge. That is why my brother has asked me to return and resume my old job.”

Madari sat bolt upright on his couch. “You’re Defence Minister again?”


Jahni almost choked on his bread. He washed it down with a gulp of tea and stared at Zahir.

“I don’t believe you,” Madari said. “You tried to murder the King and his wife and children! He would never allow you back. This is a trick.”

“It’s not a trick.”

“Then take us to the city now. Let me talk to the King. I will not believe this unless he tells me.”

“I’m sorry, it’s best you stay here for a couple of days at least.”

Madari swung his legs off the couch and Jahni did the same an instant later.

“Are we prisoners here?” Madari demanded.

Jahni glanced at the guard by the door, who was still in position, but in a more alert stance now. Was he armed? He must be. If it came to a fight, Jahni would try to take the guard out. He hoped he was recovered enough, worried he wasn’t. Meanwhile Madari would deal with Zahir—if he could. He was weak and Zahir was an ex-officer, though out of shape now. If the two of them managed to overpower Zahir and the guard, then they’d get out by the French windows, find a vehicle…

“Please,” Zahir said, raising a hand to restrain them and his guard. “Please, calm down, gentlemen. You are not prisoners. But as Defence Minister, it’s my judgement that for you to return to the city now would be bad for morale. As you can imagine, it would turn into a media event, and, I’m sorry to say it, but you both look quite dreadful. I would prefer it if men known to be two of the best soldiers in the country returned in somewhat better shape than you appear to be now.”

They glanced at each other. Though much improved from when they arrived, Madari did look bad, Jahni thought and he’d seen his own face in a mirror in the infirmary. He looked no better. Though their captors had been careful not to mark their faces too much, still they had some visible bruises and scrapes, and were gaunt and grey faced, with black shadows under their eyes. Both had bandages on their wrists and were still wobbly on their feet.

“Then I want to talk to the king on the telephone,” Madari said.

“You don’t need to,” Zahir said. “He’s coming here to talk to you himself. He said you deserve that much.”

Madari glanced at Jahni who gave a small shrug. It sounded crazy, but they didn’t appear to be in any immediate danger. They might as well bide their time to see what happened next. Madari nodded and turned back to Zahir.

“When is he coming?”

“This evening.”

“All right,” Madari said. “Have you heard from the compound where we were being held? Did they find Saifullah? What about casualties among my men?”

“Yes, your Captain Raian has reported to me. An excellent young officer. One to watch. There are no serious injuries or fatalities among your men. A few minor injuries. Those men are already back at your barracks and undergoing treatment.”

“And Saifullah?” Jahni heard the anticipation in his voice. Zahir’s words might free them right now.

“I’m sorry. They’ve checked every man there and have launched a thorough search of the whole installation. But so far there’s no sign.”

“He was there!” Madari said, an edge of despair in his voice. “He was there!”

“He must have left for some reason, or escaped during the attack,” Zahir said. “He must have the luck of the devil, the bastard.” The profanity and the fierce scowl endeared even this traitor to Jahni for a moment. Zahir wanted Saifullah dead too. If what he’d told them was true, then it would be good to have someone so powerful truly fighting for the same thing as them.

“But we will have another chance ,” Zahir said. “Oh, Captain Raian reported they’d recovered some of your personal property, along with your service pistols. They’ll be returned to barracks for you.”

“Thank you,” Madari said, his voice tense, and Jahni suddenly thought about what items of personal property they might be. Items they’d been carrying in their pockets.

“Your wallets,” Zahir said, glancing at a list. “Your identity cards. Keys, watches, a wristband of yellow beads the captain says he believes is yours, Colonel. And your passports.” He looked up. “You carry your passports with you?”

Jahni saw Madari’s cheek twitch. “For identification purposes,” Madari said, the lie smooth and rehearsed. A feeble one really. They had military identification cards, they didn’t need to carry their passports and he hated having Zahir wondering about why they did. Had Saifullah wondered? Speculated that it meant they were afraid of him, ready to flee the country at a moment’s notice?

“Of course,” Zahir said, seeming to accept the explanation, but still with a speculative look in his eyes. “Now, if you’re finished eating, I’m sure you want to rest.”

He summoned the servants again and led them himself to the bedrooms. Jahni was quite weary by the time they got there after trailing through long corridors. He muttered something about how handy a golf cart would be—the corridors were quite wide enough—and Zahir said that was an excellent idea.

The bedroom they put him in, before leading Madari on to the one next door, was a large and sumptuous chamber and when Jahni took off his slippers his bare feet sank deep into the luxurious carpet. He noticed a connecting door to Madari’s room and wondered if when they were left alone he should go through and talk to him about this.

But the bed commanded his attention more than anything. The sheets were actually silk! A pair of pyjama trousers lay on the bed, but Jahni ignored them. He undressed and slipped under the sheets naked, sighing with pleasure as the silk caressed his aching body.

He fell asleep in seconds.


He woke to the sunset slanting through the gauzy drapes. Strange time of day to wake. He considered trying to sleep again, his aching body needing more rest, but he had to talk to Madari first, couldn’t wait any longer now. He slipped out of bed and put on the pyjama trousers and a thick, fluffy bathrobe he found hanging on the bathroom door.

He washed his hands and face after using the toilet. The pristine bathroom had luxurious, expensive soap but in small bars, still wrapped up, like in a hotel room. In fact the bedroom was more like a luxury hotel room than a guest room in someone’s home.

He checked the wardrobe. It was huge, more like a small room and held rails of men’s clothes in several sizes, all of them apparently new. Casual wear, long shirts, loose trousers, thoubs. Shoes were lined up on racks, again in a range of sizes, mostly soft slippers and sandals that a man might wear indoors. Drawers even held a selection of underwear. He put together an outfit in his size and dropped the clothes on the bed.

A telephone sat by the bed and he lifted it to hear a dial tone. Could he make a call to outside the estate? Would any call he made be overheard? He would definitely not put it past Zahir to bug the phones and possibly the rooms, just on general principles. He’d have to be careful talking to Madari. Before he ventured next door he took a look outside into the corridor. A guard patrolled it. For their safety, he supposed Zahir would stay.

“Can I help you with anything, sir?” the guard asked.

“No.” Jahni went back inside. One guard. Easily get past him.

French windows led to balconies—they were on an upper floor, he remembered climbing a flight of stairs—but the windows were locked.

Time to check on Madari. He tapped on the door through to the neighbouring room and in a few seconds heard Madari call to him to come in. He was still in bed when Jahni went in, obviously just waking, hair mussed, rubbing his eyes, wincing at the bruising on his face.

“Hello, Kahil. Is it morning?”

“No,” Jahni said. “Evening. Remember the king is supposed to be coming.”

“Oh, yes, I remember,” Madari said, looking more alert. “How are you feeling?”

“Sore. But fit to fight.” The mix of the personal and the official report made him give a sheepish grin. “I’m fine. You?”

Physically he might be fine, both of them, in the end they hadn’t been badly injured. But mentally? Once they had time to think about what had happened, how many old memories had it stirred up in Madari? How much help would he need to get over that?

“Did you sleep well?” Madari asked, reaching out. Jahni came to sit on the bed. “No… bad dreams?”

“No. Too tired I think.” And there’d be nights later when he wasn’t as tired and the dreams would come. Dreams of his pain and Madari’s pain. Dreams of screaming.

He thrust those thoughts away. No time to dwell on it. Too much to do. But he’d never forget it. Seeing Madari hurt. Knowing what came next. Execution. If they killed Madari first, in front of him, would Jahni have lost his mind? Spent the last moments of his life as a frothing, raving madman?

But we’re alive! Madari sat there in front of him, chest bare, bruised, but alive. He stretched, yawned, winced and scrubbed a hand through his hair and Jahni felt an insane urge to press him down on the bed and kiss him and… He didn’t dare. Not here. The rooms might be bugged. If Zahir recorded them making love he would own them!

“What do you think of all this, Kahil? What do you think Zahir’s intentions are?”

There were other things Jahni wouldn’t like Zahir to overhear them saying. He made a hand signal, an old, prearranged one to indicate they were not free to talk here. Madari’s eyes widened and he nodded.

“I think,” Jahni said, “that we should wait to hear what the King has to say.”

“Yes, of course,” Madari said. “Quite right.”

“Maybe you should get dressed before he arrives,” Jahni said. “Check your wardrobe. It’s like a shop!”

He slid off the bed and led Madari to the walk-in wardrobe, the twin of the one in Jahni’s own room. Madari, wearing only pyjama trousers followed him inside and closed the door behind them.

“You think we’re monitored?” he asked in a hushed voice.

“It’s what Zahir would do,” Jahni said, “He was always clever that way.”

Madari snorted a bit at that and began sliding clothes on a rack as if hunting for something in his size. The rattle of the hangers might be audible to any putative bug outside in the room. Even Zahir wouldn’t bug the wardrobe… would he?

“Clever. He is too damned clever for his own good,” Madari said, voice still low, but a hint of a growl in it now.

“He wasn’t a bad Defence Minister though. I even heard Colonel Rahama say that he was one of the best he’d known.”

“I’m sure that makes up for all the people who died during his failed coup. People like Idris.”

Jahni grimaced, remembering those horrible days.

“No, it doesn’t, I know,” he said, stepping closer to Madari, to speak as quietly as they could. “But maybe I was right before about waiting to hear what the King has to say. He must have given this a lot of thought.”

“It’s an act of desperation. That what frightens me. If the best allies we have in this fight are traitors like Zahir, then things are worse than I feared. The King is…more afraid than I realised.” His face twisted as if he’d bitten something sour. Did he feel that as a personal failure? The Royal Guard should make the King and his family feel safe.

Jahni stepped closer and put a hand on his shoulder, comforting, but feeling a thrill of desire surge through him at once. So close. Skin so warm and carrying the scent of the light sweat of sleep and the expensive soap they’d cleaned up with before sleeping. He let go.

“The King is a clever man, Faris. I trust his judgement and his advisors…” He stopped. “Do you think…”

“That Rahama knew about this?” Madari finished. “He must have. And Admiral Elmi and Air Marshal Kotekar. The King would need to be sure all of the service chiefs would work with Zahir.”

“I find it hard to believe that Zahir would work with Rahama! Or you—us—for that matter.”

Madari gave a bitter laugh. “Zahir may have been a soldier once, but he is a politician now. It suits his purpose to be kind to us today. To take care of us, here in his own home. If it suited his purpose to shoot us both dead, he’d do it without another thought.”

A cold shiver ran up Jahni’s spine at the words, and he suddenly felt no safer here than at Saifullah’s compound.

“I wish we could get back to the city right now,” he said.

“I do too. But I think Zahir intends to take us there himself and make sure he gets the credit for our rescue. He’ll present us back to the country as if giving it a gift. Snatched from the jaws of death.”

“The unit rescued us!” Jahni snapped, then lowered his voice again to a hiss. “If that slimy bastard has been giving our men orders I will not be happy to hear about it.”

“And I will not be happy to be part of Zahir’s little media show,” Madari almost snarled the words. “I didn’t want to make a video to help Saifullah’s cause and I don’t want to make one to help Zahir’s either.”

Jahni smiled, stepped close enough to whisper. “At least Zahir wouldn’t ask us to confess to being lovers.”

It was supposed to be a joke, to try to lighten Madari’s mood, but instead he turned a scowl on Jahni and spoke quietly. “Kahil, only hours ago, I saw you tortured and thought I’d see you die. Do not trifle with me.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“Do you know how many times last night I considered giving them what they wanted? That I’d confess to anything if they’d only stop hurting you?”

“Of course you thought of giving in. So did I. A thousand times. But you stayed strong. You made it through.”

“And every time I changed my mind and decided not to confess to being your lover I felt part of my soul burn away! Because I want to confess. More than anything. I want everyone to know I love you. I don’t want to be ashamed anymore.” He stopped, looked around and back at Jahni, smiling. “If this wardrobe is bugged…”

He didn’t get to finish. Jahni grabbed him, kissed him hard enough that it hurt the bruises on Jahni’s face and body. Madari gasped sharply maybe in pain from his own bruises, maybe from the shock of the kiss. But it didn’t stop him responding, mouth open and hungry.

Jahni pulled open the sash of his bathrobe, needing Madari’s skin against his, needing to eliminate all barriers between them. Without conscious thought, he let the robe slide off his shoulders and dropped it to the floor.

Madari broke the kiss with a gasp, “We…shouldn’t. I promised.” But he pushed Jahni back a step, and the cold surface of a mirror on the wall startled Jahni as it touched his back. He looked up into Madari’s serious face. Flushed with desire, yet troubled, trying to restrain himself. No mistaking what his body wanted though, whatever his mind said.

“We almost died,” Jahni said. “This is when it happens. You’re not responsible. It’s a simple, physical reaction.” The hospital, after Rahama’s car was blown up. The kiss. Jahni could not have stopped himself then. He couldn’t now. Neither of them could.

Kissing again. Hands on warm skin, then pulling at waistbands, finding hard flesh, stroking, rubbing. Not responsible, Jahni repeated in his mind as the intense pleasure quickly grew in pulsing waves. They weren’t responsible. Humans did this after they survived disaster, it was normal. Natural.

Kisses muffled the small cries they gave as climaxes approached quickly, their bodies responding to the urgency and the precarious situation. When not kissing, Jahni found himself watching the door over Madari’s shoulder, just in case. Though if anyone did come in now, as Madari thrust against him, while Jahni mirrored the movement, it would be difficult to claim they were just picking out shoes.

Madari could have watched the door too, in the mirror, but his eyes stayed closed, until his head went back and he gave a sharp cry. If they were bugged Jahni hoped he sounded like a man stubbing his toe. He muffled the cry he wanted to give a moment later, biting his lip, clinging hard to Madari’s arms instead, grip convulsive, maybe even hurting him. But Madari made no complaint. As Jahni’s climax ebbed, only the wall at his back held him up, between his shaky knees and Madari leaning heavily on him.

“Faris,” he said after a second, whispering it in his ear. He stroked Madari’s hair. “Come back to me now.”

Madari raised his head from Jahni’s shoulder, shook himself. He took his weight off Jahni. “Sorry, didn’t mean to crush you.” He glanced down between them and sighed. “What a mess.”

“Luckily, we have en-suite bathrooms.” But Jahni didn’t think he just meant the sticky fluid going cold on their skin now. Any more than his own ‘come back to me now’ had only meant ‘wake up’.

A shrill ringing made them gasp and grab at each other, then smile sheepishly.

“The phone,” Jahni said. Was he going to jump out of his skin at sudden noises now?

Madari hurried out of the walk-in wardrobe and picked up the ringing phone.

“Thank you,” he said after a moment. “No, Major Jahni is in here. I’ll tell him. May we have some tea sent up in twenty minutes? Thank you.” He hung up.

“Room service?” Jahni said, coming out of the wardrobe, putting his bathrobe back on.

“Yes,” Madari said. “We’ll get tea in twenty minutes and a King in about an hour.”

“This is an excellent hotel. I suppose I’d better have a shower.”

“Oh yes indeed.”

Chapter 5

Madari felt suddenly self-conscious when the King stepped into the room. The clothes provided by Zahir were excellent quality, but informal. The sort of thing a man would wear around the house. Certainly not what he’d wear to meet his King. Zahir could have easily had their uniforms brought out here. Perhaps he felt the civilian clothes put them at a small disadvantage in comparison. Every move such a man made was part of a calculated power play.

Like the bow he now gave his brother. Deep and respectful. The words they exchanged polite, if a little cooler than one might expect of brothers. But both men’s eyes told the same story of wariness and mistrust. Both put on a good show, but it was no more than a show.

“I hope you will stay and dine with us,” Zahir said.

“I can’t, I’m afraid. My family is expecting me home for dinner.” Madari glanced at Jahni, wondered if he too heard the King’s unspoken words: my family who you tried to kill.

The King turned away from Zahir and approached Madari and Jahni, offering his hand to each in turn, looking them over with genuine concern as they shook hands and made their bows. If he found it strange for them to be in such informal clothes he showed no sign of it. Madari tried to recall if he’d met the King while not wearing his uniform since that very first time when the King arrived back in the country while Madari’s band of irregulars held the city airport.

“Colonel. Major. I’m so pleased to see you alive and well. I’ve been so worried.” It seemed more than official worry at losing useful allies, Madari thought. Actually personal. That touched him.

“We’re recovering well, sir,” Madari said. “Your brother has taken good care of us. We’re most grateful.” Jahni flicked him an odd look. But Madari was better at politics than he used to be. Zahir stood there watching them and Madari was enough of a realist to accept the truth of this situation. It made no sense to offend their new Defence Minister.

“Excellent,” the King said. “Now, perhaps we can take a stroll outside. I find the desert air very refreshing at this time of the evening.”

“I’ll have some coffee brought for your return,” Zahir said, and perhaps he had a little disappointment in his face. Were the rooms bugged as Jahni suspected? And did the King suspect the same thing, that’s why he wanted to walk outside? Suspected or knew for a fact? His own people must have searched this house thoroughly after Zahir fled the country.

They walked a long way from the house, close to the stables. Grooms were exercising several race horses in a paddock, long shadows in the setting sun. A couple of small men, jockeys, rode different horses in turn. The King’s bodyguards kept their distance. Theoretically, he should be entirely safe here, but on instinct Madari and Jahni kept him between them.

“You kept your brother’s stable going while he was in exile,” Madari said, enjoying himself watching the horses.

“Yes, he has some fine animals. I didn’t want to see them sold off and the men thrown out of work.”

He’d kept the whole estate going, Madari knew. He’d housed guests in it. But he never stayed there himself. The memories of his brother’s betrayal must have been too hard to face.

And now he had invited him to come back.

“So, I hear you tried to arrest my brother the moment you saw him,” Atuallah said to Madari.

Madari flushed at the memory. “I’m sorry, Sir. At that time, as far as I knew there was still a warrant for his arrest.”

“The fact he was surrounded by guards and the two of you were barely able to stand didn’t put you off?”

Jahni coughed suspiciously, stifling laughter for sure.

“It was my duty, Sir,” Madari said, giving Jahni a stern look to get himself under control.

“Of course.” The King sighed. “I know this must be a shock to you both. I know you may find it difficult to work with my brother, after the history you have. I understand your feelings.” His eyes hardened. “Believe me, I understand them. But he doesn’t want this country to fall into the hands of the fanatics any more than I do.”

“He wants to rule this country, Sir,” Madari said.

“And perhaps he still retains that ambition. But he would sooner see me ruling than Saifullah.”

Perhaps Zahir thought his brother would be easier to oust than Saifullah. But whatever his schemes for later, the King clearly believed Zahir could be trusted for the time being.

“Negotiations have been going on for almost eighteen months now,” Atuallah said.

That long? Madari wanted to ask if Rahama knew. How long he’d known. But that would be an impudent question and one better put to Rahama himself. Though with the new chill in their relationship Madari found it hard to imagine asking him.

“It surprises me that he would want to work with us,” Madari said, gesturing between himself and Jahni. “Or General Rahama.”

“It’s been made clear to him that you two, and General Rahama are all essential parts of my fighting forces. He assures me he bears no grudges against any of you because of your work to foil his coup attempt. You were soldiers doing your duty and he hopes you continue to do it as well as you did that day.”

He looked around at the horses again. The clopping of their hooves in the distance drifted across, along with the voices of the grooms, perhaps unaware of who stood watching them.

“I told you I understand your feelings about him,” Atuallah said. “You saw men die because of him. You lost a good friend.”

Madari saw Jahni glance over at him, concern on his face. Faraj. The pain had long ago dulled to no more than an ache, but it was bright and sharp again today.

“I find it just as difficult to contemplate working with him again. My family… My wife has told me she will not see him or allow the children to see him. I could try to order her to, but I won’t do that. And I won’t order you two either. I would understand if you feel you can’t work with him. But I need to know now if you can’t. If that’s the case then I will have to release you from my service.”

Madari gasped. Release them? A strange wild hope, mixed with dread swept over him.

“I know you are loyal men,” Atuallah went on. “But my first loyalty is to the country and I believe this is the best thing for the country. Whatever happened in the past, Zahir can help us now. Please discuss it and rejoin me in the house.”

He strode away, his bodyguards following, moving closer now he was alone. Madari stared after him and then turned to Jahni who was staring not at the King, but at Madari.

“Release us from his service?” Jahni said. “Did I hear that correctly?”

“Yes. I think so.”

“Faris, this could be the best chance we’ll have to be free! An honourable way out. Nobody would question the idea that we can’t work with Zahir. I’ll bet we aren’t the only ones!”

“You think we’d be free? Saifullah isn’t dead. That was the condition.”


“Zahir’s return doesn’t change that. Kahil, you said yourself that he was a good Defence Minister and I agree with you. It could be we can defeat Saifullah more quickly now! Zahir will make sure we have the resources we need.”

He stopped, seeing Jahni look down, biting his lip. Oh, Kahil. He’d seen hope. And Madari had crushed it.

“I’m sorry,” Madari said. He’d asked Jahni to choose. That night they’d first made love. And he’d chosen to stay, so Madari could take his revenge on Saifullah. But it was more than that. The country needed them. Gaining Zahir again would be no use if he and Jahni cancelled that advantage out by leaving in a huff.

“Kahil, one of the things a soldier has to learn to do is work with whatever comrades he finds at his side. He doesn’t have to like them, but he does have to suppress any personal conflicts and remember who the real enemy is.”

He smiled. It seemed a long time since he’d been able to teach Jahni anything about soldiering. And the lesson was hardly a new one. But a useful reminder he hoped. For himself too.

“Then we’ll stay,” Jahni said. “You’re right, of course. I just got…excited for a moment. But I understand. This doesn’t really change anything.”

“Thank you.” He put a hand on Jahni’s shoulder, wanted to embrace him, but conscious of the people around them, some he could see, some he may not be able to. “About what happened earlier—”

“Forget it,” Jahni said. “A lapse. After what we’d been through, just a reaction. It won’t happen again.”

Until they truly were free. Truly released from the King’s service. Then they would never stop.

They walked slowly back to the house, arm in arm. Now Madari felt glad of their civilian clothes, which allowed more informality than their uniforms. It was almost dark now, and the air was cooling fast, so the warmth against his side was welcome.

The King waited for them on a broad terrace outside the French windows. He sipped a cup of coffee, wearing his usual pleasant expression, but Madari knew him well enough now to see the strain in his eyes. His expression asked the question as Madari and Jahni climbed the steps to the terrace, unlinking their arms.

“Sir,” Madari said, “We both wish to continue to serve you and to work with His Highness and help him in any way we can.”

Relief flooded Atuallah’s face and for a moment he looked tired and older than usual. He glanced at Jahni, who nodded, his own face seeming rather drained and gaunt too.

“The colonel speaks for me too, Sir,” Jahni said.

A smile brightened the King’s face and he shook hands with them in turn. “Thank you. I knew your loyalty would overcome your reservations. Now, I know my brother plans to return you to the city tomorrow. In the meantime, you should rest, regain your strength and talk to Zahir. Let him brief you on some of his plans.”

Madari saw the King’s car nearby, a sleek limousine, quite large enough for several people.

“Sir,” he said. “We’re both anxious to return to the city as quickly as possible. Our men were in action, and we need to check on those who were injured. Would we be able to travel with your motorcade?”

Jahni glanced at Madari with surprise, as if he thought it a cheeky request. Perhaps it was—asking the King for a lift! But Atuallah only looked at Madari assessing. Did he realise the kind of show Zahir intended to make of them and realise Madari intended to spoil it? Probably—he was as good a politician as Zahir. Was he tempted to take them himself and be the one to present them instead?

“No,” he said after a moment’s consideration. “It’s my wish that you return with my brother tomorrow.”

“Of course, Sir.” Madari bowed his head and they watched the King walk down to his waiting limousine. Atuallah understood, and he wanted Zahir to have his show, Madari realised. It would help the country accept him back. If Madari and Jahni had to be the puppets in that show, then those were his orders.

Zahir appeared at the French windows, then joined them on the terrace to watch his brother’s car leaving. When it vanished from sight he turned to Madari and Jahni.

“Dinner is ready, please join me.”

When they hesitated, he went on.

“Gentlemen, we may be old enemies, but we have a common enemy now and that makes us friends of a sort. Please, share a meal with me and then we’ll talk. We have a lot of work ahead.”