A Sema for Friendship
Title: A Sema for Friendship
They walked together in silence, side by side down the cobbled streets, away from the light of Jehane’s hospital. Now that they were alone in each other’s company there seemed nothing to say. Or else no place to begin. It was not an uneasy silence, merely one of waiting; deep and thoughtful, like the still waters of the nearby lake.
Ammar’s gold rings glittered in the moonlight, and Rodrigo was struck by how different this man was. Different, yet somehow the same, as if Rodrigo was seeing a reflection of himself in some strange, unearthly mirror; who he would have been, born in a different place. He had not lied that afternoon when he had called him brother. There was a kinship between them, one that had nothing to do with religion or allegiance. Perhaps it was the recognition of skill that passed between two men, the recognition of brothers in arms. Yet Rodrigo sensed that it went deeper than that. He could not find the words. The man next to him might have more luck: it was he, after all, who was the poet.
They turned a corner onto a street of handsome mansions. They were nearing the palace. The elegant, formal facades of the houses were well-lit. No one else was out walking so late, and the street was cocooned in an expensive sort of quiet. They came finally to the barracks, a very large building, the outside of which was sparsely studded with torches but which otherwise was without ornament. Rodrigo paused. He did not wish this night to end like this.
“Will you join me?” he asked.
Ammar inclined his head gracefully in assent. His earring caught the torchlight. They mounted the stairs in silence. Rodrigo opened his door and entered, Ammar behind him. He threw his gloves onto the table and lit a few candles.
“Would you care for some tea?”
Ammar smiled, amused. “I will join you in a glass of wine.”
Rodrigo retrieved a bottle and produced two cups. He uncorked the wine and poured. “I thought wine was forbidden to the followers of Ashar.”
“Not to the man who killed the last khalif of Al-Rassan. He is already accursed beyond all redemption. Doubly so now.”
Rodrigo was silent. He studied the man in front of him. So many interweaving complexities, yet a deeper sense of brotherhood. He turned away and set about starting a fire in the small hearth. It was only early autumn, but the nights were already cold.
Ammar sipped his wine. He should not have come here; he should have returned to the palace and his beautifully decorated room. Playing games with this man was dangerous, especially now, when weariness was catching up with him. And heartache. Now that his future was, for some while at least, certain, and the immediate repercussions of Almalik’s death had passed, it was as if he no longer had the strength to fight it. Or perhaps a deeper part of him knew that he was safe here, with this man. ‘Go home,’ Jehane had said, only half an hour since. And they had left, leaving her to her patients. But where was home for one such as he? It would ever be Aljais, in his heart, that lovely city of nightingales and fountains. Yet it had been Cartada for the past fifteen years. Was it now to be Ragosa? Ammar stared into his cup, and wondered.
The fire was lit, sparking and spitting and casting a warm glow over the room. Rodrigo returned, poured more wine and sat down across the table. For a moment they sat like that, companiably sharing good wine. And then Rodrigo spoke.
“What was the real reason Almalik banished you?”
At first Ammar did not answer. He stared off into the fire, swirling the wine in his cup. When he spoke his voice was soft. “I am too much a part of his past to fit into his future.” He sipped at his wine, savouring it, then continued. “I cannot fault him for it; I might have done much the same in his place. He wants to be his own man, the Lion of Cartada, and with me at his side he feels he cannot. It is convenient, as well, that by exiling me he distances himself from his father’s death, for which I cannot blame him.”
Rodrigo looked thoughtful. “He will want you back.”
Ammar nodded. “Before this year is out.” He took another sip of his wine. “And you? Why does Valledo’s king banish his best captain?”
It was not a compliment, merely a statement of fact, a recognition of the way things were. “To soothe a brother’s pride. And, in part, a king’s.” Rodrigo took another sip of his wine. “I was sent south to Fezana to collect the parias. Before I left I warned the Constable of Valledo, de Garcia, that should I encounter his brother anywhere near Fezana that I would deal with him in the king’s name. On the night we arrived from the north Jehane bet Ishak rode into our camp accompanied by Husari ibn Musa, and told us of the slaughter in the city.”
Ammar tensed, almost imperceptibly. Rodrigo continued, pretending he had not noticed. “Then we saw fire in the west, in Orvilla, and I knew it was Garcia. What they did...” He paused. “I have seen such things before. It was Jehane’s anger that made it real that night. I permitted a boy to avenge his mother’s death by executing de Rada’s cousin. I then sent Garcia to Esteren on parole, without horses or weapons. I left the mark of my whip on his cheek. And I accused him of killing the late king.” He paused again. “My temper overcame my judgement. For myself it would not matter, but for the sake of my family I wish I had acted differently.”
Ammar studied the man before him, for whom he felt such unexpected kinship. That afternoon Rodrigo had called him brother; and then they had fought, back to back, and it had been like a dream, like a dance, like something written before the beginning of the world.
“It is a strange destiny that leads us both to this place at this time, and it seems the paths that led us here began on the same day, in the same place.” He paused, and then, throwing caution to the winds, asked, “Does it not frighten you?”
Rodrigo met his eyes before replying. “It frightens me more than a little, my friend. Before me sits a man known for fifteen years as a brilliant tactician, a courtier, a diplomat, a poet. Ruthless enough to kill the last of the khalifs, Ashar’s anointed. The purest swordsman in Al-Rassan, of which this afternoon I have had proof. It stirs something in my soul that is near akin to awe, that in this man I should recognize a brother.”
“Do not claim my friendship, Rodrigo. It has proven dangerous.” Ammar paused. “One does not use that word of kings, yet Almalik was the only person I could have called a friend in the world.”
The statement hung in the air between them, and seemed to echo.
And he had killed him, thought Rodrigo. ‘A man who slays whenever his pride is wounded.’ Mazur’s words, that morning. On the surface what this man had done was shocking. Regicide: the murder of his king in return for a slight to his honor. And yet Rodrigo understood, on some level that preceded language. He looked into this man’s eyes, and felt again what he had felt that morning in the palace, amid the falling leaves. Recognition and connection. Kinship. Brotherhood. And then this afternoon they had fought five men together, side by side, and it had been so impossibly easy, so right.
“Almalik was a brilliant man. I saw in him a vision of what Al-Rassan had been. I had hoped to see her greatness once again. It was his dream as well.” And now it will never be, thought Rodrigo. There was such sadness in Ammar’s voice. It was a gift, seeing this man’s pain, the honest array of emotions on his face.
Then his expression softened. “And do not be in awe of me, or else I must return the feeling, and that emotion has no place between us.”
Rodrigo held Ammar’s eyes for a long moment. He thought of his wife in the Valledo, of the night he had returned with news of his exile, of her warning: ‘If you bed another woman I’ll either bed another man or kill you. And since I don’t want to bed another man I’ll kill you’. He thought of his exile to Al-Rassan in his youth, accompanying Raimundo, and the nights of passion they had shared. He thought of the perfect symmetry of the fight that afternoon in the lists, of the look that had passed between them in the palace garden, as the golden leaves fell slowly down around them. Then slowly he took Ammar’s hand and brought it to his lips. “Does this? Does love have a place between us?”
Ammar closed his eyes, and shuddered. Rodrigo stood, and led Ammar away from the table, from the two glasses of red northern wine, and towards the bed. Ammar had not expected this. He had not expected so many things that had happened today. He felt somewhat like a leaf, blown about in life’s storm, until all that remains is so much dust.
Then Rodrigo pulled him close and kissed him, and he was comforted by the spark and excitement of this man’s presence. The weariness and heartache slid from him, and he felt alive again.
They parted and stripped off their clothes, Rodrigo hanging his swordbelt over the back of a chair, Ammar pointedly removing the blade taped to the inside of his left arm. Rodrigo smiled when he saw. Then they were naked, and Rodrigo pulled back the covers on the bed and drew Ammar down on top of him and into a kiss. They moved together with increasing passion, matched in love as they had been in combat. It seemed to Rodrigo that Ammar’s hands were everywhere, tracing the scars of a lifetime of fighting. He returned the caresses, seeking out the places that made Ammar gasp with pleasure.
After a time they pulled apart, chests heaving. Rodrigo lay sprawled on his back, skin slick with sweat, eyes dark with desire. Ammar lay on his side, his legs entangled with Rodrigo’s. The soft candlelight glittered against his earring, and Rodrigo reached for him again, and licked it. Ammar laughed delightedly, then arched backwards as Rodrigo lavished kisses down the side of his neck. Rodrigo rolled them over so that he was on top. He took Ammar’s sex in his hand, stroked, and then slid his fingers further back. Ammar pushed against him and spread his legs wider.
Then Rodrigo withdrew his hand and rose from the bed. Ammar heard him rummaging through his things, and then he was back, and Ammar felt oiled fingers entering him, twisting until they found the spot inside him that made him cry out in heedless ecstasy. Rodrigo smiled, withdrawing just long enough to smooth oil onto his sex before thrusting inside. The burn of it was sweet and heady. Ammar drew Rodrigo down for a fierce kiss, biting his lip. Rodrigo growled, low and deep in his throat, and thrust harder. Ammar rested his hands on his lover’s buttocks, felt them clenching and unclenching as he thrust, smooth and flowing. Rythmic, like the ocean breaking on the sand. He could feel his climax nearing as Rodrigo strocked along that place of sweet fire inside him again and again. Rodrigo sensed it as well, for he sped up, and they came together, swirling into ecstasy.
Rodrigo collapsed on his chest, and they lay there together for a time, listening to the fire and watching the shadows it cast. Then Rodrigo drew back and pulled out gently. He kissed Ammar tenderly, and smoothed the hair back from his face. Ammar kissed the palm of his hand before it was withdrawn. Rodrigo smiled. Ammar watched as he rose and walked naked to the nightstand, the firelight making his skin glow golden. He returned to the bed with a damp cloth, and Ammar let him clean away the evidence of their passion, thinking of another cloth, two weeks ago, and another man who had trusted him.
Then Rodrigo drew Ammar close, stroked his back and kissed him gently. Ammar lay his head on Rodrigo’s chest, and listened to the beating of his heart. Exhausted and safe, he finally allowed himself to weep.