Always remember the popular haiku: Where thou finds bridge trolls/Seek thyself a goat or cart/Knock them off posthaste
I had occasion, some years ago, to record my thoughts on the Castle of the Crown; the splendour of its marble towers, the generosity of its rulers, and the grandeur of the throne room: the softly beating heart of these Isles.
The dungeons are a different story, and suggest an iron will scarcely glimpsed on my first visit. The walls are thick stone, the doors sturdy and undecorated. Every kingdom is rugged behind the scenes, of course: a regime can’t be all gold leaf and smiles. But that alone couldn’t account for the guard dogs’ tensing. With each step their fur bristled a little more sharply.
We stopped outside a reinforced cell, the door criss-crossed with half a dozen chains and padlocks. Two dogs stood guard either side, their captain standing at attention to greet me. Tall and glowering, Captain Saladin commanded total respect, and inspired in me a niggling inferiority. This was the iron will of the castle of the crown.
He was not fond of journalists. Especially when they had come to see such an infamous prisoner.
“You have one hour,” he growled, taking a key from his belt. The chains were drawn back, one by one. I was surprised to see a symbol emerge, carefully drawn on the oak in red ink. A magical ward, I was told later.
Saladin paused at the final lock. “You are certain you’re better off alone?”
“Yes.” All this was making me nervous. This was only an interview, after all.
Saladin moved to speak, but thought better of it. The door swung open.
“I would like to thank you, Mr. Karlavaegen, for taking the time to see me.”
The cell was dark; the voice swam out of nowhere. After a moment my eyes adjusted. There was a figure facing me.
Abdul Alhazred is an imposing sight. Seated upon his cell bed, he sits upright with poise and determination. Though both turban and beard are faded and worn, they are neat and scrupulously ordered. His prisoner rags, like the cell around him, don’t seem to fit the sense of power he wields. His eyes blink slowly, and he smiles.
“You are surprised? A diplomat – even an ex-diplomat – must always maintain his standards. Would you care for some refreshments?” I decline. “I would have precious little to give, in any case,” he laughs. “Bread and water hardly suit such a prestigious interviewer.” I wonder how long he’s been waiting to use that line. He was meant to be moved elsewhere after the conviction, but his appeal set everything back. He has been in this cell a long time.
“You know, it was your guidebook to these isles that led me here in the first place. How strange life turns out.” I pale a little at the thought that I – that my own work – was responsible for this man’s plots against the realm.
We get down to business. His appeal – why make it? What does he hope to gain?
“My freedom?” he quips. Then, more seriously: “I have not been treated fairly, Mr. Karlavaegen. Not at all.” His eyes fasten on mine. “I shouldered a king’s responsibility. I took the weight of a crown upon my brow, though I never wore the title. And I have not been rewarded for my pains, but condemned.”
This all seems a little off to me. While I didn’t cover the trial for the Four Winds myself – that honour goes to Paulan Jayse – I, along with most of the Green Isles, was packed into that courtroom, and remember Alhazred’s half-crazed attempts to undermine the prosecution, ending in defeat and one last cry of defiance: “You will rue the day that you crossed Abdul Alhazred. There is no prison that can hold me! One day soon you and all the world will be at my mercy!” It’s hard to reconcile that figure, shaking with fury, with the stoicism before me.
How can he claim he was unfairly treated? It was the trial of the century. Yes, he says: and as such, “it became a public lynching. The new regime needed a scapegoat. I sympathies, of course, but I would rather not be their sacrifice.”
But what of the murders, the theft of the islands’ treasures, the testimony of the current king and queen, not to mention her parents – I stop to breathe for a moment, the charges are so numerous.
“That is a lot to cover in one answer,” he chuckles wryly. Then his face hardens, and I see the figure from the courtroom again: determined, fiery, impenetrable. “But to take one point. The accusation of my having murdered King Caliphim and Queen Allaria.” They testified against him. How could a murder enquiry be more cut and dried than when the victims themselves point the finger? “After the disappearance of their beloved daughter, the king and queen were inconsolable,” Alhazred begins, his voice poised and reasoning. “I myself was unable to buoy their spirits. And, you must remember, this terrible grief – the loss of one’s child, one’s only heir – was followed by an even greater trial, their passage through the lands of the dead. Their souls went through an ordeal we can only imagine. They have literally been through hell,” he hisses, without a hint of irony. “No wonder their state of mind is hardly robust! I have the greatest sympathy for them, for what those poor souls have been through – it breaks my heart! But in their deep, deep grief, I can only assume they fixed their hatred upon somebody – anybody – who could take the blame for their troubles. They needed to blame somebody for their loss, and… the lot fell to me.
“It was either that or the genie,” he growls.
Ah, yes. The genie. Anyone at the trial would remember that: how Alhazred railed against Shamir, Alexander’s court genie, claiming he impersonated the Vizier and was responsible for the entire affair. “Who else could have done it all?” Alhazred had cried in his own defence. “He’s been in league with some darker power, pretending to be a servant to myself and now to Alexander. He cannot be trusted!” Needless to say, this was not well-received.
I ask him if he has anything to add to this genie conspiracy. “I have had a long time to think about the situation,” he says calmly, “and it is still a distinct possibility. I’ve been trying to unravel the plot against me and I think I may understand it a little better now.” I ask him what he means. “I mean,” he says, “that King Alexander is responsible.”
I’m taken aback. The king, involved in a cover-up? This is ridiculous. But the man before me seems deadly serious. For all the raggedness that prison life has heaped on him, Alhazred is still the same man: charismatic, radiating power and, above all, convincing. “If the king is the law,” he continues, “how can the previous king hope for a fair hearing?” I remind him he was never king. “But I took on a king’s responsibilities, with none of the glory. The isles were tearing each other to pieces over those misplaced treasures; having located them by the most painstaking research and at great personal cost, I was about to return them to their rightful owners. Cassima, broken by her parents’ deaths, nevertheless had to keep the kingdom running; I shouldered that task. In the interests of security – for the good of the realm and its people – I had to become king. Perhaps I acted rashly in some instances, but I always put the welfare of the Green Isles above all else.
“But that Alexander – who so eloquently cast doubt on my character in court – he was a viper in disguise. He meddled in affairs of state, inveigled himself into the castle and seduced Cassima who, poor girl, was beside herself with grief. When the king and I fought in the castle tower we were fighting not just for ourselves, but for the liberty of the realm. I am afraid to say liberty was not victorious that time.”
I sit back. It’s an intricate story, and I can tell I’m being manipulated: his words are full of passion and emotion, and it’s throwing off the voice of reason. And yet, I can’t help wondering…
And suddenly the hour is up. The door bangs open and Saladin stands in the opening. “Are you ready to leave this snake?” he growls. I certainly am. For all his eloquence, there’s something unsettling about this man…