Yusuf was well-traveled for a man his age, and no place he had visited felt alive in quite the same way as home. No city breathed like Mahdia, or had the same vibrant, singing pulse.
Genoa at Carnival, however, came awfully close.
Torchlight and shadows dueled in the streets. All manner of beasts and imps surrounded them in the crush of revelers. Some were half-clothed at best below the neck, and yet Yusuf was the one who felt naked with his face exposed. He and Nadir, having arrived in port at sunset, had no masks.
Nadir was the middle son, and thus full of piety and sage advice. “We could have timed this better,” he sniffed. A diminutive figure disguised as some kind of feathered elephant reached out to stroke Nadir’s cheek as they passed. He ducked his head away.
“I don’t keep a calendar of Christian holidays,” Yusuf said. “Do you?”
“Perhaps we should start.”
Yusuf clapped his brother on the shoulder. “I leave that to your meticulous hand. Father sent me for my diplomacy skills, not to copy dates.”
Nadir snorted to show what he thought of that. In truth Yusuf shared the suspicions Nadir had confided on their journey north across the sea. Namely, that Ibrahim sent his elder two sons in search of trading partners because he did not want to go to Genoa himself. None of them had cause for warm feelings toward the Genovese.
For the moment, all Yusuf sought was a supper that wasn’t cooked onboard a ship and served with salty bread. He looked longingly at every inn they passed, but each one overflowed onto the street, its door clogged with creatures of fantasy and nightmare. The innkeepers and cooks, too, were likely celebrating. Too bad for his poor stomach, much beleaguered over twelve days at sea.
Up ahead the road widened, but like a river around a rock, the crowd bunched to one side. Perhaps there was a street vendor. Yusuf shouldered his way through the throng. “Too slow, Federico!” someone called in Ligurian, of which Yusuf had enough of a grasp to draw up contracts. “Who’s next?”
Yusuf broke through into the open space, Nadir on his heels. There was no street vendor, alas. The only foodstuff in sight was wine jugs in the hands of--“Soldiers,” Nadir grumbled.
“Sailors,” Yusuf said, judging by their disheveled and partial uniforms, though the distinction hardly mattered.
“Drunks,” Nadir said. There was no hair-splitting that.
The drunkest of them swaggered a circle in the middle of the clearing. He held a naked sword in one hand, backwards with the tip sparking negligently on the paving stones. His mask was grotesque: a foliate head sprouting twigs, the kind Yusuf once saw in a preserved mosaic from centuries ago, some ancient heathen god. It was wrought of wood and stained poisonous green to mimic rot. The eyes set within, when the torchlight chanced to catch them, were chips of ice.
“Here, Paolo,” called the man. He held the sword out, pommel first, toward his countryman, who wore the head of an ox.
“You’re mad,” said Paolo. “Cracked at last. What would your mother say, God rest her?”
“Hasn’t been the same since Palma,” muttered another man--Federico, probably.
“I told you,” said the first man, patient, “no man can harm me. Go on. It’s a good sword. It will buy your sister a pretty dress.”
“Shut up about my sister.” Paolo shook his horned head but took the offered sword. The man in the green mask stood straight, arms folded behind him. Paolo set his feet, adjusted his grip, and swung overhand. Yusuf heard the blade slice the air.
It sliced nothing else, because the green man leaned nimbly backward and to one side. The steel flashed as it passed him by.
“Less a man than an eel,” Paolo scoffed, and gave the hilt to the green man.
“Who else has the courage?” the green man cried, wheeling away from him. There was a wretched note to his voice, at odds with the mood of the evening. The crowd withdrew a step from his desperation.
Which left Yusuf singled out. “Is it courage if you flinch away from the blade?” he said.
“Do not get drawn in,” Nadir hissed in his ear.
But the gnarled green face turned inexorably toward Yusuf. “Tell me what you know of courage,” he challenged. The voice within the mask was hollow.
Yusuf warned, “I don’t want combat. My dress is for peace.”
“So I see.”
“But as for courage, well,” Yusuf said, lifting his brows, “I know it when I see it.”
The man made a thoughtful noise. He jogged the sword up in his hand to hold it by the widest part of the blade, and thrust its hilt toward Yusuf. “If you land a blow on me, you win my sword. But I win the right to deal the stroke to you. I will give you a respite of one year and a day, and then you receive the same that you gave. Swear on your honor now.”
Resentful of being ordered around, Yusuf took hold of the hilt but did not swear. The man kept the knuckle of his index finger bent under the blade for support as Yusuf drew it away. It was longer than the scimitar his uncle had taught him to use, heavier, awkward with the two-handed hilt. He said, “Why would a man wish to be rid of his sword?”
“It may be that he is sick to death of carrying it,” the man said. He faced away from Yusuf and lifted the mask to wipe sweat away with his shirt, and Yusuf felt a surge of pity. The man added, “Are you going to talk all night because you are so afraid to receive a blow?”
His pity ebbed away. Were it not for the treaty that had prompted Yusuf and Nadir to come here, this man and his fellows would sail without remorse to sack Mahdia again. Gripped by a need to teach him some manners, Yusuf said, “Threats are not right in the country I come from, nor any gift valued that is not made freely.”
The eyes in the mask rolled upward. “Then make your stroke, and I will give you my sword.”
To stall, Yusuf said, “A year is a long time. Where will I find you, to receive my blow?”
The man tilted his head. Of course none of the other sailors needed to ask such a question. “Capella Vèrde,” he shrugged. “Are you ready?”
Yusuf ignored Nadir’s glare and braced both hands about the hilt. “I am.”
The man got on his knees there in the street, with his head bowed. Yusuf paused, stirred in a way he didn’t expect. Being neither holy man nor executioner, there was one context in which a man had ever gone to his knees before him. And the green man had not done this for Paolo’s swing… but from that position, he could drop flat to the stones or fall into a roll, safe from the blade.
Yusuf lifted the sword, and brought it down.
It was a poor cut. Anyone could see as much. He did not angle his feet outward or sink into a crouch the way he should, his arms got in each other’s way, he tried to use the left hand on the pommel for strength, not for leverage, and the blade wobbled as it descended. Utterly sloppy, graceless, and weak.
It sheared clean through the man’s neck, and the masked head fell to the ground.
Something jolted Yusuf. Dimly he realized it was the paving stones striking his knees. He’d fallen, too, from shock. The sword clattered. The man’s body was prone. The head rolled once and stopped, mask up, before him.
Yusuf stretched out his hand--it felt like he was pushing against a sandstorm, and the roaring in his ears compounded that sensation--but he dared not touch the head. The severed neck spilled blood onto the street, a puddle that spread toward him and welled around the fallen sword that shone red in the torchlight.
“What did I say?” Nadir lamented, because a man’s death couldn’t stop him being self-righteous.
But he was right. Yusuf understood that, as his mind slowly returned to him and Nadir’s panic infected him. He should not have gotten drawn in. He had become a murderer, and there would be bigger repercussions than that; the people here would not let this stand, and if he ran home they would follow and make war to get their vengeance. His life was over. He was--
The head gasped.
Or it tried, but not being attached to lungs, it could only make a shallow gulping noise. As Yusuf stared, the body twitched, the man’s fingers curled and straightened again. The arms reached, and found the head.
The body got up on its knees, head cradled in both hands. It levered unsteadily to its feet. Yusuf’s eyes stayed downcast, fixed on the dark pool it left.
Someone was trying to say something, teeth and tongue and lips moving with no air to pass over them and no larynx to give them tone. The body stepped closer, boots in his view now. He dared not look up.
Then a strong hand reached to him. Bloody fingers slipped into Yusuf’s beard to seize his jaw and force his face upward. Yusuf shivered but lifted his eyes.
Through the mask, the green man’s eyes blazed. Behind the mask, his mouth worked. The same motions, over and over. Yusuf didn’t need to hear him to know what he said.
A year and a day. Swear on your honor.
The green man released him and staggered away. The crowd parted to let him pass. All was quiet as the grave.
“You were swindled,” Nadir would say later, on the journey home when Yusuf was ashen with seasickness and the dread of the bargain he’d made and of telling their father why they had abandoned their business in Genoa. “It was a conjurer’s trick. The mask was tied to some hairy melon, and the man had his head tucked in a false pair of shoulders. If he’s there at all in a year, it will be to rob you naked, you great gullible fool.”
He tapped Yusuf’s temple. Yusuf didn’t look away from the opposite wall of their berth. “So cheer up,” Nadir beseeched him.
But Yusuf kept his eyes on the blooded sword in its scabbard, and he knew better.
No place in the world was alive like Mahdia. No home breathed like his, filled with the song of the bulbul mingling with mizwad music in the evening, and the salt wind off the sea blowing through latticed windows in the morning.
His family did not rouse him for Fajr. In another life he might have dozed through it, but the first blush of light in the sky saw him awake and at prayer after violent dreams. It seemed that sometime in the night he had swallowed a grocer’s weight. It was good that he had packed the night before, or his steps would drag too much now.
He dressed and came downstairs to find that his mother had shooed the cook out of the kitchen and made breakfast herself. “Ah,” she sighed upon seeing him in his traveling clothes, “a year already?”
“Nearly,” Yusuf said around the ache in his throat. Three hundred and fifty days. He had secured a place on the earliest ship bound for Genoa. He would need the extra time to cross the sea and find this Capella Vèrde.
They’d had their talk and their tears during those days, his whole family, too much of both. He thought he’d run dry. But his mother placed a bowl of asida before him, with extra dates like she made it when he was a boy, and Yusuf had to swallow and take a few deep breaths before sitting to eat.
She folded her hands and watched him. The meal was simple and wholesome and he would miss it terribly. Yusuf made himself scrape the bowl clean, though there wasn’t much room around the weight in his stomach.
His mother looked on him solemnly. When he was a boy, Yusuf thought that Inaya bint Amir was the bravest person alive. Fearlessly she went with her husband to strange lands and faced strange men who did not know what to make of her famed wit, and fearlessly she stayed home to manage the household and business in his absence when circumstances demanded. But now she spoke with fear trembling in her voice. “Reason with this man,” she told him.
“Mother,” Yusuf sighed.
“Everyone at the university said you should practice law. Make a case for your life, my son. If he wants gold, take gold. We’ll give you gold to take to him.”
He opened his mouth to tramp again a well-trod argument, but she stood up and moved to sit beside him, taking his hand. “You are not the man you were last year,” she said.
“No,” he agreed.
“The fervor and the joy you take in prayer and giving alms, Yusuf--it has always been my pride to raise three good sons, but… you hear them calling you al-Tayyib in the marketplace, don’t you? How much more good could you do with the rest of your life, spent in gratitude to God?”
It was easy to take joy in everything when he knew each time would be the last time. Easy to give away his money, when he would have no use for it. Easy to pray for the sake of others, when he had no ambitions of his own. It didn’t make him good.
And it was all the more troublesome (and, to his mother’s eyes, more of a blessing) that it seemed God meant to preserve him unblemished for his death, at the agreed-upon time and place. No injury, no matter how slight, had stuck to Yusuf for the past year. Cuts and burns healed in seconds. Bruises faded unnaturally fast. His skin didn’t peel from too much sun anymore.
He couldn’t say when it began, but he remembered barking his shin in the haste of leaving Genoa, and later he found no sign it had happened. He could only conclude that delivering a killing blow had made him this way. In violence he became untouchable, and only by violence could it end.
That didn’t make him good, either.
His mother continued, “I know you will go to face this man, because you are Yusuf ibn Ibrahim ibn Muhammad ibn al-Kaysani, and you’re a man of your word.”
“Ibn Inaya,” Yusuf added.
Her smile, dazzling, faded too quickly. “Face him, find out what he wants, give it to him, and come home.”
Yusuf bent his head and kissed her hands.
“Your father is in his study,” she said.
He found Nadir and Ridwan there too. The day’s business sat to one side in a pile of papers, ignored. His brothers rose from their cushions to embrace and kiss him, then sat down looking at their hands. Ibrahim ibn Muhammad stood with Yusuf’s face between his palms. “Is there nothing that will convince you to stay?” he asked softly.
“Baba,” Yusuf whispered, “didn't you teach me to honor a contract?”
His father held him close. “To my sorrow,” he murmured in Yusuf’s ear, “yes.”
He had two other sons. He would be all right.
When his father released him Yusuf gathered the sword he won with bloodshed, and the scimitar his family insisted he bring along, and the bag of his clothes plus the few books he was bringing for comfort, and he put all of it on his back with minimal fumbling. The longsword could not be drawn from there, but he had no desire to wet its edge again.
Goodbyes said, he left his childhood home and proceeded through streets he would know in his sleep to the docks, and boarded the ship he had chartered. He stood at its rail, watching until Mahdia was eclipsed by the horizon.
He didn’t dislike sailing, aside from the nausea, and even now it felt like an adventure. The weight in his stomach had finally lifted. But he shouldn’t be enjoying it, and so he went below to his berth to read.
In the evening he found he was sharing the cabin with a pair of women, though there were two bunks between the three of them. He immediately began to relocate his things to the floor, but they bade him to stop that nonsense and promised they had shared smaller beds. They were armed, and dressed for travel. They sat across from him and introduced themselves as Andromache and Quỳnh. There was something familiar about them, something he could not place.
They asked what he was reading, and Yusuf read them a few of the tamer poems in the collection. Both of them had such graces of speech in his own language that they responded to the shades of meaning in those poems as the best of audiences. They fell into conversation then, and when they asked Yusuf why he was on the sea when winter had not quite ended, he felt at ease to tell them the whole sad, gruesome tale.
The women were… less than surprised. Of course no talk of beheadings could make them faint, but he expected to be accused of bullshit when he spoke of the green man rising up and walking away after. Andromache and Quỳnh kept watching him with pale eyes and dark. When he had finished, Quỳnh said, “Is it honor that compels you to see this man again, though it means death?”
Yusuf grimaced. “I hear honor cited to justify inaction as much as action, if not more so. If a man chooses to do nothing for fear that his honor will be impeached, and then an innocent suffers, is his honor not impeached by that suffering?”
He could swear that they looked impressed, and he let that buoy his pride. “The inverse would be that there are times one must avoid suffering by doing something dishonorable,” Andromache suggested.
“I expect so,” Yusuf said slowly. He hardly had firsthand experience. “As for my own suffering, I think it will be brief.” Andromache took this with a nod, and Yusuf saw an opportunity to steer the subject away from his impending demise. “Are you not also wary of traveling this time of year?”
Andromache and Quỳnh exchanged a sly look. “If only you knew how many shipwrecks we’ve survived,” Andromache deadpanned.
Well, Yusuf didn’t know. The number could be zero, or perhaps he was sharing a berth with two extremely cursed travelers. That seemed more his luck. With forced cheer he went on, “Have you visited Genoa before?”
“Just a few months ago,” Quỳnh said with a small smile.
“Really! Have you been to a place called Capella Vèrde? I am meant to find it.”
“Near it,” Andromache admitted. “It’s east of the city, across the river. Walk north from the lazaretto. You’ll need to hike into the hills.”
He thanked her graciously for the advice.
“If you want a chance against this man,” she added, “you should take this.” And she offered, shaft-first, the curved axe she traveled with.
“No,” Yusuf said at once. “No, lady, I can’t use it any more than I can use that sword.”
Andromache’s expression eloquently stated that he’d done all right with the sword the first time, but she said, “Then I’ll teach you.”
“If our paths cross again,” he said with a fresh wave of sadness, “teach me then.”
He heard them speaking softly, long after they’d snuffed the lantern.
“Do you remember?” said Andromache.
Quỳnh said, “Of course. My head was up my ass, too.”
“Don’t be cruel--to him or yourself. You were mourning.”
“Mourning a life I never got to lead, in the face of all the possibilities I was given instead.”
“There’s no shame in that.”
“You never did it.”
“You don’t know what I did before you came along.”
“I at least understood what I had become. Do you think he will notice before he gets his head cut off?”
“That isn’t going to happen.”
“Let them work this out between themselves. We found them both once; we’ll do it again.”
A thoughtful silence. “Another year? It’s not so bad here, is it?”
“Mm. If we can go back to that island…”
“Of course, my heart. Anything... you... want.”
Quỳnh let out a little gasp of delight, and they spoke no more after that.
He was very sorry to leave them at the end of the journey. They had so many stories and had been much farther than Yusuf had traveled. Seeing the world with such companions would be a marvelous way to spend the rest of his days, if those numbered more than single digits. They told him they would be gone as soon as the ship docked, before dawn, so they said their goodbyes the evening before and wished each other every good fortune.
True to their word, Yusuf woke alone in the berth. There was a gift on the other bunk: a mask fit for Carnival, beautifully crafted of russet fur that flared outward from a pointed snout.
It was a fine gift, and he felt very anonymous when he wore it through the streets. Once he got outside the walls he untied the mask and let it dangle from his belt like a pelt. Out here it made him feel like prey.
He considered the lazaretto by the seashore, briefly, as an alternative to his plans. A leper colony felt like the right career move. But he made a promise. He turned northeast and followed a road that narrowed as it climbed into the hills.
The first church he came to was large; its bells rang for the morning service and Yusuf asked one of the faithful who passed if this was Capella Vèrde. The woman shook her head and mutely pointed farther up the road. Onward Yusuf trudged.
The day grew hot, the hills bare and dusty. He had nothing to eat for lunch, and though he could hear a stream somewhere east of the path, he never caught sight of it and he dared not leave the road for fear of confirming Nadir’s prophecy about robbers.
When he reached the second church at sunset, he almost passed it by, convinced it was a hallucination born of thirst. It was small, made of pale stone and crumbling at the edges, with not a trace of green on it. As Yusuf stood there staring and wondering how many more churches could possibly be up this road, a man opened the door and came outside, wiping his hands on a rag.
“Is this Capella Vèrde?” Yusuf called, working around a dry tongue.
The man shook his head. As Yusuf slumped and shoved his hand into his sweaty hair, the man said, “This is the paròchia. The old chapel is behind, farther up the hill.”
“Ah,” Yusuf said, squinting past him at a path that looked as slim as a thread, and led to a copse of brownish trees in the distance. “Well, I’m not due for three days yet. Is there an inn nearby?”
“They will all be full for Carnival. You can stay here, if you like.”
“In a church?” Yusuf laughed before he could stop himself. Hours in the sun had made him ill-mannered.
The man seemed unoffended. In passable, accented Arabic, he said, “Do we not both pray to the God of Abraham?”
Yusuf blinked, and took the time to truly look at him. They were of a height. The man had lighter hair than Yusuf’s, cropped short. His eyes were so pale they took on the quality of the light. His shoulders were quite broad beneath his plain flax shirt, and his mouth was… distracting. You are here for a reason, you fool.
“Ibrahim,” he corrected, to put himself back in the right. He cleared his throat. It didn’t help. “Are you a priest?”
“No,” the man said, but he thought about it first. “I take care of this place for now. Come in, will you? Supper is nearly ready.”
Yusuf could not say no to that.
“I am Nicolò,” the man said as he held the door for Yusuf to enter the church’s shaded coolness.
“Yusuf,” said Yusuf, though introductions felt like an afterthought.
“Why are you due at Capella Vèrde three days hence, Yusuf?”
“I am to have my head cut off by a Genovese man.”
When he said the same at home, it earned him a huff of worn good humor from his elders and a Happens to the best of us, al-Tayyib. We’re going to miss you. But Nicolò eyed him over his shoulder and mildly said, “I see.”
Then they were through the empty nave and into a--cloister? rectory? Yusuf knew as much of Christian churches as he knew of Christian holidays. In any case it was a space that could be crossed in three strides, and there was a little round hearth where a pot bubbled on a hook, and a narrow bed set against the wall with a shelf of books over it, and a table with two chairs and a jug beneath the small horn window. While the nave had been dusty and unloved, this place was swept and lived-in.
Nicolò poured from the jug into a clay cup and offered it to Yusuf. It was clean, cold well water and Yusuf shamelessly let it run into his beard as he drained the cup in three gulps.
“There is milk in the cellar,” Nicolò said, taking the cup and refilling it. “I would appreciate your help drinking it. It will be Lent soon, and I would hate for it to go bad.”
“Gladly,” Yusuf gasped between gulps.
Nicolò stooped by the fire to ladle a stew into two bowls. “You passed a grander church on the way here. The people who live near this one are quite poor, but they give what they can in thanks. It’s often not enough for one, let alone two. What each of us gains during the day here, we must share with each other by night. Do you agree?”
Yusuf nodded. He certainly had no other way to pay this man. “This might be worth something,” he said, offering the fox mask.
Nicolò exchanged a bowl for it. Yusuf bent to his food--the best he’d had since leaving home--as Nicolò carried the mask closer to the fire and inspected it inside and out. “Next year, at the start of Carnival, I think so.” He set it on the mantle where the fur glowed orange and the empty eyes watched them.
They ate in silence. When Yusuf scraped his bowl clean, Nicolò said, “Your shirt is torn.”
Yusuf glanced at his sleeve. “It must have happened when I stopped in the bushes for the necessary.”
Nicolò made a beckoning gesture with one hand as he reached with the other for a bundle from beside his bed. “I am out of ways to pay,” Yusuf joked weakly.
“Did you bring books?”
He fetched one from his bag, set it on the table, and pulled his shirt up by the collar. Nicolò was so intent on threading a needle that his eyes crossed. Yusuf opened to a page at random, saw the first line, and wondered if the God of Ibrahim wasn’t jerking him around. “At Tauba’s death,” he read in the original language, “I swore I would not cry…”
Nicolò only spoke once, halfway through the poem, to ask him to slow down. At the end he said, with his eyes still downcast, “That was very beautiful.”
“Yes,” said Yusuf, throat dry again. He poured himself another cup of water.
“You read well.”
Yusuf took a long drink. “I would hope. Otherwise, the young scholar that I was toiled in vain.”
Nicolò glanced at him as he bit the end of the thread off the finished repair. “You were different then,” he ventured.
Of course he was. “It was years ago.”
“Mm. A man can change in less than a year. But I won’t bore you with the particulars of my misspent youth. Causes of regret are too easily found.”
Nicolò didn’t seem any older than him. He handed Yusuf his shirt. The stitches were small and straight despite the dimness of the room and the speed at which he worked. Yusuf put his shirt on and asked, “What were you like then?”
He took a long time to answer. “When I was a child, I thought as a child. I was no one worth knowing. Not even to myself.” He gazed at the hazy window and added, “I wanted to die.”
Breath frozen in his throat, Yusuf said, “And now?”
Nicolò’s mouth curled up at the corners as he met Yusuf’s eyes. “Not that it matters, but I want to live.”
“So,” Yusuf said, “you immersed yourself in your faith, to reach this point?”
His lips flattened out. “I came here because this was what I knew from before. But it doesn’t quite fit.” He heaved a breath. “I labored to become the person I am now. Tore what I was down to the ground and started over, one stone at a time.”
Nicolò’s hand shaped itself to something invisible, and he acted out placing a foundation on the table. “Here: I am a man, not a beast.”
With the other hand, he stacked another invisible stone on top of the first. “Here: any place I go, I want to leave it better than I found it.”
A third invisible stone. “Here: I want to feed people, in whatever ways they need. And so on. I believe faith can be the mortar that keeps these things from falling when shaken, but it is not the stones. One must decide those for oneself. I suppose you know something about that?”
Yusuf nodded. “This past year I devoted myself to the five pillars, but at the end I can’t help but wonder if it meant anything.”
“It meant something,” Nicolò assured him, “to someone, somewhere.”
Would that he had Nicolò’s certainty. “To my mother,” he said wryly. “I can’t imagine God got anything out of it.”
“Do you want to live, Yusuf? To see her again? I would give anything to speak to my mother once more.”
Yusuf raised his hands and slapped them firmly on his thighs. “As you say, it doesn’t matter. I’m bound to die, whether I wish it or not.”
A shadow passed through Nicolò’s eyes. “You may survive.”
Conscious of how bitter he seemed, Yusuf forced a grandiose tone. “Inshallah.”
They laughed then, and Nicolò snorted a little.
“Oh,” he said, and pulled a box from under the bed. “This wasn’t made for the purpose of prayer,” he said, producing a small woven rug in shades of blue and green. “But it’s never been used for anything else. Will it do?”
“I… yes?” Yusuf took it in both hands and cradled it like a babe. He shook his head, eyes stinging. “I have no other means to--”
“Mecca is that way, approximately,” Nicolò said, hands pressed together and angled east by southeast. He got up from the table. “You’ll take my bed.”
“I will not,” Yusuf protested, but Nicolò was already out in the nave.
He returned, when Yusuf was at prayer, with an altar candle in his hand. This he lit from the hearth and set on the table. Then he left again.
This was too much. “You’ll be the worse off in three days’ time,” Yusuf called after him, “with a guest who dies hopelessly indebted to you for your kindness and grace.”
“God has given me His grace in plenty, in granting me to have such a guest as you,” Nicolò replied from the other room. His voice, Yusuf was certain after knowing him a short time, carried an edge of irony.
He returned once more that night, when Yusuf thought he must be asleep. Yusuf himself was at the table, though it was late. He passed his hand back and forth through the candle flame, slower each time, until he was doing it so slowly that his flesh seared and bubbled, then healed again.
Nicolò sniffed the air as he entered the room. Ah. Yusuf, trying to be quiet despite the pain in order to face beheading without a whimper, hadn’t considered the smell.
Nicolò braced one hand on the tabletop and took Yusuf’s wrist with the other. His grasp was strong, but not cruel. He pulled Yusuf’s hand away from the flame and turned it over. Unprompted, Yusuf thought again of the lazaretto, of a place for people no one wanted to touch.
If Yusuf’s unburnt skin surprised Nicolò, he did not show it. After contemplating it, Nicolò bent down and put his lips against Yusuf’s palm.
When a period of buzzing emptiness lifted from his mind, rational thought flowed back to him. It was a token of kindness, no different from a mother kissing her child’s scraped knee.
More importantly, here at last was a gift Yusuf could repay with the same currency. Possibly his favorite currency. He brought his free hand up to Nicolò’s, and he took pains to kiss the same spot on Nicolò’s palm, with the same pressure and the same duration, not a moment longer.
Yusuf looked up. The candle flame gleamed in Nicolò’s eyes and shone on his teeth. Was it the light, or was his smile crooked?
“I think you’ll do,” Nicolò said.
Then he closed his hand over the candle--flame, wax, and all. Lit by the coals in the hearth and the moon through the window, he said, “Goodnight, Yusuf.”
So ended the first day.
On the second day, while Nicolò was out, Yusuf made a circuit of the grounds. He stood a long time looking up the hill where the path to Capella Vèrde disappeared in the trees, but didn’t dare start to climb it yet lest the uncanny man meet him before their appointment.
He found the woodpile instead. He chopped until he thought he would faint, then brought in armful after armful to stack by the hearth. He drew fresh, cold water from the well and drank until he could feel it sloshing in him. Within sight of the church, he found a few stalks of sharp-smelling cipollina and a handful of mushrooms that might be edible and might kill him. He brought them in and left them to Nicolò’s judgment.
Nicolò arrived in the evening with half a dozen eggs. He saw the fresh wood, and reached out to inspect Yusuf’s hands. Yes, the logs and the old axe alike had given him many splinters, but his flesh had long since pushed them all out. One or two spider bites also healed over in seconds, and the rope burn from the well was gone. Once he’d washed them in the basin, he had the smooth clean hands of a man of letters, in spite of his toil.
Nicolò swept his thumbs over Yusuf’s palms, then laid a kiss on each of them.
Yusuf repaid them with the same helping of sweetness and firmness. He was growing fond of this private custom.
“May I ask where you’re from?” Nicolò asked as they ate a rich meal of the eggs and greens and mushrooms fried with some round soft pasta, like couscous but larger.
“Mahdia,” Yusuf answered with his mouth full, hoping he wouldn’t need to give an impromptu geography lesson covering all of Ifrīqiyyah.
Nicolò nodded. “I’m sorry about the attacks.”
It wasn’t as though he was old enough to have participated in them. “Thank you,” Yusuf said anyway. “Who gave you the eggs?” He’d seen no sign of chickens outside.
“I performed a christening this afternoon. The parents were grateful.”
“I thought you weren’t a priest.”
He shrugged. “When one has skills, one ought to use them.”
“Could you not be…” Yusuf waved vaguely; the word escaped him.
“Excommunicated?” Nicolò supplied. “I find the opinion of Rome matters very little to me anymore.”
“I was rather thinking executed.”
“That matters even less,” Nicolò said with an enigmatic smile. “Mahdia is a long distance to travel just to die, isn’t it?”
Yusuf frowned. This man was too tenacious to let Yusuf distract himself--as if he could ever forget. “Even wild creatures may travel long distances when they know it’s their time.”
Solemnly Nicolò said, “You are a man, not a beast.”
“It was a joke,” Yusuf grunted. “I didn’t choose the location. Do you have family close by?”
He shook his head. “They are gone. What was to stop you from staying home?”
“Aside from the fact that he would have hunted me down for his due? Nothing, I suppose.”
“How?” Nicolò leaned forward and didn’t let Yusuf dodge his gaze. “He didn’t know your name or where you were from. I mean--did he?”
Yusuf hit his limit. “This man picked up his own severed head and walked away with it. Does that sound like someone who would be deterred by not knowing my name?”
Nicolò looked satisfyingly abashed. “I suppose not.”
“The whole circumstance transcends banalities of that nature, wouldn’t you agree?”
Nicolò’s eyes grew shuttered. “As you say. It seems contradictory, to resign yourself to death--”
“I have spent a year,” Yusuf bit, “as a murderer who did not succeed at killing a man, marked for death but still alive. I have had to grow very comfortable with contradictions. If my motives for keeping my word in this matter are unclear to you, I must humbly beg your pardon.”
“You do not require my pardon, Yusuf,” Nicolò said with infuriating patience. “I was only wondering if there was any other reason.”
There certainly would have been, if Yusuf had known sooner about the kind and gentle and maddening man who lived alone in this place and had such strong and beautiful hands. But it was too late for that. “No,” he said, voice hard. “I came all this way to die. Now can we please talk about something else?”
Quietly Nicolò said, “It was very hot today.”
Yusuf was sullen and unfulfilled when the second day ended. His unhappiness manifested in bloody dreams, which culminated with the green man in his rotten mask standing over him, reaching down to Yusuf’s face--
“You sleep like the dead,” Nicolò said as Yusuf startled awake.
Soon he would. Yusuf rubbed at his face and stole a glance at his hands. No blood. “What is it?”
Nicolò nodded toward the window. “It’s morning. I have a funeral today. Don’t forget the milk? Lent starts tomorrow.”
The first thing that came to his drowsy mind was a jest about Nicolò conducting his funeral, but he held that back and nodded instead.
He should have made arrangements, he reflected when Nicolò was gone, for someone to shroud and bury him and say his salat. It had not occurred to him at all. He could ask Nicolò--he could trust Nicolò. Nicolò would probably do it, to the best of his abilities, even if Yusuf didn’t ask.
In yesterday’s clothes, he went to the cellar and drank the milk the way he would drink an entire jug of wine: miserably. There probably was wine somewhere here, come to think of it, for the macabre rite of washing down the body of Christ. But if Yusuf drank that, he would be sore and sour in the morning. No, he would face his death with all his faculties.
It was his last day of life and he spent it all indoors, lost to his thoughts. Part of him hoped that would make the hours stretch, but it seemed like no time at all before Nicolò returned with a loaf of crusty bread and found Yusuf seated at the table with his eyes fixed on the far wall. “I am sorry,” Yusuf said, “I didn’t save you any milk.”
Nicolò sat across from him with a sigh. “I meant to write a letter home,” Yusuf went on, “to tell my family how to divide my possessions, but all my words are spent. Poetry does not stir me either. As you see, I have gained nothing today to share with you.”
“Nothing?” Nicolò said, drawing Yusuf’s useless hands toward him. “I have spent the day with death; I would be content to see a little life in your eyes.” He bent and bestowed his kisses.
Yusuf ignored the taste of his own tears as he repaid them. “I am very glad to have met you,” he said to Nicolò's palms. “I can’t tell you what a comfort you have been to me.”
Then Nicolò’s hands moved, lifting Yusuf’s face. He looked into Yusuf’s eyes for a long, searching moment before he kissed his mouth.
Yusuf regretted how long it took him to reciprocate, but Nicolò’s lips were so warm and deft that he lost himself in them. And no sooner did he spur his own lips to action than Nicolò withdrew and fled the room.
Yusuf stared after him, his confusion growing as a muffled curse came from somewhere in the vicinity of the altar.
But Nicolò reappeared with something closed in his hand, and he put his other hand around Yusuf’s arm. Yusuf allowed himself to be handled out of his chair and to the bed.
The heat and focus in Nicolò’s eyes held him spellbound and already painfully hard. When Nicolò bent to loosen the tie of Yusuf’s sarouel, Yusuf stripped off his shirt and did the same for Nicolò, dragging his fingertips up over a long lean back and shoulderblades whose muscles worked subtly. Nicolò pulled away just enough to shed the shirt, and then his hand was on Yusuf’s hip, yanking down his trousers even as he directed him to sit on the bed.
Yusuf made no resistance as Nicolò adjusted him as he pleased: knees wide, arms behind for support, feet planted to help him stay balanced at the very edge of the bed. His gaze, as he looked Yusuf over, made Yusuf’s skin prickle and his face burn.
Then he went to his knees and bowed his head. The first touch of his tongue was rough as a cat’s, and Yusuf hissed a breath. Nicolò glanced up at him and, without looking away, took nearly all of Yusuf’s length into his mouth.
That would have been sufficient. This was something Yusuf had denied himself for a year, and he could climax from the sight alone, not to mention the wet warmth and the tightness at the threshold of Nicolò’s throat. Nicolò didn’t need to move or do anything else--he would spill himself any time.
But Nicolò did move: away, to Yusuf’s regret. It was cold with him gone. The world was a cold and desolate place, all black ash like the hearth. Yusuf despaired.
Nicolò’s hands moved, beneath the edge of the bed. There came the scrape of a clay jar opening. Then his mouth returned, but not to Yusuf’s cock. He pressed in under Yusuf’s testes, tongue seeking between his nates. He laved at Yusuf’s rim and made a rumbling noise deep in his throat.
Yusuf fell to the bed so quickly that he smacked his head against the wall. A lump rose on his skull and then subsided. He should have washed this afternoon. He should wash tomorrow. A man should go clean to his death, and to--this. But Nicolò seemed not to care, seemed to consider Yusuf entirely delicious.
“Nico,” he whimpered when Nicolò took the tip of his tongue out of him. Nicolò shushed him and gave his attention once more to Yusuf’s cock. Then his finger, oiled, slid to the place he had abandoned and took on the work of opening Yusuf up. “Oh,” Yusuf cried, grabbing at the bed, and then, “God,” and Nicolò hummed agreement.
When Nicolò finally moved his mouth and his tongue, Yusuf’s hand went on its own into Nicolò’s hair. He took it out as soon as he realized what he was doing, but Nico grabbed it with his free hand and put it in his hair again, and Yusuf made a fist. Nico grunted and put a second finger into Yusuf, then curled them both.
Yusuf’s vision whited out and he begged in every language he had, voice growing higher and weaker until it left him altogether and he spasmed helplessly, silently. Nico swallowed all of him.
Sweat-soaked and slack, Yusuf emptied his lungs. Nico lifted his head and wiped his mouth with his free hand. He rose without taking his fingers out of Yusuf, and studied his face. “Yes,” he concluded, “there it is.”
Yusuf could not help but grin. “Please allow me to repay you,” he said, relishing the way his voice grew rougher after a good orgasm.
Nicolò gave him a kiss that tasted of Yusuf. “You will,” he said, pressing his third finger in alongside the others. Yusuf arched his back and Nicolò took advantage of the angle to press the flat of his tongue to Yusuf’s nipple. Then he lifted it, and blew. Yusuf moaned and threw his arm across his face.
The emptiness when Nico took his fingers out was intolerable. At the sound of something being untied, Yusuf lifted his head. Nicolò eased his erection, thick and intact, out of his trousers. Anticipation stole Yusuf’s breath. Nico watched him watching, and took his time pouring a little oil from the jar onto his hand. He worked it slowly over his glans and down his length.
Nico moved to the foot of the bed and got himself planted on what little there was of the mattress. He put one hand behind Yusuf’s knee, and the way he hoisted him into place was so smooth and professional that Yusuf’s heart almost failed. But this was not his death; his heart pounded on as Nico aligned himself and glided slowly inside.
Stretched, full, with Nico’s hips against his buttocks, Yusuf forgot for a while.
This was all there was in the world, all that mattered, all that he wanted. The day had faded and no candles were lit, but Yusuf had the moon above him. He reached up to touch Nico’s face. He was beautiful. The way he moved smoothly in Yusuf was beautiful. Life was beautiful.
They had most of their conversations in Nico’s language, but now he was saying words Yusuf didn’t know. Beautiful words, spoken with rising ardor. A prayer, maybe. Whatever it was, he didn’t finish, because Yusuf’s hand slipped to Nico’s throat and Nico’s eyes flared wide. His hips snapped out of rhythm once, twice, and then he came, hot, inside of Yusuf.
Well. Perhaps that was something worth exploring further.
Nico swayed like he might collapse, but he found leftover control to lower himself on top of Yusuf. When he drew himself out, Yusuf felt his come leak to the bedsheet.
With it went his illusions. They would not get to explore anything further.
Yusuf put his hand in Nico’s hair and stroked at his scalp. “If I could have anything I wished,” he said, “it would be to do that with you one more time.”
It was meant to be romantic, but Nicolò lifted his head from Yusuf’s chest and stared at him without expression before rolling away.
Startled, Yusuf shifted onto his side to make room. That put Nicolò’s hip in the wet spot. He didn’t seem to care. “I have something to attend to in the morning,” he murmured.
“Yes, so do I,” Yusuf said with a rueful smile. Nicolò made no answer. Yusuf moved closer, his chest to Nico’s back. When he put one arm over Nicolò, he allowed it. “Nico?”
Against Nicolò’s neck, Yusuf said, “Thank you.”
Nicolò took his arm out from under Yusuf’s, then replaced it on top, locking him in place.
He slept dreamlessly. He woke alone.
That was a blessing, in its way. If he awakened in a warm bed with a warm Nicolò, he would never leave.
In the dark he made a pile of his clothes and books on the bed, and laid his scimitar beside them, in case any of it was worth something. He passed over the stale bread but drank what was left in the water jug. He took one last look at the little room where he’d fallen in love, a room that breathed for him now, that sighed when Nicolò was not in it. Then he put the longsword on his back and left through the church.
He stopped to relieve himself in the bushes where the trail began. It would not do to leave a soiled corpse. He tore his shirt again on the thorns. Alas.
The trail was steep. His legs burned before the sun was up. Halfway to the copse of trees he discovered at last the stream he’d heard a lifetime ago, and after eyeing the pink horizon he stopped long enough to bathe himself.
The water was cold. He was exposed there on the hillside. None of it mattered. A man should go clean to his death.
Up in the copse, where the sun struck the treetops orange like candle flames, he found what must be Capella Vèrde. It was old, surely meant for some ancient god, its straight edges rounded with time. Pale green lichen clung to its steps, its plain pillars, its empty windows, and its lintel--where the wooden mask hung, judging him.
Yusuf took a breath and stepped beneath it.
Sunlight had not yet reached the interior. He paused to let his eyes adjust. The chamber was circular. There was an altar here, and a figure kneeling, faced away from Yusuf. As Yusuf watched he rose and turned.
“Well, Yusuf,” said Nicolò, “if you are so bent on receiving your blow, give me my sword.”
Oh. “Oh,” Yusuf sighed, “Nicolò.”
At least he had a taste of his gentleness, before.
As Nicolò looked on coldly, Yusuf sank to his knees and bowed his head, holding the scabbard out. The sword rang when Nicolò drew it; Yusuf had it sharpened before he left home. Nicolò’s boots appeared in Yusuf’s view, to his right. Angled outward--the perfect posture to deliver a swift overhand cut. Yusuf shut his eyes and breathed out.
The blade whistled as it cut the air. He heard a soft grunt of exertion, and only then did he feel pain.
He shouldn’t feel pain. It should have been over.
“There,” said Nicolò, who had stopped the blade where it bit the nape of Yusuf’s neck. “It’s paid.”
Conscious of the sharp edge still resting on his skin, Yusuf tried to swivel his head, but all he could see were Nicolò’s hands on the hilt. “That is not the stroke I gave you,” he objected.
“I am the one who took the stroke,” Nicolò grated, “and I say it is paid. You didn’t flinch, you didn’t beg. You proved your courage.”
But Yusuf shut his eyes and shook his head. That wasn’t why he came here. He ground his knuckles against the stones and they healed over immediately.
The sword lifted away, then clattered. He felt Nicolò’s hand on his face. “Yusuf. Do you wish to live?”
Hot tears slipped down his lashes. He heard them fall like blood to the stones. “God, yes.”
“Then stand up. Please.”
Yusuf stood. He pried his eyes open, looked at Nicolò, looked away. “It was you,” he said breathlessly.
“And you didn’t know me,” Nicolò accused.
“You had a mask!”
“You didn’t know my voice? My hands? Nothing? Yusuf…” Nicolò shook his head judgmentally.
Sounding weak, Yusuf said, “I know you now.”
“In every sense!” The more Nicolò said, the sharper his voice became. Almost vicious. “I felt I knew you already, the night we met. I ached to look at you then, you shone so bright. No mask, like you were too good for that, parading your beautiful face through the street. You stood so tall and proud, I think I loved you at once. I had to see you again. It’s why I made up that stupid bargain, which no one in his right mind would agree to, let alone cross the sea--”
He sputtered when Yusuf put his thumb against Nicolò’s lips. “Nico. Nicolò. Take me.”
Nicolò bared his teeth and put something in Yusuf’s other hand. “Why don’t you take me?”
Yusuf looked down at the jar of oil, and laughed aloud. What a magnificent idea.
He was fully inside Nicolò, both of them naked on their sides as the morning sun drenched the stones, when the words caught up with him. “You think you loved me at once,” he echoed. “You love me?”
“Yusuf,” Nico groaned. “Where have you been?”
Deep in his own mind. But now he was here. He let go of Nico’s hips and reached forward to put both hands around his cock.
Nico jolted in his arms and made to push his hands away. “I want us to come together,” he said.
He wanted an awful lot, and Yusuf would deny none of it. “We will,” he promised without letting go. He began to move again.
Hoarsely Nico said, “I was a cruel, terrible person then, consumed with myself. I wanted nothing to do with life. And then I saw you. What a fool I was, extorting you back to me at such a cost.”
“And then you saw me again,” Yusuf panted, “and I had become the fool consumed with myself.”
“No. You wanted nothing to do with life, because of me. Proud, golden Yusuf. I had ruined you.”
Yusuf set aside the first several things he wanted to say about Nicolò’s capacity to ruin him, and said, “I consider myself very salvageable.”
Nico’s laughter rang off the stones in time with the thrust of Yusuf’s hips.
“Were you punishing yourself,” Yusuf asked, “by loving me anyway?”
“That was no punishment.” Nico twisted to look at him. “Say it back to me.”
“Say it first,” Yusuf said, working Nico’s length in his hands while keeping his hips still.
Nico bucked and swore, but finally relented. “Te amô! Te amô.”
Yusuf pressed his face to Nico’s neck. “انا احبك يا حياتي,” he whispered. He felt Nico’s climax by the seed spilling over his hand, as well as the sweet clench of him around Yusuf--which brought on his own release. They shuddered together and cried out together and sighed together.
When they were through it, Nicolò reached behind to weave one hand into Yusuf’s hair. Yusuf brought the cleaner of his hands up to trace his fingers, then ran his thumb over his neck. There was no sign of the wound Nico had given him. Yusuf sighed, “I expected this grace to run out today.”
Nico stiffened. “Yusuf. You met Andromache and Quỳnh?”
Drowsy, he struggled to follow the change of subject. “I met them. You met them?”
“They did not explain things to you?” Nicolò said, then caught himself. “No, of course not, in your state of mind.”
Nicolò shifted, and with regret Yusuf slid out of him so he could turn over. “This grace,” he said, cupping Yusuf’s face in his hands, “is ours for many years to come.”
“Ours,” Yusuf repeated dumbly. “How many years?”
“That is not for us to know. But…” Nicolò bit his kiss-swollen lip, like he’d gotten Yusuf a gift and was elated to reveal it. “Andromache is over five thousand years old.”
Yusuf blinked. “Five thousand.”
“We might not have that long,” Nico hedged.
“Five thousand.” To go from counting his days on one hand, to this--he reeled with it.
“We might not have the same time, you and I.”
“We will,” Yusuf promised. He kissed Nico’s beautiful mouth, his charming nose, his noble brow, his reddened cheeks, his heavy eyelids. “We will. We came to this together; we will leave together, however long from now. God wouldn’t dare part us.”
“We were meant to find each other,” Nico agreed. There was a scuffle as they strove to see who could kiss whom more. Nico pinned him, then said, “Andromache and Quỳnh said they would be back for us.”
“Another year,” Yusuf remembered. He would see the world with them after all, and with this man, a possibility he had not dared to imagine. Wonder and joy burst open in his chest like the first bite of ripe fruit.
“You will go home, I suppose.” Nicolò’s tone was casual but his gaze was not.
“Yes,” Yusuf said, ashamed that he hadn’t thought of it earlier.
He had not dared imagine seeing his family again either. It was well that arrangements had already been made, that his brothers were placed to inherit the business so he could travel, that his mother and father had resigned themselves and could, after his return, cast him off like a bird from the glove with nothing but joy for the fact that he lived and would continue to live. His preparations for death could now be turned to life. So much life.
He asked Nico, “Will you come with me?”
“Love of my life,” Nico said, “I will go anywhere with you.”
Yusuf’s grin broke like the sun through clouds.
He had a home that breathed.