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Laurent has always known that he’s promised to the prince of Akielos. As the second son of Vere, it is his duty to contribute to the allegiance of kingdoms. He’s not upset about the union as he has no others to which he’s promised; no others even wish to be near him and he’s heard whispers of sympathy for the prince of Akielos that he will have a husband of ice for the rest of his days.

Laurent has heard it all. He thinks the only one with sympathy for him is Auguste, but he doesn’t believe he needs it. The prince and himself are close enough in age that it could be a lot worse.

“It is said that Prince Damianos is generous,” Auguste says the night before they are set to travel to the border for the bonding ceremony.

“It is also said that he is as tall as a bell tower and as broad as two houses,” Laurent replies coolly, to which Auguste snorts, amused.

“Then you must hope he is gentle when coupling.”

Laurent doesn’t wish to think about it. He meets Auguste’s gaze and Auguste shoots him a small, serious smile.

“You will always have me,” he tells Laurent. “No matter how much ground separates us. If he treats you poorly, even once, write to me and I will come for you, brother.”

Laurent knows it’s not a lie. Auguste would kill Damianos with his bare hands if he thought he was harming Laurent.

“If he treats me poorly, I will poison him myself,” Laurent tells him and Auguste grins.

“Then write to me anyway and I will help you throw his body out to sea.”

Auguste reaches over and gently cups the back of Laurent’s head, pulling him in to kiss one cheek and then the other.

“I will miss you,” Auguste admits and Laurent shuts his eyes and leans his weight into him.

“And I you.”

Auguste curls his arms around Laurent and holds him for a long while and Laurent lets him.

*

It takes seven days to reach the edge of Delpha in the royal convoy. The king, Aleron, leads at the front, with Auguste and Laurent behind. They’re followed by guardsmen, high ranking members of the council, and a handful of other dignitaries. It all very official and all very obnoxious in the way that traditional things usually are.

The day before they hit the border, Laurent is taken and washed thoroughly by servants. After the hard riding they’ve done, it feels magnificent. However, he’s then laced into the stiff material of finery and decorated with shining gems like some kind of pet. He despises it and he ensures that Auguste is well aware of the fact.

“If you do not take the prince’s fancy, he must be blind,” Auguste says sincerely and Laurent glares nevertheless.

“He will think me a fool,” Laurent snaps. “He will think the only thing I’m good for is looking fine, whether it’s at his side or on my knees.”

“Do not underestimate the strength of misunderstandings,” Auguste says. “Let him think you are nothing but a pretty face. It will be all the more satisfying when you reveal your true worth.”

“A marriage of lies.”

“A marriage of politics,” Auguste corrects and a smile slowly spreads across Laurent’s face. “There, that is better.”

Auguste reaches out and cups Laurent’s jaw.

“You are worth more than any prince of Akielos,” Auguste says and Laurent huffs quietly.

“Say that to me in a day’s time and you could start a war.”

“I don’t think Damianos will have any doubts to my feelings on the matter.”

“Then you had better stay quiet,” Laurent says.

Auguste pats his cheek hard enough to annoy Laurent, who swats at his hand.

“Come, brother,” Auguste tells him. “We have a wedding to attend.”

*

The ceremony is held in Marlas, where the walls are high and an uneasiness sits in Laurent’s chest. It would be folly for Theomedes’ men to attempt anything—that is, to attack Aleron’s company—but Laurent knows he must expect anything. They leave their horses in the stables and as a sign of good faith, they leave their weapons with the wagons. It doesn’t stop Laurent from having a small knife tucked into his boot, however.

Inside the great hall, there are floods of witnesses for the ceremony. Laurent isn’t sure if they’re all members of court or if there are a few commoners sprinkled throughout, but all eyes are on him. He hears the whispers—such a pretty head; such a shame there’s nothing inside it—and he fights to keep his eyes from straying towards Auguste. He will let them think what they want. He is the one who will have two kingdoms under his thumb.

At the end of the room is a throne, upon which Theomedes himself sits. He’s elegantly poised and on either side of him, on slightly less extravagant seats, are the bastard son, Kastor, and Prince Damianos. Laurent has to fight not to misstep.

The stories of Prince Damianos do not do him justice. He may not be as wide as two houses, but his shoulders are certainly wide enough to make Laurent’s fingers itch. He would be happy to feel them under his palms, perhaps against his mouth. His face is gentle and impassive, but his dark eyes threaten to draw Laurent in.

Dressed in only a chiton and laced sandals, there’s a large expanse of smooth skin for Laurent’s gaze to feast upon, which he does, not bothering to hide the fact that his eyes linger on the thickness of Damianos’ thighs. He is a brute of man, but that does not stop Laurent from wanting.

Laurent stops beside his father, hands carefully tucked behind his own back, knowing he mirrors Auguste’s stance on the opposite side of the king.

“King Theomedes,” Aleron greets. “You have given us a splendid welcome.”

Laurent doesn’t know what he expects, but Theomedes smiling warmly and standing to greet Aleron with a hearty embrace is not it.

“It has been many years,” Theomedes says. “I am glad we meet again under such pleasant circumstances.”

Laurent wouldn’t call them pleasant, but he may be biased.

Theomedes presses kisses to each of Aleron’s cheeks before stepping back and allowing Aleron to begin the introductions.

“I present to you my eldest son, Auguste, and my youngest, Laurent.”

Theomedes greets them in turn with a clasp of his hand upon their forearms before he turns and beckons for his own sons to stand.

“This is my son, Kastor, and the crown prince, Damianos.”

Laurent can feel Damianos’ gaze upon him, but he doesn’t meet it. Instead, he glances at Kastor, whose face is almost as handsome as Damianos’, but there’s a shine in his eyes that does not sit well with him. He supposes that being a bastard would do that to any good man.

“This is a fine day for a fine ceremony,” Theomedes continues. “I hope this marriage brings prosperity to both our lands.”

Laurent knows it will.

Laurent knows how long it’s taken the council to agree to terms for the marriage arrangement. It had required months of messengers sent between Vere and Akielos, as well as meetings between dignitaries working on behalf of both Aleron and Theomedes. The agreement itself is almost the length of a table, outlining dowries and contractual obligations. It had briefly been passed by Laurent, but not for his approval, just for his awareness.

It is brought out then, one copy by Laurent’s uncle and another by a man Laurent knows only as the Kyros of Delpha. They are laid out before them with Aleron and Theomedes as their witnesses. It is a simple process: Damianos and Laurent will sign the copies and the contracts will be taken to each kingdom and saved. For either of them to break the contract will be a declaration of war upon the opposite kingdom.

Laurent takes up the pen, dips it into the inkwell, and carefully signs both contracts in tidy, looping handwriting taught to him by the court’s tutor. He passes it to Damianos, finally meeting his gaze as their fingers brush. Damianos appears calm, but his gaze dances across Laurent’s face as though trying to memorise every part of it. Laurent steps aside and lets Damianos reach the ink.

Damianos’ handwriting is not as fanciful, but it is sharp and to the point. He passes the pen to the Kyros, who will ensure it is preserved and kept as a token of the ceremony. It will be passed down through the generations, a romantic gesture for all other loveless political marriages to come.

They kneel then, before Aleron and Theomedes, who hold out their hands for their signet rings, upon which their family seals are engraved, to be kissed. Laurent kisses his father’s first before Theomedes’ own, and Damianos follows suit. Before they stand again, their own rings—tasteful but modest gold bands—are passed to them by Auguste.

Auguste doesn’t falter in the slightest, but Laurent feels the strength in his gaze, spurring him on.

Damianos offers his hand to Laurent as he slips the ring onto his finger, before Laurent offers his own. Damianos’ hands are warm and dry against his own, and his thumb rubs softly against the gold before he draws away.

“Embrace and our kingdoms will be one,” Theomedes says, and Laurent gracefully rises to his feet and feels every inch of the height difference as he turns towards Damianos.

Damianos has to stoop to reach his face where he presses a kiss to each of Laurent’s cheeks. His mouth is as warm and dry as his hands. When he straightens, he offers Laurent a small, private smile, which Laurent doesn’t return.

He faces the kings once more, now a married man with an unknown future stretching before him. Damianos takes his hand and Laurent’s heart seems to stumble.

*

The festivities are opulent.

If there is one thing the Akielon know how to do, it’s overindulge. Table after table is ladened with food and wine, enough so that the wood almost seems to creak under the weight of it all. They have meats of all varieties and the finest of greens. It is heavier than anything Laurent would have back in Vere, but it fills his belly and gives him something to do with his hands while ignoring the closeness of Damianos beside him.

The servants insist on topping up Laurent’s wine glass occasionally, though he never touches a drop. He drinks his fill of water instead and expects it will fuel gossip of his ability to perform as a newlywed.

“Was your journey easy?” Damianos asks apropos to nothing and Laurent pauses and glances over at him.

“Yes,” he says, not giving him anything more.

Damianos nods and then falters, seemingly lost for words. An awkward silence falls between them and Laurent returns to picking at his food.

“The weather was kind?” Damianos asks and Laurent can’t believe he’s been married to such a fool.

“Yes,” he repeats.

“Not too hot?” Damianos continues and Laurent stops and looks at him again.

“What is it you want?” he snaps and Damianos looks fairly taken aback.

“Want?” he asks. “I want only to make conversation.”

“Well, you aren’t very good at it. Open your mouth when you have something worth talking about.”

A deep blush sits on Damianos’ face and Laurent takes pleasure in it. Hopefully, it will shut him up.

“You have nothing to say to me?” Damianos asks and Laurent gazes at him coolly.

“No.”

Damianos thins his lips and then he pointedly turns away, giving Laurent the silence he’s been looking for all along. Laurent takes another sip of water and trails his gaze around the room.

His brother is chatting amicably with Jord and Orlant, but he glances over, feeling Laurent’s gaze, and he smiles warmly. Laurent props his head up on one fist, tilting it towards Damianos and knowing Auguste will understand when he rolls his eyes. Auguste’s grin sharpens and Laurent knows if he were closer, he would have a sly comment to add. Laurent looks away before he accidentally laughs.

The people of Akielos seem barbaric compared to those of Vere, with their too-short chitons and lazy sprawls. These are the people Laurent is expected to rule now. He will need all the patience he can get.

He drains his goblet of water and settles back in his chair, crossing one leg over the other. Beside him, Damianos casually leans over and refills Laurent’s cup himself, like some sort of servant. Laurent levels him with a look, but Damianos doesn’t seem to notice, the act mindless, as though it’s just what he does.

Laurent blinks and doesn’t know what to think.

Two seats down, Damianos’ half-brother, Kastor, looks at Damianos with clear disgust, which doesn’t change when he moves his gaze to Laurent instead. To be contrary, Laurent presses his palm to Damianos’ arm while reaching for his cup with his other hand. He sips at the water and stares at Kastor, daring him to say something. He doesn’t; instead, he turns his face away and resumes eating. Laurent counts it as a win.

He feels Damianos’ surprise in the tenseness of his forearm under his hand, and after a moment’s pause, Damianos pulls away from him. Laurent pats himself on the back for annoying both brothers, and reaches for another freshly baked roll. Perhaps it’ll be easier to entertain himself than he first thought. He tears the bread in two and continues eating.

*

They’re encouraged to leave not long after the feast concludes and night begins to settle in. Laurent knows what’s expected. He’s resigned himself to the fact that they must consummate the bonding and that he suspects Damianos will want to spill inside him. The thought of the act doesn’t worry him; he only hopes that Damianos is gentle, despite the strength he so clearly has.

If he isn’t, Laurent may not walk comfortably in the morning and riding to Ios will be torturous.

The royal apartment must be Damianos’ own, as a few of his belongings decorate the room, as though he often visits Marlas; there’s an assortment of sparring weapons left haphazardly atop side tables, and a collection of books with their pages marked with folds. In one corner is a stack of leather trunks, indicating the collection of Laurent’s own items, which will no doubt be moved again when they leave.

The guards stationed outside of their quarters close the doors behind them, leaving them in silence.

Through the doorway across the room, Laurent sees Damianos’ bedroom and the bed that is fitted with fine silk sheets, marked with traditional bonding symbols that represent virility and lasting love. His stomach flips uncomfortably. When he blinks and looks away, he finds Damianos watching him, his expression stony.

“It is customary,” Damianos says and Laurent nods.

“Yes,” he says. “If you wish to imagine I am someone else, I have no qualms.”

“No, that is not—” Damianos begins before stopping and starting again. “I prefer my bedpartners to be willing.”

Laurent raises an eyebrow at him and says, “I am willing. I know what is expected of me.”

Damianos raises a hand then, reaching for Laurent’s face and Laurent unthinkingly moves out of his range. At Damianos’ expression, he suspects he has just accidentally failed a test.

“It is as I thought,” Damianos says and Laurent knows better than to argue. “Take the bed. I will sleep out here.”

There is a comfortable looking divan a few steps away, but it will not be enough for a man of Damianos’ size.

“I am not exiling you from your own room,” Laurent tells him. “I will stay here instead.”

“I cannot let you—”

Damianos,” Laurent interrupts and Damianos’ lips thin.

After a moment, he quietly says, “Damen.”

Laurent is caught off guard by it enough that he actually takes a step towards Damianos’ room when pressed in that direction by Damianos himself.

“You will sleep in the bed,” Damianos orders, “and you will call me Damen.”

Damen. It sours in his mouth, clearly a childhood nickname that Laurent has no right to use, even upon Damianos’—Damen’s—insistence. But it has been a long week traveling to Marlas and Laurent doesn’t have the energy to fight. So, he gives up on both accounts and puts his back to Damen as he heads to the bedroom.

Damen doesn’t wish him goodnight and Laurent shuts and locks the door behind him.

*

Laurent wakes, comfortably warm and surrounded by the scent of someone not yet quite familiar. Of all the ways to fall out of sleep, it is one of the more pleasant ones. It takes him a moment to place the unfamiliar room and then he stretches and settles back into the pillows.

He is in Akielos and he is married to a man who refuses to consummate their bonding.

He smooths his hand over the sheets and knows what he must do; but first, he rubs the sleep from his eyes and yawns wide enough to crack his jaw. It’s warmer than in Vere; the air is closer and he doesn’t so much as shiver as he throws back the covers and drags himself from the comfort of the bed.

The floor beneath his feet is cooler and he curls his toes before he grows used to the temperature. He pulls his shirt and pants on, maintaining as much of his modesty as he can as he heads for the door and unlocks it. There’s gentle breathing from across the room and when he pads further inside, he finds Damen sprawled on his back on the low bench, one arm above his head and the other pressed to his bare stomach. He has a thin sheet draped across his lower half, hiding anything important from Laurent’s gaze.

But what he does see is enough. Damen is perfectly muscled, his whole body toned and flawless. Laurent suspects he has a magnitude of subjects that would gladly take Laurent’s place as Damen’s spouse. Laurent would gladly let them be were it not for the good of the country that he remain where he is.

With a gentle exhale, Damen begins to stir as though sensing Laurent nearby, and when he blinks awake, he flinches with the reflexes of a soldier. He wipes a hand over his face, adjusts the sheets in his lap to keep himself covered, and sits up. His hair is ridiculously tousled.

“Is something wrong?” he asks, voice rough with disuse.

“They will question the legitimacy of our bond if it is not consummated.”

Damen blinks and then frowns.

“I told you—I’m not going to touch you.”

“I never asked you to,” Laurent replies smoothly. “It only needs the appearance of having been consummated.”

Damen eyes him warily and asks, “What do you suggest?”

“Go spill in the sheets,” Laurent says. “That will be hard proof for anyone who asks.”

“And you?” Damen questions, prompting a raised eyebrow from Laurent.

“And I will go bathe and enjoy the silence of being the only one in the royal baths.”

Damen clearly isn’t sure about Laurent’s plan, but he stays silent for a long minute, thinking before speaking, much to Laurent’s surprise.

“You will do the same after,” Damen confirms. “They will know if it is only one of us.”

Laurent makes a dismissive gesture, a vague motion of agreement, and Damen carefully wraps the sheets around his waist and stands. Laurent feels how easily he looms and turns away, putting space between them, not needing to think about where Damen is heading and what he’s planning to do there. Instead, he makes his way to the door, ready to find the baths.

He’s just pressed his hand to the cool iron doorknob when a voice gives him pause.

“Go left,” Damen tells him. “Down the stairs beside the tapestry and make a right before the courtyard. There will be plenty there to serve you.”

Laurent doesn’t look back, but nods and pulls the door open. At least Damen isn’t completely hopeless, he thinks.

*

The bath clears his head and improves his mood, though only until the moment he returns to Damen’s quarters and realises his mistake. The one flaw in his plan had been to encourage Damen to find his release first. He has to stare at the mess in the sheets and think about what Damen has done. He has to think about Damen with ruddy cheeks and a hand curled around his cock.

He thinks about how thick he might be, how much bigger he’d look with Laurent’s nimble fingers wrapped around him. He blinks and tries to clear his head of such thoughts.

Damen hadn’t been there when he got back and Laurent’s thankful for it now. He doesn’t think he could face him. He hopes he stays away for a long while after, too.

He knows he has to finish what they’ve started, though, and he makes his way to the bed. His hand shakes when he unlaces his pants and he doesn’t entirely succeed in not thinking about Damen when he gets a hand around himself.

When he leaves the bedroom, Damen still isn’t there, and Laurent makes his escape before he can return.

*

Auguste seems to be in high spirits when Laurent finds him. He smiles when he sees Laurent, but there’s a curl to his lips that means Laurent won’t like what comes out of his mouth.

“You seem flushed, brother. Has Damianos been working you hard?”

Laurent doesn’t give him an inch.

“He is adequate.”

Auguste’s eyebrows raise in interest.

“That is high praise for you. Perhaps your initial fears were misguided.”

“I think you have better things to think about.”

“Like what?” Auguste asks and Laurent tries not to smile.

“Like whether or not you’ll duck in time.”

He jabs his hand out, catching Auguste in the side of the head, and August laughs, bright and loud, and quickly catches Laurent around the waist.

“I like this side of you,” Auguste tells him as he lets him go a moment later. “It seems I don’t need to worry. Damianos has taken good care of you already.”

Auguste presumes too much, but Laurent doesn’t correct him. Admitting to it would nullify the bonding ceremony and that is not something Laurent would like on his head.

“Perhaps,” Laurent replies and Auguste’s smile softens.

“Write to me often,” he says. “Tell me all the gossip of Akielos.”

“My hand will fall off from overuse if I do that,” Laurent retorts, much to Auguste’s apparent amusement.

“Become ambidextrous,” Auguste suggests and Laurent barely contains a roll of his eyes. “But, come, let us savour these last few hours together.”

He presses his hand to Laurent’s shoulder and guides him in the direction of the private gardens. Laurent goes willingly.

*

Laurent only sleeps a few hours that night, despite the cool, fresh sheets put on by the fort’s servants. They hadn’t received any suspicious glances either, in fact, Damen had been given a clap on the shoulder by the Kyros of Delpha, followed by a knowing wink. If Laurent has learned anything, it’s that talk spreads quickly through the people of Akielos, and that they are easily fooled.

There’s a knock on the door an hour or two after sunrise, though Laurent is already up and dressed. When he opens it, he finds Damen on the other side, also dressed and ready.

“We will be leaving soon,” Damen tells him. “I believe Crown Prince Auguste is looking for you.”

Laurent nods and steps around Damen when he moves back.

“Tell the servants they may load up my affects,” Laurent says and Damen nods.

“Bid farewell to your brother from me.”

Laurent won’t, but he tips his head as he leaves, leaving Damen to believe what he wants. Laurent doesn’t care either way.

*

Auguste is in the stables, his mare already saddled. When he spots Laurent, he pats her neck gently and moves towards him.

“Are you ready, brother?” he asks Laurent and Laurent shrugs.

“I have to be,” he grunts and Auguste shoots him a sympathetic look.

Auguste steps even closer, his voice dipping to stop anyone nearby from overhearing.

“It will take time,” Auguste tells him. “Life in Akielos will not be easy. But it will improve. You will find allies and you will start your own life. Maybe one day you will even find love.”

It’s a terrifying thought, which apparently shows on Laurent’s face as Auguste draws him in to hold him. Laurent easily winds his arms around him and buries his face into Auguste’s shoulder.

“And so you are not completely alone, I thought you might like Aria.”

Laurent pulls back and blinks at Auguste.

“But she is yours,” he says. “You broke her.”

“Then she will be a familiar face for you.”

Laurent glances at Aria, who’s intermittently chewing on her bit. Her eyes are bright and she looks ready for a long ride.

“What about you?” Laurent asks and Auguste shrugs.

“There are plenty of spare horses in our company. I will make it home one way or another.”

Overwhelmed, Laurent doesn’t know what to say. Instead, he draws Auguste back into a hug, feeling his throat tighten with emotion.

“Tears are not befitting a prince,” Auguste says as Laurent tucks their heads in close.

“I’m not crying,” Laurent argues, pulling back to prove his point.

Auguste is smiling at him, amused by his own joke and Laurent frowns, even as Auguste cups his face with both hands and leans in to kiss one cheek and then the other. Laurent shuts his eyes and draws in a shuddering breath as Auguste presses their foreheads together.

“Give it time,” Auguste tells him softly. “And be forgiving. Prince Damianos is too soft for his own good.”

Laurent opens his eyes and shares a small smile with Auguste.

“Don’t have too much fun without me,” Laurent says and Auguste grins in return.

“Never,” he says and he squeezes Laurent’s shoulder as he draws away completely.

Laurent feels his heart breaking, but there’s nothing he can do. He catches the eye of a passing stable boy and tips his head.

“Tell the Crown Prince I am ready to ride.”

The boy takes his leave with a bow and Laurent draws Aria nearer with her reins. He will need his strength to get through the journey.

*

It takes almost three days just to get to Karthas.

The distance between himself and home has never felt so far when he has to stay in another fort nothing like the ones back in Vere. It’s decorated with the colors of Akeilos, which Laurent knows he must get used to, and he’s shown to a room with Damen, the bed appearing to be far too small for both of them to sleep in.

But after a light supper, Laurent retires and Damen doesn’t follow. In fact, even though Laurent lies awake until the moon is high in the sky, there’s no sign of Damen. Exhaustion finally gets the better of him after travelling so far, and he finds himself falling asleep between one tired blink and the next.

In the morning, the space beside him is still empty and cold. He should be relieved, he thinks, but there’s something not quite right about it.

*

Much to Laurent’s surprise, it continues.

“I have business to attend to,” Damen tells him the first few nights, giving the same excuse each night as he brushes past Laurent and leaves the room without glancing backwards. Laurent stays awake, just as he had at Karthas, but Damen doesn’t return and Laurent stops waiting up for him.

It takes almost a week and a half to get to Ios, where the cliffs are high and the sea breeze whips through Laurent’s clothes, finally cooling him from the arid heat of summer. He hasn’t spent a single night with Damen and the Kyros of Delpha—Nikandros, he has learned—has started throwing glances his way. But Laurent knows that so long as he remains near to Damen, Nikandros won’t utter a word. No one would dare accuse the crown prince of abandoning his new Veretian husband.

But they may accuse the new Veretian husband of being too icy to stand. And eventually Damen isn’t beside him, and eventually Nikandros corners him.

“What have you said to him?” Nikandros accuses and Laurent blinks.

“I don’t know what you mean,” he lies and Nikandros doesn’t appear convinced.

“Then why have I found Damen sleeping in his private library five nights in a row?”

It takes Laurent by surprise, but he answers carefully, saying, “I’m sure the crown prince can sleep wherever he chooses. Or must he check with you first? I can pass on the message.”

It visibly riles Nikandros, which Laurent takes comfort in; Nikandros is loyal, at least.

“He is the future king,” Nikandros argues. “You cannot treat him this way.”

“Perhaps mediation is necessary if this marriage is to last. Are you offering?”

Nikandros stares as though he’d rather just strike Laurent where he stands.

“It has been consummated,” Nikandros says bluntly. “It is known. Why are you difficult now?”

Laurent regards him for a long moment.

“Not every marriage is a happy one,” he explains. “We have united our countries. That is enough.”

“It is not,” Nikandros snaps with a fire that Laurent thinks he should have expected from the start. “Damen deserves better.”

Ah, Laurent thinks, the obvious dawning on him. Nikandros is only acting as any good friend would. He only wants happiness for Damen.

“What would you have me do?” Laurent asks. “What do you suggest?”

Nikandros seems to take a moment to regroup, clearly not expecting Laurent to be agreeable to anything. He straightens and stares Laurent down.

“Talk to him in private,” is what he says as though it’s obvious. “Tell him what you want and ask him what he needs.”

“And if he won’t?” Laurent asks calmly.

“Won’t tell you what he needs?” Nikandros clarifies with a frown and Laurent blinks.

“Won’t remain in private with me long enough to talk.”

“Why wouldn’t he?” Nikandros asks and Laurent shrugs coolly.

“I have been asking myself the same question.”

Nikandros’ frown deepens when he says, “He’s staying away through his own free will.”

His expression clears for a moment, before he spares a glance at Laurent, almost seeming to see him for the first time all over again. His face darkens once more and he mutters something under his breath that Laurent doesn’t catch.

“I will talk to him myself,” Nikandros explains in a louder voice. “He is impossible.”

Laurent doesn’t know what thought has just struck Nikandros like a bolt of lightning from the sky, but he very much agrees. Damen is impossible, if nothing else.

Nikandros sweeps out of the room in a swirl of too-short chiton and Laurent finds himself sagging at the relief of being left alone. He thinks it would be a good time to write to his brother. At least it will take his mind off things in the court.

*

Laurent doesn’t know what Nikandros says to Damen, but it takes only two nights before Damen returns to him like a cautioned dog with its tail between its legs. Laurent has already changed into his sleep clothes and he’s tucked into bed with a book from his own collection.

He almost startles when the door opens, as the last thing he expects is Damen standing across the room from him, shoulders back as though braced for conflict.

“Husband,” Laurent says tartly. “I’d almost forgotten you also share this room.”

Laurent enjoys watching the guilt wash over Damen’s face.

“We should talk,” Damen says and Laurent thinks it’s a little late, but he sets his book aside pointedly. “Someone made it clear that I was not—that I should be open to your presence in the palace.”

That’s not what Laurent expects to hear. He expects more blame to be placed on himself for not being inviting enough, not submissive enough.

“I want you to feel welcome, Laurent.”

He’s far too soft, Laurent thinks. He will be useless in negotiations.

“I feel welcome,” he lies. “I have rooms and all of my belongings.”

“I know people are talking,” Damen tells him. “One too many people have found me sleeping outside of our marriage bed. They are blaming you for sending me away, but you have done nothing. It has not been my intention. I—I just wanted to ensure you had enough space. I did not want to intrude upon you.”

Laurent doesn’t know how to respond.

“What do you suggest?” he asks instead and Damen’s mouth thins.

“If you are agreeable,” Damen begins, which doesn’t bode well. “I will stay here during the nights. We—we will share the accommodations.”

He means they’ll share the bed.

“You are my husband,” Laurent points out after a moment's pause. “If that is what you want, then that is what you will get.”

“No,” Damen argues. “You have a say in this also. Say no and we will let them talk.”

Laurent knows he’s partially backed into a corner. If he disagrees with Damen, he’ll bring the scorn of Akielos upon himself, which would not be a smart political move, not when he’s so green in the court. If he agrees, he’ll have to begin sleeping beside Damen. There’s only one thing to do.

“Stay here at night,” Laurent tells him while Damen regards him quietly. “It is better than to upset the people of Akielos when we haven’t even begun to rule them. Let us appease them now.”

Damen’s gaze dances across Laurent’s face, as though searching for a lie, but apparently he finds nothing because his shoulders dip slightly, almost like relief, and he nods once.

“Tonight?” Damen asks and Laurent nods, even as his heartbeat picks up.

Damen nods again and then turns and disappears into the other room, where Laurent knows the servants will help undress him for the night. Laurent attempts to go back to his book, but finds himself thinking about the size of the bed, worrying that he may wake up to discover he’s unconsciously gravitated towards Damen in the night and curled around him like a limpet.

He’s so lost in thought that he doesn’t realise Damen has returned to the bedroom until he’s halfway towards the bed. He’s in thin, loose pants that seem far more comfortable and practical than his own Veretian-style ones. But where Laurent has a shirt laced to his throat, Damen has nothing. He is tantalisingly bare from the waist up, showing off the lines of his muscles and the darkness of his skin.

It’s a conflicting image; he looks ready to fight, but also soft enough to embrace instead.

Laurent sets his book aside after marking his page and shifts further over, giving Damen the extra space that he appears to need.

“There is no need to move,” Damen tells him gently, extinguishing candles as he goes, as though used to the act that a servant would usually perform. Laurent doesn’t reply.

The room falls into darkness, except for the candles beside their bed and it—unfortunately—makes Damen appear softer and even more touchable. Laurent curls his fingers into the bedsheets, while beside him, Damen crawls under the fine silk.

Laurent stares at the ceiling while Damen settles, but then the rest of the light fades and Laurent can’t see anything at all. He cannot see, but he can certainly feel Damen next to him, the heat of his body. Damen takes a moment to adjust his position, never once touching Laurent, not even accidentally, but then he falls still.

“Goodnight,” Damen murmurs and Laurent can’t even bring himself to shut his eyes.

“Goodnight,” he echos, but knows not much sleep will be had by him.

It takes barely any time at all for Damen’s breathing to even out and Laurent wishes it were that easy for him, too.

*

It surprises Laurent that once he eventually falls asleep, he stays asleep, and not even the added heat of Damen beside him stirs him. When he finally does wake, the morning sun is already streaming through the high windows, casting the room in a gentle glow. He suspects it’s still early, as there are only a few muted footsteps outside, likely the servants preparing for another day.

Laurent carefully stretches, his left leg threatening to cramp from where he’d had it tucked up, and he rolls over to face Damen. He’s still asleep, but he’s surprisingly quiet. Laurent had half expected some snoring brute with flatulence issues. But Damen sleeps silently, his breathing even and his broad shoulders shifting with the movement.

With his expression smoothed out in sleep, he appears younger, more approachable, and Laurent finds himself wanting to touch. He wants to press his fingertips to the space between Damen’s brows where he so often sees a frown. He wants to trace the strong line of Damen’s nose, or maybe even the fullness of his mouth. He knows it’s a dangerous path to wander down, but Damen appears to be almost as unwakeable as the dead, and one touch won’t hurt.

He’s slow in his movements, half of him not wanting to disturb the peace that’s between them, and the other half of him hoping he’ll change his mind partway through. But he doesn’t stop and eventually his fingers brush the soft cut of Damen’s cheekbone. His skin is smooth, smoother than he expected, and his warmth sends a thrill through Laurent’s body.

He traces a slow line down to Damen’s jaw, following his fingertips with his gaze, and when he brushes the prickle of Damen’s stubble, he lets his eyes trail back up Damen’s face.

Damen is watching him.

The only reason Laurent doesn’t pull his hand away immediately is that he’s completely taken by surprise and doesn’t even think to.

“Admiring the view?” Damen asks, his tone light, but voice rough with sleep.

Laurent finally draws away his touch.

“I was attempting to turn your face away, so that I would not have to look at it.”

It’s clear that Damen knows it’s a lie, but he nods solemnly before saying, “Just like how one cannot stare at the sun too long, I presume.”

Laurent had never expected Damen to have a sense of humour, and he’s not sure if it makes his situation easier or harder.

“You presume a lot,” Laurent counters and Damen nods, the pillow shifting under his cheek.

“As king, I can do a lot of things.”

“But you’re not yet king, Prince Damianos,” Laurent reminds him and Damen offers him the smallest of smiles.

“One day we will be kings together and we can do as we please.”

“Within reason,” Laurent adds and Damen’s expression softens.

“If you insist.”

The silence stretches out between them, and Damen continues gazing at him.

“Thank you for letting me stay in your quarters,” Damen tells him and Laurent huffs quietly.

“These are your rooms too,” he responds, but Damen seems to ignore him.

“Would you like me to call for breakfast? You won’t have to leave the bed.”

It sounds far too tempting and apparently Laurent’s silence gives him away because Damen nods as though making a decision. Slowly—while being careful not to disturb the blankets from Laurent—Damen slips from the bed, the muscles of his back flexing as he stretches. Laurent stares, fascinated.

He pulls on a shirt before he reaches the door, and he throws a quick glance over his shoulder. Laurent continues watching him from his comfortable sprawl amongst the sheets.

“I’d prefer something sweet,” Laurent can’t help but say, which makes Damen noticeably falter as he leaves the room.

When the door clicks shut behind him, Laurent feels satisfied, as he suspects a cat would be if it happened to knock over one or two of its owner’s most prized vases.

He smiles to himself and rolls back into the softness of the pillows.

*

Apparently, Damen takes something sweet to mean fruit. And lots of it.

A servant brings in a tray ladened with fresh strawberries, grapes, sliced apples, and even a few delicate peaches, before they bow and leave him alone.

As he begins to eat, he can’t help but feel slightly disappointed that Damen isn’t there beside him. He knows he has been away from Vere for far too long now if spending time with Damianos of Akielos seems appealing.

He bites into another grape, the skin splitting beneath his teeth, spilling sweetness into his mouth.

He misses home.

*

Laurent cannot deny that the palace at Ios is beautiful. Everything is made of exquisite white marble and the ocean below is an inviting shade of turquoise that makes him want to swim in it. He explores the grounds, even knowing he stands out with his pale complexion and golden hair. People drop to their knees, pressing their foreheads to the cool stone underfoot at the sight of him, knowing without a doubt who he is, but he pays them no attention.

He loops around the gardens, along the gravelled paths that wind between tall shrubs that offer much needed privacy, and he lets his mind wander. When he used to think about his future, more specifically his marriage to Damianos, he never imagined it like this. He supposes he imagined Damen would be overbearing and traditional, that he would wed and bed Laurent as soon as he could. But Damen isn’t and he hasn’t.

He’s been gentle and impossible to read, and Laurent doesn’t know how to feel about him. A brute would be easier to hate.

For a moment, he believes he’s slipped into insanity because he hears Damen’s voice in his head, speaking clearly as though there with him. But after a moment’s pause, he realises that he’s not the only one in the garden and that Damen must be just on the other side of the shrubbery. He lets out a quiet noise of amusement and wonders if he could startle him with enough tact.

Silently, he moves towards the edge of the bushes and peers around.

“It is not the same,” Damen says, speaking to a fair woman that Laurent recognises from the court. If he remembers correctly, her name is Jokaste.

“Nothing has changed,” she drawls calmly, even as Damen shakes his head.

“I am married, Jokaste,” he explains and Laurent has the sudden realisation that he was never meant to overhear them.

From Damen’s tone alone, he knows they are far more than friends. He turns, needing to put space between them, and only hears Jokaste’s parting words:

“What the milk-fed cur of Vere doesn’t know won’t hurt him.”

He knows the gravel crunches loudly underfoot as he leaves, but no one calls him back.

*

With no one else to talk to, he writes to Auguste, detailing all that he can. It’s not everything, but it’s enough for Auguste to know the truth of how life is for him now. He knows he cannot win the favour of everyone in court, but being reduced to petty insults is not his favourite thing to withstand, especially when he is not in a position to fight back. Only Damen can do that until the alliance is more stable.

But it’s clear the kind of relationship Damen has with Jokaste. He knows how Akielon men are with women. He knows how different it is from Vere.

He gets halfway down his second page before he’s disturbed by a knock at the door. He has half a mind to ignore it, but it seems they’re not waiting for an answer, because the door opens regardless. Damen appears, and it’s the last person Laurent wants to see. He goes back to writing, hoping that ignoring him will make Damen leave again.

“Laurent,” Damen says softly, and it’s clear that he knows Laurent overheard everything.

“I am currently preoccupied,” Laurent tries, wanting to encourage Damen to leave.

“What you saw—” Damen begins, which isn’t going to end well.

“It is not my business,” Laurent tells him, fighting to hold his tongue.

“It is not as you think. We are nothing to one another.”

“I will not stop you if she is what you want.”

Damen shakes his head and moves closer.

“You are my husband and I will be loyal to you.”

“I am not offended. You would not be the first king to take a mistress,” Laurent says as blandly as he can, though the words are as cutting as daggers. “Like father, like son.”

Damen pales as though dealt a physical blow and Laurent refuses to feel guilty. Kastor’s heritage is known by all nations; it’s no secret.

Damen stares at him as though never having seen him before and Laurent blinks coolly. Damen doesn’t move for a long moment, but eventually he straightens his shoulders as though bracing himself.

“Lady Jokaste will not be a problem,” Damen says, voice strangely official as though forcing it to be so. “There will be no bastards born when you are on the throne with me.”

Laurent continues staring at him evenly, but doesn’t respond. Damen doesn’t say anything more in return, but he dips his head politely before retreating from the room, leaving Laurent in blessed silence once more. Laurent sags, heart thundering at his own nerve of speaking to Damen in such a manner, but if a bastard is born, the whole alliance will be for naught. They will be marked as failures across the nations.

Laurent refuses to let that happen. He returns to his letter with even more to tell Auguste.

*

Although it is not at all surprising, Damen doesn’t come to bed that night. Laurent waits long enough to hear the bells outside announcing ten in the evening, and then burrows into the bedding and tries to find sleep. It is not as easy as he would hope, but he gets there eventually, without Damen by his side.

*

Damen avoids him for three days following, and it’s almost as though they’re back at the beginning of everything, much to Laurent’s annoyance. On the fourth night, however, the bedroom door opens without the telltale knocking of a servant, which means it can only be one person.

Damen appears looking as reluctant as a bull being lead to slaughter, and it is clear it’s not of his own volition.

“They are talking again,” Damen tells him after he shuts the door behind himself.

Laurent isn’t surprised. The people of Akielos talk about a lot of things.

Damen stands across the room from him, looking as though he hasn’t slept much in the passing days.

“I was advised to apologise,” Damen begins, which Laurent knows means he has been browbeaten by Nikandros in the time he’s spent away. “And I am to promise that nothing will happen between myself and Jokaste so long as our marriage is intact.”

“It is not for my benefit,” Laurent tells him coolly. “You can bed whomever you want, but do not make a joke of this alliance.”

Damen nods his agreement and Laurent supposes it’s as good as it’ll get.

“A private dinner with the court will stop the talking,” Laurent continues. “We will have to put on an act, but only for a night. The king should be there as a sign of support.”

Damen nods again and says, “I will talk to my father soon.”

And in the meantime, Laurent thinks as Damen stares dumbly at him as though needing his hand held. Laurent sighs quietly and untucks the other side of the sheets on the bed, offering Damen space in the luxurious softness. Thankfully, Damen doesn’t need it spelt out. He discards his clothes in a puddle on the floor and slips in beside Laurent, his warmth immediately permeating through the area.

Laurent lets out a slow breath and allows Damen to extinguish the candles while he turns onto his side, putting his back to Damen. There’s a touch on Laurent’s shoulder, so soft and so brief that he almost believes it to be accidental, but then, in the darkness, Damen speaks.

“I am sorry,” he repeats, and Laurent shuts his eyes against the honesty in Damen’s voice.

“You have good advisors,” Laurent gives in return, accepting the apology in his own reserved way.

“Thank you,” Damen tells him on an exhale of relief, before finally seeming to settle beside him. “Goodnight,” he says quietly and Laurent keeps his eyes closed.

“Goodnight,” Laurent murmurs in return.

*

As promised, Damen requests a dinner and the people of the palace make it so in a matter of hours. It’s once more overwhelmingly traditional, like most things in Akielos seem to be, and Laurent is laced into his finest Veretian attire by his personal servants. Damen is likewise draped with fine cloth that does little to hide his body, much to Laurent’s chagrin.

But Laurent politely tucks his hand into the crook of Damen’s elbow, allowing himself to lead him to the table while the court looks on in approval. The king sits beside Damen, with the queen on the king’s other side, followed by Kastor, and Laurent feels pale and foreign next to them.

The food is passable—it’s not the same as from home, but it’s not too terrible and Laurent picks his way through, making polite conversation with the queen, who asks after his family and their health. So far as he knows, everyone is fine. Damen’s father, however, doesn’t seem to be able to say the same thing. He has a lingering cough that seems to only get worse as dinner continues.

The servants keep his cup filled with water, but no one seems to pay it much attention.

Keeping his voice low, Laurent asks Damen, “Is your father well?”

Damen pauses where he’s drinking his wine and frowns over at Laurent. “Of course he is,” he says as though it’s obvious, seemingly ignorant of the persistent coughing.

Laurent blinks at him incredulously, but Damen just stares for a moment longer before returning to his food, not seeming worried in the slightest. Laurent glances at where the king is coughing into his palm and can’t help but notice the red when he pulls his hand away. It doesn’t sit right with Laurent, but he returns to his food, not wanting to leave a bad impression when they are trying their best to woo the court.

As he continues eating, Laurent is sure to throw glances towards Damen, knowing that any onlookers will mistake it for longing, but he’s really only thinking about how nice it will be to escape at the end of the night and burrow away in his chambers with the book he’s been reading. The first time Damen catches Laurent looking, he seems surprised, and he doesn’t seem to know what to do.

It takes a few minutes for Damen to realise what Laurent’s intention is. He eventually settles one arm along the back of Laurent’s chair and leans towards him, keeping his voice low.

“You are too good at this,” he says. “Perhaps being royalty is the wrong profession for you.”

“Maybe one day I will escape and join a traveling troupe of actors,” Laurent retorts easily.

“Escape?” Damen asks, the humour in his eyes slowly fading. “You feel you are kept here against your will?”

Laurent presses a hand to Damen’s thigh and Damen’s own quickly closes over it, seconds away from brushing it away before he seems to realise the show they’re still part of. They need to appear as though they’re not arguing.

“Escape was the wrong word,” Laurent says carefully. “I am a long way from home. That is all I meant.”

Damen’s thumb brushes over his knuckles and he’s not sure that’s part of the act. It doesn’t feel like it.

“Perhaps one day this may become your home, too,” Damen says gently, in the same way that always seems to take Laurent by surprise.

But Laurent doubts it very much. Akielos is too different; he doesn’t think he could ever love such a thing. But he wonders if the same could be said for someone like Damen. He draws his hand away from under Damen’s and returns to cutting into his venison.

Damen doesn’t touch him again, but the queen looks at them fondly and Laurent supposes their plan has gone accordingly. At least they are easier to fool than Veretians.

*

After supper, Laurent retires to his room and Damen, for once, follows after him. At first, Laurent believes he’s just keeping up appearances, but once they’re alone, after they’ve both been changed for bed by their servants, Damen fixes Laurent with a serious stare.

“Why did you question my father’s health?” Damen asks and Laurent pauses midway through tugging down the sheets of the bed, taken by surprise.

“What?” he replies, meeting Damen’s gaze, but Damen doesn’t waver.

“You believe my father is ill?”

Laurent doesn’t think he should mention anything, but Damen looks at him earnestly as though he wants to know.

“His cough,” Laurent says quietly and an expression of understand spreads across Damen’s face.

“He’s had it for almost a fortnight now,” Damen explains and Laurent frowns because he doesn’t think he’s been that withdrawn from court, but he hasn’t noticed it.

“What has his physician done to help?”

“Hesiodos believes it to be allergies. The summer grass has been abundant this year.”

Laurent doesn’t point out that for the past week storms have been blowing in from the coast, keeping dust and pollen from the air—in fact, he says nothing at all. He certainly doesn’t mention the blood he saw. It is not his business to pry, he supposes, and the conversation drops off as Damen moves to the other side of the room to sit at his writing desk.

Laurent slips into bed without another word, but he listens to the quiet scratching of Damen’s quill against paper and lets his thoughts drift away. He falls asleep long before Damen comes to bed.

*

The rain holds off long enough the next morning that Laurent decides to take Aria for a ride. He heads beyond the sprawl of the palace grounds, opting instead for the winding path that leads down to the soft beach below the cliffs. Jord, refusing to let Laurent ride out alone in unfamiliar territory, rides his own mount some yards behind.

Aria shies at the ocean the first time the water laps around her hooves, but Laurent keeps his seat and though she snorts her opinion on the matter, she continues along the sandy shore when Laurent nudges with his heels.

The sea breeze ruffles Laurent’s hair and it only worsens when he urges Aria into a trot and then a canter, racing along the shoreline. It feels freeing to have the ocean splash up around him, to hear the roar of the waves at his side, and he feels more content than he has in a long time now.

When the sand begins to turn to rock, he slows Aria, allowing her to pick her own way through for a while, before eventually drawing her to a halt. He stares out across the ocean, where clouds are beginning to build up, threatening yet another storm. It’s peaceful, even when Jord joins him, his hands low and at ease against his mare’s neck.

“We are a long way from home,” Laurent says above the noise of the water and Jord makes a sound of assent.

“It has its own beauty,” Jord replies. “Especially here, where there are fewer Akielons.”

Laurent glances over in humour.

“I would suggest a race,” Laurent says some moments later, “but that would mean returning to the palace sooner.”

“As a lowly guardsman, I would have to let you win anyway,” Jord concedes, and Laurent turns Aria back in the direction they came, and barely hides the roll of his eyes.

“A poor excuse,” Laurent tells him, but Jord only makes a noise of agreement and follows after him.

*

The rain starts only a few minutes before he returns to the stables, but by the time he’s back inside the palace, he feels fairly drowned. He supposes it could be worse; he could be Jord who has to deal with untacking and grooming the horses. He cards his fingers through his soaked and tangled hair and makes his way to his quarters.

He doesn’t expect Damen to be there, but he is, and he glances at Laurent briefly before double-taking.

“Never seen a man who’s been caught in the rain?” Laurent asks, beginning to unlace his own jacket.

Damen blinks, opens his mouth, and then shuts it again, and Laurent moves towards the farside cupboard, from which he draws out a towel he can use to dry his hair.

“You look—” Damen begins, finally having found his voice, and Laurent glances over his shoulder.

There’s a mirror on the other side of the room, almost by where Damen sits, and Laurent can see his own reflection, his flyaway hair and the rosy tinge to his cheeks—a mix of cold air and excitement. He looks younger, he looks—

“—happier,” Damen finally concludes and Laurent would have to agree. He feels it, too.

“I was riding with Jord,” Laurent tells him, without a reason to hide anything. “It has just begun to storm outside.”

Damen stares at him a little longer and Laurent eventually turns away, beginning to rub at his hair.

“You should use the baths,” Damen tells him quietly. “Before you catch a cold.”

For once, it’s actually a good idea. He drops his towel to the floor and carefully begins to draw his jacket over his head to take it off, but the servants always seem to make it look easy, because he manages to get stuck halfway, his thin shirt catching underneath and starting to draw up with it. He knows it’s only because it’s wet, but he struggles for a long moment before he feels rather than hears someone move closer.

Large, warm hands carefully pull his shirt back down, hiding his stomach from view, before they tug efficiently at his jacket to free him from the material. When it’s off, Damen stares down at him, a mix of amusement and something else in his eyes. Laurent feels the flush on his face deepen, but Damen doesn’t mock him.

“I’ll have the servants bring dry clothes to the baths,” he says. “I’ll hang this by the fire.”

Laurent nods and takes a step back, moving away from the tempting warmth of Damen in front of him.

“Thank you.”

Damen nods in return and stares at him a moment longer.

“I’m glad you are happy,” Damen tells him, and for the briefest second, his fingers come up to brush Laurent’s cheek and then back to tuck a loose strand of hair behind his ear.

His skin burns at the touch and he can’t remember how to talk, but Damen draws his hand back as though he never meant to let it free in the first place and turns away with an apologetic glance. Laurent stays where he is long enough to watch Damen hang his jacket at the edge of the mantle in front of the fire, just as he promised he would, and then he flees for the baths, not even pausing to look back once.

*

Laurent starts making a habit of riding in the mornings, finding it puts him in a better mood for the rest of the day. That is, when it's not raining.

On the sixth clear morning, Laurent returns to the stables after his ride and finds a cluster of men in the adjoining training ring. In the centre, surprisingly, is Damen, who's carefully showing one of his guards his footwork.

Laurent dismounts from Aria, handing her reins to a stable boy, and moves closer to the ring. At Laurent’s presence, the men pause long enough to bow in greeting and Damen offers a tip of his head in acknowledgement.

“Aren't there captains to manage this?” Laurent asks, partially curious and partially hoping to irritate.

Damen doesn't fall for it, but one of his men—someone Laurent recognises as Pallas—does.

“There is no one as good as the Prince,” he retorts, out of line, but Laurent allows it if only for his own selfish amusement.

“Is that so?” Laurent asks, though he's already heard rumours of Damen's prowess. Not all of them had been for his skills in fighting.

“You would never know,” Pallas continues. “You’ll never be good enough to fight him yourself.”

Laurent blinks and stares at him coolly at the sheer audacity. He flicks his gaze across to Damen, who looks as though he wants to rebuke Pallas for being so bold, but Laurent shakes his head minutely.

“Why would I fight my own husband?” he asks, much to Pallas’ clear annoyance.

“You couldn’t—” Pallas begins and Laurent interrupts.

“What do you think, your highness?” Laurent asks, shooting a look towards Damen. “Should we fight?”

Damen draws the sword hanging from the sheath at his hip and for a second, Laurent expects Damen to tuck the edge of his blade beneath Laurent’s chin and end the joke right there. But instead, he turns the sword carefully, and passes it to Laurent, handle-first. Without thought, Laurent takes it, but it’s heavier than anything he’s trained with in Vere.

“Will you fight with your hands instead?” Laurent asks and Damen gives a small smile and a shake of his head.

“It seems Pallas could use a lesson in manners.”

Laurent briefly narrows his eyes at him and beside him, Pallas makes a noise of protest.

“Exalted,” Pallas argues. “Surely you don’t—”

“Weren’t you telling Nikandros the other day that you thought you could win against Prince Laurent? Or did I mishear?”

Pallas’ mouth thins and Laurent wonders if perhaps he’s a better match with Damen than he originally thought. But Damen doesn’t know if Laurent can fight. He’s throwing Laurent headfirst into a duel with one of his best men just for his own amusement. Laurent only just stops himself from frowning, especially when Pallas draws his own sword, gesturing with his head for Laurent to enter the ring with him.

Laurent tests the weight in his hand, thinks about what Auguste would do, and elegantly hops over the railing, landing on the soft layer of woodchips underfoot. Pallas seems unfazed.

Laurent hasn’t practiced in a long while—since he was last in Vere with the royal trainer—but it doesn’t matter now. Pallas raises his sword, a position that shows he’s ready to fight, and Laurent mirrors him. With his heart in his throat, he offers the first strike.

Of course, Pallas underestimates him. Not that Laurent helps. He feints enough for Pallas to think he’s a novice, and lets him gain ground and confidence. Pallas’ swings have true power behind them, forcing Laurent to brace against every hit, but the footwork is simple, more so than what was expected of him in Vere.

Pallas, of course, doesn’t know his fighting style and he grows visibly annoyed each time Laurent parries and blocks his blade. He keeps it up for a few long minutes, barely moving around the ring, before he glances over at Damen, still fighting meanwhile, which only seems to further incite Pallas.

“Has the lesson been learnt yet?” he asks dryly, hoping to take him by surprise, but Damen only looks self-satisfied.

“What do you believe?”

Laurent, already growing tired of the joke, decides to end it.

Pallas has a smirk on his face, still believing he has the upperhand before Laurent moves quickly, closing the space between them and using the closeness to slip his sword behind Pallas’ own and tear it from his grasp, disarming him between one blink and the next.

The sword soars through the air dramatically and spears one of the straw bales near the entrance to the training ring, settling without fuss. Laurent turns away from Pallas and takes a handful of steps closer to Damen.

“Thank you for the use of your blade,” he says, handing it back to Damen, who’s smiling as though the rest of his men aren’t completely flabbergasted by Laurent’s feat. “I’ll let you return to training.”

He spares Pallas one last glance before he goes, and he appears to be rethinking his entire opinion about Laurent. Perhaps he’ll earn a little more respect in Akielos if word spreads enough.

As he leaves the ring, he hears Nikandros, voice incredulous, asking Damen, “Did you know?”

Laurent smiles to himself and heads into the palace.

*

“You knew,” Laurent accuses when Damen comes to bed that night.

Damen pauses in the doorway for a long second, before softening and closing the door behind himself.

“I knew,” he agrees. “Did you think I would force you to fight someone you couldn’t disarm?”

“I don’t know what to think of you,” Laurent says honestly, which earns him an unreadable look from Damen.

In return, Damen tells him, “I knew that if you were to fight even half as well as your brother, you would have Pallas on his knees in an instant.”

“I spared him that,” Laurent says, though he knows he could have if he’d wanted.

“It was a clean fight and the rumours will pass through the ranks.”

“You planned it?” Laurent asks and Damen shrugs with one shoulder.

“You always sound so surprised. I want you to feel at home here, Laurent. That couldn’t happen with my men thinking you’re just a pretty face.”

“And I’m not?” Laurent counters.

“No,” Damen says softly, a smile spreading across his face. “There are a lot of other things going on inside that pretty head.”

Laurent feels twin patches of skin on his cheeks as they grow hot with a blush that he cannot stop. Instead of arguing, he huffs indignantly and turns away.

“I would like to train with you one day,” Damen tells him. “You have a lot of good Veretian tactics.”

Laurent nods, but doesn’t reply aloud. Damen is far too honest for his own good and Laurent doesn’t know what to do with that.

*

The palace is surprisingly quiet throughout the days. Laurent knows there are dozens of servants and workers, and that they keep everything running smoothly, but he hardly sees a glimpse of them. He’s not prepared to say he’s lonely, but he does find himself wandering beyond the palace gates one afternoon, just to see the city.

Jord accompanies him with undisguised disinterest, letting Laurent wind through the streets to the city centre where there’s a market and possibly hundreds of vendors displaying their wares. Near the edges are men and women selling fruits and freshly harvested vegetables, but the further in he delves, the more unique the items. He spies a table ladened with all manner of blades, ranging from letter openers to full length swords.

Jord unmistakably guides him away from it, instead pointing out a series of delicately sculpted works of bronze, which Laurent doesn’t complain about. He actually likes the look of them, lingering at one of a rearing horse, but he has no coin and no idea if he’s allowed to credit it to the palace. He traces a finger along the solid mane and the shopkeeper moves towards him.

“An excellent choice, your majesty,” the man says with a low bow and Laurent briefly spares him a glance.

“It is very fine craftsmanship,” Laurent tells him and the man bows again.

“Thank you, your majesty.”

“What days are you here?” Laurent asks. “I’d like to return for this.”

“I am here every day, your majesty. I will set it aside for you.”

Laurent nods, satisfied that he’ll be able to get enough coin soon enough, and bids the merchant farewell. His presence alone at the man’s booth will bring him more customers and word will quickly spread of Laurent’s generosity and willingness to mingle with the commoners. He needs all the positive attention he can get while so new in Akielos.

He continues walking through the market, sparing a gaze here and there until he pauses to inspect the wares of a cloth merchant with embroidered silk delicately arranged. He’s reaching for a square of light blue cloth when Jord casually nudges his arm.

“Your husband is over there,” he says. “Must we greet him?”

Laurent draws his hand back and straightens, glancing across to follow Jord’s line of sight. It’s true, Damen is there, but he doesn’t seem to have noticed Laurent. Instead, his attention is set on four or five children lingering around him.

For a brief moment, Laurent wonders if they’re pestering him for coins, sent by their parents to earn their keep, but then Damen turns and Laurent sees he already has a young boy perched on his hip and the boy is talking animatedly, gesturing with his hands and expecting Damen to balance him. Damen nods along to whatever it is the boy speaks of as though it’s of utmost importance, every now and then glancing at the other children for input.

Damen is smiling, clearly enjoying himself, his parental side seeming natural for him, and Laurent swallows against the feeling growing in his chest.

“Is he always like this?” Laurent asks Jord, who shrugs, clearly less interested in the whole ordeal.

“He visits every other day if he can,” a merchant to Laurent’s left says, bowing when Laurent glances over at him. “He’s been coming here since he was as small as those children.”

Laurent cannot imagine Damen as a child, he would be too soft, too delicate for him to be anything like the adult Damen has grown to be.

He looks back towards Damen at the sound of a high-pitched laugh, and he finds Damen has slung one of the other children over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. The girl shrieks happily, beating at Damen’s back with tiny fists that won’t do anything to stop Damen. But then Damen laughs, low and genuine, and carefully sets her and the boy back down on the ground.

The other children take advantage while he’s down at their level and quickly swarm him, climbing atop him as though he’s not the prince of Akielos. Damen pretends to sag under their weight, pleading for mercy while other children swoop closer to join in. Soon, Damen is pressed to the ground, where he lay unmoving, his eyes shut tightly.

The children quickly climb off him, staring down in concern, muttering amongst themselves. Out of their sight, Damen opens his eyes and his gaze catches on Laurent and he seems to falter for a second. Laurent’s stomach swoops at being caught watching, but he offers a small nod, and Damen turns his attention back to the children.

He rises up with a yell, scattering the children as they run, screaming, back to their parents, only a few of the braver ones lingering to laugh and shove at Damen in retaliation.

Laurent cannot help but smile, thinking of how he used to play with Auguste when they were younger and carefree. He thinks perhaps he has misjudged Damen, and he feels unbalanced. Gently patting the head of one of the closest children, Damen glances over at Laurent again, holding his gaze for longer.

Laurent feels off-guard and vulnerable, and blinks to break the stare, casually turning to Jord.

“Let us return to the palace,” he murmurs and Jord nods.

Laurent spares a glance over his shoulder as they leave, but Damen is no longer watching, his attention on someone more deserving.

“This is not what I expected of Akielos,” Laurent says and Jord makes a noise of understanding.

“We are a long way from home,” Jord agrees.

*

Two mornings later, Laurent finds the bronze horse statue on the low table at the center of their rooms, close to where he usually sits to read. He runs his fingers along the mane before reaching for the note beside it.

It was said that you would like this, the paper says in Damen's handwriting.

Laurent rereads it a handful of times before tucking the note into his pocket and smiling.

*

Like every other morning, Laurent takes Aria out, but instead of trailing along the coast, he heads inland to the snaking, dusty paths just beyond the palace. As usual, Jord joins him, knowing to give Laurent the space he so desires. It’s quiet and pleasantly warm with the ocean breeze blowing through. Laurent lets his mind wander, not thinking of anything in particular as they crest a small hill and enter what he presumes to be the only valley in the whole of Ios.

It’s warmer out of the path of the wind, but there’s a cluster of trees at the bottom that stretches on for a mile or so. Among the trees is quieter, only a few birds singing their songs, and Laurent steers Aria onto a less travelled path, just because he can. The grass is dry and long, crunching beneath Aria’s hooves, and he can hear the periodic scuttling of lizards around them.

There’s no real way for them to get lost; the main trail remains in eyesight even as they get deeper into the trees, but it feels new. Aria picks her way easily over fallen logs and Laurent gives her free reign, allowing him to take in the sights. A little further ahead, they cross the main path and continue down another disused one, but it’s more overgrown than the other.

“Are you sure you know where you’re going?” Jord asks a few minutes later when Laurent has to start brushing branches out of his face with one hand.

“Others have been here before,” Laurent points out, as he’s sure he saw fresh hoof-prints in the dirt nearer to the main path.

But as they delve deeper, it seems less likely that someone would venture out so far off the path without a good reason. Soon after that, Aria pricks her ears forward and seems to be staring at something through the trees. She never hesitates, however, which means Laurent doesn’t give it much thought—he suspects it’s a rabbit or a squirrel that’s gained her attention. Except when they round the next corner, they find a strong bay gelding tied to one of the trees.

Laurent brings Aria up short, picking up the reins again, and he glances around. Behind him, he can hear Jord grow alert.

“That is one of the horses from the palace,” Jord murmurs quietly as though expecting someone to be listening. “It is branded on the hip.”

Laurent runs his gaze over the horse and then swings himself down from Aria.

“Laurent,” Jord warns, but Laurent only guides Aria back and passes Jord the reins.

“Hold her steady.”

It’s clear Jord wishes to argue, but Laurent knows he’s left him in a difficult situation. He has more important things to worry about, however, as there are boot marks heading between two larger trees, and it appears to not be the first time the grass in the area has been thoroughly trodden upon.

He moves silently, using his slight build to his advantage to slip around branches and keep his footsteps light. He catches sight of a clearing just beyond a few large shrubs, ones that tower over Laurent himself. He stops then and instead peers through the gaps, trying to find a sign of anything.

For a moment, he sees nothing, but then there’s movement across the other side of the opening and for a second Laurent thinks it’s Damen. There’s a man crouched, doing something with his hands, and he has the same build and the same royal clothing, but the hair is different, his skin a few shades lighter than Damen’s.

It’s Kastor.

Laurent has the sudden, swooping sensation that tells him he should leave, that it will not end well if he’s caught, but he waits just long enough for Kastor to move and reveal his actions. He’s picking something from a plant, one with large leaves and what appears to be strangely spiked fruit. He’s not close enough to see more, and he’s not willing to push his luck.

Whatever Kastor is doing, Laurent has the feeling that it’s not something he should be involved in.

As quietly as he came, Laurent picks his way back to the path, almost sighing in relief at the sight of Jord’s expression of annoyance.

“We need to leave,” Laurent tells him, voice quietly and Jord appears to want to argue, perhaps that it had been his reasoning all along, but Laurent carefully swings himself back up onto Aria and doesn’t press the issue.

Instead, he lets Jord turn his own horse and head back in the direction from which they came, Laurent being sure to stay close. His heart thunders in his chest until they reach the main path and then he finally blows out a long breath and turns Aria in the direction of the palace, no longer wishing to be out riding.

“What did you see?” Jord asks a long while later, when they’re making their way out of the valley.

“Nothing,” Laurent tells him, glancing over to level him with a stare. “We were never out here.”

Jord nods, his loyalty second to none, and Laurent hopes it’s enough to keep them safe. They remain silent for the rest of the ride.

*

Try as he might, Laurent cannot push that morning from his mind. He remains awake that night, with Damen sleeping quietly beside him, his thoughts racing. At first, he tries to rationalise it. Perhaps Kastor was out there to escape the hectic palace life, or maybe he was there picking flowers for the queen, or berries for his own lunch. But nothing sits right and eventually Laurent slips into sleep, his mind plagued with nightmares.

He dreams of hiding from Kastor in the palace, using the hidden passages to stay one step ahead, but no matter where he goes, he feels Kastor’s hot gaze on him, bright and knowing. He dreams of Kastor laughing at him, dragging him down the hallways by his hair, telling him that no one will help him. No one will help a prince of Vere.

He dreams of Kastor’s hands tight around his throat as he's told no one will believe him.

*

He wakes to a gentle touch on his shoulder, a palm rubbing up and down his skin soothingly.

It takes Laurent a moment to blink the dream from his eyes, but he finds himself in bed, early morning light beginning to filter into the room.

“It was just a nightmare,” Damen murmurs. “You are safe.”

Laurent turns his gaze to him, the lure of sleep still tugging at him. He worries that he will fall back into Kastor’s hands, but Damen continues touching him, continues whispering gently to him.

Carefully, Laurent shifts forward, tucking himself against Damen, finding comfort in the strength of Damen’s body. Kastor cannot get him when Damen is near. No one can.

He rests one hand against Damen’s chest and his cheek upon his shoulder. Damen makes a soft noise, but doesn’t nudge him away, and Laurent quickly slips back into the warm grasp of sleep.

He does not dream again.

*

Laurent thinks about skipping his daily ride the following morning, a bad taste lingering in his mouth. He eats half of a freshly baked sweet roll and, unable to continue, sends everything except for his tea back to the kitchens. Damen isn’t around to notice thankfully, but as though he knows anyway, Damen appears in the doorway a handful of minutes later.

Laurent is sipping quietly at his tea, idly staring out the window overlooking the cliffs, but he turns his face towards Damen, raising his eyebrows in an unspoken question. Damen suddenly seems unsure, his expression strangely open.

“You go riding,” he says, “every morning.”

Laurent sets his cup down and nods cautiously. “I do.”

“Your guardsman accompanies you?”

“Yes,” Laurent confirms. “Jord does.”

“May I accompany you instead?” Damen asks and Laurent freezes. It’s the last possible thing Laurent expects him to say. “Or just join you if you would like Jord there also.”

Laurent can’t help but let out a startled laugh.

“We share the same bed,” Laurent points out. “What could I possibly be worried about you doing if we rode alone?”

Damen actually appears to think about it and Laurent takes pity on him.

“Damen, if you wish to join me, I will not stop you.”

“But will you want me there?” Damen asks and Laurent pauses.

In all honesty, he doesn’t know.

“I—” Laurent begins and pauses. “I’m not opposed to the idea.”

Damen straightens, seemingly given confidence by Laurent’s answer, as though having been expecting to be let down.

“Oh,” he says gently. “I’ll tell the servants to ready our horses.”

“You would like to leave immediately?”

“I have nothing else planned,” Damen tells him. “Do you—Jord—”

“Jord won’t be upset to miss one ride.”

Damen nods and then stands in awkward silence for a brief moment. Finally, he says, “I’ll wait for you outside.”

Laurent watches him leave, a buzz of unknown excitement zipping through him, along with amusement at Damen’s sudden inability to talk to him. He huffs out a quiet laugh and then moves towards his dresser, knowing the servants will have laid out his riding clothes already.

He doesn’t know what to think, but he is just grateful that his mind is no longer lingering on Kastor.

*

Jord, predictably, leers at Laurent the moment Laurent tells him that Damen will be accompanying him for his ride instead. Laurent levels him with unamused stare, but it doesn’t seem to deter him.

“Shall I send a search party if you have not returned in two hours?” Jord asks, the corners of his mouth twitching. “Or should I just send a messenger with more oils?”

Laurent chooses to ignore him. “If anyone needs us, we’ll be along the coast.”

Jord continues grinning and Laurent turns away.

“Enjoy the ride,” Jord tells him. “And also the ride on Aria.”

Laurent doesn’t look back.

*

Damen is already on his mare when Laurent reaches the stables. He smiles at Laurent and a nearby servant holds Aria while he mounts. Once Laurent is situated and the servant moves away, Damen glances over at him and smiles again, appearing genuinely pleased that Laurent has kept his word and joined him. It's unfathomably endearing.

“What is your preferred route?” he asks and Laurent nods towards the path that he knows leads down to the ocean.

“The tide is out,” Laurent tells him. “The shore will be adequate this morning.”

Damen makes a noise of agreement and guides his horse next to Aria, both of them setting off at a slow walk.

“Thank you for allowing me to ride with you,” Damen says after a minute-long silence, and Laurent doesn’t know how to respond.

He remains quiet along the pathway to the shore, allowing the sound of swelling waves to fill the silence and Damen doesn’t appear to want to speak either. Laurent begins to wonder if maybe he shouldn’t have let Damen join, but when they finally reach the waterline, Damen turns to him and smiles.

“It is beautiful here,” he says and Laurent points Aria east and begins following the cliffs.

“You should know that already,” Laurent tells him. “You’ve lived here your whole life.”

“Perhaps it is different experiencing it with someone else,” Damen says, staring at Laurent for a long moment.

“You never came here with Nikandros?” Laurent asks and Damen makes a noise of amusement.

“Well, he was never my husband.”

Laurent lets them ride for a few steps in silence before asking, “Could he have been?”

Damen glances over at him, his expression soft.

“Perhaps, in another life.”

“Do you—were you—” Laurent can’t find the words to ask if Damen would rather be with his longtime friend instead.

Damen draws his mare to a halt, forcing Laurent to stop too, and he stares over at him.

“Laurent, I have never been opposed to marrying you.”

“You didn’t even know me.”

“No, but I knew your brother. I knew if you were anything like him, we would not have troubles. I only—” Damen pauses, seeming unsure as he glances around. Finally, he meets Laurent’s gaze again. “I only hope you—”

Laurent realises belatedly what Damen is trying to say.

“I am not unhappy, Damen. I didn’t know what to expect from this, but you have been—” He tries to think of the right word. “—kind to me.”

The smile Damen shares with him this time is small and radiantly genuine.

“I am glad,” Damen tells him. “I hope one day we can make something of this.”

Laurent turns his face away and gently digs his heels into Aria’s sides, setting her to a walk again and letting Damen follow. He doesn’t know if he can dare to think about a future where they are something. What if Damen were to court him? What if Laurent fell in love with him?

He glances back at Damen, who's already watching him, and his stomach swoops. But Damen allows the conversation to drift, not seeming unhappy about it, in fact, he’s the one to start up another topic.

“What was it like growing up in Arles?” he asks and Laurent has to think for a moment, but he can’t keep the smile off his face.

“It was certainly cooler than here,” Laurent begins, “but at least here you did not have Auguste.”

Damen glances over, humour in his gaze as he says, “You are the youngest son.”

“I am. I’m sure you’re aware of the downfalls of being the younger of two brothers.”

“Kastor used to put insects in my bed,” Damen tells him. “I had to check the sheets each night.”

“When we were younger and staying at Chastillon, Auguste forged a note from a secret admirer wishing to meet me, but he paid a prostitute to show up instead.”

Damen lets out a laugh that sounds surprised. “What did you do?”

“When he was asleep, I cut his hair. The women of court used to be envious of his hair; it was long and the colour of sunshine—their words, not mine. When I was through, it was up to his ears and completely uneven.”

“Was he angry?” Damen asks and Laurent lets out a heavy breath.

“That’s the worst part. He found it amusing and the women seemed to love him more after. The style of his hair became a new trend throughout Vere.”

Damen winces just a moment before laughing, his face appearing younger.

“You and Kastor are agreeable to each other now?” Laurent can’t help but ask and Damen nods.

“He is quiet some days, but he means well.”

“He has accepted that you will take the throne before him?”

Damen spares him a strange glance, but he nods.

“He has no reason not to.”

“He would not be jealous?”

Damen stops his horse again and Laurent turns Aria around to face him, knowing that they can return back to the palace now anyway.

“What are you asking?” Damen asks and Laurent tries to appear innocent.

“I am merely curious,” Laurent tells him. “If your positions were reversed would you not feel disappointed at being beaten by your younger brother?”

Damen frowns.

“Laurent, he would never do anything to harm me. He would never want the throne that much.”

Laurent wishes he could believe him, but he thinks Damen might be too optimistic.

“Do you have books on the local flora?” Laurent asks instead and Damen seems taken off guard.

“Pardon?”

“I saw a flower in the forest yesterday, but I don’t know what it was. How would I find out?”

“There should be books in the library,” Damen tells him. “Is this related?”

“No,” Laurent says. “It just came to mind. But come, I think I’ve had enough sea air.”

He can see the palace in the distance, but he hopes he can fill the time it will take to return with idle chatter. Once he is back, he will bathe, find the library, and put the whole thing to rest.

Perhaps he will find out that Kastor really is the man Damen believes him to be. He is not willing to place any bets for the time being, however.

*

“Sore?” Jord asks when Laurent slips out of the saddle and passes Aria’s reins to one of the stable boys.

Laurent spares him a cold glance and then turns towards the palace.

“You underestimate Prince Damen if you believe he finishes that quickly,” Laurent says coolly, and he thinks it’s shock that stops Jord from following.

*

Despite his wet hair from bathing, Laurent finds his way to the library, unwilling to delay it any further. There are two servants around that Laurent can see, but he suspects there are more hidden among the shelves. He approaches one, hating the way they immediately drop to the floor for him, but he gestures for them to rise again and eventually they comply as though believing ignoring Laurent’s request would be even worse than not groveling at his feet.

“I’m looking for books on plants,” he says without delicacy. “Local ones if possible.”

The servant seems to think for a moment before she nods, keeping her gaze lowered. She doesn’t speak, but her movements are obvious enough for Laurent to know to follow her as she leads the way across the room. She slows down, clearly searching the spines of the books to find what she’s looking for. She eventually stoops down low and tugs four books free from the bottom shelf.

She bows low when she holds the books out for Laurent, and Laurent is careful not to touch her when he takes them.

“Thank you,” he says gently, knowing the praise will go a long way. “Your help has been invaluable.”

He also hopes it will buy her silence if anyone happens to follow his trail.

But without another word, he takes the books and leaves, knowing he’ll have more privacy in his room.

*

An initial search of the first two books finds nothing, not even a hint of the plant Kastor had been collecting. Laurent’s hopes droop, even moreso when the third book in his stack appears to be written by the royal physical, Hesiodos, himself. He drops it back onto the pile a few seconds after picking it up, his willpower not strong enough to get him through, but as he slumps back in his chair in defeat, the door opens and Damen enters.

Laurent glances at him, and then pauses when he sees Damen’s pallor.

“Damen?” he asks, rising from his chair as Damen takes a few slow steps towards him, and for a brief, horrible minute, Laurent thinks he's injured. Damen lets Laurent set gentle hands upon him and guide him to sit in the chair Laurent was just occupying. “What happened?”

“My father,” Damen begins, body tense, eyes glazed as though deep within his own thoughts. “My father collapsed while we were out riding.”

“Is he—?” Laurent asks with concern, finding himself crouching before Damen to lessen the height difference and setting a comforting hand upon his knee.

“He’s alive,” Damen says, forcing an involuntary sigh of relief from Laurent. “He’s weak.”

“What happened?” Laurent repeats and Damen drops his head into his hands for a beat before seeming to collect himself.

“He was with the queen,” Damen explains. “She said he was asking if she wanted tea, and before she could reply, he was on the ground, unresponsive.”

“The physician has seen him?” Laurent confirms and Damen nods.

“Father didn’t take breakfast this morning. Hesiodos made him eat and suspects that should make him feel better.”

Laurent doesn’t believe it for one second. Skipping one meal would not take down a man single handedly. There’s something more going on, but until he’s able to find proof, anything he says will only create rifts within their arrangement and he’s not willing to take that risk.

“His health will improve?” Laurent asks and Damen rubs under one eye and nods.

“Apparently so,” he says and Laurent gently squeezes Damen’s knee.

“And what do you think?” Laurent asks and Damen glances at him, appearing tired but not suspicious of Laurent’s question.

“I think I’m not a physician,” Damen says with a sigh. “Though at times like these, I wish I were.”

Damen drops his head back into his hands and after an abortive move of lifting his hand, Laurent carefully presses his palm to Damen’s head, letting his fingers slide into his hair. Damen makes a soft noise, but doesn’t draw away, and so Laurent stays crouched, comforting Damen and knowing that he needs to find answers as soon as he can.

*

The only reason Laurent knows Damen is soon turning twenty-five is that there’s a buzz through the palace and there are whisperings, wondering how extravagant his feast may be. He cannot escape it, especially when he’ll pulled aside by Nikandros one afternoon. The only thing that makes Laurent feel better is that it looks as though it pains Nikandros to talk to him.

“There are certain...expectations,” he begins, which doesn’t bode well.

“What kind?” Laurent questions tentatively and Nikandros doesn’t meet his gaze.

“You will be expected to wear customary Akielon garments for the occasion to show support to Damen.”

Laurent stares at Nikandros until he finally raises his eyes.

“I am expected to wear a chiton,” Laurent assumes and Nikandros nods the slow nod of a man expecting to be shouted at.

“The seamstress will fit you in an hour.”

“Will it be red?” Laurent can’t help but ask and Nikandros falters.

“What?”

“The colour; will it be red?”

Nikandros blinks and says, “I don’t know. You may have a choice.”

“I will wear anything but red,” Laurent compromises and Nikandros nods, looking slightly poleaxed.

 

“I’ll let the seamstress know.”

Laurent is willing to do many things to appease the court, but wearing Akielon colours seems to be pressing his luck. He’d rather be dressed in neutral Veretian colours, especially when he knows he’ll be uncomfortable all night with his legs and chest bare. He’d like to blend into the background as much as possible, and who knows, maybe he’ll be able to feign a headache halfway through and retire early.

He certainly hopes so.

*

The night of the feast is possibly even worse than after Laurent and Damen were first united. There’s an extraordinary amount of food, but it’s laid out differently. Instead of a separate table for royalty, the seats are mixed together, allowing members of the court to mingle without status.

He’s sure those of a lower standing adore Damen for it, but it means that Laurent is alone. Since he arrived, he hasn’t seen Damen, nor the king or queen, but he’s handed a cup of wine by a servant, and he clutches it like a lifeline. The worst part is that he thinks the alcohol will steel his nerves, but all it does is make his face hot and his limbs loose.

He’s on his third drink by the time Jord finds him, a mix of amusement and astonishment on his face.

“How on earth did they wrangle you into that?” he asks, neatly plucking the cup from Laurent’s fingers and handing it to the nearest servant.

Laurent wants to argue that he hadn’t finished it, but he can feel he’s had too much already, and as though reading his mind, Jord passes him a cup of water instead.

“Have you eaten?” he asks and Laurent shakes his head.

“Not yet.”

“Stay here and I will fetch you something.”

He opens his mouth to tell Jord that he can take care of himself and that he doesn’t need to be minded like a child, but Jord’s already walking away as though he knows a fight is coming and is unwilling to see it through.

So Laurent has to wait as he’s told, swaying slightly from the effects of the wine, knowing he’s a lightweight and that he’ll have to drink more and build up a tolerance for next time. But it helps in that he doesn’t care that people are staring at his legs, nor whispering loudly about how the slightly blue colouring of the chiton he’s wearing brings out his eyes.

That one is muttered by a particularly lecherous woman to Laurent’s left, and although she’s speaking to her friend about it, her voice carries clearly to him and he politely pretends not to hear. He wishes he had more wine, but he sips his water instead and surreptitiously moves further away from them.

Coincidentally, it moves him further away from them but much, much closer to Damen, who is a handful of paces away, talking to a member of court that Laurent doesn’t recognise. Damen doesn’t immediately pick up on the fact that Laurent is nearby, only throwing a casual glance over before returning to his conversation.

He thought he’d at least get a nod of acknowledgment as he hasn’t seen Damen since the morning, but after a second, Laurent realises it’s because Damen didn’t recognise him. He knows this because Damen stops talking mid-sentence and glances over again, a frown on his face that clears almost immediately. It morphs into surprise, his gaze trailing down Laurent’s body in a way that puts a flush on Laurent’s cheeks that isn’t from the wine.

When he meets Laurent’s gaze again, he seems pinned.

It’s definitely the wine that makes Laurent stalk towards him, his footsteps almost silent as he winds around other people with only one goal in mind. He never stops looking at Damen, and Damen doesn’t move an inch.

Laurent doesn’t hear what Damen says to his conversation partner, but the man quickly walks away, leaving Damen alone as Laurent closes the space between them.

“Hello, Husband,” Laurent greets him and he watches Damen swallow.

“Hello, Laurent,” he answers, not quite able to keep his gaze from sweeping down Laurent’s body again.

“I hope you’re enjoying the festivities,” Laurent tells him as Damen immediately stops looking at his legs and meets his eyes again, his expression ladened with guilt.

“Yes, it’s—” Damen says, before seeming to forget how to speak.

“I didn’t know you would be turning twenty-five so soon,” Laurent says to fill the silence.

“Yes,” Damen repeats before his gaze drops again and Laurent sighs as loudly as he dares.

“Something the matter?” he asks, wanting to reach out and press a finger beneath Damen’s chin to force him to look back up.

“No,” Damen says quickly, finally raising his head as though realising how obvious he’s been with his stares. “You look—it is not what I expected.”

There is no other word for it—Damen appears enraptured, and with the wine in his system, Laurent can’t stop himself from responding.

“It's for you,” he says, voice lowered, and Damen’s expression shifts, mouth slightly open.

“For me?”

“The advisors told me it was traditional to wear this as a sign of support.”

Damen nods and says, “It is, I just—”

He fades out and Laurent fills in the blanks.

“You didn’t think I would.”

“No, I didn’t think it would be to your taste.”

Laurent snorts. “It’s not. A little too short here,” he says, smoothing his palm over the skirt, fingertips dragging along his thigh. “What do you think?”

Damen makes the mistake of glancing down and Laurent hears the click of his throat as he swallows.

“Do you like it?” Laurent asks and he’s certain he’s not mistaken that Damen actually flushes.

He stares at Laurent with darkened eyes and Laurent thinks that might be his answer. But Damen moves then, stepping closer, his hand coming up, and he hooks the tip of one finger under the edge of Laurent’s chiton, not touching his skin, but Laurent can still feel the warmth of his closeness. Damen tugs just enough for Laurent to feel a breeze, and then he pulls his hand away.

“As with most things,” Damen murmurs quietly, “it suits you.”

Laurent finds himself unconsciously leaning into Damen’s space, his gaze dropping to Damen’s mouth briefly, wondering how the court might react if he happened to kiss Damen right then and there. He certainly has enough liquid courage to get him through.

“I think you’re easy to please,” Laurent tells him and Damen smiles.

“Or maybe you’re a weakness of mine.”

Laurent gets the sudden feeling that maybe Damen is telling the truth. He blinks, his mouth falling open as he tries to think of something to say.

“You—” he starts before he’s interrupted, but not by Damen.

“Laurent,” Jord says, standing beside him, holding a plate ladened with food that makes Laurent’s mouth water and makes him less annoyed about being interrupted.

Laurent has no idea how long he’s been there, nor how much of their conversation he heard. He clears his throat and takes a step back from Damen.

“Thank you, Jord,” he says, taking the proffered food and handing him his cup of water to take in return.

He doesn’t meet Damen’s gaze, but it doesn’t matter because they’re not the only ones there anymore.

“Damen,” Nikandros says, moving closer and not seeming at all to notice the strange silence around them. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”

When Laurent dares to look up, Damen’s watching him carefully, but after a moment, he turns his attention to Nikandros.

“Of course,” he says. “Lead the way.”

He glances back at Laurent over his shoulder and Laurent wonders what would have happened, how far they would have gone if not for Jord.

“Are you okay?” Jord asks and Laurent blinks and looks over at him.

“Of course,” he lies. “Never better.”

He begins picking at the food on his plate, using it as an excuse not to talk, but Jord leaves him alone anyway.

He vows not to touch another drop of wine for the rest of the night, and knows he will lose his nerve later. He will slip away early and, before Damen has time to find him alone, he’ll crawl into their bed and feign sleep. He can’t pretend to be anything but a coward, and there’s nothing he can do to change that.

*

The next few days are uneventful. Damen doesn’t bring up the topic of the party and Laurent isn’t about to poke the hornet’s nest.

Instead, he continues searching through the books from the library whenever he’s alone, but the closest he comes to finding anything is noticing that a half dozen pages from Hesiodos’ tome have been crudely torn out. At first, Laurent feels frustration, knowing he’s close to something, but that it has slipped through his fingers. However, he then realises he’s one step closer to finding the answer.

The torn out pages, due to the book being sorted alphabetically, represent letters Q through S, which means whatever he’s searching for begins with one of those letters. It narrows his search and gives him a glimmer of hope that he may find it yet.

He takes the books back to the library and gathers three more from the shelves the servant had lead him to the last time, and when he returns to his room, he tucks them beneath a few of the novels he brought from Vere. He doesn’t expect anyone to search through his belongings, but it’s best to keep them out of plain sight.

And to keep up the illusion that nothing is amiss, Laurent goes for his morning ride, albeit a little later than normal.

“Slept late?” Jord asks, sounding impossibly smug and Laurent lets him, knowing it’ll distract away from anything else. “Your husband isn’t joining you today?”

“Not today,” Laurent says lightly. “State business.”

“Never fun,” Jord tells him, passing over Aria’s reins and Laurent agrees silently as he lifts himself into the saddle.

They take the coastal path as Laurent prefers, sticking close to the cliffs to keep shaded from the warm sun. It’s the perfect way for Laurent to clear his head and Jord remains silent, which Laurent is grateful for.

They’re a few miles from the palace, where the cliffs sag lower and there’s another path that leads up from the shore, when Laurent spots three riders waiting a few hundred metres from the sand, where they would have remained hidden had Laurent and Jord not come any closer.

“Laurent,” Jord murmurs quietly, and Laurent knows it’s because they’re not riders of Akielos nor riders of Vere.

They are clearly paid mercenaries with swords at their hips and Laurent has the sudden realisation that perhaps he was not as careful as he should have been. Perhaps whatever he’s been trying to research about Kastor is meant to remain secret. Perhaps Kastor would do anything in his power to keep it that way.

“Ride ahead,” Jord orders. “It is my responsibility to protect you.”

“I suspect they won’t even stop to take you down, Jord,” Laurent explains. “It’s me they want.”

Jord shoots him a sharp glance and he knows he'll have to explain himself soon.

“What do you suggest?” Jord asks, but Laurent can only think of one thing.

“We ride hard,” Laurent tells Jord, “and head for the palace.”

“Can we outrun them?” Jord asks and Laurent answers honestly.

“I don’t know.”

Laurent tugs Aria’s reins, walking her backwards, unwilling to put his back to the mercenaries yet. But as he moves, the men move too; they drag their swords free of their sheaths and Laurent understands then that they’re not willing to negotiate.

Knowing two will be better than three, Laurent uses the split second before the mercenaries start to gallop towards them to reach down to his right boot, where he always keeps his knife. It’s not balanced for throwing, but Laurent has had enough training to know how to counter the weight.

He doesn’t think the man even sees it coming, but the knife hits him neatly in the neck and he struggles for only a moment, gurgling on blood as he slips out of his saddle and drops to the ground. He doesn’t get back up.

“Go!” Laurent orders, turning Aria and jabbing viciously at her sides to spur her on immediately, but Jord is already moving in sync, already urging his own horse into a gallop.

Laurent doesn’t know how far they’ll get. The mercenaries may take Laurent’s lead and try throwing their swords instead. He doesn’t dare glance behind, knowing he has to focus all of his attention on the stretch of beach ahead. His stomach sinks at the sight of the palace so far away, but he knows Aria’s strength and knows she’ll work hard to get him there.

He tries to keep to the wet sand, knowing it’ll be less work for her, and her hooves slap against it, splashing water whenever the tide comes in too far for them to avoid.

He can hear how close the mercenaries are, how they seem to be gaining ground, and he suspects their horses are fresher; they’ve probably been waiting for hours for them, as Laurent was delayed by research.

He has a sudden flash of uncertainty, a feeling of dread slamming into him as he worries that they might not make it back after all. Auguste will be devastated when he learns of Laurent’s passing. It may even get a rise from Damen.

But either way, he knows he must do something and he tries to wrack his brain for an idea. He has a few options: one would be to slide Aria to a stop, taking them by surprise, or another would be to turn into the sea and hope their horses shy at the water. But he suspects their horses are well trained; he’ll use it as a last resort.

However, he can’t yell his plan across to Jord when he knows the mercenaries will hear him. He has to just pray to the gods and hope it works.

Aria lets out a disgruntled noise when he yanks on her mouth, but her back legs slide under her and she kicks up sand as she quickly slows, taking the mercenaries by surprise. One of them—the closer of the two—gallops past, moving too fast to stop, but the other slows with Laurent, giving him the perfect opportunity to kick his feet out of his stirrups and launch across.

The man certainly hadn’t been expecting it, that much is clear.

He yells as Laurent’s weight knocks him clean off his horse, and Laurent uses the man to cushion his fall when they hit the ground. Something in the man snaps loudly and he doesn’t stop yelling until Laurent wrestles the sword from his weakened hands and draws it across his throat. Blood splashes across his chest and the air tastes metallic as he drags in unsteady breaths, leaving the man where he is to stagger to his feet.

Aria has moved closer to the cliffs, snorting and chewing uneasily at her bit with her ears back. Laurent has just enough time to dig his boots into the sand as the other mercenary loops around in a circle having finally slowed enough to return to Laurent. His sword is drawn, but Laurent has his own now and he locks his elbows as the man swings at him from atop his horse.

The blow sends Laurent staggering backwards, his hands vibrating painfully as he turns, ready for the next hit. But the mercenary doesn’t try to attack again from horseback, instead, he halts his horse and dismounts, sprinting at Laurent with clear distaste. Laurent suspects he has turned an easy mission into something not so.

“Courtesy of the rightful heir to the throne,” the man hisses, confirming Laurent’s theory as he swings wildly. Laurent blocks the hit and takes another unsteady step backwards.

The mercenary is a skilled swordsman and Laurent knows why he was hired, but he thinks Kastor may have underestimated him. He probably thought that Auguste was the only trained prince of Vere. Laurent is only happy to prove him wrong as he parries and strikes and strikes and strikes until the mercenary is finally forced to give up ground as Laurent advances on him.

There’s a look of surprise upon the man’s face when Laurent matches him hit for hit, but it quickly morphs into anger as the man works harder to beat him. It’s hard to keep steady footing in the sand, so Laurent angles them towards the water, where the sand is firmer and less likely to give. He also has the advantage of being able to back the mercenary into the water, which swirls around the man’s boots and tugs at him.

“You think you can beat me?” the man hisses and, knowing it will annoy the man more, Laurent keeps his expression even.

“I know I can. What were you before you became a mercenary? A foot soldier? My horse could hold a sword better than you can.”

As intended, it infuriates the man and his swings become more violent, but also less accurate. Laurent continues countering his attacks, but as the mercenary uses two hands to slam his sword down, clearly intending to cleave Laurent in two, Laurent sidesteps and drives his own sword forward into the softness of the man’s belly.

It should have been a clean kill, but the anger in the man allows him one last swing of his sword, which catches Laurent in the side.

Laurent knows it’s not deep enough to be mortal, but it’s enough to hurt. He steps back, drawing his sword free from the mercenary who drops into the water, the fight slowly leaving him until there’s nothing but a glassy, unseeing look in his eyes. Laurent tosses the sword in his hands into the ocean next to the man and slowly wades back to the shore, his side aching painfully, especially with the salt water against it.

Jord is closer now, ready to dismount and help Laurent, but Laurent holds up his hand.

“Ride on,” he commands. “Alert the men that there has been an attack, but speak nothing of what passed between us if you heard it. Do not breathe a word of the truth. If they discover what we know, we will be poisoned in our sleep.”

Jord seems to sober at that, and he nods. “Of course, your majesty,” he says. “You will be okay?”

“We need to start this goose chase now,” Laurent tells him. “Delaying it will be worse.”

Jord nods and spares one last worried glance at him before turning and cantering away, leaving Laurent to do what he must. It’s clear the man he just killed was the leader of the pack, and he turns back to his body and drags him inland, patting down his body when he’s sure it won’t float away.

He finds the coin purse in the man’s breast pocket, filled with gold coins that must have been paid to the three of them by Kastor himself. He needs to make it look like the men were planning a robbery, not a targeted attack, which means he has to press one hand against his injured side as he draws his other arm back and throws the purse into the sea as far as he can. He can pretend the men threatened their lives for the few gold coins he has in his own pocket and play the whole thing off as though he were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.

After that, the only thing left to do is catch Aria, who hasn’t strayed, though one of the mercenary’s own horses has moved closer to her, greeting her with soft puffs of air from its nose. It doesn’t spook when Laurent moves closer, which means he can swing up into Aria’s saddle—with a unstifled gasp of pain—and grab the reins of the other horse to lead it back to the palace. An extra horse, and a trained one at that, will not go amiss.

The ride back to the palace is slow with Laurent attempting to keep his movements to a minimum, and by the time he reaches the winding path that leads back up to the stables, his vision is beginning to tunnel and he feels as though he may be sick.

Halfway up, Jord and a group of fully suited guardsmen pass him, Jord throwing him a glance of concern, but Laurent waves him off, knowing he’ll find him later once he’s been tended to. The men will gather the bodies and remaining horses of the mercenaries and Jord will hopefully attempt to quash any notion of a coup.

In the yard, Laurent gives Aria the reins, knowing she’ll lead the way to her own stall, where he’s greeted by a handful of stable boys. It’s hard to maintain an air of disinterest with a wound in the side, but Laurent tries his best as he dismounts and lets the men take over. It’s even harder to continue when he feels wet warmth trailing down his leg, knowing it’s not sea water, but instead blood. But so long as he can make it to the infirmary, he will be better in no time.

It would be easy if not for the fact that Damen is waiting, pale-faced, in the doorway to the palace, his eyes wide and full of emotion.

“Laurent,” he breathes, only seeming to find his voice when Laurent moves closer. “Jord sent someone to fetch me. He said you were hurt.”

“I am fine,” Laurent tries to lie, but Damen’s expression silences him.

Laurent,” he repeats.

“Half of the blood is not my own,” Laurent tells him, knowing how he must appear with blood from neck to knee.

But Damen steps forward, his hands coming up to cup Laurent’s face as he stares at him as though he truly cares, as though Laurent means something to him. And in front of the servants in the yard and the gods themselves in the blue sky above them, Damen stoops low enough to lean into Laurent and find his mouth for the softest kiss Laurent never thought possible from a man like Damen.

It lasts only a handful of seconds before Damen breaks it and Laurent wants to open his mouth and say something, anything, but Damen returns for another kiss, and then another, and slowly he presses kisses from the corner of Laurent’s mouth up to the corner of his eye. Damen turns his head and presses their cheeks together, holding Laurent close, and all Laurent can think to do is curl his arm around Damen and keep him right where he is.

“You scared me,” Damen murmurs, which Laurent thinks should be a ridiculous statement. Nothing should scare a man built like Damen.

But Laurent thinks about how it might be if Damen returned with a wound, and he thinks it might not be so impossible. He clutches at Damen harder, fingers digging into Damen’s chiton.

“I am here,” Laurent tells him and he feels the weight of Damen’s relief as he sags against him.

He can feel Damen’s uneven breath in his hair and the press of a kiss to the space just above Laurent’s ear before he draws away.

“You need to see the physician,” Damen tells him, but Laurent still doesn’t know if Hesiodos is colluding with Kastor or not. He cannot take the chance.

“Fetch the seamstress,” Laurent orders, earning an unsure glance from Damen.

He knows exactly how worried Damen is when Damen doesn’t even question him.

Damen pulls aside a servant and passes along the message, requesting that Euthalia be brought to their private chambers, after which, Damen carefully curls an arm around Laurent’s waist and leads him inside the palace. It hurts with every step and he knows there’s blood dripping over Damen’s hand, but Damen doesn’t move away, not until he’s lead Laurent into their room and has gently lowered him into one of the chairs beside the unlit fire.

“Your shirt,” Damen says, making it sound like a question, but Laurent doesn’t have the energy to fight.

He nods, allowing himself to slump forwards, resting his head in the curve of Damen’s shoulder. He knows it’s not helpful when Damen starts unfastening his outer jacket, but it comforts him and Damen doesn’t protest. Laurent unwillingly lets out a soft noise of pain when Damen attempts to draw the clothing off of him, but Damen pauses and lets Laurent sit back so they can work together to get it off.

The shirt takes longer with its myriad of laces and it sticks to Laurent’s side with tacky blood. Damen has to fetch water from a nearby carafe in order to loosen it without hurting Laurent, and as he’s drawing it over Laurent’s head to assess the damage underneath, there’s a uncertain knock on the door.

“Enter,” Damen calls out and the door opens to reveal Euthalia, who bows low where she stands. “Come in,” Damen tells her and she obeys, shutting the door behind herself.

She has a basket tucked into the crook of her elbow and when she notices the blood on Laurent, she pauses. Laurent finds the strength to beckon her closer with one hand.

“Does blood make you uneasy?” Laurent asks her, but after a second, Euthalia seems to gather herself and she shakes her head.

“No, your majesty. I am a woman, and I have birthed three children.”

“Good,” Laurent tells her. “I trust your steady hand to stitch this wound.”

“I should fetch ointment from Hesiodos to make this painless?” she asks, but Laurent shakes his head.

“No,” he says. “Just be quick.”

He is thankful to have Damen by his side, for when Euthalia begins her neat row of stitches, he has someone to grip, fingers digging into flesh without the fear of bodily harming Damen. He knows Damen has experienced worse. He makes it halfway through before he drops his head to Damen’s shoulder once again and doesn’t try to stifle his pained gasps.

Damen’s hand comes up to rub his back soothingly.

“It is almost done,” Damen reassures, despite Laurent knowing it’s not. “Be strong.”

By the time Euthalia is finished, the area around the cut is unnervingly numb, but the blood running free is sluggish, most of it coming from the new needle punctures instead. Laurent can’t bare to look for long, but in a stroke of luck, Euthalia has lengths of cotton in her basket, which is useful for wrapping around Laurent’s waist to keep his wound covered and clean.

Her hands are red when she folds them into her lap and she bows her head.

“Do you require further assistance, your majesty?” she asks and Laurent shakes his head.

Damen seems to want to argue, but his closes his mouth and allows Euthalia to gather her belongings and head for the door instead.

“I wish you would see Hesiodos,” Damen says once Euthalia has left. “Why do you not trust him? What happened when you were riding?”

“Nothing,” Laurent lies. “It was just a thief who did not know my true identity.”

Damen doesn’t seem convinced, his expression unsure, and Laurent knows he’s unfairly playing him when he brings a hand up to Damen’s face, his thumb stroking across Damen’s high cheekbone.

“It is you who has secrets,” Laurent murmurs, letting his gaze drop pointedly to Damen’s mouth, silently meaning Damen’s affection.

“That has never been a secret,” Damen replies easily and Laurent lifts an eyebrow.

“Then I am the last to know,” he admits and Damen brings his own hand up to Laurent’s face as he frowns.

“You did not know?” he asks. “I thought you were aloof.”

“I think I have been stubborn.”

“Your brother said you would be,” Damen says softly and Laurent pulls out of his grip, puzzled.

“What? When did you speak to my brother?”

“After the bonding ceremony,” Damen tells him. “Just before he left. He said you would be stubborn, but to hold fast as you would not always be so.”

“And now I am not?”

“I think if I had kissed you that first night, you would have had me on the floor, ready to break my neck in a second.”

“But now you’ve done it anyway.”

“You were injured and at your weakest,” Damen jokes. “I thought I could overpower you if neck-breaking was imminent.”

He falls silent for a long minute, his gaze unwavering and open as he moves his hand back to Laurent’s face.

“I don’t know what I expected of our bond, but it was not this,” Damen admits softly.

Laurent never believed so either, that is for certain.

Carefully, so as not to upset his side, Laurent shifts forward, tilting his head until Damen gets the idea and closes the space between them, kissing him as softly as Laurent now expects. Damen’s mouth is unfathomably tempting and Laurent has never been kissed the way Damen kisses him now. He wants everything Damen has to offer.

But when he attempts to deepen the kiss with a tentative tongue, Damen draws away, pressing a steadying hand to Laurent’s shoulder to keep him from swaying forward and hurting himself. He feels Damen’s smile when he presses closer for another quick kiss, but then Damen pulls away fully and stares at him.

“You need to rest,” he tells him, hooking his hand under Laurent’s elbow and tugging enough for Laurent to get the hint and attempt to stand.

It requires more effort than he expects, and Damen has to take the majority of his weight to keep him stable, but once he’s upright, it’s simple enough to hobble across the room towards their bed. He can’t help the noise that escapes him when he sits on the edge of the mattress, but Damen is there to comfort him and he helps take off his boots before levering his legs up. Laurent collapses back into the pillows, sweat already building up along his lower back and behind his knees, and he stares at Damen in misery.

Laurent knows he’s vulnerable now and even if Kastor’s paid men didn’t take him out, anyone could now, and he wouldn’t be able to fight back.

Before he can think too much about it, he says, “Stay with me.”

The request seems to take Damen by surprise, but he nods almost immediately.

“Of course,” he agrees. “I’ll stay as long as you need me.”

Laurent nods, appeased, and offers Damen a small smile. Damen touches his shoulder briefly, though Laurent isn’t sure if it’s to comfort him or Damen, before Damen moves away and gestures towards the books Laurent has stacked on the table in the middle of the room.

“Would you like something to read?” Damen asks and Laurent takes a moment to think, but decides he inevitably should.

“Bring them all,” he says, and although Damen lets out a noise of amusement, he does just that, setting the books beside Laurent within arm’s reach.

“I can fetch more should you run out,” Damen jokes, but Laurent plans on holding him to it should that happen.

“Then you had better hope I heal quickly.”

“You will,” Damen tells him comfortingly, reaching out one last time to touch him—his ankle this time—before he moves away, heading for the overstuffed chair that he seems to prefer.

Laurent appreciates the silence and grabs the first book in his stack.

*

Laurent remains bedridden for four days with Euthalia checking in to ensure nothing grows infected. Damen hardly leaves the room during that time, but he’s not intrusive. He brings Laurent books when he needs them and doesn’t even comment on Laurent’s sudden fixation on plants. He sits across the room from him, always doing something quiet that isn’t even enough to catch Laurent’s attention.

On the morning of the fifth day, Laurent wakes to Damen pressing a kiss to the line of his jaw. Laurent sighs as sleep slips out of his grip, and by the time he opens his eyes, Damen is climbing out of bed.

“Something sweet for breakfast?” Damen asks as Laurent stretches, one hand pressed to his injury to keep from pulling the stitches.

“Bread,” Laurent grunts. “And jam.”

He rolls over, pressing his face into his pillow and lets sleep pull him back under in the meantime.

*

After waking again and eating some of what seems to be every possible jam in the entire palace thanks to Damen, Laurent finally—and oh-so slowly—drags himself out of the comfort of their bed. Damen stays by his side, more than ready to catch him should he fall, but Laurent stays on his feet and manages the few unsteady, unsupported steps it takes to get to the low couch across the room. He’s mostly stiff from not moving for so long.

Damen hovers unhelpfully for a few minutes, seeming to want to assist with something, anything, and Laurent takes pity on him.

Laurent glances over at the nightstand where his stack of books is and curses under his breath. Damen, seeing the opportunity Laurent gives him, immediately perks up.

“Would you like me to bring them over?” he asks, and Laurent nods as though embarrassed to have forgotten them, as though it hadn’t been his plan all along.

Damen sets them within Laurent’s reach and Laurent rewards him with a kiss that Damen accepts, but with apparent surprise, as though he hasn’t quite got used to the idea of Laurent wanting him.

“I cannot stay today,” Damen tells him, regret in his voice. “My father has requested a meeting.”

Laurent understands how it is. He nods and says, “You’ll know where to find me.”

“Jord is outside if you need anything,” Damen says and Laurent frowns.

“Jord?”

Damen nods with a wry smile. “He hasn’t moved since you returned. He seemed worried. Are you sure the men who attacked you were only thieves?”

“Yes,” Laurent says evenly. “I’m sure he was just worried. Send him in as you go.”

Damen nods again and then turns away, glancing back at Laurent as though he’s loathe to leave. He hears his muffled voice as he talks to Jord, and then a moment later, the door clicks shut with Jord standing across the room from him.

“Damen says you’re better,” Jord says and Laurent gestures grandly to the couch.

“I have left the bed.”

Jord moves closer, enough so that he can set a reassuring hand upon Laurent’s shoulder—though Laurent isn’t sure if it’s meant to reassure him or Jord.

“I should have been the one hurt,” Jord tells him and Laurent stares at him.

“They came for me,” Laurent tells him. “If you had come between myself and them, they would not have thought twice about killing you.”

“What did they want?” Jord asks, voice low. “Are we safe to talk here?”

“I don’t know,” Laurent says honestly. “I’m still looking.”

He gestures at the books beside him and Jord frowns, picking up the first one and examining the cover. He stares at Laurent in worry.

“It runs too deep for just the two of us to manage alone,” Laurent explains. “Soon. I’ll have answers soon.”

Jord nods and squeezes his shoulder again. “I am relieved you are well.”

“We will have to postpone our rides a little longer.”

Jord smiles and agrees, “As soon as you—”

He pauses and stares at Laurent a little closer, before taking liberties by reaching out and pressing two fingers under Laurent’s chin to tilt his head back.

“This is new,” he says after a moment of silence, and Laurent knows exactly what he’s looking at, because it’s the same mark he himself stared at in surprise two mornings prior. It’s a mark Damen put there with a far-too insistent mouth, after which he’d refused to touch Laurent further, not wishing to exacerbate Laurent’s wound.

Laurent bats Jord’s hand away and hates the way his face warms at the attention.

“I heard whisperings of Damen’s reaction when you returned,” Jord continues. “The court was quite abuzz at the show of affection.”

“We are married,” Laurent grunts. “What else did you expect?”

“These marriages are never for love,” Jord points out, before gently reaching out and prodding the mark on Laurent’s throat. “But maybe this one could be.”

Laurent slaps his hand away again.

“Return to standing guard,” Laurent orders, pretending to be irritated, and Jord laughs like he already knows, but he moves away with a nod.

“Of course,” he says. “If you need anything…”

He trails off as he leaves and Laurent slumps backwards, shutting his eyes. He’ll never live it down. Though he’s not entirely sure he’ll live at all yet unless he can figure out Kastor’s plan.

He picks up the nearest book and continues reading.

*

When Laurent finds the answer, it’s ironic in a way that puts a sour taste in his mouth.

Ricinus communis, the book tells him, is a plant with highly poisonous seeds, where less than eight seeds are needed to kill a man. The common name for the plant, the book also tells him, is castor bean.

If Laurent’s theory is correct, and he highly suspects it is, Kastor has been slowly poisoning the king with castor bean seeds. It would explain the coughing and the fainting, and he can only imagine what it will lead to soon enough. But he cannot tie it to Kastor. He has suspicions that cannot be proven. And no one would trust Laurent over the bastard son.

He shuts his book with frustration, the whole experience only made worse by the fact that another attack could come from Kastor at any time and until he’s healed more, he’s confined to his room. The only thing he can do is play the fool and pretend he doesn’t know a single thing about the plot.

It is easier said than done, Laurent knows, especially when he knows Damen could be next.

He sighs heavily and begins planning.

*

Unfortunately, like most things, he’s interrupted by unexpected circumstances. Even Jord himself seems unsettled when he opens Laurent’s door after a brief knock to announce Lady Jokaste’s presence.

Laurent blinks and then takes a moment to push himself to his feet, shoving back all signs of pain as Jokaste’s blonde head appears, bright and unanticipated. She smiles at him, tight-lipped, as she carries in a tray ladened with a teapot and several cups. Laurent has the awful sinking suspicion that the next attack has come sooner rather than later.

“I hope my presence is not unwelcome,” she says as greeting and Laurent knows her visit will be filled with thinly-veiled jabs from both of them.

“Not at all,” Laurent tells her. “I was only just wishing a servant would bring in tea, and here you are.”

She smiles at him, but her eyes blaze hot, as though she wishes the wound in his side had been fatal instead.

She sets the tray on the table in front of Laurent and Laurent waits until she sits opposite him before finally taking his seat once more.

“What do I owe the pleasure?” he asks, reaching out to pour them both a cup of strongly brewed tea.

He adds sugar to his own cup and, after confirming with Jokaste, adds sugar and milk to hers.

“I wished to see how you were fairing,” she tells him. “I heard it was quite the fight.”

“It was superficial,” Laurent says, resting his cup in his lap, refusing to drink for all the obvious reasons. “It helped that the men were only drunken thieves and not trained mercenaries.”

He has the feeling that Jokaste knows everything about Kastor’s plan. If she was with Damen, perhaps it was for power, and now she knows the bastard son wishes to rise up and overthrow his own kin, perhaps she wishes to be on the right side if it happens.

She smiles again and says, “Isn’t that lucky.”

“It was Damen that ordered my bedrest,” he tells her. “I’m sure you know all about how insistent he is in taking care of oneself.”

Jokaste barely blinks, but it’s enough to know that Laurent has struck a soft spot with her.

“I’m sure he would approve of tea,” she tells him. “Wouldn’t want to disappoint him.”

“Of course,” Laurent replies, before letting his gaze slip as though distracted. “Speaking of, have you read—” he begins, reaching for a book just out of his reach.

He flinches as though having hurt himself and drops his teacup as he reaches for his side. It’s clumsy in a way that would fool anyone apart from Jokaste, but she stares at him, ignoring the shattered china on the floor and the slowly spreading puddle of tea.

“Oh dear,” she says, not sounding the least bit as though she means it. “What a shame.”

“I’ll send for a servant,” Laurent tells her, knowing he’s backed her into a corner. If anyone sees her with him and he turns up poisoned, she’ll be the first suspect.

He has to move slowly to reach the bell beside the door to call for someone, and he’s only a few steps away when the door itself swings open without warning. He doesn’t startle, but it’s close, and he blinks at Damen, who also seems surprised, clearly not expecting Laurent to be close.

His expression morphs into something easy and happy as he reaches out for Laurent, one hand settling on Laurent’s shoulder.

“Hello,” he says softly, already leaning in for a kiss, which Laurent accepts despite the audience. “Are you feeling better?”

“Quite,” Laurent says before clearing his throat and gesturing for Damen to shut the door because he knows it’s blocking the view of Jokaste. “We have a guest.”

Damen pales and glances at Laurent as though expecting the worst. Quietly, beyond hearing range of Jokaste, he says, “What is she—why?”

“Lady Jokaste very kindly came to check on me,” Laurent tells him. “She brought tea.”

Damen’s gaze flicks towards the tray on the table and very briefly drops to the obvious mess on the floor.

“I very clumsily dropped it,” Laurent explains. “I was about to call for a servant to clean it up.”

Ever trusting, Damen appears to believe the lie the moment Laurent says it. He nods and then opens the door briefly, asking Jord to send for a personal servant.

“Neither of you were hurt?” he asks, meaning the scalding water, and Laurent shakes his head, turning to smile tightly at Jokaste.

“Luckily, we both remain unscathed for now.”

Jokaste watches him silently for a beat before rising from her seat, her long dress pooling elegantly around her feet.

“I won’t intrude,” she says. “Now that you are here to care for him so well, Damen, there is no need for me.”

Laurent doesn’t try to stop her, and when Damen opens his mouth to speak, Laurent sets a hand low on his back, stealing the words from his mouth.

“May our paths cross again soon,” Laurent tells her and she bows politely to them before heading for the door.

“I missed you,” Damen murmurs and Laurent scoffs, even as he fills with warmth.

“You’ve barely been gone a few hours.”

“They were very long hours,” Damen tells him and the door clicks shut behind Jokaste with finality.

The dread sits low in Laurent’s stomach, even as Damen pulls him closer, careful of his side.

*

Laurent remains away from the gossiping bustle of court for two weeks while he heals completely. Damen doesn’t question him, but he never seems to stray far, though neither does Jord, who follows him even if he’s with Damen. The moment Damen becomes distracted and drawn away from their rooms one evening, Jord is there, shutting the door behind him and staring at Laurent as though he’s not going to leave without putting up a fight.

“Laurent,” he begins, “I have kept your secrets, but I cannot expect the next blow without a hint. What requires such secrecy?”

Laurent stares at him and knows he has to make a choice: he can keep his silence and lose Jord’s trust, or he can tell him and put him even more at risk.

“Lock the door,” Laurent tells him, “and sit over here.”

Jord does as he’s ordered and slowly lowers himself onto the couch beside Laurent. Laurent levels him with a look and takes a steadying breath.

“Kastor was behind the attack,” he murmurs, voice low despite them being in his room, because he cannot take the chance of being overheard. “He hired mercenaries to dispose of me to make it appear as an accident.”

Jord blinks and frowns, but doesn’t say a word.

“He’s been poisoning the king slowly. I don’t know how much longer he has left, but I need something damning before I can go before the court. Upon his orders, Jokaste attempted to poison me and I suspect Damen will be next.”

“Poisoning?” Jord asks and Laurent nods.

“The horse we found in the woods was Kastor’s. I saw him picking a plant—a poison, which has become apparent only recently. I believe he wants the throne and will wipe out several generations to get to it.”

“Laurent,” Jord says softly. “You cannot do this on your own.”

Laurent knows that. He nods and says, “But I must try.”

“Damen knows?” he asks and Laurent shakes his head.

“No, he is too trusting of his brother to begin to entertain the idea.”

“What must be done?”

“We need proof,” Laurent says, frowning as he thinks. “He may be colluding with the royal physician, but we need something—a letter or a confession—if we are to accuse them.”

“That may be impossible,” Jord says and Laurent nods.

He knows all too well how impossible the whole thing is. He’s spent many nights awake over it.

“What are—”

The door handle across the room rattles as someone tries to enter, but the lock keeps them out.

“Laurent?” comes Damen’s voice and Laurent feels his face heat, knowing how it will appear to Damen.

The door is locked and Jord is in his private quarters. He can only hope that Damen is trusting of him. But he walks slowly to the door, Jord following closely, and when he unlocks it and pulls it open, Damen glances between them only once before letting himself in, not even seeming to question it.

“Euthalia asked after you today,” Damen tells him, moving to sit on the low couch, where Laurent and Jord just were, to unlace his sandals.

Laurent quietly ushers Jord out and shuts the door behind him.

“You told her I’m well, I assume.”

Damen nods and stretches his long legs out in front of himself. Laurent allows it to distract him for a second before he moves to sit opposite him.

“I asked for a gift to be sent to her and her family for her services,” Damen says, and Laurent wonders if it will also buy her silence.

“Good,” Laurent says. “She will be honored by it.”

Damen lets out a noise of agreement and folds his hands across his stomach as he leans back, relaxed completely. His chiton rides up as his knees fall open just an inch or two, and Laurent can’t stop his gaze from dropping. Damen’s thighs are powerful in and of themselves, but coupled with the lines of the muscles across his abdomen and the broadness of his shoulders, he’s a sight to behold.

And for some reason, despite their circumstances and the nature of their marriage, Damen has somehow chosen to want Laurent. Though perhaps he never chose. Perhaps it struck him over the head one night like an inconvenient lapse in judgement, and now he’s stuck wanting to kiss Laurent softly and care for him. Which is precisely what Damen now does.

He’s getting better—or perhaps worse, depending on the perspective—at stealing kisses. Nowhere is safe now; he kisses Laurent in the courtyard, in the gardens beyond the palace walls, and even in the library. But worst of all is the way he steals chaste kisses after dinner in front of the whole court and Laurent doesn’t find himself minding in the slightest.

What used to be an act for them no longer is.

And in the mornings, when they’re both still half-asleep and not yet ready to face the day, Damen tugs Laurent into his arms and finds his mouth, and his morning hardness rests against the softness of Laurent’s belly and Laurent’s breath catches in his throat. But Damen never presses for anything more, no matter what his body seems to want, and Laurent has never tried to find out.

But he is exhausted from always watching his own back from Kastor, and he wants only one good thing in his life. And that one good thing seems to be in the form of Damen sprawled out in front of him.

When he glances up from Damen’s thighs, Damen is already watching him, his expression open, but not expectant.

Laurent moves slowly when he pushes himself up out of his seat, and Damen doesn’t take his eyes off him, seeming slightly surprised when Laurent actually steps closer.

“Are you—” Damen begins before falling abruptly silent when Laurent presses his knee to the space on the couch between Damen’s thighs.

His eyes widen, but he doesn’t move, allowing Laurent to press a hand to his breastbone to steady himself as he leans forward and kisses Damen. Damen makes a soft noise, but doesn’t touch him, allowing Laurent to move at his own pace, which he does. But Laurent’s pace isn’t slow. When there’s something that he wants, he doesn’t linger.

He opens his mouth against Damen’s to deepen the kiss and moves his other hand to Damen’s waist, fingers curling into the soft material of his chiton. He wants to push his hands under it, wants to feel the muscles of Damen’s thighs beneath his palms, but he only has so much bravery.

He’s more than happy to continue kissing, knowing that Damen must be able to feel his enthusiasm and how he doesn’t want to stop. He’s not sure Damen will get the hint that he wants to go further, though, and he might have to gather the strength to say it aloud. He doesn’t know what Damen’s reaction might be, but he doesn’t think he’s alone in wanting it.

The feeling is reinforced when Damen finally moves, one hand settling at the small of Laurent’s back, and it feels right, as though Damen should always rest his palm there. But it also makes Laurent’s life easier, because he can reach back and readjust Damen’s hand, nudging it down just enough for him to be gripping Laurent’s ass instead.

Damen makes a noise of surprise into his mouth, but doesn’t pull away, though after a hesitant second, Laurent does.

Damen’s mouth is a handful of shades darker now, his lips slightly plumper, and Laurent can only imagine how his own appear. Carefully, he brings one hand up to Damen’s face and cups the side of it.

“You want this,” Laurent says, and it’s meant to be a question, but comes out flatter.

Nevertheless, Damen nods and says, “I do, Laurent. I want anything you’ll give me.”

They are dangerous words and Laurent feels powerful kneeling above Damen. It gives him the courage to lean down and press his mouth beside Damen’s ear.

“You wish to consummate our marriage?” Laurent asks and Damen shifts under him as though wanting to buck upwards.

When Laurent glances down, he finds the line of Damen’s chiton ruined by the eagerness of his cock. The material is pitched in his lap and Laurent thinks that if he’d pressed forward more he would have felt it earlier.

“I have wanted you for a long time now,” Damen admits. “Longer than I should have.”

Laurent drops his hand to Damen’s lap, thumb tracing along the edge of Damen’s cock. It twitches against the touch and Damen doesn’t quite succeed in stifling a moan.

“You tease,” Damen tells him and Laurent shifts his hand back up to Damen’s shoulder, fingers toying with the clasp holding his chiton together.

“I can do more than that,” Laurent promises and upon Damen’s nod, pulls the pin free, letting the material droop and pool around Damen’s body.

“Put your arms around my neck,” Damen tells him, and Laurent has no idea why, but after a second of hesitation, he does so.

Damen’s own hands shift to beneath Laurent’s thighs and then the world shifts underneath him and he realises Damen is carrying him, his chiton dropping away completely and leaving Damen bare as he moves quickly away from the couch towards the bed. With every step, Laurent’s cock rubs against Damen’s stomach, and there’s no way he hasn’t noticed, not when he places Laurent on the bed and immediately moves to unfasten Laurent’s pants.

The pace is infinitely faster now, but Laurent doesn’t mind because he’s just as eager. He begins unlacing his shirt instead and by the time he tugs it over his head and tosses it aside, Damen is idly playing with the waistband of his loosened pants. Damen glances up, but waits for Laurent to nod in agreement before he actually strips them down his legs and off.

Laurent feels about as naked as he is, which is to say completely. But Damen’s gaze dances across his body as though he can’t get enough, as though it’s the only thing he ever needs to see. He traces a finger along Laurent’s hip, following it up to the angry mark still on his side from when he was attacked. It only twinges if he’s particularly rough, but Damen leans down and presses his mouth to it as though it’ll change the fact and make it disappear altogether.

Unable to deal with the softness, Laurent curls his fingers around Damen’s bicep and pulls him up, urging him onto the bed to pin Laurent down with his weight, and as heavy as he is, he doesn’t mind in the slightest. Partly because it gives him the chance to grind his hips up to get friction back against his cock.

Damen’s gaze darkens and Laurent manages to hide his smile, despite the amusement he feels.

“You are eager,” Damen says, mouth grazing Laurent’s chin.

“Only as eager as you,” Laurent retorts, resting his hand low on Damen’s waist and pulling him down without him expecting it.

It proves the point that Damen is in the same state as Laurent: entirely ready and possibly going to come before meaning to. But Laurent doesn’t need the bickering, so he catches Damen’s mouth with his own and kisses him as he carefully guides Damen into a gentle rhythm using his hands.

Their cocks nestle together between their bodies and kissing seems second nature now.

But Laurent gets a strange sort of thrill from having Damen over him and he wonders if that’s how it would be if Damen fucked him, if he got him wet with oils and slipped inside. He groans into Damen’s mouth at the thought and Damen grinds his hips down faster, giving him more without him even needing to ask.

It has been a long time since the last time Laurent spilled—and perhaps the same could be said for Damen—so he thinks he deserves forgiveness for not lasting half as long as he should. He’s hardly been touched at all, he knows, but it’s overwhelming with Damen—someone he wants to touch him—giving him the contact he needs.

He digs his fingers into Damen’s soft skin and tries to warn him, but either Damen doesn’t notice, or, as Laurent suspects, he doesn’t care, and continues grinding down against Laurent until he has to break the kiss in order to draw in a gasping breath. The air hitches in his throat for just a second before it all comes out in a rush as he spills against Damen’s stomach and cock.

He feels flushed from head to toe, and his cock continues leaking with each touch from Damen until Laurent hisses, oversensitive, and Damen pauses. He seems to think of an alternate method to find his own release, before finally settling on sitting up, straddling Laurent’s waist, before taking himself in hand and using Laurent’s come to slick the way. Not that he thinks it slicks him at all, only gets him stickier. But it seems to affect Damen, his cock even darker now, straining against his hand as he strokes hard and fast.

Laurent sprawls out, his chest heaving as he tries to catch his breath, and his gaze follows Damen’s hand for a long moment before he lets it travel along Damen’s body, up, up, until he catches his eyes. Damen’s already watching him, his bottom lip pinched between his teeth in concentration.

Suspecting what Damen needs, Laurent brings up one of his hands to his own stomach, smoothing over the skin tantalisingly.

“Spill here,” Laurent orders. “Get me wet with it.”

It seems Damen doesn’t stand a chance, because he moans loudly, fist speeding up just a few seconds before he hunches over and does just as he’s told.

The warmth splatters across Laurent’s skin, though it cools almost immediately as Damen strokes himself through the aftershocks, staring down at Laurent as though he can’t look anywhere else.

Reaching up, Laurent carefully passes his fingers through Damen’s hair and watches him shut his eyes and relax into the brief touch.

Damen slumps forward a few minutes later and Laurent braces himself, half expecting him to land right on top of him, but Damen catches himself with one hand and remains hovering above him, his eyes still shut as his head hangs down, looking more than exhausted. Laurent carefully strokes his sides, wanting to offer comfort without speaking, and after a minute or two, Damen eventually rights himself and sits back on his heels.

He glances down at Laurent’s body and his eyes darken. With a trembling hand, Damen reaches out and smooths his palm through the mess on Laurent’s stomach, making the whole thing worse. But Laurent doesn’t complain because Damen seems enraptured by it.

“Such a mess,” he says idly before seeming to snap out of his daze. “Stay right there.”

Without a word of warning, Damen shifts from over him and climbs off the bed, his ass jiggling pleasantly as he quickly moves across the room to where a jug of water and a few glasses sit. Using his own discarded chiton, Damen wets the material and moves back to Laurent, wiping down his chest and stomach, and, with unguarded care, his cock.

Damen cleans himself off after and takes a moment to stare down at Laurent, his eyes soft.

“Before we were married,” he starts, “I heard stories of your fair appearance, but they are nothing compared to the truth.”

He slips onto the bed, curling in close to Laurent, and Laurent accepts the kiss he gives him, pressing another to his mouth after, just because he can.

“I was told that you were as broad as two houses,” Laurent tells him softly. “I did not realise they were wrong and that it was three houses.”

Damen laughs, loud and free, winding around Laurent as though he never plans to let him go. And Laurent doesn’t complain because that’s exactly what he wants.

*

Laurent wakes some hours later to the feeling of Damen’s mouth on his shoulder, the thickness of his cock pressed against his ass. And as tired as he is, Laurent wants. He wants it more than anything he’s ever wanted before, and in the dark, tucked beneath the privacy of the sheets they pulled up sometime in the night, Damen slicks him with oil using gentle fingers. Laurent tucks one leg up to give Damen space, and he clings to the edge of the mattress as his breathing grows unsteady.

He feels wet and open by the time Damen deems him ready and slips his fingers out, and Laurent wonders if Damen will put him on his belly to rut into him, or maybe pin him down on his back. But Damen keeps him where he is on his side and curls up close behind, guiding himself into Laurent’s body with a slowness that steals the breath from Laurent’s lungs.

He feels huge and overwhelming, but Damen’s hand finds one of Laurent’s own, and he knows he can do it. And he does, because after a few long minutes of Damen slowly sliding in and gently stroking Laurent’s cock to keep him hard, he’s finally fully seated inside Laurent, and Laurent suddenly feels at the mercy of Damen, but at the same time, oh-so powerful. His body is going to make Damen come, he knows it, can feel it in the way Damen seems to want to thrust already.

But he remains still long enough for Laurent to adjust and when Laurent finally gasps out, “Move,” he slowly begins to grind forward.

They’re not thrusts, not yet, but it’s enough to shift Damen’s cock and allow Laurent to feel how it might be, how it will be when Damen puts his hips into it. Damen is a generous lover, though, and he grips Laurent’s cock and strokes him in time to the movements, making Laurent worry that he might not last long at all.

He’d worried once when he was younger, when he began to fully understand the requirements of an arranged marriage. He didn’t think he’d ever be able to let go enough if the person he was coupling with was a stranger. But now Damen isn’t a stranger and Laurent thinks it won’t be an issue. It certainly hadn’t been earlier.

“Laurent,” Damen breathes into his ear, sounding drunk on the feeling of Laurent around him. “You have no idea what you do to me.”

Laurent tucks his face into the sheets and exhales slowly.

“I do,” Laurent replies, “because you do the same to me.”

The noise Damen lets out is one that Laurent wants to remember for a long time.

“You will ruin me,” Damen grits out, curling around him even tighter as he begins to move faster, harder.

Laurent braces himself, but the position they’re in doesn’t lend well to frantic movements. It keeps Damen steady and close, and it’s intimate in a way Laurent never thought it could be. He thinks Damen will ruin him far sooner than he will in return.

Damen takes his hand off Laurent’s cock and instead hooks it behind the knee of the leg he’s hitched up, pushing it higher, spreading him open more, and Laurent doesn’t know what to do with the feeling of Damen sliding deeper. He keens, tipping his head back, and Damen takes advantage by latching onto his throat, trailing sucking kisses along it. There will be a mark or two there in the morning, but Laurent doesn’t care.

He wants everyone to know who’s been marking him.

Laurent moves his own hand down to continues stroking himself and he’s leaking freely now, his hand growing steadily stickier. He can feel oil dripping down between his legs, over the back of his thigh, and he knows he’s a mess and yet he can’t bring himself to care. Damen is making him feel too good to worry.

For a few long minutes, there’s nothing, nothing but the sound of Damen moving against him, nudging him closer to the inevitable end. Laurent can feel it tingling across the tops of his thighs, down between his legs, and he knows he’s going to come.

“Damen,” Laurent gets out, feeling Damen’s mouth immediately on the back of his neck in answer. “Damen, I don’t want to do this alone.”

Laurent isn’t talking about his orgasm, he’s talking about everything—Kastor, the attempted murders, all of it. He feels safer with Damen by his side, but he would feel even more so if Damen knew, if he trusted him enough to believe the truth.

Damen tucks his face closer to Laurent’s, his mouth now on the edge of Laurent’s jaw.

“You won’t be alone,” Damen tells him, simple and sure, and Laurent lets out a low noise he’s never heard himself make, as he shakes against Damen and comes into his own hand.

Damen doesn’t stop thrusting into him, but an answering sound escapes him as he seems to try to shove in deeper. It takes less than a dozen thrusts for Damen to follow Laurent’s lead, but he’s entirely silent as he comes, not even offering to come outside of Laurent’s body to save the clean up.

But Laurent doesn’t care because it feels right, it feels like something that could become routine for them.

He slumps against their mattress as Damen finishes grinding against him, rocking himself through his orgasm before finally stilling. With a hand on Laurent’s hip, Damen carefully pulls out, letting wet warmth escape from where Laurent is now well-used and open.

“Laurent,” Damen murmurs, rolling Laurent onto his back with soft hands before leaning down to press a series of unhurried kisses against Laurent’s mouth. “You are perfect.”

The compliment sweeps a flush across Laurent’s face and he feels it burning hotter than that of the one from exertion that’s already there. Even in the dark, Damen seems to know and he drops kisses to the apples of Laurent’s cheeks and Laurent feels the curved smile of his mouth.

Damen presses one extra kiss to his mouth before finally settling into the space beside him, keeping one arm wrapped around his waist as though he can’t bring himself to let go. Part of Laurent is thankful for it, knowing he could never ask for it himself.

Trying not to jostle too much, Laurent uses a section of the sheet to wipe his hand off and the worst of the mess between his legs. Damen grunts as though he knows he should clean up also, but apparently lacks the willpower to move. Feeling generous, Laurent takes the time to wipe down Damen’s stomach and softening cock, and the noise Damen makes in surprise quickly changes to one of thanks.

Damen pulls Laurent closer and tilts his head just enough to press another kiss to his cheek. He remains quiet for a long moment after that, carefully brushing unruly hairs away from Laurent’s face with gentle fingers.

“If someone had told me everything about you,” Damen says softly, “I wouldn’t have believed them.”

Laurent doesn’t reply, but he settles his hand on the forearm Damen has draped over him. He rubs comforting circles against Damen’s skin and Damen sighs as though it says everything that Laurent cannot put into words.

Laurent lets his eyes droop shut and lets sleep carry him away.

*

When he wakes in the morning, his body aches pleasantly and Damen is warmly curled against his back. He finds himself smiling to himself, huffing a quiet laugh at the thought of what Auguste would think of him becoming a lovesick fool. But despite the teasing he would have to endure, he knows Auguste would be happy for him.

Carefully, he turns in Damen’s arms, though halfway through, Damen stirs, drawing in a long breath and sighing against Laurent’s shoulder.

“You’re awake?” Damen asks nonsensically and Laurent hums quietly.

“No,” he says, settling against Damen’s chest and shutting his eyes once more. “I’m not.”

Damen doesn’t answer and Laurent quickly drifts back to sleep, knowing there’s nowhere else he’d rather be.

*

Though he thought he’d seen the last of Jokaste after their tête-à-tête, Laurent suddenly seems to catch glimpses of her all over the palace. Walking to the baths, he finds her admiring a view through an open window one hallway over; after dinner one night with the entire court present, he finds her lingering close, her attention never once seeming to be on him or Damen; during a stroll in the gardens with Damen, he sees her disappearing down the pathway that leads to the shore below the cliffs.

He knows it seems incidental, but he suspects nothing with Jokaste is ever that way.

When he stops by the library one afternoon for a new novel to read, he finds her perched upon a bench just outside the doors and he can’t help but pause.

“Are you hoping to invite yourself for more tea?” he asks. “I’m afraid we’ve been busy.”

Jokaste keeps her head down as though pretending not to hear him.

“He treats you well,” she says, barely loud enough for him to catch, and it takes him a second to realise she’s talking about Damen.

“Yes,” he says, making it clear that she should get to her point, and fast.

“He wasn’t expecting someone like you,” she continues, still not looking up. “But he has always wanted love.”

“He has it,” Laurent says bluntly, knowing that he cannot hide anything from her, and she smiles softly, fingers tracing a crease in her dress.

“Yes,” she says softly, “he does. You are a braver person than I. I was scared to love him, and now I am here.”

Lowering his voice to match hers, he says, “If Kastor is forcing your hand, ride to Vere. I will send word and you will be protected.”

She finally looks at him then, her pale eyes cool and exhausted; she appears at the end of her rope.

“You are a good match for Damen,” she says. “But you are a fool if you think anywhere in all the kingdoms is safe.”

Laurent pauses, mind racing. “What do you mean?”

Suddenly, as though catching herself, Jokaste turns her face back to the ground and rises from her seat.

“I must go,” she says and Laurent wants to reach out for her.

“Jokaste,” he says firmly, but he cannot yell and draw attention to them. He may be angry, but he’s not ready to make foolish mistakes.

She doesn’t turn back and he watches her go, feeling helpless. He’s not sure he can save everyone. He is only one man.

He heads back to his room, only realising once he’s there that he never found a book.

*

He writes a note for Auguste, trying to remain casual in his questions, asking after the king and queen, asking about the weather and whether the hunt has been good. If there is a good chance that the letter will be intercepted, he must avoid being blunt and must continue feigning ignorance.

He can only hope Auguste will reply quickly to save his imagination from running away with itself. He sends it out with the first rider of the morning, knowing time is of the essence.

And then he waits.

*

Damen tries to pull him close that night, mouth dragging lazily along his jaw, but Laurent has too much pressing on his mind. He doesn’t think he could get aroused, not even with Damen’s hot and firm hands on him.

He draws Damen in for a kiss instead, keeping it gentle and unhurried, and most importantly, chaste.

“I am exhausted,” he murmurs against Damen’s mouth. “Perhaps another night.”

Damen’s advances halt immediately and he draws back as though checking that Laurent is well.

After a distinct pause, Damen says, “You can talk to me, you know. There’s something weighing on your shoulders, but you don’t need to carry the burden alone.”

Laurent freezes beneath him, trying his hardest to keep his expression neutral.

“It’s nothing,” Laurent eventually gets out. “Nothing important anyway.”

For the first time since they met, Damen seems to want to fight him on it, but he opens his mouth and then pinches it shut.

“Well, whatever it is, I can listen. You can trust me.”

Damen slowly rolls onto his back, giving Laurent the space he suddenly seems to need to breathe. He settles the sheets around them and then glances over at Laurent.

“Goodnight,” he says and Laurent finds himself feeling a little bit lost.

“Goodnight,” he parrots, knowing he’s underestimated Damen entirely.

It takes a long time for sleep to claim him.

*

It feels like barely a few hours later when there’s an insistent knock upon the door.

Damen is the first one up, but Laurent, expecting it to be part of another ploy from Kastor, tugs on a pair of pants and a loose shirt before Damen is even across the room. The door opens, light flooding in from the hallway, and Laurent sees Jord on the other side, his expression worrying.

Jord looks past Damen and meets Laurent’s gaze as Laurent moves closer.

“Laurent,” he says, voice breathless. “There is someone in the stables to see you.”

“The stables?” Damen asks immediately. “At night?”

Laurent stares at Jord, for a fraction of a second worrying that maybe Kastor has found a way to bribe him to deliver Laurent to him, neatly tied with a bow on top.

“It is safe,” Jord tells him, knowing him all too well. “But it is urgent.”

“What is going on?” Damen asks, finally staring at Laurent, but Laurent doesn’t have the time to explain.

“It is nothing,” he says evenly, moving to leave the room. “Go back to bed.”

He knows Damen will do nothing of the sort, but he doesn’t expect Damen to grip his arm and restrain him instead.

“Laurent,” he insists. “I told you I am not blind. I know you have been keeping secrets, but I cannot help if you do not explain.”

Laurent pauses for a moment.

“It is nothing,” Laurent repeats, trying to tug his wrist from Damen’s hand, but his fingers tighten.

“Is it an affair?” Damen guesses and Laurent stares at him with wide-eyes as his stomach swoops.

“No,” he says immediately. “It’s nothing like that.”

He finds himself stepping closer, all of his attention momentarily on Damen.

“No, Damen,” he says softly. “I will be back shortly. I will explain everything soon, I promise.”

He never thought he’d be promising anything to the Prince of Akielos, though he also never imagined he would be leaning in and voluntarily—and happily so—kissing Damen to reassure him. Damen lets go of his arm in order to cup his face between two large hands and kiss him back. Laurent allows it, selfishly, for a few beats longer than he should, just in case it happens to be the last kiss he ever receives, and then he carefully extricates himself from Damen’s hold.

“I will be back,” he repeats and as an afterthought, adds, “Lock the door until I return.”

It’s not the right thing to say because Damen’s expression morphs into worry and he opens his mouth—probably to argue again—but Laurent rests a hand against the center of Damen’s chest and presses just enough for Damen to know not to move.

He leave the room before he can talk himself out of it, pulling the door shut behind himself, and turning immediately to Jord.

“What is it?” he ask and Jord just gestures for him to follow, walking hastily, clearly holding back from outright running.

Laurent’s heart hammers in his chest the whole way out of the palace, ears oversensitive as he startles at any unexpected noise, part of him still waiting for Kastor to strike. But the strike never comes and Laurent follows Jord to the stables where there are three horses tied up, all of them slick with sweat and breathing heavily from a hard ride.

Laurent doesn’t know what he’s looking at until a nearby stall door opens and someone emerges. He takes a surprised step backwards, half-expecting the person to be Kastor, but it’s a blond head that appears and his heart seems to stutter to a stop.

“Auguste?” he asks quietly, and Auguste nods as he steps into the better light of one of the torches on the wall.

Laurent presses forward before he can stop himself, not caring that Auguste smells as though he hasn’t bathed in a week, that the scent of horse clings to every inch of him, that there’s blood across his tunic—

“Auguste,” Laurent repeats, pulling away and pressing his hands to the stain. “You’re hurt.”

When he looks up, he finds there’s a bruise under one of Auguste’s eyes and a cut across his brow.

“It is not my blood, Laurent,” Auguste says, reaching out to grip Laurent’s shoulder. “I’m here to warn you brother.”

“Warn me of what?” he asks, pressing his hand atop Auguste’s for comfort.

“We cannot speak here. It cannot be made known that I have arrived.”

The only place Laurent can think to take him is his room, but Damen is waiting there. But he cannot put his brother at risk. He would rather suffer the wrath of ten thousand Damens than harm Auguste.

“Put up your hood,” Laurent orders. “Jord, give the other men space in your room. We will find a place to hide them tomorrow.”

Auguste tugs up the hood of his cloak, keeping his features hidden as Laurent takes his hand and leads him towards the palace. He knows a hundred different routes to his room, but he takes the quickest one now, listening for signs of anyone else around.

When they finally arrive after a close call with a servant, the door to the room is locked. Laurent knocks sharply and it takes Damen only a second to open it, his face filling with relief when he sees Laurent.

“You locked it,” Laurent says, the surprise evident to his own ears.

“You told me to,” Damen counters and Laurent knows they can’t afford to bicker and wastes no time in tugging Auguste inside, shutting and locking the door once more.

Damen stares at Auguste—though Laurent isn’t sure he knows who it actually is under the cloak—before glancing over at Laurent. “What are you doing?”

Auguste lowers his hood and Laurent steps closer to Damen to press a palm over his mouth as he inevitably goes to greet him.

“Do not say a word,” Laurent pleads. “No one else can know he’s here.”

Damen stares at him in confusion, his brows drawn together, but eventually he seems to understand and nods, letting Laurent pull his hand away.

Laurent looks towards Auguste, and in a quiet voice, Auguste says, “Our uncle attempted a coup.”

Laurent’s heart seems to double in speed until Auguste continues.

“The king and queen are safe, but our uncle is dead. He left behind notes,” Auguste explains, pulling from within his cloak a stack of letters neatly bound with string. Some of them are slightly charred. “I pulled them from his fire after he attempted to burn them and I rode here to warn you that this was not just about Vere. I could not risk a letter of my own.”

Jokaste’s words slowly return to him—that nowhere in all the kingdoms was safe—and he realises the scale of Kastor’s scheme.

“There have been attempts on the king’s life here,” Laurent tells Auguste, carefully avoiding the expression Damen is casting his way.

“Kastor,” Auguste says in understanding, and Laurent nods.

“He has made several attempts on my own life, and I worry that Damen is next.”

Damen, seeming unable to remain quiet, speaks.

Laurent,” he says, impassioned. “Laurent, what are you speaking of?”

Laurent finally turns to Damen, knowing he must explain fully, the situation already too messy.

“Your brother has been poisoning the king,” he says softly, knowing it will be a hard blow to Damen. “He hired mercenaries to attack me, and when that failed, he tried to have Jokaste poison me.”

Damen shakes his head, but he’s silent for a long minute, his gaze unfocused as though he’s thinking back.

“No,” he says finally, “the king has hayfever. You were attacked by bandits.”

Laurent slowly shakes his head and Damen frowns harder.

“Laurent, Kastor wouldn’t do that.”

“He already has, Damen,” he replies carefully. “Jord can attest to the attack on me, but I cannot prove the poisoning of the king, only that I saw him collecting poisonous plants.”

“These letters will prove enough,” Auguste says, reminding them both of his presence, but Laurent doesn’t glance away from Damen, needing to see his expression.

He looks as though he’s been struck with a mallet upside the head and can’t do anything more than open and close his mouth wordlessly. Unable to stop himself, Laurent reaches out for him, resting a hand on his arm to comfort him. Laurent can’t lie and say it doesn’t hurt when Damen brushes him off almost immediately. He knows it’s an unconscious reaction, a need to be left alone after being dealt a blow. Laurent lets his arm hang at his side, all too aware of how heavy it now feels.

“How long have you known?” Damen asks Laurent, his gaze hot and bright.

“Damen,” Laurent insists quietly and Damen steps forward to loom over him.

He’s never used his height against Laurent before and it feels as though he’s with another person entirely. Laurent straightens his shoulders and meets Damen’s eyes.

“How long?” Damen asks again and Laurent answers honestly.

“I had suspicions for a long time,” he says. “I had evidence after the attack on the shore.”

“You never mentioned this.”

“How was I meant to?” Laurent asks, drawing his voice back from the rising edge it’s gaining. “You don’t know me; you have never had reason to trust me. Why would you ever believe a word of it without evidence?”

Damen’s posture shifts in an instant, his shoulders drooping as he takes a step back, seeming to deflate all at once.

“I may have been stubborn about it,” Damen says, “but if you’d explained, I would have listened. You are my husband.”

“And Kastor is your brother,” Laurent argues. “I wouldn’t believe a word if you said anything about Auguste.”

“Because you trust Auguste with every fibre of your being,” Damen says and Laurent frowns.

“You don’t trust Kastor?”

“I do,” Damen says, “but—”

The fact that there is a but worries Laurent.

“But what?”

Laurent has no idea what Damen is doing when he begins to pull up one side of his chiton, using one hand to cover anything important from view. Damen reveals a line low on his body, the mark lighter than the skin around it, and Laurent doesn’t know how he didn’t spot it the night they spent together, although he was rather caught up in everything then.

“What is that?” Laurent asks and Damen lets the material drop back down.

“A scar from Kastor. We were sparring as young men. Well, I was; he was a little older.”

“Old enough to have known better,” Laurent says and he thinks Damen might believe the same but cannot voice it aloud.

“It may not have been an attack on my life, but he left a mark. We didn’t fight much after that. My father was furious.”

“Would—” Laurent begins before having to pause to collect his thoughts. “Would the king believe Kastor to be capable of this scheme?”

Damen seems to search within himself for an answer.

“I don’t think he would want to believe,” he says gently. “But I think evidence would sway him. What do we have?”

He directs it towards Auguste, who holds out the letters again.

“We have these, and a secret weapon,” Auguste says, reaching within his cloak for something else.

He pulls free a folded note sealed with the Veretian royal crest.

“What is that?” Laurent asks.

“From our father. It explains what happened in Vere with his brother and how Kastor knew all along.”

“Could this be seen as an attempt at war?” Damen asks, sounding far more serious that he ever has, sounding like a ruler caring for the future of his country. “There will be people who question it. They may say Vere is trying to unravel us from the inside out, to set us against our own people.”

“It will rely on needing the trust of your people,” Auguste tells him. “If you show that you believe, they will follow. You have never lead them astray.”

“I have never lead them,” Damen says bluntly.

“Then you must earn the trust of your father. Can you do that?”

Damen looks between Laurent and Auguste, his expression soft and honest.

“I don’t know,” he says, “but I will try.”

“We must—” Laurent begins before there’s a knock on the door that visibly startles all three of them.

Damen grabs Auguste’s arm and tugs him towards the bedroom, out of sight, while Laurent carefully moves towards the door, ensure his body blocks any view of the room as he opens it.

Part of him expects a fight, as though Kastor has heard every word of their scheming and has come to get them, but instead of Kastor or any number of his mercenaries, it’s Jord.

Laurent relaxes slightly and moves to let Jord inside.

“I came for your brother,” he says softly, voice barely above a whisper. “I will keep him hidden for the night so that your servants will not find him here tomorrow.”

“You must keep him safe,” Laurent orders and Jord nods, knowingly.

“I will, Laurent,” he says honestly, as his guard and as his friend. “I will find you in the morning and we can do what must be done.”

Laurent nods and quickly embraces Jord, murmuring his quiet thanks into his shoulder. Jord pats his back gently and then pulls away. Stepping back, Laurent gestures to Damen in the bedroom to bring Auguste out, which he does.

“You will hide with Jord tonight,” Laurent tells Auguste, but Auguste is already nodding knowingly. “We will get you tomorrow.”

Auguste pulls Laurent into a hug and Laurent clutches at him with tight hands.

“I have missed you,” Auguste tells him. “I will see you soon.”

Laurent doesn’t want to let him go, but large, warm hands—clearly belonging to Damen—carefully prise him away and pull him towards himself instead. Laurent hears the door click shut behind Jord and Auguste, but he doesn’t see them go and it’s probably for the best.

“I’m sorry,” Damen murmurs into his hair, but that’s what Laurent should be saying instead.

“I should have told you,” Laurent says in return. “I didn’t want to ruin the arrangement. I thought I could handle it alone.”

“That is the point of a marriage,” Damen tells him gently. “So that you never have to do anything alone. I have been and always will be here to help.”

Laurent clutches at him tighter and knows every word from Damen is nothing but the truth.

*

Laurent hardly sleeps that night, too worried that Auguste will be found or that Kastor will catch wind of what has happened in Vere and will land the final blow. But the night is quiet and Damen stays awake beside him, one hand pressed to Laurent the entire time as though worried he’ll slip away.

In the morning, Laurent doesn’t know what to do. He knows the longer Auguste stays in Akielos, the greater the chance of discovery is, but he has no idea where the plan goes from this point on.

“I will call for a meeting with the king,” Damen tells him, apparently having his own plan. “I think it best if I go alone, but I will take Auguste’s proof and show him.”

“And from there?” Laurent asks and Damen appears somber.

“We confront Kastor. There may still be a chance for himself. He can change.”

Laurent wants to tell him not to get his hopes up, but he doesn’t think that will sway Damen much.

“Find me when you’re done,” Laurent says. “I will bring Auguste here again.”

Damen nods and turns towards the door before seeming to forget something. He turns back, takes the handful of steps that separates them, and then dips down to kiss Laurent. It’s soft and everything Laurent needs at that moment.

“Good luck,” Laurent tells him when Damen pulls away, and Damen nods before leaving the room.

*

Getting Auguste into his room during the day is decidedly much harder with more people wandering the palace, but once they’re there, Laurent paces, needing to expel the tension from his body while they wait for Damen to return.

When he does, Laurent freezes, the ability to move fleeing his body entirely.

Damen looks grim, his hair slightly ruffled as though he has been carding his fingers through it. Across the room, Auguste and Jord rise from the couch they were sitting upon.

“It is done,” Damen tells the room. “The king knows.”

“What did he say?” Auguste asks.

“He did not believe me,” Damen says and Laurent’s stomach sinks, his expression morphing to horror. But then Damen continues. “But then I showed him the letters and the message from the king. He believes them to be real, but thinks Kastor deserves a trial. He wants the other side of the story.”

“When will the trial be?” Laurent asks and Damen takes a steadying breath.

“When they find Kastor. He doesn’t appear to be in the palace.”

“Has he fled?” Jord asks and Damen and Laurent shake their heads at the same time.

“He is waiting,” Laurent assumes and Damen nods to confirm his theory.

“How long do we wait?” Jord asks and Damen moves further into the room, taking the seat opposite Auguste.

“As long as it takes,” Damen replies, looking exhausted, and Laurent finds himself finally able to move towards him, sitting close, their thighs and hips pressed together.

Damen takes his hand in one of his own as though it’s an automatic reaction.

“The guards will find him,” Damen says, but his voice is not hopeful and Laurent leans into him, pressing his weight against him like reassurance.

“Yes,” Laurent agrees, but his heart is heavy and his hopes even more so.

*

Three days pass, possibly the longest days of Laurent’s life. He’s hyperaware at all times, barely sleeping or eating, but the others are the same. The atmosphere in the palace is not pleasant.

The king calls for an audience with Auguste the morning of the third day, and he leaves accompanied by Damen, while Jord remains with Laurent.

“They won’t be gone long,” Jord says, clearly trying to reassure him, but Laurent lingers by the door, unable to sit still like Jord.

It’s an interminable amount of time later when there are voices just beyond the door. Two palace guards have been stationed outside their room since the king was made aware of the situation; Laurent doesn’t know who they are or if they’re to be trusted, but Damen hadn’t mentioned anything out of the ordinary.

As such, when the door opens, revealing the face of the older guard, Laurent thinks nothing of it.

“Your highness, there’s someone to see you.”

For a moment, Laurent wonders if it’s Jokaste, which makes it quite the surprise when Kastor himself rounds the doorway and steps into the room. The guards have been bought, he realises, and Laurent has no way to defend himself.

Jord immediately rises from his seat, but he’s not close enough to stop Kastor from unsheathing his blade and putting it to Laurent’s throat.

“Put it down,” Kastor orders in regards to Jord’s sword and Laurent nods for him to comply. He’d rather not have his throat slit like an animal at slaughter.

Kastor moves behind Laurent, but Laurent already knows his plan. He’s too predictable. Nevertheless, the arm Kastor wraps around Laurent’s shoulder isn’t pleasant. The last person Laurent wishes to be touched by is Kastor. But it’s clear Kastor means to make him his hostage, and he drags Laurent along, the blade still tucked under Laurent’s chin.

Laurent shakes his head at Jord again, needing him to not attempt anything that will spook Kastor, and that’s the last he sees of Jord as Kastor leads him out of the room, the guards standing by and watching without guilt. Laurent is sure to memorise their faces for their inevitable trial.

He’s unsure where Kastor plans to take him, but he’s guided along hallways, the gasps of surprise from the palace servants entirely ignored. For a moment, Laurent thinks Kastor is leading him out to the stables, where his body will be left for some unlucky person to find after he’s killed, but instead Kastor loops him around the edge of the palace until Laurent begins to recognize the area and he has the sinking suspicion that he knows where he’s being taken when they begin to climb step after step.

For obvious reasons, Kastor doesn’t knock before entering, but Laurent is forced to lead the way, Kastor using him as a shield as they enter the king’s meeting room.

For the briefest moment, Damen appears happy to see him, before he clearly spots the knife at Laurent’s throat and the arm keeping Laurent from moving. He stands just as the king seems to realise what is going on, and Auguste makes to move towards him, panic obvious on his face.

“Don’t move,” Kastor snaps, bringing the blade closer to Laurent’s neck, and Auguste freezes immediately. “You will not take this from me. You cannot stop the war against Vere.”

“Kastor,” the king says softly, as though speaking to a spooked horse. “This is not the way to negotiate.”

“You never listen,” Kastor argues. “You would allow this Veretian brat a seat on the throne before me.”

“Kastor,” the king reasons. “I cannot change your parentage.”

“You are the king, you make the rules. You can say that I am enough to rule. We all have the same blood running through our veins.”

“Damen has always been promised the throne after me,” the king says. “Laurent has nothing to do with this. He is not the reason you will not rule. Let him be.”

“He’s the snoop that discovered my plan,” Kastor spits with feeling. “He has everything to do with this. I should cut him apart right where he stands.”

“You would not last long if you did that,” Auguste threatens, his gaze unwavering and deadly.

Laurent knows for a fact how deadly Auguste can be. They have sparred together since Laurent was old enough to hold a sword, and beyond that, Auguste taught Laurent all the footwork he knew, including hand-to-hand combat. Laurent has always known that he could never take a man in a fist fight, but there are other ways to engage in combat. Which means that now Laurent has backup, he can put some of it to use.

But before he can throw one elbow up towards Kastor’s face, Damen speaks.

“What makes you think you’re worthy of the throne?” Damen asks Kastor, and Laurent blinks at him, trying to work out if he’s trying to get Laurent killed even quicker.

Kastor immediately tenses behind him, grip tightening, the tip of his blade cleanly cutting into Laurent’s chin, but it’s not enough to draw blood.

“Hold your tongue!” Kastor yells at him. “Or I will stick your Veretian pet like a pig.”

Laurent doesn’t know how to feel when Damen calls his bluff.

“You think you’re more worthy than me? No matter how many times you bathe, you will never clean the dirt from your blood.”

In a fit of rage, Kastor shoves Laurent aside, his threat of maiming him disappearing in an instant and Laurent suddenly realises what Damen has managed to do. Kastor lunges for Damen instead, knife raised and ready to plunge into Damen’s body. But the blow never lands as Damen catches Kastor’s arm and twists him to the side. The motion drops Kastor to the floor, unbalanced, and Damen presses his foot to Kastor’s wrist, forcing him to release the blade.

Kastor thrashes on the ground, appearing ready to rip Damen limb from limb, but Damen seems unfazed. He stoops to grab the knife from Kastor’s limp grip and then turns it against him.

Kastor practically snarls at him. “Do it,” he hisses as Damen points the blade at him. “Put an end to it.”

Damen is quiet for a long moment before he speaks. “I won’t give you the satisfaction of an easy death.”

Laurent suspects that’s the moment Kastor realises the kind of man Damen is. He stares up at Damen and goes still enough for Auguste to move closer.

“Have the guards fetch chains,” Damen orders, his gaze shifting to Laurent.

“No,” Laurent interjects. “Some of them are loyal to him. Bind him with something from the room.”

After Auguste drags him off the floor with Damen still standing guard, they end up wrapping his wrists unforgivingly with a woven rope from one of the curtains. Kastor casts glares between Damen and Laurent in a way that means that if he were to break free, they will be the first to hit the floor dead. They stand him near the corner of the room for the time being, and Laurent wonders if they should also bind his feet.

“You admit to your crimes?” the king asks when the scuffle is over and Kastor flexes against the ropes.

“I don’t know what crimes I am to be charged with,” Kastor says evenly and Laurent can tell it does not please the king.

Steadily, the king lists the crimes, from the poisoning of himself, to the attack on Laurent, to the manipulation of multiple members of court, including Hesiodos and Jokaste, and finally conspiring with the Veretian king’s traitor brother.

Kastor shows no remorse, his gaze even as he glances between them.

“I did what I had to,” he tells him and the king seems to slump in defeat.

“I will accept that as admission to your crimes,” he says gently. “You have been found guilty by myself, with enough members of court to bear witness. You will find your end after the rise of the sun tomorrow. You will be kept confined until that time.”

But Laurent knows Kastor will not go out without a fight; he expects the way Kastor stalks forward, threatening to attack them even with his hands bound, but he does not expect the way he turns at the last minute, before any of them can react.

Without hesitation, he throws himself through the nearest window, the glass breaking against his weight as he somersaults over the ledge and plummets from sight. Damen lets out a shout of shock that he apparently cannot help and immediately moves towards the window. But Laurent knows what sight will await him.

They’re in the tallest tower of the palace. Knowing the amount of steps they had to climb to reach it, Laurent has little hope of anyone surviving the fall. The damage would be too much for any man to take.

His fears are confirmed at the horrified noise Damen lets out, and he moves towards Damen, curling his fingers into his chiton, trying to urge him away, glass crunching beneath their feet.

He knows Kastor would never have lived to see past the next day, but he also knows it is not easy for Damen. Kastor was still very much his brother, even until the end.

Beneath his hand, he feels Damen’s breathing become unsteady, and without a word, he manages to turn Damen away from the window and draw him into his arms instead. Damen folds around him as though it’s exactly what he wants and presses his forehead against Laurent’s shoulder. Laurent knows he’ll stay right where he is for as long as Damen needs.

When he turns his face, Auguste is watching them, his expression even. Beside him, the king looks two decades older. No one deserves to lose a son, Laurent knows, and no one deserves to lose a brother.

Laurent eventually glances away and tucks his face into Damen’s neck, feeling guilty at the relief that floods through his body. It’s finally over.

*

The days following Kastor’s death draw the loyalists out from hiding. Damen deals with them with his head held high, and during the nights, Laurent holds him as the weight of his responsibility crashes down around him.

Auguste stays long enough to offer his evidence to the rest of the court and then begins preparations to leave. Laurent doesn't want to let him return home alone, but he is needed in Akielos now.

“I will visit,” Laurent tells him at the stables the day Auguste is set to leave. “When all this is over.”

Auguste pulls him into a hug that Laurent never wants to end.

“I am glad you are okay,” Auguste says, sighing into his hair. “And I am glad you are happy.”

“What makes you say that?” Laurent can’t help but ask and Auguste draws back with a smile on his face.

“I have seen the way Damen looks at you,” he says. “And I have seen the way you look at him in return.”

He cups Laurent’s face with one hand and looks at him with honesty in his expression.

“You are good for each other. Damen needs you now, more than I do, but I will see you again soon. You are still my baby brother, after all.”

He draws Laurent in for another hug before releasing him, and Laurent watches him mount his horse and gather the reins.

“Write to me when you are home,” Laurent says and Auguste nods and smiles.

“I will,” he promises. “Stay safe.”

Laurent nods and steps away, allowing Auguste and his men to ride together out of the stables. Auguste glances back one last time before they go and Laurent smiles.

It is not at all like the last time Auguste left him, and for that he is glad.

***

“This is right?” Damen asks for possibly the ten thousandth time and Laurent sighs and moves closer.

“Yes, Damen, the servants have been dressing me for years. They know how to tie a shirt.”

Damen fiddles with the high collar of the Veretian shirt he’s in and Laurent calmly pulls his hand away.

“I don’t think I fought this much about having to wear a chiton,” Laurent says, straight faced, but Damen glances at him with an expression Laurent has long since learned to recognise.

“You don’t wear them half as much as I want you to.”

He attempts to drag Laurent in by the hips, but Laurent bats him away with firm hands.

“If you say that in court, you’ll fuel rumours for centuries,” Laurent chides and Damen slumps slightly.

“What if the king and queen do not approve of me,” Damen says and Laurent sighs, exasperated.

“Damen, they were at our wedding. They were part of the preparations.”

“But that was when—when it was an arrangement,” Damen finishes lamely.

“What is different now?” Laurent asks, meaning it as a joke and Damen jostles him.

“Everything is different.”

That Laurent knows. Damen had given him a ring of his own not long ago, one thoughtfully forged from Veretian gold, and it sits alongside the band from their bonding ceremony. Damen has a matching one, and it had spread gossip through the court like wildfire. It seems there’s nothing better in the eyes of the people than a bonding that ends happily.

“Damen,” Laurent says evenly. “This is my kingdom. They will welcome you as Akielos has welcomed me.”

“My brother attempted to kill you,” Damen points out and Laurent doesn’t let his expression waver.

“I think Auguste still likes you.”

Damen sighs heavily and moves towards Laurent, drawing him closer with both arms around Laurent’s waist. This time, Laurent lets him.

“How long are we staying in Vere for?”

“Two weeks,” Laurent reminds him. “I have survived longer in Akielos.”

Damen leans down and tucks his face against Laurent’s shoulder.

“You’ve done more than survive,” he says honestly.

“Then you can make an effort here.”

Damen sighs yet again, but this time as though he knows Laurent is right.

“Don’t leave me alone with them,” Damen says, drawing back to meet Laurent’s gaze. “They will eat me alive.”

Laurent offers a small smile as he says, “I won’t let them. You are not theirs to eat.”

Damen smiles in return and carefully draws him in for a kiss, his mouth warm and soft, just as Laurent has come to expect.

“Let us not keep them waiting,” Laurent says when Damen eventually pulls away and Damen carefully tucks a strand of Laurent’s hair behind his ear and nods.

“Show me your kingdom,” Damen says and Laurent plans on doing exactly that.