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‘I am not going to Rum,’ Yusuf said. ‘They are filthy, depraved degenerates, and I will not bring dishonour on the house of my father by consorting with these Greeks dogs.’

‘I thought your mother was Greek,’ Niccolò said, mildly.

‘Then you should trust me when I say that their entire civilisation is simply beyond saving,’ Yusuf said.

The sun was sluggishly climbing down to the horizon and they have set camp near a convenient overhanging edge of a rock. It wasn’t even the end of May and yet already most of the moisture has evaporated from this miserable land: Niccolò, who was making the trek through the Taurus for the second time, was frankly starting to think that it was best left abandoned to its bloodthirsty savages and good riddance, thank you and goodbye. The pope was, of course, rather clear on the Lord’s desire to see it liberated: but the pope had not had the enlightening experience of trotting through on foot for several months while being constantly pelted by the extraordinarily spirited local inhabitants, who apparently carried a deep-seated passion for their emaciated herds of goats and the dry-as-arse soil of the Syrian highlands.

Niccolò painfully missed the sweet, rolling hills of Liguria.

‘I still think we should have gone to Persia,’ the bloodthirsty savage sitting across him murmured darkly, and crossed his hands.

‘You have never been to Persia. You don’t even like the Persians,’ Niccolo said, suddenly feeling remarkably weary of life. It was a feeling that has regularly started to visit him ever since he and Yusuf had made their acquittance.

‘They are a horde of perfumed, arrogant weaklings who wouldn’t recognise a shamshir if they sat on it,’ Yusuf sniffled.

It has been a week, give or take, since he stuck his sword into Syrian and found a dagger in his gut in return: neither event, of course, had turned out to have much of an effect on either of them. It has been little less than that since they - after figuring out that mutually assured murder was not working out very well for them - had decided to temporarily institute a truce and take a leave from their respective armies in order to regroup and figure out why the Lord had seen it fit to prevent them from slaughtering each other: and it has been roughly thirty minutes since Yusuf has last tried to eviscerate him, determinedly ignoring the overwhelming evidence that they have so far managed to gather for the utter futility of such endeavour.

Niccolò intellectually recognised that putting a knife through Yusuf’s eye would not help the matters in any way: nevertheless, he found the idea deeply appealing.

‘I assume, then, that the faint waft of goat piss is the height of fashion among your people,’ he said, instead.

‘It is truly amusing to receive recommendations on personal hygiene from a man who has not bathed in a year, judging by your smell,’ Yusuf answered.

‘I am sorry: I have been quite busy slaughtering your countrymen to take a bath,’ Niccolò said, mock-sincerely. ‘Perhaps if your kind would devote all the time you spend bathing to swordplay, you wouldn’t have to hide in your little mountain nests and then still lose.’

Matters escalated from there.

Twenty minutes later, Niccolò was nursing a tender side while glaring vengefully at Yusuf: the Syrian’s eye has almost grown back, but it still looked sufficiently gruesome to satisfy him at least partially.

‘So, Rum it is, then,’ he said, just to really rub it in.

‘You are a shame to your countrymen and the lowest of the low,’ Yusuf said, ‘and your mother copulated with a dog.’




Niccolò tried not to dwell too much on the theological implication of his newly acquired immortality: he drifted through his youthful studies with the absolute confidence of a ship that has thoroughly lost any idea of its location or its destination and was frankly just trying to make it to any shore available, and was therefore slightly hazy on the details of the Christian doctrine. He went to church once a year, just the way the preachers asked, gave his confession and merrily went off to another year of committing adultery with the kitchen maids and threatening the peasants when his lord father asked: he was born on the bad side of the sheets anyway, so it was not as if anyone actually cared about the wellbeing of his immortal soul.

Any joy he could gather about his sudden resistance to being stabbed was then thoroughly dashed by the presence of a pig-headed, similarly decease-proof Saracene, who kept muttering insults in some god-forsaken language of his, and periodically tried to orchestrate Niccolò’s demise and make off with his horse. Niccolò liked that horse: his family had scrounged up every coin they could possibly find in their little keep plus some they pressured the peasants into parting with and bought that horse, along with everything else Niccolò needed to go on the crusade, and he managed to keep it alive against all odds as they made that first journey through the Taurus mountains. It was not his fault that Yusuf lost his steed in the battle that preceded their first and somehow dramatic meeting. The horse was his.

‘Would it - kill you - to just slow down a little,’ the Syrian said, a little out of breath. That was somehow understandable, given the fact that he was trying to keep up with Niccolò leisurely riding on the aforementioned horse.

‘How about you simply walk faster?’ he said instead.

‘Listen, you feeble-minded Frank,’ Yusuf stopped and said, with rather visceral hatred in his voice. ‘If you do not get off that fucking horse, tonight, as you sleep, I will go and I will slit that stupid’s animal’s throat, and then you will have to walk and carry all of your stupid shiny armour on your back, and it will be your own fault for upsetting a man with very many sharp objects at his disposal.

Niccolò stopped.

‘You wouldn’ t,’ he said.

Yusuf did not even blink.

‘I beg you to try me,’ he said.

Niccolò looked at the horse, then he looked at his armour, and then he looked at the Saracen.

He got off the horse.

‘What a shame,’ Yusuf said, looking him straight into the eyes. ‘I was rather starting to look forward to eating some fresh meat for a change.’

‘You touch that horse,’ Niccolò said, with a frankly unprecedented sincerity, ‘and I will feed your own dick.’

‘My mother said you Franks were all lustful savages,’ Yusuf said, sighing, ‘and I am saddened to learn that she was right. You could just ask if you want to touch my dick, you know.’

Niccolò paused for a moment.

(He did not want to touch Yusuf’s dick: he did not want to think about Yusuf’s dick and until now, he has not been forced to. This was a new low for him and another proof that God just fucking didn’t love him.)

‘I hear castration is very popular among the Greeks, you know,’ he said, instead. ‘Mayhap that could help curb your frankly disturbing lustful thoughts.’

‘The world would weep if it were to be deprived of such a marvel,’ Yusuf said. ‘And either way, it would grow back, I imagine.’

‘That’s a lot of confidence for a man whose only sexual conquests have been the local flocks,’ he said. (It was not even a good insult: but to be fair, he was occupied with contemplating the very disturbing image of someone’s severed cock growing back. It was now seared into his eyes and it was not going away.)

‘Of the two of us, you are the one with a frankly unhealthy attachment to an animal,’ Yusuf said. ‘Are you still think about my dick? You only have to ask, you know.’

‘I am not thinking about anything,’ Niccolò said, lying.

‘That, I can believe,’ Yusuf said.





Niccolò spoke Greek: this was partly against his will, as he had long and valiantly resisted every attempt by his tutor to leave anything of value at all in his head, and yet still happened to find himself surrounded by frankly absurd langauge once they made it through the Balkans down to Constantinople on their way to Jerusalem. His vocabulary was in some ways extremely limited and in other absolutely overflowing with words he deployed gleefully and often: these included many varieties on the act of fucking in all its wonderful forms and quite a few reflections on various manners of death and violence. He did not think that reflected on him as a person: he was a delight and a romantic, suddenly forced to walk some of the rougher paths of life. It did turn out to work out just fine, especially since nowadays he mostly just had to express his loathing of Yusuf’s personality and every action to the Saracen. He was getting better at it by the day.

‘Your accent is atrocious,’ Yusuf said.

‘So is your personality: what of it?,’ Niccolò said. (His accent was atrocious: he did not care. As far as he was concerned, it was mostly a benefit, since it annoyed Yusuf, whose Greek was impeccable, as far as he could tell - that is to say, not very far.)

‘I don’t see how you hope to convince anyone in Rum that you speak their language, let long to help us figure out what has happened,’ Yusuf said. ‘Actually, I don’t see why I even bother going there with you.’

‘It’s my winning personality,’ Niccolò said. ‘Why, if you do not want to, please be my guest and go - let me assure you, I would thank God with every part of my being for being rid of you. Actually, why don’t you go now?’

‘You would be dead in a week if I left,’ Yusuf scowled at him. ‘You don’t even know which way Rum is.’

‘Of course I know what way Rum is,’ Niccolò said. (He did not. Every mountain they passed looked the same to him: ugly and barren of life, and utterly devoid of any redeeming characteristics, just like Yusuf himself.)

‘Do you?’ Yusuf said. ‘Then why haven’t you said anything, since we’ve been going the other way for the past three days?’

Niccolò stopped.

‘We have not,’ he said, with confidence he did not feel.

‘How would you know?’ Yusuf said. ‘Tell me which way is Antioch.’

Niccolò looked a little around. He squinted a bit.

‘That way,’ he said.

Yusuf huffed.

‘You guessed that,’ he said.

‘I did not,’ Niccolò said. (He did.)

Yusuf looked at him for a bit, then narrowed his eyes and continued walking. Niccolò followed with a rather undeserved sort of pride.

He did not actually want the Saracen to leave. Of course, they continued to stab each other on a bi-daily basis, but it has become rather perfunctory at that point: Niccolò could not die and neither could Yusuf, for all their efforts to prove each other wrong. Sword wounds did not take - neither did dismemberment, broken bones, or severe blood loss. Yusuf, ever the asshole, bashed Niccolò’s head in with a rock once - that took a bit to mend, but did not prove any difference otherwise, and Niccolò felt utterly out of his depth as he lay there and felt his skull move and creak, his ears ringing and feeling vaguely nauseous - and Yusuf just stared at him and then threw the rock down and stalked away.

He did not know what was going on: but at least Yusuf didn’t either, and that made, in some ways, strangely bearable.

That did not, of course, change the fact that the Syrian was utterly despicable and affront to human being everywhere: were the circumstances even slightly different, Niccolò would pray to the Lord to relieve him of his presence, and - being a man of action himself - attempt to hurry that along personally. But, as matters stood, it was the two of them and the cold, desolate emptiness of being that just kept on refusing to let them die: and since this did not look likely to change in the near future, that was it.

(It terrified him, the first memory: how he was so horribly certain that that was the end and that he was about to die - and then he just did not.)




‘Do you have a wife?’ Yusuf said suddenly, the second week into their two-person pilgrimage, and Niccolò peered at him with suspicion.

‘Why do you care?’ he said.

‘I don’t,’ Yusuf said, frankly. ‘I am bored, it’s hot and I suddenly felt a rather desperate urge to cut your throat and make a break for it, but I decided to be a better person. We can still do that, if you want. As I've said, I’m terribly bored.’

‘I don’t have a wife,’ Niccolò said. He did not like having his throat cut: it was a nasty way to die, and it hurt like hell when it healed too. ‘My brother’s married, though. She’s a bitch.’

Yusuf snorted.

‘Runs in your family, doesn’t it,’ he said.

‘Birds of the feather flock together,’ Niccolò said. ‘A bit of self-reflection wouldn’t hurt you. Are you married?’

‘Used to,’ Yusuf said. ‘She died. It wasn’t - I thought we could have grown to be happy together, but Allah made it otherwise.’

‘Childbirth?’ Niccolò said.

‘She was young. It happens,’ Yusuf said. ‘Why aren’t you married? Is there something wrong with you, other than the evident?’

‘Apparently, since I can somehow bear your insipid company. No, I wanted to - have something to offer to a woman, other than my charming personality, of course. I don’t have land - can’t inherit, you see, since my father fucked the wrong woman.’

‘So you are - literally - a bastard.’

‘Oh, did you come up with that all by yourself? Truly I have never heard this from anyone before - yes, I am a bastard, you are an asshole, what of it. You still fight like a girl.’

‘And still, I managed to kill you, so what does that say about you, hm?’

‘Why, that I am such a great warrior, death herself could not conquer me. Or you are just bad at killing people. I think it’s both.’

Yusuf did not answer for a while.

‘What I don’t understand is - why. You’re a bastard and a mediocre warrior-’

‘I’m sorry,  that is rich coming from you -’

‘Oh, shut up, Frank. What I mean to say - you do not matter. I do not matter. We were meant to die there,’ Yusuf said.

‘Yes,’ Niccolò said. ‘And yet here I am, staring at your ugly face ever day. Lord works in truly mysterious ways.’

Yusuf frowned at him.

‘Stop blaspheming,’ he said.

‘Why? It’s not like I’m dying any day soon,’ Niccolò said, and stopped. ‘The way I see it - there’s no point. There’s nothing. Cut my throat, I’ll come back and do the same for you, because it’s not like I have anything better to do now. I can - what, go back to my family, say ‘sorry, the crusading business did not work out’ and bully more peasants to give us money they don’t have? Turn around, go back to Antioch and explain to the lord Bohemond that I actually did not die and just took a brief respite from sieging, and then enjoy a being executed for a bit before they figure out there’s something just really wrong with me? No, Saracen - I’ll blaspheme all I want, because it just does not matter. Nothing matters.’

‘Then there’s no point in going to Rum, either,’ Yusuf said.

‘Well, no - but you knew that already, didn’t you? We are going there, because - we need to go somewhere.’

And Yusuf looked at him, in that awful way that he was entirely him: dark, terribly deep eyes that Niccolò just could not decipher, with something vast and heavy in them - and he stared back, feeling just as brittle as a rusted knife pressed against a rock, and did not know what to say.

‘I should have just slit your throat,’ Yusuf said, finally.

‘Go for it, then,’ he said, feeling strangely detached from the whole scene.

Yusuf reached out for his blade, in the way that had somehow already become familiar to Niccolò - and then he hesitated, and, finally, turned away.

‘We should go,’ he said. ‘I want to find someplace to rest before midday - before the sun gets too hot.’




‘Something isn’t right,’ Yusuf said, as they were crossing yet another mountain pass.

‘And you only figured that out now?,’ Niccolò asked, in mock astonishment.

‘You idiot - I don’t mean that, I mean that something is not wrong right now -’ and that as far as he managed before an arrow went right through his head.

Niccolò watched, suddenly speechless, as Yusuf fell, his mouth still open, but eyes already turning glassy: and then he heard a sound and there was another arrow lodged in his shoulder and it fucking hurt - he had stopped wearing his armour once he went from being horsebound to a slummimg it on foot - and he staggered a bit and that meant that the next one missed him by barely an inch, and he promptly dived to the side and then someone was screaming and it turned out that they - like utter morons - just carelessly walked into a frankly subpar bandit ambush. It was subpar, because the would-be bandits did not look like they particularly knew what they were doing - mostly, they just threw themselves at him with the vague idea that waving their knives and something that could have passed for mace if one squinted would get the job done.

It was not much of a fight, in the end. Niccolò had the distinct advantage of not dying even if they stabbed him a couple of times, which did surprise all six or so of them enough that he managed to get two down and then the big one with the mace just decided to make a break for it: the other three followed him. He got another one that way, and then elected to just leave it alone, because the arrowhead was still lodged in his shoulder and it was not coming out, because of course they made it jagged enough for it to get caught deep in the wound. He experimentally poked it, grinned in pain, and then he limped over to Yusuf - his horse had run away somewhere, along with all their possessions - and then he stared at the Saracen for a while.

It did not look quite right. Niccolo contemplated that, realising that this was the first time he was not the one who had dispatched Yusuf: and he decided right and there that he hated it.

He swiftly bent over, broke off the arrowhead, and then quickly pulled it out. It made a rather gross sound, and he threw it away in disgust, and then Yusuf suddenly blinked.

‘You look even worse than you usually do,’ Niccolò said, pensively.

‘Kiss my arse,’ Yusuf says, with a frankly admirable verve for a man who had just come from death.

‘You know what, I think I’ll pass,’ he said. ‘Get up - they’ve driven away my horse.’

‘I just got shot through the head, and you worry about your fucking horse?’ Yusuf said.

‘It’s a good horse,’ Niccolò said, defensively. ‘I like that horse, which is more than I can say about you. If I lose that horse, I will be very upset.’

Yusuf regarded him with some disbelief: and then he got up.

‘Don’t do that again, by the way,’ Niccolò added, and turned. ‘I had to pull an arrow out of your head: it was less satisfying than if I had put it in, and I would rather avoid repeating that experience.’

‘I’ll give you something that you can put in,’ Yusuf said, darkly.

‘And they say romance is dead,’ Niccolò said.




The thing was - Niccolò kept thinking about it, after.

He had never fucked a man before: he never felt the overwhelming desire to do so before, and yet, here they were. He did not even like Yusuf: he had attributed the impulse to the fact he had passed over three weeks now with only the Syrian for his company - not counting his horse and the brief, yet eventful encounter with bandits - and that was upsetting enough in itself, even excepting this new development in the entire fucking tragedy that was his life.

And the problem was that he knew that Yusuf kept watching him: not in the way he ought to, the way one watches an enemy or even a reluctant ally, but in a different way, and he did not know entirely how to describe, but disliked it on principle.

He - heard things about the Saracens. Of course, the things he heard about the Saracens were quite numerous, and some of them seemed entirely unlikely - he had determined, for instance, that it was probably untrue that they worshipped golden pagan idols, or, if they did, they were remarkably good at hiding it - but Yusuf did sometimes say things that suggested that these particular rumours might be true. Of course, they were mostly formulated as insults - he doubted that Yusuf was really offering to let him touch his dick, and either way,  he did not want to  - but it did make him wonder, just a little bit.

‘What is it now?’ the man in question asked, after Niccolò had spent solid ten minutes staring at him in silence as they sat in the evening near a dried-out river bed, watching the embers of the fire slowly die.

‘What would you have done, if I died and you lived?’ he said, instead.

‘I would go and live happily in peace, blissfully free of Franks asking me idiotic questions.’

‘See, you just said something, but all I heard was ‘punch me’.’

‘Please, go ahead, see how that works out for you,’ Yusuf said, and then, after a brief pause, ‘I don’t know. We were meant to relieve Antioch, but - it seemed Allah did not favour us.’

‘Well, if it helps,’ Niccolò offered, ‘I’m pretty sure that Bohemond and Raymond of Toulouse will murder each other before they take the city, and I can’t say I’m too upset about it. Raymond’s a sour prick and Bohemond is - well, Bohemond.’

‘That actually does not help, but I do appreciate the effort,’ Yusuf said. ‘What would you do?’

‘Starve to death, probably,’ Niccolò said. ‘We’ve been struggling to find food enough the entire winter, and even before that. The Greeks sent us supplies from Cyprus once we made it to Antioch, but - it was not enough.’

‘But why? Why did you even come? What did the Greeks give you, to make you fight their wars?’ Yusuf asked.

‘We didn’t come because of the Greeks - we came, because our Lord asked us to,’ Niccolò said, with some irony. ‘Antioch doesn’t really matter - Jerusalem does. That’s where we were headed.’

Yusuf stayed silent for a moment, and then he said, ‘but why? What’s the point?’

‘Salvation, money, land, faith - take your pick,’ Niccolò said. ‘Personally, I came for the views.’

‘Is that why you were staring at me, then?’ Yusuf asked, mouth tilting a little bit. It made him look younger, more - vulnerable, Niccolò thought.

‘Yes,’ Niccolò said, ‘you’re blocking it. Move.’

Yusuf laughed. Niccolò had not heard him laugh before: for some reason, it made a difference.




They came during the night.

Niccolò did not wake up until someone had seized him and cleanly, swiftly, cut his throat through right to the bone. He choked and he died: and when he came back, he went right back under, because his head was still not quite attached to his body, and so when he finally made it back, he was lying in a pool of his own blood, it was the morning and Yusuf and his horse were fucking gone.

This was the thing about the soft dust that covered this land, though: it preserved footprints. Some of them were washed down by the blood, and some of them were his and Yusuf’s: but the last time he checked, neither of them wore light sandals, and neither did they possess three additional horses, so after Niccolò dragged himself back to the land of the living, it was quite clear that that fucking asshole just didn’t make off with his horse again, but that something made off with  him .

His throat hurt as hell: he felt light-headed, dehydrated, and absolutely, terribly upset, because he liked that horse, and now he was going to have to walk and try to figure out where it was. (He deliberately did not think about Yusuf smiling at him last night. He was fine: if Niccolò has not yet managed to come up with a way to murder him, he doubted anyone else would have much more luck. It was the damn horse he had to worry about.)

He could just about follow the track - but it was the morning and he had to hurry before the wind began to rise and got rid of the faint traces the horses they have driven had left behind, so he got up and started to walk. He did not have his sword: he did not have the armour, and the bastards have even taken his fucking boots. But what he did have was deep, unrelenting rage - it has been rising in him ever since he woke up for the first time on that battlefield, full of questions he did not know the answers to, and now it had reared its head and screamed, because it was all just really revoltingly unfair: he did not ask to know how it felt to have your spine hang out of our neck, and yet he did know that, and he also knew what it was like to choke on your own blood and hold your guts out with one hand so that they did not fall out and a hundred other extremely unpleasant things. Much of it was Yusuf’s fault: so Yusuf was his, because that fucking asshole owed him those things, he owed him for the two fingers he had taken from him three days in and for all the times he had broken his neck and for everything else, and Yusuf owed him, because he was there when he woke up for the first time: so like hell he was going to let anyone else be there when he came back now - or at any other point in the foreseeable future.

(This was also what Yusuf owed him: the way his eyes weighted on him, how his mouth tilted to one side when he wanted to smile but would not and why he always looked like he was daring him to do something.)




They were hiding up in between mountain ledges: there were five of them and Niccolò wanted to jump off that cliff again as soon as he climbed on it, because of-fucking-course they were ones he let get away in that mountain pass.

Three of them were down there - the others must have been the archers who shot at them, and all of them were currently gathered around a fire contemplating the nature of the human condition.

‘I just don’t get why he’s not dead,’ the skinny one, the one who stabbed him before, said, gazing feverishly at Yusuf’s lying body.

It was a body, at that moment: they’ve cut him up pretty nastily, and he could see that he was glistening with blood even from a distance, and it made him quite upset, because he had never done that to Yusuf - so he did not know whether that was going to take or not. He did not think it would - but it did not feel good either way.

‘Maybe he’s dead now,’ the big one said. ‘If not, I’ll just bash his head in, and we see.’

Niccolò found that thought quite revolting. On the other hand, he found most things revolting at that very moment: he passed out two times on the way, probably from dehydration, and was frankly considering at one point just trying to drink his own piss. On the other hand, he also had some dignity, so he put that on hold for the time being.

‘I say we just cut his head off and bury ‘em separately,’ one of the two Niccolò did not recognise volunteered. ‘I’d like to see him come back from that.’

The skinny one laughed. It was a nasty sound.

‘I’m going to take a leak,’ he said and got up.

Niccolò, by nature, was not a stealthy man. He was a knight: that, by definition, tended to exclude any sort of sneakiness, since the whole clanking outfit that came with it did not lend itself easily to anything but charging wildly while waving a sword. It worked extraordinarily well in that sort of situation: it was desperately lacking in all others. Nevertheless, he could see an opportunity when it was right in front of him - so he followed, quietly (his absence of boots, although deeply affronting to him on a philosophical level, proved itself suddenly to be a distinct advantage) and then he snapped the man’s throat as soon as he stopped to take a piss.

He took his knives - he had two. There was not much time before some of the others noticed that their friend was taking a surprisingly long time to relieve himself and started to get suspicious: so he went back to their campsite, crossed to the nearest man with three long steps and stabbed him in the neck. He fell, gurgling.

That was two down: now, it was going to be slightly trickier.

‘But I killed you!’, the third one from the pass shouted. ‘You were dead!’

‘And now I’m going to kill you,’ Niccolò said, smiling. His face and clothes were still stained with dried blood: he thought he must have looked terrible and rather liked the thought. ‘Fair’s fair, don’t you think?’

The big one did not have anything as weapon: he charged, and Niccolò skirted away, going for the third one instead. He turned so pale: then caught the cross on his neck in hand and pressed it out, as if it could in any way deter him, so Niccolò just got him in the gut - he keeled over, and then there was the last one, and he was holding his sword, which was upsetting on multiple levels, the most offensive of which was probably the fact that he did not really know how to use it: he dodged, and then kicked him, and the man staggered, which gave him the opportunity to throw his knife right into his back, and that was it.

He turned around: it was just in time to see the big one bring a rock down towards his head and then, he did not see anything.




‘Niccolò - come back - you will come back, you utter imbecile, or I will take your horse and make it into a stew and it will be your fault - it is already own fault for having such a co-dependent relationship with your fucking horse of all things, so either way, the horse will have to go-‘ and Niccolò opened eyes, and Yusuf kissed him.

It was an awful kiss: there was something in his mouth that was probably his own brain, so that was gross, and Yusuf’s breath smelt like rot and he went in at a bad angle, so their teeth clashed and made a rather nasty sound, but Niccolò just decided to go for it, because there was really no going back at that point.

‘Don’t take this the wrong way,’ he said, after Yusuf let him go, ‘but I might go and vomit a little now.’

‘How is there a right way to take that-’ Yusuf said, already starting to sound the way he tended to get when he was really pissed off, so Niccolò rolled his eyes and just kissed him again to make him shut up. He got the angle right this time.

Then, he did vomit.

‘Water?’ he asked, after: there was no point in asking whether the big one was dead, because otherwise he would not be currently contemplating the feeling of Yusuf’s tongue in his mouth. The man in question did hand him a skin of water: he drank with the joy of a man who had just emerged out of the desert into an oasis.

‘So what now?’ Yusuf asked, after he finished drinking. He looked awful and he smelled worse: and Niccolò had never wanted anyone as much as he wanted him right now.

‘I was thinking about your dick,’ he said, instead. ‘That time you asked.’

‘I knew it,’ Yusuf said. ‘You Franks are all obscene, lewd individuals and also, you kept looking down.’

‘I did not,’ Niccolò said, and then, hesitating, he asked, ‘do you want to-’

‘Here?’ Yusuf asked. He sounded vaguely horrified. ‘There are four dead bodies not even five meters away from you right now.’

‘And I killed them for you,’ Niccolò said. ‘That is the very definition of romantic.’

‘I don’t think you know what the word means,’ Yusuf said. ‘You have brain in your hair. It is a distinct turn-off.’

Niccolò sighed.

‘There’s just no pleasing you,’ he said, with a tragic air.

Yusuf watched him for a moment, and then he said, ‘you came back for me.’

‘I came back for the horse,’ Niccolò clarified.

‘I swear to-’

‘Of course I came for you. It’s just you and me: it’s been just us ever since we’ve met. It just took some time getting used to.’

Yusuf smiled.

‘I think I knew when I came back, for the first time: I saw you first, and you opened your eyes, and I realised that you were going to be mine and I was going to be yours.’

‘You did not,’ Niccolò said. ‘You stabbed me again.’

‘Well, I did not say I was excited about the idea,’ Yusuf said. ‘It’s your face, I think: you just look like someone who ought to get stabbed more often.’

‘You are an incurable romantic,’ Niccolò said. ‘So - is that really a no?’

Yusuf stared at him, with consternation.

‘Yes, okay, why not,’ he said, finally. ‘It will make for a good story.’