Anyone being introduced to the king had to kneel. The new stranger was no exception, and ducked so fast on one knee that the first thing the king focused on was his left shoe, pointing out of this looser kind of trousers the men of his faith favoured.
A good shoe, tied snugly on the ankle, well-worn but its leather thick enough not to sag out of shape, and tinted a rich dark red where the scratches hadn’t worn out the upper crust. A traveller’s shoe. The rest of his attire was a puzzle. Nothing hinted of a warrior, the only weapon he’d had to leave at the door being a long dagger. His trousers as well as his tunic were of a loose Saracen cut, but the cloak was made of Flanders cloth sewn in a semicircle Christian shape. The whole, while far from new, betrayed a certain wealth, the colours rich and the weaves tight.
This wealth was a part of the puzzle the king had wanted to solve before summoning the traveller to an audience. The man had come to Sicily alone, disembarking from some merchant ship hailing last from a Provencal port and had settled in Kalsa, the Muslim lower city of Palermo. In the months after his arrival he had acquired a reputation as a physician, which did enough to sustain his daily needs but didn’t explain his clothing or the rich ornaments on his knife sheath. Spies had found a name from a once-powerful family but nothing else of importance. The traveller, they’d said, had a particular fascination for sailors touching the port and kept asking questions even when it led to brawls, but he couldn’t be linked to any of the powers that could threaten the King’s land, not even Maghreb or al-Andalus from which he was supposed to hail. That he was a scholar, versed enough in the arts to have written a botanical treaty that revealed a deep knowledge of faraway places had been the king’s own discovery, and the reason he’d been called here today.
Had he worn a turban, some of the king’s Christian entourage would have insisted for the traveller to bare his head to the king, but there had been no need to argue. He wore only his curls, and as he kept his face tilted downwards the king had all leisure to admire them, thick and black, long enough to fall down each side of his neck and in front of his eyes. A few grey hairs glinted at the temples, enough to suggest that he might not be so young.
Roger II de Hauteville, king of Sicily, liked puzzles and thirsted for knowledge, be it about numbers, stars, lands, or his fellow men. He felt a surge of want, the need to know this man, maybe to attach him to his side. He stood up and stepped down the dais.
The traveller kept motionless and some of the king’s entourage were tiring of the silence. Innocent’s legate, especially, was getting bored, or maybe scandalised that a heathen could catch the king’s attention for that long.
“Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Abdallah al-Idrisi al-Qurtubi al-Hasani al-Sabti,” Roger said, taking care to make his pronunciation of the traveller’s name perfect. “As-salamu ʿalaykum.”
Now that got him a head jerk from the traveller, which was exactly the king’s purpose. And a wince from the papal legate, always a good thing.
“Al-hadra al-malikiya, waʿalaykumu s-salam,” the traveller answered, not quite smiling, his eyes shooting up.
“You can rise,” Roger said, still in Arabic, wanting to see more of the traveller – and revelling in the display of his language skills.
“King Roger,” the legate interjected, “what blasphemy is this? The infidels’ speech in the house of a defender of the true faith?”
“Thank you, most glorious king,” the traveller answered in Latin, and this was definitely a surprise. Roger would have expected Greek, but Latin? Showing off could go both ways.
The traveller – Muhammad al-Idrisi, it seemed he called himself, from his most prestigious nisbah – was unfolding up, wincing. There had been a recent scuffle at the harbour, Roger remembered, and the rumours that his unruly guest was at the heart of it might not be unfounded after all. The man stood, favouring one leg, and lame leg or not he was sizing his own height against Roger’s much more imposing one.
“Do you feel comfortable going on in this language?” Roger asked, trying to put an end to the mute scrutinizing.
Again with this not-quite smile. Al-Idrisi’s lips were supple, full and twitching, and his whole face seemed apt to laughter, lines etched in a bronze skin, eyes crinkling. Not a young man, Roger decided. Maybe younger than himself but not by far. His beard was surprisingly short for a Muslim, enhancing the curve of his jaw more than hiding it, but as close-cropped as he kept it the grey showed and would show even more if he grew it longer.
His eyes, now. They were young and searching and brazen, clearer than a lot of Roger’s subjects’, a light warm brown that looked nearly orange. They were scanning Roger’s face, his ceremonial clothes, the Byzantine imperial alb and the mantle with its embroidered praises in Kufic script, stopping briefly, eyebrows shooting up, at the curves of pearls and golden thread marking the Hegira year. They kept exploring, passing over Roger’s sons Roger the younger and Alfonso, taking in their Frankish knights’ attire, hardening over the episcopal adornments on the papal legate, and softening again at the sight of Roger’s young English chaplain, Thomas Brun.
Did he know how caressing his gaze had become? Granted, it wasn’t love at first sight, yet admiration of this kind might need to be better hidden. But Thomas’ form was as always so perfectly showcased in a tunic that was as tightly laced as he could get away with, and his cheeks were smooth, as always, and he was leaning a little too obviously against his secretary Othman, as always. Al-Idrisi’s thirst made Roger hide a smile, all the while stirring something long-forgotten in him that made him want to recall his guest’s attention to himself, make him his.
“Won’t you answer the king?” the legate prompted, his voice harsh – who did he think he was?
“Not yours to ask,” Roger said, glad to finally be able after such a long, cruel war to keep the pope and his whole following in line. “So?” he added for al-Idrisi.
“I’m fluent enough in Latin, most revered king. French might be more complicated.”
“You speak French?”
“Only a little. I travelled along the Atlantic coast as far as Brittany, but only for a short time.”
“Hm. Greek, too, most likely?”
“Yes, most revered king. Some of the Almoravids’ Berber, a few words of the Galician languages, enough Persian to understand their writings. And I can name medical substances in various other languages, if it pleases the most glorious king.”
Ah, yes. The botanical treaty. “Impressive. Tell me, traveller. You visited faraway lands, and now you’ve seen my kingdom. Explored it extensively, according to my informants. What did you think of it? The reports say you were gathering herbs, which I might believe for now, as it was the habit of another one like you. But if you’re a spy, beware.”
“Another like me?” There was longing – hope? – in his tone.
“Abu al-Salt, a physician like you, I think?”
“He died in Algiers, I’m told. You knew him?”
“He was my teacher in Cordoba. Later, we exchanged letters and he used to write about the wealth and welcome of the Normans’ Sicily.”
“Ah. Of course. Well, I’m sorry. He was appreciated here.”
Al-Idrisi’s nod was heartfelt but lacking in proper respect. It irked some of the Norman barons. “Sicily, most revered king?” he went on, oblivious. “A rich, pleasant kingdom. You were wise to keep the works of my people in functioning order. Flowing waters in the qanats, green gardens even this late in the fall, orange and citrus groves. Mulberry trees, too. Are the silks on your person from your own land?”
Alfonso actually groaned at the mention of the king’s body in such an impudent manner. But Roger couldn’t find in himself to feel truly angry.
“Some are,” he said. “My kingdom is rich. I’m blessed to be at the centre of all places, am I not?”
The words elicited a smile, open if slightly predatory. “At the centre, most revered king?”
“Isn’t Sicily at the heart of all seas and lands? I rule the trade of the Mediterranean, and Palermo is one of the most prosperous capitals of the known world.”
“Ah, king. Of your known world, maybe, and only because Cordoba is the shadow of its former self. But truly, if I were to draw a map of the world for you” –would you? Roger thought, greed surging up– “I’d place the centre much farther east. Dedicating the map to a Christian king, I’d be well advised to draw it around the Christ’s tomb in Jerusalem,” he said with a nod to the papal legate that barely refrained from being openly ironic, “as I understand is the tradition with your scholars.”
“As it should be,” the legate said.
“Although my own people would rather choose Mecca, of course. But what use is looking for a centre on a spherical earth?”
“The earth is a disk, with the Holy Land at its centre, as all scholars know!” the legate barked.
Al-Idrisi’s thick eyebrows drew together, and Roger thought he could hear a muttered curse in Arabic.
“The earth, of course, is a sphere,” Roger said. “So the Ancients say.”
“Pagans,” the legate snorted.
“Pagans with undoubtable evidence, which is accepted by scholars of all faith. I myself have longed to travel far enough to the south to repeat Eratosthenes’ experience, but it’s not easy for a king to abandon his duties for so long. I’ll probably have to settle for knowing the result.”
The legate’s sneer was a delight. “The result, King Roger?”
“250,000 stades, of course.”
“For the circumference of the spherical earth, your Excellency.”
Yes, it was showing off for the traveller’s sake, and a sin of which Roger was guilty only too often. But it was turning into something else, a private joke shared at the expense of that insufferable legate, or delight in the discovery of a mutual love of knowledge. The smile hadn’t disappeared from al-Idrisi’s face, now acquiring a somewhat bemused, admiring quality. You’re hooked..
“So there’s true knowledge of the easternmost lands?” Roger asked al-Idrisi. “They aren’t just the fantasy of dreamers looking for Heaven on Earth?”
“They’re real lands, with real people. I’ve talked with mariners back from the Indian Ocean and men who travelled the whole length of the Silk Road to China. It’s real. Just as real as the cold mists of your forefathers.”
“Would you,” Roger asked, wincing at the unchecked yearning in his voice and schooling himself back to a more settled tone, “would you draw all of this for me? Build a map of the world?”
“That would be a challenge, most revered king. The work of a lifetime. There’s a difference between knowing a place exists and being able to draw its shape on a map. ”
“One you already began?”
“I could draw some partial maps, that’s true. I have a few sketches I used for my own travels. And as you appear to know, we have the knowledge of the Ancients to build upon, as well as the works of my own people.”
“Would you consider it?” I could help you, Roger thought but didn’t say. I didn’t travel that far, but I know people who did, rulers from all over Europe and as far as the Holy Land, it could be our shared master work–
He could feel an echoing yearning in the way the traveller was slightly bent forward, in the tension of his body and the set of his jaw. But the answer didn’t come.
“I’ll welcome you to the palace, of course, with riches and honours. You can ask my entourage, I’m a generous master.”
Maybe master wasn’t the word he should have used. Al-Idrisi’s orange gaze shifted to the side to the lounging slave girls, then to the palace eunuch, and came back to measure the strength of the Norman barons and knights gathered around the king’s dais.
“For now I’d prefer staying in Kalsa,” Al-Idrisi answered, his grimace reflecting the sour face the legate made at him. “I’m not sure Cassaro is made for the likes of me. And the palace even less.”
“Even in Kalsa,” Roger said, trying to rein in the anger but letting his displeasure show, “your stay depends on my good word.”
“Do I have it?”
Alfonso exclaimed at the disrespect. Roger let it pass.
“Will you work for me?”
“I wish to think on it for a while, most revered king. If you please.”
The supple mouth was pressed in a thin line, and al-Idrisi’s fierceness only made Roger less willing to let him go. He could break this lonely man who thought he could stand against a king. Cage the bird, get his song. After all, Roger had done much worse, pillaged cities, hanged princes, and Christian ones, together with their whole following. This wouldn’t even leave blood on his hands. Besides, what was this Saracen hoping, coming here? Wasn’t he already a man past his prime, tired of walking all over the world? An exile, the Caliphate long out of his family’s hands, looking for money and some protector?
He sighed. A protector was what he deserved. Not a slave master. “It’s November. My own sailing back to Sicily has been complicated. You’d better wait for the spring to consider leaving, whatever you do in the end. Whether you stay in Kalsa or come to the palace is your choice.”
“A whole Sicilian winter to consider,” al-Idrisi said, the sinuous lips softening again. “And enjoy this central position to meet travellers from all around the world. A good offer. Thank you, most revered king.”
The king had expected to see the traveller settle in the palace. Barring that, he had hoped he’d get some reports from his Kalsa informants, but it seemed al-Idrisi had decided to live a reformed life, foregoing the shady encounters at the harbour and conducting his medical practice behind closed doors. Several weeks after the audience, he hadn’t given any hints about his decision, playing dead to the palace even when Roger had tried to remind him of the offer by sending one of the manuscripts he had in his possession, a partial copy of the first book of Ptolemy’s Geography.
Roger had sent other books and wondered if the short notes in Arabic on cheap paper coming in acknowledgement should be taken as victories. Al-Idrisi was pleased to get this reminder of Ptolemy’s methods and thanked the king for his loan, and also measured the thankless task it would be to estimate coordinates for each place the king would wish on his map. Roger had smiled at that, and written back that he was good with numbers, and could help with the calculus side of things. No answer.
He tried riding to the lower city, getting glimpses of al-Idrisi and his searching eyes, and finally used the pretext of some ailment, a burnt hand on a brazier, to meet his – his? – geographer. There had been supple, competent hands on his skin, and a brazen, orange gaze on his face. Nothing more.
He was making himself desired, Roger thought fleetingly. It was a bargaining, but it felt like a courtship. Damn the man.
“Does he realise the honour you made him when you invited him at the court?” asked Duke Roger the younger, always ready to hold the banner in any of his king’s fights.
“I think he does. But he’s right in saying that what I ask of him is the work of a lifetime. It wouldn’t be like Abu al-Salt, who came and went. He’d swear himself to the service of an enemy of his faith, for maybe the rest of his life.”
“He should be thankful.”
“Not sure he sees it so. Tell me, do you know where he goes when he isn’t at home? I might try to meet him in less formal settings.”
“What’s bishop Pietro going to say about that?” Duke Roger asked, grimacing.
“That legate needs to learn his place. And go back to his master as soon as possible.”
A sigh. Was his son thinking of resisting him? “Your geographer has been seen walking up the countryside, exclaiming about herbs,” he finally said, looking strangely disapproving.
“I’ll ride up tomorrow morning after sword practice, then.”
“Should I come with you?”
“He’s wary of Norman knights. Better if I go alone.”
“Into the hills? You have a very optimistic view of your subjects’ loyalty, Father.”
“My subjects of all faiths know I treat them fairly. And they like being on the victor’s side. I have a realistic view of their loyalty.”
“I thought you’d keep to the orchards level,” Roger said when he finally reached al-Idrisi, whose scrambling, far-away shape he’d been following for the best part of the morning. The path had turned too rocky for his horse, which he’d had to lead on foot for the last hour. While he thanked the inspiration that made him opt for a simpler Frankish garb he still felt red, dishevelled and panting. Not kingly at all.
Al-Idrisi started and turned, his eyes going immediately to Roger’s sword. Damn. Then he sighed and his shoulders sagged in relief as his eyes jumped up to Roger’s face before slipping back down the chest encased in a side-laced woollen tunic that was probably tighter than anything he’d seen on his travels.
“As-salāmu ʿalaykum,” Roger said. Al-Idrisi smiled.
“Waʿalaykumu s-salām,” he answered, and kept to Arabic. “Your gardens are very nice, king, but the hills remind me of home.” He winced. “Well, of one of the places where I grew up. They’re dry, but they’re beautiful.”
“The shrublands? These goddamned prickly, evergreen shrubs, you like them?”
“There are real forests in the dells. And you don’t know how rich in medicinal herbs the evergreen patches are.”
“If you stay, you can show me, Muhammad al-Idrisi.”
“If I stay. You know, king, your forests and shrublands are a treasure. And I see your barons’ greed in the way some of these places are overgrazed, being turned into bare rock and sparse, dry grass. My people did better, caring for this land.”
“We can learn if they want to teach us.”
“For sure, the Muslims of the palace are well-treated, even honoured. Listened to.”
“You enquired?” Roger couldn’t help interrupting.
“I did. But in your baron’s fiefs or in the Church’s possessions, all Muslims are serfs and nobody cares for their skills.”
“What did you hope for?” Roger asked, surprised that he even had to explain. “We are the defenders of the true faith, and my father and I have been very lenient in our treatment of your people. You Muslims pay the jizya, as Christians did under your rule. Vae victis, Muhammad. But I honour your knowledge and as long as I rule I’ll listen to someone who can help me turn my kingdom into a better place.”
Another of al-Idrisi’s nods. It was hard to guess whether he agreed or not, even with his mouth extending again in a half-smile, even with his orange eyes searching for some truth on Roger’s face. As the sun finally came out of the high, wind-swept clouds, Roger found himself studying his profile, his skin, copper-hued in the golden light, his strong nose and well-shaped jaw under the bristles of the short beard.
“Amrad,” he heard himself say.
“You haven’t had this beard for very long, have you?” Roger plodded on. He was foolish, but to hell if he was backing down when al-Idrisi had perfectly heard what he’d said.
“Amrad,” al-Idrisi repeated, smirking. “Beardless maybe, but I can’t be accused of youth. Or,” and his gaze turned evaluating, “of anything else. Believe me or not, there are places where people, even Muslims, aren’t clutching to their beards as an essential part of their honour. I liked the feeling. But of course, coming back to these parts, growing a beard was wiser.”
Roger couldn’t help imagining a totally beardless al-Idrisi, those black curls of his framing smooth cheeks, the lines enhancing his jaw more apparent, and just the hint of a stubble shadow drawn over the upper curve of his mouth.
“You are a gazelle whose cheeks
Are a garden of roses, guarded
From the scorpion of the aladar
By the hail of his teeth.
He drinks from the cup
As the moon drinks the stars.”
He’d quoted that aloud, he realised, horrified, as al-Idrisi startled and turned towards him at once, his expression tense but otherwise unreadable.
“So Arabic isn’t just the language of your administration. You know our poetry, too? How well?”
Roger cleared his voice. “Believe it or not, rather well. My wife, may God rest her soul, was the granddaughter of your great poet and ruler, al-Mu’tamid.”
“Really?” al-Idrisi seemed curious, which might be enough to deflect his attention to safer grounds.
“He was her mother’s father, although nobody at the Castile court advertises it.”
“Queen Isabella? She really was a former Muslim slave?”
“The range of your knowledge scares me a little, you know that? She was.”
“So, king, you know exactly what you quoted. A gazelle, uh. And you look too guilty not to know what the moon stands for. Pardon me if I’m mistaken, or at least somewhat confused, but are you trying to woo me with some of as-Santarini’s most explicit verses? While reminding me of your dead wife?”
“That I loved passionately,” Roger said, because it had been true and even now he wanted to remain loyal to her memory. But maybe that was what he’d just attempted, half-unwillingly.
“I’d be mad to try it,” he countered. “When I want you to stay at my side for nobler reasons. And with Pietro breathing down my neck like that.”
Al-Idrisi’s brazen gaze was on him, or rather on his mouth. “You Normans are freakishly tall,” he muttered, licking his own lips perhaps unconsciously. “And I don’t know if the whiteness of your skin is upsetting or exotic and tempting, like a milk pastry. Or, in your case, like a creamy, pinkish, blushing rose. Don’t you burn in the sun? Do you protect your skin?”
“I don’t,” Roger said, telling himself he should cut that short but unable to find the will to do so, watching al-Idrisi graze fingers on the white underside of his wrist. “I burn, sometimes, in summer.”
“I make an unguent that works well, remind me to give you some. Say, king. While the poets still celebrate your love for your wife, may God Almighty grant her salvation, everyone says that you haven’t been celibate these last years. Concubines, mistresses, a bastard or two… But you were moved to quote lines about love between two men?”
He was blushing. He was well into his forties, a king whose warlike and sexual exploits were the stuff of legend, blushing. “I’m not without experience in the latter kind of love,” he said – but why? That wasn’t how, or why, he wanted to make al-Idrisi stay.
“You’re a prudent man then, with a taste for both? I noticed you had caught my, ah, admiring gaze for your clean-shaven qaid during the audience. Do you know how indecent your nobles’ tight tunics look to us? Talk of a beardless, alluring youth, this one! I feared you’d punish me for it. And then I wondered why you didn’t, nor used it for blackmail. And I, ah, began to wonder.”
Al-Idrisi smiled that predatory smile of his and Roger realised they stood close enough for him to notice the whiteness of his teeth and the slight gap between the incisors. Roger raised his hand, which might have been to push him away, but when the hand was up he did what he yearned to, a light brush along the outline of the too-short beard, up to where it met the black curls, the silver more apparent this close. His fingers dug into the lush hair and al-Idrisi leaned into the touch with a small gasp, head tilting backwards, throat offered and mouth opening.
Then he sighed, set his jaw and asked. “Are you just playing, king, or do you want to lie with me? Is it why you asked me to stay?”
“It isn’t.” Roger shivered, decided to continue. “But I’m finding I’d like to.”
“On the prickly grass between two rocks?” Al-Idrisi’s voice hovered between ironic and aroused and his own hand came up to mirror Roger’s, playing with the strands of his fuller beard.
“In the palace,” Roger managed to get out. “I like my comfort.”
“Then I take back my words. You aren’t a prudent man.” But it was said in a dreamlike voice, their lips now only inches apart.
“Share the evening meal with us. Nobody will think anything of it, except to decide I’m making progress in my efforts to keep you here. Stay for the night.”
Al-Idrisi nodded, and before Roger could react he pulled Roger’s face to his mouth, plastering their bodies together. The kiss was brief and hungry and his erection was obvious against Roger’s thigh. Then Roger pulled apart.
“Until tonight, then,” he said, turning away before he either punished al-Idrisi for his impudence or succumbed to lust.
Roger might have made real progress by inviting al-Idrisi that evening. It was the descendant of caliphs who faced him at the table, relieved to find oriental refinement in the manners and the dishes, and the scholar, revelling in the duel of knowledge the king challenged him to. He was eager, Roger was sure of it, while he listened to tales of the travels of Roger’s forefathers, and awed when Roger translated a day’s maximum length into latitude without even a tablet and stylus to help.
“Good with numbers, indeed, my king,” al-Idrisi said, laughing, his eyes flashing only briefly up and meeting Roger’s. The my king was a slip, Roger decided. Or maybe a promise for tonight. Nothing long-term. Al-Idrisi shifted on his chair and breathed out through his nose, long and pained, and he decided that the both of them were as aroused, as impatient, and as uncomfortable about it.
It might have felt like delightful anticipation, and maybe it had at first, a part of what had pushed Roger to take his chances and ask him to the palace, but he was well beyond that into excruciating need, only made more acute by the hint of fear. Dinner didn’t end fast enough, and the evening pleasantries were cut short.
“Does anybody know you’re here?” al-Idrisi asked upon Roger’s irruption into his secluded, carefully vetted room.
“Not a soul. There are two slaves who each believe I’m with the other.”
“You’ve been wandering around your palace, late at night and fully clothed. Is that unusual? Will it attract attention? Were you followed?”
“Unusual, yes. But I visited the guards, which is reason enough. And I don’t walk the corridors here in only my shirt and breeches. Are you scared?”
“I’m a stranger and a Muslim. The immunity you might feel doesn’t extend to me.”
“If you changed your mind, I can –”
“My offer for a position at the palace would still stand, whatever you –”
“Did you hear what I said, king?”
Someone was breathing hard – the both of them, Roger realised, and al-Idrisi was licking his lips. He repressed a moan. So be it, even if it was madness.
Al-Idrisi closed the gap between them and pushed his hands up Roger’s chest, callouses snagging fine silk threads from his tunic.
“How do you even remove this?” he asked, voice gone husky. “Is it sewn on?”
“With difficulty. But there’s lacing. Ah–” he exhaled as al-Idrisi’s clever fingers found the hidden laced seam under his arm. “Yes. Here.”
“Works like a kind of restraints, doesn’t it? To better torture people who want to disrobe fast? Goddamn. And the shoulders are tight, too.”
“Going to take a while,” Roger said, hoping to mask his moan at al-Idrisi’s hand brushing his side, exploring at his collar, undoing the button and baring a collarbone. “Got to admit it has its, ah, perks.”
“Mmh. Care to disrobe me too, king, while I try to figure that devil’s garment?”
Al-Idrisi’s own tunic was indeed more sensible, soon pulled over his head, and the shirt under it was white cotton and so thin that the dark nipples showed through conspicuously. It had been long since Roger had enjoyed such a sight, and such touches, not hurried in the dark of a tent before a battle, not between knights too far from home who yearn for a rush of pleasure, for skin, any skin and a touch on their cock – but in the candlelight under the roof of a castle, the hurry only brought by lust for exactly what they had, firm muscles and bristling jaws and pebbled small nipples and hard cocks.
It brought back memories of youth, that short sweet careless time of experimentations before his mother had left Sicily into his hands, when a sin was only his own, and not paid with a whole duchy or a realm, when he thought he could choose who he was, an Arab scholar or a Greek and not much of a Norman finally, and so little of a Christian. Here, in that distant aisle of the palace, as far as possible from Pietro’s quarters, removed even from the most loyal of his servants, maybe he could steal a little of that freedom again, for one night.
“Help me there? I’m stuck. King. Roger. Roger?” Muhammad’s voice was soft, concerned, and the hand he’d managed to slide through the unlaced opening of Roger’s tunic was warm, pressing against the muscles of his back. “You’ve done that already, haven’t you? Is it all right?”
“I have. It’s all right. It’s – more freedom than I’ve had for decades. Help me out of this.”
“How? I’m stuck, I told you. Why should holes on the side help you out?”
“The holes help disengage the shoulders. Pull on the sleeves. I should emerge from the other side.”
“Christ’s fingernails, my hair! Godammit!”
“Here you are. Is it always so tricky? You Franks are curious people.”
“Not a Frank.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Come on, Muhammad. You’d miss ogling Norman chests if laced tunics went out of fashion at the court.”
“I’d miss ogling your chest. It’s quite impressive in that thing.” Muhammad was gathering the hem of Roger’s shirt and bunching it up, resting his hands on his belly, testing its firmness, palming the looser skin on his hips. He let a small, breathless gasp out. “I think it might hold its promises, naked. Care to show me?”
Roger cared, and faster than that, diverted himself from the shirt while Muhammad pulled off his own, and then they were chest to chest as Muhammad ran his hands on his pecs, murmuring something about a warrior’s muscles on a king’s chest, making him whine as he didn’t stop over nipples and just explored on. But both sets of hands were already in each other’s hair, and God but did that make Muhammad moan, and their mouths were crushing in a kiss, taste of exotic spice from Muhammad’s tongue, Muhammad’s teeth sinking into Roger’s lip, their breaths and moans mingling together, and everything felt like it was swelling, their lips their cocks the tip of their fingers where it caught in hair tangles and scratched against scalp, and this private bubble where all of this felt good and acute and right. They were grinding against each other, Muhammad pulling himself up, the weight of his arms on Roger’s shoulders unrelenting, welcome, and Roger could have come like that, not with the novelty of it but with the bittersweet, piercing remainder of simpler times.
But he was older, if not, it turned out, wiser, and if he was making himself new memories he wanted more.
“Wait,” he said, pushing himself apart enough to lower his hands on unfamiliar trousers strings. “Let me see you.”
Muhammad chuckled, slightly breathless. “Your turn to be baffled by a piece of clothing?” His fingers, meanwhile, were doing away with Roger’s chausses fastenings, seemingly well-acquainted with their principle, and tugging off his breeches belt.
“Got them,” Roger breathed, as Muhammad’s trousers pooled at his feet – “Christ.”
Muhammad’s body was gorgeous, lean, strong, with supple fingers and long feet, thin wrists and ankles, but the thighs muscular and the chest wide, and Roger didn’t want to compare anymore, pushed away the hazy memories of others. Under his roving hands, a mosaic of coppers and gold and browns, a well-marked line between the tanned throat and the lighter, golden chest, swirls of dark hair framing the brown nipples, and below, the light bumps of his ribs and a taut stomach. A still-pink scar along a knee, white thighs and the stark contrast of the black bush of hair prolonged in a curly, swirling line up his navel. And his cock, oh God.
“Christ’s bones,” Roger said, sliding his hands down, over the quivering stomach, along the thighs, his gaze following the hands and his whole body going down with his gaze, helpless against the need to kneel, “your cock.”
“No –” he said, hoarse, wanting to add that he wasn’t swearing in vain, that he meant it, that calling God as witness to that gorgeous, dark, flushed, glistening, hard, oh so fully hard cock was no sin. But that dark purple head, so close to his lips, its imagined softness, the drop of precome in the slit made his throat dry and his mouth watering, and he couldn’t.
Muhammad’s hands went to Roger’s head, not to coerce but to rest there, the lightest of touches. Pulled at the leather thong that held his hair, which spread on his shoulders.“My kneeling king,” he said, voice wavering, his hard breathing so loud in the silent room. His cock twitched and Roger bent forward, opened his mouth and took him in.
Muhammad uttered a strangled, halting sound, bucked a little, stilled. Firmed his grip in Roger’s hair. Roger closed his eyes and let some old instinct, or maybe a skill born of that fiery, choking lust take over, one hand on his own cock, stroking when he remembered to, the other on Muhammad’s balls, fondling, caressing as he revelled in his choked groans and curses. There was the smell of clean-scrubbed skin, the taste of prolonged, desperate arousal, bitter and salty, and he couldn’t have wished to be anywhere else.
My king, Muhammad had said but right now that wasn’t who he was – just a man, lust sending sparks from his tongue to his cock, holding him taut on his knees, making him lick and suck and swallow and open wider, take deeper, spit dribbling from his mouth, sweat pouring from his brow, breaths shallow and desperate.
“You’ll make me come,” Muhammad growled, taking in a hissing breath. “By God, I’d love that, but – ah, do that with your hand, yes, stroke in, ah, God! – is that what you want, suck me till I empty myself, then fuck me?”
Yes, Roger wanted to say, just because it felt easy to agree, anything, everything, just more of this searing fire that linked them and blanked all thoughts – no, I don’t know, why should I decide, why am I like that, my cock so hard it hurts and my mouth so full but it’s not enough, I’m still empty and my mind is floating, Muhammad–
He forced his eyes to open, looked up, his mouth still full of cock, revelling in the sight of Muhammad’s face twisting, caught in the effort to hold on, hair wet and curling at the temples, lip caught between his teeth, nostrils flaring. Muhammad looked down and moaned, then chuckled, a core of tenderness inside the lust.
“God Almighty. When you give in, you don’t keep anything back, do you? Come up. Kiss me.”
Roger pushed himself up, or maybe Muhammad pulled him, his undone breeches falling to his feet. The kiss was softer, longer, tongues pliant and probing, Muhammad tasting him, tasting himself, sucking, finally pulling out to rest his lips at the corner of Roger’s mouth. Smiling.
“Would you rather I take you, king?”
They were rubbing together and there was no way Muhammad hadn’t felt the desperate twitch of Roger’s cock.
“Make it good,” Roger managed to say. He might have intended the words as an order but they sounded like a plea, too much whine in them, too much anticipation, a hint of dread – it’s been so long, was implied, I might not remember, my body might not–
“Bed, my king. Come here.”
Roger should have reacted to the obvious provocation that was Muhammad’s insistence on his title right when he was taking control, but the truth was that in his mouth King sounded like a lover’s name, and if Muhammad enjoyed the power of using it it was only thrilling. Roger felt a hand on his buttcheek, fingers in his cleft, pushing him along, promising, and he gasped.
“God almighty,” Muhammad whispered. “You’re beautiful. Come on, lie there, on your back, does it feel good?” Yes, it did, but Roger managed only a nod and a raise of his hand to touch Muhammad’s chest, sword-calloused hand rough against his nipple, getting an audible gulp and a sharp intake of breath for his pain.
“Goosebumps. Are you cold, king?”
“Damn your mouth, no,” Roger groaned. “Aroused, damn near going to burst from it, as if you didn’t know. By the devil’s tits, get at it!”
“I’ll get the oil. Wait.”
The fingers left his crack and that was a damn loss. But Muhammad was soon back, dragging the brazier closer, the embers painting red highlights on the ridge of his spine, on his shins, the curve of his ass, his glistening cock.
A vial popped and gurgled, then Muhammad’s naked body pressed on Roger’s side and a slick hand laid back on his skin. Roger twitched as it reached his stomach, and again when it touched his hip, pressing down, sliding over the sensitive joint of his thigh, carding through the wiry hair around his cock, playing with his balls, stroking and pulling and rolling until Roger was gritting his teeth with the effort not to beg, and finally, a finger came circling around his rim, breaching his hole, pressing in, making him gasp, or sob, or moan, or all at once.
“Think I’m making it good already?” Muhammad asked, but got only an incoherent drawn out moan, Roger much too lost in the feeling of several fingers, in and around his hole, working him open, pliant, tingling, eager and begging, begging for it. Muhammad’s mouth was on his chest, lapping, kissing, biting, working up until he was mouthing his neck.
“Listen, Roger,” Muhammad rasped. “I’m guessing it’s been a long time and however gone you seem to be, don’t want to hurt you. Are you sure you want it? We can enjoy each other in different ways.”
Roger whined in frustration. “Don’t you want it, Muhammad?”
“By God, if you could see yourself, my gorgeous king. I want to lean on you and spear you right now.”
“Then do!” Roger exclaimed, finally finding back his commanding voice.
Muhammad smiled, eyes crinkling, and nodded. Roger could see his throat working and heard his hissing breath as he stroked his cock with an oiled hand and positioned himself. Roger knew a moment of doubt then, because that cockhead pushing in, this cock, barely in but so big, so stiff, the pressure unrelenting, were going to be too much.
“Look at me,” Muhammad said, “open your eyes, hold onto my back, you can dig your nails if you want–”
He couldn’t, couldn’t even breathe, so full, stretched, burning, splayed, and couldn’t even talk, but maybe he could, maybe he wanted more, managed a nod, feeling the sweat bead at his forehead.
“Like that, my king, look at me, breathe, yes – you can take it, I’m going slow, promise I’m going slow, you’re doing so good, Roger, ah, God –” and Roger exhaled, shivered and groaned at Muhammad’s touch on his rim, opened his eyes long enough to see his face twisted in pleasure and barely-retained control.
“You?” Roger asked, anchoring himself to Muhammad’s desire, hands gripping his back, sliding to his buttocks, digging, not sure he was trying to slow him down or to pull him deeper. “Feels good? You good?”
“Ah – ah, damn. God curse me, so good –” Muhammad was leaning over Roger’s chest, heavy on his raised, open legs, kissing his shoulder, his armpits, biting a nipple, all the while pressing in, slow, slow, big. Roger didn’t know if it felt good for himself, if it was his own pleasure he felt or an echo of the other’s, because he couldn’t even moan, still trying to breathe around the impossible intrusion, and yet – yet it was becoming his centre, all blood pooling down, his cock swelling even bigger, harder, leaking already, his hole impossibly open, throbbing, clenching, radiating heat, and he wanted more –
“All in,” Muhammad exhaled, then he sucked in a breath, began to move, small pumping motions, too small, and Roger pushed his hips up, cock twitching, more, he needed more– “Been hard for hours,” Muhammad grunted, “won’t hold much longer, especially if you move like that, sorry–”
“All good with me,” Roger moaned, the last vowel elongated and too loud, thankful for the size of the palace and the existence of whole uninhabited guest aisles. “Ah, God – same, same, that meal was torture, right now if you touch me I come, God–”
Muhammad wasn’t trying to hold off anymore, spearing powerful thrusts, panting, and Roger cried out, pulled him deeper in, hands slipping on sweat-soaked skin, met him thrust for thrust.
“Wait,” Muhammad said, pinning Roger’s wandering hand down, “don’t touch yourself yet, can at least try to–”
“Christ!” Roger shouted, something sparking inside him, blossoming under Muhammad’s strokes, and Muhammad’s answering chuckle turned into a drawn-out, breathless moan. Roger raised his head high enough to crush their mouths together, his tongue fucking Muhammad’s mouth as Muhammad fucked his hole, and then they were chest to chest, fused together, Muhammad pounding in, shouting, Roger revelling in the sensations of his cock trapped between their stomachs, so close…
“You’re going to come,” Muhammad whispered, his hand worming between them, grabbing Roger’s cock, no finesse, just pull and twist and pound in again, harder, into that spot that was making him see stars.
“Yes,” Roger hissed, “God yes –” and then he was emptying himself, helpless, wanting it to last longer, coming and coming as Muhammad’s cock was hitting that place again and again, as Muhammad was wringing the last drops of come from his cock, his other arm locked on Roger’s shoulder, burying his face into his neck, moaning strings of garbled Arabic words Roger wasn’t catching, and Roger was shivering, wrecked, burning, spent.
But over him Muhammad’s strokes were even more frantic and he was pulling himself up and pulling himself in by Roger’s folded legs, wild and glorious, curls a halo of gold and red in the light of the guttering candles and the dying embers, skin like molten gleaming metal, mouth twisted in pleasure, pupils blown wide.
“You’re bedding me,” Muhammad said between grunts and pants, “Christian king, ah, God! I’m bedding you, but I’m not your slave, not your concubine–”
“No,” Roger said, hole aching, cock oversensitive and still twitching, feeling used, shattering under Muhammad’s thrusts, “you’re not, I’m–”
“You’re not my master, ah, God curse me, so, so good, Roger, so right, ahhh–”
And then his cock was twitching inside Roger’s hole, squirting, and he was collapsing, his whole weight on Roger’s body, his hips stuttering, his breaths like sobs, mouth open and pressing teeth that weren’t closing into his shoulder.
“I’m not your master,” Roger said, low, lost. “I’m your king.”
He felt the shape of a smile on his shoulder. “You’re my king, yes. For tonight.”
Tonight only – Roger knew it, of course, but it still felt unfair, acutely painful. He should make it a clean cut, rise up, leave – clean up, first, then, yes, leave at once, but he felt exhausted, raw, and the water in the basin must be frigid by now, so close to the cold, long-unheated stonewall.
“Hush, my king,” Muhammad whispered, lips in his hair. “It’s alright. Night hasn’t ended yet. I’ll add a log to the fire and then I’ll take care of you. Lie there.”
How did you know, Roger wanted to ask, but it felt easier just to recline, his limbs so heavy, his skin still tingling, and half doze, half watch Muhammad moving around.
“Here. Water’s cold but the cloth was by the fire, hope it’ll be enough. Let me arrange your legs.”
The mattress dipped as Muhammad knelt by Roger, bending away to moisten the cloth, tuning back to work at his inner thighs and around his hole in precise, careful touches.
“Mmhhh. Soft,” Roger mumbled. “Hey. Is that your shirt?”
“I have others. Hm. More than sensitive there, uh. It’s, ah, quite swollen, I’m sorry.”
“Really? I’m not.”
“Hope you don’t have to ride tomorrow, king.”
“I can make it so. Thank God for winter and peace.”
Muhammad nodded and went back to dip his shirt, the muscles of his back shifting pleasantly in the low light. His skin had a strange texture there, almost striped. Old scars.
“What’s on your back?”
The muscles tensed, and when he answered Muhammad’s voice was guarded more than angry. “Kings don’t learn to shut their mouths, do they?”
“I’m sorry. I’m not usually – ah. I guess that lovemaking just shut off my intellect.”
“I –” There was the slap of the wet shirt falling down on the tiled floor, then the welcome warmth of Muhammad’s body moulding against his own, and Muhammad placing Roger’s hand on his back. “After all, you just had me – I guess I can – ah. They’re marks of shame. Of my luck, too, I should probably say.”
Under Roger’s hands, the scars were thin intangible lines he followed with the tip of a finger and kept losing, and it made Muhammad shiver.
“God knows I tried to do good by them, my uncle, my family. My wife. But I am, ah – what God made me, unable to keep to chaste contemplation when it comes to men.”
“Your wife. Abu Abdallah Muhammad, you must have a son, too?”
“I had. Have. I don’t know. It’s been so long, Abdallah would be a young man now. But if he’s still alive he thinks I’m dead. Even in Ceuta, my family had enemies, and they didn’t look the other way when they found me just like tonight, balls deep into another man’s ass.”
“They actually enforced the law? When those caliphs of yours, my wife’s own grandfather among them, could bed their vizier in plain sight? They brought a Hammudid to trial on charges of sodomy?”
“It can happen, when you have first-hand witnesses. And political incentives. But my family called in favours and the judges exhumed Ibn Hazm’s most lenient interpretations of the law. No stoning for a Hammudid, ha. And the lashing wasn’t that severe. Then they helped me escape and said I had died trying. My uncle gave me money, promised more and exiled me. At least it freed my wife. But I lost a son.”
“And became a traveller. For how long?”
“I was twenty-seven. Twelve years. Not a bad life, Roger.”
Roger wanted to offer his protection, tell him he’d be safe, that he could find peace, get his son back. But he kept silent, remembering that the Christian law had no lenient interpretation. “But a lonely one.” he finally said. “You’re still welcome to stay here.”
Muhammad nodded and looked down. He’d raised himself on an elbow and was now tracing shapes into Roger’s still sticky, come-stained stomach. Arabic letters, it seemed. The fire crackled and Roger didn’t know if what he felt was grief, contentment or just plain exhaustion.
“Why is that map so important?” Muhammad asked.
“For me? Knowledge. Faraway places, wonders of man and nature. I never went further than Italy, never will, possibly. What I want now is to build a true kingdom with laws and stability, and that’s not something you do while running away. But I dream, of the depths of Abyssinia, of, of Thomas’ rainy land, even, or your own Al-Andalus. If you could give me that, only a glimpse…” Roger sighed. “And I, ah, like you. Trust you with the endeavour. For the king? Glory. Magnificence. Power. You map the world, it becomes yours, in subtle ways. I’ll give you silver, Muhammad, more than you need, and you’ll make the map with it.”
Muhammad was still scribbling on his stomach. “If I make a commentary, you’re aware it’s going to be in Arabic? My command of Greek or Latin isn’t that good.”
Roger smiled. “Arabic, like the embroideries on my mantle. It’s exactly what I want my kingdom to be about. Like my chapel will soon be, with a half-Byzantine layout, Italian-made floors and an Arabic ceiling. I’ll delight in the Pope’s rage.”
“I haven’t promised anything,” Muhammad said.
“But you’re thinking of it?”
“I am. You’re an interesting man, Roger. When I went to that first audience, I thought I’d meet a boorish adventurer made king, not this light-haired giant who plays with numbers in his mind and quotes as-Santarini in the original language.” He leant down, stole a kiss. “And when you made it clear you wanted to bed me, I thought you’d take me like one of your mistresses, bugger my ass, not, not, ah, what you gave me tonight.”
“Would you like it?”
“Me buggering your ass.”
Muhammad’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “Ah, king. I’m not adverse. At all. And now that’s enough soul-baring. I’ll finish washing your chest, and then you can – you can doze a bit with me, and then leave.”
Roger woke with the sound of bells and distant chanting. It was still night, nobody was stirring, and no sound came from the mosques. Lauds, then, thank God. Not Prime. He hadn’t intended to sleep, thought he’d just drift a while with Muhammad’s hands on him and his body warm against him, but it had been – too comforting, he guessed. Reassuring. Right. Hell of a risk.
He detached Muhammad’s hand from his shoulder, gently, and sat up. Couldn’t help passing his fingers through the dark curls and got an indistinct moan out of it, refrained from pressing a thumb over the delicious, sleep-swollen lips. He looked around. In the low light of the crescent moon, he could make out his tunic and chausses, crumpled on the floor. His shirt and breeches were – Muhammad had hung them close to the fire, a delightful attention that meant he’d pass on warm, dry clothes. He stood up, got clothed in silence, then added more embers to the brazier and logs to the fire.
“You came to me just before
the Christians rang their bells
The half-moon was rising
looking like an old man’s eyebrow
or a delicate instep.
And although it was still night
when you came a rainbow
gleamed on the horizon,
showing as many colours
as a peacock’s tail.”
Muhammad’s voice was barely above a whisper, hoarse with sleep, but it still made Roger jump and then the words pierced his heart.
“You’re awake? I’m sorry, didn’t mean to wake you up. Where are these lines from?”
“Ibn Hazm. He had his reasons to be lenient with sodomites. But the bells rang and you’re not coming to me. You’re leaving.”
“You know I have to. Listen, Muhammad. I wanted you, you wanted me, I’m thankful for it. But now it’s done. There won’t be another time. We can’t risk it.”
“I was wondering when you’d come to your senses, king. You’re too old, too shrewd, and held this realm together for too long to let your cock, even your heart decide. I’ll pack off my things. I’m guessing there are ships to be found, even in winter?”
“Not so many, but there are always – wait. Muhammad, I’m not throwing you out!”
“Aren’t you? I’m going to become an embarrassing man to be around, am I not?”
“Of course not! I’m telling you I can’t lie with you again because I want you to stay! The – this, the kind of thing we could have behind closed door, in stolen hours between matins and lauds, you can’t build anything out of it, it’d always be hidden and end in bitterness or fear or, God forbid, in death. But if you stay here as my geographer, you’ll get the princely life you deserve, and we’ll create something together.”
“Wouldn’t you miss the stolen hours?”
Roger didn’t trust himself to answer. Muhammad pressed his lips together and nodded, then stood up.
“Ah. We’ll see. Winter’s not finished. Say, my king. Are we still behind closed doors?”
“Yes,” Roger said, feeling his mouth go dry.
“Then let me kiss you.”
If he could have convinced himself that the joy he felt in the following days came from his fortitude in cutting short his affair with al-Idrisi, the king would have been more certain of where he was going. But the truth was that he still vibrated with the memory of his mouth around a cock, of his hand grabbing at lush hair – Muhammad’s moans, God – and the lasting twinges in his ass made him shiver with the memory of being filled.
It should have made him despair but didn’t – not yet, provided his unhelpful mind. Instead, it filled him with a brittle, creative energy he used to pester the workers at the new chapel and to work with the legists for his project of assizes. But who was he kidding? What he really was using it for was delving deeper in the daydream of that map, making enquiries for any complete copy of Ptolemy his agents could put their hands on, and riddling the sailors of his fleet with precise, bordering on lunatic instructions on what they should record.
He’d even walked down to the harbour – not rode, the reason why making his cock twitch – to make his orders better understood. His entourage had been numerous, palace eunuchs intent on finding some administrative use to their king’s whim, a few bored knights, and his sons, loyal Roger, solemn Alfonso – damn, was he missing Tancred’s mirth – and even little scatterbrained, foolish William – would this one do less harm seconding his brothers in battle or being relegated to the church?
Then William had escaped from his tutors’ hands, ran away to catch some bird, nearly fallen into the water and been rescued by none other than al-Idrisi, whom Roger had only noticed then, and whose amused, wistful face Roger could only read too well. Muhammad had been watching them from his own circle of sailors. As Roger was being offered a seat and was refusing, he had smirked, and Roger had found himself grinning in answer, perhaps too obviously. Alfonso’s face had closed at once.
It was only when he’d been back to the palace that Roger had realised the implications of al-Idrisi being at the port. At first, he’d felt joy, thinking their purpose must have been the same, and then his heart had fallen when he’d understood that Muhammad was most likely seeking passage, planning to leave.
He was pulled out of his reverie by Philip, the young eunuch, requesting entry.
“My king, Pietro is in the new chapel, and–”
“Satan take him, why is it worthy of my interest?”
“Your enmity with the papal legate is maybe a bit too obvious, master. Anyway, that, hum, quarry of yours, the new Muslim scholar, decided to visit the chapel as well.”
And that was why Philip was so precious, because he caught nuances and acted upon his observations. And was loyal, although he was, like most eunuchs, Christian in name only. He’d go far, Roger guessed.
“Will you come?” Philip insisted.
“Of course. The legate is a cold ball of hate and his armed guard is dangerous. I don’t want him to scare al-Idrisi away.”
Pietro was kneeling in front of Christ Pantocrator, his outward appearance all humble devotion. But Roger could see his eyes darting to the various unfinished mosaics, the Greek letters, the Byzantine saints, and would bet the legate was internally seething. Muhammad, thank God for small mercies, couldn’t be seen, unless – of course, he was up in the scaffolding talking the Arab workers into handing him the still unfixed wooden panels of the muqarnas.
“Philip,” Roger whispered, “go tell Pietro I’ll be with him shortly? Make him keep his eyes down. I’m climbing up to evacuate al-Idrisi.”
“Shouldn’t it be the other way around? You with the bishop?”
“It might. Don’t care. Can’t abide the man, I need a little respite.”
“As-salamu ʿalaykum”, Roger said upon reaching the platform. Why was he always scrambling after al-Idrisi in the highest, loftiest places?
“Waʿalaykumu s-salam. Do kings usually climb up to the roof?”
“This one does. Occasionally. Damn, it’s high.”
“Head’s reeling? Come sit here, against the wall. Less airy.”
“Keep to Arabic, Muhammad.”
“Why? You want the workers to understand?”
“No. I don’t want Pietro to notice us. You.”
“Ah. Satan curse him. Think he’d look up to an Arabic ceiling?”
“Don’t want him to see you anyway. He hates you. Came up to tell you to hide until I can lure him away.”
“Oh. I hoped you braved the heights so that we could share a private moment.”
“Private? With the legate down there and all the workers around?”
“Ah. A shared moment enjoying the arts, then. By God, king! That’s magnificent work, and more fitting to a palace than the house of God!”
“Come on. Figurative paintings? Look at that pile, don’t tell me you didn’t approve them beforehand. A king, with cupbearers, this one obviously male? The other, ah, shall I say amrad?”
Muhammad had his hand on a pile of painted tablets and was tracing the shape of the king’s doe-eyed face with a nail. Roger scooted closer to see better, so close to the drop, arm pressing against Muhammad’s shoulder. Muhammad made a voiced, soft sigh, shivered a little. Pressed his calf against Roger’s foot. The closest worker, one of the painters probably, smirked. “And these, they’re, huh, the naked black man in the white man’s arms, you’ll tell me they’re wrestling, I’m sure – hey, careful! Sit down, I tell you.”
“Huh. The planks are too hard for your backside? I’m – is it feeling well enough?”
“My backside is feeling great, Muhammad, and it’s going to feel even better in a few days.”
“And you’ll die a martyr, uh,” Muhammad muttered.
“In the Prophet’s own words, God’s peace upon him. ‘He who loves and remains chaste and conceals his secret and dies, dies a martyr.’ A hadith my uncle loved to quote.”
“God’s bones, what do you want me to say? Do? Ah, damn my pride. I should never have bedded you. It was cruel to ask you to, ah, die a martyr, and now you’re leaving.”
Muhammad startled. “Uh, what? Does it look like I’m leaving? Listen, I won’t deny it’s hard to look at you and not act upon it, but where did you get the idea?”
“Wasn’t it what you were doing at the port? Securing passage on a ship?”
“On the Quran, I swear I wasn’t! There was a sailor, he said he’d travelled to Ceylon, I couldn’t let the opportunity pass, he –”
“You were working at the map?”
“I’m always – yes, Roger, I had your map in mind.”
“I had, too, that day. My captains have orders to –”
“I’ve heard. That map’s sure something for you. I could – ah, I’m not going to say it feels easy, but I’m willing to try. Is it possible for the king to visit me in Kalsa so that we can see what we have and whether the map is feasible? Or should I climb up to the palace with all my writing?”
The palace was the only proper answer, but hadn’t Roger already visited him at home? It had been, as Muhammad had tended to his burned hand, the first time his fingers had touched Roger’s skin, and he couldn’t help the yearning.
“Kalsa would make it look like I’m still trying to win your allegiance. That I’m lowering myself.”
“Are you willing to?” Muhammad asked, suddenly hoarse, his shoulder pressing into Roger’s arm.
“Yes,” Roger whispered. He cleared his voice “I’ll let you know in advance. There might be quite a retinue. And now I really have to manoeuvre the legate out of here. Don’t try to confront him, Muhammad. He’s dangerous. He might be a bishop, but he was riding into battle last summer, like his master.”
Muhammad’s hand went up, as if he were trying to keep Roger from leaving, or maybe protecting him from falling. But it hesitated, stopped, went on to rest lightly over Roger’s heart. Roger took it to pull it away, but he’d have been the first to admit he had waited two heartbeats too long to do so.
“That Christ on the dome is blessing us in the Greek way,” Pietro seethed when he noticed Roger at his side.
“And there isn’t one Christian scene in the nave. Just – writings. What kind of chapel is that, Roger? Half-heathen king, they call you in Rome. I’m inclined to agree.”
“Innocent lifted my excommunication. I’m a staunch defender of the faith.”
“He can revert it again! Which faith are you so staunchly defending, King? How is Arabic woodwork glorifying God in any way?”
“You’ve seen it close?”
Pietro crossed himself. “Never!”
“The muqarnas please God because they’re beautiful and reflect the intricacies of His creation.”
“How can you pretend to know what pleases God better than His own bishop?” Pietro barked. “You’ve gone too far, Saracen-loving king. Don’t think I haven’t heard about the way you sniff around that imposter you call a scholar. Sinners, all of them! Sodomites, colluding with all the evil-doers in synagogues to turn the world on its head! Is that scum what you want to welcome at your court? It’s going to be your downfall!”
There had been such longing for Muhammad, such desolation at letting him go, such frustration at not even kissing him that a fight might be what he needed. “God’s bones, envoy! Do you hear what libellous words you are spewing? Beware! You’re in my house.”
“We’re in God’s house.”
“It hasn’t been consecrated yet. You’re in my palace. In my realm. You won’t insult my guests, nor me, or your master won’t be powerful enough to save you!”
“Was I insulting your guest?”
“What is it that you know about him that I don’t?”
Pietro smirked. “Not much, I’m thinking, King Roger. Your, ah, friendship with that man is certainly deep enough.”
It sent a cold shiver down Roger’s spine, and now he didn’t know what was stronger, dread or anger. “Are you trying to rekindle a war? Must I remind you that not five months ago, Innocent was my prisoner?”
“You were lucky and he isn’t anymore.”
“I was enduring and my son Roger is a valorous knight. Your master’s allies are dead. You’re here to renew the ties between us, not to burn all bridges.”
Pietro nodded curtly. “And you’d do well to meet me halfway, King Roger. Was it Arabic I heard you speak, up in the scaffolding?”
Roger looked him in the eye. “How else would I address my Muslim subjects? Ah. You’re right. Let’s meet halfway, Pietro. I didn’t come here to quarrel. You know I’m working on a law compilation, and I need your opinion on the compatibility of some clauses with the Church’s teachings.”
“So you still care for God’s laws?”
“I’m a Christian. Will you come to the library?”
“It will be my pleasure to show you the light, King Roger.”
“There you are, finally. I have it, Muhammad, I have it!”
Muhammad wore day clothes, footless trousers and a Fatimid-style robe, but it seemed the effort had taken all his strength. His hair erupted in a halo all around his head, he was barefoot and the shadows under his eyes had darkened to epic proportions. He was looking mournfully at the barest hint of dawn at the window.
“Welcome to my home, most high king. I offer my apologies for not being more prepared–”
“Ah, damn,” Roger said. “Muhammad, I apologise, I did say I’d warn you beforehand, it’s that– I woke you up, didn’t I?”
“Well, Kamil woke me up when you showed up, king.” He yawned. “Please be seated, you and your retinue. My servants are numerous enough thanks to your generosity, they’ll be here soon with refreshments. Kamil makes a good tonic draught, would you enjoy some? I – God almighty, I need it.”
Roger looked around. Candles had been stuck on plates on the table and had melted to shapeless lumps. “I think Philip will take some, as will I. Did you work late last night?”
Muhammad offered a bleary smile. “Last night, uh. Yes. Tried to transcript what I heard about Ceylon. That sailor wasn’t the most coherent witness. What did you say you had?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“When you entered my house, you yelled about something you had?”
Roger felt the anticipation build up again, gestured to his servants to lay their bundles on the table. “I found one, Muhammad.”
“A complete copy of Ptolemy! My emissaries had been tracking it these last two months, and they finally brought it back. An Arabic translation, not too corrupted!”
Muhammad’s eyes were suddenly alive, watching the wrapped books with a burning intensity Roger had never witnessed, not even behind closed doors.
“With the map? Tell me, Roger, did the scribe copy the original map too?”
“Alas. Seems it’s been lost, well and good. But we have the coordinates!”
Muhammad smiled, looking slightly embarrassed about his outburst. “You’re right. That’s a great start! I’ve seen a map, once, myself. I wonder –”
“You’ve seen Ptolemy’s map?”
“Not Ptolemy’s. Al-Khwarizmi’s.”
“The mathematician? He made one?”
“It was in Cordoba. Think we could find it?”
“If it still exists somewhere, I’ll pay for a new copy or send my own scribes. A map!”
“Let’s already work from what we have here. You had a look?”
“I tried. It’s hard work. I may be quite out of my depth but I think there are a few weird bits. For one, there are so many Alexandrias I’m getting lost. But I’m sure I found the Egyptian one, and that makes his Mediterranean Sea much too long!”
“Unless we have a problem estimating distances, say, because their ships were much slower than ours?”
“Do you think so?”
“I don’t know. Unlikely. What’s the relevant volume?”
“Here’s the table with what I’m thinking are the Egyptian coordinates.”
“Let me see? Ah, curse the devil. Not enough light, I can barely read.”
“Should we wait for sunrise?”
“Don’t want to wait!”
“Upstairs, with my qalams and parchments. The light is better there anyway with the dawn coming.”
“Show me the way. Philip, see that the others are settled, please. Those who want to use the time for a stroll in the markets are welcome to do so. I think the servants might eat a morsel in the kitchens, could they, Muhammad? And organise some sort of guard around the volumes we aren’t taking upstairs. They’re precious.”
“Roger, I admire your sense of space and your ability to memorise numbers, but if we don’t commit these coordinates to parchment we won’t go anywhere.”
At some moment, the sun had risen – long ago, as told by the sunspot on the table. The excitement from early morning had gone, leaving a kind of obstinate relentlessness in its wake. “Christ’s blood, the more we read, the less we make sense! What are all these places anyway?”
“Guess kings aren’t used to waiting? Places change, their names too. I told you it was a task for many years! At least we’ve established that we can work from your copy. Italy seems coherent.” Muhammad’s hand went to rest on Roger’s arm, an instinctive calming attempt that made his skin tingle. “We’ll work it out.”
Roger yawned. “You’re right, friend. Damn, this is tiring. Think we could get a light meal? Pastries?”
The hand on Roger’s arm gripped painfully. “And stain these priceless books? Are you mad? What kind of heathen barbarian are you?”
“The kind that gets excommunicated?” Roger grinned, adding his hand over Muhammad’s. Their legs were still touching under the table and Muhammad was making no effort to move, the indignation on his face changing into something softer. Troubled. “We could push the books to the side. Ah. Reverently? And make a pause.” The last came out breathy, as Muhammad’s thumb was catching his fingers and stroking.
“Hungry, my king?” Muhammad asked, gulping audibly.
“God forgive me,” Roger said. “Yes.”
“This is madness,” Muhammad whispered, just as he bent towards Roger, balancing himself on a hand on Roger’s thigh.
“It is,” Roger breathed, lips a hairsbreadth from Muhammad’s. “My men, downstairs – ah –” Muhammad’s hand was creeping to the inside of thigh, pressing–
“Do you know how often I dream of you?” Muhammad growled.
“Gets you hard?”
“God curse me, harder than anything.” He gasped as Roger kissed the corner of his mouth, pulled away, looking desperate and angry. “Are you going to tell me this is the last time afterward? Again?”
“No–” God damn him, it was so foolish, dangerous– “Missed you so much, Muhammad, missed this, I can’t–”
“–Can’t do it?”
“Can’t stay away, please kiss me, make it good–”
Muhammad rose, pulling Roger with him. His palm; instead of his lips, went to press on Roger’s mouth. “Not a sound, my king. Your voice is beautiful when you beg but we can’t have it. And we can’t get your clothes stained. Hm. On your back? On these cushions?”
“Yes,” Roger said, although he didn’t know what he was agreeing to.
“Love these split tunics,” Muhammad mumbled. “We’ll just divest you of your breeches, what do you say?” His hand was on Roger’s crotch, grabbing his hardening cock through the fabric. He grinned. “Going to suck you, my king. Lick you all over, make you come into my mouth. You’d like that?”
Roger moaned, which brought the hand back over his mouth. He couldn’t help teasing the palm with his teeth, and Muhammad’s pupils blew wide. “God, king,” he growled. “Just lie down.”
It wasn’t Roger’s neglected, throbbing cock Muhammad went to lick, it was the inside of his trembling thighs, his balls that he was rolling in his mouth, his lower belly, shivering under the swipes of his tongue. There was only the briefest of kiss on his cockhead, a hand twisting around the length, and then nothing, goosebumps where Muhammad’s breath made the wet skin cold, and Roger had to bite his tongue not to whine again.
Then Muhammad’s mouth was back at the root of his cock, making him buck up and resist against the hand that was placating his hips down, and the tongue wasn’t licking up, but going down, barest hint of teeth on his swollen perineum, oh, God, and he couldn’t help moaning around the fingers that shot up to block the sound.
“Kings can’t shut up–” Muhammad said against his ass, puffs of breath warm over his hole, hand pressing over Roger’s mouth, fingers digging into his cheeks, pushing up into his nose and making it hard to breathe. “Now take it on my hand if you need–”And with that it was Roger’s crack that he was tasting, damn him, licking over his hole, and that was Muhammad who grunted when Roger had to bite, hard, at the flesh between thumb and forefinger.
“Never had that before?” Muhammad chuckled, and now the tongue was circling his rim, delicate, maddening, and Roger couldn’t speak but what he could make was a long, inhaled hiss, trying to evade the hand over his mouth, trying to shout, to curse, to beg for more. He knew he was thrashing out, one hand grabbing blindly at cushions, trying to find purchase, the other pulling up his knee, offering himself, wide open, shameless.
Muhammad’s tongue was delicious and wicked, and this was as far removed from the fumblings of Roger’s youth as the sun was from a candle. He grunted, dug his nails into his own shin, needing the pain to ground him in counterpoint with the silky brush of Muhammad’s hair on his skin. The tongue made a point to probe his rim, then became wide and sloppy as it licked over, and then Muhammad’s hand pressed hard to muffle Roger’s shouted curse as his tongue turned firm again and breached his entrance.
Roger felt offered, on display for Muhammad to take, and loved each second of it, lifting his ass up into Muhammad’s face, held open, calloused thumbs kneading circles into his buttocks, and he was grunting, sighing, tremors wracking him under the hand that pinned his hips and the tongue that fucked him. Teeth were scraping his ass, and then a firm mouth was pressing into his perineum, and somehow it made that spot inside him tingle, made his dick swell even harder, leaking, jumping, a guttural sound he hoped was low enough coming, strangled, out of his throat as his hips stuttered up.
Muhammad’s thumb was pressing at the base of his cock, hard, and he realised he’d almost spilled, wanted to, was struggling to get free.
“Let me,” he tried to say, and he was jerking his head back, pushing his cock up, trying to get Muhammad’s hand to jack him, release him, just let him–
“God Almighty. You’d come untouched, my gorgeous king? Just because of my tongue? We can’t have that, can’t have you stain those beautiful silks.” Muhammad was hoarse and breathing hard, his lips red and swollen, nostrils flaring. “Look at that, your cock’s leaking, God, so beautiful, can’t make you wait much more, can I?”
“Please,” Roger whispered. “Please, let me come–”
“In my mouth, my king,” Muhammad said, and bent down, engulfing him whole, pushing a finger into his ass at the same time, and Roger felt a throat working around his cockhead, lips, oh God, as far as the root, and the finger crooking inside and pressing where it counted, and everything went white and blissful and he arched and spilled, swallowing his shout, feeling Muhammad’s hand squeeze his mouth.
There were lips at his temple, a cool, wet cloth on his face, then on his softening cock.
“Did you pass out, Roger?” said Muhammad’s voice.
“Dunno,” Roger mumbled. “Worth it anyway.” He opened his eyes to a vision of Muhammad’s face, so close, licking his lips, hair gone gloriously wild. “God. You’re beautiful. Is that what your hair does when it’s untamed?”
“How do you deal?” he heard himself ask, dreamlike.
“Lots of oil and a love-hate relationship with a brush.”
“Would love to watch. Want to touch. Come here?” He slid his hand in that magnificent hair, revelled in the strangled, swallowed-in moan. Kissed the swollen mouth, tasted himself. Lowered his hand between Muhammad’s thighs.
There was the sound of echoing steps in the stairs, a knock on the door.
“Master?” asked an unknown voice. “It’s nearly noon. When should I serve the meal? Will you take it upstairs?”
“We’ll come down, Kamil,” Muhammad said, fighting to control his voice, trembling, Roger’s hand on his cock. “We’re not done yet.”
“Aren’t we?” whispered Roger. “Got to go fast, then. Can’t leave you like that. Want my mouth?”
“Shhh,” Muhammad hissed. “He’s still behind the door. Kamil, serve something to the king’s men, will you?” he called. “No need for them to wait – ahhh, God! Your hand, just your hand, like that,” he urged, low. “And not a sound.”
“Seems to me you’re the one making noise.”
Muhammad was writhing, fucking Roger’s hand, holding to his shoulder for his dear life, biting his lips in an effort to stay mute, breathing so hard Kamil must hear it.
“Master,” Kamil shouted from somewhere in the staircase, “my king, Philip reminds his master he meets George of Antioch after nones!”
“It’s still hours away,” Roger called, proud at how steady his voice sounded, right when his hand was working its way into Muhammad’s trousers, hidden, forbidden, so hot. “We’ve still got time to explore that book and be on time. Go tell him!”
“A book, I am?” Muhammad whispered, but it ended in a moan.
“An enthralling one, with maps of hills and rivers that, mmh, like that? – that I long to follow with my fingers.”
“If you go on like that, ah, hell, hill’s going to erupt, God don’t stop–”
“Want to come in your clothes?”
“Just push the robe up – damn, do it now, or – ah –” Muhammad would have shouted, Roger was sure of it, and he smashed his mouth against his, kissing hard, bunched the robe up in a last desperate motion, pulled at his dick and felt it pulse and release over his hand.
“Oh God, my king,” Muhammad said, voice hitching, lowering his head on Roger’s shoulder. “God.”
“We made a mess.”
“I’ll just pull the robe over the worst of it. We can’t let them wait too long.”
“Roger.” Muhammad looked raw, coming down hard, and worried – maybe resigned. Did he think they were headed for a repeat of last time?
“I don’t know how often we’ll be able to do that, but – ah, I don’t want to stop. You’re a great lover.”
Muhammad sighed, smiled, turned it to a smirk, looked at his ruined trousers, arranging himself. “You’re not too bad either.”
“And you’re a kind lover. Didn’t extract revenge for my barging in at an ungodly hour.”
The corner of Muhammad’s mouth extended, not quite a smile. “Ah, my king. Wouldn’t do that. You might enjoy relenting control in bed, and by God is that arousing, but you’re still a king, and a great one, out of it. I know my place.”
Roger looked down, unsure of what that feeling was exactly. Loneliness, he decided.
Muhammad’s hand came up, a light touch over his face. “Don’t–” he began, then stopped. “Ah. At least we have what we can give behind closed doors.” His gaze shifted to the table, turned to eager. “And the map. Come. I’ll try to make the hair behave and then we’ll join the others downstairs.”
“Mmh. You’ll look all neat on the outside, and, ah–”
“Wrecked on the inside, yes.”
Al-Idrisi hadn’t pledged allegiance. There hadn’t been any grand gesture on the king’s side. But little by little, it was becoming clear that the map would be done, that al-Idrisi was staying. Roger would readily admit he felt twinges of jealousy at the scribes and informants who worked all day at it. But here and there he could steal hours to spend with Muhammad, occasionally to wrangle numbers, more often than not to enthuse about a new book they’d put their hands on, or just to sit and listen.
“You know there’s a large sea north of Constantinople,” Muhammad would say, and Roger would smile in anticipation.
“The Pontic sea? I’ve heard of it,” he’d say. “Have you been there?”
“Once, to the Danube mouth. It branches into so many arms when it reaches that sea, such a maze you wouldn’t believe. And that sea tastes strange. Not salty enough.”
“I swam in it. You know, Ibn Hawqal says it’s because there’s an enormous underground river connecting it with the Caspian sea further eastward. I – don’t know if I can believe it. I’ll have to ask if the fishes are the same.”
“So you know that sea well? You can map it?”
“Far from it, my impatient king. But I’m making progress! There’s that river…”
Then Muhammad wouldn’t be able to restrain himself from sketching, be it in the dirt of the hearthstone, on tablet or parchment, and they’d stand shoulder against shoulder, revelling in each other’s closeness, hands brushing, breath mingling.
It had been two days since their last session and Roger could only think of plans for the next. They’d only had privacy enough for a kiss made short by approaching footsteps and it had left him hard and frustrated.
“Father? My king?”
“Sorry, Alfonso. My mind wandered. You were saying?”
“George was pondering whether to look more closely to the African coast now that Italy’s secure. I think bringing the true faith to these parts would be a blessed endeavour.”
“I was thinking more in terms of political stability,” George of Antioch said. “The Zirid’s rule is faltering in Ifriqiya.”
“A few years of peace might be of interest, too,” Roger said. “For this kingdom’s stability and our well-being, if not for the true faith.”
“Peace makes you scatterbrained, my king. Never saw you like that before. Maps are nice, but remember the real world needs some attention if you don’t want it to slip from your grasp.”
“Ah. You’re right, George. Damn, what’s this noise? What are they shouting?”
“I’m not as fluent as you in Arabic, father. God, they’re at the door. You should make your palace more secure.”
“Calling for justice? Why didn’t they present their request at the general audience? Alfonso, weren’t you the one overseeing it this morning? Was there unrest?”
“I – don’t think so.” But Alfonso’s gaze was shifting.
“I’m going. I think I see some of the chapel workers among them.”
“Father, they’re unimportant! Workers and servants!”
“I don’t need a Muslim rising right now. Let’s hear them.”
The crowd was angry and agitated, and it took Roger some time to find a leader calm enough to talk to.
“That’s because they were Muslims!” the man was shouting.
“First Ahmad’s death, and nobody deems it worthy of concern, and–”
“Don’t you know, most high king? He was there, up the scaffolding in the new chapel when you visited with the Hammudid.”
“He was killed. Beaten up, then thrown down from the roof. And now Kamil!”
“Kamil. God’s bones, al-Idrisi’s Kamil? Dead?”
“Yes, most high king. We found him yesterday.”
“Bloodied. Cut, everywhere. Broken bones. He died in the night.”
“And his master? Was his master with him? Why wasn’t I told? Where is al-Idrisi?”
“I don’t know, most high king. He wasn’t there. We were alone and we were refused entrance to the palace. We want justice!”
“Two men were tortured and murdered and you couldn’t bring it to the king? Alf– come in and tell everything you know to Philip the eunuch. You’ll get justice. I promise you will. I need to confer with my son but upon my soul I promise that you’ve been heard and that justice will be done, however high or close to me I must look.”
“Alfonso,” Roger said when they were securely alone, his anger so immense it nearly overwhelmed the terrible dread. “If you know anything and are not saying I’ll make you regret it. Was there a plot against al-Idrisi? The men who died saw him and myself together. What were they asked? Where is Muhammad? Did someone want to kill him? Alfonso! Is he dead?”
Roger was shouting, half-pulling his son’s tunic out of its belt, cornering him against the fire, and he didn’t care. Alfonso had an arm raised in defence, his other hand on the pommel of his sword, but he was blinking hard and looked terrified.
“You’re not a leader, son. And not a violent man. You know something, I’m sure of it. But you didn’t plan that. Who did? What happened? By my faith it’s going to be on your head if –”
“I– I don’t know about that Ahmad, fa– my king. I– as for Kamil, he must have been in the way, the others said we had to hide–”
“In the way of what, you fool!”
“There – there shouldn’t have been any blood, that was my condition for helping, on my salvation, father, he agreed–”
“It was Pietro, the bishop! Please, father, the geographer is alive, he must be, the plan was only to abduct him, to make him understand he wasn’t welcome, he–”
“Wasn’t welcome? Alfonso, what came into your mind for you to dream that you had any authority to decide!”
“Pietro’s right, father – please, listen to me. I say this as your most devoted son, please. Even Roger has–”
“Roger knew about this?”
“No! No, of course not, he’s too – ah, obedient, but, father, he has his doubts, even George sees it, the way that Saracen has seduced you away from your duties, away from the true faith!”
“He’s – he must have bewitched you, the way you look at him, and Pietro had proof, of – of sin, most grievous sin, he said, he had witnesses–”
“Ahmad. Ahmad was his witness, and possibly Kamil. Alfonso, you were foolish enough to think such a man would stop at abduction? What was the plan? Quick, if it’s not too late! Did anyone of your household participate?”
“I sent men. You really think they’d kill –”
“Of course they would, damn you! Or they’d torture him and use him to blackmail me! When. When did you send men? Alfonso!”
“This morning. Your Saracen was supposed to climb up the hills for his herbs, there are a few places where we knew it’d be easy–”
“You’re coming with me. They went on foot?”
“Yes, but –”
“We’ll take horses – no, mules, better on the hills. Alfonso, if he dies you being my son won’t save you.”
Roger had scattered guards on every path but kept for himself the one he’d climbed behind Muhammad that first time – was it only three months ago? He’d never been a devout man, but now he was praying and increasingly despairing. Their quarry had hours on them, and how many were they against only one man?
“How many did you send, Alfonso? What weapons?”
“Four. Don’t know. They’re soldiers. Swords, possibly. Or axes. Damn. Here’s one.”
A body lay on the ground, bloodstains on his tunic, right where the path was turning at a straight angle around a large boulder. Roger felt his heart soar – one enemy less, and they were on the right path. He was about to pass him when the man moaned.
“What happened?” he asked, no time for niceties.
The man blinked, grimaced. “King Roger? Oh, God. Please don’t –”
“Tell me what happened or I finish you off!”
“We had him. We had him, damn the man, but then he ran, hell, didn’t think he could strike under my guard with that knife of his, hurts.”
“Did they get him?”
“Dunno. He ran.” He clutched at his side and moaned.
“You stay here. With luck you’ll be alive when we’re back.”
“Father, he’s my man, I’m responsible –”
“You are. Now come.”
Two dead bodies lay on the other side of the boulder, the style of their embroidered tunics marking them as outsiders, as Pietro’s. So Muhammad had proven he knew how to fight. And Roger already knew he could climb. But had he run far enough?
The path was winding up, rockier with every step, but Roger’s mule was good, going at a fast trot as he urged her on. They’d passed two other bodies, both Pietro’s men, one at a bridge, empty-handed, the other propped against a stone heap, still holding a bloody sword. Soon after that they began to find blood on the path, and even, once, a bloody footprint. Roger looked up. The sun was already low and if Muhammad had gone where he thought, to that rocky slope where they’d first kissed and where a lone man could organise his defence, there still was a long climb. But the mule could gallop, couldn’t she?
“Father!” Alfonso yelled, out of breath, falling behind. “Wait! You’ll break your neck! You’ll reach them alone! Don’t risk your life!”
He urged the mule faster.
He could hear the noise of combat. Sword against sword, not sword against knife, which gave him hope. No call, no talk. They were professionals or they were tired. He reached a flatter expanse of ground and now he could see them, six fighters including Muhammad who had been cornered into a hole in a low cliff, unable to escape, but entrenched well enough that they couldn’t attack all at once.
“Fall back!” he yelled, dismounting and running, unsheathing his sword.
He saw Muhammad strike, using his opponent’s momentary distraction. The man crumpled. Then Roger was on them and fell another, but he was cornered as well, his back to the stone, and there was so little room.
“Get behind me,” Roger ordered. “You’re wounded and you’re hindering me.”
“Roger,” Muhammad growled. “You’re here alone? Don’t get killed for me, you fool!”
“Get behind!” Roger said, and pushed him down, blocking a sword, missing his attack, having to block another with the flat of his hand. Still three men. Where was Alfonso?
“You’re fighting the king!” Alfonso yelled – finally. “Weapons down, this is the king!”
Roger’s opponent looked up, blanched, and let go of his sword. But the next one pushed him aside, bringing his blade high and crashing it down – thankfully on the rock face, and it looked like he hurt his wrist.
“I don’t care!” the man growled. “Sodomite, apostate, you’re unfit to be king!”
The third one joined him, more skilled with his sword but blood dripping down from his side. His grip was weak, and Roger struck and made him yield. Alfonso engaged the other and soon had his sword at his neck.
“Whose are yours?” Roger asked him.
“Martin, the one who backed down, and the traitor you have at your mercy. That one’s Pietro’s. Father, I didn’t think they’d try to kill – I beg your forgiveness, on my faith I didn’t think–”
“No. You didn’t think.”
There was the scrape of metal on stone, and Muhammad came to stand at his side, leaning heavily on his stolen sword.
“I could have taken them,” Muhammad said, and collapsed.
“My king, give me the reins. I’m not dying.”
“I didn’t. I fell down.”
“And now you’re swaying. You lost blood, Muhammad. Look at your leg.”
“Unimportant. Just didn’t have the time to bandage it properly. Your own hand and forearm got slashed, my king. Let me steer this mule and climb on the other. These assassins can walk.”
“Don’t trust them enough. Stop playing the hero, you look awful. How long did you run?”
The mule stumbled and the jolt made Muhammad’s outer bravado slide off, pain and utter exhaustion flashing on his face. His hair was caked and tangled, his skin so pale it looked grey, there was blood in his beard and a huge, purple bruise showing through. His cloak was in tatters – he must have used it as a shield at some point.
“Dunno. From just after sunrise. I was supposed to meet Kamil at the ridge at dawn, but his men–” he nodded to Alfonso, a dangerous glint in his eyes– “came instead. And caught me, though they didn’t cause much harm before Pietro’s guards arrived. That’s when I knew I had to run.”
Muhammad’s mouth twisted, not so pleasantly. “But I got them, one by one, praise God. Knew I’d be lighter on my feet, used it to my advantage. God, I’m tired.”
“Hungry? Want to stop for a bite?”
“No. Need a bed.”
When they reached the palace the night had fallen and Muhammad wasn’t bargaining for control anymore, slumped over the mule’s neck, his eyes glassy.
“Get him to my room,” Roger ordered. “He needs physicians and a good bed. I’ll sleep in the antechamber. And I want the guard doubled around us both.”
“My king,” Alfonso said, mouth twisted as if swallowing something bitter. “Is that wise?”
“Your own men tried to kill us, Alfonso. I want him secure. If you still know what’s wise, don’t question me. Philip, I want a strong guard around the legate as well. Signify him he’s not to leave his apartments. And that he’s ordered, make it as polite as you want, but ordered to a private audience with me at First Hour tomorrow morning. Tell George and Roger. You’ll be there too, Alfonso.”
When he tried to walk he had to steady himself, holding to the saddle.
“The king is hurt,” Muhammad said, trying to stand straighter, “his hand must be cared for.”
“My king!” came Philip’s horrified voice. “A sword wound? By God, Pietro will –”
“– be notified of my displeasure,” Roger said. “For now.”
And then there was Roger the younger barging in, cursing, praising God for Roger’s life, taking him by the shoulders and leading him to a seat, a table, some food and someone tending to his hand– “Vinegar, clean it with vinegar for the infection,” Muhammad was saying, so he was there as well, and Roger willed himself to hold on, to stay awake a little longer, to be here for him.
In the night Muhammad thrashed and shouted, fever rising, and Roger went to his side, holding his hand and wiping his flushed face. The Muslim physician in the room nodded and left them. With the dawn Muhammad calmed down and fell into a peaceful sleep, and Roger would have given anything to just stay here and watch him. But he had to confront the legate.
“Make him pay,” Muhammad mumbled as Roger left.
“I had hoped you would stay with us until spring, when it’s time to pass the strait to meet the mainland barons, Pietro. But I see now that Innocent was wrong in choosing such a foolish, murderous man as you.”
Pietro tried for indignation. “Murderous, King Roger!”
“Murderous. Shall I add regicide? You tortured and killed two of my subjects, tried to kill my guest, and your own man raised his sword at me, knowing fully well who I was.”
“You have no proof. I did try to remove the Saracen’s influence, as any Christian would – didn’t your own son–”
“You’re walking on thin ice.”
“– But if my men tried to murder anyone, they overstepped their orders.”
“Your men will stay here and be tried, as will Alfonso’s.”
“Father,” Alfonso interjected. “My men have nothing to do with Ahmed or Kamil’s death, you know it!”
“Your men will pay. As will Pietro’s. My subjects want revenge, and by God, since I can’t give them my own son at least they’ll have the blood they want, if it prevents a Muslim rebellion!”
“Martin knows he can save his head by bearing witness. And that will be all.”
“Of course I, like your son, am above it all,” Pietro thought clever to say.
“You, bishop,” and if that bishop sounded like a curse it was exactly Roger’s intent, “will leave my kingdom tomorrow.”
Pietro paled. “Pass the strait in winter, king? But – the currents! And there’s a storm coming!”
“God helps the pure of heart, your Excellency. You’ll sail around.”
“You’re trying to drown me!”
“Entrust yourself to God.”
“I – I know too much! You – heathen king, I’ll tell them everything, all your sins!”
Roger felt a cold fury course through his veins, fuelled by the remnants of that terrible dread, and hesitated, hand on his sword. Saw his sons watching him. Exhaled. “I am a Christian, protecting the true faith in a land of Muslims and Greeks. And if you think you know anything about my sins, Pietro, then you’re wrong. Because nobody ever knew, and the alleged clues you thought you could assemble from the ramblings of two tortured men are nothing, since you killed them! Now go and pray God that you can find a captain willing to sail out in that weather. Upon my salvation, if you’re still here in three days, I’ll try you with the others.”
The physician was in the antechamber when Roger finally arrived. The day had been long.
“I was about to leave your guest, most saint king. He’s better, even took a bath. The fever went down and his leg looks good, praise God.”
“His ribs will hurt for a while, of course. But nothing life-threatening.”
“Two broken ribs, yes.”
“Satan’s tits, that hard-headed fool didn’t tell – broken ribs, in a swordfight? Who the hell did that to – ah. I’ll ask him. He ate?”
“Some. The rest of the meal you ordered is by the fire. How’s your hand?”
“Twinges. But I think the cut is healing cleanly.”
“You’re lucky it missed the tendons. Fever?”
“Good. My king?”
“Your Muslim subjects will love you after today.”
“It’s good to know, Yusuf. Thank you.”
Yusuf bowed. “May I leave, my king?”
“Go. Please tell the guards that nobody can disturb me tonight short of the palace burning. Not even George or Roger.”
“I will, my king.” His gaze shifted to the bedroom door. “Rest well, you and your guest. God knows you both need it.”
“How come you have broken ribs?”
Muhammad raised up sunken eyes and attempted a wan smile. “And a good evening to you, Roger. I’m told I’m in your bed? That’s not how I dreamed it.”
“The ribs, Muhammad!”
Muhammad tried to sit up and cursed. Roger had to settle at his side and help him with an arm at his back. Broken ribs indeed.
“The ribs” –there it was again, this half-second when his façade was slipping to reveal the pain and fear behind– “they beat me up, Pietro’s men. Boasted that they’d done worse to Kamil, said they were doing God’s work, that I’d suffer for how I was bewitching the king. Only they didn’t account for my dagger.” His eyes flashed and it reminded Roger of how dangerous he could be, this man who had engaged ten others alone. “You dealt with them? With Pietro?”
“His men will hang, as will some of Alfonso’s. Pietro sails off tomorrow.”
Muhammad half-raised in anger and winced. “That’s all you can do?”
“The weather will be evil.”
“Is there a ship willing to take him?”
“There is. The captain owes Philip.”
“Will the ship land safely?”
“God willing,” Roger said, jaw working, “no.”
There wasn’t an ounce of pity or remorse in Muhammad’s expression as he nodded and lay back down. After a while he sighed, closed his eyes, and Roger wandered to the hearth, adding a log.
“What are you doing?”
Roger startled. This man had a knack for being awake when he wasn’t supposed to be, damn. “Taking this plate to the antechamber to eat.”
“You’re not staying? I hoped I’d get to share this bedroom with you.”
“Yusuf said you must rest.”
“He said we both should rest. Why not together? Finish your meal and come to the bed.”
“In the state you are, you want to make love?”
“I want us to lie in the same bed. Come on, Roger. A whole night together, with guards at the door to ensure we won’t get caught? I want this, even if it’s only once in my life.”
“Why only once? I’m sure I could arrange –”
And now Roger wanted to erase that bitter twist of his mouth, and the idea of something as domestic as sharing a bed, just sleeping together, was appealing. He set the polished-off plate aside, pulled off his clothes and slid under the covers.
“Mmh,” Muhammad said, his wandering hand finding Roger’s chest. “Naked, my king?”
“The Pope would condemn it,” Roger smirked.
“I’ll thank you not to mention your Pope when you’re lying next to me.”
Roger felt light headed and this was probably the two days without much sleep talking. Still. Couldn’t stop. “What. Us, a bed, and the Pope? You don’t get pleasant thoughts from that?”
“God Almighty, Roger!”
Muhammad was grimacing, chuckling, wincing, a hand going to his side.
“Although I’ll grant you the current Pope might not know what to do in a bed–”
“Will you stop! Ow.”
“Sorry. Going to remain solemn and kingly from now on.” Roger sighed. “But truly, sometimes it helps, turning the monsters into fools. Damn that Pietro, I really thought you had died.”
“Well, I didn’t.”
“When I saw you up there, with that sword – and then standing up all bloody and telling me you could have taken them all – aren’t you ever scared?”
Muhammad blinked, eyes glinting in the firelight. He was so very close, his hand still on Roger’s chest, and Roger mirrored him, feeling his strong, slightly hurried heartbeat through the tip of his fingers. “I was deadly afraid. Certain no one would come to my help. Damn, I thought I would die. And then this wild Norman on his tall horse barges in, hair streaming in the wind–”
“It was a mule.”
“Don’t care, in the stories the warrior rides a horse to save the day.”
“You’d have saved it yourself.”
Muhammad pulled Roger in, rested his chin on the top of Roger’s head. He smelled of herbs and healing, pungent, like the shrublands after an autumn rain. “Saved it? I don’t know.”
Roger felt a wave of retrospective fear engulf him, followed by tenderness. “And you admit it?” he said with a small smile. “A rare thing. You have a hard time letting your guard down, don’t you.” He shifted, trying to find some way to hold Muhammad without hurting his injured side, opted for an arm around a shoulder and the other hand in his hair.
“I rarely have the luxury.”
“But now you can,” Roger whispered, carding his hair back with his one good hand, pulling himself up and kissing his hairline – God, how close had he been to losing this?
Muhammad grunted softly and plastered himself against Roger. The bandage on his thigh was scratchy where blood had dried on it, the one around his chest fragrant and sticky with whatever healing oil it had been soaked in. Elsewhere, his naked skin was warm and still a little clammy, and his cock was pressing along Roger’s thigh, firming a little, nothing demanding or urgent, just a pleasant, lazy sensation.
Roger went on raining kisses along the hairline, soft and light, then took his time for a longer one on the fanning lines at the eye corner, moved, open-mouthed, to an earlobe.
“Mmh – tickles,” Muhammad protested, but left his ear where it was. Roger licked it instead and got rewarded with a shiver and a slow smile. He went on to the jaw, the beard soft under his lips, took a turn to kiss the pulse at the underside, went back–
“Ow! Ah, sorry. Still very tender here.”
“Goddamn. I’m sorry. Want to stop?”
Muhammad strained up and landed a kiss of his own on Roger’s nose, and another, close-mouthed, full of promises, on his lips. “No, by God. Feels great.”
Roger brushed the bruise with his fingers, kissed just below its edge. “There? Can I? Makes it better?”
Sounded good. He trailed his lips down, licked at the hollow of his throat.
“Mmh, yes, good –”
“And where next?”
“Ah – neck – suck at it, Roger, mmmh – shoulder’s good too, go on –” he was making all kinds of small sounds, throwing his head back to offer his throat to Roger’s lips, eyes closed, curving lashes casting a long shadow over his cheekbones – how could Roger have ever thought he could renounce this? “Lips now, will miss yours so much, just kiss–” and Roger took it as tenderly as he could, tasting his lips, feeling the softness of his tongue.
Muhammad moaned into his mouth. “Nipples, Roger, kiss my nipples now – ah, curse the devil, don’t, that oil tastes awful – finger them, go on–”
“Aren’t you all bruised? You’re sure?”
Muhammad’s hand went to his own chest, pulling at the bandages to bare one nipple, the faintest brush of his own finger making him inhale sharply, and Roger’s cock twitched at the sound. “Don’t care. Want it.” He pulled Roger’s hand where he needed it, over the already-hardened bud. His eyes were wide open now, their irises warm and clear in the candlelight, fixed on Roger’s face. “Good,” he murmured, “so good, my beautiful king–”
His hands were trailing along Roger’s arm, caressing his shoulders, jumping from collarbone to lips to eyebrows to jaw, touching like they’d never get enough of this. “Beautiful,” he was repeating, “oh, so beautiful, why can’t–”
“No, nothing, feels good, don’t stop–”
“You’re giving me a hell of a hardon,” Roger growled, “you said we’d sleep, this is not heading towards sleeping in the least. Are you up to more?”
Muhammad chortled, one hand going between their bodies to grab Roger’s cock, his hips bucking into Roger’s, erection evident and straining. “Feel for yourself,” he whispered, and for a while they only ground into each other, panting into each other’s mouth, his hand circling them both, the covers warm and heavy around them and beyond their bed the world quiet and dark.
“God forgive me I want more,” Muhammad said abruptly. “Not even sure I can move, but–”
“What do you want?”
“I – when I thought I’d die up there,” he said, looking raw, pained and more open than he’d ever been, “all I could think of was that you’d never buggered me. Could you? I’m probably too banged up to do more than spread my legs and take it, I’m sorry I can’t–”
“Muhammad,” Roger said, kissing the corner of his mouth, wanting to kiss him everywhere, hold him tight and never let go, “of course. Let’s make it good?”
“Yusuf left his vials here,” Muhammad said, shivering as Roger’s hand wandered down to knead one buttock. “He has buxur maryam oil. Good for skin scrapes and other things too.”
“You’ll have to tell me which it is,” Roger said, standing up and swaying slightly, hoping Muhammad hadn’t seen.
“You’re all right?”
“Tired. Sore muscles. Forty-four years old. Not important. This vial?”
“The blue one. If it smells good, it’s the one.”
It did smell good, even more when spread onto the skin of Muhammad’s lower belly, thighs, buttocks and on his eager cock. He was twitching, with anticipation or pain, Roger couldn’t tell, and watching him, his hands still unable to stay still, caressing and clinging to his arm below the bandages of his wounded hand like a drowning man.
“Shhh,” Roger said, although he didn’t know what was wrong, “it’s all right, you’re beautiful, you’re good, tell me if it hurts –”
“You don’t hurt me,” Muhammad said, breathing hard. “Open me?”
Roger took the time to arrange him on his back, cushions under his hips to ease the strain, wounded left leg lying down, the other over his own shoulder. Muhammad grimaced with the pull at his ribs but nodded and sighed, long, hissing, when Roger’s finger entered him. He felt already yielding around Roger, lax, yearning and damnably arousing, but his head was up and his eyes were still wide open, his gaze burning. Watching.
“I’m loose enough,” he said as Roger worked a third finger in and felt his rim clench and then open, “Roger, get in, now.”
“Wait. Don’t want to jolt you, need to slide in–”
“I’m open, I tell you, I’ll feel you just as much as I need, Roger, please–”
Everything converged. Having to ease himself in so slowly, Muhammad’s walls around him tensing then relaxing; the effort it took to keep under control that urge to push in hard, take it all, and to give instead; and Muhammad’s eyes that were finally closing in what looked like overwhelming pleasure, his heaving chest and offered throat, his half-open mouth and the glint of white teeth on his lip, his shaky, guttural moan, all of this was branding Roger’s heart like he’d never have thought possible. He felt like he was watching for the two of them now, committing to memory the play of the candlelight on the shivering muscles of Muhammad’s stomach, the dark, swollen, proud cock curving up there, the sweat like precious beads framing his face, even the bruises marring his skin that didn’t feel like a close brush with death anymore but like their shared victory over their enemies.
He wanted to bend over and lean his whole weight on him, wanted to fuse their bodies together, kiss him and fuck him and never stop. But the little grunts and moans and tentative shifts weren’t only in pleasure, and Roger was taken with a tremendous need to make it good, only good and to shield him from any harm. He began to move nearly tenderly, checking out for every quiver and sigh, revelling in the excruciating slowness that made his balls taut and his cock swell so hard it ached.
As Roger found a better angle Muhammad gasped and pushed up against him, reached around to knead his ass, fingers digging into his cleft and finding his hole – Roger swore and summoned all the control he had not to buck his hips, hard – and then hissed and collapsed back, cursing.
“Devil take them, can’t even fondle you for more than a second!”
The mix of pain, frustration and – bliss, as Roger thrust all the way in and hit that sweet spot, twisted Muhammad’s features in such an odd way that he couldn’t help a breathless chuckle.
“Not funny – ah, God, again, hit it again, harder, I’m not made of sugar!”
Roger found a way to lean down, balance on the elbow of his injured arm, and finally reach these delicious lips, then mouth his throat, and down around the bandages and on a nipple – tasted vile, didn’t care – while his good hand fanned over his side and hip, brushing, sliding, afraid to hurt, needing the feel of skin.
“No,” he said into Muhammad’s chest, “not sugar, of flesh, imperfect beautiful flesh, Muhammad, don’t want you to hurt –”
“My king,” Muhammad moaned, managing to hook an arm around Roger’s chest, pulling him closer, kissing the top of his head, the shell of an ear, the side of his nose, everywhere he could reach, “feels good, just please hit harder –”
Roger wanted, needed it too, felt he’d burst from the continued restraint, tried to cocoon Muhammad in a protective embrace to prevent his ribs from jarring, but swore as his bad hand didn’t respond and the muscles of his shoulder seized, managed not to fall down on his lover and thrust, dammit, thrust hard because it felt so good and they both couldn’t wait.
Muhammad moaned and laughed at the same time. “Such a broken pair of lovers,” he said, ending in a gasp as Roger’s slid in again, just fast enough, then hissed and tried to make him go faster, pulled him over his body, nails scraping, fingers digging into Roger’s too-tense muscles. “Come on,” he growled, “come on, what’s a little pain when we can have this,” and then whined, pleasure and frustration mingled as Roger retained his control, pushed for one languorous, deep thrust more.
He was shaking his head now, laughing off his need and frustration in between the gasps and moans, trying to lift his hips higher, to push into Roger, to make him break.
“Goddamn,” he breathed, lust choking him, coming apart, “king, what are you trying to prove, ah, God yes –” and the surge of his whole body, tensing, clenching and forcefully relaxing at a renewed thrust sent such a jolt of lust into Roger’s groin that for an instant he thought he’d come. “Roger, I know you want faster too, can feel your nails digging, goddamn, come on–”
His nails were hooked into Muhammad’s skin, and he did want faster, harder, saw how Muhammad’s hands were tangled into the bed sheet, how his head was thrown back, thrashing, teeth bared, tried another measured thrust, couldn’t, had to slam in, and heard Muhammad’s grunt, his protest that he was all right, that he was better than good, “come on, Roger, harder, God, harder –”
He didn’t know if he could go harder than the wild rhythm his hips were setting, lost as he was in the building pleasure, panting into Muhammad’s neck, drunk with the sound of his moans, and every sensation was coursing to his throbbing length, to what his lips could taste, his fingers touch. Muhammad’s hand was sneaking between them, the fingers flexing and just brushing his rock-hard cock, pressing into Roger’s stomach, and he looked so close–
“Yes,” Roger hissed, “touch yourself, let me see you–”
Muhammad smiled, really smiled, something choked and adoring and open as he grasped his cock, looked like he was about to say something but moaned instead, trying to open his legs even wider as Roger pounded in. Roger arched up, anchored himself to his hips and gave him all, watching this gorgeous wrecked man throw an arm across his mouth, bite to muffle the high, helpless, wavering whine that came out of him, work his other hand erratic and hurried and desperate at his dick, and watch back with eyes that were so intense they pierced his soul.
Roger was teetering on the edge, frantic, hips jerking, or maybe already stumbling over, and yet he wanted so desperately to keep on, to wait for Muhammad to come, but couldn’t, couldn’t. Heard his yell turn to sobs as he spilled, thrusting deep, heard Muhammad’s stuttering hiss, felt him clench around his pulsating dick, watched his hand twist and pull around his cockhead, ribbons of white come shooting up, Muhammad’s eyes still on him as he clenched and clenched again and Roger felt he’d never stop coming.
His muscles were seizing again, his hand was throbbing like hell and under him Muhammad was grimacing and bringing a hand to his ribs, and the aftershocks weren’t stopping and he didn’t understand how he could feel at once so blissed and so worried.
“‘t was worth it,” Muhammad mumbled, pulling him to his side.
Roger was sticky and the bed smelled of sweat and semen. A bearded chin dug into his shoulder, its owner drooling slightly, puffs of breath chilling Roger’s skin. A man’s leg was thrown over his own and a soft cock lay against his hip. For an instant it felt utterly outlandish, and then his heart swelled at the idea that he was waking up with Muhammad in his bed.
He rose and went to the basin to wash up, decided against doing the same for Muhammad. The man hadn’t even stirred when Roger had disengaged himself and needed sleep more than clean skin. In the dark room, the deep shadows made his face marked and still tense, a line that Roger wanted desperately to smoothen off etched between his eyebrows. The guards would let him sleep, leave them alone – they had their orders, and besides he’d bolted the door. Still – he went to the antechamber to muss up the bed, wrapped himself in one of its blanket to ward off the cold.
“So you always wake up this early,” came Muhammad’s sleepy voice. “It’s not even dawn.”
“Close. The servants are moving around already.”
There was an uneven pad of feet and Muhammad appeared at his side, looking through the eastern window. “Here comes the storm,” he said as Roger opened his arms to share the warmth of his blanket.
The barest hint of deep yellow tinged the low, frayed clouds and the windswept sea, bringing in the most savage of promises.
“The hour where everything is possible,” Muhammad said.
“At war, it’s the marching hour before battle. Hard to make the body forget after ten years of it. I pray this spring doesn’t bring it back.”
Muhammad brought his hand to Roger’s forehead, traced the line of his profile with a finger.
“Arab scholars call you northern people freaks because of your paleness and height. I wonder at their blindness.” He sighed. “I’ll miss you, Roger.”
“You’ll – what?”
“What we did already cost Ahmad and Kamil’s lives. Your enemies will find a way to use me against you.”
“King. Even ignoring the sodomite angle, you can’t afford to be called heathen that often. Let me go.”
“I can move to Messina, board a ship in the spring.”
How did it go so fast from sharing a tender moment to adieus? Muhammad had stepped aside, foregoing the warmth of Roger’s body, standing naked, cold and bruised. Looking desperate and defiant.
Roger stepped forward, draped the blanket around his shoulders. Tried to think of something.
“You can’t. Where would you go? Al-Andalus? The Almoravids barely tolerate your family. Maghreb? The Almohads are worse. You’d be a dead man.”
“Egypt? Ah, Roger, don’t make it harder than it already is. I – you – if I don’t leave now, I won’t find the strength. Please.”
“And the map? All the work we already did!”
“You’ll find someone else. Buy the books you need. You have a method already, you don’t need me.”
“I do! God. Don’t you know?”
Muhammad made a small sound in his throat, nearly a sob, and brought his hand over Roger’s heart. Roger added his own and this time didn’t let go. “Listen,” he said, suddenly feeling the dawn was heralding a battle, one he’d fight in with everything he had. “My enemies win if you stay, you say?”
“How couldn’t they?”
“But they’d win if you left! They’d get what they want! A land where barons and papal legates dictate their will! And that, Muhammad, they’ll never get. This is my kingdom, which I rule, and where Christendom can meet Islam and learn from it.”
“A beautiful dream.”
“A reality! That I’ll demonstrate today. This morning, Muhammad al-Idrisi, I’ll make you so blatantly welcome in my kingdom that nobody, hear, nobody will ever begin to doubt the reason why. You’re an outstanding scholar, one I’d be honoured to welcome here even, ah, if we could stay away from each other’s cock. Everyone knows I’m making Palermo a beacon of the arts, and they’ll honour you as I do, by the Christ!”
He’d shouted the last part, and amusement, denial and hope were battling in Muhammad’s expression.
“That’s a major risk to take, Roger.”
“I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t take risks. Will you stay?”
Muhammad chuckled. “Told you I had a hard time leaving. I will.”
Roger sat in all his kingly finery, listening to the approaching hoof clatter outside. Muhammad appeared at the door, walked to the dais – limping, like that first time. Like the first time, he dipped to one knee, bent his head and waited.
But unlike the first time, his attire was magnificent. The tunic was silk and the belt sported scrolls of kufic script in woven gold. No half-Christian garb this time, but the clothes of an Arab prince, his fuller beard trimmed in the Arabic fashion and, to Roger’s slight disappointment, a turban masking his curls. Even kneeling down he looked proud and golden, unlike Pietro, standing on the side, dull and defeated in his travel clothes.
“Muhammad ibn Muhammad ibn Abdallah al-Idrisi, prince of Hammudid blood,” Roger said, “rise.”
He caught Muhammad’s wince as he pushed on his bad leg, stood and went to help him up, the mutter of the assembled barons, knights and clerics rising behind him.
“You were hurt while in my kingdom and under my protection,” Roger called, the pitch of his voice deep and sonorous. “And for this the king begs for your forgiveness, Muhammad.”
With this, he bent and embraced him.
“Are you mad?” Muhammad whispered.
“No. I’m teaching them.”
In another setting, this embrace would have looked like an accolade to a vassal and the barons behind him were seething. But the palace officials, administrators and secretaries of all faiths smiled.
Roger pushed himself at arm’s length, basked in the orange gaze looking straight into him.
“Let it be known,” the King called, “that al-Idrisi, most accomplished of scholars, will stay in Palermo to build a great work of knowledge, a geography of the whole world. For this, I will grant him as many scribes and servants as he requires, and the use of my library and wealth. Let it be known,” he repeated, “that he is free to accept or refuse, and to come and go, in my kingdom and out of it. That while he stays, he will enjoy my highest favours, the gift of a princely house wherever he wishes to reside, and that in the same way as I lead him when he was wounded, and as he did today, he is welcome to ride a mule into the palace.”
The latest elicited a nervous laughter out of the legate. “A mule,” he muttered, maybe not low enough. “Now that’s fitting. Although an ass would be even better.”
Roger could hear the hurried whisper of an aide, one that was possibly not as inept as his master. “Excellency, it’s the highest honour a sultan bestows, everyone else walks in, he’s elevating him above you–” Pietro’s face shuttered off and Roger echoed Muhammad’s smirk. Good. If Pietro didn’t survive his journey – could you pray God for the death of an enemy? – at least this one needed to, so that he could report to the Pope.
He pulled the ring that he’d selected off his finger, considered the cross-shaped gems, the knotwork that probably felt as foreign to him as it would to Muhammad.
“Take this,” he said, holding up the ring so that everyone saw it. “In token of other presents to come. It was made in the land of my forefathers, a Christian ring now given by a Christian king to a Muslim prince, as a proof that people of our different faiths can meet and exchange, be it jewels or knowledge.”
“And become greater in doing so,” Muhammad said, putting the ring on, eyes shining. Pietro swore a very unholy curse, loud enough that Philip had to silence him.
Muhammad opened his mouth but seemed to change his mind, smiling and falling on both knees. “My king,” he said, looking up. “I thank you. And now that I see the extent of your greatness, I beg you to accept my allegiance. I pledge myself to your service and vow to work at the tasks you set me to, for as long as God makes my life or until you tire of me.”
“By God, Muhammad,” Roger half-whispered, “you don’t have to! I said you could come and go. If you bind yourself to me, you become suspect in the whole of Dar al-Islam! You’ll be stuck to this place!”
“But I want to, my king,” Muhammad said aloud.
Roger sighed, then realised the elation he felt. He offered his hand to help him up and felt his head reel as they stood face to face, hands on each other’s arms. “Then I accept your pledge, Muhammad,” he said, voice clear. “I swear upon my soul that I’ll never tire of you, and that only God and our death could part us.”
The best subject an observer could find, because he’ll inspire him thoughts and ideas, is the great king Roger, whom God made glorious, and powerful through His power, king of Sicily, Italy, Lombardy and Calabria–
Muhammad al-Idrisi, geographer of the king, sighed. The candle was guttering and it was madness to have stayed awake all night. But he was nearly done, only this prologue left, and Roger would be able to see it somewhat finished – God willing, as he’d written so often in his book, each time becoming more of a heartfelt prayer for his king’s life.
“What are you writing about, Muhammad?”
“Roger. You’re not asleep?”
“Of course not. Isn’t this our hour, right before dawn?”
“I wish you could wake up later. How’s the fever?”
“Oh, you know,” the king said, waving it away. “The usual. Spikes up, comes down. Could be worse.”
“And your mind? Still thinking of Philip?”
Roger’s face twisted, despair and possibly self-hate flashing up. “Can’t forgive myself,” he muttered. “Can’t. He was close to betraying me in Ifriqiya and it saved William’s throne, but Philip’s torture and death was the ugliest thing I ever did. And it heralds worse things to come. The Muslims won’t be safe, Muhammad. Can you ever forgive me?”
It should have been hard. He should have hated him for this. But he found he couldn’t. You are but a man, he wanted to say. But a king. Bound by the oaths of your ancestors and the abilities of your sons, fighting fate only for as long as you live. Your dream might not survive you. It still was a great dream.
“My king,” he said. “God sees you, and I pray every day that he saves you. As for myself I can’t judge since I’ll always forgive you. Don’t you know, Roger? Since I love you.”
Roger laughed, low and choked. “I know. How strange that it took us so long to say it, my friend. I love you. Such a difficult, wonderful, cherished thing to say.”
Muhammad smiled and went back to his work.
Furthermore, he associates the nobility of his character to the nobility of his bloodline, the beauty of his actions and the beauty of his morality. On which are added the bravery of his soul, his clear-mindedness, the depth of his mind–
Roger went to stand behind Muhammad, trailing a hand across his hair. After all this time, still made him melt.
“This area here is on its way to full white,” Roger said, his voice tender. “Though I love the steel grey, I wish I could see your hair gone all white.”
“God willing,” Muhammad said, an automatism.
Roger was touching the stack of parchments. “The light is too low. You’ll read to me later?”
“I’m at the prologue right now. The first draft for all the climates is finished, praise God!”
“Praise God,” Roger echoed, heartfelt. “An unparalleled work, Muhammad. The silver map is glorious, and this geography – I feel like you’re taking me to a journey to faraway lands when we read it. That part in the third climate, the land north of the Atlas, the rich crops, the bridge that was no match for the flood, the children walking on the frozen river – is it a place you visited?”
“Stayed there as a child. A wonderful place.”
“Name the book so.”
“Name it what?”
“The book of pleasant journey for him who wishes to travel to faraway lands?”
“Why not. I thank you, my king, for having travelled so long with me.”
“Nearly fifteen years, by the grace of God,” Roger said, looking at once thankful and heartbroken. He cleared his voice and made a small smile. “And this prologue you’re writing?”
“I’m singing your praises, most high king,” Muhammad said with a smile that wasn’t that ironic.
“It’s your work as much as mine.”
The quirk of Roger’s eyebrow had terrified more than one baron but the smile that followed was very much Muhammad’s privilege to behold. He nodded in answer and went back to his writing.
Roger wanted to know his lands well and exactly enough, based on certain and verified knowledge – would have to be expanded upon, but could do for the time being. He studied the works of this science– he’d have to list their sources, made a note for it.– He didn’t find everything clear and detailed, but instead superficial. He then discussed it with scholars of this science, and began looking with them for knowledge. –Another note, to remind himself of detailing their method – he went on for fifteen years, never stopping studying this science, nor making research and wanting to establish the truth.
And held his lands together against the barons’ bloodlust, grieved his sons, judged his people with fairness, made war and peace to Muslims and Christians alike, built golden palaces and churches, and dearly hoped that all of this would survive him. Oh, my king.
Muhammad sighed to mask the sob that menaced to come up, put a hand on Roger’s and went on.
Finally, he ordered this to be named “The book of pleasant journey for him who wishes to travel to faraway lands,” which was done in the first decade of January of the Hijri year 548 – 1154 of the Christian calendar. Thus I am obeying the King’s orders and follow the structure he devised.
He reread his paragraph, squeezed Roger’s hand. “They’ll remember you for this,” he said.
He smiled. “They’ll call it the book of Roger.”