The blade through the back of his throat.
Red stars, white sky. No — steel. It’s all steel, all he can taste, all he can see, steel and his enemy’s face.
It’s not so unlike any other face. Nicolo will remember thinking that.
He will remember thinking, God wills it —
And then he thinks no more.
Nicolo wakes up gasping from a dream of a dying man.
It is his own death, and it isn’t. He watches it from outside himself — the enemy swordsman is slumped over him, choking, run through on Nicolo’s sword. But he rears back — he screams at the pain — and he brings down his own blade. Straight through Nicolo’s mouth.
Nicolo watches the light in his own eyes go out.
His killer falls forward. He’s laughing, weary breathless rattles that bring blood with them. He rests his forehead on Nicolo’s motionless shoulder; he turns his face into Nicolo’s neck.
He dies like that, slowly, and his blood soaks them both.
“Father,” Nicolo gasps.
What sort, he doesn’t know, but someone is there — tipping water down his throat. No, don’t, he almost cries, remembering the great wound there — but it doesn’t even sting.
“Father?” he asks again.
“Hush, child. You’ll be all right,” says the man, and hurries away.
Nicolo waits a minute. Then he sits up, learning in the process that he can. He’s in a dark tent, still clad in his bloody tunic, his chain mail — there are sounds of people outside. Many people. The familiar clank of metal and whinny of horses, the mass murmuration of a thousand different voices. But it can’t be.
He stumbles up onto his feet and to the flap of the tent.
It’s the army.
Nicolo turns wildly and sees the water-bringer again; he grabs for his sleeve. “Father,” he says again, “what happened to me?”
The man sidles a few inches away. “They found you on the field. Thought you’d hit your head; you were unconscious, but you weren’t injured. Found that next to you.”
Nicolo looks back, and sees for the first time the scabbard by the side of his bed. For a hot swoop of an instant, he thinks it’s the sword that killed him — but no. It’s his own.
“Thank you,” he says slowly.
The priest sighs. “If you don’t mind, I have real patients to treat —”
Nicolo bows to him before he leaves.
That night, he doesn’t sleep, so he doesn’t dream.
Instead he picks his way quietly to the edge of camp. Not in the direction of the killing plains — the other way. Out onto the ruined fields, away from the army, toward the mountains. He picks a rocky pinnacle and starts up it. It grows so steep he has to use both his hands to climb.
From the top, he looks back down on the glittering land laid out below him. The Frankish camp dances with the glow of little fires; the moon catches on the Orontes River. Antioch’s walls are lit up as well, torches pacing her towers; beyond them, he can glimpse the lights of the city.
It seems incredible that anyone there still draws enough breath to light lamps, in the wake of the slaughter. Nicolo lays his sword across his lap. He thinks, carefully, I was dead.
Nothing happens. No lightning bolt springs from the sky to strike him down.
There was a sword through my spine, and I woke up unharmed.
It’s a miracle.
A laugh scrapes out of his throat. He used to pray for miracles, but they were never this kind.
Maybe he hallucinated the whole thing. Perhaps he’s just sick with starvation, like the rest of the army; maybe the gnawing in his gut has finally started gnawing at his eyes, at his mind.
He knows it hasn’t.
Hunger couldn’t invent this. Not the sensation, replaying endlessly down his nerves, of something vital severing; of dying. Not the strange comfort of his enemy’s weight on his chest. Hunger couldn’t invent his enemy’s laughter — it wasn’t vicious, that laughter; it wasn’t the laughter of triumph at any cost. It was weary. Acceptance; regret.
That man is dead now, because Nicolo killed him, and suddenly that feels like the worst thing he can imagine — suddenly he doesn’t want to exist in a world without that enemy swordsman, his tired laugh and the lights in his eyes.
Nicolo’s breath catches deep in his lungs, and he shudders. His eyes are stinging; maybe only from the dust.
Maybe whatever happened to him has happened to the swordsman too.
It’s a strange thing to hope. This man isn’t the first one he’s killed; there are so many, stretching back now for years. Why this one, and not the others? Simply because of a laugh — because in his moment of death, Nicolo thought he might have glimpsed the other man’s heart?
If he took this news to Bishop Adhemar, it would be hailed as a sign. The saintly warriors, the Holy Lance; now Nicolo of Genoa, who God would not let die. He has been chosen, they might tell him. God wills it. He has been blessed.
If that’s so, what he does next might be sacrilege. He draws his sword a few inches free of its scabbard, enough to cut his God-blessed flesh.
He watches it heal. A miracle.
A horrible chasm twists inside him. He knows this feeling too well; has taken it to confession far too many times — Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My heart does not rejoice in my calling. My blessings seem to me as stones, weighing me down. He’s always known himself to be a poor excuse for a priest.
He thought he was better at being a warrior. He thought he could serve God as a pilgrim, and do it well. He thought he might find peace.
Bishop Augurius took him aside once, back then — before any of this. Son, it might help if you stop — trying so hard. You’re from a good family; you’ll have a good position waiting for you when you’re ordained. In my household, if you want it. It doesn’t need to be all — holy fire all the time.
But they argued, after Clermont; Augurius didn’t want him joining the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Nicolo refused the bishop’s offer of a chaplaincy. And here he is, three grueling years later, as sick with wrong as he was that day in the halls of San Lorenzo.
Maybe it’s a punishment. Maybe God finds him unworthy of martyrdom; maybe he still needs to prove himself.
I am not serving Him here, he told Augurius, three years ago. I know it in my heart. Perhaps I can serve Him better as a warrior.
Has he? He doesn’t know.
He just knows that this isn’t right. That he’s alive when he should be dead; that he is no miracle.
When next he dreams, he dreams of women.
There are two of them, mounted on horseback, dressed in strange attire he doesn’t recognize. They’re riding west, through a desert made of colors Nicolo’s never seen, out of a rising sun. One calls something to the other, words useless against the wind; but the other one laughs anyway.
Nicolo’s heart hurts terribly. I have never loved anyone as they love each other, he thinks.
Then the dream changes, and it’s the swordsman.
He’s lying on his back, bare-chested, hands folded across his sternum. His head is cushioned by a stained and crumpled shirt; his eyes are on the stars.
He’s alone, somewhere in the mountains. Bare dirt against his shoulderblades. Idly, he fingers the place below his ribs, left side — where Nicolo ran him through. There is no scar.
There’s a softness in the set of his mouth, a light in his eyes.
Nicolo wants to touch him. To reach out and trace his own thumb over that unmarked skin — to feel the warm and smooth of it. If he laid his fingers along every divot in the swordsman’s ribs, could he turn future blades aside? If he didn’t miss a single groove?
He couldn’t see the swordsman’s hair before, under his helmet; it’s thick curls, flattened where they’re pressed against the earth. There are tired lines around his eyes. Nicolo wonders what his beard might feel like to the touch. What his fingers could learn about the shape of the swordsman’s jaw.
He wakes up sweating. He can’t see the stars, from inside his tent; he can’t know if they’re the same ones the swordsman, somewhere, is watching too.
For a while, after Antioch falls, there’s enough for the army to eat.
Hunger has been a constant for so long that it feels strange to have a full belly. Men have eaten their horses, their bridles, their own shoes; sometimes Nicolo’s grateful his own mount died on an enemy lance long before he faced the choice to betray her. Instead, like everyone else, he eats what he can find. Dry stalks of grain from the fields; fistfuls of grass. What food is for sale costs more in gold than many of the pilgrims could ever dream of.
Nicolo does his best to ration what real food he has, when he has it. He keeps his belly light; accustoms himself to the hunger. That way, it isn’t so much worse, when there’s nothing. After Antioch, though, he eats like everyone else: until he can eat no more.
People are giddy with success. Speaking of Jerusalem — it isn’t far now. It can’t be far. If they can conquer Antioch, they can do anything.
Nicolo listens and holds his counsel. His sated stomach puts him in the mind of anatomy; he rests his hands on it and wonders — is that where he tore the swordsman open? Could he sense the rupture of each organ — or only the pain? For Nicolo, what has always felt like a whole body, inviolate, is suddenly nothing but pieces.
In Nicolo’s dreams, the swordsman is the hungry one now. He stumbles through mountains and woodlands, across dry stony plains. He hides from those who want his blood, or sometimes he fights them, and gives it. He’s too weak and weary to hold his own in a battle. Each time, though, he gets up again, eventually; each time he sheathes his sword and squints against the sky and keeps stumbling onward, south and east.
When at last the army moves again, they follow him.
It raises the hairs on Nicolo’s skin to see the landscapes of his dreams spring forth into being around him. There are mountains crowned with olive trees and oaks; rugged limestone that slices at the soles of his boots. Parched valleys, their fields abandoned and lifeless. Stone walls and columns of ruined towns, roofs open to the sky.
The first settlement they find that’s large enough to sack is al-Bara. It’s the shadow of a town, dwarfed by its surrounding ruins; but there are enough people for killing. Nicolo’s swordsman isn’t one of them. Those who are — men, women, children, it doesn’t matter — die bloody. Their screams echo down the streets and against the battered walls. Nicolo turns his face away.
He can’t watch a sword bite into flesh without knowing what it feels like — from the swordsman’s deaths if not his own. The death-rattle; the gouts of blood; the fear. No matter what else, there’s always the fear.
Those who survive are led back to Antioch in chains. Nicolo remains with the force holding the lifeless town. He watches the sky pass over the rocks and the grass and the emptiness, and waits for whatever it is that’s going to happen next.
Supplies are already running short again. Hunger, that briefly deferred enemy, begins again to torment Nicolo’s gut.
He knows what some men do. There have been whispers of it since Antioch — and more than whispers. The secret shame of it: the corpses that disappear. The distant fires and the faint, unmistakable smell of roasting meat. God wills it, they’ve always said, all the way from Clermont; but surely God didn’t will this.
Is it his right to judge? They have suffered hard years. Starvation whittles him, too, out from within, but he’ll survive it, he thinks; they won’t.
The fainter he gets with hunger, the harder he holds to his dreams. The swordsman isn’t alone any longer; he’s somewhere inside city walls. Striking up conversations with unfamiliar comrades. Sharpening his sword. Lying on a bunk turning pages in a volume of poetry, nodding off; every time he does, he nearly drops the book on his face. Nicolo wakes up from that dream smiling. There’s some knot in his chest that eases every time he sees the swordsman in his dreams.
He wonders if the swordsman dreams of him.
It seems an incredible thing to believe. More likely, all this is an invention of his own delirious mind — every last piece of it. His death, his healing, his apparent immortality. More likely, the swordsman never existed at all.
If he does, though — if he does, and he dreams of Nicolo — what must he think of him?
The question clamps something hard and painful in his gut. He only realizes a moment later he’s going to vomit — he has nothing to bring up. He staggers out of his tent and pukes thin bile into the grass.
When he’s done, he wipes his mouth and looks up to find a man at a neighboring campfire watching him. His eyes are hard and guarded; he’s turning something on a spit. He’s turning something on a spit —
Nicolo’s ears are roaring tunnels; he retches again. The flesh-eater turns away.
Please, thinks Nicolo, as he crawls back into his tent; please don’t dream of this. Don’t dream of me.
By the time they reach Ma’arra, the flesh-eaters have stopped hiding.
It’s easy to know who they are. They’re the men who can still march twenty miles; the ones with enough breath to jeer threats up at the walls. There are more of them every day — or maybe Nicolo hallucinates that. His own mind is faint with hunger. He crumples to the ground, once, when helping cut timber for the siege tower; it only occurs to him later that he might have died.
He sleeps a lot. It’s hard to avoid, when you’re starving. He dreams and dreams, dreams like a fever — of pages turning, lips parting at a turn of phrase; of slim fingers tangled in a horse’s mane.
He wants the swordsman to be in these city walls. He wants the swordsman to be far, far from here. He wants the swordsman to come kill him; maybe that’s what the dreams mean. Maybe this time, God will let him die.
Sometimes, lying in his bedroll, he prays through cracked lips: Stay away from this. There is nothing good here. Nothing good will happen in this city. Other times, Come to me — please, please come to me. Please —
He still isn’t ready on the day the swordsman does.
It’s December by then. It takes them weeks to build the siege tower; weeks in which the men turn crueler and the hunger only grows. They use it as a weapon now. They flaunt it; they shout what will happen, when they break the walls.
Nicolo tries not to hear it. He dies on the ladders. He does it twice. Plummets to the ground; feels his broken body reassemble. Gets up and tries again.
The city’s defenders rain down arrows on them. They heave rocks and hurl anything they can light on fire. Once, Nicolo hears a vast humming and looks up to realize it isn’t the usual buzz of dizziness inside his own skull — they’re throwing their beehives. That time he dies of stings.
By dark, though, somehow, the men have a foothold on the wall, and they fight on.
Nicolo finds himself with the ground unit, trying to batter open the gates. Few of them are strong enough to swing the great ram more than once without resting; they’re alternating, shouting to keep time. Nicolo steps aside to find his breath as they draw back for another swing, heave forward —
— and suddenly the gates themselves swing open.
Momentum carries the ram-bearers forward, and they fall. The next moment, the city’s defenders are upon them. Shouting and swinging their swords; the fallen ram-bearers are all but defenseless. A head flies off its shoulders; a man screams, blood spouting from his arm —
— and Nicolo is screaming himself, charging into the fray. The surge of danger erases his weakness somehow; he can move without shaking for the first time in weeks. His blade clashes with another, stopping it just short of its intended throat — its wielder turns, anger written on his mouth —
— and it’s him. Nicolo’s swordsman.
He falters, for just an instant. The eyes behind his helmet go wide.
Nicolo could step into him. Bring up his blade just like last time, drive it through the swordsman’s soft belly. At this range, nothing could stop him; not leather, not mail.
But he, too, hesitates.
And the swordsman is swinging his own blade. He’s laughing; Nicolo barely parries in time. “You!” he shouts, as he fences Nicolo back, back, toward the wall. He speaks the Mediterranean Sabir — the melting-pot language of traders. “So you’re real, then? Not just a shitty dream I had?”
Nicolo grits his teeth, shoulders into a block — he doesn’t think it’ll work. It does, somehow; he forces the swordsman back. “I could say the same to you,” he retorts, and swings into the offensive.
This time it’s the swordsman retreating — stumbling over bodies. There are people shouting and fighting all around them, but Nicolo can’t see any of them, no one but the swordsman. He stumbles, recovers; resets his stance. Tries a complicated sequence, but when Nicolo ducks and swings for his legs, he jumps back — tripping down a small bank.
Nicolo sees his opening. If he twists his enemy’s sword aside, strikes up under his guard, through the belly — just like last time —
He lunges. Again, the swordsman leaps back.
Nicolo goes sprawling in the dust.
He lands hard, rolling down the bank. The air leaves his body in an abrupt oof; he bites his own lip, and tastes blood.
When he comes to a stop, his body has remembered its weakness. His arms should be trying to push him upright; his legs should be readying themselves to bear his weight. But they don’t.
He hears two steps. From the corner of his vision, he can see the swordsman’s boots.
This is it, he thinks, expecting the blade. He has died so many times today. Destiny led us here. Maybe this time — maybe this time I won’t come back.
But there’s nothing.
After a moment, he raises his head.
The swordsman is watching him coolly. Blade still at the ready. Behind him, the battle rages on, but he doesn’t turn.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
Nicolo sits slowly. His head swims. He’s swaying when he staggers to his feet — raises his sword again in a two-handed grip. “Nicolo of Genoa.”
“Genoa!” The swordsman’s eyes are dancing; he shifts his own stance, and Nicolo guesses the time is done for introductions.
His block is useless against the swordsman’s swing. His muscles feel like water; his mind feels like lead. The swordsman knocks his blade aside easily, then darts forward in a thrust — and lands a jab in the meat of Nicolo’s thigh.
His leg crumples. He manages to sink only to one knee — to catch himself before he collapses again. Slowly, agonizingly, he pushes himself upright.
The swordsman is waiting. He swings again, for the other leg; Nicolo barely blocks him in time. Another swing, another parry — slow, slow — it’s as if the swordsman is humoring him. As if he knows Nicolo’s useless now in a fight.
The moment he speeds his blows, Nicolo’s lost.
He manages one more parry, another — and then the swordsman is past his guard. Stepping inside his swing; he catches Nicolo’s wrist in one hand. His grip is strong. Nicolo strains for a moment, then yields — and suddenly his sword arm is wrenched behind his back. The swordsman’s blade is against his throat, tipping his chin up, hard under his jaw.
They’re close — chest to chest, almost. Nicolo’s nerves sing with it. He can feel the swordsman’s breath, see the color of his eyes.
“You can tell them in Genoa,” says the swordsman, “that Yusuf son of Ibrahim son of Muhammad al-Kaysani —”
And his grip relaxes just an iota — for just an instant.
It’s enough. Nicolo twists — throws his shoulders — breaks the swordsman’s hold.
He feels a line of fire spring open across his neck. But it doesn’t matter; he’s still moving. He spins, low — his blade is still in his hand — comes up —
— and buries it in the swordsman’s throat.
A bubble of blood forms on the swordsman’s lips. His eyes are wide, suddenly; his blade falls from his hands and he raises them to his throat. They stop when they touch cold steel.
It wasn’t supposed to work. A desperate ploy, to free himself from the swordsman’s hold, get them moving again —
The swordsman’s — Yusuf’s — hands fall limp. As the blade takes his weight, it twists grotesquely, tears free — takes most of his larynx with it.
Nicolo stares down. The swordsman’s head lolls, more than half severed from his neck. His face is very still.
No, Nicolo thinks. It was supposed to be me, not you. Heal, damn you — heal —
There’s no answer.
There are tears on Nicolo’s cheeks. He sinks to one knee — the wound on his leg has already stopped hurting. His helmet is sweaty; it sticks for a moment as he wrestles it free.
The swordsman’s own helmet has already rolled half off his head. Nicolo hesitates, then removes it. He cradles the swordsman’s jaw in one hand, then the back of his head in the other — repairs its unnatural angle. Maybe now the wound will heal.
The swordsman’s beard is soft, a little scratchy. Just starting to soak with blood.
Nicolo doesn’t really think about what he does next. He can hear the shouts of triumph from the walls of the city. The scavengers are likely already looting the bodies.
He eases his own helmet onto the swordsman’s head. It fits; it obscures his face. His clothing is foreign, but it’s also soaked in blood. The night is dark already.
When Nicolo rises, he thinks it’s a good ruse. In this light, amid the chaos, the swordsman could be one of their own dead. His body, at least, will be honored.
Nicolo wipes his blade clean on the swordsman’s shirt and stumbles away.
The horrors he sees that night are nothing he wants to remember. All his long life, he will have nightmares of Ma’arra.
When he comes back to the foot of the bank, though, many hours later, there is no body there. Only his own helmet, upside down in the dirt, half-full of some kind of liquid.
When he picks it up, he realizes what it is.
Nicolo di Genoa laughs long and loud that night. Slumped in the dirt, his back to the bank and a helmet of piss in his lap; atrocities behind his eyelids and all the heavens laid out before them. He laughs and laughs and thanks God — thanks God — for sending him Yusuf the swordsman.
He has no more dreams of Yusuf, after Ma’arra.
The women remain. He catches them in glimpses — laughing around a campfire. The landscape around them is changing subtly, day by day, climbing into mountains that give way to rolling plains. Nicolo has the strange feeling they’re getting closer.
He glimpses them, once, kissing among tall grass. That image lingers. He never sees anyone else — only the two of them, alone under the sky. They seem sad sometimes, but most of all, they seem free.
Maybe it isn’t right to say he has no dreams of Yusuf. He dreams, certainly — of things that have already happened. He wakes up with his jaw clamped, his blankets soaked in sweat; his mind full of images he can’t erase. Death after death, Yusuf’s and his own.
Sometimes, he has another kind of dream, where they are the ones lying in tall grass, and no one can find them. Not if they look until the end of time.
We will meet again. The knowledge hammers inside his ribs, for all that he has no reason to believe it. Maybe Yusuf escaped east. Maybe south, to one of the great walled cities that defend themselves with gold rather than blood. Maybe he’s gone somewhere that knows peace.
He hasn’t. He’s in Jerusalem.
The army arrives under darkness.
They’ve been marching at night since Tripoli. Nicolo’s accustomed to stumbling over his own feet under the thin light of the moon; he’s accustomed to the relief of a weary dawn, felt more than seen — invisible birds striking up their songs. He’s accustomed to watching new landscapes filter out of gray darkness. Cypresses and olive trees, jagged hills and smooth valleys.
They’re walking on holy ground. He has some knowledge of the feet that have traced these pathways, paused at these wells.
But he isn’t prepared for Jerusalem.
The Normans under Tancred are already here. A rider appears out of the gloom to greet them, and to gesture toward a likely place to make camp. A few distant lights glimmer in the darkness as Nicolo pitches his tent; when he’s done, he gathers firewood to cook his meager rations.
Light comes before the sun. First, the bare smudge of pale sky that identifies the horizon; then, slowly, the forms of his tent, of his neighbors. Nicolo pauses his work when he can see his own hands, and turns to watch the rising of the city.
He’s never wondered if it might be beautiful before. Monumental, yes, monolithic; the end of a quest that’s been years in the making. He expected awe, wonder, even fear. But beauty —
It’s a city of hills. He knows that, from the stories.
It’s different to see them laid out before him. The domes and towers, the tiled roofs — he feels as though he could reach out and touch them. Run his fingers over the rough walls and down the cobbled streets. There is Mount Zion, to the city’s south; there’s the Mount of Olives behind it. And the ridges that stretch on to the horizon, with names he doesn’t know — mazed cliffs, dusty olive groves spilling down hillsides, grassy summits bleached summer-gold.
It’s a pale city. Walls the color of the early morning haze. The stones could be chiseled from clouds.
A flock of pigeons explodes from a distant belltower. And the sun is breaking over the far ridgeline — the first hard ray of it, lancing off the highest dome in the city and straight through Nicolo’s eyes; through his heart. It’s gold, a gold so bright it must be more than earthly — a fallen star.
Everything is glowing gold now, as the sun soaks over the hills: the city, the tents, the gnarled trees and the hungry, hollow-eyed men. The dust in the air catches fire.
Nicolo realizes he’s weeping. He isn’t the only one. Cries sound from across the camp, and they could be agony but they could be ecstasy — finally, finally, they are here.
It’s been four years since the Pope issued his call for pilgrims. Four long, hard years of starvation and suffering, of victories that leave you sick to your stomach; one great battle remains.
Maybe it was all worth it — the horror, the hunger — for this.
Jerusalem is not Antioch. It’s not Ma’arra. It isn’t Arqa or Tripoli either; but for all that, the mechanics of siege warfare are much the same.
Surround the city. Stop anyone who tries to get in or out; raid any would-be caravans of supplies. Mount the walls with ladders, under cover of the archers on the siege towers; ram the gates.
The trouble is — as the trouble usually is — that they have no siege towers. They have only a single ladder. And there is no timber to be found for miles around Jerusalem — what tall, straight trees there were have been cut to stumps. All they can find are old olives too twisted for their wood to be of any use.
It’s as though someone warned the city — or maybe they’ve just been here before. The word from the locals is that the Egyptians controlling Jerusalem took it by force themselves, not a year back.
The Frankish leaders confer. They argue, the holy men and the princes; logistics and God’s will. Then they launch the first assault.
It’s doomed to fail. Man after man charges up the single siege ladder and tumbles back to earth, broken; when it’s Nicolo’s turn, he doesn’t hesitate.
Yusuf is waiting on the ramparts. Of course Yusuf is waiting on the ramparts. “Genoa!” he calls down. “It’s nice to see you! Did you get my gift?”
Nicolo pauses with one arm hooked over a ladder rung to squint upward. “I liked it very much.”
Yusuf’s arrow hits him through the eye.
When he comes to himself on the ground, no one is watching him. He has to wait for a broken hand to heal before he can pull the arrow shaft free.
He gives himself a moment to breathe through the pain after that. To let heal whatever it is inside his skull that needs to heal; to stitch his thoughts back together. When he looks up at the walls, the defenders are busy cutting down the next man up the ladder, and the next. They’re not watching him.
That’s not true; one is.
Nicolo salutes Yusuf. He gets an answering wave — the flash of a grin.
He jogs back to his own lines before an arrow can find him again.
There’s a lull, after that first attack fails. The city’s defenders seem smug and comfortable inside their walls; the princes are debating. They need timber. They also need water — the countryside is all but barren. All the wells within a half day’s march of Jerusalem are poisoned or blocked.
Nicolo patrols outside the walls. He goes on foraging missions There’s one spring, southeast of the city, that runs once in three days — the Pool of Siloam. Christ healed a blind man’s eyes here, long ago; now Nicolo stands guard over it. Stops the pilgrims from drowning each other in their greedy rush for water. Carries buckets to the sick and feeble.
He dies once there, too, stabbed by a thirsty Norman. He manages to roll so his blood won’t soak into the water. He, at least, will get up again.
The hollowness inside him — so briefly filled by that first sight of Jerusalem — is back again. He wonders if his thoughts heal the same, after an arrow pierces his brain; if he is ever the same person he was before the last death, and the one before that. He wonders if he has ever known who he is at all.
The best days are the days when he watches the walls, because those days he might see Yusuf.
There’s a place above the spring he likes to climb, through the crumbling tombs of Silwan, up onto the Mount of Olives. Christ walked and spoke and prayed here, too; somewhere on these slopes — Nicolo doesn’t know where — is the Garden of Gethsemane. But he knows the small cave in the hillside where he can secret himself, lie on his belly and watch from a distance as the city’s defenders hold their conferences and direct their troops.
He isn’t close enough to hear what they’re saying. Sometimes, though, he glimpses a man on the wall. He knows him by his body, by now, his stance; the coiled power in his chest, the grace in his hips. Nicolo wishes he had some kind of a glass to peer through that might bring Yusuf closer — close enough to see his face clearly.
Once, though, when he’s on his way back to camp, passing under a corner of the wall, he glances up — and Yusuf is there on the ramparts.
He’s eating something, grin wide, chewing with his mouth open. “Genoa!” he shouts. “That you sneaking around?”
Nicolo stops to squint up at him. “Yusuf,” he returns. “I hope you’re having a nice day.”
He sees his use of Yusuf’s name startle him; maybe he doesn’t remember giving it. A moment later, though, he shrugs his shoulders, eyes scanning the horizon before dropping back to Nicolo. “Can’t complain. You?”
“Very pleasant, thank you.”
Yusuf’s grin hovers, then broadens. “See you around, then.”
Nicolo gives him a bow. “I expect you will.”
As he’s walking away, he hears the arrow rather than sees it. He tips his head sideways; it whirs over his shoulder and thunks into the heart of an olive tree.
Nicolo doesn’t turn back to look. He twangs the quivering arrow with one finger as he walks by, and hears a voice laughing from the walls. All the way back to camp, he doesn’t stop smiling.
Nicolo, when he stops to think about it, has been alone for a very long time.
Alone as a child, alone at the cathedral of San Lorenzo; then he answered the Pope’s call and got more alone, with every step he took away from home. There are other Genoese in the army, yes, but they haven’t been here from the beginning like him; there are other priests in the army, but they never left the fold.
Whatever good fortune he has, he has always tried to share with others, and that brings him a certain respect. Occasionally, he’s found quiet friendships, often among the peasant pilgrims; men who will pitch their tents beside his until they die. He’s known them, a little, their moods and their manners, the things they fear.
He’s never wanted to know anyone like he wants to know Yusuf.
Tell me where you are from, he wants to ask. How did you come to be this way — before our blades met? Were you alone, too? Do you, too, feel less alone now?
He burns with curiosity. He remembers a laugh, a gesture, an intonation, and wants to do nothing but remember it, turning it over like a smooth stone in his palm for hours or days. He wants to take in Yusuf piece by piece — to learn him slowly. He wants Yusuf to know him.
It’s simple, in its way, this version of the war: killing each other, and killing each other again.
It’s easy to forget, after a while, that they’re here to kill other people too.
It takes a month, from the first assault to the final one.
A fleet arrives from Nicolo’s homeland, bearing timber and supplies to help build their siege towers. It’s helmed by Guglielmo Embriaco — an old trading partner of his father’s. Nicolo fixes a smile on his face and goes to greet him.
“Is that — I don’t believe it. Little Nicolo!” Guglielmo exclaims. “Shit, we all believed you were dead. Christ, you’re skinny.”
Nicolo exchanges stilted conversation with him. His father and brother are well. Augurius died last year of an illness; the new bishop is Airardus. “Not to speak ill of the dead,” says Guglielmo, “but a welcome change, if you ask me. They’re rebuilding San Lorenzo, giving the whole place an upgrade. Trust me, it’s going to be spectacular. They’re hoping I can make a little —” he rubs his fingers together “— at this whole party to help get things started.”
Nicolo says nothing. He feels as though he’s vanishing, bit by bit; the world that made him doesn’t exist anymore.
They talk for a while more; he and Guglielmo exchange polite goodbyes. He avoids the Genoese after that.
But their supplies of timber bring new purpose and urgency to the army. They have enough materials for two great siege towers now, and many more ladders besides. Men work day and night to complete them.
The defenders sally out to try and stop them — with foot soldiers, with cavalry, with fire and arrows. At every attempt, they’re beaten back. Nicolo learns where to expect Yusuf, though there is nothing to expect in these attacks — they’re at night, usually, employing ever more desperate diversions and ploys. Still, Yusuf is usually somewhere in the left wing. He’s usually looking for Nicolo too.
After the first few raids, Nicolo starts keeping track of who kills who.
He mentions that to Yusuf one night, their bodies close, gritting for leverage against locked blades. “You know, I’m ahead by two.”
“Two!” Yusuf breaks contact, spinning away; Nicolo dodges his slash. “You’re a liar; it’s one.”
Nicolo advances, striking overhand, counting in time with the clang of their swords. “I killed you four times this month. You killed me twice. You killed me on the walls; I killed you at Ma’arra —”
“Hang on.” Yusuf goes low, for his legs, and Nicolo skips back. “I killed you at Ma’arra too.”
“It’s understandable your memory would fail you, when —”
But the stab was a feint. Yusuf spins back the other way, blade flying like silver, and knocks Nicolo’s sword aside; then he’s inside his guard, and his sword is in Nicolo’s belly, right up to the hilt.
Nicolo gasps; chokes. His helmet clanks with Yusuf’s, their faces close. Yusuf smiles at him. He asks, in a deadly whisper, “Who do you think dropped the bees?”
You never get used to the agony, no matter how many times you die. Nicolo’s head is swimming with it; his sword falls from his grasp. But when his hand drops, it finds the hilt of Yusuf’s dagger, still sheathed at his belt.
It takes a moment for him to arrange his fingers to grip it. To pull it free.
“I don’t think — that counts,” he gasps, and cuts Yusuf’s throat.
He comes to himself on the ground under the night sky. The battle has moved on; for a moment, there’s quiet around him. Then, on his left, Yusuf groans.
Nicolo sits up, rubbing his eyes. For all the times they’ve killed each other, they’ve never woken up side by side.
He looks around, assessing. They’re closer to the siege works than he realized; this time, the defenders nearly achieved their goal. But Nicolo’s army is winning, beating them back — there’s the sound of fighting in the distance, near the walls.
He and Yusuf are behind the lines.
Yusuf seems to realize it in the same moment he does. In a flurry of motion, he’s scrambling to his feet; then he’s off and running, stumbling, toward the shadow of the siege tower beyond the ridge. If he gets close, under the cover of darkness — if he can start a flame —
Nicolo grabs for his sword and lurches after him.
Yusuf is faster than he is, though. Lighter — he doesn’t wear chain mail. He’s gaining, skipping over the rocks, taking the straight-line route — directly over the rocky hill before them. For a moment, cresting the rise, he’s silhouetted against the moon.
Then he’s disappearing down the other side. In an act of desperation, Nicolo flings himself after him.
He just barely judges the distance right. They go down together, hard. And they’re rolling down the slope, colliding with rocks — Nicolo feels his ribs crack, then Yusuf’s. His helmet comes loose, rolling away.
A moment later, his head hits something that makes the world go dark.
When he comes to this time, he and Yusuf are still entangled. Yusuf asks faintly, after a moment, “Did we die?”
“I don’t know.”
“You’re a bastard.”
The word sounds fervent, almost admiring. “You were going to burn the tower,” Nicolo counters.
“Ow, fuck — can you move?”
Can he? It’s a good question. Nicolo extracts himself carefully from the tangle of limbs. One of his arms realigns and heals as he does it. Underneath him, Yusuf hisses with pain.
Nicolo looks down at him, amused. “You haven’t fallen off any ladders yet.”
“Strangely, I haven’t been laying siege to anything.” Yusuf sits up. There’s the tell-tale popping and creaking of bones mending themselves. “Shit.”
They regard each other for a moment.
The absurdity of their situation strikes Nicolo. It’s a strange thing, giving your life for a cause, and then getting up and choosing to do it again.
Yusuf tilts his chin up the rise. “You going to let me go?”
“Are you going to try and burn the tower?”
Yusuf huffs a laugh. Nicolo finds himself smiling in return. “I guess not, then.”
Incredibly, they both still have their swords. It takes them a moment to find their feet, to draw them; they move warily. A slow circle.
Yusuf’s eyes are in shadow, careful on Nicolo’s form. Watching for a tell, a weakness. His sword glints briefly in the light of the moon.
He’s moving slowly, though. Slower than usual — not by much. Maybe only Nicolo, as attuned as he is to the shift of Yusuf’s hips, to the turn of his wrist, would see it.
It’s enough. An opening. He swings into his attack.
They kill each other once. Again. The third time, Nicolo stands and watches Yusuf heal before he pulls him to his feet. “Come. I will be gentle this time.”
Yusuf laughs at him. “You won’t have a choice.”
The fourth time, Yusuf cuts his head off.
It takes him a while to wake up from that. When he does, he’s flat on his back in the dirt, and everything hurts. He rolls slowly up onto one elbow.
Yusuf is sitting on a nearby rock, polishing his sword. On the ground by his feet is Nicolo’s head.
Nicolo squints at it. He rubs his jaw. “That’s — very weird.”
For a moment Yusuf just stares at him. Then he bursts out laughing.
“Very weird,” he manages after a long, breathless moment. “You think that’s very weird. Try sitting here watching your — head grow back, like some — starfish-man — Genoa, you don’t know weird.”
Nicolo sits up. When he was a child, he used to find starfish in the tidepools outside the city; strange how many years it’s been since he remembered that. He never hurt one, not on purpose, but he rescued them from the gulls sometimes, or from other boys; he knows how their limbs grow back. The shape of their wounds.
He wonders if Yusuf comes from a place with tidepools. If he, too, when he found a parched starfish stranded by the tide, would hurry to toss it back into the sea.
He says, “My name is Nicolo.”
Yusuf stops laughing. He returns Nicolo’s gaze for a long, sober moment. Then he echoes, “Nicolo.”
“How long did it take?”
Yusuf squints up at the moon. “A while. An hour, maybe.”
“And yet the siege tower is still there.”
Yusuf stands. He offers Nicolo his hand.
When Nicolo takes it, he half expects to be stabbed as soon as he’s on his feet. It would be simple; it’s what he would do. But Yusuf just looks at him, his face suddenly close.
The line of his mouth is serious. Nicolo hadn’t realized how much of his time Yusuf spends smiling — laughing, taunting, sharing a joke.
He releases Nicolo’s hand. He says, “I’ll see you on the walls.”
And he’s gone into the night.
Over the days that follow, Nicolo spends many hours wondering why Yusuf didn’t take his chance.
He wonders it as he helps soak hides in vinegar and nail them to the tower’s posts. He wonders it as he kneels in prayer, as he lies in his bedroll those final nights, trying to sleep. His mind wanders, listening to Raymond and Arnulf and Peter the Hermit preach the coming victory. The trumpets blast; he marches barefoot in the throng, one final pious procession around the city walls. He wonders: He could have stopped it. Why didn’t he stop it?
He knows what the priests would tell him. What he would have told himself, once — that it’s a miracle, yet again. That God has turned his enemy’s heart to the light.
They’d be wrong. It wasn’t revelation he saw in Yusuf’s face. It was sadness; acceptance. What will be will be.
Augurius used to preach the value of acceptance. If Nicolo had listened, maybe he’d still be in Genoa.
The heat of the day is blazing. The procession marches on; sharp stones tear the soles of Nicolo’s feet, and he barely feels them. They heal. He treads in others’ blood.
He wonders if Yusuf is watching this. If he finds their behavior insane.
It might not have worked. It probably wouldn’t have worked — one man, sneaking past the workers still left in the camp. Nicolo’s spent days doing everything he can to make sure the structure won’t be easy to burn. Maybe Yusuf knows that. Maybe he is tired of dying for no reason.
Maybe he wanted to stay and find out if beheading killed Nicolo for good.
Sorry, Nicolo thinks, not this time. But he feels more at peace with it, somehow — with living — than he did at Ma’arra.
What’s coming tomorrow, he doesn’t know. He can imagine none of it; the future is a vast blank flag, yet to be unfurled. But Yusuf will be there, he thinks. Yusuf will be there, and so Nicolo will be there, because where Yusuf goes, he follows.
I’ll see you on the walls, Yusuf said, and somehow, in the fury of battle, every time Nicolo reaches them he is there.
The first time, Nicolo hesitates. I’m sorry, he wants to say, absurdly, I’m sorry for all of this, can you forgive me, please can you explain. But Yusuf gives him a corner of a smile, a solemn one, and stabs him through the heart.
After that, Nicolo fights.
He still dies most times. It’s not easy, fighting upward from a ladder, even with the covering fire of the archers on the tower. Once, he manages to vault up onto the ramparts and kill Yusuf first; other men swarm him. He battles madly and fells two before strong, familiar hands catch him from behind. A dagger slits his throat.
When he wakes, he’s on the ground. He staggers back up onto broken limbs and waits for his turn to climb the ladder again.
By nightfall, the outer wall is broken, and the battle is all but won. Nicolo’s body feels strange, returning to his bedroll and earthly concerns like sleep. His skin feels charged with electricity, his senses stretched to shapelessness.
“Hey,” says someone from over a campfire, as Nicolo passes by. “Hey, you’re dead. I saw you die.”
“You were mistaken,” Nicolo tells him, and enters his tent without looking back. Funny, that this is the first time anyone’s noticed. Or maybe they’re all so used to death they barely see it anymore.
He doesn’t think he can sleep, but he does; instantly and totally. He doesn’t have another thought until he wakes on the day they are to take Jerusalem.
Many years later, Nicolo will debate with his friends — his family — on the nature of memory, and he will cite this day.
Andy will insist she’s forgotten more than she remembers; forgotten, even, her age, her own first name. Booker will explain how neurons process and reprocess events, stitching the past ever tighter, discarding excess details on the cutting room floor. Yusuf will smile and shake his head, and Nicolo — Nicolo will know they are wrong, because July 15th, 1099, is a day he will remember perfectly, even as he lived it, all his long centuries on.
How he lives it is in flashes. Time speeding and slowing. Images; screams.
There are flames in the air. Trumpets blasting. Men sweating and straining to move immense wooden towers; heaving them past the outer wall.
There is the fever of violence singing in his veins. The city laid out before him. Blood, dripping off his helmet and onto his face; it’s not his own.
There are city streets, close-walled, winding upward; there are men running. Swords clashing, swords plunging, the unarmed screaming and dying. Feet slipping on bloody cobblestones.
There are shouts up ahead. Landmarks long imagined, long watched from afar, looming around sudden corners. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher. He knows it in his soul; it was here that Christ died. Here that he rose again.
Then there’s more shouting, from down an alley on his right, and Nicolo turns.
Its source is three men — his own men, his comrades. They’re pursuing a woman in a head scarf. She has a baby in her arms, a child clinging to her skirt. She trips and falls.
She doesn’t scream — just curls her body tight around her infant. The men laugh.
Nicolo can’t move. His vision is doubling — it’s Ma’arra, it’s Antioch. No, he thinks, this is wrong, but what can he do? What can he do?
One of the men is raising his sword when a body barrels past Nicolo — knocking him aside.
He’s already caked with blood — staining his face, his hair. His sword is naked, glinting red. He dives, shouts — blocks the sword just before it swings home.
And he’s shouting something else, over his shoulder — Arabic words Nicolo doesn’t understand. The woman looks up, terrified, and scrambles to her feet. She seizes her child’s hand and takes off again, running down the alley and out of sight.
Nicolo is frozen. Yusuf gives the three soldiers a bloody grin.
All at once, they attack.
Nicolo’s throat produces a sound that tears at his nerves — a sound that must be a scream. But Yusuf is moving too, sword flickering faster than Nicolo’s ever seen it; darting in sweeping figure eights. He dances away from this blade, now that one, knocking the others aside; he’s magnificent. Incomparable.
But he’s one man fighting three. The first blow to land slashes across the back of his thigh, and he buckles. The second one gouges into his shoulder. Still he fights on, teeth bared in a grimace — half bent over his wounded leg, hand braced on one knee.
The second blow to his leg cuts him down.
And the swords are rising and falling. A belly wound; blood bubbles out of Yusuf’s mouth. He falls sideways. A sneering soldier kicks him, hard, in the face; his sword drops from nerveless fingers. And still another is raising his blade, moving in for another unnecessary swing —
One time before, Nicolo’s eyes saw only red, and white, and the flash of steel.
He doesn’t feel himself move down the alley. But he feels it in glorious detail — the savage satisfaction of every inch of resistance — when his sword pierces the soldier’s heart.
There’s a moment of profound stillness. Shocked faces turning to meet the betrayal of one of their own. Then Nicolo yanks his sword free, and the dead man falls.
He kills the second soldier before he’s done gaping. The third raises his sword — manages one blow, two — before Nicolo threshes him like wheat.
Yusuf’s body is limp and still on the stones. Then it twitches, once, twice; he gasps back to life.
Nicolo stares down at him, chest heaving, his own heartbeat thundering in his ears.
But there are more screams from behind him — the mouth of the alley. Three women, this time, helping an elderly man; they’re running as fast as he can hobble, but the Franks are closing in —
And Nicolo is done with it. He’s done with this. With all of them.
He strides forward. “Get behind me!” he shouts, voice hoarse, probably unintelligible to them, but they do.
Nicolo cuts the first soldier’s head off. It’s easy; his sword arm is singing. There’s a fire blazing inside him; he blocks the next man’s startled swing and stabs him through the gut.
There are more men at the top of the alley, pointing, shouting — Nicolo hears the word “Traitor!” He swings overhand for a third soldier, fences him back with one blow, two, slashes his arm — and then they’re around him. Ringing him; he should have put his back against the wall.
He didn’t. It doesn’t matter. He thinks he might be laughing when the first sword thrust finds him — he ignores it. He kills another. He’s definitely laughing, blood in his mouth and his eyes; he kills a fourth man. A sword plunges through his ribs.
Someone’s yelling “No!”, and it’s Yusuf, running, trying to fight to his side.
He remembers pain. Nearly falling, a dozen times; rising again. Fighting on. He remembers mortal wounds, too many of them, blood in his lungs. Collapsing in dust and pushing himself up again — collapsing once more. The bodies all around him. Yusuf yelling, “No, no —” the men sneering, spitting on him — leaving him for dead.
He remembers drawing himself to his feet one more time, impossibly, to chase them —
And arms around him. Holding him back. He snarls; he tries to throw them off.
Then there’s blackness, and he knows no more.
When he wakes, the first sensation is of unfamiliar cloth against his skin. It’s scratchy, rough — but unlike anything he’s known in months, maybe years, it’s clean.
He blinks his eyes open. He can’t quite orient himself. He’s in a dim stone room, low-ceilinged; somewhere in the distance, he can still hear screaming, the clash of metal on metal.
Someone’s moving nearby. Nicolo tries to speak twice before sound escapes his mouth. “Yusuf?”
But the face that leans into his view isn’t Yusuf’s. It’s an elderly man in a long robe, not unlike the ones Nicolo used to wear. He clasps Nicolo’s hand in both of his and smiles. “He will return soon. He is helping the women and children escape.”
He must see the confusion in Nicolo’s eyes, because he adds, “My name is Gerard. You are in my hospital. Your weapons are nearby. I have taken the liberty of providing you with fresh clothing. Please, Nicolo of Genoa — rest.”
Nicolo squints. His brain is slowly convincing itself of the direction of gravity. “Do we know each other?”
Gerard smiles and shakes his head. “No, but he thought I might. He has asked me about you. I take it you, too, don’t die.”
“You — know about that,” Nicolo mumbles. But sleep is already overtaking him; he sinks again into its depths.
When next he wakes, the dim light of morning is filtering into the chamber, and it’s not Gerard by his bedside, but Yusuf.
His head is bowed, elbows propped on his knees. He looks exhausted.
Nicolo watches him for a long minute, unobserved. Then he shifts and reaches out to touch Yusuf’s hand.
Yusuf startles. His eyes are weary, but when they land on Nicolo’s face, warmth eases them. “You’re awake.”
Nicolo squeezes his wrist. He has a question; he needs to know the answer. “Why did you stop me?”
Whatever Yusuf was expecting, it wasn’t that. His face looks blank, for a moment, then gray and hollowed in the pre-dawn light.
“It was no use,” he says eventually. “I didn’t — I didn’t want them to hurt you.”
Nicolo considers that for a moment. “Only we are allowed to kill each other,” he hypothesizes.
Yusuf huffs a laugh. His smile is threadbare. “Something like that.”
They’re both quiet for a moment. Nicolo can hear birds chirping from somewhere nearby — sparrows, he thinks, the same cheerful brown-and-white-and-black ones that nested under his eaves at San Lorenzo. Many things are foreign, here, but some things are the same.
“I should go,” says Yusuf, after a while. He’s been looking down at Nicolo’s hand; he raises his eyes to his face. “It’s not — it’s not a good place for me here. Good luck, Nicolo.”
And before Nicolo can quite understand his words, Yusuf’s freeing his hand from his grip. He’s easing back his chair; it scrapes on the floor. He’s standing.
He glances down — hesitates.
Then he turns, and he’s gone.
For a long moment, Nicolo stares after him, dazed.
Then his wits catch up with him, and he lurches to his feet.
He nearly stumbles at the door of his room, tripping barefoot onto the stone stairs. He thinks he can hear footfalls somewhere below him, a door creaking — he hurries downward. At the foot of the steps he looks right, left — there’s a door closing, a sliver of light beyond.
Nicolo stumbles out into a small walled garden. A lemon tree is growing at its center. This is where the sound of the sparrows was coming from; their cheeping echoes off the stones. Yusuf’s already at the far side, starting down another set of steps toward the little gate in the wall.
“Wait,” Nicolo calls.
Yusuf’s hand stills on the latch. He turns.
“Take me with you.” Nicolo realizes he’s breathing hard. His face feels flushed, his heart wild. “I think you should take me with you.”
Yusuf is standing very still. It’s hard to read his face, the lines of his body. Finally, he holds out an arm, as if to encompass Nicolo, the garden — the whole city. “You won,” he says. “Do you not understand that? You, your people — you’ve won.”
“I don’t care.” The Holy Sepulcher must be close enough to touch, almost; the place he’s been seeking all these years. “I don’t care. Take me with you. If — if we’re going to live forever together, we shouldn’t do it alone.”
For a long moment, Yusuf looks completely stunned — unmoored.
Then, incredibly, a smile cracks his face. He gestures at Nicolo, and he’s laughing, the kind of laughter that rattles helplessly up out of you, not loud but so deep it makes it hard to breathe. “Were you going,” he gasps, mastering himself, barely; “were you going to put on clothes?”
Nicolo glances down at himself. He’s wearing an undertunic and nothing else; no shoes, no hose, no drawers.
“Yes,” he says, with dignity. “I was.”
Yusuf gestures for him to go on. When Nicolo gets back, dressed and armed, he’s still laughing, sitting there on the garden wall.
They don’t make it far, the first day. Nicolo follows Yusuf’s lead, but the other man is struggling, clearly exhausted — in his body as well as his soul. He hasn’t slept, Nicolo gathers; maybe in days.
It’s mid-morning before they’re clear of the city. Yusuf follows paths he must know well; caves, tunnels, a cache of supplies. He spares Nicolo a glance once as if to say: I’m trusting you with this. Nicolo nods his answer.
They don’t speak much. The tunnel leads to a tiny barred gate, hidden among bushes at the base of the city wall. Yusuf assumes a cramped position in the entryway, neck craned backward to watch the ramparts — waiting for the guard to change.
Nicolo watches his eyelids droop and his muscles begin to lose tension twice before he reaches out to touch Yusuf’s knee. “Let me,” he whispers.
Yusuf hesitates, then nods. They switch positions awkwardly in the cramped tunnel, and Nicolo braces himself carefully so that only his head is exposed. A part of him scoffs at the caution — what can the guards do, kill them? — but he’s had enough of dying for a while. He’s had enough of watching Yusuf die.
When he glances back at the dark of the tunnel, he can’t see much; the sun is glaring in his eyes. Finally, finally, the guards leave their posts, and he sits up straight, flexing cramped muscles. “Yusuf,” he whispers, and then, seeing the other man’s chin is on his chest, shakes his shoulder gently. “Yusuf.”
Yusuf starts awake, his hand flying in search of a weapon. An instant later, he relaxes. “It’s time?”
Nicolo nods. He lets Yusuf clamber over him to lead the way, shouldering their bag of supplies; follows him at a low crouch.
It isn’t far to go, across the open stretch of valley to the flank of the Mount of Olives, the shelter of scrub and trees. Nicolo remembers the procession’s path through here — he knows exactly where they’ll be out of range. He watches the back of Yusuf’s neck, the sweat-damp curls there, and tries not to imagine an arrow burying itself in his skin.
As soon as they’re under cover again, Yusuf stops. He leans out to put his hand on a gnarled olive trunk, head hanging, breathing hard. Nicolo waits a moment, then moves around him and crouches low.
Yusuf’s gaze seems reluctant to meet his. Nicolo gives him a moment. Then he says, “Just because we heal in battle doesn’t mean our bodies can keep going without rest. Come — I know a place. It isn’t far.”
“If you don’t like it,” Nicolo offers, “we’ll move on.”
He leads Yusuf to his cave. He’s right that it isn’t far — just south and up the slope. The nearby tombs might offer better shelter, but he’s seen other people stop there; wanderers, local shepherds. The cave is his and his alone.
It isn’t much — barely more than a shelf with an overhang, mostly invisible behind a wall of scrub. A few times as they climb, he thinks Yusuf needs to stop, but they keep going; Nicolo offers him a hand, wordless, for the final scramble onto the ledge.
Yusuf glances around. The ground is soft dirt, packed down a little where Nicolo used to lie on his belly; there are scuff marks where he’d rest his toes. Maybe Yusuf recognizes that, because he grins suddenly. “You spying bastard.”
Nicolo shrugs and gives him a half-smile. “I liked watching you best.”
Laughter catches on Yusuf’s mouth, in his eyes, and for a moment he looks less weary; for a moment Nicolo can’t breathe. “You’ll wake me at sundown?”
He spends the day much as he’s spent many of his days — watching the walls. It’s strange to see them guarded by men he recognizes; men he knows too well. He’s seen these men do terrible things. Long before Jerusalem, even before Ma’arra, before Antioch — but he’s never turned on them before.
He glances over his shoulder at Yusuf’s sleeping face. It’s tight with tension, eyebrows drawn together; Nicolo doesn’t know what his own face looks like when he’s sleeping, now, but he can’t imagine it’s untroubled. Yusuf sleeps on his side, with his arms folded tight around his ribs.
When Nicolo thinks of him lying in that alley —
He has to stop — to draw breath. In, out, in, out; he isn’t in the alley. He’s somewhere safe, and Yusuf is with him, and they’re leaving Jerusalem for good.
He closes his eyes. He centers himself, slowly; once more, he draws back the curtains in his mind.
What is it that makes the cold bloom under his skin when he thinks of it? The murder of his own comrades? When he looks inside himself for remorse, he comes up empty. He can picture their bodies piled up around him; their shock and anger and revulsion. Their voices crying, Traitor!
He doesn’t wish he could hurt them more. He doesn’t wish he could hurt them any less, either.
What of the innocents — the women, the children, the old man?
He thinks of the fates they escaped and aches for them. He aches for Yusuf, ferrying as many to safety as he could; he aches for the thousands of faceless and nameless that were never saved. He’s seen it, after all. He’s been seeing it for years. God wills it.
Maybe he’s grown numb to it. Maybe he’ll spend his whole lifetime — maybe forever — washing their blood from his hands.
But when he thinks of Yusuf —
His jaw clenches, hard.
When he thinks of Yusuf — the horrible instant of limpness, his head flying back at the blow of a boot — he can’t breathe. The sun is too hot, too bright, it’s inside his chest and it’s spilling out his throat; his hands want a weapon. His heart wants to kill.
It feels like dying — this anger. Nicolo would know.
He looks back at Yusuf’s sleeping face and finds the muscles to expand his lungs — in, out. He wants to reach out and brush the curls back from Yusuf’s forehead. Maybe he could smooth away the tension, too.
The hard arrow of his fury fades, a little — as if it’s a shadow in the desert; as if Yusuf’s face, the rise and fall of Yusuf’s chest, could be a cloud to blind the sun.
He doesn’t touch Yusuf. He doesn’t want to disturb his sleep. But as the hours stretch onward, he watches Yusuf as often as he does the walls, and he finds that he can breathe.
Nicolo wakes Yusuf at dusk, as he promised. It seems to take him a moment to get his bearings; he rolls onto his back, rubbing his eyes, and then smiles and says, “Thank you.”
As they walk, they converse in quiet tones. Their dialect is something of a patchwork, but it hasn’t failed them before, and it doesn’t now. They talk for a while of fruit trees; Nicolo tells Yusuf that he’d never seen a lemon before he came to the east.
They lapse into silence. Then Yusuf says, “You didn’t go to the church — your Holy Sepulcher.” When Nicolo says nothing, he adds, “They were lining up all night, your people. There were bloody footprints in and out the door.”
There’s no answer Nicolo can find to give.
Yusuf adds, “There’s another place they go to, sometimes. The Christian pilgrims. We’re not far.”
It’s the Garden of Gethsemane.
Nicolo knows it, somehow, the instant they enter. It doesn’t look like much of anything — rocky outcrops, a few gnarled olive trees, perhaps the most ancient he’s seen yet. But he knows. “Christ prayed here,” he murmurs, “on the night of His betrayal.”
Yusuf is watching him. And Nicolo feels compelled to go on; feels, for just an instant, like he’s standing at a pulpit, like a willing congregation is listening to his words. “He sweated great drops of blood on the ground; He came to accept that He was going to his doom. And they came to arrest Him. I was a priest, once,” he adds, in belated explanation.
Yusuf gives him a smile that can’t quite hide its edge. “Are you going to your doom?”
“No,” Nicolo answers softly, with certainty. “My doom is what I leave behind.”
He prays quietly; for how long, he doesn’t know. It’s been some time since he did this with all the sincerity in his heart; now he shares his sins, his doubts. He thanks God for sending him Yusuf. He promises: I do not know to what end, but I will honor and cherish this gift in all the ways I can. He whispers, “Thy will be done.”
He’s done, he thinks, presuming to know what that is.
When he opens his eyes, Yusuf is sitting on a rock, not far away. There’s something in his hand; when he sees Nicolo looking, he opens his palm.
It’s an olive pit. A tiny green sprout curls up out of it, raising tiny twin leaves to the night. “I found it on the rocks,” Yusuf says. “There’s nothing there for its root.”
“We should plant it,” Nicolo answers.
Yusuf comes to him. Nicolo rocks back on his heels; his knees have left soft divots in the dirt. They plant the seed between them, in a shallow scraping of soil. It takes only moments.
Maybe the little would-be olive tree is already too parched from exposure, Nicolo thinks. Maybe it will still die.
But maybe it won’t.
They walk for days, away from Jerusalem; they go east.
On the second afternoon, they stop outside a shepherd’s cottage. The man looks at them suspiciously; Nicolo waits beyond the gate. Yusuf haggles with expansive gestures and a smile. When he walks away, he’s leading a mule, fresh packs of supplies strapped to her sides.
He also has new clothing for Nicolo. “Wear this,” he says. “If you don’t want to keep getting looks like that one.”
It takes Nicolo a few tries to arrange the head scarf; Yusuf takes pity and helps him. The clothing doesn’t seem very different from his plain tunic — he left his blood-stained one in Gerard’s hospital, along with his mangled hauberk — but he trades them anyway and fastens his sword belt around his waist. Yusuf looks him over and gives an approving nod.
The farther they get from the city, the looser they feel. They thread their way along shepherds’ paths, climbing hills that give way to more hills, until the track of the sun is the only thing orienting Nicolo to the direction from which they’ve come. Then the paths drop them, abruptly, into a great flat valley.
The heat is blazing. Water shimmers in the distance; Yusuf says it is real, but undrinkable. Mirages shimmer closer.
They cross the valley and start south, hugging the edge of the mountains. They’re vast, foreboding, crags of chalk and rust; they look nothing like the Ligurian mountains of home.
Nicolo wonders where Yusuf was born; what the mountains look like there. So he asks.
Yusuf answers. The words come slowly, at first, then faster; he speaks of a city named Mahdia, a great harbor on the sparkling sea. “There weren’t mountains there,” he says, “but my mother always spoke of the green hills of Kairouan, where she was born. I’ve never been there.”
“Will you go? One day?” Nicolo asks.
Yusuf hesitates. “It was destroyed,” he says. “Before I was born. It isn’t safe for my people. But, yes — we could probably go there, you and I.”
Once, he explains, the cities of his homeland were all one kingdom — Mahdia, Tunis, Kairouan — but no longer. “When the raiders came, we were left clinging to the edge of the sea. It was all right for my family; they’re merchants. Me, though — I get seasick.”
Surprise makes Nicolo laugh.
When Yusuf lapses into quiet again, Nicolo tells him about Genoa. About his childhood, destined for the church from an early age; about his restless longing to do something good. About the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, and the sparrows he fed on his windowsill. About how they’re rebuilding it now — into something grander. A place he doesn’t know.
He tells Yusuf about his own mountains, the wall of them at Genoa’s back. How some quiet afternoons he’d climb into them, through vineyards and herds of bleating goats, and wonder if he could get high enough to touch the sky.
Yusuf is quiet; he listens. Eventually he says, “Up this wadi — there’s a cave where we can sleep.”
They’ve been walking by moonlight and resting through the heat of the day; traveling through the furnace of summer, it’s the only thing they can do. Nicolo sits patiently as Yusuf doles out bread, cheese; an orange for each of them. The mule grazes on straggling grass in the shadows of the canyon walls.
Later, Nicolo’s almost asleep, lying on his back with his hands laced across his belly, when Yusuf says, “For a long time, I sought only to see Genoa if I could burn it to the ground.”
Nicolo raises his head. Yusuf is sleeping shirtless, as usual, head pillowed on the bunched-up fabric. He turns his head to look at Nicolo, and there’s something of a question in his gaze.
Nicolo props his head up on one elbow and squints a go-on.
Yusuf settles back. “Twelve years ago, your people sacked my city. They came from the sea — the only kingdom we had left.”
Perhaps Nicolo knew of this. Perhaps he heard it discussed — the name of some faraway place. Maybe he wished he could join the fleet. He can’t remember.
“I watched our ships burn,” says Yusuf, “and I vowed revenge.”
Yusuf bursts out laughing.
And Nicolo is too, dropping his head to bury his face in his arm and catch his giggles; he snorts. Revenge. It isn’t funny, it’s terribly not-funny, but all at once it is. Yusuf reaches out blindly, and his fingers find Nicolo’s forearm, circle it; they hold onto each other and laugh until they’re dizzy, until the mule snorts her irritation from the mouth of the cave.
Yusuf turns on his side, fingers tangling with Nicolo’s, eyes dancing. “I have killed one man of Genoa many times. Maybe that’s revenge enough for me.”
Nicolo smiles. He wants to cup Yusuf’s face in his hands; he wants to kiss him. “I am sorry, though,” he says.
The laughter in Yusuf’s eyes fades to something solemn. “We are all just children, aren’t we?” he asks. Then he says, “Thank you.”
They lie like that for a while, watching each other; not quite ready to sleep. “I’m also sorry for killing you,” Nicolo says after a while.
Yusuf’s mouth twitches. Once, twice, then it breaks into a grin. “No, you’re not.”
“Well,” Nicolo protests, “I am a little.”
“A little, he says.” Yusuf rolls onto his back. His eyes are smiling again, crinkled with fondness, and Nicolo would like that look to stay there forever. “A little.”
“I promise not to do it again,” he offers instead. And then, scrupulously, “As long as you don’t make me.”
Yusuf’s ribs shake with silent laughter. “Shut up,” he says. “Some of us are trying to sleep.”
On the sixth day, Yusuf asks, “Do you really think this goes on forever?”
Nicolo considers the question. They can’t starve to death; they can’t die of their wounds, no matter how severe. Maybe they will still age, though. Maybe they will grow ill.
He doesn’t think so.
“No,” he says eventually. “But I think it might go on for a very long time.”
They reach the end of the shimmering salt-sea, their heads dizzy with heat, and they start up into the mountains, following goat-paths. Yusuf knows them well; he picks his way up slopes and around pinnacles Nicolo would have thought unnavigable. When Nicolo asks, he hesitates, then says, “I told you, I get seasick,” which isn’t an answer at all.
Later, though, slicing cheese by the campfire, he says, “I came east on a proposition from court. They wanted merchants — or men who knew how to look and talk and act like merchants — walking the caravan roads. It wasn’t the sea.”
Nicolo understands. “You were a spy.”
“Is that what brought you to Antioch?”
“What brought me to Antioch was a plea for help against a horde of invaders who murdered everything they saw.” His tone is hard, his grip on the knife tight. “What brought you to Antioch?”
Nicolo doesn’t know.
Faith, fate, a story; God wills it. Belief in something — or maybe a yearning for belief. Maybe his own restlessness, his foolish quest for something more.
Yusuf is right. They murdered everything they saw. They starved to death and shriveled with thirst and kept murdering; they never stopped.
What brought him to Antioch? He doesn’t know. He knows nothing; has never known anything, not once in his life.
“A great wrong,” he says finally. His voice comes out thin, and he realizes he’s shaking, a fine trembling that takes his whole body in its vise.
Yusuf seems to notice it the same moment he does. He drops his knife and he’s at Nicolo’s side, gripping his hand, tight; he’s murmuring something, but Nicolo can’t make sense of the words. Every face on every dead body he’s ever stepped over is Yusuf’s — and shouldn’t they be? Shouldn’t that enormity, that grief, rest on his head?
Yusuf’s left hand is splayed across his back; Nicolo finds that he can expand his lungs against it. Breathe in and out.
Time slips. It’s cold in this cave, cold despite the heat that rises from the sun-baked stones. Yusuf is moving around, and then he’s at Nicolo’s side again, raising the water skin to his mouth, asking him to drink. Nicolo obeys, and when he’s done Yusuf feeds him cheese, then bread, broken into pieces; he coaxes Nicolo’s fingers into holding them himself.
Nicolo sleeps under Yusuf’s cloak and his own, burning and freezing. When he wakes at last, hours later, it’s to a twisting sense of shame.
He sits up. “I’m sorry,” he says.
Yusuf is still awake, stirring the coals of the fire, wrists propped on his knees. He looks across at Nicolo and asks, “Are you all right?”
No. But —
“Maybe this is why,” Nicolo says. “Maybe — I have been given a chance to atone. I think it will take a very long time.”
Yusuf gives him a lopsided smile. “Is that why I’m here? To atone?”
“No.” He doesn’t know what blood Yusuf has on his hands, but — it isn’t like Nicolo’s. “No, you’re just lucky.”
It’s a terrible joke. But it’s worth it, as usual, for the startled bloom of laughter in Yusuf’s throat.
Sometimes, by the campfire, Yusuf will pick up a stick and draw pictures in the sand.
He talks, as he does, about his mother. About his father: a quiet man, he says, but brimming with love. Their faces take form in lines and impressions, proud and kind. He talks of his sisters, and his sisters’ children; of the gardens at his father’s house. He talks of the makroud his mother would make for Eid al-Fitr, and hands Nicolo a dried date from their stores. “Here,” he says, “imagine this, mixed with almonds, wrapped in dough — only better. A thousand times better.”
Nicolo closes his eyes and eats slowly. He lets Yusuf’s words conjure the sensations on his tongue. He can almost smell the sweet stickiness of baking, the cinnamon, the kitchen smoke. He opens his eyes to watch Yusuf sketch the diamond shape of the pastries, the designs stamped on top.
“My mother didn’t cook,” he says. His memories of her are hazy, but he knows that. “We paid someone.”
Yusuf smiles up at him. “So did we. But it was different with makroud.”
At his prompting, Nicolo explains his own upbringing, slowly; the chill emptiness of his father’s house. His single brother, much older; his departure at the age of seven for the cathedral school. “That was home,” he tries to explain, “as much as my father’s house,” and he makes an attempt to draw it, but he lacks Yusuf’s skill. The facade comes out as formless blocks.
“Here,” says Yusuf, taking the stick from his hand. “Tell me.” And he sketches as Nicolo speaks, the form taking shape as if by magic; the belltower, the graceful windows, the steps Nicolo used to sweep.
“Yes,” Nicolo says when he’s done. “That’s it.”
Yusuf looks up at him. “What about your father?”
What about him? Nicolo isn’t sure what to say. Their relationship has always been formal; he may not have approved of Nicolo’s leaving the church, but he gave him a horse, and weapons; he gave him money for the journey east.
He tells Yusuf instead about the masters that taught him. The ones that led him through the Latin alphabet, again and again, until he could form shaky words on the page; and the later masters of grammar, of rhetoric, of dialectic. He tells Yusuf of the teacher who stayed only a year, who lectured on music and astronomy as if his heart was aflame; of how, when he left again, Nicolo longed to follow.
Yusuf is quiet for a while. Then he says, “It sounds lonely.”
Maybe it was. Nicolo thinks of Guglielmo’s boisterous questions, of how they made him want to disappear into the wind. It’s hard to imagine ever returning. “Do you think you’ll go back someday?” he asks. “To Mahdia?”
This time, it takes Yusuf even longer to answer. “I don’t know,” he says finally. “I miss it. Terribly. But I — I am so much older, and so much stranger, than the man who was my mother’s son.”
Nicolo watches him. There’s sadness and weariness on Yusuf’s face; his eyes are distant, not quite focused on anything that’s real. Do you fear she would fail to love you? Nicolo wants to ask him. No one could know you and fail to love you. “The woman you showed me,” he says instead, eventually. “She will not care how old and strange you are.”
Yusuf looks at him properly this time. His mouth quirks in a little smile. “Would it be odd,” he asks, “if I asked you to come with me? Someday?”
Nicolo thinks about it. It is odd, yes, but nothing in this isn’t. “I think we are each other’s family now,” he offers. “If you ask, I would follow.”
Nicolo doesn’t know they have a destination until they arrive.
They continue tracking southward, along the east side of the mountains. The country is higher and wilder here, less settled. Occasionally they’ll pass an encampment of tents, or a lone rider on a camel; Bedouin, Yusuf tells him, the desert dwellers.
He’s learning a few Arabic words. He listens for them as Yusuf barters for food, but there isn’t much he can make out. So it comes as a surprise when one day, after an extended discussion, Yusuf hands over their mule’s lead to an intent-faced Bedouin man and unbuckles her saddlebags, passing one to Nicolo, shouldering the other.
The man leads them to a pen of goats. They discuss further, both pointing, and eventually separate out three from the herd. The man offers Yusuf a long stick and a lead, which he ties around one goat’s neck before passing it to Nicolo. “Here. The others will follow her.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t buy a camel,” Nicolo tells him later. They’re following a dry wash through high canyon walls; his voice echoes off the stones.
Yusuf laughs. “Those camels are worth their weight in gold. Trust me, I’d buy one if I could.”
The passage twists and tightens as they walk, leaving their footprints in the coarse sand. When Nicolo looks up, he can see the sun on the stones high above them, the narrow aperture of sky; down here, the dim shade is a blessing in the afternoon heat. Occasionally he spots carvings and toppled blocks of stone — evidence of some ancient people walking this same twisting road.
They turn a corner, and Nicolo stops dead.
Ahead of them, the facade of an enormous building is carved out of the rock wall.
It fills the canyon rift like a vision, and for a moment Nicolo thinks it must not be real. He stumbles closer, and the whole thing comes into view.
It’s easily as tall as San Lorenzo, or taller — it must be the height of twenty men. It would dwarf the walls of Jerusalem. Columns soar into elaborate ornamentation; carved figures half-emerge from porticos. The whole thing is red sandstone, a red so fine it looks almost translucent, lit up by the slanting sun.
Yusuf comes up beside him. He’s smiling; he says, “What do you think?”
“It’s — incredible,” Nicolo breathes. “They truly — who did this?”
“An earlier people of desert dwellers. No one alive remembers them, but there are stories and songs. They used to farm the desert, but the canals broke when the people faded away. For a while there were Christians here; they left too.”
They’re quiet for a long minute, watching the sun move on the stones. Then one of the goats lets out a querulous bleat, and they both jump — then laugh. Yusuf says, “I thought it might be a good place for us. For a while. To rest.”
Rest. It sounds like something out of a story. This place is something out of a story, spun from dreams.
“I’d like that,” Nicolo says.
Yusuf puts a hand on the small of his back. “Come. I’ll take you deeper. There are more wonders ahead.”
The canyon broadens as they walk. They pass a vast amphitheater on the left, carved out of solid rock; on their right, more columns and doorways line the rock walls. “Are they — houses?” Nicolo asks. “Temples?”
Yusuf glances up at the walls. The doorways gape with shadow; they could be watching eyes. He says, “I’m told they’re tombs.”
They circle south, away from the main ruins, before they stop. It’s at a place where a little wash spills down from the rocks above, and what might be a goat path offers access to their heights; there’s another tomb face close by in the wall. Nothing so grand as what they’ve seen, but it has a large cave opening at ground level, dim and cool with rough-hewn columns in the walls. Nicolo walks around touching them and asks, “Who do you think is buried here?”
Yusuf’s busy making a fire at the cave mouth. “I’ve heard it called the soldiers’ tomb.” He strikes flint and steel once, twice, kindles a flame. “Does it bother you? To share this place with the dead?”
That makes Nicolo smile. “Yusuf, we are the dead.”
Yusuf looks up at the sound of his name on Nicolo’s lips. Then he laughs out loud.
Yusuf is right. It’s a good place for them.
There isn’t much greenery among the rocks, but the goats still find it, somehow. They give good, sweet milk and lead Nicolo to springs that keep flowing no matter how blazing the sky. Yusuf buys bows and arrows from the Bedouin, and the two of them hunt for game. One day, they find a grove of pomegranate trees — a long-forgotten orchard — and when the fruits ripen, they come back to harvest them; they feast on pomegranates until their bellies ache.
Slowly, the seasons start to change. Autumn brings cooler weather, and they barter for blankets, sit close together by the fire at night. Yusuf also buys a rababa — a stringed fiddle made from a gourd — and tries to teach himself to play. The results are lamentable; the bow screeches continually off the single string until Nicolo’s beside himself laughing. When Yusuf gives in and tries plucking out a tune instead, they fall into debate about intervals. Nicolo remembers his music lessons and gets more and more agitated until he realizes Yusuf’s just winding him up. He makes a rude gesture, and Yusuf bursts out laughing.
He plucks out a fragment of a tune, halting but not unpleasant to the ear. Then he waggles his eyebrows, grins, and sings, “Nicolo of Genoa —”
Nicolo groans. Yusuf’s voice isn’t bad, if he weren’t distorting it absurdly. “Stop it,” he says.
“We killed each other many times —”
“I will do it again.”
“But now he is the moon that lights my night —”
Nicolo’s chest squeezes. He reaches out and takes the rababa away.
“You can have this back when you learn to play it properly,” he tells Yusuf, severely. But he can’t stop thinking, later, about the beauty of Yusuf’s face in the firelight, thrown back laughing, or intent on his mock serenade.
Months pass in which their bodies are almost their own. They neither starve nor thirst; Nicolo’s worst injury is a thorn in the meat of his palm. It heals quickly. He studies it, after: the unmarked flesh. Those long months of battle and death feel like a dream he had, now; his whole life before Yusuf feels like a dream.
If Yusuf is beautiful by firelight, he is even more beautiful under the sky. He’s as nimble as the goats, clambering up rocky crags, pointing to the horizon; when the first dust storm of autumn rolls in from the south and east, he laughs as the wind whips his hair.
Nicolo burns with wanting. He wants — everything. Not for himself; for this man.
They shelter from that storm with the goats in their cave-room. And from the rainstorm, a month later, that swells the wadis in muddy torrents. One morning in the thin light of January they wake to find a dusting of snow coating the rocks; they bundle themselves in blankets and walk all the way to the old monastery and back, even to the farthest ruins.
They rarely speak of what brought them here. It’s as though they exorcised their history when they laid it out on the journey here — left it staked like mileposts through the mountains, along the salt sea. Now they are merely Nicolo and Yusuf, immortal lives amid immortal ruins beneath an immortal sky. Nicolo doesn’t know whether it’s respite or rebirth.
Then, one day, he sees the girl.
They’re in the Bedouin camp. It’s large and busy, this time of year, as people and their animals journey inland from the coast; this is what he’s learned from his rudimentary conversations in Arabic. He knows enough to carry on a simple exchange, now, and practices it when he can, but he finds his experience with Yusuf is always betraying him; there are words Yusuf uses that the Bedouin don’t, and vice versa. Yusuf is interested in poetry, and philosophy, and teaches Nicolo terms that are useless outside their small haven. He also teaches him idioms, and laughs when Nicolo deploys them clumsily; Nicolo keeps doing it, because he likes when Yusuf laughs.
One word he knows, though, is mama.
It’s just a brief moment — barely a moment. They’re walking through the camp. She’s young, maybe five, with immense brown eyes that widen at him like twin moons; then she ducks behind her mother’s skirt and cries, “Mama!”
It’s nothing. Just a child alarmed by a strange-looking man.
But he’s heard that word, in that tone, seen those round eyes of fear, on a little girl’s face before.
He can’t even place when it happened. Antioch, maybe; the day they took the city. Before he died. He can’t place it, because he barely noticed it — didn’t remember until now. He was striding up some cobblestoned street. He had his sword out; it was bloody. The soldier on his right laughed and said something, and in the window of a shop there was a little girl staring — peeking out at the horrors come to end her world.
“Mama?” she asked. And Nicolo’s comrade laughed again, and went into the shop, and killed her mother. Then he killed her.
Nicolo’s ears are roaring. His gaze is tunnel vision, feet rising and falling mechanically; he follows Yusuf to one tent, then another. Smiles when he needs to, murmurs Arabic greetings and thanks. Tries to ignore the familiar weight of his sword at his side.
Yusuf keeps glancing at him on the journey back, but he asks no questions. When they’re back at the cave, Nicolo tells him, “I’m going to bathe.”
Yusuf raises his eyebrows. It’s cold outside, a bite in the air. He doesn’t stop Nicolo, though, when he takes his clean clothing and starts up into the canyon with the spring.
They don’t do this often, but often enough; the sweat and the dust start to cake on your skin, after a while, and it’s good to feel clean. In the winter months, the spring flows stronger, fills its small pool and spills down a rock overhang; there’s a place to stand beneath it and scrub yourself clean.
The spring feels lonely when Nicolo reaches it. He hasn’t been here often without either Yusuf or the goats; sometimes, they’ll take midday baths on their way back from hunting out greenery on the rocky heights. The sky above him is gray and unforgiving. The water is cold.
He takes off his clothes and stands under it. He keeps standing there until he’s shivering, until he stops shivering; as if the cold can make him still enough to stop the girl’s red blood. To quiet her scream.
When he finally picks his way back to the cave, it’s long since dark. Yusuf is asleep, snoring gently. One of the goats bleats at Nicolo as he enters; he quiets her, and crawls into his own blankets. He doesn’t feel warm, though. Not then; not all night long.
Once the nightmares start, they don’t stop.
He dreams of blood. The sink of his sword in a man’s gut, the callous force it takes to pull it free. Sometimes the man’s breath dies hot against his ear. Sometimes the man is Yusuf.
He dreams of Jerusalem, and the people running and screaming, and the steps of the Holy Sepulcher painted in blood. He dreams of the alley, many times, but he already dreamed of the alley; now he dreams of other things too.
He dreams of the faces of comrades. Men whose names he never learned, or whose names he forgot; long before Antioch, they started to seem changeable, one always rising where the last fell. Some of them he saw do terrible things. Others he didn’t, and now he wonders if they too hesitated at the violence — if they, too, turned their faces away.
Does it mean anything, to turn your face away?
He dreams of a thousand things he forgot. Moments that slipped by in the flood of horror — a baby wailing in its mother’s lifeless arms. A man being taunted — tormented — killed slowly. Gleeful campfire conversations, the laughter and boasting, the sizzle of meat —
He wakes up gasping. Sits up so fast he’s dizzy with it — throws his hand out for balance. It lands on Yusuf’s arm; he stirs and asks, “Nicolo?”
Nicolo hunches over his knees. His chest is heaving; he can’t get it to stop. He touches his hand to his mouth, and it comes away wet with blood.
For a moment he thinks — for a moment he thinks —
But no; he’s only bitten through his own lip. “Nicolo,” Yusuf says again, with a hand on his shoulder.
Nicolo wants to throw him off; push him away. He wants to turn into the warmth of him and never let him go. He says, “I was dreaming of Ma’arra.”
Yusuf goes still.
He doesn’t withdraw his hand, though; he doesn’t take back his gaze. He just watches Nicolo as his breathing surges and steadies, surges and steadies, and what’s living his eyes could be compassion or judgment or both.
After a while, when Nicolo’s heart has calmed enough to wipe his mouth with his hand, again, Yusuf says, “Soften your tread. Methinks the Earth’s surface is but bodies of the dead.”
His voice has a soft cadence — he’s translating. Quoting some intricate rhyme beyond Nicolo’s grasp. He pauses, then adds, “Walk slowly in the air, so you do not trample on the remains of God's servants.”
Nicolo lifts his head to look at him.
Yusuf’s face is very close; the moonlight from the mouth of the cave shines in his eyes. “Al-Ma’arri,” he says. “He was a poet from that city. I read him again and again while we waited for your army to arrive.”
Nicolo remembers. “I dreamed of you reading.”
Yusuf closes his eyes.
Whatever is coming next — Nicolo is ready for it. He must be. Get out, Yusuf will tell him. I never want to see your face again. This was a mistake, all along; there is no good that works in you. Only evil.
He isn’t ready — cannot be ready — for Yusuf to drop his head onto his shoulder.
His forehead is pressed against the knob of Nicolo’s collarbone. His curls tickle Nicolo’s neck.
Nicolo stays very still.
“For a long time,” says Yusuf, slowly, like he’s dredging the words from his gut, “I thought — I could never forgive you. No matter if I — no matter how drawn to you I — but then I was so tired. I was so tired, Nicolo.”
He does not deserve this man’s trust.
But he has it — a precious, eggshell thing. Slowly, carefully, Nicolo shifts his weight enough to free his left hand — to curl it around the back of Yusuf’s neck. To stroke carefully down the fine ridge of his spine.
Yusuf shudders at the touch. What brought you to Antioch, Nicolo said to him once before, but he never asked: “What brought you to Ma’arra?”
For a long moment, Yusuf is silent. Nicolo almost thinks he isn’t going to answer. But then he starts speaking, voice low — rising and falling like his own form of poetry, the rhythm of the song that keeps you moving, step after step, heartbeat following heartbeat.
“I didn’t know what to do,” he says. “After Antioch. At first I thought — just to get away. My army was scattered to the winds, or dead. But as I fled, I kept meeting fellow refugees; I kept hearing stories of what the invaders had done in the city. And I kept thinking —”
He breaks off.
But Nicolo knows the words. “Maybe I am alive for this reason.”
Yusuf nods. He sits up; his eyes are dry. Nicolo’s skin tingles at the absence of his weight. “And so I — when I came to Ma’arra, I stayed. I asked to join their guard and defend the city.”
Nicolo shudders. “And then we —”
Yusuf reaches blindly, again, for his shoulder — grips it tight. For a moment, they’re both silent; then Nicolo says, “You know why I put my helmet on your head.”
“Yes. So they wouldn’t butcher me for meat.” Yusuf’s face is terrible; his grip slacks on Nicolo’s shoulder, then hardens again. “You had no right to give me that gift. Not when I had to wake up and walk those streets — you had no right.”
Nicolo bows his head. “I know.”
“Still,” Yusuf says, more softly, “thank you.”
Outside somewhere, the first dawn birds are starting their songs. Nicolo shakes his head. “You have given me so many gifts,” he says, “and I have deserved none of them. I —”
And Yusuf is moving, suddenly, swiftly, to crouch before him. Somehow, he does it with grace; kneels down in the blankets among Nicolo’s sprawling limbs. He takes both of Nicolo’s hands in his; there’s something like a weapon in his eyes.
He asks, “Did you ever kill a child?”
Nicolo hesitates — then shakes his head.
“Did you ever kill an innocent? With your own hand?”
“No.” He saw it done, many times, and didn’t stop it; that’s just as —
“Did you ever hurt someone because it gave you joy?”
Can hurting someone bring joy? But he knows it can; he’s seen it. He barely realizes he’s shaking his head.
“Then I don’t care,” Yusuf says fiercely. He takes Nicolo’s face in both hands, gently, firmly; cups his jaw and forces him to lift his gaze. His eyes are impassioned. “It brought you here; I don’t care. Atone if you must, grieve if you must, but let me do it with you.”
There are no words in Nicolo’s chest to speak. He raises a hand to encircle Yusuf’s wrist, but he doesn’t pull it away. They sit like that for a long time, watching each other, until the goats turn restless and the sky grows light.
It’s three nights later that Yusuf wakes him from a nightmare.
It’s another bad one. This time he’s not himself. He’s watching himself — watching a crowd of Frankish soldiers — murder their way through city streets. He’s fleeing; he’s falling — feet are trampling him. Blow after blow. He feels his ribs crack; there’s blood in his lungs. And it must end soon, it must — soon he’ll feel the cold piercing of a sword —
“Nicolo.” Hands cradling his face; a voice he loves, pleading. “Nicolo, wake up.”
Confusion grips him. He swims through the muddy boundary of sleep and waking; his body isn’t broken. There’s no blood in his lungs. There’s blood, again, on his lip; he can taste the metal tang of it.
“Nicolo,” says Yusuf again, and then his mouth is on Nicolo’s mouth, kissing the blood away.
It’s a quick kiss, a soft one. Yusuf’s lips are chapped, a little, by the dry desert air.
Nicolo is awake.
Yusuf pulls back, and Nicolo blinks up at him. He’s shirtless, the way he always sleeps, however cold the night; he’s kneeling over Nicolo’s bedroll, love and worry written in his eyes.
Nicolo reaches out to touch him — the place below his ribs, left side. He puts his thumb there. The skin is soft, heated with sleep.
Yusuf looks down, then back up, blinking at him. His hand hovers, then rests on Nicolo’s lightly, fingertips brushing his knuckles. His face looks something like scared — it might be the only time in their long lives, Nicolo thinks many years later, he’s ever seen Yusuf al-Kaysani scared.
“I wanted to touch you here,” Nicolo tells him. “The first night we dreamed of each other.”
A tremor passes through Yusuf. “Have you done this before?”
“No, my love.” He’s not sure what Yusuf is asking; it doesn’t matter. He’s never done it before.
“I wanted you to touch me,” Yusuf says. “I wanted to touch you —”
Nicolo skims his fingers up Yusuf’s side, over his ribs. The fine arch of his collarbone, his ear, his cheek. “I wondered what your beard would feel like. The shape of your jaw —”
Yusuf kisses his thumb. Nicolo locks his free hand around Yusuf’s upper arm; they’re both shaking. Yusuf breathes, “Please don’t stop —”
Nicolo kisses him. “I already loved you.”
Yusuf sinks into the kiss. His mouth is hungry, grateful — divine — and Nicolo gives back anything he can, everything he can. Yusuf’s hands are on his ribs, running over his body; clumsy with wanting. He touches Yusuf’s back, his hips. Circles a hand halfway around his broad thigh.
Yusuf pulls back far enough to say, “I think I loved you before I knew you existed.”
That makes Nicolo smile. “You’re saying nonsense.”
Yusuf laughs. And they’re both laughing, into each other’s lips, still kissing, unable to stop. “It’s because you’ve — addled my brains,” Yusuf breathes. “It’s your fault.”
They don’t stop until their laughs turn to gasps. Until words and the world fade away, and it’s only the two of them left.
They fall together that night, and many nights after. It feels like the storm cloud, brewing in the west, then finally unleashing its blessing of rain; it feels like the first flush of flowers and wild herbs that suddenly dot the canyons. Yusuf seizes his hand once in a downpour, draws him out of the cave, and they kiss in the rain, soaking and stumbling, pressing each other by turn against the rock walls.
Yusuf is single-minded focus and a wicked mouth. He’s all the grace of his fighting form, and more; he’s beautiful. Nicolo tells him that until he can’t stop laughing, hands in Nicolo’s hair; he tells him in Arabic, in Latin, in Ligurian, in Sabir. Yusuf counters in Persian, in Tamazight; then he shuts up entirely. There are better things to do with your tongue.
There are sensations to discover. The heavy pool of wanting, low in his gut, and the shiver of a stuttering breath; watching the curl of pleasure build in another man’s face. The desperate scrabble of fingertips against stone. The way joy can meld with love can meld with desire; the giddy race of a heartbeat. Two heartbeats. The feeling as if you could rise off the earth and fly.
Bodies, Nicolo has known. His own, others, far too intimately; he’s known the type of piercing that splits a man to pieces, each as frail as the last. Breath and belly and heartbeat and veins, muscles and ribs and mind. You know once what it is to be un-whole and suddenly you are all fragments.
With Yusuf, he learns that the parts of him can fuse again; he can fold like steel. He can burn so white-hot that there are no seams in him.
And if Yusuf’s clever fingers undo him, if he’s lost in the hollows of Yusuf’s throat and the shape of his hips and the heat of his mouth — he undoes Yusuf just the same. He touches him until he’s gasping, begging, spilling gardens’ worth of poetry Nicolo only half-understands; Yusuf is terrible at shutting up. Usually Nicolo doesn’t want him to. Usually he wants to work their bodies together until they’re all but one — until he can feel the flood of Yusuf’s words springing from his own gut. Until his own chest rises and falls with Yusuf’s breath.
There is so much ecstasy to be found in the touch of skin on skin. And simplicity, too — when he sleeps with Yusuf curled around him, arm pressed to belly and chest to back, many nights pass when neither of them dreams.
Spring is heating once again to summer when word reaches them: Godfrey of Bouillon, the newly crowned king of Jerusalem, defeater of the Fatimids at Ascalon, has raided across the Jordan River.
He and his army took vast herds of livestock, the Bedouin say. They took many prisoners. The man who tells them is quiet with anger; his own brother is among the dead.
Nicolo knows Godfrey, a little. Has spoken with him more than once. He knows the men who fight under him.
When they get home that night, he starts to sharpen his sword.
Yusuf watches him for a long time. Finally he asks, “What are you doing?”
Nicolo glances over at him. He feels detached — a deadly calm. “They won’t stop. They will come for us — for here, for everywhere.”
Yusuf comes to kneel before him. He touches Nicolo’s thighs; he takes the sword from his hands. Sets the stone on the ground. He cups Nicolo’s face and merely looks at him for a moment; then he asks, “And you think the two of us will stop them?”
It will be bloody. It will be terrible. An ambush in the narrow canyon, maybe, where he and Yusuf can kill many before they are torn to rags.
They will die so many times. It will hurt so much.
Maybe if they turn the goats loose first, the Franks will never find them. He doesn’t want them to take the goats.
“Nicolo,” says Yusuf.
You don’t have to fight at my side, Nicolo thinks. Don’t fight at my side. But he doesn’t say it, because he’s not a fool.
If he’s expecting an argument, though, he doesn’t get it. Instead, Yusuf says, “I have a dream sometimes — of two women.”
Nicolo looks up.
“Mighty warriors. They are somewhere far different from here — somewhere that the grass flows on forever.”
“They’re like us,” Nicolo murmurs.
Yusuf nods; he doesn’t look surprised. “You dream of them too.”
What does it matter? They won’t be able to help; they aren’t coming, or if they are, it will be far too late.
“I don’t think we understand,” Yusuf is saying, low and urgent. “I don’t think we know yet — I don’t think we know anything. But I don’t think we were put here to die again and again in the teeth of an army we can never defeat. I can’t believe that. There must be a better way. And I think they might help us find it.”
He doesn’t want to watch Yusuf die.
“I don’t want to watch them hurt you. Please, Nicolo.”
For so long, he’s been a slave to symmetry.
He failed to serve God as a priest, and so tried to serve Him as a warrior. He fought for a cause that was wrong; he must oppose it if he hopes to do right. It’s simple. A pendulum. Even Yusuf: his enemy, once, and now his lover.
Except that the moment he thinks it, he knows it’s not true. There is no symmetry. This world with Yusuf-his-lover is richer, vaster, than that with Yusuf-his-enemy could ever be. He loves him in a thousand ways, deeply, dazzlingly, every day; he only ever hated him in one.
Maybe if there is more in this life than his last one, there are further worlds of lifetime that contain more still. Maybe they are just children, like Yusuf once said, seeing little, understanding less.
“You remember al-Ma’arri?” Yusuf asks softly.
Yes. The poet from the city they killed. The one who saw the world for its dead.
“He believed that birth is a curse. That to live is to suffer — Life is a malady whose only medicine is Death. I’m sure he would have said to live infinitely is to suffer infinitely.”
It’s only as much as they’ve both thought — many times. Both of them have prayed, at one time or another, for an end.
This won’t be it, though. This will only be pain for the sake of pain, laid down in defense of a city that’s already dead.
“Let us defy him, Nicolo.” There’s a plea in Yusuf’s voice. An I-need-you. Nicolo, wake up. If we are to live forever together, we shouldn’t do it alone.
Nicolo closes his eyes.
Yusuf is asking. He will never say anything but yes.
He asks, “Where do you think we should go?”
It takes them ten years to find Quynh and Andy. A decade of roaming the steppes, wading with piebald horses through fields of wild poppies and across clay deserts as quiet as the moon. Slowly, slowly they learn the clues of geography and weather that might lead them closer, ever closer, in a long spiraling dance.
That day under the sun among the waving wheatgrass, Quynh looks unimpressed. “This would have gone a lot quicker if you’d just stayed put.”
Andy throws back her head and laughs. “They’re babies, Quynh, give them a break. It’s not like we had anywhere else to be.”
Nowhere else to be comes with its own reminders. Nicolo and Yusuf haven’t aged, but the world has. The clockwork of mortality weighs more heavily against the fear of their own strangeness every day. Genoa and Mahdia are waiting.
Andy and Quynh drift with them, south and west again, trading jokes about the armies of Alexander the Great. “Europe,” says Quynh with distaste; “I mean, must we?” — which Nicolo knows by now means I love you, in Quynh’s way.
It’s been fifteen years since Nicolo last crossed Anatolia, since he last walked the streets of Constantinople. Yusuf stays close by his side, quiet and sturdy, and then they’re past the great gateway between West and East, riding roads he remembers from a time when he was so much younger — so much poorer, so much more foolish — than he is now.
In Genoa, he’s greeted by the news that his father has passed, three years ago now. The renovations to San Lorenzo are well underway. The eaves his sparrows used to nest under are gone, and his brother looks at him like he’s a stranger.
He and Yusuf climb high in the hills, though, through the vineyards and rocky heights. They lie among grapevines, invisible, and watch the sky. After a while, Yusuf says, “I’ll paint them for you. The sparrows.”
They’re boarding a ship for Mahdia in the morning. Nicolo rolls onto his belly. “Do you really get seasick?”
Yusuf’s mouth quirks; then he laughs out loud. “Terribly.”
He does. Nicolo tries to stay belowdecks to care for him until Yusuf throws a damp towel at his head and growls, “Nicolo, I love you, but I’m going to stab you again if you don’t let me be miserable in peace.”
So he spends his time on the decks with Andy and Quynh. They all find something unsettling about the sea — something that needs watching. After a decade in the vastness of the great grass ocean, the idea of a vastness that can drown you chills Nicolo to the bone.
He tells Yusuf, later, “You are the wisest among us. The sea is an untrustworthy place.”
Yusuf glares blearily at him. “What did I say about stabbing you?”
“We’re in sight of land.”
That gets Yusuf out of bed and stumbling to the rail; he vomits once over the side. But then he stands tall and watches the coast of North Africa rise from the shimmering blue; watches the pale smudge of the spit that turns into the city walls of Mahdia. He puts one hand on Nicolo’s hip.
When he knocks on his family door, his face is quiet and grave. The three of them — Nicolo, Quynh, Andy — are ringed around him.
His mother opens it.
Nicolo’s seen her face before: drawn in the sand, expressive generalities. He knows her in an instant. She’s older; gray-haired, lines around her eyes, but she takes one look at Yusuf and gasps, covering her mouth with both hands.
The next moment, her arms are wrapped around his neck and she’s babbling in Arabic, in Tamazight, too fast for Nicolo to begin to understand; she’s crying. Yusuf is crying too, his arms tight around her; he picks her up and spins her twice before putting her down.
If the knowledge that her son hasn’t aged a day in nearly twenty years fazes her, she doesn’t show it. Neither does Yusuf’s father, who cries harder than either of them. Someone is sent to his sisters’ houses to fetch them, and they arrive in a flurry of exclamations and tight hugs; they’re middle-aged now. Mothers. One of them gives Yusuf a sharp look of speculation, but when she catches Nicolo’s eyes on her, she grins. “I don’t know; I don’t know. I don’t care. We missed him.”
“He missed you,” Nicolo tells her.
Yusuf introduces Andy and Quynh. When he turns to Nicolo, his eyes are soft. “And this is Nicolo,” he says. “My — everything.”
There’s a second of silence. All the eyes in the room are on him. Then Yusuf adds, fighting a smile, “He’s from Genoa.”
His mother bursts out laughing.
“Oh, you deserve that,” she manages, finally, when her giggles have calmed enough to speak. “Oh, you hated them. Thank you,” she adds to Nicolo, “for turning my son’s brain upside down.”
Nicolo bows to her. “It has been my pleasure.”
They spend a long time in Mahdia. Years — and they’re among the best of Nicolo’s life.
Quynh and Andy leave them after a while, to roam Africa. They check back in, once every year or two. While they’re gone, Yusuf and Nicolo laze in courtyards; spend long mornings in bed, the square of sun from the window tracking across their sheets. Yusuf finds his long-abandoned paints and brushes — he has to replace half of them — and paints Nicolo’s sparrows. He paints their old cave and their goats; he paints the steppes, paints Andy and Quynh. Mostly, though, he paints Nicolo, until his mother, catching a glimpse of his work one day, remarks drily, “You run the risk of idolatry there, my child.”
Nicolo begs her to teach him to make makroud. She does, and he’s hopeless. She laughs so much at him, though, that it’s worth it, and the sweets are just as good in the end; Andy, back for a visit, tries one and exclaims with pleasure. “Mm! With the nuts it’s almost like baklava.”
Quynh gives Nicolo a deadpan look. “Don’t get her started on baklava,” she says, so of course Nicolo does.
Andy and Quynh have been in Kairouan. When they speak of it, tears spring to Yusuf’s mother’s eyes. “Tell me,” she says, “was it beautiful?”
Surprise catches Andy; she lowers her makroud. “Yes,” she says, sincerely. “Very beautiful.”
Which is how the idea kindles in Nicolo’s mind; he takes it to Yusuf. And a few months later they embark, Yusuf’s mother and father and his youngest sister, flanked on all sides by their heavily armed immortal escort.
Nicolo doesn’t think Yusuf’s mother stops crying the whole week they spend among the ruins of the city of her birth. She doesn’t stop smiling, either. Yusuf’s father has never been here before; he stays close to her side. She’s always pointing and murmuring things to him, too softly for anyone else to hear.
On their last night, she sits her children down in front of the campfire. “You must know this city, and love it, and tell its story.”
She speaks for many hours. Of the life she had as a girl, of the things she loved. When they get back to Mahdia, Yusuf paints it, eyes red-rimmed, without stopping; he barely sleeps for a week.
Much later, in the dark of their bed, he asks Nicolo, softly: “We will lose so many things, won’t we? We will watch whole civilizations we loved fade and die.”
Nicolo snakes a hand up past the sheets to circle Yusuf’s. Yusuf laces their fingers; they hold on tight. Neither of them has to say: But we won’t lose each other.
It’s more than a century before they return to Jerusalem.
It happens because of Frederick of Sicily. Nicolo doesn’t like the man — he’s a megalomaniac at best, acquisitive, mercurial, too curious about who they are and where they are from — but he doesn’t march to Rome’s orders. And Rome is calling for another crusade.
History blends together quickly — becomes fleeting. The Franks hold Jerusalem for ninety years before yielding it to the Ayyubids; now their stronghold is the city of Acre. The Zirid rulers are gone from Mahdia already, conquered briefly by Roger, grandfather of Frederick, then in turn by the Almohads from the west. Nicolo and Yusuf weren’t there; they had already laid Yusuf’s parents to rest and gone to join Quynh and Andy in Provence.
Now it’s a new cast of players on the stage. Nicolo is beginning to understand Quynh’s weariness of Europe; he misses those years on the steppes.
So: Frederick. He may be Holy Roman Emperor, but he isn’t very interested in crusading. He’s more occupied by his falconry and his zoo and his school of poets, which is how they wound up in this stupid situation in the first place — Yusuf helplessly curious to learn the Sicilian style. It serves him right to spend three weeks puking his guts out on a ship to Acre, the two of them half-willing enlistees in a war they’re hoping to stop before it ever truly begins.
They sow chaos where they can. In Cyprus, they drive a wedge between Frederick and the House of Ibelin, fragmenting the emperor’s support; in Acre, they try to do the same with the Templars and Hospitallers, but Frederick outmaneuvers them. Yusuf swears eloquently, in their private chambers, at the nerve of Bertrand de Thercy, at his betrayal of his forebears’ ideals; which is how Nicolo learns that the Hospitallers’ first hospital was none other than that run by Gerard.
“Blessed Gerard, now,” Yusuf corrects him. “You don’t know this? How do you not know this?”
Nicolo shrugs. If he’s honest, he’s never been sure if that man in the hospital was real, or just a dream invented by his fevered mind. He hoped too much, he thinks, that a Christian man could see him and see Yusuf and treat them with kindness — treat them both the same.
“You never told me about him,” he points out, and kisses Yusuf’s knuckles.
Yusuf sighs into the touch. “He was a friend,” he says simply. “He found me once, when I needed a place to sleep, and — he was a friend.”
Needed a place to sleep is a familiar euphemism; it means Yusuf was trying to go without it again, working himself ragged through every hour of the day and night. Somehow, a century and a half of experience — mortal and immortal — has yet to persuade him that he can’t ignore his body’s needs.
“You are an idiot,” Nicolo tells him, and Yusuf laughs and agrees.
Three days later, in the dead of night, he smuggles himself out of the city.
Nicolo hates it. Yusuf is going to seek an audience with Sultan al-Jamil of the Ayyubids; it will be a dangerous journey. He’ll probably die. “I hate it,” Nicolo tells him, over and over again, and Yusuf kisses him each time. “It will be all right,” he promises — a foolish promise; they are always and never all right — and leaves Nicolo to Frederick and his wolves.
Nicolo breaks the news of Yusuf’s betrayal, like he’s supposed to. He plants the seed, like he’s supposed to, that Yusuf is bringing information on their forces to the sultan — that he’ll know how weak they are. He works to coax Frederick toward a diplomatic solution: wouldn’t it be better to revive old negotiations for a truce? Meet in open battle, even invite open battle, and the Ayyubids will surely win.
He wishes Andy were here. She would just stab Frederick and be done with it. He wishes Quynh were here; she would stab everyone.
He wishes Yusuf were here, to remind him that any monarch you stab will only be replaced by another monarch, likely more deranged than the last. Or maybe to listen to Nicolo’s arguments and decide to stab Frederick with him.
After six long, shitty months of negotiations, though, it works.
It’s a terrible treaty. There are people it will turn out of their homes; there are lives it will upend. But — Nicolo keeps telling himself, but, but — it’s better than a massacre.
Frederick will ride to Jerusalem to claim his crown; the Christians will occupy the city. They won’t fortify it, though. Nor will they claim the Temple Mount. Muslim pilgrims will come and go freely. The Christians will make no claims beyond the Jordan River. They will fight al-Jamil’s enemies with him, should he ask.
And Yusuf is waiting in Jerusalem.
So Nicolo goes. He rides roads he’s never seen by daylight — roads that once wore blisters on his feet. He passes wells that have been unblocked; towns that have people living in them again. Groves of trees that are growing straight and tall.
There is no blood staining the streets of Jerusalem. That alone, Nicolo thinks, might be worth the price.
He rides in Frederick’s entourage to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. People watch from windows and street corners; some of them shout insults, and a few cheer. They dismount in front of the church steps, and Nicolo can remember how Yusuf described them, long ago — the trail of bloody footprints in and out.
They’re clean now. It’s the first time he’s ever seen them himself.
But when Frederick goes inside, he doesn’t follow. He leaves his horse hitched to her post — she’s a good mount; someone will be glad to care for her — and shoulders a bag that has what he needs. And he slips away — out of this name and this page of history, in between the leaves of time.
It’s been a hundred and thirty years, but he still knows the way. Down an alley, around a corner — through a gate in a little garden wall.
Yusuf is waiting for him.
The hospital’s garden looks different. The lemon tree is gone; it was old already, when last he was here. Instead, bees hum through beds of rosemary and marjoram, mint, lavender. From high in the eaves, the sparrows are still cheeping. Their calls still echo off the stones.
Yusuf pushes himself off the wall. He looks well rested, and like he’s spent long days in the sun; there’s a new scimitar at his hip. He’s smiling with his eyes at Nicolo, and Nicolo loves him, wholly, helplessly; enough to make him want to fall to his knees.
He doesn’t. He moves forward instead, through the scented air; he drops his bag.
A sparrow flits across the garden and disappears through a chink in the wall. Yusuf nods after it. “How many great-grandchildren do you think they are? Of the ones from last time?”
“Many,” says Nicolo, and reaches out to turn Yusuf’s chin with one hand.
Long sunlit minutes later, they pull apart. Yusuf is always beautiful, Nicolo thinks, has always been beautiful, but this — this is a Yusuf he wants to remember forever. In this light; happy and free. Eyes dancing, head tipped back against the sun-warmed stones.
Nicolo remembers thinking, once, that this city looked like the heavens touching the earth. He was so wrong then, in so many ways — but the things he has found here, he wouldn’t trade. Not for all the kingdoms of this world or the next.
Still. That doesn’t mean he wants to stay.
He thumbs Yusuf’s cheekbone. “Are you ready to disappear?”
Yusuf pushes himself up off the wall. He does it lazily, a long arch of a stretch, scratching his shoulderblades against the stone, and Nicolo loves him; wants to touch his ribs, his hips. “Did you go to the church?”
Nicolo hesitates. Then he answers honestly: “Maybe next time.”
Again they follow familiar paths. The old tunnels are still there, blocked off in a few places, but they’re easy enough to clear; maybe they’ll be of use to some future smugglers or spies. Nicolo knows so much more, now, of what Yusuf did in his time in Jerusalem — of the supplies he smuggled in and out. The people he helped flee long before the city fell; the lives he saved.
Once they’re clear of the walls, they don’t need to talk about where they’re going next. Yusuf leads the way. The landscape has changed, but not that much; the paths are still familiar ones.
There are more trees than there were in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Yusuf pauses to let Nicolo take the lead. He walks slowly, reaching out to finger a leaf, a branch, then letting his hand fall.
Some of the old olives look worse for the wear. At least one is dead, its gnarled trunk already decaying back to the earth; another raises only a single proud, leafy limb. But there are younger trees now: a dozen of them, more. Their forking trunks are smooth to the touch.
“This one,” says Yusuf. “I think this is ours.”
It isn’t particularly large. If they stand close, though, its crown spreads wide enough to cast them both in dense shade. Yusuf fingers Nicolo’s hip; up close, fragments of sunlight dapple his skin, his eyelashes. Nicolo drops his nose into Yusuf’s neck.
Over Yusuf’s shoulder, he studies the ground. Yes; there’s the rock where Yusuf found the seed. Here’s the place where he knelt and prayed.
He has a vision, suddenly, of coming back here. Many times over the centuries to come; people and civilizations die, sparrows inherit their great-great-grandfathers’ nests, ruins crumble and fade, but they and the olives endure.
He could say it. But they both already know.
“Where do you want to go?” Yusuf asks him.
Anywhere you are. Yusuf knows that, too.
“Let’s find Quynh and Andy,” he says instead. They’re somewhere in the Caucasus, he thinks, or else near Kiev; they’ll have left clues. It will be good to be together again. It will be good to be on horseback, with all of Asia before them; it will be good to see, at long last, the places Quynh has called home.
Yusuf pulls back enough to study him. “Yeah?”
Nicolo nods. He knows what Yusuf is asking: Are you ready? To leave the Mediterranean — to let the things we loved fade without us? To close the book on who-we-were for a while, and simply be who we are?
He is. There will always be new things to love. There will always be Yusuf.
He says, “I think it’s time we rode across the world.”