Yusuf’s blood buzzes so hard through his veins that it takes all his effort to stay still. Every part of him longs for motion, for justice, for a swift end to the constant exhaustion.
He always calms his limbs, his mind, in time for Fajr: his forehead kisses the ground as the new sun soaks the sand in deep russet oranges. Light glints of the breastplates of dead Christians; it caresses the faces of his fallen brothers who had died defending the outer wall.
Allah has blessed Jerusalem. The Christians arrived at their door scattered, starved, desperate. Though they had just taken Antioch, the great city did not go easy: now the pale men are half-mad, even stooping to slaying their own kind over a series of petty disputes. They are splintered, we are united, Yusuf chants quietly every night, while his commander relays horrors from over the border: in Ma’arrat, the Christians had boiled and devoured the flesh of men, women and even children — such was the nature of these barbarians, and the worthiness of the Fatimid’s cause.
The madness of their enemies bodes well: the first attack had been easy to crush, the offensive numbers dwindling day by day.
“Soon we will be home,” says Abir, a fellow warrior who also hails from the Maghreb. “Bedding beautiful village girls.”
“Thinking of your cock at a time like this!” Yusuf laughs, shaking his head.
“Go find me a man who isn’t thinking of his future wife. What else can we think of? Besides Allah, of course—Alhamdulillah.”
Yusuf laughs even harder, the volume strong and hearty despite his body slowly wasting away over the past few months. He has always found it easy to jest.
“Brother,” he says, clapping Abir on the back. “Focus on keeping your head on your shoulders, so tomorrow we can laugh again.”
Soon, Abir is smiling widely back. Yusuf preens over the strength of his good nature, over the effect he always manages to have on the hearts of fellow men. But despite the confidence of his brothers, and the kindness of the sun above them, a pit of unease sits heavy in his stomach.
For the past few weeks he has dreamed of him—the fair-haired demon, with eyes like chips of noon sky. In his dreams, the demon is on a ship filled with scores and scores of similar men; they all speak in an Italian dialect that Yusuf recognises from his work as a merchant.
The city of Genova.
The words are rapid-fire, slurred, shot through with raucous laughter—Yusuf can’t comprehend much but a handful of half-remembered phrases: Guglielmo, timber, Almighty God, tits, Nicolo. The last few syllables sink into his mind and somehow Yusuf knows they belong to his demon (when did he start thinking of the man as his?). A name.
Later that night, around the campfire, he frantically tries to tell the other warriors about his dreams. They all begin to yap like mongrels, overcome with laughter.
“What if it’s a sign?” Yusuf snaps. “Why would I dream about Genonese men? It is too specific, too clear.”
“Genoese, Franks, all these white devils are the same,” says the warrior Bilal. “Last night I dreamt that my dead Baba crawled out of his grave, walked into my tent and beat my behind with his staff. What should I make of that, O’Joseph, Dream Reader?”
“I do not joke,” Yusuf says, cutting through the chortles. “The men come with supplies. Timber and steel from their ships. I think we should be more prepared.”
Their commander sidles up besides him, places a big hand on his back. Yusuf feels his neck prickle. “Yusuf,” he says, voice deep. “We see the way you stand watch. I’m surprised you manage to dream with how little you sleep—only a few blinks of the eye, it seems. Mirages are natural. Concern yourself with what is in front of you, and you will be at peace.”
But he is in front of me, Yusuf bites back. Instead, he plasters on a grin. “You’re right. But I hope our dreams do come true: we would all enjoy seeing Bilal receive a good beating.”
“I can’t argue with that,” the commander says, as the men resume their laughter.
Yusuf falls back onto his bedroll with a tired thump, eyes fixed on the spread of stars above.
In the next few weeks, Yusuf’s dreams slowly come to pass.
The Genonese arrive and immediately begin stripping their ships of wood; the men who pour out from its hulls are priests, warriors and, most critically, engineers. Machines, hulking and seemingly alive, begin forming on the horizon.
Yusuf sleeps furiously, fusing his soul with his mirror’s: he feels Nicolo’s sense of accomplishment. The Crusaders glow brighter when Nicolo turns his blue gaze onto them, sharing the word of God with his sweet voice; they eat heartily now, growing ruddy with their renewed faith in their divine purpose.
When every single Christian begins marching to the Mount of Olives barefoot, skin scorched by desert heat, Yusuf knows their madness has gone from pitiful to dangerous. He prays for his home, begs Allah to lend them his strength. The Jews are fighting alongside them and help is coming from Egypt soon; the city will hold.
Sometimes during his strange dreams, when all is peaceful for a moment, it's as if Nicolo can overhear every one of Yusuf’s scrambled, desperate anxieties. His knife slash of a mouth lifts ever so slightly.
Cretino, mouths the demon who haunts him.
In July, the Crusaders lay siege to Jerusalem and, for the first time, Yusuf dies.
The Christian armies are united now, battering the walls in relentless waves. May peace be upon you, may peace be upon you, Yusuf and the warriors say to one another roughly, arm grasping arm, as they leave the walled limits in their full armour.
Yusuf’s hands aren’t made to kill—they’re accustomed to creation: wooden tables for his Mama, charcoal drawings for the markets, tajine stew for countless family dinners. But not once does the scimitar quiver in his grip. He knows that he was put on this earth for a purpose, just as he knows his dreams have purpose—he has be here, has to keep fighting, to ensure his people can continue drawing, creating, cooking for meals for one other.
So his scimitar rises through the air saws through the necks and bellies of foreign men, rich blood spraying onto his keffiyeh. Blades lacerate his thighs, his chest, the sweep of his jaw. His nerves are singing, crying out in pain, but he doesn’t stop: not when even he sees his commander with his eyes gouged out, or Abir with his head split open, only a few paces away.
He doesn’t stop until a gloved hand bunches up the front of his tunic, and pulls him close. The eyes in front of him are wide—such a clear blue that, for a moment, Yusuf is blinded.
The Genovan from his dreams, red cross emblazoned across his chest.
Nicolo’s expression is so slack with shock that, despite the broad shoulders and matted beard, he looks younger than in Yusuf’s dreams. Like a boy watching his father slaughter a goat for the first time.
Yusuf never misses an opportunity. He swiftly slides his blade through Nicolo’s ribcage, puncturing his heart. He watches in delight as those angular features begin to curdle with hatred, agony and—oddly—a hint of betrayal. Blood pulses from Nicolo’s mouth; he collapses like a newborn lamb into Yusuf’s arms
“I was born to kill you,” Yusuf whispers into the shell of the Christian’s ear, voice hoarse from battle cries. Abruptly, a small dagger shoots out, quick and decisive, slicing opening Yusuf’s throat.
Yusuf’s free hand scrabbles at the gaping wound, tries its best to staunch the sudden stream. It’s no use. He glares down at his doom.
Nicolo is laughing. His crooked teeth are stained wth blood and ash, his eyes crinkled with a bright and acidic joy. It’s the last thing Yusuf sees as he slumps face forward onto the earth.
When Yusuf gasps awake, the sky is a deep indigo. His lungs feel completely new, swathes of air flooding his body with such relief, it feels as if he’s guzzling cool water from a lagoon.
His hand darts to his throat. The skin there is smooth, completely unmarred. His heart rabbits in his chest as he slowly surveys the rest of his body. Arms? Also unmarked. Legs, chest, hips, face? Not a single scratch. Blooming everywhere is the pungent metallic stench of blood, smoke and rotting corpses. He wobbles to his feet, blinks the moisture from his eyes and he sees.
There is carnage all around him, on him—the blown apart limbs of fallen warriors, his brothers. Dried viscera coats him from head to toe. He’s facing away from the gates of the city and its deathly quiet: he could probably hear a silver piece fall against sand. He doesn’t—he can’t—turn around.
Then: a stream of hoarse, incomprehensible words, yelled from behind him. It takes Yusuf a while to register the familiar, lilting tones of that voice, that language: Zeneize, the Genonese dialect.
He whirls around. Nicolo the Crusader, long hair wild and ragged and matted, is watching him. He is dwarfed by the walls of Jerusalem, which are half-crumbled and aflame, men wearing red crosses standing at every post, silently watching the dunes. Cold and implacable as statues.
Yusuf feels a bolt of despair so acute that he can no longer bear to feel anything at all. He switches his attention to Nicolo who, at this point, has switched to Italian: "Demone", he spits, "demone!"
“Says a dead man standing so proudly before me. How soon your heart forgets the touch of my blade.”
Nicolo stops his hysterics. He blinks at him, face blank. It is clear Nicolo doesn’t understand Arabic at all—but it is no matter. Yusuf draws his blade, fury coursing through him.
He was put on this earth for a purpose, just as he knows his dreams have a purpose.
Nicolo eyes the scimitar and, quite suddenly, confusion and panic melts away into something hard, something sure. He draws his longsword, mirrors Yusuf’s stance: this is a common language they both know intimately.
They kill each other over and over again; they rise over and over again.
The first two dozen times, they kill the old-fashioned way: with their swords. The longsword cuts Yusuf’s tendons, stabs his gut repeatedly, punctures his throat. The scimitar, meanwhile, finds its way into Nicolo’s heart endlessly, with no variation: a sick joke that Yusuf is growing too fond of.
They wake on the border, or in the heart of smouldering bonfires, or tossed in half-dug graves; their throats expel sand, organs and, as always, blood.
Yusuf notices they are healing faster, standing faster, getting harder to kill. He wants to believe that Allah gave him this power so he can ensure this man’s death, that his only purpose is to rid the world of this evil. But in every way, Nicolo is just as he is—he heals at the same rate, he feels the same pain. He cannot die.
A rage overtakes him when they wake in yet another open grave. Yusuf’s scalp, which had been removed, has completely regrown itself.
Nicolo is crawling up the side of the pit, his upper body already on ground level.
“I don’t think so,” growls Yusuf, yanking the Christian down by his ankle. He ignores the stream of Zeneize—though Yusuf can pick out curses like whoreson, ancestors, idiot—and pins Nicolo’s arms down, sits heavily on his chest.
For the first time, Nicolo dies with Yusuf’s hands around his throat. It’s the first time Yusuf has seen Nicolo look even remotely ugly: his face is purple and thick with veins, eyes bulging from his skull. The tremendous burst of energy leaves Yusuf at once, his shoulders slumping onto the limp body beneath him.
His breaths come out ragged and laboured, the sounds of dying animal.
Gulping air, he stands.
“May peace be upon you, demon” he says to Nicolo’s body. “Please stay dead this time. For both our sakes.”
Two hours later, Nicolo jumps Yusuf as he's trying to steal cleaner clothes off a corpse. He gouges Yusuf’s eyes out, then cuts off his legs.
Yusuf heals within the hour. And so the bloodshed continues, more personal this time: hands gripping necks and prising jaws apart, blades stabbed lower and lower. The pain is hot and present every time, but Yusuf feels as if he has watching his own body from outside the vessel. He sees an unrecognisable, depleted creature, no longer human, grappling with an apparition from across the sea.
Once, he has Nicolo’s body in a vice, legs and arms clamped around him, and Yusuf thinks to himself: I’ve never touched a man more than I’ve touched this man. Not even those few, furtive alleyway lovers. The thought is so ridiculous that Yusuf begins to laugh at himself—he really has been driven mad. He snaps Nicolo’s neck, gets up and tries to outrun the devil before he wakes.
By the time he reaches one of the neighbouring villages, he learns that Jerusalem has well and truly fallen. He learns about the synagogues and mosques burnt and raided, his sisters and brothers—numbering in the thousands—all massacred. He is tired, so tired. His body has been leaking blood, piss, tears and guts for days on end. Now he can’t even shed a single tear for his people.
The townspeople shirk away from him, frightened, until he begins to beg. “Please, sister,” he says to a woman selling half-rotten figs. “I need clothes, nothing more. I have no-one. Nowhere to go.”
The woman nods and disappears into her home. She returns with clean linen and a full waterskin.
He does cry then.
Yusuf bathes at a nearby watering hole, scrubbing himself thoroughly. He pulls on his new clothes. For the first time since the Christians arrived, he feels like a real person again.
When he approaches the town limits, Nicolo is waiting for him, sword drawn. Although he has once again fully healed, the Christian has a crazed look about him, blood rusted on every inch of skin and metal. Those piercing eyes are even more frightening against a landscape of deep red. Yusuf can't believe he ever thought Nicolo looked like an innocent boy.
“Demone,” Nicolo spits. The fool didn’t know when to give up.
“Enough,” Yusuf says. “Please.”
Nicolo’s eyebrows furrow. Its back again—that childlike confusion that he wore so readily on his face when they first met, and when they first woke from death. Yusuf decides to try his hand at Italian.
“Aren’t you tired?”
Nicolo’s eyes widen. “You speak Italian?”
Yusuf pulls an exaggerated sheepish face that typically made his friends cackle. Nicolo’s face remains blank. Along with being bloodthirsty killers, these Christians clearly have no sense of humour.
“Italian…no good. Learn from soldiers, merchants, whores.” He flashes a grin at Nicolo’s scandalised look. He points to himself. “Fast learner.”
Nicolo looks down at his feet, seemingly turning something over in his mind. His eyes dart back up at Yusuf again, taking in his crisp white linen, his damp head of curls. Though the two men didn’t speak the same language, Yusuf found that he understood Nicolo’s thoughts perfectly—maybe because of their shared dreams, or maybe because of the days spent picking the man’s intestines off his scimitar.
For the first time, Nicolo is realising that Yusuf is no demon. That, standing here—one man bloodied, one man clean—Nicolo himself may have been the more terrifying sight.
“I don’t want to hurt you anymore, understand?” Yusuf says in a frustrated burst of Arabic. He advances towards Nicolo, heart pounding even though Nicolo has lowered his sword. He puts his hand over his own heart. “Yusuf Al-Kaysani. My name.”
“Yusuf,” Nicolo says with, with an odd hint of familiarity. “Yusuf.”
Yusuf’s breath catches in his throat. He doesn’t know why it hasn’t occurred to him that Nicolo dreams of him too.
Through a series of diagrams drawn in sand, muddled gesturing and curses in three languages, the two men agree to travel together to find a way home (What about your fellow men? Yusuf had asked. They saw me die, Nicolo responded, grim).
Neither are particularly happy about this arrangement, but Nicolo needs help finding an Arab town that sells supplies to Christians, while Yusuf needs to evade Crusaders.
There’s another reason, buried beneath these excuses, the real reason: both men are still terrified of their seemingly eternal rebirths — of the ways in which they are the same. Having only died by each other’s hands, they don’t what will happen if they are slain by others. Leaving one another, potentially never seeing each other again, seems too great a step.
They do the bulk of their travel at night and during the little hours, when the sun is fast asleep. Yusuf tries to make conversation—his Italian growing more confident the more he clings onto Nicolo’s curt phrases—but Nicolo remains reticent and stone-faced. Every glimmer of vulnerability has been leeched from him.
“Let me teach you Arabic. Life will be easier, I swear to you.”
“I will not learn the demone’s tongue,” Nicolo says in Italian. “Besides, it will be of no use to me once we find a good town. We'll never see each other ever again.”
“This demon nonsense again,” mutters Yusuf under his breath. He briefly contemplates dropping a boulder on Nicolo’s smarmy face. Luckily, there are no boulders in sight.
“If you learn some phrases, I’ll tell you how you can treat that sunburn. It’s starting to horrify me.”
“What are you talking about?” Nicolo snaps, whirling around. “I’m fine!” The entire bridge of his nose is a bright, inflamed red. Yusuf can’t help himself—he starts braying with laughter. The rest of Nicolo’s face grows more and more flushed, and Yusuf can’t tell if its from the exertion of their journey or from embarrassment.
Yusuf wonders if Nicolo will strike him down. He doesn’t; he simply shakes his head and says, “Mammalucco,” before continuing to march forward. Yusuf watches him curiously.
The man is quick to anger, but also quick to correct that anger, a well of patience bubbling inside him that Yusuf—someone prone to springing into action, who liked making bold and brash statements—doesn't quite comprehend.
During the nights, when they set up camp, both men lose themselves in prayer.
Yusuf had not observed Salah during that bleary chain of deaths and revivals; truth was, he can barely tell the difference between right and wrong anymore, feels impure even by his standards. The very notion of prayer feels tainted. But now, at sundown, he prays once again.
He goes through the familiar motions. He tries not feel conflict over his new state; tries to accept his not-enemy-slash-travelling-companion, an alien being now fatefully fused to him.
When he walks towards the campfire, he sees that Nicolo has not stop his muttering: a prayer to God that he’d began when Yusuf walked a little ways off, his head bowed and hands clasped together. The Italian is too swift for Yusuf to really understand anything—so he clamps a hand on Nicolo’s shoulder, hoping to come off as obnoxious as he feels.
“Make sure you pray to your God that we’ll run into a nice goat soon. I’m starving.”
Nicolo’s eyes fly open. He glares his usual glare. “Do you see me spoiling your little ritual, heathen?”
“I’m not spoiling anything. You’ve been bothering him since before sundown—oh, poor me, I cannot die, and I’m stuck with an incredibly handsome man—let your God rest!”
After only over a month together, Yusuf has developed a dextrous control of Italian that he knows annoys Nicolo. The Christian harrumphs and marches off to his bedroll, set up as far away from Yusuf’s as possible, while still sitting in the glow of the fire. Yusuf won’t admit it, but he’s become fond of Nicolo’s stomping and silent tempers.
When they’re both wrapped up and warm, teetering on the verge of sleep, Yusuf feels the strange urge to understand the other man more, to see him as a complete person.
“Do you have a woman waiting for you? Back in Genova?”
Silence for a moment—Yusuf doesn’t quite expect a response—but then: “No. We cannot have women.”
“Priests.” Nicolo rolls around to face Yusuf. In the distance, he can make out a wry smile. “That’s what I once was—what I am. I’ve never even touched anyone.”
“Never? You’re a stronger man than I thought, Nicolo.”
“Aren’t your people supposed to stay untouched before marriage?”
“Yes, of course, but.” Yusuf flashes Nicolo a brilliant and smile and he swears—for a second—the man flushes. “I’ve never been able to say no to a pretty face. Santa Maria, never. Don’t you ever get lonely? Don’t you want to spend your life with someone?”
There’s silence and Yusuf wonder if he’s offended him again. No, more than that — he wonders if he’s probed too deep, into a personal realm that Nicolo won't even share with his closest friends. But it seems that, as a priest, Nicolo is accustomed to such questions. His voice is easy, almost a little rehearsed, when he quotes: “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. I owe everything to God. My puny desires are meaningless—His grace is everything.”
Yusuf lets out a whistle. “A man that cannot be tempted by beauty. Your love for your God is strong indeed.”
“When did I say I was not tempted by beauty?” Nicolo says. But before Yusuf can reply, the man has turned around in his bedroll, the sight of his back signalling that the conversation is over.
As they near the Mediterranean coast, they find an abandoned chukar chick, shuddering in the sand. The sight of this small, helpless thing is discomforting. Eerily, it reminds Yusuf of himself—a creature with no parents, no home, just wandering the desert waiting to die, but not quite managing to.
The one thing he can’t admit to anyone: he has nowhere to go. His parents are long gone, his siblings taken by war and disease in the past few years. Home just holds bad memories, and Jerusalem was meant to be his fresh start, a holy rebirth. A dream ashen and bloodied now; crumbled into the past.
He snaps out of his reverie when he sees Nicolo bending down and scooping the chick up with the edge of his tunic. He’s cooing to the bird, stroking its head with his slender fingers.
“It will perish within the week,” Yusuf says, gloomily. “Best to spare your feelings. Leave it here before you bear witness to its suffering.”
Nicolo looks up at him. A week ago he’d probably respond with something righteous and a little rude—Christians do not abandon living creatures in need, they are kind and generous peoples, unlike Yusuf’s pagan ilk. But something has shifted since their campfire conversations—Nicolo walks closer to him now, their arms brushing against each other as they roam across land, closer and closer to those brilliant shards of sea. The salty air is transmuting them, changing whatever it is between them.
“It’s already suffering,” Nicolo says, simply, “It needs me.”
Yusuf finds he cannot argue.
For the next three days and nights, Nicolo nurses the bird. Drips water into its little red beak with his finger, feeds it a portion of their nuts and berries. Pets its stout little body and whispers it stories of Jesus and Mother Mary. Yusuf doesn’t complain—for once he is the silent one, watching Nicolo’s bright, happy eyes, basking in the sweet crests of his voice.
On the fourth day, the bird dies.
Yusuf wakes to find Nicolo on his knees near the smouldering remains of the fire, a limp little body held in his cupped hands. The Christian is crying, shoulders shaking violently. Yusuf doesn’t understand it at first, the enormity of Nicolo’s sadness. Then he remembers his first thoughts when he saw the bird.
Carefully, he crouches by Nicolo’s side, covers his hands with his own.
“A blessing, isn’t it? That it can die.”
Nicolo looks at him, mouth slack with surprise. He lets Yusuf take the chukar from him, lets him place it at the foot of the fire. He even lets Yusuf tangle his fingers through his own.
“Let’s go. We’re breathing sea air now—you’re almost home.”
When they reach a town on the Mediterranean coast—boats and crumbling houses and a green-blue expanse of sea, the colour of Nicolo’s eyes, sprawled before them—Nicolo asks to buy a new waterskin, and a Muslim agrees to sell it to him.
“I believe we no longer need one other,” Nicolo says.
“No,” Yusuf replies, taken aback, “No, I don’t think we do.”
For a moment, it seems Nicolo is reaching out his hand (what is he meaning to do? Shake hands? Clap Yusuf on the shoulder like a brother? Touch his face?). But, almost instantly, he aborts the movement—pulling back, expression inscrutable.
And just like that, Yusuf is alone for the first time in months.
For the next sixteen years, Yusuf keeps dreaming of him. The dreams are infrequent fragmented now—mere impressions of voices, colours, textures—but he always manages to latch onto Nicolo’s moods. Yusuf feels his feelings as if they are his own: the constant fear of what he is, the nightmares over being cleaved apart, the moodiness over his isolation, the fact he isn't aging. Nicolo spends a lot of time pouring over tomes, scrolls and storybooks, working and dozing in the bowels of ships—sailing far away from him and then back again. Nicolo is reading, singing, learning how be precise and eagle-eyed with an arrow. He's living somewhere with a lot of blue sky, clustered trees and green plains; Yusuf feels the imprint of a bow in his own hand, the satisfying tension of a taut string.
Sometimes Yusuf dreams of being on top of Nicolo, that blue stare looking up at him, defenceless. He doesn’t know if this a memory of a kill or something else entirely.
As for him, Yusuf loses himself in work. He's always been a tradesman, a worker, a warrior, a simple man—he can disappear into task after task during the day, and revel like a Jinn at night.
He becomes a carpenter, a butcher, an artist and merchant (again), a border guard, and, finally, when he realises just how handy his healing powers are, a bounty hunter.
The last job comes with more death attached which, really, is what he seeks above all else—a permanent end to this undead life. But the limits keep expanding and expanding. He is disemboweled, beheaded, hung; he dies of starvation, food poisoning and, most embarrassingly of all, shitting himself too hard.
I am fearfully and wonderfully made, he remembers Nicolo saying, in that soft voice of his. Yusuf didn’t see anything fearful or wonderful about their situation anymore: he feels tired, the same bone-deep exhaustion he felt when Jerusalem had just fallen. Over the past few years, he’s started sleeping as little as he possibly can without dying—his under-eyes are permanently bruised and he spends daytimes hallucinating. It’s better than dwelling on what has come before: screams, limp bodies, spraying blood, blue eyes.
He’s hunting a group of murderers and raiders based in the island of Malta, when he sees him again. Shock of sun-touched hair, beaky nose, sharp jaw. Nicolo is trying to haggle with an old woman over some dates. Cheap bastard, Yusuf thinks, already feeling a grin spread over his face.
When Nicolo spots him, he startles for a second, before a slight smile touches his lips too. “Sabah el kheir,” he says.
“Sabaho,” Yusuf replies, with surprised laughter. “So I see the demone’s tongue tempted you at last.”
Nicolo shrugs. “A man has to eat.”
“You look like you’ve been eating well.”
Nicolo looks almost exactly as he did when he walked away from Yusuf more than a decade ago—but stronger, perhaps even more youthful. His milky skin is free of any grime, his cheeks pink and lustrous with life. He is completely clean shaven; his chin-length hair shines. For the first time, Yusuf allows himself to admit that Nicolo is beautiful—indistinguishable from those marble statues that the Latins love to gawk at.
“You look like shit,” Nicolo says in return. “You should sleep.”
Yusuf bristles—so the Christian is still dreaming of him too. “Strange, my commander used to say that to me all the time. He cared about my health very much. A shame your people put him down like a dog.”
“I will not engage with this,” Nicolo says breezily, and starts wandering off with his dates.
“Wait, don’t—” Yusuf says, panicking. He grabs Nicolo’s arm, and they both jump at the contact. “Sorry, sorry, I’m being an ass, I know. Tell me what you’re doing in Malta.”
Nicolo seems overwhelmed by the stream of words—the earnestness, the apology, the sudden command. For a few moments, he studies Yusuf’s face. He lingers over his nose, his lips, the out-of-control beard.
“I’m hunting a group of men,” Nicolo says, before rattling off the same names on Yusuf’s list.
“Need any help?” Yusuf offers.
Nicolo is staying at a small abandoned farmhouse, a single sheep roaming around the grounds. To Yusuf’s bafflement, it does not appear Nicolo intends to eat the sheep, who he calls “Alfonso” and talks to as if it is his long-time friend.
A few years ago, a dying Christian priest had let Nicolo take shelter under his roof, before gifting him his home upon his death.
“A Christian holy man with Islamic tiles,” Yusuf says, toeing the beautifully patterned floor with his bare foot. “Metaphor for our situation, no?” Nicolo rolls his eyes, but he only looks a little annoyed.
Over the next month, they meticulously develop a plan-of-attack to hunt down the raiders. It’s dizzying, how quickly they fall back into their old patterns of bickering—except this time, the cautious edge had been sanded down, Yusuf’s scimitar propped up besides Nicolo’s longsword by the front door. Nicolo rarely prays anymore; he barely speaks of God. He’s more interested in talking of his experiences on the road, the people he’s helped and who have helped him.
The men are also no longer the starving and desperate warriors they once were. They spend their days gobbling bread, figs, couscous and—Malta’s divine gift—honey. The night before their planned attack, Yusuf cooks Nicolo a stew, trying not to fixate on the spot of honey on his cheek. “Any chance you’re no longer a Christian?” Yusuf asks slyly.
Nicolo snorts. “Any chance you’re no longer a pagan devil?”
“Sadly, I am more pagan than ever,” says Yusuf in Zeneize. “Even my own God would be ashamed.”
When Yusuf turns around, Nicolo has a bewildered look on his face. Yusuf delights in the way he can still shock this man, no matter how long it's been and how bizarre they may still seem to one another.
“You must a devil,” Nicolo replies in his own language, “with how quickly you learn tongues. My Arabic is still awful.”
“You make up for it in humility,” Yusuf says, and when Nicolo sees that he isn’t mocking him, he smiles shyly. Yusuf feels his heart thud heavily in his chest. Oh Allah, have mercy on me, he thinks.
As soon as the sun dips low over the dazzling sea, they take down the raiders’ camp in less than an hour. The leader is the hardest to kill, a barrel-chested man who ends up getting Yusuf into a head lock, beefy arms wringing the life out of him.
Being choked is always the worst way to die for Yusuf—he hates the closeness of it, his back against the killer’s front, foul breath steaming in his face. He hates how slow it is, how wild and trapped he feels. How he can’t get a word out. Get it over with, he wants to beg, snap my neck already.
He doesn’t have a chance to beg for real—an arrow sails through the air and pierces the raider’s throat. Blood sprays into Yusuf’s hair, his mouth. When the raider collapses to side, Yusuf sees Nicolo standing with his bow raised, chest heaving. He walks up to him and gently touches his shoulder. For a moment they’re both simply breathing, sharing the same air.
“We make a good team,” Nicolo says, finally. His breath smells like honey.
“Please. I was doing all the work.”
“Pardon? Your face was turning blue! You were practically begging to be rescued.”
“Rescue, is a bit dramatic. I almost had him.”
“Whatever you say,” Nicolo says derisively, but he’s grinning, carefree and sweet. “Let me buy you a meal, as thanks for your unmatched bravery.”
When Yusuf and Nicolo send word to collect their bounty, there is a moment of awkwardness when Yusuf doesn’t know where he will go next, now he’s in between jobs.
“Stay at the farmhouse until word arrives,” shrugs Nicolo, as if it isn’t a serious issue at all.
So Yusuf stays.
He continues making stew, haggling at the market, bringing home armfuls of bread, scooping up Alfonso’s nuclear mounds of excrement and—his favourite activity—watching Nicolo. He’d spent the last fifteen years a shell of a man, more a cog than a person, with no real passion or feeling—only mindless drive. Now, he feels set ablaze.
He watches Nicolo biting into fruit, juice dripping down his chin, as he reads books and tells Alfonso about his day. His gaze lingers over Nicolo’s collarbones, his ankles, his slender wrists; the way they shift and glow almost translucent in the sun. He commits Nicolo’s face to parchment, his charcoal piece tracing out the line of Nicolo’s jaw, circling around those startling, watchful eyes. When Nicolo catches him sketching, he lights up. “Bellissimo!” he exclaims.
At night, it feels strange to be alone in bed, knowing Nicolo is on the other side of the wall. He starts using Zeneize more, just to watch Nicolo smile; he spends his days helping Nicolo stumble through Arabic phrases, and tending to their increasingly unruly garden. When they run out of money near the end of the year, they have to sell Alfonso, and Yusuf places a comforting hand at the small of Nicolo's back.
Sometimes they go swimming in the bay, and Yusuf’s eyes are so busy taking in the rivulets of water trailing down Nicolo’s back and his chest, that Nicolo has to splash at him to get his proper attention.
“Am I boring you?” he laughs, knocking his fist lightly against Yusuf’s chin. “You haven’t responded to a single thing I’ve said.”
Yusuf spares him a gentle, apologetic smile. Despite his ferociousness in battle, and his infuriating self-righteousness, there’s something so essentially innocent about Nicolo. He doesn’t take the looks Yusuf gives him that seriously and, in fact, seems to treat them as a normal sign of deepening friendship. Which is why, Yusuf doesn’t think twice about Nicolo constantly stealing glances at him, too.
That is, until one late morning after his bath, when Yusuf walks into the kitchen wearing only his undergarments. Droplets are still glistening on his golden skin.
Nicolo is in his usual position, perched on the counter eating dates. When he catches sight of Yusuf’s bare chest, his jaw clenches. An animal look crosses his face—a look that is unmistakable. It’s the expression he wore when he first resolved to kill Yusuf, but now it is transformed—simmering, full of want.
“Enjoying your morning?” Yusuf says slowly, walking closer and closer to Nicolo.
“Yes,” Nicolo says evenly. But his voice is thin, back ram-rod straight now. “You?”
“Very much. The water was so cool—it made me want to go for a swim again. We should do that later tonight.”
He is completely in between Nicolo’s legs now, his front pressing up against the counter, imperceptibly rubbing against the front of Nicolo’s trousers. Nicolo’s face is inches away from Yusuf’s, his blue-green eyes so wide that Yusuf can see the flecks of morning light in them. Yusuf feels uncomfortably hard, his heart pounding blood through his body like he’s about to go into battle. He lifts a hand and, nervously, he touches his callused fingers to Nicolo’s jaw, outlining his bottom lip.
“Yusuf,” Nicolo whispers helplessly, revealing his desperation, and thats all it takes. Yusuf leans over and kisses Nicolo, slipping his tongue into his mouth, beard scraping roughly against smooth skin. Nicolo’s makes a noise as if he’d been stabbed, and clamps his legs around Yusuf, drawing him closer.
Yusuf groans when he realises that Nicolo is as hard as he is, their cocks pressing up against each other through fabric, seeking friction, contact.
They kiss deeply, sloppily—with teeth and tongue and roaming hands. They kiss as if they have been wandering through the desert for years and had miraculously found an bottomless spring. Nicolo’s hands scrabble for skin, feeling Yusuf’s muscular chest, brushing against hair. They roam downward and upward, trembling, as if he desires to touch everything but can’t decide what to settle on. “Yusuf, please,” he gasps in Arabic, “I need, I need—”
“Anything. I’ll give you anything.” Gently, he takes one of Nicolo’s hand and guides it inside his undergarments. Nicolo moans when he feels the size and heft of his cock.
Yusuf pulls back a little, pleased with himself. “Smug bastard,” Nicolo mutters darkly, but his eyes slip shut as soon as Yusuf begins thrusting into his tight fist. “Oh. Oh Yusuf.”
Yusuf slips his palms under Nicolo’s loose shirt, caressing his ribcage, the smooth, scarless skin, the perky nipples. Then, he slips hand inside Nicolo’s trousers, grabs a hold of his cock, and begins pumping his fist too.
“Died at the same time. Reborn at the same time,” he pants out, “I want us to—at the same time—”
“Si, si.” Nicolo is nodding violently. “At the same time.”
They pump their fists harder, faster, their breathing growing louder and louder. Nicolo buries his face against Yusuf’s shoulder, sinks his teeth into the skin and muscle there—but Yusuf feels no pain, only ecstasy. He lives in this moment now, in this bubble of heat, moans and slick skin.
“I want you inside me,” Nicolo is saying between breaths, “I want you deep inside me for the duration it took us to travel from Jerusalem to the coast.”
They both come then—sputtering hotly into each other’s fists, making so much noise that, through the haze of pure bliss, Yusuf worries for the first time that the neighbour will hear. But what are they are to fear? Nobody can hurt them, nothing can touch them—except each other. Amore, he mouths against Nicolo’s damp and sweaty hair, all of him buzzing and buzzing. Amore.
For the rest of the day, Yusuf feels as if he is floating on a cloud, head full of Nicolo and only Nicolo. His love, so patient and so kind; easily annoyed, easily pleased, lover of animals. Sweet Nicolo and his endless stories, his bashful smiles. It no longer feels as if all that binds them is the siege, the deaths, and their inability to die—the thought that he has more and more learn to about Nicolo thrills him like nothing else, as there is almost nothing Yusuf doesn’t find thrilling about him.
But, when he moves to touch Nicolo again after they clean themselves—seeking to brush the back of his hand against Nicolo's jaw—he shrinks back. Nicolo is wordless, his face stone.
Yusuf feels himself go cold, but he says nothing. Distantly he recalls Nicolo saying, by the flickering light of a fire: I’ve never even touched anyone. The fifteen years they were apart is a long time by human standards, but Yusuf could very well be the first person Nicolo’s ever been with, ever kissed.
He needs time. Yusuf repeats this to himself over and over, for the next three days, while Nicolo silently and coldly manoeuvres around him, ignores his morning and bed-time greetings. Yusuf begins to feel less and less welcome at the farmhouse until, finally, he cannot take it any longer.
“Enough of this,” Yusuf snaps. “If you want me to leave, have the decency to say it to my face. We are men, not children.”
Nicolo glares at him, stormy-eyed, fighting the urge to speak. When the words come out of him they’re hissed, laced with a poison that Yusuf has not tasted since their first meeting. “Is that what you are? A man?”
“What else could I be?”
“A test from God. A demon—”
“This shit again—”
“—God sensed my faith wavering, when it has never wavered before. He saw my pitiful weakness. He tested me and I failed Him, I always fail Him—”
“Nicolo, listen to me,” Yusuf pleads, “you haven’t failed anyone. What we did was not evil, no matter what they tell us. What do they know of it? These people who know no beauty, no gentleness—only hatred.” He tries to step closer, to take Nicolo’s hand but Nicolo pushes him back, hard.
“There you go again, with your filthy pagan words. I will not listen.”
The force of the action, and the hostility of Nicolo’s words, dislodge something within Yusuf; he stumbles back, stunned and furious. The grief of his decades, these tidal waves of loss, wash over him, all at once.
“I see. This is what you think of me, even after all this time,” he says with frightening calm. “Yes, I am the silver-tongued demon, I am to blame. Always me and my people, never you. That is how it has always been with you people.”
He moves towards the door and picks up both their swords. He sees Nicolo’s gaze harden, his body grow stiff—Yusuf almost laughs. He tosses the European longsword into the air, which Nicolo catches with ease. A tinge of conflict flickers across his face.
“Try and kill me then,” Yusuf says, “Hurt me. That is your purpose and desire, no?”
For the first time in days, something in Nicolo cracks. “I—I don’t—”
“This is the mandate of your people the second you stepped onto our soil. You’ve taken everything away from me, don’t you see? I have no family. My brothers in arms, all gone. Everyone in the city I knew and loved, slaughtered.” Yusuf starts laughing then, an ugly expulsion of sound. “And yet I thought you kind. I loved you.”
Nicolo is breathing hard now, the sword shaking in his hand. Yusuf doesn’t know how he’s managed to shock him again—the last part seems baldly obvious to anyone who has ever seen his face around the Crusader, this man who has had a hand in dooming his kin.
“You do not love me,” Nicolo says, so quietly that Yusuf has to strain to hear him. “We barely know one another.”
Yusuf gives him a cruel smile. “Right once again, Christian! I see now that I could never love someone as heartless as you.”
Nicolo, who could barely look at him through their whole conversation, stares right into his eyes then, all his iciness and bravado suddenly gone. Again, he wears the expression Yusuf has grown so familiar with: the boy watching his father slaughter his pet, a priest cupping a dead chukar chick between two careful hands. Yusuf won’t be fooled again.
“Lift your sword,” he orders.
“Yusuf,” Nicolo chokes out, “I do not wish to—”
“Kill me? What does it matter? I cannot die.”
He strikes then, his scimitar slicing through the air and resounding against Nicolo’s sword. Vibrations travel up his sword-arm as the blades clash again and again. Nicolo’s blocking is panicked and sloppy. They begin slam into every surface, shattering clay pots and jars of honey, destroying every marker of home. There is a fury in Yusuf he can’t dispel, which drives him forward and forward as Nicolo begins jumping on the new tables that Yusuf carved to get higher ground, boots muddying scraps of Yusuf’s drawings.
When he moves to jump again, Yusuf trips him with his foot, bringing the Christian and his sword clattering down. He brings down the scimitar and Nicolo throws up his arm to block; the blade slices a long, deep gash into his forearm.
The yelp of pain pierces right through Yusuf. As suddenly as he started, he stops, lowering the scimitar. Pulsing rivers of blood drip down Nicolo’s arm, branching off as if tracing the path of his veins from the outside. He breathes raggedly, free hand making a futile effort to hold the wound shut.
They’ve killed each other tens, maybe hundreds, of times, in the most creative and bloody of ways; yet Yusuf can no longer stand to see Nicolo in pain. He feels the wound as if it is his own—his anger leaves him so abruptly, he can barely stand, barely comprehend why he was angry in the first place. He drops his blade.
“Nicolo,” he says, crouching down beside him, tearing off part of his shirt to staunch the wound. “All will be well.” Gently, he places his hands over Nicolo's. Together they hold the gash closed, waiting with bounding hearts, tears prickling hard. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Yusuf is mouthing, his eyes screwed shut, as he feels skin knit back together beneath their palms, the flow tapering off into tiny red drops.
Yusuf opens his eyes. Nicolo is still breathing hard, wordless, pupils blown wide. They stare at one another for a long while.
“I’ll leave you now,” Yusuf tells him softly. “Forever.”
He gets up and walks out the door.
For the night, he stays at a Maltese inn on the outskirts of the city, trying to plan where he’ll go next. But his head is clouded with too much darkness: Nicolo’s face, trembling with pain, his words before, barbed and cruel. He asks the innkeeper if she has any wine and, for the first time in his life, Yusuf drinks until he only remembers brief flashes of the past day.
Deep into the night, when he is, to his chagrin, sobering up, Yusuf hears a knock at the door. “Do you have more wine after all, beautiful lady?” he calls from his bed. No response. Sighing, he drags himself off the bed and stumbles to door, swinging it wide open.
His heart stops when he sees it is Nicolo, looking wild, Yusuf’s sheathed scimitar clasped in his hand. They stare at one another.
“So you have come to get your revenge,” Yusuf says. “Slay me with my own blade. There’s some poetry to that.”
“What?” Nicolo says, startled. “No! No I—”
He crumples completely then, looking so overcome with despair, that Yusuf immediately steps closer, draws him into his arms. “Be well, Nicolo,” he says, laughing sadly. “Shedding tears over a fool like me.”
Nicolo gazes up at him, eyes red-rimmed, snot leaking out of his nose.“I came to bring you your sword. You left it.”
“When I tried to murder you, I know. Thank you—I would have missed it.”
“I’ve ruined everything.” Nicolo whispers. “I know you must hate me. I know the sight of me must sicken you.”
“What has possessed you now?” Yusuf says, brow furrowing. He lifts a hand, uses his thumb to wipe away the stray tears. “Why would I be holding you if you sicken me?”
“Because you are noble,” Nicolo says, “You are the most noble man I know.” Something dark passes over his face. “I know—I’ve known for a long time—that I have been a part of great evil. I heard about what happened in Jerusalem, in the other cities. I caused you so much pain.”
Yusuf sighs deeply. He brushes Nicolo’s hair out of his forehead. “I've been far from perfect, Nicolo. Besides, it is all in the past now.”
“Yes,” Nicolo says, unsteadily, “I hope that after all this, you can find some peace. You deserve it, amore mio.”
He disentangles himself, trembling, and begins to leave, until Yusuf tightens his grip. “Where are you going?”
“I know what I said. And I know what you said. Did you mean those things?” Fervently, Nicolo shakes his head. “See? You cannot trust the words of idiot whoresons.”
Nicolo begins to smile; oh, his tiny, beautiful smile. “No, you cannot.”
“I did mean one part.”
“Truly? Which part?”
Yusuf draws Nicolo into a kiss so careful and chaste, it could very well be their first.
Nicolo lets Yusuf fuck him that night, both of them lying naked on the inn bed, limbs thrown around one another. Sliding inside Nicolo is one of the most simple and beautiful feelings Yusuf has ever experienced—just like eating breakfast with him, swimming with him, fighting beside him.
Over the next few days, he takes Nicolo in every way possible: sideways on the bed, against the dresser, against the window, bent over a table, on their knees, rutting clumsily on the wooden floor. They suck on each other’s cocks and balls and fingers; they kiss sweetly like shy virgins. One dusk (or was it near dawn?) Nicolo is on top of him, riding his cock with his hands splayed on Yusuf’s chest. Every time Yusuf thrusts upward, Nicolo lets out a series of rich, ambrosial moans. “Ah—ah—” he gasps, “Dear Christ, I’m so full. You fill me up so wonderfully.”
It’s the first time Yusuf has ever heard Nicolo take Christ’s name in vain. He throws his head back and laughs at him. “I truly loathe you,” Nicolo sighs, laughing at himself too. Abruptly, he climbs off Yusuf and the bed.
“Come here, my love,” he commands, standing tall. “I think we need to shut you up for a while.”
Yusuf grins wolfishly. He slides off the bed and onto his knees, his palms instinctively cupping Nicolo’s ass. He allows his face to be mercilessly fucked, his mouth and throat full of cock, Nicolo’s hand roughly tangled in his black hair.
Making love to one other feels like those first few kills sometimes—competitive, exhilarating, both unable to resist. Except, deep down, Yusuf knows he’ll never tire of this, the warmth of Nicolo’s body, his smile; he’ll always want his mouth, his breathlessness, the tight wet heat of him. Which is why, he knows they’ll have to stop soon, before they’re no longer able to.
One brilliant morning in Malta, the sunlight breaking apart against the vast ocean, Yusuf wraps his hand around Nicolo’s wrist before he can reach down. They hadn’t eaten in three weeks, so shackled to their bed, that they only left to relieve themselves at the latrines.
“Why don’t we go for a swim?” Yusuf suggest. He kisses Nicolo soundly on the lips. “Then, let’s run. Do some hunting in a new country.”
Nicolo smiles sheepishly, then yawns. “At last. I’m sick of all this sun—my nose is starting to peel.”
In the hull of a ship, sailing far across the seas, two men dream the same dream: a dream of people like them—two women, both raven-haired, who gaze upon each other with a softness the men recognise. Who die and die and die again.
In the morning, they sit on the deck and dip bread into oil. The sky is streaked with tangerine clouds, the day still young and flushed.
“The truth is,” Nicolo says, “the second I left you on the coast, all those years ago, my head became so full of you that I could barely think of much else, even God. Some people are destined for each other and I had found my destiny, this rare, tender thing, and turned my back on it. All that silly arrogance.”
Yusuf grins, taking Nicolo’s hand. “And perhaps that was the will of our Gods, having made us so fearfully, wonderfully stupid.”