The silver Rolls Royce Phantom of Muhammad Bin Nayef, King of Saudi Arabia and Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, roars westward along the M4—windfucked, barrelling through the Great British Rain. Encased in the broad burgundy backseat, near-enveloped in fine leather interior, sits our Crown Prince, great grandson of Ibn Saud—conqueror and first King of Saudi Arabia—feet dangling in high-heeled, black, buckled shoes. He presses down his wide, starched ruff with one hand to bring a cherry lollipop to his mouth with the other, and kicks at the seat in front of him.
Aida turns in her seat to restrain her Crown Prince, caressing a white-stocking’d shin.
‘Eengleesh,’ hisses Ghaith, without turning.
He drives like he is wringing a neck: gripping hard, and slowly, rhythmically twisting so that his Sahara-brown gloves make a low, staccato squeak on the trypic, pocked leather of the steering wheel. Two thousand kilometres away in an immaculately-kept Riyadhi basement flat, Djamila Al Zahrani—Ghaith’s new, teenaged wife—stifles a small scream as she eases herself into a heavily-cushioned chair.
Aida shifts focus to the flat, flooded fields and undulating hills of her passenger side window, and turns over the myriad misfortunes that could befall her prince. He could be set upon by vicious English boys, if they grow jealous of him, which they surely must; or he could take some degenerate’s fancy—a beautiful young boy like this. How will he survive without his Nunu?
Aida has watched over her young ward every day since his birth. She fed the prince from her breast until he was five, leaving her own daughter to bawl purple in her cot—instead comforting her royal stepbrother, the crowned cuckoo in their nest.
The fingers of Aida’s right hand dart across her lap to her left, searching for the blunt, coarse stub of knuckle that is all that remains of her littlest finger. She pinches the gnarled skin of the stump and blinks back a rising tide of tears.
She can smell the sweating fruit and ripening fish of the market stalls, and feel the sun beating down on her head, her scalp itching like it does once a month, every month without fail; she has no idea why and it is worse in the heat. Traders call out to customers, and they haggle back. Flies circle, colonising, crawling across her face if she will let them. The air is so thick with it—life—she can only breathe in short, sharp pants; even through her veil—drawn across her mouth with one hand—the bulging world is pressing in on her through the thin black cotton, forcing her lips apart, its way down her throat. And Palm tripping along beside her, oblivious, babbling mindlessly then suddenly silent—dropping from her side in an instant, dragged from this world into nothing. The earth opens up to swallow him and she can see him now, his dark, tousled crown disappearing into the fetid, green-black bile. She had reacted instantly, but when she recalls it she moves as if in oil: on her knees, up to her elbows, her nose in excrement, screaming into the sewage and digging for the boy till her clawing fingers close around a tiny forearm and she is hauling him up—Up! Up out of hell with a loose, sucking shlrrp.
She had lain there in the street with the stunned, soiled prince trapped to her chest forever, till bodyguards came to drag them away, blood pouring from a two-inch slice down her left little finger—a wound that would later prove to be irredeemably infected.
Palm fidgets in the backseat, adjusting the mound of hard leather covering his genitals, a large spit bubble ballooning in front of his crossed, pride-yellow eyes. More than once, Aida has entertained the idea of taking the boy and running—but where would she go? Where could she hide that she would not be found? Muhammad would tear the world apart looking for his heir.
They are besieged by rain. More falls on the car than all three have seen in their entire lives.
‘How much longer, Ghaith?’ Palm whines, kicking out at Aida’s chair in frustration. He expands the o to pronounce it larnger, but with a hard guttural g, and concludes the word with a rolled, Arabic r—a jarring concoction of BBC News, MTV and his own inherited inflection.
Aida slides the folded map from the dashboard and glares at it, bringing it to her nose and muttering under her breath. Greens and greys swim together. Yellow A and white B roads wriggle like maggots before her eyes. The M4 is a blue scar that strikes across the page past place names scratched in hieroglyphics. S-l-o-u-g-h. W-i-n-d-s-o-r.
Aida replaces the map and looks to Ghaith for reassurance, some acknowledgment that they are going in any direction at all. He lifts a hand from the wheel to massage the track of scars running down the right side of his face, broad purple welts that sweep from temple to chin. His skin is a deep chestnut colour, but the welts have the hue of a ripe aubergine, with just a touch of magnesium: a metallic glint that reflects the hypnotic-blue LEDs from the speedometer and supporting dials in the dashboard, and gives him the intense, dispassionate look of a cyborg.
Aida studies the contours of the driver’s face for any hint of uncertainty, but Ghaith is rarely in any doubt. He is Muhammad’s most trusted driver, promoted directly from the royal guard, and has saved the king from two assassination attempts in nearly twenty years of service. The most recent was an IED ambush that flipped the vanguard to the convoy, and saw the king’s jeep taking heavy gunfire. Ghaith had mounted the pavement without slowing, slammed through a bazaar, skidded into a parallel street and circled back to the palace leaving the would-be assassins emptying their clips into the dust. Sadly, the king had not escaped entirely unscathed. Although nominally bulletproof, the jeep had been breached by a single slug, which entered through the jeep’s radiator and ricocheted around the chassis before passing through Muhammad’s crotch, shredding his testicles like twin eggs in a blender.
Succession by assassination has grown to be commonplace in the House of Saud. Several attempts have been made on Muhammad’s life, and those of his sons; and while the king has evaded death, his heirs have been less fortunate: all but one have been slaughtered. And now the castrate king’s last remaining chance of legacy, all that stands between him and genetic oblivion, he has sent away in secret under an assumed identity and false name, hurtling through inclement weather to destinations undisclosed even to the boy, ‘Palm’.
Ghaith brakes heavily, the seatbelts catch them, snapping hard against their chests, and out of the thick wall of water just beyond the long snout of the Phantom crimson lights erupt into view and hold—for a moment refracting in the rain—then slide off, disappearing again into the weather.
Palm cackles like an imp, slapping his wide, pumpkin-round, stiffened trunks in an affected motion he has learned from his father.
Aida snaps at the boy in the back, her heart a coin rattling in a coke can.
‘De keeng say’d Eengleesh!’ Ghaith barks at Aida, and she dips her head in concession, eyes on her boots.
‘Yes Nunu, my esteemed father has been quite clear on the matter—please do refrain from parsing in our common tongue.’ Palm elocutes at the countryside, absent-minded, and Aida sneaks a look at Ghaith, who is as baffled as she but swelling with pride nonetheless.
‘Dis is good.’
Aida scrutinises the driver’s face, too disfigured now to be considered handsome, too warped to be kindly, and wonders what he must have looked like before, much earlier, when she was still a girl and he a young man wearing the bright green beret of the royal guard. Before a young shi’ite rebel seeking pardon from the then King Salman—Muhammad’s uncle—had detonated in his presence; and Ghaith had earned his purple welts shielding Muhammad from the blast: a small supernova of reclaimed glass and metal that atomised the uncle and crowned the nephew king.
Aida settles back into her seat and wrestles with her mind as it pins and pivots, slipping from one unfounded fear to the next. They are with Ghaith and safe, for now. She strives to remain in the present, where all that she has blows bubbles in the backseat, and prays this journey will never end.