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deo volente (lux aeterna)

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The tower is hot and crowded, and the air smells like frightened men.

It is the earliest hour of the day, the fajr prayer, but the heat has only barely leavened during the night, and there are bodies pressed to every side of Yusuf al-Kaysani as he unrolls his rug and prepares to begin. Sweat drips down his back beneath his light linen caftan, but he keeps his eyes forward, his hands still. The imam’s voice is thin and reedy, yet it carries well enough. In an ordinary time – of which this is anything but – you are unlikely to see quite so many worshipers at fajr. But they are all afraid. Their world has drummed for weeks with the news of the Franks’ dread advance, the fall of Antioch, the knowledge that the Holy City is next in their sights. As the first rakat begins, as their voices murmur together in the blessed words of the Qur’an, Yusuf spots the boy beside him, slender and beardless, struggling not to weep before his elders. Allah, he thinks. Allah, the Great and the Merciful. Allah, hear us. Allah, by Your will.

They follow the motions, so well-known as to take on a pleasing autonomy. Standing, supplicating, reciting, rising, prostrating, rising again, sitting, Salaam, through each of the four rakats. The morning climbs up the wall as they do. First there is a dark blue glow, and then a lighter one, and then the air is ethereal, silver and pink, and then the sun comes up in its golden-oil splashes over the crowded rooftops of Jerusalem. The great walls with their gates and massive stone towers, the olive groves, the dun terraces, the churches and masjids and synagogues, the quarters for each of the Holy City’s people. Alone among these, the Christian Quarter sits empty, for the Fatimid governor of the city, Iftikhar al-Dawla, has ordered its evacuation. They heard of the treachery of the man Firoz in Antioch, opening the gates to let the invaders in. They will run no such risk here.

As fajr is concluded, as men begin to filter out in search of breakfast or information or to check on their supplies, or to pace in the marketplace and await the messengers’ return, Yusuf hangs back. Perhaps it will be dishonor to let on that he has noticed the boy’s tears, but he does his best not to make it so. “Well met this morning, my brother,” he says with a friendly smile. “Will you take some figs or bread with me?”

The boy looks up, startled. He searches Yusuf’s face for pity, for mockery, for scorn, and – somewhat to his confusion – finds none. “I arrived from Egypt with the others,” he says warily, his Arabic flavored with the streets of Cairo, the home Yusuf himself has now not seen for almost three years. “They will be waiting for me.”

“As you like.” Yusuf nods back. “Cairo is my city too. My name is Yusuf ibn Umar al-Kaysani, I am one of the governor’s men. If you have need of anything, you will find me there.”

The boy inclines his head. “My name is Ahmed ibn Ghassan al-Rafiq. I thank you for your kindness, sidi. If you thought that I was – ” He stops, chewing his tongue, unwilling to admit his moment of weakness, but forced to reckon with it nonetheless, as must they all. “When the Salibi come, you must have no fear that I will not do my duty. I am afraid, yes. But I will be brave.”

“That is the only time a man can be brave.” Yusuf claps him on the shoulder. “May Allah be with you, Ahmed ibn Ghassan, and his blessings smile on you.”

With that, since it seems his invitation to break bread together will not be accepted, and he is expected back at the garrison anyway, Yusuf hurries from the tower. The soldiers have been praying here, at their posts, rather than in the great and holy Al-Aqsa Mosque with the civilians, because they cannot be caught too far from the gates when – as they expect all but hourly – the alarm goes up that the first Frankish vanguards have been spotted. Iftikhar al-Dawla has poisoned or blocked all the wells, cut down trees, scourged the land of anything that could be used for provisions and fodder, and the European barbarians are suffering in the scorching heat of the Holy Land, but they advance nonetheless. Yusuf has never yet seen one of them face to face. The battlefield tales and the fearful gossip speak of soulless men with faces pale as milk, eyes like winter ice, their appetite for bloodshed stoked, not satiated, by the more of it they cause. They sound like ghuls, corpse-scavengers, something not men at all. Deathless, undying, cursed, eternal. If a mortal blade can end them, it is Iblis that awaits.

(Later, so very, very, very much later, Yusuf looks back on it, this foolish certainty, and almost laughs at the thought that he had any remote idea what eternal was.)

He climbs up the stretch of wall he has patrolled for the last three weeks, from waxing moon to full and then now to waning gibbous. He has polished and honed the edge of his saif so many times that it can leap into his hand as if charmed by a thought. He has not earned his place among the governor’s picked men because he is a coward. As the fourth son, he is a man who can increase his family’s honor through his martial skill, without risk to the titles and marriages and sons that his elder brothers must make to carry on the name and multiply its blessings. Yusuf was trained in furūsiyya, the practice of equestrian warfare, and he is entitled to the rank of faris, which the Franks would call knight. He is also a talented swordsman, and walking on this humble patch of mudbrick to stare at a dusty horizon, over and over, sometimes feels like a waste of his abilities. You could put some wet-behind-the-ears newcomer up here with a battle-ax and get the same result. Yet when the Franks attack, highly trained faris or unskilled ax-man alike must stand in their way, and meet the same fate. It is not fair, Yusuf thinks. It is not just.

Nobody asked for the Franks to come here. Nobody thought the world better for their intervention. This is not some sudden new grudge that they must race to avenge. The Islamic caliphates have ruled the Holy Land, including Jerusalem, for almost four centuries. There have been disruptions along the way, as there always are, but the Franks were even allowed to come to the Holy City on pilgrimages as they pleased, at least until recently. But their Christian pope, Urban, stood up in some place called Clermont in France, and preached the need for a great crusade to retake the East. Infidels, Turks, heathens, the words they call Yusuf and his brothers. They have only made it this far because of the deep disorganization in the Islamic world, the splintering caliphate, the infighting that has already torn apart their satellite states in Iberia, as the Franks arrive there as well to carry out what they brazenly deem the “reconquest.” There is no good in any of them, Yusuf thinks. No justice or poetry or mercy or music, all the lovely things his world makes in its Golden Age. Avicenna and al-Andalus, the mathematicians and astronomers and artists, the Kitab al-Hiyal and its marvelous inventions, the men who map stars and write verses. Places like Damascus, Baghdad, Cordoba, Seville, Samarkand, beautiful cities where scholarship flourishes and men of all faiths are welcome to study at the knee of the masters. The Franks want to destroy that. It is all that is in them.

Yusuf must, therefore, destroy them. Even as it does not, in its deepest heart, truly please him. There are men who are born for war, whose greatest purpose and meaning is drawn from it, who take form in it, and then without it, crumble to dust. Yusuf can match any of them at arms, but if the Franks were not here, if none of this was happening, he thinks of himself at home in Cairo with a pen and ink and some verses to write. To sit beneath a fig tree and measure the world, to master geometry and natural philosophy, to apply to teach at Al-Azhar University. He can discourse on logic and rhetoric and grammar and the ḥādīth of the Prophet (saww) as well as sword and lance and horse and battlefield tactics. He would have been happier as a scholar.

Yusuf walks his stretch of wall for the morning, and performs the zuhr prayer at his post, with the other soldiers nearby. They can see a dust cloud that they are uncomfortably sure does not arise from the natural movements of the wind, and finally someone calls for the governor to come and look. Iftikhar al-Dawla is a man of Nubia, tall and slender and black as they are made, with the bearing of a king and golden jewelry that stands out in bright relief against the darkness of his skin. He shades his eyes against the punishing sun and says at last, “It is not the Franks themselves. Not yet. But it is unmistakably a herald of their advance. They will be here before fajr tomorrow.”

The men look at each other. Some mutter takbir under their breath, a reflexive defense against evil. Bells are sounded across the city, in the hot, thick air, as the civilians hear their echoes and know their portent, as they gather their last things from the marketplace and scuttle into the shelter of their houses, close shutters and bar doors, thus to hide in the darkness and pray to whichever name of Allah they hold their own. Soldiers march from street to street, announcing the news in the varied tongues of Jerusalem: Arabic and Aramaic, Hebrew and Coptic, Greek and Turkish. Any man caught outside after sundown will be pressed into service, and some of them are whisked off anyway. This is no time to waste hands, trained or otherwise. The city is crowded and creaking at the seams with all the refugees it has taken in, fleeing the crusaders’ advance, and nobody will utter aloud the stark fact that there is not enough food to feed them all. Especially if a siege stretches on for weeks.

In the whirlwind of work, Yusuf spots Ahmed ibn Ghassan, and the two of them catch eyes. In a lull, Ahmed steps nearer. “I hear the Salibi are coming, sidi,” he says bravely. “I am eager to meet them in defense of the city and of the greatness of Allah.”

“Then I am glad to stand with you,” Yusuf says. “Together we will prevail.”

Ahmed smiles at him – he is young, he is barely seventeen, he is younger than Yusuf’s youngest brother, Jihad. There are seven sons in all, from Yusuf’s father Umar al-Kaysani and his three wives, and four daughters. Yusuf’s mother Maryam is the second of the wives, but most favored since she has borne five of the sons, and Yusuf thinks of her now. She is plump and pretty and quick of wit, she wears small jewels in her nose and pinned up in her veil, she used to scold him when she found him up too late with a book, and she cried when he left Cairo to serve in the army. She knew it was an honor, that it was not merely any man who was named faris, who could have the privilege of defending the faith, but a mother will weep. He pushes the thought of her away. She will not, he vows, weep over his body, or whatever news she might have, weeks from now, that he is gone. He will survive.

(He will survive.)

It is thus, on what might be the last night of their lives, that the isha prayer is even more crowded than fajr. Their voices rise as the moon does, as the dust cloud on the horizon has grown thicker and stronger and they can hear the tramp of heavy booted feet when the wind changes direction, see the pinpricks of torches. Yusuf thinks of the names he has heard, though he has but little sense of how to fix them into the geography of faraway Europe. The word Franks describes them all, no matter where they are from. Robert of Normandy, Robert of Flanders, Bohemond and Tancred of Sicily, Raymond of Toulouse, Godfrey of Bouillon and his brothers, all leading armies, and more arriving every day. It seems as if there are more of them than the grains of sand on a beach, than all the stars in the sky. Here the faithful men of Allah wait, crouched in the darkness, for their coming.

Ahmed is not the only one who weeps in silence. Some hide it better. Others do not.

Yusuf al-Kaysani lifts his eyes to the ceiling, and one last time, as a mortal man in fear of death, he prays.

* * *

The light of the Holy Land hurts Nicolò di Genova’s fucking head.

To be sure, this is not the most pious of principles to take, though anyone who has spent any time with the crusading army could be forgiven for wondering what, exactly, piety has to do with any of this. Despite valiant attempts by the preachers and friars and other itinerant evangelists accompanying the men, urging them to keep their minds and bodies trained to a higher purpose, they still behave like soldiers will at any time and place: in drink, in women, in swearing and gambling, in whatever distractions will succor them on a long campaign in a land that is hot and unfamiliar and far from home. So far as it goes, Nicolò has absolutely no standing to complain about any of this, unlike the grizzled veterans of Dorylaeum and Nicaea and Antioch. He set foot in the Holy Land just five days ago, when the Genoese ships landed at Jaffa heavily laden with equipment to build state-of-the-art siege towers. He is instantly recognizable as a rube, a pathetic newcomer who can barely piss straight, and he spent the first few days really overdoing it so as not to instantly get jumped and thrown in a ditch for his fine broadsword and clearly expensive hauberk. That, therefore, explains the headache. Strong wine and blinding sunlight are not a welcome combination.

To be fair, Nicolò thinks, it is not as if this vice is his alone. Indeed the commander of the Genoese reinforcements, Gugliemo de Castello, is known less flatteringly as Gugliemo Embriaco, “William the Drunkard.” It’s Nicolò’s own fault for getting stuck with him. If Nicolò was keener on the whole crusading idea, he would have joined up two years ago in 1097, when 1,200 soldiers and sailors left Genoa aboard twelve galleys and have played a crucial role in supporting the army by sea. The Genoese have expanded their maritime power ever since the attack of God’s Year 1087 on the city of Mahdia, in Tunisia, and have forged a firm alliance with Bohemond of Taranto, one of the most formidable of the crusade commanders (though Bohemond has now become entangled in the project of seizing the city of Antioch for himself and has not traveled on to Jerusalem). If Nicolò had been just a little more timely about taking the cross, he could cover himself with that glory, not Gugliemo’s… well, to be fair, he has only vomited in public once, but it was memorable.

The problem is that Nicolò does not want to be here, never wanted to be here, and probably still would not be here, until his father informed him that one son of their proud merchant family was going to the Holy Land and that was final. It cannot be Nicolò’s older brother Matteo, heir of the house, who has an advantageous marriage with a rich heiress awaiting him, and the rest of the children – Caterina, Magdalena, Margarita – are daughters. The youngest son, Pietro, is only eleven, and their other sister Innocenta died in the cradle, many years ago. So the honor falls to Nicolò. Two months ago he was happily larking about Genoa’s less savory districts and winning dice games with the sons of consuls, drinking good wine and adventuring among the beds of beautiful young women (and… not women) as he pleased. Now he is here, sand filling his boots, head aching fit to split, and he has not seen one damn good reason why he should be. Oh, aye, the Saracens are filthy, thieving infidels, that is not under debate, and if Nicolò can play a part in winning the Holy City for Christendom, maybe even Domenico di Genova himself, his crotchety and ever-unpleasable bastard of a father, will be forced to approve of him. Swine may soar past treetops first.

Nicolò shifts and grimaces, stretching his arms, sore with the weight of mail. He’s not a total wastrel; like any well-born boy, he has trained with sword and spear and crossbow since the age of seven, and he will be able to give a smart account of himself in any battle. But this is double the misery. Due to the constant risk of attack, they must wear their chain mail at all times, and muddling around in thirty pounds of solid steel, in the boiling sun, while your head hurts like the Devil and you are engaged in constant, crushing manual labor for sixteen hours every day… Nicolò makes a note to suffer some kind of wound here. Nothing too bad, nothing fatal. Just enough to make it entirely unlikely that he will go on another God-be-damned crusade ever again.

(If only, of course, he had any idea.)

The leaders of the French army, the cousins Robert of Normandy and Robert of Flanders, have arrived to reconnoiter with the Genoese, after for some reason Gugliemo and his brother Primo tried to march them toward Ascalon instead. Now they are firmly decided on making a united attack on Jerusalem, the glittering Pearl of Great Price that hangs at the center of this entire absurdly dangerous enterprise. The din of hammers, saws, chisels, and other tools fill the air, as the crusaders build the mighty siege machinery. Despite Gugliemo’s shortcomings in other arenas, he does not lack in this. There are towers, mangonels, battering rams, ladders, grappling hooks, and all the other equipment of war. It fills Nicolò with something half pride and half shame. He does not even know why.

Nicolò was interested to meet Robert, duke of Normandy, whose father was the great Conqueror of England, even if he otherwise thinks that Normans (especially those who have also overrun Sicily in the south, and never an easy neighbor to turn your back on – small wonder those bastards are descended from Vikings) could sit down and shut up for once. However, he found the reality a deal less impressive. Unlike his tall, fierce, golden father, who was able to fire a longbow while riding at full gallop and won the crown of England with six thousand men, Robert is small and dark, unremarkable of stature and unprepossessing of presence, with a permanently hunched look to his shoulders that suggests he knows just how much he has fallen short. He has somewhat come into himself on command of this crusade, however, and Nicolò cannot judge any man for failing to live up to the stringent and unattainable ideals of his father. He finds himself working next to Robert sometime during the day, as they haul beams and sweat and strain with the rest of the men, and at the end of it, Robert turns to him. “I’ve not had your name, my lord – ?”

“Nicolò.” He wipes his brow, still fighting the headache, and corrects himself for how the French are more likely to know it. “Nicholas of Genoa.”

One of Robert’s eyebrows raises. If Nicolò recalls, he once sought to marry the heiress and powerful sovereign lady Matilda of Tuscany, and thus might have something of a remaining interest in Italian politics. “One of Avvocato’s men?”

“No, my lord.” Nicolò pauses. “One of William de Castello’s.”

Robert’s mouth turns wry. William is both his glorious late father and his living brother – the current king of England, William Rufus, to whom Robert mortgaged his duchy to raise funds for the crusade. Nicolò suspects it cannot be easy to know that your younger brother wears a crown to which the laws of primogeniture would otherwise entitle you, and which Robert was prevented from receiving by his long and bitter rivalry with his father. After a pause Robert says, “Regardless of your commander’s reputation, you’ve proven yourself a man of good worth. I’d like to offer you a position among my forces for the first assault on Jerusalem.”

Nicolò opens his mouth, then shuts it. He almost feels embarrassed on Robert’s behalf that he has made such an assumption, that anyone could be in his presence for a day and still think him remotely worthy. Deep down, he knows that he is not, that his father is justified in scorning him, and he decided long ago that if there was nothing that could change Domenico’s mind, he would embrace it as unapologetically as he liked. Finally he says, “I am only a man-at-arms, Your Grace. I have no virtues or chivalry or royal lineage to commend me to your service.”

“You have worked hard enough today, and I value that the more.” Robert continues to study him. Nicolò wonders uncomfortably if he knows, if it is written on his face somehow, that they are alike as sons disdained by their fathers, and whether or not he wants that to be seen. “I will not, of course, insist, should you prefer to remain among your countrymen. But if you ever wished to be more – ”

“I assure Your Grace that I am quite unremarkable.” Nicolò doesn’t even know why he is trying so hard to bat off the invitation, other than the panic creeping up his throat that if he goes and they all see how little he truly is, he… he could not bear that somehow, even for all he discounts and disdains the crusade. Unprepossessing or not, Robert is still a duke (even of a mortgaged duchy) and Nicolò is… well, he is many things, but still a merchant’s son. It is that, he tells himself, which stops him. The impropriety of their ranks. It is foolish, because of course Robert commands plenty of knights of Nicolò’s own station or lower. But the fear has hold of him now, and it does not go away. “But I thank you most humbly.”

Robert surveys him again, considers, then nods once and strides away. The hot night is turning hotter with the blaze of cookfires, as Nicolò decides that risk of sudden death by midnight Saracen ambush or not, he has to get all this steel off before he broils alive. He pulls and struggles with it, the links clinking and clashing; at least he has no need to find a barrel of sand to work off the rust, since this entire bloody hellpit is nothing but a barrel of sand. He prays – not a familiar habit, for someone as only superficially devout as he – that this ends quickly. It very well might, though everyone knows not to underestimate the enemy even and especially when it looks as if victory is certain. But the march toward Jerusalem has been largely unopposed, the last resistance broken, the way clear. It is only a matter of time.

Nicolò wipes his brow, grimaces again, swears, and lurches off to find some supper where they are not all kneeling and weeping and raising their hands to heaven, begging Christ’s aid, as some of the more obnoxious crusaders feel the need to do at every opportunity. It is the only place for a sinner such as him. Out of God’s sight, out of heavenly light, out there alone in the darkness. Even taking the Holy City itself may not make him pure again.

The assault of Jerusalem commences on the fourteenth of July, God’s Year 1099. The heavy siege machinery is rolled into place, the forces are gathered, and the storm breaks. Godfrey of Bouillon, his brothers, and their men are assigned to the northern wall, Raymond of Saint-Gilles on the south, and everyone else surging in diverse places between. Nicolò is somewhere in the middle of this great and enormous upheaval of Christian people, in helmet and hauberk and tabard, gauntlets and vambraces and greaves, a siege-ladder before him and nothing to do but go up it. Most of the Genoese are crossbowmen, and their quarrels hiss overhead and fall like an iron rain on the battlements above. Crossbow bolts can puncture even steel, though the Saracens largely do not wear it: their helmets are iron, and their commanders are armored more similarly to the Franks, but the soldiers themselves are clad mostly in boiled leather and scaled armor, light and made for rapid motion, useful on horseback but much less so against men in heavy mail. Nicolò has not stopped to reckon yet, but they might – it dangles, it tantalizes, it tempts, it lies there, shining as gold – they might just be winning.

The battle is endless, unorganized, unformed chaos. Men fall screaming, toppled off the siege ladders from hot oil or pitch or bricks or anything else that the Saracen defenders heave off the walls. But they have been penned up and prevented from receiving reinforcements for almost six weeks, as the crusader ring of steel drew tight like a noose, and the spies have said they are on their last legs. It is not just a dream and a wish and a prayer, some wild fantasy of Pope Urban’s that could never be made manifest. It is happening. History is happening.

By the end of the day, the Franks have almost broken through the first line of defense, the pendulum of all the world hangs in the balance, and Nicolò di Genova is still alive.

He will not be for much longer.


It is the twenty-third day of the month of Sha’ban, the year 492, the day of Yawm al-Jum’a – the holiest day of the week, the day the Franks call Friday, the fifteenth day of the month they call July, in the year they call 1099 – when Yusuf al-Kaysani learns his terrible secret.

It is also the day that the Holy City falls.

Later the two things become tangled in one, in the terror and trauma and disbelief, but at the time they are distinct, almost crystalline, and it makes both a twisted awful sense and none whatsoever – that Yusuf should live and the city should die, when he would be happy, so happy, for it to be the other way around. But the Fatimid defenders are battered and reeling from the savagery of the barbarians’ assault, and even as Iftikhar al-Dawla strides among them, desperately trying to exhort them to one final stand, it is clear that the morning will bring with it the unspeakable. Yusuf looks around for Ahmed, finds him battered but alive, only the whites of his eyes visible in his face. He looks straight at Yusuf and says, “Will we die tomorrow, sidi?”

Yusuf can give him no answer otherwise, not when it seems so terribly clear that they will. He cannot advise a young man how to no longer live, to prepare for the Judgment before the throne of Allah, even as it is what must be done, the soul ordered, the mind clear, the heart joyous and devoted, submitted, to the Almighty’s will. He says, “I fear so.”

Ahmed’s chin quivers a little. He has promised to be brave, so he is. He does not shame himself. Yusuf wants to tell him that. None of them do.

The hour of fajr brings the beginning of the end of everything. Everyone can see that this is it, they are cracking, that there are not enough of them to stand as one against the tide, and the wave is crashing, crashing, red and redder with blood. The Salibi force their way into the Tower of David, mounting the ladders and charging through, and the corridors are full of the enemy, of stone dust and thundering bombardments, as Yusuf and his brethren make their final stand. He finds himself sword to sword with one of them, close enough to see the man’s pale eyes beneath the helmet – they are like ice indeed, he thinks dreamily. This is the first Frank he has ever seen, and just then, all the awful tales seem true. It is a ghost without a soul. A monster.

They duel back and forth, clattering and clashing, barely with room to maneuver among the flood tide of their fellows engaging in a thousand similar battles, each man all of Islam and all of Christianity at once, embodied in the meeting of a thousand bloody blades, as one falls and the other stands and the Franks keep coming, surging mercilessly. Yusuf loses his balance, goes to one knee, and the man he is fighting looks directly into his eyes. Yusuf cannot tell apart all the blazons of the Salibi, but this one, he thinks, is from the place they call Genoa. The Roman pope will approve, he thinks absurdly. I am to be done to death by an Italian.

It does not once occur to him to beg.

The end, as he sees it coming, is almost simple. Merely the Genoese soldier swinging the sword back – hesitating half an instant, as if seeing in Yusuf’s eyes some uncanny mirror of his own soul, of knowing suddenly that the Saracens (as the Europeans call them, cast out by Sarah, in an attempt to dishonor the lineage of Ishmael) do in fact have one, where the Christian priests have promised that they do not. That they can and should be slain with joy.

Still the Genoese soldier hesitates. Then he does not.

Pain such as he has never known bursts in Yusuf’s heart. The steel drives deep, unyielding and hard and sharp as woe, and it burns into his chest and into his lungs and all the way through his back, and he cannot breathe, he cannot see, and far off in his mind’s eye, he can see his mother waiting for him at the gate of their house in Cairo, the one with the trees that cast cool shade over the courtyard and the dancing fountains and the rooftop that gazed to the west bank of the Nile and the mighty pyramids of Giza. He has broken his promise after all. He will die, and she will weep.

I am sorry, Mama, he thinks, and thus, for the very first time, Yusuf al-Kaysani dies.

He wakes in darkness, and screaming.

Yusuf does not understand. He cannot – his first thought is that despite all his efforts at virtue and right living, he has committed some terrible sin of which he did not fully repent, and thus he is not in paradise but in hell. There is no other explanation. The night is rent by fire to every side, blood runs on the stones like water, and he can hear nothing, anywhere, but screaming. There is more tumult, more laughing, that must be the demons of Iblis arrayed in their torment. He notes that the demons sound like Franks. It seems correct, but why – Allah the Mighty, the Great and Merciful, what, what has he done to deserve this?

Yusuf scrambles to his knees, and touches his chest where the Genoese soldier stabbed him. He knows he was stabbed, he can still conjure it in his senses if he tries. There is a faint ridge of scarred flesh, but even that is smoothing away as he touches it, until he almost loses his mind in terror. This is somehow worse than the taking of it, when sense and reason is coming back to him and unless hell looks precisely like the city of Jerusalem, that is where he still appears to be. The Tower of David is sacked and ravaged, the corpses of his brothers scattered everywhere. One of them is familiar. It is Ahmed.

“Merciful Allah, defend me,” Yusuf whispers, even as for the first, terrible moment in his life, he is not entirely certain that the God of Ibrahim, Isa, and Muhammad (pbut) is there or that anybody is listening. He staggers to his feet – he remains a man of the true faith, and of Iftikhar al-Dawla’s guard, and he must return to duty if he is somehow still able – picks up his sword, descends the blood-soaked steps, and emerges into a nightmare the scale of which not even Iblis Himself could conjure.

There are people everywhere, and all of them are dead. Not just the defenders of the city, but old greybeards, women, children, babes, all the Muslim and Jewish residents of Jerusalem. They lie in ravaged piles, blood running like water from their torn flesh so that it comes up almost to the ankles of Yusuf’s boots, their eyes staring, their mouths fixed in frozen screams. The real screams come from ahead, suggesting that the massacre is still going on. The grotesque shadows of armored Salibi move from street to street, swords dripping in gore, kicking down doors and hauling out the occupants. Their throats are cut, their chests driven with steel, and unlike Yusuf, none of them get up again. It is beyond comprehension.

A kind of madness takes over Yusuf, a total freedom from all fear of death, for he has already been stabbed once, bled out on the stones, and nothing else can possibly be so terrible. He lunges at the Salibi like a swooping roc from the skies, seizes hold of them with a strength that is not just his but all of the murdered brothers and sisters, and kills them with a ferocity that stuns him. It is not just the usual skill of a faris but something more, and it burns through him until he cannot breathe. He cannot stop all of them, he cannot overmatch a thousand monsters when he is still only one man, but he does his best. He runs through the exsanguinated streets of Jerusalem and kills the killers, dodging, whirling, slashing, cutting, stabbing, incoherent and overcome. He is crying as he runs, his tears blinding him, but he cannot let them stop it. He cannot stop for anything.

(It is not enough.)

By dawn he knows that he might have spared some of the civilians – though some of those were immediately cut down by more Salibi coming from the other direction – but he has not saved Jerusalem. He finds the shredded remnant of his garrison, and they whisper that Iftikhar al-Dawla was forced to surrender the city to the count of Toulouse, Raymond of Saint-Gilles, in the Tower. In exchange, he and a few of his remaining bodyguards have been escorted out of the city, and the rest has been left to the murderous sacking. “They said it was necessary to kill every soul within these walls,” Ali ibn Ali manages, his eyes staring the wrong direction and his face like chalk. “To wipe the infidels out, to stamp their Christian purity upon the Holy City and to know that it was theirs now.”

Yusuf reels. He has to sit on a broken paving stone, head between his knees, trying to absorb this enormity. It’s too much, nothing makes sense, and his head races until he almost prays that the Genoese had chopped it off – that, perhaps, would have stuck, and he would not still be alive to know this. There is nothing, nothing he can do to comprehend or correct any of this, except –

Wait. There. Across the way. It is difficult to tell in the chancy shadows, the fact that this could be any other man in the same colors, one in the endless sea of monsters. But there, like a prayer answered, easily at hand, is the man who Yusuf thinks is the one who – not killed, as that cannot be what happened – who stabbed him.

There is still something to be done.

He gets up, quiet as a shadow. Pulls his knife out, sneaks up, and then – as the man starts to turn too late, as he recognizes those ice-like eyes and knows that it is him, as if he would know those eyes anywhere, and knows them certainly at the end of the world – he stabs.

The Genoese jerks and gasps. He continues to stare at Yusuf. Something comes over him, and Yusuf thinks that this man knows perfectly well that he killed him earlier, and yet here he stands, some dread fetch of vengeance for the sin that the Salibi have done here today, as the sacking continues in all the quarters of the city. Yusuf bares his teeth, and whispers in their ugly Frankish tongue, the only word he knows, “Die.”

The Genoese soldier goes to his knees, as Yusuf gives the blade a final twist, and obeys.


Nicolò never expected to wake up in paradise.

He lies on his back among the bloody stones and stares at the thin strip of pale sky, does not want to get up, does not want to see anything else about what happened here. His hand finds the wound in his chest, even as he thinks – it makes no sense – that he can feel the flesh furling back together. He knows he was stabbed, cannot even argue that he deserved it, but how – how? Unless the Saracens conceal a more dark and deadly secret than anyone has imagined, he knows that he killed that one in the first battle in the Tower of David. He saw the man’s eyes, looked into his face, knew for as long as he lived that he would not forget him, and stabbed him. It was not a wound that Nicolò has seen anyone walk away from, ever. Yet moments – hours – days? He knows nothing of time just now – there the same man was, knife in hand, and driving it haft-deep into Nicolò’s chest, in the vulnerable juncture of mail between arm and torso. He can imagine what any priest or bishop would make of it. Monster.

And yet, if the Saracen is a monster, so apparently is Nicolò. Because he too is lying here in the streets of Jerusalem, having taken a wound that by all rights should have sent him spiriting directly to heaven, the martyr’s reward, and he is alive.

It must not have been that bad, he thinks. Perhaps the man missed, in the heat of rage, and the stroke went wide. But he can feel an ache in his heart, a small cold spot not quite dissolved, and knew that the blade drove true. What is – why choose him to spare, of all the unworthy men? Not that Nicolò thinks any good could come of making the crusade leaders invulnerable. The butchery is on a scale that turns his stomach. He wishes he had never come here, that he was never part of this, even as his fellows fling down their swords from murdering some screaming mother and raise their hands to give thanks to God and His son Jesus Christ. Not me, Nicolò thinks. Not in my name. Yet, of course. It is. He is here, part of the system, sharing in its collective guilt. Pleading individual innocence cannot excuse him.

Slowly, his fingers splaying uselessly on the stones, his limbs weak as water but still functioning, he gets to his feet and looks around. It does not seem that long since. Not even the hour of Sext. And yet. All the world is changed.

All of eternity is changed.

The Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem is proclaimed a week later, July 22. Godfrey of Bouillon is elected its ruler, though he piously refuses the title of king, claiming that only Jesus can call Himself king of Jerusalem, and adopts the style of Advocatus Sancti Sepulchris, Guardian of the Holy Sepulcher. Nicolò stands in the crammed church with the rest, on the most holy ground in all the Christian faith. This is supposedly the very place where Christ came to life again, and it makes even Nicolò shrink to ask if he has somehow been swept up in this same exclusive club. It took Jesus three days; it took him a matter of hours, if that. They went on to found a rather notable religion from it. Is Nicolò to take airs, proclaim holy visions, demand to be worshiped as a prophet or a messiah himself? There have been many of those men among the crusading army, poor and charismatic preachers claiming to be fired by trances and ecstasy and direct speech with the Almighty. Nothing of the sort has happened to Nicolò for his pains. He even got very drunk again the other night and still woke up with a headache. What is he? There is no man he can ask. They might just stone him, or laugh at him, or believe that he speaks the word of God, and he begins to think that is a very dangerous thing indeed.

Justly proud of themselves as they may be, the crusaders’ work is still not done. A massive Fatimid relief force is marching from Egypt, and Godfrey leads the army of his new kingdom south to meet them. They meet on the twelfth of August in what becomes known as the battle of Ascalon, which seals the Christian conquest of the Holy Land. Nicolò once more finds himself in the field, fighting for a cause and a god and a king he no longer knows if he believes in – and then. Again. They see each other at the same time.

It is the Saracen he killed in the Tower of David, who killed him in turn on the streets. Again their eyes lock, and it feels like lightning, and each man knows the other. There can be no mistake.

Impossible, Nicolò thinks, as if it will make a difference. It has to be impossible.

(Impossible barely seems to matter any more.)

He arrives home in Genoa a fortnight before Christmas. Some of his fellow crusaders have stayed, to welcome the archbishop of Pisa who is to be installed as the new Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, but for reasons quite apart from Pisa’s traditional rivalry with Genoa, Nicolò does not think he can stomach it. He elects to risk the winter journey, as even the sun-drenched Mediterranean can be dangerous out of season, not least because he needs to run far away from everything that happened to him in the Holy Land. His family residence overlooks the Porto, the harbor from which flows their wealth in trade, and he steps off the ship and within a matter of moments is walking up to the door of his own house. He cannot think about what to say if his father is there. He has been reduced to a wreck of a man. He is not eating and barely sleeping, and can summon only the barest appetite for his former excesses of debauchery. Perhaps, he thinks blackly, he might even become a monk. If only he could scrub out of his head what he saw done in Christ’s name.

Nicolò goes upstairs to his room, shuts the door, gets into bed, and remains there for three days, barely even greeting his family, until his sister Caterina, the closest to him in age and the one who has always been his favorite, comes to drag him out. She forces him to get dressed and to accompany her into the market, to look at the scaffolding that encloses the half-built Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, to walk the cobbled lanes past the parish churches, the houses of the merchant princes, the high city walls that are perpetually in a state of construction to defend against Genoa’s greedy enemies. As the faintest hint of snowflakes kiss their noses and the wind rattles off the stone-grey sea, she says, “Talk to me, Nicolitò.”

Nicolò struggles for the words. He has learned that Pope Urban died just a week after the proclaiming of the kingdom of Jerusalem, never hearing the news that his great dream had been realized, and it is another former Cluniac monk – though a man originally of Forli, in the Romagna, Paschal II – who has taken his place. The rest of Europe is joyous, disbelieving, heralding the turn of the century, the year 1100, with the greatest news that could be imagined, that Jerusalem is theirs again. Finally he says, “Cat, I don’t know what to tell you.”

“I know better than to expect you to be entirely happy.” She gives him a serious look. “But even Father cannot complain of your bravery. He has been going about town boasting to every guildhall about his son, the famous warrior Nicolò. He will, I think, chide you less now.”

Nicolò looks away. He loves his sister dearly, but he cannot answer her. He is glad to hear that the crusade fulfilled its damnable purpose in winning some reprieve from his father, though it sticks in his craw to hear that now Domenico boasts. If I had died, you would have carved out all mentions of me and claimed you never knew me. Useful in his victory, in his survival, even as nobody in his family knows quite how unlikely it was. How do I say that I killed a Saracen, and then he killed me, and I cannot stop thinking of him? Are they alike, him and this nameless infidel from half a world away, woven of whatever fell stuff they must be? The idea both repulses and oddly thrills him. It is more than memories, sometimes. It is dreams that feel as vivid as life, a return to that very moment with the other man penetrating him, blade inside him, their faces close together in the dawn, and… then Nicolò finds himself waking, and staring too long at portraits of Saint Sebastian, and wondering very seriously if he is losing his mind.

Caterina is still waiting for an answer. He looks at her, and cannot find the words. Instead he says, “I thought you were supposed to be married.”

“You came back from the Holy Land. He did not.” Caterina shrugs. Nicolò did not think she was particularly fond of the man, another dynastic match among the Genoese merchant gentry, but as the eldest daughter, there is some expectation of it. “I will tell you a secret, Nicolitò. I am going to run away and go to the university in Salerno. There is a magistra of great fame there, a female professor, Trota, and I intend to become her student. I am going to be a doctor.”

Despite himself, Nicolò chokes. Not at the audacity of this plan – he knows Caterina well enough to be sure she will pull it off – but at her choice of career. A doctor. He wants her to examine him, if she ever learns enough, and solve what is wrong with him, when perhaps he is the only man (aside from the Saracen, the voice in his head reminds him, the Saracen like you) who has never been wrong, tainted with death, the legacy of Original Sin. At least not permanently. He did very much die the first time, he did not enjoy it, and he does not know if he would stay dead the next time, if his return can be put down to a brief lapse of attention on the part of St. Peter and the heavenly hosts, what with all the other new arrivals they were processing.  There is a long pause. He says, however much it is beside the point, “Does Father know about this?”

“I will send him a letter when I arrive.” Again Caterina shrugs. “You have done your part to fulfil his wishes, and so have I, by agreeing to be wed in the first place. It is not my fault my intended met a holy death beforehand. Neither of us owe Father anything else.”

No, Nicolò thinks, perhaps we do not. One of them should be free, him or Cat. His mother is dead. He thinks fighting with his father wore her out.

“Nicolitò.” His sister’s voice is soft, her hand on his cheek, her eyes worried. “What is it? Something’s wrong. What happened there?”

“Nothing. I am well.” The lie tastes sour, but Nicolò suspects it is only the first of many he must become accustomed to telling. “You are going to make a wonderful doctor.”

Caterina beams, and rises on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek, and he hugs her hard, as they stand there on the walls together. How good it is to have her, even if he cannot tell her everything. He would never in his wildest dreams, then, have imagined outliving her by – and still counting – over nine hundred years.


Yusuf al-Kaysani comes home to Cairo, and to his mother waiting at the gate, and to a thousand, a hundred thousand questions he cannot answer.

In Egypt, you might almost forget the unparalleled calamity which is currently befalling the Holy Land. Palestine and Syria and parts of Anatolia, Antioch and Edessa, Tripoli and Tyre and Jerusalem itself, all the ancient cities are under the Christians’ fist now, and settlers from Europe are already arriving to live alongside the crusaders who never left. They mean to rule it, to build a principality to last for centuries of their own. This has resulted in an agonized collective soul-searching among the scattered Islamic powers as to how they could have ever let this happen, failed in their duty to Allah and the Prophet (saww) so badly. All the schools of fiqh, whether Sunni or Shia, can think and write of nothing else, what they must do to atone for it. Yusuf has nothing to offer them. His clever brain has gone dark, his days existing in a dumb, numb haze. He is not a man, he thinks. He is something else, and he does not know what.

He goes up to the rooftop with the sight he so missed, sits there gazing across the minarets of the walled city, the Nile in its winter flood that will leave the banks black and fertile for the spring planting, the mighty shadows of the Great Pyramids, the legacy of a civilization that endured for thousands and thousands of years. The ancient Egyptians believed in a sort of unending life. They thought that the soul crossed to the underworld, that death was not the end, or could be reworked, reversed. Should he try to find a papyrus, the Book of the Dead, as if it might offer answers for his peculiar dilemma? Or is it something else?

Yusuf conducts small tests, under cover of night and alone. He takes a knife and stabs his hand, which hurts precisely as much as you would expect, but within moments, the wound begins to heal, closes over until it is as if it was never there. He cannot quite bring himself to slash his own throat in the name of experimentation, even if the scientists of Baghdad might be disappointed in this lack of venturesome spirit. Anything else he tries – he welcomes the pain, it feels purifying somehow, a purge, a reminder – has the same result. Nothing can hurt him for long, nothing can damage him. Fire burns him, but it too heals. Steel cannot sunder him. He debates whether to drink poison and see if that would, but it seems unlikely.

At last, he thinks there is nothing for it. He can see no other answer, however much it disquiets him, and no other place to find it. He has been living in the army barracks, mostly because he cannot face his mother’s worried questions, but he returns to her house on a cool winter evening to eat with her. She has made all his favorite foods, and the comfort of it is so good and ordinary that it almost brings tears to his eyes. He hates that he must now accuse her of infidelity to her face, but so it is.

“Umm Maryam,” he says formally, and sees her expression flicker in confusion. “I have a question for you, and I beg you, answer me honestly. Was my father a jinn?”

She stares at him as if wondering if he was touched in the head – it cannot be wine, of course, as they do not partake. “I beg your pardon?”

“A jinn,” Yusuf repeats doggedly. They are powerful, quasi-immortal creatures of light and air and fire, mostly human to look on and sometimes not at all, known for their magic, their quarrels, and their weakness for mortal women. “My father.”

Maryam looks as if she might overturn the table and all its dishes into his lap. “Your father was Umar al-Kaysani,” she says stiffly. This is a very serious accusation to put to a married woman; others might have been, have been killed over it. “And the father of all your siblings, as you well know. Son, have you been driven moon-mad?”

“You’re sure?” Yusuf presses. “I will not say a word to anyone if it is otherwise. I just – Mother, I must know.”

“I have never lain with a jinn,” Maryam says. “Or any man except my husband. I am a woman of honor. Why would you – why would you even – Yusuf, I do not know why you would think for a moment that I – ”

There is nothing for it. Yusuf looks at the eating knife, looks at his mother, and wonders if she will faint dead away if he proceeds to the more practical aspect of revelation. His heart stutters in his chest; what if she runs and shouts for the soldiers? Yet he picks it up, and takes a deep breath and says, “Mother, don’t scream.”

Maryam’s eyes are the size of saucers, reflecting the light of the candles. Yusuf is not sure if she is agreeing, or simply too stunned to make a sound. Too late to stop now. With that, he grits his teeth, holds up his palm, and drives the knife clean through it.

There is an ugly crack and squelch, dark droplets of blood splash heavily on the woven runner covering the table, and Maryam claps a hand to her mouth, aghast, about to throw up, as Yusuf pulls the blade free. The pain is burning, unbearable, and he thinks with eyes watering that he could have just done something more sensible like slash the back of his arm, but he thought it best to go for the full and dramatic demonstration. And indeed in a moment, it is not so bad, and not so bad again, and then it starts to fade, as the wound knits up. He holds it up so she can be sure, as her face remains blank as new parchment, and he is sure that she thinks he is worse than a monster, worse than a jinn, worse than anything. He waits, heart hammering.

“What on earth…?” Maryam, still stunned but belatedly regaining the power of speech, reaches out for his hand and takes it in her own, her strong, papery fingers turning it over and over. “My son, what is…?”

“I don’t know.” His chest is thick, his voice rasping, and briefly, shamefully, he fears to be the one to weep instead. “That was why I asked you.”

Still shaking her head, Maryam examines his hand, the lack of any wound, even as the blade of the knife gleams crimson. Neither of them can find anything to explain it, as she keeps making small noises of disbelief. But she does not let go of him, or slap him, or curse him, or drive him out. At last she looks up, her kohl-lined eyes gleaming with tears. “My sweet one,” she says softly. “I always knew you were different.”

Yusuf opens his mouth, then stops. He does not know if she knows how different he truly is, how part of the reason he became a soldier, fourth son or no, is because his father wanted him to marry – a perfectly respectable girl, daughter of a wealthy Bedouin trader, a good match that would have brought them many camels. But Yusuf could not imagine himself doing so, living as husband to a wife, and when the world is all about family and lineage, about fathers and sons, about children to carry on your name, it seems impossible that he could ever voice it. But as he lifts his head and looks into his mother’s face, he knows in an instant that she does mean this too, that she can see it, and that, more than the no-longer-there wound in his hand, stops his throat. “Mother,” he whispers. “How long have – ? It must – it must revolt you, if you think I – ”

“You are my son.” Maryam reaches up to touch his cheek, wet with the silent tears he cannot hold back. “My son. I have known and loved you since the day you were made. There is nothing about you which could ever disgust me.”

“It does not…” He can barely breathe. “It does not… trouble you?”

“I have other sons,” Maryam says firmly. “And daughters. I have grandchildren already, and will have more. But more than that, my sweet one, you must know that Allah makes no mistakes in fashioning a man. However you are, it is because He wanted you to be thus, and there is no moment in which I would say otherwise. I would not even dream of it. I may not know what you are, what is in your body and your heart that is different from other men, but Allah does, and I trust in Him. You must do the same.”

Yusuf cannot get the words out, any words, so he nods instead. They sit there, their hands clutched together, the wick of the oil guttering in its clay lamp and burning low, among the pottery plates and bowls of supper. At last she releases him and looks up, and her voice is once more brisk and businesslike. “You can take the bones and the bread out to give to the beggars by the gate,” she says. “It is good for zakat, and we have not had many alms this winter. That is what you must remember, Yusuf. If you live by the Ten Practices, and you are a good man, that is all that matters. Promise me.”

He does. He promises, and he remembers, he remembers longer than anyone could have thought. He is not always certain of the God of Ibrahim and Isa and Muhammad (pbut), what this dread and warlike master truly wants from him, but the God of Maryam he has never ceased to want to know better. It sinks down into his bones, a part of him that is as elemental and primal as all of time, that no time or death or eternity could ever take away, and he does as she asks. He takes the leavings out to the beggars; they accept them and bless him for it. Then he goes back to his mother’s house and crawls into the cushions and blankets of his boyhood bed, closes his eyes, and dreams for the thousandth time, as he has every night since, of the Genoese man in the Holy Land.