i hear a drum in my soul’s ear coming from the depths of the stars
It came out of the blue, when they least expected it.
He and Faisal had settled into a routine after almost two years. He’d moved out of his rattrap studio in the Green Zone and into a small home Faisal kept in Baghdad’s Old Town. There was no air conditioning and no glass in the windows, and they spent their days and nights in the flicker of candles, naked skin sliding against each other, sweat mingling with sweat.
Last month, they’d flown to Amman and spent the weekend there, falling into the anonymity of the city, letting themselves be just two people in an ocean of millions. No civil war, no intelligence, no royal family.
When they could, they slipped across the border to Kuwait, to Faisal’s apartment he kept in one of the high rises in the capital. Their lives slipped from modernity to ancient days, intelligence and anonymity, a swirl of days and nights spent entertwined in every way they could.
Time passed, but Adam couldn’t have said whether it was one year or two. Each day was a moment, a precious jewel stolen from the crown of life. He had no thought to the future, and his world didn’t extend beyond the borders of CENTCOM. Twice he’d turned down offers of reassignment. He would stay in the Middle East until the Marine Corps released their claws from him. He would stay in Faisal’s life until he could not.
There were nights he couldn’t sleep, and he chased nightmares like spiders in his sleepless mind. Terror built webs in his soul, and no matter how he tried to scare them away, his fears skittered back. Whie Faisal slept on his belly in Baghdad, Adam sat in the open window, watching the sodium light of the city bounce off the hazy sky. There were no stars above the cities, so he counted the streetlights or skyscrapers instead. Please, never let this end.
He’d looked it up once: how many bachelor Saudi royal princes were there?
None. Every royal was required to wed.
Most princes wedded multiple wives, even in this millenium. The names blurred together, al-Saud princes growing the family tree, every one fulfilling his duty.
The last prince to wed most recently was in his early thirties. He was practically a weizend old man when he finally tied the knot. The Saudi newspapers whispered about how long he’d waited to take a wife.
Faisal was twenty-eight years old.
How much longer did they have left?
Maybe Faisal could be the one who was different. Hadn’t he said he was an outsider? He was an orphan. His uncle had raised him. His direct line to the royal family was, if not broken, bent. He insisted he was nobody in the Kingdom. He worked because he wanted to, but he could quit and disappear to the West before the next sun rose.
Even Adam knew the lie beneath those words. Sure, Faisal could disappear. But he worked in the intelligence directorate because he wanted to serve his Kingdom, his family. And if he had to walk away, the man left behind would no longer be the Faisal al-Saud he knew or cherished.
What would happen when the family found Faisal a bride? Most royals found their own spouses now, but Faisal had but zero effort into finding a wife. He would be given a bride, instead, surely.
And what would happen after?
Would Adam stay? Would he live in the shadows, cling to the outline of Faisal’s life? Be kept in an apartment, waiting for attention like a kenneled dog? Would he watch Faisal’s children be born? Would he spend his days waiting for Faisal’s attention, content with the crumbs of a leftover life?
Could he live with walking away?
How many more nights did they have?
Every time his fears crept in, he tried to knock down the webs stringing across the caverns of his heart. He crawled back beside Faisal, burrowing into him, and let his heat soak through his soul. How could I ever walk away? Even if—
As dawn split the sky, and the first of the sun’s rays tickled through the wooden shutters, the muezzin’s voice rang across the city. Allahu akbar! Faisal kissed him as the azan continued, warm, sleepy kisses. His hands roamed over Adam’s body, stroking up his ribs and down his back.
And then he pulled away and padded across the bedroom. His whispers floated back to Adam as he rinsed, washing himself before his dawn prayers. A sheet hung on a hook, and he wrapped the cotton around his waist before he knelt and faced Mecca.
“Bismillah ar-Rahman ar-Rahim,” Faisal whispered. “Laqad dakhalna ywmana jdydana wamaeah klu alsiyadat lilah.” The Arabic poured into Adam, like the sun and the desert wind. We have entered a new day and with it all dominion is Allah’s.
He sat up, watching Faisal like he did every morning, his gaze tracing the curve of Faisal’s spine as he bowed and pressed his forehead to the stone. “Allahu akbar.”
His wife will be Muslim. They will pray together.
It was the one thing between them.
More than once, Faisal had asked him to consider joining him in prayer. The first time, Adam froze, and Faisal, always polite, had smoothed over the silence and the strain with a kiss to Adam’s cheek, and they hadn’t spoken of it again for months.
The first weekend they spent in Jordan, they’d shared Carakale beers, brewed from the region’s sole microbrewery, and Faisal, after his first beer, was halfway drunk. “My faith is one the most important parts of my life,” Faisal had bumbled. His eyes had glittered, wider than Adam ever remembered. “I want to share Islam with the man I love.”
“I am not demanding you convert. I don’t want that. I don’t want to force you into anything. That would ruin something so beautiful to me.”
“What are you saying then?” He’d feared, for a moment, that Faisal was breaking up with him.
“Will you examine Islam? Consider my faith? Maybe, perhaps, imagine it as your own?”
There had been so much raw hope in Faisala’s gaze it had almost broken Adam’s heart. “Does it ever bother you when you hear the fatwas against us? Islam isn’t great toward men like us, Faisal…”
“That is not Islam. I promise you, it’s not.”
“I’ll… take a look.” Was there anything he wouldn’t do for this love?
And, if Faisal looked that radiant, that joyous, that delighted at Adam’s simple words, well, that was enough to convince him. He would look harder, think deeper. Search his soul.
A year later, and here he was, still watching Faisal from the bed, no closer to joining him in prayer.
He heard his name fall from Faisal’s lips, whispers for Allah to bless him and watch over him, and a prayer that their love was pleasing to Allah. Adam’s stomach twisted. He fisted the sheet as he closed his eyes.
And then it was done, and Faisal rose, shed his sheet and hung it back on the hook, and crossed the bedroom to Adam. He grinned, naked, his burnished skin almost glowing in the morning light, his hungry gaze trailing over Adam’s legs and his hips. “Habibi…”
Their lips had just touched, and Faisal had just folded himself into Adam’s arms, stretched his body on their bed and pressed their hips and chests together, when his phone rang.
It was on the floor next to the bed, plugged into the charger, and Faisal’s eyes drifted to the screen as he kissed Adam. He pulled back. “It’s my uncle.”
Family was the sun of the Arab world, always. Everyone spun around family, orbited obligation and blood for eternity. “I should see what he needs,” Faisal breathed.
Twenty-eight years old. No unwedded royal sons.
“Salam alaikum, Uncle.” Faisal listened, and then his eyes flicked to Adam’s. “When?”
Faisal was on a flight to Riyadh before noon.
For two days and nights Adam waited, alone, his cell phone silent. Silence was good, he told himself. If it was the end, if things were truly over, Faisal would tell him. He wouldn’t just disappear, drive away from their life, as if what they shared never had existed at all. That wasn’t his way.
But how long would the silence last this time? A month had passed during the blackout two years before, Abdul’s attempt to force them apart forever. Faisal had said—had promised—that wouldn’t happen again. “We will leave if it comes to that,” he’d whispered once, Adam’s head pillowed on his chest.
How far was Faisal willing to go?
How far was Adam willing to go?
If only Abdul hadn’t called. If only Faisal hadn’t gone. If only they didn’t have to face these questions, and the inevitable, crushing end that they were rushing toward, speeding one hundred miles an hour in Faisal’s Lamborghini.
This will not end well. There was pain in their future, and blood, and shattered hearts bleeding out inside their broken bodies. Everyday, Adam lived in the flinch, the moment before impact.
The ringing of his cell phone was like a bullet slamming into his chest. He almost couldn’t breathe, turning it over, looking at the screen. A Saudi number, +966.
“I’m here,” he said, his voice almost rusty, catching. In two days, had he spoken to anyone, other than the salaams and shukrans and in sha Allahs he muttered to strangers? He swallowed, tried again. “I’m at the cafe.”
They had a hookah and coffee shop they went to in the city, downtown Baghdad, one of the dozen shops and restaurants on the streets spindling off Wathiq Square. From where he sat, he could see the palms rising above the square’s statue, a white globe held aloft by gentle arches. The street was filled with cars—Audi, Mercedes, BMW—and high end shops and international restaurants fought for space amid the glitzy lighting and hypermodern architecture. A food truck had pitched a tent and carved out a garden patio years back and had fought to keep their place on the immaculate, world-class street. Cowboy Shwarma, the food truck had been where Faisal took Adam on one of their first dates, when they finally managed to do something other than fuck each other’s brains out.
“Cowboy,” Faisal had said, winking behind his shades. Adam could still see his sly smile slowly spreading across his face. “Like you.”
“I’m a cowboy?”
“You’re American. And you certainly do know how to ride.”
He hadn’t been able to bury his flush, especially not when Faisal laughed at him with that sun-scorched look, the one that went all the way down Adam’s spine. Oh yes, he could ride Faisal all night long, in every position, every permutation—
They came back to the food truck and its garden, and the cafes, and the bustling street, smoking hookah and drinking tea on the patios as the sun set, nearly every week. If it weren’t for the calls to prayer crackling over the city five times a day—and the terror of being caught—Adam could have imagined they were in Berlin, or New York, or Long Beach.
“Order me a coffee, please. You know the way I like it.”
Saudi style, with extra cardamom. Adam smiled. “Already done.” When will you be back?
It was supposed to be what Faisal said next: I’m on the way, or, Pick me up in a few hours from the airport, or even, I’ll see you tomorrow. It was the answer to Adam’s question, the only good answer.
Instead, Faisal sighed. SIlence fell in the wake, and in the distant background, faint Arabic, Saudi-accented, washed over the line.
Adam pressed his phone to his ear. The cafe, 42nd street, the Iraqis around him—everything faded away. “You’re not coming back, are you?”
“There’s something I need to do here,” Faisal said, his voice guarded, tight.
Marry. Knock up a princess. Carry on the royal line. You know. Standard stuff.
You knew this would happen.
Adam gripped his phone, his knuckles suddenly aching. “Family stuff?”
They were limited in what they could say. Satellites vacuumed up cell signals over this third of the world from a dozen different countries, each intelligence service picking out words and phrases and parsing out meaning behind inflection and deflection. What did they mean when they said the cafe, and order me a coffee? Was it a signal?
Adam did not want to be the pet project of an intelligence analyst. Especially not from his own country.
The world lurched back into frame. Adam sat up. He frowned. “What’s going on?”
“I can’t talk about it. Not like this.”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m not not okay,” he said slowly. “But this is something I have to do for the Mabahith.”
The Mabahith, the Saudi secret police, the internal security forces. The General Intelligence Directorate, which Faisal was a part of. In a few years, he would become the royal head, not simply an intelligence officer. He was in Iraq, in fact, as part of the General Intelligence Directorate, working out of the Saudi Embassy.
Was this about Faisal? Or something else?
“Is everything… all right?”
“Not really,” Faisal said softly.
“Is there anything I can do to help?” It was how they justified their connection. Intelligence. Swapping it, sharing it, leaking it. Helping each other to their nation’s secrets, and to each other’s bodies.
A pause. A hesitation. A short inhale.
Things Faisal never did. He was poised, polished, perfected in the halls of Oxford and Riyadh. He hid his nerves in a core of steel, never flinched, never so much as blinked out of time. And Adam knew him enough to read two sleepless nights and missed meals into that tiny pause.
“Actually, yes,” Faisal said. A door closed behind him, across the line in Saudi Arabia. The sussurations of Arabic fell away. Faisal was alone now. “I convinced my uncle to let me call you. To ask for your help.”
“Ask for Uncle Sam’s help?” He had to be sure.
“No. This would be more personal.”
Adam’s frown deepened. “What do you—”
“My uncle has agreed to fly you down, if you’d like. I can explain in person. If you come. But not over the phone.”
“Of course I’ll come.”
“There’s a plane on the way to Baghdad for you.” Not, there’s a ticket waiting for you. No, Faisal had sent one of the royal jets. “Can you come soon?”
Jesus, Faisal, what have you gotten into? “I’m on my way to the airport now.” He stood, throwing dinars on the table to pay for the coffee as he scanned the street for a cab.
“I’ll pick you up at the airport.” Faisal sighed. “I need to get some air. Get out of here for a while.”
“Where are you?” Adam slid into the back of the taxi, muttering his destination as he moved the phone away from his mouth. “Al matar, in shaa Allah.”
“Mabahith headquarters. Something terrible has happened.”