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Altair
Author: Marian Tee

Nine years ago

 


It was over.

The war was finally over, and the thought had twelve-year-old Ahmad delirious.

For the past two hours, he and the other children had hidden themselves under the wooden tables at the marketplace, wide-eyed and terrified as gunfire and screams reached their ears. While such noise was nothing new to them, today had felt different. Ahmad hadn't been able to think of a word for it, but if feelings were to come with its own melody, then he would've described this morning as one razed by a sickening cacophony of desperate violence.

Ahmad had feared such noise would never end.

And yet it did.

Relief was a burning sensation in his chest as Ahmad watched military trucks emerge from the distance, and joyous cheers exploded from his people as they caught sight of the royal banner. The trucks rumbled closer, and Ahmad saw the older people of his tribe begin to weep. It was a heart-wrenching sight, and Ahmad's own eyes started to sting.

The war was truly over then.

He would no longer need to hide. No longer need to merely dream of playing with his friends like they once did. The war was over, and their tribe could finally reclaim their peaceful lives in the desert.

Looking around, Ahmad saw his fellow tribesmen already hard at work, running back and forth to bring water to wounded soldiers.

His heart swelled, and because he also wanted to show his gratitude, Ahmad quickly crawled out from his hiding space and broke into a run. There was only one jar of clean water left inside his family's tent, but he didn't hesitate to grab this, along with the cleanest towel he could find.

Ahmad searched for a soldier who had yet to receive assistance, and the one he found required zigzagging through dead bodies. Such a gory sight might've curdled other people's stomachs, but not him. The corpses that littered the ground were all rebels, and so as far as Ahmad was concerned, these men deserved to die over and over for the way they had pointlessly murdered members of his tribe.

The boy finally reached the soldier he had set his sights on: he was tall and powerfully built, and he was staring down at a decapitated corpse.

"Alsyd?" Master?

Ahmad offered the towel and jar up, in case the soldier wanted to clean his wound. "You are still blee—-" The boy's voice died when the man slowly turned to face him.

Ahmad's knees sank down on the sun-baked sand. Standing before him was none other than Sheikh Altair Al-Atassi. The man was a member of the royal family, but more importantly than that, the sheikh was also the kingdom's strongest and bravest hero, and the realization had Ahmad feeling delirious once again as the sheikh bid him to rise.

Altair took the jug and towel the boy offered with a murmur of thanks, and when he finished wiping his face, he heard the boy gulp audibly.

"A-Alshaykh..." S-Sheikh...

The horror in the boy's eyes made him raise a brow. "That bad?"

Ahmad could only nod. The wound on the sheikh's face was still viciously raw, its edges crusted with blood, and ran from the sheikh's left eyelid all the way down to his jaw. It was almost as if someone had wished to carve off half of the sheikh's face, and the mere thought had Ahmad gulping anew.

"Maehdina, alshaykh." I'm sorry, sheikh. "It is very bad."

To which the sheikh only smiled, and when he spoke, his answer was just as cryptic. "Good."

Ahmad decided not to answer. He could not see anything good about the sheikh's disfigurement, but he also knew better than to point this out.

Altair briefly relayed instructions for the boy, and Ahmad, chest now puffed with pride, bowed to the sheikh and promised fervently he would do as commanded. Altair acknowledged the bow with a grave nod. The boy was never to know that his errand was only meant to give Altair a private moment.

And now that he was finally alone...

The sheikh turned to his attention back to the last man to taste the blade of his vengeance.

It was over.

Although the same words ran through the minds of the people around him, Altair's thoughts did not bring him a similar sense of peace. There was neither relief nor triumph to savor, and his thoughts had little to do with the Sand Wars itself.

For Altair, today's battle was entirely personal: what was over was a promise given and a promise kept, and as soon as his eyes slowly closed, the past yanked him back into its tortuous embrace.

He was twenty again, his father was dying, and it was all his fault.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

Even now, Altair couldn't bear the memories of Hadwin's death, and the sheikh forced his eyes open and gritted his teeth as he willed himself to focus instead on the black-and-white harshness of the present.

He had promised to avenge his father's death, and the dead man on the ground was the last of the rebels that had kidnapped Altair.

It was over.

He had been a stubborn and reckless fool in his youth. A fool who had blindly trusted the rebels when they said they would consider entering into a truce if Altair joined them in the desert without his guards. And the price of his idealistic foolishness had been his father's life.

And that, too, was over.

He would never be such a fool again.

 

 

Present time

 

 

Interview Transcript #056

Interviewee: Beatriz Yildiz (Code: BY)

56, single, Filipino-Ramilian descent, formerly employed by the Sheikh of Farigha

Interviewer: Detective Zahra Caplan (ZC)

Witness: Fredericka S. Grachyov

Legal counsel to Sheikhdom of Farigha

Spears-Grachyov Law Firm PLLC

Date: (Redacted)

Place: (Redacted)

Duration: (Redacted)

Location: (Redacted)

Excerpt 1A from full transcript of recorded interview

ZC: How do you know Sheikh Mahmud Tannous?

BY: I was his former mistress. He dispensed of my services when he married his wife. When he was widowed, he had his people look for me. He knew I could be trusted, and he offered me a permanent position in his household as his daughter's keeper.

ZC: Do you mean her governess? Or lady's maid perhaps?

BY: To be blunt, he employed me as the princess' warden. I looked after her at night while Urwa - a eunuch - looked after her during the day.

ZC: Why did the princess need such looking after?

BY: The sheikh was obsessed in guarding her chastity. His plan to make her a queen or at least consort to the king was years in the making.

ZC: And was the princess in favor of these plans?

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