The End of the Old Order
He’s close enough to kill. His beard, thick and speckled gray, is a vulnerability. Like other royals, he has grown his beard long—a symbol of strength and manhood. Yet, someone of his experience must know it’s a liability. My adversary must know that I could quickly grab this senseless tangle of hair and slam his head into the table. But … today we wear suits. Today we wear fancy suits that betray who we really are.
“What did it feel like,” I ask the prince. They’re all called prince.
“What did what feel like, Colonel Wyles?” Prince Hozani, a 5-Crescented General in the Royal Erabian Military Forces, has contempt for my race, but perhaps more importantly, my rank. He believes it an insult that the Great Anglican Nation sent a colonel to negotiate an armistice of this magnitude. The prince underestimates me—otherwise he would not be so contemptuous.
“What did it feel like to execute unarmed soldiers?” I ask. I look past him and stare at one of the refraction monitors on the wall. The Unicom Network is playing footage of an Anglican minister, some self-righteous fool, lighting himself on fire beneath that sanctimonious wall that divides my people from the prince’s. I hear my mother’s voice in my head. Your poor father. Yerusalom. Yerusalom. Over and over again. Yerusalom. Yerusalom.
The prince does not answer me. I repeat the question. “What did it feel like to execute unarmed soldiers?”
The prince stands up. He is a head taller than me and exudes a nobility that on my best day I couldn’t come close to emulating. He presses his hands firmly against the conference table and smiles. The smile is equal parts compassion and condescension—the kind of smile a parent might reserve for a child’s folly.
“It felt like my insides were ripped apart.” The prince lowers his head. “I regretted the decision from the moment I made it. But any other decision would have been a less humane one. Sometimes a compassionate death is our only option.” He looks at the monitor with the fool on fire and shakes his head in disgust. “Of all the decisions I’ve made that decision was the one that haunts me most.”
“I find that quite hard to believe.”
“There is much about me you would find hard to believe.” The prince takes out a few shiny silicone bands. He painstakingly creates vertical columns of hair in his beard and then proceeds to braid them together. Once the perfect braid is made, he uses the bands to tie his beard into three horizontal sections.
“In my country, only a woman would spend so much time grooming her hair.” He ignores my childish insult. My wife, not to mention my two girls, would probably kill me for saying such a sexist thing, but I was just trying to get underneath the prince’s skin.
“Maybe we can suspend judgment for just a moment, Colonel. We can debate my military record and the culpability that attaches to it some other time. I’m sure you recognize that the battlefield is not a place for moral clarities.” He pauses. “We can overcome our differences if we’re willing to put aside our more obvious machinations. I would hope that we can find common cause in ….” His mobile signal goes off.
“Excuse me for a moment.” The prince reaches deep into his coat pocket and pulls out his Roamer. It vibrates and patiently hums a melodic Erabian tune while waiting for its message to be unveiled. The prince looks down at his Roamer and a smile escapes—a genuine smile. His seriousness evaporates. The muscles in his face relax and his shoulders stand less tall. I do not know the prince well. We battled once and he won. It was the only significant battle I ever lost. After the battle, he and I negotiated a reasonable truce that saved many lives. I have been interviewed by Anglican intelligence officers and asked to describe Prince Hozani. In a few words, I told them he is an honorable man who seems to be quite solemn. From what I gather, he is a man who is comfortable carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. But as he stares at his Roamer, he’s something other than serious. He’s at ease.
“Do you have children, Colonel Wyles?”
“Two girls. Angry little things, but they can make me melt in a minute. They and their mother like to gang up on me. It’s quite unfair.”
The prince almost laughs and hands the Roamer to me. “My son’s Fācebook page. He is number two … of five. His older brother, Daveem, blessed be he, has a severe form of Riza’s Syndrome. He has never so much as uttered a single word. It’s been 15 years of silence, yet my wife begins each day hopeful he will speak, and ends each crying herself to sleep. When it comes to my son’s disability, my wife is incapable of any measure of realism.” The prince adjusts the bottom tie on his beard. “Somehow, his younger brother, Bramir, can make his older brother sing. It’s a miraculous thing.” Prince Hozani hands me his Roamer and I read his son’s Fācebook post.
I smile at the prince. “I’m not a believer in this magic people choose to call god. But if there is such a thing, I believe this god has surely blessed your son Bramir.” I return the Roamer to the prince. “It must be hard on you and your family. I’m truly sorry.”
The prince closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He puts his phone back in his coat pocket and sits down in front of his console panel. His respite is over. There is no acknowledgement of what I said. He pours himself some carbon water and brings up the proposed armistice on one of the larger refraction monitors in the center of the consultation room. The document on the monitor is a cheery rainbow of text, which belies the very meaning of the colors. Blue-Anglican demands. Green-Erabian demands. Red-the Holy Roman State of West Yerusalom. The handful of other colors represent the joint demands of minor players pretending to matter in this mad world of ours. The prince and I can’t agree to much, but we share a desire to make the pretenders think we are listening.
We almost certainly agree on one other significant point. We do not appreciate being sequestered in an unknown location. We do not appreciate not knowing where we are. We do not appreciate having all communications with the outside world monitored. We do not like them reading our messages to our wives and our children. The party loyalists who agreed to these pre-negotiation terms were no friends of mine. Their day will come. I’m certain of few things. But of that, I am certain.
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