|The Tale of the Priest
Author: Guede Mazaka
It was a common observation that Luís Figo resembled more a trickster who dealt in oil lamps and seduced wives than a soldier, yet that was the trade he practiced. He was of average height for the male populace of Cairo, given the regular influxes of towering slave recruits from the countries of the Black Sea for the Mameluke armies, with a shock of black hair that he kept cropped just long enough to push back from his brow and black eyes that typically sparkled with ill-suppressed amusement. He was broad-shouldered and well-built rather than lean, and so often suffered in comparison to the lithe beauty of the Arabian stallion upon which he was nearly always to be found, but nonetheless he was liked by the sultan, respected by his peers, loved by his men and rarely lacking in amiable companionship during his leisure hours. His familial background was a mystery and he himself tended to dismiss inquiries with the offhand remark that that was of no account now.
“And even if it were, do you really think I’d admit to having any Northern stock in me? It was only a few centuries ago that they gave up the longboats and monastery-burning,” Luís laughed. He stopped behind a pillar as a hot wind billowed out the shading drapes of the balcony, sipping at his rose-water sherbet. “So why are the merchants being asked to remain in their houses this time, Zizou? If Kait Bey’s about to hike the taxes, I doubt that that’ll make it any more palatable.”
Zinedine glanced over his shoulder as he continued to lead them through the loggias, amusement playing around his mouth but never quite blooming into a smile. “If you’re still allowed to roam the city, I’d think that it’s hardly a crisis. It’s simply that the sultan wishes to tour his construction projects and in the interest of managing the disturbance his retinue will cause…”
“And you and I are touring your barracks simply because you had this sudden urge to reconfirm that you’re one of the strongest amirs in the court, I suppose?” The little puddle of water around the mound of chipped ice suddenly ran out and Luís slurped loudly, then made a theatrical wince. He grinned at the other man’s look and wrapped both hands around the goblet, giving nature a good kick along; the day wasn’t so advanced yet that the heat alone would do it.
“We’re not touring the barracks. I just want you to see something,” Zinedine said, in his typical laconic fashion. He continued to lead them through the loggias and halls at a sedate pace, so it couldn’t be terribly important.
Luís stifled a relieved sigh and tried a little harder at peeking through the tight latticework shutters for a glimpse of the females of the household. The war with the Turks had given the sultan a pretext for sending some of the senior amirs to the borders, but that had hardly suppressed the factionalism that underpinned everything in Cairo. Instead it’d allowed many of the younger, restless courtiers a chance at causing trouble, and the patriotism floating about in the air hardly served to curb their more foolish intentions. War was good for spending, but terrible for trade, and trade paid for the silk on Luís’ back and the good horse waiting in the stables and the lovely house he had in the Venetian quarter.
Eventually the two of them emerged above a dusty courtyard. The fountain in the center appeared to be broken, and a harassed-looking engineer was poking about some of its parts that had been laid out on the ground while a youth wrenched at its remaining works. He was stripped to the waist and matted over with the fine bone-colored sand of Cairo so it was difficult to make out his age, but he was certainly too tall to be an apprentice. Weedy still, but he promised to be an imposing specimen of physicality in a few years.
“You’ve already figured out which one.” Zinedine leaned against the shady side of a pillar, hands folded together before him. His narrowed eyes moved from Luís to the young man below. “He’s around seventeen, near as I can tell. Understands the Circassians’ tongues, but they don’t like him and I can’t get one to tell me why.”
“One of your newest Mameluke group? He’s the looks of being a credit to your house,” Luís said.
The engineer squatted down and fiddled with two parts, trying to force them together at different angles with the occasional curse for the whirling breeze, which pulled the sand directly up into the sky. In the drained fountain, the youth paused for a few moments and watched the other man. Then he happened to glance up and saw Luís and Zinedine, and he grimaced, quickly going back to jamming a rod into the center spout.
“He’s mine as of a week ago. Before that he’d been through about three other amirs’ households, and none of them wanted to manumit him,” Zinedine dryly replied. His eyes opened a touch against the wind, allowing a slight amused glimmer to be perceived. “They passed him on as a…debt settlement each time, I think.”
Sometimes the tendency of his friend towards the enigmatic grated on Luís, but he suffered it without complaint and merely looked more closely at the young—well, so he’d still be a slave, and all but guaranteed to stay one. After that many households he couldn’t be counted on to remain loyal even to the man who did take a chance and freed him, and that was the entire purpose of the Mameluke.
“He’s too well-built to turn down, then?” Luís didn’t bother looking over before he snorted and shook his head. “I don’t think of that all the time, Zizou. I meant it in the most straightforward fashion.”
“You’re an infidel. Of course you didn’t.” The lazy, sensual tease in Zinedine’s voice came and went like a cool breeze in the desert, and when Luís glanced over this time, the other man stared impassively back. “You’re dripping sherbet on my floor.”
With a burdened sigh, Luís held the goblet over the edge of the loggia and gently flicked his thumb against its stem so the drops clinging to it would fly off. Then he pulled in his arm and drank, watching the two men work on the fountain. The slave seemed to have forgotten that they or anyone else was around and was poking at the spout with quite an intent expression on his face. He wasn’t simply wrenching at it either, despite the occasional snarls from the engineer to watch his clumsy hands—and even from the second floor, Luís could see the resentment flashing from the slave’s eyes every time. No, he…he clearly had a plan in mind, and Luís also had had a plan in mind for disturbing that calmness of Zinedine’s, but he’d lost it as soon as the slave had turned around.
A few moments later, he’d managed to collect himself enough to shrug. “Even this infidel hasn’t often seen a back like that. If he’s that recalcitrant, why does he still have all his…does he have his tongue still?”
“He does.” The tone of Zinedine’s voice suggested that that was the most surprising fact. “He’s very tall, and very bright, and I suppose that’s why people continued to have hope that he might turn out a credit to his teachers.”
“More like a display of their skill with a whip,” Luís muttered. “Well, so what’s to do? You’re not known for being terribly charitable when it comes to your forces—in fact, you’re downright hypocritical for insisting on not using anyone who’s willing to buy their way into service.”
Zinedine stared at him, face like one of those ancient, ancient statues of the old blood-thirsty pharaohs. Then the other man shook his head, silently tipping off the pillar and onto his feet. “I wasn’t going to take him but when they dragged him out I thought I heard him say something in Swedish.”
Luís blinked. “Swedish? But he’s a—”
“He’s not Circassian. The ones fresh from the mountains refuse to deal with him, and the older ones might have forgotten their roots somewhat but they’re uneasy around him as well. Come on.” After a few steps, Zinedine looked back. His face betrayed a faint hint of impatience. “I want to know if it is Swedish. And then we can have our meal.”
“I didn’t realize I was staying to eat,” Luís said. The wind had blown his clothing about so that when he began to move, the silk stretched dangerously and he had to spend a moment briskly shaking the folds loose. Then he caught up to the other man’s side. “So where’s your wife?”
Zinedine briefly rubbed at his upper lip with a finger. “Which one?”
“The one who thinks I’m too revolting to be polite to.” Luís drained the rest of his sherbet, sucking in the few remaining ice slivers. He cracked them between his teeth and grinned when Zinedine winced.
“She’s visiting a sick aunt all day, and I don’t need to be at court till tomorrow,” Zinedine said. “What did you do, anyway? She wanted me to ban you from our house.”
“I just recited a little poetry about her eyes,” Luís said, willing his own eyes to gleam with innocence. “Arabic poet, utterly chaste. Purely complimentary.”
From the way Zinedine rolled the shoulder nearest Luís, he didn’t believe a word of it. But he wasn’t objecting, either. “If it’s not in the Qu’ran, she doesn’t approve. Since when do you memorize Arabic poetry?”
“I’ll tell you later, with demonstration,” Luís chuckled. “First introduce me to this Swede of yours.”
* * *
By the time they reached the fountain, the slave had managed to remove whatever had been blocking up the water and a small trickle was running out of the spout. He’d subsequently been pushed out of the way by the engineer, who instantly latched onto Zinedine with much exclaiming and gesticulating about how he’d just about solved the problem.
“Idiot,” the slave muttered, shoving his toes into the dirt.
Luís looked sharply at him and when the youth noticed, he flinched and instantly dropped his gaze, hunching over. It wasn’t a position that suited either his body or his pride: his shoulders stiffly twitched back and forth as he fought to appear harmless.
“Don’t do that. You’ll ruin your back and neck before you’re thirty,” Luís said in Swedish.
The slave’s head went up. He stared openmouthed at Luís till the engineer suddenly bustled in, smacking the poor boy on the side and thigh and scolding him for being so insolent. The slave jerked away and his fingertips jerked in towards his palms before he controlled himself. No wonder his back was a mess of whip-scars. Maybe a civilian wouldn’t catch that, but anyone with a modicum of military training wouldn’t have stood for it.
“Leave him be. I’m busy looking him over,” Luís told the engineer, going back to Arabic. Then he stepped forward and grabbed the boy’s arm, dragging him over to one of the deeply recessed doorways that pierced the lower walls. He was aware of Zinedine radiating smugness behind him, but that could always been seen to during their meal.
After the first surprised second, the slave stiffened up and then relaxed only as much as he had to in order to move. He all but forced Luís to pull hard enough to send him bumping against the door, then settled back with an ill-disguised look of anger. Luís grabbed the boy’s jaw and pushed his thumb between the boy’s lips, and after a very long moment, the boy opened his mouth.
“And nobody’s knocked out your teeth either. You’re a living miracle,” Luís muttered. He let go of the boy’s jaw and waited. Then he sighed and waved his hand. “You can stand back up. I’m Luís. Where did you learn Swedish? You weren’t born there, not with that nose.”
“I can’t help my nose or my birth,” the boy said after a moment. His voice sounded as if it’d just about finished dropping, so he probably had nearly reached his full height. A good thing, since much taller and he’d have to ride one of those giant chargers from France. “My lord.”
Luís put his hands on the boy’s upper arms and squeezed them, then moved down a few fingers’ width and squeezed again. He repeated the motion till he’d reached the wrists. “Oh, I’m just a friend of your lord, so here’s some friendly advice: idiots live longer than loudmouths.”
The boy wanted to say something, but after flicking his eyes to Luís, he simply pressed his lips together. He submitted to Luís’ examination of his thighs and calves with a kind of silent sullenness.
“And longest-lived of all are those who know when to talk and when not to. I’m not the only one in Cairo who understands Swedish—there aren’t many of us, but there are a few.” A shadow slipped over Luís’ feet and he stood up, nodding to Zinedine. “He can ride?”
“He’s had a full training regime,” Zinedine confirmed. “So, do you still need a man-servant?”
Luís shrugged. “Ah, I don’t know. I put up with enough sourpusses with the merchants. Can he tell jokes?”
They stood there, Zinedine composed and unruffled if a bit puzzled in the strengthening sunlight, Luís half-shadowed, and the boy slouched into the dark corner. He slowly raised his head to meet Luís—he deliberately straightened his posture—and shrugged himself. “You like Swedish or Arabic?”
“Actually, I like Portuguese best but you can learn that later. Zizou, you mind washing him up before he and I go?” Luís asked.
Zinedine lifted a hand and a servant appeared out of nowhere to take the order and lead the boy off. Then he stepped forward and laid a hand on Luís’ shoulder, using it to lightly steer Luís out of the doorway and back to the steps. “So it is Swedish.”
“It is. And you’ve just gotten me a raging headache, I can already tell,” Luís said.
“That’s why you’re staying for lunch,” Zinedine replied.
* * *
The broad expanse of Zinedine’s naked back was a wonder, smooth and white like fine Carrara marble but warm, pliant beneath Luís’ hand. A few scars crept round the man’s sides to just touch the edges—Zinedine had bought into the Mamelukes, but had earned his amir status with the sword—but otherwise it was unmarked. Lovely to stroke, brush knuckles around the little bumps of the spine.
He arched languidly beneath the caresses, burying his face more deeply into the divan’s cushions. “Bring my wives back something nice from Alexandria.”
Luís stopped petting him. “Excuse me? I’m not the one married to them.”
Zinedine rolled over and stretched his arms out in front of himself, silk cushions sliding all about them. One nudged up against Luís’ limp prick, then slipped ticklishly between his thighs. A moment later a knee firmly followed it.
“You make a lousy courtesan,” Luís told him, reaching up. He rubbed the man’s head, letting his fingers rasp over the minute stubble just pushing up from the skin. “Where, oh where are the locks of ebony?”
“I’ll be sailing up the Nile a week after you, but I won’t have the time to go down to the bazaars.” And as if he’d just informed Luís that it was a sunny day, he leaned over and kissed Luís, mouth lingering and soft, while his hand quite brazenly played with Luís’ right nipple. His knee began to move in a slow up-and-down motion. “Anyway, you seem to be better at pleasing them.”
“Because I am not married to them.” For a moment, Luís did consider simply giving in and pushing himself across that hand’s-span of space. The divan was soft, Zinedine was becoming rather insistent, and currently he was between regular female companionship. And then he flopped on his back and turned his head to stare at the delicate brass lamp hanging from the ceiling. “Why are you going to Alexandria? After all these years, don’t you trust me to make the trip by myself?”
Zinedine’s hand stilled. Then it swept downwards, twisting about so his fingers pulled furrows through the line of hair running down the center of Luís’ chest. He sat up and gazed down so the stray beams of sunlight from the shuttered windows crossed to make a patchwork of his features. It appeared he wasn’t in a punning mood, caressing aside. “I’ve been given a temporary post there, to help engage ships against the Ottoman pirates.”
“You’ve been given a naval command? J—well, at least it’s not Jerusalem,” Luís said, hastily modifying his words. He tried to sit up himself, only to have the other man climb on to straddle his waist. “You said it wasn’t a crisis earlier…because Kait Bey is about to take measures to avoid one?”
“It’s a fighting post, not one of exile.” But Zinedine sounded far from sure, and well he should. His illustrious campaigning career didn’t include a single naval action and so this move could very well be meant to set him up for a long fall. “It’ll be keeping me far too busy to know what you’re up to.”
No upriver reunions, Luís accordingly translated, and the thought that followed hard on the heels of that suddenly chilled him. “Is that the purpose? You’re too fond of unbelievers?”
Zinedine put both his hands on Luís’ shoulders and shifted lower, till his buttocks had comfortably cradled the one damned part of Luís’ body that still lacked concern. “You’re too nervous.”
Luís pushed up on his elbows and opened his mouth to retort, but then he thought the better of it. Instead he simply waited, gazing up at the other man. If Zinedine wanted to go on and impale himself, and thus completely ruin any chances Luís had for sensible thought…well, the man could, and with Luís’ fervent blessing. But that hardly meant that he’d forget to ask later, at a more inconvenient time for the other man. Patience was hardly the province of any particular person or people, though it was a difficult skill to learn.
“It may or may not be a warning,” Zinedine finally said, looking away. His fingers moved restlessly over Luís’ skin, stirring the blood beneath it into sluggish warmth. “But however it is, I’ll be under close scrutiny while I’m in Alexandria.”
And slow as honey, but a thousand times sweeter, understanding came to Luís. “Oh. You need a favor. And I’ll wager a good horse that it has something to do with—”
Zinedine turned back, changing from sculpture to beautiful, if irritated, man. His eyebrows rose. “Is your mind still on that boy? I just wished to have some time where I didn’t have to listen to your complaints about the lack of good hired help these days.”
“Stop acting so coy,” Luís snorted, sweeping his hands up over Zinedine’s thighs. He cupped the man’s hips and used them to pull himself up, and incidentally slipped his stiffening prick beneath the other man. “You know damn well I prefer men. And that I’m going to ask questions now till you either throw me out or tell me.”
“It’s not coyness. It’s caution, since I’m not sure what’s going on,” Zinedine said. A mild reproof, and made even flimsier when he lifted himself a little so the head of Luís’ cock pushed up along the curve of his ass. “I need you to take something up for me. A small package. It’d leave plenty of room in your saddlebags for all the bribes you use to keep on everyone’s good side, despite your lack of manners.”
Luís lifted his upper lip in a wry smile, but didn’t bother attempting to stretch the false good humor to his eyes. If he was too nervous, then he rather thought he had good reason to be. “What is it that you’d trust to an infidel than to one of your own? We’ve a good understanding, Zizou, and I thought that that encompassed the fact that I don’t risk my neck for no good cause.”
“That boy, the horse he’d be riding back with you on, plus a large chest of gold. It’ll be in that, the little rag-wrapped bundle.” A moment, and then Zinedine twisted slightly so just a thumb’s-width of his body gave way to Luís’ prick. He moved well enough, but his eyes were now narrowed nearly to needles, giving away nothing and everything of his internal state. “If you’re so worried, then don’t look at what it is.”
“Is that a piece of advice or a prerequisite of the contract?” Luís asked in a dry tone. He pulled himself up higher so he could lean on his hands and Zinedine sank nearly down to his balls. His lip suddenly hurt, and when Luís realized why and stopped biting it, he inadvertently let a gasp free. “Plus you?”
Zinedine’s eyes slightly widened, enough for a flash of injured dignity to pass through his thick lashes, long as a girl’s. He arched, muscles tensing like a drawstring yanked tight. “I never bargain for myself. I was under the impression you knew that.”
“Well, sometimes I—” Luís swore in Portuguese, one hand slipping as Zinedine bent like a supple bow and laved up the side of Luís’ throat. He grabbed at the other man’s waist for balance and Zinedine slackened his body’s grip on Luís’ prick, slid them both closer to the inferno of hell. “God’s bones.”
A little touch of teeth had Luís swallowing hard, the support of his other arm beginning to turn shaky. He leaned back to regroup and Zinedine instantly pressed forward, not allowing him the chance. “Allah has no such earthly accoutrements,” he said primly. “You are in my house, therefore you will respect my faith.”
“Oh, I do. I have nothing but—” Luís gave up and fell backwards, pulling the other man with him “--respect for your God and his—” slung his now free arm around Zinedine’s neck, used it to hold the bastard in place for the kiss “—wonderful creations.”
Zinedine snorted and stopped up Luís’ mouth, forcing them back down onto the cushions. His knees bumped up against Luís’ ribs, then squeezed hard around them as he began to move, shoulders to hips to ankles smoothly sliding over Luís like some piece of silk fallen from heaven, all-enveloping and damnably insistent. He wrapped his fingers around Luís’ biceps when Luís tried to adjust him, then pulled his hands down to Luís’ elbows and the hard even pressure was but a mere echo of what his clenching, greedy body did to Luís’ cock a moment later.
Another taste of Zinedine’s mouth, and then Luís gathered up enough of himself to turn them over, putting the uppity Saracen in his place. Though said Saracen was grunting and moaning as if he hardly noticed who was where, and really, once Luís had gotten his knees planted, he didn’t much care either. He was vastly more interested in the how of their current arrangement, and a little later, the then.
“Ah, damn. You’ve made me late for prayers,” Zinedine muttered.
The sometimes lyrical, sometimes outright brassy call of the muezzin trickled through the windows, slowly stirring Luís out of his tired daze. He sucked air back into his throat, then stuttered its release in a lazy half-growl as he raised himself up to look at the other man.
Zinedine silently returned the gaze for several seconds. Then he smiled. “Thank you.”
“All right, I’ll do it,” Luís mumbled. “It’s extra if we get more attacks than usual, though. And I am not doing your damn gift-shopping for you.”
* * *
Zinedine was true to his word so far as the boy’s mount went: he’d dug out a nearly European-sized crossbreed from somewhere and the beast almost made the boy’s lanky frame look normal. And he’d been telling the truth about the boy’s training as well, though the lack of actual practice was evident in the over-hard hands and the constant accidental kneeing.
“No—look. No, look. At me,” Luís said. He waited till the stream of half-stifled cursing had ceased and he could see at least a glimmer of the boy’s eyes peeking from beneath the scowling brow. Then he reached over.
The boy stiffened immediately, and then again when he saw that Luís was reaching for his waist. His jaw tightened and so did his hands, which tightened the reins and brought the horse to a jerky stop.
Luís paused, then looked about. It wasn’t a very busy street, though the few people traveling it seemed more than happy to entertain themselves by watching them. “Oh, well. You went any farther and you’d give this poor animal an incurable case of curb-mouth. Look, they should’ve told you there are two parts to a horseman: your legs and everything else.” He tapped the boy’s waist, then withdrew and did not miss the increase in puzzlement in the boy’s face. “That’s the dividing line. Everything above it doesn’t matter when you’re in the saddle.”
“They did tell me,” the boy finally said. “I just never got to—”
“Well, you are now, so you might as well make the best of it. You’ve got a good pair of legs, so trust them. Stop worrying that they’ll do something wrong.” And then Luís clucked his tongue, causing his own horse to leap forward a bit too eagerly. It was used to getting a good long afternoon ride but Zinedine’s impromptu lunch had seen those plans dashed.
But it was overall a good-natured animal and so Luís needed only a second to rein it back into a slow walk. He waited for the boy to catch up, and then slowed his mount more so they were nearly abreast of each other. The other horse’s eye was no longer rolling in confusion, though it still snorted heavily at each unintentional sawing of the bit.
“Better,” Luís said. “Not the best you could do, though.”
The boy blinked. “I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, my lord. That seems dangerous.”
Luís looked hard at him and the boy reverted to stiff back, clutching knees, averted gaze. Then he turned away, wondering briefly about Zinedine’s ultimate intentions, and then laughed. “Very true. You’re seventeen and you still have such a mouth on you? I’m surprised.”
“You said you wanted jokes, my lord,” the boy muttered, still looking at the saddlehorn.
“I did. I think I also said my name was Luís and not ‘my lord.’” An oil-seller driving his mule-cart the other way rounded the corner and Luís nudged their horses aside a few feet. The oil-seller looked up and saw them, then lifted his hands as if to slap the reins against the mule’s back, eyes burning with intense revulsion.
If he’d done that, he would’ve still run into them. Luís did the man the courtesy of edging over a bit more before he casually brushed back his robes, letting the light catch on the sword hanging from his side. Then he calmly continued on while the cart came closer and closer…and at the last possible moment, shifted as well so the road accommodated both of them.
“You’re a Christian.” The boy was staring at Luís, his mouth a little open. His hands had gone a little slack and consequently he’d fallen slightly behind, though he hastily moved to correct that now. “You’re—not—but you’re not wearing—and you have a sword in the city.”
“Because Luís Figo is not only a Christian, but also, for the purposes of the sultan’s bureaucracy, a Venetian. Venice’s doge negotiated a long time ago for the right to have his people ruled, even when they’re in Egypt, under their own laws.” Luís angled his mount so they strayed more towards the center of the street, but didn’t bother trying to regain his former position. They were nearing the busier sections of the city and anyway, it was cooler in the shade of the buildings. “You’d be doing me a favor if you stopped calling me ‘my lord.’ The Saracens do like Venetian glass and shipping, but they’re not so fond of seeing another Muslim ruled by a Christian.”
“I’m…” Then the boy looked away, staring at the rows and rows of wood-lattice shutters they were passing. After a moment he lifted and dropped the shoulder nearest to Luís. “Whatever you say.” He paused again. “But you’re not from…Italy.”
Luís grinned and rubbed at his nose. “No, I’m not. Spent a lot of time there, though. So where are—you know, I don’t think we ever really finished introductions. What’s your name?”
That earned him another bird-quick glance, followed by a long, tense silence. “Zlatan.”
Which wasn’t a Saracen name, so…Luís had just been given the boy’s born name, from before he’d been enslaved. Another sign that the Mameluke system of indoctrination, so superior to molding its material than the Church was these days, had somehow failed with this one. “That’s not Swedish.”
“No. But that’s where I was born. Where I’m from,” Zlatan said. He lifted his chin and levelly met Luís’ eyes, daring the other man to object.
And…there was something, something in the way the boy drew back his shoulders and stared fiercely out at the world. Something that made Luís want to go back to Zinedine and—well, he wasn’t sure if he’d be cursing or thanking. But either way, he had to laugh again, because Zizou prided himself on his eye and he’d obviously thought Luís would simply find the boy amusing.
“It’s a nice country, though I like wintering elsewhere,” Luís finally replied. He turned forward and raised his arm to point ahead of them. “That’s where we’re going. Home.”
Zlatan looked slantwise, like a cat pretending not to care. His lips twitched just before he dropped his head, shrugging again. “Your house is very nice.”
“You’re not very funny.” Luís shook his head, stifling a third laugh. “Never mind, you’re young. You’ll get to learn.”
* * *
Henrik met them in the stables and held the reins of Luís’ horse while Luís dismounted. Then he tossed them to a waiting stableboy and moved over to take Zlatan’s horse, only to find that the boy had already slipped off and was in the middle of untacking his mount.
“Zlatan, Henrik. Henke, Zizou’s newest way of making sure I suffer for my unbelief,” Luís said in Swedish. He clapped Henrik on the shoulder, then gave his horse a rub on the neck. The beast immediately twisted round and tried to lip at his hair, forcing him to hastily slip behind the other man. “Get him fed and settled in before you start asking how his village did their herring, all right?”
“Drogba is here to see you. He says a problem’s come up,” Henrik replied. He jerked his chin towards the right receiving room, sent a servant running to the kitchen and took the saddle from Zlatan himself without stumbling in the slightest.
Zlatan stared curiously around at them all. “Who’s Zizou?”
He’d asked in Swedish, so now Henrik did stop and stare, the saddle accidentally slipping from his hands. A flicker of amusement finally broke through Zlatan’s perpetual wary sullenness and he easily bent to catch the heavy piece of tack. Then he pulled it out of Henrik’s hands and tossed it over a shoulder as if it were made of paper, when it certainly wasn’t: Zinedine could be irritatingly obscure about everything except his bribery, which gleamed from the saddle in heavy gold-and-gem enamelwork.
“Zizou is Zinedine Zidane, one of the amirs and a very good friend of mine, who made a gift of you to me.” Luís dusted himself off and unbuckled his sword, then slung the sword-belt over his shoulder. He pushed the heel of his hand over his neck, then sniffed at it before deciding he was presentable enough.
“Oh,” Zlatan said. His tone had closed down again, and when he looked at Henrik, his eyes were flatly emotionless. “Where does this go?”
Henrik was still staring, though Luís thought the remark about herring would’ve been enough warning. When spoken to he blinked, then gave himself a shake and put up his hands. “Here, give that to me.”
“I’m not going to drop it or pick out any of the jewels. Just tell me where I’m supposed to put it.”
“No, it’s fine. I’ll take care of it and you go on to the kitchen.”
The stubborn li…well, he was hardly little, but he certainly fixated on an idea once it was in his head. Even if it wasn’t one he particularly liked. Luís ran his fingers through his hair a few times. “Zlatan, Henke’s got about ten years and a hundred or so battles on you. If he tells you to do something, do it. Anyway, that saddle’s pretty but it wouldn’t stand more than a brisk trot, so it’s hardly worth arguing over.”
He felt a hot, sulky gaze sweep over him and turned, only to find Zlatan depositing the saddle into Henrik’s hands with all the delicacy of a child flinging a stone into a river. Henrik’s eyebrows rose, but he managed the unwieldy thing well enough. He spoke to Zlatan, too low for Luís to hear, but it seemed kindly since Zlatan lost that nervous edge and instead began glancing towards the kitchen.
They would get along well enough, Luís decided. If Henrik hadn’t liked the boy, he would’ve told him where the latrines were instead. And so Luís left them to make their acquaintances and went to go deal with one of the innumerable pains in the ass associated with organizing a lucrative, successful caravan.
Drogba hadn’t been waiting too long and the dent in the divan said he’d been enjoying those few minutes, but the moment Luís walked into the room, the man was rolling his eyes and spreading his hands. “Figo, where have you been? I’ve been trying to reach you all day because I know—”
“No more advance money unless you actually show me the lamed camel, but I’ll double your last payment in Alexandria,” Luís immediately said. He normally didn’t like forgoing the haggling, but he wanted to get on to seeing what else Zinedine had foisted on him.
The other man looked at him for a moment. Then Drogba flashed him a smile and stooped to retrieve a half-filled goblet from a low table. “You Europeans are all alike. You think of everything in terms of money.”
“You want to say this won’t cost me anything?” A soft rasp and the whisper of cooler air behind Luís alerted him and he reached back to wrap his fingers around his own goblet. The ride through town hadn’t been particularly long, but it was a very dry day and his parched throat was heartily thankful for the draught.
It was very clear how tempted Drogba was to answer in the affirmative, but the man was one of the more sensible camel-drivers in Cairo, which was why he knew better than to lie. He could wrangle and extort all he pleased and Luís wouldn’t mind much, since that was the nature of business, but the moment he outright betrayed a trust, his head would be rolling in the dust. Luís had been forced to that point several times before he’d finally come across Drogba and thanked God that he had, since all those messy terminations of employment had been beginning to cause trouble.
“Well, it will, but it won’t be going to me. Not unless you’re feeling appreciative about my foresight and anxiety to see this trip succeed,” Drogba finally said. He spun his goblet by the stem, then tipped the rim against his mouth while it was still whirling so the sound of his sucking was accompanied by the tinkling of the half-melted ice. “I’ve just gotten news that the sultan’s setting extra guards and tolls on the usual routes. It’ll be triple what it usually is to get through them.”
At least, and now Luís would have to waste more time and money trying to find out which amir had been given the responsibility of providing the extra staff. He’d already spent the better part of two months procuring the proper permits and exceptions and now he’d wager near half of them would be useless. Not to mention that the narrow window of time meant the new ones would cost an arm and a leg. “Damn. Damn, damn, damn…you wouldn’t be here if that was all, though.”
“No, I wouldn’t.” Drogba smiled with deceptive placidity. “When I first received the news I was just as distraught as you are now, but I believe that a way is always provided. So I consulted with some elders and I think there is an alternative.”
Luís swirled his cup, watching the little mound of ice shrink till it consisted only of a few thin chips. “And it’s longer, rougher and more dangerous, isn’t it?”
“Actually, it’s about a day shorter,” Drogba said. He shrugged. “The rest is true enough, but if I stick to my best camels and drivers—which I will gladly do for you, my best client—and your men are as disciplined as they usually are, it should be fine. The only annoyances will be the merchants.”
“I can handle the merchants. Speaking of which, if this route is shorter, then why does nobody use it? He might complain about everything from the sand to the fleas, but anything that gets the goods to the marketplace faster tends to find favor in the merchant’s eye,” Luís asked. “Nine days instead of ten to them is a godsend worth dedicating a Mass to.”
Drogba took a drink with elaborate nonchalance. His foot scuffed a bit at the floor, moving part of the rug so the corner was crooked.
“It’s through the desert, isn’t it?” When the other man nodded, Luís exhaled irritably and looked towards the ceiling. If ever he could have used his own godsend—but no, this was the earthly realm and he had long since learned not to rely on anything but his own resources. “And it’s faster?”
“It is! I’d show you the map because I know you prefer that, but it’s all in these old traders’ heads right now,” Drogba said, tapping his own. “But I’ve got Kolo trying to get it down on paper and he should have something in a few days.”
“I would hope so, because I don’t go into anything I don’t know the way out of,” Luís sharply replied. He stared into his goblet. The ice had all vanished into the fruit juices now, with the only sign that it’d ever been there a thin clear layer lying on top of the bright purple juice. “Come by with your map when you’ve got it, and I’ll see if the savings in time and money are worth it—Didi. Did you hear anything about why the sultan’s tightening up?”
Shrugging, Drogba downed the last of his drink in one toss of his head. He set the empty goblet on a shelf before pulling his robes loosely around himself, draping the folds so his hands would be covered from the brutal afternoon sun. “Ah, but I’m a mere trademan. What do I know about the workings behind the palace walls?”
Luís rolled his eyes. “My earlier offer still stands, in gratitude for your promptness in bringing this problem to my attention.”
Another amused smile came and went over Drogba’s face. “My sincere thanks and acceptance, but really, I know nothing right now. All I know is that every driver in the city is asking their god to intercede and soften the sultan’s hard heart.”
He left Luís to mull over that charming little comment till a servant coughed and shuffled in to retrieve Drogba’s empty goblet. Then Luís roused and, with a few more choice curses, went to send off messages to the merchants in his caravan. The more prominent of them had already heard some form of the news and had fired off their own messages, and in a few cases the couriers comically crossed paths in the streets. Or so Luís heard, since for the rest of the day and well into the night he was busy at home, trying to determine independently if Drogba’s proposal was feasible.
It did seem to be, but the route was difficult and prone to raids. But the caravan had been in planning for months now and it was too late to call it off, and Luís would be damned to the Muslim hell before he wasted a fortune on resubmitting all the damn documents and accompanying bribes one needed to do business nowadays.
Right then he recollected Zinedine’s request and paused in the middle of the hall; the scribe who had been trailing after him was a little slow in adapting and crashed up against Luís’ arm. Luís steadied the boy, absently waved away the apologies, and told him to finish up the last letter and go to bed, they’d do the rest in the morning. Then he retreated to his private chambers.
Sometime during the day, the chest Zinedine had promised had arrived separately and was now sitting in the center of Luís’ private receiving room, a throwback of iron bands and heavy teak wood lacking any ornamentation. One corner caught Luís’ eye and he bent down, putting his finger to the tiny, freshly drilled hole there: Henrik’s doing, a simple check to see if the chest really contained what it was supposed it. Luís grinned and got back up. He went into the other room where he kicked off his slippers and set his sword against the wall before walking to the bath.
* * *
After wiping his hands dry, Luís carefully unlocked all the padlocks on the chest. He stepped back, dropping the keys on a divan, and picked up his sword. A bit of wet hair flopped into his eyes and he pushed it back before teasing the tip of the sword in between the lid and the bottom part of the chest. A flick of the wrist and the chest was open.
The gold coins sparkled blindingly so he blinked furiously, his eyes needing a moment to accustom themselves. Then he carefully prodded at the mass with his sword, stirring it thoroughly about till he was certain no unpleasant surprises were waiting for him. It wasn’t so much that he distrusted Zinedine so much as that he knew the man’s enthusiasm for antiques was only matched by Zizou’s strange obliviousness to their various contexts. Not everything old was good, either back when it was new or now.
The coinage certainly bore out Luís’ point when he stooped and looked at a fallen one more closely. He snorted, then gave up and laughed—only Zinedine would give him a chest of Imperial Roman gold as a sweetener. As if he could use any of it without recoining the lot into dinars first, and then good luck on finding a goldsmith all of Egypt who’d be able to keep their mouth shut about it.
But that was a difficulty with which Luís could find ways of dealing. He got back up and flipped his hand on the hilt so he could stab more easily, and then did so, driving the sword down till he felt the tip catch in something softer than metal. Then he patiently levered the object up till it fell to the ground in a splash of spinning gold coins.
Whatever it was, it was wrapped in rags as Zinedine had said. The package was roughly rectangular and small, about the size of a lady’s psalter, but heavy in Luís’ hand. He carefully set it on the ground before he slit the rags and pulled them away.
It was a book. Old, leather binding brittle and actually scorched in some places. The pages were of vellum and not of paper, which explained the weight. They crackled alarmingly no matter how gently Luís touched them, but the close-written Greek script that filled their expanses was still readable. Very readable.
Luís shut the book after he’d puzzled out the first few pages, then put his hand on top of it and took a deep breath. Then again. And then he closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose with his other hand. “Good God, Zizou. If you really want me to get killed, you could just ask me to spar with you.”
That’d be another message he’d have to send, but in the morning. It’d raise too much suspicion if he sent a courier to beat on Zinedine’s door in the middle of the night.
He tried to rewrap the book in the rags, but they were so old they fell to pieces in his hands so instead Luís bundled it into an old shirt. Then he went into the sleeping chamber and lifted up the false floorboard beneath his bed, where he kept the few things he’d brought with him from Europe, and slid the book into the little space. After he’d fitted the board back in place, he went and scooped all the coins back into the chest and locked it.
Luís readied himself for bed, then propped his sword against the wall, hilt-up. He got carefully down on his knees before it, grimacing as a few of his joints creaked a reminder of his age, and bent his head over his folded hands. His lips moved silently for a few minutes. Then he got up and got into bed.
* * *
The next day, he had part of the stables blocked off and the chest hauled out to there, where he and Henrik rigged up a makeshift smelting oven. He didn’t have the time, tools or skills to recoin the damn lot, but ingots he could do, and ingots were transportable without being quite as suspicious.
“Zinedine sent a man back to say he’d be calling on you this evening,” Henrik said, dropping onto a sack of coal. He wiped his hands over his face, then flipped the sweat off his fingers.
“Oh.” Luís dumped another shovel of coal into the firepit before stepping back himself. He tossed the shovel against the nearest wall, then took down a water-jar from the shelves by the door and drank deeply from it.
The door swung out a bit, and then more. A few moments later, Zlatan looked in. He saw Henrik right away and started, and then turned to see Luís and started again. The second time didn’t seem to be in such pleasant surprise.
“I brought the coal,” he said, stepping inside. He was barely bent over, though the two bags he let slide off his back were nearly as big as a doubled-up man.
Luís poked at one with his foot, then passed the water-jar off to Zlatan and grabbed the bag’s top. He’d begun to haul it further from the firepit when he noticed the boy was putting the jar back on the shelf. “Have a sip. It’s why I gave it to you.”
Henrik stirred, rolling off the sacks onto his feet so he was squatting near the edge of the firepit. He reached out and picked up one of the large melting crucibles they’d be using, then stretched it over the pit to time how long it took for the iron to heat up.
It was in Zlatan’s face to refuse, but in the end the boy drank. At first stiffly, but then loud and greedy, splashing a bit on the dirt. He pulled the jar away from his mouth and looked at the muddy clumps before silently putting the jar back. Then he half-turned towards the door, dancing a bit on his toes.
“You can speak Swedish here, to Henke and me. Though I swear on the Cross, if you two start on the salted fish I’m leaving,” Luís said. He walked over to the chest and—over the sound of Henrik’s slow hissed breath—pulled up the lid. After grabbing a handful of the coins, he tossed one over his shoulder.
It didn’t fall to the ground. When Luís turned around, Zlatan was spinning the coin between his forefingers, head bent. Then the boy looked up and flicked it back, and Luís promptly slapped it to him again. This time he caught it after a quick scramble and pinched it between finger and thumb, looking angry.
“Do you know what’s on that?” Luís walked around the firepit and dropped the rest of the handful beside Henrik. The other man glanced up, cool and curious, before picking out a coin and expertly tossing it into the now red-hot crucible.
Zlatan shrugged, but his thumb absently rubbed over the coin’s surface. “Some man’s head, and two people holding shields on the back.”
“What about the words?” Luís asked. He watched Zlatan abort his glance downwards. “Can you read them?”
“It’s not Arabic. That’s all you’re supposed to learn,” Zlatan said. He snapped his forefinger so the coin suddenly sliced through the air to the small heap next to Henrik.
“So no. What else can you speak? They tell me you know the Circassians’ native tongue.” The crucible swung over so Luís could see the little glistening puddle in the bottom. He nodded and Henrik drew in the long handle, then began to fill the cup up with the coins.
Zlatan edged closer to the door, unconsciously angling himself so the cool breeze coming through it would blow over him. He seemed to be fighting off another flare of irritation, and at any rate didn’t appear to be willing to answer soon, so Luís tapped Henrik on the shoulder before walking out. He waited for Zlatan to follow, then pushed the door as far as he could without actually shutting it, so Henrik wouldn’t suffocate.
“Nobody speaks that here so why would you want to know? You’re not going there, are you?” Zlatan asked, voice pure hostility.
“Well, if I ever do, I know not to ask if you want to come.” Luís poked around till he found a torn saddlecloth dumped in a corner to be made into rags. He used it to mop his face and back, and then squeezed his hair through it. “I’m just curious. Henke says you really are from Sweden.”
That muscle in Zlatan’s jaw tightened again, and his gaze could have lit a fire between his feet. “I wouldn’t lie to you.”
“I didn’t say you did.”
“But you had him check.”
Luís lowered the cloth and looked the boy over very carefully. Then he sighed and, after tossing the cloth down, reached out and grabbed a double handful of Zlatan’s shirt. He ignored the tensing and yanked and twisted till the tails were out, then let go. “How long have you been here? You should know better than to dress like that, and to refuse water. You’ll roast that way.”
“It was cold last night,” Zlatan stubbornly said, pulling at his shirt. He twitched and jerked at it till it was arranged to some standard of satisfaction that wasn’t immediately apparent to Luís, since when he was done it looked as mussed as it had before.
“So why didn’t you ask Henrik for an extra blanket? He would’ve gotten you one, and not needed to ask me first.” The air around them was beginning to smell distinctly smoky and when Luís looked, black tendrils were curling around the door. He immediately pulled it open and checked to see if Henrik was all right—the man waved at him—before standing back and pondering the problem.
The ventilation wasn’t good enough with the door shut, but leaving it open wasn’t an option. Not with all that gold to be melted, and everybody and their brother wandering in and out of the stables. So…Luís gazed around and his eyes fell on the saddlecloth again. He picked it up and shook it out: it was of a size to cover the whole doorway, but the weave was too close to let out the smoke.
“You could—” Zlatan paused when Luís looked at him “—you could cut slits in it.”
“I could…good idea.” It only took a moment to tack the cloth to the lintel and take a dagger to it, and it did seem to work well enough. Of course it wasn’t solid wood and Luís would have to remind himself not to get caught up in anything so he could keep an eye on it, but it’d do.
Something creaked: a wall beneath Zlatan as he gingerly leaned on it. He scratched at his head, pushing the hair back from his face. “That part of the return gift for me?”
“It’s a lot for just you, isn’t it? Unless you’re not telling me about some special skill of yours,” Luís said, blinking.
“Never mind. I…you didn’t seem to mind if I saw it, is all.” Zlatan started pushing at his flushed cheeks, not seeming to realize that that only encouraged it to spread. “I’ve been here long enough to know about gift-giving.”
It would appear so, given his prickly sense of caution and his dislike of casual touches. After he’d seen Zinedine, Luís really needed to sit down with Henrik and ask him about last night. “It’s a good thing to know, if you want to survive. So’s choosing your accusations carefully, since I didn’t ask Henrik to talk to you.”
The red in Zlatan’s face abruptly drained away. He edged backwards so his heels knocked up against the wall, causing him to glance down. And he never quite lifted his head back up, though his shoulders went back as if he were bracing himself.
“I should’ve known, though. He loves talking about his country and I’ve heard it all a thousand times over,” Luís snorted. He hunted about till he found where he’d left his undershirt and robes, then threw them on. “He’s thrilled to have a new conversation partner, I’d wager.”
“Talking about it makes you miss it less.” Then Zlatan shut his mouth, looking sorry he’d said that. He relaxed so he didn’t resemble so much a man on the scaffold, but returned to rubbing awkwardly at his cheeks and nose. “I—my father was a mercenary. He’d fought with some Circassians and he taught me how to speak a few of their tongues. But he was from Bosnia and that’s why they probably told you I’m terrible and all that. They don’t like each other much back there.”
Luís didn’t know the exact explanation, but from the tone and the stance of the boy, he could guess it was probably rooted in war. “And your attitude doesn’t have anything to do with it at all, then?”
“What attitude?” Zlatan retorted. His pupils widened, contracted, and then widened again as he pressed himself against the wall again. His hands flattened out over the wood before twisting to curl into fists.
“The only reason I’d hit you,” Luís said after a moment, “Is if I think death is coming. And I’m a soldier too, and old enough to know better than to need to hit a man more than once. I don’t see the point in whips.”
Zlatan didn’t calm, but instead seemed to draw himself inwards, wrapping everything up in a hard, resigned coldness. “But I’m still a slave.”
“In Cairo, yes. And we are in Cairo.” A servant’s hail drifted from around the corner and Luís looked towards it, then stepped forward. He gestured back towards the saddlecloth curtain. “Do you want to help Henrik? It’s a long job and a hot day.”
“Good work for someone like me, then.” It wasn’t quite a question, nor a statement.
“Better work than trying to talk a Venetian merchant into paying his bill in full,” Luís said. “Tell Henke I’ll be back with lunch.”
* * *
The merchants bitched like the whores they were, but they weren’t any more interested in meeting the hiked tolls than Luís was and eventually they signaled a willingness to follow his lead. Drogba showed up a bit earlier than he’d claimed he could and proved with maps this time that his idea was feasible, which was both reassuring and worrying. No matter who was at war with who in the sultan’s court, people always needed to travel and so it took a good deal to perturb the camel-drivers. The fact that he wanted to get out of Cairo as soon as possible was more than a little disturbing, but he continued to insist that he didn’t know and hadn’t heard of anything out of the ordinary.
At least when Luís checked in with the midday meal, the melting of the gold seemed to be going well. His knock on the jamb cut off a lively Swedish chatter that started up again the moment he’d handed the food off to Zlatan, so it seemed those two were rapidly becoming friendly. Then again, Henrik could get along with a lion and then coolly stab it in the back while it was sleeping, so Luís still needed to have that talk with him.
But as soon as Zinedine’s hawk profile appeared in the doorway, Luís put that all out of his mind and greeted his old friend. “What the hell are you doing to me? If the idea is for me to be arrested, I could just go kiss the sultan’s chief wife the next time I’m invited to court.”
Zinedine paused on the threshold. “You looked at it.”
“Of course I looked at it. You made such a production of asking me to take it along that I would’ve felt utterly disgusted with myself if I hadn’t looked,” Luís snapped. He began to say more, but his manners restrained him and in the end he threw up his hands and stalked back into the room. “And now I know what it is, damn you.”
The other man did follow after shutting the door, so he wasn’t nearly as surprised as he made out. “Luís--Luís, stop walking. Stop—stop and let me talk, would you?”
“About what? It’s a goddamn rutter, so it more or less explains itself.” Luís did stop, and kicked his slippers behind him before he collapsed on the couch. Then he twisted about to see where they’d landed and saw them lying in front of a stone-faced Zinedine, as if they’d bounced off the man’s shins. He could only hope. “Is it real?”
Eyes on the slippers, Zinedine carefully stepped over them and over to the divan. He sat down, throwing out his robes as he did to keep the folds from being trapped beneath him. “As far as I can tell, it’s an accurate copy of a real book from the lost Library of Alexandria, yes. A record of one Phoenician ship’s extensive travels, and it does sound like the ship reached India. More than that I can’t determine for myself. I’d need to sail the route myself, or ask someone more familiar with Asia.”
“You’d need more than that,” Luís muttered. “You’d have to go all the way to my country to find a captain crazy enough—Zizou, that’s a rutter that tells you how to sail around Africa to India. If it’s true…if it’s true…”
“If it’s true then the sultan will go to any lengths to ensure it doesn’t leave the country. The route would kill the overland trade and that’s what finances the sultanate.” Zinedine interlaced his fingers over his lap. Not a drop of sweat was visible on him, but that hardly meant anything. His nerves were never very apparent till just before blood was shed. “Are you going to take it?”
On the other hand, the lack of any blood on the floor now did mean he wasn’t actually that surprised, and that in turn was, if Luís was honest with himself, not terribly startling either. “Zizou, why would you want to make the sultanate collapse? I know you’re not fond of Kait Bey, but there have to be easier ways to get rid of him. I could introduce you to a few fellows from Sicily…”
“Thanks, but no thanks. I’m not asking you to take it out of the country, Luís. I just want you to take it to Alexandria, and to not let anyone else know about it till I wish it,” Zinedine said. He turned to look at Luís, then put his hand on Luís’ knee. “There are experts there who can tell me more about the book’s genuineness. I don’t mean to cause any trouble for either of us. And frankly, I have to wonder that that’s the first thought that springs into your mind.”
“Because I’ve gone to war with you.” Luís sighed and pushed the hand off its knee. Then he levered himself up, only to glance down as Zinedine’s fingers cupped over his knee again. The corner of his mouth tugged up. “You know, it’d be worth a fortune to the Venetians. You’re taking a hell of a chance letting me leave the city with it.”
One of Zinedine’s fingers crooked around to tickle the backside of Luís’ knee, while his thumb slid down into the slight hollow on the inside, rubbing in a slow circle. “Well, I’ve gone to war with you.”
The other half of the smile gradually insinuated itself onto Luís’ face; he could see the gleam of his teeth reflected in the other man’s eyes. And very slowly, an echo of it tugged at Zinedine’s lips. He lifted his chin a little, lashes lowered, and then leaned forward.
Luís hated to do it, but he got up a hand between them and pushed at Zinedine’s chest so the other man stopped barely a hair’s-breadth away. “I need to go back to organizing the caravan. Unless you’re going to be any help with these new tolls?”
“I just heard about them myself. Rumor is the sultan’s raising forces for a new offensive against the Turks and he’s in no mood to be generous,” Zinedine murmured. “My apologies, but I need that extra money as well if I’m to hire decent ships.”
“Well, then. I’ll go attend to my business in that case.” Luís turned to brush his lips over the other man’s cheek before hastily getting up. He kicked his feet into his slippers before pivoting on his heel to cast an inquiring look Zinedine’s way.
Zinedine was still sitting on the divan and obviously more than a little displeased with the sudden change, but he got up with grace enough. “If you took as much care during the rest of the year…”
“I’d be a bore and you’d never have me over. Speaking of, are you sure that Alexandria—”
“Alexandria’s out of the question,” Zinedine said sternly, with a faint touch of reprimand.
If he’d really wanted another time before they both left Cairo, he could’ve presented Luís with a less complicated favor. But Luís carefully didn’t mention it and instead ushered the other man out before going off in an isolated corner and indulging in a little blasphemy. Ah, well, business first. It wasn’t pleasure if it stood the danger of being interrupted.
* * *
The ingots were all formed and cooled, ready to be coated in a thin layer of tin later. For now they’d been restacked in the chest and locked up and would spend another night in Luís’ chambers…if he could find someone to take up the other end. The firepit was out, the smelting tools were gone and the place was as clean as it’d been this morning, so it appeared that Henrik hadn’t run into any problems. Except for the fact that he was not actually here.
Luís stood in the room and tried not to give in to his frayed temper, but he was only human, and…and he cocked his head, listening intently. Then he walked out and through the nearest door, following the scrabbling noises. He went around the corner and looked up to where there was a hatch to the loft that spanned part of the stable, which was open with a ladder leaning beneath it. The occasional flurry of hay came flying out of it, and the ground around the ladder was covered in broken stalks.
“Got it!” Zlatan’s voice suddenly crowed. “Damn thing was driving me crazy.”
“What was?” Luís called up.
It was silent for a moment. Then Henrik’s head popped out the hatch. “A crane got in and was flapping around, but Zlatan caught it. Did you want to get the chest back to your room now?”
“It’d be a good time, yes.” Luís stepped forward and braced the ladder while Henrik swung onto it and quickly descended. “I think we’ll just cart it all out and do the tin-coating on the dunes early in the morning. There’s going to be too many people in and out of the house—Drogba’s bringing in some new drivers for this trip and I’ve got to meet them all. Zlatan? Are you coming down?”
Zlatan appeared in the hatch, crouched with his head bent so he fit in the frame. His hands were full with something, presumably the crane, wrapped up in his shirt so he should’ve been watching his balance instead of leaning so dangerously out to look at Luís. He was a bit flushed and a light sparkle lingered in his eyes, but his face was already shuttering. “Wait a moment.”
Then he threw his arms out and at the same time seemed to fall off the edge—Luís hissed and yanked Henrik off the ladder, breath catching in his throat—but then Zlatan was hanging off a rung, his shirt dangling from his hand as the bird flapped frantically away into the darkening sky. The boy watched it, smiling a little, before abruptly sliding down the ladder at breakneck speed. Luís barely let go before Zlatan would’ve crashed into him.
Henrik flinched and dropped his head, pulling at his nose. “He was a lot of help with the casting. He’s got a light touch,” he muttered.
“I can imagine,” Luís dryly replied. The crane was now little more than a white speck on the horizon. “You could’ve saved that. They’re not bad to eat, you know.”
He aimed that more towards Zlatan, who now that he was on the ground had resumed his usual rigid slouch. Zlatan did lift his head a little when addressed, but though he now unconsciously drifted more towards Henrik, he didn’t seem any more inclined to begin a conversation.
“I never liked them that much. Too stringy—ssss.” Grimacing, Henrik put a hand to the spot in his back he’d just tweaked. He pressed at it, then braced his other hand against the stable wall and tried to stretch it out. “Sorry, I need a minute. Then we can go get the chest.”
Luís shrugged, looking at the sky. “They’ll call for evening prayers in a moment and then everyone should be gone. Is that enough time?”
“…could do it,” Zlatan muttered, voice muffled because he was pulling his shirt over his head. He jerked it down, flicking a look at Luís as he left the tails untucked, and then turned towards Henrik. After watching Henrik with head tipped, he reached out and started prodding the other man’s back, much to Henrik’s audible relief. “I wasn’t sitting as much. My back’s fine.”
“Well, all right. Henke, you didn’t tear something, did you?” Luís off-handedly replied. He didn’t look over at Zlatan, but instead grabbed the ladder and used its top to knock the hatch shut. Then he swung it up and back onto its hooks on the wall. “I wanted you to go weapons-shopping tomorrow, but I want you fit for the caravan more.”
Henrik pushed off the wall with a long sigh and an amused look for Luís that was carefully hidden by the time he turned to Zlatan, thanking him for the helping. He tossed the chest keys to Luís. “No, I’m fine. I’m just going to go sit in the sauna for a few hours. Everything’s cramping.”
He went off just as the muezzins began to sing from the mosque towers, and Luís and Zlatan went back into the stable to get the chest. Though the boy was tall, he certainly hadn’t reached his full strength yet and his back suffered a good bit more from the hauling than he seemed to care to let Luís know about. It was difficult, but Luís had had enough practice with Zinedine to manage a straight face in front of all the muffled wheezing breaths and stuttered steps.
It was a little easier once they’d made it to Luís’ chambers, as Zlatan was rather transparently distracted by the frescos and mosaics on the walls. Once or twice he nearly dropped his end on his feet and Luís had to resort to clearing his throat to get the boy’s attention. It might prick Zlatan’s pride, but if he’d ever had a broken bone reset, he would know to be grateful for the warning.
“Stop. Here,” Luís said. They lowered the chest to the floor, then stepped away at nearly the same time. Luís rotated his wrists a few times, trying to loosen the strained muscles before they set up into soreness.
Zlatan absently did likewise, rubbing circles around his wrists, but he was still preoccupied with the walls. One mosaic in particular had caught his eye: a fragment from a Byzantine villa that Luís, with the help of a very clever young Spaniard, had managed to transfer to his house. It showed half a cross in the sky, and a bareheaded man kneeling with his hands out before him, his sword stretched over his palms, and likely Zlatan had never seen anything like it since the Saracens disapproved of portraying human figures.
“One of the old Imperial Roman Emperors was standing in front of him to take the surrender. I’d like to say that it would be Constantine because of the cross, but I don’t really know,” Luís said. He got down beside the chest and rechecked the locks, more to look like he wasn’t really concerned with what Zlatan was doing than because Henrik would’ve been that careless.
“Who’s Constantine?” The floorboards creaked as Zlatan moved one of his feet. He stopped, and then started towards the mosaic again, much more quietly, when Luís didn’t look up. “What did he do?”
Luís flipped the keys in his hand, and then again so they all were neatly cradled in his palm. Then he stood up and slipped them into a pocket. “He saved the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, what you used to call Byzantium, and spread the Church’s teachings across Europe, and built the great city of Constantinople. One of the great generals of history.”
“Who’s the man on his knees?” Zlatan asked. When Luís finally turned around, the boy was right up against the mosaic and carefully brushing his fingers over the slate chips that made up the man’s sword.
“I don’t know that either. There was a good deal lost when Byzantium fell.” Luís crossed the room and poured himself some water from a jar, then drained it in one swallow. He left the water-jar on a small table before he came up behind Zlatan’s left shoulder. “I suppose if I went to Constantinople I might still be able to find someone who could tell me, but I don’t know if that’d be an improvement. Sometimes it’s better not to be known.”
Zlatan favored him with a glance of reluctant interest. “Especially if you lost, right?”
“That depends. For some people winning’s even harder. Me, I’m just happy to stay between the beggars and the heroes, with a nice house and a stable of good horses,” Luís said. He stepped back and walked around the boy to trace out the cross with his hand. Some of those pieces had real gold dust mixed into the glass, and they left a shining residue on his thumb. “I could’ve had the whole scene, but it was too big to fit in the cart, so my friend and I split it. I wasn’t so happy to get this half, but now I think it was the better one. Anyway, mosaics are pretty enough, but…”
He shrugged, and Zlatan twisted a little to look at him. The boy still had his hand on the wall and his fingers were curling as if he wanted to pull the sword out of the picture. “It’s one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Better even than the ceilings in the…well, the mosque they took us to. Back when I was…when they let me into an age-group.”
From challenging to angry embarrassment in less time it took to draw breath. Of course he was of age for it, and of course that wasn’t entirely why Luís was trying very hard to suppress his amusement. “How long’s it been?”
Zlatan’s gaze sharpened a little. “A year or so since they gave up on me. You didn’t talk to Henke—he asked that, too, and wanted to know how much weapons-training I’d had.”
“He would. He’s been a very good sergeant to me for the past five years,” Luís said, grinning. Maybe that was why Henrik seemed so inclined towards the lanky viper already. “I’m surprised they only gave up on you. It’s not often they let someone get that far and then toss them out. They’re very protective of their military secrets, the Mamelukes.”
Something slid through Zlatan’s eyes, dark and hot like boiling pitch spilled onto the sand. His lip curled, and then he turned back to the mosaic. He flattened his hand against the wall so if it had been real, the sword would have slivered his palm. “Well, I’m a great fuck.”
Luís blinked, his own hand still on the wall. The glass chips changed from chilly to tepid against his fingers, unpleasantly smooth like the skin of a snake. He lowered his arm, and then, when he sensed a slight movement from the boy, pointedly moved away.
“And good at fucking, too,” Zlatan added, his Northern drawl curling lazily around the words. He flapped a hand at his head. “You know, because I’m so tall, and I don’t know, these fat rich nobles, they get so bored they’ll even play around with being on their backs. You’d be surprised who likes it that way, as long as it’s somebody they can beat afterward who does it—I thought your friend, Zizou—”
“Zidane’s not like that, believe me.” The first shock had been expertly delivered, Luís had to admit, but when Zlatan had gone on and elaborated he’d overdone it and given Luís time to catch his breath. And so now he spun on a heel till his back touched the wall, then leaned against that. His hands he steepled in front of him, looking over them to Zlatan.
Zlatan stood as if he were strung up by thin wires, and those pulled taut by some puppeteer standing in the ceiling. He had squeezed his hand around his wrist so hard that the flesh beneath his fingers had gone from red to white, and his chin was down but his eyes up. He bounced on the balls of his feet a few times, chewing on his lip, before he finally jerked a foot forward.
“It definitely was fucking and no seduction,” Luís said abruptly. He pressed the tips of his fingers to his mouth, then pulled them down, still with palms laid together. “Go get a drink of water, Zlatan. The jar’s over there.”
The boy just stared at him, not moving.
Luís closed his eyes and put his hands to his mouth again, then unfolded them and pressed his fingers up his face and into his hair. “Go drink. Zizou doesn’t give away slaves for that, and I don’t take them for it either. If I want company, I can win its consent in my bed.”
“With what?” Zlatan asked, almost rasping the words.
“Flowers, pretty clothes. A good horse. Bringing them the keys to a city they’ve always wanted works well, too.” With a look of amusement that wasn’t quite truth, Luís returned to gazing at the mosaic. A bit of a Latin inscription remained at the bottom and he outlined the letters with a finger as hesitant footsteps made their way over to the table, as a soft slurping came back to him. “And this a second-rate piece of work when it was whole…if you want to see beautiful, go to Milan. The cathedral there is like looking at God’s relief at having a rest for once.”
The sucking noises stopped, and after a moment there came the sound of the water-jar being set back on the shelf. “Where’s Milan?” Zlatan said, quiet but much less strained.
Luís looked up, grinning. Then he spun around and strode across the room to the row of shelves that lined the far wall. He had a small library, but getting up in the middle of the night and walking there was too much of an annoyance for someone who’d abused his knees as much as Luís had, so these shelves held the books he consulted most often. He ran his fingers along their bindings till he came to the one he wanted, then pulled it down.
By then Zlatan’s curiosity had urged him as far as a yard or so from Luís’ right side. He stiffened a bit when Luís turned, but stood his ground. And when Luís flipped open the book, Zlatan went so far as to crane his head to try and see the pages.
The book was as long as Luís’ forearm and damned heavy, so it seemed only natural to put it on the ground. And if that helped cover the space between the two of them, well, then that saved Luís the trouble of forcing down the recurring temptation he had to hit Zlatan and then chuck him under the chin, like a few young brats Luís was vividly remembering now. “It’s in northern Italy, up by Switzerland. The Romans called it Mediolanum…”
He paged to the map bundled into the book, then carefully unfolded it. Zlatan had crouched down as well and now he reached out to help Luís smooth the map’s folds, though he made sure to avoid having their hands touched. His forefinger circled back, then suddenly arrowed in on a tiny black spot. “There?”
Luís didn’t answer right away, and that warned Zlatan so he snatched back his hand and stared straight down between his knees, lips thinning. His eyes flicked up, met Luís’ gaze and then dropped again.
“Where did you learn then, if not with your age-group?” Luís quietly asked. “I know they don’t teach Latin in those, but you don’t seem to look to them for all your lessons.”
“I—” Zlatan bit his lip and took a deep breath, shoulders pulling back, before he looked up “—the place before your friend’s. It wasn’t very big. I did a lot of work in the same courtyard they used for teaching the master’s kids. Little shits were terrible, but the tutor wasn’t bad.”
Luís nodded and refolded the map, running a thumbnail along the creases so the paper would bend properly. Then he closed the book and turned it so he could flip open the cover to the front. “Just Latin?”
“Greek first. Latin later, because he had a book of it and I asked what it was. I was just wondering, because the letters looked different,” Zlatan said. He calmed a little, his shoulders and arms losing their tension. Then he relaxed too suddenly and shot Luís a grinning, humorless look. “He was nice. Too nice, really—he got himself kicked out and me passed on when he walked in on the master hitting me and acted like an idiot.”
That, Luís decided, was probably what had attracted Zinedine’s attention. Maybe this tutor first of all, and then when he’d heard a story about a slave picking up Latin and Greek, Zlatan. Debt settlement…Zinedine was choosy about what he took as payment, and powerful enough to make that stick. The Swedish had only been the sweetener. “So can you read this?”
Zlatan tensed again, eyes narrowing as he stared across the book. His head lowered by slow degrees, and even then his gaze fell only when it would’ve done him physical injury to keep looking at Luís. “Commentaries on…wars. I don’t know what’s the word before it. And…Gai—us Ju—lius Cae—sar,” he muttered, cautiously sounding out the words. “A name, right?”
“Another very good general. It’s the Gallic Wars, a record of a nine-year campaign he conducted in Gaul—we call it France now. Less boasting than you’d expect and a very good military manual, and good writing style to boot,” Luís said. He flicked the cover shut, then pushed it over to Zlatan. “Read that. If you can’t tell jokes I want to be able to talk to you about something.”
After a moment, Zlatan’s fingers lapped over the front cover. The book tilted as he slid his thumbs beneath it, and then he levered his hand under it and picked it up, eyebrows rising at little at the weight. “What, you haven’t talked Henrik to death over it?”
“Henrik doesn’t know Latin, only Greek. He and I have been through a few fights, but there’s only so much you can get from those. It’s better to learn from other people’s wars, and then wage your own,” Luís told him as he stood. He went over to the door and pushed it open, then moved out of the way. He waited a few seconds before impatiently tapping his foot. “Come on. I want to get to sleep now.”
Zlatan got up, book tucked under an arm, and slowly wandered over. He put up a hand as he ducked through the doorway, then used the hold to pivot. “No one’s supposed to know about that gold, right?”
“If I have anything to say about it.” Luís smiled, and though he did like the boy, he didn’t bother pretending to be what he wasn’t. So Zlatan got the warning and the kindness, and from the way his eyes flickered, comprehended both.
He nodded, then swung the rest of the way into the hall. His pace faltered a little, then sped up, and when he turned the corner, Luís just glimpsed Henrik waiting there. Good man, Henrik Larsson.
* * *
For the next few days Luís didn’t see much of Zlatan and didn’t think much of it, trusting to Henrik and the others to keep Zlatan out of trouble and out of the way, and to know which was necessary at any given time. He kept his household small and limited precisely to ensure that sort of efficiency, and once it’d been established, he didn’t meddle with it.
He hardly had the time to, what with the thousand little niggles and issues that invariably cropped up just before any caravan’s departure. No matter how many of them Luís organized, he never managed to prevent or even foresee all of them. Two of his best fighting-men injured in a brawl, Drogba suddenly needing to scrape up the bail for some foolish but crucial relation of his who’d gotten arrested, that whiny little bureaucrat Mido coming to reassure himself that Luís wasn’t about to try circumventing the toll roads…it really was enough to drive a man into a monastery, and never mind the profits.
The gold at least would be easy enough to handle, once Luís got it to Alexandria and his favorite Italian banker. And he was making sure it would; it was enough to double his current investments and bring retirement to within a few years, and then he could tell Zinedine to give all his complicated errands to somebody else. Speaking of which, Luís still felt distinctly uneasy about having that rutter on his hands, but it wasn’t wise to get rid of it in a city Zinedine could also claim as his own.
To be honest, Luís didn’t want to get rid of it at all. Those old pages contained knowledge hard-won with blood and sweat, and pure human stubbornness mixed with the unpredictable leaps of genius, and he respected that. Anyway he privately thought that his countrymen would eventually push round Africa on their own, and if it took them a few more years than they’d need with the rutter to guide them, well, then they’d know better the worth of their journeying and he’d have those few more years of caravanning to swell his funds.
But he still wished he could guess at what Zinedine wanted to do with the damn thing. Still-faced as the man could be, intrigue really wasn’t Zinedine’s field.
“Luís?” Henrik came around the corner with an armful of quivers. Once he’d reached Luís, he stood patiently so each one could be individually put into sacks that’d later hang from the camels’ sides, within easy reach should they be raided.
The other reason Luís liked using Drogba was that the man would fight. Most camel-drivers cut their losses and fled at the first flash of a sword, but Drogba seemed to relish the opportunity for combat, and while his men hadn’t gone through formal drilling, they all seemed to have had some training via inter-village raiding. They weren’t disciplined, but good enough so that Luís could get away with hiring less men than other caravans, hence his more attractive pricing. But this time he wasn’t taking any chances and he’d picked up enough mercenaries to give each merchant a guard of five.
Of course, they all came with their own haphazard collection of gear, some of it useful and some nothing more than superstition-justified junk. So he was also rearming them out of his own pocket, and in the past few weeks he’d made the weapons merchants of Cairo very, very happy. “Did you ever get a chance to test Zlatan on the sword and bow?” he absently asked.
“Bow’s decent. I think it’s mostly lack of practice.” Henrik stowed the last couple of quivers himself, then checked over the sacks to make sure the fletchings on the arrows hadn’t tangled with each other. “He’s…he needs a heavier sword than the ones we’ve got. He broke mine and his.”
Luís blinked, then dragged his mind away from cost calculations and began paying a little more attention to the other man. “You really like him.”
“You do, too. He sneaks up to the roof so he’s got light to keep reading that book you gave him instead of sleeping, and then complains that the jackals barking keep him up,” Henrik said. His head was still bent over the sacks, but that didn’t keep the flash of his teeth hidden. “What did you give him, anyway? He won’t even let me see it.”
“Just Caesar, to improve his Latin. I don’t know if he’ll learn much about fighting from it. He already seems to have a good handle on the principle of striking first and getting under your enemy’s skin,” Luís dryly replied. He dropped onto a bale of hay, then jerked forward as something nickered and dragged a wet touch across the back of his neck. His horse stretched out its neck and nuzzled him again, more pointedly, but he only reached up and patted it on the muzzle. “No, you greedy bastard. Any more sugar lumps and you’ll get too damn fat to ride. So he likes you, too?”
As he stepped back from the sacks, Henrik dusted off his hands and then his robes. “It’s funny, you know…he got a little offended till I told him I’d buried a very loved wife six years ago. Or maybe it was that he was nervous. It’s hard to tell with him.”
“He’s seventeen years old. It’s exactly the same thing with them.” Luís gave his horse a last rub on the nose before he sank down against the wall, letting his heels dig furrows in the packed-earth floor. He closed his eyes, then opened them. “Henke, I need to tell you something. Zinedine asked me for a favor and it might make things difficult when we get to Alexandria. So you might have to do a lot more watching in my place than usual.”
Henrik paused, then nodded. He didn’t inquire further and Luís didn’t feel particularly guilty about not offering an explanation, and that was why Henrik had been the trade of Luís’ life. “Luís? Is Zlatan coming?”
Closed eyes. Open eyes. Then Luís sat up and pushed himself onto his feet, muttering a little as something popped rather painfully in his back. Retirement was looking more and more welcome these days. “You really like him.”
“I think he’ll kill himself if he stays in Cairo.” A little embarrassed, Henrik shrugged one shoulder. “Not do it himself, but it’d be very easy for him to get somebody to do it for him. He misses Sweden, says leaving it was the worst thing his father ever did.”
“Is that how he got down here?” Luís asked, pressing at his back.
“His mother died due to a miscarriage a few years after his birth—he blames himself for it, saying he was too big and ripped something in her—and then his father went where the wars were because he needed employment. They were on a Genoan galley that shipwrecked on the Egyptian coast and they survived, only to be picked up by the local amir’s patrol. His father was killed in the confrontation.” Henrik pulled at his nose, then wiped the back of his hand over it and his brow. He looked up at Luís. “I like him. He can tell a pretty good joke, actually.”
Luís snorted, then gave in and let out a full laugh. Then, still shaking his head, he walked past the other man and gave Henrik a clap on the shoulder by way of farewell. “Finish up here, all right? I want to get moving first thing tomorrow morning.”
* * *
The pebble went rattling away from Luís’ toes and Zlatan stiffened. Then he snorted, merely pulling his knees up more so the book tilted towards his nose. “Rome, Rome, Rome. That’s all he ever talks about. I think if I’m ever there, I’ll have to hate the place just because he goes on about it so much.”
“Hate it all you want, but it’s still important,” Luís said. He walked normally the last few yards across the roof, irritated and relieved not to have to hold his clothes so tightly to keep them from rustling. “You look like you’re almost finished.”
“Last night, actually.” Zlatan snapped it shut, then flipped the tome over to run his fingers across the faded embossing. He was curled up against the side of a little drying shed, well within the shadows but still able to get the moonlight over his feet. “I was just looking at the maps again. You want it back?”
He finally looked up, the dark and the pure amusement making his face far too young to belong to the gangly body to which it was attached. His eyes went to Luís’ before they dropped a little, and then a little more. They stopped there and he sucked in a little breath, his feet jerking in a few hand-spans before he went still.
Luís stood the sword on end and began to lean on the hilt, only to have the scabbard shift alarmingly beneath his arm. He reached back and adjusted it, then folded his hands over the ball pommel just as something collided with the sword-tip, nearly making him lose his balance. But he hadn’t fought so long without learning how to adjust quickly and so he managed to keep the blade from slicing into the book.
“There,” Zlatan said, staring up. The word was curt and cold.
“It’s a pity Caesar never bothered with the Germans, like his uncle Marius did. They have some remarkable things…good beer, forests thick enough to house the old pagan gods still, swords like this.” The hilt chilled Luís’ finger when he tapped it. “It’s so heavy you almost don’t need an edge on it. You could just beat someone to death with it.”
Zlatan blinked once. The tight, coiled anger in his eyes didn’t change. “You sneaked up on me. You’re pretty good.”
“I’m content with that,” Luís said, snorting, and he let go of the sword so it fell over. If Zlatan hadn’t pulled back his hand, the pommel would’ve just grazed his fingers. “Most people aren’t, but I think I’ve seen enough of the world to not mourn what God didn’t give me. Try that and see if it’ll stand up to your swing.”
He stepped back, then tossed the scabbard across Zlatan’s lap. Then he turned around and started walking back, and had nearly made it to the trapdoor when the boy finally called to him. Luís looked over his shoulder, then twisted all the way around.
Zlatan had gotten to his feet and was holding the sword with both hands, feet shoulder’s width apart and elbows properly relaxed. He made a few experimental cuts, then let go with his left hand and with his right alone put it through a whirlwind. The sword actually sang—not a whistle, as any metal strip could make, but a clear high note like an angel’s voice—and Luís nearly took a step back. But before he could, it suddenly stopped and the sword was pointing at the book.
“This is yours. Don’t you want it?” Zlatan asked. He threw his words across the space, but kept the sword before him instead of hanging easily from his side.
“Do you want it?” Luís scratched at his nose, then put his hands in front of himself and stretched his arms till the joints popped. Then he sighed, letting his arms swing back and forth a few times.
The boy jerked up his chin, glowering. Then he abruptly turned his head, teeth flashing in a grim smile, and the rest of his body shortly followed so he leaned against the wall almost profile-wise to Luís. He rudely flipped the sword onto the ground between them so it clattered over the scabbard, a few sparks flying off as metalwork hit metal.
“You know what I want? I want people to stop teasing me—I know I can’t do anything, all right? You don’t need to test me and you don’t need to remind me I’m not free and I can’t go home,” Zlatan snarled. His hands came up already half-curled into fists, lingered a moment, and then slammed back into the wall. It shook, rattling the drying poles inside, and sent a shower of dust up. “All right?”
“As long as you’re in Cairo, all right. All right to being a slave and staying here your whole life, which I don’t think will be much longer given your temper. You don’t have a slave’s mind—you can’t stop yourself from trying to find a way out, but right now you’re looking so hard you’re not seeing.” Luís half-turned and took a sideways step to the trapdoor, then another so he was standing on the very edge of it. He knelt down and put one hand on the top of the ladder, then looked over his shoulder. “In Alexandria things are different. I’m going there tomorrow. Now figure out whether you want to give my book back to me or not. The sword’s not mine, so don’t worry about that.”
And then he grabbed the rung and lowered himself through the hole. He quickly climbed down and once he’d reached the bottom, made sure to resettle the ladder so it wouldn’t accidentally slide away. Then Luís went to his chambers.
His domestic servants had all been lent out to a friend’s household, with only a skeleton staff left to maintain the place and they were all experienced soldiers. Besides them and Henrik and Luís, no one else was left in the place should Zlatan decide to vent his fury in a violent way. Though Luís seriously doubted there would be any venting in the end.
* * *
The next morning when Zlatan showed up, sword strapped to his back and his few things bundled up in a horsecloth, it was a study to see relief and delight and sudden shocking comprehension chase each other over Henrik’s face. But then the other man turned to Luís and Luís had to hastily wipe his own expression of any traces of amusement.
He failed, to judge by the way Henrik slitted his eyes. “I thought you gave up gambling.”
“When I go overland to Alexandria several times a year?” Luís mildly replied. Then he grinned and rubbed his hand over the top of Henrik’s head. “Well, you liked him, so I didn’t think the odds were too bad. You mind telling him how this works while Drogba and I get those lard-filled merchants moving?”
The caravan managed to leave Cairo without incident, which Luís was tempted to take as a good omen for the rest of the journey. But he wasn’t about to even take a breath till they’d successfully found the first stop on Drogba’s alternative route, and never mind their fortunes. They’d take care of themselves, and in the meantime he’d stick to what he could do something about, should anything go wrong. And it would.
“The outriders are telling me that we’re clear for the next day or so,” Luís said to Drogba that night. They were a few yards away from the camp, squatting over the rough map Drogba had drawn in the sandy ground. “They haven’t seen any signs of camps.”
Drogba pressed one nostril shut with his finger and sneezed at the ground to his left. He snorted a few times, yelled at Kolo to watch it with the she-camels, and then turned back to Luís. “Good.”
“Really? If even the nomads don’t like this land, that worries me.” The last word stuck a bit in Luís’ throat thanks to the bone-dry air and he took a moment to clear his throat.
“Look, they found the first oasis, didn’t they? And it’s been a good season—enough rain so the little ponds should be able to stand a caravan of this size,” Drogba shrugged. His forefinger flicked out and touched a wavy groove in the dirt, which was supposed to symbolize a series of dunes. “We’ll have to watch for these. They’ve shifted into the way I want to go.”
Luís cleared his throat again, then resorted to hawking up some spit in order to moisten his mouth. A parching breeze swirled over them so he pulled his burnoose more closely around his face, squinting against the scratchy grains the wind carried. “How old are these elders you asked again?”
“Ah, don’t get your feathers puffed at me. If a sandstorm blows up, I’m as dead as you are. Besides, it doesn’t matter how old they are—what you wanted to ask was when was the last time somebody came through here, and that was about a year ago.” Drogba wriggled his fingers in a gesture of casual dismissal. Somebody called to him and he looked up, but his second-in-command got to it first and he returned to their discussion. “Dunes move, Figo. Nothing I can do about it.”
“All right,” Luís muttered, rubbing his lip. His finger momentarily slipped beneath it and he pushed it over his teeth, then caught his nail between his incisors and chewed on it.
The other man looked at him silently for a moment before raising his eyebrows. “Something going on? You look nervous.”
“Me? Never.” Luís slapped his hands on his knees and pushed down on them to stand, then gave Drogba a courtesy hand up. He looked around the camp, absently checking for any problems, while scuffing the map out of existence. “I looked into the business with the new tolls and it’s probably just another levy to keep the war against the Turks going. But still, there’s a few young lords itching to get noticed so they’ll be sent out and can win some glory.”
“Well, I make sure we know where we’re going and you make sure nobody else does, yes?” Drogba said, teeth flashing in a smile. The clap on the shoulder he gave Luís as he strode off wasn’t any more genuine in its nonchalance, but at least he seemed to have accepted that explanation for Luís’ nerves.
By the time Luís had worked his way back to his own bedroll, he’d managed to reassure himself that the party could stand up to any serious raid and perhaps even a small fighting force if they had enough time. If necessary—he preferred to simply outpace them. Though that would see him in Alexandria too soon to have determined exactly what he was going to do with that rutter. Luís always kept his word, but he’d only said he’d take it with him and not mention it to anyone.
He stepped over the last steaming, stinking pile of camel dung between him and his sleeping spot and immediately went to check that that saddlebag hadn’t been disturbed. The buckles looked fine and when Luís opened the flap, the packet of food and extra shirt he’d stuffed on top appeared undisturbed, but nevertheless he sank his fingers beneath them till he could feel the blunted corner of the book. Then he redid the buckle and folded up the saddlebags, and was on the point of laying his head on them when the most hideous squealing sound filled the air.
Luís instinctively reached for his sword as he rolled over, only to see Zlatan leaping back from something with a broad, vaguely ridiculous smile on his face. Close as the boy skated to danger, he did seem to be capable of recognizing it when he saw it…so Luís dropped his hand, then got back to his feet. He winced as the squeal came again, louder and more indignant.
Zlatan jerked his head towards but didn’t look at Luís as he took another step back. “I think she likes me.”
The camel he referred to lowered its head with almost snake-like cunning, its thick black lips skinned back from the yellowed teeth. It snorted, the hot moisture in its breath turning a few last rays of sun cloudy, and pawed irritably at the ground. “You think so?” Luís said, looking at the strained tether. “You ever been bitten by one of these bitches before?”
“No. I’m faster than that,” Zlatan scoffed, and proceeded to prove it by darting low at the camel’s feet and then back before the camel could do more than snap the tips off his ruffled hair. He hopped back a few more feet to sure safety before he squatted down, smacking his prize against his arm: a somewhat grainy piece of dried meat.
Luís didn’t quite understand till the boy started to lift one end towards his mouth, and then he jerked forward. He probably said something as well since Zlatan’s head went up like a threatened hound and the boy instantly scrambled back, thrusting his curled toes at Luís. His grin vanished and he shoved the meat deep into his lap, where it could be reached only by breaking through him first. He stared up at Luís, his fear smeared thinly over that ever-simmering rage.
“It’s only the first day. We’re not that badly off yet,” Luís finally said. He glanced at the camel, which had settled down on its belly and was now nipping at some idiot’s horse blanket. After kicking some dirt at it to make it stop, Luís walked around Zlatan and went back to his sleeping site.
Henrik had shown up in the meantime and had built a tiny fire, over which he had a pot of water heating. He moved aside for Luís to toss in a few pieces of dried meat, sliced small with a dagger and free of camel spit and dirt, and some spices, and then scooted back in to make sure every bit of wood was consumed before he put more on. The smallest twig could be worth its weight in gold out here.
Zlatan showed up when the meat had nearly finished boiled, that camel-chewed strip still hanging from his hand. He sniffed rather loudly at the steam rising from the pot and Henrik ladled him out some of the stew, which he all but inhaled before passing his bowl back. Luís wandered over at that point and got some himself, but he’d noticed his horse slightly favoring a hindleg and was somewhat preoccupied. Once he’d found the cause—a pebble in the hoof—and dealt with it, he came back to find Zlatan plying Henrik with questions about their route and absently tossing ragged bits of his strip of meat to a few adventurous jackals that had strayed near.
He looked up when Luís tossed a couple stones to drive them off. “Hey. I’m not going to eat this now,” he said, holding up the meat.
“Doesn’t mean you need to encourage those pests.” Luís crouched down beside his bedroll and shook off some of the dust that’d blown over it, then sat on it. He pulled off his boots and tapped more dust from them, gave his toes a good few minutes to stretch, and then put them back on.
“They’re pretty good at surviving for pests.” Zlatan balled up the remaining piece of meat, then got onto his knees and flung it hard so it landed just short of the jackals. One of them nosed cautiously forward, then quick as lightning snapped up the meat and ran off, the other one chasing behind and yipping anxiously.
With a grin to Luís, Zlatan settled back on the ground. Henrik rubbed at his nose and grabbed the pot off the fire, muttering something about cleaning it out as he walked off. Of course Zlatan noticed, but his annoyed look was aimed at Luís instead of Henrik’s back.
Luís reached to his side without thinking, then pulled his hand back and turned it over, looking at the palm. A thick red crease still ran across it from where he’d gripped the reins. “I don’t like jackals because I’ve seen them eat a lot of friends. That’s what they do here—in Europe it’s wolves and crows after a battle, in Egypt it’s jackals and vultures. It’s disgusting.”
“At least it gets them off the field quicker,” Zlatan said, rolling onto his feet. He spread out his bedroll, then flopped onto it. Something gleamed briefly behind him before he sneaked the sword down beside him. “In that book the Romans are always burning the bodies. That must have taken forever and smelled horrible. Bet it looked better, though, if you think about that sort of thing.”
“It’s the quickness that mattered more. You leave the bodies to rot and they give off poisonous fumes—people get sick faster around a battlefield that hasn’t been cleaned up. The water turns bad. The Romans didn’t make war to kill people—they made war to get people so they could make money.” The moon when Luís gazed up had just topped the trees, a big crescent like the one emblazoned on the banners of the sultan. Its bright light would be a help for the sentries. “Any land they took, they wanted back in use as soon as possible.”
Zlatan snorted, turning on his side. The whites of his eyes glowed faintly in the deepening darkness. “Just another bunch of merchants with armies, then.”
“Merchants with armies who had a thousand-year empire, who could work miracles we’ve forgotten. Maybe deep down they had the hearts of men with all their flaws, but they saw farther than we do now,” Luís said. His thumb caught on something and he glanced down to find that he’d jabbed it into a buckle-tongue on the saddlebags. He licked the wound, then rubbed his thumb against his knee. “And for a very, very long time they always won. You have all the titles you want, come from the bluest, oldest blood in the world, but really, it means nothing if you can’t win. Pit a snob against a good swordsman, and who gets to brag afterward?”
The boy stared at him for a while, blinking now and then. He shifted to pillow his head on his arm, and then he sat up again, hair flopping all awry. “It’s all infantry in there—in the book. He talks about cavalry, but he only had four hundred of them for so many battles.”
“A real army’s built on infantry,” Luís told him, grinning. As if it’d overheard, his horse whinnied and Luís shushed it in Arabic before going on in Swedish with Zlatan. “Oh, for a while cavalry was the best, and it’s still the best out here, where the land’s full of mountains where it isn’t sand soft and deep enough to swallow you whole, but I’ve seen even the Mamelukes beaten by foot soldiers. You really want to make war, you have to know what to do with those.”
Zlatan raised his eyebrows, looking incredulous. He twitched a little when Henrik came back and started spreading his blankets, but otherwise kept his attention fixed on Luís. “That’s not what I learned.”
“Well, nobody wants to teach about the times they lost, do they? Though those are the best examples to learn from. Like Courtrai—it’s this little village in Flanders…well, come over here so you can see what I’m drawing. This sorry little pack of Flemish foot-sloggers absolutely crushed a couple hundred of the best knights France had there about two hundred years ago…all right, Sweden is here and Flanders is here…”
* * *
Four days into the journey, they had their first attempted raid. It wasn’t too much, just a few bored Berbers spotting a merchant who’d wandered off during the midday rest in search of more shade, but driving them off was still a nasty, messy way of spending an hour during the hottest part of the day. And then there was taking stock afterward and realizing that they’d just lost whatever time they would have gained by taking this route.
“We can make it to the oasis—there’s a little village there, so it’ll have buildings we can use if we need them. But then we’ve got to rest,” Drogba muttered, hunched over something. He grunted and the young man squatting beside him reached out, only for Drogba to snarl him into scooting back, wide-eyed. Then Drogba grunted again, his elbows pushing back to point at the sky.
The noise ended in a sharp click of teeth and a loud blasting hiss of air as the man’s nostrils flared. His arms jerked down, and then he sat back with a sigh of relief. He propped himself up on one hand and grinned at Luís while the other driver efficiently clipped off the head of the arrow piercing his leg, then carefully pulled the shaft free of Drogba’s flesh.
“I got to get this wrapped up better than it’s getting now, and then repack the camels. Some of them we have to—” Drogba paused as an animal’s pained howl was suddenly cut short “—we’re killing because the legs are broken.”
“At least the stew will be decent tonight. I know you’re keeping the livers, so don’t tell me you didn’t bring them when I ask for some this time.” Luís paused to wipe off a dribble of blood from his own forehead, then went on to see to the others.
Casualties among the men weren’t too bad: none of the drivers were so badly injured they couldn’t ride, one dead servant and several mercenaries who’d have interesting scars to show off in Alexandria, and Zlatan’s…shyness.
He came charging up to Luís on Luís’ horse, head up and laughing through the blood splatters on his face. “Hey, I got it back! That bastard who knocked you off tried to jump a camel but it snapped at him and he fell off. Idiot.”
The horse was still battle-crazed and rearing and plunging like mad, eyes rolling and froth coming from its mouth. How the hell Zlatan was staying on it Luís didn’t know, but he didn’t want to figure it out by watching any longer—the next time the reins flew his way, he snatched them out of the air and hung on till the horse’s head was forced down.
Zlatan swung lightly out of the saddle and would’ve made a perfect landing if the horse hadn’t suddenly lunged at him. The reins slashed through Luís’ hands and he knew he wouldn’t be able to hold the beast, so he just let them go and went for Zlatan instead, dragging the boy out of the way. Henrik showed up just when he had to, as usual, and seized the reins instead, and Luís hauled himself and Zlatan out of the man’s way.
The moment they were clear, Luís’ palms burned again as Zlatan whipped his arm away. “Leave off! I could’ve—”
“That’s a damn good horse,” Luís instantly snapped. “It’s no good bringing it back if you go and break its back, you damn giant.”
His hands still pained him so he spit into them, then gingerly pressed the palms together. Behind them, Henrik was now cooing to the calming horse and when Luís looked up, Zlatan was actually watching that with a somewhat dubious expression on his face. But he turned back to Luís almost immediately, his eyes narrowing a little.
“I’m not that heavy,” he finally said.
Luís reminded himself to smile later, when Zlatan was an oblivious, rather lopsided ball beneath his blankets. “So what happened to the whoreson cunt who hit me with that lance-butt?”
“Oh, I killed him. It’s not as bad as everybody says—you just stab them in the throat and they stop moving. But he got all over me…he stinks.” Zlatan wrinkled his nose and flipped his hands, sending blood drops all over the place. Then he tried to wipe his face, but only managed to smear more gore over his cheeks.
“If you’re going to cut someone’s throat, you try not to be on the same side to keep that from happening. You’re lucky that there’s enough wounded we’ll have to stay a day at the next oasis, so you’ll have time to wash up. Once we’re there—leave that be till we are, and yes, I know it’s starting to itch,” Luís said. He separated his hands and gauged the redness of their welts, then scraped off the spit on his trousers and went to go get his horse back.
Instead of protesting, Zlatan fell into step a little behind, and when Luís turned around, the boy was busy trying to clean off his sword with part of his burnoose. He angled off a second later to go up to Henrik, already grinning and talking again as the two of them began to rehash the skirmish. They’d been on different ends of the caravan for it, so Luís let them be. Henrik would keep them on time.
* * *
“He’s good,” Henrik said. “He’ll be better than me.”
Luís paused, looking into the bucket, and then dumped it over his head. He tossed it to the other man so he could give his hair a last scrubbing. “He’s got a natural gift with the sword and his aim with a bow will get better the more chances he has, but—”
“He didn’t go after that horse-thief alone. He got some of the men to go along and they trapped the thief into running into the camel so he fell out of the saddle, and it was all his idea.” Henrik put a knee up on the edge of the well and dropped the bucket into it, then hauled it back up. He dumped about half of it over his head before pouring the remainder more carefully over his bloodstained boots. “It was a pretty good idea.”
After a moment, Luís picked up his shirt from the rail where he’d hung it. He flipped it out between his hands, then held it up so the dying sun burned through the thin cloth, a huge dark red blot over the heart. “If it worked, then it must have been,” he said, and threw the shirt over his head. “Henke, would you go along with him?”
Henrik took his time scrubbing his boots clean, first rubbing them with a stick and then a damp rag. Then he sat down on the edge of the well and, after giving each a good shake, pulled them back out. And then he answered: “I did.”
“All right, then,” Luís said, looking at the setting sun. “Damn. That lanky brat’s just peeled off my best man.”
To which Henrik said nothing, but before he left he suddenly turned a simple shoulder-clap into a hard, short hug. His hand lingered after they’d pulled apart, sliding down Luís’ arm, and then he turned away.
Going about the camels and mediating between Drogba and the merchants as the goods were repacked kept Luís up late into the night so he ate dinner alone, then laid down to sleep long after Henrik and Zlatan had done so. His mind was still on everything he needed to do the next day, and he could have used the distraction of dissecting old battles with Zlatan; he caught himself hitching the hem of his blanket through his fingers several times before he finally just shoved it beneath his hip and shut his eyes. If sleep still wanted to elude him, then he couldn’t say he hadn’t tried for it.
But he did doze off for a while. Not long enough, and he knew that before his eyes snapped open and his fingers curled around his sword.
“It’s me,” Zlatan said.
Luís realized he’d forgotten to smile about earlier, but given the way his body had surrendered to aches but not yet to rest, he wasn’t inclined to make up for that now. He let go of his sword and rolled over, squinting up. “So?”
Zlatan blinked. Then he smiled wryly, his annoyance needing a visible swallow to be dismissed. “The sword works.”
After a second, Luís closed his eyes and reached down to pull the blanket back over himself. “Good, it wasn’t a waste.”
He let his breathing slow and relaxed his limbs, counting off in his head. And when he got to a hundred and still hadn’t fallen back asleep, he opened his eyes.
“Are you hurt? Scared? Sick? Confused?” When Zlatan answered each with a derisive, confused shake of the head, Luís let his head roll back with a sigh. “Then what? It’s only a couple hours till dawn.”
The boy bit his lip against an obviously sarcastic retort, then ducked his head. His shoulders moved awkwardly back and forth, and then, oddly enough, he hunched down further so his and Luís’ head were nearly level, almost like a cringing dog. His tongue flicked out and over his lip and then he opened his mouth, but whatever he wanted to say didn’t quite make it out before he exhaled sharply and just pushed forward.
Luís understood then and rose quickly on his elbow, getting his other arm around so he could block Zlatan by pushing it against the boy’s shoulder. “No.”
“Then what?” Zlatan hissed. He stopped where he was, his eyes glittering in the dimness. “Henke says you sleep with men and women.”
“Because I like them, not because they’re in debt to me. Which you’re not—I gave you that sword. I didn’t contract you to anything when I did that,” Luís quietly replied. He waited till Zlatan was throwing a frustrated glance off to the side before he looked past the boy’s shoulder, towards Henrik’s sleeping form. Then he returned his gaze to Zlatan’s face before the boy noticed.
Zlatan pressed his lips together, like he was physically pulling the nasty words back into his mouth. Then he cocked his head. “What if I like you?”
“I’m flattered, but—”
“What, only if you like them?” Zlatan snapped.
“I do like you,” Luís said. He finally let a little of his exasperation into his voice and then had to turn his arm quick to seize Zlatan by the shoulder. “But I don’t want to bed you, all right? I’m sorry if that hurts, but it’s not meant to be an insult.”
The shoulder jerked away from Luís, but he dug his fingers in and held on till Zlatan stopped moving. The boy tossed his head a few times, not wanting to look at Luís, but eventually he grew too embarrassed at himself and reverted to the bold stare. “Why not?”
It was very quiet where they were, lying in a small stable they’d paid rent for to one of the villagers living around the oasis. So quiet that Luís could make out the slow, steady rhythm of Henrik’s breath, the quicker uneven pants from Zlatan, and his own careful inhale. “Henke wasn’t lying—I did lie with both, once upon a time. But for a while now there’s only been one man for me. I knew him a long time before I met you.”
For a long moment, Zlatan looked at him and it was all Luís could do to return the favor and meet the gaze. Then Zlatan snorted, half his mouth trying to pull itself up into a smile, and looked down. “Oh. You’re…in love with him. Is that how you say it?”
“Unfortunately,” Luís muttered. He loosened his grip on Zlatan’s shoulder, and when the boy made to shrug, pulled his hand away. “He can be just as frustrating as you are…God knows I could’ve picked easier ways to get into trouble.”
Zlatan’s head bobbed a bit, as if he were swallowing. Then he made an impatient noise and looked up again. “So why…why all of this?” His hands spread a little on the dirt, then turned over so his palms were towards Luís. “Why bring me along?”
“I’m going to free you at Alexandria.” Luís pushed off his elbow and laid down again, then pulled his arm out straight in front of him and rubbed at it. The damn thing had gone numb already from the weight put on it. “You’re too known in Cairo to the wrong people, I’d think, and anyway, there wasn’t a point in freeing you there. From Alexandria you can work your way to wherever you want. Sweden, even.”
“Because…you like me.” It wasn’t quite a statement. “You just don’t want to fuck me.”
Even if it wouldn’t soothe the stinging, Luís had to smile at the trace of injured pride in the boy’s voice. But only for a moment, since that pride had gotten its hurt from being twisted out of its proper shape. “To be honest, I’m not supposed to fuck anyone. But my way of thinking is you break a rule once, there’s no point in trying to paper over the damage.”
Zlatan frowned, his brows drawing so close they more or less met across the top of his nose. “What?”
“I’m not of noble blood, and I never was in the Mamelukes. But I can read. Think about that,” Luís said. “You were in Europe till you were twelve, weren’t you? Do you remember any of that?”
“I…I don’t like thinking about what I can’t have. Except I can’t help it sometimes, but I don’t like it,” Zlatan eventually said. He shrugged. “What are you saying? Somebody did this to you, had pity on you and then pitied you some more?”
His voice rose a bit at the end, turning razor-sharp, and it was hard not to look again to see if Henrik had finally roused. But instead Luís sighed and closed his eyes. “Zlatan, before I came here I was a priest. In the Church. I was a smart boy and was spotted by them, and they said they’d feed me for the rest of my life, so I went with them and let them teach me. Maybe they did it out of pity as well, but I still appreciate how much what I got from them has helped me since then.”
A breeze got in through a crack and sifted through his hair so Luís ducked his head. Then he grunted and shifted till his back was pressed against the wall, getting the pressure off his knee. All the damn old injuries were complaining again, as if the conversation wasn’t weight enough.
“I don’t really know why I like you this much any more than I really know why I’m in love with that…that infuriating bastard,” Luís muttered. “You do speak Swedish, like the woman who ended up making me leave Milan…that’s where I was posted before. But she was very sweet. Never threw things at me.”
“What about her husband?” Zlatan was too quick sometimes.
Then again, it was old history. Nearly a different life, though now and again the remnants pained Luís. “He was a strict old ass, which was where his brains—he found out when the baby had the wrong color hair, and my nose, the poor brat.” Luís briefly slitted his eyes open. “Girl would’ve been about ten years younger than you, right now. I left before I heard what happened, but she’s almost certainly dead.”
He closed his eyes again, and kept them shut even when something touched his shoulder. The fingers curled over his upper arm, then gave him a hard shake before withdrawing. Zlatan sighed loudly.
The top of his head jarred into the underside of Luís’ chin, and his knees did likewise to Luís’ shins. He snorted once before settling down and finally letting Luís pull the blankets back up. “It’s really cold out here at night. Colder than in Cairo.”
“There’s no buildings to hold heat,” Luís muttered. He paused, then got his arm around Zlatan’s shoulders and pushed the boy down so his head fit better against Luís’ jaw. Speaking of noses, Zlatan’s own could nearly speak for itself. “My daughter also would’ve been a lot smaller, and taken up less of the blanket.”
Zlatan made an annoyed sound. “Is that supposed to make me jealous? I like being able to see over everyone.”
“You would.” Luís let his arm slacken and finally went to sleep.
* * *
They suffered one more raid before they reached Alexandria, but it was small and the largest annoyance was Drogba, who at first refrained from fighting supposedly due to his leg, but then jumped in roaring when an arrow scored the flank of his favorite camel. It took a while to calm him down and persuade him that going after the raiders would delay the caravan, and that of course wouldn’t be in the best interest of his financial future.
“Wasn’t so bad a route, was it? I don’t know, I’m thinking of offering it regularly now. Not sure why they stopped using it before, but the problem doesn’t seem to have come up again,” Drogba said. He leaned on the shoulder of a younger relative while they and Luís watched the goldsmith weigh out the dinars. “Ah, ah, you said—”
“Keep going.” Luís waved his hand towards the chest of gold from which the goldsmith was plucking the coins, suppressing a sigh. “I remember. I keep my word.”
Drogba grinned, his fingers rubbing together as if he already felt the dinars trickling through them. His leg was mending well and as soon as he’d changed the wrappings and paid for his night’s lodging, he’d likely be off to the slums for entertainment of all kinds. “For a European, you do. Well, my thanks for your patronage, and be sure that my door’s open whenever you’ve got another caravan planned.”
He had Kolo collect the coins in a sack, then left as Luís was paying the goldsmith his fee. Then Luís picked the few coins that remained out of the chest, pocketed them, and slung the empty chest over his shoulders. He ducked out of the dark little room and into sunlight as white as a northern maid’s complexion.
All the mercenaries had already been paid off and Henrik had taken the handful of men who likewise belonged to Luís’ household off to the home of Luís’ banker, who was putting them up for the few days they’d be in Alexandria. Toldo liked to say that he offered much more than financial advice, but it hadn’t escaped Luís’ attention how the man used the presence of Luís’ men in his house to intimidate any recalcitrant debtors who happened to be in town at the same time. Padua might have been his birthplace, but his character owed more to that city’s Venetian overlords.
He was out when Luís finally arrived, which was fine since Luís didn’t intend to tell him about the gold ingots—formerly Roman coins—right away and thus could get that transferred to his room without raising suspicion. Only Henrik was available to help, and when asked about it, the other man shrugged and said, “Bathhouse.”
Luís grinned. “Do his feet hang over the edge?”
Henrik suddenly had a coughing fit, and it lasted all the way till they’d gotten the chest safely locked in Luís’ room. The contents had shifted abruptly as they’d set it down and a corner had jabbed him in the leg, so he sat down in the hall and gave the spot a good hard massage. “I was talking to the servants and they said Zidane arrived four days ago.”
It was momentarily on Luís’ mind to ask just how Henrik knew that would be wanted news, but they’d known each other a bit too long for Luís to be looking in that gift horse’s mouth. So instead he nodded. “I think we’d better avoid the courts, then. I won’t be seeing him before I go back. Tomorrow evening’s when we’ll be down on the docks. Now, did you already have your turn in the steam room, or…”
“No, but you can—well, wait.” Henrik gave his calf a last pat before getting to his feet. “I’ll go make sure you’ve got enough soap. Zlatan’s…gotten very fond of it.”
“Wonderful, wonderful invention, soap is. Sometimes I’d say we need the East around simply for that,” Luís said, trying not to laugh. “I’ll stop by the kitchen first in that case and see what’s dinner.”
He was still there when someone coughed lightly by his left elbow. Luís paused, his eyes going to the rows of pots hanging on the wall before him, so shiny the reflection of the rest of the room could be seen in them. Then he spun on his heel, putting out his hand so a moment later he could stop himself by grabbing the counter. “Zizou! You liar!”
Zinedine winced and glanced at the door, but no one was currently in the kitchen. For now—there were pots bubbling over the fire and a half-gutted fish lying over the central table, so Luís took the other man by the arm and pulled him into a back hallway. He sniffed, then pinched his nose between his fingers to muffle the noise as he blew that out; the dust meant it’d be an isolated enough place for a quick talk.
“I hope the trip didn’t ruin your sense of propriety—what little you have of it.” A flicker of amusement passed through Zinedine’s eyes. “I had a hard enough time getting away from my retinue for this business.”
Luís’ eyebrow rose. He stepped back, rubbing at his nose again. “Ah, and I thought maybe you’d reneged on what you said before and decided to call on me after all. You could’ve sent a messenger instead.”
“Not for this,” Zinedine said, and he reached out and took Luís by the shoulders. His lips were slightly dry and had a trace of salt to them, a deliciously stinging counterpart to the sweetness of his mouth. He pressed hard so Luís went back onto one heel, then withdrew so swiftly that Luís almost wondered if he’d been struck late in the journey by a case of sun-fancies.
But no, Zinedine was still there, shadows lying sharp against the planes of his face. His tongue ran over his lip as if he meant to speak, but his mouth failed to move. It was as if he’d caught himself off-guard instead of Luís.
“If you’d mentioned we were doing it this way, I would’ve had it with me,” Luís finally said. “Right now I’d have to go back through the whole house to get it.”
“I don’t need it now. When are you going to the docks to load your cargo?” The last of that was a little muffled as somebody came back into the kitchen and Zinedine retreated further into the shadows.
Luís looked at him for a few seconds, at the high-bridged nose and narrowed eyes, the callused hands tensed up against fine silk and linen. “There’s no expert waiting, is there? You’re sure enough about what it is to get it up here. Why are you really in Alexandria?”
Zinedine lifted his chin, gaze slanting down his nose. Then he turned away, apparently distracted by the rattling of something like lentils into a pot. “I’ve spoken out too often at court. I don’t like the way Kait Bey is taking things, I don’t like…this isn’t the empire of Saladin anymore. This sultan doesn’t even deserve to win against the Turks. So they’ve sent me up so I can make a mistake among the foreigners and they’ve an excuse.”
“Are you using it as a bargaining chip? I would’ve thought it would be better if you shifted your whole household up here in that case,” Luís muttered. A shadow passed over the doorway near them and he glanced up, then carefully moved so he was out of the line of sight, should anyone poke in their head.
“It’s too late for bargaining. There’s only crushing the old and starting anew.” The other man turned his head farther, till his far cheek was nearly touching the wall. Then he ducked his head and a low growl rumbled from his throat. “Those unfaithful bastards—they send me here, they think I’m the one who’ll turn betrayer? Well, fine. The Turks aren’t the rightful successors either, and if the rutter goes to Europe then no matter how successful they are here they’ll never rule the world. Neither of them deserve to.”
Luís inhaled sharply, though to be honest he only grasped the raw anger of Zinedine’s words at first. Then the full understanding of what the other man’s action would do slowly came, like the light winds blowing ahead of a storm, and for a moment he didn’t breathe at all.
Something grazed his arm, and when he looked up Zinedine was standing beside him, fingers laying against Luís’ elbow. Zinedine’s face was smooth and calm again, and his gaze lowered to Luís’. “This is not your war. I asked you for a favor—the favor ends when you return it to me. Then you don’t need to concern yourself further.”
“When it’ll be my homeland that deals with the consequences of your gift?” Luís hissed. He saw the flash in Zinedine’s eyes and put up his hand, then cupped the palm around the point of the man’s shoulder. “No, no, I’ll be giving it back. I’ll even help you pick out a ship for it. But damn it, don’t stay behind. Go with it. Go…you showed me the East, so let me show you the West.”
Zinedine pulled his shoulder back, then reached up and wrapped his fingers around Luís’ wrist when Luís didn’t allow him to move away. He tugged once before he sighed, his fingers spreading a little to overlap Luís’ hand. “All this time and you still think of yourself as a guest in this country?”
“They’re right—you never were really a Mameluke or an amir of the sultan either. So what’s the point in staying?” Luís asked. He pressed the tip of his tongue to the edge of his teeth, then let go of Zinedine and stepped back. The dust swirled up from beneath his slippers and he watched the motes dance from dark to light in the half-dark. “Tomorrow evening, yes. I’ve told you enough times where I usually meet with the ships’ captains…”
A slow breath, a rustle of cloth, and when Luís lifted his head, Zinedine had gone. He counted to fifteen before he walked out into the kitchen and promptly scared the cook into almost spearing him with a fire-spit. The poor man was still trembling when Luís left to go to his rooms, but for once Luís really didn’t care to laugh.
* * *
Zlatan pressed the bridge of his nose hard into Luís’ shoulder. “But you never even taught me Portuguese. How am I supposed to talk to anybody?”
“Henrik’s going with you. He knows Spanish and Portuguese and a little Italian, which should cover nearly everywhere you need to go. It’s about time he left anyway—he’s over his dead wife and he’s getting bored here,” Luís mumbled. He jerked at his arm and bumped his knee into Zlatan’s rock-like shin, which sent both of them rolling away while cursing. Then he stopped himself on his back and stared up at the ceiling. “Wait, what are you doing here anyway? They gave you plenty of blankets and a bigger mattress than I’ve got.”
“Not trying to get you to sleep with me.” The blankets came first, tossed over Luís, and then Zlatan crawled back beneath them in an attempt to squeeze his gigantic frame into the irregular spaces around Luís. The wooden frame creaked loudly and he swore at it in what Luís now knew was the dialect of his father’s Bosnian village.
Luís closed his eyes. “Then why am I still awake, and not dreaming of the hams in Portugal, or the beautiful women of Milan?”
“I have no idea. Maybe you’re not trying hard enough.” That little laugh of Zlatan’s trickled off into an awkward silence. He laid on knees and elbows for a moment, then lifted himself so his heavy breath on Luís’ face made Luís open his eyes. His hair was waving into his eyes so they couldn’t be seen, but the rigidity of his parted lips, the tension in the flesh around them, said enough. “Luís?”
“You don’t owe me. I just feel like doing this,” Luís said.
Zlatan snorted. He tossed his head so some of the hair briefly flipped out of his eyes, but then it slipped back strand by strand. “That man, the one you’re an idiot for. It’s the same one who gave me to you, isn’t it? Zizou.”
“Yes,” Luís said after a moment.
The boy’s head dipped a little, then hitched up as he threw back his shoulders. He seemed on the point of another stiff recoil, but then he just sighed. “You know, I was only there for a couple days, but he was all right. I didn’t mind him. I saw him practicing with a lance and he’s really good at it, too.”
“He’s a little rusty now—neither of us have gone into a real battle for a few years.” Luís reached up and touched a lock of Zlatan’s hair and Zlatan flinched. He paused, then swept it back from the boy’s brow and let his fingers go on to curve around the back of Zlatan’s skull. Of course Zlatan resisted, but eventually he let Luís pull his head down to lie on Luís’ chest. “Watch for Henke, all right? He gets seasick. Really. You look at his face and wonder when the apocalypse started.”
Zlatan made some muffled incredulous noise, then pushed his head back and forth over Luís’ breast a few times, his feet kicking here and there way down at the end of the mattress. He finally seemed to settle down, his knee jabbing Luís in the calf and his hand curled tightly into Luís’ side, and it was damned uncomfortable but somehow sleep worked its way into it as well.
* * *
“That’s not funny, José,” Luís said.
Mourinho’s lower lip pulled up flat over his upper one in an odd little moue, then went back to its accustomed position as he shrugged. “You know, there’s all this bad news about the new port taxes and the Turks cutting off the overland caravans from India, and the shortage of hemp, but I still try not to let it ruin my mood. I can’t—at sea you think something will go wrong and it will.”
“Well, we’re still in the harbor, and Zlatan and Henrik can both add two and two together. If you land in Italy and my cargo’s a little short, they don’t need to wait for my word to do something about it.” Luís rolled his eyes as he turned away, looking down the line of piers and the ships in various stages of docking and undocking at them. Once upon a time he’d thought Mourinho was a very witty, intelligent fellow, but then he’d started doing business with the man. Still, Mourinho ran the fastest caravels between Italy and Alexandria and he’d never lost a ship to pirates. “How’s Lisbon?”
“Busy. There’s supposed to be another fleet going out within the year to find the end of Africa, under Bartholomeu Dias,” Mourinho said with elaborate nonchalance. “It’s running late, like usual. The man doesn’t know how to organize.”
“Oh, you know him personally?” A little party of horsemen had just come down the main road to the docks and was now turning onto the piers. From where Luís was standing, the setting sun was in his eyes, but he thought he could make out official banners. And then they turned, and his eyes burned. He drew in a sharp breath, then spun on his heel and stepped up onto the gangplank.
Mourinho had been replying, but he now abandoned that to go after Luís. “Are they here for you? What did you put on my ship?”
“I don’t know yet, but you’re ready to go now, aren’t you?” Luís snapped back. He wrapped his hand around his sword just beneath the hilt and crooked his thumb so the first inch or so of the blade clicked free of the scabbard.
Behind him, Mourinho immediately turned around and started giving orders. Low, natural voice, so as not to unduly alarm anyone yet. He had his eccentricities, but at the end of the day he always honored his deals. Maybe he didn’t have problems with forcing others to break them, but—well, Henrik knew what he was doing, and Zlatan learned quickly.
By the time Luís got to the end of the gangplank, the horsemen were only a few yards away and he could make out every detail of Zinedine’s stony expression. The other man rode in the center, in what was normally the place of honor, but the men around him didn’t wear his emblem. Luís casually lapped his hand up the scabbard till his fingers had curled around the sword-hilt.
“Luís?” Zinedine called, tone neutral. The man just to Zinedine’s right rose in his stirrups and Luís could see that his left hand was hidden by Zinedine’s body.
Luís was opening his mouth to reply when Zinedine moved his head a little, just enough for their gazes to meet. Then Zinedine abruptly threw himself backward, his arms swinging out to either side of himself.
There was a wet, crunching, horribly recognizable noise. Zinedine staggered in the air as if he were hanging from invisible threads, then folded forward a little with the blood already frothing from his nose. The horses next to him screamed and reared, wildly trying to lunge away but the group was packed too tightly and instead they simply cannonaded into their neighbors to spread the panic. The horseman to Zinedine’s right was knocked half-off his horse and his left arm flailed so the lance in its hand threw bloody spray all over the place.
Then the nearest horse was plunging at Luís and he didn’t think, just stooped while whipping out his sword at the beast’s ankles. The blade bit and then was wrenched away by the horse’s momentum before he could pull it back; it and its rider toppled over a few feet behind him. The next rider was already charging down and Luís only had a dagger now.
He ducked and the lance slashed his arm instead of his head. Then he spun, hearing hoofbeats, and something ripped in his belly. The pain flamed up as if he’d been touched by a red-hot poker, then turned liquid and dizzying. Luís lost his balance and stumbled, grabbing reflexively at his middle and his hands closed around a wooden pole. He breathed and his lungs burned like sea-water filled them, and he looked up into a pair of furious, hating eyes.
But then they widened. The lance-head twisted in Luís, nearly bringing him to his knees, before suddenly tearing free as the horsemen slumped over. The bastard’s horse kicked at the air before taking off like lightning down the docks, and in its place Zinedine was almost fallen from his saddle, his face bloody from nose to chin and somebody’s gory lance dropping from his hand.
Zinedine had just enough strength to turn his horse so Luís could grab the saddle trappings instead of being trampled. His hand flopped against Luís’ shoulder and for a moment he hunched over Luís, eyes wide and dark and already clouding over. Then his mouth twisted, he snarled, and he shoved himself off to go down on the other side.
Luís choked, swore, and then somehow dragged himself onto the horse. Then he had to duck as a lance darted over his head, but something hit his horse so it went catapulting forward, running blindly up the pier.
Mourinho had already cast off and his ship had drawn several yards away. So Luís closed his eyes, commended the good parts of his soul to God, and jumped the horse. And when he felt his feet rise so their tops bumped into the top of the stirrups, he kicked them free and leaped himself from the saddle. That took all he had left, so he never felt his landing.
* * *
The smell of an onion woke Luís, causing him to stir weak as a newborn, and then the pain shocked him fully awake. He groaned, peering out at the world.
“Eat it,” Henrik said.
Luís stared at him. The narrow confines of a ship’s cabin slowly came into view behind the other man, and the air stank of salt but not of smoke and spices and manure, so they had left Alexandria behind.
Henrik coughed hard and jammed the cut side of the onion up to Luís’ face so Luís’ eyes began to water. “Eat it,” he said again, voice thickening.
“No. I—” Luís stopped to swear as something twisted in his belly “—damn it, I know how deep the lance went. You don’t need to do that…Henke, there’s a little package…”
The other man stared into his face for a long time. Then Henrik abruptly turned away, carelessly flinging the onion over his shoulder. “Fuck.”
So that was what it took to make Henrik swear, Luís idly thought. He wanted to close his eyes but he wasn’t sure if he could open them again, so he made himself mouth bits of liturgies till Henrik came back with the rutter. After dropping that on the bunk, he helped Luís sit up and then he left again.
A few minutes later, he came back with Mourinho, who for once looked as if his seriousness was genuine. “That boy pulled you over the side,” José said. “Then he scrubbed his hands till your other man finally told him all the blood was coming from himself, because—”
“He didn’t kill any of your crew before that, did he?” Luís asked. When Mourinho shook his head, Luís grinned and let his head fall back against the wall. He flicked a finger at the rutter, and after a moment, Mourinho picked it up and unwrapped it, shooting cautious glances at Luís all the while. At least till he started reading, and then he simply stared at Luís. “It’s a copy of a book from the Library of Alexandria, so I think it’s real. Don’t tell anybody I gave you that, all right?”
Mourinho clearly wanted to ask why not, but in the end he merely closed the rutter and carefully rewrapped it. “What can I do?”
“Take Henrik and Zlatan to Italy, give them all the damn cargo—it’s theirs now. If you can help them get my money from those leeches, fucking Florentine bankers, you can take a quarter but they get the rest.” A wave of nausea passed over Luís and he had to stop and try to catch his breath. “And make sure Portugal wins.”
“I never knew you still cared about our country,” Mourinho said after a moment. “You’ve lived away from it for so long.”
Luís snorted. It hurt. “It’s still my homeland, no matter where I was. I did what I could when I could, and didn’t waste my time when I couldn’t.”
Whether or not that really made sense to Mourinho, he certainly made himself look as if it did. He gave Luís a nod, then tucked the book beneath his arm and began to get up. Then he stopped, glancing back. “Land or sea?”
“Land. Even if I die in the next second,” Luís said.
A little appreciation touched Mourinho’s tight smile. “It’s a good thing you brought such a load of spices with you. We’ll need them to cut the smell. I’ll subtract their cost from my landing fee.”
Then he left, and only a few seconds later Zlatan came stumbling down the stairs. He came through the door and crossed the room without much apparent care for the rolling and heaving of the ship, but was so cautious about getting into the bunk that finally Luís lifted an arm. Which just about did it for his revival, but Zlatan got the point and got on the damn bed, sliding his shoulder beneath Luís’ arm.
“Henke’s throwing up in the stern.” Zlatan coughed, and then again before he looked up. He ducked his head almost immediately to angrily press a hand to his eyes, unconsciously flashing his raw palms at Luís. “We got away, but not even all the men on the pier got killed. Why—what happened?”
Luís told him, as briefly as possible without leaving Zlatan in the dark about anything. It took quite a few restarts, but eventually he finished. His fingers and toes were cold; he couldn’t do anything about his toes but he pushed his hands against Zlatan and after the first shiver, the boy just wrapped himself around Luís. His beaky nose wedged itself into the side of Luís’ neck.
“I don’t want to go to Italy,” he said. The words tripped over each other as they spilled from his mouth, furious and careless and pained. “I never said I wanted to. I never said that to you. I just said I wanted—”
“Well, the quickest way to Sweden is overland from Italy.” Either Luís’ hearing was going or his voice was thinning out, leaving only the sharp edges. He grimaced, trying to will himself into sounding a little softer. There wasn’t any need to be cutting now, after all. “Look, Zlatan, you really want something and you’ve got to put up with how you get it. It’s usually never pleasant. That’s just how it works.”
Zlatan drew in a long, shuddering, snuffling breath. “I’m never falling in love. Never.”
That made Luís laugh, though the shaking of his body hurt like a—he gritted his teeth and waited for the numbness to return. It didn’t take long. “It’s worth it. It…oh, don’t worry. I’m fine. And you’re going to Italy and then home—see the Milan cathedral, it’s on your way—and somewhere you’re going to see beauty, real beauty, and you’ll know what I’m talking about.”
“In fucking Milan?” Zlatan hissed. His throat sounded as if it were closing in on him.
They’d gone to Swedish somewhere along the line, Luís absently noted. “Maybe. Maybe somewhere else. But—damn it, Zlatan, I didn’t go through all the trouble of letting you back into the world so you could lock yourself up again. Tell me you’re going to look. Tell me you’ll start looking the moment you set foot in Italy and you won’t stop till—till you find—”
“All right, all right, all right.” Zlatan put a hand against the bandages wrapped round Luís’ stomach and pushed down till Luís stopped wheezing. Then he looked up—he flinched, then steadied. And he carefully wiped the dribble of blood from Luís’ nostril. “All right, I promise.”
Luís looked at him, and saw that he did mean it. And then Luís smiled. “Good. Now…where’s your sword? No, not—I just want to…what am I saying, Mourinho’s a Christian. Well, he knows the words, anyway…go ask him for a cross.”
After a long, confused look, Zlatan got off the bunk. But instead of going up onto the deck, he groped around till he’d found his sword. Then he came back and sat on the edge of the bunk, holding the sword upside-down before Luís. “Don’t…you need oil, or something…?”
“I’m still a priest. As far as I’m concerned, anyway, and God will…and the miracle of transubstantiation, you’d think, would stretch…” The breaths were coming shorter now, so Luís had to leave off the explanation. He braced himself and wiped the sweat off his brow, then performed the Last Rites on himself as best he could.
Then he slumped back against the wall, his eyes falling nearly shut before he could help himself. He heard Zlatan put the sword away, and then the boy came back, pulling him to the side a little so he had a slightly more comfortable pillow on Zlatan’s shoulder.
“I almost hate you right now,” Zlatan whispered.
Luís snorted and smiled. “I wish I’d made that idiot stay the night so he could leave with us. And I wish I’d taken my daughter with me, so you could have met her. Other than that, I don’t have any regrets.”
His eyes closed all the way, and the dark slowly lulled him into its comforting embrace.
* * *
Two Years Later
“—can’t violate the right of sanctuary!” the priest said.
Zlatan closed his eyes, taking a deep breath, and continued to mop the blood off his face. “Olof, if he opens his mouth again, mind proving that the violation’s already happened? Now what the hell is so valuable that—”
He opened his eyes just as a baby’s scream echoed through the high vaults of the church. It’d come from a little bundle Henrik was carrying, and a few moments later the men dragged out the parents. Very rich, even with all the dirt and rips that marred their clothing, and probably noble blood from the way they didn’t sob and shriek, but instead glowered at him. The man in particular seemed to be trying to set Zlatan afire with his eyes, which were an unusually light green even for Northern Italy.
Then Henrik walked in front of them and both the man and the woman’s attention snapped to the baby. The woman bit her lip and sagged a little against the men restraining her, but jerked up again when a last soldier came out of the little store-room hauling a kicking, biting little whirlwind of a boy. The boy suddenly flung something at him and the soldier ducked, then swore and raised his hand.
A moment later he was using that hand to cradle his throbbing jaw, and Zlatan was holding out the little toy horse to the boy.
“Jesus Christ, sir!” the idiot complained.
“Well, you didn’t shut up when I hit you, so the brat’s probably not about to.” Zlatan poked the horse at the boy and he flinched back, then turned around to stare confusedly at his very stiff, very still parents. He turned back when Zlatan cleared his throat. “Listen, I’ve got a real one of these outside. A pretty bay. How would you like to see her?”
The boy’s eyes flicked between Zlatan and the toy horse, and his tiny hands pulled anxiously at his clothes. “I see real ones all the time,” he finally said. “My father owns the best horses in the city.”
“Does he?” Zlatan said, keeping his tone light. He ignored the low hiss and then the pained grunt from the boy’s father. “I thought the Sforza stables are the best.”
“No, they aren’t. The Maldini horses are better.” The boy lifted his chin, then darted forward and snatched the toy from Zlatan.
Then he turned, but before he could run off, Zlatan scooped him up and carried him over. His little brave moment was apparently over, since he was like a small statue in Zlatan’s arms as Zlatan looked a bit more closely at his father. “So you’ve got to be Paolo Maldini,” Zlatan said. “Everyone else is dead and on display.”
The woman—Adriana, if Zlatan remembered rightly—sucked in a breath. The man widened those pretty green eyes, then drew himself up as best he could and nodded. “I am. You don’t talk like Sforza’s man.”
“I don’t have any quarrel with him right now either,” Zlatan said, shrugging. The boy began to cry, very quietly.
Paolo looked at his son, struggling for a moment with his composure. Then he dropped his head and stopped pulling against the men holding him. “You don’t necessarily need to start one. Is there…anything I could do or give that’d persuade you to tour a different church?” he said, voice much quieter than before.
Henrik raised his eyebrows, to which Zlatan snorted. Then Zlatan nodded and the men released the pair; Adriana came rushing up to take her son from Zlatan and then edged as close as she could to Henrik. She looked up when Zlatan took Paolo by the arm and pulled him aside, but didn’t move. Her face was pale and a sickly sheen of sweat covered her brow.
Zlatan looked at the man, fine clothes all ruined and bruises and cuts on his arms and face that hadn’t come from Zlatan’s soldiers. Then he stepped quickly forward, trapping Paolo against a pew-end, and curled his hand under Paolo’s jaw. At first Paolo tried to jerk his head off and towards Adriana, but Zlatan forced him back. He ran the ball of his thumb over Paolo’s cheek and watched the man’s pupils grow till they’d nearly swallowed all the green.
“You’d need more than me leaving you alone to get out of here,” Zlatan said.
Paolo’s lips thinned. Then he visibly suppressed a grimace. “If my family’s unhurt…”
That was enough; Zlatan dropped his hand, then grabbed Paolo’s arm and swung him back towards his wife, who quickly bent her head back to her baby. He nodded to Henrik and Olof, and the two of them began setting about seeing to the retreat while he stayed behind with the priest.
“No offense, but nobody can know they’re still alive,” he told the man.
The old wizened bastard brightened a bit. “Oh, of course, my lord. Rest assured that a small gratuity…”
Zlatan glanced at him, then slashed his throat. He made sure to stand where the spray wouldn’t catch him, and then cleaned his sword on a bit of drapery while the man went through his death throes.
“You’re no fucking priest,” he told the corpse.
Then he turned around for a last look at the soaring ceiling, the looming altar and tabernacle.
“Not bad, and I’ve seen a couple cathedrals now. But this isn’t it, not for me,” Zlatan murmured.
He turned on his heel and walked out.
* * *
Footnote: A staple of Viking and then Swedish medicine was onion soup, which was fed to men with abdominal wounds. Later the wound would be smelled and if the aroma of onions was detectable, then they knew the injury was too deep and was fatal. Henrik’s improvising with the same idea in mind.