The premise here is flawed. Its based on the idea that everything we do for fun has to be a game. Narrative RPs aren't really games. They are strictly social. You could retitle that article "Why quilting circles are doomed to fail" and it'd show perfectly why it doesn't work You aren't going to say "Quilting circles fail because granny doesn't want to give up her edge in patches per hour for the good of the quilt"
The flaw in the premise is seeing "mob rule" as the problem. If it is strictly social, then yeh, it's gonna be driven by whatever the group writing it wants it to be driven by. If you and a group of friends don't manage to entertain everybody who ever hangs out or wants to hang out with you, you wouldn't consider that social circle a failure. Some people will drop out of RPs.
If there is any argument for why they fail, its probably because their scope is too big for their members to realize. Five or ten people ain't gonna manage to constantly update a story on time indefinitely. If they manage a year, and some do, then that alone is a major damned success.
------------------------------------------------------------------------------- September 13th: Gondar, Begmeder Province, Ethiopia -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Ergete was no prisoner. He realized this immediately, and it derailed his entire concept of his place in the world. They put him in a room on the second floor of the Mesfin's Residence: a building more like a city hall, half of it dedicated to public functions and half dedicated to private. It was in the colonial style, built out of juniper wood and plaster and surrounded by a spacious two-story wooden veranda.
He could walk onto the second floor deck and look out across the market. If he wanted to, he could jump. It wasn't that far down. But they'd told him not to and so he didn't. Not because he was a prisoner; he would have made the jump anyway in that case. Rather, they told him they had something for him. A gift. And he believed them. Or at least he was curious. Fate was always hiding out there somewhere for him, reaching out a hand. His gut told him this was such a hand. So he stayed, and stewed, waiting for his time.
Gondar had the appearance of a town out of the middle ages. It was nestled in the tropical green ambas and mountains of Ethiopia's ancient heartland, dominated by its open air market smelling of spices, and by the stone castle complex that once was the home of the Emperors, so that it looked like a town in an equatorial fairy tale. He could see the castles from here, peeking from behind the trees, silent and timeless. They were in the Portuguese mode, designed for the Emperor by those people when they roved the coasts of Africa, in the days when they were trying to plant the Papal religion in these parts. It was brown stone, rounded crenelations, and the uniquely Iberian mix of Arabic and European tastes. Though the castles stood quiet, the roads bustled all around their grounds.
How strange it was to be here now, like this. This town was his goal. The ancient homeland of the Amharics seemed the most fitting place to rebuild the country in the image of democracy. Addis Ababa was too new, a product of the Emperors alone, no national character. Gondar would be his capital.
But he'd meant to enter it on horseback, an army at his back. Instead... well, what was going on here? They fed him well. He ate meaty wat and drank fresh juice every day, like he were living the life of a Neftanya. He expected the Mesfin to visit him, but the days went by, and nothing was heard. They gave him fresh water to wash with and a bible to read.
Was it a trick? What kind of trick? He didn't understand it. If they wanted to, they could have killed him at the plantation house. They could have thrown him in prison. They could have hung him in the market. But none of that. It was juice and wat. Destiny was here. His gut told him so. But how would destiny appear?
On the tenth of September, somebody important arrived in town, followed by a column of armed retainers on horseback, looking like modern day knights returning to Camelot, but their lances traded for rifles and their armor for shammas. They came to the Mesfin's residence, and he heard the bustle of their arrival, but that was all. He heard nothing of who they were, so his mind wandered. Could it be the Mesfin returning from a patrol? The men he'd seen looked noble and war-like. Everything he'd heard about the Mesfin of Begmeder suggested the man to be built like a priest; a bureaucrat, not a horseman. These men had experienced battle. He could see it in the way they carried themselves. A warrior was vigilant and knew it. That gave them a subtle pride, not like swaggering village boys come back from fucking the town witch, but like lions, aware that they may be attacked at any moment, confident they can handle whatever comes, and completely comfortable with their place in the world.
That night he worried about it in his sleep. Worry wasn't in his nature. He blamed the rich food, and promised himself to eat more sparingly, before crickets lullabied him to sleep.
On the eleventh of September, the attitude in the city changed. It happened in the afternoon as people left the market. There were whispers, and it made Gondar somber. Listening out at the people from the balcony, he could hear them talking about some disaster. That evening, a note was delivered along with his meal. There had been a battle near Harar. The Emperor's army was defeated. Ras Hassan was overwhelming the east.
This set Ergete's mind to spinning. Who couldn't have predicted this? In the settlement after the Great War, the Somalis were given undue power. Half of the Ethiopian nation was ruled by them. It had been assumed by those in power, talked about like it were in the gospel, that the Somalis were given so much freedom they wouldn't want to be independent. Why face the modern world alone? The white race ruled the southern part of the African continent. Might they not look at an independent Somalia and become greedy?
But that assumed all Somalia would ever want is independence. Why have independence when you could rule it all?
Of course, it would never work. Ethiopia had held off the Muslim invaders for one thousand years. This land was God's land, it could not be taken by force. But for Ergete, his faith in God still flickering in his heart like an unquenchable flame, there was an opportunity here. The Emperor was in the way of democracy. Now he was weakened.
Ergete's mind raced but he was still in a cage. He couldn't do anything from here. He needed to get out. But where did he go after this? Destiny hadn't pointed the way.
So that day passed him by. He felt stuck.
The morning of the twelfth of September, he went out to look over the market, and the answer came to him. A girl no older than thirteen, wrapped in white, stopped in the street and looked up at him.
"Are you the Fitawrari" she yelled. She had a pretty face and nervous eyes.
"Yes" he said, giving her a winning smile. Should he be announcing himself like this? Of course. This was destiny.
All thoughts of fate and destiny fled his mind when she threw an egg at him. It struck him in the forehead. She must have ran away, but he didn't see, because of the yoke running down his eyes. Something else came out too, something solid. He felt it bounce off his nose. He didn't see it, but he knew it must be an unborn chick. Why the insult? Was she just a dumb kid? A child of a Neftanya? Or did she know something...
He wiped the egg off with his shamma, and when he did this, he saw that what bounced off his nose hadn't been a bird fetus, but a piece of paper. He quickly picked it up and brought it inside.
"Ras Wolde Petros Mikael is in Gondar. You will be sold to him if you do not escape. You have friends. Come to the coffee shop across from Giyorgis Church after dusk."
This didn't scare him. It excited him. This was the world he knew, the one he was supposed to inhabit. This was the hand of destiny he had waited for all this time
When his captors brought him food, he picked at the wat with his fingers and saved the bread, but he drank the juice in one gulp. Was there anything in his room that could be useful? It was spare, but he had to take something. He decided to take the blanket from his bed, and an icon of Saint Frumentius. The portrait was small enough to hide, and he felt there was a story there, one that could be appreciated by future generations.
The sun began to go down, red light showing shadows on the roughly painted walls. When should he go? He was preparing himself mentally. It would be a dash in the dark, and a desperate one. He still hadn't completely recovered from his time under the church. But he knew he could make it because it was necessary for him to make it.
It was time. He stood up and took a deep breath. Outside, he heard birds. The door was open for him to dash through.
But he didn't get the chance. The door to his room opened and two burly men with knives on their belts came in and took him. It was too late! He should have started earlier! He swallowed the note before they got to him. They didn't seem to notice. The paper tasted like raw egg.
They brought him through the thin halls. Wood floors creaked beneath his feet, and the plaster walls seemed to drink the light from the atmosphere so it felt like they were in a moderately lit cave.
Okay, so he hadn't been able to liberate Frumentius. But something was happening here he could escape from. Being sold to the Mesfin of Wollo meant he was going to travel through regions loyal to him. A break out! Unless they tried to kill him here.
He was brought into a dining room, a hefty wooden table in the middle. All the men were standing, and there were a lot of men, facing each other like brigades on the battlefield. The diminutive Mesfin Issayas Seme was the only man sitting, looking like an over-blown bureaucrat, just like Ergete had heard. The Mesfin looked about forty. He was mostly bald, with thin framed glasses resting on his nose and a noticeable paunch, like he'd never done a real day's effort in his entire life. On the other side of the table was a number of men in white robes and shammas, shoulders stiff, knifes at their belts. The bearded man in the middle stood out in his embroidered cape with lions mane on the shoulders. That, Ergete knew, was Ras Wolde Petros Mikael.
"This is him?" Wolde Petros said, looking at Ergete like a lion looks at a dog.
"This is him." Issayas replied. The contrast between Wolde Petros powerful voice and Issayas thin one made the latter sound frightened, though his expression didn't show it.
"He looks like a beggar. This man wants to be a Prime Minister?"
There was a silence. Ergete was considering his options. Wolde Petros seemed over-proud. That could be a weakness. He might make mistakes
"I'm ready to take you." Wolde Petros added, staring Ergete down. Ergete did not faulter, and so they stared. There was a strange pause in the action hanging over both parties. It was like the cogs of a machine that'd froze up.
"Not yet." Issayas replied quietly.
That was interesting. Ergete's mind shifted fully from the future to the moment. All eyes went to the bureaucrat.
"What are you playing at?" Wolde Petros looked down at the sitting Mesfin.
"Sit down." Issayas invited. Wolde Petros did. Issayas looked up at Ergete. "You too." he said. Ergete sat.
So they were there, looking like conspirators. Ergete saw a slight smile on Issayas' face. It looked like a release, a sign of relief.
"The Emperor is doomed." Issayas said simply.
That was very interesting. Ergete looked at Wolde Petros. The Ras... what was that expression? Fear at first? It became rage.
"What?" was all he managed to say. His men tensed up. Issayas' men tensed up. All the men in the room save Ergete and Issayas were armed, most with knives, some with pistols on Issayas' side.
"I have a proposal." Issayas unfolded his hands and put one on the table. "One" a finger shot out, "You become the Emperor."
Ergete felt a feeling like pleasure, almost a minor orgasm in his mind. He was so close to this. A part of it. He loved it.
"Two." a second finger, "Ergete is allowed to form a constitution. He cannot do it alone but will bring together all officials who want to be part of this. Three." a third finger, "We negotiate with Hassan. Four" a fourth finger, "We do not commit violence against his Imperial Majesty unless he forces us to."
Nothing was said. The room was very tense. Ergete knew he was grinning ear to ear but he didn't try to control it. Wolde Petros looked stunned
Issayas continued talking. "It's inevitable. I do not believe this war ends with Sahle as Emperor. His government is corrupted, they don't have the ability to win this thing. You know this."
"I will not hear this." Wolde Petros stood up. He turned around. "He is my blood you know." he said, then he turned back to them. "You are under arrest. You and the shifta both. I will have you packaged to Sahle like sheep!" His rage had seemed to happen as he spoke, like he had left the moment for a time, and was talking his way back into it. His hand was on the hilt of his knife when he was done. His men followed his lead, but they moved slowly, blocked by Issayas' men.
"I ask again. I invite you because an Emperor will give us legitimacy. I invite Ergete because, though he is a shifta and a cattle thief, he has support with the people in the villages. The true power would be in the government..." Issayas said.
"You are under arrest..." Wolde Petros barked. His voice carried and ruled the room.
But Issayas was not cowed. He whistled shrill like a bird. Men came from every doorway, armed with swords and clubs and guns. Wolde Petros' party was surrounded.
Wolde Petros tried to rush at Issayas, but he was clubbed on the shoulder by one man, and then on the head by another. He punched a man in the face and tumbled over him before he was subdued. His men, overwhelmed three to one, flinched for their knives, but they saw it was hopeless and moved no further. They'd been defeated.
"I will not truss you up like a sheep." Issayas said. "You will be my guest. Your Emperor has done wrong to me, and to Ergete, and to every one of us. Take them away from us." The armed men did as told, and the room emptied with the stamp of feet on wood. Soon it was two guards, Issayas, and Ergete. The Mesfin turned to him.
"I am on your side if you are on my side." he said.
"I am on the side of democracy. If you are with me on that, then we are allies."
The Mesfin smiled. "The Neftanya are still a problem. They will fight you."
"I am surprised you fight them." Ergete replied, "I thought they were your allies."
"They do not like the government because they want to be the government instead. That is your first lesson in real democracy I think. The wealthy landowners are always the enemy of the government, no matter if the government is the King or the people. The only government they will accept is the one where we are all their servants."
"You sound like Chairman Hou."
"No." Issayas took a deep breath, "I'm just a tired man. And I have decided to make myself more tired than before." He took his glasses off, and massaged the bridge of his nose. "I can trust you?" he asked. He picked up his pen and began to write.
"Trust me? What are you doing?"
"Writing a plea to the Tigray Mekonnen. Then I'll write one to the family of the stubborn Ras is my guest bedroom. This is not a play. I don't want a war."
"You can trust me if you fight for what is right." Ergete said, his voice like a drum.
"I don't mean can I trust you like that. I apologize." he looked up for a moment, studying Ergete's eyes. "I mean can I trust that you are capable of conducting a war should it come to this? I know you were defeated in the field, but I also know you have the trust and support of a lot of my people. Mary in heaven do I know this."
"With the support of a province?" Ergete did not struggle to contain his excitement, "I can win the world."
"Well I don't need that." Issayas went back to writing, "I merely need a shield to negotiate behind. I will need to educate you, since you are now my partner..."
"Or do I need to educate you!" Ergete stood up, "I will win democracy for..."
"Sit down." Issayas didn't look up from his paper this time. Instead he merely waved a hand. "Your experiment in democracy is an idea that has met its time, I wager. I have no attachment to the feudal system. So you don't need to tell me every five minutes how much you like democracy."
Ergete sat down, feeling out of his element now. He might have been embarrassed if he knew how to be. Instead those emotions came to him as confusion. "Well, your wanting to make Ras Wolde Petros Emperor... you see why..."
"I will educate you." Issayas interrupted, "We should have an Emperor even if we have a constitution. It is the way of our country to have an Emperor, and we have too many self-indulged lords who would make themselves Emperor if the throne was empty. For democracy you need stability."
"They are ferengi and we are not. We do not do as the ferengi do. We are a different people."
Issayas letter was getting long. A part of Ergete was jealous of that letter. Such an important moment in history and he was just a body guard for these pieces of paper? "I am your shield then? This is not a revolution?"
"Call it what you want." Issayas said, "Words are the most important thing. The words I write, if they carry well, will save lives. You say revolution like the word is magical and changes what we do. People call this a civil war, and it creates a sense of fatality, and everybody thinks we are all natural enemies and we must chose a side because, well, we said civil war, that's how civil wars must work. What we have is a failure of words. This doesn't have to be a bloody revolution, does it? This doesn't really have to be a civil war." Issayas looked up, as if searching for his beloved words above the door frame. "What we have is a failure of the Imperial Government to function. That's all. No need for war. The Emperor's job is to keep his court in order so they can carry out their functions, but our Emperor is not capable of this job, so the thing has spun out. But there is no law of nature brought on by these words we use that means, just because Hassan wants to be a great man, he must fight our people to the death. There is no rule that says that, because Hamere noh Dagna wants respect, or Desta Getachew wants money, that they must take their corners and fight. And there is no rule saying that, because Ergete wants to be a beloved statesman, there must be a war in the north or bloody revolution. I want to sooth all the powers, and bring an end to the war."
"There is no rule that says, because Issayas Seme wants peace, it will be done so easily." Ergete replied.
"Fair." Issayas said. He was looking at Ergete now, and that made the shaken revolutionary feel more at ease somehow. Ergete was gaining his feet. "You name these names but I don't know why they matter. There are two simple conflicts. The people against the wrongs in their government, and the Muslim conqueror against the people of God."
"You didn't understand anything I said." Issayas said flatly. "I will expand it. Imagine the Emperor is the Sun. He is at the center of our government, and by the gravity of his office he keeps the orbits of the other great bodies in check. But our Emperor is no great sun, but a minor star, a dead star that hardly heats itself. So the greatest bodies of our Imperial solar system draw the lesser bodies nearer to them, so that the orbits of the entire system are in chaos. The greatest bodies in our solar system are Desta, Hamere, and of course, Hassan. They all have different places, different pulls. And since our Emperor won't regulate them, we must."
"I definitely didn't understand that." Ergete replied.
Issayas moved on. The tired bureaucrat took on a look like determination. "With the Emperor withdrawn from the throne, the important men are chasing their desires without governance. This has been true for a while. Hassan is the biggest threat. That man grew up during the greatest wars in Somali history. He lived in the shadow of the Mad Mullah, and he fought in the latter of those wars. There is nothing else in Somalia, and the Emperor has given him no meaningful task. So his ambition went back to the past, and attached itself to the wars of his grandfather and of the Mullah. Imagine if that ambition were turned to Empire-building? Now, Desta has filled the place Sahle left empty, being closer to the throne. And if Desta was a wise man who ruled for the sake of the Empire, he would have given Hassan more to do than manage a stationary army in the desert. But Desta wants to be rich. Not just rich, but American rich, in a land that does not have that kind of wealth wealth. And so he squeezes, and he ignores the needs of Ethiopia in favor of his specific goals. We know this here. Why do you think the Neftanya are a problem in the north? Because they are the only source of wealth here. The government neglects its duties in the north and let the lords run rampant, so that the wealth of the state can be spent expanding transportation grids in places Desta needs them to be for his coffee. So he ignores Hamere..."
"Who I don't know." Ergete interrupted.
"I am not surprised. We are far from the sea." Issayas said, "Well, and he's lower profile. Do you know what the Medri Bahri is?"
"Not quite, but close. In olden times, before the Zemene Mesafint, the Emperors of Ethiopia typically ruled to the sea. But to get to the sea you must cross difficult land, and the Emperors always had their eyes to the south and the east, where the Muslims and Pagans ruled. So they appointed a man to rule the coastal march, and called him Bahr Negus (King of the Sea). Now the world of the Emperors were fights against Adal, raids by the Oromo, the conquest of the Shankela. But the world of the Sea Kings were the Turks, and the Arabs, and trade along the Red Sea. So they became, in affect, two seperate realms. The realm of the ancient Sea Kings is what we call Eritrea today. The office was abolished when the Italians started their brief tenure, so the old Eritrean Sea Kings are long dead. But when Iyasu instituted his system of power-balance... which you understand?"
Ergete was interested. "Try me." he said, affecting nonchalance the best he could.
"Iyasu saw the government as overextended after the Great War, so even as he modernized the government of old Ethiopia, he dealt with new territories through balancing two powers. Somalia was an unnatural bedfellow, so when it was brought in as Adal, and gifted with the Ogaden desert as part of that deal, Iyasu rebalanced the system by giving Mogadishu, Djibouti, Assab, and Massawa over to another high officer, and fittingly he revived the title Sea King. In theory, having another powerful vassal the likes of Adal was supposed to give the mesfins of Adal pause. After all, they would naturally be in competition. Khalid al-Himyari did not value commercial Mogadishu over the hardened people of the Ogaden, but that was an oversight that would eventually be noticed, and Adal wouldn't be a friend to the Sea King. Plus, Iyasu had no interest in naval building and developing ports, so he he hefted that to a man powerful enough to manage those tasks properly."
"This is a foolish system." Ergete said.
"It was supposed to be temporary. Until the Ethiopian government was modernized and capable of properly digesting its new gains. It might have worked too, if Iyasu's heir had been competent."
"So this Hamere... is willing to sell out Christian civilization for? What?"
"He's negotiating. He believes he can find a place in Hassan's order if he has to, but what he really wants is..." Issayas smiled and looked down, "For me to write these letters, actually."
"What? Your letters?"
"He wants Sahle ousted. Well, fair enough. I don't respect Hamere's methods, but I agree with him about the Emperor. If Wolde Petros is out, we'll need a new one of course. The younger brother is the next best course, but I'm not sure he is any better..."
"I think I understand it." Ergete said. He was from the peasant class, and all his life the workings of the nobility had always been a contemptible mystery to him. But now he was seeing somewhat beyond those proletarian stereotypes. It looked like the revolution of people, for the people, by the people was not just a fire burning in the villages. It was ablaze all across the entire edifice of the old order. He always knew in his heart that his revolution was inevitable. Now he could see it with the same eyes as God.
The once English colonies of Kenya and Uganda united in common cause to overthrow white rule. A Houist government was installed, calling itself the Swahili People's Republic, commanded by a triumvirate of James Lutalo, the melodramatic and ambitious chairman of the party; Thomas Jefferson Murungaru, the moody and ambitious General Secretary; and Paulo Madada, the professional and serious Treasurer. After expelling the last white outpost at Mombasa and purchasing methamphetamines for his army from a shady doctor operating in Ethiopia's Danakil desert, TJ Murungaru has returned to Revolution Town, the capital in Uganda, to find the Communist State in tatters. Anarchists, commanded by the dynamic Marcel Hondo-Demissie and his beautiful wife Grace Odinga, harass them from the west leading the Watu wa Uhuru, or Free People, from their base at Fort Portal. Worse than this, a reactionary army of pillaging Christian extremists terrorize the countryside, calling themselves the FAG, or Freedom Army of God, led by the enigmatic Elder Saul Allred, Mormon Freedom Fighter turned bloody mercenary. They leave villages of crucified Muslims and non-believers in their wake and spread doubt about the competence of the Communist government.
In Ethiopia, forces converge to bring down the old order. Somalia, known by their Ethiopian overlords as the Province of Adal, is commanded by the talented and legacy focused Ras Hassan. Though his legacy lacks an heir suited for the tradition-minded Muslim Somalis, he has foisted his only daughter into that role, treating her as his son, though she feels more than anybody the pressure of her office in a land where women don't wield such power. Nominally, Ras Hassan commanded the Armies of the Ethiopian Kingdom, militarizing his Somali possessions for this purpose. But sensing weakness, he has cast off the bonds of the Christian Empire, declaring himself the Emir of Somalia, and declaring holy Jihad against Ethiopia, with the help of methamphetamines purchased off a shady doctor operating in Ethiopia's Danakil desert. Winning their first victories, his armies move in triumph toward Harar, threatening to severe the eastern half of Ethiopia from the rest of that embattled Empire.
In Ethiopia's northern highlands, the cattle rustler and self-imagined Robin Hood of Begmeder, Ergete Galawdeyos, declares himself Fitawrari: commander, for a new democratic movement aiming to liberalize the country and free it, especially from the rule of the Neftanya: sons of war heroes now become landlords over vast Latifundia in Begmeder province. His popular army grew until they were broken by the combined arms of Ras Wolde Petros Mikael, uncle of the Emperor and Lord of Wollo, and Ras Giyorgis Temare Mengesha, Lord of Tigray. With his army broken, Ergete went back into a life of raiding the rich until he was captured and imprisoned by Issayas Seme, the weaselly Governor of Begmeder.
The presence of a mysterious Doctor selling drugs to their enemies has not escaped the notice of the Shotel, Ethiopia's investigative and intelligence organization. Their newest agent, the young girl Leyla Masri, just out of an all girls school, earned her badge by showing exceptional shooting skills. She is paired with Agent Elias Zelalem as they go to investigate in the Swahili People's Republic.
The turmoil in Ethiopia surrounds its royal family. Decades earlier, the Crown Prince Yohannes and his wife Eleni had three children. The first was Sahle, followed by the only girl Taytu, followed lastly by the youngest, Yaqob. They meant for many more children, but Yohannes died young, and when the Emperor died his grandson Sahle took the throne. Dissolute and irresponsible, his poor reign has been at the center of Ethiopia's woes. Eleni prizes her three children and helps her son rule, hoping to protect him from the dangers of ruling a large kingdom.
Sahle's younger brother Yaqob looks at him like an example of how not to be. When Sahle is pleasure seeking, Yaqob is knowledge seeking. When Sahle is indifferent, Yaqob is idealistic. When Sahle is irresponsible, Yaqob thinks he would be more responsible. The idealistic young Prince has been sent to China, the seat of the Communist Empire ruled by Chairman Hou, who Yaqob happens to look up to. There, Yaqob has had time to read and ponder leftist politics. Living with the ambassador Akale Tebebe, the Prince finds himself the center of Right-Wing (China's "Financial Faction") schemes to get into Ethiopian markets using loopholes in the communist system. A maid lent to him by the Right-Wing magnet, Deng Zhong-shan, has made it very clear she wants to know him more intimately, and he has obliged her, making her his first love.
The Princess Taytu thinks her younger brother too idealistic, and her older brother the Emperor too incompetent. Written out of the Imperial inheritance by the nature of her sex, she has poured herself into becoming its premier Stateswoman, a job she found herself floundering in as an attache to the Embassy in the United States. Frustrated with her stifled attempts at diplomacy and the racial attitudes of the near-south, she went on a trip across the Western US, known for its radical leftist revolutionaries and free spirited attitudes, accompanied by her body guard Noh Mareko. While discovering America's west, they become hunted by racist bikers, ending in a shoot-out in which Taytu was injured. She was treated, then flown to Ethiopia to heal, but stopped in Spain when a fever forced her to seek immediate treatment. She now waits as Civil War spins in her homeland and something sinister grows around her in Spain.
This all orbits Sahle, Negus Negast, Conquering Lion of Judah. Not naturally disposed to rule, he has left his government in the hands of his Minister of the Pen, Desta Getachew. Desta wields power to increase his own wealth and the success of his coffee importing business. Sahle knows Desta rules for Desta's sake, and he does not truly trust him, but he does not care, seeking pleasure in sexual affairs and the strange narcotic temptations brought to him by his friend Rudolph von Lettow-Vorbeck, scion of the von Lettow-Vorbeck family that rules the German-Exile Kingdom of Ostafrika. Sahle's poor rule has offended the ambitious Ras Hassan of Adal, and the prickly Hamere Noh Dagna, the latter ruling Ethiopia's naval district. When Hassan made his intentions known to rebel, Hamere declared disinterested neutrality, and Sahle's weakened Imperial government found itself scrambling to pick up the pieces. Sahle made it worse when he took the young American girl Livy Carnahan as his mistress, buying luxuries for her in a country that distrusts foreigners.
Sahle broods over this, finding consultation outside of the palace. While unbeknownst to him, disaster strikes on his borders...
Sahle woke up, caressed by silk blankets, but he did not open his eyes. He didn't want to be awake. The room smelled like roses, strongly so, overpowering the musty scents of the bordello, though he still smelled hints of the girl in the sheets where she'd been. A record was playing, the sound grainy.
Listen to me, honey dear Something's wrong with you I fear It's getting harder to please you Harder and harder each year
Somebody knocked on the door. Light rasps. He heard the girl say "Âllo" in her musical french. The record kept playing.
I don't want to make you blue But you need a talking to
"It's Ruddy. Is he here?" said Rudolph's familiar voice on the other side of the door. Sahle closed his eyes harder as if that would banish care from the world.
Like a lot of people I know Here's what's wrong with you...
There started the soft strum of bare feet against hardwood.
After you get what you want, you don't want it If I gave you the moon, you'd grow tired of...
The record player stopped abruptly and the door was open. He felt what he knew was his clothes fall on him all at once. "Your majesty, they want you at the palace."
Sahle sat up. It was the same room he'd fallen asleep in: overbearingly French, with antique Empire furniture and thin blue fleur de lis wallpaper. He saw Rudolph standing there in beige Ethiopian robes and a fez. His face was unusually stern; not the way a school teacher might look stern, but nonetheless a noticeable shift in his otherwise placid attitude. Camille stood by the record player in a thin blue negligee, watching dumbly from the corner, her thick dark eyebrows arching. He climbed out of the sheets and began dressing. What had happened? What could happen?
Everything probably, he thought, grumbling to himself.
The walk out of the Vin Rouge was quiet. They went out the back where the Emperor's car waited for him. There were guards with plumed pith helmets standing watch. The air was cool after the storm of several days ago, but the sun was out now. It looked to be about noon. Rudolph opened the door for the Emperor and climbed in after him. Before the door shut, the knot of the tassel on Rudolph's fez caught the top of the door frame and knocked the hat sideways.
"I believe the battle in the north has been lost." Rudolph said, straightening his fez. He was affecting disinterest. Or was he really disinterested? Sahle's heart skipped a beat.
"Do we need to evacuate?"
"I haven't heard talk of it. But they don't tell me these things. I'm just an innocent bystander."
Sahle envied that, and envy made him offended at Rudolph's remark. How could he be so calm? They city seemed to echo this new fear. Were there fewer cars? Didn't it seem the people they passed were more anxious? The police in their booths more vigilant? Didn't this now feel like a city under siege? Even the light in the sky seemed muted, like a grey energy descended from the clouds. As they passed through the busier intersections in the center of town, confused with little cars and trucks and bicycles and burdened pack-animals, Sahle felt the eyes of everyone around. Did they know he was the passenger? A motorbike puttered past, two men riding on it. He imagined they would be soldiers soon. Perhaps they knew it. Perhaps they would die.
The Imperial Limousine climbed the hill above the city. The palace sat on top beneath the shady trees. Guards met them as they entered the drive. Were there more guards around the palace now? Sahle was beginning to feel like a General, and the feeling was all wrong. They led him in.
His mother met him at the door. Even though she was quite shorter than him, she felt taller, even menacing. "Thank you, Freiherr von Lettow-Vorbeck." She said coldly to Rudolph. He took the hint and went in another direction. Sahle noticed his mother was dressed in all black, her dress trailing on the stone tile.
"You need to replace Zekiros." she said.
"I do?" they went inside.
"This disaster is his fault. He did not listen to Desta."
"That is good."
"That is good? We are lost and that is good? We should not have opposed Hassan in that place."
"How bad is it?"
"It is very bad." she rubbed her cheek. "It happened yesterday. On Enkutatash, and your sister's birthday too. It is a bad omen."
"I will not put Desta in charge. If I give him the Army he will make himself Emperor."
"He only wants his money, he does not care about the office. That is a good servant. He does not puff himself up and make simple mistakes. That is what you have to watch out for. I trust Desta because I know he is good at his job, and that he wants the money, and that he doesn't want the government. He is not a threat like these military men, or the nobles. I trust him with your life." She said the last part slowly, trailing off.
They entered the scarlet throne room. Zekiros was there in a pressed tan uniform looking like he hadn't slept, leaning over a table papered in disheveled maps. Desta stood on the other side of the table affecting his patented mix of meek and triumphant. Zekiros' officers huddled by him. Most of his advisors were away, leaving his older doppelganger Telaye, the priest Sisay, and the large-headed Medebew. They looked confused. Sahle decided they wouldn't be helpful.
But like any moment where he felt like he needed to take command, Sahle's insides balked at the task. He wanted to leave this place. Instead of taking command, he said nothing. Things would be handed to him as they came. That's all he knew how to do.
"Your majesty" Desta saw him first and greeted. The others repeated the greeting and bowed.
Zekiros spoke next. "Your majesty, the line protecting the passes at Marda and Chinaksen has failed. The army is falling back through the mountains. We are forming a new defensive line."
"It would not have been lost if our aircraft was in the sky." Desta said.
"The aircraft is deprived of fuel." Zekiros struck next. They were like men in single combat. "I have told you this. Our reserves are sitting in Djibouti, and Hamere won't release them."
"And what are the fuel reserves doing in Djibouti when the air force is located in Mek'ele? That is nearly three hundred miles difference by way of flight. For any craft that can fly that is, if it is given enough fuel."
"It is cheaper to store it in the port. I would have liked to bolster our reserves, but it seems like the money is never there." Zekiros said. He was fuming, his eyes accusing Desta.
"The civil war is out there, not in here!" Eleni said. Her eyes accused Zekiros.
Too much tension. Sahle was getting a headache. He wondered where Livy was. In her house, perhaps, writing another letter to her American mother.
"We will reorganize in Harar..."
"You haven't heard the best part of the latest battle, my Emperor." Desta said. Sahle disliked his tone, but his ears perked up. He noticed Zekiros redden. Desta continued. "Ras Hassan captured large portions of our armor."
"Armor? The big trucks?" Sahle asked.
"That is a thing that can be done?"
"Ras Hassan did it. I heard the tanks moved forward from the rest of the army. They were boarded, by cavalry is what I hear. I don't know. It could be a rumor. But I know we have lost most of our armor in that battle none the less."
Sahle was astonished. He didn't say anything. They were really losing this war. And what could he do against an enemy that could steal armored trucks in live battle like they were unwatched horses?
"Ras Hassan is a genius, and we will have to watch out for that." Zekiros said. "His father was a genius. It is in his family's blood."
"Do not make him into a devil, my brothers." Sisay spoke up. The old priest was usually quiet, so hearing his voice was another astonishment for Sahle. Sisay continued. "He is just a man. Only a man. If you become scared of him, you will let his legend beat you."
"He has no legend." Sahle said, mindlessly, because it felt like something he should say. He saw the priest's wrinkled features fold as his face went back to its typical placid expression.
Nobody else said a thing.
"We will beat him." Sahle added.
Zekiros brooded over his map, his head sunk between his shoulders. "We will come together tonight when more is known." he said.
Desta looked up at him with predator eyes. "It is his majesty's right to convene or end a meeting of his Imperial Council." he said.
Zekiros looked alarmed. Sahle did too. "My apologies, your majesty." The old general bowed.
"It is okay." Sahle said. He didn't feel like he'd been offended. Should he have been? He looked at Desta's satisfied face and a light flickered on in his mind. He was watching politics. It made him tired.
"You were right to end this meeting, MeridazmachZekiros" Sahle replied, emphasizing the title. "I agree that it is ended, and I will retire to my apartments. Is there anything else I need to know before I go?"
"There is one thing." he heard his mother's voice and turned to her. He could tell by her face that she was unhappy, "The girl Carnahan is here. She arrived just after we did and came in uninvited."
Sahle stared dumbly. "I invited her." he lied. He left the room, his emotions in a cloud. All he knew is he felt tired, and he wished very much he was still at the Vin Rouge.
He found her in his room, sifting through his records, fully dressed. He'd given her leave of the palace, but he regretted that now, seeing that it might cause problems. She wore a canary yellow dress with matching hat, and her hair went to her shoulders like red waves. Her blue eyes were wet and distressed. "I heard you went to the brothel. I've heard them talk about it."
"I did this thing." he replied.
He could see that it hurt her. He knew why, but at the same time he didn't know why. He wasn't a regular man. Surely she knew this. But she turned away from him. "I am not jealous." she started, her voice searching, "I know that it isn't my place here. But I don't understand my place. I don't know what to expect."
"Only expect a little rock and roll." he said, trying a smile, making an attempt to sound American, even holding up his fingers as if to snap.
She ignored it and continued, facing him again. "I feel like I'm... like one of Henry the Eighth's wives." she said.
"I have heard the name." Sahle paused, trying to recall. "En-er-ree" he said, feeling the name on his tongue, "En-er-ree. I do not know. It sounds English, yes?"
She didn't say anything. She turned around again and tears started to roll down her cheeks. "Should I be here?" she asked. What was he supposed to do about this? He was an Emperor, not a mother, and he did not know what to do, so he just stared at the back of her head.
"And the war..." she said. Her voice wavered.
"The war!" he grabbed onto this, "The war is no big matter! I will finish the war soon, and you will have no reason to cry.
"I am a little girl. That's what I feel like." she said, sniffing, turning to face him. "There is war, you are a King. The boys at home I dated... all they had were boats..." The more she talked the more anguish played across her face. She turned away again and he could hear her sobbing.
He was still lost. This was a lesson in why to appreciate whores; they did not do this to him. But he had to make an effort, so he came to her and turned her toward him. Her face was half as red as her hair now. "You are a little girl, but this is no reason to cry. I am here and you will be protected. I will win the war for you. Does that sound good? I will be your En-er-ree."
She broke down and cried. Truly cried. And as she cried, he felt more awkward, and his feelings grew dark. He could not make this young woman happy. He could not control his counselors. He could not win a war. All he could do, all he could ever do, was just watch things happen around him.
"I will win this war myself." he said.
She still cried. Then she gathered herself, and spoke. "I shouldn't be here. Your people don't like me. I've heard rumors. What would they do..." she started crying.
He took her in his arms, but she did not feel right there. She seemed to withdraw from him, into herself, so she felt like holding a coiled rug. Inert.
He kissed her head. "I need to go." she said. She pulled away from him.
"What do you want?" he asked for her as she walked toward the door.
Her face was red. Her eyes were red. In the shadow of the room she looked sick. "I don't know. I came because you might know."
She left. He was alone in the room.
"I will command the army at Harar" Sahle told them. The throne room was dark and crimson like the inside of a heart. His advisors looked at him like he'd announced plans to kill himself.
"That will not be necessary..." Zekiros said.
"You are the talisman of Imperial power, your majesty. You will not be safe..." Desta said.
"You are not a soldier, you are my son." His mother said flatly. And then they all stared at him, waiting.
Sahle looked at Zekiros. "You wanted me on the front, to inspire the troops."
"That was before we were..." Zekiros stopped, swallowing his words.
"Before we were?" Sahle asked.
"The front is not stable." Zekiros stated, "I am willing to help you if you wish to command from the front, but it will not be an easy task. You must be guarded. And we must bring in the air force. That will be truer now than it was before."
"Do we have any plans to do this? To bring in the air force.?"
"We will try to get a hold of the Djibouti reserves. In the meantime, we had some reserved for the armor..." Zekiros cleared his throat, "The air force can use that."
"I am handing control of the civilian reserves to the military." Desta stated.
"We can do that?" Sahle asked.
"You can do that." Desta said stoicly, "You are the Emperor. And I act in your name."
"You are not a soldier!" Eleni shouted. She looked angry, and that childlike existential fear of an angry parent held Sahle's tongue. Eleni looked at the advisors. "Will none of you say anything about this? This is insanity. The boy should not lead troops into battle. It cannot be allowed!"
"The Emperor can do as he will." Desta said simply. His words were measured. Eleni's head pulled back so that she looked like a cobra ready to pounce. Desta didn't react to this, but kept speaking in the same tone he had been. "However, I advise the Emperor, in my capacity to do so, that he shouldn't do anything rash."
"I am not doing anything rash." Sahle said, "Old kings led mean into battle. All over the world this is true. In Ethiopia, In China, In Russia, In America (he quickly realized this was wrong but kept going), In England too. It has always been true."
"Was true, perhaps." Desta said, "But with all due respect, Kings commanded troops into battle with sword and lance. War has changed. Old kings did not contend with automatic guns and air fighters."
"I do not say I will lead charges." said Sahle, feeling rattled and slightly embarrassed, "But I will be near the action. And the men will see me. Like Zekiros sai..."
"Zekiros is not a competent man! Do not trust him for advice!" Eleni lashed out.
The room was silent. Dead silent. Eleni looked them over "You will not stop this? Is no man here brave enough to save their Emperor?"
Nothing. She retreated in an air of dignity, and left the room, and there was still silence for a time.
"You will need to be protected of course." Zekiros said.
"I have my guard. I will come with the planes. Is that a plan?" Sahle asked.
"It will be done." Zekiros said.
"I will stay in Addis Ababa." Desta added, his voice soft and assured. "Keeping normality is key. And an easy thing to perform."
"His Majesty will decide that." Zekiros barked. He stared straight at Desta, a hard stare. Desta looked like he'd just been goosed.
"I see no problem with the Minister of the Pen staying chained to his, er, pen." Sahle said.
"He ministers your pen, yes?" Zekiros asked. Sahle nodded, understanding. Zekiros continued. "Well, your pen goes with you. Let him Minister it near your feet, your Majesty. Your mother can handle the city."
"It seems the Meridazmach cannot handle being parted from my advice." Desta said icily. He turned to the Emperor. "The continuation of government requires..."
"Continuation?" Zekiros barked, more aggressive this time, and made a tumult. Everyone in the room was startled, but they seen immediately the mistake Desta had made, thought it might not have been a mistake if Zekiros hadn't jumped on it. But Desta was taken aback, and Zekiros pressed his advantage. "Continuation from what? Nothing will happen to his Majesty."
"I only meant the continuation while his majesty is..."
Zekiros turned to Sahle. "It is good to keep men like this close." Then he turned to Desta, "You are not the continuation of the government, Desta. If some deception were to befall his Majesty, the continuation of the government is his family."
"I did not mean continuation in the event..."
"Be quiet." Sahle commanded, and all was quiet. But Sahle did not feel firm on his feet. He was never a man to take the idea of danger to himself without fraying at the edges. He was rattled, and he knew he looked rattled.
"Your majesty..." Desta started.
"Quiet." Sahle gathered himself, "You will go with me. It will be best that way. For the continuation of government... from the front line."
The air was still. Zekiros stood like a marshal statue in a city square, and his face was stony. "We adjourn." Sahle said. He left before they did. Two guards followed him.
"I will be needing a car." Sahle said. Outside it was dark, but it did not matter. He was not sleeping in his vault-like room, alone. He could not stand to visit Livy either, and see her tear-stricken face. But he knew somewhere to go, because this horrible day had began when he left that somewhere. And so he returned to the Vin Rouge.
------------------------------------------------------------------- September 11th: Jijiga, Adal Province, Ethiopia -------------------------------------------------------------------
She'd never seen a town so alive as sleepy Jijiga. The people hid, but the streets hummed with soldiers, desert warriors, and the cities worth of people they brought with them. Warriors came with their wives, their children, and their servants. Every manner of nomadic convenience appeared in the dusty camps east of town.
Jijiga was a large village, but not unlike the others that dotted Somalia. It was in a bowl of granite mountains, trees rare, the desert covered in thirsty thorn bushes and dead grass. The drabness of stone and adobe was not enough for people who lived here their entire lives. They white-washed the buildings, painting doors and windows bright colors, and they brought the town to life by their work. The center of Jijiga was an orderly grid. All of the roads were dirt.
Azima watched from in front of her tent as a horde of black-robed cavalry rode past, ululating and shouting praises to Allah, some holding glinting sabers aloft like they were charging to battle. One of them held the red banner of Oman.
The Sultan of Muscat rode past, followed by the beautiful young men of his guard. He saw her and hooted a war cry. "We will have tea in Harar!" he said, his eyes burning like those of a Jinn. There was no place for her to respond. He rode toward the lead of the thundering Omani. His robes billowed behind him. They were storm clouds on horseback, their swords flashing like lightning.
Those men were going north, to the village of Chinaksen, fifteen miles up the spine of mountains that protected the ascent toward Harar like a wall in the desert. Chinaksen pass, and the nearby Marda pass just west of Jijiga, were the only real gates in that wall. She knew all of this, the whole layout of the Somali war effort, because her father had brought her in to every meeting. She knew how their forces were dug in on the plains between the pass and the town. She knew the first trench was a half mile in front of the second, providing an open space. Hassan had meant that place to be dry. An unseasonal monsoon blew in from the northeast and drenched the desert so that the river bed between the trenches now trickled with a shallow stream pulling dust with it like syrup. She could see it all, the layout of the land, like she were a General in the field. She could imagine it all. And, though she hated to admit it, she loved it all.
When she was a child, she'd beaten a servant boy with a stick until he bled. Neither had been older than six, but she still remembered it vividly, and she could remember exactly how she felt. Her blood had been up. And though she'd felt bad for him afterwards, her father hadn't let her show it. He was proud. She had his blood. His warrior blood.
She felt like that now. The glint of steel, the sight of the dust and the guns, the knowledge that something great was going to happen here, she could feel it all. It was the feeling of being entirely alive, her heart beating with the heart of the universe. Her entire body reacted. She wanted to murder. She wanted to smell the flowers. She wanted to fuck in the open air. But it was all wrong. She could feel a part of herself fighting this feeling, a part like a child trying to hold onto leashed dogs. This wasn't her, was it, this feeling pulsing through her flesh? It was him.
Far to the west she could hear gunfire. It sent chills down her spine every time. There hadn't been a true battle yet, but the war bubbled out in places, like it was a force erupting from the earth. Men shot at each other in the hills. Nobody took land. The lines were not so obvious yet, because religion was playing a roll. Her father presented his war in the name of the faith. The Muslims of Ethiopia were put in a strange place, instantly suspected, having to uproot their lives and gamble on who would win. Some rebelled or came over to the Somali army and fought for the faith. Others stayed in their suspicious land and fought for their country.
The recent storm had brought life back to the desert. The acacias and thorny myrrh bloomed green and obscured the countryside. She walked toward the command tent, a long staff in hand as if she were training, her robes girded around her loins and a turban around her hair so she looked like a skinny goatherd boy. The men knew her, showed signs of respect, and tried to ignore her. Doorfarkas passed by, machine guns rattling on their mounts, loose chains hanging from support beams by big steel hooks.
She reached her Father's tent. Hassan's physical presence dominated everything around him. He was a block of a man, not unusually fat but none the less heavy, his body a lump beneath baggy fatigues.
"Do not engage the armor." he told an officer she did not recognize, though she knew he was an officer by his fatigues, standing out from the Bedouin-like dress of the common soldiers. Hassan did not notice her. He continued. "Tell your men to hide. Your trenches are skinny. They will pass right over them. Only come up again to hold back the enemy on foot."
The officer nodded. His eyes betrayed Azima's entrance. Hassan turned to her and greeted her with unusual warmth. "My daughter." he said, "I am told they are coming. This man is going back to report to his superiors." Hassan paused. The unfamiliar officer turned and left.
"They are coming." Azima repeated. Her heart thumped harder. "Where am I supposed to be?"
Hassan picked up a coiled hook and chain, like something made to fish leviathans out of the sea. He put it over his shoulder liked it weighed nothing. "You will command the reserves. That is your place. When I call for them, you will send them."
"I have no place in the battle?" she felt both relieved and disappointed. Her mind and her feelings pulled in separate directions.
"The reserves is a place. Not everybody brings out their swords. The washer women and doctors are warriors of a kind."
"Not the kind I practice to be."
"I will be on the battlefield." Hassan said. They were walking toward a doofarka now, men already sitting inside. Soldiers saluted as they passed. Hassan ignored them. His attention was for her alone. "Being in the field means I might die. And if I die, what then? My struggle becomes yours. We are making a home for our people and a legacy for our names, my daughter. You are the promise that my legacy can continue. If I die, you need to live."
"If you die the struggle is lost."
Some light went out of his eyes. Hassan lost his warmth then. "That's not true." he said, voice wavering "Tell me this is not true. You will always struggle."
She felt he'd said more truth than he realized. "I will."
He smiled and patted her cheek. Doorfarka engines rattled. The air smelled of dust and gasoline. She saw horsemen riding out, armed with swords and hook-chains. "Today is the beginning of greatness. You will see." He climbed in the back of the sputtering buggy. It took off, speeding in the direction the horsemen had went. She went the other way.
Gunfire was picking up. She heard big booms that sounded like holes being made in the universe. The ground shook. There were slimy sand-laced puddles in places, and she could see the water ripple.
It was the Ethiopian New Year: Enkutatash. A year of shattering promises gave way to a year of blood. Hassan picked this day because he thought the enemy might be drunk. She thought about these things. About the forward trench. About the Omani in the north. All these things woven together. It was beautiful, and her mind wanted to stay there, to forget about her fears and disappointments.
She found where the reserves were camping. Guards and officers came to her like flies on camel dung. Soldiers sat in the dust and mingled. There were few dervishes here, but most of these men were conscripts, called from their villages to serve in the war, not adjusted to such things. Hassan required all men to undertake a certain amount of drilling, but that only went so far. These peasant men, hard-faced and anxious, were no true warriors.
The smell of smoke filled the air. Machine guns rattled in the distance. She listened and time passed. The first wounded came on patchy trucks, old things made of spare parts and thrown together by men who specialized in makeshift automobile construction. Azima went to attend to them. Women surrounded the trucks, making it difficult for the orderlies to unload them. A Red Crescent station, lonely and understaffed, tried their best to cope. Azima helped to clear a path as wounded men were unloaded, her entourage making themselves useful. Flies buzzed. The crowding women shouted at the men, asking about their own. The wounded and dying were brought into the safety of the field hospital. Azima helped stand guard. A white-robed soldier was put on a cot next to the door. His chest was bloody. He looked horrified, his eyes bugged out, his hands shaking unnaturally. The doctors were alarmed at his heart beat. All that from a wound? Azima felt sick. The smell of blood grew overpowering.
Time rolled on. Men died or were moved. A second ambulance came up. Azima made herself known to the driver.
"What is the battle like?" she asked.
"Their armored attack was broken. Our warriors have made off with many of their tanks. But our first line has broken, and the enemy is trying to overtake the second." he reported, taking on the countenance of a man being held for questioning by a magistrate.
"You know all this?"
"I have heard it."
"What have you seen?"
"Haze. It is hard to see in the places where the gunfire is."
When would she get the call? That was the way she would see it. Night was coming. Had they thrown the enemy back? There was no news, even as more wounded poured in. Night came, the desert cold crept in, and she was forced to find a warm place to sleep. There would be no call. She went to her tent. Her entourage stayed outside, but now she was in the company of her handmaids. They dressed her for sleep.
She tried to sleep for a long time but struggled to keep her eyes closed. When they were open, she would see the fabric of her tent, the moonlight creeping through, the universe of battle still echoing somewhere far away.
But she did, eventually, sleep.
She woke before sunrise, the desert still cold, the first pale crown of sunlight appearing in the east. She dressed in the same uniform before, though her clothes had been washed. Outside, A man came to her with a message from the north. Battle was met at Chinaksen. The Omani met stiffer resistance than anticipated. They could not take the pass.
Fears crept into Azima's thinking. "Forward this message to the Emir. You'll find him on the front." she ordered. The messenger scurried off.
Hassan went into this war thinking himself invincible. He didn't say it, but she could feel it all around him when he spoke. They were going after a better armed foe. A modern military, essentially. They went after it with armies unchanged since the colonial wars of the Mad Mullah and her grandfather Khalid al-Himyari. The stars were just starting to fade when a lone bi-plane passed over, its wings colored like desert dust and painted with the flag of Oman. It puttered. She could still hear the nearest fighting.
Tanks rolled through. They were scraped and battered. She saw Ethiopian flags painted on them and grew alarmed, but her fears were negated when she saw who manned them. Dervishes sat all around their surfaces. They seemed to have trouble, the machines starting and stopping awkwardly, the dervishes holding like men on bucking horses. But these were her men. The machines were taken from the enemy.
Praise Allah it worked. She couldn't believe it. If her father could pull that off, what other miracles might come of this day?
She walked to the north of the camp and looked across the plains. If the Omani were beaten, would the enemy come across this field? If she needed to mount a defense, where would it be? A single line of shallow trenches defended the camp from this direction.
It was not enough. She ordered more.
Men of the reserves went to work with spades. They dug overlooking a river bed already drying up, no longer flowing, holding only puddles now which would be gone in the summer light.
She hadn't eaten. That hadn't crossed her mind until now. She hadn't eaten in a day. But she didn't feel hungry. Still, she forced herself to have a bite of hard flat-bread.
At noon, the call came.
Had things went wrong? She kept part of the reserves in their newly forming trenches. The rest would come with her. She knew she wasn't supposed to go; Hassan didn't want her at the front. But she would go, she would see it, and maybe she would fight.
The regiments came together haphazard and marched in rough columns. Hassan had, over the years, turned the Somali army into an heir of Prussian efficiency. They entered Jijiga. The white-washed walls were chipped with stray bullets and marred by the rare stray artillery crater. The Ethiopians had brought artillery, but they did not sound to Azima like the stories of Verdun, or even the long guns over Paris near the end of that war before Europe burned. Too scarce.
The people hid, and were replaced by stragglers and the wounded. Azima brought a pistol, but besides that, all she had was her staff. A half-dozen dervishes had joined her when she gave orders, becoming her personal body guard, and now they followed her silently, all big men who dwarfed her. She gave her orders silently, self conscious of her shrill womanly voice when she yelled. Hand gestures was enough. The men around her would make sure they were carried out.
They came closer. There were manned barricades in the town. Men ululated as they passed, but there was no sign anybody had fought here.
The dead began to appear. A bled-out body was slumped in a doorway. Had the man fled to this spot like a wounded animal, or had he been dumped?
Five tanks passed, jolting forward as awkwardly as the first she'd seen that day. They had Ethiopian flags painted on them, but they were scratched out. She heard the men in the barricade ululate the coming of the captured tanks behind them. Azima's men marched steady toward the doom. Her heart beat faster. The sound of battle was closer.
The trenches spread out like a disaster had been visited upon the earth. They moved according to the terrain, zigging and zagging in both directions. The buildings directly behind were shot away. Everything looked like it was subjected to a wind of knives. And they'd only fought for one day.
Azima watched her soldiers march, standing stoic. Their orderly lines had mostly fallen apart. The parapets were made from random things, bricks and bags and scrap. There was a car scoured to shiny steel, and a dead camel flayed to the bone. It smelled like smoke and body odor... and guts. Guts had a smell. More than just blood. It was blood that'd went to rot.
Axmed Haji Siad commanded here, a native Somali rather than one of the al-Himyari clique. He had a pointed tuft of hair on his chin, but he kept his hair clipped short in the way Hassan preferred. He met Azima like a grave-digger returning to his shovel.
"These are the men he sent for?" Axmed asked.
"Where is he?"
"I am not sure. He wants them in the forward trench. We have no fighting for them here."
"I see. Is there fighting there?"
"We have taken it, but there is still fighting."
She turned to her Aides. "We are advancing." she motioned with her staff over the top. They nodded and turned to rely the orders. Was this a time for a speech? She saw the men holding this trench, their faces and clothes the color of the dirt, their eyes peering out like haunted jewels. It didn't feel right. She climbed over the parapet, her hand grasping what felt like a piece of fence. A voice in her head told her to hide. Her blood told her to go on.
The first layer of soil was scraped from no-mans land. They'd only fought for one day. There were bodies, bloodied and ruined. At first glance dead horses looked more numerous than the people. What ridiculous thing had happened here? Was this how battle looked? It looked like a military disaster, a bloody folly that'd ruin the war for somebody. There were blackened tanks and Doofarkas like tangled piles of wire. She heard sobbing. But she could only move, ignoring the smell, leading her solemn army through the haze.
There was gunfire. Flashes of red, but no bullets. They approached the forward trench. The gunfire intensified. She jogged forward, and her soldiers followed. They flung themselves in.
It was a different kind of trench, barely wider than a standing man, so that it was hard to move through. The firesteps, though present, were only enough for a man to stand on his toes. There were bodies buried in dust. Living soldiers looked at her with relief, and pointed her way. She went.
She did not meet Ras Hassan, but the Arab Shakir bin Musa. He was young for his position commanding men on the front. She knew him, like all her father's top officers, and he recognized her on sight. His eyes widened and he pointed. "What is this!?"
He smacked her staff. "This! This!"
"It's my staff."
"Are you training children? Are we dancing? There is fighting. You will die with that thing!"
"I have a pistol!"
"No!" Shakir pulled his sword. "This! Use this! Take it from me!"
"And what will happen to you?"
"I will live if Allah wills it. You need this! Things are not done!"
He told what had happened. In the beginning, it was how Hassan had planned. The tanks came. Hassan's Dervishes came to meet them. The forward trench held back the Ethiopian infantry, but the Ethiopian armor charged forward, greedy to destroy the bigger prey they saw in Hassan's Doofarkas and cavalry. And then Hassan took their tanks. But the Ethiopians did not give up. They launched assault after assault, bloody and destructive, until Shakir and his men were forced across the field. Many died. They'd only recently taken by the Forward trench, but the Ethiopians were still trying. They'd been fighting all night with the help of the chemicals Hassan had distributed to them.
"They won't accept they have lost?" she summed it up for him.
"Or they know something we do not know. This will be a horrible thing if it is always like this."
"Why did we not use the tanks?"
"We don't have men who know how to use them!" Shakir laughed as he said this. That made her feel better somehow.
There was gunfire. It picked up like a light shower becoming a monsoon. Shakir held tightly to her staff. She pulled the sword and felt unbalanced by the weight in her hand.
"Allahu ackbar!" she heard men shouting all around. But she heard something else too.
God commands thy strength, Strengthen, O God, what you wrought,
It was in Amharic, the language of the Ethiopians, coming ghost-like from in front of them. The Somalians tried to shout over them, "Allahu ackbar! Allahu ackbar!". Guns barked.
At Jerusalem shall kings bring presents unto thee
It was a hymn. The cacophony grew madder. It was digging into her brain. Why was she here? Why was she here!
Rebuke the company of spearmen, The multitude of the bulls
And then it stopped. The Ethiopians poured into the trench, and she met combat in the face for the first time.
There was hardly room to fight in the trench. Men sprang up on the parapets and fought there. She was in a battle, and men were dying. She held tightly to her sword. All she could feel was her hand gripping the hilt, her pounding heart, and a numbness where her mind should be. A man jumped in, wearing a European style uniform no Somali soldier wore, along with a pot-like helmet. She swung her sword and took off his fingers. He dropped the rifle. That's when she first noticed he had the rifle. He drew back, his hand red with blood. She swung again and opened his neck. The warmth went out of his eyes and flowed as blood.
She'd killed. He died. She didn't think she could kill again. She'd spent herself. It was her turn.
But it was over. There was ululating and praises to Allah. Blood dripped from her sword like oil. She wanted to vomit, or hide, or cease to exist. But as she woke up to who she was and what she'd done, her feelings changed. She felt powerful. Had any woman felt this powerful before?
-------------------------------------------- Early September, Addis Ababa --------------------------------------------
The bathroom smelled like soap and bitter smoke. They were beneath the foam, Livy's body slick and soft laying against his. Her portable record player rendered a slow instrumental. Sahle smiled wide as he watched her, her head barely above the foam, sucking on the joint like it were a nipple. This was exactly where he wanted to be.
"I can't believe you've never smoked." Sahle said.
She coughed and passed it to him. "I really haven't. The... musicians, they smoke. Their kind do. But... you shouldn't be smoking this stuff, actually." she slapped him playfully, "You're the elected of Jesus!" She giggled.
Sahle looked wistfully ahead, through the smoke and at the fogged mirror. "I've heard the prophets used hashish. I think that is true. They were wise men. I should follow their wisdom."
The record player skipped. They both giggled.
It was perfect. So absolutely perfect. The marble bathroom felt like a womb, holding in his world and everything he wanted in it, safe from his advisors and their politics. Safe from Ras Hassan's war.
"I don't know that I want to get married." she said causally.
"That is a problem for another time." he said. He pulled her closer. The water sloshed. He felt her head against his shoulder, her body moving steadily with her breathing. He closed his eyes. The future could wait.
But the future wouldn't wait. It knocked on the door.
"Your Imperial Majesty." called a voice from the other side.
Sahle exhaled, holding his lungs deflated, feeling deflated, hoping whoever wanted him would go away.
"Your Imperial Majesty! There is news from the front."
There was no avoiding it. He stood up. Water and foam dripped from him. He stepped onto the slick floor and went for the door. When he opened it, the air chilled his skin.
The Paige looked surprised and worried.
"Your Imperial majesty." he said, bowing. "The Meridazmach begs the honor of..."
"I'll be there." Sahle waved. The Paige left the room at a trot. Sahle looked back in, at Livy's pale head and shoulders above the foam, auburn hair soaked so it was now brown, a look like disappointment or concern on her face. The warmth of the bathroom hugged and beckoned him back in. He wanted to return, but his high was gone, and he had to do his duty. "I cannot avoid this one. But I want to see you tonight."
She nodded. He dried off, put on robes, and left.
The entire palace was cold to him. Paiges and guards watched stonily, statues without personalities. He hadn't put shoes on, and his bare feet felt like they were walking on ice. Only the sunlight, coming through windows in some places, seemed to bring any warmth. He was stuck. Was there any worse prison than royalty? Sometimes he dreamed of traveling like a gypsy. He could make music. He'd practice the Krar off and on, like he were working on his impossible dream. But it would never happen. He was stuck.
He met them in the velvet trappings of the throne room. It seemed like most of his cabinet was there. Even chubby Bejirond Medebew Fek-Yebelu, the Minister of Finance, wore a crisp white general's uniform like he were about to command troops any minute.
"Your majesty." they all greeted. He waved his hand and walked silently across the room. They all surrounded a table covered in maps and charts. Sahle thought they looked like grown men playing a game in a coffeehouse.
"We know where Ras Hassan plans to strike." said Meridazmach Zekiros Argaw. He was a little thin man, but he seemed to puff up with confidence when he said this. Sahle didn't look him in the eye. He begrudged these men his lost comfort. "Where?" he said in a low tone.
"Here." Zekiros pointed at the map, "He has amassed the bulk of his forces in Jijiga. I believe he plans to move on Dire Dawa."
"It makes sense." Aleme Menigedi broke in. The Minister of Transportation was excited to be relevant in the war room. "Dire Dawa is the rail-hub that connects us to the coast. In many ways it is more important than the capital."
A voice from across the room spoke up. "We are not forgetting the rest of the country, are we?" It was Desta. He walked in with the Queen Mother at his side. "If we send everything to the north, we will lose the south. Muslims in that area are already siding with the enemy."
"We are sending Aleme with the Army of Transportation and Public Works." Zekiros said. Aleme made himself look particularly important. "Lawgaw and the Army of the Posts, Telegraphs, and Telephones are already there, organizing the local militias."
"Lawgaw is not a military man, is he?" Desta insisted. "Ministry Employees versus a native rebellion and Somali warriors? Losing the south will lose the war."
"We cannot defend everything at once." Zekiros replied. Desta bristled. Zekiros continued, "He who defends everything defends nothing. Hassan has massed his forces in the north. We will fight him there."
"On ground he wants to fight on? Hassan is a clever warrior. Isn't it better to act..."
"I know what you are going to say, Desta. No no. Do we bring the battle to him, across the Ogaden? Hundreds of miles of empty desert? I will put it in terms you understand. Your business will be damaged just as much if we lose connection to the sea."
Desta said nothing. Sahle took sick pleasure in watching his ministers fight. Everyone else looked nervous. Desta finally spoke. "I do not think your tone is..."
"This is war. It is my business. I will talk in whatever way gets my point across."
Zekiros turned back to the map. "The terrain will protect us. I have gathered the professional army and they are coming, bit by bit, to defend those places. We have the air power too. Hector is putting his Airmen on a war footing. They will not be ready for the first battle, but they will be ready soon after, and we will bring power against the enemy they cannot contest."
It was so neat and tidy. What was there to worry about? Sahle felt safe. "I approve this plan." he said.
Zekiros looked up at him. "Do you want to lead this army, my Emperor?"
"No!" Eleni spoke up, "My son is not a warrior. It will not be good for him."
"Seeing him will be good for the soldiers. They want to know who they fight for."
"They don't have to see him to do that! He does not have to stand in front of a machine gun..."
"I did not suggest..."
"It does not matter." Sahle interrupted. His frustration was bubbling into anger. Everyone looked at him with anxious eyes, except for Desta, smouldering on his own. Sahle spoke. "I will not go. I do not plan on playing little soldiers with you. I know my abilities and that is not one of them." Eleni looked thankful.
"It is no matter." Zekiros replied "We have the things we need to win. I am bringing the great weapons of modern war to the field."
Sahle did not want to see them. He did not care. But the rest of his cabinet insisted. They went out to the yard, to the edge of the fence beneath the whispering eucalyptuses where they could see down the hill. Big motorized beasts rumbled down the paved streets, bewildering the people of Addis Ababa. They did not come all at once, or in a steady line, but piece meal in little groups, accompanied by soldiers. No two of the armored tanks looked alike, so many bought from different places or at different times, and modified by their proud operators. Men streamed in groups equally haphazard. Most carried guns. Some were barefoot. A few had swords or spears.
"There are proud professional soldiers marching with them." Zekiros announced. "Those men you see down there are mostly retainers sent by the northern Makwanent, or shiftas coming out of the hills to fight infidels."
"Daniel Gablogian lent me a book on military doctrine." Desta said creamily, "I didn't know war was so complicated. I wonder, do the shiftas understand modern warfare? Do they know how to fight alongside tanks?"
"Doctrine is good." Zekiros said, "I have read up on it. I keep up on all modern doctrine. No, it is not perfectly implemented, but why should it be? Do you think a Somali fisherman swinging a sword above his head will know what to do when faced with a tank? I would like to better prepare our armies, but it is not such a simple thing. War will prepare them."
Another tank rolled by. Extra pieces of scrap metal were welded to it, making it look like it had been built in a garbage heap. But it was absolutely monstrous. Seeing it convinced Sahle of Zekiros' argument. Who could face down such a thing?
Zekiros leaned in. "You will not command the armies, my Emperor?" he whispered.
"No." Sahle replied bluntly. A column of soldiers walked by, wearing metal helmets with wide brims like steel pith helms. They all had shoes, held their guns correctly, and looked absolutely wonderful. Zekiros motioned to them like a proud father. Nobody said a thing.
--------------------------------------------------------------------------- Early September: Gota de Guerra, La Mancha, Spain ---------------------------------------------------------------------------
A person used to activity, to moving forward with their life and its purpose, begins to fray from the pressure of pent up anxiety and angst when they are stuck doing nothing for too long. Taytu had this problem, and she knew why. But what she wasn't sure about was the truth of the anxiety she sensed in the country surrounding her. Spain seemed anxious and seething with angst. But was that her projecting her feelings onto an innocent people? This question for a normal person would be trivia. But for Taytu, who latched her identity on her ability to read a society, this uncertainty nibbled at her soul.
She had other reasons to doubt herself. For most of the time she'd lived in America, she'd envied it. Its polish, its strength, its unmatched modernity. But Las Vegas changed that. She now pitied America, and feared it. She hadn't read it correctly until it tried to kill her. Spain was just alien. How poorly might she misread it? What might be the consequences?
Who was she now?
She simmered in these feelings, on top of a hill, in a modest mansion surrounded by vineyards. The property was owned by Spain's new Viceroy, the perilous Delgado, but he never visited it. Taytu took it he owned the property for its produce and not for the quaint white estate perched overlooking it all.
La Mancha reminded her of the American Great Plains. It was a vast stretch of uninspiring nothing, broken up by fields and villages. It was a place where it was hard to imagine lives being lived. Taytu hadn't spoken much with the people who called this land home, but she imagined their lives taking on more the quality of rotting than anything she called life. She lived on wine, cheese, and worry. Noh lived there too, but he'd befriended the caretaker, and the two of them went partridge hunting several times a week.
So was that national anxiety real? She read ominous signs in little things. More military aircraft flew over the plains than commercial. There was activity for them in Morocco. She read the newspapers. There were always lines between the lines, unspoken truths, obvious in the things left unsaid. In the few people she did meet, mostly just servants and those working on the estate, they left more things unsaid than the papers could.
It took her longer to heal than she'd wanted. The gunshot itself hadn't been so bad, but the infection was hard to shake. Even now, two months later, the flesh on her side was tender, and the scarified tissue unseemly. But it was not dangerous any more. She could have left. Should have left. And would have, if her homeland hadn't erupted in a war of its own.
The unease sometimes came up in conversation. You could tell it was there where so many words caused tension.
"It was this time of year forty six years ago that the Great War began." the old ponderous voice of Dejazmach Wendem Cherkos said like a warning from beyond the grave. Wendem was Ethiopia's Ambassador to Spain, who came to check on Taytu often enough to be her caretaker. It'd been him that brought Benyam Felege's suggestion she stay in Spain until circumstances become easier to understand.
"Forty six years is a meaningless number." Taytu said, "And that war started in August. It is September." She said these words, but any rationality in them fell dead, victim to the feeling of the times.
"Maybe the omens that worry me are not in the years. Instability and war is normal now. Nothing feels permanent anymore."
"Nothing is permanent." Taytu grumbled.
"What things are often means less than what things feel like. Sometimes stability is a self fulfilling prophecy. So is instability."
She could not answer that. "What am I here for?" she asked bluntly.
"Not to be home and in danger." Wendem said.
Taytu perched on her chair like she was ready for action, to jump up at any moment and fight, or argue, with the first person to come through the door. Wendem didn't reflect her stance in any way. In his old age he gladly surrendered support of his body to the leather sofa. An existential discomfort seemed to possess Taytu's muscles. She sighed and recrossed her legs. "I have to do something."
"I have been discussing the possibility of Spanish support for the crown in the war. They aren't interested. Understandable. I don't know that you can help, but that is the only diplomatic goal we are pursuing right now."
"Would it be better if I relocated to Madrid?" Taytu asked.
"I don't think so. You were placed out here for a reason. The political atmosphere in this country is still very tense. You would be endangering yourself."
"I can't do anything in the middle of nowhere." Taytu pouted. They were quiet for a stretch, listening to the house settle, the clocks tick. The restlessness in Taytu's soul welled up so that it needed an outlet of some kind. She reached to pour herself a glass of wine though she was not thirsty.
"You could speak to members of the Cortes. You still have the honor of being royalty, in a country that respects that honor. Deputies of the Cortes would be pleased to make your acquaintance."
Taytu stood and thought for a moment, wine glass in her hand. "Schedule a meeting. Here, I suppose."
"That would be best."
"Are you making progress in any of your goals? Arms, whatever?"
"I am afraid not."
"Well." Taytu looked out the window, sunlight making the dry hills glow. "I'll see what I can do."
"Good." Wendem did his best to smile, his face-muscles lifting his jowls in much the same way a child picks up a heavy sack of grain. Then his eyes lit up. "One more thing!" he pulled a bundle of papers from his robe and put them on the table. "Newspapers from home. The latest."
Taytu looked at them. "Thank you." she said, expressionless.
In La Mancha you can see all around for miles. There are no trees, and few hills to block the horizon. The sky is as blue as blue, and the plains golden.
Taytu stood in the shade of the eves and looked out over the white plaster walls, across the vineyard, toward the small village in the valley. From this place, you couldn't tell Spain was undergoing political crisis. What could a crisis be in such a landscape? A busted cart? There were people who dreamed of living in a place like this. Taytu wasn't one of them. What she saw was perfectly pointless desolation. She'd come out to feel the sun on her skin, one of the few joys in this pastoral wilderness.
Noh arrived, riding on horseback, accompanied by Francisco, the caretaker, an old man who wore a straw hat to protect his bald head. Birds hung from their saddles like grape clusters. Three slim dogs kept pace.
Noh dismounted quickly. Francisco took a moment. He looked up at Taytu. "Señora." he greeted respectfully, untying his birds.
Taytu smiled coldly and said nothing.
"I will take these and clean them." Francisco said, taking Noh's birds with big rough hands.
"Thanks Pancho." Noh replied. The old man went around the house in the direction of the out-building he called home.
"We saw three bombers heading south." Noh told her. He approached, shotgun slung over his shoulder, looking as if he'd almost gone native.
"Changing bases." Taytu said.
"I've never seen one before we came here." Noh was next to her in front of the door now. "They don't sound like other planes. They are like big eagles, there is something ominous about them."
"It's the bombs. You know they are there."
"They are darker though. And their hum is lower."
"I haven't notice." Taytu was not looking at him. He stared at her a moment, and went inside. She looked out, over the fields, watching the workers at their vines. She went inside soon afterwards.
Noh had picked up one of the newspapers from the tousled pile she'd left.
"What is this one?"
She peered over his arm. "I asked for that one specially. It's the Anglo-Abyssinian. Printed in New York."
"Why would you want it?" he said. He read over it, and she could see the subtle hints of distress playing on his face.
"They like the Begmeder rebels."
He held it up. It showed a picture of her brother, crowned, standing near a white woman. "Is this true?" he pointed to the headline. Emperor's Foreign Girl."
"Undoubtedly." she scoffed.
He held it in his hand, staring.
"You knew he was like that. You've heard the stories."
"I have heard rumors, but I did not hold stock in them. It is not important, maybe. It is the modern world."
"You make it sound like he has chosen a good wife." she said. Her heart was beating faster now. She felt like a hunting dog, having caught the scent for the first time in a long time, was hot on the trail like it was the only thing in the world. "That is his whore. My brother's whore. That is who he is."
"I don't know..."
"I know! I lived with him! He was like a monkey, running wild! There was no controlling him! I have cultivated myself, but what has he done?"
"He is the country."
"Then God help us all!"
There was a pause. The profound rural silence filled the void. She was angry, but her anger was an ecstasy of a kind too. A real feeling. Something she could grab onto in the desolation she was stuck in.
He broke the pause. "You make it sound like there is no hope. Like this war is over."
Did she make it sound like that? Instead of answering, she smouldered. Was it over? That didn't seem right. In the mind of her countrymen, Sahle was the Emperor. He was the nation in a sense. In her mind, he was her brother. Did she not understand her own country? She understood the power of the monarchy. She understood it more than Sahle. But she didn't feel it. Did that matter?
"I can..." she was going to complete that sentence with do my part, but her mouth dried up, and she didn't feel like finishing the words.
The pause. The silence.
She didn't like him anymore. Noh seemed like a golem, a being without its own soul. Had she ever liked him, or had he just been there? In America, he had been her golem. Now he was just another of her brother's. It was just her. It had always been just her.
A day passed. Nothing happened but existence. The expanse surrounding them on all sides seemed to grow.
A car puttered down the dusty road. It was an overly polished thing, slick lines and ostentatious ornaments, a sort of modern aristocratic coach. The man who stepped out of the back had the body of a military man gone old. Strong jawed and muscular, but in a way that harshly defined wiry muscles and the features of his skull. He was grey haired, clean shaven, and wore the tight suit of a Spanish gentleman, along with a tilted sombrero cordobés. As far as politicians went, he was quite attractive, but he was a attractive in the sense a magazine model is attractive. She didn't intend to do anything but look.
"Good morning, your majesty." he greeted her, smiling.
"Deputy Conde." she held out her hand. He kissed it. They went inside.
There was cheese, wine, and ham. Both of them had wine.
"This is your place?" he asked, looking around.
"Viceroy Delgado's" she replied. He said nothing, and inspecting the room as if he had not heard her. "Sit down, Señor" she offered.
"After you." he insisted, motioning toward a richly upholstered arm chair. She obliged and sat down. He sat across from her.
"What do I owe this invitation?" he asked sweetly.
She sipped. "I wanted to get in contact with the important people in this part of the country. The Embassy put your name at the top."
"Well, I don't pretend to such importance, but we all have roles to play."
"Yours is an elected official? That is very interesting to me. In Ethiopia, we do not have elected officials. Is it like in America?"
"We do not rule the country, we only advise his majesty." Conde was looking uncomfortable. That annoyed Taytu. Wasn't it already trouble enough that her homeland was embroiled? Did she have to balance the trouble of this place too?
"That is admirable." Taytu replied, "Do not think I am a Republican. I mean, what would I be in a Republic? I am a stranger in a strange land. I only want to understand what I am talking about."
Conde looked more and more out of place. "What can I clear up?" he asked.
She sipped. "You are an advisor by trade? Well, I could use advice. You know my country has broken down into civil war? You have heard this?"
"Yes." she said solemnly, "That puts me in a strange position. I am a servant to my country. What can I do for it when I am so far away? I wish to serve my country."
Conde relaxed some, and took a sip. His jaw, which had looked painfully welded to his face, seemed to loosen. "You want to ask for help, your majesty? In your war?"
"That would be a service." Taytu replied. She'd underestimated him. She always underestimated the ones she found attractive. Old fat men had to be wily. The attractive ones only needed to look strong and let the rest fall into place. "Your country has some of the crusader spirit now, under Delgado..."
Conde raised a hand. "I am not in a place to raise a crusader standard. Do you think there is a place for an advisor like that? There is one advisor in this country. Just the one man. If I stick up my head for something so irrelevant, do I not look like competition? Or maybe another party? I am not an ambitious man. Let me sit in my office and drink wine. Delgado and his friends can have the government."
"I expected more spirit." she said blandly.
"Well, it is not there." Conde replied. "I am honored to have met you, your majesty, but if you are looking for friends in the government, I am afraid I cannot be useful to you."
----------------------------------- Early September, Beijing -----------------------------------
Yaqob woke up in a start, some sixth sense ringing in his sleep-addled brain like an alarm bell. He was cold, his skin goose pimpled, the sheets twisted around his naked figure.
Something banged against his bookshelf. He looked up. Shun, the maid, was standing there. She was looking, not at him, but in his general direction, like a shy child avoiding eye contact. She...
He pulled the sheet around himself. Several impressions muddled together. Offense. Shame. A twisting contrast of discomfort and humor on how this seemed like a situation more for Sahle than him.
"I am sorry." she bowed, blushing, looking away.
"It's fine." he said. She went back to dusting. He watched her for a second, her thick cotton dress falling around her hips. He hadn't... well, what what Sahle do in this situation? Thinking about made him more uncomfortable. Too uncomfortable.
"I need to get dressed." he said matter of factly. Was he losing his voice?
"Oh yes." she turned, looked him in the eyes,and bowed. "I am sorry. Sorry."
"It's fine." he said.
"You are a nice man." She said. An awkward silence hung between them. She bowed again, and retreated.
He untwisted from the sheets and sat there for a second. It wasn't cold anymore. He stood up, unfurling from the bed. The room was a messier than he wanted. There were books on the shelf, on his drawers, on his desk. Several sheafs of paper, some written on, lay scattered on multiple surfaces. He grabbed a stack, pretending to find a place for them, reading what he had written. Half-reading. He couldn't help but be distracted.
When he was ready and dressed, he went outside, knowing he would find Akale there.
Akale was there, drinking his coffee, standing bemused in front of a Chinese official. Yaqob thought the official younger than himself. Almost a child, dressed in a crisp new mandarin suit. He stood up straight, but his eyes were distant, uncertain.
"I am Mao Yong, the neighborhood pioneer." he introduced himself with a bow. Akale returned the bow, a friendly smirk on his face. It looked funny, the two tall Ethiopians, Akale in his embroidered robes and Yaqob in his mandarin suit, being addressed by a young man half their height.
The pioneer paused for a moment, not looking sure of himself, but he regained his composure. "I will observe this neighborhood, make sure the laws are upheld. You know the laws? They are posted in the party hall." he pointed down the hill, through the trees, at a building hidden well out of sight. "There will be no gambling, or usurious loans, or opening shops without permission of the party. Do not solicit prostitutes, or be party to arranged marriages..."
"We will be down to review the law when we have time." Akale said politely.
Yong smiled and loosened up all at once. "Yes, very good." he bowed, "I bid you a good day, sirs."
"You are doing good work." Yaqob replied. The boy beamed, and scuttled off the porch and toward the front gate. Akale stepped closer to the Prince.
"That is the beginning of a career, isn't it?"
"Is it?" Yaqob asked sincerely.
"Well, there must be a reason for it, besides his mother told him to do it. Who knows, perhaps he will be Chairman of the Communist Party someday."
"Yes." Akale said, chuckling. "Well, it does sound silly. But the names of these people usually sound silly. Chairman Hou does rhyme, doesn't it?"
Yaqob hadn't thought either sounded silly.
"Would you have breakfast with me?" Akale asked.
Yaqob smiled and sat down. It was a cool day, a breeze singing through the trees. The porch smelled of coffee, weakly mingled with the sweet smell of the garden.
"Is there news from home?" Yaqob asked.
"The war hasn't started yet. There's been some fighting, some deaths, but no battles. Hamere Noh Dagna has abandoned Mogadishu, but pretends it is because he has to protect Djibouti from pirates. Everybody knows that he doesn't like your brother."
"But nothing has been decided yet?"
An Ethiopian servant brought a tray of eggs and rice. Both men ate from it.
"Nothing has been decided." Akale confirmed. "But the thing is young. The Chinese haven't asked me about it yet. To them it's just a foreign thing, a crisis maybe. Of course, a war is only a crisis until enough people have got around to dying. Then it becomes a war."
Deng Zhong-shan arrived, walking onto the porch like a familiar neighbor. Yaqob hadn't expected him, but he wasn't surprised. The Chinese congressman was showing up a lot lately.
"Your majesty." he bowed, "I did not expect you out of bed so early."
"I don't believe it's that early, congressman." Yaqob said. He did not blink, or show any feeling.
"Well, it is a good morning to sleep in. Now, I hate to be a burden, but where is the toilet?"
"A servant will help you." Akale said.
"No, I can find it myself, if you would be so kind."
Akale gave him directions. Zhong-shan bowed and went inside.
Yaqob turned to Akale. "I did not know the congressman was coming." he said blandly.
Akale nodded. "Well, he and his friends are very interested in Ethiopia. He's interested in mining, maybe opening a few operations."
"How would that work? A communist peoples owning property in a state such as ours?"
Akale shrugged. "I don't know much about Marxist economic theory."
"Have you read the book I loaned you?"
"I haven't had time. I don't know that Marxist economic theory is important to what I do. If it is, the Chinese government will help me with he work."
"I feel like it is important, so that you don't mislead these people."
Akale started to speak, but the reappearance of a smiling Deng Zhong-shan took their attention. "Mind if..." he motioned to a seat. Yaqob, out of instinct, gave him a slight nod, and watched the squat older man lower himself methodically into his chair.
"I forwarded your papers to Addis Ababa." Akale said, looking over at the old man. "I am hoping to get a reply, though under the circumstances..."
"May I be the first of my countrymen to offer my sympathies. War is a bitter thing, but a civil war is especially bitter." Zhong-shan said, putting sorrow in his voice, though Yaqob took it as a meaningless nicety. It wasn't even a true nicety. Hou had personally sent a much more heart-felt sympathy letter to Yaqob. Zhong-shan was merely the first of his people to offer his sympathies in person.
"We are both a people suffering the plight of war." Akale said.
Yaqob lost interest. He watched the birds flitting in the trees. Akale and Zhong-Shan became a background noise, a hum to the tune of the bird's wings. The sun was at its apex when the Chinese congressman said farewell. Yaqob made polite gestures but said nothing.
"I will see you at the People's Hall tonight." Zhong-shan said in between bows. Yaqob smiled warmly, but he didn't know what that meant. The People's Hall? He waited until the Congressman was gone before asking Akale.
"We have been invited to a friendly dinner, and meeting of Zhong-shan's colleagues."
"In a public hall?"
"Well, this is a communist country, public halls are in the spirit of things." Akale sat down and looked down at his work. "I believe this is more formal. A meeting of like-minded colleagues."
"Oh." Yaqob replied carelessly. He went inside, the grey rooms almost cave-dark before Yaqob's eyes adjusted to the lack of sun. A meeting of men like Zhong-shan did not interest him. He wanted to see the fire of the Chinese Communist movement. The orators of the people, the street-wise prophets in an age of cement and modernity. To hear old men speak of trains instead of revolution seemed...
When he entered his room, he saw the maid Shun laying on his bed. She was naked, a sight that stole Yaqob's thoughts. Fear and lust commingled in his heart. She was all there, pale skin, hair covering her nipples, her eyes soft and glistening like drops of cool water. He didn't know what to say. He said nothing.
"Come into bed with me." she requested. She didn't sound lusty, or like any girls his brother was known to keep around him. She sounded much the same as she always did. Her voice quavered. She sounded more like she was apologizing.
"I shouldn't..." Yaqob let out. He felt like he was on auto-pilot.
She pulled herself up. Her hair fell back. Nipples like drops of chocolate. "I have been wanting you for a long time. Please. I will make you feel good."
He couldn't lie to himself. He wanted it. All of him wanted it. His restraint was melting. But there were promises he'd made to himself, ideas of the person he needed to be.
She spread her legs. He'd seen this once before. He'd restrained himself then, perhaps because the reminder of why he should do so was there with him. But he was so far away. This was a new world. It could be his world.
He undressed and joined her. In the moment, to the surprise of his ego, he did not collapse and cease to be. When they were done, the Yaqob that rose out of bed was still him. He had not become his brother.
"You are an amiable man." Zhong-shan, all smiles, complimented Yaqob. They rode in the congressman's car, down the lit streets of Beijing, the sun setting over the city-scape. Zhong-Shan continued. "I expected a Prince to be a difficult friend to make. The untruth in my assumptions makes me happy."
"Thank you, congressman." Yaqob said unblinkingly. In truth, the compliment strummed a wrong note in his heart.
"You will find the Financial wing of the Communist party sensible, I think." Zhong-shan said, facing Akale. "All members of the party have their place. The moving rhetoric of the old guard, and the revolutionary wing, is a great thing to take in. But it does little for your purposes. Your war will not stir up great feelings on the left, but its meaning is a nuanced thing to us Financialists. There is a reason I take you to this meeting."
"We are honored to participate." Akale said.
Yaqob turned the meaning over. Or at least he tried to. Great feelings on the left? If Zhong-shan wasn't left, what was he? He could not make the words for a coherent idea. His mind was muddy. What was the meaning of anything that had happened that day? It was so much easier in books, with the author there to guide you through it. But reality is different. Reality, in the perspective of the human creature, in the moment, is a avant garde thing. Yaqob felt like he was putting together a puzzle through a kaleidoscope. He'd experienced the truest physical pleasure of his life that day with Shun. But there was a part of him, that last scrap of toddler consciousness perhaps, the simplest part, that told him watching the birds had been the sweetest pleasure of the day. It was simple. Honest to God simple. No doubts, no fears. Just his senses and the world. He wanted that feeling to himself, isolated from all the others. But that wasn't an option.
They arrived at the Hall of the People's Fervor for the Revolution. It wasn't a large building. In a sense, it looked like a slick pagoda designed by some American modernist. It had a grey, forbidding tone too it. Street lights lit the plaza in front. In the center was a statue. Promethean workers carried a young scholar on their shoulders, the scholar serene and powerful. Yaqob knew the identity of the young scholar by instinct. It was Wen Chu Ming. The Emperors and warlords of the past had built personality cults for themselves. There was certainly a nascent personality cult for Hou in Beijing, but it was an understated thing. The personality of Wen appeared to Yaqob like a communist Jesus, a martyr of revolution. Perhaps that was wise. Hou would age, and weaken, and expose his human weaknesses. The young death of Wen made him something immortal.
There was no pomp to the occasion. They were dropped off in the plaza. The sun was nearly gone out of the west, leaving a last pink glow. The air was cool and smelled of wet stone.
The Hall of the People's Fervor for the Revolution was a building without an explicitly clear purpose. It was best described as simply... public. It was all stone, but the patterns on the stone mimicked the paneling in wooden temples. Inside smelled sweet, like flowers, but Yaqob couldn't identify where the scent came from. The floor was hard grey stone.
The two Africans stood out, and the small numbers of lingering men and women did double takes, or watched them go by. Zhong-shan smiled and greeted like it was him that fascinated them. Their footsteps, and the whispering voices, echoed throughout the cavernous entryway.
From that entryway, smaller ways split off. Little rooms branched from those like grapes off a vine. But there was one larger room, one which everything seemed to orbit. It was a kind of court room. They went inside. Yaqob could imagine a cozy opera being held here. The red flag dominated.
In the middle of the room was a long table piled with food. Zhong-shan offered to bring his guests a plate. Akale accepted. Yaqob declined. People moved mildly around the room, a sort of polite ant colony. The noise of conversation echoed off the walls and made it sound like they were in a train station. Strangely, Yaqob found the sound soothing.
They coalesced into their seats. Zhong-shan brought dumplings for Akale, and an orange for Yaqob. The Chinese congressman stood in front of them like a showman, smiling broad, greeting all comers and introducing them to the Prince and the Ambassador. It was tedious. Yaqob could barely stand it, and made no effort to memorize people. The language barrier made it worse. Yaqob was learning Chinese quickly, but he hadn't mastered the language. Now he was bombarded with a flurry of different accents and voices. Some phrases rose above the others like solid turds in a sewage pond.
"I welcome the people of Africa."
"These are the men?"
"I hope your country knows peace again."
It was all simple. All pointless. Niceties for their own sake. Yaqob powered through. He thought of the birds.
The meeting was called to order. Zhong-shan reluctantly got back to his seat. A man in the center row stood up and addressed the room. The acoustics were excellent. His voice boomed.
"We are here to discuss the modernization of the armament carried by our reserves. This question is coming before congress. We represent the most knowledgeable in our field..."
The hall echoed. Yaqob stared across at the old men on the other side. He felt a feeling like bland despair. There was no great depth to the feeling. He was like a man, born on a featureless prairie, coming to terms that all he would ever know was that prairie. This was exactly where he belonged at the moment, but the fact he belonged there rattled his nerves. If heaven was the birds, that simple uninterrupted pleasure, then hell was this feeling, being here in this room, looking across at the old men on the other side and wondering if they had souls.
He had to do something.
What was he supposed to do?
"This is where I come in." Zhong-shan said proudly in an aside to Akale and Yaqob. Several speakers had cycled through their speeches by now. Zhong-shan stood up.
"The question of rearmament is inevitable, and the question that it will be paid for is irrelevant. What we should think about is how to weaken the blow. With the great machinery of the people eating into the resources of the country, the most likely way to reimburse our great society is for the outdated armaments to be given a final use! Our new friend in Africa is engaged in war. The Ethiopian state fights with weapons left over from the Great War. They have a need for our old arms, and would repay us. I move we debate and come to an agreement on this. Are there objections to this course of action?"
Yaqob listened, not because of any oratorical power of Zhong-shan's, but because the war in his home country disturbed him, and by disturbing him it interested him.
"There is an obvious objection." A man across the room stood up, and was quickly recognized by the floor so he could continue. "It is a matter of optics. How will it appear if we support a monarch to crush his enemies? You might call this mutual aid, or a bargain deal. And if we only considered the financial consequences, perhaps it would be a bargain deal. But the people will look on us poorly for this, and the left will use it like a spear to pierce our reputations."
"Is reputation the only thing that matters to you?" Zhong-shan replied, his voice confident and accusing as he pointed at his opponent. "What kind of political creature is this? Is this ambition? It cannot be public service!"
Akale licked his lips. Yaqob was surprised to see the Ambassador invested in the argument. What were a few old guns? Those words, What kind of political creature is this?, rung in his mind like a eulogy.
They did not reach the decision before the end of the meeting.
It let out, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Whatever Zhong-shan expected had not come to pass. He ordered his driver to bring the Ethiopians back to the embassy while he stayed behind.
Perhaps it was the night, the ghostly glow of street lights showing a quiet city like the skeletal corpse of the bustling urban day. Perhaps it was all that had happened, all that had confused him. Whatever it was, Yaqob felt a deep melancholy. He was like child away from his home. When he thought about it, he realized that was exactly what he was, and the melancholy sunk deeper.
"He's talking about rearming us completely." Akale said. His eyes were wide and concentrated as if he were reading an especially exciting book. "It would be. That would be the greatest diplomatic victory. We should pursue it."
Yaqob said nothing.
"Hou. Would Hou accept it? He met you. He likes you I think..." Akale was rambling.
Yaqob didn't pay attention. It was one ear and out the other. He laid his head back, closed his eyes, and embraced the end of the day like it was his savior.
-------------------------------------------------- Early September: Djibouti, Ethiopia --------------------------------------------------
Djibouti had the reputation of a Sun City, but to Leyla it looked like an endless warehouse district. There were no flashy signs, no glamorous people or modern showcase architecture. The dull adobe buildings hardly rose above ground level. Cracked cement roads ran through the city, criss-crossing with rough dirt paths, the main courses crowded with pedestrians, slowing the trucks that belched diesel fumes into the scorching air.
The heat was intense. Leyla followed Elias off the train, feeling meek as she exited into this alien place. Sweat beaded on her forehead before they'd crossed the street. They'd dressed for this, wearing the cotton robes girded with belts, holsters openly visible. In the distance, she could see the steel pinnacles of great battleships. Elias eyed the hulking towers suspiciously as they went into an open air coffee house. Somalis and Arabs sat on benches, teeth green by chewing khat, talking loudly among themselves. They saw Leyla and Elias, but they did not seem to register them.
She heard bits of conversation. The navy had moved from Mogadishu. They would hunt pirates. There was a war in Somalia. A war? Elias ordered coffee for the both of them, and they sat down on a pillowed bench.
She tried to listen, but her attention wandered as she took in the overwhelming amount of new things. For such an uninviting city, it was surprisingly diverse. There were Ethiopians and Somalis, but also Arabs, and blacks, and whites as well. They were mixed together, unaware of the new comers as far as she could tell.
Elias handed her coffee. "Ras Hassan has declared a jihad in the name of the Somali Muslims." He kept his voice low.
"Jihad?" she knew Ras Hassan as an important noble, and she knew that he worried the Shotel.
"It was a long time coming. But why has the Bahr Negus abandoned Mogadishu and come here? That leaves Adal uncontested."
"What do you think?"
Elias shrugged. "Probably treason."
"Should we investigate it since we are here?"
"No. We have a job to do."
She remembered, but she didn't understand its importance. Djibouti was the hub of a drug trade, one that had spread throughout the rough parts of Africa. To her it seemed irrelevant.
"Where next?" she asked, sipping the bitter brew.
"Now, there is a man we need to speak to. His place of business is somewhere you will not like." Elias pulled out a pack of cigarettes: Marvolo's, with an image of the pyramids on the front. He lit one, looking toward the door.
"I will not like? What kind of place is it?"
"You will see." he said, "I want you to learn that we cannot work in places that are comfortable to us."
"I know this." Leyla replied, "I am not a little girl. I am willing to take risks."
"Good" Elias grunted, cigarette clinched between his teeth. He pulled it out and held it over an ashtray. "You are here because one gun is better than two. Do not say anything unless someone is preparing to draw on us. Do not show your feelings."
"Am I of any use to you?" she asked, holding back feeling as much as she could. She felt like she was going to burst. Sadness, angry, fear, anxiety, exhaustion. She couldn't really tell anymore.
"Yes. I told you. One gun is better than two. Now come on. Watch what I do, listen to what I say. You are in school today."
They went into the sun-tortured streets. Even palm trees wilted in the heat. The streets were loud, the throaty rumble of trucks, people shouting at each other instead of talking. Leyla tailed Elias so closely she almost stepped on his boots more than once.
"I thought this place was dangerous." she said, watching a young girl heedlessly leading a mule past a beggar as if he were a rock.
"It is." Elias replied. They walked through an alley. "But not in the middle of the day. The freight companies pay guards. They work better than the police in Addis, if we are to be honest."
She thought of the bored looking officers in their shoddy police booths back home. Here, she'd seen armed men, but she hadn't thought of them as professionals.
"If they work better during the day, why don't they work at night? Wouldn't that bring safety?"
Elias smiled back at her. "They are part of who make it dangerous. The line between private policeman and gang member is academic. The freight companies have other interests. Moving narcotics, apparently. Working with pirates. Slavery."
They were on a main street again, as busy as before. The battleships loomed closer. The sun reflected like a laser from the rising tower of the nearest. Along the street was a mixture of rough shops and long warehouses where men loaded and unloaded trucks.
Somewhere, in the distance, she thought she heard a gunshot. Nobody else reacted.
"Don't worry, I won't let you be a slave." he said, grinning as they approached a door. The outline of an ibis appeared burned into the adobe wall, as if it were branded. "Remember what I told you." he said. He opened the door, and the smell of smoke overcame her. Some of it was tobacco, but she detected smells intermingled of which she was not familiar. They went inside.
They were in a small room, a tall man with a turban and a holstered gun looking down on them. The entrance into the next room was concealed by a curtain of beads.
"Who are you?" the armed man asked. His voice was like a big drum. String music came from the other side of the beads.
"Your master knows I am here." Elias replied.
"I don't know that. Your weapons?"
"My hip feels lonely without it." Elias patted his holster. They shared a look, Elias irreverent, the guard unwavering. Elias started to undo his belt. Leyla followed his lead.
"I will take you, but you will leave the weapons." he disarmed them, slinging their belts and holsters over his shoulder before leading them through the beads, into a dark room filled with smoke. They walked toward a door on the other side of the room. A man was playing an oud in the corner. Every surface to sit was covered in sheets and pillows. Men lounged lazily, not much different than in the coffee shop, nursing hookah nozzles. Near the oud player was a stage. An olive-skinned girl walked across it...
Leyla's heart jumped in her throat. The girl was completely naked accept for silver chain she wore around her hip. Leyla had never seen another person unclothed before, aside from perhaps little children, and the sight felt invasive. The girl, looking like she was in a trance, danced slowly. She laid down on her back, hiked her... buttocks in the air, and lit a cigarette on a nearby candle. As they passed into another room, the girl began to smoke the cigarette with her...
"You are the Shotel!" she heard a shrill male voice in front of her. Her head shot forward as if she'd been caught doing something she wasn't supposed. They'd entered through another beaded door, into a smaller room. At its center was a man who could have weighed half a ton. He had a bench to himself, looking like a massive lumpy pillow in his robes.
"Relax." Elias started, "The Shotel doesn't care about what you do here. That's the business of the local courts."
"I do not think about the local courts." the big man replied with a big crocodilian grin, "But if you do not care, why are you here? You are not one of my employees. This place is for Ibis Company workers to relax."
"...and give their money back to the company." Elias said, "I'm not here to spend money. I'm here for information."
"Is the girl a trade?" the big man looked hungrily around Elias at Leyla. "I didn't think your agency employed girls."
A trade? Leyla's heart skipped. Her skin went clammy. She felt vulnerable, seeing what this place was, and for a second, her mind entertained the thought that she might have been recruited for this all along. She wanted to run.
"No trade." Elias's smiled washed away for a second, and he looked dangerous. Dangerous in a way that made her feel safe again. "Abba, this is Agent Leyla. Leyla, this is Abba al'Hadad, boss of Ibis Company."
Leyla said nothing. Abba gave her a suspicious look, before turning his attention back to Elias. "I did not expect the girl, but you know I don't give information without a fee. You have dispensation?"
Elias's grin came back. "You've worked with my kind before. Yes. You will be paid."
"Then ask your question."
"Who is the Hakim? The good doctor? We know he is involved with smuggling into Adal, and perhaps even Swahililand. We've retrieved information that he is smuggling something of interested to warlords..."
"The Hakim." Abba shuttered. "I have never met the man, but I don't like his people."
"No." Abba said, "Unsavory. He rents our services from time to time. I only worked with him once. He hires ugly people. Victims of mutilation I think."
"Who is he using now?"
Abba smiled. "Well, this is where I need to be payed, isn't it?"
Elias pulled out an envelope. Like he were a performing magician, he showed the envelope to the fat man, then slowly drew out its contents. There was a thick stack of tan bills tied together with twine. The fat man licked his lips as if he were being presented a particularly succulent cake. "I do like fresh notes!" he said as Elias put them in his balloon fingers.
"Will that do?"
"I could keep this money and have you thrown out."
Leyla looked to Elias for a reaction, but saw nothing. "You could." he started, "But why create trouble?"
"You would be no trouble at all." that crocodilian smile was back. It might have been ear to ear if it wasn't for the man's ham-like cheeks.
"I wouldn't be." Elias replied, "But if we were to disappear, the Shotel would be back. The loss of two agents is the loss of reputation. If our people are to do their jobs, we have to keep that reputation."
"And if this city falls?" Abba leaned forward, like a fat cat sitting up.
"To Ras Hassan? Do you think that occupation by some desert nomads will stop the Shotel?"
Abba held his pose, saying nothing, staring down at the two agents as if they were ants beneath his magnifying glass. Leyla saw his body guards standing all around, and knew she and Elias couldn't take them all. Could he see her thoughts?
Then Abba al'Hadad laughed, low and hearty, sounding like a train starting off from the station. "You are right. It costs me nothing to give this information to you. They are using the docks belonging to Tall Palms. The goods come in by truck and are loaded onto trawlers. They load at midnight, Wednesdays and Fridays."
"Tonight is Wednesday." Elias said.
"It is. Like I said, you are looking for mutilated men."
"Do you know, perhaps, what boats they will use? That would save us trouble."
"No." Abba waved his hand at the big guard. "Give them their weapons back. They are not a threat. My Shotel friends, it was pleasant meeting with you. May Allah guide you."
"Yes." Elias nodded, "Allah guide you too."
There was, off the main road near the port, a safe house. It was a studio apartment, sparsely furnished. They ate a flavorless meal of canned lentils. The light in the room shifted as the sun went down.
Leyla missed the propaganda office. The repetitive arguments between artists and agents. The smell of coffee. Scraps of paper and ink stains showing up in places they shouldn't be. The fact she could go home, see her father, relax knowing tomorrow wouldn't bring any challenges she hadn't known before.
"How is your first day in the field?" Elias asked.
"It's a lot to take in."
"You're taking it better than I expected. I thought you might cry, when we were out of public."
She said nothing. Her eyes were heavy, her head numb from all the unprocessed thoughts. But now he said it, she was feeling the urge to cry. She fought it by saying nothing.
Sunlight came orange through the window. Elias went to it and looked out. "I'm going to scout out the building. I've waited this long because the workers will be leaving for home now, and the streets will be hectic. I'll be less conspicuous. You should clean your gun."
"I did when we were on the train."
"And we've been in this dirty fucking town since then. You need to do something."
She nodded. He went for the doorknob.
"One more thing." she said.
He turned around, looking at her inquisitively.
"Why does it matter this Doctor sells drugs? There are no laws against it."
"That doesn't matter. We are not the police."
"By why are we trailing this doctor?"
Elias dropped his hand from the door and turned to face her. "What has come to our attention isn't that this unnamed doctor is selling drugs. It's that he keeps himself secret. Okay, that's interesting, it's what made him high profile enough for us to notice. But what's more interesting is who he sells to. The Swahili communists? Okay, perhaps they are selling across the border, making extra money selling into Ostafrika. But Adal? Ras Hassan? Do you see what I mean?"
"I am not political."
"Ras Hassan has one thing on his mind. We've all known it. He's a barracks man. Money? He lives like a warrior, not a King. That he would be involved in a drug trade. Well, as far as we know, he's only worked for one thing. It is this war he has started."
"You knew he was going to start it?"
"I'm surprised you didn't know. Even as a little girl in school."
"Then why didn't you stop him?"
Elias grinned. "Politics. I need to go. Keep yourself busy with that gun, Agent Leyla." He left her.
She had more questions. Alone in this room, she said them out loud. "Why send us?" she asked the naked walls. That sentence, like the top of an iceberg, hid a more complex thought. Why risk agents on such a bland lead? Was there some great security risk in a warlord taking up an unusual hobby? And even if it meant something, something they didn't see yet, what could it possibly matter?
Flies buzzed around the open cans sitting on the counter. The fading sunlight was now a dull red, an orange went blood orange. She pulled the magazine from her gun and began. The stale masculine scent of oil grew more and more as she worked. She was certain the smell would stay with her the rest of the night.
It was dark when Elias returned. "Are you ready?" he asked.
She'd put her gun back together by then, and he'd found her nearly napping. She sat up and nodded. They went out into the night.
The air was cool now, though it still held the scents of baked earth and gasoline. It was quiet enough she could hear the ocean, the tide playing its music not far from them. But there were still other sounds, city sounds. Somewhere she heard muffled gunfire. From many directions, there were lively voices, always coming from a different alley, or an open door. An old woman sat in the dust, wrapped in her shawl like a cigar. It was cold. Leyla pulled her robe close around her.
There were still people in the road. They gathered in front of the doors of shops, absorbed in their own conversations. The battleship spires glowed bright blue from the moonlit sea.
"Food." a beggar called out. He didn't look at anybody, only the ground. Leyla gave him a wide berth. "Food." she heard him behind her.
They stuck the side of the road, beneath the shadow of the chipped buildings. Some people looked at them. Most minded their own business. They rounded a corner and saw a small crowd in front of an open door. A man was holding another against the doorway, putting a knife to his neck. Elias didn't seem to notice, or care.
They heard gunfire toward the center of town. One shot. Elias didn't seem to notice, or care.
Elias stopped in front of a long warehouse, adobe, painted white, two straight palms growing in a patch of dirt out front, next to each other like guards. A thin dirt path lead around it, creating an urban canyon through which she could see the sea. He looked down the road, then turned down the path. Leyla scrambled to keep up.
A sound reverberated, the clap of wood against wood, echoing like a gunshot. Leyla stopped, her senses increasing, like a gazelle that'd just heard a lion. Elias continued.
There were other sounds. Scraping. Maybe voices. It was hard to hear over the murmur of the sea.
Elias climbed the chain link fence dividing the access road from the property of Tall Palms. He moved slow, but the fence still jingled ever so slightly, making Leyla wince. She went over after him. She was clumsier, but she weighed less, so she got over quietly enough.
"There it is." Elias whispered, pointing out toward the burbling sea. Big floodlights bathed the crystal blue water in artificial day. There were several ships in port, but among them was a smaller thing dwarfed by the freighters flanking it. A large beat up yacht. Elias, crouching, moved closer, between the sheds and tall stacks of crates.
Leyla tugged at his robe. Her eyes were wide. "Are there guards?" she whispered.
"Patrol every hour on the hour." he whispered back, pointing to his watch. It was fifteen after. She let go, and followed him. They ducked behind a shed. Elias pulled out binoculars. Leyla saw her partners back, and heard distant voices.
He looked at her and pointed at the binoculars. She gingerly took them, and leaned forward so she could see the ship. There were people surrounding it, working, lifting boxes. She brought the binoculars to her eyes.
At first, what she saw was a blur. Elias grabbed the binoculars with one hand and pushed her head into them with the other. It came into focus. Every move she made sent her vision whirring across the zoomed distortion, but she steadied and adapted herself, finding faces.
There was something wrong with the man she saw. He wore a keffiyeh covering his face, and an eyepatch covering one eye. The rest of his skin had a sickly pallor, perhaps swollen.
She heard a scuffle behind her. Elias shouted, but the wind left him. Her head shot around to see what was happening. Big hands grabbed her. She dropped the binoculars, and found herself hoisted like a sack over the shoulder of a tall man. His body odor assaulted her nose. From between his arms, she saw Elias being picked off the ground. His gun was taken from his holster.
"Where do we go?" the man in front asked.
"The boss says give them to Abba al'Hadad."
Leyla's holster was pressed into the big man's neck. As he walked, her hand slapped against his holster.
Her mind began to work.
"Come on little girl. Abba al'Hadad will be happy to see your pretty face."
Elias was hanging limp. It was only her now. Her hand slapped her carrier's holster. She felt for the leather flap and pulled it back as cautiously as she could. Her fingers felt the cold wooden grip.
In one quick move, she pulled it out. She felt the big man's muscles tense as he reacted to her movement. She freed the gun and shot him through the belly. Hot blood splattered her feet, and she was dropped. Before she hit the ground, she fired two more shots, both hitting the man in front of her. She didn't see him go down before she hit the ground. It knocked the air out of her with a girlish "Huff." The big man hit the ground squirming. Blood pooled on the hot cement, beneath the cold moon.
She jumped to her feet. Elias was waking on the ground.
"We need to go!" she said, not worrying about sound. She looked around, expecting to see ugly-faced brutes, monsters beneath keffiyahs. She saw the boat behind them, its men still working, indifferent to the scuffle they surely heard.
"I got the name." Elias said. He looked dazed. His eyes widened when he saw the two bodies.
"We need to go!"
Elias nodded. They jumped the fence and went back to the safe house. Nobody bothered them.