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Moon, Sun, Stars over Sorenica

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In a world where political fortunes changed as quickly as the weather, the rapid rebuilding of the Kindath community of Sorenica in Batiara was a thing to be celebrated. Burned to the ground nearly seventeen years before, on the eve of the unsuccessful Jaddite campaign against the Asharite homelands in the east, Sorenica had been resettled and was thriving once again.

Detractors would regard this quickness to return, to put the devastation of the past behind them, as yet another example of Kindath desperation for any kind of home, regardless of how uncertain it was. Traditionalists saw the restoration of this proud city as representative of a characteristic perseverance in the face of devastating loss that would have destroyed a people of a lesser heritage.

The Kindath physician Jehane bet Ishak, who had settled in Sorenica even before this recent revival, had a less idealistic perspective.

In the first year of her tenure, she’d been asked the question as to why she had come, and this had been her answer. Men and women of all faiths had always striven to find ways to shape a life for themselves and their families, to find meaning. To her mind, there was a no more or less prosaic reason: the Kindath had returned to Sorenica to seize this precarious chance at happiness.

After the Jaddite army's downfall fifteen years ago, the priests had informed the rulers of the Jaddite kingdoms that their god had been displeased by the brutal attack on Sorenica at the start of the campaign. The Kindath had not been the real targets of that holy war, the clerics belatedy announced. Sorenica's destruction had represented a failure of virtue, a wrongful deviation from the mission against the Asharites that had lay ahead.

As punishment for this impiousness, Jad had sent storms, murder among kings, maimings and accidents, deaths in droves and in single combat in those unholy lands.

Those chastened leaders and their successors readily agreed to make political reparations as spiritual atonement for the Sorenica massacre. The Kindath had been invited to return. Sovereign funds were allocated for the rebuilding of their sanctuaries and places of worship, markets and residences, the famous university, the port and other places of commerce. The Batiaran rulers drew up a new charter to attest to the safety of Sorenica and its inhabitants, in the name of Jad.

Better later than not at all, Jehane bet Ishak thought, striding quickly past the stalls of the market toward her home. She of all people was well aware of the dangers of blind religiosity of every stripe. In any case, one did not need to be a believer to have decided that, in an uncertain, violent world, Sorenica offered no more hazards than any other place and a few advantages not available elsewhere.

In her case, there were more than a few advantages in that first year when they'd settled in the war-torn shell of the city, fleeing the atrocity that was consuming Esperana and Al-Rassan. Years later came other advantages, entirely unexpected.

Jehane was well known in Sorenica. As usual, her progress along the busy streets was slow. Every few steps she was compelled to stop and exchange pleasantries. On this afternoon, a number of men and women — patients and former patients, students and relatives of former students, tradespeople of all kinds — wished her the moons' blessing on the day of her birth, forty-four years ago. She shouldn’t have been surprised: the Kindath, with their complex charts of astronomy, paid attention to these things. Despite her unconventional youth spent amongst the Jaddites and Asharites and the other people of the peninsula, and her even more unconventional marriage, it was not as if she had been away from her own people for so long as to have forgotten that.

Jehane bet Ishak’s services as a physician and teacher had been much sought after in the rebuilding of this new city. Daughter of the most celebrated physician of their age — of any faith — she had her father’s steady hand and eye in surgery, and a reassuring, learned approach to treatment that had only improved as she had grown older. Her experiences in her youth as King Badir’s battlefield physician had won her renown, especially among the mercenary armies of Batiara, but she had never agreed to go out with the soldiers. She said as much to all who asked — that she had left her military days behind her when she had escaped the great siege of Ragosa, and had spent a summer treating war wounds on the Cartadan campaign to retake Ardenio in the west of the peninsula, and after she had, finally, stood between two evenly matched armies on a hilltop in the north of Silvenes.

Jehane knew she was expected home early for the birthday celebration, but she still took her accustomed detour along the harbour, where ships from all over the world were loading or off-loading their cargo in Sorenica’s busy port. She noted that there was a ship in dock with an Esperanan flag: a yellow sun on a pale blue field, Queen Vasca's crown above it.

The sight of it never failed to stir, even after all these years. She wondered what news there was from Esperana; there hadn’t been a ship for months, and little news of the situation in the peninsula that had been worsening since the spring.

She shook herself. Today was not a day to dwell on thoughts of the past, or on political considerations in which she no longer played a part. It was her birth day, and there would be people coming to the house to celebrate, and her children were probably, the god and his sisters protect them all, making her cakes.

She walked briskly back through the market, and across the crowded laneways into the quiet tree-lined streets of the hillside community in which she had made her home. Her house was at the remote end of the district, hidden by olive and fig trees and ivy-clad stone walls and a wild, blossoming garden. It was a long walk from her treatment rooms and an even longer distance from the university, but after hours of treating Sorenica's sick and dying, Jehane bet Ishak relished every privacy this sanctuary could afford.

She stopped short. There was a soldier’s horse at her gate. Its livery bore no obvious markings, but she was a woman who had ridden with the Horsemen of Jad, and who would recognise one of the proud stallions of Valledo.

The stable-boy, Dino, had been tasked to watch over the horse. His unhappy frown lifted somewhat when he saw her approach.

“What’s happened? Who’s here?”

“A messenger, Madam. From Valledo. He had a note for Sir. Radzia showed him into your drawing room, I think.”

A messenger from Valledo. In her home. With a message for her spouse. Jehane felt her spine straighten, felt her palms itch; for the first time in years, she felt rage like the fire that had, sixteen years ago, razed Fezana to the ground.

“My drawing room, you say?”

“He wasn’t very polite about it, either,” Dino called after her, as she strode through the outer doors of the house.

Sounds of culinary chaos were coming from the kitchen, where the children were likely harassing the cook; there were other sounds from the courtyard, which Radzia had said she would make ready for their guests. Jehane wasn’t diverted from her path through the main hall, though she paused to remove her outer shoes and cloak as was the Kindath custom. With a surgeon’s calm, she ascended the stairs and strode into her private drawing room to confront the unexpected visitor.

She was the mistress of this house; she was entitled to enter her own rooms without needing to knock.

The two men inside looked up as she stepped between the bookshelves and onto the knotted Muwardi rug.

“You’re late, my dear,” said Rodrigo Belmonte. She knew her footfall had been quiet, but very little ever surprised the former constable of Valledo, who had served all three sons of King Sancho the Fat of Esperana.

He was sitting in the chair that had been her father’s, propped up with cushions which her mother had embroidered; their family understanding was that he was the only one permitted to sit in that chair apart from her. She was gratified to note that his colour was good, as it had been since the morning.

“The last patient’s prostate difficulty took longer than expected to resolve,” Jehane said, tartly. “Who is this?”

The young soldier was still wearing his unseasonal jacket and riding boots. Belatedly, he rose to his feet and sketched a precursory bow in her direction.

“This is Pelios de Damon, who has brought us word from Valledo. It seems messenger pigeons are only reliable on the peninsula these days, and in any case the king doesn’t see fit to entrust me with one.” Rodrigo spoke lightly, but she could read the thunderstorm in his eyes.

“And what message did the king bring you?” Jehane knew it was a breach of protocol, but she wasn’t going to stand on ceremony in front of this upstart who was still wearing his shoes in her house. She noted the boy hadn’t managed to bring himself to greet her, either on account of her race or her gender, she wasn’t certain which.

“The message isn’t from Sanchez the Devout,” Rodrigo said. “It’s from Diego, and Fernan.”

Jehane inhaled sharply, as Rodrigo continued, “It seems our king has finally managed to do what Ramiro couldn’t, though it’s taken him fifteen years. After Fernan sacked Cartada and Aljais last month, Tudesca raised its gates in surrender. Al-Rassan once again belongs to Esperana.”

“Our king has reconquered the peninsula, with Constable Belmonte as his unstoppable instrument!” The messenger’s eyes shone with an all-too-familiar fervour. “Now all of the infidels will know the true power of the one God.”

Jehane found her rage was making her shake. She was grateful Rodrigo had learned not to try to shield her from such news, or to ask her to sit down for it; in any case, he was sitting in her seat, and could not be moved without help.

“God help us all,” she said. “It was going to happen. There was no one to turn the tide back, and your Fernan…”

“…is an even better commander than his father was,” Rodrigo finished for her. “It was going to happen, yes. Although not by my hand.”

She wasn’t weeping; she hadn’t wept since she lost Ishak bet Yohannon, and before, since the hilltop near Silvenes. Instead, she crossed over to her father’s chair, and let Rodrigo Belmonte clasp her fingers and pull her down to him.

“I’m sorry, my love,” he murmured against her cheek. “I know how this must feel. Trust me when I say there is no pleasure in it for me.”

“I know it, and I do trust you,” Jehane whispered. She had trusted him since that moment at the river in Orvilla sixteen years ago, when he had told her it was not impossible, nor wrong, for a woman to love two men, and no more so than it had been for a man.

He had been whole then, before the winter battle in Silvenes; to her, he was still whole, and even more beautiful than he had been on that Carnival night in Ragosa when she had chosen not to go to him. She didn’t regret that choice, nor did she regret the different one she had made six years before, to extend a Sorenican welcome to a celebrated Valledan war hero and his household on their self-imposed exile from Holy Jad’s kingdom of Esperana.

Fernan hadn’t understood his father’s decision to leave Esteren. The boy had been made for conquest, had been prepared to capitalise on the passions of Jad’s holy war — a war waged against those of different faiths, under the guise of heavenly sanction, which King Sanchez had wholeheartedly embraced, and which his brother Ramiro before him had not.

Jehane knew Rodrigo suspected Sanchez had been responsible for poisoning Ramiro on the cusp of the Esperanan victory in Silvenes fifteen years ago, just as he had suspected Ramiro of complicity in the death of the eldest brother, his beloved Raimundo. Jehane herself suspected Fruela of Jaloña, who had also gone west and south with her son and the rest of the Jaloñan and Valledan armies after the rout of the Ruendans at Ardefio — a rout masterminded by the then newly named ka’id of the Asharites, Ammar ibn Khairan.

Certainly Sanchez would not have been foolhardy enough to arrange for the accident of the war leader of the Esperanan forces, on the eve of its climatic battle with Tarif ibn Hassan and the Cartadan army. Miranda had always maintained that Rodrigo’s sudden taking ill after the last rites for Ramiro had been no accident, and Jehane tended to agree.

If Jehane had been with the Valledan army that winter, she might have detected the poison and raised the alarm. But she had been on her way to Sorenica by then, heartsick and too angry to see sense; she had left Rodrigo undefended against enemies from within his own camp, and ibn Hassan had shown no mercy on the battlefield.

Characteristically, Rodrigo hadn’t blamed her for leaving. Less characteristically, Miranda hadn’t, either.

“How is she taking the news?” Jehane asked, now, more urgently. The woman had apparently allowed young de Damon to remain relatively unharmed, which was a good sign, but at the best of times, there was no telling what Miranda Belmonte d’Alveda might do.

Rodrigo said, “She stormed off through the side door. You know when she does that she doesn’t want to be followed. By me, anyway.”

Jehane had to smile despite the present roil of her emotions. “Let me try. Your task is to get this man out of our house.”

“You always insist on carrying the heaviest burdens,” Rodrigo said, grinning. Jehane kissed him on the lips, straightened from his side, and went in search of Rodrigo’s spouse, who was also now hers.

She found the lady Belmonte standing at the window that overlooked the courtyard. Miranda was dressed elaborately for the celebration, in a long green dress with a lace mantilla, and she was methodically tearing a sheet of paper into small scraps. She looked up as Jehane approached; her expression softened instantly.

“My dear. What can I say?”

“There’s nothing to say,” Jehane said, and reached out to take the crumpled paper from Miranda’s fingers. “I know it must be hard for you as well.”

“Hard?” Miranda Belmonte’s hands were trembling, and it was not from grief. “I carried that boy for nine months and raised him for fifteen years, and now he writes to his father and me as if we are strangers. As if in his eyes we are only as good as traitors for choosing to leave Esperana! It is outrageous.”

Jehane balled up the scraps and then stroked Miranda’s fingers. “Did Fernan really call you traitors?”

Miranda took a deep breath. “No, but that is what the letter implies.” She gestured vaguely towards the balled-up scraps. “He does say he wishes we would come home, though.”

“You see, that is somewhat less outrageous.” Jehane paused. Setting aside the sharp pang at the notion of Rodrigo and Miranda returning to Valledo, she remarked, “Also, you haven’t seen the boys in years, not since the wedding.”

It was Miranda’s turn to stroke Jehane’s fingers. “We’re indeed due for a visit. Diego wrote as well, a letter that I didn’t have to destroy; he says his wife is with child, and I should be at Rancho Belmonte for the birth. But as for this coming home business, our home isn’t in Valledo any more. We left an Esperana run by priests who preach a doctrine I can’t recognise or accept.”

She pressed her lips to Jehane’s cheek, and then her mouth. Despite the events of the afternoon, Jehane felt herself relax in Miranda’s arms. She had not expected to become so quickly attached to Rodrigo’s wife, but it should not have surprised her: Miranda Belmonte d’Alveda was even more astonishing than Rodrigo had described, and astonishingly easy to adore.

“This is your home,” Jehane said, “as much as it has become ours. As much as any place could be called home in this world.”

Below them, she heard the front door banging shut; young de Damon was probably seeing himself off. She hoped Radzia at least offered him water for the horse, though no doubt the young man thought holy conquest was sustenance in itself.

From downstairs, she heard a distinct shriek. “The cakes are burning!”

Miranda chuckled. “Jad help me, I’m actually looking forward to being a grandmother.” She brushed a lock of Jehane’s hair away from her face. “Let me handle the cakes. You haven’t changed for the celebrations, and you should see him first.”

As Miranda left, Jehane realised her anger had ebbed, and in its place was an emptiness that she didn’t want to dwell too deeply upon. She took a steadying breath so she didn’t start shivering again. She thought of deaths and births, sight and blindness, moons and suns and stars. Ashar and Jad at war, rain falling on the Kindath as they wandered the world.

And then she thought about the love she had found in celebrated Al-Rassan, and again here, against all the odds and the strictures of all of their faiths, in Sorenica.

She remembered an old Kindath song, offered one cold night during the campaign in the east for Mazur and King Badir. The company had been singing by one of the campfires to the sound of Martin’s guitar. She had come out of her tent half-asleep, and they had made space for her near the fire. From across the camp, she could feel the eyes of the two men she loved, watching her.

She had sung a tune her mother used to sing to her in childhood, as Eliane’s own mother had sung it for her.

Who knows love? Who says he knows love? What is love, tell me.

She allowed the memory to fill her: the night, the fire, the song. She walked down the corridor to the bedroom she shared with Ammar ibn Khairan.

The curtains were open, as they always were. The blue and white vases held flowers that their boys had picked for her birthday. The hammered silver wine flask — the one item Jehane had managed to smuggle out of the siege at Ragosa — rested on the mosaic-tiled Asharite table in the centre of the room. Though the afternoon was still bright, the lamp at the desk was burning. These days Ammar required a great deal of light to be able to see.

I heard the horse, Ammar said as she entered the room. He was sitting at the open window with its elevated view of the city, and beyond it, the docks and the open sea. He turned the good side of his face toward her; she read the words on his lips as much as heard them in what remained of his beautiful poet’s voice. News from Valledo? For Rodrigo and Miranda?

“There is clearly no need to appraise you of anything,” Jehane said. She walked over to him, and put her arms around him: the father of her sons, light of her days and nights.

She wasn’t sure whether she was comforting him, or whether she was the one seeking comfort; perhaps it was both these things, as it had been from the day he had woken from her makeshift surgery at an Asharite campsite near Silvenes.

Love, do not leave me now, she had prayed on the hillside, above the soldiers under the gold-and-blue banners of holy Jad and the Asharite black-and-silver, watching as he raised his sword against his dearest friend and as that friend cut him down. She’d prayed it when they had carried him to her, and when she realised that his skull had been broken in the same way as the Muwardis had shattered the skull of Diego Belmonte.

“Help him,” Rodrigo had said. He’d been covered in blood, both Ammar’s and his own; despite having taken a deep wound in the side from Ammar’s curved sword, he’d walked from the battlefield into the Asharite camp, bearing his fallen enemy in his arms.

Trepanning, it was called in the text of Galinus. A year before, she had watched her father perform that impossible surgery on Rodrigo’s son; had assisted her father in that surgery, to carve an opening in the boy’s skull and draw forth the shattered bone that had been driven down into the frontal portion of the brain exposed by the peeled-back scalp and the opened cranium. She had moved, as ordered, to offer a blade, a saw, a clamp, to sponge away the heavily flowing blood where Ishak had peeled back the skin of Diego’s scalp. Eventually the bone had come out in one jagged piece, a bone that would have killed Diego in hours had it not been removed. Under her father’s direction, Jehane had probed the wound for more fragments, and then she had sutured the flaps of skin and bandaged the wound, and in the morning Diego had woken from the blind, impossible surgery on the plains in Orvilla.

The Jaddite physician, Bernard d’Inigo, had been with Ishak and her in Orvilla. Together with Alvar de Pellino, he crossed enemy lines in the aftermath of single combat to assist her in repeating the impossible.

She could not afford to fail. Love, do not leave me now, she had prayed, grimly, as Alvar clasped her beloved upright in his arms so the blood from the surgical opening might drain away and not into the wound, as Miranda Belmonte held the torch steady above them, even as Rodrigo was himself having his wound seen to in the Jaddite camp on the other side of the hill.

She was her father’s daughter; her hands had been rock steady as she removed the shattered bone from Ammar’s skull, as she retrieved other fragments, as she closed him up.

She did not weep until he opened his eyes the following morning, and they held each other in the brightness of a day neither of them expected he would live to see.

She was her father’s daughter, but even she could not equal Ishak bet Yohannon. She knew she lacked Ishak’s preternatural discernment, his uncanny lightness of touch; too, her patient’s brain was that of a grown adult, and lacked a young boy’s resilience. Still, she had been furious with herself; it had taken a very long time before she stopped blaming herself for Ammar’s infirmity.

The Muwardi army, and Yazid ibn Q’arif, had not done her that courtesy. At least the Sword of Ashar in the West had allowed them both to leave the Asharite camp when Ammar was able to travel, and had not put him and his Kindath concubine to the sword — the wadjis would have denounced Jehane’s failure and Ammar’s affliction as a sign of Ashar’s disfavour, and Tarif ibn Hassan had already put it about in the camp that Ammar had in fact succumbed to the injuries inflicted upon him in that dishonourable combat with the infidel constable of Valledo.

Rodrigo had offered them safe passage to Esteren, but she had then been too angry to accept, choosing instead to leave both armies to see out the winter in their long campaign for Silvenes. She had travelled to Sorenica, to join her parents where they had themselves newly settled in what was left of the former Kindath city. There was another reason: by that time, she had realised she was carrying Ammar’s twins under her heart.

Over the years in Sorenica, Ammar had recovered some of the movement in the frozen half of his face and most of the use of his left arm and side. They found ways to compensate with the children as they grew from babies to active toddlers, and in bed; he was her night and day and would always be. The only thing she mourned was the loss of his beautiful voice, but in the intervening time she learned to find as much beauty in the chiaroscuro of movement across his face, in the shapes his mouth made, in all the different ways he now conveyed his thoughts to her.

Tell me, she heard now, a rumble against her cheek.

She gathered her courage, and told it as directly as she could.

So, Fernan Belmonte has taken Cartada, and my own Aljais of the nightingales, he said, when she was done. Have I not been trying to write a history and an elegy for Al-Rassan all this time? Would it not have been a cruel jest upon us, if —

“Don’t,” Jehane said, and kissed his mouth so he would have to stop. They clung to each other, remembering love, and the blessings they had been given, even on this day.

As if to reinforce this thought, a girl’s impatient voice was heard through their bedroom door, calling from downstairs. “Will you come on? We’re all waiting!”

We should go down, Ammar said. Will you dress for dinner?

“Give me a moment.” Jehane straightened her shoulders and rose from the window seat. Amongst the various skills she had learned on the battlefield was the ability to get changed at speed.

After she had combed her hair and put on her formal blue gown, she returned to her drawing room to find that Ammar had helped Rodrigo don his formal jacket and was making ready to carry him down the stairs. Rodrigo was laughing as he put his strong arms around Ammar’s neck, and he laid his head on Ammar’s chest in the place where Jehane had rested hers minutes before.

“I knew there was a good reason to espouse myself to you,” he was telling Ammar, speaking in Asharic. “I could dismiss my valet — poor Martin is probably desperate to return to Esteren, anyway — and we could make specific provisions for these duties in an addendum to our covenant.”

Don’t get too accustomed to it, love, Ammar said, in the same language. It will be you having to cart me around in your chair soon enough.

“I deserve it after breaking your head,” Rodrigo remarked, and the men shared a quiet smile.

That’s what you say now, before you throw me over for one of these wiry young Kindath men who could carry you on his back forever.

“Yes, but a young Kindath man wouldn’t be espoused to your incomparable Jehane,” Rodrigo pointed out, which was Jehane’s cue to interject.

“If you two don’t mind, I believe there is a celebration we are required to attend,” she said, in Batarian, and the three of them descended the stairs together.

All Jehane’s friends had gathered in the courtyard: her colleagues from the university, Alvar ben Pellino, his wife Marisa, and their young daughters, who had been helping in the kitchen; her mother Eliane. Her twins Mavren and Velasquez were on their best behaviour, helping Radzia ensure everyone’s glasses were filled.

Her six year old came running across the courtyard to throw her arms around her mother’s knees.

“Mama, Cook and I made you a cake! Lady Miranda helped me take it out of the oven!”

Jehane petted the red curls, and Inês rushed away again.

“You are all,” said Miranda, “on your oaths not to mention that the cakes are burnt, except for Inês’, because I rescued it.”

With Martin’s help, Ammar settled Rodrigo in his chair, and wheeled him to a corner of the garden where he could rest in the shade. Mavren and Velasquez ducked out to the kitchen and returned, bearing the afternoon’s enterprise on silver trays. No one said a word about the cakes. Inês climbed onto Jehane’s lap as she ate and pronounced everything delicious. Between them, Ammar and Miranda made sure Jehane’s wine glass was always full, and she drank much more than her usual wont.

The afternoon passed. When her friends rose to go, Jehane found herself embracing them warmly; she rested her hand on Alvar’s shoulder. Tomorrow she would visit and tell him the news about Al-Rassan; he had lived there and deserved to know the news before it became common knowledge. He would certainly grieve. But tonight, she wanted to revel in the peaceful shores they seemed to have washed up upon, the haven they had managed to make for themselves, despite all the turmoil in their battle-filled past, and the uncertainty of the world they now lived in, and the loss.

She walked her mother back to her parents’ old home in the next street. Eliane was in excellent health, and had steadfastly refused to move in with them after Ishak’s death, but Jehane knew that in five years’ time, she might have to insist. Eliane's reluctance wasn’t on account of Jehane’s unusual domestic arrangements; it might not be licit in their faith for a Kindath woman to wed two men, or another woman — though such domestic arrangements were not unheard of in Galinus’ time — but Eliane was well aware of how complicated, and how simple, love could be.

When she returned the sun had started to set. The courtyard was quiet, and a little cold. The children had gone upstairs, and it was just the four of them in the garden. Miranda had lit the candles, and Jehane took a flagon of wine and her own glass and made her way over to Rodrigo’s chair.

“Fare gently in the god, my dear,” Rodrigo said, as she filled his glass. “Today, and all our days, and may those days be many.”

I'll drink to that, Ammar said. He had brought out cloaks for the women, and a blanket for Belmonte, which he wrapped around Rodrigo’s legs.

“Thank you, love,” Rodrigo said quietly. He set his glass down, and put his hand over ibn Khairan’s. “I have never said it, but you were right after all.”

Jehane had to set her glass down as well. Miranda put her hand over her mouth; unlike the other three, she had not known Ragosa, but she was the one who was weeping.

Ammar curved his good hand around Rodrigo’s cheek. You made that clear when you and Miranda came here to stay, he said, affectionately. Then he grew serious. And you weren’t wrong, either. One way or another, things would have come to this end.

What is love? These moons, these stars, these two men and this woman, whose courage burned like the sun.

Jehane took Miranda’s hand, and said to Ammar, “My love, you’ve improvised for kings and khalifs. Will you honour my birth day by doing so for me?”

Ammar set down his own glass. The expression on his face — half alive, half stone — was clear as the light of the setting sun.

Have you a theme, love?

“You know what the theme must be.”

There was silence. They watched ibn Khairan, and waited. From upstairs, the sound of their children’s laughter carried down to the garden through an open window.

Ammar said:

Ask Fezana what has become of Fibaz,
And where is Ardefio, or where Lanza?
Where is Ragosa the seat of great learning,
How many wise men remain there?
Where is Cartada, city of towers in the red valley of its power?
Where are Tudesca, Elvira, Aljais,
And where, in this twilight, is Silvenes?
The streams, the perfect gardens, the many arched courtyards of the Al’Fontina?
The wells and the fountains weep for sorrow,
As a lover does when dawn comes
To take him away from his desire.
They mourn for the passing of lions,
For the ending of Al-Rassan the Beloved
Which is gone.

The broken, beautiful voice fell silent. Jehane looked up at the sky. The first stars had emerged; the white moon would soon be rising over Sorenica. They would also shine on the peninsula west of them, as if nothing in the world had changed.

“Thank you,” she said to Ammar. In the dusk, she saw the wetness on Rodrigo’s face. Ammar levered himself to his knees and took Belmonte’s face in his hands and wiped the tears away.

Jehane put her arm around Miranda’s shoulders. Time was rushing ahead of them; the Belmonte boys were grown men — constable and chancellor of Esperana, serving King Sanchez the Devout. The world had become even more uncertain for people of her faith, and that of Ammar’s. And a fragile, infinitely precious thing had just been lost, something which the world would never see again. But amidst the time and loss, there was love, as well — a love that had endured, that had flourished despite itself, between two men and two women who had found their way beyond their different faiths and countries to each other at the last.

They went in to a late dinner, in their bright dining room with two fires, amid the laughter of their sons and daughter. Then Miranda wheeled Rodrigo to the bedroom on the ground floor of the separate wing of the house, and Jehane and Ammar retired upstairs.

Outside, the white and blue moons and the stars revered by the different faiths shone down on the courtyard where the birthday celebration had taken place. The light fell across the pond, and the small fountain; the olive and fig trees, the late summer shrubs and wildflowers. And it cast its light upon the three glasses of wine that had each been left behind, as a libation to a shining city by a lake where there had been love, for too short a time.