Somewhere in the North-Eastern Sahara…
The desert evening keeps the fear outside, for now. During the day, the air is sticky with sweat, the thick Saharan humidity making it hard to breathe. The occasional breezes cool your brow, but it never lasts. The heat is eternal, a constant reminder of all the conspirators of nature plotting and planning, wearing you down, until you’re face down in the sand – vulture feed. The heat will make you rip your shirt from your back, leaving you defenseless at dusk when the cold sets in.
There are fourteen tents, twenty-five men, (excluding our three native guides, Ahmad, Aarif, and Sadiq) and camels for each man, as well as enough provisions for forty days more on this arduous trek. It has been a long march, but we have savored every step. Spirit is high amongst the men; less out of enthusiasm about our mission and more to do, I suspect, with the Sultan’s promises of gold, women and wine awaiting our return. Soldiers…. The times change but they stay the same.
It has been twenty days since we left Alexandria, and nearly two months since we arrived in Jerusalem at the behest of the newly enthroned Sultan Saladin. “O, great warriors”, “O solemn knights of the Empire”; we were paraded like heroes in the streets of Arab Jerusalem. Most of the men failed to grasp the irony of our situation, but were well aware of the dangers at hand. After spending the better part of a decade fighting the United Sultanate, mercilessly slaughtering their sons, husbands and brothers, we were being welcomed into the palace walls, into the lion’s den.
There is little words can do to describe the wonders of the Sultan’s palace. Built upon the ruins of the ancient Temple of Solomon, it would suffice to say that the Sultan spared no expense. At every turn, lavish tapestries adorn the walls, ornate windows cast open to the candle-lit streets below. The arched ceilings are immensely tall, almost as if the sky itself curves down into the golden gilded halls. On every wall, adorning every twist and turn of the palace’s endless corridors, priceless works of art and immeasurably ancient artifacts. Hiram, the surgeon’s assistant, swore that on his way to the stables he happened upon a shard of ancient iron marked “Fragment of the Spear that drew Blood from Christ”. The Sultan has an indelible taste for pomp and circumstance, so I’ll take that tale with a grain of salt.
The royal guards eyed us wearily as our “forward guard”, composed of myself, Ludwig, my second in command, and Sen, our surgeon-in-chief, crossed the center of the Sultan’s ceremonial hall . They were all professional soldiers, equally trained and hardened in combat as our troops. In fact, some of them were likely veterans of the same battles. For that reason, Ludwig wisely counseled that the main constituency of our corps be given the night’s leave, lest the Sultan’s men recognize a former foe. I treaded carefully, even as an honoured guest of the Sultan, none of these guards would take very kindly to seeing my face outside of their hours of duty.
“Gentlemen, I call upon you in this time of peace with a great heaviness in my heart. These past years of battle have shown the immense courage, the incredible chivalry of all warriors, but it is time to put our differences behind us. Your war for Africa, your war for Arabia, is lost.”
The Sultan, a broad and muscular man, spoke eloquently, with a tone as powerful as a clap of thunder in the dead of night. Educated at Oxford, he had been a shining star of Imperial diplomacy, furthering the cause of King George in the Middle East. He was thought to be a great asset to British advancement in Arabia, despite what his royal lineage might have suggested. Born to Sultan Suleiman of Egypt, Saladin’s father had been deposed by French troops as they invaded Cairo at the turn of the century.
“But even in times of peace, there is a need for warriors. Not armies waving a banner, but men of great strength, men of will and force. Men who will hunt down the enemy and take his last breath without hesitation in the pursuit of glory. I believe, if I am not mistaken, that your troops are such men”
Returning to his homeland, indoctrinated by his years of British academia, Saladin expected the prosperous returns of imperialism to have had a great expanding effect upon the peoples of Egypt. In fact, he found greater poverty, starvation and misery than his people had ever been subjected to before. And it was only so that he learned the error of his ways. He ended all correspondence with British scholars, and was unheard from for nearly a decade, until he emerged as the leader of the “United Sultanate”, a self-described “rapidly growing confederacy of Arabian monarchic states opposing conventional European colonial expansion in Africa and the Middle East”. “Pomp and circumstance”, I whispered to Ludwig.
The Sultan stepped down from his throne, and as his leather sandals scraped against the marble floors, his guards inched nervously closer. With a forceful wave of his hand, Saladin cast them aside, reassuring that we posed no threat.
“If I am not mistaken, as a result of the Treaty of Athens, your battalion have been given a year’s leave from training for “training exercises” in the Mediterranean sector of the Empire. Is that correct?”
Ludwig nodded silently, conscious that I had no intention of conversing directly with the Sultan.
“And if I were to ask whether you and a small number of your troops could hunt down a certain individual in the time frame of one year, with all your supplies and armament at my expense, would you consider that a possibility?”
From the moment that the Sultan had hailed us to his chambers, I knew that our visit was not a purely diplomatic gesture. The Sultan had need of our services, services that even the Sultanate’s greatest assassins could not provide.
In his coarsest Austrian accent, Ludwig interjected; “Your Highness, with all due respect, our troops’ ability to track down an individual depends entirely on…” Seeing a doubt growing in the old Sultan’s eyes, he cautiously continued; “but our skills are unmatched across the globe, and granted the proper equipment, none can outmatch our talents”.
Clapping his hands together with joy, the Sultan exclaimed:
“Excellent. For your year’s services, every man under your command will receive the equivalent of ten thousand British pounds in gold, as well as six months hospitality at my retreat in Cairo, where we shall feast, drink and enjoy the company of the Sultanate’s most beautiful women. As for yourselves, the commanding officers, your shares shall be double that, and you will be welcome to spend the rest of your mortal lives as emissaries of the Sultanate”.
The hall grew silent in an instant; a living, breathing tomb wrought with tension. The palace guards exuded fury at the Sultan’s offers to the Western mercenaries, their brows furrowed, eyes focused with a clear and powerful rage. That these heretics, these infidels should receive the greatest honor from the Sultan is near-blasphemy.
Ludwig, ever the diplomat, chose his words very carefully, lest he offend the Sultan and cause the loss of such a tremendous offer; the likes of which would allow our men to retire from this dreaded business of war.
“We accept your offer, your highness, and accept that in your wisdom you elect to not immediately dispose unto us the intricacies of the information with which you are blessed. We have but one question to beg of you; who is it that you seek-
-What man is so goddamn important to you, that you didn’t kill us the moment we walked into this room? “
I immediately regretted this burst of passion, seeing the sly grin slowly creeping along the Sultan’s lips. His cheeks wrinkled with delight as he responded.
“Not a man, Herr Ludwig, but a girl. Princess Mary, the daughter and sole living heir of George V, King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, of the Americas and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, The Emperor of Europe”.