Jonathan Andrew Sheen (leviathan0999) wrote,
Jonathan Andrew Sheen



Our Right Trusty and Right Well-Beloved Cousins


            The abyss yawned before the young King, and all he could do was wait until it had either swallowed him and everything that mattered to him, or some miracle he had no control over lifted him from its lip like the God from the Machine in a Greek play. The desk at which Qabeel Alaaeddin had planned his destruction was barren now, save for one sheet of notepaper, on which words had been scrawled in fluid, quick Arabic. It was in no way addressed to him, but Bashik was in no doubt. Well-played. I respect that you go down fighting. He had searched the house thoroughly, and turned up no sign of the photographs, no sign of his American friends, and no sign of Al Qabda. Just this one sheet of paper, mockery and salute in two pithy sentences.  Soon would be the hour of Evening Prayer, which would, if the two tourists spoke truth, ring the death knell for his friends.

            All he had was ashes. His friends spirited off to their deaths. His Throne reduced to a milking stool. His wife – Nejmet! – disgraced. And for what? Because, hundreds of years ago, Qumar thought to annex Khadra, and King Yapheth, then an aging lion, had both routed and embarrassed the invading army, sending its general home without dignity – or, indeed, trousers. There it had begun, with Qumar demonstrating, hardly for the first or last time in human history, that there is none so unforgiving as the biter who has been bitten, the enginer hoist with his own petar. And so it comes to this. Generations of slights passed back and forth between neighboring nations, no better than young brothers kicking each other under the dinner table, and at the cost of how many lives, how much human misery, all to try to avenge the humiliation of an attack thwarted!

            He sat back, closing his eyes. Perhaps I am too young to sit upon a throne. It seems I do not have the stomach for it. He shook his head as he heard the sound of someone approaching the office, the rising, tinny voice of a transistor radio held excitedly with its volume high.

            “Your Majesty!” Maher’s voice was excited. “Your Majesty, there is news! There is news from Qumar! Riots in the streets! Listen!”

            The King focused on the cool excitement of the BBC World Service reporter: “...just minutes ago, shouting Arun Alaik! ‘Shame on You!’ Arun ala el-Sultan! ‘Shame on the Sultan!’ and Qawadeen, which means... Er... ‘Procurer’ or ‘Panderer.’ Also, and this is more complicated, Mushawehi el-Sum'at, which means, roughly, ‘One who has stained the honour of a woman.’”

            Another voice, apparently from the studios in London, asked, “Gerald, do you know what this is in aid of?”

            “It’s not entirely clear yet,” answered ‘Gerald,’ “but apparently, a sort of conservative clergy group, called the Bahji, has accused the Sultan of some sort of plot against neighbouring Khadra, whose boy King is to be elevated to active control of the Throne this week. The target seems to be, not the King, but the  Queen, who is a mere sixteen years old, in the form of, how shall I say it, photographs of her which have been somehow doctored to appear ‘Blue.’ The Bahji claim to have a document that proves this plot originated in Qumar, at the order of the Sultan himself. While they have no particular love of Khadra, the Bahji are outraged that their government has waged such dishonourable warfare through attacking the chastity of a young woman.”

            “Have these clerics, the Bahji, you called them, been a political force in Qumar in the past, then?”

            “No, Duncan, they haven’t, which is one of the surprises here. They have been viewed as a fringe of ivory-tower intellectuals. That they have mobilized so many of the general public into direct confrontation with the Sultan is quite extraordinary. I daresay that the political ramifications in Qumar will be far-reaching indeed!”

            The King had leapt to his feet, his eyes brightening. “They did it!” he grabbed the radio out of Maher’s good hand, held it high above his head. “Those two lunatics have somehow managed it!”

            Maher gazed at the King, his expression neutral, and Bashik, his eye caught, focused on him.

            “That was it?” Maher asked. “That was your great secret? Phony pornography of Her Majesty? You think that I, who have served you both so well, would have been taken in by mere camera trickery?”

            The King paused a moment, turning off the tinny yammer of the BBC as they moved on to Test Match scores, and then returned his guardian’s gaze, his own expression stiff. “You have no wife. Have you a younger sister, perhaps?”

            “I have a niece, Majesty.” Maher’s tone was quiet, thoughtful. “She is fourteen.”

            “Fourteen.” Bashik nodded. “So imagine that you receive a package of photographs of her. She is naked, she is pleasuring a man...”

            Maher’s face blackened. “Be careful, your Majesty.”

            Exactly!” Bashik’s voice was low and intense. “You think I could share such with even you, my friend? They were perfect! Perfect!

            There was a silent, awkward moment, as Maher Sharif absorbed the words, the knowledge. “But you knew, your Majesty.”

            The King was still for a full minute, no flicker of motion or expression as Maher waited. “I did not,” he finally said. “In the first moments.... But my uncle has taught me never to make a decision in anger, never to make a decision without thinking it through. It took time for me to realize that there had been no opportunity. But I knew that I loved my wife more than my honor. I knew that I would protect her no matter what.”

            Maher’s eyes widened. “Majesty! You would– You could– Such a stain on your honor?”

            “I am good with plants and things that grow. There are jobs in America. Perhaps I could be a florist.”

            Maher looked down to the floor. “I... Majesty, I could not.... I could not.”

            “And who could blame you?” The King’s voice was bitter. “So you have been taught from boyhood. To build your honor on the behavior of another, and to place it above even love. They say we in Khadra are a progressive people, Maher. Yet we have so far, so very far, yet to go.”

            “If that is where we are to go,” Maher’s voice was hushed, “I can think of no other King who could lead us on such a road.”

            The King’s mouth turned into a smile darker and more bitter than a scowl. “I suppose we can thank Seville for that.” Maher’s head snapped up to face his. “You recall when I visited him seven months ago, I left in a rage?”

            Maher nodded. “I do, Majesty.”

            Bashik’s face was a mask. “He was lashing out at me again. You know how he is, I’ve told you before. We talk of his music, and he begins to enjoy my admiration. Then he remembers where he is, and why, and he must erase that fellow-feeling with cruelty. He claimed that my mother did not die miscarrying my brother. He claimed she was carrying his brother, and that my father put her to the sword, killing her and the child both.”

            “Majesty!” Maher was shocked. “You do not believe that!”

            “Of course I don’t. It was Bobby, trying to hurt me. When he resorts to cruelty, he knows no bounds. But, still...” the King drew in a deep breath. “If my father were told that she had been unfaithful? That the child she carried was not his? Would he not, in the name of ‘honor,’ have put her to death? Killed mother and child both? I was four when Seville’s father killed him. I barely remember him at all. What I do remember was that he was distant, and forbidding.... And that he seemed very sad. No, Maher, I don’t believe it... But I do know that it is possible. And so I have had a chance to think of this notion of honor. And if my father did live, and my mother die, by such a notion, it cost him all too much. I do not believe he lived a single happy day after her last.”

            “But, Majesty... To be a man... It is a heavy burden to carry, but must we not bear it?”

            Bashik frowned at his trusted guardian. “Those pictures...” he gestured at the radio. “They are perfect. Perfect. If they had been made public, without the Bahji’s protests, no-one in Khadra would have believed them false. This burden of being a man, it would have required that I put Nejmet to death, by my own hand. My own hand, Maher!”

            Maher looked evenly at him.

            “If that is honor, my friend,” the King spoke firmly, “if that is manhood, I’ll take something else.”

            Maher looked to the floor. “No man in this Kingdom would follow you. None would respect you.”

            Bashik stood, erect and decisive. “Just one more folly, then, from which I have a duty to lead them.” He placed a hand on Maher Sharif’s good shoulder. “Come, Maher, it is clear that there is nothing here to be found. By all means, leave a detachment to sift for evidence, but we must look elsewhere. What do you have for me?”

            Maher looked for a long moment at his King, and then nodded. “This house is a rental property, Majesty. I have dispatched Hamal’s unit to the renter’s office, to see if he has rented other, similar properties. It is a place to start.”

            It was all Kelly Robinson could do to refrain from clawing at the rough-hewn walls. He could deal with the dark, with the rank smell of manure – certainly with the pain that seemed to roil in some molten core of himself. But the quiet, man, the quiet was killing him! There had been a murmur of voices at first, too quiet to make out, and there had been the sounds of impacts, and sharp cracks! like pistol-fire, sure. But after those first moments, no deep sound of Scotty’s voice. Just the physical sound effects of violence.

            Why won't that stiff-necked hero just let himself go and scream already! Least he could do is let me know he's alive! He pushed his hands back through his hair. Oh, no! Not you! Not Alexander Scott, no sirree Bob! You have to be all upright and stoic all the damned time! Would it kill you to just let out a little peep from time to time, instead of just daring them to go further and further trying to get a rise out of you? Just a little bit of noise to let your long-suffering partner know you’re still alive? Is it too much to ask you to just give me a damned sign!

            He was closer to Scotty than he had ever been to any other human being, in his entire life, but there was still a place inside the man, a closed-off room he could never penetrate, and when things were really bad for Scotty, he went there, went there and closed the door with a solid CLICK! right in Kelly’s face, locking him out, keeping him at bay. Oh, how he hated that!

            It didn’t make sense to him, for one thing. He’d grown up the only child of an honorable but distant father. After his Mom had– After she was gone, his Dad had withdrawn even further. He taught young Kelly so much about Justice, and so much about man’s inhumanity to man, taught him how important it was not to stare into that abyss that, as Nietzsche wrote, looks also into you. He’d taught him the importance of bringing monsters to book for their crimes.... But he’d taught his son damned little of love, of hate, even of feeling itself.... And even so, Kelly was all nerve endings, all feelings, always looking for connections, always opening his heart. And Scotty, raised by such an amazing lady, with that great little sister, and a little brother, too, off in Dental school, if you could believe that, Scotty was the one who could back himself into that little room inside, and slam the doors shut on the whole universe, putting a barrier between his heart and the world that would make that pointy-eared guy on the TV space show proud.

            Maybe he needed it, to protect himself, to be what he’d worked so damned hard to be.... But Kelly wondered if he knew what that cost the people who – and, especially here in his head, Kelly wasn’t afraid to use the word of himself – loved him.

            And now he prowled the small basement room, every movement an unnoticed exercise in conquering the pain within him, and wondered whether the only person left he truly loved was alive or dead, wondered if one of those cracks he’d heard had been a pistol-shot, and he concentrated on the only thing he could do: Keep moving, keep moving, and listen, listen, listen.

            The grunt that eventually came, low and guttural, alternating between some African language and English obscenities, accompanied by heavy footfalls, and also, oh, my stars and garters, the dragging of heels on the floor, was perhaps the sweetest sound Kelly had ever heard. They wouldn’t bother dragging a stiff back to the cell. Time enough to drag my body out and throw it in the pit with his later.

            He had backed away to the far wall by the time the dim light clicked on and the door banged open. He needed to see to Scotty, first and foremost. No need to make things difficult with pointless attempts to attack or escape... Or even make the Mountain think he was planning such. He stood, facing the door, his hands open and facing forward, a few inches from his sides: I am no threat to you. Don't worry about me. Just give me my friend.

            The Mountain stood in the doorway, his expression frustrated, his hands hooked into Scotty's armpits as he hung volitionless, his heels dragged behind him on the floor. The Mountain stared at Kelly with wordless hate, then threw the unconscious agent across the room as easily as a ragdoll. The slack figure struck Kelly full on, and it was all he could do to wrap his hands around his partner's form as he fell back, curling to shield him from the concrete wall and floor as they fell.

            By the time he had gathered the wits to look, Kefenste was gone, and the door, shut.

            They lay tangled on the cold floor, Kelly squeezing his eyes shut in a series of slow-motion blinks, marshaling his will against the sickness swirling through him. He didn’t matter, his roiling gut and ringing head didn’t matter. Scotty mattered.

            “Okay, Dobbsie,” he murmured. “All right now. How we doin’, Lancelot? Doin’ okay? Come on, talk to Kel.”

            There was no response. His hands were moving with professional thoroughness over his partner’s form, over limbs and ribs and neck and skull, trying to ascertain the extent of the injuries. Scotty had been beaten, certainly, with some sort of whip or lash, but as far as Kelly could tell, there were no broken bones. Small favors, but today, I’ll take what I can get!

            “Come on, Herman, talk to me, man, talk to me, willya?” His hands were both controlled and frantic as they moved over the dark, battered skin. “Tell me what you need, okay? Please?”

            The form stirred, and a soft, quiet moan came from within. “Russ- Russell?”

            “Oh, man, is that justice? I’m the one here with you, and you’re calling for the boss?

            “I didn’t cry, Russell. I didn’t let him go after you.” The voice was proud and plaintive. “Not tonight, Russell, not tonight, okay?”

            Kelly’s eyes widened. “You’re not talking to Russell Gabriel Conway, I’ll tell you that right now. What is it, Scotty? Talk to me.”

            “He won’t be drinking tonight, boy, and he’s got it all out for now, so he won’t be after you or Mom. You’re all right, Russell, you’re okay for tonight.”

            “Jesus!” Kelly sat back an inch or two, still cradling his partner in his arms. “Your brother. Mom?! Oh, Scotty, man, where are you?”

            “You just hang on, Russell, just hang on, I promise it won’t always be like this. One day, when I’m big enough, I’ll be able to really stop him. I promise, Russell, just hang on, okay? You won’t always have to be afraid of Daddy.”

            “Jesus!” Kelly’s mind reeled at this gut-punch within a gut-punch. He knew Scotty’s father was away. He was a Navy man, served overseas, sent some money home when he could. He’d never known more about him than that, but that was enough. A Navy man, away from home, providing for his family. Kelly had always thought of him with the vague admiration due a virtuous man one didn’t know.

            But this window had opened into Scotty’s depths, into his childhood, into his past.... Into that secret room he’d been so bitterly resenting, and now he was seeing a different Virgil Scott. Drunkard, child-beater. Wife beater? Kelly tried to imagine Mom – imagine Grace Scott – cowed and beaten before some lumbering, gin-sodden hulk of a man, and his mind wouldn’t, couldn’t, conjure up the image. But Scotty, Alexander Scott, what, a teenager? Earlier? Standing between that hulk and his family? Oh, that he could see! Oh, Scotty!

            He jiggled his partner softly in his arms. “Come on, partner, rise and shine, now. No more time for napping. No more time to laze about, come on.” Yeah, come on, man, come back to me, man, wake up, because I don’t think I can even live if I hear one more word of this. This is the secret place I wanted into, and Alexander Scott, you magnificent son of a bitch, I want out, so WAKE UP!

            Kelly’s face was crumpled into a mask of rage and pity, and his hand traced over his partner’s head, over the tightly-kinked hair that was surprisingly soft under his fingertips. His hand returned for a second caress, and he suddenly saw himself from the outside: the gesture, as an adult to a child; the expression, pity and horror. If Scotty saw that... He hardened his face, and shook Scotty a little more firmly. A kind of seismic shudder rolled up the long, dark body from feet to head, a wrenching, clenching spasm, and he groaned, low and harsh.

            “Woah! Easy, there, ole cowpoke. Ease on up there.” Kelly's voice was soft  as he steadied Scotty through the tremor. “But you gotta come on, man, come on back. I need you now.” He gave him another gentle shake. “Please?”

            “Don’t worry, Russell.” Scotty’s words were an echo of just a few moments ago, but his tone was very different; his voice was rougher, but also more immediate, more solidly concrete. Kelly drew in a breath that was almost a wince in itself. He needed his partner, time was running short, but he hated to see him lose the shelter of unconsciousness. “It’s all right.” His eyes were starting to blink open. “It’s going to be okay, Russell, I promise.”


            Kelly worked to guard his expression, worked not to wince as his partner’s eyes focused on him, then dipped. He busied his hands ripping apart the remains of the torn, sliced, bloodied undershirt. “I don’t know how you figure that, Stanley,” he said, using the shreds to dab at the blood smeared over the brown skin, “but by the time you are reporting to Russell Gabriel, you should probably do it in the past tense, am I right?”

            “You think?” groaned Scotty.

            “Yes, I do,” Kelly replied. “Good grief, you have to ask? And you a linguist, too, Hortense, how embarrassing is that?”

            “Well, you know...” Scotty’s voice was soft. “I haven’t had my coffee yet, you see.” He visibly steeled himself, and looked up into Kelly’s eyes, then drew in a deep breath through his nose. The verbal fig-leaf of plausible deniability, silently offered, was as silently accepted. “You know I’m no good until I’ve had a cup of Joe.”

            “Yeah, well...” Kelly trailed off as Scotty swiped at his eyebrow with the back of an impatient hand,  sweeping aside a trickle of blood that was dripping near his right eye. He reached out with the torn shirt, and dabbed gently there, as well. He bit back a gasp as the damage was revealed; the white of the eye was bright red, the swelling around it all of a piece with the livid welts that seemed to cut across Scotty's face like knife-slashes He cleared his throat, then spoke again, his voice as easy as if his back weren’t a wound steel spring. "Man, that Kefenste, he really seemed to get more into his work with you than with me, Melvin."

            "How you figure?" Scotty was looking down at his shoes again.

            "Well, you know, he just gave me the odd zap when Alaaeddin gave the word.” Kelly’s tone was casual, as if he wasn’t still fighting the urge to double over the fire in his center. “Looks like he really went after you, though, and he sounded pretty enthusiastic from here. Of course, I guess he had to be, to make up for you being such a damned shellmouth!” He glanced at the familiar scar over his partner’s collarbone, now wet with the blood of a new wound. “What'd he hit you with, anyway?"

            The scuffed toes of Scotty’s sneakers clearly held endless fascination. "His belt, man."

            "His belt? Really?” Kelly asked despite himself. “Man, that's– What's that all about?"

            Scotty shuffled his feet as he sat up, looking down at the scuffed sneakers. "I dunno, Hoby,” he finally mumbled. He took another breath, glanced briefly up at his partner. “Maybe he got into some rum-flavored caramels, man."

            The hand holding the bloodstained shirt drifted slowly down into Kelly's lap. Somewhere in the house, a fan kicked on, or an air conditioner, and the 25-watt bulb flickered, the shadows moving over their faces as if they were sitting by a campfire.

            “The demon himself,” Kelly finally said, all the skills of his job bent to keeping his tone light. “Well, we both know, a man who’s been into them, well, anything can happen.”

            “True, true,” his partner murmured to the dirty sneakers.

            Kelly looked down at the floor as well, eyes drawn to a dark crack in the concrete, so black in the dim light that it could have gone a fraction of an inch, or to the center of the Earth. “Yeah, the Mountain’s quite a guy. You know he got into this business, what, twenty years ago? After he beat his five-year-old son to death. Kid was trying to get between the Mountain and his mom, see, and old Letsego Kefenste, well, he took exception to his son being a hero." He ignored Scotty's soft snort upon hearing the word, little more than a breath, ignored his partner's headshake, and pressed on. "The demon himself, you see, was in him even then.”

            “Five years old.” Scotty’s voice was quiet. “You wonder where that kid would be if he’d managed to survive? Living through something like that, you know, it can really mess with a kid’s mind.” Alexander Scott started to raise his face to Kelly's, but, clearly unable to look him in the eye, looked down unhappily at the crack in the floor. Kelly frowned, looking hard at his partner's face, trying but failing to catch Scotty's averted eyes. “Probably leave him a little screwy for the rest of his life.”

            “Yeah, well, you know, Fred C, a kid who'd put himself in harm's way like that, to protect his mother, risk getting killed, get himself beat... The wonderfulness of that kid, y'know? If he'd lived, he oughta been proud of himself.”

            Scotty's voice was hard, cold. "But he didn’t, did he?" He modified his desperate tone, reaching for casual. "He died, and his mom died, and, and none of it meant a thing."

            "Oh, I think it did," Kelly said lightly, but firmly. His hand reached out and touched an uninjured spot on Scotty's shoulder. "No shame in having crummy, lousy stuff happen to you when you can't stop it. You know that." He drew a breath. “All a guy can do is his best to do what’s right. Even if it’s at a terrible cost.”

            “Yeah, well...” Scotty reached down, picked at a loose shred of rubber from the binding of his sneaker. “Some prices are too high. And sometimes, the wrong guy has to pick up the tab. How could some little kid like that foot that bill and not end up, you know, damaged goods?”

            Kelly looked back down into the tiny infinity of that crack on the floor, fingertips lightly brushing Scotty's shoulder, and then looked back up to his partner. “When my dad was in Nuremburg, he told me what my man Nietzsche said: ‘That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.’ I mean, you know, the kid would have had to have it in him, but it is possible to rise above...” Kelly gestured vaguely with one hand. “Well, whatever you gotta, I guess.”

            Scotty lifted his eyes to meet his partner's. “Might be a whole life, though, wondering if he was really rising above it, ‘cause he’s always stuck down in it, inside himself.”

            Kelly’s smile was, for a moment, as gentle and happy as if they’d been sharing a sunset at Las Brisas or dessert at Grace Scott’s table in Philadelphia. “Well that, you see, is why our excellent young man would have friends. To tell him when he can’t tell himself, you see, that he’s made it.”

            The Queen’s arms were not long enough to encompass both of them, so what was attempted as a giddily-squealing embrace ended up something akin to a spread-armed push, before she gathered Jed’s and Leo’s hands in hers and pulled them into the suite.

            “You did it!” she cried, pulling them toward a modernist sofa in front of a very large – possibly even twenty-seven inch – console television. On the screen, black-and-white video, ghosting and unsteady, showed a rioting crowd battling police before an onion-domed palace. Signs, crudely painted in elegant Arabic, were swung as weapons against truncheon-wielding forces. “Look!” Nejmet cried. “On the Sultan’s very doorstep!”

            “And Kelly and Scotty?” asked Jed Bartlet. “Has there been any word?”

            The dancing eyes dimmed. “No. The King called. He tells me he and Sharif’s team are going to question the landlord of that house.” She pushed delicate fingers through lustrous hair. “They’re still captive, and here I dance and squeal my joy! Such an example I set for my people!”

            “Your Majesty...” Jed Bartlet’s tone was soft and urgent. He gestured toward the flickering screen. “That is why all this has happened. That’s why all of us have done what we have. Why Kelly and Scotty put their lives on the line. Why we stood silent while Amr Hassan lied to his father.”

            “You know,” said Leo, “now is probably the time to go tell him.”

            “Wait, lied?” The Queen looked back and forth between them. “What do you mean?”

            Leo turned to her. “I’m sorry, your Majesty. When we visited the hotel room, bin Yazeed was not persuaded by the printout. Hassan used blank cardboard from a box of new shirts to convince him he was seeing the pictures.”

            “And we stood there,” said Jed Bartlet, “and let him lie to his blind father because it suited our purpose.” he turned to Leo. “You’re right, we have to–”

            He was stilled by Leo’s raised hand, his expression of surprise, and he turned to follow his eyes to the television. The screen now showed a business-suited, swarthy man with a dark beard, speaking to the camera, while, displayed behind him, was Kyoichi Sawada’s famous portrait photograph of bin Yazeed, looking both ethereal and eternal, his face grim and clouded with dark judgment.

            They listened to the deep, low tones of the newscaster, Arabic pouring forth from the TV’s speaker like sepulchral music, and Nejmet’s hand flew to her mouth, eyes widening.

            “Your Majesty, please!” said Jed.

            Her voice was choked. “The blind Imam. El-Hassan bin Yazeed. He is dead, he is dead. He was found dead in his hotel room, just minutes ago.” She paused again, to listen to the newsreader. “Amr Hassan called for help. He said he’d left the room to buy shirts in the hotel shop, and when he returned, his father lay dead in their suite!”

            The two Americans turned to one another, exchanging wide-eyed stares.

            Kelly’s hands worked their way down Scotty’s left calf, massaging the ankle with deft, strong fingers. “Yes, sir,” he said, “just as I thought.”

            Scott smirked down at him. “What’s the prognosis, Doctor?”

            “You’re going to be in enormous pain the whole time we’re fighting.”

            “Well, that’s good, man, that’s great, ‘cause, you see, there’s really nothing to concentrate the mind quite like fighting while doubled over in agony. Suppose we just sit this one out?”

            “Well, that’s one option, but I was thinking about that other thing that concentrates the mind so well.”

            “As well as fighting for your life when you just wanna lie down and cry?”

            “Maybe better.”

            “And what’s that, Hoby?”

            “That’s, they’re gonna kill us in about a half-hour!”

            Scotty looked at him for a moment. “You’re right, that one’s good, too.”

            “See? What did I tell you, Gaston?”

            Scotty stood, stretching his hands over his head. His breath whistled inward between his suddenly-clenched teeth, but he bent back as far as he could, and Kelly straightened, with no small effort, and began to do the same.

            “You’re right, Alphonse,” Scotty grunted. “As easy as falling off a log.”

            “Through a wood chipper.”

            “And into a meat grinder.”

            “Then a blender.”

            “Set to ‘Puree.’”

            “We should make a hell of a Smoothee,” Kelly managed, somehow combining a clenched grimace with a smirk.

            “With you as half the ingredients? Couldn’t be served to minors, man! Be about a hundred-and-forty proof.”

            “Too bad Alaaeddin seems to be a ‘good Muslim,’” Kelly groaned, bending down to touch his toes. “Won’t even touch that Demon Rum. Otherwise, see, we could make us into that Smoothee, get him to drink us, then escape while he’s sloshed.”

            “You know who will, though,” Scotty breathed, sinking into another deep knee bend. “The Mountain. Remember his dossier?”

            “Didn’t he used to go get himself drunk right after he beat some poor soul into toothpaste?”

            “You know, I believe he did.”

            “’Course, he’s still bigger and stronger than King Kong.”

            Scotty’s grin was feral. “Nearly as smart, too.”

            “’Course, the other guys have guns,” said Kelly.

            “True, true,” replied Alexander Scott. “I like to think of that as a kindness.”

            “Do you? And how’s that, Stanley?”

            “Think of them as providing for others who haven’t brought their own.”

            Kelly smiled at him. “You know, that’s what I really respect about you, man, your ability to see the good in everybody. Here I was resenting those kind souls, but you have shown me the error of my ways.”

            “Well, I would hope I have, man, honestly. You should be more charitable.”

            “You know, I really should, sir, I really should at that.”

            Something like the very grimmest of smiles was playing with the King’s lips as he slid into the back of the al-Shurafaa car with Maher Sharif. “In the middle of my reclamation project,” he was telling his most trusted security man. “It seems this Alaaeddin has a sense of humor!”

            “I find little cause, Majesty, for mirth.” Maher tapped the glass divider, and, when the driver glanced back, nodded at him, and then, as the car  set off, looked back to his King. “He has made the most dishonorable war upon the Kingdom, and your Majesties.”

            “I would not be much of a King, my friend, if I was not prepared to be the target of our enemies, and Nejmet would not be much of a Queen. Filthy as his attack was, friend Alaaeddin shows glimmerings of wit. I am willing to acknowledge that while I stuff his filth down his throat!” He glanced out the window. “And soon is the battle joined.”

            Maher’s expression darkened. “Would that I could forbid you, Majesty! Such a battle is no place for our King!”

            The King’s eyes did not, in fact, flare with sparks and flames, but they may as well have. “He attacked my wife, Maher. I claim the privilege!”

            The car slowed, and the driver glanced back at Maher, who nodded. The glass partition slid smoothly down into the seat-back. “I have just heard,” the driver said, “On our security band: the blind Imam is dead. His son... found... him in their hotel room, shortly after he had called his people back in Qumar.”

            The King did smile then, dark and cynical. “And so, as soon as the Bahji gain teeth, Amr Hassan is there to take their reins. Bin Yazeed dead. Did he fall, or was he pushed? A pit of vipers!” He leaned toward the driver. “Thank you, Nasir.”

            The driver nodded – “Your Majesty.” – and the glass partition slowly rose again.



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