Yusuf was never in any doubt that Nicolò would come for him, but as day started to turn to night he couldn’t stop the cold chill of dread creeping into his heart.
Yes, it would make more sense to come for him under the cover of darkness, and yes, surely if Nicolò had been apprehended he would have been thrown in a cell next to Yusuf’s, but still. Yusuf couldn’t help the nervous tension working its way through his body, and it was almost a relief when the Sultan summoned him: it would be a distraction, at least.
In a departure from the previous nights, Yusuf’s hands remained unbound, the Sultan having decided that even that small level of restraint was unnecessary for a man whose prime weapon seemed to be his stories.
Despite having fallen asleep in the middle of the story the day before, the Sultan seemed eager for Yusuf to continue.
“Men who can never die.” He explained with relish. “Imagine the sort of power I could wield with such men in my forces.”
“This is just a story.” Yusuf said hurriedly. “No more real than jinn and magic caves.”
“All stories must come from somewhere.” The Sultan said with a dangerous glint in his eye. “Now go. Finish your tale, spy.”
Yusuf adjusted slightly from his spot on the floor, letting the stolen dagger slip a little further down his sleeve. He would continue his story, but he would be ready. Just in case.
Day after day, the merchant died and died again. He and his bright-eyed enemy fought each other, and each other alone, but as the days wore on and the dreams kept on coming the merchant found his enemy almost reluctant to fight.
One day, as the merchant knelt submissive on the ground, the enemy’s sword at his throat, the enemy hesitated. It was only when one of the enemy’s brothers shouted something at him in his native tongue did the enemy kill him. As the merchant collapsed to the ground his enemy whispered what he could only interpret as an apology over and over.
When the merchant returned to life he was far from the battlefield, the shouts and cries of the men who fought there as blurred as the outline of the city they killed for. His enemy was there with him, his eyes as bright as ever, yet tired from the exertion of having dragged the merchant away from the war.
They had little but a few words of a common language between them, but it did not matter. The confusion, the remorse, the desperation was clear in his enemy’s tone, in his expression. The merchant did not want to comfort his enemy, did not want to care for the man who had invaded his lands and caused so much destruction, but found his heart opening to him just a crack.
They travelled together for a while, searching for answers. Over time the crack in the merchant’s heart grew and grew, smaller fissures forming and spreading with every act of kindness he witnessed his enemy perform until one day his heart shattered completely.
The man by his side was no longer his enemy, and had not been for a while. The merchant could not say how many years had passed, but the man he now shared his life with was a far cry from the man who had slain him on the battlefield a lifetime ago.
There were many wars yet to come, but they fought them side by side, united by their joint love for humanity and each other. Though the world changed around them they remained entwined in each other, the only stability in an ever churning sea.
Yusuf felt vaguely winded when he finished, as he had been so wrapped up in his own words he had almost forgotten to breathe. The Sultan was still awake, which was a good sign, and Yusuf raised an eyebrow at him expectantly.
“I thought this was a story of action, not one of love.” The Sultan said critically.
“Well, it was both. The two were intertwined in such an intrinsic way that one could not exist without the other.” Yusuf’s feelings were once again more than a little hurt.
“Hmm.” The Sultan huffed. “No, I don’t think I liked that one. Falling in love with the enemy? Two men? You didn’t even mention who won the war!”
“The war wasn’t the point of the story!” Yusuf tried.
“It should have been.” The Sultan frowned and heaved himself into a standing position. “I think I’ve heard enough from you. Guards!”
There was no reply from his guards. The Sultan shouted again, and this time received some muffled yells in response.
The door opened with a bang, and the Sultan was so startled he toppled backwards onto his couch. Though he already knew the source of the noise Yusuf turned around to look, and there, standing in the doorway, was his Nicolò.
The barest flicker of a smile- relief- flickered across Nicolò’s face, before a shout from behind caught his attention and he whirled round to face the guard who had run up behind him.
As Nicolò fought, Yusuf freed the dagger he had stolen from up his sleeve and ran to the Sultan, kneeling on his chest and holding the knife to his throat.
“Call them off.” He ordered, as more guards joined appeared at the door, Nicolò only able to fend them off by virtue of the narrow corridor preventing most men from facing him.
The Sultan just gasped in shock, wriggling like a fish under Yusuf’s knee.
“Call them off! Or you die.” Yusuf shouted into his face, and this time the Sultan listened, garbling an order to his men who mutinously backed away.
As quick as ever, Nicolò closed the door and dragged a table in front of it before turning his attention to Yusuf.
“Only you would use your time as a prisoner to tell stories to your captor.” He said fondly.
For a moment Yusuf almost forgot the Sultan was still there, as he felt his heart melt under the love that shone through so clearly in Nicolò’s expression. It was but a moment, however, as soon the Sultan started begging for his life.
“Andromache says to kill him.” Nicolò said, his soft gaze hardening into a frown as he looked at the man under Yusuf’s knee. “He’s causing too much damage to his people.”
Yusuf had suspected that would be Andromache’s stance, and didn’t hesitate as he drew the Sultan’s own dagger across his neck, silencing his pleas. He wiped the dagger clean on the hideous fuchsia couch then jammed it into his belt: he rather suspected they would have to fight their way out.
“As much as I’m thankful you’re here, my heart, I do hope you have some plan of escape.” He remarked as he did. The way he saw it there were only two possible exits: either unbarring the door and fighting their way through who knows how many guards and soldiers, or jumping from the balcony and hoping they returned to life faster than the guards could catch them.
“Do you think I would come for you if I did not have a plan?” Nicolò asked wryly as he removed a torch that had been strapped to his back.
“You might have just wanted to keep me company in captivity.” Yusuf only half joked. He knew that if Nicolò were ever captured with little hope of an escape, he would sacrifice his own freedom and join him in a heartbeat.
“I might.” Nicolò paused in his task of setting the torch alight to smile at Yusuf. “But luckily, we can both leave this cursed place.”
He lit the torch and strode out onto the balcony, waving it in the air before setting it down on the stone ledge. A second later a grappling hook was shot straight at him, and he caught it before it could fall to the ground.
“Andromache and Quynh have been on the ground all this time.” Nicolò explained as he tied off the end of the rope to one of the balcony’s pillars.
“Are you going to carry me down? I don’t think I can call this a proper rescue if you don’t.” Yusuf asked as Nicolò tested the rope. There seemed to be an awful lot of slack in it, though Yusuf supposed that was to allow them to slow down before they reached the ground.
“As much as I would love to, I doubt it can take both our weights.”
“A shame.” Yusuf sighed dramatically.
Nicolò laughed and handed him a curved metal strip that was bound into crude leather handholds on each end, then pulled Yusuf into a kiss. The sensation of Nicolò’s lips against his was like water after a drought, like shade in the desert heat, and Yusuf surrendered himself to it completely.
“Did that make it a proper rescue?” Nicolò asked when they finally parted, his eyes shining.
“It did.” Yusuf replied. “Though I’ll expect another when we’re both standing on the ground again.”
“Of course.” Nicolò laughed and nudged Yusuf to the edge of the balcony. “You go first, the others are waiting for you.”
With one final look at Nicolò, Yusuf slung the metal strip over the rope and held on tight to the ends. The flight down took his breath away, and just as his arms were about to give in from the strain the rope thankfully levelled out, and a second later there was land beneath his feet once again.
He stumbled, and a pair of strong arms caught him. Quynh steadied him, and pulled him out of the way just in time as Nicolò followed him down. Yusuf barely had time to process his reunion with the others, as Andromache shouted a warning from somewhere in the shadows and the next thing he knew the four of them were running, running out of the palace walls and into the city.
There was no breath to spare for talking as they made their escape, and when they finally collapsed in a heap together even Andromache could only mention a brief “welcome back” before sighing and closing her eyes. They lay there a while, all entwined in each other as they waited for their heartbeats to slow and their breath to return.
“I have to know, Yusuf,” Quynh said once they could pull themselves into more or less upright positions, “What on earth were you doing in the Sultan’s chambers?”
“You didn’t half pick the worst place to be rescued from.” Andromache added, though there was no malice in her voice.
“Yusuf was telling the Sultan a story.” Nicolò said with a sideways smile at Yusuf.
“A story? It must have been a good one if the Sultan wanted to hear it. What was it?” Andromache said.
Yusuf laughed. “Well.” He started. “Once upon a time…”