‘Spy will get caught in city. Will talk to save own skin. No deal.’ The little man with brown teeth spoke stubbornly, before he spat a stream of malodorous tobacco juice onto the sand between the feet of the person he had come to meet.
‘You are being stupid on a lot of levels Hakim. Not the least of which is spitting so close to my favourite boots.’
Hakim squirmed under an icy blue gaze.
‘Better. Now mind your own business. Our representative has all necessary identification, and will not know your name anyway. All we require from you is a train ticket.’
‘If you got papers and identity, why you need me to get train ticket?’
‘You don’t want to know. If you knew I’d have to cut out your tongue to ensure your silence.’
Hakim eyed him narrowly. ‘Isn’t so smart to threaten me.’
‘Oh’ the man said mildly. ‘I ain’t threatening.’
A heavily veiled woman, who occupied a curtained litter surrounded by the eunuchs who would carry the ornate conveyance, beckoned to her negotiator with one long, gloved finger. He went to her side, and she whispered something in his ear.
‘My lady loses patience. Do we have a deal?’
Hakim scratched his unlovely armpit.
‘Ticket from Tashkent to the city. Just one?’
‘In a manner of speaking. A ticket for a private first-class compartment.’
Hakim looked impressed. ‘Will be expensive.’
‘So noted. Do we have a deal?’
‘We do. Names?’ ‘No. We’ll fill the names in ourselves. You just get the ticket. For the first day of Maj. You have a week. Meet me here with the ticket.’
The negotiator turned away, but not before he had seen the crafty gleam in Hakim’s eyes. ‘Don’t double-cross me’ he threw over his shoulder. ‘It takes a long time to die on a cross.’ He had the satisfaction of hearing Hakim swallow audibly.
The party from the west mounted their horses, and the bearers picked up the lady’s litter. Hakim watched them with equal amounts of loathing and fascination before climbing out of the wadi to where his own men awaited him. He sat on the ground beside his resting camel and folded another wad of tobacco into his left cheek. Nobody spoke. It was many minutes before a couple of men appeared as if from nowhere.
‘Well?’ Hakim asked.
‘Forty men. Dozen veiled women. Went back towards oasis at Binti Hammam. Black ninjas with them. Lot of black ninjas.’ The man shuddered.
‘Makes easy then. We take their money, do their business, and keep our mouths shut.’
Hakim nodded briskly. ‘Anybody has ideas about making some moneys. Don’t. I promise slow painful death to anyone betraying our honoured clients. And that means all; includes Hanif, and his witch of a mother.’
The man so addressed met his boss’ eyes for a moment. He must have seen something there that gave him pause because he paled under his tan, before nodding his assent. ‘Understood my Father. I’ll behave. So will Mother, or I’ll cut out her tongue.’
The party prodded its grumpy, sleepy camels onto their feet and mounted up. When they had all disappeared over the horizon, a figure unfolded itself from the middle of a stand of prickly pear and other cactus. It swore briefly, before whistling on two notes. Another man and two horses came quietly over the edge of the wadi. The original man grunted and mounted up. ‘Fucking job. Fucking thorns. Fucking desert. Fucking Hakim. Let’s go get a fucking big drink.’
His friend grunted out a laugh and they turned their horses towards the west.
At Binti Hammam, the veiled ‘woman’ jumped lightly down from the litter and hurried into a big skin tent. Once inside, and with the robe and veil cast away it could be seen that she was certainly no lady, being a leanly-built brown-skinned man with untidily cropped whitish hair and a poorly stitched scar bisecting his left cheek.
‘Do we trust Hakim?’ he asked the very big plain-faced, sandy-haired man who had been officiating as negotiator. The man shrugged.
‘No as far as I could throw one of his camels. But when his spies see black ninjas he will at least think carefully before betraying us. Anyway. If I have this right in my head it won’t matter if he do.’
‘True. But that don’t mean I won’t hunt him down and slit his weasand if the little shit plays us false.’
‘Goes without saying. I’ll help. It would be a pleasant diversion.’
The blonde man laughed. ‘You, my friend are even worse than me!’
‘Can’t be. I’m only wanted in two countries.’
‘Yeah. But that’s more by luck than judgement.’
‘Possibly. My old mother used to say it was better to be born lucky than rich.’
‘This being the same old mother who said never leave dead enemies behind you?’
‘The very woman. But now I’m hungry. And thirsty. I’ll go see what I can rustle up.’
‘You do that’ the blonde man grinned at his departing back before moving through the tent to an inner ‘door’ where he poked his head around the leather flap.
‘You awake princess?’
‘Course I am’ came a crisp voice. ‘Come in.’
He bent his head and entered the next ‘room’. He bowed floridly to an elegant figure lounging in a hanging seat.
‘Mission accomplished ma’am.’
She laughed out loud. ‘Good. Come and sit down. Did it go as we expected?’
He eased himself to the ground in front of her. ‘Yes. Boris had a nice time intimidating Hakim and I sat in my litter like a perfect lady.’
She laughed delightedly ‘Oh, I wish I could have seen that, Gren. I’m sure you make a lovely lady.’ Then she sobered abruptly. ‘Will this work?’
‘Honestly? I don’t know. And I don’t like it a bit. But the little princess may be the only chance we have to locate the prince.’
‘Aye. She might. And I like it even less than you. She is only sixteen. But if we don’t find the prince, Alba will cease to be.’
‘It will. So we carry on.’
‘We do, but I just wish I liked him a bit more than I do.’
‘Whyn’t you like him?’
‘I don’t know precisely. No. That’s a cop out, I do know. He’s a golden boy. Handsome and born to rule. Very aware of his own importance. And absolutely sure he’s right in any given situation.’
‘Oh. I see. But he’s a symbol so we hafta find him even if he is a tit.’