“Father is dying,” Fahim, his younger half brother, divulged to him in the palace courtyard, speaking Urdu.
“We’re all dying,” Bel concluded glibly.
“The doctors are giving him one year. And we suspect they were being kind because they were in fear of their lives.”
“Let me guess: syphillis has rotted his brain,” Bel darkly joked.
“Ironically no. Cirrhosis of the liver.”
“His lifestyle would catch up to him, one way or another.”
Bel loved and respected his father, but he was, what they called in the states, a fuckboy. Even in his old age.
The palace was filled with concubines and their offspring, and they suspected the country was littered even further with illegitimate children. It was scandalous enough when his father had resurrected the practice of having concubines, but the people overlooked it for the sake of their king, King Hafiz whom they dearly loved.
He’d ruled 40 prosperous, peacekeeping years, having previously been a brilliant military leader and strategist from the time he graduated from Ghassan’s prestigious military school in his 20’s. Once king, Hafiz made it mandatory for every male child to attend two years of military school at the age of 16, and anyone who continued their military career was paid handsomely, which caused a great wave of prosperity to elevate the citizens of every kind of station in Ghassan.
Despite his numerous and at times embarrassing indiscretions, King Hafiz had only ever loved one woman, Bel’s mother, Queen Alya. Queen Alya only had two full blood sons, Bel and his late brother Marcus, before she was rendered infertile early in her reign. Privately his mother later divulged to him that it was an untreated STD that her husband had given her that was the culprit. And while his mother had been so forgiving of her husband, Bel had not.
“Why am I just now hearing about this?” Bel grilled his brother.
“We too are just now hearing. It seems you always know when to come home,” Fahim answered.
Bel tried to visit frequently, usually around holidays, but rarely stayed longer than a day or two. This time, he’d been home two weeks already, and showed no signs of leaving. His mother had been conspicuously hands off. In her effort not to smother him, she had a habit of neglecting him.
“Why hasn’t anyone told me that father is sick?” Bel asked his mother at dinner. Queen Alya motioned with her wrist and her attendants left her.
“How long do you plan on staying in Ghassan?”
“I don’t have a plan.”
“How is your business doing?”
“Mother, just say it.”
Queen Alya looked at her son.
“Ghassan needs a new king.”
“You are the king’s only full blood son.”
“I abdicated long ago and I meant it. And that was before Leilani died.”
“Semih is quietly campaigning.”
Semih was one of Bel’s fourteen half brothers, a harmless bookish playmate as a child, not one that ever seemed particularly ambitious.
“Let him campaign. Fahim is the obvious choice and will have Father’s blessing.”
“Semih’s mother has been a mosquito in your Father’s ear of late, and I suspect the real reason for Semih’s sudden desire to be king.”
Bel sighed. You’ve gotta be shitting me right now, he thought. No matter how peaceful or prosperous a kingdom was, there was always someone for whom peace and prosperity wasn’t enough. There was always someone who wanted power. Still, he refused to consider it any more than a royal family nuisance.
“What could Adela possibly say to father to convince him to choose Semih over Fahim?”
“I don’t know, but your father has refused an audience with me twice now.”
“I’m not sure what you’re trying to tell me mother, but no one would be so delusional as to betray you while there’s still breath in my lungs. Are you saying that there’s some elaborate, extensive plot to kill me?”
“Then this is a silly conversation. Stop worrying. I will talk to father.”
That night, Bel lay in bed feeling as though there were an anvil on his chest. And he remembered why he left for the States and never returned.
No one knew who he was in the States and no one cared. No one bowed to him in the streets, nor could he order around grown men twice, three times his age. And aside from the job he attained at Magellan through his father’s military connections, everything he’d attained was of his own merits. He started a company because he could. It made him a billionaire. He hadn’t even meant to do that. America was the land of opportunity, and not that he was looking for it but he’d gotten one, and proved to himself and others that he was a somebody, and not just because of who his father was.
His mother had been a prisoner of war when his father had met her. She’d successfully talked herself out of being killed, out of being raped, into earning a private audience with his father, who was commander of the Ghassani army at the time and the future king, and eventually into being released. When Hafiz became king, he found the girl Alya whom he’d never forgotten, had her then husband killed and married her.
She was the smartest woman he knew, and deep down, he knew that if she was worried, then so should he be. Fahim didn’t seem to know of any such campaign. The whole situation made him want to spit out the bad taste of politics that had manifested in his mouth. His family had generously let these whores and their offspring share the palace. And now they were high off their pampered lifestyle and catching dangerous bouts of amnesia. The whole thing made him want to go Rambo and slit their ungrateful throats. His brother should never have died. If his older brother Marcus was still alive, none of this would be happening.
The past. A cancerous hook lodged and now embedded in his soul, unable to be removed without also killing the host. He was now old enough that he wasn’t in the mood to run, but he was still far from being in the mood to be king.
The next morning, Bel requested an audience with his father which he, of course, was granted. His father looked thin, but not frail. Still every inch the king. Bel saw his immediate future instinctively and it made his jaw clench. Bel out of his mind with grief, beating his father’s casket bloody while his mother looked on in tears, a coronation done in secret.
“You have been home these two weeks and only now have you come to see me? Your mother must have sent you.”
“No one sends me anywhere,” Bel answered. His father smiled.
“Did they tell you I’m dying?”
“Are you not relieved?”
“Your mother knows I love her. She also knows that I cannot guarantee her safety after I am gone.”
“I can guarantee her safety.”
“Not unless you plan to do so from this throne.”
“To hell with the throne. The entire kingdom can burn for all I care.”
“You would let your people be torn apart by civil war?”
“A palace full of power hungry bastards and their whore mothers hardly constitute civil war. Let them destroy each other from the inside.”
“And what of our dynasty?”
“Dynasties come to an end. The people can govern themselves.”
His father laughed. “I see the ‘land of the free’ has seduced you as well.”
“America has been good to me.”
“I’m glad. No one’s more proud of what you’ve accomplished than I am. Not only are you the rightful heir but the people love you. You have put the country of Ghassan on the lips of foreigners.”
“Thank you, abba.”
“I believe I’m being poisoned.”
Bel took a breath and closed his eyes.
If his father believed it, then it was true, that much he knew.
His father had credited his ability to be underestimated to his military and political success. And now, his father, sharp as ever, intended to find out just what the plan would be once he was dead and gone. He had given his own life to get this information.
“What have you done? What have you let them do? And for what?”
“Let them poison a dead man if they want,” replied the king. He continued, “There is a guilty air in the throne room since you have returned.”
“The guilty flee when none pursueth.”
“They seem to think you are privy to something.”
“I am privy to nothing.”
“Do you know if your brother were alive today, I would still pass him over and give my throne to you?”
“But he isn’t. So we’ll never know.”
“Your brother was too eager to please me. To please other people. It made him foolish. It got him killed.”
Bel seethed at his father’s words.
The king chuckled. “I’ve made you angry.”
Bel remained silent, refusing to be goaded by him.
“You are wise beyond your years Belkacen. You would make a great king. Precisely because you do not want it.”
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
“Keep your enemies close, Belkacen. Listen to them. They will tell you exactly what they want.”
“It hasn’t worked so well for you, abba.”
“Of course it has. We’re having this conversation now, aren’t we?”