وَأَحْسِنُوا إِنَّ اللَّهَ يُحِبُّ الْمُحْسِنِينَ
‘I chained you to a pallet and had made journey with you,’ Niccolò said, intensely.
Yusuf, pressed against a wall in one of the winding alleys behind the bazaar of Bagdad and staring into Niccolò’s eyes, blinked.
‘What,’ he said.
‘…I was - definitely chained?’ Niccolo said, with a hint of desperation in his voice. ‘No - I am chain - to you.’
‘I am very worried right now,’ Yusuf said.
Niccolò let his hands fall, breathing in deeply and started to turn around: Yusuf caught him and coaxed him back, trying very hard not to laugh. Over the past few months, it had become rather clear that linguistic prowess was not one of Niccolò’s rare talents. While he had a remarkable capacity for bloodlust, he approached verb conjugation with the same distinct lack of subtlety that characterised all his personal interactions: both tended to involve a rather alarming amount of butchery.
‘I hate your language, and I hate you,’ Niccolò said, enunciating perfectly clearly.
‘See, there you go,’ Yusuf said, ‘that’s a present tense if I’ve ever heard one.’
Niccolò made a rude gesture.
The problem was never, Yusuf maintained, the linguistic barrier per se: he did speak Greek, and Niccolò had picked up some while sojourning in Constantinople prior to his engagement as a crusader. Granted, the part of the language Yusuf was most fond of consisted mostly of various expletives that he liked to employ to thoroughly antagonise those Greek soldiers who possessed a disheartening habit of wandering periodically into al-ʿAwāṣim and causing general havoc: but it was a solid base one could build upon, especially once he met Niccolò and realised that what he actually, really wanted was to tell the man, in as many words as possible, what an unlikeable individual he was and how profoundly and irrevocably his presence insulted him on every possible level.
Niccolò was, Yusuf liked to think, a sort of an acquired taste.
So Greek was a sort of neutral ground for them, except that it was not, because nothing about them could have ever been neutral: and so the problem was not that they could not talk to each other, but that they did not want to. That did not create as much of a communication barrier as one might have expected: violence, after all, was a language they shared, and nothing said ‘I hope you die alone choking on your own blood’ as much as physically putting a dagger into the neck of the individual in question. It was, all in all, a rather efficient way to converse: but it did turn out to be somewhat lacking once Yusuf figured that what he really wanted to do to Niccolò did not actually translate well into bodily harm. However, he was never a man that would let a lack of means stop him: and, he figured, fucking probably translated just as well as fighting.
‘I don’t see why I bother,’ his lover said, in Greek, ‘since you are a horrible swine and would not know a sensual moment if I shoved it up your ass.’
‘Ah, but why would you do that when you could shove something else entirely up there,’ Yusuf said and winked.
Niccolo stared at him, with that sort of haunted expression that strongly suggested he was currently contemplating his entire life and all the choices that have led him to that very moment. He often looked at Yusuf that way: it made him appear slightly constipated.
‘Cheer up,’ Yusuf said, ‘I think that you have definitely started to at least acknowledge the existence of various cases. Granted, I still have no clue what you were trying to say, but I appreciate the effort.’
‘It does not matter,’ Niccolò said, ‘since the moment is gone. You’ve killed it, and dismembered it, and offered its mangled corpse to me: and I don’t want it, Yusuf. I think it’s disgusting, and so are you.’
‘Say that again, but in Arabic,’ Yusuf said.
‘No,’ Niccolò said.
‘Yes. Come on. ‘You’ve killed it’ - that’s what?’
‘…The past tense.’
‘But you will need…?’
‘…A time reference. Because it’s the recent past.’
‘And ‘it’ is in…?’
‘So if you tried to say that again, what would you say?’ Yusuf asked, triumphantly.
Niccolò looked him dead in the eye.
‘Go suck your own dick,’ he said, in perfect Arabic, and smiled.
e alôa mi penso ancon de ritornâ a pösâ e òsse dôve ò mæ madonâ
‘I think my father is dead,’ Niccolò said, blandly.
It was after midnight, and they were in Constantinople again: they kept coming back, even though neither of them would really say they liked the city. It reminded Yusuf of a beached whale skeleton: it was so terribly, hauntingly old, with its reds and blues and greens slowly washing out into muted pastels, and it was easy to imagine the city shrinking into itself with each passing year as it continued to creep away from the old Theodosian walls. But it was Constantinople: it swallowed them whole, along with hosts of Norman mercenaries, Venetian traders, Armenian eunuchs and Anatolian monks, who came to make their fortune at the court of the Greek emperor, and they could all walk under the gaze of weatherworn granite giants while ships continued to anchor along the Golden Horn the same way they have done for the past thousand years, feeling just as timeless as the dome of the Holy Wisdom that rose above the city.
This was the thing about Constantinople: it drew you in with the inescapable gravity of a dying star.
‘Do you want to talk about it?’ Yusuf said, then, because it was Niccolò, who considered the idea of having emotions a character flaw. Therein lain the duality of man, Yusuf thought: Niccolò possessed that wonderful air of charming sincerity that came from absolutely lacking any sense of self-preservation whatsoever, which meant that he was about as subtle as a hammer in the face, and yet he stubbornly resisted the idea of being honest with anyone and least of all himself. They kept waking up and falling asleep next to each other every day, and still Yusuf did not know him: he did not think Niccolò knew himself.
‘Not really,’ Niccolò said. ‘Is that a bad thing, do you think?’
Yusuf thought for a moment.
‘Depends on what you think is bad, I suppose,’ he said. ‘It is probably less offensive than your Arabic, I’d say.’
It was a way out: they both knew it, and Niccolò glanced at him with a sort of tenderness that Yusuf suddenly feared he did not know how to handle.
‘A student is only as bad as his teacher,’ Niccolò said. They were silent for a moment: and then he said, ‘I don’t know if I can go back to Genoa.’
Yusuf thought about saying that Niccolò could take as long as he wanted to figure that out: but that was really the problem, wasn’t it? They had all the time they wanted and none of it: they left it behind buried somewhere in the dirt of Antioch and noticed five years in that it was missing. They kept laughing and fighting and dying, and it did not matter, because all that Niccolò was to Yusuf would never be written into the non-existent lines around his mouth or into his unrelentingly smooth skin. He wondered whether they have grown since they’ve met and whether it mattered: and he wondered what growing (wiser, older, kinder) meant if they were the only ones watching as the other one stretched into eternity.
‘I would like to learn your tongue,’ he said, instead.
‘You are already learning Latin,’ Niccolò said, surprised, ‘what would be the point?’
‘Does there have to be one?’ Yusuf asked.
And that was really the question, wasn’t it: if nothing mattered, did anything have to matter? Time kept slipping through their fingers as they kept, again and again, trying to catch it in their hands: so there was really no point, except that they still kept on waking up and looking for it. They went to Constantinople and Mosul, and Malta, to Rhodos and to Cairo and to Constantinople again - and Yusuf studied the way Niccolò took each breath almost like a challenge and wondered about what it meant to live when one could not die.
‘Maybe,’ he said, then, ‘it’s about the journey and not the destination.’
Outside of their room, Constantinople was dreaming of a time that had not yet come to pass: and Niccolò quirked his head, watching him.
‘Nothing matters,’ he said.
‘I know,’ Yusuf answered. ‘I heard that once from a very wise man.’
‘Oh?’ Niccolò said. ‘Did you, really.’
‘He was also very handsome,’ he said. ‘But I suppose I’ll just have to do with you.’
Niccolò smiled - and then he said something, in a language Yusuf did not know.
‘What was that?’ he asked.
‘Why, maybe your handsome, wise man could tell you,’ Niccolò said. ‘Shame he’s not here, though.’
‘Or, you could just tell me.’
‘It’s about the journey, Yusuf, not the destination,’ Niccolò said.
‘You’re going to say that the next time we fuck, aren’t you.’
‘And the next time,’ Niccolò asserted gleefully.
(‘It is very easy to love you,’ Niccolò said. He wondered what Yusuf would say if he understood.)
nunc scio quid sit amor
‘Yes, that is correct,’ Yusuf said, ‘we regularly offer up blood sacrifice and pray to golden idols of Muhammad and the other gods. Praise Baal.’
It was not even the noon and Yusuf had already thoroughly terrorised a hapless student who had accidentally wandered into his way: the poor fellow was currently frantically scribbling something onto a piece of parchment he fished out of his frock (Yusuf was not clear on the details and actually, he did not want to be), and casting the occasional shellshock glance at him. Yusuf leaned back and smiled for effect: the student shirked back.
He loved Bologna.
‘What,’ Niccolò said, very sweetly, ‘are you doing?’
Yusuf quirked his head a little: Niccolò liked to sleep in, but it seemed that he had finally found his way out of the bed into the tavern above which they were currently staying in. He looked vaguely upset and thoroughly in need of a comb: Yusuf thought he fully deserved both since he had previously specified in quite strong terms what would happen if he was to be woken up for anything but the judgement day come.
‘Good morning,’ he said. ‘I thought you were dead.’
‘Even if I was, I intend to haunt you until the end of your days,’ Niccolò said. It was quite touching, as far as Niccolò’s declarations went: that man usually expressed his affection by dying for Yusuf in various gruesome ways because apparently just saying ‘I love you’ was too much of a commitment. (Niccolò probably thought himself very clever: he was not. There was a reason why they went to Bologna. It was not Genoa, but it was, Yusuf knew, just close enough for it to matter.)
‘I shall go now, sir - thank you, have a good day -’ the student said, in a rather flustered manner, and promptly fled. Yusuf watched him leave with some chagrin: he thought that the two of them were having a rather lovely time exploring the finer points of Islamic theology.
Niccolò sat down on the bench next to him and looked at him.
'Yusuf,‘ he said, tenderly, softly, ‘have you ever considered not being a fucking asshole?’
‘The thought has crossed my mind,’ Yusuf said, ‘but I have elected to ignore it.’
‘I also told him we enjoy despoiling tender Christian youths,’ Yusuf said, cheerfully. ‘I read it in one of your Latin poems a couple of days ago, and I thought it deserved more attention. Very imaginative! Never would have thought of it myself.’
‘I don’t see why not,’ Niccolò said, ‘you despoil me regularly.’
‘You are as tender as a boulder.’
‘Glad to know our romance is not dead yet.’
‘Never,’ Yusuf said, ‘in fact, every time you call me an asshole, I feel the butterflies in my stomach again.’
And it was not much of a lie, really: in fact, the butterflies were there all the time, and that was part of the problem. For some reason, a part of him found Niccolò’s distinct lack of cordiality incredibly attractive: Yusuf had long given up on understanding it. Niccolò was, objectively, just a bit of dick: Yusuf liked that, for it was a quality that he himself long considered to be an essential part of his character. They also shared that distinct type of tenacity that came from simply not knowing when to fucking quit. That had previously led to some rather spirited attempts at mutual homicide, but nowadays, they mostly channelled that energy into screwing each other with a considerable amount of competitiveness and ingenuity.
It was possibly not the best way one could go about establishing a lasting rapport: but it was what they had, and Yusuf had gone against worse odds before.
‘What I don’t understand,’ Niccolò said, ‘is why you keep doing that. Everything you say is just so objectively stupid, you actually start to contradict yourself when I listen long enough.’
‘You thought we sacrificed livestock to Venus and Apollo when we first met,’ Yusuf said.
‘I always possessed a rather fertile sense of imagination,’ Niccolò said, wistfully. ‘You turned out to be wildly less interesting than I assumed.’
‘Ah, but I make up for it by being devastatingly handsome,’ Yusuf said. ‘Think of it this way: the only reason these stories are out here is because every single one of you wants it to be true. If I was locked in one of your monasteries and forbidden from doing anything that could possibly bring me any joy at all, I would want to read about handsome Muslim men despoiling anyone: I would think about how awful and despicable that was, and deep down inside, I would secretly long to be despoiled in some emir’s garden, because on a really fundamental level, it just sounds like a lot more fun than being stuck in a library copying books all day and not even being able to jerk off at the end of it.’
Niccolò watched him, something like admiration slowly blooming on his face: and he said, ‘Yusuf, you are the worst person I have ever met.’
‘Upstairs?’ Yusuf asked, tenderly.
‘Please,’ Niccolò said.
در نومیدی بسی امید است پایان شب سیه سپید اس
‘I feel like dying of sheer incompetency is a new low for us,’ Yusuf observed.
‘You always die of sheer incompetency,’ Niccolò said. ‘You hold that sword of yours like you are trying to carve up a chicken.’
‘I’d kill for some chicken just about now,’ he said.
They were about two hundred kilometres into Kara-Kum and almost two meters deep under the surface: the caravan leader had been as generous as to let their heads stick out from the sand, so Yusuf could look into Niccolò’s lovely eyes as they unceremoniously expired. Neither of them has been buried alive before, so that was an entirely new experience for them. Yusuf learned that dying actually made for a lovely break when one was suffering from thirst and heat stroke, both of which turned out to be quite essential to the whole affair. He hoped that Niccolò, who kept staring at him with unbridled range, would also learn a lesson: preferably about patience and forgiveness.
‘See, I can understand - and even sympathise with! - quite a bit,’ the man in question said. ‘I can understand why someone who had just seen a man walk off a deadly wound would decide to dispose of that person promptly and hopefully permanently. I can understand - although strongly disagree with - the decision that the completely blameless companion of that person who had also just fended off a bandit attack should also be dealt with in the same gruesome and frankly heartless manner. But what I can’t understand is how, for the love of all that is holy, can you, an actual immortal warrior, be so grossly inept as to get gutted by a fifteen-year-old.’
‘He came from behind,’ Yusuf said, rather feebly.
‘I’ll tell you who won’t be coming, and definitely not from behind,’ Niccolò said.
‘Ah, Niccolò, you’re getting me all riled up here,’ Yusuf said.
Niccolò spat at him. It was a valiant, yet deeply pointless attempt, since they were good three meters apart and any incidental moisture had since long left their bodies.
‘Try that again,’ Yusuf said, ‘I’m sure you’ll get it this time.’
They’ve been slowly making their way east, following the unsettling dreams that kept catching up to them: Yusuf dreamed of women riding on horseback in the vast boundless steppe, and Niccolò saw them dying a thousand times and then again. They kept taking the odd job here and there, to keep them heading somewhere and it worked mostly fine, except for the times it did not. Yusuf slipped into Persian once they made it through the Elborz: Niccolò followed, with the dogged determination of someone who would not let his lack of ability get the better of his competitiveness.
The sun kept shining: Yusuf closed his eyes, his head throbbing, and when he opened them again, he was not sure whether he had died or not - it hardly mattered.
‘I miss my horse,’ Niccolò said, somewhat distantly. ‘He would have come back to me.’
‘Niccolò,’ Yusuf said, patiently, ‘That horse despised you. His entire life, he longed to shuffle off this mortal coil and be free of your presence. There was a reason why he kept running away, you know.’
‘I long to shuffle off this mortal coil, especially when I hear you speak.’
‘Give it twenty minutes or so,’ Yusuf advised.
It did not even take that long: he passed out again, and when he came back, it was the night, and Niccolò looked like he was sleeping. He could have been dead, for all that Yusuf could do about it: he blinked away some of the sand that kept settling around his eyes and closed them again.
He thought about telling Niccolò that he loved him: it was not like he had not said it before, but he tended to do in a very offhand, casual manner so that it would not seem so terribly serious. Yusuf was not sure either of them could deal with serious: it had been a few decades, maybe - he refused to count for the same reason Niccolò never took them to Genoa - and felt their weight bearing down on him with every step he took. This was why they went east, after all: all this time, Niccolò had been looking for something Yusuf did not understand and kept watching him with a longing that terrified him, because somewhere along the way, Yusuf went and fell in love with him as recklessly as he did everything else worth doing.
Niccolò kept saying that nothing mattered: Yusuf wondered what that meant for them.
He slept, instead.
‘Yusuf,’ Niccolò said, a day or three after that, ‘look.’
‘There’s nothing there,’ he said, without bothering to open his eyes. ‘It’s a desert. It makes you see things: that’s how it works. The wind will eventually blow enough of the sand off that we’ll be able to get out: until then, please, I beg you - shut up.’
‘There are people there,’ Niccolò insisted.
Yusuf, sensing that this was likely to be a sticking point, sighed.
‘I wish you would - just once, you know, I don’t feel like I’m asking for too much here - trust my greater expertise in these things and - oh,’ he said, with surprise, ‘that’s people.’
And indeed, that was people: or to be more precise, two vague shapes atop slowly moving camels, some distance apart from them, but quite apparently heading in their direction. Niccolò raised an eyebrow: he looked insufferably smug and absolutely radiant. Yusuf thought that he never had a chance, not really.
‘Yes, yes, you are very clever - what, do you want a treat? Stop grinning, you look deranged,’ Yusuf said.
‘Trust you greater expertise in these things -’ Niccolò said, with distinct delight, ‘do you know, that reminds me of that one time-’
‘I saw it in a book! How was I supposed to know that whoever wrote had apparently never attempted that particular gymnastic feat himself -’
‘That only makes you sound more stupid, you do realise -’
And Yusuf looked to the horizon again instead of trying to come up with an appropriate comeback, and then he said, ‘Oh. Oh, no.’
‘What?,’ Niccolò asked.
‘It’s them. The women.’
‘…Are you sure?’
‘Try to look menacing,’ Yusuf advised. ‘As if you were a fundamentally unlikeable person with no redeeming qualities - oh, wait, you are a fundamentally unlikeable person with no redeeming qualities. Just look normal then.’
Niccolò frowned at him.
‘That’s it, you’re doing great,’ Yusuf said.
The women edged closer: there was really no mistaking them, once you sort of knew what you were looking for. There was something very sharp about them - not necessarily the way they looked, but how they moved, casually, with the utter confidence of someone who is the deadliest thing around, and knows it, because they’ve disposed of all the competition. It suddenly made Yusuf wonder why on earth did they think finding them was a good idea.
They climbed down from their camels and crossed towards them: one of them wore a strange kind of head-covering that Yusuf did not recognise, and the other one had wrapped a scarf around her head so that you really could not see much of her. Nevertheless, they looked strangely alike: it made Yusuf long for something, just a little bit. Niccolò made a subdued noise. Yusuf wished, for a brief, self-indulgent moment, that he could have touched him: brush against him momentarily or slide a hand past his shoulder, lingering briefly on his forearm.
‘Hello,’ he said, instead, ‘I don’t suppose you’ve brought a shovel.’
The woman with the scarf stopped, casting a brief look towards the taller woman: she tilted her head almost imperceivably. There was an entire conversation in those easy motions, and Yusuf did not understand it: he wondered if it was something one could learn, the way he studied Greek and Genoese and Latin, or whether it was gained through other means entirely.
‘We did not know that it would be a necessity, no,’ the taller woman said. She spoke Persian better than him, but in a way that was just ever so slightly off: her vowels were too short, melting into the words in a way that made them seem older.
‘Ah, then I suppose you’ll just have to get your hands slightly dirty,’ he said.
The smaller woman raised an eyebrow.
‘You are not scared,’ she stated. There was something very soft about the way she spoke, but it was in a way that made him wary.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘our situation, as you can see, is already quite miserable: I have a hard time imagining how you could make it worse.’
‘Maybe,’ the taller woman said, ‘you just lack imagination.’
‘I’d like to think my dashing good looks make up for it,’ Yusuf said. ‘I am called Yusuf - my companion over there - can’t miss him, he looks like a peeling grape -’
‘Hey,’ Niccolò said.
‘- is Niccolò. I would like to say that he usually looks better, but I am, by nature, an honest man.’
‘Yusuf,’ the smaller woman said, trying out the way their names sounded, ‘and Niccolò. We’ve been looking for you.’
‘Well,’ Yusuf said, ‘you’ve found us at a rather inopportune moment, as you can see.’
The taller woman cocked her head.
‘We can come back later,’ she said, ‘if that would suit you better.’
‘Ah, I don’t think that will be necessary,’ Yusuf said.
‘Can we please,’ Niccolò said, ‘save the dick-measuring contest for later?’
At least, that was what he meant to say - except that he got the infinitive stem wrong, and so what he came out was a mangled variant of both verbal forms. The taller woman blinked.
‘I am sorry,’ she said, ‘but was that supposed to be Persian?’
‘Was that supposed to be - of course it is Persian!’ Niccolò said, outraged. He did not realise he needed to switch to the short form of the verb and used the wrong ending entirely: Yusuf winced.
‘I don’t think that’s how you are supposed to conjugate that,’ the second woman said.
‘It’s not,’ Yusuf said. ‘Niccolò considers verbal inflexion a personal affront: it is one of the things that I love about him.’
Something softened in the expression of the smaller woman.
‘I am Quynh,’ she said, ‘and this is Andromache. It is rare that we get to meet others: rarer still for you to find each other so soon.’
‘I would not necessarily call it finding each other,’ Yusuf said. ‘It was mostly that we got tired of killing each other at one point.’
‘The spirit is willing, but the body is weak,’ Niccolò agreed.
Yusuf gave him a tender look.
There was no need for digging, in the end: Andromache tied one end of the rope around his neck, the other one around the camel, and then slapped it. His neck snapped: when he came back, he had been dragged out of the sand by that poor thing, which was slowly pulling him behind itself at that point. That was one of the first things he learned about Andromache: she was not inclined to gentleness, especially if brute force would get her where she wanted to be quicker.
Later that evening, Yusuf watched Quynh smile at Andromache while Niccolò nursed his bruised pride: and there was something dangerous in doing that, so he turned around and said, ‘Your Persian is wonderful.’
Niccolò stared at him, wounded.
‘Why did you not say something,’ he said.
‘I thought about it, but then I came to the conclusion that you not knowing about the existence of the imperfect did not reflect on you as a person-’
‘Thank you,’ Niccolò said.
‘-because you would still be the same idiot even if you knew how to use it,’ Yusuf finished. ‘Also, I thought it was funny.’
et il n’ent pooient plus faire
‘They’re in the city,’ Niccolò said, out of breath, ‘at Blachernae-’ and Yusuf said, ‘Go.’
They’ve been holed up in Constantinople since the autumn: they did not want to go, because Niccolò still got strangely forlorn whenever men started to take the cross, and especially not after the Venetians sailed the crusade down to the Golden Horn into the city that came the closest to being theirs. So Dandolo - for whatever godforsaken reason - wanted to play at being a kingmaker: they did not care. They stayed in Malta, instead: one could just about the bear the summer heat there when the sea breeze started to blow just so, and the warm nights lent themselves easily to tenderness. But then July turned to August and August to September, and there was a new emperor in Constantinople, and still the crusaders did not go: and so they slipped along the Mediterranean coast to the city on the Bosporus, and settled down for a long and rainy winter.
Andromache and Quynh had gone beyond the Indus again: they liked to pursue the rising sun until there was nowhere else to go, but they would come back eventually. Yusuf thought about going with them, in a few years - but he and Niccolò still spoke Greek to each other, and they kept orbiting around an axis that centred on that gentle sea that could carry them easily from Cairo to Acre and from Thessaloniki to Bari. So it was just the two of them and the strange uneasiness that had settled in the crooks of Constantinople’s winding alleys, waiting for the spring to hurry along the departure of the army that lazed around on their doorstep.
Then it was January, and the young Angelos was dead: and as the city convulsed in rabid spasms, the imperial chamberlain sat himself on the throne and Niccolò came back with armour which suspiciously resembled what the Varangians wore. Yusuf did not say anything: there was really not much else they coul do by then.
‘How many,’ he said now, struggling to keep up, as they raced to the north, ‘do you know-’ and Niccolò, who looked awfully slender in his stolen chainmail, said ‘I don’t know.’
They emerged from the maze of the Phanarion, and Yusuf looked up and saw smoke: and he gasped and said, ‘if they’re setting it on fire,’ and Niccolò looked and he said, ‘yes’.
‘They can’t keep it contained,’ he said: he did not want to believe it. ‘Half of the city is going to burn-’
‘They don’t care,’ Niccolò said, fiercely, ‘they never fucking care, because nothing ever matters-,’ and Yusuf caught him and kissed him: he suddenly needed to because the crusaders were in Constantinople and he did not know whether she would live to see the morning.
The Theodosian walls rose in the distance: they were so desperately, terribly solid, that Yusuf could not help but hate them, and Niccolò clung to him as a drowning man - then he let go, suddenly, and he said, ‘alongside the Kynegion, just where it starts to climb uphill,’ and Yusuf nodded, and said, ‘you and me, then.’
And Blachernae burned.
The crusaders were clever about it: they set fire to the buildings around their perimeter, and because the wind was blowing from the north, it spread steadily towards the city. You could not see anything: Yusuf got almost caught up in the debris from a blazing building that had started to collapse, but Niccolò turned him back. They tried the other way around, but it turned out that they had already taken the towers: one arrow made it into Niccolò’s armpit, and he tore it out in, in a manner that looked rather heroic, but was fundamentally very stupid. Yusuf did not have time to comment on it: they had to go back, and then it turned out that the emperor had gone out of the city to try to meet them on the plain in the north, and Yusuf had to bodily restrain Niccolò from going there.
‘It does not matter,’ he said, ‘if the city burns down, it doesn’t matter who wins,’ and so they went instead back to try and do - anything, really, because at that point most of the army had just given up, and so the fire blazed high and bright - and then they stumbled into a gaggle of Franks that had broken away from the main force and went instead straight for the church of All-Holy Mother of God. It was one of the smaller sanctuaries, hardly anything in comparison to the shrine of the Apostles or the Holy Wisdom, but that made no difference: and of course that there was about twenty or thirty of them, because courage was always in numbers and one always felt better about the weeping and shrieking and groaning that way. An elderly monk had tried to stop them: they shoved a sword through him, and he collapsed right at the entrance. The Franks stepped carelessly in his blood as they carried out all the holy relics and icons and even the fucking candelabras that the poor man wanted to save.
One of them saw them: he said something, in a language that Yusuf did not understand, and three of the Franks dropped what they were holding - a golden chalice rolled down towards Yusuf - and Niccolò stepped forward and let the first one run him through, and only then he took out his sword and - casually, almost lazily - stabbed the man whose sword was still lodged in him. He went for the rest, after: and Yusuf could only watch him, slender and infinitely terrible, as he brought his justice to them.
‘Un angle,’ one of them said, and then- ‘dimitte nobis-’ and that was as far as got before he died.
There was twenty-six of them: two managed to run away. Yusuf did not have to do anything at all.
And in the church, there was a woman: Niccolò had taken off his helmet, and slowly drew out the blade from his chest, his hair was matted with blood, and he walked in and saw her - and he stopped and opened his mouth - and then she screamed, and said, ‘do not touch me, Frank-’ and Niccolò staggered back - and he watched her as she fled, the enamelled icon of the Virgin she was clutching left forgotten on the ground.
Niccolò stood there, for a moment, looking at it: and then he turned, and said, ‘you used to call me a Frank all the time.’
‘I find I like your name better these days,’ Yusuf said, slowly, carefully.
Niccolò stared at him, unblinking: and he looked just like he did that day, when Yusuf died for the first time, young and full of something terrible.
‘Kill me,’ he said.
Yusuf’s breath got caught up in his throat. He did not say anything.
‘Kill me,’ Niccolò said again. ‘You used to do it all the time.’
And Yusuf breathed in, and he said, ‘I love you.’
The words carried, in the empty church: they felt small and fragile, and desperately not enough.
‘I know,’ Niccolò said. ‘Do it anyway.’
Yusuf touched, almost unwillingly, his side: his sword was there. He had not unsheathed it the entire time.
‘No,’ he said.
And Niccolò moved, quickly, like a viper: he crossed to him and caught him by the chin, and then he said, awfully softly, ‘it does not matter anyway, does it?’
His hands were still bloody, but he held Yusuf’s head tenderly: his eyes were so very pale.
‘How could it not?’ Yusuf said. ‘I love you: every morning, I wake up terrified that I’ve only dreamt you and I fall asleep frightened that you will be gone with the next sunrise. Your every kiss thrills me: each one of them lingers on my skin, and I keep counting them over and over again because I cannot let myself forget even a single one. You and you alone make me feel alive: a lack of you is more to me than anyone’s presence. If nothing else matters, then this does, Niccolò - I am incomplete without you.’
Niccolò’s hand slipped: Yusuf caught it, and he kissed it, gently, lightly.
‘I did not-’ Niccolò said, then, desperately, and Yusuf said, ‘I know. It’s okay.’
Neither of them said anything for a while: instead, Niccolò laid his head on Yusuf’s shoulder, and he wrapped his hand around him, and they stood there, together, silently.
(Because this was what mattered: it was not the words, who said them or where. It was Niccolò’s broken Arabic and the gentle way he corrected Yusuf’s Genoese: it was in the way he laughed and how young he looked when he asked Yusuf to kill him. You had to look for it in obscenities and under stained sheets: during endless nights and warm summers, in questions that were really statements and stories that got told in different ways then they happened. It was about love, but it was also about learning: and that was all right.)
‘l lungo studio e ’l grande amore
‘I don’t like it,’ Niccolò said. ‘It is very boring: there is hardly any plot, and the whole ‘Vergil’ idea just feels uninspired.’
‘So this has nothing to do with your dislike of Florence?’ Yusuf asked: he was lazing around on the bed, contently wasting away another Tuscanian afternoon. Niccolò tossed the book at him.
‘As ever, I am completely unbiased and objective,’ he said. ‘The fact that this city is an affront to God has no bearing on the fact that Dante is just a very dull writer.’
‘I feel like your idea of ‘dull’ might be slightly skewed,’ Yusuf said. He reached for the book and flipped through it, with little interest. ‘Is that in Florentine?’
‘You remind me what ‘dull’ means on a daily basis,’ Niccolò said. ‘It is - the absolute arrogance! Write in Latin, for God’s sake, you are not that special.’
Yusuf raised his head: the afternoon sun suited Niccolò, painting him in shades of gold and bronze. They had passed the winter in Florence, and summer was fast approaching: they were due to meet with Andromache and Quynh soon, in Cairo. Niccolò kept saying that he did not like Florence. Yusuf strongly suspected that the opposite was true. He looked at the page again and considered it for a moment.
‘Amore mio,’ he said, slowly, testing the way these words felt on his tongue. ‘You know, that actually doesn't sound that bad.’