Excerpt from Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Felaheen
published January 2006
by Bantam Spectra
Wednesday 2nd February
"Nicolai..." Emir Moncef’s call was for his bodyguard. A small and intense Uzbek whose name was probably something completely different. The Uzbek and a Tajik called Alex took turns to protect the Emir. They were a recent birthday present from the Soviet ambassador. One Moncef had not known how to refuse.
He called again, just in case either guard was within hearing, then turned his attention back to the snake. Death was always going to come. That it chose to manifest as a slithering viper was unexpected but not impossible. Although, if the elderly Emir had been forced to bet (a vice he deplored), he’d have selected a fat-tailed scorpion as being more likely.
Scorpions got carried into camp on the flatbeds of trucks or in date baskets. Once, if he remembered correctly, a fat-tail had hitched a lift in the cuffs of an NCO’s dress trousers. The man had succumbed within hours and the Emir had banned cuffs on all uniforms from then on.
He would die as he had lived his last forty years, in the simplicity of Ifriqiya’s southern desert. A place where privation reduced leaves to water-protecting spikes and insects hid within thickly waxed bodies to conserve what little water they contained; where beetles survived on one meal in two years, if the habitat so demanded, and glass wort displayed a near-suicidal tolerance for salt.
Tossing back his a’aban, a heavy cloak still worn by Berber men of a certain age, Emir Moncef raised a silver-topped stick. Ready to defend himself.
"Get behind me..." His order was aimed at a boy in camouflage who still gripped a Nintendo game pad with frozen fingers.
The Emir’s younger son shook his head.
That the Emir used his real name scared the boy almost as much as the viper now crawling its way across a carpet. Mostly his father called him SP, which stood for small pasha, a name he’d been given by his mother before she was killed. His mother had been one of the Emir’s guard, an American convert from Los Angeles.
Her Jeep had gone off the side of a cliff. An accident.
"Do as I say."
Looking from his father to the horned viper, the twelve-year-old again shook his head. Snakes were rare in the camp, dangerous or otherwise, because intricate webs of woven copper wire lay buried beneath the perimeter. The webs created an electric field that upset snakes, scorpions and spiders. That was what Eugenie de la Croix said anyway. And it was her job to know these things.
"Don’t be afraid. Just back away."
Afraid? Several options presented themselves to Murad and none involved fear or retreat. His duty was to defend his father, His Highness Moncef al-Mansur, better known as the Emir of Tunis and ruler of Ifriqiya (father of his people, loved by all). This Murad knew from reading it each morning in the cheap, Arab-language red tops the Emir insisted on having delivered by helicopter.
Kashif Pasha punches American paparazzi...
Today’s Es Sabah lay on a leather and oak table, one so ancient its iron nails had gone dark as the wood and quite as shiny.
Under the paper rested a photograph album almost as old. No one was allowed to look inside. Which was why Murad had never been able to ask why it contained postcard after postcard of bare-breasted women ranging from girls his own age to those as old as his mother would have been.
Berber said some, others Taurag. Most were simply described as Mauresque, sometimes Belle Mauresque, occasionally Jeune Femme Arabe . . . Once as Tuenisch-orientalische Typen. Almost all stared flat-eyed at the camera. As if trying to withdraw from a world where colonial officers scribbled "c’est très intéressant" across the back, stuck a five-centime stamp over the breast of a twelve-year- old and posted it to a cousin in Marseilles.
Outside, speakers blared male habtl madjatch, a rai track even older than his father, whose favorite song it was. The rhythms and repetitions, drum and weird whistle as familiar to the boy as any adhan, the call to prayer, though Murad would never admit as much and even thinking so worried him.
So be it. His choice was made. As God wills.
Murad added inshá allá without even noticing. The way his mother used to say bless you every time he sneezed.
He was twelve, after all. Old enough for what came next. Fires had been lit for the midday meal and someone nearby was roasting goat over branches ripped from a thornbush, both wood and goat having been brought in by truck. There was no kindling this far south. He would miss the meal and the camp and his father...
Their previous camp had been better, more to do and less sand. The goat-hair tents were carried on camels only when photographers were around. The rest of the time a ponytailed Texan called Pigpen bundled the tents into trucks and broke them down and set them up wherever the Emir wanted.
Few outsiders understood why the Emir allowed a nasrani such freedom. Those who did had seen the speed at which the Texan could break down a camp when the old man wanted it done really fast.
"Pull yourself together..." The Emir was cross now.
"I’m not frightened," Murad shot back with all the indignation he could muster. "I’m planning." His father was always telling him to think ahead.
Dropping his Nintendo, Murad reached for a silver coffee jug and flipped back its lid. The jug was inlaid with copper and bronze. Even its ivory handle was hot. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the Emir shake his head but it was too late, Murad had already hurled coffee into the face of the horned viper.
Most of it missed.
Ignoring the old man’s demand and the sudden hammering of fear in his own ears, Murad threw the silver pot after the coffee, just managing to hit the viper’s tail. So much for his first plan. On a sidewall of the tent hung the sword his greatgrandfather took from a dying colonel after a skirmish outside Neffatia, the year the French were driven from Tunisia, as Ifriqiya was then called. The boy was lunging for this when Emir Moncef stepped forward, grabbed Murad by the shoulder and threw him towards the entrance with more force than the old man knew he possessed. He understood when a viper was about to attack, even if his youngest son didn’t.
Part of the Emir still hoped that fate might allow him to step back from danger; because courage was one thing and stupidity another and to grow old in this world one needed to be able to tell the difference. But the viper was ready to strike. Something the old man realized, he suspected, even before the reptilian, pea-sized brain that was his death’s whole being.
Moncef al-Mansur looked death in the eyes, heard its hiss and felt time slow as the viper froze on the edge of movement. The Emir was too old and too exhausted by his argument with Murad to be able to avoid a strike completely, so he made do with twisting matador style in the hope that the bite might be less than total. In this alone he was lucky. One fang buried itself deep into his calf, the other tore the cloth of a robe that time and washing had reduced to the consistency of rotten sack.
The last thing Emir Moncef heard before he fell to the floor and found himself face-to-face with the carpet was his son begin to scream. A noise loud enough to drown out the music of Cheb Khaled and the running feet of his absent guards. The last of which, had the Emir been able to hear it, would merely have confirmed his opinion that panic and fury had no place in a well-run camp.