HEWN IN PIECES FOR THE LORD
John J. Miller
John Miller resides in the arid lands of the southwest, an environment not totally different from the Sudanese deserts of this story. He has written for graphic novels, and some highly inventive stories for the great Wild Cards alternate history series.
Herein he tells a tale of the great Christian hero Charles “Chinese” Gordon, an unwitting accomplice of the Draka in a much darker
“It’s not the heat, so much,” William Hicks said as he took a sip of chilled wine from a delicately-stemmed crystal goblet, “it’s the humidity. Bally muggy for a desert.”
Hicks had retired as a colonel in the British Army six months earlier, but finding the prospect of living on half-pay unpalatable, had joined the Draka, who were desperate for experienced command officers. Within the last decade and a half the Domination had added vast African territories, but their control over some of these new lands was nominal at best. Hicks, who had never even stepped on African soil before joining the Draka, had immediately been given the rank of strategos, handed a legion of Janissaries, and ordered to pacify the territory once known as the Sudan. Merarch Kevin Harrison, his chief of staff, mopped his brow and dropped the sodden handkerchief on the camp table. Harrison was an ex-soldier of the Confederacy who’d been a Draka for a decade. He’d spent most of those years in the Sudan and in fact had been a tetrach in the expeditionary force that had brought this hellish country into the Domination. His job now was to provide the newly appointed strategos with the benefit of his local experience.
The officers were sitting in the shade cast by the canvass awning of the command tent, taking afternoon tea as their legion settled into the day’s encampment. They were somewhere in the northern Sudanese desert, chasing an army of rebellious natives who had so far proved remarkably elusive.
“Humid, yes sir.” Harrison preferred tea to wine, and beer to tea, but when in field camp you do as the strategos does, even if the strategos knew less about deserts than a bloody penguin.
Hicks held his empty goblet up for the Janissary orderly, standing somewhat at attention near the wine bucket, to re-fill. He waved his other hand vaguely at the desert.
“I know the Nile’s in full flood, just over there-away’s, keeping Fuzzy Wuzzy off our backs, but when the sun goes down the damn mosquitoes are almost as bloodthirsty as the Mahdi’s chaps. Haw. Haw.”
“Yes, sir.” Harrison didn’t care for the sweet wine, but the ice, caravaned regularly into camp in straw-wrapped blocks, slipped soothingly down his throat.
“Though I expect the rain will cool things off.”
“Rain?” Harrison looked at Hicks as if his superior had suddenly been stupefied by heat stroke. “I don’t think it’ll rain, sir. It NEVER rains this time of year in the Sudan.”
“Well, why’s it thundering, then?”
Harrison frowned, concentrating. He’d been in artillery while in the Confederate Army and he’d paid for that with diminished hearing. After a moment of concentration, he more felt it rather than heard it himself, a low rumble spilling across the empty desert like the droning of countless angry wasps. He jumped to his feet, knocking over the camp chair and spilling chilled wine all over tiffin as a tetrach raced across the bivouac to the command tent, sweating and disheveled, his face red from heat and fear.
“Fuzzy Wuzzys, sir, thousands of them!”
He pointed desperately at the ridge over his shoulder. Cresting it, shimmering in the heat waves rising off the sand were thousands of the black, green, and red battle flags borne by the hairy, half-naked Sudanese tribesmen they called Fuzzy Wuzzys. With the flag bearers came battle drummers, beating a wild rattatatat on their tin drums that sounded like thunder rolling across the desert. With them came spearmen and swordsmen and archers and even some riflemen, rapidly descending by the thousands upon the surprised camp.
“Bloody hell,” Hicks said.
Charles George Gordon was tired.
All his life he’d possessed an indefatigable reserve of energy that he could draw on to get him through any situation, but somewhere, somehow, he’d lost it. It had happened recently, right about the time he’d turned fifty and resigned his commission in the British Army. This evening, he thought, was proving particularly difficult.
Gordon had always disliked social gatherings and public functions, and he’d always been ill at ease in the presence of women. He was therefore doubly uncomfortable at a dinner party with the cream of Alexandrian society where he was surrounded by curious—and bold—Draka women eager to meet him.
Alexander von Shrakenberg was the host. The setting was the dining hall of his Alexandrian manor, the largest, grandest dining hall that Gordon had ever seen. Considering that he’d endured many such affairs in many great homes in many big cities while he’d been in the British army, that was saying a lot.
But, back then, Gordon could afford to be eccentric. He could pick and choose which invitations to accept and which to decline, and actually he’d declined most of them. His relative isolation from society had hurt his career, of course, but he didn’t care for the vain-glories of fame.
Much, a sly voice whispered silently in his mind.
Gordon patted his lips with his linen napkin.
Down, Agag, he said silently to his private inner demon. I would think you’d be very happy with this evening. The pomp, the glamour, the vanity of it will give you much ammunition for our debate . . . later . . .
Agag slipped away, content, perhaps, to merely observe for awhile, and Gordon was glad to be rid of him, if only for awhile. Agag never completely vanished. He lived in some deep, dark crevice of Gordon’s soul, popping out at the most inopportune times, braying like a fame-starved jackass when Gordon most desired to be humble, silent, and Christian. By naming him, by actually engaging him in argument, Gordon refused to accept the fact that Agag was really a part of him. He was a piece hewn apart from Gordon’s whole, because the attitude he represented was unChristian.
Gordon relinquished his fish plate to one of the legion of servants who were ferrying food from the manor’s vast kitchen in seemingly endless rounds. Gordon liked to eat as much as the next man, but apparently not as much as his host, Alexander von Shrakenberg. Von Shrakenberg was young, not much over thirty, but unlike most of the Draka Gordon had met, was already fleshy. If he kept up this pace of eating and drinking he’d be uncontestedly fat within a very few years. He was also quite jolly for a Draka, full of smiles and had what seemed to be a genuinely hearty laugh. His vast holding on the outskirts of the Egyptian city of Alexandria consisted of cotton fields and associated mills. The manor at the estate’s heart was huge and decorated in expensive, luxurious, but, Gordon conceded, quite good taste. Besides his cotton plantation, Von Shrakenberg was also connected with the Alexandria Institute, the foremost scientific conglomerate on the continent. Gordon had to get the Institute’s approval if he hoped for his plan come to fruition and The Plan, as he thought of it, was now all he had to live for.
Gordon had had an extremely full and adventurous life. He’d been a career soldier, but one more honored by foreign nations than his own. A field marshall in both the Chinese and Ottoman armies, he’d also fought in the Crimea, produced the first accurate maps of the Danube River and its tributaries, been the Governor-General of the Sudan, surveyed the Holy Lands, and discovered the location of the Garden of Eden.
He’d always had a reputation as an independent eccentric, heedless of conventional wisdom and eager to flout higher authority in the name of justice. Though a devout fundamentalist Christian, he was not a bigot. He believed that every man should be left to worship his own particular god in his own particular way, as long as he worshiped some god.
Recently it seemed as if perhaps the controversy that he’d thrived on as a younger man had finally caught up to him. The British Army had no more use for him. Other countries he’d served no longer existed, devoured by the relentless Draka beast. He was tired of the military, anyway. As he’d learned during his tenure as Governor-General of the Sudan, all the blood, sweat, and tears in the world mattered nought when politicians arbitrarily drew lines on maps and instituted policy with eyes solely on their pocketbooks.
After he’d resigned his commission in the British Army, Gordon, recalling conversations he’d had as a young man with de Lesseps, the father of the Suez Canal, decided that his legacy to the world would be what he now thought of as “The Plan,” a scheme to dam the Nile River and make it the longest navigable waterway in the world. Since the Draka now owned the Nile like they owned the rest of Africa, Gordon had to plead his case before them. They were good listeners, but tightfisted with both money and authority. Von Shrakenberg was sympathetic to Gordon’s Plan, but by no means was he the only Draka whom Gordon had to convince of its feasibility.
To this end Gordon had suffered endless discussion, debate, and formal dinners. This night Gordon’s immediate table companions were sisters of Edith von Shrakenberg, his host’s wife. Both were young, lean, beautiful, and much too predatory for Gordon’s comfort. Katharine, on Gordon’s left, was unmarried. Amelia, on his right, was married to the merarch who sat across the table from Gordon, but that didn’t prevent her from sending welcoming glances Gordon’s way. He did his best to ignore her, but almost dropped his fork when during the peacock pie she put a hand under the table high up on his inner thigh.
Before Gordon could think of a suitable remonstrance, her sister Katharine said suddenly, “You have the clearest, bluest eyes I have ever seen, Strategos Gordon, and such fine hair and features. We could have beautiful children together.”
“Ah, er.” He firmly grasped the hand massaging his leg under the table and removed it from his thigh. “Well, er. I am retired from the military,” he said stiffly. “Just call me, ah, Charles.”
“Charles.” Katharine purred like a cat, licking her lips at the taste of his name, the tip of her pink tongue visible behind her even white teeth.
Gordon had the sudden vision of another hand reaching under the table towards his body, and barely suppressed a shiver. He looked urgently about for a means of escape. Fortunately the dinner finally seemed to be on the verge of breaking up, but then he’d be forced to endure—
“Now Katharine, Amelia . . .” Somehow Edith von Shrakenberg had come up unnoticed behind them, pushing her ungainly stomach ahead of her like a tug chivvying a laden barge. She was grossly pregnant, looking as if she would drop the baby at any moment. “We can’t monopolize the field marshall’s time, I’m afraid.”
Gordon got hastily to his feet. He was a short man, not much taller than his pregnant hostess, and much slighter than her in her current state.
“I no longer use military titles,” he said, with more than a little relief in his voice. He smiled. “Besides, neither China or the Ottoman Empire hardly exists any more. They’ve both been swallowed by your Domination.”
Edith von Shrakenberg smiled prettily. “Politics.” She waved it away. “I have other things on my mind lately. Ooohhh.”
“Are you all right, madam?” Gordon took a step towards her, a concerned look on his face.
“Yes, certainly,” she smiled again, palely. “The boy has kicked me.” She reached out and took Gordon’s hand. “Do you wish to feel him?”
She tugged his hand towards her swollen stomach. Gordon said, “No!” a bit more loudly than he’d intended, and pulled away. “No. Er, quite all right, I assure you.”
He was terrified that he’d insulted her beyond all bounds, but her expression didn’t change.”Well then, come, Mr. Gordon,” she said, “there’s something I must show you.” She held out her arm.
“Quite.” He bowed to his dinner companions, and murmured goodbyes, taking his hostess’s arm as she led him away.
“Poor Mr. Gordon,” she said, not unsympathetically. They left the immense dining room and walked down a carpeted hallway that was as dark and quiet as the dining room had been colorful and loud. “You must be quite unused to the forthrightness of Draka women.”
Gordon inclined his head as she patted his hand. “You are correct, madam.”
“Well, that’s not unusual for you Englishmen. Or Scotsmen, if you prefer.” They had stopped at a door ornately carved from rich, dark wood.
“It is all the same to me, madam.”
Gordon frowned as he noticed the distasteful scene which had been hewn into the dark richness of the wood. A man with the classic chiseled Draka features stood in a horse-drawn chariot as it was pulled between ranks of crucified serfs—men and women both. The execution of the carving was as exquisite as the subject matter was repellent. The relief seemed vaguely familiar to Gordon—then he realized that it represented a famous scene in the career of Alexander von Shrakenberg’s grandfather, Augustus, who had put down a serf revolt a generation earlier by crucifying five thousand of them—whether they’d been personally involved in the rebellion or not.
Edith took both his hands in hers. “No need to be shy, my dear Mr. Gordon.” She leaned forward, conspiratorially. “My sister Katharine has taken quite the fancy to you, and would like to get to know you better.”
It was all Gordon could do not to pull away in panic. “Well . . . she is, um, quite an attractive young woman, but . . .”
“No `buts,’ Mr. Gordon. I’ll tell her that you’ll be expecting her in your room, later tonight.”
She frowned at his sudden frozen expression.
“Or, if you’d prefer Amelia . . .”
“It’s not a question of preference,” Gordon began.
“Good.” She smiled, cutting him off. She gave him a conspiratorial wink, released his hands, and knocked loudly on the closed door. She went off down the hall, smiling.
“Um—I say—” Gordon choked, and then a deep voice came from within the room.
Gordon made half a step to follow her but stopped, swallowing the blasphemies that attempted to erupt from his throat, and threw open the door. He took an automatic step forward, then stopped again, frankly astounded by the room in which he found himself.
It was von Shrakenberg’s study. Alexander was waiting for him behind a great desk along the far wall, smoking a fat cigar. Two of the walls were covered by crammed bookshelves. On the floor and in shelf niches were statues, Roman (or perhaps Greek) and Egyptian. The rugs were thick and beautifully hand woven. Paintings by half a dozen European masters competed for the remaining wall space. And behind von Shrakenberg, behind the glorious desk at which he sat, smiling at the look on Gordon’s face, was a set of French windows opening up onto the manor’s gardens. And set in the gardens . . .
Gordon took a step forward, staring beyond von Shrakenberg. The Draka’s smile widened with true pleasure as he watched the expression on Gordon’s face.
“Ah, like my little folly, do you?”
“It’s . . . stupendous.”
Von Shrakenberg took a contented puff on his aromatic cigar. He stood, turned, and looked out the window with Gordon at the two colossal statues in the center of his garden. They were sandstone giants with time-mutilated faces, sitting sixty feet tall on battered thrones.
“The Colossi of Memnon,” Gordon said in a small voice.
“That’s right.” Von Shrakenberg reached for a carafe of brandy on the corner of his desk, poured a glass of the rich, aromatic liquid and held it out for Gordon, who took it automatically. “Saw ’em, oh, years ago. Just sitting out in the desert. Nobody to appreciate ’em. Well, I had some of my boys bring ’em out here, set ’em up in my garden. They’re a bit worn, you know, but I like ’em. Like to look out ’em, drink a little brandy, smoke a nice cigar, and muse on the folly of human existence. Sit down,” he gestured at the comfortable-looking chair in front of his desk.
The chair, Gordon found, was comfortable. The brandy was excellent.
Von Shrakenberg regarded Gordon silently for a long moment. As the seconds ticked off Gordon had a sinking feeling that the week he’d spent in Alexandria had been wasted, that von Shrakenberg had gotten him here, alone, to tell him that the Draka had decided not to take up The Plan. But finally, when von Shrakenberg spoke, his words took Gordon by surprise.
“I realize that you’re familiar with the Sudan. You spent several years there trying to quell the slave trade and bring a civilized government to the region. And you succeeded better than could be expected.”
Gordon inclined his head in recognition of von Shrakenberg’s praise. Agag, the demon of pride that so bedeviled him tried to leap up and crow, but he forced him back down before he could put any words into his mouth.
“I’m afraid,” Gordon said, humbly, “that whatever good I did faded quickly after I departed.”
Von Shrakenberg waved his hand. “Perhaps. But the Sudan is part of the Domination now.” He smiled in a friendly, non-Draka way. “At least, we lay claim to it. It’s two-thirds swamp, one-third desert, and in actuality not at all controlled by us. It’s easy to say that it’s ours; it’s another thing to make it ours.”
“Many nations have said that about the Sudan through the millennia.”
Von Shrakenberg nodded. “There’s this man who calls himself the Mahdi. Have you heard of him?”
Gordon shrugged. “There’ve been scores of Mahdi’s over the years. Islamic fundamentalists calling for overthrow of the current government. This one seems more successful than most. I know that he’s managed to unite most of the tribes. No doubt he desires to remove the Draka from the Sudan in the name of Allah.”
“No doubt,” von Shrakenberg said, “he’s succeeded. He and his dervishes have this past week destroyed a Janissary legion eight thousand strong. Completely. Or so it seems.”
Gordon sat back in his chair.
“Impressed?” von Shrakenberg asked. “So are we.” He eyed Gordon speculatively through a cloud of aromatic cigar smoke. “You can do us a service, Gordon.”
“How so?” he asked, but his mind was already harking back to the hellish country where he’d spent two years of his life galloping back and forth on racing camels, trying to bring civilization to a nation that was determined to remain uncivilized.
“You know the area quite well. Undoubtedly, you still have contacts there. Men you can call upon. Perhaps men who know this Mahdi himself, personally. It wouldn’t hurt if we knew more about him, perhaps even somehow brought him to our side. After all, we’re reasonable men. Men from many nations have become Draka.” Von Shrakenberg shrugged. “And the sooner there is peace on the Nile, the sooner you can began to build your dam.”
Gordon and von Shrakenberg locked eyes for a long moment.
“And this is the consensus of your people?” Gordon asked.
“It is.” Von Shrakenberg paused. “Generally. There are those who favor a more . . . direct . . . solution to the problem of the Mahdi.”
“Direct?” Gordon asked.
“Direct. Unmistakable. Brutal. Kill them all and let the valkyries sort them out. Myself, I find such an approach wasteful of resources. But the Security Directorate . . .” Von Shrakenberg shook his head. “They’re a newly organized arm of the Domination . . . and ambitious. Be wary of those who wear the black, Gordon. Be wary of everyone, but especially those who wear the black.”
Gordon nodded. “I see. What exactly do you suggest?”Von Shrakenberg leaned forward eagerly. “I have a dirigible waiting in Alexandria. We can have you in Khartoum in a matter of days. Officially the situation has been handed to the Security Directorate, but it’ll take time to get their men—and another army—in place, and then time, of course, to pursue their hunt of the Mahdi. If you can get in there quickly, and find a somewhat more diplomatic, shall we say, solution to the problem, I would say that undoubtedly your future would be assured.”
“My dam?” Gordon asked.
Von Shrakenberg smiled. “I have the papers here.”
He reached into a drawer of his desk, and handed Gordon a sheaf of documents. Gordon, well versed in the bureaucrateese of half a dozen nations, read through it carefully. It was couched in somewhat cryptic, but ultimately satisfactory language. And it had already been signed by von Shrakenberg.
“When do I leave for Khartoum?” he asked.
The Draka smiled. “I like a decisive man,” he said. “As I said, I have a dirigible waiting. You can leave at your convenience.”
Gordon stood. The thought of that woman waiting in his room was like a hand of ice clutching his guts. He couldn’t face her. He could not—
“I’ll leave now,” he said, carefully folding the papers and putting them in his pocket.
* * *
April 23, 1883
Alexandria en route to Khartoum
My Dearest Augusta:
Your loving and humble brother does at times find himself in the oddest of circumstances in the oddest places in all of the world. All of which you know quite well, of course, because I can go nowhere or do nothing without imparting to you my thoughts, fears, and hopes via these epistles, which while not of the same great significance of those letters of the four evangelists, at least warms the heart of this poor traveler when he knows his dutiful sister is eager to hear of him and his humble doings in the world.
As I write I am, as incredible as it sounds, some thousands of feet in the air, borne aloft not by the angelic wings as is the host of Our Lord, but a great big windbag. No, not a PM, or even an MP, but an actual balloon some six hundred feet long filled with air. A Draka dirigible, called the Arsinoe, gliding silently and gracefully through the aether like an angel of Our Lord, but driven by propellers turned by steam turbines and not our prayers. We sail through the air at speeds approaching forty miles an hour, and can keep this up long enough to achieve our journey’s end some 1100 miles distant. Imagine, I shall be in Khartoum in less than two days! Remember how long it took me to make this same trip by Nile steamer and camel? More than two months!
I am amazed at the scientific progress the Draka have made in such a short time. They are an amazing people, though, personally I find them repellent. The only likable Draka I have met so far is Alexander von Shrakenberg—and he is morally bankrupt. They are sinners all, though it is my job neither to save them from Hell, or preach to them of Heaven. They will likely all burn forever. Some, like von Shrakenberg, because of mere folly, others because of a deeper, more pervading evil.
But enough of that! I have, dearest Augusta, good news! Von Shrakenberg has agreed to The Plan, and through him I have gotten the backing of the Alexandria Institute as well. The Nile dam will become a reality! The greatest river in the world will be navigable from its source in the Lakes to its mouth in the Mediterranean. This will be a task to consume my energies for many years (If only I can keep Agag properly in check! He is like to swell up and burst into view at any moment, my pride feels so vast!). It will be a fitting capstone to my life and a monument to last down through the centuries.
First though there is a small matter that I must handle for von Shrakenberg in Khartoum.
I hope Mother and the rest of the family are well sheltered in the Hands of Our Lord. Please kiss them for me and give them all my very best wishes. You may write me in Alexandria, but it may take some time for me to actually get your letters. I don’t know how long I will be in Khartoum. Perhaps days, perhaps weeks.
The captain of this fabulous vessel has agreed to take this letter with him back to Alexandria and post it from there. I understand that the mail service in Khartoum is unreliable.
Yours in Christ,
Your Humble and Loving Brother,
The dirigible Arsinoe arrived at Khartoum, located on a spit of land between the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, at sunset on the second day after leaving Alexandria. Gordon, looking down at the breathtaking view, remembered again the years he had spent there a decade and a half ago, before the Sudan had been ingested by the Domination.
Gordon, fresh from saving China from the Tai-pangs, a sect of fanatic Christian fundamentalists, had been sent by the Sudan’s Ottoman masters to Khartoum as Governor-General to bring order out of chaos, ensure the uninterrupted flow of taxes, and suppress the slave trade. Once there he found that chaos was the natural order in a land two-thirds desert and the rest mostly swamp, and also discovered—perhaps most importantly—that without the slave trade there would be very little in the way of taxes to collect and pass up the chain, as human chattel was the most valuable commodity this land produced.
Nonetheless, he’d gone about his job with great skill and indefatigable energy. He’d built an army and police force. He’d constructed a string of forts to protect the long suffering citizenry from slavers and bandits. He’d broken the backs of the slaving clans. The Turks had thanked him for a job well done, dismissed him, and now discovering the Sudan to cost more to maintain than it was worth, abandoned it. The slavers and bandits returned, and it was business as usual until the Draka swept through the Sudan and closed their iron fist upon it. But, much like the desert sand and swamp ooze which comprised most of this poor country, the Sudan, unsurprisingly, seemed to be trickling through that closed fist.
Familiar, well-remembered sensations engulfed Gordon as he disembarked at the mooring station outside the city’s mud-brick walls. The desert heat drenched him like a ferocious wave. The smells, though he was still outside the city proper, slapped him in the face with their intensity: camels, sewage, waste, and the odors emanating from too many people confined in such a small place in so hot a climate.
A Draka centurion approached him as he stood breathing in the still-familiar, strangely-unforgotten sensations. The officer snapped a smart salute.
“Sir. Centurion David Desmond. At your command.”
“Ah, yes. Desmond. Von Shrakenbeg told me about you.”
Desmond looked to be an ex-American, probably another of those Draka officers who had once soldiered for the Confederacy and had immigrated to the Domination after Confederacy had capitulated in 1868.
“He did?” He smiled speculatively. Clearly Desmond wanted to ask Gordon exactly what von Shrakenberg had said about him, but could find no graceful way to do so. Actually, von Shrakenberg had had very little to say about Desmond. The centurion had been left in command of a small garrison by Hicks when the strategos had gone off into the desert on his ill-fated offensive against the Mahdi. Since no one at all had come back from that disastrous foray, Desmond was the ranking officer in Khartoum and thus in command of the city.
“This way, sir. The merarch has been anxiously awaiting your arrival.”
Gordon paused before climbing into the open carriage that Desmond indicated. “Merarch? I was given to understand that you were the commanding officer in Khartoum.””Ah, yes sir. I was. Merarch Quantrill arrived this morning. His legion is still on the way. He came ahead, up from Archona on a steam dragger.”
“Quantrill?” Gordon asked. “William Quantrill the American bushwhacker?”
Gordon had never meant Quantrill personally, but the man’s reputation preceded him. In fact, he was notorious. Quantrill had also fought for the Confederacy in the American War Between the States, but he really hadn’t been much of a soldier. He’d been a raider, a murderer, a thug, and a thief. Most famous for leading the raid on Lawrence, Kansas, that had resulted in the death of every man and boy in the town, he’d picked his battles more for the promise of loot than recognizable military purposes. After emigrating to the Domination Quantrill had preserved his reputation as a vicious, brutal, and ruthless killer during the Domination’s rapid expansion over the last fifteen years.
“Is Quantrill in the regular army?” Gordon asked thoughtfully. “Has he been ordered to bring the Mahdi to heel?”
“No,” Desmond said. “Well, yes. His orders are to destroy the Mahdi and his savages, but he’s not regular army. He’s a Merarch in the Security Directorate. As I understand it, the problem of the Mahdi is theirs to solve.”
“I see,” Gordon said. He looked into the distance.”He’s expecting us,” Desmond said after a moment.
“Yes. Quite.” Of course, this was turning out to be complicated already. Von Shrakenberg had warned him about the Directorate in general, and, specifically, this Quantrill was an unsavory fellow. Not a real soldier at all. Just a freebooter in uniform.
Gordon looked at Desmond, who was frowning uncertainly.
“Have my luggage brought to headquarters,” he said briskly. “I shall be out and about quite a bit, of course, so I’ll need just a small room. Nothing luxurious.”
“I say. May I borrow your carriage?” Gordon looked around. “I don’t see many others and I have to get into the city as soon as possible.”
“That’s a good lad.” Gordon swung into the forward facing seat of the mule drawn carriage.
“Give the merarch my regards. Tell him I’ll drop by the garrison soon as I can.”
He leaned forward. “Driver?”
The black holding the reins turned back to face Gordon.
“Do you know the establishment of Nomikos the Greek?”
The man nodded.”Take me there.”
The black twitched his whip above the head of his mule.
Desmond had time for a final forlorn “But—” as Gordon, waving cheerily, headed towards the mud-brick metropolis of Khartoum.
The city hadn’t changed much the years he’d been away. Constructed largely of sun-dried mud bricks that tended to melt together after a few years and a few rainstorms, its slumping buildings were easy to pull down and build over. Thus Khartoum was constantly changing without really changing as every few years a new veneer was put up over the same time-ravaged features.
When Gordon had known Nomikos in years past the Greek merchant had traded in gum and ivory and Kordofan gold, but had never dabbled in the most valuable Sudanese commodity, human flesh. He was knowledgeable, intelligent, and though a merchant he was also an honorable man. And he was in Gordon’s debt, he and his caravans twice having been saved from bandits by Gordon’s patrols.
Gordon was glad to find him still alive and prosperous, if fatter than ever. Nomikos, too, was apparently glad to see Gordon, if more than a little astonished that the old Pasha had suddenly appeared on his doorstep.
Dubious to the announced identity of his surprise visitor, Nomikos’ eyes became as big around as fat Greek olives when he realized that the man waiting outside the gated entrance to his domain was indeed Charles Gordon.
“Gordon Pasha, a thousand forgivenesses.” Nomikos would have gone down to his knees, but Gordon gripped his forearms, stopping him. There was no telling if the rotund merchant would have been able to fight his way back up to his feet again. “I never knew you were back in Egypt, let alone shining the light of your greatness upon the streets of this humble city, right even upon the door of my most unworthy abode.”
“I’ve but arrived, old friend, and already I find myself in need of help.”
“Come inside, Gordon Pasha, come, and we shall talk of the old days and of current needs.”
Gordon sighed, not without a certain resigned acceptance. He knew that he was in for a long night.
The pathway of hospitality was not swiftly trodden in this land. First coffee, drunk in small glasses so laden with sugar that it was a thick syrup. Then food offered on laden trays by Nomikos’ curious concubines. Dates and pastries dripping with honey. Sweet, cold melon, and slabs of fish, fresh that day from the Nile, picked free of bones. Cold meats and dried figs.
It was food Gordon had not eaten the like of in more than a decade. Simple and hardy, yet delicious, it was wonderful to feel those tastes again on his tongue.
With the food came talk. Not, at first, talk of today, but of years gone by when Gordon had first come to the Sudan and broken the slavers. He had made the country safer for everyone, especially far-ranging merchants like Nomikos, who well-remembered those days and liked to reminisce about them.
Gradually they worked their way through the years, and Nomikos told of mutual friends and mutual enemies. Who had lived, who had died. Who had prospered, who had disappeared into the dust of a lost caravan. Finally they reached the present day, and Nomikos told Gordon who had joined the Mahdi and who had defied him. And what few of the defiant ones still lived.
Finally Gordon came to tell him what he wanted, and Nomikos’s eyes got large as olives again and he spent over a hour trying to dissuade Gordon from his madness. But Gordon only shook his head and finally the Greek nodded in sad agreement.
“It will be your death, Gordon Pasha,” Nomikos told him.
Gordon shrugged. “Something will be my death. Long ago I put my life into the hands of my Saviour. He hasn’t seen fit to gather me to his bosom yet.”
“You haven’t changed,” Nomikos said, and Gordon nodded. “Very well, then. I will send a man to you at the garrison tomorrow. He’s in Khartoum now, otherwise there’s no telling when I could ever find him.”
“He travels far?”
“He does. Like I did before I had this.” Nomikos slapped his big belly resoundingly. “He’s a strange one. He will do much for gold. He’s the only man I can think of who might do this for you.”
“Can I trust him?” Gordon asked.
The Greek shrugged. “As you can any man in Khartoum. Take that for what you know it to be worth. But I do know one thing about him. He is stubborn. You can buy him and he will stay bought. At least, he always has, before.”
Gordon nodded, said his farewells and took his leave. His carriage had waited, the driver patiently sitting in the dark, half asleep.
“Headquarters,” Gordon said.
Before rousing the mule from his standing slumber, the driver lit the glass-barreled oil lamp hanging from a pole adjacent to his seat.
As the driver awoke the mule with a click of his tongue and a touch of his whip to the animal’s flank, Gordon could see in the bright patch of lamplight a series of numbers tattooed on the back of the man’s neck.
They were, Gordon knew, serial numbers that the Draka had recently started to tattoo on their serfs, another sign that these so-called serfs were actually slaves. Gordon hated slavers, now matter what their guise, and, patently, the Draka were slavers. Perhaps they were somewhat more benevolent than those he was used to dealing with in the Sudan. Perhaps, somewhat. But that didn’t wipe out their sin. And slavery was a sin, though it required careful reading of the Bible to ascertain that. The Bible, though inerrant, wasn’t as straightforward as some would have you believe and it took—
A volley of shots, five or six closely spaced together, suddenly rang out, shattering the serenity of both the evening and Gordon’s reverie. The lantern exploded, bringing darkness again to the street. The driver reared back, then slowly puddled forward. The mule shied and shrieked. It, along with the lantern and the driver, had probably stopped a couple of bullets.
Gordon acted instantly, almost without thought. He flung himself forward and reached over the driver who was now lying on his side on the high carriage seat. The driver had twisted the reins in his fingers, so Gordon grabbed the man’s arms, then slid his hands down upon the driver’s wrists. Shouting at the mule, Gordon jerked the lifeless hands still clutching the reins and the beast took off at a run as a second volley sounded.
One bullet whined past Gordon’s ear. Others thudded into the carriage. Gordon felt the body of the driver shudder at two more impacts, but the man gave no sign that he felt the additional wounds. Gordon suspected that he was already dead.
The mule, though, was alive and scared. Gordon gave it its head and it ran through the dark streets. He let the beast run where it wanted to, and simply concentrated on keeping the carriage upright. Gordon was in an awkward position, leaning over the body of the driver, using the dead man’s hands to keep the frightened animal under control. It took all his strength to keep the carriage upright.
The muscles in his back twitched, anticipating another hail of bullets at any second. He was frightened, certainly, but his mouth was also twisted in a strange smile of exhilaration.
Some one wants to kill me, he thought. I’m still important.
He hadn’t felt this good in years.
My Dearest Augusta:
I’m writing this short note from my room in the Draka military headquarters, Khartoum, just to inform you that I have arrived safely and all is well.The dirigible trip was exhilarating. Khartoum, I must say, is something less so. It is the same old drab town with the same old mud-brick buildings and the same old narrow, choked streets that are as difficult as ever to drive even the smallest carriage through.
It’s late at night—or rather very early in the morning—and I find myself so excited about the prospects of achieving real success on this mission that I can’t sleep.
You’ll be happy to know that already I’ve met some old friends—you may remember I’ve written about Nomikos the Greek in the past—who will be able to help me with my business here. It was good to just sit and chat of old times with Nomikos. He has prospered, and is even fatter than ever.
The only disagreeable note is that I’ve discovered that William Quantrill has taken command in the city. I haven’t met him yet, but have of course heard of him. He’s a most disagreeable chap and may be something of a problem. Nothing, however, with the help of Our Most Benevolent Lord, that I shan’t be able to overcome.
Ah well, Dear Sister, time to post this short missive. Hopefully the mail service will get it into your anxious hands sometime before my planned return to England this fall!
Your loving Brother in Christ,
Gordon still couldn’t sleep. An assassination attempt could cause insomnia, but it was excitement and a burning need for action that roared through his system like an undeniable drug, not fear.
He wrestled with Agag for a while, pinned the demon down into the dark hole where he dwelled, and finally fell into a light sleep. He awoke at dawn a few hours later, got up, dressed, and wandered through the still-sleeping old Palace. The Palace was the finest, strongest building in Khartoum, so naturally the Draka used it as headquarters, as in fact Gordon himself had done when he had been Governor-General. It hadn’t changed much since then—except, of course, it was quieter and much emptier since Hicks had gotten most of his command slaughtered somewhere out in the desert.
He dropped into the officers’ mess for breakfast. It was empty. He waited impatiently, for there was nothing else to do. After about an hour a sleepy-eyed orderly wandered in. He snapped to attention at the sight of a frowning Gordon.
“Do the officers habitually breakfast so late?” Gordon asked.
“Habitually? Well, sir, I wouldn’t call it a habit, but, lately, well . . .”
“Yes,” Gordon nodded briskly. “I can see how the death of nine-tenths of the garrison would make the remainder lazier in their habits.”
Wisely, the orderly chose not to reply.
“Please bring me some tea and toast, if that would not be too much trouble at this apparently early hour.”
“No, sir, not all.” The orderly saluted, turned, and marched off to the kitchen.
Gordon ate his toast with butter and marmalade, and lingered over his tea. After a while other officers drifted into the mess. They looked at Gordon, and then looked away, whispering among themselves. Gordon knew that he was an anomaly here, and armies, officers particularly, hated anomalies. No doubt the officers knew who he was (Down Agag!). Word of his arrival had no doubt been whispered to ears eager for news, and the story of the attempted assassination had already doubtlessly also made the rounds. They were certainly wondering what he was doing in Khartoum, but apparently they decided to do their wondering at a distance. No one approached Gordon, until Desmond himself wandered in, looking as if he’d gotten considerably less sleep than Gordon had.
“Join me?” Gordon invited.
Desmond started at the sound of Gordon’s voice and rubbed his face like a man who had just awoken.
“Yes. Certainly, sir. Thank you, sir.” He sat, and Gordon poured him a cup of tea.
“Thank you, sir,” Desmond said as Gordon passed the cup to him. “You . . . you are all right, sir?”
“Why shouldn’t I be?”
“Well . . . last night. You had some, ah, problems . . .”
The centurion’s voice faded away as Gordon shrugged.
“Khartoum, I perceive, can still be a dangerous city.”
“Ah, quite. Yes. Indeed. Probably bandits of some sort. Probably.”
“The merarch not down for breakfast yet?” Gordon said after a moment of uncomfortable silence. It was more of an observation than a question.
“Uh, no. I believe not. He may be off inspecting . . . something . . .”
“No doubt.” Gordon smiled into his tea cup. Given Quantrill’s reputation, if he was inspecting anything this time of morning it was probably the inside of a chamber pot because of his excessive drinking of the night before.
The orderly appeared at their table before Gordon could further probe into Desmond’s opinion of his superior officer.
“Someone to see you, sir.”
“Who the hell would want to see me at this hour?” Desmond asked irritably.
“Uh, not you, sir, you, sir.” The orderly looked at Gordon.
“Very well, then,” Desmond said, his irritation redoubled. “Send him in.”
The orderly shifted his stare to a point somewhere between Gordon and Desmond.
“It’s some kind of native, sir.”
“You heard the centurion,” Gordon said quietly.
“Yes, sir.” The orderly marched off, trying not to look scandalized.
He came back a few moments later with a slight, dark-skinned man in neat, clean Arab dress. The whispering among the other officers redoubled as Gordon inclined his head, offering him a seat.
“Thank you, monsieur.”
Gordon realized that the man wasn’t a native. His English was smoothed by a French accent. His eyes were as sharp as Gordon’s, only a slightly darker blue. His hair was black but his thick, drooping mustache was nearly blond. His teeth were in good shape, but stained an unhealthy-looking green.
Gordon immediately recognized him as a chat chewer. Chat was a mildly narcotic, mildly addictive drug widely utilized in the Sudan, and even more common in Abyssinia, to the east.
“This is Centurion David Desmond,” Gordon said to him. “My name is Charles George Gordon.”
The man inclined his head to Desmond, and returned a speculative eye to Gordon. “You’re not unknown in the Sudan. My name is Arthur Rimbaud.””Rimbaud,” Desmond said, half to himself. He crinkled his brow in concentration, then suddenly snapped his fingers. “Say, you’re not that Frenchy poet fellow, are you? Fancy meeting you here. Dressed like that. I mean . . .”
Rimbaud looked at him. “That was another lifetime, monsieur. I am now just a merchant.”
“You come highly recommended by a friend,” Gordon said. “He said that you are honest and trustworthy.”
Rimbaud shrugged. “I try, monsieur. What is it that you wish to purchase?”
Gordon leaned forward. “A meeting,” he said, “with the Mahdi.”
Desmond looked dismayed, but Rimbaud smiled, a quick flash of stained teeth in a sun-darkened face.
“An expensive item, to be sure. And quite a dangerous one as well.”
Gordon stood. “I have money enough. And courage, as well.”
Rimbaud smiled his enigmatic smile. “No doubt, monsieur. When do you wish to leave?”
“As soon as possible.”
Rimbaud suddenly stood. He seemed to Gordon, even on such slight acquaintance, to be a quick and decisive man. “Then we should leave.”
Gordon arose. Desmond looked back and forth between the two of them.
“Right,” Gordon said. “I just need to fetch my kit.”
“Just a moment,” Desmond said. “Shouldn’t you . . . I mean, you haven’t reported to Merarch Quantrill yet. And . . . there were those . . . difficulties . . . last night. Surely you should inform the merarch—”
Gordon silenced him with the full force of his cold blue eyes. “I’m not a member of your command. Certainly, I shall call upon the merarch at his convenience. When I can.”
“He’ll be angry,” Desmond blurted. “You don’t know him. He can get very angry!”
Gordon shrugged, and turned to Rimbaud. “Come, sir.”
“Difficulties?” Rimbaud asked as they left the room. “If it is not impertinent, may I enquire about these difficulties?”
“Oh, it was nothing much,” Gordon said. “Some one tried to kill me last night.”
“I see. Considering the nature of our journey, perhaps you’d better get used to that.”
Gordon smiled. “You forget, monsieur. I have been in the Sudan before.”
* * *
April 27, 1883
Khartoum, en route to El Dueim
My Dearest Augusta:
I write this in the dark on a dhow rocking on the currents of the White Nile, so please forgive my hand if it is not as legible as it usually is.
I found Khartoum little changed. The weather is still hot. The streets are still dusty. The Palace is unimproved. The people are still largely the same. As a whole, the country hasn’t prospered in my absence. I say this with all due humility. Oh, some segments of the population have grown wealthier. The slavers are back and are pursuing their filthy trade in the open. The Draka, I am sure, will close them down eventually. Not, I am also sure, out of moral repugnance, but because in the Draka view it should be the state that profits from the bondage of human beings, but they have one or two little matters to take care of before they can turn their attention to such mundane problems as slave traders.
In these matters I shall probably play some small role, though I have had second thoughts about working with the Draka. Some seem to be among the lowest elements of humanity I have ever had the displeasure to run across. Ah well—we are all simple men and imperfect before the Eyes of Our Lord. I shouldn’t judge them, for some day like all men they will stand naked before the greatest Judge of all and He will accord them their proper position in all eternity.
By the way—I should be remiss if I didn’t mention my traveling companion. I’ve had to journey to El Dueim, a small hamlet, a mere trading post some 110 miles south of Khartoum, situated on the banks the White Nile. No great air ship to carry me to my destination this time, but a humble dhow, much like those that have sailed the Nile for the past several millennia. (This particular dhow, by the way, is so venerable, leaky, dirty, and smelly that it may have been sailing the Nile, itself for the past several millennia.)
My guide, astonishingly, is a Frenchman who has spent some years in the region as an itinerant merchant. His name is Arthur Rimbaud. It seems that as a younger man he was a poet of some note. Actually, I am unfamiliar with his name, but, knowing how poets feel about that sort of thing, have not told him that. I have not prodded him to recite any of his verses, and oddly enough he has not volunteered any. That seems strange, for a poet. Have you ever heard of him?
Your Dear and Loving Brother,
As Always, In Christ,
El Dueim had a sense of impermanence about it, no doubt because most of it was washed away almost every year by the flooding of the White Nile. The hamlet’s structures were flimsy huts of wattle, mud, and reed. The piles and wharves leading up from the banks of the river were ramshackle. Gordon marveled that he and Rimbaud didn’t plunge through their rotten planks at their first footstep.
The hamlet, such as it was, was dwarfed by the camp on the surrounding floodplain. Thousands of natives were bivouacked around the small settlement, so confident of their safety that they hadn’t built even a token zarada, a barrier of sharp scrub thorn usually built around encampments in the region, to protect themselves.
Gordon was impressed by what he saw. The Mahdi’s men were usually called dervishes by outsiders. Dervish, which actually means “poor” in Arabic, was a term more properly applied to a class of Moslem friars who’d taken vows of poverty. Commonly called whirling dervishes, there were actually any number of dervish types—dancing, howling, singing—who sought to achieve mystic union with the divine through the constant repetition of simple physical acts until they fell into a trance. These friars were also fierce fighters, loyal until death, although such authentic dervishes made up only a portion of the Mahdi’s army.”Actually,” Rimbaud explained to Gordon as they made their way through the camp, “the Mahdists call themselves `ansar.’ ”
” `Helpers,’ ” Gordon said. “As the people of Medina who gave aid to Mohammed during his exile called themselves.”
Rimbaud nodded. Gordon could distinguish representatives from numerous Sudanese tribes in the camp. Beside the authentic dervishes, there were Bedj tribesmen from the Red Hills, Arabs of the northern desert, and animist Nuer from the Sudd, the great swamp that constituted the southern third of the territory.
There were thousands of tribesmen, tens of thousands of them. Gordon and his guide had arrived at the camp early in the morning, and breakfast was being cooked over a myriad of campfires. Theansar awaited their food, ful, or mashed fava beans, a Sudanese staple, with general good patience. If the Mahdi was smart (and he was that, Gordon figured) he fed them regularly. That alone would be enough to keep most of them happy. These men didn’t ask for much for their undying loyalty. They were fierce fighters, loyal to the death, but as they passed among them Gordon didn’t see many modern weapons.
Most of the ansar were armed with the traditional sword and spear. Some carried nothing more lethal than cudgels or hard-wood sticks. A few guns were visible—some ancient Arab-style flintlocks and a couple more rifles of rather outdated European manufacture. These were spoils, no doubt, from recent battles with the Draka.
Rimbaud appeared to be rather well known. No one stopped them. He was challenged, or rather greeted, by a few who seemed to have some authority over the teeming rabble, but some muttered words from him always seemed to suffice for their passage.
“The first stage of the journey is over,” Rimbaud said as they made their way through the camp. “Now we must take the road to El Obeid. Though the Mahdi has a tent here, he actually spends most of his time in the city.”
Gordon was familiar with El Obeid, which, after Cairo, was the most populous city in Egypt-Sudan. It had naturally fallen to the Draka when they had originally annexed the region. But the Draka had only left a token garrison while making Khartoum their headquarters. They had chosen Khartoum because it was more central to the entire region and also because it was located at the confluence of the Blue and White Niles, thus controlling to some extent all river traffic. It was also more easily defendable than El Obeid.
The hand of the Draka had fallen rather lightly on El Obeid, which was the historic capital of Kordofan, the richest and most important Sudanese province. As such it was also the region’s economic center, the heart of the gum, ivory, and slave trade. Other than replacing native economic concerns with their own, the Draka let things go on as they had for centuries. The capture of El Obeid had been the Mahdi’s first great victory, as well as the impetus for Hicks’s disastrous probe south from Khartoum.
The actual trading post at El Dueim was the best-built building in all of the hamlet, so naturally had been taken as the camp’s general headquarters. It stood higher up on the river valley, out of the floodplain that would be swept clear by the White Nile’s yearly floods, and was made of sun-dried brick and timber. Next to it was a corral made of thorn bush that held a score of rather thin and tired-looking horses. Hobbled camels grazed freely on the sparse grass beyond the corral. A dirt road, more of a track really, ran west and south, into the interior to El Obeid.
Half a dozen men lounged around the front porch of the headquarters’ building, under the half-fallen ramada that almost sheltered them from the already sweltering sun.
“Sabah il-kheer,” Rimbaud said, greeting one or perhaps all with a graceful good morning and a sketchy salaam.
They returned the greeting with various interest and grace. Rimbaud, it seemed, was a familiar figure accorded a certain, but not excessive, respect.
“My friend and I have business in El Obeid, and need horses . . .” Rimbaud began, but his voice faltered and ran down to nothing as he looked down the road.Gordon followed his gaze to see a white cloud in the distance, billowing on the early morning breeze. It was too far to see details, but clearly a moderate-sized body of horsemen was approaching the camp.
Rimbaud looked at Gordon and spoke in English. “Perhaps we may be in luck. Perhaps our business comes to us.”
Most of the men on the porch stood and joined them as they looked down the trail, shading their eyes to better see the riders. It was not long before the excited call of “Mahdi! Mahdi!” started to rise up in the camp.
“It’s him,” Rimbaud said after a moment. “I can see his personal flag. The men with him are the mulazamin, a picked force drawn from tribal leaders. They are his personal bodyguard.”
The news of the Mahdi’s approach swept through the camp like fire raining from the heavens. His faithful abandoned their cook pots and merged in a swarming mass where the trail ended before the headquarter building. The horsemen approached at a brisk gallop and, just before Gordon was sure there was going to be a terrible collision, the Mahdi and the fifty or so men of his bodyguard braked abruptly, horses rearing and snorting, flags waving, men cheering and moaning, “Mahdi! Mahdi! Mahdi!” in unison.
The Mahdi leapt down to the ground while the horses of his bodyguard still pranced nervously, excited by the noise and the swarming crowd. Some of the mulazamin unlimbered rifles and fired in the air to add to the general din and confusion. These men, Gordon noted, were all well-armed, and their rifles were all of Draka manufacture, which made them the finest in the world. They evidently had gotten the pick of the loot from Hicks’s ill-fated expedition.
Gordon could see the Mahdi quite clearly. He was tall, dark skinned, and slim. His eyes were black, his teeth white with a prominent gap between the front uppers. There was a certain air about him, an aura of strength and confidence. His smile energized the crowd as they all reached out to touch his simple white linen jibbeh. His robe was the only one that was pure white. All the other Mahdists who wore robes had variously colored patches sewn onto them, signifying the impure state of their wearers. Only the Mahdi could wear immaculate white, for he was the only man among them without sin.
The Mahdi threw his arms out wide and began to speak. At first his words seemed unremarkable to Gordon. He spoke the usual stuff about Allah and paradise and fighting to the death and victory over the infidel Draka—but his voice was deep, resonant, magical. Men heard that voice and believed him, implicitly and utterly. Men heard that voice, saw his eyes, and loved him, immediately and totally.
Gordon, too, felt it. The Mahdi’s charisma was overwhelming. His physical beauty was astounding, but there was a depth to him, an apparent spirituality that Gordon had rarely encountered in the world.
“Quite a figure,” Rimbaud said, “is he not, monsieur?”
Gordon took his eyes from the Mahdi who, deep in his oration, laughed wildly one moment, then the next, recalling the sacrifice of his loyal helpers, wept like a baby. The Sudanese tribesmen, watching their leader cry, bowed their heads and cried with him.
“Yes,” Gordon. “Yes. Of course. One would expect such . . . charisma.”
Rimbaud spit out a chewed wad of chat, took some fresh leaves from his pouch and tucked them in the fold between his lip and jaw.
“Would one?” he asked quietly, looking at Gordon speculatively.
He knows! Gordon thought to himself. He can feel the . . . attraction I feel. Am I so transparent? How could I let my emotions be so apparent? Perhaps the Frenchman does have a poet’s sensitivities, but, still, damn the frog!
The crowd was parting as the Mahdi turned to the headquarters building. The Mahdi suddenly caught sight of Gordon, and stopped, puzzled. Dark eyes looked into blue. A spark of something passed between them, a recognition, perhaps, and Agag came roaring from the hidden cavern in Gordon’s soul which was his dark home.He knows me! Agag said. Fifteen years has not dimmed the fame of Charles George Gordon even in this dark and ignorant land. He knows who I am!
Rimbaud was between them, smiling a strange smile. He bowed deeply and greeted the Mahdi, then gestured with both hands to Gordon.
“This is Gordon Pasha,” he said in Arabic. “In times past Governor-General of Sudan. He seeks an audience with you.”
The Mahdi was young, perhaps thirty. He would have been a boy when Gordon had traversed the Sudan armed only with his riding crop and dagger, a crescent-bladed jambiyah, crushing the bandit clans, destroying the slavers, building forts and settlements throughout its desolation. At first, when Rimbaud spoke, there was a blankness on the Mahdi’s face and Gordon’s heart sunk. Inwardly he raged at his demon, flaying it with bitter words, calling it a fool, a liar, a charlatan.
The Mahdi no more knows me than he knows who the Prime Minister of England is, he told Agag bitterly.
But then the Mahdi’s expression changed. Comprehension lit his eyes.
“Of course!” he said. “I remember—when I was a boy you did great things for the people of the Sudan. You broke the injustice of the Turk. But then . . . but then you left.”
“I had to,” Gordon felt compelled to say. And indeed he had. The most powerful man in Sudan was nothing to the bankers and ministers who really called the tune.
The Mahdi smiled and the effect was dazzling, like the sun to a man who had been locked in a cold, dark dungeon for half a year.
“And well you did—for you have left it for me!”
He laughed again, and all those who heard it laughed with him, just happy that he was happy. And Gordon laughed as well. Lord help me, he thought. He could not help but laugh, too.
“The pleasure is mine, Gordon Pasha,” the Mahdi said, “to meet a man of such renown. How may I serve you?”
The Mahdi had that quality about him, Gordon mused, that would make men follow him to Hell—and once there to shield him from the fires with their own bodies. Gordon himself couldn’t help but fall under the Mahdi’s spell. Had he, he wondered, at this advanced age at last found the man whom he could willingly serve?
“By listening, my lord, to what I’ve come to say. By thinking, my lord, at what I’m about to offer.”
The Mahdi laughed aloud. “That doesn’t sound so difficult. Come!” He put his hand lightly on Gordon’s shoulder, and rather than repelling him the Mahdi’s touch seemed to warm his flesh. “Let us retire to my tent and you can tell me this great thing you have come to say. And I shall listen.”
They went together, Rimbaud trailing, and the bodyguards following after them.
* * *
April 28, 1883
El Dueim, Camp of the Mahdi
My dearest Augusta:
I fear that I shall burst with pride! Agag, it seems, has finally won our little battle and is in full control of my faculties. But, really, I’m not wasting time worrying about that. Instead, I am happy as I ever could be, glad to know that I am useful in the world again and have succeeded easily where others would very easily have failed.
It will doubtless be some time before I can post this letter, as I am now in the camp of the man known as the Mahdi (which means “The Guided One” in Arabic), the man who was leading the Sudanese rebellion against the Draka. I say “was” advisedly, because I have managed to enlist him to the Draka side. I have gotten him to sign a treaty to join the Domination of the Draka, to accept a place in it for himself and his people, rather than continue an armed rebellion which, I convinced him, would ultimately prove to be useless.
The Mahdi is an intelligent man, as well as handsome, charismatic, and virtuous. I am happy that I was able to bring him together with the Draka. Otherwise I would most certainly witness his utter destruction at the hands of a more numerous and technologically superior foe.
There are, however, certain elements among the Draka who most certainly will not welcome this development, so my job may not be quite done. Soon, though, I am quite convinced that everything will be in order and I shall be able to get on with the task I came to Africa for. In the meantime, pray for me as I certainly do for you and our family every night and day.
Your loving brother,
Gordon and Rimbaud stood together in the hot night on a ramshackle pier overlooking the rushing waters of the White Nile. The breeze off the river lent a touch of coolness to the evening, but the clouds of voracious mosquitoes made Gordon eager for the relative safety of the Mahdi’s big white tent.
“Once you reach Khartoum, go by camel,” Gordon told the Frenchman. “A steamer would be faster, but it may be more dangerous.”Rimbaud shrugged. “Living is dangerous, monsieur. When we die, then we shall be safe.”
Gordon looked at the enigmatic merchant. There was something about the man that inspired trust. Perhaps it was his quiet, almost laconic attitude. Whatever caused it, Gordon hoped that the trust he put in Rimbaud wasn’t misplaced.
“All right,” he finally said. “I leave it to you. Go the way you feel would be best. But be careful. And deliver this message only to Alexander von Shrakenberg. He has promised to be waiting—with a legion—for word from me at Aswan, at the end of the railroad line. If you don’t find him there, you must find him where ever he is, as soon as you can. Oh—and, if you will, as a favor to me, take these letters for my sister and post them at the first opportunity.”
Rimbaud accepted both packets, the one containing a signed copy of the Mahdist treaty, the other containing the letters Gordon had written to his sister Augusta over the last several days. They disappeared into his voluminous, disreputable robes.
“That I will, monsieur.” He made as if to go, then paused. “May I offer an observation of my own, monsieur?”
“Certainly,” Gordon said, somewhat surprised. Rimbaud had never before made free with advice.
He fixed Gordon with his curious burning gaze. His eyes had clearly seen a lot in life, and this experience shone in them as he addressed Gordon. “The Mahdi is but a man like all of us. Follow him if you will. Love him if you must. But do not worship him. If you do, you will be lost. Comprende vous?”
“Y-yes,” Gordon said, a little startled by the man’s words. Before he could say more, though, Rimbaud turned, and climbed down into the waiting dhow. Gordon watched him go, contemplating his extraordinary advice. It was almost as if the Frenchman had followed Gordon’s own private mental processes, almost as if he could directly interpret the words and looks that had passed between him and the Mahdi. How could Rimbaud know his own unexpressed thoughts and desires?
Not that he could ever really love the Mahdi, in the physical sense. That was surely impossible. It was not natural. It was a sin. True, it was a sin he had carried with him since his thirteenth year when he’d been forced into such a relationship with a teacher at his preparatory school. Not forced in a physical sense, but overwhelmed by an older and more powerful personality, a personality he had loved, had worshiped . . .
Since then Gordon had wished fervently that he was a eunuch so he’d never be tortured by such terrible desires again. He had felt them since, but had never given in. His iron will and determination had prevented him from again slipping into sin. But—
Don’t even think about it, Gordon told himself. Don’t even think about it. There was much yet he had to do. There was much to occupy himself with.
He gave a final wave to Rimbaud as the dhow slipped downstream. Gordon couldn’t be sure but it seemed as if Rimbaud also waved a farewell. After the dhow faded from sight, he turned away from the river and went up the rickety pier to the muddy path beyond.
A faceless tribesman jostled him in the darkness, and Gordon felt a sharp, bitter sting across his ribcage. Instantly, without conscious thought, he drew the jambiyah he always carried at his waist and slashed outward.
He felt the blade bite flesh and the Arab sprang back with a curse, his hand flying to his cheek where Gordon’s dagger had slashed him from the corner of his mouth to the corner of his eye.
There were others on and around the pier, but the knife work was so fast, so quiet, that they had no time to react even if they realized what was happening.
Cursing, the Arab crouched low and came in again. Gordon stood his ground, surprising him. While it had been some time since Gordon had had blood on his own hands, his physical courage had never dimmed. The tribesman lunged, but Gordon blocked most of the blow’s force with a strength that surprised his foe. The tribesman was even more surprised by the speed and accuracy of Gordon’s counterthrust as it lodged deep in his throat.
“Damn!” Gordon stepped back, avoiding most of the spray that geysered from his assailant’s throat. The tribesman fell. “Damn it all, anyway!”
By now those standing near-by knew that something odd was happening. A crowd quickly gathered around Gordon, and helped him up the river bank and to the Mahdi’s tent. They rushed him in, calling for a doctor, and laid him on soft cushions in a quiet alcove.
Gordon was breathing heavily, shallowly. He felt hot and cold, sweating and shivering at the same time. He knew his wounds weren’t particularly bad, not even the stomach wound, but wondered why they were affecting him so severely.
Then he thought, “Poison,” and tried to rise, but couldn’t. He tried to call for paper. He wanted to, he had to write to his sister, to tell her . . . tell her . . .
He couldn’t remember what he had to tell her. He lay back among the cushions, totally unaware of the chaos which raged around him.
Gordon woke to darkness.
He was not in a tent, but in a dark room in a building, exactly where, he didn’t know. A woman sat by his side, dozing, and as he woke he sat up, and felt the pull of barely-knit flesh across his stomach.
The woman woke at the sound of his involuntary groan. She was young and probably beautiful, though he could hardly tell for the darkness and the veil and robes she wore. In any event, her voice was young and her hands gentle and tender as she lightly touched his chest and urged him back down upon the soft bed.
“Where—” Gordon croaked, his mouth dry and voice rusty from disuse.
The woman made soft noises of disapproval and reached for a carafe beside the bed. She held it to his lips and he eagerly gulped sweet, diluted wine, ignoring the rivulets that dribbled down his chin.
“Where am I?” he tried again. This time his voice worked reasonably well.
“Shh!” The woman said. “Lay back and rest. I shall bring him.”
And she was gone before Gordon could stop her.
Gordon sat up as best he could against the fluffy cushions, and looked around. He was obviously in a dark bedchamber. It was night, and warm. Of course. City sounds and smells came from the grilled window, as did some light from a half-full moon.So much for his surroundings. As for himself—he was naked, covered by a sheet damp from his sweat. His chest was half wrapped in bandages where the knife blade had raked his ribcage. Another bandage was wrapped about his stomach where the blade had sunk in an inch or two. He probed carefully, pushing lightly with his forefinger, and winced. It was still sore. But—he was alive and feeling reasonably well if somewhat weak and more than a little disoriented.
“Praise be to Allah!”
The Mahdi stood at the entrance to the room. He gestured to the bodyguards who accompanied him to wait outside and closed the door.
“We thought we had lost you so soon after first knowing you—but praise be to Allah—and your own great strength—that neither the blade nor the poison on it could end your life!”
The Mahdi stopped at the foot of the bed and gazed down on Gordon with his intense, piercing eyes.
“As you yourself did to the man who struck you.”
“Who was he?” Gordon asked. He looked back up at the Mahdi. He felt that he should pull the sheet up to cover himself, but for some reason couldn’t. The Mahdi moved closer, around the edge of the bed.
He shrugged shoulders clad in an immaculate white robe.
“Who knows? An assassin sent by an old enemy, perhaps. You still have many enemies in this country, Gordon Pasha.” The Mahdi sat down on the edge of the bed. Gordon could feel the heat radiating from the body pressing against his upper thigh, covered only by the thin sheet. “A man is measured by the strength of his enemies.”
They looked at each other for a long moment. Gordon felt an unaccountable rush of heat flush his entire body.
“Where—where are we?”
“Ah.” The Mahdi gestured around them. “My palace in El Obeid. We thought it would be best to bring you here from the camp. Your wounds . . .”
His fine, strong-looking hand reached out slowly, almost as if of its own accord, and touched Gordon’s bandaged chest, gently. Gordon flinched at the touch, but did not move away from it.
“You’ve slept for three days,” the Mahdi continued in that same dreamy, far-away voice. The touch became a caress, moving down his chest. Suddenly, the Mahdi sighed and took his hand away. “It’s a pity,” he finally said. “You no longer have the suppleness, the skin, the softness of a youth. A pity.”
“Yes,” Gordon said, quietly. He looked away, queerly hurt in a way he couldn’t even think about, let alone define.
The Mahdi stood, his voice suddenly brisk, businesslike.
“It’s well that you’ve awakened. We have . . .” he paused, searching for the correct word, ” . . . visitors.”
“Oh.” Gordon still did not look at him, fiercely willing himself not to cry. He didn’t know why he wanted to.
“Yes. A Draka legion has surrounded the city.”
This was something he could think about. Focus his mind on.
“Who commands it?” he asked in a strong voice. It couldn’t be von Shrakenberg’s legion. They couldn’t have arrived so quickly from Aswan.
“A merarch named Quantrill. He has asked to meet with me.”
Quantrill. Again. Perhaps at last they’d come face-to-face. “I wouldn’t much trust him.”
The Mahdi smiled. It was heart-breakingly beautiful.
“I don’t. It would help if you attended and showed him the documents I have signed.”
“Of course,” Gordon said. He sat up with hardly any pain. “As you desire.”
The Mahdi was already leaving the room, calling for servants to clothe Gordon for the meeting.
* * *
My Dearest Augusta:
I find myself now in El Obeid, a city (without much to recommend it) in the heart of the Kordofan province of what used to be the Sudan, which is, de facto, the capitol of the Mahdi’s little empire.
I confess that I am weary. I had a little accident a couple of days ago, nothing serious, I assure you, and am well recovered even as I write these words. It is not that which causes my weariness.
I scarce know what to say or how to explain it. I am tired of a battle I have fought all my life, a battle thought long won which, actually, I came extremely close to losing. Yet—in the ensuing victory I feel no joy. Only continuing loss.
It is all very confusing. I must pull myself together. I’ve just come from mediating a face to face confrontation between the Mahdi and Merarch Quantrill of the Draka Security Directorate. Quantrill has surrounded El Obeid with a Draka legion that he commands. Yet, he says that he accepts the Mahdi’s offer of alliance, as enumerated in the documents drawn up by Alexander von Shrakenberg and signed by the Mahdi. He has even accepted the offer to attend a banquet in the city in honor of him and his staff.
Yet, I do not trust him. Quantrill is a swine. He is without honor. Still, tonight might be a perfect opportunity to probe his mind and attempt to catch a hint of his plans, whatever they are. I’m sure that ultimately he’s up to no good.
I am sorry my dear sister. I usually don’t burden you with my problems like this. Attribute it to my weariness. Still, writing these lines has done me some good. It has helped to clear my mind as to what I must do. Now I shall go post this and (as unreliable as the mail service is) pray that it reaches you eventually.
Please, pray for me, your sinning brother, as I pray for you and our family every day.
Your loving Brother,
Gordon went out into the night, alone. Despite his recent wounds and weakness, he felt like walking. He felt like more than that, actually, but he couldn’t get on a camel and head off into the clear, clean desert to be alone with thoughts that he scarcely could admit to himself. But he simply couldn’t stand the thought of being confined any longer. The narrow, winding streets of El Obeid, so much like those of Khartoum, were little better than his closed-in room. He had to get out and be alone and prepare himself for the dinner in honor of Quantrill and his staff. But he couldn’t focus his mind.
A hot wind blew like a blast from an open fire. It was unpleasant, of course, but no way near as unpleasant as the flames of Hell, which ultimately he knew was his due.
He was a sodomite. Pure and simple. He was a sinner and when he died he would burn in Hell. Pure and simple.
Almost it was a relief to admit it to himself. Of course he had known it. He had known it for years and years, back to his days at boarding school, but somehow he had never admitted it to himself. He had certainly never acted on the realization. It had been thirty-seven years since he had touched another with love. He had thought the Mahdi . . .
But, no, of course not. He was fifty, now, hardly in his prime. Old and useless . . .
“Gordon. Fancy seeing you here.”
Gordon stopped, startled. He had been wandering with his head down, lost in thought, unaware of his surroundings.
Make that old and stupid, he told himself. Somewhere Agag snickered.
It took Gordon a moment before he recognize the man standing before him in the dark. He was a European in civilian dress. No—he was American. It was Desmond.
“Desmond? What’re you doing here? You should be at the Mahdi’s palace. The dinner.”
Desmond nodded. “I’ll make it to the nigger’s in time for the festivities. I hope. I have to take care of something first.”
Gordon knew. Desmond’s right hand was in his bulging pant’s pocket, no doubt resting on the grip of a pistol. Gordon smiled.
“I see.” Curiously, his depression immediately lightened. Nothing like an assassination attempt, he thought, to focus your mind. “Something you should have handled yourself, a while ago.”
“Oh, I quite agree,” Desmond said. “Quantrill’s orders, of course, but they were my men. They failed though. Never send a nigger or a wog to do a man’s work.”
“Mind telling me one thing?” Gordon asked.
Desmond grinned at him. “Well, it’s simple, isn’t it? You’re the go-between. You’re the proof, as it were. Without you, there’s no evidence that the Mahdi accepted the plan of that traitorous swine van Shrakenberg.”
Gordon smiled. “Except for the documents that the Mahdi signed.””Oh, those.” Desmond waved it away. “Those will be destroyed tonight. Along with the Mahdi and the rest of his scum.”
“Of course. The Mahdi, you see, is the key to this whole thing. Without him, the revolt falls to bits. Without his leadership his savages become, well, worthless savages again.” Desmond glanced down to consult a watch he took with his left hand from the pocket on his vest. “The dinner will start any moment now. Of course, under a flag of truce the Draka officers won’t be asked to give up their sidearms. Their repeating pistols. Some have smuggled in small packets of explosives as well. They’ll kill the Mahdi and wipe out his staff easily. I’m sorry to miss it. It’ll be rare sport.”
“Sport?” Gordon said through gritted teeth. “Under a flag of truce?”
Desmond shrugged. “Why not? They’re only niggers. Oh, sure, there’s some white men on the Mahdi’s staff, but that’s what they get, you see.” He smiled at Gordon. “The sounds of gunfire at the palace will be the signal for the general assault on the city. Steam-draggers will batter down the gates. Quantrill’s elite legion will swarm in and wipe out the unsuspecting niggers. Easy as pie.” Desmond smiled again. “And I’ll take care of you.”Gordon’s fury increased. He couldn’t believe the filthy treachery in Desmond’s calm words. Actually—he could. The plan reeked of Quantrill. It was just like him to slaughter unarmed hosts while under a white flag. He would think it clever.
There was the sudden clatter of gunfire from the direction of the Mahdi’s palace. Gordon closed his eyes.
“Ah,” Desmond said. “There’s the signal—”
“One more thing,” Gordon asked, his eyes still closed.
“What’s that?” Desmond asked, a hint of impatience in his voice.
“Have you killed many men from close up?”
Desmond frowned. “No. Why?”
Gordon’s eyes flew open. Boiling with rage he launched himself at the Draka, hand dropping for the jambiyah sheathed at his side. Desmond drew backward as he yanked the pistol from his pocket. But the handgun’s hammer snagged on the pocket lining. He pulled harder and it tore free. He lifted the weapon to fire, but Gordon was on him.
They collided, falling backward with Gordon on top, his blade drawn. He stuck it in Desmond’s stomach and slashed sideways. His face was inches from Desmond’s and the Draka’s expression was fear and pain, mingled equally.
“A knife is better for that kind of thing,” Gordon told him as he gutted him.Gordon jumped to his feet, ignoring the blood which soaked the front of his clothes. His only thought was to get to the Mahdi. Quantrill, of course, was right. The Mahdi was the key to the whole thing. Without the Mahdi, the revolt wouldn’t last another month. But even if he destroyed the copy of the treaty he and the Mahdi had signed, there was the other copy Gordon had sent off with Rimbaud. The Draka would learn of Quantrill’s treachery through that document.
But would they care? Gordon guessed that the Draka, pragmatic to the end, would care only if Quantrill failed to end the Mahdi’s threat.
Gordon must do all he could to see that the Mahdi survived this vile treachery. All he could. He ran toward the palace. Already El Obeid was in chaos. The gunfire around the palace had already died out. That wasn’t a good sign. The legion had begin its assault. He could hear their vehicles smashing through the city gates.
God grant him his wish to be in time—
The palace’s dining room was full of death. There were corpses everywhere. Most were native, but there were some Draka-uniformed bodies as well. He searched the room but couldn’t find the Mahdi, alive or dead, so there was still hope. Perhaps, Gordon thought, they had taken him prisoner.
The rest of the palace was chaotic. Soldiers and servants were fleeing, some looting before the Draka could arrive. There were no Draka officers to be seen—and then Gordon heard sounds coming from the garden behind the palace.
He went through an archway to the torch-lit garden, and stopped to stare at one of the most horrific scenes he’d ever witnessed.
He could recognize the Mahdi—or at least his severed head—even at a distance by his fine white teeth, visible because the mouth was open in a rictus of false suffering. False because the Mahdi was dead and truly beyond all pain and suffering.
The fine dark eyes were shut, the bladed nose smashed askew, the flesh of his cheeks torn away so that his birthmark was missing. The entire head was caked with dirt and blood.
As Gordon watched, the Draka officers crowded around it as it lay on the ground, and laughed uproariously. One of them stepped back half a dozen paces, drew his sidearm, and fired at it. He missed, and the officers laughed again.
“I’ll show you what a marksman I am,” someone said. It was Quantrill. There was no mistaking him for another officer. He was a short man, not much taller than Gordon. His arms and legs were lank and thin, making his bloated stomach appear even more colossal than it was. His face was red and flushed, certainly from excitement and drinking both. His eyes were bleary, his nose the size and shape of a rotten potato discarded in the field at harvest. The sight of him made Gordon sick, but his actions were even more disgusting.
He approached the Mahdi’s severed head until he stood right over it, undid the fly of his trousers, and urinated upon it. He shook with laughter as his piss struck the Mahdi’s head between what was left of his eyes, cascaded down his features and dribbled down his chin to splatter on the dusty ground.
The other Draka laughed like this was the funniest thing they had ever seen, but Gordon went cold, inside and out, though a white hotness flashed before his eyes.
“Is that the use to which you put your peter? That and satisfying your lust upon barnyard animals?”
His voice rang out hard across the laughter, which was silenced instantaneously, and Gordon didn’t know who was more surprised to hear it, Quantrill or himself. He scarcely realized that he had spoke and he wondered where the words had come from.
Quantrill whirled, his face scarlet with anger.
“What did you say?”
In that moment, Gordon suddenly realized he knew to what end he had spoken. He wondered if the words had come from Agag, or from himself, but in the end, he realized also that it didn’t matter. He was Agag, or at least Agag was a piece of him. He was made up of a multitude of pieces, and he could live with them all. He didn’t have to crush them down and hide them away, he didn’t have to cut them away from himself. This realization struck him with the force of an epiphany that come over him as hard and fast as a gift from God. Was it? he asked himself wonderingly. Was it?
“You’re pissing on your boots,” he said to Quantrill politely.
“Huh?” Quantrill looked down, swore to himself, and cut off the flow of urine. He put himself back in his pants, and looked back up at Gordon, who was approaching slowly.
“Gordon? Is that you, Gordon?”
“It is, sir. Charles George Gordon, sir, Field Marshall in the Armies of China and the Ottoman Empire, proud possessor of the Peacock Feather given me personally from the hands of the Empress of China, Governor-General of the Sudan, and lately Colonel in Her Imperial Majesty’s Army!”
Agag, loose at long last, simply faded away, disappearing to where Gordon knew not.
“You, sir, on the other hand, are a drunken, filthy, treacherous swine.” Gordon added when he’d gotten within arm’s reach of Quantrill, “Of course, such behavior is only to be expected from one with the taint of negro blood.”
Quantrill eyes bulged until Gordon thought they would literally pop out of their sockets. The veins in his neck swelled and Gordon could see them pulse in time to the blood pounding in his forehead.”Wha—wha—”
Around them was deathly silence as most of the Draka officers looked on in blank incomprehension, though from the looks on some faces, several had guessed what Gordon was doing. None tried to stop him.
“I wonder. Was your mother raped by a negro, or did she go to his arms eagerly, willingly, because your father—”
Quantrill hit him in the face with his clenched right hand. Gordon’s head jerked back at the force of the blow, but he caught Quantrill’s left before it could land. No one else moved, though a shudder, partially of excitement, partially of dismay, went through the onlookers.
Gordon twisted Quantrill’s wrist, painfully, moved in even closer, and spit right in his face. Quantrill gurgled incoherently and his hand dropped for the hilt of the pistol that was thrust in his belt.
Gordon smiled. Always with the gun, he thought, and his hand dropped to the pommel of his jambiyah and drew it in one swift motion.
Quantrill’s pistol had cleared his belt. He was bringing the muzzle up to point at Gordon’s stomach, but Gordon was already slashing backhandedly with the jambiyah. It went in shallow at the right side of Quantrill’s abdomen and sunk in deeper as he cut across the mass of fat that sheltered Quantrill’s guts.Quantrill’s finger tightened on the trigger and the pistol discharged into the ground between them. Gordon never even flinched.
“That’s for ordering my death,” Gordon said into Quantrill’s anguished face. With all his strength he rammed the point of the jambiyah as hard as he could into Quantrill’s guts. “And that’s for the Mahdi, God rest his soul.”
Quantrill’s breath exploded from his lungs and all the strength flowed from his legs. Gordon held him up for a moment, then pushed him savagely away. The knife slipped out of his abdomen, and, as Quantrill fell backwards his guts came out in great shining coils. He lay whimpering on the ground, his hands making feeble motions to stuff his intestines back into his slashed stomach, flies already buzzing hungrily around him.
“The devil take yours,” Gordon told him.
He looked up and around at the Draka officers who stood in a tight knot, looking from Quantrill, crying quietly on the ground, to Gordon, and back again.
“Self-defense,” Gordon said, and turned and walked away.
It was over. He was done with soldiering and fighting and killing. He had a life to live, a dam to build, a river to tame. It would be hard work, but he’d never been afraid of hard work. At least from now on his hands would be dirty with only soil, not with blood.
* * *
My Dearest Augusta:
I fear that it shall be some time before I’ll be able to visit you and the family again. I have an enormous amount of work before me, but for the first time in a long time I feel as if I’ll be able to get it all done. I am done, forever, I hope, with soldiering. I’ve had enough of that to last a lifetime. To last several lifetimes. Perhaps when I am really old and feeble and can do no more than grip a pen, I shall write my memoirs. There are stories to be told, no doubt, if the world is ready to hear them.
I am staying for now with Alexander von Shrakenberg. There are some questions about the curious death of a Draka merarch that must be answered, but von Shrakenberg assures me that matters will work out just fine. The affair ended satisfactorily for the Draka, and that really is all they care about. The Mahdi’s Revolt is over and the Sudan is pacified. Not in the way I would have wished, but as you know my dear, that is often the case in life.
I’ll find my own lodgings in time, but now I take an odd comfort in living in the household of this strange Draka. He’ll probably burn in Hell, though, I’m not the one to judge him. He is a likable man, for a Draka.
He’s involved in more activities than any ten men. Cotton plantations, dirigible plants, government projects of all types and stripes, yet he also has time for a full social schedule.
As you know I find that sort of thing tiresome, but just this morning he and his wife Edith were telling me about this new houseguest due to arrive later today. Alexander swears that he’s a brilliant conversationalist and great wit and that I’ll just adore him. He’s a writer, like that Frenchy, Rimbaud. I guess all and all Rimbaud wasn’t a bad fellow, but he’s hardly someone you’d care to invite to your home. (Hah! Like myself, some would say. Perhaps, like Our Lord Christ, I will learn to practice more tolerance.)
Anyway, he’s an Irish chap, name of Oscar Wilde. Ever heard of him?
Your Loving Brother, in Christ: