Quynh had seen plenty of wars in her long life, and the conflicts that had raged between France and England for more than thirty years were not unique. Self important men fighting over meaningless accolades, to the detriment of the people. The four of them had a duty to do what they could in the face of such negligence; a destiny, as Nico was fond of saying, to go where they were needed most.
Quynh cared not for the company of aristocrats. They thought themselves above the common people, and only excelled at starting wars they never saw the ramifications of. In the wake of another outbreak of the plague, however, Quynh couldn’t deny that the court of Charles V of France was a welcome distraction.
Andrea focused on attempting to influence the King to find a diplomatic solution to the yet again rising tensions between France and England. Diplomacy was never Quynh’s strong suit; her talents lay on the battlefield.
Quynh’s greatest diversion at court was relishing in the lingering effects of chivalry and the art of forbidden love. The French seemed determined to singlehandedly keep the dying tradition alive, and she could not complain. It was considered the height of romance to steal time with your lover, and any time she and Andrea could get alone was stolen these days.
The Palais de la Cité , the royal seat of King Charles, held many hidden alcoves and passageways, and Quynh delighted in dragging Andrea into them whenever she least expected.
“Quynh,” Andrea would whisper. Her tone was full of exasperation even as she let her eyes flutter closed at the touch of Quynh’s palm on her cheek.
Quynh would simply answer innocently, “Yes, my heart?” all the while trailing her fingertips across Andrea’s exposed collarbone.
Publicly, Andrea was married to Joseph and Quynh to Nico. The four of them were a family, and getting along was not a thing that needed fabricating. At night though, while Nico slept on the chaise longue in their room, Quynh longed for Andrea’s touch—just as she knew Nico longed for Joseph’s.
Time at court passed slowly and she often felt useless. Andrea told her not to sell herself short, for where she had a tendency toward irritability, Quynh was effortlessly charming. Quynh didn’t care about charming the court; she only wanted Andrea.
The summer of 1373 dragged on and there was no end in sight to the political games Andrea and Joseph seemed determined to meddle in. Quynh found she was almost singularly focused on finding time with Andrea. Joseph was another matter entirely.
In August, reports arrived of an English prince, John of Gaunt , leading an army of some nine thousand mounted soldiers on a march across France. They were burning the countryside and raising farms to the ground. The death toll was climbing and Joseph felt helpless to stop it.
Joseph had his share of nobles to persuade, and he was having more success than Andrea. The king enjoyed surrounding himself with scholars and artists, so Joseph found he fit right in.
Nico and Quynh still struggled with life at court. Quynh complained often of her restlessness; Nico was miserable though.
Joseph rejected Andrea’s suggestion that Nico was too blunt for court. Still, Joseph could tell Nico’s nerves were hanging by a thread. When he and Andrea received news of the English campaign she looked at him with sad eyes, already knowing what he dreaded. Sure enough, that evening Nico came to him.
It was hard for them having to stay separate as much as they had. Joseph knew Nico didn’t sleep well without Joseph draped over his back. Truth be told, he wasn’t faring well himself. Private moments between the two of them were scarce; with the way gossip traveled at court, it was a necessary trial.
Joseph was pouring over reports of the destruction when he heard the door to his and Andrea’s quarters open quietly. He didn’t look up, he knew it was Nico.
“I know.” Joseph nodded, not daring to look up.
“I can’t sit here and do nothing while people are being slaughtered.”
“Nico, I know,” Joseph said.
He finally put down his pen and looked up at the love of his life. Nico was pale, and the circles under his eyes were dark as ever, but there was a steadiness to his posture that Joseph hadn’t seen in months.
“I just want to do some good, like you and Andrea—even Quynh is finding ways to trick secrets out of the ladies here, though she complains about it constantly,” Nico said. He rubbed a hand over his face before continuing, “I just feel useless.”
Joseph finally closed the distance between them, his work abandoned on the desk. He hugged Nico close to him and kissed his hair before whispering, “You are many things Nicolò di Genova, useless could never be one of them.”
Nico nodded. “I still have to go.”
“I know, and I will miss you, but I understand.”
They stayed locked in a tight embrace for a long time, neither of them daring to be the one to pull away. The candle on Joseph’s desk had nearly melted away when Nico spoke again.
“Can I stay with you tonight?”
“I think we can risk one night. You are meant to be the brother of my lady wife, after all.”
Nico made a face of disgust.
“Do not remind me,” Nico said, and he titled his head up to press his lips to Joseph’s.
In the days that followed, Joseph spent more time than he cared to admit finding the perfect token. The morning before Nico was set to leave he stumbled upon a textile merchant from Egypt. He purchased a crimson silk scarf that featured intricate gold and turquoise geometric patterns. The piece was distinctly Maghrebi, but he was willing to gamble on ignorant French nobles assuming it was something from Quynh’s culture.
The next morning, Joseph watched from the other side of a courtyard with Andrea as Quynh tied the silk scarf around Nico’s arm. She kissed his cheek and he whispered something to her before riding out the gate. He cast one last glance at Joseph before he was out of sight.
When Quynh returned, she placed a soft kiss on Joseph’s cheek and hugged him close.
“He said he loved it and he’ll think of you everyday.”
Joseph wished that was enough to dull the ache in his chest. He knew it wouldn’t be.
Joseph became intolerable as the months dragged on. Andrea lasted one week before she decided she could not stand to sleep in the same room as him any longer. She reasoned that sleeping in Quynh and Nico’s quarters could easily be passed off as her missing her brother and Quynh her husband.
Joseph’s poetry, which was exceedingly popular among the nobles, became increasingly melancholic the longer they went without news of Nico. Andrea selfishly took that as another excuse for her to keep her distance. If they were perceived to be on the outs, perhaps no one would draw the correct conclusion about the sudden switch in Joseph’s mood.
News of John of Gaunt's Chevauchée arrived daily and Andrea became increasingly desperate to put a stop to the bloody campaign. More than once she resorted to flirting with men she thought she could sway to her side. Which only served to further convince the court of the rift between her and Joseph.
Flirting to get what they needed was not a new tactic, and neither Quynh nor Andrea were jealous by nature. Boredom, however, was something Quynh had always struggled with.
“I should have gone with Nico,” Quynh grumbled late one night.
“That would have raised too much suspicion,” Andrea replied.
“I cannot spend another day embroidering, Andromache,” Quynh sighed, flopping back onto their bed, “Make Joseph do it, he enjoys that sort of thing.”
As Quynh’s mood further soured, her displays of affection became increasingly daring. More than once she had kissed Andrea while they were in a room full of people. Dipping down to kiss the back of her neck when backs were turned.
In early December, the company of English soldiers made for the coast toward the English-occupied but plague-ridden Bordeaux; a clear sign that the army was regrouping, if not outright retreating.
Joseph’s mood improved as that likely meant Nico would return to them soon. Quynh, however, bristled at the thought.
“So now I must suffer through the absence of your touch during the nighttime hours as well as the day?”
“What would you have me do, Quynh? We have a job; our own needs can wait a few months.”
Quynh glared at Andrea and slept with her back to her that night.
By the time Nico finally sent word, Andrea had given up hope that they could persuade King Charles to play at peace.
“Nico is in Orléans ,” Andrea said as she entered their quarters for the first time in weeks.
Joseph jumped up and began packing, rambling about promising to make the trip quick, when Andrea hushed him.
“It’s obvious that we aren’t doing any good here, we’ll all go,” Andrea said. “I have one thing to take care of first.”
Andrea found Quynh easily. She complained at length about the monotony and predictability of her time at court. Andrea could recite Quynh’s schedule in her sleep.
Quynh set her embroidery aside when she locked eyes with Andrea as she marched across the crowded garden. A wry smile slowly spread across Quynh’s face as Andrea drew closer. There was no surprising the person she had spent over two millennia loving.
She grabbed either side of Quynh’s face and pressed their lips together as people gasped and whispered. Andrea didn’t care.
“My heart—” Quynh started. She looked dazed as Andrea pulled back from the kiss.
Andrea grabbed Quynh’s hand, and led her through the garden to where she hoped Joseph was already waiting outside the castle with horses.
The news that most of John of Gaunt's army deserted at Bordeaux had been both a welcome end to five months of following the army’s path of destruction, and a depressing reminder of the pointlessness of war. All those lives lost, and homes destroyed. For what? For the English prince to head back to England with his tail between his legs.
Nico turned northeast toward Paris without much fanfare.
It all felt futile. An endless cycle of death and destruction in the names of kings and religions Nico had no faith in, not anymore.
His armor was abandoned months prior, his horse being unable to continue the brutal pace of following the rampage while hauling the extra weight. He didn’t truly need it anyway.
Somewhere along the way he ripped the French coat of arms off his shirt, tearing his sleeve and exposing his shoulder in the process. The token Joseph gave him found new purpose in keeping his sleeve from tearing off completely.
Nico made it to Orléans before he couldn’t make himself go any further. They knew where he was, and Joseph at least would not take long to come to him.
He was walking through town eleven days after sending word to Paris when Nico saw the unmistakable silhouette of his love amongst a crowd of travelers.
“Yusuf!” Nico called out.
Joseph jumped and turned, searching the road for Nico. They locked eyes and were moving toward each other before Andrea and Quynh even realized Nico was there.
They embraced like old friends—perhaps a bit longer than necessary.
“I did not expect all of you—and so soon.” Nico said.
“We had to make a quick exit. Andrea made quite a scene,” Joe smirked. Behind him, Quynh laughed.
Sleep did not come to Nico that night. Quynh and Andrea disappeared as soon as they made camp and would make themselves scarce until dawn.
Nico stared into their campfire for hours before a sleepy Joseph sat down next to him.
“I saw it on you earlier, you cannot know what it means to me that you kept it with you all this time.”
Nico shook himself from his thoughts with a questioning, hmmm . He looked at Joseph, who pointed at Nico’s hands. He hadn’t even realized he'd been fiddling with the now well worn piece of silk, as had become his habit while on Gaunt’s trail.
“It was a comfort,” Nico said simply, and held it out to Joseph.
“You seem melancholy,” Joseph said as he took the cloth, inspecting it with a small smile.
“I’m contemplating my loyalties.”
“Where my allegiance lies. What I fight for. I’m a soldier, and before that a priest. I’m built to follow—to fight for something bigger than myself. I don’t know what that is anymore.”
“You fight for what is right,” Joseph said simply, handing the silk back to Nico.
“Is that not what I thought of when we met? Did I not think I was fighting for what was right then?”
“You are not that man anymore, Nico. You need to forgive yourself—to trust yourself.”
“I do not trust myself, and I do not trust those in power,” Nico shook his head, all the while passing the silk between his fingers, “so what am I to do?”
Joseph said nothing, but he moved closer until they were pressed together from hip to shoulder. He knew it was taking everything in Joseph not to wrap him in his arms and profess his love and admiration. He appreciated the restraint, especially as Nico’s mind was closing in on something that he could not quite grasp. An idea—a solution, even.
“I trust you,” Nico said finally, “with every piece of my soul. I trust you more than any other—certainly more than I trust myself.”
He knew what he needed now.
“Nico, I—” Joseph stopped abruptly when Nico stood and drew his sword.
In the dancing firelight, Nico could see the confusion in Joseph’s eyes when he took a knee in front of him, sword presented flat in his palms.
"I promise, on my honor,” Nico spoke slowly, “that I will follow you and keep your council as long as I breathe. I pledge to you my body, my sword, and my soul. I vow that our union will be my guiding light, and your words my northern star. I give you my word, dearest Yusuf, that I will consult you in all things, and ask only that you do the same.”
Nico’s eyes never left Joseph’s, even as they both began to blink back tears. When he stopped speaking he found himself instantly enveloped in the arms of his love, his sword clattering to the ground.
“I promise all that and more,” Joseph whispered into his shoulder.
For the first time in decades, Nico felt a weight lift off his chest. He felt like he had a path ahead again.