Yusuf has been wed only a matter of hours, and already the first crisis of his marriage looms.
Half a dozen servants stand pressed against the walls of the bedchamber. They barely acknowledge his entrance, which Yusuf cannot fault, given that a large Frank wielding a knife occupies the center of the room.
"Now, beloved -" Yusuf starts, extending his hand like he's trying to calm a spooked horse.
A muscle jumps in Nicolò's cheek. "I am not your beloved."
"Fine." Yusuf advances a step. "Husband, put down the knife. There's no reason for you to hurt anyone." He tries to be surreptitious about moving his hand towards the ceremonial dagger at his hip. It may be decorative, but it still cuts.
Nicolò raises the blade he's holding. It's a hunting knife, strong and lethal, for all that the hilt is studded with jewels. In fact, it's the hunting knife that Yusuf gave him as a wedding gift, which seems like an unwise choice, in retrospect. "No one but myself has anything to fear."
After a moment of puzzled silence, Yusuf says, "I beg your pardon?"
Nicolò takes a deep breath and then lets him have it. It is a brief but blistering speech, delivered with conviction, and culminating in the fierce declaration that he - Nicolò - will die a martyr before he joins his flesh with a decadent, godless infidel.
Yusuf could quibble with his allegations - Nicolò is the unbeliever in this house, for one - but that feels unwise, given the situation. He takes another step closer instead. Behind him, his house guard arrive in a jingle of armor and weapons. Better late than never, Yusuf thinks sourly.
"You're not going to harm yourself," he says. "Now, give me -"
Nicolò cuts his own throat in a vibrant spray of blood.
Yusuf shouts, pointlessly. Several servants shriek.
The leader of his guard is the first to regain his wits, seizing Yusuf's arm and pulling him back into the hallway. "We need a doctor!" he barks.
A doctor. What's a doctor going to do for Nicolò, sew his neck back together? An inappropriate laugh lodges at the base of Yusuf's throat. He looks down to find the cuff and sleeve of his wedding tunic dotted with crimson.
"Master, are you harmed?"
Yusuf blinks once, twice, before he can answer. "No." He removes his arm from Sadiq's grip more brusquely than he means to. "How would I be harmed? He didn't come near me."
The only time they ever touched was after the marriage ceremony. Yusuf recalls the feeling of Nicolò's hand in his, cold and stiff.
A maid stumbles towards them, still clutching a ewer of water to her chest like a shield. She's a pretty girl, probably, when her face is not slack with shock and covered in blood spatter like lurid freckles. "He has -" she manages. "He is -"
Her voice falters at that point, but Yusuf can guess the rest.
"I see," he says. He takes a step back towards the door and forces himself to look. Around Nicolò's lifeless body, a pool of blood is still expanding sluggishly across the floor.
In the grand scheme of things, the consequences of his death will be minor. There's no political alliance or peace deal dependent on their union, only two families disposing of their younger sons and gaining a connection in another country in the process. An annoying setback but no disaster. A waste of everyone's time and effort more than anything.
Yusuf thinks of the fury and desperation it would have taken to do this and feels abruptly ill.
He drags a hand over his mouth. "Send someone to the Christian quarter. We need to rouse a priest -"
An impossible movement catches his eye. Yusuf freezes.
There's a look of profound confusion on Nicolò's face as he sits up. His hand wipes across the gaping cut in his throat, only it isn't a cut at all, it's merely a band of blood that comes away with his touch. The skin beneath is whole and healthy.
The maid's ewer clatters to the floor and floods Yusuf's feet with lukewarm water.
No one sleeps that night, least of all Yusuf. He paces around the gardens by himself until sunrise, muttering silent prayers. What else is one to do when one has, apparently, married a demon?
Fortified by daylight and several goblets of wine, he finally returns to the spare chamber where Nicolò is being kept. Two guards are posted outside the door. Yusuf takes one of them inside with him.
Nicolò is laid out on the bed and meets his eyes with surprising calm. They have cleaned him up and tied him hand and foot, out of helplessness as much as any clear and present danger. "Will you untie me?" is the first thing he says.
Yusuf frowns. "Will you attack us?"
"I'm not going to harm anyone else."
"Are you going to attack yourself?"
Nicolò spreads his empty hands. "With what?"
A fair point. Yusuf gestures for the guard to undo the restraints.
Nicolò sits up and swings his legs over the side of the bed, rubbing his wrists.
"Now," Yusuf says and clears his throat. "I think we should -"
Nicolò takes one careful step, then another, and then he gracefully vaults over the window sill to plummet forty feet down into the courtyard. There's a sickening thud, followed by fresh screaming from below.
Yusuf has seen too much in the last few hours to muster more than a wince. "That won't have done it, if the knife did not."
"No," the guard agrees. He sounds remarkably unfazed.
Nicolò's spectacular display has, in fact, accomplished nothing except to squash some roses and terrify a passing stable boy. He is not bound again - Yusuf doesn't see the point - but confined to a suite of rooms on the ground floor with screens nailed in front of the windows and anything sharp or breakable removed.
After much cajoling, one brave maid can be convinced to attend him, her expression resolute and her chest bedecked with multiple amulets to ward off evil.
"You could send him back," Sadiq says.
He has been hurriedly elevated to personal advisor, given that Yusuf can't take anyone outside the household into his confidence. What would he even tell his brothers, his friends, his parents? As it turns out, my new husband is immortal, please make suggestions on how to proceed.
Sadiq is a good and loyal man. His advice, so far, does not impress.
"Send him back how?" Yusuf asks. "A husband can't be returned like a faulty shipment of glassware! His family would certainly demand an explanation for a divorce." He massages his temples. "So would mine, for that matter. I can't tell them the truth! God only knows what would happen to him."
Sadiq scratches his cheek and then asks, with unanticipated shrewdness, "Is that really your problem?"
Yusuf stares at the puddle left in his goblet while he ponders the question. Is it? Is it his problem if his family or Nicolò's bury him at the bottom of a well, or burn him at the stake, however many times they wish to try? If there's one thing Nicolò has made plain over the preceding days, it's that he does not want Yusuf's help or interference or even companionship. He has done his decided best to permanently escape their marriage.
Their marriage. Yusuf groans. He has agreed before the imam to accept Nicolò as his husband, has pledged in a written contract to protect and maintain him. He cannot control Nicolò's actions, but he can certainly control his own, and Yusuf has made a promise that ought not to be broken. He won't abandon this man to an uncertain fate while the only danger he seems to pose is to himself.
Even if he might not be a man, strictly speaking.
Grimly, Yusuf swallows the dregs of his wine and reaches for the carafe again.
He goes to see Nicolò early the next morning and finds him in a chair by the window, reading his bible. Dappled light through the screen paints intricate patterns on his face. He looks up at Yusuf's arrival and puts a finger on the page, as if to mark his place. "You have not told your imam about me," he says instead of a greeting. "Or a priest."
It doesn't sound like a question, though Yusuf supposes the answer is rather obvious, given that Nicolò is here and not locked in a dungeon being chanted over by holy men. "I have not."
"Because you are my husband," Yusuf says simply. "And I've no wish for any harm to come to you."
A flicker of reaction passes across Nicolò's face, but it is gone again before Yusuf can quite grasp it, leaving behind nothing but stony calm. "So you intend to keep me in here forever?"
"I intend to keep you in here until I've thought of a better solution." Yusuf takes a deep breath. "We can find things to occupy your time."
"Perhaps I could have a blunt wooden sword," Nicolò says. His voice is heavy with sarcasm, making the accent that flavors his Arabic even more pronounced. "Or a rag doll. Will I be permitted a bag of marbles?"
Yusuf bares his teeth in what isn't quite a smile. "Even marbles can be a danger to reckless children."
Nicolò looks away first. Yusuf is about to leave - they have exchanged several sentences, that seems like enough wedded bliss for one day - but Nicolò's voice unexpectedly holds him back. "How is the stable boy?"
It takes Yusuf a second to put the pieces together. "Well enough. No lingering nightmares."
Nicolò nods, gaze fixed on his reading. Yusuf leaves him to it.
The neighbor's wife dies in childbirth and does not come back. Neither does a little boy who is struck by a wagon in the street.
Nicolò fashions his sheets into a rope and hangs for hours before a guard finds him and cuts him down, still stubbornly alive.
Marry the Frank, Yusuf. His family are important trading partners, Yusuf. You can't be a bachelor forever, Yusuf. You'll just lead separate lives, Yusuf, how bad could it be?
And now he's stuck with a husband who will live to despise him forever, if he doesn't manage to kill himself first.
Yusuf is never going to give in to his family's exhortations on any subject again.
Two weeks into their strange, cursed union, Nicolò asks to go for a ride together.
Yusuf can immediately think of a dozen ways it might go wrong. Then again, it's almost impossible to imagine the oppressive tedium of being locked inside a makeshift prison all day. Isn't the goal to make Nicolò less eager to quit this world?
"You can ride," Yusuf says. "But you will be led."
"By the bridle, like a child?"
Yusuf crosses his arms. "These are my terms."
Nicolò accepts. Barely outside the city gates, he abandons the back of his horse and throws himself into the river, where the rocks are largest and the currents at their most powerful.
Yusuf proceeds downstream to wait. Sure enough, not much later, his men pull Nicolò from calmer waters, as wet and magnificently angry as a cat emerging from the bath.
"So we'll have to tie you to the saddle," Yusuf says, watching as a bloody gash heals closed on Nicolò's cheek. He feels deeply weary, but even more than that, annoyed. "Doesn't your holy book have something to say about self-murder?"
"Is it murder if the victim doesn't stay dead?" Nicolò spits, which Yusuf unfortunately has no answer to.
"I'd like a razor."
Yusuf looks up from his contemplation of the floor tiles in surprise. At this point, his daily visits to Nicolò's quarters have become a thinly disguised battle, persistence set against mulishness. Yusuf asks him the same series of mundane questions about his day and Nicolò doesn't grant him a single word more than is required to answer, and yet Yusuf keeps coming, keeps asking, and Nicolò keeps answering, albeit grudgingly. He rarely addresses Yusuf of his own volition. "You'd like a what?"
"A razor," Nicolò repeats. "I need a shave."
He does, in fact. He looks vaguely disreputable, like a vagabond ready to waylay unwary travelers. Yusuf shakes his head. "No."
Nicolò's pale eyes are always disquieting but never more so than when they turn piercing like this. "Am I your husband or your prisoner?"
It's an uncomfortable question because Yusuf can no longer answer it with any certainty. He is, after all, holding Nicolò in these rooms. The doors are locked. Yusuf may tell himself that he is doing this all for Nicolò's benefit, fulfilling his own marital duty to protect him, but the truth remains that he is not free to do as he likes, even if what he would like is to stick a razor through some vital part of himself.
Merciful God. Yusuf entered into their arrangement with low expectations, but somehow the reality of married life has managed to be even less rewarding than he feared.
"Both, I suppose," he says. "Until you stop courting death."
Nicolò's mouth twists. "Why do you care?"
Why, indeed. Yusuf remembers the terrible stillness of Nicolò's body on the floor on his bedchamber, the faint pink tinge that still discolors the stone in one corner of the courtyard. He may want this problem gone but he does not want his husband dead, even temporarily. He wants even less for his house to be in constant uproar and his servants to keep living in a state of upset.
"Why did you not kill me?" he counters. "You had the knife in hand. Why didn't you turn it on me instead?"
Nicolò is silent, jaw working as if he's chewing on the answer. "There would have been no purpose to it," he says at last.
There was no purpose to cutting his own throat, either, when he could have escaped this marriage by a swift exit through a side door at any point. The road from Liguria is long. On the other hand, Yusuf supposes that going out in a righteous blaze of glory rather than slinking away like a fugitive in the night holds its own appeal. There are several unflattering things he might say about Nicolò, but he could not rightly call him a coward.
"A compromise," Yusuf offers. "I'll bring a razor and I'll shave you."
Nicolò raises his eyebrows. "You don't worry for your safety?"
"You just said you'd never kill me."
There is nothing reassuring about the look on Nicolò's face. "That's not what I said."
Yusuf does as he has promised anyway, returning with a shaving kit as Nicolò finishes his bath the next day. "By the window," Yusuf says, and miraculously, Nicolò does as he is prompted, his thin cotton shirt sticking to him translucently in places. His hair is slicked back, droplets of water rolling down his neck while Yusuf spreads shaving lather with a brush.
There's something oddly pleasing about the rasp of the razor as it moves. Focusing on the task at hand gives Yusuf license to study Nicolò with an artist's interest, unencumbered by awkwardness: his strong jaw, his pronounced cheekbones, the bold swoop of his nose. Yusuf takes care not to nick the mole that sits low on his cheek. All the while, Nicolò's eyes remain open, fixed on the patches of blue sky visible through the screen.
Yusuf is almost finished when his concentration is broken by a burst of yelling from the gardens. It turns out to be the cook's small daughter, trying to evade the capture of her mother's hands by darting between the rose bushes with impressive agility. He shakes his head in amusement and turns back, only to find himself arrested by Nicolò looking right at him. This close, his eyes are the color of the sea. He holds Yusuf's gaze for a long moment before glancing down, and Yusuf follows his line of sight to see his hand with the razor loosely hovering between them, angled so the blade points straight at his own chest. It would take no effort at all for Nicolò to give it a lethal push.
Yusuf's heart batters itself against his ribcage. He should step away, he should at the very least lower his arm, but before he can manage to do anything at all, Nicolò shifts back in his chair. "Are you finished?"
"Almost," Yusuf says. His fingers are steady on the final strokes, though they tingle with a feeling he can't name.
The next day, Nicolò stops eating.
Yusuf responds by taking up a near-constant presence in his rooms, where they settle into a wary routine soon enough. Nicolò reads and Yusuf sketches. Nicolò prays and Yusuf pointedly eats confectionary. He brings his oud and plays, badly, until a muscle continuously twitches in Nicolò's cheek, which does nothing to help anyone but gives Yusuf some measure of petty satisfaction.
He reads out loud when he can not bear the silence of a long evening: poetry and stories, writings on philosophy and medicine. Nicolò listens without interruption, and all the while the flesh melts off his bones.
It's torturous to watch. "Why not stop drinking?" Yusuf bites out as Nicolò sips water from a wineskin. Every day, it looks bigger and heavier in his hand. "That would be quicker, at least."
"I've tried it the quick way," Nicolò says evenly. He rests his head against the back of his chair. "You don't have to be here for this."
He's right, but Yusuf can no more stay away than he could ignore the hem of his tunic being on fire. He's neglecting his role in the family business while his father smiles indulgently, seeing only a distracted newlywed.
The servants have taken to tiptoeing through the hallway like they're passing outside a sickroom. He's not ill, Yusuf wants to shout. Just the most single-minded, obstinate bastard alive.
After ten days, Yusuf begins to bargain. "We can remove the screens," he says. "You'll have your own garden. You can have your own house. There's a vineyard I own outside the city -"
"Stop," Nicolò interrupts him, and Yusuf doesn't know what shocks him more, the coldness of Nicolò's fingers or how deliberately they wrap around his wrist. "Stop trying."
"Why won't you stop trying?" The question bursts out of him, rough with helpless frustration. "Are you really this intent on ending your life?"
Would it be such a hell to just be married to me? That's what he really wants to know, but cannot possibly ask. Yusuf has his pride.
"It won't be an ending," Nicolò says. He sounds oddly matter-of-fact about it. "Somehow, I will return. I just need to know."
Yusuf shakes his head. "Know what?"
"Everything," Nicolò says. The new gauntness of his face makes his eyes stand out luminously. "Why me, and not that woman across the street? Did I displease the Lord by my arrogance and willfulness? Have I been marked like Cain?"
"You shall be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth," Yusuf quotes. This is a story he still remembers from his tutors, sinister and bloody enough to stick in the mind of a young boy. "So you think that you've been cursed for your sins."
"I made a sacrifice of myself and the Lord rejected it. What do you think?"
It doesn't seem like a promising sign, admittedly.
"I wished to spend my life in the church. That was the plan for me, before my family decided they needed me elsewhere, and I felt -" Nicolò's voice fades into silence, but Yusuf doesn't dare prompt him to go on. He can sense that he's being offered something valuable and fragile, and he will not risk grasping for it prematurely. Finally, Nicolò continues. "I felt that I was being ripped away from my purpose. But the Lord also commands us to honor our parents, and I did not. I was selfish and angry and proud. So if this is to be my punishment, there's only one who can tell me."
Abruptly, Yusuf understands. He stares at Nicolò in mingled shock and wonder. "You think that if you make yourself enough of a nuisance, God will be forced to speak to you?"
A hint of a smile flickers around Nicolò's mouth.
Yusuf laughs in spite of himself. "Well, if anyone could manage it, it would be you."
"Thank you," Nicolò says wryly.
He fades fast after that. Yusuf leaves his side only to wash and to pray, sleeping upright in a chair and having food and wine brought to him. He barely registers the maid passing in and out to take away his plate and light the lamps, too focused on the slow rise and fall of Nicolò's chest.
Sadiq comes late in the evening and stands wordlessly on the other side of the bed.
"It's quiet in the house," Yusuf says. He can hear more sound from the gardens, the steady drone of insects and a breeze moving through the fruit trees.
"Most of the servants won't come near this room after dark." Sadiq pauses before adding, "They're afraid of him."
Yusuf looks at the pale fragility of Nicolò's hand on top of the sheets and wants to laugh. "He's never harmed a hair on any of their heads."
"It's not what he's done. It's what he is."
Yusuf tiredly rubs his eyes. "Unnatural. I know." He looks up at Sadiq. "Are you afraid?"
Sadiq snorts, the magnificent curve of his greying mustache wobbling. "There's no Frank I couldn't take, natural or unnatural."
Nicolò stops breathing as the morning sun crests the garden wall. He looks peaceful in the light, despite the starkness of his skull right below the skin. Yusuf closes his eyes and waits.
With a sudden gasp, Nicolò returns, rosy-cheeked and strong. Yusuf is too exhausted to even react to the miracle he just witnessed. "Any answers?"
Nicolò shakes his head.
"Well, then, I'm going to bed." Yusuf drags himself upright, every part of his body stiff and aching. He stops in the doorway only to say, "Never do that again, please."
He is about to leave for good when Nicolò says, "Yusuf?"
His name sounds strange from Nicolò's mouth, slightly different to how he is used to hearing it. "Yes?"
Nicolò won't quite meet his eyes. "Thank you for staying. It was a kindness, when I didn't give you any reason for it."
He is too dazed from his vigil to know what to say, so Yusuf only nods and leaves.
They are easier after that. Yusuf wouldn't quite call it peace, but it's a truce at the very least.
He returns to Nicolò's rooms the next morning carrying a chess board and Nicolò sets aside his reading without comment.
It's pleasant to be out in the gardens together once the air has cooled. There's an ornamental pool but its water is ankle-deep, and if Nicolò wishes to make another attempt at drowning himself in that, he is welcome to try, as far as Yusuf is concerned. It might even be amusing to watch.
Nicolò doesn't. He sits and plays games, or reads by the light of the oil lamps, or pointedly doesn't notice when Yusuf is sketching his profile. He can never quite capture Nicolò the way he intends - his odd, hawk-like grace, the elegant shape of his mouth - but he will get there eventually.
They talk more often, in fits and starts and about nothing in particular. The first time that Nicolò makes him laugh, Yusuf is almost startled, glancing up to find a look of genuine pleasure on Nicolò's face that he's not quite quick enough in hiding.
The main obstacle to a peaceful coexistence now is the fact that Nicolò, by all appearances, does not care for poetry. He greets Yusuf's recitations with the blank indifference of listening to a pigeon coo outside his window.
"I don't understand," Yusuf says one night, outraged. "How can you be unmoved?"
Nicolò raises his eyebrows. He is sitting by the pool, trailing one hand through the water. "By what?"
"By this! I die of love for him, perfect in every way / Lost in the strains of wafting music..." Yusuf almost shakes the scroll in his lap. "This is Abu Nuwas!"
Nicolò shrugs. "I don't know him."
Yusuf's face must do something truly comical, because Nicolò looks unabashedly amused. "I know who he is," he clarifies. "But I don't know him and I don't know that boy he writes of. It's not -" He seems to have to search for the right word. "Personal."
Yusuf slumps back into his seat of cushions. How does one explain the point of poetry to a skeptic? "He's talking about a general truth."
"What truth? That rosy cheeks make a handsome face?" Nicolò withdraws his hand from the water and wipes it dry on his leg.
So he was listening, at least, even if he hasn't understood. Yusuf rolls up his scroll and sighs. "Very well. Chess, then."
Nicolò sets up the board while Yusuf goes to refill his goblet. When he turns around, he is abruptly struck by the sight of Nicolò bent over his task, the strong curve of his back, the broadness of his shoulders. Yusuf thoughtlessly wants to touch him, to feel the way his muscles shift under the skin, the way he might want to stroke a sumptuous length of fabric or handle a well-crafted weapon.
The very strength of the urge makes him suspect it wouldn't be allowed. He settles on a compromise: stopping at Nicolò's side and resting one palm in the middle of his back.
Nicolò stills, but does not pull away.
"My beloved is a puzzle," Yusuf says quietly. "He has shoulders made for fighting and a mouth made for poetry." His thumb sweeps across the knobs of Nicolò's spine.
"More Abu Nuwas?" Nicolò's voice is carefully blank but Yusuf can feel the tension thrumming under his touch.
He swallows. "Yes." The lie comes easy, a retreat to safer ground. His hand lifts with reluctance.
He plays badly that night. Nicolò plays worse.
Yusuf has seen enough men be cruel when they thought no one was watching. In his own unguarded moments, Nicolò is kind instead. He coaxes the birds that come into the garden with infinite patience, until a daring magpie will take pieces of meat from his hand, and he teaches the cook's daughter to whistle piercingly on two fingers, a new skill she shows off with dismaying frequency. He speaks to the servants softly, politely, asking after their families and thanking them for pouring wine, and little by little they warm up to him, beginning to treat him with respect rather than fear.
This change cannot erase the fact that there are fewer than there used to be, several having quit Yusuf's service in a rush of panic after Nicolò's first death and revival. What tales they're spreading in the taverns around the city, he can only imagine, but he finds it difficult to worry about that when they're sitting surrounded by flowering vines, only the moon and each other for company.
It takes another month for a vague concern to turn very much concrete.
The former servant that bursts into the room is little more than a sparsely bearded youth. His dagger shakes in his grip, a chain with a talisman dangling from the hilt.
"Whatever you think you're doing," Yusuf says, already halfway to his feet, "you need to stop before someone gets hurt."
Is this to become a regular occurrence, having to talk down men who wield weapons in his home? Yusuf just wanted to spend the afternoon eating olives and playing backgammon with his husband in peace.
With perfect calm, Nicolò rises from his chair. "He is only here for me."
"Nicolò," Yusuf says sharply. "Sit down."
Of course, he doesn't listen. "What if it's different when someone else does it?"
Yusuf throws up his hands in exasperation. "I do not wish to find out!"
He sees the movement and, without hesitation or thought, does something terminally stupid: he throws himself between Nicolò and the blade.
The boy's face is as white as marble, his expression a perfect mask of dismay as the dagger strikes home. Yusuf opens his mouth - to say what, he doesn't know - but all that emerges is a hoarse gasp, his chest splitting open with agony.
He doesn't swoon, just crashes to his knees. Blood splatters on the floor tiles like rain. Oh, Yusuf thinks dimly, that's coming from me.
There's shouting very far away, and then suddenly, Nicolò's arm around his shoulders, his frantic face swimming into view. "Yusuf," he says, voice urgent even through the buzzing noise in Yusuf's ears. "Please, no -"
It's the last thing Yusuf hears as darkness swallows him.
The Hereafter is warm and orange behind his closed eyelids. It's also noisier than he expected.
Yusuf squints one eye open, then the other. There are giants looming over him. No, that's ridiculous. They're just men, and he is lying on the floor.
"Then find him!" Sadiq bellows. "He can't have gone far!"
"I'll find him," Nicolò says. There's blood on his hands, his mouth. Even from Yusuf's limited vantage point, he looks wild-eyed and furious.
"You can't leave this house."
Nicolò's hand crushes Yusuf's in his grip. "Are you going to stop me?"
"Are you going to keep arguing over my head?" Yusuf croaks.
They both turn to him as one, and their faces are a sight to behold. Yusuf laughs but immediately starts to cough, spits blood on the floor until he can breathe again. He grimaces. His mouth tastes like metal and bile.
It's a struggle to sit up, especially since no one even thinks to assist him. "By all means," Yusuf says irritably, "just stare, don't help me." His hand goes to his chest and comes away slick. He was stabbed, Yusuf remembers abruptly, and a profound feeling of dizziness follows on the heels of this realization. He was stabbed -
Nicolò grips the neck of his tunic and rips it down the middle with brutal efficiency. Yusuf wants to tell him that this is not the time or place to consummate their union, but he can't seem to find his voice to make the joke. Nicolò has beautiful hands, he notes absently, broad and strong. One of them presses down right over Yusuf's heart.
"I don't understand," Nicolò whispers. "I pulled the knife from you myself."
Yusuf gingerly plucks at the tatters of his clothes, drags his fingertips through the blood smearing his chest. The skin underneath is warm and healthy. "Are you certain he really struck me?"
"There's blood in your beard from when you coughed up a bucket's worth." Nicolò's tone wants to be biting but doesn't quite accomplish it.
Yusuf's stomach swoops nauseatingly. He pushes himself to his knees, then up to standing. "Enough of this, I'm going to take a bath. Find that boy."
"Everyone's out searching," Sadiq says grimly. "We'll have him soon enough."
Yusuf nods and looks down at Nicolò, still kneeling on the floor. "Please -" Please what? Yusuf doesn't even know what he's asking for. Please don't go get yourself killed, again. "Please stay here," he finishes.
At long last, Nicolò says, "If that's what you want."
It's good enough for now.
Yusuf smashes a vial of scented oil in the bottom of the bath and picks up one of the shards. Breathing deeply, he crushes it in his fist.
The pain is sudden and piercing. A trail of red swirls through the water, dilutes to pink, then disappears. Yusuf lifts his shaking hand and watches as a series of small cuts knit together again perfectly.
At least the bath is a private place to suffer a breakdown.
His failed assassin is found within the hour, hiding in a store room, crying. It would be funny if Yusuf wasn't still trying to wash the phantom taste of blood from his mouth with wine. He and Nicolò are having their evening meal in the garden, a balmy breeze winding around their ankles like an affectionate pet.
"So where is he now?" Yusuf asks.
"He tried to escape," Nicolò says. "Lost his life in the attempt."
Yusuf picks apart a piece of bread and scatters the crumbs. "Permanently?"
"Permanently," Nicolò confirms. His gaze is intent but wary on Yusuf's face. "Did you ..."
It's not difficult to guess what he's asking. "Yes," Yusuf says. He glances at his hand and finds the palm as smooth as ever. In the back of his mind, he can sense panic sloshing like water against a dam, but for now, his defenses hold. "Yes, I tested it."
Nicolò toys with his goblet, turning it this way and that. "Do you think I put this on you?" he asks finally.
"What? No." Yusuf frowns. "Were you trying to?"
"Of course not," Nicolò says, like he wasn't ready to embrace martyrdom over marriage to Yusuf only a matter of weeks ago. He lowers his head and adds quietly, "I am sorry if I did."
Yusuf doesn't know what to do about the pain that constricts his throat. He breathes deeply and waits for it to pass, then says, "All this concern for a decadent, godless infidel?"
"I am sorry for that, too."
Yusuf has to look away from the earnest regret on Nicolò's face. His cheeks feel unusually warm. "You are forgiven."
After a few moments, Nicolò says, "You are rather decadent," and it has never been more of a relief to laugh.
Sleep refuses to come that night. After an indeterminate amount of time spent tossing and turning, Yusuf gives up, throws on a robe and sticks his head into the hallway to call for more wine.
Nicolò looks up sharply from where he's sitting on the floor, his hunting knife resting in his lap.
"Are you out here guarding me?" Yusuf asks in disbelief. "You know, I pay Sadiq and his men for that."
Nicolò rolls his shoulders. "Sadiq is downstairs by the front door. We thought it wise to establish a second line of defense."
"Why?" Yusuf asks. It's not like anyone could murder me.
Nicolò merely shifts his knife to the other hand. Yusuf sighs. "Come inside, we'll guard each other."
The door closes behind Nicolò with a soft rattle. Suddenly, Yusuf is reminded of the last time they were together in this room: their disaster of a wedding night. The first of Nicolò's many deaths.
"I was thinking," Nicolò says without preamble. "What if it's not a curse?"
Yusuf turns to face him. "And what would it be instead?"
Nicolò shrugs, a wry smile lifting one corner of his mouth. "A gift? A blessing? I don't know."
"A blessing," Yusuf repeats. Well, that's quite the miraculous shift in attitude. "What makes you think that?"
Nicolò steps closer and takes his hand. A jolt of surprise travels halfway up Yusuf's arm. "I was sure it had to be a curse because it marked me out, like Cain. To be kept from heaven but outlive all I know -"
"- and be a fugitive and a wanderer on the earth," Yusuf finishes.
Nicolò nods. "And I could understand why the Lord would want to punish me for my actions, but what you did, that was brave and selfless. You're a good man. And ..." He trails off.
"And?" Yusuf prompts. Nicolò is still holding his hand, and Yusuf is overwhelmingly aware of the place his thumb sweeps in absent circles.
"And we don't have to be alone now," Nicolò says quietly. "Not if we choose different."
It takes a moment for his meaning to sink in. "You refused to be married to me for even one night," Yusuf points out. His mouth is dry. "And now you're willing to be married for a thousand years, possibly?"
"Well," Nicolò says, "I thought we might take it a week at a time." The intensity of his gaze makes Yusuf's breath feel short. Merciful God, what is happening. "If you would still have me."
"What do you think?" Yusuf asks hoarsely. "I don't get myself stabbed through the heart for just -"
Nicolò surges forward and kisses him. Shock lights up Yusuf's whole body, chased by something else, much sweeter. Oh, he realizes, this is what's happening.
There's no gentling Nicolò's advance, his mouth on Yusuf's demanding and hungry. Yusuf gives himself over to the force of it until his head spins for lack of air, a delightful, dizzying drift like a bird riding the wind. He pushes a hand between them, gasping, laughing. "You have to let me breathe."
"Why," Nicolò whispers, "we'll just revive." He nips at Yusuf's fingertips, tongue immediately soothing the sting.
They stumble backwards until Yusuf's legs hit the edge of his bed and he sits down, hard. Nicolò braces a knee against the mattress and simply keeps kissing him. For all of his urgency, his hands are warm and gentle cradling Yusuf's head.
Finally, heart beating fit to burst his chest, Yusuf pulls away. "Take off your clothes," he orders, judging they're long past the point of seduction, and rightly so, going by the speed with which Nicolò obeys. He's golden in the lamplight, strong and beautiful. Yusuf is light-headed with how much he wants him.
His own robe is shed easily, and then he can pull Nicolò on top of him, let himself be pressed into the mattress. Yusuf pushes back and moans at the pleasure of his hard cock rubbing against Nicolò's hip, the heat and weight of him almost oppressive, overwhelming in a way that spikes Yusuf's blood.
They're both needful and impatient, sloppy with it, foreheads knocking together and hands getting in each other's way. Finally, Yusuf winds his fingers into Nicolò's hair, tugs until his head comes up with a gasp. "Will you let me?" he mutters, brushing his nose against Nicolò's, kisses his cheekbone, his jaw, the corner of his mouth.
Nicolò's eyes are dark, his cheeks bright red. "Yes," he says without hesitation, and Yusuf's heart swells with an aching tenderness. "Anything."
With a little pushing and pulling, Yusuf gets him flat on his stomach and stops for a moment to simply look: the unfamiliar planes and valleys of Nicolò's body, firm muscle that ripples under his stroking hands. There's a constellation of freckles scattered across his husband's shoulders and he maps them all, thorough and unhurried. At long last, he's allowed to have this, and Yusuf intends to take his time.
Nicolò's back arches, hips grinding against the bed. "Yusuf, please."
His voice is rough and breathless and Yusuf can feel the answering twinge deep in his gut. He's almost painfully hard, pulse throbbing in his fingertips as he reaches for the vial of oil he keeps by the bed, slicking up two fingers and working them slowly, carefully inside Nicolò's body.
The noise he gets in response is enough to set his skin on fire. Yusuf needs, as badly as Nicolò does, but there's a particular gratification in denying himself just a little longer.
Nicolò twists until he can glance over his shoulder, flushed and disheveled. "This is your revenge, isn't it?"
"It is," Yusuf confirms, twisting his fingers with loving provocation. "Isn't forbearance supposed to be a Christian virtue?"
"Isn't mercy one of yours?" The challenge in Nicolò's voice is familiar, and it delights him. Yusuf grins, not bothering to hide the hunger smoldering at his core, and Nicolò groans and buries his face into the pillow.
He draws it out, one hand on his cock not nearly enough to satisfy, but eventually Yusuf can bear it no longer. He lines himself up and lowers himself on top of Nicolò, kisses the back of his neck. Goosebumps rise under his lips.
"If you delay another minute," Nicolò says, muffled by the pillow but still clearly audible, "I will keep stabbing you until it sticks."
Yusuf's hoarse laugh changes to a groan as he pushes into the tight heat of Nicolò's body. It's better than he could have imagined, both a relief and a further stoking of his arousal, pushing what he's chasing tantalizingly beyond his reach. Nicolò curses, low and heartfelt, finds Yusuf's hand among the sheets and holds it fiercely tight.
What a strange route they took to get here, and how well they fit together now. Yusuf's body curls around Nicolò's like it was always meant to be there, mouth open on his neck, feet tangled together. They find a rhythm that suits them and Yusuf loses all track of time, his entire world shrunk to the clean salt taste of Nicolò's skin, the pattern of his panting breath. Every clench of his muscles sends a thrilling jolt up Yusuf's spine. He works a hand underneath them both, finds Nicolò's cock hard and leaking and strokes him as well as he can. Nicolò makes a raw, desperate noise, hips pushing into Yusuf's touch, and then he spills hot and slick over his fingers.
Yusuf is not long in following. He tips over the edge in a wild burst of pleasure, buries his face against Nicolò's back and waits for his heartbeat to slow.
Finally, Nicolò stirs, dislodging him gently. Yusuf settles on his side and draws him close again as soon as he is within reach. "You could have had this two months ago, you know," he says while lazily tracing the edge of Nicolò's jaw.
Nicolò shifts his head on the pillow, languid and heavy-lidded in a way that makes Yusuf's stomach flutter with the memory of arousal. "Could I?"
No, Yusuf has to admit. It wouldn't have been like this, for either of them, sweeter now for everything that's come before.
Nicolò raises his head and bends to kiss Yusuf's chest, above his heart, where a fresh scar should be but isn't. Yusuf closes his eyes. His whole body hums with contentment.
"He won't be the last one to come," Nicolò says. His lips quirk in a rueful smile when Yusuf frowns at him. "I'm sorry, I do not mean to spoil the moment."
"Too late," Yusuf says tartly. He lifts Nicolò's hand to his mouth and kisses it, lowers it to rest on his chest. "You're right. Who knows how far he's carried his tales."
Nicolò's face is serious. "We will need to leave this place."
The dread that Yusuf has been holding at bay for hours surges, spills over cold into his stomach. "I know," he says quietly. The enormity of this truth looms up higher than he can even see, a hundred painful edges waiting to cut him as he grapples with it: his family, his friends, his house, his city. His life.
Not his entire life, at least. Yusuf presses his forehead to Nicolò's, waits until the icy tendrils wrapped around his heart recede. "We don't have to deal with it all tonight," he mutters.
Nicolo's voice is soft. "No. Not tonight."
Yusuf kisses him, then kisses him again, until some of the lost glow returns to warm him from the inside out. The enthusiasm of Nicolò's response makes him smile against his mouth.
"When we go, we go together," Nicolò whispers, and then his wandering hands distract them both thoroughly.
Yusuf's dreams are vivid and confusing, full of voices and faces, both familiar and not. He jerks awake in the grey early dawn and it takes him a while to return to sleep, even with the comfort of Nicolò's steady breathing in his ear.
Sadiq knocks when they are almost finished with breakfast. If he's surprised to find Nicolò in Yusuf's bedchamber, pleasingly shirtless and stealing pieces of fruit off his plate, he doesn't show it.
"There are two women here to see you," he says, adding, when Yusuf rises, "Both of you."
Strange, but not unwelcome, unless they are hiding daggers up their sleeves.
In fact, both of their guests look like they very well might. They're dressed respectably enough but something in their bearing speaks of the battlefield. One is fair and pale-eyed, like Nicolò's people, the other plainly from the East. Both of them rise when Yusuf enters, and as he takes them in, he suffers a moment of dizzying confusion. Their faces are familiar.
Behind him, Nicolò inhales sharply. "I know you," he says, sounding as stunned as Yusuf feels. "You were -"
"In your dreams," the Eastern woman says. Her voice is polite, her Arabic barely accented. "As you have been in ours. My name is Quynh, and my companion is Andromache." She breaks into a smile, sudden and luminous. "And we've traveled a long way to meet you."