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Three Lions

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There were three; it was fitting that there were three.

One sun and the two moons; three different gods or three faces of the God. Three loves, three lovers, three sides to the triangle - three sides to the saddest love story told.

One: the most daring of poets, the most famous of lovers and the most dangerous of politicians. He had killed a king, and the last khalif of Al-Rassan in Silvenes. People would have said he was Great Ashar's beloved if such a thing had not been forbidden by the Book. One sweltering afternoon he climbed through the window of the cleverest of women, and issued her a warning and an invitation that she could not refuse.

Two: a physician, ferociously talented and clear-eyed. Fearless and calm in the way of the Kindath god, she held death and life in her steady hands. The night she met the soldiers of the most celebrated Valledan fighting company and had to ride away from the village of Orvilla in flames, she put her hands on an extraordinary man wed to someone else extraordinary and told him he could not afford to take her lightly.

Three: a dashing captain of cavalry, a commander of men, feared unto death by his enemies, admired by all who met him. His standard-bearer carried into battle the banners of King Ramiro and golden, all-conquering Jad. He was a hair's breath taller than Ammar ibn Khairan and broader in the chest, but they were matched in battle as they were indeed in all things, even to the last.

Only in Al-Rassan the Beloved could these three come together. Only there, and for too short a time.

 

 

In the autumn, they rode into the court of King Badir the Wise.

One after the other they came, seeking middle ground: the captain exiled from his homeland, the physician fleeing the slaughter of the Day of the Moat in Fezana, the assassin fresh from Amalik's court in Cartada and the newly crowned young King. They rode into the Courtyard of the Streams and each bent their heads to Badir where he was seated on his ivory bench with his most favoured courtiers beside him, under trees and flowers and marble walkways beneath carved arcades.

The two men agreed to join the King’s service, and fought off five others in a show of expertise the world had not seen before, their two differently-made swords flashing as one. The woman looked on, critical of the display of male arrogance that would send soldiers to her sickrooms in the name of sport, and at the same time, unwillingly admiring of the both of them, equally matched in skill as well as (truth be told) in beauty.

In the depths of winter, the men laid a trap for the tribute gold of Fibaz at the valley bowl of the Emin ha’Nazar,the well-known Place of Many Voices in the eastern hills outside Ragosa. Jehane helped by pretending to be helpless with desire (”My stallion, come! Let me ride you to Paradise!”), distracting the Jalonan company that guarded the gold and driving it fatally into the arms of Asharite bandits.

And thus they furthered the cause of Ragosa and Al-Rassan, rather than that of Esperana, or Cartada, or any other kingdom under the winter sun than the one held together by their three selves.

Filled with wine and the aftermath of battle, they almost reached out to each other. Almost. Their differences of religion, of race, of the country that each was still loyal to, at least in their dreams, made them hesitate; Rodrigo was married, too, to the most beautiful woman in Valledo. And there was the choice that Jehane might make of the two men, who loved her in their turn.

In the summer, all hell broke loose and the fabled kingdom began to fall.

 

 

Before the end, the three of them dined together in Ragosa, in the courtyard of the house in the palace quarter that ibn Khairan had rented. It stood cool and high-walled in the shade of the fabulous palace with the stream that ran through it; both under siege before the year was out.

They had enjoyed a day's respite after several tumultuous weeks, in which they'd bent their skills to each other's service. Rodrigo Belmonte had led the mission to Fezana to rescue Kindath from the burning city; Ibn Khairan had given the warning that King Ramiro was riding into an Asharite trap at Orvilla, and it had been Ishak and bet Ishak whose surgical skills had saved the Belmontes' young son there on the battlefield in the dark.

And there an Esperanan king had made an offer to an Asharite soldier and was rebuffed, and the battle lines were drawn after all – a hundred years of politics and history and religion becoming a rushing tide that could no longer be held back.

Nevertheless, the three tried their best, to hold together the fracture of their world and their inevitable parting, for the space of one dinner, one night.

Rodrigo ought not be there at all; he should be at Miranda’s side, watching their son recover from his mortal injury. Also, if Badir knew he harboured in his city the newly appointed Constable of Valledo and leader of all Esperanan forces, he would have given the order to have him drawn and quartered, the past year of service be damned. But Belmonte needed to secure the release of his hundred and fifty fighting men in Ragosa’s army, as, at the bottom of it, did his wife, and he knew he would be as safe with Jehane and Ammar as anywhere, and so they rode into Ragosa this summer morning, all three of them together, for the first and last time.

Lain Nunez and Martin and the men had greeted Rodrigo rapturously as someone returned from the dead. His departure from them had been abrupt and surreptitious, and even now, he did not wish to reveal too much to them, save to say that they needed to make ready to ride out on the quiet in the morrow.

And then he took himself to ibn Khairan’s residence to make his own goodbyes.

Ammar had not been idle upon his return from Orvilla. The house was in splendid array, torches lit even in the heat of the afternoon, over-abundant trays of food laid out on a low stone table in the courtyard. Jehane sat cross-legged like an Asharite princess on one of the embroidered sitting cushions at the table, bathed and dressed in finery she had not been privy to in the last weeks. Her tended hair hung around her shoulders like secrets, the lapis lazuli at her ears and throat echoed her matchless eyes.

Rodrigo took off his coat and the dusty boots that no amount of half-hearted scrubbing in the barracks could get clean. He took his seat at the table opposite a serious, immaculately-clad Ammar ibn Khairan. Ammar had dismissed the servants early and he served them himself; he poured each of them a full glass of wine - the Asharite ascetics of the desert might forbid such things of their followers, but this was not so in Al-Rassan after the fall of the Khalifate, at least not for this time.

A white canopy spread lazily above their heads. There were bright fish in the gently-flowing fountain. It had been a humid day, but it was cool in the shade of the courtyard.

It seemed none of them had much appetite. They watched the sun go down over the high wall and the two moons rise. They spoke of inconsequential topics: how Mazur ben Avren was spending his nights, how the lemon and almond trees in the palace were holding to their fruit in the summer heat. Of safe topics: the well-being of Rodrigo's family in Orvilla, in the company of King Ramiro and his entourage, whom Rodrigo’s thoughts were never far from; he had given Alvar de Pellino instructions to escort them back to Esteren as soon as Diego was in fit condition to travel.

Jehane toyed with her glass. In the privacy of ibn Khairan’s shuttered courtyard, she was able to lean against his broad shoulder. There were lines under her blue eyes that had not been there a week ago when they took their hurried leave of Ramiro’s royal band.

"Speaking of family,” she said, at last, “Alvar has offered to escort my parents to Esteren, as well, and I'm grateful, but I don’t think Esperana would be any place for them.” She did not need to say: not with pilgrims still worshipping at blessed Queen Vasca’s Isle, and the prayers they lifted against those of her parents’ kind, and hers.

“Nor Cartada,” ibn Khairan said in his smooth resonant voice. “I think Sorenica might be safest for Eliane and Ishak, as much as any place in this world is safe.”

Rodrigo nodded. “I agree. I will see to it when I rejoin the King.”

Jehane swallowed. The night would end too soon, and he would be gone in the morning. “Thank you,” she said. “I know they will be best placed with you.”

Rodrigo paused. He did not look at ibn Khairan as he said with some difficulty, "It is ... probably the best place for you as well.”

"Not an option," said Jehane bet Ishak, and lifted her chin like a challenge.

Ibn Khairan, who had been making this very argument for hours in the privacy of Jehane’s arms and to no avail, wisely kept his own counsel.

Ser Belmonte, who had not had such privilege, was more foolhardy and was in any event more plain-spoken. Spreading his hands in frustration, he said, "Jehane, you are not making this choice from a place of wisdom."

Ammar wondered if he should pretend to knock over Jehane's wine glass to deflect the inevitable angry outburst, but she was surprisingly calm. Deliberately, she sat up very straight and set aside her glass. "I might not be the new Constable of Valledo, but I learned something of politics and strategy in his company,” she remarked. “Do not think I would be unwise in my choice of journeying, or at all."

"Forgive me, my dear doctor, but it seems to be your heart that has chosen this path, and nothing that I taught you."

Rodrigo spoke gently, but despite this, and the unexpected place of love she had found at ibn Khairan’s side, Jehane felt his words strike home. She remembered another night not so long ago, on Carnival, standing outside his window at the barracks, looking up and making the choice not to go up to him.

She made herself respond with her characteristic tartness, knowing Ammar could feel her shiver beside him, that he would understand her. "I could hardly have chosen otherwise, could I, even if I had wanted to?”

Rodrigo could not meet her eyes, as well he might not. His left hand, which bore Miranda’s wedding ring, twitched and then was still.

It was for Ammar to rebuke him, as gentle as Belmonte had been with Jehane and as cutting despite it. "How could she have, my friend, knowing how much you love your wife?"

And there it was, at the very centre of it.

Jehane held her breath and did not reach out to Ammar, nor he to her. Silently they waited for Rodrigo’s response.

Finally Rodrigo sighed, squared his shoulders as if to a weight as yet unacknowledged. Addressed his remarks to the table, its trays of food barely consumed, its wineglasses still filled, to the moonlit night. "My lady Jehane knows that, and indeed I do.”

His voice changed, almost imperceptibly. “And yet she should know I love her, also, despite it, and far too dearly."

Jehane made a small sound, but Rodrigo was not yet done.

"As I do you, Ammar. Far too dearly."

Ibn Khairan went completely still. His hand opened and curled shut, as if to deliver a blow, or a caress.

Finally, hesitantly, he said, "That surprises me, and I am not easily taken by surprise. Had I known ..."

He could not finish. A beat, and then the charged silence between them was filled with Jehane's laughter.

"Had I known, gentlemen, my choice would have been made easier. In fact, I would not have needed to choose at all!"

The men turned to her in surprise and amusement, and, still chuckling, she left her seat and climbed onto Ibn Khairan's strong thighs. "Really, I would have been the most fortunate of women in Ragosa, boasting the two foremost lovers of the civilised world."

"The most satisfied of women, certainly," Ammar said, smiling himself now as he put his arms about her.

Ser Belmonte agreed, eyes bright with their shared fantasy, this unexpected gift, "And in truth I've been the most foolish of men, seeing that I deprived us of pleasures we could have enjoyed all campaign long!"

"All of us were foolish," Jehane murmured, and did not need to say, And now it is too late.

Again the weight of the future settled over them: a future that held the fluttering, blue-and-gold banners of Holy Jad, the armies of Ashar silver-on-black and riding to meet them, a test of arms on a far-off battleground where a good man might raise his sword and a good man might fall.

Rodrigo looked at Ammar across that ungentle future, that killing field. Said, with infinite care, "Take care of her.”

Ibn Khairan bowed his head. "You know I will."

Jehane's face was pale, her mouth set in a hopeless line. "You could always stay with us," she said; she wished with all her heart that he could, and knew that he would not.

"Cleverest of women, you know I ride for Valledo on the morrow."

"Just one night, then. Stay with us tonight, Rodrigo, before you leave. For me, if ever you loved me," said Jehane, steadily, as if she were not weeping, and the hand she raised to Ser Belmonte's lips not wet with her tears.

Rodrigo bent over her hand and was silent.

Then Ammar said, "For me also, love," and he reached over and put his hand against the back of Rodrigo's neck, like he might have gripped the scruff of his brother’s hair in horseplay.

But there was nothing fraternal in the way ibn Khairan followed his hand with his lips, and Jehane bet Ishak slid from his lap into Belmonte's and put her physician's fingers into his hair and her cool mouth against his, and Rodrigo closed his arms around them both as if they might yet hold off the dark for a while, all three of them.

And they did hold off the dark for the space of one fragile, glorious night, lit with the two moons and Ashar's merciful stars.

 

 

Morning found them, though, eventually and too soon.

Rodrigo woke while it was still dark. The courtyard was quiet, the only sound the murmuring of the water in the fountain. The day-bed was barely large enough for the three of them, and though he moved as silently as he could he knew both the man and the woman would rouse.

As indeed they did, stirred by the thing that had ever been between them, that they finally had given breath to this past night, and never again.

“I’m trying for an early start, ere to avoid being caught and executed for treason. Or, knowing our King, for breach of contract,” he announced, too-brightly, reaching for a quip to ease the grief of parting.

He expected Ammar to hold his peace, and for Jehane to reach for a protest, and neither surprised him.

“They will come right after you! Badir will never let a hundred and fifty men and horse steal out of his city.”

“The guards have been bribed – on the gate as well as at the barracks.” Rodrigo did not say, And will be dealt with accordingly, later. What he did say was, “We planned for this day, my dear, long before we left for Fezana.”

She sat up, shaking off his arms and Ammar’s, clad only in the glory of her hair. “I don’t want you to go,” she said.

Rodrigo said, in a voice that did not sound like his own, “And I don’t want to leave you. Either of you.”

She had to look away, at this. Not at Rodrigo or Ammar. Across the courtyard the first light of morning was just beginning to break over the palace wall.

She said, softly, to the water, to the dark, to both men there with her in the dark, “Is it wrong, or impossible, for a woman to love two men?”

After what seemed a very long time, Rodrigo said, “No more impossible for a man to love two women.”

He glanced over at ibn Khairan where he lay silent on the silk coverings of the bed, the deadly tension in his bare limbs, something else in the beloved lines of his face.

“Or another man,” he added, and despite himself Ammar had to close his eyes.

“Thank you,” Jehane said. She closed her eyes, too.

And then, after another moment, holding tightly to the thing suspended between the three of them, “Goodbye.”

With her words the moment passed, the world moved on again: time, the flowing fountain, the rising sun. And the thing that had been in the air between them fell softly to rest on the stones beside the water.

“Goodbye,” Rodrigo said. “Be always blessed, on all the paths of your lives. My dears.” And then he said both their names.

She didn’t weep, none of them did. Rodrigo rose from the bed and slipped easily into his discarded clothing. Ammar rose as well, and helped Rodrigo arm himself without saying a word, buckling the weathered sword belt around his friend's waist with great care and even greater sorrow.

Then the Constable of Valledo kissed ibn Khairan on the lips, and walked through the courtyard door into a new and harsher dawn.

 

 

It had been a fraught summer, and the autumn would be worse, with holy war on the horizon and a siege writ large into the lines of the palace walls.

The servants in ibn Khairan’s house had much else to do that day than to clean up after their master’s impromptu dinner celebration. What with the packing that they had been tasked with, the errands their master and the Kindath doctor had asked of them, they were obliged to leave the dishes untended for much of the day.

When they finally reached the courtyard it was almost evening. The late afternoon light shone down upon the cool stones, the low table with its plates and overturned cushions, the day-bed with its filmy hangings pulled awry and the silk covers on the marble floor.

The last rays of sun fell upon the water and the small, quick fish in the water.

And it cast its light upon the three glasses of wine that had been left behind on the table, brim-full, a libation to a city that would be lost, and a three that were, and never were: three lions, three lovers, who had known each other in Al-Rassan before the sun set.