Monday, April 30, 2012

Question from Down Under

Yellow Dingo asked on his blog:

Hi Mr Heard. Nice to have you by...and yes the fiction is alluring. Lover of Egypt? or just exploring?

Bit of a long story (no pun intended). Janet, my co-author, had come up with the idea of Percival St. Croix and Devlin Quint. She originally wrote a short story for the award-winning anthology Under Cover of Darkness (DAW), called Shadow of the Scimitar. She and I had long discussions while she developed her story, and we planned to turn this into a trilogy set during WW1.

I suggested we link Percival with Lawrence of Arabia and other personalities of that time. Cairo became one of Percival's preferred haunting grounds since he's supposed to be an Egyptologist. I knew virtually nothing about Cairo when we started, let along details of Cairo a hundred years ago! The research was a lot of fun and I've developed a fancy for the ancient city since we started this project three or four years ago. :-)

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Making of the Hand of Justice

Mausoleum of Shajar al'Dur
The title is meant as a joke, of course. However, there are points about writing a story like this one which you may find interesting. The biggest difficulty with this type of fiction is seamlessly mixing fiction and actual history.

So what are the fictional parts, and which ones are actually true?

Let's start with the medieval period. The main characters, Shajar al'Durr, Sultan Aybak, and Baibars were, of course, real people. Shajar's story is mostly accurate, as regards becoming the first Sultana of Egypt, struggling to retain power after being forced to take Aybak as her consort, having him killed when her authority was challenged, and her death at the hands of bondmaids on behalf of the murdered sultan's son (from another wife). Her love story with Baibars, on the other hand, is a colorful fabrication. She did indeed have her tomb built on what is known today as Shari'a al-Khalifa (Queen Street) which, I hope, we managed to describe correctly. We found no pictures of the chamber inside, so we had to rely on textual material available online.

Baibars and his court

Qutuz was indeed Aybak's second-in-command, and suspected of having a hand in assassinating the leader of the Bahri Mameluke faction at the behest of his liege. After seizing power at the expense of Aybak's son, Qutuz defeated the Mongols and, when he broke a promise he'd made to Baibars before the battle, the latter killed him. Baibars had been a supporter of Shajar's first husband, the Sultan as'Salih Ayyub, and at the latter's death after Saint Louis's arrival in Damietta, of Shajar. Linking all this together led us to pick the two as the star-crossed lovers, which amplified motivations for their actions.

Heraklion, Crete, faces northward.
Maysa, Saleema, and Anbar are totally fictitious. The reason for their presence is to tie Baibars's love letter to Bayt al'Kritliyya, the house described as Najeeb's residence. Kandiye is the Turkish name for Candia, which is what Venetians called Crete a few centuries ago, and in particular its main city, Heraklion. The city's twenty-year siege and much of what transpired in the story regarding conflicts in Crete are true. Why did we pick Crete? Bayt al'Kritliyya actually means House of the Cretan Woman in Arabic. It is a real place, adjacent to the ibn-Tulun Mosque, less than half a mile from the mausoleum of Shajar al'Durr. It became what is known today as the Gayer-Anderson Museum. Lots of pictures and floorplans are actually available online.

District of Cairo.  The Saladin Citadel and al'Qarafa lie less than a mile eastward.

The part about the scepter of Saint Louis is, of course, entirely fictitious. Whether the Mamelukes took it from Saint Louis after his disastrous crusade into Egypt is anyone's guess. It is however a neat plot element further tying Baibars, Shajar al'Durr, her ghost, Aybak's descendant, and Percival St. Croix to the whole political cosmos of 1915 Egypt and WW1.

Before writing the story, while piecing the original outline together, we went in search of places in Cairo (alas, solely via published sources or the internet), where the various scenes could take place. The big problem was that either the ideal settings no longer exist, or they have been altered so much during passing centuries to be nearly irrelevant. One example of this is the old Saladin Citadel that dominates Cairo's east side. What everybody sees today are views of the citadel's great mosque and later fortifications, which date back only to the last few centuries.

The newer side of the Saladin Citadel
The actual layout of the 13th century part remains anyone's guess, save for the surrounding walls and towers. The description of the garden was a convenient invention to get around that problem. That fortress was also used by the Brits during their long occupation of Egypt, who turned its internal structures into barracks, stores, brigs, etc. We're still hoping to get hold of reproductions of maps depicting the British facilities there, which are preserved at the National Archives, outside London.

The Nilometer
An internet buddy of ours, Mark, very kindly went there on our behalf and attempted to take pictures of a 1910 street map of Cairo. It turned out this map was so big it came as a very large roll of sheets glued together that could not be copied with a hand-held camera in just a few shots (and without flash, pretty please). Obviously, we could not purchase a copy online from the archive services. How well Mark's pictures turned out is still a mystery. We're crossing our fingers!

Inside the Nilometer
Another interesting place in Cairo is the Nilometer, which is as we described and still stands today on Roda Island (or Rawda Island). Most of that structure predates the 13th century. It had been a part of the Bahri Citadel (thus possibly where Baibars stayed while in Cairo), which also included the palace of Sultan as'Salih Ayyub (Shajar's husband). Sultan Aybak eventually had it demolished after moving his palace to the Saladin Citadel. So, it would be conceivable that Shajar had access to the Nilometer at some point. Fortunately, there's plenty of information readily available about that building.

Example of Mihrab

The city cemetery, al'Qarafa, is another fascinating area of Cairo. It is immense and actually provides residences to many people, especially after an earthquake hit Cairo in 1992. The description of “Eagle-Face's” mausoleum is inspired from a tomb belonging to another sultan. Most of these old tombs have the same layout: square, three doors, and a mihrab on the end facing Mecca (a prayer alcove). Shajar's tomb looks like that as well.

Shepheard's Hotel
Part of the story was deleted since it didn't advance the plot, but it yielded interesting bits. The Brits owned huge barracks on the banks of the Nile, kitty-corner from the famous Egyptian Museum. They were called Kasr al'Nil (Fort of the Nile). Percival was supposed to have been interrogated there by military police after being picked up at the cemetery. It turned out the headquarters of the British military police weren't there, but not far from the old Shepheard's Hotel instead (near Cairo's main train station today). It was known as the Bab el'Hadid barracks. The Shepheard's was destroyed in a fire in the 1950's The old MP headquarters probably made way for something else, just like Kasr al'Nil extensive facilities were replaced with modern hotels.

In researching MP headquarters (and the history of British military police in general) a story about 1915 riots in Cairo's red light district came up, which happened to be in the vicinity of the Shepheard's Hotel. The fight involved local residents and ANZAC troops disgruntled about price gouging, unhealthy prostitutes, and diluted booze. Headquarters for New Zealand's troops were in fact located at the Shepheard. Military police had a lot of trouble imposing order.

Savoy Hotel
Other intriguing places were General Headquarters for the EEF and the Arab Bureau at the Savoy Hotel, not far from the Egyptian Museum. That one was also replaced in the 20's. The Savoy Hotel and the Shepheard's are connected with T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), supposedly an old friend of Percival St. Croix from their time at Jesus College, Oxford.

The question came up as to where the last encounter was going to take place. Eventually, we settled for the British Embassy, known as Kasr al'Lourd by the locals (Castle of the Lord). It's still in use today, except it includes additional buildings to the south, but it lost its direct access to the banks of Nile in the 1950's, which are now used for the Cairo Corniche, an avenue facilitating car traffic along the river.

Sir Arthur Henry McMahon
Percival meets at the embassy with the High Commissioner and Prince Kamel al'Din Hussein. These were real people. Kamel (not to be confused with his father, Sultan Hussein Kamel) was in fact an explorer and a collector of oriental antiquities, which fits perfectly in this story. The prince refused the throne when the sultan died in 1917, preferring instead his more adventurous life (hint, hint). Monsieur de la Haye, Najeeb, and the whole bit about the Templars are absolutely fictitious.

Prince Hussein
In retrospect, especially for readers who aren't knowledgeable about WW1 Egypt, it may be hard to tell what is fact and what isn't. In any case, it lends the story more credibility. By the way, if you run across something in our stories that isn't accurate, please do let us know! Hopefully, it can be fixed. Researching historical backgrounds isn't foolproof. There remains a fair amount of guesswork to fill the cracks and an awful lot of time to get the facts. Research takes at least as much time as the actual plotting of the story and its writing.

Janet and I hope that you enjoyed the ride. These short stories are meant as prequels to the full size novels. With your support, they may one day see print. If you're interested, forward the blog's link to others you think will enjoy these stories. With time, we'll be able to attract the attention of a publisher or an agent. Failing that, we may instead self-publish electronically. The options are open. But one thing remains certain, nothing will happen unless you show your interest in Percival St. Croix. Part of this story therefore lies in your hands.

Thank you!

The Hand of Justice -- Episode VII

Cairo, February 2nd 1915

A portly British Army captain, service Webley in hand and accompanied by a detachment of a dozen military police, appeared at the other end of the narrow alley.

“What the devil is going on here?” As red as the top of his officer's cap, the captain's walrus-like mustache fluttered when he barked his question.

Although he would have loved to alert the authorities about the enemy spy lying on the ground, Percival did not care to be detained for who knew how long on the account of the murdered Frenchman and the interrogation that would ineluctably follow. With a mental apology, he waved his hand and muttered a quick incantation. (. . .)

Click HERE to continue

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Hand of Justice -- Episode VI

City of Kandiye, September 1683
Sitting on the screened balcony's padded ledge, Saleema enjoyed the moment of peace as she brushed her daughter's long, silky hair. Her business as a leading merchant in the city all too often took her away from home. Anbar, no more than fourteen and already filled with dreams larger than life, clutched a thick satin cushion against her chest. A soft marine breeze blew through the mashrabiyya, heavy with the scent of iodine and the diffuse, raspy song of cicadas.
Saleema was dressed in a black knee-length embroidered tunic with short sleeves over trousers of the same color. Her dark hair flowed across her shoulders, pinned back with dark red jewels above each ear. They gleamed in the sunlight as she peered through the ornate screen and observed a war galley approaching the nearby harbor. The northwesterly wind carried the beat of the drum commanding the oars' slow rhythmic movement. Small red and gold pennants of the Ottoman Empire flew along the ship's gunwales, with a huge one flapping at her raised stern. A voice shouted a command, and the crew busied itself furling the two lateen sails. Surmounted with a castle-like platform bristling with cannons, the galley's heavy bow cut through turquoise, nearly translucent coastal waters. Beyond, where the sea turned dark, the setting sun painted in ochers and pinks the silhouette of the Island of Dia, just a few miles from shore. The slow-moving galley sailed past the old Venetian fortress guarding the port's entrance, before approaching the jumble of traders and fishing boats moored within. 

“Mother!” Anbar, dressed in petal-pink and sky-blue tunic and trousers, turned to gaze at Saleema, who'd stopped brushing her hair. (. . .)

Click HERE to continue of skip to Episode VII

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Hand of Justice -- Episode V

Al'Qarafa, February 2nd 1915
The ride had been a bumpy, uncomfortable one. Percival lay in the back of the motorcar, his hands tied behind his back, and with a sack still masking his face. Judging from sounds and smells he could glean along the way, they'd crossed much of Cairo. By the time the vehicle slowed, the surroundings had grown much quieter and colder. Percival shivered. Like all places at the edge of a desert, the temperature dropped considerably at night. The engine coughed and rattled to a halt as rough hands dragged him out. After a short walk, a heavy door nearby slammed shut with an echo, and Percival was pushed down onto a chair. The air was redolent with the familiar smells of dust and old mortar. At last, the sack was pulled off.

The gimlet-eyed leader with the nose like a raptor's beak, the presumed Turkish spy, and another swarthy fellow with a thick mustache and a black turban surrounded Percival. A bare light bulb hung from a wire that dangled from the overhead dome, its sallow light casting the three men's shadows against windowless, mud-brick walls. Writing still visible on patches of dilapidated plaster, a mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca, and three large doors revealed the square-shaped chamber as a mausoleum.

Abruptly, the leader broke the tomb's morbid silence. “Where did you put it, Mister St. Croix?”  (. . .)

Click HERE to continue or skip to Episode VI.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Hand of Justice -- Episode IV

Qala'at Salāh al'Dīn, Summer 1257

Maysa walked across the garden and stopped by a rosebush when she saw the sultana. She sat alone at a nearby pool in the part of the garden reserved to her and her retinue, her favorite spot in the palace. Maysa ignored jealous gazes peering from behind the harem's screened windows, and observed her mistress.

Shajar al'Durr's large dark eyes betrayed an expression of lassitude. She was dressed in embroidered robes, and as usual wore elegant strands of pearls that echoed the meaning of her name, “Tree of Pearls”. Her long hair was half-covered by a silken veil, held in place by jeweled pins. Shajar had ruled Egypt for seven difficult years after her husband passed away. In the absence of a suitable heir, she'd become Sultana of Egypt with the support of Mamelukes loyal to their former ruler. Yet, Islamic tradition remained at odds with the idea of a woman ruling Muslim men. Thus, and to assuage the bigotry of the Caliph in Baghdad, she had taken another husband, in name only, as she shared little of her power. Rivalries and palace schemes had left worry lines on Shajar's graceful features.

Maysa was her companion and confidante. The two shared a common origin in that both had been slaves of the former sultan at different times. He'd fallen in love with Shajar and made her his favored wife. Maysa was later purchased for her mistress, and a bond between the two grew as deep as the one Mamelukes enjoyed amongst their respective factions.

In a playful manner, Maysa dropped to her knees at the sultana's feet and looked up at her. “What troubles you so, Mistress?”   (. . .)

Click HERE to continue or skip to Episode V

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Hand of Justice -- Episode III

Bayt al'Kritliyya, February 2nd 1915
Percival raised an eyebrow at the reference to the scepter of Saint Louis. He lifted his gaze to Najeeb, still grinning knowingly and nodding with excitement.
“Are you certain the parchment wasn't a fake?” Percival asked.
“I tell you, my friend, it was real. Its writing and its style were absolutely genuine.”
Percival returned his attention to the letter and read on.
“My Beloved,
My liege and friend is dead. The sultan has released his dogs upon my companions and me, and we are now forced to flee Egypt. It pains my heart for I do not know when we shall see each other again. I leave behind the scepter which I took from the King of the Franks at Dumyāṭ. It is hidden in the place you know so well, safe from the Nile. It is yours by right. Leave behind a token of your visit so I know it wasn't stolen. My spy will come to retrieve any message you hide there. Beware of that carrion-eating swine soiling the throne of Egypt. He will seek to strike you down.
“May Allah grant me the good fortune to return and protect you.
“The Sword of al'Manṣūra” (. . .)

Click HERE to continue or skip to Episode IV

Monday, April 9, 2012

The Hand of Justice -- Episode II

Damietta, June 1249
The glow of the rising moon filtered though the balcony's mashrabiyya while the young man spied on the nearby port. The crusaders had arrived earlier in the day, and the crews of their heavy cogs were still busy unloading arms and supplies. The city had been evacuated, and only he and a few close friends remained behind, lurking in the dark. At twenty six, he'd already earned the skills of a veteran warrior. Tall and with brown hair, he owned a steely blue gaze like many other natives from the banks of the Volga. Being sick in one eye did not detract from his abilities, and few among infidels would guess him a Kipchak Turk and a prominent Mameluke commander.

Baibars counted thirty or forty warships tightly packed in the riverine port, and estimated the crusaders' forces somewhere between ten and twenty thousand well-armed troops. A fire would do well against the ships, but that wasn't the reason for his presence here. He knew the crusaders well from his warring experience in Palestine and Syria. Knights Templar formed the backbone of the infidels' army and, so long as they stood, the Frankish beast would not be vanquished. He had a plan, audacious to a fault if not foolhardy, to instill doubt and fear in the crusaders' minds, God willing. (. . .)

Click HERE to Continue, or skip to EPISODE III

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Hand of Justice -- Episode I

Prologue: if you haven't read previous adventures of Percival St. Croix, start with the first short story, The Crucible of Thoth before discovering the Hand of Justice. 

The Hand of Justice
Bruce Heard & Janet Deaver-Pack

Cairo, February 2nd 1915

Percival St. Croix squinted through the Model-T's dusty windshield. Swept from faraway Sinai and the Gulf of Suez, a haze of sand blew through the narrow street, masking all under a thin reddish veil. Everyone had taken refuge inside their shuttered houses, waiting for the dust storm to pass. And perhaps what dangers approached along with it would retire just as fast.

The Turks had been sighted several days ago, marching from Palestine toward the canal. Among colonial and military circles, everyone was anxious about the offensive's outcome and yet so certain of victory. Aside from echoes of a world at war and the maddening dust, another malaise afflicted the old city. With the British military occupying Egypt, foreigners and infidels in the eyes of the native Egyptians, there was a yearning for independence and mixed feelings about opposing the Ottoman Empire.

Recognizing his destination, Percival pulled over and stopped the Model-T at the side of the elegant garden bordering Bayt al'Kritliyya, now covered in dust. The engine rattled and stalled as he jumped out. His jacket's collar pulled up and his Panama low, Percival covered the short distance through the narrow alley to the door. He'd received an invitation from a friend for tea and an opportunity to examine an old parchment. Najeeb was an old sage, an erudite in the matters of Islamic history, and a collector of antiquities. Percival looked forward to their meeting despite the somewhat urgent-sounding nature of Najeeb's message. He grabbed the heavy metal ring and pounded it against the wooden door (. . .)

Click HERE to Continue, or skip to Episode II