Chapter 1: 1099
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.
Chapter 2: 1148
It has been fifty years since Nicolò di Genova realized he could not die – or rather, could not stay dead, which have proved to be two different things – and his life barely merits the word.
He realized a few years after the battle in the Tower of David that not only did he fail to perish upon that occasion, he also ceased to age. He kept looking in the glass for silver hairs, for so much as a wrinkle, for anything that would prove that time has continued to act upon him as it should, and found nothing. There was sickness in Genoa one bad winter, and he caught it, he was confined to bed, he shook and ached and was racked with chills and fever, he coughed and spat blood, and he felt almost relieved. But he still does not know if he just slept very deeply that one night and woke up refreshed, or if he died again, was duly regenerated, and thus cannot count upon that as a way out either. He must be the only man – well, almost the only one – in all of history who is so desperate to find a way to lay down this dreadful burden.
After that, he left no ambiguity in finding out what exactly he could subject himself to. When the news came in 1113 that his sister Caterina was dead, that she worked tirelessly among the people of Salerno during another pestilence until she succumbed to it herself, that she is gone and all his stupid, ridiculous, overflowing life did nothing to help her, that all her hard-earned skill as a magistra went to waste before she saw forty years, he flung himself off the highest turret of the city walls in total despair. He crashed down on the stones and felt every bone break, saw his blood burst across the cold ground, knew for a fact that he died that time because he felt it happen, and yet woke up in the morning dew shivering and naked as a babe, for some ne’er-do-wells had found him as a corpse and stolen his clothing. Nicolò lurched home (not at his father’s house, not with his brother and his wife, not with his sisters) and held out his arms and looked at the unbroken bones, straight and smooth and long, and pounded his hands to shreds on the walls. Those too sealed up. It is intolerable.
It was when his family started to die – even his fucking father saw more days than Caterina did, expired comfortably in his bed at a grand old age in 1120 – that Nicolò decided he had to get out of Genoa. His surviving sisters, Magdalena and Margarita, kept trying to track him down and drag him to their hearthfires with their husbands and children, eager to push fat nieces and nephews onto his knee and tell him that it would be better if he would just find a nice girl and settle down. Then those nieces and nephews grew up and got married themselves, and Zio Nicolò looked just the same as ever, and his sister Magdalena’s husband was prone to crossing his fingers and hissing an invocation against demons whenever he was nearby. Then Magdalena died, and then Margarita died, and his youngest brother, Pietro, demanded at her funeral whether Nicolò had drained her dry, stolen their family’s life force somehow, and Nicolò had no answers for him. There was a fight over her body, Pietro was drunk and furious, and snatched down a dagger and drove it into Nicolò’s shoulder. He barely had time to wrench it out and run into the night before everyone would see it heal – though they had already seen well enough that it did not stop him – and knew in utter despair that he could never go back.
He did not know where to go instead. Thus of all the ironies, he ended up in Genoa’s great rival, Venice, richest and most powerful of all the Italian city-states, expanding its trade and influence across the Adriatic and to the lands of the Croats and the Greeks in the east. His accent is still distinctly Genoese, and is occasionally liable to get rotten vegetables thrown at him, but he learns the Venetian patois swiftly, and rents lodgings on the Grand Canal. Neither food nor drink satisfy him, so he barely touches them, has tried a few times to starve himself to see if that takes, but the animal need for food wins out, and he cannot be sure. He takes lovers as well, both men and women, out from the eyes of his family, but they do not entirely satisfy him either. He wanders the city and tries to lose himself in the bustling commerce: the sound of the gondoliers that pole by shouting for business, the sight of brightly colored ships on their way across Europe, the Doge’s men in their distinctive hats, the booming bells of the city churches, the brilliant blue water of the lagoon and the way that Venice on a clear day feels like the rarest and most beautiful of all God’s mysteries. Look, you self-pitying fool, he tells himself, look, this is life, you have it, you have it all. Make some good use of it, I pray you.
And yet. There is no rest, no ease, nothing but a burning desire to know why it is him, and how it can be amended, can be ended. Nicolò has settled on the most obvious answer: the Saracen cursed him. This is all the Saracen’s fault. He was the one who originally had this unnaturalness in him, and he passed it to Nicolò when Nicolò stabbed him in the tower, in revenge. Sometimes he still dreams of the man, and it always wakes him in a lurch of something that is rage and… well, something that is the opposite of rage, but it is easier to call it that. Sometimes the Saracen’s eyes linger in his head too long. It is a heat that burns differently but no less maddeningly. Nicolò has heard all the stories about how they are sodomites, how indeed Saracen and sodomite slide neatly together in the Church’s category of evils, their religious and their sexual perversity the clearest demonstration of the other. Such admirable circular logic is it, Nicolò does not care that it is clearly idiotic. It is easier to blame them. It always has been.
Hence when Nicolò hears that there is to be a grand Second Crusade, that Pope Eugenius has issued Quantum praedecessores and the kings of France and Germany themselves are taking the cross, his first reaction is almost relief. There have been other expeditions after the glorious First Crusade (though of course it only becomes the First Crusade when there are subsequent crusades to contrast it with, and when it becomes better defined what a crusade actually is). Indeed, the first half of the twelfth century has been little else. The follow-up expedition of 1101 met with grim failure, but the king of Norway made a visit in 1107 and helped take the city of Sidon for the expanding Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem. Then the defeat at the Battle of the Field of Blood in 1119 set the Franks back on their heels and spurred calls for Europe to help (the Venetians duly went off on that one, a few years too early for Nicolò to be around). The same year sees the founding of an initially impoverished military order intended to protect Christian pilgrims, the Knights Templar, who may prove to be useful in the future. Individual noblemen have drifted off in a steady stream of intending to make their fortunes. But this is the first time that Christendom has tried to make a repeat of the First Crusade, after the atabeg of Mosul, the energetic and ambitious Imad ad-Din Zengi, captured the city of Edessa in December 1144. Louis VII, the pious monk-king of France himself, has vowed to take it back. This is something new.
At last, a defined objective, a clear chance. Nicolò can think of nothing else. If the Saracen is cursedly indestructible as he is, he cannot rid himself of the conviction that he will once more find him there. He will beg – no, demand, order, he is a Christian man, he will not abase himself before some demonic heathen who has infected him with this sickness. If nothing else, he can take refuge in this pretense that it can be ended. The irony does occur to him, that a Christian has never before in the history of the world been desperate for a Saracen to kill him, but these are unprecedented times indeed.
Nicolò duly takes the cross – there is no national contingent this time, since the Venetians are allies of the Byzantine emperor, who is less than pleased at the crusaders tramping arrantly into his sphere of influence – and sails off to join the French when they make it to Antioch, in March 1148. It is not a particularly victorious arrival. They have already been battered by ignominious defeats during their punishing march across Anatolia, not least at Laodicea in January, and King Conrad of Germany, after feuding interminably with Louis as to which monarch should be held in precedence, has fallen sick and been forced to retreat. Zengi himself is dead, assassinated by a disgruntled servant in 1146, but his son Nūr ad-Dīn, ruler of Syria, is just as strong and ambitious as his father, and much younger to boot. Indeed, the whole expedition has systematically exposed Louis’ glaring flaws as a military commander. He is meek, passive, indecisive, and without the stomach for hard-bitten campaigns, having reliably made a hash of every one he was confronted with back home in France. Nicolò already has a sinking feeling that this is going to be a disaster, but forbears to say so.
Louis’s wife, however… she is another matter. Beautiful, brilliant, outspoken, and fearless, Eleanor of Aquitaine is a host unto herself. She has ridden on the crusade with her women dressed as Amazons, and it is plain to anyone within an instant of meeting the royal couple who the brains are here. (Indeed, Louis has gotten in trouble in the past with his sour old advisers for relying too heavily on the counsel of his wife.) She flirts with her powerful uncle, Raymond, prince of Antioch, and enrages the churchmen further, already mumbling that her presence is the reason for the crusade’s difficulties thus far. Nicolò himself is delighted by her. When she meets him for the first time, she languidly offers her hand to kiss and asks where he is from.
“I am originally from Genoa, my lady,” he says, since even if he speaks Venetian quite well by now, nobody would take him for a native. “But I have lived in Venice for… some years.”
“Are you married, Signore di Genova?” She asks it with a tilt of her head, a flutter of her eyelashes, a flash of the inviting deep blue of her gaze, that suggests she might be interested to hear the answer – even if Nicolò does not think that she, constantly accused of coquetry though she is, has ever actually cuckolded her royal husband. (He does not blame her for the urge. Louis has all the charisma of a bowl of tepid pudding.) “A handsome man like you?”
He smiles, despite himself. Good God, this woman must boil Bernard of Clairvaux alive, and the mental image gives him his first true joy in years. “I am not, my lady.”
“Whyever not?” Eleanor studies him, as if to enquire whether there is some horrendous defect that cannot be discerned in this examination (at least not one with his clothes on). “You are a young man. All your life before you, and nobody to share it with?”
At that, Nicolò chokes. A young man – should he tell her, as he has a mad and momentary impulse to do, that he is old enough to be not just her sire but her grandsire? “Well,” he says. “Perhaps I have not found anyone who wishes to share it.”
“That is a pity.” Eleanor clucks sympathetically, and beckons one of her maidservants to pour him a goblet of wine. She is one of the most famous beauties in Europe, her dark red hair demurely veiled with a wisp of gauze, her throat gleaming with the collar she has had fashioned in the style of Diana, goddess of the hunt, and Nicolò moves unconsciously closer to her. Not even from lust, but just that this is the sort of life he wishes he still had, this bright-burning flame. “What sort of women do you like, Signore di Genova? Perhaps I can advise.”
“I…” He hesitates. Eleanor is from Aquitaine, the flamboyant and liberate south of France, in comparison to the starched, repressed, chilly north (another point on which there has been conflict at court). She is not liable to swoon dead away, and even Paris itself is increasingly known as a cosmopolitan capital where all sorts of pleasures can be explored. Nicolò glances around to see that the maid has retreated and they are unattended, as this is not a confession he wants carelessly overheard. “I do enjoy women from time to time, Your Grace, but I… well, I cannot see myself married to one, not forever. If you are to – take my meaning.”
“Ah.” The queen eyes him shrewdly, takes a sip of her claret. Not missing a beat, she goes on, “Should I ask what sort of men you like instead?”
To his enduring shame, Nicolò immediately thinks of one. But that is not an answer he can give, not least because he has signed up on this entire venture precisely in order to kill the bastard. He does not like him. He does not in the least bit. He’s insulted at the very idea.
(He dreams of him again that night, and very nearly leaps directly out the window, just because it seems to be preferable.)
Yusuf al-Kaysani is fraying at the seams.
He has done his best, all this time. He stayed in Cairo as long as he could, as long as his mother was there, in order to live how she taught him. He almost has to laugh at her persistence. They would be out by the Nile, there would be shouts and screams from some boy who had gotten into difficulty in the deep current, and his mother would hit him on the arm and say, “Yusuf, what are you waiting for, go get him!” and stare at him with that sort of expectant maternal umbrage. He tried to sputter that he can still drown, Mama, he’s not indestructible, it hurts – and then, inevitably, sigh and sprint through the trampled reeds, dive in and pull out the unfortunate lad and tell him to be more careful next time, there are crocodiles here to boot. Once he threw himself between a girl being stoned and the rock that would have shattered her skull; it shattered his instead, his mother carried him home, and even after he woke up that evening entirely healed, insisted on nursing him for longer so the neighbors would not be suspicious. That was just what she did, every day since she learned the truth about him. She told him where to find people who were hurting, who needed help, and urged him to do something about it, to take the punishment that their mortal bodies could not. It made it tolerable, it made it better, it made it a life. Yusuf no longer prayed especially every Friday to be relieved of the curse, because it made his mother proud, and it gave him purpose, and he did not even mind the several extra times that he died. (Much.) She is too good for this world, his mother. She always was.
Yet in Cairo, as the Fatimids’ power continued to crumble and everyone nervously expected the Christian barbarians to come marching south for them at any minute, such prodigious skill could not go unnoticed forever. Yusuf grew increasingly worried of endangering his mother if whispers made it around, and saw the way people eyed her in the street. You cannot rescue those being hurt without making enemies of those doing the hurting. Yusuf learned that lesson very quickly. So he told her that he had to leave, he had to find somewhere else to be for a while, and he would come back, he would see her again. She did not cry this time, but held his head and gazed into his eyes and finally kissed him on the forehead without a word. She let him go, and so, Yusuf went.
He traveled across Arabia and North Africa, to the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah, to Carthage and Hippo, to al-Mamlaka al-Maġribiyya, which the Latins called Maroc or Morocco. Everywhere he went, he tried to help, whether or not it was received warmly. He went to the mighty Sahara, the desert with its mountains of sand that stretched on forever without a shadow, without a drop of water, and all the way to the coast of the Atlantic, a sea of a very different sort. He came back through the kingdom of Mali and the small but growing settlement of Timbuktu, which is attracting a community of Islamic scholars and a collection of fine Arabic manuscripts, which he stopped for a while to read. (In another two-hundred-odd years, Timbuktu will be the flourishing capital of West African scholarship, a jewel of the Mali Empire and King Musa I, the richest man of all time, who spends so much gold on his pilgrimage to Makkah that he inadvertently crashes the Egyptian economy.) Yusuf learned whatever he could, whatever might explain him, but still has not found the answers. He keeps at it nonetheless. If he is going to live for a very long time, he should not remain untutored.
All that, Yusuf thinks. All that, and yet he broke his final promise to his mother. For that, no amount of learning or adventure suffices to mend, and it still burns.
Maryam bint Tariq ibn Khaled al-Katibi had a good life, a long life, blessed with a husband, sons, daughters, grandchildren, with (generally) the respect of her community, a woman upstanding and steadfast and humble before Allah, a woman who did many good works for the poor and weak, a woman of honor and piety and compassion greater than anyone will ever know. It was not so unexpected that she would die as a beloved old matriarch, and that all her descendants would be at her side except for Yusuf himself, and when he came back, eager to tell her everything he had seen, he found that she had been dead and buried for years. He lost track of time, of course. He forgot that it worked on her and not on him. He forgot about it passing, when he could not pay such close attention any more. He came back brimful of stories, and met silence.
Nor, for that matter, can he expect to just resume his life where he left off. Half his siblings are also dead, and the other half are grey-bearded men and white-haired women, confused and frightened by his long absence and the fact that he looks no different from so many years ago, and his reputation has preceded him, whispers that he met some sorcerer in the West and traded his soul away for dark knowledge. Additionally, while he has been larking off as he pleases, the war against the Salibi invaders and colonists has continued apace, and he has let down his brothers in arms by leaving them to face the threat alone. Not long after he arrives back in Cairo, Zengi captures Edessa, which sends a jolt of excitement through the Islamic world. But it is followed, of course, by the dreary pope doing the same dreary thing, calling the warriors of Europe to take it back, and that means the Franks are coming. Some of the Christians natively born and raised in the Holy Land are not as bad, having lived alongside Muslims from childhood, and are interested in commerce and trade and ordinary politics. The situation has been in place long enough that everyone is getting grudgingly used to it, and it must be made the best of. The Islamic Burids even made an alliance with the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem against their mutual enemies, the Zengids. But the crusaders, no. All they know or want is killing.
After his youngest brother, Jihad, dies at the venerable age of nearly seventy – Yusuf thinks back to Ahmed ibn Ghassan in Jerusalem, how he was younger than Jihad, how he has seen them both to their graves in this unbearable span of years – he makes a decision. He must do something. He painted his hair and beard white in order to attend Jihad’s funeral, feigned to be an old man, and he cannot stay in Cairo any longer. He must atone before Allah for the broken promise to his mother, and to prove that he has not become a dull blade, far away in the true faith’s hour of need. If the wretched Salibi are indeed returning, it is his duty to deal with them.
He washes the paint out of his hair, stares at himself in the surface of a well until he does not recognize his reflection, and then straps on his armor and his saif – the armor still fits, and the saif has been once more honed to a brilliant sheen – and rides for Aleppo.
Yusuf finds Nūr ad-Dīn there, a young and vigorous and ambitious man who has inherited his father’s desire to see the Holy Land cleansed of the unlawful Christian kingdom, and offers his service. The one fly in the ointment is that Nūr ad-Dīn is a devout Sunni, promotes its orthodoxy vigorously, and has forbidden the Shia adhan from being sounded in Aleppo, and Yusuf, a Fatimid Egyptian, is of course an Isma’ili Shia. Yet the differences of human doctrine concern him far less than they used to. He thinks in larger strokes, bigger pictures, a long unfolding sweep of endless time, and it – it is not that it does not matter, but it is not insurmountable. After the prince sees Yusuf fight a few times, and realizes what a singular weapon he has on his hands, an exception is quietly furnished to allow him to practice Shia prayer in private, as long as he attends the Sunni rituals publicly with the others.
They wait for the Second Crusaders, who have already taken their sweet time getting this far, to proceed to Jerusalem. They do not. Instead a decision is taken to attack Damascus, which is held by one of Nūr ad-Dīn’s rivals. To Yusuf’s mind, it seems foolish to risk a full-scale army march in the searing heat of summer, but as another general will one day memorably comment, do not interrupt your enemy while he is making a mistake.
(If only anyone knew quite how much.)
Yusuf arrives at Damascus, in Nūr ad-Dīn’s forward vanguard, in the second week of July, in the Christian year 1148, which is the Islamic year 543. (He has learned multiple languages during his travels, including French and Genoese, for no important reason.) The Frankish advance is lumbering slowly toward it, bogged down in the gardens and vineyards and orchards that surround the city, and the Muslim forces have easy pickings, targeting them with showers of arrows and lances as they try to force their way through the trees. It feels good, uncomplicated, the thrill of battle and of victory, and Yusuf leads the way at a gallop toward the next column of knights. Their leader sees him coming, turns his head, and –
The day is boiling hot, but Yusuf’s entire world contracts, shrinks down to nothing, turns freezing as snow, until that is all he can see. It is him, he knows it is. There is no mistaking those eyes beneath the helmet, and the way they lock on his. A twisted expression of total hatred crosses the other man’s face. He veers away from the others, as Yusuf does the same, and the next instant, before either of them have a clue what they’re doing, they have dismounted, drawn their swords, and flung themselves at each other.
The battle is brutal, vicious, and strangely beautiful. They dance a deadly dance in the trees like a pair of warrior dryads, the elegant curved saif and straight-edged broadsword clashing and crashing, trailing sparks from where they kiss, blow and parry, up and down, side to side, back and forth, but neither of them can quite get the upper hand. It is clear to Yusuf that the Genoese is just as angry about their renewed meeting as he is, perhaps more so, since he has not spent all this time thinking about one man he didn’t actually kill in Jerusalem fifty years ago. (Of course not. That would be stupid.) They battle to distraction, both of them having landed serious blows, breathless and bleeding, tearing their helmets off as sweat pours in their faces, and Yusuf looks at him properly for the first time in half a century. He is indeed a handsome man, in the Frankish way. Those eyes – Yusuf does not think he could ever forget them, and –
It is because of the other man’s eyes that Yusuf gets distracted, does not parry fast enough, and the Genoese’s blade slashes through his guard, flicks to his throat. Panting, spitting, swearing very colorfully, he says in his own tongue, “Kneel, you fucking bastard.”
Yusuf can’t say what it is, but something makes him obey. He goes down on his knees into the squashy, blood-damp ground, both of them staggering from their accumulated wounds, and the Genoese stares at him, shocked. For all that he gave the order, it’s not clear that he expected it to be obeyed. “Wait,” he says. “You can understand me?”
“Yes.” Yusuf answers in Genoese as well, just to vex him from hearing it from the lips of his mortal enemy. “And I know what you’re thinking. This won’t help you.”
“How do you know it won’t?” The other man spits, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, a bloody streak coming away on his skin. “Undo it, you bastard. Undo the curse you put on me.”
“I didn’t curse you,” Yusuf says. “I don’t know what happened.”
“Liar.” The Genoese’s voice rises to a shout. “UNDO IT!”
“I can’t.” Yusuf tilts his head back and stares at him flatly. “And some wiser men might see it as a blessing, not a curse.”
“A blessing?” The Italian’s voice turns scathing, and with that, he cannot help himself. He swings the blade back, lets out a roar of frustration, and drives it – ah, burning, black, pain, pain, black and black – into Yusuf’s belly. Twists and rips, and once again, as a man will, Yusuf dies.
He comes to with his eyes closed, the vineyard soil rich and damp around him, the reek of corpses in the hot sun already starting, and can sense at once that the Genoese is still there, watching tensely like a hunted animal in the forest, waiting to see if it worked. Yusuf is not in a mood to be peaceably slaughtered by this idiot, at least not without getting it back, and so he is careful. He moves slowly, half-hidden by the darkness, and gets a hand on his dagger, drawing it out, all the while continuing to look as if he is dead. Then the instant the Genoese lets out a ragged breath and turns to go, Yusuf jumps up, tackles him from behind, and stabs him.
It’s the Italian’s turn to die that time, which he does after Yusuf has peppered him with a dozen stab wounds, because that last one really hurt and he thinks it only just to pay it back in full. He knows just as well that it’s not going to work, but so be it. He sits on a log and waits until the knight opens his eyes, groans, stares at Yusuf who stares back at him, and the air crackles between them. Then he says, “I hate you.”
Yusuf snorts, as if to say it’s mutual. But the Italian struggles to sit upright, wincing and swearing, and – Yusuf cannot pretend he does not want to know, not when a creature will always seek out its like, its matched half as the Greek philosopher Plato wrote, and there is nobody else in the world, to the best of his knowledge, like the two of them. He says, “What’s your name?”
There’s a very long pause. He can hear the other man deciding whether to lie. But there is no purpose to it, except for bitterness, and the answer is uttered cold and shortly. “Nicolò.”
“Nicolò.” Yusuf leans back on the log. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“You’re mocking me.” Nicolò pushes himself all the way vertical and swivels to face Yusuf with something that looks distinctly like a prelude to leaping for his throat. “Who are you, Satan?”
“You mean Iblis? No. My name is Yusuf al-Kaysani. I’m from Cairo, not hell.” Yusuf obviously does not need to ask where Nicolò is from, since they’ve been speaking in Genoese for this entire conversation. “What are you doing here again, Nicolò?”
“What do you think?” His face twists. “I’m here to kill you!”
“Oh,” Yusuf says. All right, this time he is mocking. “How did that work out for you?”
Nicolò roars, grabs the dagger that Yusuf has unwisely left too close to him, and the conversation is thus delayed as Yusuf dies again. He wakes up with his face in the grass and Nicolò’s boot on his back, rolls over, grabs it, throws Nicolò flat, and gets it back. This goes on for long enough that it is something like four more deaths apiece for both of them, they have exhausted themselves to no point and purpose, the midnight stars shine on the grove and the walls of the city and the crusader camp in the near distance, and they lie sprawled in the mud, wheezing. “Fuck you,” Nicolò manages. “You’re a beast. A monstrosity. A foul Saracen devil.”
“If I am, so are you.” Yusuf aches all over – even with near-instant regeneration, being killed five times straight takes it out of you – and not in the mood to put up with yet another assault. Yet he cannot rein back the words. “Of course you blame me, you filthy invader. After you and your fellow zealots came to this land which never needed you, and covered it in death and butchery! I saw what you and your Christians did to Jerusalem and all those innocents! I read how your chroniclers bragged of blood up to the knees of your horses!”
He’s justifiably furious, and he expects Nicolò to shout back at him in turn, but instead the Italian flinches like he’s been slapped. He turns away, the sweaty moonlight profiling the lines of his face in cold silver, the tightness of his clenched jaw, the faint tremor in the air around him. There is an agonizing silence. Then Nicolò says, half to himself, “I know.”
Despite himself, Yusuf is caught off guard. He has never heard any of the Salibi do anything that sounds like apologizing for their arrogance, their cruelty and bloodthirst, and as much as he wants to keep shouting at Nicolò with all the terrible things his people have done, it seems… unkind, somehow. Nicolò is not all Franks everywhere, he did not swing all their swords, he is not Pope Urban who called for this in the first place, or even a particularly noteworthy leader. He is a man like Yusuf, a man here because he believed in his faith and his kings, but from the other side of the coin. It is an unsettling and unwanted similarity – as if that is the uncanniest among the other queer features they have in common – and Yusuf tries to shake it off. Distant he can hear the sound of bombards, the crusaders assaulting the Damascene walls. When Nicolò still does not speak, Yusuf says, “Well? Is that not quite the holy purpose you thought?”
Nicolò grimaces, a muscle working in his cheek. He runs a long-fingered hand through his sweaty brown hair, spits another gobbet of blood on the ground. “You still cursed me.”
“I did not.” The small spark of sympathy blows out like a candle. Allah help this man, he really is an idiot. “And even if I did, most men would think it no curse at all. An unending life, even if one not without the pain of dying. You could go everywhere, see everything, go slaughter some more innocent women and children like a brave hero, and know that you were never really risking anything! Do you just hate it that much because you’ve known all along that deep down, nobody likes you, and you’ll be alone forever?”
Nicolò’s head snaps up, eyes molten. The next instant Yusuf has been grabbed by the shoulders and slammed with his back against a tree, Nicolò’s face is very close to his, and for a mad moment, he thinks the man means to – well, never mind, because it’s definitely not what’s happening. “What about a tongue?” Nicolò snarls. “Does that grow back if I cut it out?”
“What?” Yusuf wheezes. “You can’t stand hearing the truth, can you?”
Nicolò’s arm trembles like a rope under too much strain, his pupils blown wide and black, as Yusuf wonders if he’s about to earn his half-dozenth death of the evening for his pains. Nicolò looks like he’s thinking about it, fingers itching to close around something, their noses almost brushing, sharing breath, devouring too much of the available air and light and weight in the world, until they are drawn in like two lodestones that still profess to loathe each other but cannot pull away. Something hot and weak and hungry burns through Yusuf, and he cannot pretend it doesn't. Aye, look at him, speaking of being lonely, throwing it at Nicolò as if it is not his own greatest fear? He has traveled for years without a companion, without a partner, without a lover, with barely even a friend, a solitary stranger crossing the endless leagues of Africa and casting only one shadow. He has managed mostly by not thinking about it. Every time he knelt down to pray alone, he thought of the hadith that it is the best to pray in company, with fellows, in congregation, and sometimes wanted to scream. He is a Muslim, a devout Muslim, and yet he has no community. There is nobody like him. Nobody except Nicolò.
No. That is foolish. Mad. This is a fanatic Italian Catholic who has murdered him several times in the last few hours alone and seems bent on believing that Yusuf has cast some evil curse on him, when he is as much at a loss to explain their situation as Nicolò. He is aware that it is not as if you can pick the other folk in the world afflicted with your same illness, but why him? Could it least not be one of his own people? Or is that the point? He cannot search for a cohort in the usual place, cannot have that comfort. Like Hajar and Ishmael, he has been cast out. It is the very exile that is recreated on the hajj, which Yusuf has taken a few times by now. Even in the holy of holies, circling the Ka’bah in Makkah, sitting on the slopes of Mount Arafat, he has not found the ultimate answer. But what if it is before him now?
That shakes him to the core, in a way he cannot articulate. It burns like lightning, a moment where he wonders how long his ears have been stopped to what Allah was truly trying to tell him, even as he pretended to clothe himself in the garb of a virtuous man. Yusuf continues to stare at Nicolò, who stares back at him. He does not kill Yusuf this time. Instead, as if he has been just as shaken by whatever just transpired – Yusuf has read Christian scripture, and thinks that this is, in the utter devil of an irony, comparable to Saul on the road to Damascus, struck down by a blinding light from heaven – he opens his hands, and Yusuf tumbles down the trunk of the tree, landing on his backside with a teeth-clacking thud. He wants to point out to Nicolò that unlike Saul, at least he made it to Damascus, but he cannot say a word.
For several moments more they stare at each other. Yusuf has no way of knowing if the same need that scorches him touches Nicolò at all, but he thinks – or perhaps he hopes – that there is no way he is completely unaffected. But Nicolò steps back, stares at him with those eyes that have literally already gotten Yusuf killed once tonight, and without another word, he runs.
It is almost a twisted blessing that the Siege of Damascus goes so quickly and thoroughly to hell – in fact, in just four short days, thanks to a cumulation of hubris, terrible strategic planning, deep-rooted mistrust between the foreign European Crusaders and the native Christian lords of Outremer (as the kingdom of Jerusalem is known in the West), Nūr ad-Dīn arriving with the rest of his army to cut them off from their previous position, an inexplicable decision to move away from reliable food and water supplies, just to name a few – because at least it means that Nicolò is constantly occupied with catastrophes and doesn’t have to think about Yusuf. He doesn’t know what he will do when he is finally forced to it, and intends to put it off for as long as possible. He staked all his hopes on finding Yusuf and forcing him to lift the curse, and it has been decidedly proven that Yusuf has no better idea of what’s going on than he does. Some particularly hopeless part of Nicolò still wonders if there’s a chance that he kept something back, but if nothing else, even he has to admit that six deaths in a row should induce any man to be truthful. Yusuf doesn’t know. He didn’t do it. And that leaves Nicolò… fucked.
He’s in a haze as the French forces pull out of Damascus in disarray, the backbone of the crusade broken, as a few motions are made to suggest that they will go onto Jerusalem, but everyone can see they won’t. They haven’t recaptured the city of Edessa, the nominal reason for the crusade. They haven’t even tried. One of the greatest casualties looks as if it might be Louis and Eleanor’s royal marriage, as she has already gone on record as scathingly remarking that she married a monk, not a king. Louis stubbornly wants to continue to the Holy City and complete his religious pilgrimage, no matter how much a mess he made of the military aspect of it, and Eleanor, the two of them so ill-matched to start with, cannot stand the sight of him.
The various politicking and bear-baiting and recriminations float over Nicolò’s head. He’s almost relieved the crusade has broken off in abject failure. He can’t think of going to Jerusalem again, hears Yusuf’s accusation flung at him with devastating accuracy. After you and your fellow zealots came to this land which never needed you, and covered it in death and butchery! I saw what you and your Christians did to Jerusalem and all those innocents!
Nicolò wants to protest that it was not him, that he did not lift his hand personally to kill the citizens, but just before, as during that very slaughter while it was happening, he knows it is a trite atonement, a hollow and faithless excuse. Why couldn’t Yusuf just be the monster that Nicolò made him into, safely removed from any cold reality? The sneering, merciless Saracen, the fell sorcerer, whatever contortions that Nicolò cooked up to satisfy himself… none of them work anymore, all of them fall to dross and dust in his hands. I don’t want to know that your name is Yusuf, he shouts at the air. I don’t want to know that you’re from Cairo. I don’t want to know where you learned to speak Genoese, and I don’t want to know what would have happened if I had kissed you against the tree, and –
No. No, no, he is not, he is not, he is not going to think about that, not when it can lead absolutely nowhere good. Even if he has woken from a few more dreams arched and clutching and gasping, has to look to be absolutely certain that he is alone in the bed, the way he cannot quite extricate Yusuf al-Kaysani from whatever place under his skin he has taken up residence, like a piece of sharp steel working its way toward his heart. It circulates in his veins, lies low and shimmering as quicksilver, uncoils in his belly and settles into his bones, until he has failed as spectacularly as the crusade did at ever putting this heathen Saracen out of his mind again. He has wanted something – wanted someone – more. He must have. In this tedious accumulation of years that topple and spill and pile up on him, there is some moment he has forgotten where he wanted something else so desperately that it felt like he was truly about to die, even if he cannot bring it to mind. Surely.
This makes no sense. He hates Yusuf! Yusuf cursed him! Yusuf is what every priest and every cleric and every fellow soldier and every lord and king and simple peasant in the field has always told Nicolò is the enemy, no escape and no equivocation. The sworn and soulless foe of Jesus Christ and all His people! Even if Nicolò is not particularly observant, he cannot simply shake out the grain of it, the Pater noster that still comes to his tongue before he eats his meals, the hand that crosses himself to ward off evil, kneeling before Christ crucified in some dim church and feeling that jumbled awe and terror and wonder and tenderness that sometimes equates to love. This cannot – even if it is awe and terror and wonder, it is not tenderness, it is not love. Not for Yusuf al-Kaysani. There has to be someone else.
Louis remains in the East for almost another year before he finally leaves in 1149, thus for so much travail and difficulty on the return journey to France that he is almost given up for dead. Nicolò himself has no idea what comes next. He cannot face the idea of returning to Venice as if nothing has changed, even if he wants to go somewhere that feels like home. The old thought of becoming a monk resurfaces, and it is tempting; some place quiet, contemplative, to reflect and purify himself, might do him some good. But he doubts that even the most accommodating abbot in the world will consider a lifelong secular nobleman and trained soldier, without a true calling to the church and who is currently consumed with lustful thoughts for an immortal Saracen, to be a promising novice. Son of a bitch, what does he do?
Finally, at his wit’s end, Nicolò sails back to Europe with Eleanor, who is traveling separately from Louis, and they blow into Palermo, Sicily, on the back of a raging storm that nearly sinks the queen’s entire fleet of ships. Sicily is a curiosity in the Christian world; indeed, it is sometimes considered to be barely Christian at all. Ruled by its kings of Norman blood, it is one of the most liberal and cosmopolitan realms in all of Christendom, with a population of Christians, Jews, Saracens, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Italians, and more, a crossroads of exchange and trade comparable to multicultural Iberia at its height. Nicolò feels instinctively at home here, somehow. Eleanor is sad to see him go, but he tells her that he has decided to stay.
The next few years are – well, at least he can sleep at night, for whatever that is worth. He settles in Messina and tries, really tries, not to make quite as much a mess of this curse, this gift, this whatever it is, as he has before. Perhaps he is doing it to prove a point to Yusuf, though he cannot recall what that is or why he should care. He finds that it helps, it gives him some measure of peace, if he does something to help or save or assist others, to take a burden for those who cannot do the same. He goes to church one rainy spring night and kneels before another Christ, another Madonna e Figlio, and gazes up into their painted eyes and feels it somehow – even if it has become so lost under the wreck and ruin and bloodshed and the arrogance of powerful men – that there is still something real in them, this poor and humble girl, this brown Jewish child born in a dirty manger, this promise of grace and mercy and love that changed the world, offered even for the most unworthy Nicolò di Genova, and his old and broken heart. He weeps until he shakes. Forgive me, Jesu, he prays. Forgive me.
After that, he finds himself going to church somewhat more often, comforted by the ritual, the dry wafer of the Host upon his tongue, the Latin cadences of the Mass (he shops around until he finds a priest that says it well, and does not put him to sleep when they’re barely past the Introit) and the need to repent of his many, many sins. Nicolò does not flagellate himself, does not go for hair shirts and whips and the other delights of damning the flesh that is becoming the fashion in places, for the severe material deprivation of the “people of Albi,” the Cathars, who are slowly spreading south into Italy. He tries, that is all. He tries to be better.
(He drinks too much and goes to a brothel one night, and takes a Saracen man in his arms and calls him Yusuf, and wakes in the cold light of morning wondering what he’s done, and why he does not want to stop, and why it is that not even this poor substitute will satisfy him.)
Time grinds on. Another five years, another ten. Nicolò is aware that he is reaching the point where he will soon have to move again, lest his unchanging face attract the attention of his neighbors. He debates whether to fake his own death, go away for a bit, and then return posing as his own son, or some other subterfuge that he will have to master if he is to have any kind of consistent or settled future. He keeps one ear on the news from the Holy Land. After the devastating failure of the Second Crusade, the position of the Latin Kingdom is steadily deteriorating, and mainland Europe, despite all their pious mealy-mouthing about how they want to support the holy crown of Outremer, cannot be arsed to muster a proper relief force. They send money and platitudes occasionally, but otherwise have found the bitter hemlock of the debacle at Damascus to have soured their once-zealous taste for crusading. The First Crusade was glorious. This one cannot be forgotten fast enough.
It is sometime around… oh… 1175 when Nicolò hears of the rise of yet another ambitious and talented Muslim ruler: the Syrian Kurdish son of a mid-ranking Zengid general, who became vizier to the teenage caliph and then overthrew the last of the feeble Fatimid dynasty, establishing himself as the new sultan of Egypt and Syria. The man’s name is – in an utter irony – Yusuf. Yūsuf ibn Ayyūb – or, as one of the Sicilian Saracens who Nicolò has come to know tells him – Joseph, son of Job. All at once he knows what Yusuf al-Kaysani’s name means, that small and simple thing. Joseph. It drives at the part of him that he has been trying to keep separate, and it threatens to crack. He doesn’t know how he can stand another fifty years until he sees his (not his) Yusuf again. He doesn’t know where to find him in all of the wide world, unless this entire madness should happen again.
It is two years later when, of all the things, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s daughter Joanna comes to Sicily, in order to marry its king.
This is, of course, not Louis’s daughter. After the Second Crusade, the royal marriage, shattered beyond repair, came swiftly to an end, despite the brief intervention of the Pope. Eleanor remarried, six weeks after her divorce from Louis, to Henry Plantagenet, the energetic claimant to the English throne after the civil war known as the Anarchy, where his mother Empress Matilda pressed her claim against her cousin Stephen. Henry duly became king at Stephen’s death in 1154, and he and Eleanor have commenced to having children and arguments in almost equal measure. Joanna is the second-youngest of their eight; she is just eleven when she arrives in Sicily to marry William II, who is twelve years her senior. It has been a horrible voyage from England, she is seasick and wet and scared, and Nicolò’s first view of her when she steps off the ship – this shivering, skinny, red-haired girl trying so hard to be brave, who reminds him so painfully of her mother – twists his heart more than he can stand.
He finds an excuse to go up to the palace, and offer his self-taught skills as a magister (thinking of Caterina the whole time, God rest her). The bride cannot be allowed to die of a chill before her wedding day, and he is permitted inside, beneath the frescoes and mosaics, through the courtyards and gardens, down the corridors to the women’s chambers, the seraglio fashioned in the Turkish style. “Here, my lord,” the chamberlain says. “The lady Joanna is inside.”
Nicolò nods his thanks, shuts the door behind him, and looks at the room. There is a huddled shape on the bed, though she lifts her head at the sound of a visitor. “Who – ” She speaks the Anglo-Norman French of her upbringing, which Nicolò is fluent in from his twenty-five years here among Normans. “Who are you?”
“My name is Nicolò di Genova, my lady.” He does not draw too near, so as not to frighten her. Her eyes are blue, her cheeks freckled; she is a child, God damn it, a child. “I asked whether I could be of any assistance in welcoming you to your new home. I knew – I knew your mother.”
Joanna regards him warily. She is a princess born and bred, however, and knows her courtesies. She gets to her feet and dips him a curtsy, and he bows back. “My lord of Genoa,” she says, grave as a woman twice her age, for all that she is skinny knees and elbows and pointed chin. “It is kind of you to wait upon me here.”
He nods, and makes friendly conversation with her, and tells her his favorite places in Sicily, all the things that he thinks she will like too, when she starts to be a little less homesick. He takes her to walk along the palace promenade, so they may see the wheeling seabirds over the harbor and the way the sun strikes it blazing cerulean, and Joanna opens up, shyly at first and then more. As her ladies-in-waiting walk behind them at a decorous distance, keeping a sharp eye on everything, she tells Nicolò of her big brother Richard, nineteen years old and already a brilliant warrior and supremely confident of everything, who she utterly adores and who escorted her part of the way here, how she misses him and her little brother John, who she grew up with at Fontevraud Abbey in Anjou. She snatches Nicolò’s hand when they are frightened by a carter coming on them unexpected, and swings off, and tugs him along because she wants to see more, and he thinks just then that if anyone ever hurts this child, lays one finger on her, he will flay their skin from them in inches and wear it as a cloak.
“How do you know my mother, Lord Nicholas?” Joanna asks, as they reach the end of the wallwalk and step out on the rambling grounds. “I have never seen you in England or Anjou before. Was it when she was married to King Louis?”
“It… it was.” Nicolò wonders if this is dangerous ground, but she looks at him as an utter innocent, and something makes him say it. “We met first in Antioch, while she and the king of France were on crusade.”
“That cannot be so.” Joanna looks at him as if he is either very stupid or trying to pull a cruel joke. “That was many and many years ago, Lord Nicholas! Almost thirty! You are not that old.”
“It would surprise you how old I am, my lady.” He solemnly offers her his arm to help over a patch of mud, and they stroll along in such dignified estate. “Would you believe me if I told you that I was in Jerusalem too, when they took it from the Saracens in God’s Year 1099?”
Joanna stops, and her eyes go round. Nicolò has a moment to wonder what he has done – he has never told the truth to anyone out loud, not even Caterina or any of his sisters or any of his family in Genoa, any of his friends in Venice or Sicily, nobody save Yusuf, who already knew. He has lived with it in quiet and absolute secrecy for over a human lifetime, and now here he is blurting it out to cheer up a homesick child within a few hours of meeting her. But there are worse ways, especially since she clearly thinks he’s joking, and giggles. “You would be ancient if that were true, my lord! Almost a hundred!”
“I am very old indeed,” Nicolò assures her. “I was born in God’s Year 1069.”
Joanna screws up her face, trying to cipher in her head. Then she giggles again. “That makes you… one hundred and eight years old?”
One hundred and eight years old. Nicolò knew it was getting up there, but to hear it spoken out loud gives him a jolt. He remembers his impulse to tell Eleanor the truth when they first met, and is glad somehow that he did this with her daughter, as Joanna teases him about being an old man and whether he smells of prunes and needs to lean upon a stick when he walks. He feigns being elderly and bewildered for her amusement, and she shrieks with laughter and coughs a little too hard, and he has her sit down on a bench until the spasms subside. Softly she says, “I am very afraid, Lord Nicholas. I don’t know if I will make a good queen.”
“You will be a great queen, my lady.” He decides that the ladies-in-waiting can fan themselves all they like over the impropriety, then puts an arm around her thin shoulders, and thinks with an ache that he too would have so much liked to have a daughter. “It will get easier, I promise you.”
Joanna’s chin trembles, and she muffles a sniff. He pretends not to notice, so she can keep her pride, as all the Plantagenets have it, as well as a fiery temper to make the Devil quake in his boots (they, coincidentally, also proudly claim descent from him). They look out over the rooftops of Messina together, and finally, when the sun sinks out of sight, he rises to his feet with a groan. “Come on, Joanna,” he says, thinks that he should not be so informal, but he cannot help himself, and she does not seem to mind at all. “We should get you back.”
They return to her quarters, and he bids her goodnight, and the next morning a messenger from the palace is waiting for him, since Lady Joanna has requested his company again. So Nicolò spends the time before her wedding with her, and then when he has had to leave early in order to let Joanna prepare for the big day tomorrow, he detours from the women’s quarters and goes to pay a call upon the king. William of Sicily is an enigma: twenty-four years old, handsome enough, golden-haired, often reclusive and uninterested in state, ambitious and clever but pleasure-loving and indolent, known as “William the Good” not for a particularly outstanding character, but because his father was known as “William the Bad.” Nicolò waits his turn with all the other sycophants, and when he is finally admitted to the royal presence, asks if he may have a word. Privately.
William is startled, but knowing the kindness that Magister Nicolò has done for his intended wife, agrees. When they are in the anteroom and the door is shut, Nicolò does not waste time. He grabs a fistful of the king’s tunic and shoves him smartly against the wall, fights off a brief memory of doing the same to Yusuf even as this is in entirely a different way, and says, “If you hurt that little girl in any way, if you force a consummation before she’s old enough, if you do anything to her that ever makes her sad, I will kill you. Do you understand me?”
William is startled enough by this shocking threat to his royal person that he nods vigorously, though Nicolò makes him repeat it out loud just to be sure. He then decides that he has pushed his luck far enough, and puts William down, giving him a final steely stare. Then – it feels like leaving a part of his heart behind, but if nothing else by now, Nicolò di Genova, di Venezia, di Sicilia, a man of so many lands and none, is used to that – he spins on his heel, and turns his back, and goes.
Chapter 3: 1191
There is not a Muslim in all the Holy Land – in fact, Yusuf imagines, not in all the world – who has not heard of Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn, or as history will come to know him down the ages, Saladin. When the man first rose to power in 1174, waging an expert campaign both militarily and diplomatically to dispense with his multitude of squabbling rivals, all the delicate factions and princely lineages of the Arab world, Yusuf admittedly did not think much of him. The young Saladin had been a mid-level vizier to the faltering Fatimid caliphate, taken the idea into his head that he could do it better as viziers so often did, and overthrown his rightful masters (and a Shia dynasty, which despite his ecumenical outlook, Yusuf still feels slightly chafed about). Before this, Saladin enjoyed drinking wine and carousing with dancing girls and other such decidedly un-Islamic pastimes, to the muttering and censure of the elders. But then he put all such trappings aside, decided to devote himself to sober probity and embodying virtue before Allah, and Yusuf has to concede, he succeeded spectacularly well. Saladin is (or knows the advantage in being) genuinely humble, merciful and magnanimous both to friends in peace and foes in defeat, capable of being terrible on the battlefield and winning glorious successes, never flinching from his purpose yet never giving into indiscriminate bloodlust. There is a purpose with him, a methodical intent, every piece in its place. Saladin is patient, inscrutable, generous, elegant, and not to be crossed. He has become – even Yusuf can see it – truly great.
“What are you called, my friend?” Saladin asked when they were first introduced, when Yusuf grudgingly supposed that he must pay homage to the new ruler of Egypt, Sunni usurper or otherwise. He served Nūr ad-Dīn before, he reminds himself, and he will grow accustomed to this new overlord as well. Cannot tie himself too closely to any one king or lord or moment of the world, not when it will all pass. “I am honored to have you by my side.”
Yusuf studied him warily, even as he inclined his head in respect. “My name is Yusuf, radiance. Yusuf al-Kaysani. One of the… old men of Cairo.”
“Then it is an especial pleasure.” Saladin smiled. “For I am called Yusuf as well. I have heard much of the skills of the Fatimid warriors, and I accept any man who wishes to do me and the cause of Allah good service. My brother in name and in faith, would you wish to take a position among my personal bodyguard?”
That startled Yusuf greatly: why invite a potential enemy, a member of the old guard, a partisan of the vanquished Shia regime, to serve as your bodyguard, to be close to you night and day, to perhaps slip a knife between your ribs while you slept? But then he supposed that since the rest of Saladin’s bodyguard consisted of his own hand-picked Sunni loyalists, who would be sure to see no harm come to him, this was indeed an elegant test. Let Yusuf, a warrior of considerable reputation who could not be easily done away with, have the chance to decide his allegiances, whether to expose himself as a traitor to be executed, or accept this token of unexpected trust, this commonality of name, and transcend old differences. It was very neatly done, and it was very clever, and since Yusuf is still at Saladin’s side, loyally defending him from threats seen and unseen, it worked far better than even he ever expected. Yusuf truly is both of them, and Saladin somehow knew it from the start, and here they are.
All of this was even before the year that changes the world: 583 (or as the Latins have it, 1187). The Christian kingdom of Jerusalem has been besieged on all sides and left out to dry by its so-called allies in Europe, and its current king, Guy de Lusignan, is an unpopular and mistrusted up-jumped Frankish mercenary who rules in right of his wife, Queen Sibylla. Saladin’s strength has been gathering for years, preparing for an all-out assault on the Christian possessions in the Holy Land, and on the shattering day of 25 Rabi’ ath-Thani (July 4), it all comes to a head. The monumental battle of the Horns of Hattin, fought beneath a blazing white-heat sky, the forces of Christian Jerusalem against Saladin’s army, a balance hung one way for a hundred years finally tipped over again. Saladin wins a crushing victory, imprisons King Guy and many of the Latin nobility, conquers almost all the cities of the Holy Land (with the exception of Tyre) in weeks, and then at the end of September, moves in to begin the ultimate siege of Jerusalem itself.
The Holy City, as it was when the Muslims held it in 1099, is crowded with too many refugees, terrified, under-supplied, and ill-prepared. As Yusuf tilts his head back and gazes at the towers, a frisson of memory goes through him: the hot air at the fajr prayer, the frightened men, Ahmed ibn Ghassan. The thundering stones as the tower broke, the first time Nicolò di Genova charged at him, full of righteous fury, and his world changed –
(No, he must not think of that. He must not.)
After everything, it is done almost easily. Saladin negotiates with the commander of the city, Balian of Ibelin, one of the few Latin Christian noblemen to escape the disaster of Hattin. Barely a fortnight after the siege begins, it is over. Balian surrenders Jerusalem unconditionally, the gates are opened, and as the greatest hero in the entire Islamic world, the triumphant and merciful conqueror who retook the Holy City from infidel possession, Saladin and his army ride in. Even as he trots in the sultan’s personal escort, as he gazes at the dull, frightened faces of the people around them, as the cool wind whisks the sweat from his grubby brow, Yusuf knows in his bones what is coming. He has seen it twice already. There will be a furious pope, there will be a solemn pronouncement, there will be shock and rage across Europe that the kingdom they ignored for fifty years could suddenly fall like this, tearing their world out from under them in their smug complacency, and the crusaders will come again.
So far as that goes, Yusuf is completely correct. Pope Urban (the third of that name) is said to die of shock on hearing of the disaster, and his successor, Gregory VIII, makes the most of his fifty-eight days on the papal throne by issuing Audita tremendi. It calls furiously for a new crusade to retake Jerusalem, promises vast new spiritual and liturgical privileges for those who do, and races across Europe like wildfire. Kings and princes take the cross in unprecedented numbers: the king and heir apparent of England, the king of France, the elderly Holy Roman Emperor and his son, and countless bishops, knights, clerics, men-at-arms, and humble bondsmen do the same. This, it is proclaimed, will be the true heir to the First Crusade, not the disastrous Second. This is what it was before: the fight for Jerusalem, the fight for it all, in Christendom’s Third Crusade.
Four years later, the reality is somewhat different.
The lumbering process of assembling a crusade has been even slower than expected. Several Christian contingents have arrived in the Holy Land, but the kings of France and England themselves are not yet to be seen. The rumor is that they are on their way, but some matter of internal politics has delayed them for the winter in Messina, in Sicily. The king of England, newly come into that position after the death of his father Henry, is called Richard, and for his valor in battle, he is often known as Coeur-de-Lion, the Lionheart. He is just in his early thirties, but is the only warrior who possesses the same larger-than-life reputation as Saladin himself, a man two decades his senior. There is a general sentiment among the Christians that his coming (if he ever makes it) will greatly revive their flagging fortunes. The king of France is his former intimate friend turned bitter and endless rival, the twenty-five-year-old Philip Augustus. They are going on crusade together only since neither of them trusts the other to be left unsupervised. The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, has ignominiously drowned in a Turkish river before ever seeing Palestine, and his scattered and demoralized army, though valiantly pressing on under the command of his eldest son, does not seem to be much of a factor.
Yusuf hears all these things and more, from where the current conflict has centered on the filthy, tedious, grinding, seemingly endless – well, two years and counting – siege of the city of Acre, on the northern coast of the Holy Land. The Muslims hold it, and the Christians sit doggedly outside the walls, mired in mud, sickness, the infighting of their backbroken leadership, and constant, inconclusive battles, waiting for deliverance from one or another of the dawdling kings. Some of their representatives have been here and already interfering, setting up the Lombard nobleman Conrad de Montferrat as a rival to Guy de Lusignan (finally freed from captivity, but still cursedly hanging onto the crown) by marrying him to Sibylla’s younger sister, Isabella. Sibylla herself died last November, and yet Lusignan still will not be dislodged, despite leading the kingdom to one calamity after another. Small wonder all the Christians hate him so much, even as the Muslims see him as a useful stooge.
Yusuf himself works as an intelligencer and scout for Saladin’s main army, which is camped several leagues distant from Acre, wary of entangling itself in another all-or-nothing battle without a clear purpose. This includes keeping an eye not just on the Christians, but the fearsome Hashshashin, the Order of Assassins, a trained and dedicated brotherhood of Muslim killers who are said to live in a remote castle under the command of their grandmaster, the mysterious Old Man of the Mountain, who owns them body and soul. Saladin hates them on account of a failed attempt on his life in 1175, and Yusuf likewise views such extremists warily. He knows that he has been assigned to watch them specifically because the Assassins are also Isma’ili: Nizaris. Saladin is not fool enough only to believe what a (former, so long as anyone asks) Shia tells him, about a dangerous enemy from (supposedly) the same side of the ideological river. He will have other sources of information. If Yusuf learns something sensitive about the Assassins and does not tell the sultan, when he has heard it from other places, it will be suspect. Even now, Saladin trusts him with one hand and tests him with the other.
Yusuf unpins the cloth that covers his face as he canters into the Muslim camp, dismounts and hands his reins off to a boy, and strides toward the sultan’s tent, past the guards, who know him well. When he steps inside, bows, and waits, he sees Saladin sitting in intent consultation with his brother and second-in-command, Saif al-Din. They both look up at Yusuf’s entrance, and Saladin beckons him closer. “Ah, brother Yusuf. It is good to see you back safely. Do you have news for me?”
“Yes, radiance.” Yusuf drops to one knee, waits for the nod to rise, and then comes to join the sultan at the table. “The Frankish king has finally sailed from Sicily with all his strength. He will be here in a fortnight or sooner, most likely by the Christian feast of Easter. We must be prepared for an intensification of the war on Acre.”
Saladin and Saif al-Din exchange sharp looks. “Which king?” Saif al-Din asks. “There are two.”
“The French one, Philip Augustus. King Richard is still in Sicily. I think the matter is with his sister, Joanna, the widow of King William. She was imprisoned by the new claimant to the throne, deprived of her rights and dowry, and he has spent the winter trying to free her and restore her to her property. The question is almost settled, but evidently not entirely.”
Saladin raises an elegant black eyebrow, tapping his fingers together. “All the pressing need of his faith before him, and King Richard chooses to concern himself with his sister’s welfare instead? That is a… rare sort of man. Whether compassionate or careless it passes my understanding, as yet, to say.”
“If the tales of his battlefield prowess are true,” Saif al-Din reminds his elder brother, “we should hope that he stays in Sicily for as long as he pleases, rather than coming to the Holy Land. This Philip Augustus is said to be not so fearsome an opponent, and was dragged unwillingly onto the expedition in the first place. We can manage him.”
“But should not underestimate him,” Saladin says severely. “Brother Yusuf, do you know if the Italians are with him? One of your fellows reported that King Philip made an alliance with the city of Genoa, to provision and transport his army to the Holy Land. The Genoese have assembled a considerable contingent, we must not mark them lightly, or – brother Yusuf?”
“My – my humblest apologies, radiance.” Yusuf feels punched. No, you idiot, he tells himself, no, he’s not with them, and if he is, you ought to see if his curse is broken yet, just to be sure. “I – had not heard of this. I – I suppose we must presume they are all arriving, yes. Some of them must already be here, in such an event? Do you wish me to watch them? I speak their tongue, I could bring you good intelligence upon their inclinations and movements.”
Saladin gives him a long and appraising look, not entirely warm. “Genoese? You have many talents, brother Yusuf.”
“I – I do.” His heart is still racing too fast, and he hopes that the sultan cannot tell. “I – knew a man from Genoa once, it is all. By your command?”
Saladin continues to watch him with those ink-dark eyes, his handsome, hawklike face even more difficult to read than usual. It is clear that this is a skill he is deliberately choosing not to enquire into, that he will accept it as something that Yusuf has naturally acquired in the course of a long life and not the mark of someone who has undue familiarity with the enemy, and that he wishes Yusuf to recognize that this decision has been consciously made. Gracious, reserved, discreet as ever, Saladin nods. “Very well. It makes no sense to waste this particular ability, then. If you are able to get close to these Italians, without being detected among the mass of people in the Christian camp, it is best. Continue to listen for any word of King Richard. If he does arrive in the Holy Land, he will be a most vigorous and dangerous enemy.”
“Yes, radiance.” Yusuf bows deeply, to hide whatever is on his face, and at a regal nod from Saladin, indicating his dismissal, he turns to go. He pushes through the tent flaps out into the camp, cursing himself. Surely by now, Saladin must know there is something strange about him. He swore his allegiance in 1176, after it was clear that Saladin was the victor, and fifteen years later there is not a single scratch on him, not a scar, not a silver hair, not a wrinkle, that was not there before. He has remained ageless, watching boys he knew as children grow up and receive their own weapons and, as ever, die in battle before him, before their time. Saladin does not ask questions openly, but he is no fool. He is a brilliant general; he sees everything. And the Hashshashin are rumored to have such strange powers, to extend their lives past mortal span (though that is a lie, they are only humans, but so good at their task that they are feared like demons). They can remain disguised among their enemies for months or even years, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. They are also known for their facility with languages; they often learn the language of their mark before they kill him. Yusuf is obviously not an Assassin, but the idea must be at least inchoate in Saladin’s mind that he could be, that all these years of devoted service have been nothing but a lie. That was a bad mistake. Nicolò di Genova, get out of my head before you do kill me.
Shaken, he shuns the company of the brethren at their fires and takes his supper alone. But he makes sure to join them for the isha prayer – he has gotten used to praying with Sunnis, and this would be a very bad moment to miss out and cast further doubt upon his loyalties. Then he goes and rolls up in his blanket, and stares at the stars of the Holy Land under which he has spent too much of his eternal life, and wonders why, why, why, even after it might destroy everything he has built, some stupid part of him still hopes that Nicolò has come here after all.
Yusuf gets up the next morning, and the next, and the next, and searches out the news, because it is his duty. The French arrive in the Holy Land in another fortnight, on their festival of Holy Saturday, and the Genoese are with them, and the siege drags on. Yusuf combs through every man, looks at faces, listens for gossip. He takes the measure of the Franks as much as he can. King Philip Augustus of France is slender and dark and green-eyed, sharp-witted and cynical beyond his years, and he puts up a dutiful effort in building siege-engines and ordering attacks on the mighty sandstone walls of Acre. But it is not his heart and not his lifeblood and he does not live for the fight, not the way another man would. Yusuf hopes that Saif al-Din is right, that they can manage him, but cannot be entirely sure.
More than that, he strains his ears for anything from the Genoese. As the weeks roll by, however, Yusuf becomes increasingly, gut-wrenchingly certain. Nicolò di Genova is not here. Nicolò di Genova – for Yusuf cannot imagine why on earth he would be with King Richard’s contingent, and the English king is still absent, news now of some delay on Cyprus with its Byzantine client-king, some tinpot self-declared despot, Isaac Komnenos – is not coming.
What if he is dead? Yusuf asks himself. What if Nicolò has found the answer he claimed to want so badly? What if it does end? What if after all this time, when he professed to hate the man but did not realize until now how badly he was hungering to see him again, since he thought that this Third Crusade would be his next chance – Nicolò is gone?
What if Yusuf al-Kaysani is the only man of his kind left in the world?
What if he never knows?
Yusuf is alone, he is alone, he is alone, he has never been so alone in the world as he is now, when his sultan may suspect his loyalties and the other half of whatever he became, that molten moment almost a hundred full years ago now in Jerusalem in 1099, at the end of Nicolò di Genova’s blade, is lost to him. After this long, after realizing he has had a companion and never took it, that Allah offered this gift to him and he turned his face away, what has he done, what has he done, what has he done – Yusuf feels as if the spine has been torn out of him, and though he looks still like a man to outside eyes, inside he is nothing but dust and ash.
Nicolò never meant to go on crusade again. Not really.
Now that he has made a different sort of faith in the quiet churches of Sicily, now that he has knelt before a Prince of Peace and felt it impossible to reconcile Him with the institutional church calling for infidels to be slaughtered where they stand, he is unable to accept crusade service due to (utterly ironically) religious objections. But this one, it turns out, came to him. After William’s death in 1189, and after Joanna was imprisoned by the illegitimate claimant to the Sicilian throne, Tancred of Lecce, Nicolò was at her side, still her loyal servant as he has been since she arrived here as that frightened girl. Then they received news that Joanna’s elder brother, that very same Richard who is now king of England, was coming to Sicily expressly, rather than continuing straight to the Holy Land. Then he was there, and –
Nothing in his entire life, which is soon about to encompass parts of three centuries, prepared Nicolò for Richard Coeur-de-Lion. There is no way even to try. If Eleanor of Aquitaine is a host unto herself, her favorite son is – a battalion, two, two dozen, and whether demonic or divine it is never quite certain. Richard towers over every other puny mortal, outshines them ruthlessly and thoroughly; he is six-foot-four, with a mane of red-gold hair that perfectly matches his nickname, and despite being the king of England, he is hot-blooded southern French to the bone. He writes troubadour poetry, sports an excellent classical education, speaks multiple languages, and will annihilate anyone who crosses him on a battlefield, even (and often especially) his own family. He has waged long wars with his father, with his brothers, with his own vassals in Aquitaine and Poitou, and come out glitteringly victorious over them all. He sees every situation in twelve dimensions, and makes a move to counter you at the sixth step when you are still only taking the first. He drinks and swears like a sailor, rides like a centaur, can never enter any room without stooping, has the Devil’s own temper and a wicked sense of humor that will lacerate you from behind while you’re still looking for his attack from the front. Nobody who meets him (and is lucky enough to survive it) ever forgets the experience.
After spending the winter pressing Joanna’s claims to her lost property (and fighting endlessly with Philip of France – Nicolò knows a little too well that no man can go that constantly, obsessively after the other unless there is something far different than hatred ultimately behind it) Richard is finally ready to depart Messina. His stopover there has involved attacking and burning it one fine day last October, during the succession struggles with Tancred, and everyone is more than ready to see the back of him – including, much as he cannot help but admire the man, Nicolò himself. Only then, to his horror, Joanna summons him to her quarters and informs him that she is going to the Holy Land with Richard and his intended bride, Berengaria of Navarre. (The Spanish princess has just arrived in the custody of the indefatigable Eleanor, seventy years old and still as active and ambitious as ever, who plans to stay only a few days before she must rush back to England to attend some smoldering political dungfire.) This engagement involved more squabbling with Philip, as Richard was previously betrothed to marry the French king’s half-sister Alys. Joanna wishes, therefore, that Nicolò accompany her. Back to the Holy Land. Back, in the deuce of an irony, on crusade.
“I – my lady.” He thinks very hard about what to say. “I thought women were expressly forbidden from traveling to the Holy Land on this expedition?”
Joanna waves that away. “You know the rules are whatever Richard needs them to be. It is not safe to leave me here, where I might be imprisoned again by some opportune usurper, and since Henry of Hohenstaufen means to press his wife’s claim to the throne, I’ve no desire to be caught in that oaf’s crossfire. You have served me for many years, Nicolò. Of course I wish to have you with me, though if you desire instead to serve in the field with Richard, he will welcome your sword.”
“Ah.” Nicolò’s mouth is still unprofitably open, and nothing useful is coming out. He knows that Richard has made an alliance with the Pisans, since the Genoese have already signed up with Philip, and the Genoese hate the Pisans even more than they hate the Venetians. (Much of Italian politics involves working out who hates who the most, or if it is the Pope.) Not that Nicolò feels himself too encumbered by internecine civic rivalry to serve the English king, but… when he has spent the most recent segment of his life trying to come to terms with what that place has already done to him, when he thought he might finally be free…
Unwillingly, a face comes to mind. The only reason he might think, again, about ever going back there. God damn it.
Joanna is still waiting, watching him. He promised long ago to be there for her, and it is true that the idea of remaining behind in Messina, alone, holds less savor than he thought. He tries to speak. At last, instead, he only nods.
“Aye, my lady,” he manages. “As you wish.”
As he is leaving Joanna’s rooms, thinking that he must pack, he must say goodbye to any place here that it will hurt him more than the usual to leave, he spots – it has been almost fifty years, but he recognizes her at once – a familiar figure down the hall. She sees him at the same time, and stops dead, pressing a hand to her heart as if she has seen a ghost. “My gracious,” she says, and at that moment, even the incomparable Eleanor of Aquitaine sounds stunned. “It cannot be – Nicolò? Signore di Genova, from Antioch?”
“My – my lady.” Nicolò stares at her, how she is older now, a matriarch and a widow and a queen mother, triumphant in Richard’s reign, the regent of England, but she still is one of the most beautiful women in the world. “I am – I am Signore di Genova’s son.”
“You look exactly like him, no wonder.” Eleanor stares at him, her sharp blue eyes taking him in, shrewd and calculating. “I knew your father on the Second Crusade.”
“He spoke of you, my lady.” Something twists in Nicolò’s heart like a blade – like Yusuf al-Kaysani’s blade, perhaps – as he bows and takes the queen’s hand to kiss. “He remembered you very fondly.”
Eleanor bites her lip and nods, dissuaded from asking whether he is dead; Nicolò’s use of the past tense seems to make it tacitly obvious that he is. Still, though, she looks at him, as if no matter how impossible it is, even she must wonder that he is such a perfect replica. Just then, even if she will never say it aloud, Nicolò cannot shake the conviction that she knows.
They leave on Maundy Thursday, a fortnight after the French, and immediately run into trouble. A massive storm breaks apart the fleet, and sends the ship with Joanna and Berengaria aboard far afield, to the island of Cyprus. Nicolò is with the royal ladies, endures the various miseries, helps the other men deal with the attempts to capture their vessel by the local tyrant, Isaac Komnenos – who robs them, throws them into prison, and carries out other extremely obnoxious maneuvers, until Richard, who has been delayed by a brief but severe illness on the isle of Rhodes, finally arrives to kick his teeth down his throat. The felicitous ending to this episode (for everyone but Isaac, who begs Richard not to be thrown into irons, only for Richard to oblige by throwing him into silver chains instead) features the royal wedding of Richard and Berengaria on May 12, 1191, on Cyprus. And even as he drinks and takes part in the revelry, dances with Joanna to celebrate the occasion, and politely fends off interested looks from a few of her ladies, Nicolò cannot help but wonder exactly how, expected protocol for a king or otherwise, that is going to go.
Because there is the other thing about Richard, the one thing that Nicolò is perhaps the only person to fully understand – or at least acknowledge. Before they left Messina, Richard had to perform penitence, publicly abjure himself, swear that he would never engage in a particularly pernicious sort of sin again, lest it call into question his status as the leader of a most Christian crusade. Whispers have swirled around him for years, never addressed directly, shielded by his power and competence and status in the world. The great Richard Coeur-de-Lion’s constant companion is the knight Andrew de Chauvigny, one of his distant cousins and most loyal lords. And Nicolò feels that only bat-blind fools could not see the way the two of them look at each other. Great love between knights is expected, is valorized, is the bedrock on which society is built, the bond of chivalry that spurs them to do great deeds on the battlefield. Yet if it should turn carnal, should turn lustful, should take each other as the beloved rather than the endless noble ladies of the love poems… that is something else entirely.
Perhaps Nicolò, who is well acquainted with the prospect of trying to pretend that he does not love someone he should not, is the only one willing to point out the obvious. But he knows for damn sure that Richard and Andrew are devoted to each other in a way far past the usual, that they adore each other down to the bones, and that even if Richard will do his duty in the marriage bed, this is not and will never be where his heart truly lies. It does something to Nicolò, twists in his own chest somehow. It is not that he is ashamed of himself, not exactly. He never has been. But to see Richard, a king of such blazing glory and power, a man that every other man fears to cross, and to know that he’s like him –
It makes him walk straighter, hold his head higher, cherish that secret bit of him tucked away in his private jewel-box, only to take out and look upon in late nights by himself. And it makes him not so sad after all, in a way, that he chose once more to come along.
The English finally arrive in the Holy Land on June 8, having completed the pacification of Cyprus and the addition of its crown, at least nominally, to Richard’s collection. They receive a hero’s welcome, but Richard and Philip then both fall quite ill with the latest malady circulating the crusader camp, something unpleasant called arnaldia. But Richard does not see infirmity as any reason to delay the attack on the city of Acre, famously has himself carried on a litter so he can shoot with his crossbow while lying on his back, and at last, as it always does with such a charmed man around, things go the Christian way. After a punishing two-year-long siege, Acre surrenders to the combined crusader forces on July 12. A triumphant entry is made to the city, Nicolò among them. And as he is out that evening among the dust and detritus of the broken buildings, staring out at it, wondering if this is victory, if it will ever taste sweet to him again –
No, it can’t –
Something happens to him then, something he cannot possibly explain or put words to. He is broken open like a pottery jug smashed on the stones, and does not know what is down and what up. He takes a step and then another – he knows who it is, he would know him in death and at the end of the world – and then runs. “Jesus,” he can hear himself swearing, yet another unbearably ironic utterance considering it is, after all, a Saracen. “Jesus Christ, it’s – it’s you.”
The man spins around – it is Yusuf, it is Yusuf, he looks exactly the same – and something utterly unspeakable crosses his face. As Nicolò reaches him, he feels a burning pain in his chest, goes to his knees, and is familiar enough by now with the sensation of death to realize, when he opens his eyes, that he was indeed just killed. Yusuf al-Kaysani, bloody blade in hand, stares down at him, his face a mask. “You bastard whoreson spawn of Satan,” he says. “Where the fuck were you?”
Since this is the first time he has ever heard Yusuf swear, Nicolò is almost tempted to laugh. He rocks back clumsily on his heels, trying to get to his feet. “You killed me for being late?”
“And I’m about to do it again!” Yusuf lunges at him, wild-eyed, as Nicolò grabs his wrist and wrenches the blade aside. They struggle uselessly in the alley, Nicolò kicks the dropped dagger away, and gets punched in the nose instead. Yusuf seems caught in the grip of some violent, whirlwind madness, gulping, half-sobbing, cursing him, fists pounding on Nicolò, muttering prayers and pleas and desperate disbelief at once. “Asshole,” he gasps. “I thought you were – I thought you were never – ”
Just as Nicolò is realizing that this welcome (if it can be called that, he has blood from being murdered still drying on his tabard) is of an entirely different key than what he first thought, he is the one with his back up against the wall, Yusuf is still clutching onto him, they’re fighting and then –
Then, after a hundred years, they are not.
Nicolò’s mind goes completely blank with shock. He thinks dimly that this might still qualify as fighting, given as he’s fairly sure that Yusuf just broke his nose. But they are reeling around the alley like a pair of drunkards, fists locked onto each other, pulling and tearing, writhing and wrestling, both of them far too stubborn to cede the advantage for an instant – which means, of course, that they have to keep kissing. Have to kiss until their mouths are wet and raw and marked, kiss each other gulping, kiss each other breathless, until they sink to their knees in the dust with their heads turning, lips open, desperate to taste every bit of sweetness, and it is sweet, it has turned from a furious headlong charge to a quieter and more deliberate meeting, like taking an outstretched hand, like opening a door. It is ease and it is rightness and it is beauty such as Nicolò can barely fathom. It burns, it sears, it unmakes even his invincible sinews, and weaves them back together in an entirely new tapestry. Oh. Oh.
At last they pull away, slowly, badly, and piecemeal, both of them heaving like the world might spin too fast and spill them off into nothing. They wipe their mouths with trembling hands, can barely meet each other’s eyes, do not know anything except the cataclysmic new dimensions into which the world is suddenly falling. “You,” Nicolò gasps. “You – I don’t know why you would – I might not even have come back if – ”
Yusuf’s eyes go very wide, and at that, Nicolò registers belatedly that he has spoken in Arabic, which is commonly used among the Saracens in Sicily and which he also (for no reason) decided to learn just in case. “You – ” He answers in the same language, clearly thinking he must be dreaming, for this is just too bizarre to comprehend. “Why are you speaking Arabic?”
“It’s a long story.” Nicolò laughs helplessly. He gets to his feet and offers Yusuf a hand up; he takes it, but with a long look clearly deciding whether he should kill him a few extra times for good measure. “You learned Genoese, didn’t you?”
Yusuf gives him a cold-eyed stare, suggesting that Nicolò should not read that much into it, but after that kiss, it’s just as plain that this is complete rubbish. They still haven’t quite pulled all the way apart, hands on each other’s forearms, foreheads touching, stars brought into alignment even as their old rivalry burns beneath, all the good reasons that have never changed about why this is a mad idea. Mad, except for the fact that it makes more sense than anything, anything, Nicolò has ever known. Yusuf seems unsteady on his feet, halfway to tears, breathless and silent. Like a man whose whole world is back in his arms, and he doesn’t know what to do.
“I have to go,” Nicolò whispers at last, his words a breath fluttering against Yusuf’s cheek, as it has grown very dark, and from the sounds elsewhere in the city, there is some other sort of trouble afoot. “I have to go, Yusuf.”
He’s not sure if the other man hears him, though it seems impossible that he couldn’t. He’s suddenly not sure if he has even spoken aloud. But Yusuf comes back to himself, lets go, and nods once, sharply, shortly. Then – while even though Nicolò is the one who said it, he is the one who feels bereft – he is gone into the night without another word.
The next few weeks pass in a haze. Nicolò tries to keep his mind on the here and now – the next move for the crusade, the desertion of the Austrian contingent due to some terrible insult Richard has evidently done their duke, the ongoing fight between Guy de Lusignan (backed by Richard) and Conrad de Montferrat (backed by Philip) for the crown of Jerusalem, the settlement with the Muslims over the surrender of Acre, the whispers that Philip, considering his crusading vow fulfilled and still suffering the pangs of infirmity, means to return shamefully early to Europe and start filching Richard’s lands while he is unavailable – but it is impossible. Nicolò asks around and around, earning more than one strange look in the process, until he finally learns that Yusuf al-Kaysani is a member of no less than Sultan Saladin’s personal bodyguard. (Of course. This could never be easy.) Saladin has a reputation for gallantry and chivalry even among his enemies; they have been fighting him, he is the infidel who stole the Holy City, but even the Christian crusaders mostly, if grudgingly, respect him. Richard certainly does, more than any of his so-called allies, of whom he thinks very little. Nicolò knows it’s foolish, but perhaps if he could convince them to negotiate more directly – not that his entire purpose is to see Yusuf again, obviously not. He thinks it would be good for Richard and Saladin to establish closer diplomatic channels, that’s all –
(Later, much, much, much later, Joe and Nicky will laugh over how one of the most remarkable friendships in all of the Crusades happened at least partly because they were so desperately horny, but that is not for centuries to come.)
Richard’s camp is already in close communication with Saladin’s over the disputed logistics of the surrender, and when Nicolò pops up, so helpfully at hand, volunteering to serve as messenger, the king sees no reason to say otherwise. So Nicolò rides to the Saracen encampment, ignores the unfriendly looks, barely thinks about the fact that he just stepped into the heart of the enemy with half a dozen men, and generally struggles to keep his mind on his actual job long enough to pay his respects to Saladin and present to him the king of England’s sincere wish that they will cooperate swiftly on all these delicate matters: hostages, finances, the return of the relic of the True Cross taken at Hattin, the release of prisoners, the allocation of resources. In person, Saladin is indeed very impressive. He is tall, with a golden turban, brows like sharp strokes of a pen, a black beard flecked with silver, and a deliberate manner of speaking. He is careful to look at Nicolò’s face, rather than that of the interpreter. (This is Humphrey de Toron, another Christian nobleman native to Outremer, who is disdained by many of the crusaders for being, in their view, too effeminate. Nicolò speaks Arabic perfectly well, of course, but sees no reason to let that on, as it is a strategic advantage to see what the Saracens might say if they think him unaware of their speech.)
Saladin invites Nicolò to share a cup of horse milk (it is the Saracens’ usual beverage rather than wine) and Nicolò politely drinks it, though he finds the taste abominable. Then he steps out of the tent as the rest of Richard’s messengers and diplomats take over. He does not want to wander around an enemy camp for too long, largely unarmed, but –
“Nicolò,” a voice says behind him. “You know this was a very stupid idea, right?”
Nicolò whirls around, though of course there is only one man in this place who would be addressing him by name, in Genoese. He and Yusuf look at each other for a long, crackling moment. Then Yusuf glances furtively to both sides, grabs Nicolò by the hand, and yanks him into the darkness of a nearby tent. As he’s fisting his hands in Yusuf’s tunic, jerking him closer because he can’t stand to be apart, he breathes, “I thought you said this was a stupid idea?”
“I did.” Yusuf looks at him for a long moment, then shrugs. “I didn’t say I objected to it.”
With that, their mouths are tangled together again, they’re making a serious effort to bite each other’s lips off, their noses knock and their teeth scrape, it’s less of a kiss than a desperate attempt to fold all the space and all the years between them into nothing – and some folk might think this is rather jumping into things, and other folk might think that after pining away like idiots for a literal entire century, this is more than God damn overdue. Whichever it is, Nicolò doesn’t care. They’re both aware that they could be caught at any second, that one of Yusuf’s fellows could walk in, that Richard’s messengers could call off the meeting and decide to leave, and that sharpens the excitement to a frantic, fumbling, unbearable level. Nicolò’s tunic is off and then so is Yusuf’s, their hands shaking as they rip off their sword belts, and Yusuf seizes hold of Nicolò and pulls him down, Nicolò is harder than he has ever been in his life and there’s so little blood in his brain that he’s afraid he’s going to faint – he thrusts between Yusuf’s legs, it’s the old Greek way of intercourse without penetration, because they don’t have time and they don’t have oil and he wants to do this right whenever he finally does. He rubs and ruts and grinds himself into the inside of Yusuf’s inner thigh and seizes a handful of his hair and drags his head back half as if he is about to cut his throat, which he has indeed done on the memorable occasion of their acquaintance in Damascus in 1148. He keeps burying hungry, possessive kisses into Yusuf’s mouth, as if to brand him, to make him remember even if it’s another hundred goddamn years from now that they do this again. Mine. Mine. Mine.
Yusuf’s hands are wild in Nicolò’s hair, just as ferocious, their gasping and muffled swearing (in a motley assortment of languages) echoing in the darkness of the tent, as Nicolò jerks and thrusts one more time and then falls on top of Yusuf as if his spinal column has been removed. He lies heavily, feeling concussed, as Yusuf’s hand rests almost gently against his skull, the calluses on his deft swordsman’s fingers curling around the back of his ear. Nicolò has never felt like this with any lover anywhere. He has never even known it was possible.
“Get off me,” Yusuf whispers hoarsely, after another moment. “We can’t be found like this.”
He’s right, they cannot, and even though it is the most difficult thing he has ever done in his life, especially when his hands have been unaccountably replaced by two blocks of wood, Nicolò rolls off and struggles to reconstitute his clothing. He stands up, shaky-kneed, and wipes his mouth. A lunatic impulse to thank Yusuf crosses his brain – what else do you say to a man, when he’s changed your life like that? – but he bites it back. Instead he turns, trying with all his might not to look as transparently hard-fucked as he does, and lurches out of the tent.
It happens again a week later, this time in Acre, when Yusuf has ridden with Saladin’s messengers to give an answer to Richard. They grab each other and decamp around a corner into a small room with bundles of herbs hanging from the ceiling – some kind of apothecary’s workshop, perhaps – and Nicolò slams the bar into the door, decides that he will deal with it later if the apothecarist comes back and is indignant about being unable to get into his study, sweeps the clutter off the table with a crash, and lifts Yusuf onto it. The one excellent advantage to this place is that there is oil at hand, and Nicolò makes good use of it. But after he has slicked himself, he stops, suddenly uncertain. “Do you – do you want – ?”
Yusuf is breathless, his leggings around his knees, but he gives Nicolò an extremely dry look, as if to ask what part of any of this remotely seems to say that he doesn’t. Instead he crooks a finger. “Come here and do your worst, infidel,” he says. “Or I will kill you.”
Between the two of them, this is not at all a figure of speech, and Nicolò hesitates a final time, then gives into it, gives into it all. Yusuf wraps his legs around Nicolò’s waist, lifting his hips, and they both groan as the final space between them is closed, as Nicolò tries not to enter him too fast, tries not to rush or hurt, makes sure that he is feeling and savoring every inch of what he has been imagining in vivid detail on far many more nights than he wants to admit. He grips Yusuf’s shoulders, breath stuttering, as Yusuf grabs hold of his biceps and braces himself, mouth open, wet and wanton, as both of them adjust to this strange and shocking new unity. Nicolò listens from any muffled pounding on the door from outraged apothecarists, does not hear it, and then – as another impatient wrench from Yusuf confirms that he thinks this shilly-shallying has gone on quite long enough, and he’s ready for the next step – starts to move.
Both of them are lost in their own world, in the explosions of new sensations coursing through them, the lovers’ privilege in forgetting everything and everyone else happening outside this door. They have forgotten as well that they are still enemies, that they serve two great kings on the opposite sides of a crusade that neither Christian nor Muslim can possibly countenance losing. They do not know that the negotiations are going badly, that Saladin is trying to delay and thwart Richard from being able to march on the cities further down the coast – Jaffa, Ascalon – that must be won to move on Jerusalem, or to give him anything useful here. They do not know that there are 2,700 hostages in Richard’s custody, half the men of the defeated Acre garrison – well, they do, but they do not think it important. They are too heady, too frenzied with lust and new discoveries, with consummation and completion after so long without each other. Such innocent lovers. So understandable and yet so unforgivable.
They do not realize it is all about to go up in flames.
To the shock of everyone, Philip of France leaves the Holy Land on July 31. His excuse is that he is still very ill and deeply distrusts Richard’s friendly diplomatic relations with Saladin, all these messengers coming and going, this thought that the Saracen heathens can be negotiated with on equal terms, like men, rather than merely destroyed. Too involved in his torrential secret romance with Nicolò, Yusuf barely registers this, even though it means that one of the kings is gone (though he is leaving the duke of Burgundy, a bellicose and not particularly bright man named Hugh, to command the French army in his place). This makes Malik Rik, as the Muslims call him, the undisputed leader of the crusade, and Yusuf should have, should have, paid more attention to this. The Muslims themselves knew all along that Richard was the more subtle and dangerous and genius opponent, and yet they have tried to fool him, to outplay him, to keep him tied down in Acre to no point and purpose, and that –
Well, that, as all of Richard’s enemies back in Europe have already learned to their cost, is a very unwise thing to do indeed.
It is the night of August nineteenth, and Yusuf and Nicolò are naked in bed. Among the many abandoned houses and alleys and warrens stacked atop each other in Acre’s winding streets, they have managed to find a room where they will not be disturbed, with a door that bars and a mattress stuffed with straw where they can lie down together, and that is all they need. Yusuf has been delaying his return to Saladin, even after negotiations unceremoniously broke off a few days ago, and both of them know he is pushing it, but they do not care. It has been Yusuf’s turn to have Nicolò tonight, and he is halfway atop him, kissing a lazy trail down his collarbone and stomach, bending to bite at nipple and navel and hipbone. “So can I call you Niki?”
Nicolò groans, one arm thrown over his face. “I don’t suppose I can stop you.”
Yusuf grins, smoothing one hand down the rock-solid line of Nicolò’s bicep, continuing to torment him with small kisses and licks, as Nicolò starts swearing again even before Yusuf moves his mouth lower. They shake half the straw out of the mattress, and make the old wooden feet of the bed thump. They twist and twine, mate and mount, sealing themselves together in a way deeper even than the communion of the flesh, and when it is done, as they are breathless and spent, they whisper things they only hope the other cannot quite understand, and then, at last, they fall asleep in each other’s arms.
They are woken by the sound of drums.
It’s a hot, sticky, sunless morning, and something about it doesn’t feel right. They sit up quickly and jump out of bed, grabbing for their clothes, and Yusuf is about to sneak out before anyone can catch him here, when they see a long line of Muslim prisoners being marched out of the city, out to the bare plain before the half-rebuilt walls. These are the half of the Acre garrison who had to stay behind as hostages, even as their fellows were freed, and Yusuf’s first thought is that of course Saladin has ransomed them, he has not forgotten all the brave men who suffered and struggled in the cause of Allah for almost two years. But as he and Nicolò scramble to a better viewpoint, as they reach a sandstone crenel and peer down on the unfolding scene below, a horrible truth sinks into Yusuf. This is not a ransom. This is a –
Below he can see the tall bronze-gold, red-haired king, Malik Rik, the one the Muslims have both admired and feared, the whispers already spreading that he must be a jinn or some other sort of fell spirit. Malik Rik raises a hand, gives an order, and –
Everything goes to hell very quickly. The king stands at a slight remove from it, mailed arms folded, watching with something neither interest nor disinterest, as the crusaders step forward and begin to execute the kneeling prisoners. At first it is methodical, and then it turns indiscriminate, savage. They hack and slash, they kick and mutilate and scream oaths, as the watching Yusuf – up here, offensively safe, and even if he was down there among his brothers, he would still be safe, they might hack off his head and it would somehow contrive to reattach to his body and then they would know he was something unnatural – reels back from the parapet in horror. “Did you know?” he screams at Nicolò, tears in his eyes, stomach heaving – he has done this, he has forgotten, he has forgotten, he has been bedding with the enemy, taken him as a lover and overlooked that first and most immutable fact. “Did you know?!”
Nicolò’s face is ashen, white to the lips. He raises both hands, his voice a whisper. “Yusuf – Yusuf, please, you have to believe me, no. I thought they would be ransomed, I didn’t know, I – ”
Perhaps he is telling the truth. Indeed it is very likely, given how distracted both of them have been. They volunteered for the mission of making peace between their kings as an excuse to see each other, and became so utterly and unforgivably ensnared as to neglect that task completely, because they never paid real attention to it. It is Yusuf’s fellows who are paying the price for his weakness and incontinence. The prisoners down there are dying partly because of Saladin, who has failed in a commander’s sacred duty to free his captured men, and partly because of Richard, who gave the order to call his bluff, and partly because of the crusaders who are eager to pay back the burning insult of Hattin – after all, the Muslims slaughtered to the last man everyone who could not be more profitably imprisoned. Yusuf knows this, knows that it is war, men live or men (often) die in war, it is the course of things. But that does not take away from the fact that all of this, this terrible scene, comes back directly to him. If he had done his job, if he had worked more devotedly in arranging peace and cooperation between Saladin and Richard – when Richard is the only crusade leader, ever, who has been willing to treat them like men, and now Yusuf himself has wasted that, thrown it away for nothing, fucking in the straw like an animal with a soulless infidel –
He goes to his knees, retching. Nicolò reaches for him, anguished, but Yusuf punches him away, knowing that he really wishes he could hit himself. He staggers to his feet, draws his saif, has some mad impulse of driving it through his own heart and finding out if that is the true secret, nobody can end your suffering but you. But Nicolò understandably thinks Yusuf means to use it on him, and goes to his knees, eyes locked on Yusuf’s, hands raised, chin tilted back to bare his throat. In all their fraught history, this has never happened: one of them offering the other to kill them, even if perhaps this could be the real end. They do not know. Yusuf wants it. He does. Maybe he should do it, pay back all the deaths below with at least one up here.
The edge of the saif quivers. Tears roll down Yusuf’s cheeks. Still Nicolò waits, unmoving.
Allah help him. Allah help him.
For a final moment more, Yusuf debates doing it, just for whatever bitter satisfaction it will give him. Instead he steps back, throws the saif down on the stones before Nicolò with a clatter, and turns on his heel. “You will never see me again,” he says, and flees.
Muslims cannot drink, and so Yusuf cannot escape the guilt in a wine-haze. He almost envies all the Christians who can. It has something to be said for it.
The crusader army leaves Acre two days after the execution of the prisoners, and begins a march of its full strength down the coast, partly on foot and partly by sea. It is all brilliantly led and organized by Malik Rik, and the Muslims harass the caravan at every opportunity, in small, fleet strike-parties, but still cannot quite succeed in breaking the advance. Yusuf rides in some of these, a black cloth over his face, and in one of the night-skirmishes, he sees Nicolò. This time he does not hesitate. Draws an arrow back to his ear, and shoots him off his horse, and utterly hates himself for being unable to look away, to retreat, until he sees Nicolò struggling to his feet in the melee. He doesn’t even know that it was Yusuf who shot him.
This happens a few more times on the march. Yusuf is killed once by a crusader and then once by Nicolò – he is kind, he truly is, and he clearly feels terrible about what they witnessed, but he will not suffer to be punished for it forever, or without reprisal. The Muslims almost break through once, having separated the duke of Burgundy and the French-led baggage train from the rest of the army, and then Richard swoops down from the heavens like an avenging angel and saves the day almost single-handedly. He can fight ten or fifteen men at once. There is no one like him, not even Yusuf and Nicolò themselves. At least they have immortality to explain it.
It all comes to a head on the plains of Arsuf, just outside the city of Jaffa, which the Muslims cannot let the crusaders take. That night, Saladin agrees that they must make a stand, they must draw up in full battle array, and appoints Yusuf to lead one of the vanguards. “Unless you are wounded, of course?” he adds. “I have seen you take several injuries on this march, have I not?”
“I am – I am unhurt, radiance.” At least in body, and Yusuf keeps his eyes down. No need to invite more questions, for Saladin to ask why exactly he keeps springing up like a daisy. He wants to shout at the sultan for forgetting the men of Acre, that Yusuf failed in arranging a truce but that Saladin deliberately and carelessly used their safety as a bargaining chip and forgot the caliber of foe they face. It is all jumbled up and broken like shards of sharp porcelain, and cuts his hands whenever he tries to touch it. “I accept the honor of command.”
Thus the next morning, September seventh, it unfolds. The Muslims attack, but for the first several hours, Richard keeps the crusader army on brutal rein and will not permit offensive retaliation, only defensive tactics. He has clearly wagered that they can reach Jaffa by simply bulling their way through, not wasting themselves in a possibly decisive battle far from the gates of Jerusalem, but at the noonday hour, when the Knights Hospitaller break under the brunt of repeated Muslim charges, abandon their positions, and attack, Richard is given no choice. Once again, from the corner of his eye, Yusuf sees Malik Rik raise his fist and bellow an order over the chaos, and the next moment, the world itself comes unleashed.
Horses swerve and plunge to all sides, the dust kicked up by the battle so thick that it forms a cloud beneath the brutal desert sun. Lances heave, arrows and bolts fall like rain, even as the well-trained crusaders, in their heavy mail hauberks superior to the Muslims’ lighter leather armor, march so close together that an apple thrown at them would not hit the ground. Riders fall screaming, taken through with spear or sword, and the din is awful, clashing, endless. Yusuf finds himself unhorsed, his mount dead or dying somewhere behind him, his feet slipping in the bloody dirt, sweat stinging his eyes, his saif in his hand. He kills men who do not get up, even as he is aware that once again, the tide is rushing against them. Richard and his commanders lead a wave of brutally effective cavalry charges, and then Yusuf is down, almost trampled, the marks of iron-shod destrier hooves bruised into him, and –
It is again out of the corner of his eye that he sees his attacker, and knows who it is. Nicolò swings that broadsword at him, chewing out divots of grass and mud, and Yusuf rolls desperately out of the way. He jumps up and grabs the nearest spear, and Nicolò’s sword bites into the wood of the shaft with a crack, splinters flying. They circle like rival wolves at a kill, lunge and snarl and throw themselves at each other again, whaling the Almighty out of whichever side (likely none) He has actually chosen to take in this whole indecorous affair. They lose their swords, they have only their fists, and soon they have each other in a headlock, flailing, punching, grappling and wrestling, as if the same madness has taken hold of both of them. They must end this somehow. They must untangle what has been mistakenly joined together, because they cannot live this way long-term, two enemies who think they can put that aside in amorous dalliances whenever the logistics of combat should so graciously allow. They must destroy it. It is the only way. The only choice. This, out of all their clashes so far, is the most poisonously and painfully and deeply personal.
They struggle themselves to a standstill, even as the larger battle is sweeping to its inexorable close. Richard has won, of course he has won, surged to a stunning victory against a foe that outnumbered him almost two to one; the crusaders’ losses ultimately prove to be a relatively light seven hundred, while the Muslim casualties number in the thousands. Yusuf is finally knocked down, isn’t sure if Nicolò actually kills him or if he just blacks out, and when he opens his eyes, it is night and the battle is over. Flies buzz and vultures circle, shadowed against the cold silver light of the moon. The crusaders must be on their way to take the undefended Jaffa; Saladin himself toppled the city walls in an attempt to prevent it from being used as a stronghold against him, and now it has no protection from Richard’s advance. The sultan’s defeated army is also gone. Yusuf is alone among the dead.
He sits there, head in his hands, among the bodies of both allies and adversaries, the way it does not matter which device a man wears on his breast, or whether it is Allah or Jesus Christ to whom he bends his knee. It is there in the ashes of Arsuf when Yusuf thinks that perhaps it is rather presumptuous to feel that the deaths of the prisoners at Acre were his fault, his personally. Saladin himself was to blame, for a start, as was Richard. And Yusuf knows better than anyone that this war has been going on for a century, is an endless cascade of it, the bloody rock on which both faiths have built their house. He is nothing but a small piece of it, even if longer-lasting than usual, caught up in the great wheels. He will not absolve himself entirely of the responsibility, but perhaps he does not need to take it all.
Weary down to his bones, Yusuf lays a bloodstained saddle blanket on the ground to serve as a prayer rug, and there among the corpses, he asks mercy for all of their souls, Muslim and Christian both, and what this has cost them. He asks to find a way to serve the Most High that is not like this, and to once again, however little he may merit it, to be forgiven of his many sins by Allah the Just and Merciful. He has forgotten his mother’s god, he thinks. He has forgotten the man she wanted him so much to be, and he has forgotten his mother’s face.
There is no answer, not aloud, as there never is. But something in Yusuf feels more settled, and he thinks he can be quietly confident that the Almighty has heard. He sits back on his heels and gazes up at the depthless star-flecked sky, and gets to his feet, and goes.
The next several weeks see a careful maneuvering of altered tactical positions on both sides. Yusuf returns to the Muslim camp, where an awareness is spreading that for the first time since his crushing victory at Hattin and subsequent wildfire reconquest of the Holy Land, Saladin is decidedly on the back foot. Richard has defeated him soundly at Acre and now at Arsuf, and Saladin’s own miscalculations and overconfidence have cost him some of his standing among his supporters, who previously thought he could do no wrong. The spies report that the Christians are divided over what to do. Richard himself wants to hurry south and take the city of Ascalon, choking off the critical Muslim supply lines from Egypt. This, in Yusuf’s mind, is the obvious military move that would be proposed by a good general, even if he hopes they don’t do it. But the rest of the crusaders, who see not with Richard’s coolly pragmatic eye but rather that Jaffa is the corridor to the religious goal of Jerusalem, refuse to leave their position here. Richard is displeased, but outvoted. The crusaders remain in Jaffa. Winter is coming on, and active combat operations slack off, as usually happens out of season. And with that –
“I beg your pardon, radiance?” Yusuf does not think he can have heard right. “You want me to be part of these negotiations? I have – radiance, I failed you.”
Saladin gives him a long look. After a pause he says, “Once again, Malik Rik has sent messengers and asked if I wished to receive his proposals. Kings should not meet when they are fighting each other, so I will not go myself, but my brother, Saif al-Din, has offered to travel to his camp and make his introduction. You and the others will go with him, and ensure his safe return.”
Yusuf struggles not to blink. It is not due to Saladin proposing that they negotiate instead of fight – it is war, battles and diplomacy are equally potent weapons in a skilled commander’s arsenal – but that they would charge him with ensuring Saif al-Din’s safety, when his betrayal still haunts him. “I am not…” He fights for the words. “Radiance, do you… do you trust me?”
“If I did not trust you, I would not ask.” Saladin regards him calmly. “And perhaps you may prove why I should by sharing with me the truth of you. Are you an Assassin?”
“No, radiance.” Yusuf pauses. “You know that I would say that either way, but I am not. I do not share in their fanaticism. I am as you have always known me. Yusuf.”
“Yet you speak Genoese.” Saladin’s look remains mild. “And other tongues that I have heard from you. Where did you learn all these?”
“I have had an eventful life, radiance. In… many different places.” If Saladin presses for more details, Yusuf will have to concoct a lot of complicated falsehoods on short notice, which will be detrimental to the aim of honesty, but so be it. “I once hoped to be a scholar in Egypt.”
Saladin absorbs that with a short nod. Then he says, “What is the nature of your friendship with the Christian soldier, Nicholas of Genoa?”
“He is…” He is not my friend, Yusuf wants to say, which might be strictly true, and yet, it tastes too much of a lie. He does not ask how Saladin knows, or what he might have been told. “We have… known each other for a long time, radiance. But last time we did not manage to – ”
“This time you will do better.” Saladin speaks with great finality. “Are you my servant still, Yusuf al-Kaysani?”
“Yes.” Even among the chaos, the confusion and the heartbreak, that remains so. “I am, but – ”
Saladin gives him a look. The matter is settled. Yusuf goes.
The first time the Saracens ride into the camp in splendor, against the aghast muttering of the bishops who still cannot believe this is actually happening, Nicolò briefly and shamefully considers running away. He cannot do it without being noticed, of course, and he forces it down. The sultan’s brother, Saif al-Din, is a younger and slightly less impressive version of him, but still a sight to command the eye, and he dismounts and exchanges greetings with Richard, who thanks him for coming. There is a natural wariness between the two opposing leaders, but as they head into the tent for supper, the conversation grows easier, even mostly filtered through the interpreter Humphrey. Nicolò stands there, blinking, and tries to pretend that he does not see the man among Saif al-Din’s escort who is watching him without a word. We will never see each other again. Obviously that was a lie, they have seen each other, they have even killed each other again. Yet this is different.
Saif al-Din’s visit with Richard stretches on late into the night. They are talking of battles and horses and adventures and songs and fabled warriors, and have entirely forgotten any purpose in negotiations. Nicolò pauses outside the tent to look at them, and he thinks that to their own surprise as much as anyone’s, these two men simply like each other. Not in the way he and Yusuf do (or did), but as equals, as friends, as men who met in the most unlikely and unpromising circumstances and despite all the differences of culture and background, all the very good reasons they should just hate each other and have that be that, saw past it. Nicolò is burningly aware that Yusuf is watching this too, and that they are trying very hard not to acknowledge the other as their leaders chat and laugh together – that despite all their mistakes the first time, not everything has been ruined, and there could be a chance to try again. It is past midnight when Saif al-Din finally emerges, with assurances to Richard that they will talk again soon, and takes his leave. Nicolò is about to hurry off as well, so as not to be caught snooping, but Richard looks up and catches his eye. “You,” he says. “Come in.”
As Richard Coeur-de-Lion is not accustomed to asking twice for anything (and it is unwise to make him do so), Nicolò pauses, then advances into the tent and bows. “Your Grace?”
“I have had a thought.” Richard rises to his feet, elegant and ever-moving as he constantly is, and pours himself a cup of wine, which he has considerately refrained from taking in the presence of his Muslim guest. He pours another one and holds it out, and – confused, but obliging – Nicolò takes it. “It will need time to come to maturity, if it ever does, but what if we were to settle the matter of the Holy Land in a different way, a more sensible way? To be precise, with a marriage? Between Saif al-Din and my sister Joanna. They would then become king and queen of the Holy Land together, one a Saracen and one a Christian, and thus there would, in my mind, be no more need to fight over this.”
Nicolò stares at him, flabbergasted. To say the least, nobody else has ever proposed – has not even dreamed of proposing – a permanent diplomatic settlement with a marriage between a heathen man and a Christian woman, not least because the bishops would faint again before Richard could ever get the words out. “You would – do that?”
“I fail to see why not,” Richard says, with more than a little impatience. “Saif al-Din is a man, not a monster. None of them are. I have found the Saracens far more admirable than any of my scheming, self-serving, so-called Christian allies, and the matter of faith has not been an insurmountable one in the past. I daresay we have several cases of queens converting their pagan husbands in England’s own history. You are Joanna’s closest and most valued servant. If you were to put this agreement before her, could I trust you to secure her cooperation?”
“You would marry her to a Saracen?” Nicolò says this not (obviously) because he has any deep-grained personal objection to it, but because it is still the most remarkable thing he has ever heard any crusader say, and he has met almost all of them by now. “Would not Sultan Saladin see this as a challenge to his own rule, if you proposed to set his brother up in his place?”
Richard flashes a grim smile. “That is what you call the art of the compromise. It makes nobody happy and irritates them all in equal measure. But I do not propose to strip the sultan of his own domains in Egypt and Syria, merely to accept Saif al-Din as a client-king in Palestine. I think we can agree by now that we've all had quite bloody enough of Guy de Lusignan and his incompetence, Saif al-Din could only do a better job. I care more for a man's talent than his faith, tell you true. And if it should sow disunity among the Muslim cause, that is not my fault. I too have had brothers.”
Nicolò takes a moment to answer. Marry a Saracen. He obviously has more interest in this prospect than merely an academic question as to how to put it to Joanna – and he does not think she will be entirely receptive to it, but that is a problem for later. “Your Grace, I – ”
“How do you know that bodyguard of Saladin’s?” Richard leans against the table, sips his wine, and regards Nicolò with a mild expression. “Yusuf al-Kaysani, I believe his name is?”
“My lord, we…” Nicolò has suddenly forgotten how to speak French, and has to take a moment to start again. “It is… difficult to explain.”
Richard continues to wait, eyebrow cocked expectantly.
“I thought we too were friends,” Nicolò says at last. “Dear friends, even. But I… am no longer certain of anything.”
“Are you not?” Richard’s eyes remain on him, intent as a lion’s preparing to spring. “You know, I have other questions for you. You have been a devoted servant of my sister’s for many years, she says. Ever since she was only a frightened girl. You would never, I hope, have obtained this affection and trust by… dishonorable means? So easy to insinuate yourself, to be comforting and steadfast when she had no one else. How old were you when you first met my sister, my lord? And how old are you now? I confess, I find it difficult to tell. You look my own age or younger, but you have known Joanna for fourteen years, and it seems, not as a child then.”
“Your Grace, I…” Nicolò stumbles. “If you are asking if I ever transgressed your sister’s trust in me, or lifted so much as a finger to take advantage of it, never. Never. I am not the sort of man who hurts little girls. Nor would Joanna have kept me nearby if I was.”
Richard doesn’t answer, finishing his wine while making direct eye contact with Nicolò the whole time. Then he takes a step, and another, and in a motion that even Nicolò can’t quite follow, Richard’s longsword is in his hand, sleek and lethal and sharp as a razor, as it flicks to the point of Nicolò’s throat. He looks down the gleaming length of the blade to Richard’s face, beautiful and unrevealing and carved from stone, and raises his hands. If he is not very careful, this can go all manner of badly. Enunciating each word with a cool, perfect precision, Richard says, “And would you swear to that on your own life, my lord?”
“I would, Your Grace.” Nicolò looks at him as steadily as he can, which is not difficult. As ever, it is hard to tear his eyes fully away. If he was not firmly in love with someone else, he might be lost, and even now, a tug of involuntary, animal attraction pulls twistingly at his stomach. What might it be like to taste that flame, to burn in it? Whenever it goes out, as it inevitably must, the world will be darker and dimmer and poorer for it. “I never touched your sister. I never so much as thought about it.”
“My sister is a lovely woman,” Richard says. “You never thought of it?”
“I saw her from the start as more like my own daughter, Your Grace. Even if I was more inclined to women, I would never have – ”
At that, Nicolò bites his own tongue off, but it’s too late, and besides, he has just confessed this secret to the only (well, not the only, but the only one who matters) man who shares it. Richard’s eyes flicker in muted recognition. The penance for sodomy in Messina, and then (in a few years, though neither of them know that yet) the hermit’s rebuke in 1195, the sudden illness, the repentance of his evil ways, and then in another few years after that, returning to them again, the accusation which will dog him until the end of his life. Richard stares deeply into Nicolò’s face, and in that moment, Nicolò would swear on anything he knows that they understand each other perfectly. There seems to be something impressed in Richard’s eyes, almost relieved. He takes a step back and sheathes the sword. “Then I am glad to know that Joanna’s trust in you was not misplaced.”
“It was not, my lord.” Nicolò resists the urge to rub at the sore spot on his throat, the trickle of blood. You can earn Richard Coeur-de-Lion’s respect, even as his enemy (if that is indeed what Nicolò is – he does not think so, but not quite a friend either) by bravery, and now that they have exchanged that silent awareness of kinship, they will not shame the other for it, or by any weakness. It’s on the tip of Nicolò’s tongue to tell Richard that he knew Eleanor, the king’s beloved mother and closest political confidante, but he doesn’t want to raise any more questions about how old he is. For one thing, Richard might not be horrified, but he would want to know the secret. He is a warrior himself, a peerless, unmatchable warrior who naturally regards with horror the prospect of any death or defeat, ever. He would want it for himself. He would make Nicolò tell him, and Nicolò would have nothing to say. And even if it is the truth, he somehow doubts that Richard would believe him, or ever let him go.
There’s another pause. Then Richard says, with a little too much understanding in his voice, “So, Yusuf al-Kaysani – ”
“We… knew each other, Your Grace, yes.” The obvious fact that it was very definitely in the biblical fashion passes delicately unremarked. “But as I said, we are not… things went amiss between us some time ago. At Acre, in August.”
Richard’s eyes again flicker. If he recognizes this as correspondent to the date the Muslim prisoners were executed, as he surely does, he doesn’t say so. Then he says, “Well, for all our sakes, I suggest you make a closer investigation of the possibility of rekindling whatever was once there, and to think well on what you will say to Joanna, if I decide that the offer of marriage should be formally made. Is it clear, my lord of Genoa?”
Nicolò is still stuck with his mouth open, wonders if Yusuf will accept “King Richard ordered us to make it up” as a valid reason to renew their… whatever it is… and only succeeds in a nod. He is about to say something else when the tent flap rustles, and he glances around to see Andrew de Chauvigny. “My lord? Are you – ”
“I’ll be along when I’m finished, Andrew, don’t worry.” Richard glances at the knight for a long moment, and as Andrew comes into the tent on pretense of fetching something, he catches Richard’s hand in passing, almost out of sight in the shadows, their fingers curling together. Nicolò recognizes it, because of course he does. He could not do anything different. He is well aware of the intricate rituals constructed in order to touch the beloved even in passing, to keep it hidden not from shame but from fear of what it could destroy, and it closes his throat. He wants to know what to say to Joanna almost as much as he wants to know what to say to Yusuf. It hangs upon the same purpose, and yet it is much more.
“Very well, Your Grace,” he says to Richard. “I will – I will do my best.”
That, of course, is never as easy as it looks. The royal women have been brought from Acre to Jaffa, and after a few more meetings with Saif al-Din where he and Richard continue to get on like a house afire, the offer of marriage is formally made. Saif al-Din dissembles, says that he will have to put it to his brother, can give no hasty answer, which seems to be about what Richard expected. (Joanna herself has not yet been informed.) Negotiations are then again derailed by the news that Saladin has been destroying key fortifications while Richard and Saif al-Din were occupied, and the campaign stretches into the winter without Nicolò either seeing Yusuf again or deciding what to say to him. After that first appearance in Saif al-Din’s retinue, Yusuf has not been back to the crusader camp in person. He seems to know just as Nicolò does that it is too dangerous.
God’s Year 1192 begins with the crusaders wet from constant rain, bogged down in an unpromising position, and yet bound and determined to march for Jerusalem anyway, an order which Richard reluctantly gives only after being informed that he may face mutiny (relations with the duke of Burgundy and the French have been steadily deteriorating) if he does not. It is a farce; it does not even last a week. They are forced to turn back in the face of withering Muslim attacks, and the fragile solidarity of shared Christian purpose finally splinters. The French desert in disgust, and as Andrew, who was wounded in November, is sent safely to Rome to gather news on the situation back in England, Nicolò is ordered to return to Jaffa. Several of the deserters have gathered there, and must be brought to rejoin Richard and the main army in Ascalon, to the south. As well, he must exert all good effort to finally secure Joanna’s assent to the marriage, no matter how tenuous it may look from this end of things.
Nicolò dreads this even in theory, and it is immediately borne out in practice. As he predicted, Joanna has no interest at all in being married to a Saracen and left here, is even more angry that this was arranged without ever consulting her, and flies into a spectacular fit of Angevin temper, cursing at Nicolò that he has become her brother’s man and not hers – she adores Richard, and he her, but she feels this betrayal deeply. “What are you?” she screams. “I have known you since I was a little girl, and you have never changed, never looked a day older, never been anything but a – I don’t know, what? What?”
“My lady, I am…” Nicolò trails off. “I am still your servant, if you will have me.”
Joanna gives him a murderous blue look, so like both her mother and her brother. She seems to want to scream at him again, but instead she falls silent, staring out the window at the February rain. Then at last, without turning, she says, “It is true, isn’t it? What you said all the way back in Messina that very first time. I did not believe you then, but it must be so. You are – you are some sort of deathless relict, some creature that cannot die like a human. Am I wrong?”
“My lady…” He cannot lie, not again, not to her. “No.”
Joanna’s hands tense so sharply against the window glass that he thinks she might break it, and moves forward half a step, but another glare warns him off. Her voice is almost matter-of-fact. “Such a creature could never have one loyalty, or one life, or one love. You would be but a chimaera, changing skins endlessly throughout time, left behind as the world rushes on. I pity you, my lord, and you have done me good service, and I know you came to me about this foolish proposal with Saif al-Din as a matter of my dearest brother’s connivance and not your own. But henceforth, you may consider yourself released. Not because of this, I promise you. But because I know it has become unnatural for you to be constrained in one place so long, and by your own nature, because it is what is best for both you and for me, I must let you go.”
Nicolò is speechless. Joanna turns to look at him at last, tears sparkling in her eyes, and he can see that child so fearful of making a good queen, how they strolled in the gardens of Messina and he thought that he would like to have a daughter. He cannot beg her to keep him; they both know she is right. Such a creature could never have one loyalty, or one life, or one love. And yet he has never more hoped she is wrong.
“Just tell me,” she says. “Would you marry a Saracen, if they asked it?”
Nicolò opens his mouth. He thinks that he and Yusuf would certainly encounter more obstacles to their union than Joanna and Saif al-Din, but at least they do want each other. Perhaps they could vow to each other as brothers, as some pairs of knights do. At last he says quietly, “There is one Saracen I would marry, my lady, yes.”
She studies his face, as if realizing at the very end how little she has known of him after all. Her lips quiver, but she does not break down, for she is still the princess she was at their first meeting. He bows, and she inclines her head, and he takes her hand to kiss, and he wants more than anything in his life to wrap her in his arms, to hug her and tell her that so long as he lives, he will not let anyone hurt her. But that is a dream, and so is all of it, and this is how it ends, and so, at last, it does.
Nicolò does not go back to Ascalon.
He does not rejoin the crusading army – there are enough deserters in Jaffa that this is not unusual – and does not involve himself in the low-level civil war brewing between Pisans and Genoese in Acre, a conflict which requires Richard’s sharp intervention during Lent. He remains only vaguely informed about the progress (or often lack thereof) of the crusading army, their peregrinations and skirmishes and setbacks. He tries not to think about Joanna and he especially tries not to think about Yusuf. He drinks himself to sleep many of the nights, for lack of much else to do, and decides that he will not beg, he will not abase himself, and he will not, he will not, go on another fucking crusade ever again, just as he promised himself the very first time he went to this God-cursed (Holy Land, his arse) place. He may see if he can sleep for a few years and wake up when this is over. It seems preferable to anything else.
And then, of course, because the universe loves nothing if not irony, and especially where Nicolò di Genova is concerned, the crusade comes crashing back to him one last time.
It is July, there has been another failed march on Jerusalem – the crusaders reached as close as four miles away before ultimately being forced to retreat – and the political crisis in England has finally become urgent enough to compel Richard to go home. He withdraws his army and sails to Acre, thus to make preparations to leave, but Saladin, too eager for a score-changing victory, makes a rash decision and rushes to attack Jaffa while Richard is still there. Richard races back down the coast with a tiny army and pulls off a stunning counterattack in one of the most legendary episodes of his entire career. Jaffa is a charnel house, burned and sacked, as the battle rages beyond its broken walls. Nicolò is caught up in the madness, not even sure if he is fighting or merely trying to survive, in a way that feels entirely different from physical vulnerability. He grabs a crossbow (as he will later learn, Richard fights the entire battle with fifty-four Genoese crossbowmen, a hundred knights, and two horses) and fires at whoever stumbles out of the murk and tries to kill him; he cannot even be sure who. Flames and dust and broken stone rain down like falling stars. It seems almost peaceful.
At the end of it, as Richard collapses from exhaustion and a severe episode of his recurring sickness, as he lies almost at death’s door for a week, Nicolò hears two pieces of news. The first was that, seeing Richard fighting on foot during the attack on the Jaffa citadel, Saladin sent him two horses, because it was not fitting that such a magnificent warrior should be without one. The second is that Saladin followed it up by sending two Muslim physicians to Richard’s sickbed, and that one last time, Saif al-Din has arrived to conduct negotiations – and to see for himself that Richard is on the road to recovery. Their bond will become one of the most remarkable stories of the entire crusades; Richard speaks of Saif al-Din as “my brother and my friend.” Despite all this, in the ruin and the rubble, they are still trying to make it better, and Nicolò di Genova, older than them both by years and years and years, does not have an excuse.
He drags himself out of the remnants of Jaffa, goes to Richard, and apologizes for his desertion. Richard is still angry, especially since he cannot help but view Nicolò’s failure as somehow a reflection on him, after the secrets they recognized in each other that night in the tent. “God’s balls,” he growls. “Is that how you are accustomed to conducting yourself, my lord? With cowardice? After you have looked a king in the eye and given your word?”
“It was…” Nicolò bows his head. “I have no excuses, Your Grace.”
“Did you ever – ” Richard pauses to cough. “Yusuf al-Kaysani. Did you ever… reconcile?”
“We did not.” It hurts him, it bites into his heart to say, but there it is. “We have not seen each other for many months.”
“He might be in Jerusalem, might he not?” Richard studies Nicolò shrewdly. “With the sultan’s men?”
“He might, my lord.”
There is a long pause. Then Richard says abruptly, “Very well. You are forgiven, even for this shameful desertion, though pray you do not make it a habit. Andrew is leading a company of men to Jerusalem – there are three, all told, but you may join his. If you wish to see the Holy City, offer my regards to Saif al-Din and his men when you do.”
Nicolò opens his mouth, then stops. To travel with Andrew (who returned from Rome in May, back to his king’s side as he will be until the end), Richard’s lover and his right hand, and to offer compliments to Saif al-Din, Richard’s most unlikely friend. He knows that this is a deeper gesture than Richard can fully say aloud, a wordless apology (so much as Richard Coeur-de-Lion ever apologizes for anything) for whatever inadvertent part he played in tearing Yusuf and Nicolò apart the first time. Nicolò finds himself likewise lost for anything to say, and can pray that indeed, it is not too late. Richard has declined to go to Jerusalem himself. He does not feel that he is worthy of the honor, that his eyes may not behold it if he has not taken it with the strength of his arm. Quietly, poignantly, Nicolò wonders if deep down, even this mighty, glorious, invincible king fears himself in the dark of the night. He bows his head, as much to hide the emotion on his face as anything, kisses Richard’s hand, and takes his leave.
Nicolò is not sure he wants to go back, but he also feels very deeply that perhaps he must, he must return to where this began, and finally reckon with it once and for all. So he goes to Jerusalem with Andrew and the other men of the three companies, where Saladin and Saif al-Din welcome their Christian visitors with a generosity that is almost unbelievable, and wins them many new admirers. They conduct the pilgrims to the holy sites where they can worship, invite them to dinner (where Hubert Walter, bishop of Salisbury, tells Saladin that if he and Richard were to join together, no men could stand against them) and otherwise celebrate the terms of the newly agreed treaty, which has confirmed back to the Christian kingdom all the land that Richard almost single-handedly won for it. Peace, perhaps. Even without a marriage. For now.
Nicolò stands in the dark gardens of the palace that night, gazing out on Jerusalem. It is beautiful, he has to admit. It always has been. If this is the last time he sees it, at least for a few dozen years, he will take care to savor the sight. Once more, his life must begin anew. That, or –
“Nicolò?” The voice comes out of the shadows across the way. A pause, and then – “Niki?”
I don’t suppose I can stop you. How they laughed about it, that evening in bed last summer, the last time they were happy, before the next morning came, and all of it ended. Nicolò spins around, hand on his sword by reflex, even as he isn’t – he can’t be – and yet he is. Yusuf al-Kaysani steps out beneath the moonlight, holding up his hands to show that he is unarmed. From the darkness to the light, from silence to speech, from one life to another, from war to peace, and that, Nicolò thinks later, is when it truly, truly becomes real.
Both of them open their mouths. They have doubtless thought of countless things to say at this moment – excuses, explanations, apologies, justifications, several arguments just for old time’s sake. It turns out that absolutely none of them are needed. They stare at each other, and then they run, and they do not give a single, solitary damn who might be watching, and they catch each other in their arms and spin around and kiss their breath out, over and over again, until they are crying and pressing their foreheads together and whispering and gulping and kissing again. Jerusalem tore them apart. Jerusalem made them into monsters. But Jerusalem also gave them back to each other, on this night that Nicolò knows he will remember for as many more centuries as he lives, and the power of it almost bends his bones. He cannot stand up, at least without Yusuf holding him. He cannot remember his own name.
They kiss, and kiss, and kiss again, and never get tired of it, nor can they ever imagine doing so. Da mi basia mille, Nicolò thinks; Catullus knew, in this instance, what he was talking about. They remove inside for privacy, and find a room with a door and a bed, and there they reunite more slowly and savagely and tenderly and thoroughly. It is the first night in all of eternity to date when they are officially no longer enemies, not even a bit, and know that this is completely new, this passes all understanding. And for once, it does not frighten Nicolò at all.
They lie in the tangled sheets when they are through, Yusuf pressed into his back, his arm wrapped over Nicolò’s waist, in a way that Nicolò thinks he could get quite used to sleeping indeed. In Nicolò’s ear, Yusuf whispers, “I’m sorry.”
He does not need to apologize, Nicolò thinks, but it is sweet of him to say so. They lie there on the borderland between sleeping and waking, between today and tomorrow, between now and forever. He murmurs, “What next for us, then?”
Silence, Yusuf’s small shifts behind him, his hand stroking circles on Nicolò’s arm, a gentle and constant reassurance. Then at last he admits, “I don’t know, but it does not matter. So long as we are together. I can’t – I cannot, we cannot – I don’t want to, Niki. I can’t stand it. I’ve been away from you long enough, and I don’t…” He stops. “That is, if you agree?”
Instead of answering, Nicolò rolls over, grips the love of his life’s face between his hands, and looks at him, knows it, feels it sink into him like a warm summer day. Then he leans forward and kisses Yusuf, and Yusuf kisses him back, and lets that, therefore, be his answer.
Chapter 4: 1204
The great medieval city of Constantinople is one of the eternal wonders of the world. Named after its founder Constantine in the fourth century, it is the capital of the eastern Roman Empire, and is already almost a thousand years old. It is enclosed in thirteen miles of massive triple walls, and cargo barges and pleasure boats and all number of small craft sail up and down the Bosporus strait, between the two stone lighthouses that guard the banks. The mighty Sea Chain encloses the entrance to the Golden Horn, and the hilly streets teem with almost half a million people from all over the world. It is crowned by the massive and awe-inspiring Hagia Sophia, the Bucoleon and Blachernae Palaces, and contains countless multitudes of churches, monasteries, forums, hospitals, libraries, markets, domes, towers, fountains, baths, monuments, aqueducts, and other marvels. The empire is fabulously wealthy. Gold and silver glitter everywhere and in all the religious icons, Pantokrator and Theotokos and their saints; tiled mosaics blaze in bright colors and glazes, and even humble merchants sport jewels on their fingers. The Hippodrome arena is the center of sporting and social life in the city, where the Blues and Greens go to vigorously support their respective chariot-racing teams and engage in the time-honored pastime of hooliganism during big matches. It is lined with statues of emperors, heroes, kings and gods, and its stands can hold a quarter of the city’s population: 100,000 people. Nothing and nowhere is like this place, and never will be again.
Of course, this is not entirely an idyllic paradise. There was a massacre of the city’s Catholics in 1182, and a damaging fire in the Latin Quarter in 1197. “Byzantine” becomes a synonym for “wildly complicated and ridiculous” for good reason, since that is how the city and the empire’s politics are often executed – vicious, fratricidal, seething with palace intrigue and nepotism, noble families plotting against each other, emperors coming to power by exterminating all their rivals (and then usually also their relatives). It was ruled by the Komnenos dynasty for over a hundred years, but the Angelos dynasty recently rose up to overtake them, and Constantinople convulses whenever its rulers do. The Blues and Greens, as is usually the case, align with deeper political, ethnic, and religious tensions, and are always prone to enthusiastic and unnecessary mayhem. You must take great care venturing into the streets, especially during festivals or chariot races, and bodies will usually turn up bobbing in the harbor on the morning afterward. It is a chaotic, beautiful, bloody, marvelous, peerless booming heart of a city. Yusuf loves it in a way he only ever thought it was possible to love Cairo.
By far the thing Yusuf loves most about Constantinople, however, is the fact that Nicolò lives here with him. After the end of the Third Crusade in 1192, they moved here with little more than their horses, weapons, and the clothes on their backs, as pilgrims and paupers, and now they have a handsome house in one of the middle-class districts, with fruit trees by the windows and a cool inner courtyard with a reflecting pool. They have a fat, spoiled orange tomcat named Theophilius (they call him Phil). In a Greek Orthodox city, they are equally outsiders, Nicolò a Catholic and Yusuf a Muslim; indeed, the former can be spat at in the street sometimes more often than the latter. But ever since Procopius and his poison pen vengefully scribbled down sordid sexual scandals about the empress Theodora, Constantinople has also gained a reputation as a paramount temple of hedonism. Incest, sodomy, bestiality, and other such sins are all rumored to have had their heyday behind the palace walls, and the brothels burst with clients in search of every pleasure that can be paid for. Yusuf and Nicolò are certainly not the only ones of their kind, insofar as their preferences go, and since they live quietly and keep to themselves, their neighbors have no quarrel with them, or at least no more than anywhere else in the city. They can be themselves here, and it is intoxicating.
The other chief mark in Constantinople’s favor is that the crusades are, at long bloody last, unlikely to find them here, or so they dearly hope. The city has been a stopover for many crusaders before, and Emperor Alexios Komnenos was instrumental in launching the First Crusade. But the relationship between the Greek empire and the Latin crusaders, even if they are both nominally Christian, has always been tense at best. The schism between the Orthodox and Catholic rites runs too deep to be forgotten, and after the Byzantines were openly blamed as much as the Turks for supposedly sabotaging the Second Crusade, the two have kept a chilly distance for years. Their only involvement with the Third Crusade was to skirmish with Frederick Barbarossa’s army as it was crossing through their lands, and the pope’s agents are decidedly not about to come tramping up the street in search of recruits. That pope is presently the young, vigorous, and fiercely ambitious Innocent III, who was elected at the tender age of thirty-seven in January 1198 and issued his first call for a Fourth Crusade that August. Innocent is as shrewd and skilled in politics as any secular lord, obsessed with expanding Christendom and stamping out its enemies by force of arms. Whoever put him in the church was either an idiot or a genius, depending on your point of view. Really, another crusade? Who needs one?
Fortunately, however, Innocent’s call mostly fell on deaf ears, especially as Richard and Philip were far too busy fighting each other to even think about taking the cross again. Indeed they fought almost every day up until Richard’s unexpected death in April 1199, from a gangrenous wound at the siege of an inconsequent castle in the Limousin. It shocked Nicolò, when he heard about it, and it shocked Yusuf too. But of course, the man was not immortal. Only them.
That was followed by another evil tiding: that Joanna died in September of the same year, in childbirth, but she had already been badly ill and injured beforehand. Her second husband, Raymond VI of Toulouse, turned out to be an abusive, negligent bastard, and when Nicolò heard the full story, he went white to the lips, slid down the wall, and cried as Yusuf had never seen him do it before, as he held Nicolò tightly and murmured soft nothings and tried in vain to comfort him. He knows that Nicolò promised to keep Joanna safe, to kill her husband if he ever hurt her, and then was not there to do so when she needed that protection. Even if she let him go, and it was best for all, the failure cannot be easily expunged.
Yet it is mostly joy and not sorrow, their new life here in Constantinople. Neither of them have ever, in all their time on earth, felt this way before. Eternity is so much less terrible when there is someone to share it with. They visit the libraries and read manuscripts in a dozen languages, they walk in the blue evening hour as the city glows with golden light, they buy food from their favorite market stalls and sit in the shade to eat it, hot and fragrant and bursting with flavor. They attend chariot races in the Hippodrome (leaving before the rioting starts… usually, for a good brawl is a good brawl and cannot always be denied to oneself) and explore all the endless wonders that the city has to offer. Then they come home, sleep each night and wake up each morning together, curled up in their own bed in their airy bedroom with the white walls and high-raftered ceiling, and that can never be taken for granted.
This life is not always managed without struggle. They fell in love passionately and instinctively, and that won out against all odds, but there is still much that they need to know about each other, and about living together. They argue about who should cook supper and who steals the covers and which of them does not tidy up after themselves (Nicolò thinks it’s Yusuf, Yusuf thinks it’s Nicolò). They eventually hire a maidservant to do it, a young widow named Zoe who has a small son and daughter to support and a bland incuriosity about her masters’ private lives. But not all domestic disputes can be solved so easily. Nicolò complains that Yusuf wakes him too early getting up for fajr, and Yusuf snaps back that there is a Christian service of Prime at the same hour that he could attend rather than griping. Voices are raised, and they spend the night fuming before apologizing in the morning and agreeing not to be unreasonable. Yusuf goes out into the main room for early prayer, and Nicolò sometimes gets up to keep him company. They feel like the only two men in the world at that hour. Then one day Yusuf finds a neighborhood mosque, since he is far from the only Muslim in Constantinople, and even more miraculously, they are Shia. For the first time in years, in decades, he is among his own people again, can make prayers in true community. He is unspeakably moved.
Their favorite thing to do is talk, which usually happens at supper. Sometimes they will have been out together during the day, sometimes separately, but they always try to eat in company in the evening. They talk about their pasts, their childhoods and families, their earliest memories, their adventures as idiot striplings, building in the pieces of the lives they had before they met. Yusuf tells Nicolò about his mother Maryam, and how he wishes they could have met. Nicolò tells Yusuf about his sister Caterina, and how he wishes the same. They make love often. They delight in knowing each other more and more intimately, in every sense of the word. They forget to shut the door sometimes and are thus interrupted by Phil, stalking in with tail held high, to yowl at them as if they have never fed him before in their lives. (Zoe lives a few doors down the street, so at least they are not in danger of being interrupted by her.) They laugh until it aches, and snort and giggle, and lie on the bed at sprawled-out angles, and they are happy, they are happy, and Yusuf does not think he could ever have enough.
(He will, in fact, never have enough.)
One of the odd things they have discovered, in the course of comparing notes, is that they have each had dreams about the same woman – in fact, the same two women – for many years. They thought nothing of it until they realized that it happened for both of them, and they jokingly pretend to be offended that they are dreaming of strange women and not each other. (Though, they must admit, they did that too.) They possibly should have noticed beforehand, for the dreams are clearer and sharper and far more consistent than the usual. One of the women is statuesque, dark-haired, elegant, and something about her reminds them of an ancient Greek goddess. The other is smaller, beautiful, ferocious, with the look of a queen from the far eastern realms of China. The faces are always the same. It feels as if they… know them.
“Who do you think they are?” Nicolò asks sleepily, as they are warmly tucked in bed on a cold winter night in 1201. “Do you think they are real?”
“Maybe.” Yusuf hums into the back of his lover’s neck. “It seems unusual that we would dream about them so often if they weren’t. I don’t know them, though. I’ve never met them. Unless – ”
And at that, suddenly, he stops. Doesn’t know if he wants to voice the possibility, if only because it seems too tempting and wonderful and terrible to say out loud. Nicolò knows him too well, however, and rolls over with an inquiring look. “Unless what?”
“What if,” Yusuf says carefully. “What if there’s some chance they are… like us?”
Nicolò’s brow scrunches in thought. It is very adorable. “Lovers?”
“No, that’s not actually what I meant,” Yusuf says, laughing. “Immortal.”
“Oh, right.” Nicolò looks vaguely abashed. “Wait, you think – there are more people that have this curse, this gift, this – whatever we have? That we’re not the only ones?”
He tries to restrain the eagerness in his voice, even as Yusuf can hear it, and it gives him that same ache he was trying not to speak out loud. They are utterly content with each other, of course, but it will still lead down the same long and lonely road. No matter how much they love their spouse, most well-adjusted people would prefer to have another member of their family too, and Phil, cuddly as he is, does not exactly qualify. Besides, he will die even sooner than a human, and eventually they will have to find some excuse to leave and reinvent themselves, even if only for a few years, somewhere else in the world before they can move back here. If it wasn’t just pointless wandering, but if they had a purpose, if they had a reason –
“It might be worth it,” Nicolò says, casually offhand, as if Yusuf does not know that this kind, kind man wants a family more than anything. Not because of any discontent or deprivation with Yusuf, but because Nicolò is happiest when he has one to be part of, people to look out for and care about, and because both of them spent so many years by themselves after the deaths of their birth families, they have supped all they can bear on loneliness. Nicolò also still grieves for Joanna, who was his daughter in most ways that mattered, and if Yusuf could snap his fingers and make it so, he would. “We could find something. I don’t know how, but we could.”
They could, at that. Constantinople sits at the crossroads of every trade route across the known world: west to Europe and Africa, north to the Kievan Rus’, south to Persia and India, and east along the Silk Road, to Samarkand and China and the rising power of the Great Khan, the Mongol they call Genghis, the master of the fearsome horselord hordes of the steppe. Yusuf and Nicolò could go anywhere they wanted from here, and since the city has been through a spate of imperial depositions and unwise financial adventures in the last few years, its politics are presently more fragile than usual. In such an environment, immigrants and foreigners are usually the first to be targeted, and although they have lived here for almost ten years, they are still not quite native sons. But Constantinople is their home, the one they made together. They are in no haste to leave, when they will have to do that soon enough. These women are intriguing, but there is no guarantee that they are friendly, that they want to meet Yusuf and Nicolò, that they are fellow immortals, that they could find them in all the vastness of the world, or that they would welcome two strange men crashing in from nowhere. Yusuf and Nicolò have no proof that the Greek goddess and the Chinese queen are anything more than figments of their collective imaginations. If the opportunity rises, it can be pursued, but right now, it makes no sense to risk it.
Yusuf and Nicolò observe Christmas, as they also observe Easter and Ashura and Mawlid and Ramadan and Eid, and the year turns, wet and blustering: 1202. The two of them do have some good friends in the city, including a pair of couples like them, man with man and woman with woman. Of the former, Theseus and Alexander are happy to point out that love between men is a fine old Greek tradition which they are proud to uphold. Of the latter, Hippolyta is from Macedonia, and Rebecca is a member of Constantinople’s centuries-old Jewish community. (They have raised six foster children and a staggering number of houseplants.) One afternoon as Yusuf and Nicolò are visiting the women in their comfortable villa that overlooks the Sea of Marmara, Rebecca says, “So what do you think of this new crusade of the Christian pope’s? Should we be concerned at all?”
Yusuf chokes on his sip of nectar, and has to put his cup down hastily, coughing. “What? The crusade – I thought it did not happen? None of the kings joined up?”
“They found other leaders.” Rebecca’s lips go thin; the Jews have never come out well from the crusades either, with massacres and retaliations being a usual sordid feature of the landscape even despite various pontifical attempts to restrict it. “They made an agreement with the Venetians at some mighty expense to supply the army – they asked the Genoese first, but were turned down. So far as I have heard, they plan to attack the sultan in Egypt.”
Yusuf and Nicolò look at each other. The sultan of Egypt is now Saif al-Din; Saladin’s death in 1193 originally saw his lands divided between several of his sons. However, the constant incompetence and squabbling of his nephews finally decided the frustrated Saif al-Din upon exiling them and taking over the job himself. “I used to live in Venice,” Nicolò says. “So I suppose I can feel grateful to have escaped this particular mire.”
“You used to live in Venice?” Rebecca looks at him curiously. “When?”
“Oh, ah. A long – a long time ago.”
“It cannot be all that long ago,” she says teasingly. “You are so young, Niki.”
Nicolò blushes and mutters that he’s older than he looks, at which Rebecca gives him a motherly pat on the shoulder; both women are in their mid-fifties and are often concerned with whether Yusuf and Nicolò are eating enough, a pair of hapless men like them (the news that Zoe does most of the cooking has been a partial, but not complete, relief, and they often leave their visits with several bags of extra food). After a moment, Nicolò says, “Do you know a Greek woman – a Greek woman with a Chinese companion, perhaps?”
Rebecca tilts her head at all of Constantinople outside the window, as if to say that if it is a Greek woman he seeks, Nicolò will have to be a little more specific. “What is her name?”
“I don’t know,” Nicolò admits. “We just – we thought we might want to find her. It’s hard to explain, but – we dreamt of her, and – ”
“I’ve dreamed of women since I first read Sappho’s poems,” Hippolyta says, bustling into the room and stopping to kiss Rebecca in passing. “Have another baklava, Niki. You’re looking so thin these days.”
Nicolò looks as if it would be rude to refuse a lady of seasoned years, reaches for the tray, and takes a bite of the flaky pastry. “I just thought that if they were devoted sisters like you two, they might be in your social circle. The Greek woman is tall and dark-haired, and the other was from the East. We thought China, but we can’t be certain. It’s just something that Yusuf and I wanted to look into.”
“Not bored of each other already, I hope?” Hippolyta evaluates him with a gimlet eye. “Young love thinks it needs something else to keep matters interesting in the bedchamber?”
“No, it’s not like that.” Nicolò goes red about the ears. “Just if you heard anything.”
Hippolyta and Rebecca agree that they will pass it on if they meet anyone like that, not without some more good-natured teasing, and the visit proceeds as normal. Both Yusuf and Nicolò are disturbed at the news of yet another crusade, as it usually takes at least fifty years between them, but Innocent has made no secret of his feelings that the war against Christendom’s enemies must be prosecuted on multiple fronts (he also grows increasingly vexed about the problem of the Cathar heretics in the south of France). The archetype is there, after all. The pattern is established. Why not make use of it?
Nonetheless, this is all happening safely far away from Constantinople, and they can both hope it will stay that way. The year carries on as it usually does. Ramadan begins; Nicolò does not fast, but he enjoys making iftar, which they eat together after sunset. Yusuf finds himself praying particularly hard that they will be allowed to keep what they have made. He does not envy Saif al-Din, dealing with this yet again, and facing no opponent remotely comparable to Richard’s stature or strength or willingness to respect his enemies. There is still some ancestral part of Yusuf that thinks he should go back. Egypt is his original homeland, after all, the land of his birth and blood and making as a man. What if he is somehow committing a terrible sin in leaving it undefended, if his absence might be the deciding factor? Though he is but one man, however unusually gifted, it is a hard habit to break.
Nicolò proclaims himself relieved when Ramadan ends, which he freely admits is for entirely selfish reasons, as carnal relations (even with one’s spouse) are frowned upon during the holy month, and Yusuf has been sleeping on a pallet in the courtyard rather than in their bed. The Muslims of Yusuf’s neighborhood mosque have offered them an invitation to the Eid al-Fitr festivities, and they go and eat and drink and laugh, as Yusuf looks around the room and thinks that they have to be safe here, of course they are. Those awe-inspiring triple walls are the greatest defense in all of Christendom (and it still astonishes him that it is Christendom which he now counts on to protect him and his loved ones and his home, when for so long it was his mortal enemy). The crusaders are going to Egypt. They have nothing to do with this whatsoever. Everything will be all right.
He takes Nicolò’s hand under the table, and they have a good night, a blessed night, and then go home and fete the end of Ramadan in other ways. They lie in bed afterward, Nicolò’s arm wrapped so tightly around Yusuf’s waist that he can barely breathe, and he feels half-afraid that he will weep for wanting to defend this, for wanting to hold on, and so very afraid that if it comes to it again, he will not be able to let go.
That autumn, Nicolò finds a book in one of Constantinople’s libraries that he has heard of in passing, but never seen or read before, and certainly not in its original tongue. It is a splendid copy of the ancient poet Homer’s song of the warrior Odysseus, and his far-flung travels on his way home from the ten years of the Trojan War. Nicolò reads it spellbound from the very first line – Sing to me, Muse, of a complicated man – and when he finishes, he sits there overcome in a way to which he can hardly put words. The Greek is supple, it bends and weaves, it plays and it sobs and it sings and it teases. It entices and it reveals and it dances, it darts and it stabs, rather like its elusive and enigmatic hero itself. It tells a simple tale and an eternal one.
In its deepest essence, the Odyssey is a story about time: about what it does to a man, to a marriage, to a kingdom, to a home, to a son, to a legacy. It is framed so that you yourself may believe or disbelieve the wild fable that Odysseus tells you, about how he passes through more-than-mortal perils and at last returns to Ithaca as the master of a house he but barely knows, and a wife who has waited so faithfully (perhaps undeservedly by Odysseus) for many years. The women of the story – Athena, Persephone, Calypso, Circe, Helen, Arete, Nausicaä, Anticleia, Penelope, Scylla, the divine, mortal, and monstrous alike – shape its telling at every turn. It breaks off, unfinished, at an uneasy and bloody moment, a reckoning when neither characters nor reader know precisely what comes next, if Odysseus can be content at home again, or if he will inevitably return to the sea. It asks if peace is an illusion, if the warrior can ever lay down his arms, then steadfastly declines to give one clear answer. Nicolò is staggered by it. He cannot get it out of his head.
Yusuf listens patiently as Nicolò tells him about it, though Nicolò can see a shadow of disquiet on his face, as if they might soon be forced to face these abstract questions for real. He knows Yusuf is worried about this crusade, even if he tries not to show it. Nicolò is an optimist by nature, even if it comes with more difficulty at times, and he tries to reassure his lover that they are safe here. “Unless,” he says quietly. “Unless you do want to go to Egypt again, and fight…?”
“No!” Yusuf looks startled. “Not without you, Niki. I don’t, not really. I know you’ve had all the crusades you could possibly stomach. I’m perfectly happy to be missing this one out. It’s just…” He hesitates. “You and I may well live long enough to see the end of every single kingdom or empire or lord or religion or anything else that either of us have ever known. Longer than the grandsons of grandsons of grandsons. I’m trying to wrap my head around that, how one man could be asked to see that, and… I know that it’s not because of me that this Egypt will fall. I know that one day it will be gone. I just don’t want to be the reason for it. Even indirectly.”
Nicolò doesn’t answer, just puts his arm more tightly around Yusuf’s shoulders, and they lean together, Phil purring away next to them. “You’re all right,” he says. “We’re all right.”
“Yes.” Yusuf presses a kiss to the side of his neck. “I know we are.”
The year 1203 arrives, however, with some disquieting news. The crusade launched from Venice in October, but found itself in such an extreme state of penury, able to pay only a mere fraction of the 94,000 marks it owed for the construction and equipment of its fleet, that there was no chance of it setting out immediately for the Holy Land. The Doge, Enrico Dandolo, who despite being ancient and blind has a mind as sharp as ever, insisted on payment; he cannot afford to let his city go without the money, after the Venetians suspended all other industry for a year to build the crusade. It has become painfully apparent that the organizers of the crusade wildly overestimated the level of interest and recruits, so that the share each individual man is liable to pay back is far beyond his means. As a compromise, Dandolo suggested a new way to get the money: sailing along the Adriatic coast and shaking down the cities in Dalmatia, many of which owe some sort of allegiance to the Venetian republic, in a barely disguised burglary job. They arrived at the city of Zara last November, which recently rebelled against the Venetians’ authority anyway, swearing allegiance to King Emeric of Hungary and Croatia, and needs to be taught a lesson. Then – despite the citizens of Zara hanging crosses from their windows to remind everyone that they were fellow Catholics – the crusaders rejected an attempted peace settlement, attacked, and took it. Pope Innocent is said to be furious. He promptly excommunicated the chief culprits, but that does not take it back.
“They – what?” Nicolò stares at Rebecca, as they have once more learned this news in the course of a visit to the villa. “They attacked a fellow Christian city just to rob it for their payment? This is not – this is – this cannot be right.”
Rebecca’s look is not without sympathy, as she knows that Nicolò is a veteran of the Third Crusade (she does not know that he is also a veteran of the First and Second). “Your pope is angry too, as I said.”
Nicolò makes a noise in his throat to remark that truly, he is in no haste to claim him. He glances sidelong at Yusuf, who looks more troubled than ever. Even the plump, jolly Hippolyta is solemn-faced, and when she gets up to fetch more food, she moves stiffly, explaining that the pain in her joints has been bad this winter. They are matrons of a very respectable age, it is far from unexpected, but as Nicolò looks at them, all he can think is that he would trade them any bit of his own unending youth and vigor if only he could. Once again, the desire to find the Greek woman and her Chinese companion rises up in him until there is barely space for anything else. They must be immortals, they must be, or why would he and Yusuf have dreamt of them, exactly as they are, for so many years? If there could be one, just one person apart from Yusuf that he would not have to watch suffer and age and die… Nicolò has never once thought of using his immortality to become a king that nobody could overthrow, a ruler that would never be replaced, some warlord who bathed in his enemies’ blood knowing they could never do the same with his. Indeed he was desperate to be rid of it for a very long time, and in a tender moment one night, Yusuf told him that was the exact reason he deserved it. Any other man would clutch for all he could take from it, and Nicolò only wants to give.
They stay late on that visit, as Nicolò offers to do the washing-up so Hippolyta and Rebecca can relax in the solar, and when they leave, he tells them to send for him if they ever need anything. Rebecca clearly shares Yusuf’s concern about the crusade, is keeping close tabs on it, and Nicolò asks quietly that she pass on whatever else she should learn. He has been deeply shaken by news of the attack on Zara. Even if he did not want to take part in another one, he still retained at least some belief in the crusades’ higher purpose, however fragmented. Yes, they can give into atrocities like the slaughter at the fall of Jerusalem in 1099, but at least there was a reason for it. Crudely attacking a Catholic city for pocket change… that is something else.
Nicolò has loved a Muslim long enough by now that any remaining sense of inherent superiority is long gone, so this is not about that. Indeed, he deeply admires how Yusuf has been able to keep his faith steady for so long, while Nicolò’s waxes and wanes, sometimes coaxed to a full-throated flame and sometimes dwindling down to a cold ember. In Sicily it burned higher than it does just now, when he struggles to see the presence or the goodness of the God of which Yusuf is so beautifully, so easily certain. Yusuf calls him kind; Nicolò supposes that he is. He tries, surely. Another man might do it in hopes of purchasing credit by good deeds to get into heaven. Nicolò wonders if his comes from fearing that there is none, and if he is ever to be known as a good man, it must be here. It must be now. Even if he was still subject to the fear of death, he thinks it would be the same.
The year advances uneasily toward spring. There are rumors that the crusaders are camped on Corfu, one of the outlying Greek islands, and it is not just Rebecca who is paying attention to their movements now. It is likewise rumored that the son of the last deposed emperor, the prince Alexios Angelos, has traveled there to inveigh for their help in reclaiming his father’s supposedly-unjustly-stolen throne. (His uncle, also named Alexios, is the one who stole it, since yet again, that is simply how politics work around here.) In return, he promises to clear their debt to the Venetians by means of Constantinople’s treasury. Thanks to the present Alexios’ mismanagement, that is not as boundless as it has been in the past, but still more than enough to whisk away their difficulties, and if they are ever to get to the Holy Land as Innocent keeps ordering that they proceed immediately, they need to do something.
Nicolò hopes that the crusaders will conjure something else, some other magical solution for their difficulties, but by the end of May the news is all around the city that they are coming – they are coming here, the one thing they were never supposed to do. Yusuf bolts upright with an anguished sound, scrubbing both hands over his face and swearing under his breath, as Nicolò reaches for him. “Yusuf, there’s no guarantee that we – that they – ” he corrects himself ferociously – “will do anything bad to it. Maybe they’ll just go, and – ”
“Yes?” Yusuf says bleakly. “Do you want to ask Zara about that?”
Nicolò has no answer for that. They and the rest of Constantinople wait tensely, until on a sweaty morning at the end of June, the alarm is raised that the crusader fleet is in sight, will be amassed in its full and formidable strength within hours. Black ships before Troy, Nicolò thinks, and wishes he didn’t. He and Yusuf go to the walls with the rest of the gawking, anxious citizens, and look down at the ships as they continue to come and come – the ships of the people who used to be his kind, that as recently as the last crusade he was still fighting with, as he understood their cause and deeply admired their leader. There is no Richard among these men. Nicolò is not even certain that there is a Philip, and he was a cowardly deserter.
Everyone finally begins to retreat, still wary and fractious. Emperor Alexios III has mustered the army against his upstart nephew; it is whispered that the crusaders mean to attack at once. Yusuf and Nicolò lie awake all night, wracked with worry, and before dawn, when neither of them has slept a wink, they get up, go to the cedarwood chest that they have not opened since they got here, since they put those parts of them away in the futile hope that they might not be needed for another lifetime, and remove their arms and armor. They dress, buckle on their swords, and stride out into the streets prepared to do whatever it is that they must.
The great Sea Chain of Constantinople is – for now – still doing its work, preventing access to the Golden Horn and the inner harbor of the city. It is quickly plain to Yusuf and Nicolò that the crusaders and the Venetians will be attacking the Tower of Galata, which holds one end of the chain and is the more easily accessed from their present position; the Byzantine army has already retreated once in the face of the first offensive. They argue and cajole and coax and threaten their way down the line until they finally secure an audience with Emperor Alexios himself, trying to warn him of the danger, but he is less than receptive to their advice. “A pair of foreigners think to rule my realm for me?” he sniffs, with that utter hauteur that the Greeks are known to do so well. “Who are you two miserable nobodies to know anything about this?”
“Look, you – ” Nicolò takes an angry step forward, and is instantly warned back by the sight of the Varangian Guard all reaching for their swords. (They are the emperor’s personal bodyguard, often – ironically – foreigners themselves, Scandinavians and English and others, since their purpose is to be loyal to the office of emperor no matter which man occupies it and native Greeks were felt unlikely to be successful at this.) “You must listen to us, or at least let us take command of the defense. We have fought in far more crusades than you have, Your Highness, and if you don’t trust what we have to say – ”
Alexios gives them a look of deep dudgeon. He has not improved on the tenure of his ill-fated brother, who he blinded and imprisoned, and he raises an autocratic hand. “The matter is under control. I will hear no more. Remove them, if you please.”
(The matter is not under control.)
(The matter is not even close to being under control.)
Yusuf and Nicolò do their best to rally local men-at-arms, but without the imperial army to back them up, their efforts have almost no effect. The crusaders have produced Prince Alexios and are marching him around before the citizens of Constantinople, evidently in hopes that this will suddenly impel them to recognize him as the rightful heir and welcome him to their bosoms, but the citizens, who are used to a far more literally cutthroat style of politics while the Latin Westerners clutch their hearts over the injustice of an usurpation, generally could not care less. Then the crusading army – dangerous as any spurned man who thought he was entitled to his will – turns much darker. The Tower of Galata is stormed and attacked, the crusaders charging ashore as the mismanaged Byzantine army flees in disarray, the Venetians and the Varangians clash along the walls and end up setting the buildings below on fire, and by the time the massive blaze has been put out three days later, it has left almost a quarter of the city homeless. At this, Emperor Alexios, who has been sitting on his hands and playing for time, finally leads a proper sortie, but even though he has far more men than the invaders, he loses his nerve, turns tail, and flees. As a last resort to countermand their cowardly leader, the citizens release his brother, the deposed Isaac II, and name him emperor again, but the crusaders force them to accept Prince Alexios on the throne along with him. After two short weeks, it is done. Constantinople is smoldering, scarred, and resentful, but at least it is still standing. Yet what has been done – Zara was one thing, but now this –
Nicolò and Yusuf have run themselves ragged trying to command the city’s defense, and when the-now Emperor Alexios IV parades before the citizens’ resentful eyes back into the palace which he has arrantly used their lives as pawns to gain, both of them sense a dark, ugly current seething underneath. They rush to check on Hippolyta and Rebecca; they are all right, if very shaken, and their lovely villa has been damaged in the fire, but they think they will be able to rebuild. Yusuf and Nicolò promise all the help they need, yet when they finally get back to their home – also still standing, though the windows are broken and their silver has been stolen, and Phil is hiding under the wardrobe and will not come out – Nicolò yanks off his helmet and hurls it at the wall hard enough to leave a dent. “Fuck!” he explodes. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck this! Fuck them! Fuck them!”
Yusuf looks shocked – he’s never seen Nicolò lose his temper this spectacularly before – and reaches out for him, but Nicolò wrenches away. He doesn’t want to be comforted, even by the man he quite literally loves more than life. It burns in his chest that he could have ever been one of these crusaders – that indeed, if he was not with Yusuf, he might be one now, simply from lack of knowing what else to do. He storms out to the courtyard and sits down with his head in his hands. He can hear the uneasy sounds of the violated city, sees smoke curling on the horizon. They’ve never fought a war like this – never side by side, for one thing, and never to protect some place that was home for both of them. This hits differently, cuts deeper, pitches his terror to a higher and more desperate degree. They’re all right, he tells himself. That was bad, but it wasn’t the end of the world. They can still deal with this. There is still time.
As the year grinds on toward winter, however, the situation only gets worse. There are more fires in the city, more damage, refugees from the last fire begging for food and shelter. The rocky reign of Isaac and the junior Alexios is, yet again, doing nothing to smooth over the tension, especially since everyone knows they are only puppets for the Westerners and are under an obligation to pay out a large part of Constantinople’s money to men who arrived uninvited to violently steal it as a remedy for their own mistakes. Riots and other flare-ups of street violence between the crusaders and their supporters, against the citizens who loathe the very sight of them, have become an almost daily occurrence, and one night Yusuf gets home with blood running down his face. The gash by his hairline has almost sealed up, but was clearly very ugly, and Nicolò bolts out of his chair. “Lover, what – who did this?”
“The bastards threw rocks at me.” Yusuf’s face is cold and grim. “I looked enough like a filthy Saracen to remind them that they were supposed to be in the Holy Land by now, and they took the advantage to fight one so conveniently at hand. All drunk, of course. I would have killed them all, if I wasn’t afraid that it would turn the entire city to ashes.”
Nicolò swears, not under his breath, as he hurries to find rags and water to wash off the blood and reassure himself that the wound has closed. Yusuf sits still, letting him fuss, though Nicolò can feel the rage vibrating through him. At last Yusuf says, staring at the wall, “I hate them. I hate them for being here, for doing this. I hate what they’ve taken from us.”
Nicolò rests his chin on Yusuf’s shoulder. He can say nothing to the contrary. He too is sick at heart. “We could…” he starts. “We could still leave, you know. We could – if you wanted to, we – we could. Before… whatever might happen next. If you still want to go to Egypt, I’ll go with you. We can fight there together. If it’s what you want.”
“We can’t go, Niki.” Yusuf finally turns to face him, his eyes soft and ragged and still angry all at once, as he lifts a hand and brushes his fingers across Nicolò’s cheek. “You know we can’t go. There’s still too much of us in the roots of this place, in its bones. We need to fight for it. We need to fight for our home.”
Nicolò closes his eyes, struggling against the tears that steal up his throat. Sing to me, Muse. What time does to a marriage and to a man and to a home, indeed, and a man so conditioned by war that it seems impossible he will ever truly escape it. He tries to say something, but his chest hurts too much. So he stays where he is, with Yusuf in his arms, as they rock back and forth and make small humming noises, as if to take the pain away, as if it will all be gone when they wake. And – for that night, at least, for that small fragment in all that span of time – they can still almost believe that it might be so.
The situation comes to a head just three weeks into the new year.
The blind and feeble Isaac II dies on January 25, 1204, and the populace immediately revolts to depose his son, the hated Alexios IV, who brought the Latin crusaders – still not paid, thanks to Alexios’s own mealy-mouthing and evasion – here, and to so much woe and misery as a result. The rebel faction, having easily disposed with the Byzantine Senate’s imperial candidate, is led by yet another Alexios – this one Alexios Doukas, the royal chamberlain, though he is nicknamed “Murzuphlus,” which means “Unibrow.” (Besides his unfortunate eyebrow situation, this is also a reference to his dour and grim personality – so, a charmer all around.) But Murzuphlus was one of the few palace officials to command an effective defense when Alexios III (truly, do they not have another name for their emperors?) fled in craven disgrace, so he has political cachet. He seizes the imperial throne and orders the feckless prince, who gained his crown but destroyed his city, strangled in early February.
Absolutely nobody in all of Constantinople is shedding a single tear on Alexios IV’s account, but this lights the long-burning fuse on relations with the occupying force of crusaders to breaking point. They make much of how the treacherous Greeks have murdered their rightful liege lord, how this damns them in God’s sight to the same penalties as Saracens, and order Murzuphlus to pay all of what Alexios IV owed them. When Murzuphlus refuses, and negotiations for a withdrawal fall through, the crusaders declare open war on Constantinople. The rumor is that they and the Venetians have decided to conquer it outright and split the spoils.
“They can’t,” Zoe whispers, when Yusuf and Nicolò take her by the shoulders and tell her that she has served them very well, they are so grateful for everything she has done, but she needs to take her children and leave right now. “They can’t do that, we are a Christian city. We are the capital of Christendom on earth! They are men of the cross, even they – ”
“You heard what they did to Zara!” Yusuf tries not to shout, but he is desperate to make her understand. Of course Zoe cannot see what is happening in front of her face. She has been born and raised and lived her entire life in Constantinople, the queen of the earth, the glittering crown of – as she very rightly points out – Christendom itself. She simply cannot fathom under any circumstances that it would be vulnerable, not with those massive walls that stretch for miles, the greatest fortifications known to man, the legacy of the Roman Empire. Even if the Sea Chain was breached in the assault last August, even if the Great Fire tore apart countless irreplaceable treasures, Zoe simply cannot wrap her head around it. “Listen,” Yusuf goes on, low and urgent. “If you wait until it’s too late, we might not be able to help you. We have money, we’ll give you some. Anywhere you want to go. Just tell us. But you have to go.”
Zoe is still shaking her head, blank, uncomprehending. “It can’t be safe out there,” she says. “We’ll be better protected here, inside the walls. They could never take Constantinople.”
All Yusuf and Nicolò’s arguing and bartering and attempts to convince her otherwise go for nothing; just like them, she will not abandon her home, she is resolved to weather it out. It is the end of March, and the crusaders have moved in with all their power to begin a siege. Though he may have the personality of a box of rocks, Murzuphlus is not about to spurn the offer of military help from qualified commanders – in this, at least, he is wiser than his predecessors. Yusuf and Nicolò both have charge of a battalion of Varangian Guards, responsible for defending different sections of the walls, and it has been four days since they have last seen each other, on the heavily overcast morning of the ninth of April, when the crusaders finally launch an outright assault. They storm ashore from the horse transports, shouting their idiotic things about God and Jesus and whoever else they think they are honoring by being here, and the battle begins.
Yusuf loses track of time – the only conscious thing that occurs to him is that he cannot think about Nicolò, he has to remain here, in his own fight. He shouts until his voice scrapes hoarse for the archers to ready, aim, fire. The Varangians’ arrows hiss down through a thickening rain, hammering into the charging hordes below, as the exposed plain is transformed into a ruin of mud. It slows the crusaders, fouls them up, makes them more vulnerable to the constant aerial bombardment. Yusuf has, of course, battled crusaders for years and years, but never once like this. We are beating them, he thinks. This is it, they will lose and then they will finally leave. Just this, just once more, and then we will be safe.
At last, at last, he sees it; the crusader attack breaking off in disarray, retreating with difficulty through the haze of rain, back toward the distant ships that heave at anchor in the cloud-shrouded Golden Horn. Yusuf and the exhausted defenders of Constantinople see it at the same time; a ragged cheer goes up across the battlements, then a louder one. Yusuf turns and hugs whoever’s next to him – a Christian man, a Varangian, with whom he has just fought side by side in order to defeat the crusaders. Will wonders never cease.
He staggers home through the streets, people frightened but warily jubilant, beginning to hope that the worst is, at long last, finally over, that the Latin invaders will lick their wounds and slink away and they can begin to rebuild, as they have always done. Yusuf has his back slapped and his shoulder cuffed and his hand clasped in gratitude so often that it slows his progress to a crawl. Goblets of wine are pressed on him, and finally, rather than politely refuse every one, he takes a few sips and smiles and thanks them. They are hungry and gaunt and hollow-eyed, but they are – as he and Nicolò have been for so long here – happy. “Thank you,” they say to Yusuf, in a dozen different tongues. None of them care a fig that he is a Saracen. “Thank you.”
At last, Yusuf makes it home. He almost cannot believe his luck that it is still standing, that their neighborhood has thus far escaped mostly unscathed from the worst of the ravages. He gets inside and sits down on the settle, scratches Phil’s ears when the cat creeps up, yowling to be fed, and looks around for anything to give him. After days of siege and battle, the quiet rings in his ears. But the ringing is also from church bells celebrating their deliverance, the mighty defenders of the city, worthy as the ancient Greek heroes of old. Yusuf himself is numbered among them. He almost laughs.
Nicolò does not come home.
Yusuf fixes some supper, though there is almost no food in the house. The unfamiliar alcohol burns and buzzes in his head. He sits down and tries to eat, but even as hard as he has been laboring, he has no appetite. He isn’t sure if that is due to the quality of his cooking (it’s not that bad) or because – he knows damned well what. He keeps reminding himself that Niki is immortal, he’s fine, there’s a war going on outside and any number of reasons why he can’t get back here. With all the fires, the city’s geography has changed almost weekly, as charred skeletons of buildings are pulled down, repurposed, rebuilt. Or there’s still a skirmish going on at his section of the walls. Or he’s trapped under ten thousand tons of rubble and broken stone, is crushed to death, comes back to life, and dies again. Over and over and over.
Yusuf can taste bile in his throat, and shoves his makeshift supper aside. He stands up, about to strap back on his sword and fetch a lantern and scour every precinct of the city until he finds Nicolò. Just because he cannot die, at least for good, does not mean that he is not in danger. What if he was captured, what if some of the crusaders recognized him from the Third, wondered what he was doing here? What if they torture him and his secret is discovered? What would they – what if they try to take it for themselves, or decide that he must be some sort of heretic even worse than the Cathars? What if Nicolò is loaded down with chains, being dragged onto one of their ships, and Yusuf is sitting here doing nothing –
He gets as far as the front step of the house, pulling on his cloak and hopping like a one-legged beggar as he tries to force his feet into his battered boots, when a wave of exhaustion so primal that it actually dislocates him from his body crashes over him. When he opens his eyes, he is lying with his cheek in the dust of his doorstep, pale wet morning light silts down into the breath-held quiet of the street, doors and windows shut and barred, and Yusuf rolls onto his back with an agonized groan, shocked that a stray dog hasn’t pissed on him. He sits up, tries to remember how he got here, and then it goes through him again that Niki is missing. He is so unused to having to worry about him like this, and he hates it.
Yusuf staggers to his feet, looks around, and decides that no matter what, he isn’t going to do any good for Nicolò like this. Besides, he’s a soldier and a veteran of the crusades just as much as Yusuf is, not some helpless child who needs Yusuf to rush in and hold his hand. It’s just – he needs to know he’s all right, he needs it, feeling the fear of mortality in a way he has never felt it before, not since he adjusted to the idea of being eternal. One thing at a time.
Yusuf limps back inside, pulls off his filthy clothes, eats a little, sleeps a little, wakes up to find the house still empty, and then gets up to wash and dress. He leaves extra food for Phil, not sure when either of them will be home again, and decides to return to his post. The defense of the city is not over, and even if it is, there will be rebuilding work to occupy them for weeks and months. Constantinople is groaning, bruised, battered, and there has already been so much lost that it stings like a whip, but not everything. They can still salvage this.
It is a hair-raising trudge through the city, but Yusuf makes it. He returns to his post on the walls, climbs the stairs to the parapets. And then for the first time since the end of the battle, he looks out to the horizon – and sees the worst.
The Crusaders have not retreated. They have not even made an attempt at it. If anything, they have pressed closer, rank on bristling rank, an endless sea of steel and sails. Signal fires burn among the camp, sprawled out before Constantinople’s massive walls like surly children kicking their mother in hopes of a sweet before supper. They have refused to take the hint and turn and go onto the Holy Land. The clerics have been preaching that the Greeks are worse than the Jews, that the murder of Alexios IV is an unforgivable sin, and thus it elevates an attack on this city, on this city, to the same holy level as a battle against the Saracens. As he stares down at it, Yusuf knows what is about to happen. Not everything, not for sure, but he knows.
He spends the night frantically rousing as many of Constantinople’s bone-weary soldiers as he can, out to pick up their weapons and mount the walls. The Varangians are still there, of course, but most of the ordinary men have tried to struggle home and sleep. Yusuf barges in, kicks down doors, yells at them that they have to get up now. This does not make him the most popular, but he doesn’t care. He was wrong, he has been so very wrong about everything, and now they are all about to pay the price. As long as it keeps raining, that might be their only chance to buy time, bogging the crusaders down and confusing their attack. Yusuf prays as he has never before that the heavens open, that the rains come, that as in the time of the Prophet Nūh (pbuh), the waters sweep down on the earth, and Allah sends a Flood.
Instead, the weather clears on the morning of the twelfth of April, 1204.
It is pristine and cloudless, blue and golden, with a strong north wind ideal for sailing – the kind of morning that Yusuf has loved the most for as long as he has lived here, when he and Nicolò got up early and wandered into the market for a sweet roll and to sit somewhere and watch the wide world go by. The battle is joined before daybreak, as the wind drives the Venetian ships from the Golden Horn close against the walls, and then they are underneath the city’s defenses. The crusaders can climb on scaling ladders, find individual weak points, and bash through. Yusuf is among the first groups of Varangians that meet them, and there is furiously bloody fighting at the point of breach. He dies at least once, prays that his comrades don’t notice in the chaos, and wakes to the hellish sound of pounding footsteps and thundering stone, more and more men surging in now that the way has been opened. All the Varangians around him are dead or dying, corpses littering the flagstones in great smears of blood and limbs and offal. And still, without a cease, their faces twisted as they spit and scream, the crusaders keep coming.
It is only the beginning. The most terrible beginning to anything anywhere.
Most of the city is on fire, vast pillars of smoke rising up into that beautiful, beautiful day, which gazes down with serene and impassive eyes at the sacrilege raging below. By nightfall, the rumor is spreading wildly that Murzuphlus has also fled, leaving behind his soldiers and abandoning the city to its fate, and some soldiers valiantly fight on, but others follow the emperor’s example and simply run. There is nothing else to do, no general in command, nothing left. Most of the crusader army is inside the walls by now, and with it, true anarchy.
Even centuries later, both Yusuf and Nicolò will occasionally wake up from a nightmare with a particular kind of staring madness in their eyes, damp with cold sweat, and the other one will know without asking that they were dreaming of the Sack of Constantinople. It is, simply put, one of the greatest crimes in history. The crusaders rampage across it like savage carrion beetles – murdering, vandalizing, looting, robbing, raping, sparing nothing and nobody. Almost all of Constantinople’s precious treasures and Roman architecture is destroyed. Churches, monasteries, convents, synagogues, and mosques are burned and ripped to the ground, stripped of their valuables, their inhabitants slaughtered. The famous, fabulous wealth of Constantinople turns the crusaders into mad things, not even men, ripping and grabbing with both hands, their eyes black with lust and greed. Any woman anywhere is a target for their ravages; Yusuf kills more men than he can count, trying to keep them away long enough for the woman to run. It is as he is doing this that he realizes two things –
I know where Nicolò is.
Yusuf runs through the burning streets like a fury. He hears screaming from Zoe’s house, forces the door open to find her grappling with a man in steel trying to pin her against the wall – just as the crusader sees Yusuf, leers at him, and slashes Zoe’s throat in one careless backhand sweep, evidently because she was fighting too much and he decided to find one with less trouble elsewhere. He tosses her aside like rubbish, her head lolling, and wheels on Yusuf, squaring up for a fight. Yusuf kills him faster than he has ever killed anyone.
He crawls to Zoe, hands wet with her blood, but she is already gone, her eyes blank and staring. Since it is all he can do, he begs Allah to have mercy on her, then stands up and knows that since he has not found Nicolò here, there is only one other place he can be. He prays with all he is that he is not too late. Yusuf flees through the ruins of his own house, sees Phil’s small furry body cast aside like a rag, leaking blood, and hates for the remainder of time that this is his last memory of it. This place they were so happy, turned into the mouth of hell.
Yusuf almost doesn’t make it to the villa on the Sea of Marmara, because his knees are buckling and his heart has been ripped out of his chest, but there is nothing that could stop him. When he hurtles up the street, as the neighbors are trying to run and too terrified to know what to do or where to go, he is ashamed that he does not stop to help them. He reaches the top, throws open the door, sprints inside, and at last, he sees his lover.
Nicolò has hold of Hippolyta and Rebecca, who are dressed in plain dark clothes and clutching whatever they can carry. He is doing his best to shield them both, but as soon as they make it outside, they will be horribly exposed. He looks up at the same time Yusuf blasts in, and their eyes lock. There is no time to ask about anything. Without a word, Yusuf grabs Hippolyta, and Nicolò takes Rebecca. They look at each other again, decide on it, and run.
They’re halfway through the streets, battling for every inch, when they run around a corner and come face to face with a group of crusaders roaming like a pack of wolves. They spot Yusuf and Nicolò with the women, and one of them reaches out, drunk and slurring. “Give me that bitch,” he says, reaching toward Rebecca. “Too good for the likes of you, whoreson.”
“She’s mine,” Nicolò snarls, batting him back, and since his accent is Western, Italian, he sounds like one of the Venetians and the crusaders retreat long enough for the four of them to make it through. But just as they finally reach the rear postern gate – as if that will lead to any sanctuary, though perhaps Hippolyta and Rebecca can make it into the hills outside Constantinople and to one of the Byzantine villages for safety – another roving party of crusaders intercept them and try to wrestle the women away. In the course of it, Rebecca is hit full in the face, goes flying and crashes down, and two things happen. The first is that Hippolyta screams and jerks against Yusuf’s hold, trying to run to her. The second –
The second thing that happens is that Nicolò di Genova absolutely loses his mind.
Yusuf has never seen anything like it, never even imagined it. As he and Hippolyta rush to Rebecca, who has a gash in her head but at least is alive and moaning, Nicolò transforms into something unheard of, a sheer conduit of divine rage that burns even higher and hotter than these monsters. His eyes go dead white, like a hunting shark, and his sword flies into his hand so fast that even the crusaders take a precipitate step backward, as if suddenly (and too late) aware that they have just woken an almighty dragon. Yusuf and Hippolyta crouch down and put a cloth to Rebecca’s head, helping her dazedly to her feet, and Nicolò charges.
He kills a dozen men in one fell swoop, half one way and half the other. His sword lashes out too fast for them to catch or counter, especially when they are slow and fattened with spoils and slaughter. Nicolò rips the head off the next one practically with his bare hands, staggers but doesn’t stop when one of them gets in a lucky blow, rips the dagger out and throws it into the neck of its owner, and he crumples too. Rebecca and Hippolyta stare up at Yusuf, their faces pale in the violent firelight, and Rebecca manages, “Who – what – are you?”
Even they know that this is nothing like any other warrior, this is not a skill that a man could have in one lifetime or even two, and Yusuf shields them both with his body. As Nicolò rages – Christendom turned on itself indeed, the crusaders attacking Zara and Constantinople and Nicolò the former crusader attacking them – Yusuf takes advantage of the chance to get the women to the postern gate. “We are – we are not nearly so young as you thought,” he says. “We have seen this too many times, from the beginning. At least before. Nothing… nothing like this.”
They look at him, and they nod, and he wrestles the gate open, and clears the way. “Go,” he says. “Run. Don’t stop, don’t look back. Just run.”
Hippolyta and Rebecca look at each other, and clutch each other’s hands, and then – it is one of the bravest things Yusuf has ever seen from anyone, much less these two kind grandmotherly women, unarmed except for an eating knife, and all the terrors of the burning world beyond – they do as told. Yusuf watches their fleeing shapes up to the woods, until he is sure that they have gotten safe away and whatever becomes of them now, it is in Allah’s hands. He thinks that he should go with them, he needs to defend them as long as he can. But the choice has been made, and besides, his own heart is still on fire behind him.
He turns around and staggers back down into the reaches of hell. Nicolò is still fighting, still killing, bodies piling up to every side, tears running down his cheeks, eyes utterly unseeing. Yusuf is of the opinion that every single one of them soundly deserves it, but he knows that this is coming at a terrible price, and he reaches out, trying to catch Nicolò’s head between his hands. “Hey,” he gasps. “Hey. Niki. Hey, my love. Niki. Niki, look at me.”
Nicolò doesn’t listen, trying to wrench him off; it’s not even clear that he recognizes Yusuf. Indeed he almost kills him again, for the first time since Arsuf, though Yusuf dodges out of the way in time. He gets his hand over Nicolò’s on the hilt of the sword, his hand dripping blood, and – since the square is silent, since Hippolyta and Rebecca are running to safety, since Nicolò has killed every crusader within several blocks and it is only the two of them – Yusuf clasps hold. “Nicolò, it’s me,” he begs. “Niki, love, wake up. Come back to me. Come back to me.”
A shudder runs through Nicolò from head to toe. Yusuf holds his face between his hands ferociously, rocking them back and forth. Ashes and embers sift from the ruined sky, from the distant sounds of battle as the sack rampages on. (It will ultimately endure for three hellish days and catastrophically destroy both the Eastern Roman Empire and any hopes of reconciliation between Latin and Greek Christians; the Venetians loot precious things as well and carry it all back to adorn their piazzas and palazzos, the bronze horses of the Hippodrome ending up in San Marco’s basilica, but not on the same sheer level of savagery). Nicolò wrenches like a speared fish, trying to escape, trying to return to the same cold consolation of indiscriminate butchery, but Yusuf stays where he is. “Niki. Niki, look at me.”
At last, the horrible white blankness recedes from Nicolò’s eyes, and he blinks hard. Blood and sweat trickle down his cheeks as he shakes his head. He stares at Yusuf, clearly wondering what he’s doing there, and then as his knees give out, it pulls them both to the ground. Nicolò’s sword falls from his nerveless fingers, and he collapses.
He weeps so hard that he doesn’t make a sound, as Yusuf holds him and tries to think of something, anything to say that can possibly make this better. He can’t, for there is nothing, no way imaginable. Nicolò clings onto him, practically shaking him, and Yusuf weeps with him, for everything here that they have loved and lost. Their first real home together that now lies in pieces, for Yusuf’s little neighborhood mosque and how happy he was to be among his own people again, for the market stalls where they ate breakfast, for all the wonders and glories and the violent delights and violent end of this unparalleled city, for those beautiful blue evenings, for the mornings cuddling in bed, for Phil purring when they scratched his ears, for Zoe’s smile and her delicious food and her mischievous son and sweet daughter, for Theseus and Alexander (they never do find out what happened to their friends), for visits at Hippolyta and Rebecca’s villa, for the shattering awareness that everything is temporary, and it will fade. Or that it will be their own past that destroys it, and that is even more unbearable.
Nicolò cries until he can’t any more – numb, dumb, hollow, drained. Yusuf hauls him to his feet, but Nicolò remains standing motionlessly, like a wooden statue. “Come on,” Yusuf whispers shakily. “Come on, Niki. We have to go.”
Nicolò’s bloodshot eyes fix on him. He doesn’t seem to have the strength to muster an answer. Yusuf thinks of the poem that Niki read, the one by Homer, and how he loved it. Perhaps now they too are Odysseus. Perhaps as the Trojan War has burned and blasted itself out, they too must now fashion a raft, and sail out to sea, and somehow pluck up the strength to try again.
Sing to me, Muse, of a complicated man.
Yusuf dashes his own tears off his cheeks, and turns away from the burning city, and takes Nicolò’s hand. And that is how, one step after another, leaving Constantinople with no more than how they came – their weapons, the clothes on their backs, refugees blown on the wind – Yusuf al-Kaysani and Nicolò di Genova set out on the next great search of their lives, and indeed, much as it breaks both of their hearts, neither of them look back.
Chapter 5: 1526
It is forty-three years until his five hundredth birthday, and it cannot be denied, Niki is starting to feel very old.
Sometimes, no matter how long he has had to get used to it, it still seems ludicrous that he is here like this, that the years have not stopped coming, that he has seen so much and yet he wakes up every morning like an ordinary man, shuffles off to piss and find his breakfast and put on his clothes and go about his day as if he was merely just waiting a little longer than usual to go to bed. It is true that many of those years – in fact, for decades and decades after 1204, when Niki was not entirely right again – have blurred by like weeks or months might for mortals. After the sack of Constantinople, after the news from southern France that there was a crusade against the Cathars perpetuated with the same brutality, he and Yusuf wanted to run as far away as possible and never come back. They finally agreed, however, that they had a unique responsibility to the world, to Christians and Muslims, to everything they have ever known, and they had to try to stop this once and for all.
Thus, one more time – both of them brokenhearted, scarred, wary, angry, grieving, trying to remind themselves that they are the only two men who have seen every crusade in full, and that they must be careful not to rage against their fellows simply for not living long enough – Yusuf and Nicolò returned to the Holy Land, this time in the auspices of the Sixth Crusade in 1228. (The Fifth Crusade had already come, to nobody’s surprise, to failure.) It was led by Frederick II of Sicily, a remarkable, educated, and insatiably curious man receptive to the idea of negotiation and compromise with the Muslims (indeed, he had been excommunicated by Gregory IX for reasons including suspected atheism, which threw some confusion over his status as leader). His opposite number was Al-Kamil or “Meledin” as he was known to the crusaders, son of Saif al-Din and nephew of Saladin, who had become sultan of Egypt and Syria upon the death of his father. He had likewise inherited the broad-mindedness of his forefathers, and signaled his willingness to entertain the Christians’ proposals, especially as he was distracted by rebellion and discontent in Syria, and did not need to be fighting on two fronts.
Seeing that rare chance and feeling that it must be seized, Yusuf and Nicolò applied themselves to the task with singular devotion. Nicolò joined Frederick’s retinue while Yusuf joined Al-Kamil’s, and both of them served as close advisers to the respective monarchs, helping to produce – in 1229 – the landmark treaty that ceded Jerusalem back to Christian control, excluding some of the holiest sites that remained the property of the Muslims. Indeed – for bloody once, rather literally – there was almost no fighting on the Sixth Crusade, and its gains came out of discussion and dialogue rather than warfare. Nicolò liked Frederick, who spoke six languages, was an avid patron of arts and science, and who through his mother was also King of Sicily, holding a flourishing and sophisticated court in Palermo. He went so far as to include Muslims in his personal bodyguard, and was entirely untroubled to hear that Nicolò’s lover was one of them. He was married to the heiress of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem and thus had a claim to the throne, but had no religious zeal to make it to be a matter of Christian superiority. His scientific experiments could venture to the eccentric or nearly cruel – he once shut up two children in total isolation, their caretakers forbidden to talk to them, to see if they would develop the original language that man had spoken in the Garden of Eden – but at least it came from genuine curiosity and not deep-rooted malice or desire for suffering. Of all the crusade leaders he has known, Nicolò marks Richard and Frederick at the top.
For his part, Yusuf also befriended Al-Kamil, who was born in Cairo and was thus one of his old countrymen, and the treaty stood as an accomplishment of which all parties could be justly proud. It, of course, did not last. Ten years later in 1239, the truce expired, more crusades were duly launched including those of the excessively pious King Louis IX of France (the future Saint Louis), and Yusuf and Nicolò had no strength to try again. They could not be the arbiter of all mankind’s ills, could not exhaust themselves over and over in a conflict that has now taken so much of their lives, that circles back on itself like an ouroboros devouring its tail. Yet after Constantinople, they still had not yet found somewhere else to belong and settle down, almost did not dare. As if by their presence alone, they would call the wrath of the world down on it, and the trauma remained too deep to easily try again.
Instead, they went traveling.
Their choice of traveling companion surprised Nicolò, since part of him thought he could never stand to see a Venetian again, but Marco Polo had nothing to do with the disasters of the Fourth Crusade. Yusuf and Nicolò realized that while they were now nearly two hundred years old (Yusuf’s half-millennial birthday will come three years before Nicolò’s, in 1566) they had seen almost nothing of the wider world. Yusuf at least had explorations across Arabia and North Africa to his credit, but Nicolò had never been outside of Italy, the Holy Land, and Constantinople. So they joined up with Polo’s caravan, and went east.
They rode along the Silk Road, to the places that sounded like nothing more than fairytale and monsters to the average Western European. They went to Samarkand, to India, to China, both of them aware that perhaps they might find the strange warrior women from their dreams here instead. (China, however, is a very large place, and can only be searched very slowly.) Even after Polo returned to the West, thus ultimately to dictate a best-selling book about his travels while in prison, and become known as the great explorer, Yusuf and Nicolò stayed. They explored the remote island kingdom of Japan, centuries before any other outsiders will set foot in it, then ventured back into Asia Major, and hiked up cloud-shrouded green mountainsides to Buddhist monasteries that cling to the vastness of the sky, where saffron-robed monks kneel to chant and pray and meditate. They stayed at one long enough to join in. It was neither of their original faiths, but it calmed them, somehow. It helped.
By the time they returned to the world, it was the fourteenth century – which turned out to be a singularly bad time for it, especially in Europe. Between famines, freezes, crop failures, constant political unrest, endless wars, and then one day in 1346 where someone, somewhere, is the first unfortunate to feel poorly and then keel over from what becomes swiftly known as the Black Death, the world seems as if it is being eaten alive. Nicolò has not been sick since that winter in Genoa, when he originally discovered that he could not die of illness, but neither of them are in any mood to find out how far their resilience stretches. Being sickened, suffering, and dying of plague, only for it to potentially repeat all over again, sounds like the worst punishment imaginable, and they run back east. The plague is sweeping like wildfire across Europe, Asia Minor, and Africa, but its waves tend to move westward, and it feels safer.
It is there, at last, that they finally make the acquaintance that will change their lives, that has been waiting in some latent, embryonic form for them for so long. Part of the reason they decided where to go was because the dreams of the Greek and Chinese women became stronger and stronger as they entered the territory of the Kingdom of Đại Việt, the Great Viet, currently in a golden age under its Trần emperors. It is one sultry summer night when they enter a little village with its huts and rice terraces, and see a fire burning and two women sitting by it, and a sensation is shared among all of them like a lightning strike. Then the woman nearest at hand rises to her feet, and lays eyes on them, and the look that crosses her face is as if she has seen a long-lost friend finally return to her, and warmly welcomed.
“Welcome,” she says, entirely unsurprised, graceful and regal. “My name is Andromache of Scythia. We’ve been expecting you for a long time.”
That, therefore, is how Yusuf and Nicolò become not just two but four. They learn that the Chinese woman is not Chinese, but Viet; her name is Quynh, and she is indeed a queen, the daughter of one of the country’s ancient rulers. She still likes to come home every once in a while, and she and Andromache had the same idea of riding out the plague as far away from Europe as possible. They have been aware of Yusuf and Nicolò for many years, almost as long as the boys have been aware of them; they have all dreamed of each other, connected in some way that passes all understanding, and now, in the farthest-flung corner of the world, they have finally met. It goes without saying that Andromache and Quynh are immortal. Andromache is the oldest of them all, and Nicolò could not help but ask, having heard her name, if she was the wife of Hector of Troy. “No," she said bluntly. “That’s just a story.”
(So, Nicolò thinks, are they, but he takes her meaning.)
The other thing they share is that just like them, the women are lovers. It takes Nicolò a while to be sure of it, since it seems rude to ask outright, and they are private, self-contained, preferring to demonstrate their devotion in less overt ways. But they share blankets as much as he and Yusuf do, and the two of them communicate in some silent marital shorthand borne of what must be centuries spent at each other’s side, both of them as fierce warriors as any mythic Amazon. Just like Yusuf and Nicolò and their grief over Constantinople, Andromache and Quynh have some private tragedy too deep to be touched or easily shared. One night, they mention briefly that there used to be another immortal with them, a man from the Horn of Africa. It is clear that he is no longer here. That he is gone, and never coming back.
“But – how?” Nicolò blurts out. “Aren’t we – we’re immortal. How can we – how can we die?”
He and Yusuf look reflexively at each other, taking each other’s hands and holding tight, as Andromache flinches, the fire painting the strong bones of her face in the shadow of unspeakable loss. It takes her a long moment to answer. Finally she says, “Nothing that lives can live forever. Eventually our wounds just… no longer heal. We become as mortal as any man, and then yes, we can be killed. What happened to Lykon – ”
She bites her tongue, as Quynh also reaches out to take her hand. There’s silence except for the crackling flames and the murmur of the nighttime jungle. Andromache stares into the darkness, replaying some scene that stays with her constantly, as Nicolò knows a little too well. He and Yusuf don’t ask anything else about Lykon, and Andromache and Quynh don’t venture it. There are too many griefs in an immortal’s lifetime for them to be easily unearthed or spoken of.
Sometimes, however, it cannot be avoided. Another night, as they have traveled into the Khmer Empire and are sleeping in the grounds of the magnificent Angkor Wat, Nicolò wakes up from a nightmare swearing and screaming. It rouses Yusuf, of course, and then Andromache and Quynh are awake as well, yawning and frowning in groggy concern. Nicolò is embarrassed at being the center of attention, at having disrupted everyone else, and insists that they go back to sleep, he’s all right, he’s fine. He waits until everyone has drifted off again, then gets up, slips out from under Yusuf’s arm, and sneaks off down the cloisters.
The night is thick and dark and velvety, and the monkeys who come to the temple to steal the offerings flick past in small, fleet shadows. Nicolò rubs his face, trying to control himself. His hands shake, and he looks at them in the dim glow of starlight to be sure that they are not dripping in blood. His body feels cold and watery, and he should go back to the warm embrace of his lover, but he can’t. Not quite. Stay out here for a while, let the madness pass, and then –
“So,” a voice says behind him. “Do you like the view, Niki?”
He jumps a foot, whirls around, and only then makes out the fact that Quynh has followed him, silent as a shadow herself, and is leaning against a pillar with an expression both amused and faintly concerned. She raises a hand in tacit apology for startling him, then moves closer. Her hair is long and loose, unbound from its usual tight buns, and she smells of delicate jasmine flower. They look up at Angkor Wat together. Then she says, “You know, you fascinate me. Most men who carry the weight of the darkness that you do, they turn out to be of a very different sort. Do you want to tell me what you were dreaming of, or should I try to guess?”
“You should…” Nicolò trails off. It is on his tongue to tell her to go back to bed, that he does not want to burden her with his troubles, but it is the first time in his life that he has had anyone aside from Yusuf who understands the full truth of him, and he can’t hold back. “It was the Sack of Constantinople. In – in 1204, when the Latin crusaders destroyed it. We were… at the time, Yusuf and I had lived there very happily for almost twelve years.”
He isn’t sure how much more he can say without starting to crack, but Quynh nods. She seems to be able to sense it nonetheless. “As I said,” she goes on, “in my experience, men rarely go down so far into the darkness and manage to come back up. You could have become dedicated to vengeance, to wiping out all the remaining men and their families back in Europe, the pope himself, the leadership of the crusade, the new Latin Empire that they presumed to found on Constantinople’s ashes – any of that. Why didn’t you?”
Nicolò is flummoxed by the question. “Why didn’t I what?”
“Why didn’t you swear vengeance?” Quynh asks practically. “Other men would have. These men destroyed your home, the greatest city in your faith, the kind of history that can never be recovered, and even worse, they made you complicit in their crime. You had once been one of them, had worn their badge and marched under their banner and believed in their cause. There is no betrayal so great as one that comes from within. Indeed, it is the only betrayal. Your enemies can never do it to you. Only your friends.”
Nicolò opens his mouth, then stops. “Except I did kill them. I did – I killed so many of them after they hit Rebecca – she was a friend of ours, we – never mind. It was vengeance, it – ”
“No.” Quynh shakes her head, with a faint, poignant smile. “That was rage. Vengeance is different. Why didn’t you go through them until all of them were dead? They would have earned it. You know they would have.”
Nicolò looks at her, unsure what she wants him to say, if she wants him to admit that he regrets not murdering every single Fourth Crusader when he had the chance, or if she is searching for a different kernel of truth in him. He puts a hand against the carved column as if to hold himself up. At last he says, “It would not have mended anything.”
“And yet,” Quynh says, gently but relentlessly. “It takes most men – most women too, for that matter – to the end of vengeance and beyond to realize that.”
Nicolò sits down on one of the stones, hands dangling between his knees. “Do you think I should have?”
She looks back at him, level and implacable. “Only you can answer that.”
“I…” He’s glad he didn’t, and he wishes he had, and it terrifies him that he could have, and it remains jumbled up and aching in the dark pieces of his chest. “I wanted to be better.”
“So,” Quynh remarks. “You two went back to the Holy Land, you went on the Sixth Crusade even after all that, you returned to those people who had ruined your entire world and tried to help them do better as well. You took all that pain and rage and grief, and it made you kinder, not crueler. If something like that happened to me – I want to say that it would not break me, that it would not make me into something I would never want to be. But in truth, I don’t know. So perhaps I… I only wished to ask how it was that you did it.”
“I wish I could tell you.” Nicolò closes his eyes, chasing away the violent phantoms of Constantinople yet again. “I don’t feel that I was particularly special or wise. I just saw somewhere that I could help, and I… I tried to do that. And the Sixth Crusaders were not the same as the Fourth. I did not blame the former for the latter’s sins.”
Quynh shrugs. Again she says, “Other men would have.”
“I suppose I already knew that there was something more powerful than revenge,” Nicolò admits. “There was something else that I wanted more. I had, I have the greatest love any man could ever ask for. I didn’t want to destroy that, or lose Yusuf, just for the sake of unworthy bastards like that. If he hadn’t been there, if we had never known each other… I don’t want to think about what I would have done, the person I might have become. But I only am who I am, all these years, the life we had there and the life we have now, because of him.”
Quynh smiles softly. “You two really are incurable romantics. I adore Andromache, you know I do, but she doesn’t have a romantic bone in her body.”
“Yes, you two do like to offer piles of severed heads as tokens of your devotion,” Nicolò comments dryly, feeling slightly better. “I don’t think you would know what to do if she was romantic.”
Quynh scoffs a little, hits him in the arm, and they smile at each other. They sit there side by side as the night slips past like sand in a glass, as the jungle croaks and sings and cries, as the moon rises in bone and silver and porcelain and gilds the tops of the trees and the spire of the temple. Finally Quynh reaches out and squeezes his hand, and he squeezes back. Then they get up and return to their respective sleeping lovers, and Yusuf stirs and murmurs a question. Nicolò whispers, “Shh,” and pulls Yusuf’s arm over him, and when sleep comes again, for now, the nightmares stay away.
By the time the four of them finally decide to return to Europe, it is the fifteenth century, but it’s difficult to tell if this has improved matters or not. Now they have religious wars, witch trials, and then – in 1453 – the one thing that sends shockwaves through the entire Christian world, and which makes Nicolò want to laugh until he screams, Constantinople is conquered by the Ottoman Turks and their brilliant young sultan Mehmed II. The city simply never recovered from the sack and systemic devastation of 1204, even if they managed to drive out the Latin emperors and re-establish Byzantine rule in 1261. It has been reduced to a shadow of its former self, unable to check the rising power of the new sultanate, and after a punishing 53-day siege, the mighty walls pummeled relentlessly by Mehmed’s cannons, the grand old lady is brought to her knees at last. Of course, in the paramount of all imaginable ironies, the pope once again scrambles to cavil for a new crusade. Too late, Nicolò thinks. Too late, you idiot.
There is, however, very little chance of this one being taken up. The final fall of Acre to the Mamluk Turks in 1291 brought an effective end to the Latin presence in the Holy Land and thus the crusades, and by now, Europe is far too divided by political, national, religious, regional, and ethnic rivalries to ever make it feasible that the warring princes will set aside their self-interest to join up in some idealistic fantasy of a pan-Christian recovery of Constantinople. A few potentates volunteer, though their efforts go nowhere. Meanwhile, Mehmed is busy expanding his reach by invading the western Balkans, the medieval kingdoms of Serbia and Bosnia and the Romanian and Hungarian lands ruled by a bunch of local despots who are bloodthirsty even by the standards of fifteenth-century Eastern Europe. One of these – Vlad Dracula, known as the Impaler, voivode of Wallachia – founds the Order of the Dragon in order to fight the Turks specifically. His patronymic itself means son of the dragon; his father was Vlad Dracul, Vlad the Dragon. He is brilliant and courageous, but he is also very unrepentantly a horrifying tyrant. Perhaps it is the only way to rule in this place, but still. (However, Nicolò cannot help but be amused by the fact that Vlad’s own brother, Radu, is said to be Mehmed’s favorite and lover. There are two ways to deal with Turks, it seems, even within the family. Nicolò, having tried both options himself, has to say he prefers Radu’s approach.)
In any event, Vlad’s reign of stake-happy terror is interrupted in 1462, when he is imprisoned by the new king of Hungary and Croatia: the teenage Matthias Corvinus, the son of Hungary’s greatest warlord, who has succeeded to the throne after the maneuvering of his mother’s family. (Vlad will ultimately be released in 1475 and – allegedly – killed in battle in 1477.) Corvinus does not share his rival’s appetite for bloodthirst, though it turns out that he takes a sly delight in introducing his fearsome prisoner to any local clergymen who might be too full of themselves and watching them have a heart attack. “The Raven King,” as he becomes known for his name and family emblem, is clever beyond his years, a fine soldier, promising to become a ruler of great stature, and has a noted appetite for books. It’s something which Nicolò notes only in passing. They have, at the moment, other concerns.
In short, he has gone back to Italy for the first time since he left Sicily in 1190, and it turns out that there is a Renaissance.
“You know,” Yusuf says, as they walk through the gates and he can sense Nicolò trembling, tries to make a joke of it. “We’ve been together for nearly three centuries, I can’t believe this is the first time I’ve ever visited your hometown.”
Nicolò mumbles something under his breath, still staring up at the walls of Genoa as if he thinks he must be dreaming. It’s sometime in the 1480s, and the Republic’s finest glory days have, admittedly, slipped a bit. It was drained by a long war with Venice, fought over by Milanese and French occupying forces, presently belongs as a fief to Duke Ludovico “Il Moro” Sforza of Milan, and (though of course they do not know this at the time) has not yet reinvented itself as a banking powerhouse for perpetually skint European monarchs. (Later, Nicolò will also remark bitterly that he should have tracked down a certain sailor-of-fortune born in this same city around 1451, and accidentally killed him in a tavern brawl. So much evil might have been avoided if Cristoforo Colombo had not been made into a conquering hero.)
Now, however, such concerns are farther from their minds. Yusuf can’t help glancing around with great interest, eager to see Nicolò’s reaction to everything, even as he thinks that he is not at all fond of the clothes. Flat caps with feathers, slashed doublets, tights and codpieces and pointed shoes, the fashion to wear the hair long and curly and a fussy rapier at the waist which is often used in pointless duels – depending on how rich one’s father is, excessive adornments, striped silk, more feathers, or other such à la mode upgrades may be added. The Renaissance, at its heart, is exactly that: the educated sons of wealthy Italian merchant gentry deciding to consciously re-found society, after the turmoil and upheaval of the fourteenth century, in the allegedly more “enlightened” model of the ancients. It is debatable how many of the texts that they take triumphant credit for “rediscovering” they actually do; Yusuf, at least, would be happy to point out that the Islamic world has often had access to these works all along. But the fashion for fine art, humanistic learning, and societal reform (at least if you are a man, as the Renaissance ends up being rather horrible for women) spreads like wildfire across Europe, and there you have it.
Nonetheless, Yusuf and Nicolò are here on business. A court painter in the service of Il Moro – a talented young Florentine named Leonardo – is insistent that an unworthy Genoese rival has stolen some of his materials and secreted them here, and due to a long and fascinating series of events which neither Yusuf nor Nicolò can now recall, they have been assigned to track down the malfeasant and force him to return Maestro da Vinci’s pilfered items. The one thing which fifteenth-century Italy does have going for it is that absolutely nobody gives a single damn that Yusuf and Nicolò are lovers. (Indeed, “Florentine” is often used as shorthand for “sodomite,” and Leonardo himself has, as Michelangelo also does later, a keen appreciation for the charms of his own sex.) Indeed as they walk down one particular narrow lane, pretty boys in wisps of silk lean out balcony windows and whistle invitingly at Nicolò, and Yusuf glares up at them, putting a hand on Niki’s back to make it extra clear that he’s taken. Nicolò himself gives him an amused look. “Are you afraid that I would abandon you for a Genoese floozy?”
“Of course not.” Yusuf rolls his eyes at him. “But you never told me you came from such a… tolerant place.”
“It wasn’t like this when I was here.” They finally emerge into the square, before the magnificent Cattedrale di San Lorenzo, and Nicolò stares at it pensively. “They were only just starting to build this when I left. I barely recognize anything about this city.”
They venture inside the building to look, and cannot help but admire the airy Romanesque arches, the vaults striped in black and white stone, the gilded trim and the dark columns of polished malachite. One of the most important relics on display for veneration is a silver chalice, tarnished black with age, that the accompanying parchment proudly claims is the Sacro Catino, the very vessel, used by the Lord Jesus Christ at the Last Supper. Nicolò lets out a muffled yelp, half surprise and half incredulous amusement. “What the – I recognize that. Gugliemo Embriaco stole it from Caesarea. He must have brought it back here after the First Crusade.”
“Ah, good old William the Drunkard?” Yusuf raises an eyebrow, vaguely recalling Nicolò’s colorful stories about his very first crusade commander. He eyes the chalice, tempted to remark that he’s very sure they had medieval-European-style silversmiths in first-century Palestine, but the rip-roaring traffic (and outright forgery) of holy relics is a long and proud Christian tradition. “Do you think he drank out of it first just to check?”
“I’m sure he did,” Nicolò scoffs, and they laugh too loudly, attracting a glare and angry goose-hissing noises from a nearby priest, who tells them off in a rattle of Genoese too fast for Yusuf to follow. At least he thinks that’s the only problem, until he sees Nicolò’s eyebrows furrowing. When they are back outside, Niki says quietly, “I couldn’t understand him.”
“What?” Yusuf, at least, has the comfort of the fact that classical Arabic has never changed, due to the need to keep the pure revelation of the Qur’an unsullied. Thus, although he was born in the year 1066, he could simply stroll in and speak to the sultan Al-Kamil in the year 1228 with no problems whatsoever. But Nicolò speaks a ridiculously antiquated dialect of Genoese by their current standards, especially when the language is being changed and remolded and remade every day; there still is not much thing as a unified “Italian,” just the city-states’ various vernaculars, and they already encountered comprehension difficulties in the market. One of the merchants laughed and asked if Nicolò learned it from the grandfathers; they don’t think he’s a native, they think he’s some well-meaning but naïve visitor who diligently studied the wrong version. It’s hard to feel like a foreigner and a stranger in your own city, to barely know your way around, to stumble across a venerated old relic in a church that wasn’t there last time, and recognize it as something your inebriated scalawag of a commander stole way back when. You can’t speak to your own people, and they don’t feel like yours.
Yusuf reaches out and catches Nicolò’s hand, holding on hard. “I’m glad to be here,” he says firmly. “To see this place, where you’re from. It’s beautiful. We will learn the new language, it cannot be that hard. We’ve learned all the other ones, and I love it here. Really.”
Nicolò gives him a faint, crooked smile. “Even with the Genoese floozies?”
“Even with the Genoese floozies,” Yusuf says firmly. “Now come on, let’s go find that artist before Leonardo kills us.”
They ultimately do retrieve the stolen supplies (not without some dramatics from the artist) and bring them back to Milan, where Andromache and Quynh have been interestedly studying all Leonardo’s books and drawings and inventions and keeping both the maestro himself and his temperamental employer, Il Moro, placated while waiting for the boys’ return. From there – well, there is any number of places they could choose to go. Things are happening at the end of the fifteenth century almost too fast to keep up with. Matthias Corvinus dies too young, having built a great library that is only second to the Vatican’s in all of Christendom; Cristoforo Colombo sails off and “discovers” a New World and lights the Old World afire with the news; the talented and charismatic Rodrigo Borgia becomes Pope Alexander VI; his brilliant and cold-eyed son, Cesare, carves out an empire with the assistance of another Florentine, Niccolo Machiavelli (Nicolò di Genova remarks wryly that nobody will forget the name now); King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expel the Jews from Spain as the Inquisition reaches its height; the attacks by the reformers on the Catholic church continue to gain momentum; and in far-off England, the Wars of the Roses have just concluded to place the new Tudor dynasty on the throne. The year 1500 seems to bring with it a tangible turning point, of a world that has proven to be twice as big as anyone ever imagined – Colombo has not found a shorter route to India, but a vast and glittering continent entirely unknown to the ancient geographers. He promises gold, so much gold, endless gold, and land and resources beyond all measure. Never mind the small matter of murdering millions of people to do it. This is just the price of progress.
For his part, Yusuf is conscious of a – well, he’s not sure what to call it, though later he wonders if it was some sort of midlife (or mid-eternity) crisis. The world is changing very quickly, and yet they are staying the same as ever. He’s aware of just how much they have to learn again after they wandered in the East for a hundred years, Nicolò’s language difficulties the least of them, and the sense that there is much more they could be doing. They have lived with Andromache and Quynh for a while now; the four of them are settled, content as a family unit, though each half is free to lark off and pursue its own interests without having to consult the other two. They can sometimes go a few years without seeing each other, comparable to a few weeks or a month to non-immortals, because when you have nothing but time – what exactly do you do? They’ve settled down, they’ve traveled, they’ve fought plenty of wars, but Yusuf still isn’t sure they’ve decided on a purpose for all the time they’re going to be hanging around. For the recent (well, last dozen-odd decades) past, he and Niki have mostly been trying to get away from the pain of Constantinople. There must be something else.
Therefore – for the first time, but certainly not the last – they go to Malta.
A verdant island in the south Mediterranean sea, which has been subject to the usual armed scuffles over its ownership as everywhere else in Europe, Malta is currently ruled by a count loyal to the kingdom of Sicily, and Yusuf and Nicolò love it because it turns out to be almost exactly equal in its Arabic and Italian heritage. Its language is derived from its ninth-century Arab conquerors; its culture is Sicilian; the capital city is called Mdina, and while it is certainly prone to the odd Barbary corsair sailing up and attempting to enslave the population, it is beautiful, ancient, and in another thirty years, will be settled by the Knights Hospitaller driven out of Rhodes by the Ottomans, who become the Knights of Malta and remain involved in its politics right down to the present. The Hospitallers are, of course, the second-largest order of crusading knights after the Templars, and frankly, Yusuf and Nicolò think, it figures.
Yet just now, the crusades have not quite caught up with them again, and they take a room in an airy caravanserai that overlooks the dazzling blue ocean, walk on the beach to watch the sunset, and try to focus only on each other. They have been happily together for several centuries, and their relationship is as comfortable as a well-worn old blanket; neither of them has ever felt the need to search for a new bedmate elsewhere, even just to spice things up temporarily. They do not get bored of each other, they never have, but what with everything, they haven’t had much chance to just spend time together without something else going on, to talk, to decide what comes next, as this new era of the world rushes at them and they do not wish to be left behind. One evening as they lie in bed, pleasantly exhausted after several rounds of lovemaking, Nicolò says, carefully offhand, “Do you remember Hippolyta and Rebecca?”
Yusuf glances at him. Niki knows perfectly well that he has not forgotten, though they are careful when they evoke the memories of that vanished life. “Of course, Nicolò,” he says, running a hand down the strong line of his lover’s spine, pressing a kiss to the faint white scars that have remained even through all the regenerations. “What about them?”
“I just thought…” Nicolò pauses. “When we saved them,” he says determinedly, as if refusing to acknowledge any possibility that they didn’t, that the women did anything except get away and start a new life for the remainder of their sunset years somewhere else, somewhere safe. “We used our gift to protect them, defend them. They would have been killed, but since we were there, they were able to get out. We did it because they were our friends, but what if we did that more often, for more people? I mean, we’ve tried here and there, but not in a consistent way, and we… we could.”
“What do you mean?” Yusuf pushes himself up on an elbow to look at Nicolò, who is clearly very serious about this. “Like with the Sixth Crusade, when we tried to help them negotiate a lasting peace over Jerusalem? It lasted for a decade, and then it vanished. If we keep trying to get involved in human politics, somebody will wonder why we keep popping up and interfering. They could discover us, expose us, and then – ”
“Not like that, exactly.” Niki raises one long arm, sketching out the details of this grand vision. “We had good intentions with the Sixth Crusade, but it was always doomed to fail, just because humans will change their minds and forget the past and change old things once they aren’t convenient. We can’t come at this with the idea that we’ll solve everything permanently. They aren’t permanent, even if we are – at least for now,” he adds, clearly thinking of Andromache’s warning that one day they might simply not heal, and that would be the end. He pulls Yusuf closer, as if to forestall the possibility, ward it off from even being spoken aloud. “We negotiated with Frederick and Al-Kamil, the emperor and the sultan – well, yes, if we keep hanging around with powerful men, we’ll get noticed, we’ll get targeted, it’ll make it much harder to do anything at all. And yes, we could be exposed, and even if they can’t kill us, they could separate or torture us in other ways.”
“Where are you going with this?” Yusuf prods, dipping his head to press another kiss to the carved lines of Nicolò’s stomach muscles. “We help humans even knowing it might not last?”
“Something like that.” Nicolò turns, looking at Yusuf with those big grey eyes that got him good and properly killed all the way back in Damascus, and have never ceased to enchant him since. “I’ve been talking with Andromache about this. We have the same ideas, and it’s essentially what all of us have been doing anyway, in some shape or another. This would just make it official. Mortal people, men and women, they still fight to change the world even though they know that they might die before they see it, that whatever they do will not be the end. If we worked in the shadows, if we stood with the ordinary people and not the kings, I think – I think we could do it. We could make a difference. If they do it, and they die, what’s our excuse?”
Yusuf looks at him for a long, tender, wordless moment. Oh, Nicolò. Oh, sweet Nicolò, who still – even after everything – refuses to be anything less than what he thinks he should be, must be, even for a day. Of course he would think this, of course he would suggest that their original error was being presumptuous enough to imagine that their decree would stand for all time, static and unchanging, proclaimed on high as royal law. Kings and princes do what is good for them, and only incidentally what is good for their people. If that is who Yusuf and Nicolò truly want to help, then that is who they must stand beside, in humble anonymity, without seeking any recognition or glory for their efforts. It makes Yusuf think – for the first time in many years – of his mother, and how this was always what Maryam wanted her son to do, once she found out his secrets and loved him just as much anyway. She wanted him to be the kind of hero he sometimes doubts that he could still be, and Yusuf realizes just then that he does, he wants to try it again. He takes Nicolò’s fingers to his lips and kisses them. “You are such an idealist, Niki.”
“I know,” Nicolò says, with a wry shrug. “You’re here to make sure that I stop looking at the stars long enough to remember how we’re going to eat.”
Yusuf snorts a laugh, rolling closer, their bare legs entangling in the sheets. There’s another pause, and then Nicolò says, “I would not – if you did not want to, of course I would not expect that you should do it. Andromache and I could find some way to handle it by ourselves. But if immortality is truly our greatest gift, and not a curse, then we should – ”
“No.” Whatever else he may have questions about, Yusuf does not need to think about that, not for an instant. “Don’t be an idiot. Of course I’d come with you. Of course I’d do this. And Niki, you should know that our greatest gift isn’t immortality. It never was.”
“Oh?” Nicolò looks at him, his hair nicely tousled and his eyes intent and quiet and waiting, and Yusuf loves this man so much he could, in fact, truly die. “What is?”
“Finding each other.” Yusuf leans down as Nicolò lifts himself on an elbow, and in the warm darkness of the island night, their lips meet. It still does – and Yusuf hopes, always will – make him feel like the greatest person in the world. “That was the real miracle, you know.”
Nicolò makes that little hum that he does when he’s happy, and Yusuf can feel him smiling against his mouth. He sighs and settles his head on Niki’s shoulder, and so – as they do everything else, two halves in one – they sleep.
They leave Malta in another month or so, and return to their most recent home base, which is in Greece. Yusuf and Nicolò are both fluent in the language from their time in Constantinople, and it is one of Andromache’s native tongues; Quynh perforce also speaks it, and when they have a little white-washed house on one of the remote, outlying islands, overlooking a spectacular volcanic caldera, it’s easy to escape notice from almost anyone. Only sheep wander the windswept clifftops, fishermen in the small village below mending their boats and casting their nets, and it reminds Yusuf and Nicolò of the Odyssey, and the questions they themselves are still trying to answer: what do we do, where do we belong? The boys ride up the footpath on their donkeys, get out and let themselves into the house, and almost at once, Andromache pounces on them. “Yusuf, did he tell you?”
“About the idea that you two had?” Yusuf has barely put his bags down, is sore and dusty from traveling, and Quynh, taking pity on him, hands him a goblet of water so he can guzzle it down before answering. “Yes, he did. So we’re supposed to form a confederation of – what, secret crime-fighting immortals? Do we even have a clever nickname?”
“The Old Guard,” Quynh suggests, sounding as if she’s biting her cheek. “After all, we are rather old. And passably good at guarding.”
Yusuf looks at the three of them, these conspirators thick as thieves, realized they’ve already been discussing it – the traitors – and are all in. He shoots a mock-accusing look at Nicolò. “And here I thought you loved me.”
“I do,” Nicolò splutters, expression deeply wounded. “I told you about it, didn’t I?”
“Yes, once it had already been decided!” Yusuf shoves him playfully. Nicolò shoves him back and looks relieved that this means he’s in, he agrees, they’re doing it, and everyone is distracted by the boys’ wrestling match until Andromache clears her throat and informs them that the bedroom is that way if they would actually like to fuck, but she is going to go eat supper with Quynh like a civilized immortal. They are welcome to join her if they plan on doing the same.
Chastened, Yusuf and Nicolò let go of each other and stand up, and they meekly follow the women to sit down at the table, loaded with its good Greek food. Andromache takes out a jug of wine and pours them each a goblet – even Yusuf takes one in the name of solidarity – and they toast to the official founding of the Old Guard, and it feels like something new, and it feels good, it feels right, and on that night, that too seems as if it will truly last forever.
And then, 1526.
The Old Guard has been in operation for about twenty-five years at this point, and certainly has not lacked for assignments. The sixteenth century has carried on right where the fifteenth century left off, rumbling like a pot on the boil, and ever since a disgruntled monk named Martin Luther nailed a lengthy complaint to the cathedral doors in Wittenberg in 1517, the fights over religion have only accelerated. This is tiresomely familiar to Yusuf and Nicolò, the former crusaders, but rather than Christians against Muslims, this is more chillingly reminiscent of their old nemesis, the Fourth Crusade, with Catholic Christendom turned against itself and deciding that the problem is, indeed, either too little Catholicism or too much. They have quietly dedicated themselves to protecting ordinary citizens where they can, since every principality in Europe feels the need to declare itself either Catholic or Protestant and vigorously persecute those of its own people who disagree. Perhaps it is the added perspective of immortality, Nicolò thinks, but for the life of him, he cannot see the point. Their lives are so brief and fleeting, made hard enough already. Why on earth would you spend it like this?
Not, however, that the Muslims are neglecting to do their part. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire is determined to keep expanding westward, having made repeated incursions into the Balkans and Hungary, and the struggle culminates on the twenty-ninth of August, at the Battle of Mohács. King Louis II of Hungary and most of the nobility are killed, opening the way for the Ottomans to march on the royal capital of Buda. One of the greatest prizes in the castle there, aside from the usual spoils of war, is the splendid library of Matthias Corvinus, the king of Hungary and Croatia and jailer of Vlad Dracula, who died in 1490 at the age of only 47 with one of the finest collections in all of Europe. Various scholars and antiquarians beg someone, anyone, to save those precious books from the ravages of the marauding Turks. It might not be quite to the scale of the Library of Alexandria, but still.
“Are you sure we should do it?” Nicolò asks. “I know it’s a wonderful library, but shouldn’t we defend people instead of books?”
“You don’t have to choose,” Andromache points out. “You could do both. You two know better than anyone the things that happen when cities get sacked, especially by rival religious armies. Burning books is the first step toward burning people. We might have to do the same if we go to England, so – ”
“What’s so interesting in England?” Born and bred in the sun and sea of Italy, and having mostly lived in similar climates since, Nicolò has never felt much urge to visit the distant, rain-sodden isle of Britain, especially since their attitudes toward foreigners have never been particularly warm. “Didn’t they just have some war for the throne?”
“That was in 1485,” Andromache reminds him. “Over forty years ago, the Battle of Bosworth Field that brought Henry Tudor to power. Now it’s his son, Henry the eighth, that’s king. He has recently taken a fancy to the daughter of Sir Thomas Boleyn and is determined to have her somehow. That’s not the point, though. An Englishman in Germany, William Tyndale, recently finished his translation of the New Testament into English. It’s now arrived onto his native shores, and the bishop of London is determined to burn every copy of it. And that means – ”
“Next step from burning books is burning people, as you said.” Nicolò rubs his forehead, sighs deeply, and looks at Quynh. “So you two would go to England and try to prevent any heretics from getting killed, and we would go to Buda and protect it from the Ottoman sack? In both places defending the books as necessary?”
“Something like that,” Quynh confirms. “You two would have to hurry, the Ottomans are on the move. Then you can come join us in England.”
Nicolò makes a noise in his throat that says he remains unenthusiastic about the prospect of ever setting foot in England, but will overlook it in the name of doing good for the common man. The four of them get up and pack, colliding with each other in the small house and shouting about who last saw their sword (to which the other three chorus that if you’d just put it back, you wouldn’t have this problem). Then they shrug on their traveling clothes and cloaks, and as Andromache and Yusuf hug each other and wish good luck, Nicolò looks at Quynh. The two of them are dear friends, bonded from that moment in the night at Angkor Wat, and he’s looking forward to having some time to talk with her when they get home. “Keep Andromache out of trouble,” he reminds her. “I’ll see you once we get to England.”
“Yes, yes, of course.” Quynh rises on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek quickly, neither of them taking any special care or notice of it; they’ve said goodbye, and sometimes not even bothered, countless times before, with the easy confidence that they can be assured of seeing each other again. “Don’t be too much of a hero, Niki. See you soon.”
With that, it’s done, and they depart on their respective missions: Yusuf and Nicolò heading almost due north through the Balkans to Buda, and Andromache and Quynh making the long westward trek to London. Conscious of the need to outrace the advancing Ottomans, the boys ride brutally hard, pushing their horses to the point of collapse almost every day and walking bow-legged on the rare occasions they stop long enough to sleep. There’s no way they can get there fast enough to prevent an attack altogether, but they can try to prevent what they can along the way, mitigate the effects, do what good they can in the time that they have. Everything that he does, every mission that he carries out, every innocent that he does his best to save, Nicolò thinks of Hippolyta and Rebecca, just a little. He thinks they would like the fact that they are indirectly responsible for starting this. It makes it hurt less.
They finally reach Buda just a few days behind the Ottoman army, which is some kind of record, and begin their usual work of rescuing civilians from the flames, helping them escape, using themselves as human shields if necessary, defending women and children in particular, and fighting their way up to the castle in order to pluck as much of the Bibliotheca Corviniana as possible from the ongoing sack. Suleiman the Magnificent, like his forefathers, is a connoisseur of learning and fine manuscripts, and might ordinarily order it to be spared and added to his collection (and indeed, a few of the choicer items are removed for the sultan’s personal purview) but the lesson to be taught a defeated enemy is sharper. (This is just the beginning; three years later, in 1529, the first Siege of Vienna will strike off a hundred and fifty more years of bitter Ottoman-Hungarian wars.) Despite Yusuf and Nicolò’s valiant efforts, the great portion of the library is lost to history. They’re tired, they are tired of watching humans ruin beautiful and irreplaceable things because they’re too fixated on petty short-term gains, even if they have promised themselves that they can’t blame the rest of the world for not being immortal. As they sit in the dust, panting and disheartened, Yusuf says, “We did our best, you know.”
“Yes, I know.” Nicolò tips his head back, grabs the waterskin, and splashes it over his face, pouring it down his throat, before tossing it to Yusuf, who does the same. “And we’ve always agreed that if we were going to do this job, we would have to take the losses along with the victories. I just wish we didn’t have to.”
“Me too.” Yusuf raises a wry, painful smile, and they sit closer together, gazing down at the smoking skyline of Buda, the Danube almost veiled in the ashy murk, shouts echoing from towers and castles and churches as the Ottomans strip whatever valuables they can find, carry it off, and burn the rest. They have seen this scene too many times before, the roles juggled around, and yet it never gets any easier to swallow. Yusuf and Nicolò remain where they are for a moment longer, then give each other a hand up, strap back on their swords, and square their shoulders, preparing to return to their task. “Come on, Niki,” Yusuf says. “Let’s do what we can.”
They manage as best as they can with Buda, even if it’s not as much as they hoped for, and then, since it’s going on toward winter and they want to rejoin Andromache and Quynh before the bad weather sets in, they strike off to England. Traveling across Europe is presently a hair-raising endeavor, however, and on one cold night in Germany, they get stuck on the wrong end of a gang of angry Lutherans; they hear Nicolò’s accent, conclude very accurately that he is an Italian Catholic and very inaccurately that he is an evil Papist spy, and a brawl kicks off in which even Yusuf and Nicolò have more than they can handle. Nicolò gets stabbed about thirty times like Caesar in the Senate, quite obviously dies, and when he wakes up, finds Yusuf kneeling over him in terror and a lot of dead Lutherans stacked to every side. “Jesus,” he mumbles. “What happened – ?”
“You didn’t – ” Yusuf rocks backs on his heels, rubbing both hands over his face, looking like a man who spent the night in hell. “You took so long to – I thought that you were – ”
Nicolò sits up slowly, avoids looking down at the still-knitting ruin of his chest and stomach, and spits a dribble of blood. He’s quite sure that he didn’t kill that many of their opponents before he went down, and glances sidelong at Yusuf, who avoids his eyes as if in shame. “Major wounds, or a lot of them, must take longer,” Nicolò says hoarsely. He’s never died quite that violently before, and he can see it, feel its echoes still frozen in his flesh. “But I’m back now. It’s all right. It’s all right. It wasn’t then.”
“No.” Yusuf’s throat moves as he swallows. He gets up, lurching, and has to steady himself, reaching down both hands to pull Nicolò up after him. They clutch hard, Yusuf kisses him convulsively, and their boots leave bloody prints in the snow as they hasten back to where they’ve left the horses. They have to get out of Germany now, before this tale spreads.
It’s the dead of winter – indeed, early 1527 in the rest of Europe, though in England, the new year does not start until the 25th of March, the Feast of the Annunciation – when Yusuf and Nicolò cross the iron-grey Channel in a leaky packet boat and set foot on English soil for the very first time. As expected, it’s raining, a sort of sideways lash into your face that manages to be both humid and freezing without being cold or pretty enough to snow. Nicolò pulls up his cloak hood and grumbles and mutters as they trudge up the road, reminding himself that he is a five-hundred-year-old immortal warrior and has survived far worse, including on this very journey, than English weather. Yusuf, on the other hand, seems to be getting a kick out of Nicolò’s pathetic puppy-dog face. “You’re so spoiled, Niki,” he says. “It’s just a bit of rain.”
“It’s horrible,” Nicolò grumbles, flicking the sort of look at Yusuf that means he hopes his lover will take pity on him in all these wet clothes and volunteer to warm him up. They will have to be careful, however. Unlike the accommodating climes of fifteenth-century Italy or the other places they’ve been where they can live more or less openly, accusations of sodomy in Tudor England are likely to get them hanged, or at least attempted to hang. Nicolò figures that as usual, it wouldn’t kill them, but he isn’t eager to try. Besides, if they kept coming back to life in the noose, that would be even harder to explain, and something about the thought fills him with an unexplainable dark revulsion. He can’t even say why.
They arrive in London in another few days, and try to prospect discreetly for news about two women – two foreign women, which is made difficult with the deep-grained English distrust of “Strangers.” Nicolò’s already decided that he’s had enough of England for several lifetimes, though at least he still gets to sleep next to Yusuf by virtue of the fact that they’re piled into beds with about four other people. Conducive to intimacy or passionate romance it is not; he once woke up spooning a choleric-looking parson and expected to be arrested on the spot. But they finally catch wind of a strange and sordid affair that took place last autumn in Essex, of which the countryside will not stop whispering. They captured two witches, two real witches – who are now often known to be women after the publication of Heinrich Kramer’s virulently misogynistic Malleus Maleficarum in 1486, the witch-hunting handbook par excellence. No matter how many times they tried to hang them, the witches, animated by the dark spirit of Satan, kept coming back to life. Finally, to break their unholy bond with the Devil and with each other, one of them had to be dealt with – permanently and terribly, far beneath the sea.
When they hear this, Yusuf and Nicolò exchange utterly horrified looks. Nicolò feels sick, thinking of how he just imagined that very prospect – hanging a dozen times, never dying, exposed for the world to see and for humanity to do their worst to what they do not understand and do not value, the same ultimate reason that they destroyed Corvinus’s beautiful library and Constantinople and all the other losses down the centuries. The two of them race out to Essex in the wind and sleet. Far beneath the sea. Nicolò does not know what that means, and is increasingly sure in the back of his head that he cannot bear to find out. We are too late, he thinks, even as hard as he tries not to. We’re too late.
At last, completely by accident, they stumble upon it – upon her. They don’t recognize her until they’re literally on top of her, because this woman – this wraith, so thin she might blow away with the wind, dressed in rags, hair long and filthy, wandering along the road like an omen of ill fortune, like she simply does not know where to go or what to do – cannot be her. Andromache of Scythia is the strongest woman either of them have ever known, even if she wasn’t immortal, and this – this can’t –
But it is.
Nicolò reins up so hard that his horse almost sits down, and then he jumps off and runs to her, catching her arm and turning her toward him, as she stares at him with hollow, bloodshot eyes and doesn’t seem to recognize him. Finally she manages, voice an ashy whisper, “Niki?”
“Yes, Andy, yes, it’s me.” The nickname slips off his tongue by accident, but she doesn’t correct him, as he lifts her and carries her back to his horse. If he hadn’t before, he would have known just how bad of a way she is in by the fact that she doesn’t protest. Yusuf also dismounts and rushes up with a blanket, trying to wrap Andromache in it, and they boost her onto Nicolò’s horse; she holds onto his waist by reflex, but he can sense that she doesn’t care if she falls off and gets trampled. They find their way to a small abandoned cottage at the edge of a heath, another storm rising that pelts them with rain, and Yusuf kicks the door open, checks that it is indeed empty, and starts to make a fire in the dark hearth as Nicolò rubs Andromache dry with the blanket. She doesn’t react, doesn’t speak, still doesn’t truly register that they’re there. Yusuf digs some food out of the saddlebags and presses it on her, but she doesn’t take it. It is the way that Nicolò thinks he would look if – God absolutely forbid – he ever lost Yusuf, and –
He doesn’t want to ask. He doesn’t want to have to make her say it. But it hangs in the air nonetheless.
“Andy,” he says. He can barely get the words out. “Andromache, where’s Quynh?”
Andromache jerks as if he’s hit her, but doesn’t otherwise react. For the longest moment she remains exactly where she is, a statue carved in stone. Then she utters a horrible, croaking, barking sob, leans forward as if about to fall as Yusuf and Nicolò rush to grab her arms and hold her upright, and doesn’t even have the strength to shake them off. The word bubbles up in one small, perfect encapsulation of devastation, a silver bullet through their lives, everything that they have been taken away yet again. “Gone,” Andromache whispers, as roughly if her throat is in ruins. It is all she can manage, over and over. “Gone. Gone. Gone.”
Chapter 6: 1995
The sun is going down in the west, for something like the three hundred and thirty eight-thousandth day of his life, and Joseph Jones has rarely felt the weight of it more.
His hands shake as he unscrews the cap on the hard plastic canteen and tosses back the last gulp of lukewarm water rattling in the bottom, his sunglasses slipping down the sweat on his nose. Joe growls under his breath and shoves them back, even though he’s not sure there’s anything beyond that he wants to see. The thick summer air reeks of death and decay, an aroma he’s gotten to know all too well over the years, and this –
Even for him, this one hurts.
He paces along the crumbling verge of the mass grave, trying not to look down. There’s nothing they can do for these men, and he needs to get back to the ones they can still help. They’ve been in the Balkans for about three years, mostly in Bosnia, though they were helping out refugees in the Croatian Homeland War as well. They endured the punishing siege of Sarajevo (indeed, as of this very moment, it’s still besieged – is this 1995 or 1099? Joe sometimes isn’t certain, because it is such a profoundly medieval form of warfare, happening on your television, explained to you by Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw or Peter Jennings) and now they’re in Srebrenica, a small and otherwise unremarkable hamlet in rural eastern Bosnia, close to the Serbian border. It is under the occupation of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), a Serbian paramilitary unit called the Scorpions, UN observers, and other tangled remnants of blasted-apart Yugoslavia, the one terribly tragic exception to the largely peaceful end of the Cold War and collapse of the Eastern Bloc. Even for immortals as seasoned in tragedy as they are, this has been haunting. Especially what lies in the dust below.
Joe keeps looking straight ahead as he walks, though his shoes squelch in dust watered with blood. He sees tanks, the burned-out shells of humble blocks of flats, incongruously ordinary schools and shops, UN forces in their blue helmets. Another pang of rage burns through him – they have been not just useless, but worse than useless, standing there and looking on as this happened, not raising a finger to help, out of some high-minded philosophy of “impartiality.” That, in fact, mirrors the West’s response to the Yugoslavian and especially Bosnian crisis in general, as they have been aware of this for four years and done almost nothing to stop the slaughter. In 1948, Winston Churchill proposed reestablishing European unity after the devastation of two world wars by pointing them against their old enemy, the Turk, and that has been horribly successful here. It’s been described as the last crusade (optimistic, Joe thinks, insofar as there will always be another one), as Serbian Orthodox ultra-nationalists launched an all-out attempt to eradicate the Bosniak Muslims, explicitly legitimating their genocidal activities with references to crusading mythology, events, and mindset. For example, the battle of Kosovo in 1389, one of the endless Ottoman invasions of the Balkans in which they crushed a Serb army, has been whipped up into evidently the worst insult any country has ever suffered anywhere. The Croatian Catholics are messily mixed up in it as well, the legacy of the region embodied in the very verb – balkanized – that means terribly and violently divided.
What’s worse, it feels like this is directly on him, his fault, personally. Joe can see the red thread that leads all the way back to him standing in the rain on the walls of Constantinople in 1204, battling the Fourth Crusaders. If he had fought just a little harder and defeated them, if Constantinople hadn’t fallen, if it hadn’t been so violently sacked, if it hadn’t fallen into decline and been captured by the Ottomans in 1453, leading to the Balkan invasions, leading to the conquest and partial Islamification of Bosnia, leading to the battle of Mohács in 1526, the destruction of Matthias Corvinus' library and the loss of Quynh in England, leading to the religious wars of the next centuries, leading to the fault lines in Yugoslavia – then, this twisted line of thinking runs, they would not be here in 1995, dealing with its terrible fruit. This is only the consequences of their – of his – ultimate failure.
No, no. Joe shakes his head. They all know that that way lies madness, and it’s certainly not a straight line from the events of 1204, 1453, and 1526 to this blood-soaked field with its bulldozed mass graves. If he takes on the responsibility for all of it, he’ll lose his mind, he’ll not be able to focus on what he can do here. There are Bosniak women and children still in harm’s way. VRS soldiers have been forcing their way onto buses meant to evacuate noncombatants and raping women in especially nightmarish ways. Joe needs to get back and pull himself together and try to – not forget this, he can’t. But put it out of his mind.
The quiet streets of Srebrenica are almost peaceful in the July evening light, as if they have not just witnessed the systematic round-up, torture, and execution of almost every single Bosniak Muslim man and boy in the region – a total that will ultimately come out to over 8,000 victims and be regarded as the worst holocaust on European soil since the Second World War. Joe is here, he is their brother in Allah, he’s still alive, he can fight for their families. His sunglasses slip again, this time not with sweat but tears. He stops for a long moment, bending over, hands on his knees, struggling to remember how to stand up. His chest feels raw and sore, head aching as if it too has taken one of the VRS’s bullets. (It did the other day, and he almost hopes one of the bastards sees him come at them again and wonders what the hell happened.) Breathe, he tells himself. Breathe, then get back to the others, then think what you can do next.
After a few minutes, he sees the building in which the team has set up camp. It’s missing its front door, unexploded shells lying in the street not far away, and Joe skirts them carefully as he goes inside. Even for him, being blown into a dozen pieces would not be a fun regeneration, and he has no wish to put it to the test. The interior stairs creak as he climbs them, this place filled with that beautiful golden light, as if he isn’t leaving bloody bootprints with every step. His hands are still shaking, and he clenches them. Reaches the door at the top and knocks – “Hey, guys, it’s me,” as if they don’t know, as if they would have allowed him to get this close if they didn’t – and lets himself in.
It’s a mess. They’ve been living in a succession of squats and bombed-out apartments across the country, and this one is an upgrade only insofar as it has (most of) four walls and a roof. There’s no running water; there’s a bucket out back if they get so rank that they need a bath. A blue plastic tarpaulin is strung up to divide it roughly into a living room and a bedroom piled with sleeping bags for the four of them, and it’s crammed with boxes of ammunition, transistor radios, old newspapers, fake UN badges, Joe and Nicky’s swords, grenade launchers, explosive bandoliers, guns, and etc., Andy’s axe, Booker’s rifle and, well, books (even here he’s managed to acquire a few), bottles of water and stacks of tinned provisions with labels in Serbian Cyrillic. The other three members of the Old Guard look up as Joe enters, and Andy says, “You find it?”
“Yeah.” Joe takes off his sweat-soaked baseball cap – hands still shaking just a little – and crashes down on one of the mismatched plastic chairs that serve as their dining area. “It’s a mess. There’s not much to – they did a number on ‘em.”
He can sense more than see Nicky’s sidelong look at him from the window where he is positioned with a sniper rifle, planted all day with glacial patience, so he can use this elevated perch to target anyone who comes out to go after civilians. Whichever of them are left. Nicky’s worried about him, they all are, and Joe tries to avoid his eyes. “I’m fine,” he says, a little too heartily. “We need to get our shit together and find the women and the kids.”
“There’s another bus of refugees a couple miles north of here,” Booker says, from where he’s crouched over the radio with headphones on and fiddling with the knobs. “Supposedly the Dutch UN guys are moving them out, but – ”
“But since the Dutch just sat around with their thumbs up their asses and watched all the men get massacred, that’s not very reassuring,” Andy finishes coolly. She strides over to the battered cooler and twists open a bottle of some local beer. “Joe, grab something to eat if you need it, we’ll move out at dusk and try to intercept the bus. I don’t know if there’s anywhere else we can really send them, but we’ll try to ensure their escort to safer territory.”
The last two words hang in the air like a mockery – safer territory – as if any such thing exists in Bosnia in 1995, especially for Muslims. Joe racks both hands through his unruly dark curls, sees Nicky looking at him again, gets up and grabs another of the beers. You shouldn’t drink alcohol in high heat (and you know, for him, not usually) but he wants to save the bottled water for the refugees and he is feeling the need for a little assistance in getting the heaps of dead men with holes in their heads out of his mind. All these centuries, he hasn’t always been able to pray five times a day and fast for Ramadan and other things that aren’t totally compatible with operating as a world-saving immortal mercenary, but he still tries. He doesn’t feel like he has to choose between being a Muslim and being a member of the Old Guard, even if he’s not as outwardly devout as he used to be. He just (oh, the irony) does not have the time.
Joe takes a few swallows of the beer, reminds himself to say a sujud sahwi when he does next get a chance to pray properly, and puts it down. Then he tears open a protein bar and wolfs it down, barely remembering to chew. “Okay,” he says, still too heartily. “I’m good.”
He knows that Andy and Booker are looking at him too, and tries to smile for their benefit. Frankly, if he had to say it: God, the twentieth century sucks. Fighting through World War I and World War II and everything else they’ve been involved in for these past ninety-five years has almost made Joe long for the comfort of medieval wars by comparison. There was nothing like the Great War and its poison gas and its endless fields of killing trenches, barbed wire and machine guns and so, so many young men dying for absolutely no good goddamn reason at all. The mechanized precision of the Nazi death camps and the arrogance of the United States and the Soviet Union in driving the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation by their dick-measuring superpower contest. Joe picked this new name – Joseph Jones, plain, unremarkable, anodyne – sometime in the late eighteenth century when their fields of operation were becoming increasingly Western and Anglophone, because Yusuf al-Kaysani always sounds too suspiciously ethnic. Of course some whitebread name is the default, doesn’t draw attention. He’s gotten used to thinking of himself as Joe, and most times he doesn’t mind it. But having just stared into the abyss here in Srebrenica, with the bitter knowledge of how little the West has cared to stop Muslims dying –
Joe gets to his feet, shirt still damp with sweat, and packs some provisions into his backpack, along with extra food, water, a first-aid kit, and anything else they’ll need if they catch up with a lot of terrified refugees. He adds the usual cargo of ammunition for his guns, and straps on his saif. That comforts him with its heavy, familiar weight on his hip, and he’s still liable to reach for it first in hand-to-hand combat. Andy and Booker are shrugging on their own assortment of weaponry, as Nicky gets up and puts the long gun on his back, pulls up his black hood and reaches for his broadsword. His new official name is equally boring, Nicholas Smith. They got a kick out of picking the most unremarkable and common last names that they could. For a while Nicky's name was more elegant – Nicholas Genovian – like some kind of playboy European prince living in dashing exile in Gilded Age New York (they’ve been there, it wasn’t bad, if you ignored all the robber barons and squalid tenements of dirt-poor immigrants). But it was too distinctive, might draw attention if it cropped up too often in official records, and they can't have that.
“Hey,” Nicky says in an undertone, catching Joe’s hand. “Are you okay?”
“I’m – ” He doesn’t want to lie to his lover, not when Nicky will know perfectly well that yes, it is a lie, and no, he isn’t okay. He draws a shaking breath. “Let’s just catch up to the bus, huh?”
Nicky pauses, then nods fractionally, squeezing Joe’s hand, though his gaze lingers as a promise that this conversation is not over. The team finishes arming up, descends the stairs out into the deepening evening – when it’s not being torn apart by violent ethnic and nationalist conflict, the former Yugoslavia is one of the most beautiful places on earth – and with Andy in the lead as usual, they head out. The bus shouldn’t be that far ahead.
About twenty minutes out of town, they hit a group of Scorpions also trying to catch up to the refugees and do their horrifying thing, and the team disposes of them in the course of a short and sharp engagement that leaves more bodies heaped in the bushes. Joe slashes the throat of a few of them so hard that their heads go spinning like bowling balls, and their blood falls on his face like hot rain. He’s running closer to the edge than he likes, but there for damn sure will be no mercy forthcoming from the other side, and after what he saw earlier today, he’s earned it. Once they’ve confirmed that that’s all, they keep moving, and in a few more minutes, sight the bus’s taillights. Andy runs ahead to get them to stop. The bus shudders to a halt, dust billowing from under its tires, and Joe can almost taste the fear of everyone on board.
Andy steps around to the driver’s side window and has a forceful discussion with him; out of all of them, her Bosnian is the best, though Joe can mostly follow it if he concentrates. Finally the doors swing open like palsied buzzard wings, and the four heavily armed immortal mercenaries tramp on board, sparking a gasp from the refugees. They are overwhelmingly women and girls; the only boys are under the age of five (and some of them of that age were killed anyway). They clutch pitiful plastic sacks of scanty possessions and stare at the team with sheer terror reflected in their eyes. What, those faces say. What new devilry is this?
After a long pause, Joe finds himself stepping forward, hand on his heart. “As-salaam alaykum,” he says, the one greeting that every Muslim, no matter where they’re from, will know. “Peace be with you,” he repeats in his workmanlike Bosnian, as he gets down on the dirty floor of the bus and performs a quick rakat to demonstrate that he is indeed a Muslim. There are wide eyes and trembling lips and slight sags of desperate relief, though they’re still evidently unsure if he’s a plant sent to lull them into trusting him – you can’t trust anyone, not a bit, no matter what. He straightens up and nods again. “Good evening, my sisters,” he goes on, into the hush. “My name is Yusuf. These are my friends, Andromache, Sebastien, and Nicolò. We are here to help you. Does anyone need bandages? Food? Water?”
Small shifts, glances exchanged. Nobody seems willing either to go first or to tell them to go away. Nobody asks about the fate of their menfolk left behind in Srebrenica; the gunshots have been echoing for days. Finally, an older woman in a patched paisley headscarf makes a timid move toward the skinny teenage girl on the seat next to her, who has blood running down her cheek from an ugly gash near her hairline. “Please. My granddaughter.”
As the woman of the group, Andy moves forward, kneels down next to the grandmother and the girl, takes out a first aid kit, and softly talks them into allowing her to help them. Booker strides to the front of the bus and orders the driver to keep going, don’t stop for anybody, and takes up a position by the door with his gun balanced on the dashboard. Joe and Nicky carefully make their way down the rows of seats, offering food and water for the nervous hands that reach out to take it. They flinch away from the presence of unfamiliar men, with good reason; they’ve all heard the horror stories of what happens on other buses when soldiers stop it in the middle of a warzone and force their way on board (and would have happened to this bus if the Old Guard hadn’t caught up to those Scorpions on their tail). “Peace be with you,” Nicky says encouragingly, over and over, since he is the one who looks the most like their tormentors. “Peace be with you. My name is Nicolò, but you can call me Nicky.”
The bus jolts and jostles over ruts and potholes, finally reaching the waiting UN convoy vehicles (Joe casts a look of disgust at them, but holds his tongue) and the team remains on board for most of the night, until the bus has finally reached safer (ha) territory. The team is thanked in a shy chorus by the women and girls, and as they start to leave, thus to begin what is certain to be a hellish trek back, one of the old women catches Joe’s hand. “Thank you,” she says, her voice quivering, close to tears. “Thank you. Allah and the Prophet, peace be upon him, must have sent you to us, Yusuf. We will never forget this, never.”
Joe tries to answer, but his throat is too thick. He appreciates her gratitude, even as he feels as if nobody it was offered to might really deserve it. He isn’t sure that he does, and part of him blasphemously wonders where Allah is while all of this keeps happening over and over. But he nods to her, helps her down from the bus, and makes sure that the rest of the passengers have joined the straggling lines waiting for a tent and food. Not that what awaits anyone in refugee camps is ever pleasant, but at least it’s better than the nightmare they left behind.
Having checked to be sure that there’s nothing more they can do here, and since they don’t want any of the VRS or Scorpions stumbling into their jackpot weapons cache back in the village, the team trucks out. It’s a long, hot, and dusty hike back to Srebrenica, though they hitch a ride on some motorbikes for the last few miles and arrive in the silent, baking remnants of the town square. The scent of rotting bodies is enough to make them gag and tie bandanas over their noses and mouths, though this doesn’t help much. Seeing the look on Joe’s face, Booker says quietly, “I’ll go see if I can find a backhoe and at least cover them up. Is there – is there a prayer I should say when I do it?”
“Yeah, there’s – ” Joe struggles to think how to explain the Ṣalāt al-Janāzah in abbreviated form. He doesn’t want to think about the fact that Booker has to use a literal backhoe to bury the dead, but it’s better than nothing. Fortunately, the Frenchman’s love for books (he was absolutely horrified when he found out about Matthias Corvinus’s library, even though he knew the point of the story was that they were too late to help Andy and Quynh in England) means that he has an almost-photographic memory, and he rarely needs to be told anything more than once. Once he’s confirmed that he’s got it, he touches Joe’s shoulder and heads off, and there’s nothing for the other three to do but stagger inside.
The apartment is hot, silent, and smells like the four largely unwashed warriors who have been crowded inside for weeks (they’re immortal, but they still sweat and fart and stink and shit like any other people, and it is… ripe), and Andy gags; as the only woman living with three men, it’s her opinion that she’s getting the worst of the roommate situation. They open the windows in hopes of a breeze, but with the penetrating stench of decay, that’s not very helpful either. Nicky resumes his post with the sniper rifle. Joe wonders if he should eat something else, but still can’t work up any appetite. Andy paces, back and forth and back and forth, until he wants to grab her and make her sit down. He can’t exactly go for a nice walk. He feels like a soda can shaken to the point of total explosion. Why did they do this? Why is he here, seeing yet again the very worst that humanity has to offer? How do you keep your faith? Has he even kept his?
Joe leans his heavy head against the wall, his eyes aching with unshed tears. He’s thought once or twice about convincing Nicky to retire and settle down somewhere – they have plenty of money, they don’t need to keep doing this work. They’ve been to endless, sprawling, smoggy modern Cairo, the city of a thousand minarets, under Nasser, and they’ve even been to beautiful 1920s Istanbul under Atatürk, much as it kicked them in the chest a little to do it. Neither of those places exactly felt like home anymore. But they could look anywhere across this world that is larger than even they knew back then. They could get another cat. They could even think about adopting a kid. Nicky’s said before that he would have liked to have a daughter, and he has so much love to give that Joe knows he’d be an amazing father. But is it really fair to a non-immortal to be raised by immortal parents? Having to explain that the two of them would never get older or change or age, watching the child grow up and wither and die, knowing that they would have to bury them? Having to leave every few years to do another job with Andy and Booker, ending up in another hellhole like this? Doesn’t leave a lot of room for reading bedtime stories or making cookies for the school bake sale. And Joe does still believe in what they’re doing here. He couldn’t sit on his ass in some nice air-conditioned apartment and know that there were more people he could have helped. It’s just… hard.
His temples are throbbing with a dehydration headache, so he finally gets up and finds one of the water bottles, even as he feels guilty for drinking it when someone else surely needs it more. He goes downstairs, gun in his waistband since it’s never safe to go out around here without a weapon – especially when you are very visibly a Muslim – and kneels by the bare spigot in the courtyard, filling the plastic bucket and dumping it over his head a few times. The water has a rusty color to it, or at least he hopes it’s rust and that the pipes aren’t literally running with blood. It’s far from the best wudu he has ever made in his life, but he finds himself sinking down to pray nonetheless. He’s angry, he can’t deny it, he’s furious at the Almighty for letting this happen, but he doesn’t know who else to turn to. The habit runs too deep.
Help these people, O Allah, Joe prays. Have mercy on them. Please.
He pauses, then adds, in a distinctly non-standard version of the rakat, You motherfucker.
When he’s done, he rocks back on his heels and stares bleakly at the sweaty horizon. Flies churn over an alley nearby, and he wonders if there’s a body someone missed that needs burying. He could wait until Booker gets back and ask him to do it, but the man is currently off burying several mass graves’ worth of bodies so Joe doesn’t have to, and it seems cheap. Joe gets to his feet, shrugs on his damp shirt, grabs the gun again, and advances warily across the square and into the narrow alley beyond.
It’s a body, all right, and it’s definitely dead. Joe doesn’t want to look too closely, but something about the boy’s face – because it is a boy, a teenager – suddenly and irresistibly reminds him of Ahmed ibn Ghassan all the way back in the First Crusade, in Jerusalem. Another young Muslim man lying dead in the middle of a war, not even allowed to rest with his father and brothers and uncles and cousins and nephews and friends and everyone he has ever known in the open graves on the outskirts of town. Joe hesitates, then gets a tarp from a nearby garage, wraps the body in it, and hauls it out along the silent road until he hears the drone of a backhoe. As Booker gets out of the driver’s cab, wary and expecting trouble, Joe says, “Wait a second.”
He lowers the last body down next to its fellows, which Booker has made some attempt to straighten, though there’s no way to make any of it look neat. They say the Ṣalāt al-Janāzah together; Booker only stumbles a few times, and Joe is comforted to know that he would indeed have done it right by himself. Then they start shifting the earth until the bodies have mostly been covered up. It doesn’t really reduce the stink, but it helps.
They stand there in solemn remembrance of the dead, the one duty the ever-living have to their mortal compatriots, until Booker claps a hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Let’s get back to the others,” he says, speaking quietly even though there is nobody alive nearby to hear. “You – look, I know it’s a stupid question, you’re not all right. Just… let me know if there’s anything else I can do.”
“You’ve done enough for now,” Joe says. “Thank you.”
Booker nods, almost diffidently, and they make their way back down the road again. Some of the worst heat has receded as the sun slips behind the sere mountains, and once again the golden hour is coming on, bugs shirring in the bushes as they enter Srebrenica. They go up to the apartment; they need to get some sleep, there are more buses that they will need to guard, more people to help. Andy and Nicky have scraped together something vaguely constituting a stew, and they eat it in silence. The window remains cracked, the breeze freshening a little. Somewhere out in the darkness, some unseen voice is singing. Joe doesn’t need to understand all the Bosnian to know that it’s a lament.
After supper, Andy and Booker volunteer to sit up and sleep in the front room so one of them can keep watch on the streets. Joe and Nicky thank them, since they know that it is a rather obvious attempt to give them a fleeting scrap of privacy, and retreat behind the blue tarpaulin into the makeshift bedroom, the heaps of grimy sleeping bags. It’s almost pleasantly cool back here, shielded from the worst of the heat now that the sun has set, and they lie down together with pained grunts. Neither of them move or say anything or even stir for a very long moment. Then Nicky murmurs, “Come here, huh? Come here.”
Normally they like to sleep with Joe as the big spoon, but Nicky slides up behind him, hooking his hands under Joe’s armpits and pulling him back against his chest, tucking Joe’s head under his chin. He makes a soft rumble in his throat, a wordless hum of comfort. Joe can feel the tears stealing up again, as hard as he tries to bite them back. He shakes silently, as Nicky holds onto him harder. “I’m tired, Nicolò,” he chokes out at last, in the Italian that they have sometimes taken to speaking between themselves in private moments. “I’m so tired.”
“Shhh. I know, I know.” Nicky rocks him, both of them lost in a trance, as he presses silent kisses to Joe’s shoulder, kisses that hate that he can’t simply absorb all this pain into himself and make it disappear. “This is – this is one of the worst that we’ve ever had to do, I think. I hate that you had to see this. I don’t know what to say. I’m so sorry.”
Joe doesn’t answer, eyes closed, hand clutching Nicky’s where it encircles his waist, the two of them curled together like a pair of shrimp. “I love you,” he says at last, which they say only because there is no other efficient way to convey the magnitude of what they mean to each other and always will. “If I had to be here, if I did have to see this, I couldn’t – I could not be in this world without you.”
“Nor could I.” Nicky answers softly, his mouth moving against the back of Joe’s neck. Both of them can sense their greatest fear hanging in the air: that one of them will have his time come before the other, turn mortal and die while the other remains offensively untouched, and that no matter all the bridges he flung himself off or trains he stepped in front of, there is nothing that he could do to reunite with the other. That he might live on alone for hundreds or even thousands of years – like Andy has done without Quynh, like both of them did without Lykon, that he might have to deal with an eternity of a new life that did not have the other in it, and which is so terrible to them as almost to be unspeakable. At least mortal lovers parted by death have the assurance of seeing each other again, or that if the choice to carry on becomes too terrible, they can make it end in soft sleep. Immortal lovers parted by death –
Joe cannot, does not, will not think of that, will not entertain it, cannot let it cross his mind. He presses against Nicky, desperate to chase the thought away, and Nicky rolls him over and covers his mouth in a hot, engulfing kiss. He remains there until Joe can be reassured of his presence and his solidness and his warm beating heart, that no matter what comes later, they are together, Joe’s fingers tangled in his shirt, Nicky’s weight atop him. Even here. Even now.
We were born into eternity together, Joe thinks. Me from his blade and him from mine. We will leave it together as well. Whenever the time comes, we will. But not tonight. Not tonight.
(That, if nothing else, will be his solace.)
The Old Guard arrives in Zagreb, the capital of the newly formed independent country of Croatia, at the beginning of December, not quite a month after the Homeland War has officially been brought to an end. The Bosnian War has also been ended by the landmark Dayton Agreement of November 1, 1995, and awaits formal signing in Paris in another ten days. Unlike Dubrovnik in the south, which took heavy shelling, Zagreb has mostly escaped major damage, though it was hit by a Serb rocket attack earlier in the year. It is a beautiful little jewel-box of a European city, with colored buildings and twisting side streets, the funicular railway between the Lower and Upper Towns, Zagreb Cathedral with its Gothic stone spires, St. Mark’s Church with the coat of arms of the city and the old Kingdom of Croatia, Slavonia, and Dalmatia tiled on the roof, cafés and statues and shady trees and blue cable cars that clatter back and forth through downtown. This will be its first Christmas as its own country. The stores are largely empty and most people don’t stay out very long after dark, but there’s a palpable sense of hope and relief in the air. They’re starting again, even after all this. Starting new.
Andy, Booker, Joe, and Nicky settle into two rooms in a hotel overlooking Ban Jelačić Square, where there isn’t much hot water and all the décor dates from about 1978, but is an absolute palace compared to where they’ve been living in Bosnia. They’ve welcomed the news of the end of the war with as much relief as anyone – possibly more, given that they’ve been fighting in it almost the whole time. Sarajevo remains, still, under siege (it won’t be officially ended until February 29, 1996, which makes it the longest siege in the history of modern warfare) and there’s obviously a lot to do in building a whole new set of functioning countries out of Yugoslavia’s ashes. Everyone has finally exhausted themselves in violence and seems to be waking up dazed, confused, not quite sure where they are or what just happened, as if from a particularly terrible nightmare. It remains to be seen what will come next.
Nicky and Joe spend some time just wandering around the city, trying to reorient themselves in the here and now, to be back in the world instead of in the war. They make a point to do this after each of their missions, especially ones that were as draining as this one. They sit inside the old cafes that look like Viennese coffeehouses, drink coffee and eat pastry. They meet a tall young Croatian soldier named Flynn who doesn’t seem all that sure of what he’ll do with himself either, now that this war’s done. They walk to Novi Zagreb, the less-beautiful part of the city across the river with its grim grey Communist-era tower blocks, to see how things look over here. Snow drifts dreamily out of the gunmetal sky, and the temperature plunges. They run a few errands to track down heating oil and food for people who are scared to leave the house. For the most part, the queues for supplies are respectful, though they have to break up a few fistfights. Someone once gives the remotest hint of a dirty look to Joe, and Nicky glares at them so violently that they practically flee the city and change their name.
Nicky is – he doesn’t know, exactly. He can’t help but be devoutly glad that this one is over; that one was, as he said, a lot even for them. The last crusade. Is it, though? Is it really? Are people ever going to give up the addiction of it, the bloodlust, the thrill of being boundlessly in the right while the other is demonically wrong? Nicky remains an optimist by nature, even after everything they’ve been through down all the centuries. He still is. But this – he wishes he was more certain, but he’s not. It hangs out there, waiting.
(Indeed, the events of a sunny Tuesday in September, just six short years from now, will have something terrible to say about that, but at least they don’t know it at the time.)
They aren’t yet sure where to go next. This one took it out of them, and they need some more time to rest and recharge, to do something that isn’t just fighting. Andy will drift off by herself (Nicky worries about her, knows too well how he’d be faring without Joe, and Quynh has been gone for almost five hundred years – See you soon, Niki, if only he had known). Booker likewise tends to the solitary when the team isn’t together, and holidays are hard for him since everything that happened with his children. Nicky and Joe at least have the comfort of knowing that they can go anywhere, do anything, and be happy, and Nicky struggles with the guilt of being happy, of knowing that Booker and Andy love them and don’t resent their devotion and their life together just because they don’t (or no longer) have something comparable. Maybe they will go back to Istanbul, to see how it’s doing these days. Maybe they will wake up one morning on some little side street that almost looks as if it stepped out of their dreams. Maybe they will go to Malta, which has become a special place for them since the very first time they were there. After all, once again, they have nothing if not time.
They all crowd into Andy and Booker’s room on December 14 to watch the signing of the Dayton Agreement in Paris, live on TV. They hear sporadic cheers and car horns in the street, though the Croatians have already gotten on with celebrating their own freedom and are rolling up their sleeves to tackle the next part, and the cost is too high for the celebrations to be too jubilant. Nobody sets off many fireworks. They don’t want them to sound like gunshots.
After that, the team decides to stay in Zagreb long enough to do Christmas together, though this means just that they can have an excuse to have a meal and a quiet party with their family. Joe likes Christmas well enough from all those years he had it with Nicky, and he doesn’t mind celebrating Jesus’s birthday (he is a highly honored prophet in Islam, which most people seem to forget). Andy was born a long, long time before Christmas was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye, but a holiday is a holiday. They don’t want Booker to be alone for it, anyway, and the ancestrally Italian part of Nicky refuses to let anyone be alone on Christmas, period. So he appoints himself in charge of the cooking for the feast, which is hard to scrape together in a city still hit by shortages, but he does his best. They all do.
“To us,” Andy says, when they’re sitting together at a crammed table on the evening of Christmas Day, knees knocking because it’s too small, grateful to have heat that mostly works, a roof to keep off the snow, a warm meal, and their loved ones close at hand. “To the Old Guard.”
Everyone raises their glasses in answer, and Nicky says, “To our family.”
They murmur a heartfelt affirmation, and drink, and eat, and everyone playfully teases Nicky about the food. He can tell that they’re all making too much of an effort, that the shadow of Bosnia lies a little too heavily on their hearts, that there’s no point in pretending that they didn’t take an absolute beating on this one – mentally, emotionally, and physically. They sit in silence for a long time, thinking about everyone they did manage to help, everyone they couldn’t save, those graves in the hills of Srebrenica. It’s far from unqualifiedly merry, though Nicky has strong opinions about the modern version of Christmas anyway – who needs all that stuff? But the conversation revives, they eat pie and drink coffee, and Andy and Booker volunteer to do the cleanup since Joe and Nicky cooked. The snow comes down, and Zagreb glows. Not everywhere, not unqualifiedly, but in the windows out there in the darkness, the lights are on.
As Andy and Booker tidy up, Joe and Nicky retreat to their room and lie down together beneath the quilts. They don’t talk. Instead they just hold each other, as they usually do, as they can rarely relax and drift off if they aren’t, and in time, they sleep.
The last week of December and of 1995 passes in a quiet grey chill, snow glazing the eaves and rain washing it away, as Zagreb continues to adjust to this strange new idea of freedom. The coming year, 1996, will be the nine hundred and thirtieth year of Joe’s life, and the nine hundred and twenty-seventh of Nicky’s. For as long as they’ve lived, they haven’t even seen their first millennium yet; they’re absolute infants next to Andy, who has counted at least five. She’s making noises about dropping off the grid for a while, motorcycling through the mountains of South America or something similar, and they figure it’ll be another few years before they see her again. Booker wants to get some sleep. They can’t blame him.
They observe the new year – something of a tradition among the four of them, who have seen so very many – and have cake. When it strikes midnight, Nicky leans over to kiss Joe. “Happy new year, my love,” he says. “You look good for your age.”
Joe raises an eyebrow at him, but kisses him back, and Nicky puts an arm around his shoulders, as they rest their heads together and sit there, the four of them squashed on a slightly too-small couch. There are flight reservations to be made, as the airport slowly reopens to civilian traffic, or perhaps they will leave the old-fashioned way, walk or bicycle or take the train. But they’ll be back together before too long. They always are.
Finally, Joe and Nicky get up and go to bed, throwing an extra blanket on top because this is one of the nights that the heat refuses to work. It’s very late, but they don’t yet feel like sleeping. They snuggle close, and turn to each other and start to kiss, to touch, to come together in something that has never lost any of its pleasure and its thrill. They don’t remove much clothing, stoking their own warmth, and Nicky sighs and gasps and clutches his way into his release, head thrown back, eyelashes fluttering, as Joe moves just that bit faster and steals an extra kiss from his open mouth. Then he rolls off, grimaces as this motion allows cold air to sneak in under the covers, and tucks himself alongside. “Happy new year, Nicolò,” he whispers back, on this the first day of the next year, as he will on the next, and the next, and the next year after that, all those days, all those nights, all those soft evenings and bright mornings – and they will be that, so long as the two of them endure. “You look good too.”