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two brothers and a wife

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When Jingim returned to camp, he first visited his mother and his father. There was an abundance of bad new. First, an army coming closer and closer, an army of foreigners. Kublai told him there has been one skirmish already, while Jingim was away. Jingim had just been on a stealth mission of sorts—he wasn’t prepared for full-fledged battle, but he supposed he would have to prepare himself quickly, even though he would have preferred to have more time to mourn Ahmad. Then his mother told him the other news. Kokachin was dead.

“How?” he asked, but he barely heard the explanation. The facts click closed fatalistically—this was meant to be. He knew it was a greater wonder she lived this long, long enough to bear him sons. She’d been sick in mind and body for some time; only he was not ready to accept her sickness as fatal. He had convinced himself it would pass.

He, who thought himself a hardened warrior and politician, had fooled himself in so many ways. He’d believed he could turn Ahmad’s mind, too. Now Ahmad was dead, and so was Kokachin.

And so were many others, killed by the Crusaders, as Kublai told him, but too much loss overwhelmed the mind, and he drifted. He found himself abruptly sitting in his own tent, washing his face, unsure of how he got there. No, he could remember the rest of the meeting in a haze, as a dream. But he felt he had been sleepwalking. The cold water on his face woke him.

Kokachin was dead, a loss like a chunk carved out of his flesh. Ahmad was dead, a loss like twine wrapped around his spinal cord, still sometimes jerking. Combined, they were pain and emptiness in turn.

Something he remembered from his meeting with Kublai skittered across his thoughts—“Marco Polo proved his loyalty after all, and saved my life. Still, we will have to watch him closely. It is his people we will be fighting.” And Kublai telling him that, both in order to honor Marco’s loyalty and to keep him close, it would be better for Jingim to make amends.

They hadn’t had a chance to discuss what, exactly, the quarrel between Jingim and Marco was. Dishonor left unspoken left a lighter stain. Still, his own father, telling him to forgive the man who… who…

Jingim squeezed his eyes shut.

He didn’t know what Marco did, exactly, only that it was not nothing. A man didn’t hold another man’s wife like that, so tenderly—not a woman he was barely supposed to know, not a woman he had no feelings for. Kokachin had drank in that look, her own eyes desperate and feverish. With her husband and her mother and father-in-law in the room, she had had eyes only for a foreigner.

So, then?

An affair of the body, or of the heart? After Jingim and Kokachin married, or before? How far did it go? How long had it gone on? Why—was this why Kokachin had always seemed withdrawn towards him, as if she held some secret pearl in her heart he could not touch? Was this why whenever he mentioned Marco to her, she would change the subject? He had supposed she didn’t like the Latin—now, it seemed…

His thoughts led him to the time he had spoken to Marco Polo about her, the other side of the matter. Marco had not said anything about knowing her, but he had smiled and listened. There had been something knowing about him.

“There’s something different this time.”

“Something you cannot name?”

He’d assumed Marco was thinking of some lover he’d known in the past—or, optimistically, wondered if the reason Marco sounded so distant was because he had fallen for Shoreh. That would have been an interesting match. It might not have lasted, but it seemed fitting, the two foreigners together—and Marco with anyone, when Marco often seemed so lost…

“Something you cannot name?”

“Something you cannot name?”

Marco had known exactly how Jingim felt about Kokachin; had he felt the same way?

Jingim rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hands. Tomorrow there would be work to do. Kublai said they were expecting an all-out attack any day, and Jingim would be leading a battalion, he knew, and Marco would no doubt be somewhere in the crush, killing men from his own country, men of his own blood. For Kublai. Because he was loyal to Kublai. That, Jingim did not doubt—you didn’t need to know the proofs to read it off him. He loved Kublai, more than any foreigner had a right to (other than Ahmad, maybe, and in the end Ahmad hadn’t). He wanted to be Kublai’s son—that was what had first set Jingim on edge about him. Kublai’s love belonged to Jingim, not to anyone else. Kokachin, too...

Jingim knew very well that his jealousy was a weakness, but sometimes he could not help but swim in it.

 But tomorrow there would be work to do, and soon there would be an attack, and they would have to fight together, and Kublai had said Jingim must make amends.

He stepped to the door of the tent and spoke to a guard standing outside. “Fetch me the Latin. Master Polo,” he clarified, when the guard hesitated—there were more Latins around than one, these days.

And he sat down in his tent to wait.

He didn’t have to wait as long as he had expected, or maybe hoped. Marco Polo arrived with dark circles under red eyes; he hadn’t been getting much sleep lately, and had been awake even at this late hour. He was still in the clothes of the day, which were even a bit mussed. Not really a fit appearance to face a prince, but Marco had never cared as much about etiquette as he should have. Just another piece of his habitual arrogance and disrespect.

He did bow, though—he was swaying a little on his feet, and Jingim pushed back the urge to ask him when he’d last slept. If he couldn’t be angry at Marco for Kublai’s sake, at least he wouldn’t pity him. He said, instead, “My father says you saved his life.”

“I did my best to serve him,” Marco said. Oh, so humble.

He could barely keep his eyes open, though, and Jingim couldn’t help himself. “Is that why you’re working the late hours? New, important duties?” If he was back in Kublai’s favor, doubtless…

“I have had much on my mind.”

They looked at each other.

Marco said softly, “I am sorry for your loss, my prince.”

“Your prince?” Jingim raised his eyebrows. At best, Marco had sometimes respected him as an equal, a brother. Never as a prince.

Marco dropped to his knees and bowed, more formally than he ever had to Jingim. Eyes fixed on the floor, he said, “You would be within your rights to hate me. But Kokachin and I never—”

“Don’t.” He’d thought he wanted details he’d never get, but in the end it was better to wonder than hear it from Marco himself and still wonder if Marco was lying. “I don’t want to hear you talk about her.”

Marco nodded.

“If you want to give me condolences,” Jingim said, “I have also lost a brother.”

He wasn’t sure why he said it. Probably because when he’d come back with the news of Ahmad’s death, no one had seemed very sad about it. The Mongols and even the Chinese had never fully seen Ahmad as one of them. Kublai was too angry to mourn, and too distracted by war. Even Chabi had simply nodded at the news, and congratulated him on victory. It occurred to him, looking down at Marco, that Marco had never much liked Ahmad either, had in fact spoken against him and been the first to accuse Ahmad of treachery. And saved Jingim’s life that way, from ambush… But Jingim thought of Ahmad’s blood, spilled on the floor before him, and his lips pressed together tightly.

Marco said at last, “I am sorry for that loss as well.”

“You should be,” Jingim said curtly. “Kublai will never take a foreigner as son again. Ruins your chances.”

Marco looked up at last. Something flashed in his eyes. But he only repeated, “I am sorry for your loss. I know you thought of him as a brother.”

Jingim turned away. For a brief period of time, he had had three brothers. Now he had one, Byamba. And Marco still lived, and Marco was here. He would still fight with them. And Kokachin was dead—what did it matter that she had loved Marco, not him? She could not love anyone anymore.

But oh, how she had looked at him. He had never seen love in her eyes until that night.

 He gestured for Marco to rise. “Well, we will see each other tomorrow, no doubt. Forget your heavy thoughts and get some sleep. Kublai will need us. Neither he nor I will thank you for getting yourself killed.”

Marco bowed again, but this time only at the waist. “Jingim… Good night.”

Jingim would try to get some sleep as well.