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.
Galib's entire body is in the grip of nervous excitement as he waits for his orders; the other new recruits have already been issued with theirs, and he is eager to learn what his are going to be.
“Sir, yes, sir!”
Majlad raises an eyebrow at this enthusiastic response but he refrains from commenting.
“Your duty until otherwise instructed will be to act as personal guard to the King’s most blessed concubine, Nicolo.”
“Did I not make myself clear?”
“No, sir. I mean, yes, sir.”
Galib frowns, still somewhat puzzled by the order.
“So, should I follow him around?”
“Unless he is lying down,” says Majlad, dryly. “Yes, you follow him around. Do not let him out of your sight. These are direct orders from his Majesty.”
Galib straightens up. Direct orders from the King himself. He might be new to the palace, but he still knows enough to understand that he has been singled out for an honour, even if he isn’t exactly sure why.
He leaves to find his charge and carry out his orders.
Nicolo isn’t all that hard to find; he is walking in the palace gardens with the King. They pause occasionally to take in the scent of a fragrant bloom, their heads bent close as they converse softly.
Galib quickly falls into step several paces behind them.
Nicolo glances back over his shoulder before turning to address the King in a voice designed to carry back to Galib.
“We appear to have gained an escort.”
Yusuf glances back and flashes a bright smile at Galib, who almost stumbles.
“Ah, yes. Your new bodyguard.”
Nicolo comes to an abrupt stop, forcing Galib to do the same.
The King turns a more tender version of that smile on his companion.
“Nicolo, my sweet, it will ease my heart to know that you are safe when you are not by my side.”
“When am I not by your side?” Nicolo asks.
He makes a fair point, Galib thinks. From what he has heard, they are practically joined at the hip.
“I might have some duties that may take me from your side,” the King hedges.
Nicolo scowls and folds his arms as he stares down the King.
Galib is confused. This dynamic is not at all what he was expecting. The King is toeing the ground with an ornate slipper whilst refusing to meet Nicolo’s gaze. Not that Galib can blame him, he can feel himself wilting a little under the force of that glare and it’s not even directed at him.
“No. What are you planning?”
The King sags and his words tumble out in a rush.
“I might have agreed to lead a small contingent into the Western Hills to speak with the tribal leaders.”
Galib is with Nicolo on this one.
“Nicolo, please. The alternative is to let Jafar go, and we both know what a terrible idea that would be.”
“Yes, almost as terrible an idea as sending the King!”
Galib has heard that Nicolo is soft spoken and shy. He really isn’t getting that impression.
“Exactly! I am the King, which means it is my duty to keep my people safe.”
“How does putting yourself in danger achieve that?”
“I won’t been in danger. I am taking a contingent of men with me.”
Nicolo steps closer, but Galib has good hearing and catches the hissed whisper.
“And how many of them do you trust implicitly?”
The King places his hands on Nicolo’s arms, rubbing them as though trying to calm him down. From what Galib can tell, it doesn’t seem to be working.
“Even if they cannot all be trusted, they will not dare to act out in the open.”
Nicolo shakes his head dismissively.
“And if a trap is set? You have never been in a real skirmish. It would be only too easy for someone to slip a knife between your ribs.”
He looks sick at the thought.
Galib is growing increasingly alarmed. Is he hearing this right? Are they implying that there could be an attempt on the King’s life? Surely that is too outlandish to be true?
“Your majesty,” he begins, only to break off when both men turn to look at him. He takes a deep breath and presses on. “The palace guard is loyal to you, Sire.”
The King smiles, but Galib swears that if Nicolo was a cat, his ears would be flat and his tail would be whipping back and forth.
“Loyal? Pah,” he snarls.
Galib bristles at the inference that some of his fellow guards might not be.
“Nicolo, hush now. The boy is new, and I have ordered him to protect you.”
“I am not the one in need of protection,” Nicolo argues.
“Are you not?” Yusuf asks, gently.
The exchange a look Galib doesn’t understand, but Nicolo’s tense stance eases fractionally, and he gives a terse nod.
“Very well, I will accept this bodyguard, if you will take Quynh and Lykon with you when you go into the mountains.”
The King opens his mouth as if he is going to protest, but whatever he sees in Nicolo’s face stops him.
“All right. I will make them part of the detail accompanying me. Does that satisfy you, my love?”
To Galib’s great surprise this tender address makes the other man shiver, and is he blushing?
“Si,” Nicolo murmurs, softly.
The King looks shyly pleased.
Galib is unfamiliar with how things work between a monarch and his concubine outside of the bedroom, but this strikes him as a little strange.
He continues to follow them as they continue their stroll around the garden. He senses that Nicolo isn’t so much accepting his presence as tolerating it, and the occasional hard stares that he receives only enforces that feeling.
When they return to the palace, Galib attempts to follow them into the Royal quarters.
Nicolo bars his way with an arm across the door.
“I do not think that we will require your services while we eat.”
The King tugs on Nicolo’s arm.
“He should familiarise himself with the layout of the rooms.”
Nicolo and the King exchange another one of those looks, wherein they seem to share information without speaking.
Nicolo drops his arm and walks away. The King is far more gracious, welcoming Galib into the Royal quarters with a smile.
It is more grandiose than Galib could have imagined. Light pours in through vast windows that stretch almost from the floor to the high ceiling. Jewel like colours adorn every surface in the form of rich cloths. A low table is set out with golden goblets and numerous plates, all of them piled high with food.
Nicolo has already thrown himself down onto a pile of plump cushions. His tunic has ridden up, revealing the precious jewel in his navel. He glowers petulantly at Galib, but his glare softens when the King hands him a filled goblet.
Galib finds it odd at first that the King is serving Nicolo, but he quickly notices if the King doesn’t press food upon the younger man, Nicolo doesn’t make a move to take any for himself.
While he is occupied feeding Nicolo plump dates and delicacies, the King chats amiably with Galib as though he were a guest, not a guard.
He asks if Galib is enjoying his new appointment. He asks after Galib’s family, to which Galib replies that they are deceased. He asks if Galib has eaten and insists that he take some of the food when Galib says he has not.
Galib protests that he is on duty and he cannot possibly eat from the King's table.
King Yusuf replies that he won’t been any use to them if he faints from hunger, and there is always too much.
Nicolo glances at the King sharply when he says this, but King Yusuf just pats Nicolo’s arm and feeds him a date.
Galib has never eaten such incredible food; it’s all he can do to withhold a moan as the flavours explode in his mouth.
There is still food on the table when the King announces his intention to spend the afternoon reading to his mother, who has been bedridden since the Spring. He tells Nicolo to show Galib around, and orders Galib to stay at Nicolo’s side.
There are no kisses or overt touches, but Galib notices that Nicolo’s eyes follow the King until he is out of sight.
Once his Majesty has gone, Nicolo rises from his customary sprawl and begins to gather up the food, packaging it into muslin cloth squares left on the table.
“Come, you can help me with this.”
Galib has no idea what they are doing, but he is keen to get into Nicolo’s good graces, if only because it will make his job easier.
When all the untouched food has been carefully wrapped up. Nicolo portions it out between them to carry.
“Follow me,” he orders.
Galib has little choice but to obey, and so he follows the taller man, quickening his pace to keep up with Nicolo’s effortlessly long strides. He has a moment of panic when he realises that they are heading towards the Eastern gate of the palace.
“Sir? Sir? I don’t think we’re supposed to leave the palace. Sir?”
Nicolo stops and spins around so quickly Galib almost walks into him.
“Have I given you the impression that I am a prisoner here?”
“Then why would I not be allowed to leave the palace whenever I wish?”
Nicolo starts walking again. Galib glares at his back and hurriedly adjusts the bundle of food in his arms before hastening after him.
The guard on the gate merely nods at Nicolo, who nods a greeting in return. He says nothing when Nicolo steps into his hut and steps out again wearing a cloak with a hood. So, maybe this isn’t unusual behaviour?
Galib is no stranger to the city, he grew up in these streets, but it’s more than a little nerve wracking to be escorting the King’s most beloved concubine through them. He finds himself eyeing everyone they pass with mistrust.
Nicolo glances at him a few times. Galib swears he sees merriment in the man’s normally cryptic gaze.
Finally, they reach their destination as Nicolo stops, and Galib almost drops the food he is carrying when the air fills with excited shrieks and a veritable swarm of children erupt from a nearby building. Galib stares nonplussed as they dance excitedly around the feet of Nicolo, grubby hands outstretched.
“Ah, ah. What did I tell you?”
An arm shoots straight up.
“First we must wash.”
“Good. Very good. And then?”
Several arms go up this time, some of the children bounce up and down on the soles of their bare feet as they try to attract Nicolo’s attention.
His gaze settles on the smallest and shyest of the arm wavers.
“We must line up politely and take our turns as there will be plenty for all of us.”
“Exactly so,” says Nicolo, sounding pleased. He pauses for a moment, then adds, “well, what are you waiting for?”
Laughing and giggling the children dart back inside the building, presumably to wash.
Galib steps up next to Nicolo.
“Is this an orphanage?” he asks.
“You don’t know it?”
Galib shakes his head.
“I lived on the opposite side of the city. When my mother and father died of fever, my father’s business partner took me in. He cared for me until I was old enough to go out to work.”
“A good man.”
“Yes, he is,” Galib agrees. He cannot wait to tell him of his new appointment. He knows the man will be proud of his advancement.
“These children are cared for by the people in this quarter. They provide shelter, and what food and clothing they can afford to give.”
Nicolo hoists up the bag of food he is holding.
“I just bring them a little extra.”
Galib understands. He smiles, and Nicolo smiles back at him. It is the first time such an expression has been directed his way and he can suddenly understand why his monarch is apparently under the spell of this man.
This spell is broken when the children return, some dripping wet, but all a lot cleaner. They line up in rows, jigging from foot to foot in their excitement.
Nicolo hands the food out carefully, ensuring that each child gets an equal share. The giggles and laughter subside as the children sit cross-legged to consume their portion.
Galib assumes they will leave once all the food has been given out, and so he is surprised when Nicolo sits down with the children to listen as they talk to him, showing every sign of interest in their lives. He tells three stories and they sing several songs, before he eventually announces that he must leave.
The children cajole and plead until he relents and tells them one more story. He then draws his hood back around his face, waves farewell, and they retrace their steps back to the palace.
“Do you go there every day?” Galib asks.
“If I can.”
“You are not what I expected.”
Galib flushes when he realises what he has said.
“I mean… you are not… That is, I didn’t think-”
Nicolo snorts with laughter.
“I’m not what you expected from someone whose duty it is to warm the King’s bed?”
“Well, no,” Galib admits, his face flushing even hotter.
Nicolo leans toward him and lowers his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
“Well, it’s not like I am needed in it when the King is not there.”
Nicolo lets out another inelegant snort of laughter and throws a companionable arm around the shoulders of the startled young man.
“Come, we should hurry back. I still have to show you the layout of the rooms before his Majesty returns.”
Thank you so much to everyone who has left Kudos and comments! I have read them all and I will answer you individually. My only excuse is I have been very busy writing the next few chapters of this story. I hope that this part doesn't disappoint.
Yusuf is always subdued following a visit with his mother. She has been in decline since taking to her bed and barely recognises her loved ones anymore. Yusuf sits with her every afternoon, reading to her, and telling her the comings and goings in the palace. He retreats to his private bath afterwards, using this time to compose himself before he has to resume the rigours of royal life. Normally the room is prepared for him and he is left alone.
Not this time.
Nicolo refuses to take any chances with Yusuf’s safety. Jafar has made it clear that he isn’t concerned with protocol, or his brother’s personal wishes.
Yusuf looks surprised to see him.
“Nicolo? Is something wrong?” Yusuf glances round the room. “Where is Galib?”
“I dismissed him. I didn’t think his services were required here.”
Oh,” says Yusuf, distractedly. He grimaces. “I am sorry that I sprang him on you like that. I should have spoken with you beforehand.”
“It’s fine,” says Nicolo. His earlier annoyance at being saddled with a bodyguard is now mitigated by worry. Yusuf looks so tired and sad.
“Your mother,” he begins, hesitantly. “How was she today?” Yusuf won’t hear of Nicolo using formal titles when they are in private, so Yusuf’s mother is just that. To his great alarm, Yusuf's bottom lip begins to quiver.
“They are struggling to get her to take any sustenance. And if she will not-”
He shrugs helplessly and then brings his hand to his mouth as he tries to contain a sob.
Nicolo hurries forward and wraps his arms around his friend without thinking. He feels Yusuf shaking against his chest and tightens his embrace.
“I am so sorry,” he murmurs.
He continues to provide silent comfort as Yusuf weeps quietly, only relaxing his arms when Yusuf raises his head.
They step apart. Yusuf rubs at the tear tracks that are left behind. His eyes are reddened, and he still looks distraught, but there is anger there too.
“We must be ready. Jafar will make his play soon.”
Nicolo wishes it wasn’t so, but he knows that Yusuf is right. Jafar has proven himself to be the master of underhand tactics, and what better time to strike than when Yusuf is distracted by grief.
“We’ll be ready,” he promises. “Now come, you should bathe.”
Yusuf nods and begins to remove his clothing. He pauses when he sees that Nicolo isn’t leaving, raising an eyebrow questioningly.
Nicolo refuses to be discomfited. Nor is he going to back down.
“I told you. Jafar isn’t going to disturb your bath again.”
Yusuf opens and closes his mouth as if to say something, but when no words come forth, he continues to undress.
Nicolo watches numbly as sleek muscles stretch and flex. Yusuf is not a lazy King. He loves to ride, and dance, and train with Andromache, and it shows. Normally, Nicolo catches only brief glimpses as they prepare for bed or rise together in the morning.
This is possibly the most tortuous situation Nicolo has ever been in, and he was once a devotee of the Church.
It is only when Yusuf’s hands move to the ties closing his braises that Nicolo realises he is ogling the King like an idiot and he quickly turns around.
Little spots dance in front of his eyes and his chest feels tight. When he hears the sloshing of water as Yusuf gets into his bath, he presses his nails into his palms and breathes harshly through his nose.
“You can turn around,” Yusuf calls out, softly.
Nicolo peers over his shoulder before slowly turning. Yusuf has waded over to the furthest side of his bath and is currently resting his folded arms on the side.
Nicolo is rewarded with a wonderful view of those powerful shoulders and the strong line of his back. The distortion of the water means the rest of Yusuf is more or less obscured. Nevertheless, Nicolo can still make out the vague shape of his buttocks and legs; he bites his lip.
“You can join me, if you wish?”
Nicolo shakes his head violently, and then remembers Yusuf has his back to him.
“No, no. I should stay here, in case Jafar tries to enter.”
“Well, if he does, we can pull him in; those ridiculous robes of his can only be improved by a dunking.”
Nicolo smiles. Jafar is as ostentatious in his attire as Yusuf is moderate. Yusuf dresses for comfort and ease of movement. Jafar favours cloaks and feathers, and jewellery. He had been furious when Yusuf had taken one of their coveted gems and had it placed in Nicolo’s belly piercing. (An adornment Andromache had insisted would help to confirm his status as a prized concubine from a far-flung continent.)
“I’m not certain he would be able to float with the weight of them.”
Yusuf turns slowly and makes his way to the side nearest to Nicolo.
“Well, that would be unfortunate.”
They both share a knowing smirk, and then Yusuf sighs and pulls a face.
“No, I would have to drag his sorry carcass out of my bath and save him. He is my brother, after all.”
“Your half-brother. And you surely cannot think he would do the same.”
“I think he would strike me down in a heartbeat,” says Yusuf, calmly. “If he ever had the chance.”
“He will not,” says Nicolo, fiercely.
Yusuf’s expression turns hopelessly fond.
“My devoted friend. I can never thank Andromache enough for bringing you into my life.”
Nicolo is spared from trying to come up with a suitable reply when he hears the sound of approaching footsteps.
He greets the intruder with a brisk bow and an insincere smile.
To his delight, Jafar seems utterly confounded by his presence. It isn’t often he gets the chance to see Jafar so wrong footed and it would truly be a moment to savour, if he wasn’t so furious.
“Brother, I had hoped to speak with you alone.”
“Well, as you can see, I am not alone,” says Yusuf, waving a wet hand at Nicolo, who bares his teeth in an approximation of a grin.
Nicolo ramps up the act of vacuous plaything by moving closer to Yusuf so the man can caress his shoulders. He flutters his eyelashes for added effect and chooses to take Jafar’s dismissive sneer as a win.
“Surely you can send this creature away while we talk?”
Nicolo feels Yusuf’s hand go still where it rests against his neck, and when Yusuf speaks, his voice is cold.
“Nicolo, is welcome here. Whereas you, brother, are not.”
Jafar sputters indignantly.
“You would place this… this painted whore before your family.”
Nicolo quickly places his hand over Yusuf’s and presses down, sending a silent plea to stay calm.
“Anything you need to say to me, can be said during an official audience. I do not give you permission to ambush me in my bath house, or to insult the man who shares my bed. Now leave, before I forget that we are of the same blood.”
Jafar’s mouth twitches, but he doesn’t speak, he merely nods; a mockery of a bow even less respectful than the one Nicolo had offered him. Then he leaves, but not without a final flourish of his robes.
“Are you sure we can’t drown him,” Nicolo mutters, after he has gone.
Yusuf huffs a laugh and squeezes Nicolo’s neck playfully.
Yusuf ponders the enigma that is his friend while he dresses. There is a part of him that wishes he could have persuaded Nicolo to join him, but the wiser part can admit that it is probably for the best that Nicolo refused. Difficult enough to feign indifference when they must share a bed. It is only the barricade of blankets that they assemble between them each night that prevents Yusuf from entwining himself around the other man like an amorous vine.
Still, he thinks wistfully, it might have been nice.
Perhaps their limbs would have brushed against one another as they bathed. Of course, they would have smiled and apologised, and then both decried the need for an apology. Maybe he would have found the courage to ask Nicolo to wash his back, and in return he would have offered to wash Nicolo’s beautiful hair.
There are times when Yusuf is forced to clasp his fingers together, in order to stop himself from reaching out to push back those silky looking strands.
Nicolo had tied it back once with a thin strip of leather.
Yusuf had been obliged to steal it when the nape of Nicolo’s neck proved to be an unbearable distraction.
Unfortunately, Yusuf is still required to handle the sight of Nicolo’s shoulders, narrow waist, and the delectable arse that is currently snugly cocooned in silk. He feels horribly guilty. Nicolo is brilliant, brave, compassionate. The poor man would undoubtedly be horrified to learn that Yusuf spends an awful lot of time trying not to picture him naked.
He sighs again, loudly enough that Nicolo hears.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. I’m fine. Let’s have supper.”
Yusuf steps forward and links arms with Nicolo, forcing down the surge of guilt this simple action elicits. He has had a terrible afternoon, surely he deserves a smidgeon of pleasure.
Besides, Nicolo doesn’t look troubled. His friend simply smiles and puts a hand on the arm now linked with his.
Yusuf can feel the goosebumps on his skin.
“You’re cold,” Nicolo remarks in dismay. “Come, let us go to your room, you can get warm by the fire.”
Yusuf allows himself to be led away.
He certainly isn’t going to deny himself the opportunity to see Nicolo’s beloved features gilded by firelight.
Yusuf fully expects Nicolo to call for a servant and watches mystified as Nicolo takes it upon himself to start the fire going and stoke up the flames.
“You’re a marvel,” he tells the man, enjoying the deep blush his praise brings forth.
“It’s just a fire, Yusuf. You should know how to do this yourself,” Nicolo chides gently. “What if you get lost in the hills? How will you keep yourself warm?”
“Well,” says Yusuf, slowly. “I have no plans to get lost in the hills.”
“But what if you do?”
Nicolo’s mouth twists unhappily.
“You will freeze to death because you can’t rub two flints together.”
“Is this because of what I said earlier?”
“You could get lost,” Nicolo persists stubbornly.
“Do you want me to get lost in the hills?” Yusuf asks, slightly baffled by Nicolo’s continued insistence that he is going to.
Nicolo looks aghast at the very suggestion.
“Well, good then. Because I’m certainly not planning to. You know, I can read a map, Nicolo. My studies might not have included the finer arts of fire making, but they did cover that. Quite extensively, in fact.”
Nicolo’s shoulders hunch up by his ears as he sits down by the now fiercely blazing fire.
“I did not mean to imply that you are not capable, Yusuf.”
“Which is why I did not take offence,” says Yusuf, sitting down beside him.
“I am worried,” Nicolo admits.
“I couldn’t tell,” Yusuf teases, gently.
Nicolo scowls. Yusuf quickly schools his features into a serious expression, though he remains charmed by Nicolo’s prickly protective stance.
“It’s not like I am wandering into the hills alone. And I will have Quynh and Lykon at my side. Or do you doubt their ability to keep me safe?”
“I wouldn’t dare,” says Nicolo.
“I can’t let Jafar go.”
“It has to be me.”
“I know that too.”
Nicolo turns his head to face Yusuf; his beautiful eyes are bright with worry.
“It doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
Yusuf puts an arm around the younger man and feels his heart clench when Nicolo leans into his embrace.
“Promise you’ll come back to me?” Nicolo whispers.
“You have my word. I will do all that is in my power to return safely to your side,” Yusuf vows. “Now, will you promise me something in return.”
Yusuf rests his head very gently against Nicolo’s.
“Take care of yourself. There is a nest of vipers within these walls, and Jafar will try to act as regent in my stead. I fear that you will be in far greater danger than I. Please, don’t do anything in my absence that will jeopardize your safety.”
“I am not going to stop trying to find out the names of those who would betray you, but can I promise that I will exercise greater caution.”
Yusuf isn’t happy, but he knows that short of locking Nicolo in his room, this is the best he is going to get. Besides, he wouldn’t put it past Nicolo to pick the lock or climb out of the window; he has certainly proven himself to be very capable in the past. Yusuf tries not to reveal his disappointment when Nicolo pulls away. He thinks he sees a flash of something in Nicolo’s expression when he moves his arm, but it is gone so quickly he tells himself he imagined it.
“We should eat.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You’re never hungry,” says Yusuf. He still half thinks that Nicolo’s Church has conditioned him not to be. “Even so, you must eat something.”
He sends to the kitchens for a light supper and manages to persuade Nicolo to eat at least a little of it.
They retire to bed. Backs stay turned as they undress and don their night things. Pillows and blankets are moved into their night-time positions, creating a divide in the huge bed.
Lying in his half, Yusuf has never felt so lonely. Moonlight filters in through the shuttered window. He can pick out Nicolo’s face in the broken silvery beams.
“You need to sleep.”
“Yes, I know.”
Yusuf tries turning onto his back. When that doesn’t work, he tries lying on his front, but that proves no better. He rolls onto his back again.
“I can’t sleep,” he confesses.
Nicolo props himself up on his elbow.
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
Yusuf tries not to blurt out the first half-a-dozen things that come into his head with that offer.
“No. Not really.”
“Are you too hot?” Nicolo asks.
“Maybe a little.”
“I could get another blanket?” Nicolo offers.
“Or?” Yusuf repeats.
“Or I could part my arm around you. I think I am quite hot. I mean, I think I give off quite a bit of heat.”
Yusuf wonders if he hasn’t fallen asleep after all.
“Yes,” he says, in a voice that sounds strangled to his own ears. “You could do that.”
Nicolo does something with the cushion wall and the next thing Yusuf knows a warm arm has draped itself over his chest.
“Is this all right?” Nicolo whispers.
It’s perfect, Yusuf thinks.
“Yes. Thank you.”
Yusuf isn’t sure how this will be conducive to sleeping, but apparently, he is a lot more tired than he thought, because the next thing he knows it’s morning.
Yusuf has always been slow to wake, and Nicolo has never not been able to find this endearing. The way the morning light makes the man snuffle and grumble into the pillows, before blinking muzzily as he takes in his surroundings.
Nicolo can tell the exact moment Yusuf registers that he is no longer in the bed, as the heavy-lidded eyes suddenly widen in alarm.
“Yusuf, I am here,” he calls out quietly.
Yusuf’s bleary gaze swings over to where Nicolo sits at the writing table.
“Huh, what are you-?”
Yusuf’s face scrunches up in sleepy confusion. He tugs one of the blankets from the bed around his shoulders and stumbles across the room. Resting a hip against the table, he peers down at the parchment Nicolo is holding.
”What language is that?”
“It’s not a language,” says Nicolo. “At least, not a recognized one. I created it.”
Yusuf’s eyes brighten with curiosity as the last vestiges of sleep fades away.
“A secret language?”
“If you like.”
“Will you teach it to me?”
Yusuf grins in delight, and Nicolo tries not to be affected by it, but as always, he is helpless to resist the pull of one of Yusuf’s smiles. They never fail to make his heartbeat quicken, and his skin feel tight and hot.
Trying to hide his burning face, Nicolo drops his head, letting his hair fan out to cover it.
“So, what are you writing?” Yusuf asks.
“Just ideas. I have been making notes since the day I arrived. Now and then I like to go over what I have written to refresh my memory. I record how people react, the things they do, and the things they say. And if they appear to be genuine in either case.”
A quick glance tells him Yusuf is intrigued, Nicolo cannot help but want to show off a little.
“See, Najih spoke out in support of your plan to reimburse the farmers who were affected by the grain blight, so they could replenish their seed supplies.”
“He seemed to agree it was a good idea,” Yusuf says. “It makes sense to keep experienced farmers in business. They have knowledge of the land, and their crops feed us all.”
“Exactly so,” says Nicolo. “And Najih was sincere in what he said. But Sumayl added his voice too, and I do not believe he was genuine in his praise.”
Nicolo tries to think how to explain what is little more than a gut instinct.
“His eyes were not honest, and when he spoke his face pulled tight, here and here.” Nicolo touches his own face to demonstrate what he means. “It was as though he spoke against his own will.”
“So, he was lying?”
“I believe so,” says Nicolo. “Of course, this does not mean he supports Jafar. Only that he does not want to give money away to those who need it.”
Yusuf secures his blanket with one hand and reaches out with the other to pat Nicolo’s shoulder. However, then he does something entirely unexpected. He leaves his hand there, moving his fingers slowly back and forth.
Nicolo tries very hard not to make a big deal of it. Yusuf is just being friendly; he definitely isn’t massaging Nicolo’s shoulder. It’s not like he hasn’t touched Nicolo before. He tells himself this is no different to the casual touches they have exchanged in the past, or the deliberate ones designed to fool onlookers.
He manages not to lean into it, but he fails to withhold the disappointed sigh when Yusuf finally stops.
“Sorry,” says Yusuf, “your shoulder felt tense. I thought perhaps you had been sitting here too long. I thought it might help…”
His voice trails off.
“You did,” says Nicolo quickly. “I mean, it did. It feels better. Thank you.”
Flustered, he looks away. He hears Yusuf throw himself back down on the bed. After a moment or two the man speaks.
“I find it very difficult to know when a man is lying to me.”
Nicolo swivels around on his stool and waits for Yusuf to continue.
“Men like to flatter a King. I learned this as a child. Now I simply assume that they are not being sincere when they speak. It’s terrible of me, I know.”
Nicolo’s first thought is to deny this. He doesn’t think Yusuf is terrible. Rather, he thinks it is sad. It must be awful to believe that everyone lies to you as a matter of course. Then he has another idea.
“Well, I can honestly say that you snore.”
Yusuf frowns and turns his head to look at him.
“And when you wake up you have horrible bed hair.”
“What? I do not.”
“Horrible,” Nicolo repeats, with a teasing glint in his eyes. “Why, birds would clamour to nest in it were you to ever step outside looking like that.”
He waves a hand at Yusuf’s tousled curls.
“Also, you are mistaken in your belief that the roses are the most fragrant flower in the garden.”
Yusuf sits up.
“And the North facing wall would be a terrible place for a new fruit vine.”
“Also, Andromache let you beat her at tawlah the last few times you played.”
“She did not!”
Nicolo snorts out a laugh.
“My friend, you are terrible at it.”
He has to duck when Yusuf hurls a small cushion at him. He throws it back.
Yusuf hurls another, hitting Nicolo this time.
Nicolo laughs out loud at this exclamation of triumph. Yusuf tries to maintain his indignant expression, but he too quickly dissolves into laughter.
They continue to throw cushions and pillows back and forth, increasingly hampered by their mounting amusement.
Nicolo has the better aim, but Yusuf is a more agile target, so it’s pretty much an even battle.
When a servant walks by, he hears a muffled thump and a squawk of laughter. He decides it is not his place to speculate and hurries on down the corridor.
Galib joins them at breakfast. This time the King insists that he sits down to eat, and Galib decides he has no choice except to obey or risk causing offence. Even though his uniform is spotless, he feels grubby sitting alongside the King in his royal finery, and Nicolo, who is wearing some sort of shimmery cloth woven with gold thread.
“I must go into the hills to speak with the tribesmen today. I want you to watch over Nicolo. You must not leave his side, no matter what else happens,” Yusuf warns.
“Of course, your Majesty.”
Nicolo glowers; his eyes look startlingly green against the kohl.
“I caution you,” the King continues. “He will try to elude you.”
He will? Galib thinks, alarmed.
“He will feign a headache or stomach pains and take to his bed, and when you send for a physician, you will find that he has absconded.”
Galib looks over in alarm at Nicolo, who now looks positively smug.
“Do not let this happen,” says the King sternly.
“He has done this before?” Galib asks, worriedly.
The King waves an exasperated hand at Nicolo.
“Do not be fooled by this beautiful face. My Nicolo is artful and cunning, with no regard for his own safety.”
Galib’s stomach plummets. This is a nightmare. Galib doesn’t anticipate being able to stop Nicolo from doing anything that he wants to do.
“I do not care what you have to do to ensure his safety.”
Galib wonders if that includes tying Nicolo up until the King’s return.
“Do you understand?”
“Y-yes, your Majesty.”
“Very good. I am pleased that we understand one another.”
Galib is grateful that he has finished eating; he doesn’t think he could force down another mouthful.
After the other men are done, he follows Nicolo, who in turn follows the King as he makes ready to depart. The King dons his chest plate and braces, and straps on his scimitar.
Galib sees Nicolo quietly hand the king a small, but deadly looking knife.
“Keep this one hidden.”
The King frowns doubtfully.
“It does not seem very trustworthy of me to be carrying a concealed weapon.”
“I do not care. Hopefully, they will be none the wiser, and if they should have a reason to find out, then you will be grateful that you have it.”
Galib takes this to mean that they will only find out if the King has a reason to use it.
The King tucks the knife away.
“You worry too much,” he tells Nicolo.
“No, I worry precisely the right amount,” says Nicolo.
They go out into the courtyard, where the others have assembled. Galib sees Lykon and Quynh among the group.
The King turns to bid Nicolo farewell. Neither man seems certain how to handle this moment.
Galib sees the indecision on the King’s face before he purses his lips in a determined manner and steps forward, pulling Nicolo into his arms.
“You mean more to me than you can possibly know,” the King says, his voice rough with some emotion.
Nicolo, for his part, seems too startled to say anything. Except when the King goes to step back, he suddenly moves his arms to return the embrace, and at the same time he presses his face against the King’s.
The King looks like he has just found Paradise on Earth, nuzzling Nicolo’s cheek.
Both men are a little flushed when they finally move apart.
Nicolo calls out something to Quynh in what Galib assumes is her language.
Quynh gives Nicolo a sharp nod. The King is the last to mount up. He spares Nicolo one last look, and then turns his horse and leads them out the main gate. Nicolo remains in the courtyard until the last of the dust has settled.
Nicolo tries to quell the churning sensation in his stomach. Yusuf will be fine. He has Quynh. He has Lykon, and he is a fine swordsman in his own right. Not to mention a gifted rider. There is absolutely no reason to believe that anything will go wrong. Except he is heading into the Western Hills to make contact with a people who have a history of aggression towards Yusuf’s people, at the bequest of Jafar, who is plotting to take Yusuf’s throne.
Nicolo clenches his hands into fists. He needs to act. He cannot simply stand by and wait for Yusuf’s return. If Jafar has something planned, he needs to find out what it is. He turns to the young man on his left.
“Galib, just how well do you know the palace?”
“Not very well,” Galib admits.
Nicolo flashes him a dangerous smile.
“Did you know there are secret passages?”
Wide-eyed, Galib shakes his head.
“Come,” says Nicolo, “let’s go exploring.”
Galib looks unconvinced, but he follows Nicolo obediently.
Upon his arrival, Yusuf had given Nicolo free reign to look at all of the records and scrolls. He had found the original drawings and architectural plans of the palace and had been excited to discover the network of secret passageways. He was a little disappointed to find out that Yusuf was already aware of them. However, further discussion revealed that Yusuf was not aware of how extensive they were. For one thing, there was no complete map for them, only sketches here and there on other documents. Nicolo set about making a proper map. It was time consuming and laborious, but Nicolo was no stranger to such work. He used the afternoons when Yusuf was with his mother, or the nights when he struggled to sleep. He had made good progress, and it is this map that he unfolds now for Galib.
“This is incredible,” says Galib, his eyes shining. “You did all this?”
“You are a map maker?”
“No, merely a willing novice.”
“I could never create anything like this.”
“So, this is the King’s quarters?” Galib asks, pointing to an area on the map.
“Yes, there is a passage leading to the Eastern gate. The King is aware of it.”
“Is that safe?” Galibs asks, worriedly. “What if there are intruders?”
“Well, first and foremost, I would hope that you would take care of them,” says Nicolo. “And if not, this passageway can only be opened from inside the King’s personal chambers. It was designed as an escape route for the King.”
Nicolo points to another passageway.
“This is the one that interests us.”
“Because this leads to Jafar’s rooms.”
Galib steps back from the map, shaking his head.
“You are afraid of him?” Nicolo asks.
“Everyone is afraid of him,” says Galib.
“He is just a man,” Nicolo points out.
“He is an evil man,” says Galib, darkly. “You cannot trust him.”
“I don’t trust him,” says Nicolo, amused at the very idea. “Which is why I want to get a good look inside his quarters.”
“You think he plots against the King?”
Nicolo pauses as he weighs up what to say. How much should he share with Galib?
“Yes. I think he plots against the King. Are you with me?”
Galib straightens up and nods.
“I am with you.”
“It might be dangerous,” Nicolo warns.
“I am your man,” Galib promises. “I have taken an oath to protect the King, and I am sworn in his service to protect you.”
“Good. Then let’s go.”
Nicolo rolls the map back up.
“Do we not need it?” Galib asks. “How will we find our way?”
“I am blessed with a good memory,” Nicolo reassures him.
Galib takes him at his word, and Nicolo places the map back in its hiding place.
They wait until they are certain that Jafar will not be in his quarters. When they hear him shouting at the servants, and they see them scurrying past carrying platters of food, they know he is taking his midday meal.
Nicolo leads Galib into a room situated some distance from Jafar’s quarters. He runs his hands over the geometric tiles; there is a soft click, and a narrow section of the wall swings open to reveal a dark, cobwebby tunnel.
Galib peers into it doubtfully.
“This leads to Jafar’s quarters?”
“Yes,” says Nicolo. “We must hurry.”
“I’m not sure I will fit.”
Nicolo smiles at him.
“You’re smaller than me. Come on.”
Nicolo goes first, pushing the thick, trailing cobwebs aside. He hasn’t visited this tunnel in some time, and the inhabitants have clearly been busy in his absence. He waits until Galib steps in behind him before putting his foot on the plate to close the wall. He feels Galib jump as they are plunged into darkness.
“It’s fine,” he whispers. “This passageway only leads to one place. We cannot get lost.”
“I can’t see anything,” Galib whispers back.
“Just walk forwards. I advise against putting your hands on the wall. The inhabitants don’t like to be disturbed.”
“Inhabitants?” Galib asks, his voice rising in fear.
“Spiders,” says Nicolo.
“They won’t hurt you,” says Nicolo. “They only bite if you touch them.”
“Bite?” Galib squeaks.
“Ssh, come on.” Nicolo moves off. “And keep quiet. We pass by other rooms and your voice will carry through the walls.”
Their pace feels torturously slow, the ground is uneven beneath their feet and Nicolo daren’t risk either of them stumbling and injuring themselves. All the while he is mindful that Yusuf could at this very moment be riding into danger. At last, they reach the end. Nicolo fumbles for the lever and they blink as they are both thrust back into the light. It takes a few moments for their eyes to readjust.
Jafar’s room is a mess. There are books, scrolls, and objects on every available surface. More are propped up or piled on the floor. Nicolo isn’t foolish enough to think that Jafar will have written down his plans, but he hopes to find some clue to them amidst all this clutter. He eyes the chaos in dismay. He dare not stay too long. If Yusuf knows about these tunnels, it stands to reason that Jafar does too. Nicolo can only think he hasn’t blocked it off as it serves as an escape route.
Galib is picking his way gingerly across the room. He almost falls over when a harsh voice suddenly shrieks at him from a shadowy corner.
“Thief! Thief! Thief!”
Nicolo curses and snatches up a cloth, hurling it over the swinging cage. The bird within falls abruptly silent.
“Majad told me tales of that beast,” says Galib. “He says it once plucked out a man’s eye.”
Nicolo doesn’t doubt that the story could very well be true. Yusuf has also told him about the large red bird that once had the free run of the palace. How Jafar would laugh at the servants’ terror as his pet swooped at them. Their father had eventually ordered that it be locked away after it attacked a guest. It must have languished in Jafar’s quarters ever since.
“What are we looking for?” Galib asks.
Nicolo tries not to grind his teeth in frustration. In truth, he doesn’t know.
“Anything. Something. Just look and see if there is anything relating to the tribes or the mines.”
They both move slowly about the room, trying to search without disturbing the contents too much.
Nicolo steps nearer to the parrot’s cage, he can hear it chuntering to itself in a voice that sounds vaguely like Jafar’s. He frowns and lifts a corner of the cloth.
“Ambush. Ambush. Dead. Dead. Ambush. Ambush. Jafar is the best. Jafar. Jafar. Ambush.”
Nicolo’s eyes widen in horror.
“You don’t think?” asks Galib, uncertainly.
Nicolo grabs his arm and drags him back towards the passageway.
They scramble through the tunnel as quickly as possible. Nicolo steps on the foot plate and then freezes.
Galib is close enough to feel Nicolo’s body stiffen and he instinctively takes a step back. He is grateful that he did when he hears Jafar’s voice. Nicolo steps out of the tunnel and when he turns to close it, Galib sees his face He see the tightness of his jaw and the silent plea in the pale eyes. He gives the tiniest of nods and then he shuts Galib in the darkness.
Galib sucks in a breath and tries not to panic. He can make out Jafar’s voice, muffled but still discernible through the wall.
“A little bird told me that you were looking for me,” Jafar purrs.
Galib silently curses the creature. Of course, they would be betrayed by Jafar’s wretched parrot.
“I can’t imagine why I would be,” says Nicolo, coolly.
“No? Well, then let me tell you what I have heard. There are rumours circulating of an insurrection. Of course, my darling brother would be devastated should he return to discover that his beloved Concubine has been harmed in his absence. I think perhaps it would be for the best if you were placed under the protection of my personal guard.”
Jafar clicks his fingers. In his mind’s eye Galib can see the guards hurry forward to encircle Nicolo.
“Take him to his new quarters.”
Galib listens to the sound of their departing footsteps. He waits, wanting to be certain that it’s safe before exiting the tunnel. It takes him another moment to find the footplate.
Stumbling out into the thankfully empty room, Galib has a moment of despair, before he ruthlessly quashes it. Nicolo is depending on him. But does he try to rescue Nicolo first, or warn the King? He decides that Nicolo is probably not in any immediate danger. He cannot believe that Jafar would dare to raise a hand against him while the King still lives. So, he must warn the King. With fresh resolve, Galib heads for the stables. He is going to need a horse; not that he owns one. However, it seems a relatively small thing to being stealing a horse, when he is going to be riding into the Western hills alone.
Yusuf is grateful that he enjoys riding, as the journey into the Western hills is a particularly arduous one. The terrain is rough and treacherously steep in places, with hidden gullies and loose rock formations that could easily cause the death of an inexperienced rider and their horse. Yusuf was put on horse before he could walk, and since then he has benefited from having Andromache as a teacher, and she is unmatched in her skill. Even so, he is careful not to let his attention waver. He is grateful for the necessary level of concentration that it takes, it stops him from thinking too much about Nicolo. Not that the man is ever fully out of his thoughts.
He wishes he could have found an excuse to bring Nicolo with him, but even a King is expected to demonstrate some restraint, and he would have been hard pressed to explain his need for a Concubine on such a journey.
Yusuf isn’t altogether certain how this meeting between himself and the tribes people is going to take place. He is reasonably sure that they have been following them since his party entered the territory. Apparently, they will just have to keep riding until someone approaches them.
When they path widens, Quynh drops back and Lykon moves up, so they flank him.
“Nicolo was most insistent that I ensure your safety personally, your Majesty,” says Quynh. “What was it he said?”
She feigns forgetfulness and glances across at Lykon.
“Hmm, wasn’t it something like, ‘don’t come back without him if you value your own life,” supplies Lykon with a grin. “And I believe him. That boy is ruthless.”
Quynh is smiling too, implying she takes no offence at Nicolo’s words.
Yusuf rubs his beard.
“I am sorry, I will speak with him when I return. I do not know why he felt the need to threaten you.”
Lykon lets out a bark of laughter that he turns into a hasty cough when Yusuf looks at him. However, a glance at Quynh reveals that she too is struggling to contain her mirth.
“A thousand apologies, your Majesty,” says Lykon, “but you must surely know the high regard that Nicolo holds you in.”
“Very high,” Quynh agrees.
“Very, very high,” adds Lykon.
Yusuf rolls his eyes at them.
“Yes. Thank you. I know how loyal Nicolo is to me.”
Along with Andromache, Quynh and Lykon are the only other people entrusted with Nicolo’s real position in Yusuf’s household.
“It is not merely loyalty-”
Lykon coughs again loudly and shakes his head at Quynh.
Eyes flashing, she digs in her heels and drives her horse forward.
Yusuf is nonplussed by this behaviour, but before he can speak there is a sharp cry and the man at the head of the trail falls with an arrow through his throat.
“Find cover!” Quynh shouts.
Yusuf looks around in alarm, he can see no cover large enough for a rider and a horse. He turns to Lykon, only to watch in horror as the man’s eyes roll back and he slumps forward with an arrow sticking out of his shoulder. Yusuf grabs his reins and takes control of the man’s horse. He steers them both off the trail as arrows continue to rain down into it. He can no longer see Quynh.
The rockface affords them some protection as Yusuf rides on until he feels that their attackers are some distance behind them. Then he stops and leaps down from his horse to check on Lykon. The man is unconscious, but mercifully he still lives. However, he is losing a frightening amount of blood. Yusuf eases him down from his horse as gently as he can and finds them shelter from the sun beneath a rocky overhang. He lowers Lykon to the ground and rolls him onto his side. The arrow has travelled all the way through and the point juts out obscenely.
“My friend, I fear that Nicolo is going to be very unhappy with us both.”
He exams the wound, at a loss how to proceed. The arrow must come out, but how to do this without causing further harm? Yusuf has never felt more helpless. What use is his education when it doesn’t prepare him for situations like this? Of course, he thinks bitterly, as a King he isn’t expected to deal with situations like this, only to delegate them to someone else.
Lykon moans and his eyelids flicker.
The man slowly opens his eyes; it looks like it takes a lot of effort.
“Y-you are unhurt?” Lykon asks.
Yusuf’s face tightens in distress.
“Yes, I am fine. But I… I don’t know how to help you.”
“I don’t know. She gave the order to take cover. You were injured-”
A large hand clumsily pats his. It feels too warm.
“You did the right thing.”
Yusuf struggles not to break down and weep.
“The arrow must come out,” Lykon tells him.
“I don’t know how to do that,” says Yusuf, panicking. “I do not know if I can.”
“Yusuf,” says Lykon, kindly but firmly. “There is no one else.”
His voice gets fainter as he continues.
“Cut off the arrowhead and pull the shaft out. Wash the wound and use the herbs in my pouch. Be sure to push them in deep and bind it tightly.”
Yusuf nods, he understands. Nonetheless, he still hesitates.
“I do not wish to cause you more pain,” he admits unhappily.
He pats Yusuf’s hand again.
“It will be fine, Yusuf. It will all be fine.”
Yusuf doesn’t see how it possibly can be. They are separated from the rest of the party. He doesn’t know if his people are alive or dead. He doesn’t know if Quynh is dead. He doesn’t know if their attackers are hunting them. Yusuf has honestly never felt more useless. He has been trained in the art of warfare, but these lands have known nothing but peace since the time of his grandfather. For him, war has always been an abstract thing. He has certainly never been taught battlefield surgery.
He takes a deep breath. All right. He can do this. He has studied anatomy and medicine; he believes a King should have knowledge of such things. If nothing else, it allows him to weed out the charlatans that would seek his patronage.
He knows that to avoid causing Lykon further injury, he needs to pull the arrow shaft out straight. He readies himself.
“Wait,” Lykon calls out weakly.
“Give me something to bite down on. We don’t want anyone hearing if I cry out.”
Yusuf unwraps his sash and fashions a gag.
Feeling more than a little nauseous, he takes Lykon’s knife and places it against the arrow shaft, holding the section below firmly with his other hand. It’s tacky with the man’s blood.
Lykon nods and shuts his eyes.
Yusuf presses hard with the knife into the shaft. He tries to keep it as steady as he can, but the act of cutting jostles it a little and Lykon groans. Yusuf wants to stop even as he knows that this has to be done. He sags in relief when the arrow point falls to the ground, but now he needs to pull out the shaft. He grips it tightly and steadies Lykon with his other hand. He counts down in his head.
Three. Two. One.
Yusuf pulls and the shaft slides out with a sound that makes the gorge rise in his throat. He flings the hateful thing aside and turns his attention to Lykon, who is breathing hard through his nose. He gently eases Lykon’s shirt away from the wound and uses some of the water from his flask to flush it out. From the pouch hanging off Lykon's belt, Yusuf measures out a portion of what looks like dried, ground up leaves. He stares at them doubtfully.
Gritting his teeth, he pushes the wad of leaf fragments deep into the bloody hole. Tears roll down his cheeks as Lykon bucks against his hand.
Finally, it’s done, and Yusuf hastily tears off strips of his own tunic to bandage the wound, which is bleeding profusely again. He carefully works the makeshift gag free of Lykon’s tightly clenched jaw and uses it to wipe the sweat and tears off the man’s face. Lykon’s eyes are glassy with pain, yet he somehow manages to smile at Yusuf.
Yusuf shakes his head. What has he done to deserve thanks? He has got them lost and separated from their party. He has hurt Lykon. He doesn’t even know the name of the man who must surely be dead. Was it Shahid? Shahib? Did he have a wife? Children?
“You did well,” Lykon reassures him; his voice is thready and strained.
Yusuf quickly unstoppers his flask and helps his friend to take a drink.
“I do not... think... I can ride,” says Lykon, unhappily.
Yusuf doesn’t think so either. The man’s eyes are already fluttering shut.
“I could try to find Quynh?” he offers.
“No... return... to the palace.”
“I’m not leaving you alone here,” Yusuf protests.
“You must... be safe,” says Lykon.
Yusuf refuses to even entertain the idea.
“Rest, you may feel a little stronger later and we can both return to the palace.”
Lyon is too weak to argue any further. Yusuf checks that the horses are secure before settling down beside him. He takes out the knife that Nicolo gave him and tries to imagine that it is still warm from the man’s hand.
Galib creeps into the stables, grateful to have made it this far without anyone questioning what he is doing. He eyes the horses nervously. He has never had much need to ride and in truth he is intimidated by the large beasts. He approaches one cautiously and reaches out to pat its nose, jumping when the horse snorts and steps back. Gathering the necessary tack, he selects a horse that seems slightly calmer than the rest. He is about to step into the stall when someone drags him back, throwing him up against the wall and pinning him there by his throat.
“Now, I know you must have a good reason for upsetting my horses. I’m looking forward to hearing what it is,” says Andromache.
Galib stares at her in terror.
“I…I… was just borrowing it.”
“Borrowing it?” Andromache repeats slowly; the corners of her mouth turn up in a mirthless smile. “So, not stealing it?”
“No!” Galib tries to shake his head, but she’s holding his neck too firmly.
She seems to realise this and loosens her grip slightly.
“Talk,” she orders.
Galib weighs up his options. He could lie, except he can’t think of anything convincing, and he doesn’t want to think what the outcome might be if she decides that he is being untruthful. Which just leaves the truth.
“Jafar has Nicolo,” he blurts out.
“What do you mean, Jafar has Nicolo?”
Galib tells her everything. The secret passages. The parrot. The ambush.
“I must warn the King,” he tells her desperately.
He almost collapses in relief when she releases him.
“You say he has Nicolo locked up?”
“Yes. He seemed to know Nicolo had been in his quarters and had his guards take him away.”
“Dammit, Nicolo. This is why we plan before we act,” Andromache mutters.
“I didn’t know what to do,” says Galib plaintively. “I didn’t know if I should try to rescue Nicolo. I thought maybe I should ride out and try to warn the King first.”
“Nicolo can take care of himself,” says Andromache. “You made the right choice. Come, help me with the horses.”
“Horses?” Galib repeats dumbly. “You are coming with me?”
“I think that would be for the best, don’t you?”
Galib nods, relieved beyond measure that he won’t have to undertake this task alone.
Nicolo takes stock of his new surroundings. He doesn’t know if this is Jafar’s idea of hardship, but in all honesty, it’s not that different to his old lodgings in the seminary, and it’s actually a step up from some of the places he has stayed in since then. It’s basic, but clean, with a low pallet for a bed and a thin, admittedly scratchy looking blanket. Although shuttered, the lone window is unbarred. However, considering how high up the room is, jumping isn’t exactly an option. He is angry at his own carelessness. By far the worst thing about getting caught is not his incarceration, but how useless he is to Yusuf now. He can only hope that Galib is able to warn them before the ambush can take place. Nicolo moves closer to the window and grimaces as he sees why Jafar selected this room. Through the slats he is afforded a wonderful view of the Western Hills.
After all, what better way to enforce his sense of helplessness.
Nicolo turns as he hears the key rattling in the door. It opens to reveal two burly looking guards. One of them slides a tray across the floor. Then the door is shut and locked again. Nicolo eyes the tray with disinterest. But in his head he can hear Yusuf scolding him and telling him that he must eat. With a sigh, he picks up the tray and carries it over to the bed. Sitting down, he looks at what he guesses to be a large basket of dates and a jug of drink. He lifts the lid from the rattan basket and lets out a startled gasp.
He is staring at the tight coils of a snake. Forgetting everything he has ever been taught about staying still in the presence such creatures, he hurls the tray away from him and the contents spill across the floor. He watches transfixed as the snake slithers free of the basket. It raises the top half of its body, and Nicolo finds himself looking into the cobra’s swaying eyes. It flares out its hood, slender tongue flickering in and out as it tastes the air.
Nicolo has no idea what to do. He has encountered snakes in the past, but he was always careful to give them space and allow them time to move off. Here he is trapped within the confines of the room, unarmed and helpless.
He moves the tiniest fraction and watches the snake track the motion. However, it makes no move to strike. Nicolo draws his legs up, slowly, and scoots a little further up the bed. The snake dips its head forward, but then draws back again, and continues to sway back and forth. With his back against the wall. he takes hold of the corners of the blanket. His mouth is drier than the desert. He knows he is probably only going to get one chance at this. He cannot out manoeuvre the snake, but hopefully he can outsmart it. He flings the blanket and lunges forward at the same time.
The startled reptile receives a face full of blanket before being scooped up in it. Nicolo holds the creature at arm’s length as he secures his captive in its cloth prison with his sash. He throws it into the corner of the room and listens to it hissing crossly. No doubt a wiser man would kill it, but Nicolo decides he owes the creature a pass for the service it has done him in breaking his apathy. For he knows now that he cannot simply sit here and wait for rescue. He must get back to Yusuf.
There are only two ways out of the room, the door and the window. The door is locked and presumably heavily guarded. The window has shutters, but they are old and look like they might easily be broken. Though that still leaves the issue of how high up he is. First things first, however. Nicolo tears into the shutters with all of his pent-up frustration. The wood is, just as he had thought, old and brittle, and it breaks easily under his hands. That done, he looks out. The drop below is perilous, and his heart sinks as he realises there is no way down.
However, there may be a way up. Nicolo twists around and hangs half out of the window to look upwards. The roof isn’t very far, and the edifices and crumbling brickwork offer some possible foot and handholes. Difficult, but not impossible, he thinks. There is no point waiting. He toes off his slippers and pulls himself out onto the ledge. This is perhaps the hardest part, to leave behind the illusion of safety. He grasps the top of the window and stands on the ledge. He looks for somewhere to put his hand. He sees it a little to his right, a place where a brick has broken, leaving a small hole. However, if it is too soft and it crumbles, he will almost certainly fall to his death.
Nicolo takes a deep breath to steady himself and swings out towards that first handhold.
After that, it is just a question of keeping his nerve and keeping moving. It seems to take forever, but finally he is hauling himself up over the low wall and onto the flat roof. Nicolo grins, savouring this first victory. Then he presses on, making his way across the rooftops until he reaches a lower platform. His outfit is not the most inconspicuous, but fortunately the sun is low in the sky and the shadows are deepening. He waits out of sight until a pair of guards on patrol ride by. He drops down behind one, knocking him out of his saddle, then he yanks the reigns sharply to the right and punches the second in the face before he can draw his blade. Nicolo kicks with his heels and send the horse galloping forwards, out past the palace walls, towards the desert and the hills beyond.
Yusuf is half dozing when a shadow falls over him. He reacts without thinking, lunging forwards and tackling his attacker to the ground. He brings his knife up to their throat, but freezes when he sees who it is.
She looks remarkably calm for someone who is being held at knifepoint.
“Well done, your Majesty. I see Andromache’s lessons are paying off.”
Appalled, he rolls off her. He sees then that she isn’t alone. There is another young woman standing nearby, wearing an intense, if slightly confused, expression.
Quynh gets to her feet and brushes the dust off her clothing.
“This is Nile. These lands belong to her people.”
Nile steps forward.
“King Yusuf, my people did not attack you. At least, not all of them.”
Yusuf arches an eyebrow and waits to hear her explanation.
She tells him the rest of her story. One of their leaders believed they too could profit from the mines. He had joined forces with Jafar, and together they had plotted against the other tribesmen and Yusuf. They had taken someone from each family to ensure their compliance.
“They took my brother,” says Nile. “He is being forced to work in the mines.”
“So, they attacked my party because of this?”
Nile shakes her head.
“No, many still refused, despite fearing for their loved ones, they said to do so would lead to war. But some did agree. Jafar sent his own men to add to their number.”
“She helped me,” says Quynh, in the young woman’s defence. She kneels beside Lykon and inspects his wound. “An arrow?”
“Yes,” says Yusuf. “I removed it and used a poultice, but he is very weak. We need to get him back to the palace.”
“We need to get you both back to the palace,” says Quynh.
“May I?” Nile asks.
Quynh hesitates and then nods and moves aside to let the younger woman look at Lykon’s injury.
“He will not survive the journey,” says Nile bluntly.
Yusuf stares down at his companion in despair.
“But my home is not far. He can stay there until he is strong enough to travel.”
“How is that better?” Yusuf asks. Uncertain whether to trust this stranger with Lykon’s life.
“As I said, it’s closer, and my mother will be able to help him. She is a skilled healer. Many seek her out.”
Yusuf looks at Quynh, who nods.
“All right,” agrees Yusuf, “we’ll take him to your home.”
Lykon barely stirs as they lift him back onto his horse. Yusuf gets up behind him to hold him securely in the saddle. He can feel the heat coming off Lykon’s body and he prays that Nile’s mother has the necessary skill to save him and that it is not already too late for a healer’s care.
Yusuf is wary as they leave the safety of the rocky enclave. He half expects more arrows to rain down upon them. But their journey is mercifully uneventful.
When they reach Nile’s home, her mother greets them cautiously, but after Nile explains, her manner changes. She has them bring Lykon inside. She exams the wound and sniffs the contents of Lykon’s pouch with a thoughtful expression. Then she sits back with a sigh.
Yusuf can no longer stay silent.
“Can you save him?”
The older woman regards him gravely.
“Your friend is young and strong, and the poultice has done its work well. But there is some fever, and he has lost a lot of blood.”
Yusuf’s face crumples and Quynh reaches out to squeeze his shoulder.
The older woman’s face softens.
“I have herbs that will lessen his fever, and broths that will restore his blood. I have faith he should recover fully, in time. You must have faith too.”
Yusuf’s “thank you,” is heartfelt.
Quynh nods and smiles to show her gratitude too.
“Now shoo,” says the woman. “Out of my sick room. I have work to do.”
She calls out to another child, who is peering past the doorway. “Fetch me my things, Rima, we have work to do.”
Nile leads them outside.
“Thank you for trusting me. My mother will save your friend, I am sure of it.” She gazes wistfully back at the house. “This is the most determined I have seen her since my brother was taken. After my father died, she grieved deeply. I felt sure my brother’s loss would kill her.”
“You said he was taken to work in the mines?”
“Yes. Even the younger ones are forced to sort the rocks and ore.”
“But the mines haven’t been operational for years,” says Yusuf, confused.
“That is what your brother would have you believe. But he came into these hills more than a year ago, and he has some sort of an arrangement with the people at the port to deliver what they dig out. They provide workers too.”
Yusuf clenches his jaw in anger. How dare Jafar do this. How dare he exploit and threaten these people, when their grandfather and father had worked so hard to maintain a peace between them.
“I am sorry. This should never have happened. I give you my word that I will see to it that my brother is stopped and your people are set free.”
Nile eyes him cautiously before slowly nodding.
“I believe you. And I will help. We must get you back to the palace. But it is late. Let us sleep now and set off in the morning.”
Yusuf wants to object. He is desperate to get back to Nicolo. He is fearful what Jafar might do in his absence, now that he has learned how far the man is willing to go with his treachery. But he is exhausted, and he can see that Quynh is weary too. Besides, the hills are too dangerous to traverse at night, and that is only a few hours away. He agrees.
They share a simple, but delicious meal with Nile and her family. They all treat Yusuf with respect, but they don’t fawn over him. He is not, after all, their King, and they do not recognize him as such. It’s oddly refreshing to be viewed as a man rather than a monarch.
He sleeps fitfully, despite his exhaustion. He is consumed with worry for Nicolo and his mother. Although, he is confident that Andromache will keep her safe. He is grateful that his sister is with her own husband and family.
They rise at first light. Eager to be on the road. Nile tells them that Jafar’s men will be watching, it won’t be safe to take the main road. There is another, used by her people, but in order to use that, they must dress like her people. With Nile’s help, they replace their attire with simple, homespun garments. Both Quynh and Yusuf are careful to conceal their faces. Even their horses undergo the same treatment.
Nile bids her mother and Rima (a cousin) farewell, and mounts Lykon’s horse.
The route they take is less straightforward than the main road. Yusuf is certain they would be hopelessly lost without Nile to guide them.
Mid-morning, she suddenly signals for them to stop.
“What is it?” Quynh asks.
“Two riders. They’re not of my people or from the port. Their dress is wrong.”
Yusuf squints into the sun. He can just make out the two riders further along the road below them. The one he is uncertain of, the other he would know by her bearing on horseback alone.
“Andromache!” Quynh exclaims in delight, and before either Nile or Yusuf can say anything, she is riding forward to meet them.
Yusuf and Nile hurry to catch up with her. As they draw closer, he sees that the second rider is the young guard, Galib.
The two women greet each other warmly, but Yusuf is eager for answers.
“Why are you here?” He looks sharply at Galib. “Where is Nicolo?”
Galib shrinks back.
“I am sorry, your Majesty.”
“Jafar has him.”
“Nicolo took it upon himself to poke around in Jafar’s quarters. Jafar found out and had him locked up. But he’s not hurt.”
Yusuf has a death-grip on his reins.
“My brother is running an illicit mining operation. He has taken the people here hostage, and he just tried to have me killed in an ambush. Lykon might still die, and you think Nicolo is safe in his hands?”
Andromache pales, but her voice remains steady.
“I didn’t know this. Even so, our first duty is to you, your Majesty.”
Yusuf knows this is true. He is the King, and he has never hated that fact more. He wants to shout and rail, to demand to know how they could leave his Nicolo.
“I believe that Nicolo wanted me to find you,” says Galib, quietly. “I was with him when he was caught, and he made certain that I was not taken with him. He was not afraid when he was taken. The only time he showed fear was when he found out that you might be in danger, your Majesty.”
Yusuf doesn’t doubt it. He is resolved that when he sees Nicolo again, he will let the man know that his life is no less precious. He will confess his true feelings.
“Well, what are we waiting for,” says Andromache. “Let’s go get him.”
After Quynh introduces Andromache and Nile, the pair take the lead. She rides alongside Yusuf, and Galib brings up the rear.
Yusuf is about to get truly angry when they stop again only a short time later. However, when he sees why, his anger evaporates. A lone rider approaches. Their head is crudely covered with a short length of cloth; the hair that pokes out is lighter than of any who dwells in these lands. The once fine clothing is dirty and torn, and their feet are bare.
Feeling like he is in a dream, Yusuf steers his horse to the front of their group.
Meanwhile, the rider notices them and brings their horse to a complete stop.
Yusuf dismounts and unwinds the material covering his face as he goes forward. He watches the pale eyes widen. Then the rider jumps down from his own horse and starts running towards Yusuf. They collide in a tangle of arms, each desperately checking the other for any sign of injury.
“You are unhurt, oh my heart, I was so worried.”
Nicolo seems able to say nothing but Yusuf’s name over and over.
“Yusuf. Yusuf. Yusuf.”
They are laughing and crying at the same time. Afterwards, Yusuf would always say he could not remember when that changed. When they stopped laughing and wiped away the tears, and simply stared at one another. He could not possibly say who was the first to move forward. Or whose lips tentatively met the other’s in a desperate, clumsy kiss.
He does know that this is all he has ever wanted, and he is never going to be parted from Nicolo again.
The kiss evolves swiftly. Nicolo clutches Yusuf’s waist. Yusuf’s hands slide beneath Nicolo’s tunic. The heat of the desert is as nothing in comparison to the slick heat of Nicolo’s mouth. The taste of his lips sweeter than anything Yusuf has ever known. If this is a dream, he thinks, may he never wake up.
They both leap apart when someone clears their throat loudly.
Andromache looks unrepentant.
“Sorry to interrupt, but I believe we have an uprising to stop?”
Yusuf’s glare carries no real heat. He knows that she is right. A quick glance at Nicolo reveals that he is blushing. Yusuf cannot help but find this an appealing contradiction in such a deadly man. Then again, he now realises that he finds everything about Nicolo appealing, and he is going to get side-tracked again if they don’t get back on the road this very instant.
He also notices that despite his makeshift headgear, Nicolo has been burned by the sun. His arms and legs bear numerous bruises and scratches, while his feet appear sore and ill-used. He looks exhausted.
“Have you been riding all night?” Yusuf asks, aghast.
Nicolo colours a little more.
“Nicolo, did you get lost again?” scolds Quynh.
Nicolo answers her in her language and when he finishes, she erupts into a peel of laughter. Andromache is grinning too.
“Well, are either of you going to let me in on the joke?” Yusuf asks.
“He fell off his horse into a ravine,” says Andromache.
“And then he got swept along by a river,” adds Quynh.
“After that, he spent most of the night trying to find his horse.”
“That’s… that’s not funny,” says Yusuf, staring at Nicolo. “Is this true?”
“I’m fine, Yusuf.”
Which isn’t a no.
“Your poor feet,” he cries. “Where are your slippers?”
“It was easier to climb without them.”
Andromache is now leaning forward on her horse, both she and Quynh look captivated by this conversation. Galib looks curious. Even Nile is listening, rapt.
“Jafar had locked me in. The window was my only way out.”
“Nicolo,” there is a note of despair in Yusuf’s voice, “just how high up was this window?”
“I didn’t climb down,” says Nicolo, exasperated.
“You went up?” Andromache asks. She sounds positively gleeful.
“It was closer,” defends Nicolo.
“You were close to the roof?” Yusuf exclaims in horror. “Galib said you sent him to warn me. Why would you risk your life in such a way?”
Nicolo rubs the back of his neck and mutters something.
“There was a snake?” Quynh asks.
“Jafar has snakes?” This from Galib, who looks terrified at the very idea.
“Maybe you should just tell us exactly what happened and save time,” says Andromache. The reasonable tone is rather ruined by the glint in her eye.
Nicolo stares at her flatly as he reels off what happened.
“Jafar locked me in a room and sent in a tray with a cobra in a basket of dates. I decided it was probably not a good idea to stay in the room with the snake, so I climbed out of the window onto the roof. Then I stole a horse off a guard and rode here.”
“A cobra? My brother tried to kill you with a cobra?”
“Half-brother,” Nicolo corrects, needlessly.
Yusuf waves a hand to indicate that this is not the pertinent part of this story.
“I’m fine,” Nicolo reassures him again. “I’ve gotten out of tighter spots.”
“What spots?” Yusuf demands to know. “How? When? No, wait, it doesn’t matter. This will not happen again. There will be no more tight spots, or snakes, or climbing out of windows.”
“Look out, Nicolo. You’re going to be a kept man,” Andromache, teases lightly. “No more wooden huts and goats for you.”
Frowning, Yusuf takes Nicolo by the hand and walks him back to his horse. He pauses beside it, staring down at their clasped hands as he searches for the right words.
“I swore that when I saw you again, I would confess my feelings.”
Nicolo stares at him.
“So, know this.” Yusuf draws in a deep breath and then releases it. “I love you.”
“You… you love me?”
“Yes,” says Yusuf anxiously. “Is that all right?”
Nicolo breaks into the biggest, happiest grin Yusuf has ever seen from the man.
“Yes. That is very all right. I love you too.”
“No more kissing!” Andromache shouts. “There will be time for that later!”
Yusuf huffs in annoyance but smiles when Nicolo snorts.
“She is right, my love. There will be time later. We should go. There is much I still need to tell you.”
He helps Nicolo back onto his horse, wincing at the sight of his poor hurt feet.
“No more walking for you until we find you something to wear,” he instructs.
The others approach. Andromache leads Yusuf’s horse by its reins. He mounts up and brings his horse alongside Nicolo’s.
“Let me tell you what I have learned about my brother.” He raises a finger as Nicolo opens his mouth. “My half-brother.”
A corner of Nicolo’s mouth quirks upward.
Yusuf proceeds to tell him about the mines and the people that are being forced to work in them. Nicolo’s expression gets darker and darker as he talks.
“I have given my word to end this horror and free Nile’s people.”
“And what of Jafar?”
“We will see how he enjoys being the one locked up,” says Yusuf grimly.
“So, your plan is to return to the palace?” Nicolo asks. “Forgive me for saying so, but I do not think that is a very good idea.” All eyes turn to him. “If we challenge Jafar now there are men who will support him out of fear, and others who will go to his side if they believe there is more profit in it.”
“So, what’s your idea?” Andromache asks.
“We free the hostages first and destroy the mines. Let those who might waver in their loyalty see that there is nothing to be gained by supporting Jafar.”
“Why would I even want such men?” Yusuf asks.
“You don’t,” says Andromache, thoughtfully. “But there will be time later to deal with them. What we don’t want now is for them to swell Jafar’s ranks.”
“Can we do this with just five?” Galib asks, worriedly.
“Six,” says Nile, and I know someone else who might agree to fight with us.”
“Nicolo is hurt and unarmed,” points out Yusuf.
“I’m fine,” Nicolo insists. For as much as it warms him to have Yusuf being protective, he isn’t about to let this be a precedent.
“You don’t have any slippers!”
“My brother is about your size, I think,” says Nile. “You can borrow his things.”
Nicolo smiles at her gratefully.
Yusuf’s face registers his dismay, but he says nothing else as they turn their horses around and head back to Nile’s home.
Nile’s mother is surprised to see them again so soon, but at Nile’s bequest she finds clothing and slippers for Nicolo to wear. Lykon is apparently no better or worse than when they left him. Nicolo can see that Yusuf is torn between relief and disappointment. Having heard that Nile’s mother is a healer, he introduces himself. He thanks her for the clothing, expresses regret over her son, and asks her about Lykon. He asks, respectfully, what treatment she proposes.
“You’re a healer?”
He smiles and shakes his head.
“I would not dare to call myself such, but I was taught some useful things in a former life, and I have travelled and learned more since then.”
She studies him for a moment and then she nods and starts to explain. Nicolo interjects now and then, with comments and questions of his own. He can see the point when she stops testing him and starts trusting his knowledge.
“You are more of a healer than you would lead me to believe,” she tells him.
He shrugs a shoulder and smiles shyly.
“I spoke the truth. I dabble, nothing more.”
She humphs at him, but she doesn’t seem offended. He leaves her to her work and goes to reassure Yusuf that Lykon is in good hands.
He finds the other man speaking with Nile. She is supplying him with a shallow dish, amongst other things.
“Ah, there you are,” he exclaims, upon seeing Nicolo. “Come, my love. Sit down. I will not watch you walk around on those poor feet a moment longer.”
Bewildered, Nicolo nevertheless takes a seat. However, he balks and stands up again when Yusuf starts to kneel before him.
Yusuf hushes him and gently guides him back down onto the low stool. Then he kneels down and lifts one of Nicolo’s feet onto his lap. He wrings out a rag that was soaking in the bowl. It holds water mixed with some type of herb and flowers.
“Yusuf, what are you doing?” Nicolo hisses.
Yusuf looks at him in surprise.
“I am taking care of your poor feet, my love. Since you have clearly neglected to do so.”
“This is… this isn’t proper,” says Nicolo.
Yusuf is tutting over a tiny thorn that has been missed amongst the myriad of other hurts.
“Proper? Of course it’s proper that I should care for you.”
“You’re a King!” Nicolo exclaims.
Yusuf ignores him in favour of lifting Nicolo’s foot higher and bringing his face closer to it.
“Nicolo, please be still,” says Yusuf, a touch of exasperation in his tone.
Nicolo watches in disbelief as Yusuf places his lips over the small wound. Nicolo is scarcely aware of any pain; he is too overwhelmed by the feel of Yusuf’s soft beard and the heat of his mouth as Yusuf sucks hard, drawing out the thorn. He spits it into his hand.
“Hah, got it. Do you have any others, my love?”
Nicolo shakes his head. Yusuf frowns and looks for himself.
Nicolo tries again.
“Yusuf, you are a King. You shouldn’t be kneeling in the dirt, washing my feet. Give me the cloth, I can do it.”
“I am a King,” Yusuf agrees mildly. “As such, you have to obey me, yes?”
Nicolo scowls at him.
“Peace, my love. Truly, this… helps.”
“I don’t understand?”
“I have felt wretchedly useless through all this,” Yusuf admits quietly. “I failed to notice how deep my brother’s treachery ran. I have allowed him to cause great harm to Nile and her people. I led my people into a trap. Many are dead. Lykon is gravely wounded. You…” He looks up at Nicolo, his eyes are wet with unshed tears.
“I left you in grave danger. You could have died, Nicolo. You could have died,” he repeats. Tears spill forth, trickling down Yusuf’s cheeks into his beard.
Nicolo makes a pained sound and hunches over on his seat to hold him.
“You did nothing wrong. Nothing,” he says, fervently. “Of course you didn’t want to believe that Jafar was capable of such terrible things. What man would want to believe that of their family. And you had no way of knowing you were heading into an ambush.”
“I hurt Lykon,” says Yusuf wetly.
“My love, what do you mean?”
Yusuf turns his head to look at him, teardrops glisten on his lashes.
“That’s the first time you have called me that.”
“Well, get used to it,” says Nicolo. “I plan to call you it often. Now tell me, what did you mean about Lykon?”
Yusuf relates how Lykon was shot and how he tried to get them to safety, and how he was forced to take out the arrow. Nicolo’s eyes get wider and wider as the story progresses. Finally, at the end he squeezes Yusuf tighter in his arms.
“Oh my poor love, you’ve had a terrible time of it, haven’t you.”
“Me?” Yusuf says. “Nothing happened to me.”
“Nothing, he says. No, you just had to escape an ambush. Find safety in unfamiliar territory, and care for a seriously wounded man. I’m sure it was all quite easy for you.”
Using a corner of his shirt, Nicolo dabs at the side of Yusuf’s face where it now rests on Nicolo’s knees.
“Foolish man. Just because your wounds are not visible does not mean you are not hurt.”
Yusuf manages a shaky smile.
“You are wise, my love. I will listen to you.”
“Good,” says Nicolo. “Now, let me finish washing my feet. Andromache will be impatient to get started. I don’t want her riding off without us.”
“May I help you?” Yusuf asks.
Nicolo pauses and then nods.
Together they clean the dirt and debris from his feet. Fortunately, most of the abrasions are minor, and Nile’s mother has provided an ointment to lessen the sting and further their healing.
Nile has something else for Nicolo when they join the others.
“It was my father’s.”
“He would want you to have it. To save my brother.”
“Thank you,” he says, taking the scimitar from her. It’s old but has clearly been well cared for.
“What of this other warrior?” Yusuf asks. “You said they might help us?”
“She means Booker.”
Yusuf’s face falls.
“He’s been doing better,” defends Nile. “My mother and I have been visiting him. And he’s good with a sword. He killed three bandits when they tried to steal his horse.”
“She’s right,” says Nicolo. “He can handle himself in a fight.”
“How would you know?” Yusuf asks, frowning.
“He used to stagger into my camp sometimes, very drunk. I used to have to try to wrangle him back home. He is very strong. He can throw a good punch even when less than sober.” Nicolo rubs his jaw remembering.
Yusuf looks appalled.
“He struck you?”
“To be fair, I don’t think he knew he was fighting me at the time,” says Nicolo.
“He probably thought you were another bandit,” agrees Nile.
“He was a soldier,” says Andromache. They all turn to look at her. “What? I talk with him sometimes.”
“You mean you drink with him,” corrects Quynh.
“That too,” says Andromache.
“Fine,” says Yusuf. “We will see if he will join us.”
Booker lives by himself in a run-down shack. Yusuf is surprised that the man is bothered by bandits. He certainly doesn’t look to have anything worth stealing. Although, he does have a nice horse and it appears to be well cared for, which perhaps explains why Andromache tolerates him as a drinking companion.
He seems less than sober when he greets them, but if half the stories Yusuf has heard about him are true, this is probably a good day. Booker listens while Nile explains the situation and what they plan to do, then he goes inside his hut and comes back out wearing the remnants of old armour. A short sword is strapped to his back.
“Well, what are we waiting for,” he mutters, stomping over to his horse. It greets him with a playful nudge.
Andromache grins. Quynh shakes her head. Galib just stares as the man takes two attempts to get on his horse.
“If you fall off, we’re leaving you,” Nicolo warns.
“I won’t fall off.”
But Yusuf notices that Booker winds his reins around his wrist several times following this statement.
Galib is both terrified and proud. He is among true warriors; he has been chosen to fight with them. He feels this is a great honour. However, he has never fought in a real combat situation before. Can he truly raise his sword and kill a man? He never dreamed he would ever be asked to do so. They have been at peace since before his father’s time. The palace guards train rigorously, but in truth, the role has been little more than ceremonial for decades now.
It hardly seems real, he thinks, as he creeps among the rock formations behind Nicolo. Still, he is determined to equip himself bravely. He swore to protect the King and Nicolo, and he will not let them down.
When they stop to take stock of the situation, his heart sinks a little. The mines look to be well-guarded. Clearly the others are of the same mindset.
“We cannot rush them,” Andromache murmurs. “They will retreat back into the mine with their hostages and we will be at an impasse.”
“We could pick them off one by one,” Quynh suggests.
“We will have to do so without alerting them,” says Yusuf.
As they watch, one of the guards wanders off, fumbling with his laces.
“He’s going to piss,” says Andromache, baring her teeth in a savage grin. “Who wants him?”
Nicolo taps Yusuf on the shoulder.
“Do you still have the knife I gave you?”
Yusuf nods, and Nicolo holds out his hand.
With the knife in his grasp, Nicolo moves off silently.
Galib watches Nicolo getting closer and closer, unseen by the guard. When he is almost directly behind the man he darts forward. Placing his free hand over the guard’s mouth, Nicolo drags his head back and in one swift motion he sinks the knife into his throat. The man shudders and twitches. Nicolo holds him until he goes still, then he conceals the body behind some rocks.
When Nicolo returns, the only sign that anything untoward has happened is the bloody smears on his clothing where he has wiped off his hands and the knife.
Galib looks at his King to see how he is handling this new, terrifying version of Nicolo.
The King looks impressed?
“One down,” says Andromache.
“But how do we stop them from discovering he has been attacked?” Nile asks.
“We don’t,” says Nicolo. Smirking, he looks over at Booker. “How about it, Book?”
Booker rolls his eyes but turns and rests his back against the rocks. Cupping his hands either side of his mouth, he lets out a series of strange cackles and noisy whoops that reverberate around them.
Galib shivers; it sounds uncannily like the cries of the hyenas that roam outside the city walls.
At the mine entrance, the guards look around nervously. However, they clearly fear Jafar more than the threat of an animal attack, since they don’t immediately run. Galib wonders how they are supposed to deal with the rest of them. Nicolo it seems has the answer.
“All right Booker, you’re up again.”
Grumbling, Booker shuffles off; staying low until he finds a new position lower down between the rocks.
“What is he doing?” Nile asks.
Galib would like to know too. Even the King looks curious. It’s Andromache who answers.
“Our friend Booker is a wonderful mimic, and he can throw his voice.”
“Throw his voice?” Galib asks, puzzled.
“He can make it seem like it is coming from somewhere else,” Nicolo explains.
“He uses it to trick the bandits whenever they trouble him. It’s easier out here among the rocks like this.”
“Why?” Galibs asks.
“I don’t know. It just is.”
“The stone makes the sounds travel,” says Nicolo. “It’s like when you sing in a Cathedral.”
Everyone looks blankly at him.
“A big temple,” he tells them.
Having got into position, Booker is carrying out the next part of their plan.
“Hey, hey. Help…. I’m hurt. Help me, please.”
His voice is hoarse and ragged enough that it could be anyone’s. Likewise, it’s not easy to tell where he is. His voice seems to come from everywhere at once.
The men below them have clearly heard it to. They exchange wary glances as they speculate what might have happened to their friend.
“The hyena,” one of them shouts. “It attacked you?”
“Yes… it bit my leg. I can’t walk. Help, please, help.”
“Has it gone?” Another shouts.
“Yes… it ran off, but please, help me. It hurts. My leg-” He groans believably.
Two of the men seem more eager than the third to go and recover their friend. He waves them off and they make their way up a twisty path through the rocks.
Andromache looks between Galib and Nile.
“Do either of you want to join me?”
“Yes,” says Nile, with what Galib feels is slightly inappropriate eagerness.
“Do you have a-” Andromache stops, smiling as Nile holds up a wicked looking curved knife.
The pair split up as they close in on the approaching guards. Galib reminds himself that these are terrible men. Men who tried to murder the King and imprisoned Nile’s people. Even so, he cannot help but feel a twinge of pity as Andromache almost decapitates one with her labrys, while the other has the point of Nile’s knife rammed through his eye. At least it’s over quickly.
“Are you all right?”
It’s Nicolo asking. Probably having seen Galib cringe as blood splatters the rocks.
“I am not used to death,” Galib admits. “Not like this.” He hangs his head.
“There is no shame in it,” Nicolo assures him. “No man should take pleasure in another’s death. I tell myself.” He pauses. “I tell myself it is good that they can no longer harm anyone else. And I am at peace with that, even when the blood is on my hands.”
Galib thinks about it. There is a brutal justice in what they are doing. Certainly, this is faster than a hangman’s noose, which is surely what these men will face if they are captured.
He nods and even manages a shaky smile. Nicolo pats his shoulder and moves off to speak with Andromache, who has now returned to their group.
“How many are left?”
Quynh has apparently been keeping watch as she answers.
“There are five moving about near the entrance. I can’t tell how many are inside the mine.”
“There will be at least twice as many,” says Nile.
“What of the workers?” Yusuf asks. “The ones from the port. Will they fight?”
She looks uncertain.
“I don’t think so, they’re not fighters or soldiers. I think without the guards to protect them they will surrender, and my people will help to overcome them.”
“So, we have maybe just over a dozen to deal with,” says Andromache.
“I can take out two or three with my bow before they can reach cover,” says Quynh, confidently.
“I wish I had my bow,” Nicolo grumbles.
“You can use a bow?” Yusuf asks.
Clearly, military competency is something that interests the King, Galib thinks.
“He is a wonderful archer,” says Quynh.
Nicolo seem to glow beneath her praise.
“I look forward to seeing your skills,” says Yusuf, nudging Nicolo with his arm. They exchange adoring smiles.
Andromache rolls her eyes.
“Can we concentrate, please. Or are we forgetting the dozen or so armed guards that we still have to deal with?”
Nile grins behind her hand.
“If we take out the men outside, we’ll need to move in on the others before they can regroup,” says Yusuf.
“We’ll need to move in closer,” says Nicolo. “We won’t have a lot of time before they realise that they’re under attack.”
“Yes. All of us,” says Andromache. She looks at Galib. “Are you with us too?”
He swallows. “I am with you.”
Before they can set off, Nicolo grabs the King and kisses him fiercely.
“If you die, I will never forgive you.”
Galib is close enough to hear the stunned King’s reply.
“I will endeavour not to.”
They collect Booker as they head downwards through the rock-strewn hillside. Only Quynh stays behind, to use her bow from the vantage point.
Andromache gives the signal when they are all in place. The first arrow strikes a guard in the chest and he falls before he can make a sound. Scarcely a heartbeat later, a second guard is clawing at his back as he topples forward. The others realise that they are under attack, but it does them little good. Nicolo is already on one, dragging him to the ground to finish him off. Another falls to Andromache’s labrys. The last is struck by Quynh’s arrow and Booker’s blade.
Nile and Yusuf are already running into the mine, Galib follows them. He senses the others running after him.
Inside is noise and chaos and confusion. There are men, women, and children of varying ages, labouring with rocks and tools. There are eleven guards.
Nicolo throws his knife at the nearest guard and stalks meaningfully towards the next. Yusuf engages another. Andromache takes on two more. Nile is chasing down a man who appears to have less nerve than his comrades.
Galib’s hands are sweating as he grips the hilt of his blade. He sees Booker hit a man in the face before slicing open his torso. Galib’s eyes widen.
Suddenly, he hears a wild shout, and he turns to see a man rushing at him. He steps back instinctively but manages to bring his sword up to block the man’s downward swing. He blocks the next, but his face must show his fear as the man’s eyes gleam with confidence. Gritting his teeth, Galib remembers what Majlad taught him and shifts his stance. He blocks one more wild swing and then he goes on the attack. He very quickly realises that he is more skilled than this man. He isn’t going to die! He can win this fight! He parries, once, twice, and then thrusts.
The man’s face contorts in almost comical surprise. He looks down at the blade buried in his guts. Galib pulls it out with a sickening wet sound. The man’s legs crumple under him as he drops lifeless at Galib’s feet.
Galib feels no sense of victory, only shock that he still lives and shock that he has killed a man. It takes him a moment to realise that the sounds of fighting have stopped. He looks around him blankly.
Quhn must have joined them at some point; she stops by him.
“Are you all right?”
He nods mutely, and then shakes his head.
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
She frowns and takes him by the arm.
“Come on. Let’s go outside. The others have everything in hand here.”
Now he looks properly, Galib can see that all but two of the guards are dead; and those two have surrendered their weapons and are kneeling sullenly with their hands on their heads. Andromache is watching them, while Yusuf, Nicolo and Nile are freeing the hostages. He sees Nile hugging a young man who he guesses must be her brother.
Quynh leads him outside. Booker is sitting on the back of a mining cart drinking from a flask. He holds it out to Galib.
Galib thanks him but shakes his head. He doesn’t think his stomach can handle anything right now. The fresh air is helping a little. Quynh stays nearby, he can feel her steady gaze, but she doesn’t speak and he’s grateful for it.
The hostages walk out, led by Yusuf and Nicolo. Nile is still with her brother, a bright grin on her face. Andromache brings the two prisoners at the rear of the group.
“So, are we done?” Booker asks, jumping down from the back of the cart.
“Not quite,” says Yusuf. “There is still the small matter of my treacherous half-brother, but you need not involve yourself further. Thank you. Your assistance has been invaluable.”
“Oh, I’d like to see it through to the end, if it’s all the same to you,” says Booker.
“As you wish,” says Yusuf. “We will certainly be happy to have you.”
Andromache slaps Booker on the back so hard he almost drops his flask.
“Come on, Book. You and I can have the pleasure of escorting these two.”
Grumbling, he puts his flask away and follows her.
“I will see that my people return to their homes safely,” says Nile.
“What of the one who betrayed your people?” Nicolo asks worriedly.
“Oh, he hasn’t been seen for months. Honestly, I think Jafar might have killed him.” She sends Yusuf an apologetic look, but he merely nods, able to accept that his brother might be capable of anything at this point.
“And if any of his men still remain in the hills, we can handle them,” says Nile’s brother.
“We only didn’t act before out of fear for our loved ones,” says Nile.
The hostages, who are now coming out of their shocked state, take a moment to thank Yusuf and the others before they part ways. Galib finds himself being hugged by a boy who cannot be more then twelve.
“This is why sometimes, killing a man can be the right thing to do.”
Galib looks at Nicolo, who is smiling gently at him, and then he looks back at the boy, who is thin and dirty, but free.
“Jafar will know that I escaped,” says Nicolo. “And his men will probably have reported back that the ambush failed.”
“He’ll be in a terrible mood then,” says Yusuf.
Nicolo stares at him.
“Pardon me for saying so, but you don’t seem very troubled by this.”
“Oh, I am,” says Yusuf. “I’m just-” He sighs heavily and shrugs. “Honestly, I don’t know what I am. I keep thinking about him. He used to like to play with wooden practice swords, and he would dress up in our father’s robes and stand on the balcony and pretend to give orders to passers-by.”
Nicolo raises his eyebrows.
“Yes, I can see how that might seem like a terrible precedent, but honestly, he wasn’t a terrible child. I suppose I’m struggling to understand how it is he has grown up to be such a terrible man.”
“I wish I had an answer to give you,” says Nicolo. “I think some men are just born with a darkness in their heart, and there isn’t always a reason for it.”
The palace comes into sight all too soon. Yusuf’s own heart is heavy with the task that lies ahead.
“I would like to speak with my brother alone.”
He is met with incredulous looks.
“That is not going to happen,” says Andromache. “Sorry, your Majesty, he just tried to have you murdered.”
“I understand that ambush was at his order,” says Yusuf, slowly. “But you must understand that my brother is not the sort to take a sword to me in person.”
“That doesn’t mean he won’t try another, less direct way to kill you,” points out Nicolo. “I will accompany you.”
“I don’t want you anywhere near my brother!”
“Half-brother. And I don’t want you anywhere near him either.”
They stare at one another.
“Fine,” Yusuf relents, as he realises that Nicolo is not going to back down. “But stay behind me and please allow me to do the talking.”
Andromache shakes her head at them.
“All right. I’m not happy about it, but all right. Only you’re going to take Quynh with you. She can watch your backs. Booker, Galib, you’re with me. We’ll round up his personal guard.”
“Will you look in on my mother, please,” Yusuf asks.
Andromache’s face softens.
“Of course, but I am sure she is fine. Jafar actually likes your mother.”
Yusuf can see her musing over that unlikely truth. However, it’s true. Jafar has always liked his mother. Another reason why he dreads what he must do now.
He feels uneasy as they ride through the main gate, but despite Andromache’s urgings, he refuses to sneak in like a thief. This is his home first and foremost. He cannot be a King if he quails in fear from every imagined foe.
Still, he cannot help but look at every palace guard and retainer that he passes, wondering. Do they serve me, or Jafar? How can he trust any of them again?
Nicolo walks beside him, bloodstained sword still in his hand.
This man, Yusuf thinks. This wonderful, deadly, honest man. I can trust him.
They stride purposefully through the palace. Thankfully, no one tries to stop them; Yusuf has no real desire to fight his own people. A part of him hopes that his brother has already fled. That hope dies when they enter the ornate meeting room and Jafar rises from his seat to greet them.
“Brother, I wasn’t expecting you back so soon. Was your trip successful?”
Yusuf bites back the angry words that threaten to spill forth.
“And Nicolo too, why this is a surprise.”
Jafar seems relaxed as he crosses to the other side of the room to pour himself a drink.
“Can I offer you some refreshments? I must say, you both look dreadful.”
“Dreadful, yes,” says Yusuf through gritted teeth. “It has been dreadful. Dreadful to see my men cut down in a hailstorm of arrows. Dreadful to see men, women and children enslaved in a mine. Dreadful to discover that all this is the result of the treachery of my own brother.”
“Treachery?” Jafar echoes. “Are you certain that you want to be using that word, brother? A hailstorm of arrows you say? Well, that sounds like those tribesmen, they are somewhat hot headed, after all.”
“And the mines?” Yusuf asks, stepping forward with his fists clenched. “Do you deny that you reopened the mines? In direct contradiction to our Grandfather’s edict.”
“I don’t deny it. There is a fortune to be had from that land.”
Yusuf is almost too angry to speak.
“That land is not ours.”
“Well, it’s not as though they’re mining it,” says Jafar, narrowing his eyes.
“No,” says Yusuf. “Not willingly, but you didn’t let that stop you, did you?”
“Honestly brother, I don’t know why you’re so upset. I merely asked them for a tribute. Volunteers, to assist in the mines. Why, many of them chose themselves who to send, and once the mines became profitable, I would have paid them a wage.”
Yusuf very much doubts that.
“Even if that’s true. You tried to kill Nicolo. Or did you forget that you locked him in the room with a snake!”
“Consider it a test, if you will. I must admit, I was suspicious when you first took a concubine to your bed, knowing your contempt for them.”
“Maybe because it was through them that he got a back-stabbing bastard for a half-brother,” says Nicolo, bristling.
Jafar’s lips curl up in a snarl.
Yusuf motions with his hand for Nicolo to remain calm.
“It wasn’t contempt.” He pauses as he considers his words. “It was anger, and resentment, and confusion. I didn’t understand why my father would seek the company of other women while claiming to love my mother. I know now it was because he feared another child would kill her. My birth almost did.”
“Pretty words,” says Jafar dismissively. “You always thought my mother beneath you. You thought I was beneath you.”
“You were my brother! Whatever I thought of your mother, I always believed that to be true. We grew up together. We had lessons together. We played together!”
“You wouldn’t even look at her!”
“I was a child! I thought she was trying to take my mother’s place! And what do you mean, it was a test?”
“Well, I doubt that a real concubine could have outwitted my cobra. But a spy?” Jafar turns to Nicolo, eyes gleaming. “A pretty, clever, spy.”
Yusuf steps in front of Nicolo.
“All of this, because as a child I wouldn’t speak to your mother? Our father was good to her, and you were raised as a Prince, with all the privileges that comes with that. You wanted for nothing.”
“I wanted the throne!”
“I’m the oldest!” Yusuf yells, exasperated. “The throne was always going to be mine.”
“You’re not worthy!” Jafar screams back, spittle flying from his lips. “You would have us stay behind these walls like frightened children. You’re soft. You have no stomach for conquest.”
Yusuf regards his brother sadly.
“It’s called living in peace, Jafar. Our people don’t suffer the hardships of war or famine. They have time to study, to develop new sciences, new medicines. New art.”
“Art, pah. We’re stifled! Our father buried us alive, and you are happy to remain entombed, ruling over this pitiful excuse for a Kingdom.”
“Our people don’t want to fight. They don’t want to lose sons, father, brothers, just because you want us to have a bigger outline on a map!”
“There is more than desert out there. With the money from the mines we could build ships. We could sail to other lands and conquer them.”
“No, Jafar. Our people are not going to be used to fulfil your thirst for power. We are going to stay out of the hills. The mines will be closed, and they will remain closed, unless the people who live there wish to operate them, and if they do so, the wealth will be theirs.”
Yusuf can see a vein jumping in his half-brother’s forehead. He seems too incensed to speak.
“Even if I forgave you for attacking me, your actions caused the deaths of those who travelled with me. You imprisoned the people in the mines. And you tried to murder Nicolo. I am sorry, Jafar, but you must be punished for your crimes.”
“What will you do?” Jafar sneers. “Execute me?”
“No,” says Yusuf solemnly. “For the sake of our father, who loved us both, I will not do that. But I cannot allow you to remain. Jafar, you are banished.”
Yusuf can sense that Nicolo wants to speak. He glances at him quickly, silently asking for Nicolo’s understanding as he passes judgement on his brother.
Nicolo gives a terse nod.
“You will remain under guard. Gather what you wish to take with you. I will have you escorted to the port. There you will be placed on a ship, never to return to these lands, upon pain of death. I give you one chance, brother, out of regard for our father and the affection we once shared.”
He motions Quynh forward.
“Take him to his quarters. Stay with him until I can arrange for an escort.”
“And if he tries to escape?”
“Take whatever measures you deem necessary,” says Yusuf.
She nods and turns coldly to Jafar, placing a hand on her sword.
She waits for him to get the message that the audience is over and it’s time to go.
Seething with impotent rage, Jafar storms towards the exit; his robes flapping like the wings of an angry bird.
Perhaps that is what makes Nicolo call out after him.
“We’ll be sure to send a cage for your parrot!”
“Nicolo,” says Yusuf reprovingly, “there’s no need to rub salt in the wound.”
“There’s every need,” insists Nicolo.
Yusuf thinks about that snake. He strokes his beard thoughtfully and calls for a servant.
“Have packing trunks sent to Jafar’s quarters, and a bird cage. Then tell Maljid I have new orders for him.” Yusuf wants his half-brother far away from Nicolo. If he can put him on a ship today that will satisfy him.
The servant hurries away and he is alone with Nicolo once more. Yusuf takes a moment to appreciate how wonderful he looks, even dirty and bloodied.
“Come, my love. We should bathe. And eat. When was the last time you ate?” he asks.
“Well, I didn’t really feel like eating those dates,” says Nicolo, “so, when we sat down to breakfast with Galib?”
“That was yesterday!” Yusuf exclaims, horrified.
“So it was,” says Nicolo, as though he’s only just remembering. “I did drink.”
“Would that be when you almost drowned?”
“I didn’t almost drown,” says Nicolo, scowling. “It wasn’t a very deep river.”
Yusuf throws up his hands in despair.
“Humour me, my love. And at least let me take care of you for a little while, yes?”
Nicolo nods a little uncertainly.
“I will have food prepared for after we finish bathing. Then you must rest. You look exhausted.” He pushes Nicolo’s lank hair back from his wan looking face.
“It’s over, my love. You can put down your sword. Let me take care of you.”
“All right,” Nicolo agrees. “If you let me take care of you too?”
Yusuf is more than happy to have Nicolo take care of him. He wants a hot bath, food, and to sleep with Nicolo in his arms.
Above all, he wants to forget for a few hours that this whole, terrible business ever happened.
Nicolo seems almost shy as he slips off the tattered remnants of his outfit, but Yusuf has no intention of letting him bathe alone. He himself feels weary to the bone, he can only imagine how tired Nicolo must feel after wandering around most of the night looking for his lost horse.
Still, seeing how awkward his poor love is, getting naked in front of him, Yusuf tries not to stare. But presented with those beautiful shoulders, and everything above and below them, it’s proving very difficult.
He sheds his own clothing with far less recalcitrance. One thing about being a King is the total lack of real privacy. There is always someone hovering around just in case you need assistance.
Yusuf cannot help but feel gratified at the way Nicolo stares at his chest without blinking. The eyes drop lower, Nicolo turns pink and his gaze darts up again.
“Come, my love. The water will feel good, I promise,” says Yusuf. He also hopes that Nicolo will feel more comfortable once he is at least partially submerged.
They enter the water together, keeping their gazes averted until they are settled. Yusuf grins as Nicolo lets out a happy sigh.
He must admit, his bath has never felt this good.
It almost doesn’t feel real, being here with Nicolo like this, knowing it’s all over. Of course, he should probably still rout out those who were loyal to Jafar, but he doesn’t really have much stomach for punishing them. With Jafar gone, they are no longer a serious threat to him or his crown.
Another thought strikes him. It is truly over, that means there is no longer any need for Nicolo to continue with this subterfuge.
“Yusuf, are you all right?”
“Yes, yes. I’m fine.”
“Are you sure?” Nicolo eyes him doubtfully. “You looked like you were in pain.”
“Truly, I am unhurt.”
Nicolo still looks unconvinced.
“It’s just, now that this is all over, there is no need for you to pretend to be my concubine. You can return to your old life.”
Nicolo’s eyes widen briefly.
“Is that what you want?”
“No,” says Yusuf quickly. “No, of course I don’t want that.”
“Then I’ll stay.”
“Of course, if I am welcome.”
Yusuf moves closer.
“You are most welcome.”
“In the palace, or-?”
“Or?” Yusuf asks.
“Or in your bed?”
Nicolo moves closer as he speaks. When their bodies touch, they both tremble.
“You are very welcome in my bed,” says Yusuf in a low voice.
They both lean into the kiss. It’s still a little new and awkward, but oh, it makes Yusuf want so many things. It is all he can do not to grab Nicolo and drag him even closer.
They grin bashfully at one another when they part; but then Nicolo bites his lip and looks worriedly at Yusuf.
“I… I do not have a lot of experience with any of this.”
He indicates between them with his hand, making the water ripple.
Yusuf gives an awkward shrug.
“Nor do I,” he admits, ruefully. “And it is not like I do not know you are not truly a concubine.”
Nicolo smirks at him.
“So, I guess we learn, together?”
“Together,” Yusuf agrees happily. He is about to move forward for another kiss, when Nicolo yawns. He instantly looks mortified, but Yusuf chuckles softly. “We are both too tired to stay in here, my love. Unless we wish to risk drowning. Let us go and eat. Then we can retire for the evening.”
Cheeks turning pink at the prospect, Nicolo agrees. They dress in the clothing that has been left out for them; the clean garments feeling almost as good the water. Together they make their way to their quarters.
I hope you aren't too disappointed at the lack of violence between Yusuf and Jafar (or Nicolo and Jafar). My feeling is, this guy was once his little brother, and his father loved them both and probably asked Yusuf to be good to him on his death bed or something. So executing him would have been hard on Yusuf. Also, if I am tempted to write a sequel, I can always drag him back ;) I am currently considering a prequel, as someone mentioned that they would like to see how Nicolo got roped into all this.
Truthfully, Nicolo only realises how hungry he is when he sees the food laid out for them. Although, he still struggles to eat more than a few mouthfuls. He is nervous. He does feel better knowing that Yusuf is possibly as inexperienced as he is. Had Yusuf not told him, he would not have thought it. Nicolo supposes that’s what comes with being a King, the ability to seem knowledgeable and at ease, even when you are not.
“Are you disappointed in my decision?” Yusuf asks.
“That I only chose to banish Jafar.”
Nicolo is about to take a sip from his goblet. He sets it back down and places his hand on top of Yusuf’s. The other man looks back at him, subdued.
“No, Yusuf. I am not disappointed. Perhaps there is a part of me that would have preferred a more permanent resolution. But he is your brother.”
“Half-brother,” Yusuf corrects automatically.
“Half-brother,” Nicolo agrees, smiling slightly. “And though I have no family of my own, I can understand why you would not want to be the one to impose the sentence of death upon him.”
“But do I have the right?” Yusuf looks conflicted. “I was not the only one wronged by his actions. What of the widows and fatherless children of the men killed in that ambush? What of Lykon? What of Nile and her people? By showing him this much clemency, have I denied them justice?”
“I don’t know what to say, Yusuf. You are a King. Your word is law. I think the people trust your judgement. And better by far to be ruled by a King with a good heart than a tyrant.” Nicolo is relieved when the furrow marring Yusuf’s brow smooths out a little.
“You think I have a good heart?”
“I think you have a wonderful heart,” says Nicolo, truthfully. Yusuf lowers his head, but not before Nicolo sees him smile.
They continue with their meal. Yusuf keeps passing Nicolo things to try.
“We should probably ride out to see Lykon in a few days. Find out when he will be strong enough to travel.”
“I have no doubt we will find him much recovered,” says Nicolo. “I would like to speak more with Nile’s mother about the medicinal plants she uses.”
“You have an interest in healing?” Yusuf asks.
“I helped care for the sick when I was with the Church.”
Yusuf makes a noncommittal noise, sensitive to the fact this is a subject Nicolo doesn’t care to revisit. It’s certainly true that Nicolo has tried to put that part of his life behind him. He still has faith, but not in the Church.
“Nile showed a great deal of fortitude. I was thinking of asking her if she would consider acting as a liaison between her people and mine. My grandfather’s policy was to give them their land and turn his back on them. My father held true to that in that he didn’t mediate with them at all. I wonder if there isn’t more to be gained from communicating with them.”
“The route we take through the hills to the port is a long one. Perhaps there are shorter routes? If her people are willing to be employed as guides, perhaps for payment, or trade in goods, it could benefit her people and mine.”
“We should put the idea to Nile when we visit Lykon. See if she thinks her people would be receptive to it,” says Nicolo. It is a good idea. Jafar almost succeeded because he was able to operate in the hills in secrecy; better communication with Nile’s people might prevent such a thing happening in the future. “Some of the plants Nile’s mother spoke of were unfamiliar to me. When I asked about them, she told me that they only grow in the hills. If she is willing to share her knowledge that could also be of help to your people.”
“Perhaps we should take her a gift,” suggests Yusuf. “To show our gratitude.”
“Give the gifts to Nile and her brother, a reward for their actions in aiding you. Something useful, like a fine sword or a horse. I think their mother would be more appreciative of their recognition than her own.”
Yusuf nods. “As always, my love, you are most wise. I will speak with Andromache about the horses and have my weapons master craft them some new blades.”
“I would like to keep Galib,” says Nicolo.
“Oh?” Yusuf looks surprised and then amused. ”I would have thought you would be glad to be rid of him.”
“He has proven himself very capable. I would like the opportunity to continue his instruction,” says Nicolo defensively.
“Peace, my love. I agree. And it would be wise as my Consort for you to maintain a bodyguard.”
Nicolo splutters around his mouthful of drink.
“My Consort,” says Yusuf slowly. He suddenly looks stricken. “Did you not wish to be?”
“No! I mean yes!” Nicolo doesn’t even know what he’s saying. “But I’m not sure that I understand. Your Consort is-?”
“My husband, to all intents and purposes.” Yusuf plucks Nicolo’s goblet from his numb fingers and sets it down. Then takes both of Nicolo’s hands in his. “I wish nothing more than for us to spend the rest of our lives together. I would be honoured if you would consent to be my Consort."
“But I am a stranger in these lands. I cannot give you heirs. People still believe I am a concubine,” Nicolo adds, mortified.
“This Kingdom will see you as a hero once the truth emerges,” Yusuf assures him. " And I have no need for heirs. My sister has three sons. All fine boys. So, will you?”
“Will I?” Nicolo echoes back, still reeling in shock.
“Be my Consort?” Yusuf asks, a touch desperately. “For you are the moon when I am lost in darkness and the warmth when I shiver in cold.”
Nicolo finally snaps out of his daze. “Of course I will, you incurable romantic.”
Yusuf’s eyes crinkle at the corners as his face creases in a wide happy smile. Nicolo simply has to kiss him.
“Hmm,” Yusuf murmurs. “Perhaps we should retire to bed?”
Nicolo accepts the hand that helps him up. He still feels a little shaky as they head towards their sleeping quarters.
He almost stumbles as he removes the last of his clothing and steadies himself against the bed. When at last he turns to face Yusuf, he finds the man’s hands hovering between them, clearly undecided whether to assist.
“You’re obviously tired, my love. Perhaps you should rest?”
“You know I didn’t actually spend all of last night looking for my horse,” says Nicolo dryly. “Also, you’re naked. I’m tired, Yusuf. Not dead.”
Yusuf looks startled.
“Unless you would prefer to sleep?” Nicolo asks, self-doubt creeping in.
“No, no,” says Yusuf hurriedly.
He lets out a nervous peep when Nicolo drops to his knees.
“Forgive me if I am not very good,” says Nicolo. “I have never tried this sober.”
Yusuf’s mouth opens and closes a few times, but nothing comes out.
Nicolo takes that as permission. He can probably count the number of times he has done this on one hand. A toxic combination of self-loathing and disinterest in his paramours meant it was easier to be deep in his cups before he tried. None of those things apply here. He has long since shrug off the shackles of his Church's doctrine, and he wants Yusuf so badly he aches with it.
The first thing he notices is Yusuf has a very nice cock. Nice length, nice girth, nestled amidst a trimmed cluster of soft looking black curls. The second thing is it looks very exposed, without its foreskin. Nicolo wraps a careful hand around the satin smooth flesh.
Yusuf sucks in a sharp breath.
Nicolo gently rubs his thumb under the mushroom shaped crown, spreading the precum around. He pokes his tongue out to taste.
“My love, I think I might have to sit down,” says Yusuf; his voice is slightly higher than normal.
Nicolo releases him and rests back on his heels as Yusuf collapses heavily onto the bed.
“Shall I continue?” Nicolo asks.
Nicolo goes back to what he was doing. This time he positions his hand a little lower, so he can close his lips over the head. Yusuf’s thighs twitch. He nudges them apart with his elbows to encourage Yusuf to spread them wide. Yusuf tastes, not good exactly, but clean and salty bitter. Nicolo laps at the thin fluid with his tongue and decides he can get used to it. What he likes even more is the way Yusuf trembles and sighs, murmuring soft pleas along with Nicolo’s name.
“Nicolo, my love, oh-oh, can I, please…”
Nicolo releases Yusuf with a soft pop and looks up.
“May I touch your hair,” Yusuf pleads.
Nicolo nods and hums in approval before putting his mouth back on Yusuf, who whimpers and cards his fingers through the long strands.
Keeping his lips over his teeth, Nicolo establishes a rhythm of sorts. He pauses occasionally to run his tongue around the head and press against that leaking slit.
Yusuf has been reduced to making sounds rather than words. His hands tighten on Nicolo’s head, but Nicolo certainly doesn’t mind.
A moment later Yusuf stiffens, Nicolo seals his lips tight and continues to suckle as Yusuf jerks and spills into his mouth. He wasn’t expecting quite so much, but he manages to swallow most of it, and he wipes away the rest with the back of his hand as he sits back to survey his work. Yusuf has collapsed backwards onto the bed, breathing hard.
“Was that all right?” Nicolo asks.
Yusuf pushes himself up slowly onto his elbows.
“That was very, very all right. Now come up here.” He pats the space on the bed beside him.
With his heart still pounding wildly in his chest, Yusuf watches Nicolo crawl up onto the bed. He draws Nicolo flush against him and kisses him. Nicolo seems strangely hesitant and it takes Yusuf a moment to understand why. He runs his tongue along the seam of Nicolo’s lips, nudging them open. There is a flavour of himself in Nicolo’s mouth, but he doesn’t find it distasteful. Far from it. He also feels Nicolo’s stiff cock poking him.
“Now, what are we going to do about this?”
“I don’t think I will last very long,” Nicolo admits.
Nicolo shakes his head.
“My hand or my mouth?” Yusuf asks.
Nicolo shuts his eyes and takes a deep, shuddering breath before reopening them and speaking.
“Your hand this time, I think.”
Yusuf is a little surprised when Nicolo takes hold of it, but finds himself staring when Nicolo begins to lick it, sucking lewdly on his fingers.
“Right… yes... that’s… good.”
He wraps his damp palm around Nicolo’s length, pleased when Nicolo groans and tries to push closer.
“I’ve got you. I’ve got you.” He keeps his grip just this side of firm. He doesn’t believe he could ever tire of this sight. Nicolo is gasping and whimpering as he rocks into Yusuf’s hand, clutching Yusuf’s hip almost painfully. He cries out Yusuf’s name softly as he comes.
Yusuf brings his hand to his mouth to it clean off. Nicolo goes a little cross-eyed watching him. He uses a cushion to mop up the rest, pointing out that they won’t be needing them anymore. Nicolo is already half asleep as he manoeuvres the younger man onto his side, tucking him against his chest. Placing an arm around him, they tangle their legs together.
There will be time later to speak with Andromache and discover that his mother is well and has managed to consume some thin broth. There will be time to watch from the balcony as a sullen Jafar is escorted out through the palace gates, to be put on a ship that will set sail for the furthest shores. There will be time to find fine horses and expertly crafted blades for Nile and her brother. Time to discuss new treaties and discourses. Time to escort a grumbling Lykon home. (Nile’s mother is also a very good cook.) Time to promote Galib to the position of bodyguard to the King’s Consort. Time to plan a wedding. Time to plan their future.
For now, Yusuf just wants to sleep with his nose buried in the soft strands of Nicolo’s hair.
The End…. For now.