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Authors: Peter Dickinson

In the Palace of the Khans

BOOK: In the Palace of the Khans
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In the Palace of the Khans

Peter Dickinson

CHAPTER 1

Day 1. (28/7/2007, if you want to be exact, but Day 1's easier.)

Hi there. This is from Dara Dahn, capital of Dirzhan. That's way out east. Next but one and you're in China
.

DD is a twin city, like Budapest (been there) and that place in the US (haven't). Looking out of my window, this side of the river's Dahn and the other side's Dara. That thing bang in the middle, right on the river (see photo), is the Palace of the Khans. Now, that is one cool building. That's where the President lives
…

“But the man's a monster!” said Nigel's mother, not looking up from her book.

“What kind of a monster?” said Nigel.

“You don't want to know,” said his father.

“How do you know what I want to know?” said Nigel. “We're all supposed to be keeping a blog for Mr. Udall. He doesn't want to plough through a lot of stuff about the height of mountains and the length of rivers. ‘The President of the People's Thingummy of Dirzhan is a monster' would be a cool start.”

“People's Khanate,” said his father. “Hum. I shall have to think about that.”

“If you don't tell me I'll put it in anyway and post a copy to the
Daily Mirror
,” said Nigel. “‘Ambassador's Son Calls President Monster.'”

“And if I do you won't?”

“I'll show you before I post it so there's time to change anything you don't want me to say.”

“You should be negotiating over this dam, not the crew we've got. All right. The deal includes not talking to anyone about what I tell you outside this room. We detected three listening devices inside the embassy when we first moved in, quite sophisticated ones.”

“Wow!” said Nigel. “They wanted to know stuff about the dam, I suppose.”

The dam was been a big deal for Nigel's father. He'd been Trade Secretary in Santiago until a year ago, and it didn't look as in he was ever going to get a move up. Dirzhan hadn't had an embassy at all then, only an office where the ambassador to Kyrgyzstan next door showed up once a month or so. Then the project for a British consortium to build an immense new dam in the Vamar Gorge had come up, and the British had decided that they'd better have a real ambassador on the spot. Nigel's father had dealt with one of the companies in the consortium before, so he got the job.

Dirzhan was in the back of beyond of Central Asia, but there was one big plus side. The President of Dirzhan had been so keen on having a real British ambassador in his crazy little country that he'd simply turfed out the owners of an old family hotel, large enough to hold an apartment for the ambassador as well as the actual embassy, and as a result here Nigel was having breakfast in a gorgeous room looking out over the roofs of Dara Dahn.

“You still haven't said what kind of a monster,” he said.

“A monster of efficiency, I suppose. Sometimes he appears to have no decent human feelings at all. Apart, perhaps, from his affection for his daughter. If someone threatens his prestige or stands in his way he has them removed, which may well mean that they end up dead. Usually it's done by members of his bodyguard, but if he wants to make a special point of it he does it himself.

“In the early days of the dam project—before my time here—there was a disagreement in his cabinet about who should be the main contractors. Two of the ministers had taken bribes from an Italian bunch. They misjudged the situation and argued their case a bit too forcefully. The President gave them plenty of rope, until without warning he took a gun from a drawer and shot them both dead.”

Nigel felt the blood drain from his face. There was something about people getting violently killed. It was the stuff of the old nightmares he still sometimes had. He'd never seen it happen in real life, of course, and in video games and films he'd learnt how to armour himself against the shock. But here, safe, relaxed, having a luxurious breakfast alone with his parents, his mother reading while she ate, his father holding forth about something while he spread his butter in an exactly even layer …

Neither of them seemed to have noticed. He pulled himself together.

“He's a Varak, from the north,” his father was saying. “They're the smallest group, but they tend to hold positions of power because neither the East nor the West Dirzh, in the south, trust each other an inch. If they were to co-operate they'd run the country, but they can't, so they let the Varaki do it.”

“Do
they
think he's a monster?”

“Hard to say. He's got complete control of the media, and ordinary people wouldn't tell an outsider what they think. My guess is that if there were ever such a thing as a free and fair election in Dirzhan he'd get about eighty per cent of the vote, simply because he makes the country function.

“He was a lecturer at Moscow University when the USSR fell apart twenty years ago, and his half-brother, who was the local chief of police in Dirzhan, seized power in the chaos and declared independence. He brought our chap back from Moscow and made him President to give a respectable façade to his regime. He then set about milking the economy for all it was worth.

“Our chap, the President, was not so happy. He was just as much of a thug as his brother, only a lot more intelligent. He wanted power, and he saw that he'd have much more power as the head of a prosperous, functioning state than a ramshackle, broke, falling apart one. He wasn't interested in stashing millions of dollars away in Switzerland.

“There was only one way the disagreement could end, and he got his blow in first. It is widely believed that he arranged to have his brother strangled and watched it happen on CCTV. He then rushed in and shot the men he'd hired to do it and announced that he, personally, had foiled a coup attempt against the regime but had arrived too late to save his brother.

“The media trumpeted the story to the world, but I doubt if many Dirzhaki believed it. It's a weird little country—one foot in the age of the internet and the other one still in the middle ages.”

“Can I put that in my blog?”

“Um. I suppose so, provided you don't say I told you. Anyway, the Dirzhaki had been here before. Khan after khan in the old days had most of the men in his family killed off as soon as they moved into the palace.”

Nigel was ready for it this time.

“But the Varaki didn't like it,” he said in a no-big-deal kind of way.

“Oh, they'd have taken it in their stride—like I said, it was what they were used to. At least the men he'd shot had only been Dirzh.”

“I suppose that's pretty monstrous, but …”

“He's a monster all the same. Tell him about the snow ibex,” said Nigel's mother, still not looking up from her book. It didn't mean she hadn't been listening. She read like breathing. She could do other things at the same time.

“I was coming to that. At first glance it seems to be true crazy-monster behaviour, but in fact it fits into the same pattern. I sent you a postcard of a snow ibex, didn't I, Niggles? It's a species of goat found in these northern mountains, nothing to do with the true ibex though it's a very handsome creature. In the old days it was a royal beast. Only the Khans were allowed to hunt it. The villagers were well rewarded after a successful hunt, but if no animals were found the head man of the village was staked out to die, on the grounds that he'd been allowing poachers to operate. The communists put a stop to that, and the ibexes were hunted almost to extinction for the sake of the rams' horns, which are highly prized in Chinese medicine. When the President staged his coup the numbers were down to down to the last eighty-odd animals. It's still an endangered species, but the numbers are now up in the hundreds, thanks entirely to him.”

“What's so monstrous about that? It sounds like good-guy stuff.”

“He does quite a bit of good-guy stuff if it suits him. He doesn't waste billions buying high-tech fighters and tanks. He's much more likely to spend it on schools and hospitals. He has total control over what gets taught in the schools, mind you. If a teacher steps out of line he doesn't just get fired. He disappears. Same with journalists, even more so.

“The business about the snow ibexes came up when he declared that Dirzhan would henceforth be known as the People's Khanate. As President he obviously had inherited the rights and privileges of the khans, and henceforth only he would hunt the snow ibex.

“Those last animals were confined to one remote valley, where the villagers were not in the habit of paying much attention to edicts from Dara Dahn. So the hunting continued, though by that time it might take a skilled hunter two or three weeks to track and kill a ram. They were utterly unprepared when the President showed up and told them that he had come to hunt the snow ibex. Unsurprisingly, with only eighty animals left, none was found for him to hunt. The headman of the local village was staked out and died in the night—Dirzhan winters are harsh as they come. The village was searched, all the hunting rifles were burned, any householder with an ibex skull was hanged in his own doorway.”

Again Nigel was ready.

“Wow! That's monster stuff all right. This was up in the mountains, so they were Varaks too?”

“Varaki. My guess is that he wanted to show the Dirzh that nobody gets any favours unless it suits him.”

“What happened next year? Did he shoot one?”

“I must go now. I'll get Roger to show you the CD. And think about this business with his daughter, Niggles. I can get you out of it if you don't feel like it. No problem.”

It wasn't true and they both knew it. He needed to keep the monster sweet.

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