Audience with a Prince
Beyond the brightly-lit portico was a covered hallway, where the killers Yahedi and Bourta had bowed to superiority and mutely surrendered their arms, spreading them out upon a table obviously provided for the purpose. An arch, its plaster roof painted in blue and red and liberally leaved with gold, led them through to the inner courtyard of the villa. Surrounded on all of its sides by the main body of the house, here, as outside, water symbolised wealth and power. A large, subtly under-lit kidney-shaped pool tenanted by ornamental fish occupied all space, save for a surrounding walkway paved in mosaic of blue and gold. At about two-thirds of the pool’s length away from the visitors a low bridge formed a crossing to a central island where seating and cushions offered luxurious rest beneath lighting that was softly tinted and discreet. As a backdrop, some western sculptor had provided a marble rival to the Trevi Fountain, with cavorting nymphs and cupid figures from which the flow of crystal clear water cascaded or sprayed. To either side salons and apartments, almost all entirely faced with glass, should have been closed against the cold: but it was not cold here. Cleverly disguised ducts and vents provided a barrier of heat, enveloping the whole courtyard in warm, gently humid air. The glazing was layered for soundproofing, with gas between the layers which would cloud when charged with electricity, so when the rooms’ occupants wished it, privacy could be provided at a button’s touch.
Persuaded forward by two armed escorts, Bourta and Yahedi took in all these testaments to the fabulous wealth of the villa’s owner, but their focus of attention quickly fell upon the sole occupant of the island, whose eyes had watched them from the moment they crossed the threshold. At the sight of the figure reclining amongst a mountain of silk cushions the two assassins stiffened with alarm, for, though the figure beckoning them to approach was indeed the figure of a Crown Prince, it was not of the squat, toad-like proportions they expected. It was a person altogether thinner and taller; whose finely-chiselled features exuded arrogance, a vanity, a foppishness entirely inappropriate to the present company. This was not the Crooked Prince Shumal, but his older brother, and the rightful heir to the throne of Khubar.
This was El Saada.
“Two fine heroes! Welcome!” The Crown Prince’s voice was sing-song and cracked. “Join me, please. We will take tea.”
“Discourse upon some matters is difficult.” Said the Prince in his brittle voice, after the escorts had withdrawn and his visitors settled, hesitantly, each upon a chair. “We must know whom we trust. That is why I have had you intercepted on your journey to meet my brother. That is why I brought you directly to me”
Yahedi and Bourta exchanged glances. Neither man spoke. Their allegiance to Shumal, the crooked Prince, would be known to Saada, as would Shumal’s implacable hatred for his brother. Only Saada’s heavy security, with perhaps a little diplomatic expedience, kept him alive. What force of necessity had led him to meet two of Shumal’s most dangerous assassins face to face?
“And is this ‘interception’,” Mahennis Bourta’s voice cut the air like the stroke of a scimitar: “Wise, Highness?”
El Saada could not fail to sense so fatal a chill: “I see I have chosen well. Touch me, my dear, and you will not live another breath.”
Salaiman Yahedi smiled a steel smile, his fingers feeling out the end of a cheese wire garrotte he kept sewn into the undersleeve of his jacket; “But if this one breath is so sweet, El Saada: why should it not be the last?”
The heir to the throne of Khubar was not a nerveless man; he needed all his royal breeding, all his belief in his own infallibility, not to fail at this moment. If he had not known he was holding two tigers by their tails, the glint in Yahedi’s eye would convince him.
The Crown Prince went on huriedly: “Let me make an explanation. When my spies inform me you are returning to our land, I see an opportunity. Yes, I do! I see you as my messengers, my ambassadors, even.”
Bourta interrupted dourly. “You want us to give a message to who? Your brother?”
“Exactly him! My brother yes.” The Crown Prince confirmed enthusiastically. “More than a message, in the matter of a fact: I want you to tell him we must put our differences aside and be working together, pretty damn soon, too.”
“Why do you need us, Your Highness?” Salaiman Yahedi permitted himself use of the accepted royal address, “ A simple message, surely? An email, a text?”
“Yes, yes, that might be fine. That might suffice, yes.” The Prince sat for a moment, his jaw clenched, staring at the koi carp in the pool. They stared back. “This thing I am thinking,” He said at last, “Is that we should all the time be working together, but he will not hear me. My own brother disrespects me, he will not listen. He trusts you; you are his friends. To you he will listen.”
“Does this have any bearing on the nation’s finances, Your Highness?” Yahedi asked quietly, “Because…”
“No, no. Worse. Far worse.”
Saada leaned forward, dropping his voice. “Our father the King is well enough to travel. It is a great mystery! He claims he was woken from his sleep by a seabird of marvellous white plumage, I ask you! The bird has told him he will travel to England, of all places. And the next day – the very next – he is invited to some godforsaken place to meet with the English Crown Prince and – well, how should I tell you? The American Senator, Mr bloody Goodridge!”
Yahedi frowned, waiting for the information to make sense. It didn’t. The name ‘Goodridge’ struck a chord, though. That man had already dodged his bullet once, and he was fairly sure Shumal would not want him to miss a second time: or had the priorities altered?
The Prince went on: “Next year, Senator Goodridge will become President Goodridge. For once my crooked brother and I are in agreement, or would be if I could damn well speak to him: this must not happen! But this meeting, this cozy little chatty- chat with my father on an English rock, is almost upon us! For my father, an alliance with this soon-to-be POTUS person would be so fine – a fitting culmination to his long and distinguished service for his country; for us, though, bloody disaster! It will be my father’s last great act of statesmanship. He signs a contract with Goodridge to allow the American’s GAM Oil Corporation drilling rights for three new sites in Al Khubar. Mr oh-so-ambitious Goodrige will gain an interest in the City State’s existing wells and refineries. In return, Al Khubar will offer Goodridge the land at Dhobattli Point for an American military base. By this we would gain western protection, the premium US market for our oil and endless opportunities for trade. It is all too bloody marvellous, and it is to happen next bloody week!”
Intuitive needles were shooting through Yahedi’s mind: “But Highness, we had thought – even your brother thought – you fully supported your father’s marriage of Khubar to the interests of the United States? We cannot have been mistaken. Surely, if this has altered, Shumal would welcome your change of heart with open arms?”
The Prince’s mouth acquired a bitter twist, “You would be expecting so, would you not? But no; he thinks I am plotting, he thinks I am tricking! And I cannot say, openly, what must be said, because no word must reach our father. If I had time, perhaps, I could weedle-deedle him, I could talk him round, but there is no time! Our destiny is upon us!”
Bourta grunted, “So you persuade us to persuade him. Why, are we so much easier to convince? Or is this your device for turning our true Prince upon us, causing him doubt? You mention trust, Your Highness: why should we trust you?”
El Saada nodded gravely, returning his attention to the fish that still waited in a small shoal in the water, anticipating leavings from the Royal table. “If your offices can bring myself and my brother together you will be rewarded: emissaries and contracted assassins now, you will be given Offices of State, serving the true successor to my father. When you hear the message I must send my brother I am sure you will be as convinced as I of its veracity: it is too bloody serious to be making up of the fake news, you see. Too serious.”
“And what is it, Highness?” Salaiman Yahedi prompted gently, “What is this serious news?”
El Saada’s whole demeanour had darkened. His reply was sombre. “While our father is ill, I have overseen much of the affairs of state; my brother, some, but mostly myself. Since his coma, I may have allowed certain things to slide. The worry, you see? The worry.
His audience, putting aside the rumours they had heard of wild parties and drug abuse, both nodded. Satisfied, apparently, with so small a gesture of empathy, El Saada braced himself: “The oilfields, my dears. Employing our best estimates, they will become unviable on the fourth month of next year.”
Bourta hissed through his teeth.
Yahedi, kept his voice level. “Is that for all of the wells, your Highness, or just “Mahadeni?” He named the largest of the Al Khubar oil fields, the original discovery, sixty years ago, and the mother-load, so to speak, from which all of the wealth of Al Khubar had been generated.
“Mahadeni. The others will follow within eighteen months.”
“No oil!” Bourta’s face split into a smile.
“Not a bloody damn pint for my car, even!” The Prince confirmed. “Can you even try to imagine what will happen then, my darlings?”
“The State will collapse.” Yahedi acknowledged. “It must. Your Highness, who else knows of this?”
“Less than a few, beside ourselves. It is a dangerous thing to know. Millions of dollars in debts unpaid, millions more promised. Not only our dear, beloved nation in meltdown, but confidence in all the Middle East shattered. Should this privy knowledge get out into the world, my dears, the price of oil will hit the ruddy roof, I tell you! The King my father does not know: in his illness it was easy to keep from him. Engineers whose lives have, unfortunately, ended prematurely, and we three. Until you tell my brother, no-one else.”
Salaiman remembered the headline: ‘Plane Missing. Khubali Oil Executives Lives feared Lost’. “So His Majesty is about to sign away oil resources he does not have?”
“To an American President-in-waiting whose expansionist policies are targeted on our glorioius Kingdm!” Bourta exclaimed. “Now there is irony!”
“Tell my brother!” The Crown Prince’s voice did not rise by as much as a decibel but its intensity drove his message home like a nail: “This agreement can never be signed,. Whoever is present at this meeting, whoever can become a signatory to it, even our own dear father, must be prevented. Our secret must remain a secret for as long as we can fortify ourselves against the future; not a whisper must leak out, you see?”
“And by prevented,” Yahedi said, “You mean killed.”
“I mean killed. No Plan B!”
“I am determined to marry the lady,” Arthur Herrit affirmed, playing the last brandy in his glass idly against a beam of sunlight that had penetrated the salon window. At Montcleif’s startled response he added; “Nay, Abel, forebear! You shall not continue to remind me I know nothing of her past, for no-one does!”
The two men, one the legitimate heir to the Mountsel Park Estate, the other the manager of his businesses had in past years been accustomed, with the coming of winter, to hold their more convivial meetings at their Mountchester club. With the arrival of Francine Delisle at the Park this arrangement had altered, for although the Estate had staff enough to offer a doughty defence to most forms of trespass, the threat to Miss Delisle seemed to Arthur serious enough to warrant his personal presence at all possible times. Therefore, Montcleif proving willing enough to make the ride to the great house, his business affairs travelled to him, rather than the other way around. The changed venue did nothing to detract from the pleasantness of those afternoons that ensued, especially with the year’s turning and spring being announced by all in the park that could sing, or hop, or thrust above the tilth in their greeting for the sun.
“I should be condemned to wait forever if investigations in those quarters proceed at their present pace,” Arthur continued, “So we shall take the initiative. Unless some person from the congregation stands up to proclaim just cause, we shall be married forthwith. I’ve consulted with Parson Pettigrew, who is, I’ll grant, somewhat concerned about the Parish Records, but not sufficiently so to put his Living at risk. The banns are to be read – is that not splendid?”
Montcleif gave one of those barely perceptible shrugs he practised when he was forced to concede a point without necessarily agreeing with it. “Then I wish you the greatest happiness!” He said. “Miss Francine is a very fortunate lady.”
Arthur’s tone lowered to a more serious timbre. “Suppose I were to question you, Abel, upon another matter – not unrelated, but where answers would put my mind at rest? You knew my father well?
“I did, of course. We worked together for many years. Arthur, he was a very careful man.”
“Yes, yes: one who would not be so hot-headed as to sweep a girl off to his marital bed without knowing a great deal about her, I take your point. You worked for him, I never knew him; you have the advantage on me there. Yet he built our fleet of merchantmen, he discovered markets all over the world – there must have been some entrepreneurial flare in him, surely?”
Montcleif gestured his agreement. “Indeed, he and Amelia did the travelling, the negotiation: the leg-work, as it were; they were aboard the ‘Derry Lad’ for no other reason when the Frenchies sunk her with all hands off Cape Finisterre.” Montcleif contemplated his glass. “Utterly tragic! Yet I cannot help but feel it was a way they would have preferred. So intrepid a couple would ill befit old age.”
Arthur nodded. “But you will know how tightly the documents and deeds are arranged, Abel?”
“Does this relate to your entitlement? Of course, Sirrah! Sir David was your father’s legal partner and his closest friend. He became your Ward upon your parents’ death, and with no issue of his own he also made you his sole heir. The will has yet to be finally read but for the sake of the business Sir David discussed the matter openly with me. Fear not; there will be no dissenting voices raised from your side of the congregation!”
“And I was born the year before my parents went to India…”
“They left you here, in Nanny Freecombe’s care. You played in this very room! They were afraid of exposing you to the heat and disease of that journey when you were so new. ‘Twas as well they did, Arthur; or we wouldn’t be talking here now.”
The master of Mountsel Park considered his next question carefully: “You’ll think this a rum thing to ask of you, Abel, but tell me; have you ever heard of a religious organisation that goes by the name of ‘The Brotherhood’, or anyone refer to me as ‘The Pilgrim’?”
Montcleif stared, and Arthur had the uncomfortable feeling he was suppressing laughter. “The Brotherhood? One supposes that could refer to almost any radically inclined cult, but ‘Pilgrim’? Heavens no, Arthur. Where on Earth could that come from? What would it mean?”
Arthur closed his shoulders, suddenly smaller, “I wish I knew,” He said. “Very droll, or so it would seem. Yet my wife-to-be insists I am the very spit of the fellow. What does a ‘Pilgrim’ do to prove his identity, I wonder?”
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