The sky outside is reddening with the glow of the sunrise. Soon, the sun will push above the horizon, as red as the blood which will soon follow.
For today will be the day the war ends, the day when we make the final victorious assault.
From inside my tent, I can hear the noise of the army preparing for action. To the untutored ear it will be as chaos, a medley of purposeless sound, as of a crowd, but the military ear can easily pick out the shout of orders from the crack of whips urging on the lowing oxen as they strain in the harnesses dragging up the big guns, the creak of the cannons’ carriage wheels from the tramp of marching boots. It’s a grand sound, marking the transformation of the army from a collection of men and animals and weapons into a single fighting force.
Many times, in the past, I’ve heard that sound, sitting in my tent, and thrilled at the knowledge that this great instrument of war was mine to command. And to this day, every army under my command has won every battle it has ever fought. The instrument of war has never failed me.
I have no doubt that it will not fail me now, but for the first time ever, the thought brings no joy.
I should be going out now, out of the tent to where my staff officers await me, to plan out the battle; I have to go, but I don’t want to, not today. I want to postpone the going as long as possible, because the coming battle fills me with dread. The fact that I know quite well that we shall win is the most dreadful thing of all.
If only I could have, I think, I’d have left this battle to one of my generals, but on this occasion I have to be in command. It’s perhaps the most important battle of my life, certainly the most important I’ve fought since I ascended the throne, and the fact that I’m going to win it makes no difference to that at all. I cannot leave it to a general – not even the most trustworthy of them is quite trustworthy enough for this.
From where I’m sitting, if I look over my left shoulder, I can see the battlements of the fort through the tent’s entrance, the red sandstone like clotted blood in the dawn. I know this fort very well. I lived in it for years, and each passage, each staircase, is familiar and precious to me. Yet, today, my own artillery is going to blow those walls down.
Right now, the captains of artillery will be emplacing the batteries of cannon so as to be able to concentrate their fire on vulnerable spots of the fort wall; spots I’ve marked out myself, because there’s nobody in this army who knows this fort quite as well as I do. My artillery, bought from the French down on the coast, is the best anyone in this country has, and my gunners, trained by the same French, can hit a coin-sized target with the fire of an entire battery at these distances.
The enemy, who crouch now behind those battlements, and stare out fearfully through slit windows at our army’s trenches and earthworks, know these things too. They know that their defeat is certain, and that before the day is out our flag will fly above their fortress and those of them who survive will be in chains and dreading the morrow. That is the lot of the weaker side in battle, and always has been, and I wouldn’t normally feel the tiniest grain of pity for them. If the situation had been reversed, they would have given as little quarter as we’d give them.
But this time it’s different, because the enemy army in the fort is of our own people, not an invading horde; and their commander, the rebel against my Imperial Crown, is my son.
The partly folded-back flap at the tent’s entrance is raised slightly, and my colonel of cavalry peeps in. “Sire,” he says, “the officers are waiting.” He looks faintly surprised to see me not yet dressed for battle in my chain mail vest and helmet. “We’re waiting for you, Sire,” he repeats.
“Yes,” I grunt, without rising. “I’m coming.” The colonel of cavalry has a thin, ratlike face with wispy grey whiskers. I don’t like him at all, but I can count on his loyalty – and in a civil war, loyalty is a rare and precious resource. “I’m coming,” I repeat, and finally he withdraws, still staring. The tent flap falls back into place.
It’s a strange thing, loyalty. If you’d asked me which of my senior officers would stick with me if one of my sons had risen in rebellion, this cavalry colonel wouldn’t have been among those I’d have thought of. But the general I’d have named, who’s been at my side through many campaigns, is now in that fort, by the side of his chosen new master, my son.
My son, the Prince Jamil, the rebel and traitor.
I still remember the shock I’d felt when the news of his rebellion had first reached me. It’s not that I’d been oblivious to the possibility that one of my sons might rebel, but he would have been the last one I’d have expected. I’ve not yet named an heir, but I’d planned on him succeeding me. All he’d have had to do was wait.
Now, of course, there’s no question of anything like that.
Before I’d left the capital on campaign, his mother had come to me. The Begum Sahiba Faizunnisa isn’t my principal wife, but she is and has always been one of my favourites. I’d been talking to one of my ministers, and she’d waited quietly until I’d finished and the man had gone.
“What are you going to do?” she’d asked. Her eyes had been red and swollen from crying, but, typically, she’d lined them with kohl and made herself beautiful before coming to me. “He’s not really a bad boy,” she’d pleaded. “He’s been put up to it by others.”
This is actually almost certainly true. I even know who those people are, plotting to be the powers behind the new occupant of the throne. My assassins have already gone to take care of those of them who are within reach. But that makes no difference as far as he’s concerned.
“Whether that’s true or not,” I’d explained, “it’s not just against me, personally, that he’s raised his hand in rebellion, but against the Empire. If the Empire has to endure, I can’t allow any kind of rebellion or secession, and I can’t forgive rebels and traitors. You do see that?”
“But Jamil is your son,” she’d pleaded. “You watched him being born. You’ve played with him on the floor and you held his hands when he first learnt to walk. He’s not like your Ethiopian or Hindu generals or one of those oily Turkish ministers. Can’t you just forgive him this once?”
“And then what?” I’d asked her. “Suppose I do forgive him. Will he be willing to let the past go? Will his backers allow that? Or will they keep on with their intrigues?”
“I could get a message to him.” Of course she has her own network of spies and couriers; everyone does. It’s a necessity of survival in the political maze of the Court. “I could tell him to ditch them and come back to you. He might listen to me.”
“That wouldn’t work,” I’d explained. “Do you think this can be allowed to pass? However much I want to, I can’t spare him. See here, Faizun,” I’d added, sitting by her and taking her hands in mine. “What kind of message would I be sending out if I forgave him? That anyone can get away with raising his hand against the Imperial Throne if he’s got the right family? Just how long do you think it would take before my other sons rebelled too? They’re already straining at the leash. In six months the Empire would dissolve in civil war, brother fighting brother to succeed me.” I didn’t add that we were already in civil war, and that the provincial governors were watching with keen interest. Unless I scotched the rebellion speedily and brutally, the more distant provinces would begin declaring independence, and after that we’d never stop the slide. She’s more than intelligent enough to work that out for herself.
“Well then,” she’d said, and it was clearly her last throw of the dice. “Abdicate in his favour. Hand him over the entire Empire while it’s still intact.”
“It’s too late for that, Faizun,” I’d replied. “The moment Jamil took the advice of those who put him up to this, he showed himself unfit to wear the crown. Somebody who doesn’t know his own mind can never be the Emperor. At times like this, a weak monarch will bring disaster down on everyone. Besides,” I’d added, cruelly but unable to help myself, “nobody who launches a rebellion quite so incompetently can be allowed to succeed. Anyone fit to win the crown should fight for it properly or not at all.”
“At least then,” she’d begged, “spare his life. Can you at least do that?”
I’d said nothing, unwilling to make a promise I knew I couldn’t keep. Faizunnisa caught it at once.
“You love him,” she’d wailed. “You must save him for the sake of that love!”
“It’s because I love him,” I’d finally told her, shaking my head, “that I can’t spare his life, and won’t. If I take him prisoner, at the very least I’d have to blind him and lock him away for the rest of his life. The other princes will settle for nothing else. Can’t you see that? And when I die, the first thing whoever succeeds me will do is have him poisoned. He’ll spend years in a tiny room, unable to see, waiting for death to come without notice in his food or water. Do you want that for him, Faizun?”
“Go, then,” she’d said, turning her face away, and, rising, left on silent feet without saying goodbye. I’ve not seen her again since then.
Sighing at the memory, I get up from my stool and beginning pulling on my armour. From my days as a soldier, I’ve always preferred to do this for myself, clumsy as the chain mail is and though it would be convenient to have an attendant. Also, I always use the armour of an ordinary officer; the only function a king’s ornate helmet and breastplate have, it seems to me, is to attract the attention of any enemy soldier with a good musket and a keen aim.
Outside the tent, the noise is beginning to die down, as the army settles itself and readies for the battle. The artillery will be emplaced now, behind the earthworks my men have thrown up overnight, their cannonballs stacked in pyramids behind them. The infantry will be waiting, crouching in their trenches, waiting for the thunder of the guns. And once a hole is blasted in the sandstone walls, they’ll charge the breach, hunched over, hidden in the swirling clouds of dust and gunsmoke. The cavalry, under the whiskery officer who had looked in on me, will sweep out to the flanks, to prevent the enemy breaking out in an attempt to escape.
The slaughter shall be savage. I know this, having seen it many times before. The terraces of this fort will be washed in blood by the time the fighting ends; and the blood will be all our own, the blood of brothers fighting each other to the death.
I wish it could have been different. I wish I might have tried siege warfare, to starve the other side into submission, but there’s no time for that. Nor is there any time to try and establish contact with the men inside the fort, to sniff out someone to bribe and open the gates. This war must be concluded at the earliest, before anyone among the generals or the governors begins getting ideas.
Outside, my officers will be waiting, for the final briefings before I give the word for the artillery barrage to begin and signal the start of battle. I will go out to them in a minute, but I take one last moment to whisper a message to my son, Prince Jamil, in the fort across the lines.
“My son,” I tell him, as though my whisper could reach his ear. “Do you remember, once, how we had gone out hunting the lion, you and I? Do you remember how the lion had turned at bay, full of valour to the last, ready to die but not to yield? You had called that lion a hero, and asked me to spare its life.” I visualised the scene as I remembered it, the tawny monster backing away into the scrub, yellow fangs bared, defiant even in escape. “I have just one request to you. Do not permit yourself to be brought to me in chains, broken in spirit and cringing. Do not let yourself be taken alive. Fight, with knife and sword, with musket and bare hands, but fight until you are killed. Die as you would have wanted to have lived, like the lion, like a hero. Make me proud of you, my son. Make me proud.”
Ducking my head to avoid my peaked helmet catching on the tent cloth, I go out into the red glow of the rising sun.