Come, my beloved, let us go to the countryside, let us spend the night in the villages. Let us go early to the vineyards to see if the vines have budded, if their blossoms have opened, and if the pomegranates are in bloom — there I will give you my love.
(Song of Solomon, 7:11-12)
The first time he watches Nicolo die, he is too busy dying himself to have much concern for what it feels like to see his enemy draw his last breath.
Times two through five, he is still the one guiding the weapon, consumed by a haze of bottomless terror that makes it difficult to remember whether he is more scared that the other man will die and rise again – or that he won’t.
Six through twenty-seven, he has time to get used to the fact that the sense of horror never really goes away. By that point, the shock of watching the man he just ran through with a sword get to his feet and come at him again has been replaced by the dread that one day, the person he has come to love more than his own life might never open his eyes again.
Two hundred sixty-one years.
And countless near-death moments.
And yet nothing, nothing prepares him for the excruciating agony of watching Nicolo walk out the door and realizing that he is the one who made him leave.
It is the summer of 1360. For the past months, they have been in Marbella, because these days it is easier for a Christian to live undisturbed in the Emirate of Grenada than it is for Yusuf to live among Christians in the Kingdom of Castile. It has been just over ten years since the Plague hit Iberia at full force, and although the Black Death appears to have finally moved on to new pastures, the city still feels viscerally, utterly dead. Marbella has seen a good half of its population perish, a loss not easily made up for in such a short period of time. Children are being born, like children are always born, through war, famine, illness, and captivity, but their small bodies are not enough to fill the empty spaces where people of all ages should be mingling during the day.
And people still die, like people are always dying, and Yusuf is so, so tired of being surrounded by death.
“The weather is going to be beautiful,” Nicolo smiles as he steps into the house, his cheerful voice a jarring contrast to the clouds casting shadows on Yusuf’s soul. He makes sure that the door is firmly closed behind him before he quickly leans down to kiss Yusuf’s lips, then he sets the basket onto the kitchen table and starts to unpack the spoils of the day.
At his desk under the window, Yusuf quickly turns over the parchment he has been working on and reaches for the threadbare rag he keeps ready to wipe the charcoal dust off his hands.
“Fruit,” Nicolo announces dramatically, gesturing with flourish at the purple grapes he sets out as if Yusuf cannot see them for himself. “Eggs,” he continues, a little more quietly, and places the cloth they are wrapped in onto the table with care.
“Aaaand,” he adds happily, pausing a moment to increase the suspense before he reaches into the basket to present Yusuf with a fruit, perfectly round and deep-red: “The first pomegranates of the year.”
Yusuf forces himself to smile as he takes the fruit from Nicolo’s hand with a strange sense of apprehension. He rolls it back and forth between his palms, feeling the hard, smooth peel slide against his skin. He is well familiar with pomegranates, has eaten them ever since he was a child, all those many, many years ago, but right now holding one feels ominous, like a somber, inauspicious sign.
Without looking at Nicolo, he pulls the small blade from his belt and makes a quick cut into the skin, then wraps both hands around the fruit and with some force breaks it in half between his palms. Bright-red juice drips over his fingers like blood from an open wound, and he makes no effort to wipe it off.
“The Greeks used to say that Persephone got trapped in the underworld because she ate pomegranate seeds,” he finally says, using his index finger to carefully dig a single seed out of the flesh.
Nicolo furrows his brows. “I know the story,” he says slowly, clearly disappointed by Yusuf’s reaction to his gift.
Yusuf tastes the one, lonely seed he has extracted, then stands up from his bench to place the broken pomegranate onto the table next to the grapes.
“To them the pomegranate represented death.”
“And yet for the Jews, the fruit represents fertility,” Nicolo says, a hint of sharpness in his usually gentle voice. “And we are neither Jewish nor Greek. It’s just a fruit, Yusuf.”
He turns back to the basket, away from whatever he sees in Yusuf’s face. “What is with you today?”
The ghosts of the dead are with me, Yusuf wants to say, but the words dry up on his tongue before he can set them free. All morning he has been drawing the scenes of suffering that are haunting his dreams, not able to stop himself from trying to render the bodies, the faces of those he has seen die, the charcoal slowly turning his fingers black like the ash of burnt bodies clinging to his skin.
“Nothing,” he says instead, his voice steady if a little rough. “What else did you get?”
“Bread,” Nicolo responds promptly, although he is still not looking at him. “With salt and rosemary.”
“From the Christian baker,” Yusuf guesses, and Nicolo shrugs a careless yes while unwrapping the loaf.
Yusuf cannot stand to look a second longer at his back.
“Was his daughter at the stall?” he asks, and predictably that makes Nicolo turn towards him in surprise.
“Ysabel?” he asks, a little puzzled. “Yes indeed she was.”
His gives Yusuf a sudden amused little grin. “She asked me again when I was going to start thinking about taking a wife.”
It’s a perfectly harmless joke, shared with Yusuf as a peace offering, a subtle sign that Yusuf is forgiven for not fully appreciating Nicolo’s thoughtful gift.
And on any other day, Yusuf would reach for the extended hand without hesitation, eager to make up for his previous gaffe, but a Shayṭan must be possessing him today, because instead of making him feel better, the innocent comment only darkens his mood.
“Perhaps you should lie with her,” he says sullenly, and Nicolo almost drops a bottle of oil in shock.
“Cosa?” he says, confused. “What are you talking about?”
“She favors you,” Yusuf says impatiently. “She would not turn you down.”
“That may very well be,” Nicolo says carefully, his features wavering between bewilderment and irritation. “But why would I do such a thing?”
Yusuf stares down at the broken pieces of the pomegranate, leaking juice into the wood.
“She could give you a child,” he finally says.
There is a silence so long that he eventually cannot help but look up at Nicolo, only to find an expression on his face that he has never seen before.
“I don’t understand,” Nicolo says flatly. “You are suggesting that I bed a woman and leave her unmarried and with child. You must know what would happen to her. You might as well suggest that I push her head first into the well.”
The Shayṭan raises his ugly head again. “You could marry her,” Yusuf says. “Wait until the child is born. Then let them see you die. She would be a respectable widow, and your secret would be safe.”
Nicolo shakes his head. “You are insane.” His face is very pale. “I don’t want … I have you.”
Yusuf huffs. “I can’t give you children.”
“Oh really?” Nicolo says snidely, his voice now as cold as ice. “I never would have known. Did it occur to you that I might not want any children?”
“All men want children,” Yusuf retorts. He is shaking with anger, and still doesn’t even really know why. “Isn’t that mankind’s purpose in life?”
Nicolo looks at him as if he has lost his mind.
“Mortals have children to pass on their legacy,” he says slowly. “So part of them lives on after they die.”
He raises his hands in helpless frustration. “Perhaps you haven’t noticed, but we do not die.”
“You can’t be sure of that,” Yusuf snaps. “Lykon died. And you might die one day.”
“So I may die,” Nicolo snarls. “And if I die, it would be hundreds, thousands of years after the child I would father has grown old and perished, and I might die having forgotten that he ever was. I …”
He breaks off abruptly, swallows hard. “If you are tired of me, you might as well say.”
“What?” Yusuf says in shock, because nothing could be further away from the truth.
“I’m not tired of you.”
Nicolo clenches his fists. “Then stop trying to whore me out.”
The unexpected obscenity from Nicolo’s sweet mouth is like a downpour of cold water on Yusuf’s head. Over the years, he has thought less and less about the fateful moment of their first encounter, but faced now with the anger in Nicolo’s eyes, he is reminded that there was once a day when this man had looked at him and wanted him dead.
“No,” Yusuf shakes his head urgently. “Please. That’s not what I meant.”
“But that’s what you said,” Nicolo says coolly. He reaches for his cloak.
“Where are you going?” Yusuf asks, feeling fear clawing at his heart.
“Out,” Nicolo responds flatly, and opens the door. “Someplace where I don’t have to look at you.”
And just like that, he is gone, the door falling shut behind him.
Yusuf paces for an hour, then another, and for another yet again. He goes back to his drawing and produces nothing but misshapen smudges, his mind in too much turmoil for him to focus on his work. He tries to eat, but the grapes somehow smell rotten, and the bread in his mouth tastes like soot.
Finally, five hours after Nicolo has walked out the door without giving Yusuf a second glance, he cannot longer deny what he’s feared all along: Nicolo is not going to come back.
Yusuf kills himself twice before the day is over.
Predictably, it doesn’t take.
The sun has set by the time he is roused by a knock on their door. When Yusuf recognizes Ysabel’s young face in the light of the candle she carries, he feels burning rage that she would be brazen enough to come speak to him, and for a very brief moment, he imagines what it would be like to pull the knife from his belt and stab her in the neck.
But no, that is the Shayatin talking. None of this is her fault. It’s not her fault that she has taken an interest in Nicolo di Genova, who is so beautiful that even his mortal enemy was struck by Cupid’s bow the moment he actually let himself look into his eyes. It’s not her fault that Nicolo gave Yusuf the greatest gift he could ever have dreamed of, and Yusuf managed to throw it away.
He lets himself actually look at her, struck by just how unimaginably young she is. Then he carefully looks at her again, and finally, through the haze of his grief and self-hatred, he realizes that she seems fearful and distraught. Whatever she is here to tell him, it is most certainly not the joyous news of her betrothal to his friend.
“What is it?” he says anxiously, heart in his throat.
“Masa’u Al-khair, Yusuf,” she says hastily, rushing through the formal greeting, too preoccupied for his rudeness to even register with her. “I have urgent news,” she continues breathlessly. “I believe Senor Nicolo needs your help.”
“What happened?” he asks urgently, looking left and right to make sure no one is there to see them when he pulls her into the house. Being accused by his neighbors of defiling a dhimmi woman is the very last thing he needs right now.
“Ximeno, the carpenter,” she says, pulling her veil more tightly around herself. “You once told him off for beating his horse.”
Yusuf remembers. “He was needlessly cruel,” he says.
Ysabel inclines her head. “He beats his wife as well,” she says, then takes a deep breath.
“There have been rumors about you.”
Yusuf swallows the bitter taste of resignation, but he isn’t surprised. There are always rumors, sooner or later, wherever they go.
“What kind of rumors?” he asks harshly.
She backs away from him nervously, and he raises his open palms to show that he means no harm.
“What rumors?” he asks again, more calmly this time.
She bites her lip. “Rumors that you … are practicing witchcraft. Rumors that you are – “
She makes an awkward, complicated gesture, linking her fingers together, then sliding them apart again. “ – that you both remain unmarried,” she finally says, and even in the dim light he can see her blush.
“Rumors that you …” She furtively glances at the piles of parchment scattered across his desk. “That you defy the law of Allah and create images of human faces.”
“Ah,” Yusuf says heavily. This is a lot worse than he thought.
“My sister’s daughter,” she continues. “She took food out to the boys tending sheep. She says she saw Ximeno and his friends with Senor Nicolo on her way home. There was yelling, she said.”
He is reaching for his cloak before she has finished speaking, then opens the heavy chest in the corner to retrieve his crossbow and the sword. When he gets to his feet, armed and ready, he realizes that Ysabel is silently watching him, her eyes wide.
“Why come here and warn me?” he asks. “Despite all those rumors. You don’t believe they are true?”
She shrugs and looks him in the eye. “What does it matter?” she says evenly. “You were both always kind to my family, and you were kind to me.”
She lifts her hands up to him, the gesture a wordless question. “Can you help him?” she asks.
“I will get him back,” he says, and there is not a hint of doubt in his voice.
“Whatever it takes.”
Five lives is what it takes, and he extinguishes them without hesitating once.
There are ancient narrow caves, in the hills outside the city, where shepherd boys seek shelter when they get surprised by a storm. They are meant to be deserted at this time of night, and so it doesn’t take Yusuf long to find the men who have taken Nicolo: The reddish glow of their fire easily gives them away from afar, and their voices are carrying in the otherwise silent night, seemingly without any worry that they might get caught.
By the time Yusuf gets to them, the men have realized that Nicolo isn’t dying, which means they must have already killed him several times. Yusuf’s entire skin feels aflame with righteous anger, his heart racing furiously with the desire to take revenge.
But what Nicolo needs is a quick rescue. He cannot afford to take his time to make them pay.
He sidles up to the entrance of the cave, the hilt of his sword a comforting weight in his right hand. He cannot see Nicolo from where he is standing, but the men’s words make it clear that they are speaking to him.
“A Muslim and a Christian under one roof,” one of them spits as Yusuf sneaks closer. “Two men living in sin. We should have known that you are consorting with the devil.”
Yusuf waits for Nicolo’s reply, for him to mock them, to swear – but none is coming, and that more than anything convinces Yusuf that he has to act fast.
He steps into the light of the fire, sword drawn, his fury pulsating through his body like the blood in his veins.
The men reach for their weapons, squinting into the dark.
“Who is there?” one of them shouts, helplessly waving his dagger like a little boy.
“I’m the devil he’s consorting with,” Yusuf says grimly. “And I am here to claim your souls.”
He slays them quickly, without even looking, his eyes on the writhing body near the fire the entire time.
Nicolo is not dead when he finally sinks to his knees by his side, but he is in too much pain to speak. The wooden stake in his chest is pulling him under the moment he comes back to life, too sturdy for his body to expel on its own.
Yusuf needs all his strength and both arms to tear out the spike, and when Nicolo finally wakes for good, coughing and sputtering while the hole in his heart is closing fast, Yusuf buries his face in Nicolo’s chest and cries like a child.
Nicolo holds him tightly, petting his hair with infinite patience, as if he isn’t the one who’s been tortured for hours today.
“How did you know where to find me?” he finally asks, when his voice has returned to normal and Yusuf’s tears slowly subside.
“The baker’s granddaughter saw you.” Yusuf glances up at him without moving out of their embrace. “Ysabel came to warn me.” He swallows. “She is a kind woman. She will make someone a good wife one day.”
Nicolo laughs a little, his whole body vibrating with the sound.
“Yes,” he says lightly. “Someone well-suited who is not me.”
“I’m sorry,” Yusuf chokes out, and Nicolo runs a gentle hand down his back.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he says. “You saved me. I would still be in agony if it wasn’t for you.”
“No,” Yusuf says urgently, and finally pushes himself up to sitting so he can better look Nicolo in the eye.
“No, I’m … I wasn’t looking for you,” he confesses the terrible truth.
“I thought you left me.”
“Left you?” Nicolo says uncomprehendingly, before the confusion in his face gives way to understanding, and he sighs.
“Oh,” he says. “Silly man. You cut my ribcage open with your sword, and I let you bed me the next day. You think I will leave you over a momentary bout of insanity?”
Yusuf lowers his head. “Insanity, huh?” he says, ashamed.
Nicolo puts a hand under his chin.
“Habibi,” he says. “I was a priest before I met you. I never expected to lie with a woman, and the thought never bothered me, for reasons I did at the time not understand.”
His grip on Yusuf’s chin tightens slightly for a moment, as if it is crucial that Yusuf understands.
“If I had died a normal death in the crusades, I would not have had children. If I had lived and returned home to Italy, I would not have had children. There was never a possible future for me in which I would have had what you seem to believe I might want. I made my peace with it a long time before I met you.”
He kisses Yusuf square on the lips. “And if I hadn’t,” he says, “once I met you, I would have no longer cared.”
Yusuf closes his eyes.
“It was the dead,” he finally says, and once he starts speaking, he finds that he cannot stop. “They were haunting me. I couldn’t stop drawing their faces, everyone we tended to during the Plague, everyone we ever saw die, but there were just so many of them. I still have nightmares about what I saw in the Crusade, all the carnage, the slaughter, the pointless deaths. And then came the Plague, and it was like being in the middle of a war all over again. I thought I could draw them and get them out of my mind, but the faces just didn’t stop. And I couldn’t stop thinking that one day your face might be among the ones I would need to draw, and I thought –”
He breaks off helplessly. “I don’t know what I thought.”
“I know,” Nicolo says. Yusuf’s eyes fly up in shock, and Nicolo shrugs.
“What, you thought you were hiding them from me? I heard you toss and turn through your nightmares. I saw your drawings. I could hear it in your voice.”
His face is sad. “I am sorry I walked out on you. I should have known what bothered you. I should not have left you when you were in that state of mind. I swear I won’t walk away from you like that again.”
Then his eyes brighten, and a corner of his mouth lifts up in a tiny smile. “But if you ever try to push me at someone else ever again,” he says calmly, “I will kill you. At least three times.”
Yusuf shakes his head, and carefully lets himself smile back.
“It was a feeling far worse than dying,” he admits. “I don’t think I could bear it again.”
“Poor man,” Nicolo says indulgently. “It seems like your day was far worse than mine.”
Yusuf frowns. “How can you say that?” he responds. “I saw what they did to you. They had you for hours. They made you suffer unspeakable pain.”
“True,” Nicolo says evenly. “But I always knew you were coming to save me. You thought that I had left.”
Yusuf has no choice but to kiss him then, and it’s the kind of kiss he lives for, the kind of kiss to get lost in, and he wants nothing more but to feel Nicolo’s body underneath him and reassure himself that he is whole and breathing and alive.
But Nicolo’s tunic is soaked with blood, and there are five dead bodies at their feet, and soon, people will start to look for them.
He breaks the kiss, regretfully, and sits back onto his heels.
“I think it’s time to leave Marbella,” he says.
“Yes,” Nicolo nods, looking resigned. “It’s a shame. I liked it here.”
“We’ll come back,” Yusuf says. “Once people have forgotten about us.” He rubs a hand over his face.
“Andromache and Quynh are still in Denmark, I believe.”
Nicolo frowns. “It will be difficult for you,” he says hesitantly. “Up there in the North, they don’t know many people like you.”
Yusuf shrugs. As long as they go together, it doesn’t matter where they go.
“You will be with me,” he says simply, “so I will be just fine.”
“Let’s head out then,” Nicolo says, with a smile.
He stands, extends a hand, and Yusuf lets himself be pulled up to his feet.