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In The Heat Of The Moment

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The night before the Great Feast, Yusuf’s parents sat him down and went through every candidate for his hand who would be walking through the doors of the main hall tomorrow, as though he did not know every one of them already. His mother scolded him once again for not having a preferred suitor; she, he was reminded, had accepted his father halfway through her own Great Feast – not even waiting for all her suitors to make their proposals – and put everybody out of their misery.

“Father said that I wasn’t to do that, because it would offend people,” Yusuf pointed out dryly.

His father harrumphed. “Well, yes, it was a very different time then -”

“If I thought there was one of them you truly wanted, you could do that with my blessing,” said his mother. “But there isn’t, so you can hear them all out. Now, where were we? Ah yes. Prince Stephen.”

“A weasel,” said his father succinctly.

“A powerful one, unfortunately.” His mother fussed with the edge of her scarf. “Don’t offend him, but if you love your aged parents, please do not accept him.”

“I’ve met him,” said Yusuf. Stephen had tried to quote poetry from his own land at him as if Yusuf had been entirely ignorant of it. Yusuf would spit on the man if he was dragged before him in chains, much less accept his hand in marriage in his family’s own palace.

“Good.” His mother put that paper down firmly. “Now, Keane is an ally of Stephen’s family, and he would be acceptable, although I do hear…well, you can make up your own mind.” She frowned at the next one. “I know you and Count Sébastien are great friends, but -”

He will not accept me,” Yusuf said, “never fear.” Sébastien had written to him, his cocky grin evident in every line, that he had put off his engagement to the lady Adèle in order to present himself as a suitor “but do not worry – it is only that I would not miss this chance to fete you for the world.” Which meant he was going to mock Yusuf relentlessly under the guide of offering his hand; well, at least it would lighten the evening.

They worked their way through Princess Quỳnh of the Viet, and Duchess Nile of Illinois who had travelled across the sea, and all the other suitors, and Yusuf could not think of one of them who he wanted to marry. They were Christian and Muslim and Jewish and even a pagan Viking; they were men and women, princes and duchesses, emirs and ladies; Yusuf simply did not care for any of them. He knew that his position did not allow him to be a romantic, but he could not pretend to like it.

“Oh, and I almost forgot,” said his father. “The Comte di Genova has sent his youngest son.”

“God preserve us, has he?” His mother frowned at the page. “Why on earth are we still sending invitations to them? After the raids twenty years ago –”

“It’s tradition.” His father sighed. “They do not expect anything to come of it; we do not expect anything to come of it; if I remember correctly the boy was sent to a monastery, and I doubt he is interested in marrying here, or converting.”

“Unless he wants to be a martyr,” Yusuf said dryly. He knew that Christian texts made much of people marrying outside their faith to either bravely die for it or convert their spouses. The Comte di Genova’s son wasn’t going to get either of those things in this kingdom.

“Well, whatever you do, do not accept the Comte di Genova’s son,” his mother concluded. “I swear by God, Yusuf, just make a decent choice and we can put this behind us.”

“I will be married,” Yusuf said. “How will I put that behind me?” Tradition dictated that the wedding take place that same night. Tomorrow night.

“It’s not as if you can’t divorce them quietly in a year or two, if it’s that disastrous,” said his mother. “I promised my father I’d divorce your father eventually, since he was the second son of a third wife instead of the senior prince my father was expecting –” Yusuf’s father’s eyebrows went up like that was news to him – “but then we had you right away and he came around.”

“There’s at least three people on this list he can’t divorce for any reason,” objected his father. “It would start a war.”

“Mother, how did Father even come to make you a proposal at your Feast, and not one of his older brothers?” Yusuf suddenly wondered.

“I spoke to my mother, and she spoke to your father’s mother, and your father’s mother spoke to her husband’s eldest wife, and it was arranged, of course,” his mother said. “You don’t think I left it to chance.” She frowned at Yusuf again. “Unlike some people in this room, my son.”

Yusuf sighed. “Alright, Mother. I will not disgrace us, I promise.”

“Oh, I know you won’t,” said his mother benevolently, which was the most frightening thing she’d said all night.

*

Yusuf would not call himself deeply devout, but he did try to behave as he should; facing the prospect of being married to someone he did not know or like, however, he thought that he could be excused falling to the temptation of a glass of wine. First he had to sit through the feast, while his younger sisters giggled from the women’s side of the hall, and then he had to sit through the presentation of suitors. By tradition, he was not supposed to speak to any of them before the proposals began. This was not a problem for the women; it did however mean that Sébastien could only make sympathetic faces at him from ten places down the table. The suitors were each sitting with their own parties, so Yusuf had to work to pick them out.

He knew Prince Stephen by sight, and Sébastien, and he suspected that the stern-faced man in the very fine outfit not far from Stephen had to be Duke Keane. Yusuf disliked him on sight. For other groups he simply could not tell them apart; the Viking Rus were all dressed the same, and all equally tall and blonde. To amuse himself he tried to spot the Comte di Genova’s youngest son, but he only managed to identify one party from Italia. He could not have said which was the son who had been pulled out of a monastery to propose to him. He caught the eye of one man with beautiful sea-green eyes, who gave him a curious smile, but there was no way it would be him; he was obviously trained as a fighter, broad in the shoulders and with a quiet but confident air.

Finally the feasting wound to its end, and Yusuf moved to the throne on the dais, from which he would accept proposals and – eventually – a suitor. Someone had thoughtfully given him the good cushions. They did not make his oncoming doom any more appealing.

The first was Prince Stephen, and Yusuf had to suffer through more execrable poetry. He was considered a fair poet himself, even when he published things anonymously – as a prince he could of course not take praise at face value otherwise – and Stephen managed to make quite good verse by other people sound atrocious. Next was Princess Quỳnh, but the woman-king Andromache of the steppes, who was here escorting her niece, had somehow managed to corner Yusuf in the stables that morning and inform him very firmly that not only was he not to marry her niece (‘she’d go mad in a city’), he was not to accept Princess Quỳnh’s suit, either.

“But what if I like her?” Yusuf had protested; Andromache was a not-infrequent guest of his parents, and he was used to her forthright ways. “I hear she is learned, and very beautiful –”

“I will slit your throat and kidnap her,” Andromache informed him cheerfully. “Don’t think I won’t.”

“Ah,” Yusuf said, some things becoming clear. “Why did you not just say she is to be your bride?”

“I still have to kidnap her,” Andromache said. “Her father has another marriage lined up, he wasn’t counting on you coming through. Sensible man. Very tight grip on his family, but sensible.”

“Do you need any help?”

Andromache grinned, and patted him on the shoulder. “No, she and I have it all nicely organized. She’s an excellent rider. But I appreciate the offer.”

“Any time,” Yusuf said, glad that Andromache was an ally, and vaguely worried he’d just agreed to get his kingdom into a war if someone annoyed her.

Princess Quỳnh also quoted some poetry at him, much more prettily than Prince Stephen, but it was all not-very-veiled metaphors about horses and flowers and vipers and Yusuf would have got the message crystal-clear even without Andromache’s warning. He inclined his head respectfully and crossed her even more firmly off the mental list.

Duchess Nile gave a beautifully earnest speech, a veil covering what Yusuf thought must be a high crown of braids, but her shoulders sagged a fraction in relief when he gave her only a polite nod. He wanted no unwilling spouse. Sébastien swaggered up and praised Yusuf to the heavens in embarrassing terms that referenced any number of stupid things they had done together. Yusuf couldn’t help grinning, but he knew the game Sébastien was playing. Also, he could see his mother glaring at him.

Duke Keane glowered through his entire proposal, which wasn’t even in Yusuf’s own tongue; he had a translator. Even Prince Stephen had made an effort. It was serviceable enough, but there was something Yusuf did not like around his eyes, the way he looked not at Yusuf but at the throne, and he remembered his mother’s hesitance.

They wound their way through all of them, and there was not one that Yusuf could say he would joyfully take as a spouse, or even dutifully. He kept an idle eye out for the Comte di Genova’s forbidden son, but he did not appear. Finally, the speeches wound to an end. Maybe he had made a run for it back to his monastery, Yusuf mused. He wouldn’t blame the boy if he had. How old was he, anyway? Young, surely. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see his mother whispering something to her wazir. He wondered what that was about.

“And now,” the wazir said, standing, “Prince Yusuf will -”

Somebody coughed. Yusuf, slumped in his seat and sapped of his will to live (it was the wine; there was a lesson for him) jerked upright. It was the Genovan with the sea-green eyes, who had stepped forward. With a better view, Yusuf could see his other features; a beaky nose, a prominent mole, a truly terrible haircut, and yet somehow it all added up to a face he could look at every day.

“I haven’t presented my proposal,” he said, with only a hint of apology, as if he regretted having to point out the error. His voice was quiet, but it carried, and he spoke in heavily accented but perfectly correct Arabic. “If I may?”

“Of course,” Yusuf said, letting his voice carry. “Go on.”

“Prince Yusuf,” the man said, formally. Was he the mysterious youngest son? It seemed impossible. “I have travelled here to offer you my hand in marriage. I can only offer my sword, and of course my family’s goodwill. I hope this pleases you.”

He smiled that slightly curious smile. Yusuf held out his hand.

This was the signal, conveyed to all the suitors, that they might come forward and engage Yusuf in private conversation – or as private as could be had in a crowded hall, as everybody looked on. He had extended the offer to nobody, knowing that since he had denied it to Stephen and Keane he could not do so for anybody he did not seriously intend to marry. He had not even extended it to Sébastien, his oldest friend. He was not sure why he was giving the Genovan the privilege. Perhaps it was because his speech had only made Yusuf more curious. A sword, from a boy – no, a man as he stood here – sent to a monastery? His family’s goodwill, when they were barely not open enemies? Nothing more, when he competed with an Emperor’s daughter and the ruling Prince of another land?

“I wasn’t expecting that,” said the Genovan, stepping forward. Yusuf could feel everybody in the room craning to listen. His parents, further along the dais, probably could hear. He kept his voice low.

“I wasn’t expecting you,” said Yusuf. “Are you really the Comte di Genova’s youngest son?”

“For my sins, yes.”

“They said you had to be pulled out of a monastery.”

“That’s true. I was meant to take my final vows next month.”

“Well, that explains the haircut,” Yusuf said without thinking. The Genovan laughed. It was a lovely laugh. “But you offered a sword.”

“I…entered the monastery late,” he said. “I went to war and…it is a long story. But it is all I have. I did not think you would be enticed by my knowledge of scripture.”

“I take it you would not convert, then.”

“I don’t know,” the Genovan said, slowly, as if he surprised himself. “When I came here I was not expecting what I found. I don’t know.”

Yusuf stood up from his throne. His mother threw her veil over her face, which meant that she was furious with him and did not wish the whole room to see it. His father was gesturing furiously to the wazir, who clearly didn’t know what to do.

The Genovan’s eyebrows rose. Yusuf realised, in a panic, that nobody had told him his name. “What are you called?”

“Nicolò,” said Nicolò di Genova, who Yusuf was going to make his mother very unhappy over.

“Thank you all for coming here today,” Yusuf announced, as loudly and firmly as he knew. “I have accepted the suit of Nicolò di Genova.”

This was supposed to be greeted with polite applause; instead there was a dead silence. One of Yusuf’s sisters, somewhere, giggled nervously. Sébastien was mouthing “Are you sure?” at him. Andromache, who had somehow managed to appear next to Princess Quỳnh, was grinning at him enthusiastically. She loved chaos.

“Er,” said Nicolò, who was clearly taken aback by this. Yusuf glanced frantically at him; if he decided to back out now

“I am honoured, Prince Yusuf,” he said, as loudly as Yusuf had spoken. “God willing, I hope I will be a good husband.”

He held out his hand. Yusuf took it. It was warm, and dry, and calloused the same way Yusuf’s hands were; by pen and sword both. Yusuf liked it immediately.

The wazir coughed, and there was a round of frantic applause. Yusuf’s mother was glaring daggers at him. He was unsure whether he or his husband-to-be were in worse danger of not surviving the night.

*

The wedding contracts had been drawn up beforehand with sections left empty for the successful suitor’s party to fill in; Nicolò did it himself, in Ligurian, with a promise that it could be translated later. Yusuf could read it well enough, and his portion was a little more than a sword and a promise of goodwill, but…not very much more. His mother really was going to be annoyed about that.

“My father almost didn’t send me at all,” Nicolò muttered to him. “He knew it was for show.”

“If you have changed your mind,” Yusuf muttered back, “I have a friend who would be just thrilled to help you escape the palace. It’s the sort of thing she does for fun.”

Nicolò shook his head, very firmly. Yusuf wondered what was waiting for him back in Genova.

They signed the contracts and made their promises, and the imam gave a thankfully brief sermon. The feast, of course, had already occurred. Yusuf’s father came over and said “Your mother cannot deal with this right now, but tomorrow we are going to have a discussion,” his eyebrows drawn down.

Yusuf would have been worried by that except he had just stumbled upon the much more worrying thought that of course they were expected to consummate the marriage, and there was an excellent chance his new husband was a virgin, because wasn’t that what Christian clerics were supposed to be, and what was he going to do with that? He had been given a lot of advice by his father (that he wished he could forget) on what to do with a virgin bride, which had inadvertently informed him that his mother had not been one, which was the part he wanted to forget most. But everybody expected that men knew what they were about.

In a very short amount of time he found himself standing with Nicolò in his private chambers, which had an equal number of scrolls scattered around and weapons hung decoratively on the wall – although a number of servants had unfortunately discovered while cleaning that they were only hung decoratively. He and Nicolò stared at each other. It was late, but Yusuf was still riding a wave of nervous energy.

“Can we talk first?” he said, knowing it was abrupt. “I would like to talk.”

“Alright,” said Nicolò, with a pointed glance at the bed; he certainly wasn’t blushing, whether or not he was a virgin. “Go on.”

“Not here,” Yusuf said, and led him out onto the balcony, which overlooked the sea. If you stood on the railing, which was very stupid and dangerous and I do not mind raising another queen rather than a king but if I need to train Noor I need to start now, Yusuf, so please inform me if you mean to throw yourself from this balcony, in the words of his mother, if you stood on the railing, you could grasp a ledge and – if you were of a reasonable height, and in good training – climb up onto the gently-sloped part of the roof above Yusuf’s chambers. You could also get there climbing down from the rooftop garden that was his hill-country-raised father’s joy, but you entered that garden through his parents’ quarters, so Yusuf had always gone up this way.

“There are much easier ways to kill me,” Nicolò said, but scrambled up after him quickly enough. “Why are we going to talk on a roof?”

“Because,” Yusuf said, and turned him around to face the sea, spread out before them, and the glimmering trail of moonlight that led from the palace to the horizon. The extra height let you see over the bulk of the palace to the curve of the bay, and the city spreading out under the moonlight. Yusuf’s kingdom, one day; or at least its heart.

“Ohhhhh,” said Nicolò, in wonder. “Thank you.”

Yusuf hadn’t brought him up here for Nicolò’s sake; he barely knew him. Or maybe he had. He was suddenly unsure.

“It is my favourite view,” he said. “It’s a little better from my parents’ garden, up there –“ he pointed behind them, “– but they will live for many years yet, God willing, so for the moment this is the best way for me to see it. And for you. I thought you might like to see your new home at its best. There is little that can better Tunis by moonlight.”

“I like the sea,” Nicolò said. “We are a trading city. I am sure you know.”

“Among other things,” Yusuf said. The Genovese were feared as pirates, as well. “Nicolò…will you tell me why you accepted? I know you did not come here to marry me.”

“I didn’t join a monastery because – that is, I find peace in God, but I did not feel a need to spend all my days praising Him,” said Nicolò. “But after my first campaign, it became clear to me that if I carried a sword for my father, I would be expected to kill people merely for our power and our wealth and I could not do that – I could not keep doing that. And there were not a lot of other options for avoiding it, save professing a religious vocation, late-found. Or running away, but to be quite honest I had no idea where to go.”

Yusuf’s mouth dropped open. He had not been expecting that. “So this is…another form of running away?”

“Well, I was not considering it before tonight, even though your palace is lovely and your people seem happy.” Nicolò gave him that same curious smile he had the first time. “But you smiled at me, and you let your friend tease you in front of everybody, and you were kind to the people who were afraid or did not want to be there. And, you know,” he let his eyes roam across Yusuf, “after seeing you, I thought it would not be such a hardship.”

“I was sure you were a virgin,” said Yusuf. “Aren’t monks supposed to be?”

“I mean, certainly, they are supposed to be, or at least celibate, the same as you are not supposed to drink wine,” said Nicolò, which was a low hit but a fair one. “But you would be amazed how very un-celibate most of them are. I certainly was.”

“God be praised,” said Yusuf, who felt his chances of enjoying his wedding night had just gone up significantly. Nicolò seemed to take this as a sign that he should kiss him. Yusuf thought that showed great good sense. They still hadn’t entirely cleared up the virginity question, but Nicolò had clearly kissed and been kissed before. Yusuf licked into his mouth and he opened the way, threading the fingers of one hand through Yusuf’s unruly curls and tugging a little. Yusuf liked that very much. He couldn’t do any of the other things he would like to do perched on a roof, though, so he pulled back – or tried to. Nicolò kept him there, and kissed him more deeply. They were absolutely going to fall to their deaths. Yusuf didn’t care.

“Perhaps we should climb down,” Nicolò said, eventually. His green eyes were all pupil, and Yusuf could feel the heat of his body, tantalizing inches away. Yusuf was going to eat him alive.

“I have a very fine bed,” Yusuf murmured. “If we –”

They both froze at the same moment. There were voices on the balcony.

*

It wasn’t the voice Yusuf recognised first, but the language; Latin. Then the words filtered in.

“Where are they?” said one. “They should be here, my lord.”

“Maybe the Genovan ran away,” said the other. “He’s a meek little mouse; I heard his father had to pack him off to a monastery because he proved so much of a coward on his first campaign.”

Yusuf glanced at Nicolò, whose lip was curled in a sneer, a martial light in his eye. He didn’t look much like a mouse.

“Keane,” he mouthed silently. Yusuf nodded; he had it now.

“Doesn’t that solve the problem, my lord?” asked the other.

“No,” Keane growled. “They both made a mockery of me, that is, of Prince Stephen and I, with this marriage. I want them both dead.”

Yusuf knew this was very serious – they were both in feast clothes, and unarmed except for eating knives, and a guest was planning their assassination – but he couldn’t help rolling his eyes. How, exactly, were Keane and his men planning to escape? Besides which, his parents would cheerfully declare war on Stephen’s lands, after a sincere but brief period of mourning, and start preparing Yusuf’s next-youngest sister for the throne. Yusuf did not make the mistake of thinking himself entirely indispensable to his kingdom’s future.

Carefully, carefully, he made his way to the edge. Keane and one of his men were standing facing the sea. He looked over at Nicolò, and held up three fingers. Two. One.

They jumped at the same time, Yusuf aiming for Keane, Nicolò for the other man. Yusuf had meant to snatch Keane’s sword and put him on the ground, but he rolled onto his feet to find that the man’s neck was at a very unnatural angle. His mother was definitely going to kill him now. Maybe just put his eyes out and keep him in a high chamber, as an example. The options were numerous, really.

Nicolò’s man was choking but not down; Yusuf hit him in the head with the hilt of his knife, and he collapsed. He would probably die, but that could not be helped.

“No armour,” Nicolò said, short and swift, and scooped up Keane’s longsword. Yusuf followed him in.

In his private chamber, Prince Stephen was standing, looking very put out, with another four men. Not good odds, except that as Nicolò had said, none of them were armoured, having come from the feast. Yusuf ripped his second-favourite saif off the wall – not decorative – and went to work, with the element of surprise. Nicolò was carving through them like a man possessed. All Yusuf had to do was slice through one man’s elbow, making him drop his shortsword, and bring his blade to Prince Stephen’s neck. He had backed up against the wall, eyes wide with terror.

“Where,” he stuttered – in Latin – “Where is Duke Keane?”

“Dead,” Yusuf said, in Arabic. “Did you think you would do this and escape?”

“You were guests,” said Nicolò, hard and furious. There was blood spattered across his face, other men’s, and it lent him an entirely different air. It was very unfortunate, given the situation, that it mostly made Yusuf want to fuck him even more badly.

“I was having a very good wedding night,” Yusuf said, not lowering his blade.

We were having a very good wedding night.” Nicolò raised his own stolen weapon.

“Yes, that is right,” Yusuf agreed.

Stephen licked his lips. “I am the ruler of a whole kingdom! I am one of the wealthiest men in Christendom! You cannot – you rejected me, both of us, for this, this…defective monk!”

“I am the heir of a whole kingdom, I do not want anything in Christendom, and he appreciates a good view,” said Yusuf. “As far as I am concerned that makes him worth keeping.”

He flicked his eyes to Nicolò, and nodded to the door; Nicolò strode over and opened it, calling “Guards!”

Stephen was still saying something, as if they cared; Yusuf stopped listening to him entirely.

*

Yusuf ended all discussion about what was going to happen next with the declaration that they were very distressed by this attempt on their lives by trusted guests and Yusuf’s own recent suitors, and the captain of the royal guard could station as many men as he liked around Yusuf’s chambers – or, very well, they would move to some of the guest chambers which had no balcony – but he and his husband needed to be alone to recover. It was a sign of the shock everybody had had that they took this at face value.

The door had barely closed behind them before Nicolò pinned him to it with a happy growling noise, which again demonstrated his great good sense. There was a brief interlude after they had disrobed where it became evident that both of them were competing for the privilege of getting their mouth on the other one’s cock first, but Nicolò handily solved that by saying “Wait, wait,” and demonstrating that it was possible for both of them to be satisfied in that regard at the same time, if they lay down on the bed together.

“Oh, is this what they teach you in monasteries?” Yusuf said, licking a line up Nicolò’s very pretty cock.

“Ah, not officially,” Nicolò gasped, and wrapped his mouth around Yusuf’s cock in…revenge did not seem to be the right word. They sucked each other lazily for a while until Nicolò had worked a spit-slicked thumb into Yusuf up to the first knuckle, and Yusuf broke away to say “If I finish you now, are you still going to be able to fuck me later?”

“Hngh,” Nicolò said, intelligently; his cock jumped in Yusuf’s hand. “Probably not. Do we…”

“There’s a vial of oil in my clothes,” said Yusuf. “I grabbed it before we left my chambers. Our chambers. Ahh, yes, do that again.”

“I like that you plan,” said Nicolò.

“Well, I watched you with that longsword,” said Yusuf, “and I decided that if I had to put up with – Nicolò – if I had to put up with an assassination attempt, after that interminable feast, I deserved to have you fuck me into the mattress.” He craned his neck and mouthed, carefully, at Nicolò’s balls.

Nicolò shivered against him. “Yes, yes, alright. Yusuf, if you want that you need to let me – Yusuf

He staggered away eventually, and staggered back. Yusuf did indeed spend the rest of his wedding night being very enjoyably fucked into the mattress by his new husband, who was very evidently not a virgin, which was Yusuf’s great good fortune.

“This is,” Nicolò said, much later and blurry with sleep and the languid aftermath of their activities, “a very different evening than I anticipated.”

“You and everybody else in this palace,” said Yusuf. “Regretting it?”

“Mmmmmmm,” Nicolò sighed, and wriggled more firmly into Yusuf’s grasp. Yusuf took that to mean he was not.

*

The next morning, a guard politely informed them that the queen was expecting them for breakfast. Also present were Yusuf’s father, of course, and the wazir, and Yusuf’s next-youngest sister Noor, who was presumably there as a dire warning of Yusuf’s expendability if he continued to act out in this manner.

“I didn’t want an alliance with Genova,” was the first thing his mother said to Nicolò, so the morning was off to an excellent start.

“Oh, my father does not want an alliance with you, either,” Nicolò said cheerfully. “We have made things very difficult. I apologise.”

“Did you have to kill Duke Keane?” grumbled the wazir. “Couldn’t you have just frightened him into silence, like you did the prince?”

“Yes,” said Yusuf and Nicolò at the same time.

“The thing is,” said Yusuf’s mother, “now I have to marry Noor to a Genovan so they can give you an heir to continue the alliance. It is very inconvenient.”

“I thought you didn’t want an alliance?” Nicolò blinked.

“I don’t. But now I have one, so we will make it work. I am sure your father will see sense.” Yusuf’s mother had the look in her eye that terrified sensible neighbouring monarchs.

“Marry her to a Venetian,” Nicolò suggested. “It will do just as well for the rest of the maritime Christian cities, and it will annoy my father no end, but he won’t be able to say anything against it.”

“What if I don’t want to marry a Venetian?” Noor objected.

“Some of them are almost human beings,” Nicolò said, apologetically.

“You are very quick to throw over your own family,” said Yusuf’s father, eyeing Nicolò thoughtfully. “And you said last night you would consider converting.”

“I am married to the heir to a kingdom, so naturally my allegiance must lie with my husband’s family,” said Nicolò. “Also, my father is a…” He frowned. “I’m not sure of the correct word in your tongue.”

“A dick?” said Yusuf, in Ligurian, helpfully. Everything Nicolò had implied suggested that was the word he was looking for.

“Yes, that,” Nicolò agreed. Yusuf said it again, in Arabic. Yusuf’s father did not look soothed by this; he was very proper. His mother laughed.

“I’m not going to divorce him,” Yusuf said, grinning across the table at his husband.

“Tell me that again in six months,” said his mother. “Jafar, you said that there were some other matters we had to attend to urgently. What were they, again?”

The wazir, who had served his mother since she was young and claimed she had put all the grey in his beard, sighed. “The woman-king Andromache has kidnapped the Princess Quỳnh –”

“That’s all right,” Yusuf said hastily, “it was arranged.”

“Yes, I know,” said his mother. “Andromache would not spring that on me unawares. She has manners.” This was news to Yusuf.

“– and the Duchess Nile wishes to know if there are any Christian priests in the city; having been refused Prince Yusuf’s hand, she intends to wed one of her ladies.”

“Well, that isn’t difficult,” said Yusuf’s father. “Yusuf and Nicolò should attend, if she will allow it.”

“See, Yusuf,” said his mother, “if you had simply made a choice before last night, we wouldn’t have had all this trouble. Everybody would have known, and not got offended.”

“I had never met Nicolò before last night!”

“Just be more organised next time,” his mother grumbled. She turned to Nicolò. “Don’t take any of this amiss, dear; I think you are going to be an excellent addition to the family.” Yusuf’s father looked somewhat sceptical at this, but kept his peace, which was good enough.

“He is, and there isn’t going to be a next time,” Yusuf said, firmly, and smiled at his husband.