Galib was proud of his new promotion, to be a member of the Royal family’s private guard was an honour beyond the imagining of most common soldiers. Galib had secured the King’s regard when he had spotted an ambush intended for the King’s sister. Having ensured the princess’s safety, the King had requested to speak with him in person and had been impressed with how Galib had seen the signs of an ambush missed by the others in the Princess’s entourage.
Galib had not foreseen his current situation, discussing plans and protocols with the others in the guard, under the watchful gaze of the King and his concubine. The King yes, of course, but his bed warmer? Galib couldn’t understand why the man was privy to this meeting.
He tries not to let his eye wander over to where the man is reclining in an indolent sprawl on a pile of silks and cushions.
There had been much speculation when King Yusuf had first brought the man to the palace. Rumour had it the man had been a priest, although Galib found this impossible to believe. The King could have his pick of men and women, why choose this tall, gangly limbed stranger from another land, with his peculiar pale eyes and unfathomable accent. However, King Yusuf made it clear that this man was of his choosing, and Nicolo took his place in the palace and the King’s bed.
When the King walks over to Nicolo and sits beside him, Galib has no choice but to direct his gaze there. The King’s dark eyes hold a warmth that makes them relatively easy to meet, but the kohl rimmed stare of his concubine is entirely another matter.
Galib tries not to fidget under the weight of that unfathomable gaze. The King whispers something into Nicolo’s ear and Galib feels his own neck prickle with heat when Nicolo’s lips curl up in a sly, knowing smile.
The pair continue to exchange whispers, too low to be decipherable even within the close confines of the room.
Galib is relieved he isn’t the only one affected when Asbat, another new recruit, falters while giving his report.
Asbat does as he is ordered, but his gaze keeps drifting toward the man currently whispering into the King’s ear.
Galib cannot help but feel he is intruding on something private, especially when the King’s fingers start to draw circles on Nicolo’s left thigh, and the man spreads his legs wider in response.
Finally, the briefing is over, and they are dismissed. Galib cannot help but sigh loudly as they step out into the relatively cool air of the corridor.
Majlad, their commanding officer, shoots him a surprisingly sympathetic look.
“You’d best get used to that, boy.”
“So, he is always there?”
It is Asbat who asks, unable to hide his horror.
There is no mistaking who ‘he’ is.
Majlad nods gravely.
“Every briefing. Once he was late and the King made us wait until he arrived.”
Asbat and Galib exchange baffled looks.
Majlad looks sternly at them both.
“It is not our place to question such things. If his Majesty wishes him to be present. Then he will be present. That’s all there is to it.”
The two young men nod quickly and vigorously, not wanting to incur their commander’s displeasure, even if it makes no sense to them.
Majlad dismisses them with a final warning.
“I hope I don’t need to remind you that whatever happens in these meeting it doesn’t travel beyond those of us who are in attendance.”
“Sir. Yes, sir!”
Satisfied, he sends them on their way.
"So, what do you think?"
"Of the new recruits?"
Yusuf nods and waits patiently for Nicolo's reply; he knows Nicolo likes to consider his words carefully before speaking.
"Ahmed is too easily distracted, he must be trained out of that trait if he is to remain with the guard. Galib has again proven himself to be observant, and unlike Ahmed, he is able to keep his focus."
Yusuf huffs out a laugh.
"I don't know, I thought he was going to swallow his tongue when you spread your legs for me."
Nicolo looks away, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Yes, well," he mutters. "We can allow for that, I think.”
Yusuf is instantly contrite.
“I am sorry, my friend. I did not mean to cause you any discomfort.”
He steps closer, placing a hand on Nicolo’s forearm.
Nicolo’s lips twitch in a smile.
“There is nothing to forgive. This façade was my idea, remember?”
Yes, Yusuf thinks, but it is I who seems to be getting the better side of this bargain.
For almost a year they have kept up the pretence that Nicolo merely serves as a distraction from the rigours of Kingship. More than a year since Yusuf had come to realise that his half-brother, Jafar, is plotting to take his throne.
The head of his mother's personal guard, Andromache, was the one to tell him about Nicolo, a former priest turned hermit, who had come to her aid several years ago when she was set upon by bandits. He had helped fight off her attackers and had then seen to her wounds and provided shelter until she was well enough to travel. Grateful for his timely assistance and intrigued by the soft spoken, but deadly stranger, she had come to form a close friendship with him.
Who better than a stranger, Andromache put forward, if you don’t know who to trust within your own walls?
Between them they had hatched a plan to have Nicolo act as Yusuf’s eyes and ears. With his barely clothed body anointed with fragrant oils, Nicolo certainly turned heads, but it was an effective way of hiding in plain sight. People assumed that he was no more than a vapid bed warmer. Certainly, the normally suspicious Jafar had dismissed him on sight.
But, as Yusuf soon discovers, Nicolo has an incredibly perceptive mind and a near uncanny ability to read people. Initially just engaged to listen and observe, when Nicolo starts to offer some of his insights and suggestions, Yusuf realises the man has a gift for military strategy.
He insists on making Nicolo his chief military advisor, albeit in secret. He certainly doesn’t trust the current head of the military, since tradition dictates that his half-brother has that role.
Of course, he has the authority to veto his brother’s commands, but he prefers not to do so directly. He doesn’t want it to look like he is disregarding his brother’s advice and acting as a dictator. Instead, Yusuf out manoeuvres him, leaving Jafar no choice but to back down or make a direct challenge for the throne. Since Jafar doesn’t, he clearly isn’t yet ready to play his hand.
It takes Yusuf a moment to realise that Nicolo has been speaking.
“Sorry, I missed what you said. Tell me again?”
Nicolo’s forehead furrows in concern.
“No-” Yusuf starts to deny it, but one look at Nicolo’s expression tells him he isn’t going to get away with that. “Well, yes, perhaps a little.”
“He wants to take our forces into the Western hills.”
Nicolo makes a noise of angry disgust.
“What? He wants to throw out our treaty with the tribes? When they would be our allies against those who would invade from the Western shores.”
“That is what I told him, but he insists that the mines in the hills were ours in the time of our grandfather and they should be ours again, and there are those who will agree with him.”
“And do you agree with him?”
Yusuf gives him a weary smile and Nicolo deflates.
“No, of course you don’t. I’m sorry, my friend. I shouldn’t doubt you. When did Jafar tell you this?”
Yusuf feels warmed by Nicolo’s protective tone. He knows the other man dislikes hearing that he has been alone with his brother. It is virtually impossible for Nicolo to be with him twenty-four hours a day, but that doesn’t stop Nicolo from trying.
“Last night, when I was bathing.”
“He dared to speak with you when you were in your bath!” Nicolo exclaims, indignant on Yusuf’s behalf.
“He is my brother.”
“Half-brother,” Nicolo corrects. “And I am yet to see any sign that he is related to you.”
Yusuf has to grin at that. For while it is certainly true that he and Jafar could not be more different in character, Jafar looks enough like him that they could be mistaken for twins.
Nicolo snorts at the ridiculousness of his own statement, and both men descend into very unstatesmanlike giggling.
“Perhaps he engaged the services of a Djinn,” says Yusuf, between laughter. “To conjure himself a face to match my own.”
“If such creatures existed, I wouldn’t put it past him,” says Nicolo.
Their amusement recedes as they return to the problem in hand. Namely, Jafar’s desire to take back the territory currently held by the tribesmen who inhabit the hills to the West.
“My grandfather gave them that land to secure a peace, and to ensure that those who travel through the hills to reach the ports on the Western shores can do so without fear of attack.”
“I know,” says Nicolo, gravely.
“They are few in number, but they know that land, to engage them in a fight is pure folly.”
Yusuf knows the reasons why his grandfather had been willing to give up the mines. He had grown weary of losing men to the constant skirmishes, and the tribesmen had become adept at ambushing the caravans when they tried to transport goods to the ports. The tribes had a former claim to the territory, and they argued that the mining activity was spoiling their water supplies.
“We need to find out who supports Jafar in this. Unless you already know?”
Yusuf shakes his head.
“I cannot be certain, not without proof. But he is too confident this time. I fear he is close to making his play, and I do not know who to trust.”
Nicolo takes Yusuf’s hand and places it on his own chest, over his heart.
“Trust me. For I am loyal to you even unto death. I will discover the names of all those who would choose to stand by him in this foolhardy venture. He will not succeed.”
Yusuf’s mouth is dry, he can feel the warmth of Nicolo’s skin through the flimsy garment.
“Thank you. I... I do not know what I would do without you,” he admits.
“Entertain Jafar while you bathe, apparently,” says Nicolo. His dry comment is punctuated by a determined scowl. “He will not do that again.”
Yusuf wants to ask how Nicolo plans to stop him but is rather afraid of what the answer will be.