Nile can’t sleep. She gladly gave up her bed for Sebastien to crawl into. She had no qualms at all about offering Quynh the only other spare bed in the house. She told Elena that she wanted to keep watch, and her mentor nodded silently and hurried off to get her own rest for the evening. Which left Nile to stand in the house that’s been her safehaven and her balm for over a year, listening to the creaks in the wood and the way the wind still fluttered against the shutters.
She stops by Cat’s room in the early hours of the morning, just to double check that everything is fine. She half expects Cat to still be tending to the fire absently as Yusuf dozes on the bed. Instead, as she palms open the door, she finds both Cat and Yusuf curled on the floor—sleeping together. Yusuf’s right arm around Cat’s waist, his left beneath Cat’s head. Cat’s holding on to Yusuf’s left thumb, and they were breathing in unison. Perhaps even dreaming good dreams. Neither looks unhappy. They inhale and exhale with slow and sleep heavy breaths. Nile tiptoes closer. She pulls the duvet from the bed and gently drapes it around them. They don’t wake. Not even when she deposits a couple of pillows nearby in case they do wake and want something other than their shoulders, arms, and hard stone for comfort.
It’s strange, Nile thinks as she observes how close Cat has pressed himself against Yusuf’s body, I didn’t think he’d like that. It’s not her place to judge, nor even her place to have an opinion one way or another. But something about seeing Cat so comfortable with someone’s arms around him makes her heart flutter. He deserves it, she decides, and slips away as quietly as she can.
She takes to busying herself around the house after that. She tidies things that didn’t exactly need tidying. She checks on their yeast supply and starts making bread for the morning. She presses her hand to the dough and imagines the yeast sighing out, releasing their gasses and allowing the bread to rise. It does in a matter of moments, and Nile makes quick work of preparing the oven for baking. A flick of the wrist and the fire starts. A blink of the eye and it settles to the exact height and strength she wants it to be. She moulds her dough in the meantime, getting it nice and round and perfect before placing it in the oven.
Nile next descends into their apparently far more interesting cellar than she thought it had any right to be, and collects some of the eggs they’d purchased from the market. She brings them up and settles them in a bowl on the kitchen counter to deal with later, then returns to the cellar for some fruits and salted meats.
The work is good and steady. When her brother wakes, she wants him to find a warm home filled with comforts and good food. She absently keeps track of the temperature of the house, willing the hearthfire to grow stronger whenever it seems a touch too cold for her liking. By the time the sun starts to peek out over the horizon, the bread has finished and the house feels as cozy as a daydream.
Elena wakes first, coming down the stone steps with her dancer’s grace. She checks on Nile’s progress and squints speculatively at her loaf. “Have you been at this all night, child?” she asks, gently squeezing by Nile so she can take a look at the veritable feast that Nile’s prepared for everyone. The mellons have been sliced into decent sized wedges. The apples have been cored. The strips of jerky are laid out with delicate care. Napkins and plates are stacked up, ready for use.
“I wanted it to be perfect,” Nile admits quietly.
“It’s lovely,” Elena encourages. “Why don’t you set another bread in the oven while we wait?” She does as she’s bid, and only somewhat listens as Elena steps out into the back garden to collect some flowers for a pitcher on the table.
A door opens upstairs, and Nile holds her breath as she waits to see who it is. The movements don’t sound like anyone in particular, but each movement is confident. There’s no confusion as to which way to go. Feet appear at the top of the steps, and as they come more into view, Nile releases the air in her lungs. Yusuf.
He doesn’t see her right away, his eyes going to Elena who’s arranging the flowers into a beautiful bouquet. He speaks her name in full, though, an inquiring confidence that fills Nile with a sense of ease. “Elena Copley?” he asks. Elena jumps, twisting about, weidling a jasmine like a sword. When she sees him, her face pales. She does a half-way mix between a courtesy and a bow, flower flapping awkwardly against her heart. Nile laughs loudly, drawing Yusuf’s eyes to her. He hesitates, then returns his gaze to Elena. “There’s no need, but thank you,” he says.
“Your majesty, I...It’s an honor to…” she doesn’t seem to know what to say. Even when Nile first arrived, she hadn’t been accorded this level of paranoia.
“Relax, Elena, it’s just my brother,” Nile suggests calmly.
“He’s the King!” Elena insists, twisting around to give Nile a dirty look that Nile deftly ignores.
“Yes, well, there’s no need,” Yusuf interjects. “Though...I wonder, last night, did anyone go fetch our companions?” he asks.
“Companions?” Elena asks. Nile doesn’t quite know what he’s getting at either. But he looks exhausted at having to explain. He presses a hand to his face and sighs so heavily that even Nile feels like she’s let him down somehow.
“James was the one who helped Sebastien and I escape Mezzaluna. He and my guard, Andromache, are outside. Would you be able to request the gates to open for them?”
“ My James?” she asks, and there’s no hiding her delight at the idea. Nile’s heard her speak of her husband more times than she can count, but hearing the pure joy in Elena’s voice now is almost like experiencing that joy personally. It’s an infectious sound that grows even more so as Yusuf nods. All at once Elenea is moving. She shoves her jasmine haphazardly back into the pitcher and flurries out the door, barely remembering to collect her outer cloak as she does so. She does another half courtesy half bow before she nearly trips on her ankles to depart, the door closing with a far too loud bang for so early in the morning. Nile winces at it all.
“She’s not usually so...excitable,” Nile explains, even as her brother finishes descending the stairs and walks toward her. He holds out his arms, and Nile hurries to him. She folds herself into his embrace, stunned a little at the idea that her cheek can rest so easily against his. That her arms go around his neck with surprising ease and there’s no need to stand on her toes to manage it. He squeezes tight around her back. He breathes steady along her throat. “I’ve missed you, little sister,” he murmurs, and it’s the exact words she’d wanted to hear yesterday when he’d all but collapsed against her. He kisses her cheek. Her forehead. Her hair. He pulls back and cradles her face between his palms. Examining her as if seeing her for the very first time. “You grew so much.”
“So did you,” she says, though it’s only slightly less accurate. He’s far too thin. His beard is scraggly and ill kempt. His hair is too long and his eyes have sunken in some. But she can tell that he’s aged. She can tell that he’s not quite the man he’d been when he departed. His fingers tremble a little as they hold her face. She asks, “What’s wrong?” and slowly lifts her hands to wrap around his wrists.
He draws her in to kiss her brow once more, then gently pulls entirely away. She keeps her fingers around his wrists, not willing to be parted. “I’m tired,” he murmurs.
So she guides him. Calmly, she takes him to a dining table and sits him in a simple wooden chair lacking any of the adornments a King usually receives. He hardly seems to notice or care. He sinks into it willingly. Nile kneels at his side, just like she used to when she was a much smaller girl and wanted to hear all of his stories about all of his adventures. “Father wrote you a letter, before he died,” Yusuf says. He speaks strangely now. Stilted and awkward, like there’s a flow to conversation that he missed at some point and he can only manage a few thoughts at a time. “He wrote all of us...I haven’t read mine. Need to give Sebastien his.”
“Before we were sent here, father said Najima was going to assassinate him.”
“That was the plan,” Yusuf agrees wearily.
“Sebastien says Najima didn’t kill him.”
“He didn’t. Hopefully that’s in the letter.”
“Why didn’t you read yours?”
“I’m tired,” Yusuf says again.
“Sebastien says you haven’t been sleeping.”
“Sebastien says a lot for someone who forgot Andromache and Copley were waiting for the gates to open for them.”
Nile winces at the savagery of that. A lot had happened last night. A lot that Yusuf hadn’t been there for. “He’s scared,” she murmurs. Yusuf’s shoulders slump a bit. He reaches into his shirt and removes a packet of envelopes. Silently, he hands over one that has her name on it. She takes it, but doesn’t open it. “Why did father lie to me?”
“To make sure the lie was believed,” Yusuf says. “Do you ever think of the line of succession?” he asks. He doesn’t look up from the envelopes. He shuffles through them like cards. One after the other after the other, shifting them backwards and forwards without stopping. There aren’t a lot of envelopes, but they’re thick enough to make the trick look like something worth seeing. She wonders if the paper inside is bending. If the recipients will be unhappy when they see the results of his work. “My father, then me, then Najima, then Amelie. He knew Amelie and Sebastien were making plans. Najima gave Amelie his approval already, Sebastien already had mine. I can’t die, but Sebastien can. Did. Has.” Yusuf keeps flipping the envelopes. Nile catches names. Nicolo, Sebastien, Yusuf, Amelie. “He knew Sebastien could die. When Najima informed him that Sebastien was with me when we left for Irania, it didn’t matter. My father...our King, purposefully planned so let us get captured, knowing Sebastien... knowing that Bas…” The shuffling stops. Yusuf tosses the envelopes onto the table and lets his hand fall, empty, into the space between his knees. “What if I hadn’t been in time?” he asks the floor. “What if I hadn’t saved him. Father and Najima would have still died, and that leaves Amelie and I to...what? Pretend? Hope she finds someone else to love after eight years of courting?”
“You can always find someone to love too,” Nile murmurs. “You’re more than capable of having children. Of continuing the line on your own. Amelie doesn’t need to be the one to do it.”
“I’ve never loved anyone,” Yusuf refutes.
It’s true. She’d never seen him with someone at court. He’d dance with those he needed to. He’d chat and laugh with his peers. He’d smile and do his duty, but he’d never accepted any private meetings with anyone. He’d never written letters to a man or woman that had caught his eye. He’d written poems for Sebastien and Amelie and...well. “You definitely seemed to reserve any personal daydreams to private fantasies of a moon prince that’ll help you end a war, but still. You and Cat seemed cosy last nigh—”
“—never joke about that again.” Nile’s mouth snaps closed. She stares at him, horror sliding through her as he glares, actually glares at her. He’s never chastised her, not once. Not even when she’d been at her worst. Not even when she’d kicked and screamed and yelled just to get his attention. He’d always been calm and patient with her. Always laughing and joking. Always sweet. “He’s not some plaything that happens to fit into a fairy-tale. He’s a real person. And I never once wrote of him like that.”
“What are you talking about?” she asks.
Yusuf’s glare lessens, but only enough so he can ask her: “Do you know who he really is, Nile?”
“He never said,” she replies, slow and careful.
“He’s Queen Astra of Mezzaluna’s firstborn son, Nicolo. When he died at age five, he was revived as a Reaper. He is that moon prince. And it doesn’t matter what I thought of as a child, that has nothing to do with who he is now or what he’s been through. I didn’t hold him because of a child’s hope. I wouldn’t do that.”
“Did father know?” Nile asks. It’s the only thing she can think of to say as she throws herself backwards through time. To the first moment she saw Cat. To when she healed his face. To their many moments of play and conflict over their years of companionship.
“Yes,” Yusuf says. “Maybe it’s in your letter.”
If it is, she’s not entirely sure that she wants to see it. Anger is building up within her. She presses her lips tight as she glares down at the envelope in her hands. “He met with Cat, twice, by themselves before we left Jerrah.” She wonders now, more than ever, what they talked about. What they decided there in the light while she continued to be kept in the dark. He was her friend. He was her friend and he didn’t feel comfortable telling her the truth. Not even after all this time. “Why didn’t he tell me?”
“Because he loved being Cat,” Yusuf says. “Being Nicolo never did anything good for him in his whole life. And as your friend...he could just be the person he wanted to be. I think you can understand that, can’t you?”
Wanting to be who she wanted to be is perhaps the only thing she does understand out of all of this chaos. Her eyes fall to her purple sleeves, saved up for and chosen specifically by her without the interference of anyone else. She’d made the dye herself. She’d mixed it and sank her white clothes into it to make it perfect. The rich color against her black skin seems to cast a luminescent glow. She will never be a proper Giver of Irania. She can’t. She knows that now. And the same is true for Cat. “Our friendship wasn’t a lie?” she asks Yusuf.
“Talk to him,” he suggests. “I don’t think it was, but you need to talk to him about it. Besides...I hear you’re the one that gave him his face back. Who would want to break the heart of someone who did that for them?” She huffs a laugh and he nudges her a little. “I couldn’t do it. I tried. You’re pretty amazing, Nile, you know that?”
“Wait until you can see what else I can do,” Nile says, winking. “Elena’s taught me a lot.”
“I look forward to finding out someday,” he murmurs.
She leans a little more against Yusuf’s legs, says, “I still think you were cute together,” and gets a tug on her braids in retribution. It feels so good to have him back. “I missed you, brother,” she tells him. “I’m sorry I never saved you.”
“It’s not your fault,” Yusuf replies, gently massaging her scalp where he’d so rightfully took vengeance on her hair. “I don’t think anything could have helped us in the end. It all happened the way our father wanted it to happen...And no amount of spite is worth it at this point.”
“I’m still sorry.”
“Me too.” He reaches down and wraps his arms around her. She lets herself fall into the embrace. The warmth, the love, the understanding. She holds him and lets go of the anger and frustration. None of that matters right now. It’s things that can be dealt with later. Holding onto her brother, she breathes him in, and finds peace in his arms.
Elena takes her time coming back.
Hours pass while she’s down at the gate. The others wake, and Nile feeds them her breakfast. Sebastien stares at the food with the same look of fervor that had set Nile’s teeth on edge the night before. He’d devoured every speck of food on the plate they provided for him, and it had taken Quynh to keep him from being sick all over himself as a result. “Sorry,” he’d said as Quynh pressed her hands to his stomach. “Haven’t...eaten in a while…” Today, Nile had hoped some of that crazed desperation would have faded. Instead, it seems to only have gotten worse. He tears into his bread so fast that even Yusuf hesitates and watches.
The difference between them is stark. Even as thin and waiflike as Yusuf is, he eats almost deliriously slow. Like every bite is something to be memorized and appreciated. Sebastien starts out with an attempt at being polite, but it fails within moments. He tears huge chunks of food off and grabs for more even as he’s still chewing. He’s barely swallowed before he goes for another. At his side, Cat quietly adds more to Sebastien’s plate without being asked. He doesn’t speak much in groups as it is, but he’s been particularly mute since Sebastien’s desperation became clear.
Like clockwork, Nile can tell the exact moment that Sebastien’s stomach cramps at the sudden addition of so many foods. He groans pitifully and Quynh slides her fingers around his wrist with a grim expression as she sets about her work. It’s on the tip of Nile’s tongue to ask if starvation is the standard practice of people in Mezzaluna, but she remembers all too well how emaciated Cat had been when he’d first arrived in Irania. Asking now just seems petty. She keeps it to herself, and slides an extra mellon for Cat to eat when she notices that he’s been more focused on feeding Sebastian than putting food in his own mouth.
When they finish eating, Cat helps her with the dishes as Yusuf talks to Sebastien in quiet tones not meant for their ears. “I wouldn’t have told anyone,” Nile tells her friend as she pumps water from the well. “You could have told me who you were.”
Cat doesn’t meet her eyes. He watches the water fall and he makes sure that their bucket is perfectly placed for collecting. “At first, it was my mission,” he tells her. “I needed to go to Irania. To kill your family. And then...when Celeste came, I thought I would need to tell you. But your father...Ibrahim said it would be best if I didn’t. That you deserved a few more years not being implicated in this conflict. I thought that was right. And later...I didn’t want it to matter. I wanted to stay here...I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Nile finishes her pumping and together they hoist the bucket up to drag it over to where they needed to do their washing. “I forgive you.” He smiles then, short and sweet. “Besides, you and Yusuf were cute last night and— you’re blushing!” He is. His pale cheeks have gone an awfully dark shade of red. Even the tips of his ears have gone dark. He’s so flustered that he trips over his own feet sending water splashing in all directions. She can’t even bring herself to care. She laughs, bright and amused at the mere idea of the possibility here. “Do you like him, Cat?” she asks, elbowing him even as he tried to bat her away.
“I don’t even know what that means.”
“Neither does he,” she wags her brows. “You could figure it out together.”
“Stop.” He adjusts his grip on the bucket and they manage to get it into position just as the front door of the house opens and Elena’s voice calls for them to come see her. Releasing their burden, they hurry immediately to their mentor. Their guests emerge from wherever they’d been while Cat and Nile worked, and as they gather in the front room, Nile is stunned to see it isn’t just Andromache and Elena’s husband who have been brought to the door.
Queen-mother Fatima and Amelie are there too. Just as Irbahim had said: upon his death, Fatima would travel to Crowen to stay with them. Nile can’t help but wonder if, in the midst of everything, he’d known that Yusuf and Sebastien would be here too. That they’d all gather at this one point, and this would be the reunion they needed before the next step of their journey together.
Amelie is still wearing her black clothes of mourning. It’s well past her standard grieving period. She’s been battling on the edge of social respectability for too long. Even her carefully delivered letters had mentioned that members of court had been questioning the suitability of such a hysterical handmaiden to their Queen. Amelie has never cared what the court thought of her, though. Nile presses herself as far out of the way as possible as she searches the room for wherever Sebastien is.
He’s there, standing at Yusuf’s side by the stairs. His eyes wide and his skin turning pale as he stares openly, wantingly, at Amelie. Fatima shifts a little to give Amelie room, and Nile slips her hand into Cat’s. She squeezes it. Tugs on his sleeve. Hardly able to contain her own emotions as she watches Amelie glide forward. Sebastien steps down from his position at Yusuf’s side. He walks, awkward and stilted, to his dearest love.
“You...you’re in mourning?” he asks her as they stand only a meter apart. Nile bites her lip. She’s trying so very hard not to bounce on the balls of her feet as Amelie closes the gap between them. When they’d last been together, Sebastien hadn’t been taller than her. Now, he’s nearly a full head taller. He looks down at her, and she raises her hands up to cup his face between her palms.
“Not anymore,” Amelie whispers. “You’re alive.”
“I’m alive,” he agrees, as if he hadn’t quite realized that yet himself. As if the mere thought of it had caught him by surprise when he’d least expected it. “I—your scarf, I...I lost it in Mezzaluna, I’m sorry, I had it, I had it all these years, I promise I—”
Amelie’s lips spread in the most beautiful smile Nile has ever seen. “Sebastien. I have you. ” Then, she pulls Sebastien’s face toward hers, but instead of the customary kiss on the forehead, she seals their lips together. His arms warp around her back and he holds her so close that Nile can’t help the squeal that emerges from her as she yanks harder on Cat’s sleeve.
He’s smiling too, soft and sweet in the way he always smiles at things that he truly likes. He’s never been one for great displays of emotion, but Nile is perfectly content imagining this as his most expressive smile yet. Across from them, even Quynh, as evil as Nile’s still convinced she is, seems pleased by what she’s seeing, and Yusuf...Yusuf couldn’t look more at peace if he tried. He leans against the stairs, fondness radiating from every part of his body.
He approaches only when Sebastien and Amelie part. Only when they have pulled back from each other and seem trapped in their intimacy. Sebastien’s looking at Amelie like she’s the sun upon the earth, and Amelie looks to Sebastien like he’s the reason she can shine at all. When Yusuf approaches, he does so quietly but unobtrusively. He makes no move to part them. He makes no attempt to hold Amelie too. Instead, he touches both of their shoulders with a light sweep of his hand.
He kisses Amelie’s temple and murmurs, “I promised I’d bring him home,” before stepping away from them. He continues on toward his mother and when they embrace, it’s something far different. Where Sebastien and Amelie seemed to need to touch each other to confirm the other actually existed, Yusuf’s hold of his mother is almost cold. It’s an impersonal gesture that seems all the more off when Fatima clings to him with a crushing grip. It’s a grip that is not nearly returned. If anything, Yusuf pulls away, forcing himself back from her when she doesn’t seem ready to let him go. “Did you know?” he asks. Nile wonders to what extents he fully means, but it doesn’t matter. Not really.
Fatima hesitates only for a moment, before nodding. “I knew it all.” Yusuf accepts the answer silently, seeming to mull it over and what that means to him in the end. He’d talked Nile out of some of her anger, but perhaps that had been a tad disingenuous. Perhaps he still had enough anger within him that forgiving his mother would take more time. Afterall, if she’d known and done nothing, did that make her better or worse than Najima who had known and at least tried? “Where’s your crown?” Fatima asks. She touches his hair. His unadorned hair that has been that way since he collapsed the night before.
Before Yusuf can reply, Nile fetches it from the top of the cupboard. They didn’t have a place of honor for it, and it seemed far more important to keep it safe than anything else. She holds it out to him, hoping it’s the right thing to do, but Yusuf stares at it for a long while instead. Eventually, he raises his eyes to look at Cat. “Melt it,” he says, though Nile’s not sure if he’s telling Cat to do it, or just speaking in general. “We’ll make a new one...a new set.”
“A new...set?” Fatima asks. Nile glances between Cat and Yusuf, confusion whirling through her as she tries to work out exactly what that means. She’d been teasing earlier, but that sounded...that sounded far more meaningful than a simple night of sleeping in the same place.
But Cat is nodding. His eyes are on the crown itself, taking in the sun and its sharp rays. “It should be...a sun and moon,” Cat murmurs softly. “Combined.”
“Combined?” Sebastien asks. Nile feels like a swing, flowing from one edge to the other. She keeps snapping left and right, looking between Cat and Yusuf as they talk about something that she doesn’t have a hope in understanding. Not fully. Not yet.
“We’re going to end this war,” Yusuf says. “And make our countries whole. One nation.”
“Where everyone’s free,” Cat murmurs.
“And no one has to pretend any longer.” Yusuf looks back to the crown held in Nile’s hands. “So melt it down. I won’t wear that anymore.”
Fatima makes a noise, somewhere between startled and ashamed. She holds out a hand, reaching out toward the metal ring that used to sit atop King Ibrahim’s head. “That crown has been the symbol of Shams’ monarchy for thousands of years.”
“And our new crown will symbolize a nation of peace for thousands more,” Yusuf replies. “Melt it.” He tells Nile, firm and uncompromising. He places a hand on her shoulder including her where no one has ever bothered before, and then, turning to Cat, he smiles. “We have work to do.”