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By the Wind

Chapter Text

Damen heard the beat of wings against the air despite the crash of battle resonating around him. He flinched as a dark man drew alongside him.

“Eos! The archers are coming!” Nikandros plunged his sword through an avian soldier, dispatching her with practised ease. He turned to Damen. “We must get you to cover.”

An arrow struck the ground perilously close to where Damen stood. He jerked his eyes towards the sky and saw a flock of Veretians crowding the skies above. They wore their demi forms- human bodies with massive, sloping wings capable of holding them aloft in the air. They all carried lightweight bows, with arrows nocked.

“Where is my brother?” Damen shouted over the fighting. He shoved a Veretian out of his way and looked to Nikandros. “Where is our support?”

“There’s no sign! We must go now, Eos!” Nikandros threw his shield up between Damen and the sky, and an arrow bounced off it.

“Retreat!” Damen roared over the battlefield. He slashed his sword across the chest of a Veretian in front of him, cutting him down. “Retreat! Fall back!”

Nikandros dragged him down with a fierce grip at his elbow, and Damen staggered out of the way of a shot. Hagen, a young lad that had been fighting beside him, was not as lucky. The arrow nicked the soft flesh of his arm, drawing a line of red across dark skin. He gripped the wound with a surprised breath, and met Damen's eyes before his knees gave out.

Damen lurched forward and grabbed him around the waist. Under the cover of Nikandros’ shield, Damen dragged the boy alongside as they ran for the cover of the trees.

His own archers, perched in the high branches, loosed their arrows at the incoming Veretians. Damen stumbled to a halt, and dropped to his knees with his burden. Above him, Nikandros kept his shield raised in case stray arrows found their way through the thick branches above them.

Hagen was dead.

“Shit.” Damen voiced his grief in the single, broken word, and carefully lay the boy on the ground. His sightless eyes cast up into the trees.

“Damen,” Nikandros said. His voice was soft.

“Not now,” Damen said.

Around him, his soldiers dropped to the ground on all fours, shifting forms as they began to abandon the field. Retreat required the speed of four legs. Damen pushed to his feet and called on his second form. The form of a lion.

His hands hit the ground as massive paws. Beside him, Nikandros shifted into the fluid form of a black panther and together they made their way deeper into the forest.

He counted the sounds of footfalls around him, taking stock of who was with him as they ran. The volley of arrows stopped as the Akielons plunged deeper into the forest. Several hours later, at a slow trot, Damen cleared the forest and made his way back to the camp where his army was regrouping.

Lines of neatly made tents rose up out of the grasslands into view as he left the shelter of the forest. Simple white canvas fluttered in the gentle breeze beneath the deep red of his standards. Around him, his soldiers returned to their pitched tents, battle-weary and defeated. The early battle meant that the sun was still high in the sky at this hour, and Damen entered the camp under the weight of it’s heat.

He shifted, pulling himself upright on two legs, and stormed through the camp until he reached his tent. His cape whipped behind him. His armour weighed heavy on his shoulders as he moved.

Slapping back the entrance, he stalked inside and slammed his palms down on his map table. Little trinkets of wood skittered under the force of the blow, and troop markers moved slightly. Nikandros slipped into the tent after him, and the flaps fell shut behind him. Nikandros set his jaw.

“We cannot win,” Nikandros said. His voice was quiet in the space between them.

The words were inevitable, and yet Damen still felt them like a crushing blow to his chest. Unable to meet Nikandros’ eyes, he kept his head down, hunched between his shoulders. He gritted his teeth. His father never would have allowed this to happen. His father would have seen victory on the field.

But his father had not had to defend against an aerial assault. Archers from the skies shooting barbed death into the masses of Akielon soldiers. This was the fifth battle in a fortnight that Damen had lost.

“I know.” Damen forced the words out. If the birds fought on the ground, he would not be standing here. He would be pushing into their territory, not being driven back with his tail between his legs. It had been sudden, and unexpected, this change in tactic, and Damen found himself hopelessly unprepared for it. It was as if overnight the Veretians had changed their battle strategies, and the violent dance of battle no longer ebbed and flowed, but was now a one-sided deluge that Damen had not the power the stop.

His father’s words echoed in his mind. Veretians cannot be trusted to fight true. They are deceivers by nature.

Damen exhaled sharply.

“We call a parlay,” he said. He straightened and faced Nikandros.

Nikandros said nothing, and waited for Damen's explanation with a clouded expression. Damen scrubbed a hand over his face. “We call a parlay, hosted by a neutral nation. The Patrans will assist us. They stand to benefit from peace, and are a fair people.”

“Kastor will never agree to-” Nikandros started.

“My brother is not the Eos.”

Nikandros snapped his jaw shut, and nodded sharply.

“I will be Helios when I choose a mate, but the people already look to me for leadership. I am Helios in all but name, and the court is aware of my choice to delay marriage to Lykaios until…”

“Until you ended the war,” Nikandros said, his shoulders falling. He reached out and gripped Damen's upper arm, giving him a small shake. “What do you need me to do?”

Damen pulled away from Nikandros, and removed the golden cuff from his bicep. Taking Nikandros’ hand, he placed the cuff in his open palm. Nikandros stared at him with wide eyes.

“You know I value you above all others in my guard,” Damen said. “I trust you, and I would not risk your life without reason.”

“Damen-”

“I need you to take my parlay to the Veretians,” Damen said. He curled Nikandros’ fingers over the gold band, covering the lion engraving from sight. “They would kill me before I set foot across their border. I’ll send Pallas to the Patrans. He is our fastest runner.”

“If we arrange something quick enough, the Veretians will not have enough time to plan an attack on the traveling party,” Nikandros said. His eyes narrowed as he looked over Damen's shoulder at the map. Pushing forward, he nudged into Damen's side as he swept a few markers out of the way so that he could study the terrain. “We can take this path, away from the mountains, which they will surely fly over to cut their travel time. It will provide us protection.”

Damen leaned against Nikandros, grateful for his level headed reasoning, and Nikandros let him. Breathing deeply to steady himself, Damen nodded. “A good plan. I will write a missive.” He pushed away. “Take some time to rest. Much rests on your shoulders.”

“Good thing they are strong shoulders,” Nikandros said, lowering his voice in the intimate space between them. Damen smiled and pushed a hand through Nikandros’ hair.

“They are strong indeed. You can stay here. I’ll return after I take account of the men.” Damen cupped the back of Nikandros’ neck and drew him in, pressing their foreheads together for a brief moment.

Nikandros touched the back of Damen's hand. “I’ll give my duties over to Lydos before I leave. The Veretians will hear us.”

“Swear to me that no matter your personal feelings, you will deliver the missive,” Damen said. He let Nikandros tense and back away.

“You doubt my loyalty?”

“No. Never. I fear you may be too loyal. The only way the talks will end is in my surrender,” Damen said. “And you must see that.”

“I do. But I understand how much peace means to you. To our people.” Nikandros tightened his grip on Damen's wrist. “And I would not sabotage that.”

Squeezing the back of Nikandros’ neck briefly, Damen nodded. He nodded at the cot near the back of the tent. “Rest.”

Nikandros touched his lips to the inside of Damen's wrist before heeding the advice. He moved to the back of the tent and collapsed into the cot. Damen could practically hear him purring.

With Nikandros nestled in his bed, Damen left the command tent, and stood in front of it, surveying the damage done to his army. As he made his way to the medical tent, he took note of the faces around him, fearing how they would view his plans. They would see it as a betrayal, the worst sort, after they put their lives on the line for their Eos, their Crown Prince.

But it was his duty to keep them alive. They were his people, not meaningless weapons. They would have lives when the fighting stopped. It was his duty to see that they could.

The medical tent was nearly empty. Damen picked his way to the lead healer and said, “How many dead?”

Shaking his head, the healer took in a deep breath and began listing the names of those that were not accounted for. Damen forced himself to listen. The list was long, but he would not let their deaths be in vain. He would end the fighting. The war stopped with him, whether he had to sacrifice himself or not.

Leaving the medical tent to walk among the warriors was a feat of strength unlike Damen had ever faced before. His soldiers knew they were fighting a losing war, and it showed in every leonis that stood before him, no matter how confidently they presented themselves. He walked the lines of tents, making sure his men saw that he was unharmed and with them. Each weary face he passed impressed how desperately he needed to bring the fighting to an end. He was making the right decision.

He caught sight of Pallas, bent over his armour as he scrubbed the blood from the battle from it. When Damen called to him, he jerked to his feet. “Sir.”

“Are you injured?” Damen asked.

“No, sir.” Pallas said. He pushed a hand through sweat-damp curls.

“Walk with me.”

Pallas fell into step beside Damen. After several paces of silence, Damen said, “I have a very important job for you.”

“I am honoured to perform it.”

“I need you to carry a request to the prince of Patras. I wish to hold peace talks with Vere.”

The crawling expression of horror never formed on Pallas's face. Instead, Pallas pressed his lips together and nodded. “I will do it as fast as my legs will carry me.”

“You seem… unaffected by my idea,” Damen said.

Pallas shrugged. “You are my Eos. I must obey you, but I have seen things no man should see in their lifetime. I have held my brother as he died. I comforted my mother through his death and my father’s. I want the war to end, as I know you do. I will help you to achieve it.”

“I am glad that you are willing to help me,” Damen said. “I am honoured to have soldiers of your caliber at my side.”

Pallas grinned at the praise, and his shoulders lifted. Damen ruffled his hair and sent him on his way.

Upon returning to his tent, he carefully drafted the missive that Nikandros would deliver to the Veretians, if they did not shoot him on sight. He translated his message into the elegant, lilting Veretian language to ensure they would at least be able to read it. Then, he wrote a letter to the king of Patras in Patran, imploring for assistance in negotiations. Pallas would strike out the next morning for Patras, to deliver it.

With the missives complete, Damen waved away his attendants and stripped himself for bed. His appetite, despite the trials of the day--or because of them--had been severely diminished. Instead of eating, he quietly made his way to his cot and stretched out on soft cotton sheets beside Nikandros. Nikandros simply moved to accommodate his size, and pressed against him once he settled.

Sleep did not come easy that night, but the closeness of his pride brother finally eased him into slumber.

…*...

The next morning, Damen and Nikandros found Pallas and left the camp, stepping into the forest away from sensitive ears.

Pallas shifted into his cheetah form, and allowed the Patran missive to be placed in a pouch around his throat. He then took off, tail flying behind him. Damen had to smile at the lad’s enthusiasm, but the feeling dimmed when he turned to say goodbye to Nikandros.

Nikandros took the parchment from him, and held it firm. “I will return to you. A flock of birds cannot keep me from your side.”

“I have no doubt,” Damen said. He reached out and gathered Nikandros in his arms, gripping him close to fight back the thought that this could be the last time. “Be safe.”

“Always.” Nikandros squeezed him tightly before drawing away with a crooked grin. “Maybe I will scandalise the court terribly and they will surrender. Do avians faint at the sight of a bared shoulder?”

“I do not believe they faint at all.” Damen forced himself to return the smile. Nikandros nodded, waved the parchment to show that he still had it, and then turned, striking off for the Veretian border. Damen watched until he could no longer see movement in the shadows of the trees. Then, he turned and made his way back to camp.

Damen approached the line of tents beside his own, and saw his personal guard gathered around the broken banners from the ill-gotten battle. “Lydos, with me. Nikandros is on a mission. I require your presence for the remainder of the trip home.”

“He informed me. Home, sir?” Lydos asked. The man fell quickly into step behind and slightly to the right of him.

“Yes. We’re pulling back. Send runners ahead to alert the Den. All soldiers are to return to the Den, no exceptions. And it must be done today,” Damen said.

“Yes sir, I will start right away, sir.” Lydos saluted and darted away, shouting orders at the waking men and women in the troop.

Damen moved through the camp as it started to come down. His soldiers rolled up their tents and packed them into wagons and on workhorses. He returned to his own tent and began to strip it of its contents. Several stewards helped him dismantle it completely.

The next few days were spent on the road. Near late afternoon on the fourth day, Lydos pointed to the sky. “Scouts.”

Damen shaded his eyes and followed the direction of Lydos’ finger. Crows, from the looks of them, nothing to be considered a threat. They were in their full animal shift, and so could carry no weapons. Nikandros has made it through with the message. These scouts were verifying its accuracy.

“What are they doing?” Lydos asked. He pushed himself up slightly in his saddle, as if getting the few inches closer would help him see.

“Scouting,” Damen said.

“Should we take them down?” Lydos reached for his crossbow, but Damen lifted a hand to stop him.

“No, let them scout. We have nothing to hide right now.”

Lydos cast a strange look at him, but honoured his order. His hands returned to the reins of his horse, and though he occasionally glanced upwards, he said nothing further about the circling birds. After an hour of surveillance, the birds twisted in the air and returned to their nation. Damen let his shoulders slump in relief, but it would be short lived. They were fast closing the distance to his Den at Ios, where he would have to explain to his half brother what he had put in motion.

His homecoming was not the glorious parade he had envisioned when they rode out of Ios weeks ago. It was a downtrodden march through streets muddied with fresh spring rain. His people stood in the doorways of their houses, watching solemnly as he led his soldiers towards the Den, where they would be formally dismissed until called upon.

The Den sat under the White Cliffs, the culmination of an uphill walk from the city gates. After passing into the courtyard of the Den, Damen guided his horse to the stables and swung out of his saddle. He handed the reins to an attendant, and waved away Lydos when he tried to follow. “Dismiss the men. Meet me in my ready room after.”

Lydos’ ‘Yes sir’ echoed out behind him, and Damen squared his shoulders as he strode into the low, sprawling palace that housed the royal family of Akielos to meet with his brother.

The Den spread outwards rather than upwards, with corridors upon corridors of rooms to search. Kastor was not in any of the room Damen knew to find him, and as Damen passed through a third long, white tiled corridor, he struggled to keep his irritation under control.

Kastor rounded a corner, fury marked in every line of his body. When he caught sight of Damen, he surged forward. He grasped Damen by the front of his uniform and shoved him hard against the wall. “What have you done?”

“I am ending the war,” Damen said, gritting his teeth against the painful pressure of Kastor’s strength. “They are massacring us. It wasn’t even a fight! It was a culling!”

“Our father would have stood his ground,” Kastor said, his face dangerously close to Damen's. “Our father would have fought them back,”

“Neither our father nor you were present,” Damen said. He shoved Kastor back.

“You are the greatest strategist on both sides,” Kastor said, taking a threatening step forward. Damen stood his ground. “I thought you could handle it.”

“Where were you when I called for aid? Here? Lying with the politicians?”

“I was working on requests from the north to aid in your fights, but you have failed even holding what ground we’d gained.”

“I cannot fight from the ground when the enemy is above us,” Damen said. Kastor clenched his fist, but Damen growled low in his throat and stalled any further movement. “We do not have the resources to continue.”

“What do you mean?” The words shocked Kastor. He took a step back, anger sliding from his face.

“I called a parlay,” Damen said. His brother paled.

“You’re surrendering!?” His shout echoed down the hall. Out of the corner of his eye, Damen saw two servants turn in their direction.

“Attend your duties,” Damen said. They scurried away, but the damage was done. Before nightfall word would be out. He swung his gaze back to his brother. “I would appreciate your support.”

“I will not scrape the ground with birds,” Kastor said.

“We cannot win against their new tactics,” Damen said. “If you visited the field, you would see. Every battle has become a slaughter. They rain arrows upon us, and we cannot defend against their poisons. Kastor, they are killing us. I must protect our people and our culture.”

“Do you think the Veretians will hold true to anything they agree to?” Kastor asked.

“Auguste did,” Damen said.

“And Auguste is dead, you saw to that yourself,” Kastor said. “To what end? A year of peace? Only to have the war upon us again and now you tell us you are planning a surrender.”

“Yes. And I do not have to explain myself to you,” Damen said, wearying of the conversation. He had hoped Kastor would see reason, would not be dragged down by his prejudices. “I am Eos, heir to the throne. I will go forth with the plan whether you agree or not. But I would find it truly helpful if you would publicly support me. The court will not take this lightly.”

“Makedon will spew hairballs all over the Senate floor,” Kastor said. “You really intend to go through with this.”

“What other choice do I have?” He slammed his fist into the wall, and the stone cracked under the force of the blow. Damen drew a shaky breath. A tense silence fell between them.

“Kill the envoy,” Kastor said, his voice low.

Damen reeled back. “You are mad. I cannot attack an envoy to a parlay!”

“They’ve not fought fair, why should you?” Kastor threw his hand out. “The envoy will be their ruling family, you could end the war with one strike.”

“A strike like that would galvanise their entire population. We don’t have the resources to fight that sort of retaliation. You’re not grasping the situation.” Damen shoved himself away from the wall. “I will not dishonour our father’s memory with such an action. You bring shame to it by mere mention of the thought.”

“I’m providing other options.” Kastor strode after him, not even allowing him the decency of a quick escape. “You must see that surrender cannot be the final path. Even if the envoy doesn’t contain all of their family-”

Damen whirled and planted his hand against Kastor’s chest, sending him back several steps in surprise. “I will not dishonour our people.”

“The birds give no care to honour if they take to the air during battle,” Kastor spat.

“This conversation is over,” Damen said. He cut his hand through the air between them. “You will remain here for the meeting. I will take my personal guard with me.”

“You’ll regret this, Damen,” Kastor said. “This will be the worst decision you could make in Father’s memory.”

“At least I will have made it.” Damen slammed the door to his room shut on Kastor’s furious expression, and leaned a shoulder heavily against it. He dropped his head, and pinched the bridge of his nose as he sucked in deep, calming breaths. The entire Den would have heard the fight, and the Senate would be notified. By morning he would have to answer to the tribal leaders.

He needed a drink.

After pouring himself an overfull goblet of wine, he walked to the balcony of his rooms and stood, watching the ocean waves crash against the shoreline. By the time the moon had peaked, the wine was gone and Damen felt loose and less bitter towards his uncooperative brother.

“Oh dear.”

Damen turned, and went weak with relief when he saw who stood behind him. “Lykaios.”

She walked across his bedroom on soft feet, the only one who the guards would have let in without his prior consent. Damen met her halfway to the balcony and drew her into his arms. She melted against him with a gentle sigh, and he pressed his face to blonde hair.

“You’ve returned to me,” Lykaios said. She cupped his face with both hands and pulled him down to her to kiss him. Resting his hands on her hips, he returned the kiss soundly. Withdrawing, she pressed her forehead to his. “I was so worried.”

“We lost the battle, but I intend to end the war,” Damen said. “And we will have peace.”

“You said that last time,” Lykaios said. She gently rubbed her thumbs over Damen's cheek. “Before you fought their golden prince.”

“I will make sure the war ends,” Damen said. “This time will be permanent.”

“That is what everyone says.” Lykaios threw her arms around his shoulders. “I don’t want to think on it. I want to hold you forever, but I will make do with tonight if you’ll have me.”

“I would never refuse you,” Damen said. He lifted her from the floor and carried her to his massive bed. “I need you. I’ve missed you so.”

“I have missed you more,” Lykaios said. She allowed Damen to lay her against his silken sheets and crawl after her onto the bed. She tugged him up, and drew his lips to hers with a light touch to his chin.

He made love to her that night, and when they had finished, she fell asleep in his arms. He spent the night looking upon her, trying to inscribe her face to memory. His future was uncertain, and he did not want to lose this along with everything else.

Chapter Text

Damen and Lykaios were feeding each other breakfast the next morning when the first kyroi managed to bully his way past Damen's guard and into his receiving chamber. Damen stood, and held a hand out, placating. “Ihsan, please. May I have a morning in peace?”

“What is the meaning of these rumours?” Ihsan asked. “Damen, explain yourself.”

Lykaios was on her feet as well, and she rested a hand at the small of Damen's back, her warmth a comfort to him as he exhaled slowly. “What did you hear, so that I may address it.”

“The other kyroi are running about with talks of surrender!” Ihsan’s swarthy face was dark with rage. The yellow in his eyes stood out starkly against his dark skin.

“Nobody is surrendering,” Damen said. “We lost the battle, and we’ve pulled back from the front to regroup. We are most certainly not surrendering. I am working on a new plan of approach, to meet the new Veretian tactics.”

Ihsan deflated, though his eyes still narrowed. “Where did these rumours start?”

“Kastor and I had a vocal fight yesterday where he declined to lower his voice,” Damen said. “Comments overheard have a tendency to change when passed from ear to ear. Who did you hear this from?”

“Kadir,” Ihsan said. “He is down in the markets, preparing for the Solstice Festival. He is stirring trouble.”

“I will see to him,” Damen said. “Now, will you please leave me to finish my breakfast?”

“Yes, I apologise, Eos,” Ihsan said. He bowed, and retreated from the room. He remembered to shut the door behind him, and Damen pinched the bridge of his nose.

Lykaios ran her hand up and down Damen's naked back. “Kastor has not made this easy on you.”

“No. It is not in him to ease my path,” Damen said.

“Come. Finish your breakfast. We will find Kadir after.”

Damen and Lykaios left the Den after eating, and wandered into the market, nestled in the centre of the town surrounding the Den. They did not come across Kadir until late afternoon, where Damen grew curious about a loud group of market-goers near a stall. He approached, and spotted Kadir in the centre of the huddle.

“Kadir,” Damen said. The group parted around him. “May I have a word?”

The man stood, and carefully made his way out of the huddle of people. In his demi form, he stood half a head taller than Damen. A panther tail swished behind him as he moved, and his shoulders hunched with the added pressure of his large cat form. Lykaios drew her shoulders back as he got close, her fingers gripping Damen's tightly.

“I heard you had questions about the army’s recent engagements,” Damen said. They moved out of casual earshot, and stood in the relative privacy of a small alleyway off the main road. “I give you leave to ask them.”

Kadir’s ears went flat against his head, and he scowled. “Kastor is under the impression that you’ve returned with your tail between your legs.”

“We were defeated in the most recent battle. That is an undeniable fact,” Damen said. “Just as we have lost the battles prior to that. We were being defeated.”

“So we have surrendered,” Kadir said.

“Absolutely not,” Damen said. “Akielos does not scrape the ground before birds. We are revisiting our battle strategies. We must. We cannot keep losing battles.”

“And you have not consulted the kyroi? Whose men and women feed the royal army?” Kadir asked.

“I need to ensure my plan will be feasible before presenting it to the kyroi,” Damen said. “It needs to work, and I need to make sure that I will be able to answer all your questions before I present it to you. Will you give me time?”

“Yes, of course. You are the Eos, despite all our efforts to encourage you to take the throne,” Kadir said.

“I swore I would not take the throne until I ended the war, or I reached twenty five years of age.,” Damen said.

“That is this year, is it not?” Kadir asked, grinning.

“It is. This winter,” Damen said.

“You will be most efficient, then,” Kadir said. “I will reassure my men. The Eos plans a new strategy for victory.”

“Thank you,” Damen said. He nodded to Kadir’s bow, and looped his arm through Lykaios’ as Kadir made his way back to the market. People moved out of his way as he walked. The bulk of his demi form made motion cumbersome.

Lykaios rubbed her hand along Damen's arm. “That was not terrible.”

“He is difficult,” Damen said. The ambient murmur of the crowds kept anyone from overhearing their conversation, despite his people’s advanced hearing. “But he has a point. It is his people that are dying for my lack of action.”

“They are your people,” Lykaios said. “Come. Food will cheer you.”

After Damen's conversation with Kadir, the rumours surrounding his return seemed to quiet. Kadir was the source, and Damen was relieved he did not have to approach any of the other kyroi. His flimsy plea for time that appeased Kadir would not hold some of the other kyroi. He and Lykaios were able to wander the next two days in the market without being bothered by talks of surrender.

Nikandros returned from the North.

…*...

Damen stood in his rooms, reviewing a request for funds to build a road while Lykaios lounged on a couch on the balcony. Nikandros entered without knocking, and Damen nearly knocked over his inkpot in his haste to pull Nikandros into his arms.

“Your brother is furious.”

“We knew he would be.” Damen forced himself to peel away from Nikandros. Behind them, Lykaios slid from the couch and padded quietly over to them. “Are you well? Did they hurt you?”

Nikandros held up his wrists, which were scraped and abraded, but the wounds were already healing. “They didn’t even hit me twice.”

Damen lifted a brow. “They hit you once?”

“Of course. Wouldn’t you?” Nikandros shrugged. “I am the commander of the leonis forces, right hand of the Eos, and I simply walked across the border, without guards, without weapons. With a band of gold and a piece of parchment. Lykaios.”

Lykaios flowed up against Nikandros, and he grasped her tightly, pressing a fierce kiss to her hair. She said, her voice muffled by his dusty robes, “I am so grateful you are safe.”

“I am grateful you are here to receive me,” Nikandros said. He released her, and let his hand slide down her arm to link their fingers. “It has been too long.”

“You must stay with us tonight,” Lykaios said. “Damen will rest better knowing you are near.”

“I thank you. I will rest better as well,” Nikandros said.

Nikandros moved beside Damen and drew the golden armlet from a pack. He fixed it to Damen's arm and ran his fingers over the engraved lion image. He cocked a small smile and winked at Lykaios. “Nobody fainted. But they did offer me a cloak.”

Damen couldn't help the smile that creeped over his own lips. “You’re lying.”

“I’m not. They offered me a cloak and then warned me that the nights were cold,” Nikandros said, a note of amusement in his voice. “I think I startled them so badly they weren’t sure what to do with me.”

Damen leaned against the table, firm wood digging into his hip as he gathered his thoughts. Nikandros fell silent and allowed him his peace, the quiet comfortable between them as Lykaios moved back to the balcony to bask in the sunlight. Damen took a breath. “You are my oldest and closest friend.”

“I am honoured,” Nikandros said, moving to stand closer to him. He rested his hand on the map that covered the table, which had previously held battle formations and troop movements.

“Am I doing the right thing?”

Nikandros met his eyes, startled, and then dropped his gaze almost as quickly. Damen felt the rise and fall of his chest as he prepared the correct words to say, and not for the first time, found himself truly thankful for Nikandros’ presence at his side.

“I think the bloodshed must end. I fear that the Veretians will ask more of you than is necessary to do it,” Nikandros finally said, his words quiet in the low light between them. “I fear for our people, but I also fear for you. As my friend and brother. Because I have seen the royal twins.”

Damen jerked, surprised once more. “The twins were there? They saw to you personally?”

“Yes, both of them. In full battle armour, even the woman.”

“I thought the twins didn’t visit the front lines,” Damen said. “They could not have possibly flown to the border in such a short time.”

“They were there,” Nikandros said. “From the talk amongst the guard, I think they had arrived a few days before. It is their first trip to the front lines.”

Damen scowled. “A leader should lead from the front. Not hiding in their nest while their men die on the field.”

Nikandros lifted a shoulder. “Can you blame them after you took down Auguste?”

“That was fair combat, agreed upon by both sides,” Damen said. “He was a good leader. He was honourable; his blade held no poison.”

“I doubt you will find the twins of the same morality,” Nikandros said. He lowered his voice, mindful of Lykaios just out of earshot. “You will do nearly anything for peace. And that is what worries me.”

“It is a good thing, then, that I have such good friends to watch over me,” Damen said. Nikandros grimaced but did not deny it. “Go with Lykaios. Wash the dust from your skin and relax. You are safe.”

…*...

With great reluctance, Damen untangled himself from Lykaios and Nikandros the next morning. He watched Nikandros slide into the warm spot he had abandoned, and then dressed. He paused to snatch a few pieces of bread and fruit for breakfast before making his way to the Senate chamber. The weekly session would be starting soon, and Damen knew that if he was not present, his brother would work a fury among the members.

As he pushed the chamber doors open, he heard the sounds of vigorous debate taking place, though unorganised. Striding into the chamber, the voices around him fell quiet as the entire body of kyroi rose to pay their respect. Damen walked to the chair at the centre of the chamber and sat down in it. When he was seated, the kyroi sat. The room was designed in a circle, so that every seated member could see everyone. It created equal footing, even though the traditional chair for the Helios stood alone, it was a part of the circle. The Helios could not function without the kyroi, and they could not function without the Helios.

“What is the topic of discussion?” Damen asked. His voice carried in the hollow hall. At his side, Kastor sank down in his chair.

“We were pondering what your new battle plans could entail.” Someone spoke up from one of the back rows of the chamber.

“I am here to answer as much as I can regarding my plans, but be warned I have not finalised them yet. I will present to the Senate my final plan during the Solstice Festival,” Damen said. Several kyroi stood. “Please, speak.”

“How do you plan on countering the Veretian attacks from the air?” A kyroi from one of the tribes in the centre of Akielos spoke. He wore his demi form in the chamber halls, as most kyroi chose to do as a reflection and representation of their tribe.

“I cannot divulge that just yet,” Damen said. “I am still working on the details. But my plan will be something to surprise the Veretians. We cannot rely on traditional battle if our enemy will not honour the old forms. We must attack in new ways.”

“Will you not give us any information about your plan?”

“I cannot, for fear the Veretians will set their ears upon it. I must beg your patience. You’ve put your trust in me to carry my father’s legacy. Give me more time,” Damen said.

“We have trusted you and yet you refuse to take the throne.” Another kyroi shouted from Damen's left.

“I swore I would take the throne upon an era of peace and I am working towards that,” Damen said. “I need more time. We will have peace. I swear it.”

“We will give you until the Solstice Festival.” Kadir stood, throwing his shoulders back. “We will honour your support in us.”

“And I hope to live up to that support in the near future,” Damen said. “I thank you for your patience.”

Halfway through the session, Nikandros entered and approached Damen. He leaned close, so that nobody could hear him except Kastor, sitting near. “Pallas has returned.”

Damen nodded. He excused himself from the chamber and instructed Kastor to continue with the discussions. Then he followed Nikandros from the Senate.

Once they were free of the echoing walls of the chamber, Nikandros brushed his shoulder against Damen's as they walked. “A guide from Patras arrived with him. Your request was granted.”

“Good.”

Nikandros walked with him back to his receiving room. Damen stopped inside the threshold when he caught sight of the Patran escort. “Erasmus!”

The young bobcat smiled, and rose from his chair when Damen entered the room. Damen opened his arms and embraced the young man with a happy laugh. “I did not realise our escort was to be you!”

“When Pallas came through with the message, I volunteered.” Erasmus pulled back with a pleased grin. “I am so pleased to see you again.”

“And you! You look well. The Patrans have been treating you properly, then,” Damen said. Erasmus nodded enthusiastically. “And you’re happy with Torveld?”

“Very much so. I know I sent a letter after I left, but I want to thank you in person for releasing me from my indenture,” Erasmus said. “So, well, thank you.”

“It pleases me to see you happy and healthy,” Damen said, a warm smile on his lips. “That is all the thanks I require.”

“We should leave soon. The journey is rough on all fours, and I know the Veretian escort will not delay.” Erasmus stepped back from Damen and dragged a hand through his Patran-style hair. Despite his skin colour, which had always been paler than most Akielons, and the Patran clothing, it was hard not to notice Erasmus’ golden-yellow eyes and the distinctive, Akielon vertical pupil.

“Let me gather my men and we will meet you in the courtyard,” Damen said. Erasmus nodded, and preceded Damen out of the room. As Erasmus made his way to the courtyard, Damen called Nikandros, Pallas, and Lydos to him. Despite the hard journey just the day before, Nikandros and Pallas were both ready to go, and shouldered their packs without complaint.

In the courtyard, Damen and his guard shifted, dropping to all fours, and let Erasmus take off ahead of them, showing them the way. The grueling pace was a great relief to Damen. He didn’t have to think about what was to occur at the end of the trail. He could only concentrate on the thrum of his heart, and the pounding of his massive paws against packed earth as they made their way northeast. His muscles burned with the kind of thrilling exhaustion that came with physicality, and Damen was grateful for it.

The air around them changed as they crossed the Patran border. The smells, the quality, and the density took on a different flavour as they ran, from the warm moist climate of Akielos to the drier, plains texture of Patras. The sky felt different, too. As if it were further away and lighter than the sky in Akielos. Damen kept his thoughts to himself as they travelled, stopping only for water, rest, and food.

They reached Bazal five days later, and were immediately escorted to their chambers by a born Patran. When Damen and his guard shifted into their human forms, Lydos’ jaw hung open. The Patran was wearing his ceremonial demi shift for receiving foreign dignitaries- a strong, muscular human torso sat upon the shoulders of a massive, sturdy horse body.

Nikandros took care of Lydos’ gaping with a few words hissed into his ear, and Damen and his guard followed the Patran to what would be their chambers for the duration of the talks. Several Patran attendants waited at the edge of the room for instructions, and Damen gestured for one of them to draw a bath. The dust from the road caked his skin, and his muscles sorely needed a soak. He would not be able to face the Veretians looking like a well-travelled merchant.

Sinking into the water, the tension of the last few days eased from his muscles. He reclined back, against the upper lip of the basin, and closed his eyes. He opened one eye at the sound of the door creeping open, and saw Nikandros slip into the room. Without a word, Nikandros slipped out of his well-worn chiton, let it drop to the floor, and climbed into the bath with Damen.

Nikandros leaned fully against him, chest to chest. The tub, in a suite for travelling dignitaries, was large enough to accommodate two fully grown men with room to spare. Nikandros put his chin on Damen's shoulder. “Are you nervous?”

“No. Resigned. I am curious about the twins, since you mentioned them,” Damen said. He ran his hand up and down Nikandros’ back, the motion smoothed by the sudsy water. Damen relaxed, enjoying the familiar weight of Nikandros against him.

“You are here with the confidence of your people,” Nikandros said. “It will work out.”

“You keep saying that,” Damen said. He tipped his head back again. “Eventually I will believe it.”

The next morning, they were summoned before the lesser prince of Patras. A Patran arrived at their suite door just after breakfast, to collect them.

The Patran palace was wide and spacious, to accommodate all Patrans, no matter what shift they prefered, and the expansive windows reminded Damen of his own palace at Ios. Sunlight poured in and illuminated the clean white tile underfoot, and provided a breathtaking view of the plains surrounding the city.

“This way, please.” Their Patran escort dipped into a slight bow as he opened a door for them. Damen and his guard passed into a room that seemed to be a combination of a balcony and a sitting room. The walls on one side were mere pillars supporting the ceiling, and Damen could feel the gentle breeze coming in off the fields below them. The Patran gestured to the far wall, where several large sitting pillows lay. “Your delegation will sit on this side of the room.”

Damen nodded his thanks and led his guard to the centre of the room, where Patran’s lesser Prince, Torveld, sat on a mound of pillows, his legs tucked under the portion of him that was in the form of a mustang. His human half wore a fine blue linen robe that fell over the back of his horse form. He reclined easily against a small table, and greeted Damen.

“Damianos of Akielos, I welcome you. The Veretian delegation will arrive shortly. I take it the journey was without incident?” His voice was rich like warm honey around the Akielon words, and Damen nodded.

“Thank you. We encountered no trouble, and appreciate your hospitality in these negotiations.” He tipped into a respectful bow, and then led his guard to their designated wall. He sank down on the plush pillows and his guard took up behind him, standing with their backs to the wall.

The door opened once more, and Damen found his eyes drawn immediately to the entering party, despite his effort at nonchalance. Entering first were two guards, one a crow from the looks of him, and the other some sort of fairer bird by his colouring. They both moved quickly across the room and stood behind the other set of pillows that decorated the wall. Damen returned his gaze to the doorway in time to see a man and a woman, both at the cusp of adulthood, enter together with their heads held high. These, then, were the Veretian twins.

They were both undeniably gorgeous. Damen swallowed hard, wondering for the first time if Nikandros had a right to be worried.

Both had incredibly sharp blue eyes that seemed to lay into him at the same time. He held himself still, unable to breathe under their piercing gaze, and stared dumbly at the fall of the woman’s silver-blonde hair over her shoulders, where the man’s hair was drawn back into a plain plait, revealing the small tuft of feathers at the nape of his neck that shone cerulean blue in the sunlight suffusing the room. She wore a dark blue gown, loose from the hips to the ground, with a traditional open-backed design. He wore an intricately laced blouse of the same colour, and trousers that were slightly darker. Both of their sleeves trailed miles upon miles of laces, which seemed to have no form or functionality other than decoration.

Together, as if they had rehearsed it a thousand times before, they made their way to the Patran settee and dipped into a slight bow. A golden necklace swung from the woman’s neck as she moved, at the end of it the emblem of a hawk. Torveld smiled at them, but Damen noted that his eyes fell more intently on the man. Torveld said in Veretian, “Thank you for joining us today.”

“Thank you for allowing us to come to your lands for these discussions,” the male Veretian responded. They straightened and joined their countrymen in their respective section of the room.

“Damianos of Akielos, do you object to the use of Veretian for these talks?” Torveld addressed him, his voice officious and commanding.

“I do not object,” Damen said in nearly accentless Veretian. The Veretian Prince narrowed his eyes, the only reaction to Damen's words.

“Jokaste of Vere, do you object?” Torveld turned to the Prince.

“I do not,” Jokaste said, reclining easily against the pillows as if she had been Patran her entire life.

Torveld nodded. “Let us begin. Damianos, you called these talks to order. Please begin.”

“I wish to speak of peace between our nations,” Damen said, addressing Jokaste, the avian, Veretian Crown Princess.

“And you drag me all the way to Bazal to speak of this?” Jokaste said, her voice sharp and cutting across the tile. The temperature in the room chilled. “Could you not mention this before you cut down our soldiers in last week’s border skirmish?”

“It was not our side massacring soldiers,” Damen said through gritted teeth. Images were deceiving. What appeared as a soft, slender woman of appropriate age was a cold, shrewd leader intent on verbally destroying him.

Jokaste threw her gaze to Laurent before fixing upon Damen. “Yes. We may have lost two or three good men. How many did you lose?”

“More than that,” Damen said. He took a deep breath to calm himself as he waited for the inevitable realisation to crawl over their pointed features. “The fighting must end.”

“What I am hearing is that these are talks of surrender,” Jokaste said. She hadn’t moved, but it felt like suddenly she was too close, and Damen's skin crawled. “Is that an accurate assessment, kitten?”

Damen was Eos, Crown Prince of Akielos, and he would not lose his temper in front of a two foreign princes and the heir to the enemy throne. He closed his eyes, reining in every ounce of control he contained, and exhaled sharply. “My people are not to be harmed.”

“You will marry me,” Jokaste said, without a space of breath after Damen's words.

Surprise rocked his guards and they jumped in front of Damen, shouting in Akielon while the Veretian guards planted themselves in defense of their royal house. Damen stood.

“Stand down. Nikandros, stand down.” Damen grasped his guard by the shoulder and dragged him backwards. None of them had weapons, so they were in no danger of being injured or killed, but Damen had to retain control. All of the shouting was coming from his side of the room. The Veretians stood, implacable in their confidence, and waited.

“Please, everyone. Please sit down and calm yourselves.” Torveld’s voice rang over their shouting, and finally managed to quiet Damen's guards. They sulked, but were silent as the Patran said, “Damianos, a suggestion has been made to join your peoples. Surely that qualifies as a peaceful end to the war?”

“I cannot marry-” Damen cut off the words threatening to fall from his mouth. “Her. She knows nothing of me! This is the first she has laid eyes on me in my life. How could we possibly wed?”

“You know nothing of each other, yet here you both are, sitting in my halls, ready to entertain peace. A royal union would suffice nicely, would it not?” Torveld asked.

Damen looked to the Veretian delegation, where Jokaste sat, unbothered by the commotion her words had wraught, her mouth turned down just a fraction. She gazed steadily back at him, waiting for him to respond. He could not think. “I must reflect on this.”

“We will meet again tomorrow, when the sun is high. Until then, please help yourselves to anything you might require,” Torveld said. He clapped his hands, and the Patrans around him jumped to their feet. Torveld pushed himself up to his full height and trotted to Damen to shake his hand. His hooves clopped loudly against the tile.

Damen and his guards were led quickly back to their quarters and, once ensconced there, Nikandros whirled on Damen.

“You cannot seriously be contemplating-”

“She wasn’t that bad on the eyes.” Pallas cut in before Nikandros could finish his thought.

“Pallas! You and Lydos are dismissed for now. Try not to get into trouble,” Nikandros said, sharply. He didn’t even look to see if he was obeyed, but Pallas and Lydos slunk away without another word. His attention fully on Damen, Nikandros growled. “You can’t.”

“It isn’t a poor suggestion,” Damen said, unable to voice that he was, indeed, thinking on the proposition.

“You saw how she looked at you, like you are just a trinket in her attempt to conquer both kingdoms. Veretians do not wed for love, Damen. They do not even fuck! How can you live like that?” Nikandros paced the room, and Damen felt as if he were drifting from his body. Shouldn’t he be the one agitated? He felt only numb. “Did you not see how cold they were?”

“If this is what ends the war, then why should my comfort be more important than the safety of my people?” Damen asked. He waved a hand helplessly. “And if they don’t fuck, where do their eggs come from?”

Nikandros pinched the bridge of his nose and growled in exasperation, ignoring Damen's trite attempt at levity. “I cannot believe you are seriously entertaining this suggestion. It is absolutely out of the question. It cannot happen. If your father were here-”

“He isn’t.” Damen cut him off before he could finish the thought. “My father is dead. He may have wanted war, but I am tired of seeing my people die.”

It was as close as he would come to criticising how his father had handled the war, and Nikandros knew it. He shook his head and sighed. “I need to clear my head. I am not thinking in your best interests. I will not leave the building, if you need me.”

Nikandros left the quarters, and Damen felt his absence like a yawning gap in his senses. He needed his advisor, his closest friend, at his side while he worked through what he had to do. And he had been forsaken.

Damen walked to the room that was named as his, and shut and latched the door behind him, wondering if the encroaching numbness would ever fade away, or if the feeling came with defeat and surrender, something that would sink into his bones and stay for the rest of his life.

“Hello, kitten.”

Damen jerked, slamming up against the door as he laid eyes on the speaker. The young man sat on the very edge of his balcony, framed in the fading light of the prairie sun, casting his dark blue clothing almost black in colour. One leg dangled over the edge, the other bent at the knee, and Laurent rested one delicate wrist on it.

Chapter Text

“What are you doing here?” Damen asked, when he found his voice. “Did you not humiliate me enough in the talks?”

Laurent hummed, and pushed gracefully to his feet. Damen saw the flicker of a blade catching sunlight, and he quieted. Noticing, Laurent slipped the blade free of it’s wrist sheath. He flipped the knife in the air and caught it, years of practice inscribed in single motion. Laurent narrowed his eyes. “Who do you think would win? I can practically see your tail swishing. Are you that hot for a fight?”

“You would only win if your aim were true on a single throw,” Damen said, his voice a low growl. He kept his muscles loose and ready for movement, trying to appear as relaxed as possible.

The moment of tension crested between them, and then Laurent seemed to reconsider. He tucked the blade away but kept his back to the open drop of the balcony. At least Damen knew how he had gotten into his rooms. Pressing his lips into a fine line, Laurent regarded Damen. “We were dismissed very swiftly. I thought we might… talk.”

“You come to my chambers brandishing a knife and feel we can… talk?” Damen sank his teeth into the Veretian syllables, giving them the same hesitating condescension Laurent had. “Are polite customs that different over the border?”

Laurent scraped his gaze coolly down Damen's body, no doubt taking in the loose Akielon clothing, free of unnecessary laces and fabric. Despite being ceremonial, it was still functional, and Damen folded his arms over his chest, waiting. Finally, Laurent said, “You should probably not speak on polite society.”

“Ah. Because I bare my legs I must have less of a brain.” Damen left the sanctuary of the door and moved into the room, deliberately presenting his back to Laurent. He stood at the table in his room and dipped his hands into the washing bowl. He splashed water on his face, to keep himself calm. He grasped the small, folded towel set out, and scrubbed it over his face before turning back to face Laurent. “It is just skin. Everyone has it. Did you come to antagonise me or is there a purpose to your illicit visit?”

“I wanted to clarify the terms of the proposed arrangement.” Laurent cast his eyes about the room, taking in the meager pack Damen had brought with him on the journey. “I’m sure you have seen a change in battle tactics over the recent months.”

Red hot rage boiled in Damen, and he swallowed down hard on his emotions to say, “I have.”

“I am also certain you can speculate on how the war will continue should you fail to agree to the offer.” Laurent let his eyes flicker to meet Damen's. “Marry my sister and your people will not be subjugated. They will remain citizens in a joint kingdom.”

“A joint kingdom?” Damen floundered to focus on what Laurent was telling him. “You mean to rule both kingdoms?”

“I do not rule,” Laurent said. “Please keep up. I understand lazing about in the sun can dull even the sharpest of minds, but your kingdom is at stake and I need your concentration. Shall I speak slower?”

“Condescend me one more time and we shall see just how quickly you can grow your wings,” Damen said, sharply. Laurent smirked, a mean little slash across his face that Damen hated.

“A joint kingdom. Your people will be my people,” Laurent said.

“And your people will be my people?” Damen asked, unable to keep the skepticism from his voice.

“Maybe. At some point, very far in the future,” Laurent said. He gazed sideways at Damen. “But do you have the luxury of refusing?”

Damen opened his mouth, but heard footsteps approaching his door rapidly. Despite the latch, the door snapped open on its hinges and Nikandros burst into the room, sword drawn. “Damen. I smelled-”

He set eyes on Laurent and his words froze. “-a bird.”

Laurent rolled his shoulders and subtly leaned on his back foot, while holding Damen's eyes. Damen stretched out his hand. “Nikandros. Stand down.”

“Sir?” Nikandros didn’t move, the sword tip pointed steadily at Laurent. “There is a bird in your chambers.”

“I am aware. I invited him.”

Nikandros and Laurent shot startled glances at him, though Laurent suppressed his instantly. “You what?”

Damen nodded, exhaling with a sharp sound. “The commotion during the talks did not allow us time to discuss the- the proposal. I invited Laurent to further inquire on it. He graciously agreed.”

Nikandros narrowed his eyes. He knew Damen was lying, could hear the slight tremor in his heartbeat as he spoke, but Damen hoped their bond was strong enough for Nikandros to trust him and follow his lead in this instance. He could see the conflict in Nikandros’ eyes; the need to protect his Eos fighting the sudden orders to stand down. But finally, the sword tip dropped.

To complete the charade, Damen crossed the room to where Laurent stood. He was followed by wary eyes, and when he stood in front of Laurent, he offered the crook of his elbow. Laurent stared at it, as if unsure what to do, and for a moment looked confused. Damen took pity on him, and said, “Allow me to escort you out.”

Laurent’s face smoothed over in a mask of casual indifference, and he touched his hand to the outside of Damen's elbow. Damen carefully avoided thinking about the knife tucked just inside Laurent’s sleeve. The touch was so light Damen barely felt it as they moved from Damen's chamber into the main room, and then saw Laurent out the door into the building proper. Damen watched the play of light shift across the fabric of Laurent’s shirt before closing the door.

“What is going on Damen?” Nikandros stood right behind him, practically pressing up against him. “Why was he really here? Did he hurt you?”

“He carried a poisoned knife and I am unharmed. He did just want to talk,” Damen said. Threaten. But threatening was considered talking, especially when a Veretian opened his mouth. It was the wrong thing to say.

“He had a knife!?” Nikandros’ face flushed in absolute rage. Damen lurched forward to stop Nikandros from going after Laurent.

“He did nothing! Look at me. Nikandros, please.” Damen gripped his arm and held him in place. “I am quite obviously still alive. And you cannot create chaos by fighting the Prince of Vere.”

“What are you going to do? He trespassed in your rooms with a weapon. That is a clear breach of the terms we agreed to in order to be here,” Nikandros said. “They cannot be trusted. We should leave. Immediately. Before they go any further. Their proposition was ridiculous at the basest level. Everyone knows birds do not lie with cats.”

“We must stay and talk. Surely we can come to some sort of agreement,” Damen said. Nikandros opened his mouth, and Damen cut him off. “No, Nikandros. As much as I would prefer to return home and pretend the suggestion had never been made, I am here for a reason. I am here to talk of peace. I will not be the one who runs from these talks, no matter how distasteful the suggestions.”

They woke the next morning to the news that the Veretian delegation had secreted away during the night, telling no one.

…*...

Nikandros pointedly did not say ‘I told you’. In fact, he said nothing at all the entire trip back to Ios, and remained stubbornly silent as he stood guard at Damen's door while Damen struggled to compose himself, and prepare what he needed to say to the Senate. At the moment, he sat in his chair in his ready room, with his head propped up by his hand. Not for the first time, he desperately wished his father were still alive. He would know what to do. Or at least be able to provide insight on the path he was supposed to take.

Day faded into night, with Nikandros fielding the persistent kyroi to allow Damen his peace. Yet the quiet did nothing for Damen's mind, nor could he figure out a way out of his situation. He was right back at where he had started. Fighting a losing war with no means of protecting his people.

He swept papers and quills from the table beside him in a fit of frustration. He leaned over his knees and pressed his hands against his face. He knew what he had to do. Knew what he had to set in motion. It was simply a matter of doing it.

But walking into the heart of Veretian territory was not a way to prolong his lifespan.

“Damen.”

Damen turned, and saw Lykaios crossing the floor slowly towards him. She paused, and picked up his royal seal from where he had tossed it to the floor in pique. She held it carefully in hand until she reached his side. Gently, she took his hand and placed the seal into it, wrapping his fingers over the carved marble. She touched her lips to his knuckles.

“Negotiations went well, I see,” she said.

Damen set the seal on his desk, and drew Lykaios into his lap. He pulled her against him, relief flooding his body as her familiar scent washed over him. She leaned against him easily, knowing he would support her. “The Veretians flew during the night. The proposal presented was… startling.”

“Nikandros mentioned something, but refused to give me any details. I think he was afraid he would upset me,” Lykaios said. “What was possibly said during the discussions?”

Damen inhaled. “The proposal was to join the royal houses.”

Lykaios was deceptively still in his arms as she mulled over the information. Finally, after a very long silence, she said, “Is she pretty?”

“Lykaios, no,” Damen said, pained.

Lykaios grasped his arm, massaging the skin just under the golden armband that marked him as heir to the throne. “It is a sensible resolution. As much as I find myself hating it, I cannot argue with the underlying intention.”

“You would be content to see another woman in my arms?” Damen asked.

“I am content to see Nikandros in your arms,” Lykaios said. “If it creates peace, why not try?”

“I could never love a woman with feathers in her hair,” Damen said. “They are cold and uncaring. They do not value family or tenderness. Only logic and proper behaviour.”

Lykaios turned until she could see his eyes, and pulled a hand through his hair. “I came here with happy tidings, but I see your heart is heavy.”

“Tell me,” Damen said.

“I am with child,” Lykaios said. She smiled, her beautiful blue eyes glittering with tears. “I am with your child, Damen.”

Damen felt only cold. His joy was pushed aside by the sheer, unadulterated terror that his child would be exposed to this war torn nation. Could be born to it, or even killed before birth if the Veretians discovered Lykaios’ condition. He tightened his hold on her and gripped her close. She mistook his enthusiasm for joy, and returned his fierce embrace.

The war ended with him.

That night, he waited until Lykaios fell asleep in his arms, her warm body nestled in soft, silk sheets like the future queen she would have been. Damen very carefully disentangled himself from her arms and slid to the edge of the bed.

Standing, he leaned over the table and quickly scribbled out a note to Nikandros that informed him he had not been taken, and to be patient because he was working on a plan that would officially end the war. He sealed it with his official stamp, and then marched across the room to grab a warm cape. He threw the cloth over his shoulders and pinned it in place before flipped the hood over his thick, dark hair, hiding it from view.

Nikandros was angry enough at him that he wouldn’t check in before shift change. And when he was let off shift, he would most likely go straight back to his barracks for the night. That would give Damen at least a twelve hour head start before anyone knew he was not actually in his room. For once, Nikandros’ stubborn loyalty ruled in Damen's favour.

Damen ran his fingers over the golden cuff around his bicep, reassuring himself that it was still there, before striding towards the balcony. With a quick twist, he flipped over the railing and dropped onto the sand under his window. The crashing ocean waves sang in his ears as he made his way quickly along the shore. He would be able to buy a horse and supplies in the town that surrounded the palace, and then he would ride to the border.

It was a simple plan that performed perfectly until he crossed the border into Veretian territory. Within an hour of crossing the border, he was stopped by four soldiers on the road. In the gray, pre-dawn light, he recognised the starburst pin denoting the Crown Princesses’ guard on three of them. On one he saw the mark of the Veretian Regent, who held the throne for Jokaste until she was ready to ascend.

Unfortunately, that man seemed to be the one in charge.

“And what have we here?” He spoke with an ugly smile on his face, one Damen had seen on men who enjoyed inflicting pain for entertainment. “You wandered far from your pride, stray.”

“I seek audience with the Crown Princess,” Damen said. He reached under his cloak, and found four spears pointed at him in the span of a heartbeat. He stilled. “I come with a message from the Akielon Eos.”

“Get down slowly, and keep your dirty paws where we can see them,” said the man.

Damen complied, slowly dismounting from his horse and leaving his hands on the saddle, his back painfully exposed to three of the spearheads while he waited for another order. He was not given one. The man said, “Secure him.”

Damen did not resist as his arms were pulled tightly behind his back. The rough grip loosened slightly when the soldier caught sight of his armband. Hesitation. “Govart?”

The man bearing the Regent’s insignia glanced at them as if annoyed by the question. His beady eyes fell on the royal crest engraved on Damen's armband, and shrugged, unimpressed with the piece of jewelry. “I told you to secure him.”

“But, sir-”

Govart snarled and strode forward, practically knocking the other soldier out of the way as he grasped Damen's arms and wrenched them back. Damen gritted his teeth and weathered it, knowing he would react that or stronger if an unknown Veretian were to cross the border.

Iron manacles were cuffed just above the bend of his elbow, a chain stretched tight across his back to hold him in place. Govart then twisted rope around both his wrists and secured them further. When he was well and truly tied, he was forced away from his horse. Damen tested his bonds and found them strong. His shoulders strained from the awkward positioning, and he could do nothing but be pushed along the road while a soldier brought his horse behind them.

They walked for about half an hour, enough time for the golden light of the sun to begin cresting over the horizon, and Damen saw they were walking towards tents making up an encampment. The Akielon army had returned home, but the Veretians had remained. The sight only reinforced that Damen had made the correct choice to act quickly.

Walking through the camp unarmed was a feat in bravery that Damen had not known he possessed prior to this moment. Every single bird was staring at him as they walked past, most too startled to display more than just the slight parting of their lips. All movement stilled as he was marched through the camp, and Damen couldn’t help feeling a prickle between his shoulderblades as he imagined an over-enthusiastic soldier loosing a fatal arrow. Perhaps this hadn’t been the best idea after all…

And yet, he made it to the command tent without incident. He was pushed past the flaps, and someone struck the back of his knees to make his legs give out. Dropping, he floundered to keep his balance, and rolled his shoulders to kneel as upright as he physically could while one of his escort disappeared further into the sectioned tent. Seconds later, he reemerged, followed by Jokaste, adorned in a full suit of armour with a spear in one hand. Damen stared.

“Release him,” Jokaste said. Ordered.

Nobody moved. Damen held his breath.

“I said, ‘Release him’. Did you fall deaf while on patrol or are we entertaining dangerous thoughts?” Her words pierced the tent like ice, and Damen finally felt hands on him, loosening the rope. Metal scraped as a key released the iron manacles, and his shoulders released. Biting back a sigh of relief, he eased his arms in front of him and rubbed the feeling back into his wrists and hands. “Do you realise who this is?”

“A mangy beast from the south,” Govart supplied. “Said he had a message for you.”

“Indeed.” Jokaste pressed her lips into a fine line as she glared at Damen, her blue eyes clear and brilliant in the low morning light. Behind her, a tent flap pushed aside to reveal Laurent, also in battle armour. He came to stand by her shoulder, guarding her back, his eyes sharp on Damen. “You’re all dismissed.”

“But My Lady-” One of the soldiers at the tent door opened his mouth, and shut it just as quickly when Jokaste’s eyes found him.

“Get. Out.” Her words fell like a sword cut, and the men in the tent obeyed without further comment. The tent emptied, and Damen was left alone, on his knees, with the enemy princess and her stone cold brother. She asked, in halting Akielon, “Are you injured?”

Damen couldn’t prevent the surprise from lighting his features, and Jokaste sighed. She handed Laurent her spear and walked to a small table set just inside the tent walls. She poured a cup of water and held it out for Damen.

“I- I don’t understand,” Damen managed.

Jokaste glanced at her brother, who had put up the spears and was unbuckling his gauntlets. Laurent caught her gaze, and a wordless moment passed between them. For a moment, Damen wondered, hysterically, if the rumours of mind reading were true. They said that a bird could look into your eyes and see your true intentions, regardless of what you spoke out loud. Laurent’s gaze flicked back to Damen.

“Did she misspeak? I heard no error in her words,” Laurent said, also in Akielon, though his was more practised.

“They did not harm me,” Damen said, almost reflexively in his shock. He pushed to his feet, and caught Laurent’s repressed flinch at the motion. He stood almost a full head taller than the younger man, and towered over him in the close confines of the tent. “They did nothing worse than I would expect.”

Jokaste hummed, crossing the tent to hand Damen the cup of water. Damen politely ignored the tremor in her hand and accepted the water. She stepped back almost immediately, and Damen could see she and Laurent were the same height.

“You left rather abruptly,” Damen said, in Veretian. Now, standing before them, he wasn’t sure what to say.

“Yes. There were concerns for our safety,” Jokaste said, with a cool glance in his direction. Damen narrowed his eyes.

“From who? The Patrans guaranteed the safety of the delegates.” Damen glanced between them.

Jokaste pursed her lips. “That is none of your concern. I fear you will be otherwise occupied. I take it you are here regarding my proposal?”

“I am,” Damen said.

“You walked into enemy territory, unguarded and unarmed, to facilitate your own surrender.” Jokaste paced in front of him, her hands clasped behind her back. Her armour, in the traditional avian style, was missing it’s backplate. Damen could see the play of muscle under smooth, pale skin as she moved. “I can’t decide if that was truly brave or incredibly foolhardy.”

“Perhaps withhold judgement until we determine further details of the arrangement,” Laurent said.

“My people are not to be harmed,” Damen said. “And they are not to be subjugated to the Veretians. If you intend to make them any less than citizens, the kyroi will break the peace, and I will be unable to control them. They will think you’ve worked some sort of dark magic on me, and consider my authority invalid.”

“Magic? Jokaste, can you work magic? And you did not tell me?” Laurent’s feigned gasp drilled under Damen's skin.

“How dare you make light of my people’s fate,” Damen said, his voice a low growl. “I am here to end the killing. I am here to give of myself to ensure the war will not take another life, and I expect the same honour and respect directed to this arrangement because it affects your people, too.”

Laurent stared at him. “You are well spoken for a southern barbarian.”

“Laurent, remember your place.” Jokaste admonished in sharp Veretian. Laurent fell into the soldier’s ready stance, deferring to his sister. Jokaste stopped in front of him, standing between Damen and Laurent. “Your people will remain citizens. Do you have any other pressing concerns?”

“How do you intend to carry this through?” Damen asked, curiosity finally getting the better of him. “I doubt the avian court would look kindly upon the idea of their precious Queen lying with a cat.”

Damen watched in disbelief as a hint of pink dusted Jokaste’s cheeks. She gave no other sign of being ruffled, however, and said, “The court will accept it whether they like it or not. If it brings an end to the war I see no reason for any protests to be made.” She cleared her throat sharply, regaining her composure. “Laurent will be your guide while you are in my company. You will defer to him on questions of culture and etiquette. I understand that you are also the head of your army? Laurent is the general of our armed forces. You will coordinate with him regarding security and troop deployment. Your spring festival is coming up, is it not?”

Damen blinked at the sudden change in topic, and nodded in confirmation. He had almost forgotten about the solstice festival, caught up with the war. “How did you know?”

“I am to be Soleil Reine soon, it is my business to know,” Jokaste said. “We have a similar holiday. The ceremony at the Keep will host the Court and the royal family. It will be the most succinct method of introducing you as my betrothed.”

Cold dread slid down Damen's spine at the word, but he would not go back on his oath. “You mean for me to introduce you at the Akielon festival, then?”

Jokaste stared at him, as if he were a particularly obtuse child. “Yes. That is why I introduced the topic. It is called the Solstice Festival, is it not?” She cast her eyes to Laurent. “Such a simple culture.”

“Soon to be your culture,” Damen reminded her, in an attempt to brush off the sting from her words. “We see no reason to name things other than what they are. Confusion and obscurity are not things we strive for.”

“You are extremely straightforward.” Jokaste shared another meaningful glance with her brother. She pinned Damen with a look that made him want to take a step backwards. He did not, because he was a Crown Prince, but he was beginning to see where the change in battlefield tactics had come from. The twins were ruthless, and committed. “That is not a disadvantage. Sometimes.”

She moved towards him, tugging her chestplate away from her neck as she walked. A golden necklace slipped free, and the golden hawk pendant caught the candlelight of the tent. When she drew it over her head, she disturbed a stray curl of hair. To Laurent, she said, “Witness this.”

Laurent squared his shoulders and stood at a soldier’s ready as Jokaste went fluidly to one knee before Damen. With his heart thundering in his throat, Damen watched as she lifted the golden hawk pendant in the palm of one hand. She said, in slow but measured Akielon, “Damianos of Akielos, Eos to the leonis people, will you accept my proposal for marriage?”

Damen took a breath, and took another, before he also slid to the ground, one knee down. He removed the golden lion armband from his arm and in one hand cupped Jokaste’s outstretched one. In Veretian, Damen said, “Jokaste of Vere, Étoile of the avian people, I accept your proposal for marriage.”

Jokaste lifted her hands and draped the necklace over Damen's neck. Before she withdrew, Damen cupped the elbow of her right arm and pressed the armband around her bicep. It was too large, so he held it between both hands and squeezed until the metal bent under the pressure of his grip. The gold formed to Jokaste’s arm, and when he returned to his personal space, it rested against her pale skin as if it were her right. The gold chain around his neck felt like an anchor, digging into his skin with the weight of the pendant.

Damen helped Jokaste to her feet, and she turned to her brother. Laurent turned his head away from Damen and said, intimately close to Jokaste’s ear, “I’ll make the arrangements. Are you certain you’ll be safe?”

Jokaste nodded, the slightest tip of her head, and Laurent pulled away from her to stalk from the tent. Damen had the feeling he wasn’t meant to hear the exchange, and Jokaste glanced at him. “A proposal warrants a… celebration, does it not?”

“In normal circumstances, yes,” Damen said. He watched as she walked away from him and through a separator that led into a smaller alcove. When he didn’t follow, she held the separator open.

“Are you coming?” she asked. “I need assistance with this armour.”

Damen swallowed his nerves and dipped into small offshoot of the main tent. Jokaste let the cloth fall back into place after him. The room was sparse, with a moderately sized bedroll laid out on the floor, a small chest of fine wood, and a small table beside the bedroll. Jokaste made her way to the chest, pulling her gauntlets off as she moved. She let them fall into the chest.

She turned, looking at him over a plated shoulder. “Unpin my hair.”

Damen unpinned his cloak and let it pool on the ground at his feet. He walked until he stood at her back. The brilliant blue feathers at the nape of her neck caught the candlelight, and Damen hesitated. The soft thrum of Jokaste’s heart ticked up as he stood, overcoming his disorientation at the sight of the feathers, and reached for the clasp that held her hair in place.

He gently eased it free- it was similar to one Lykaios had worn, once- and Jokaste’s hair tumbled over her shoulders in soft, golden ringlets. Emboldened by the familiar sensation of a woman’s soft locks against his fingers, he gently gathered her hair at her back, keeping it out of her face. She flinched when his knuckles brushed her throat.

Damen jerked back, as if ice water had been thrown over him. He put the entire length of the small room between them, and she whirled to face him. She said, “I am not afraid of you.”

“Your body belies your words,” Damen said, his voice flat.

“Your people are gifted with incredible strength, and my people have very weak bones, honed for flight. Do you expect me to be the picture of confidence when alone with you?” Jokaste said. “Centuries of hatred cannot be overcome in one night. I grew up with stories about how your kind steps on us in the woods for amusement.”

“And I grew up with the horrors of your poison,” Damen said. “Neither of us is without our tales of fear.”

“Fear can be overcome,” Jokaste said. She stepped closer to him and extended her hand. “Now assist me.”

Damen stared at her, listened to the tumultuous tremor of her heart and saw the steel in her eyes. He closed the distance between them and touched her arm. When she did not move, he began unbuckling her armour. Slowly, piece by piece, he divested her of her metal plating. As he worked, her breathing and heartbeat steadied as she grew used to his nearness.

With the upper portion of her armour removed, Damen sank to his knees before her. He worked at the straps of her cuisse, and when he pulled the protection away from her leg she rested a hand on his head. He paused, one hand pressed to the leather she wore under her armour. Gently, she carded her fingers through his hair, exploring its texture and length. He pressed his lips to the outside of her thigh, and was pleased when she sucked in a breath.

He worked quickly to remove the rest of the armour, and as soon as the last piece was off she dragged him up by the front of his chiton and pressed herself against him. She gasped, suddenly. “Oh. You’re much warmer than an avian.”

“Have you ever lain with a leonis before, my lady?” Damen asked. He slipped his arms around her waist and held her close.

“No. Have you taken an avian?” Jokaste asked. She had to tip her head back to look him in the eye.

“No,” Damen said.

“But you have taken a woman before,” Jokaste said.

“Yes. And men,” Damen said. “Does that bother you?”

“No. But you must realise that my culture finds it offensive. We mate for life, and are with our pair bond from birth. You must not tell anyone you were here tonight,” Jokaste said. “If this is to work.”

“I understand,” Damen said.

“Will you kiss me?” Jokaste asked.

“If you will allow it,” Damen said.

Jokaste nodded and lifted herself up on her toes. Damen braced her against him, letting himself take her weight. He dipped his head to close the distance, and kissed her. It was a kiss, the brief touch of his lips to hers, and she drew away to exhale, shakily.

“Is this all right?” Damen asked. Had to ask.

“Yes.” She punctuated with a nod. Lifting her arms to his shoulders, she nodded again.

Damen lowered his hands and lifted. Jokaste gasped in surprise, and wrapped her legs around his waist. Carefully, Damen walked them to the nest of blankets on the ground and very gently lowered her onto her back on the furs. She lay beneath him, chest heaving under her thin white blouse, and Damen smoothed a hand under her shirt. “Good?”

“Yes,” Jokaste said. Her arms splayed out above her head. She lifted her body sensuously as Damen peeled her blouse off. Beneath, her breasts were bound to her chest with a cloth wrapping. He dipped his head and pressed tender, soft kisses to the curve of her throat and chest. She uttered a soft sound of wonder, and he began to untie her breast band.

His own clothing came away with very little fuss. Jokaste seemed to revel in the brusque reveal of his skin, her eyes following the fluid motion of his muscles as he tossed his chiton to the side. Bare, he leaned over her on one arm, careful not to encroach. He slipped a finger beneath the waist of her leather trousers. “Good?”

“Yes,” Jokaste said. She lifted her hips, and together they worked her pants off. She dropped the last of her clothing to the side of the blankets, and reached up to draw him near. Damen kissed her again, drinking in the soft movements of her body beneath his. She was a gorgeous woman when she was not insulting him or threatening his people.

“Do you have any oil?” Damen asked, his lips against her cheek.

“What a gentleman,” Jokaste said. “And here I thought you would simply throw me down.”

Damen jerked back, nearly completely away, and Jokaste blinked at him, in the midst of reaching for a glittering stoppered bottle. Her neck was flush where Damen had kissed it. He stared at her. “I prefer my partners willing.”

“Is that so?” Jokaste pressed the bottle into his hand. “Then consider me willing, Eos.”

Damen very carefully did not break the bottle in his grip. It looked expensive. “We do not- rape our partners.”

Jokaste grew quiet, and lifted a hand to rest on his forearm. “I did not mean that.”

“Are you here because you think this is what I want?” Damen asked. “Or because it is what you want?”

“I’m sorry,” Jokaste said. She squeezed Damen's forearm gently.

“I know your people think we are barbarians, but I am beginning to wonder,” Damen said. His voice went dark with suppressed anger. “In my culture, if a person is even accused of such a thing they are skinned. It is better than allowing the guilty ones to walk free.”

“I am sorry,” Jokaste said. “I did not realise. I want you of my own free will.”

The soft, sensual mood had been broken. Damen made to slide away and collect his chiton, but Jokaste clung stubbornly to his hands. “Please, Damianos. We must begin trusting each other somewhere. Trust me in this.”

Damen stared at her, listening to the even beat of her heart as she told the truth. He let himself be guided back to bed. Jokaste hummed, and let her legs fall open for him. He leaned against her, her body cool against his skin, and let her pull her fingers through his hair as they got used to each other, the sensation of skin on skin.

“Your hair is so long,” she said, musing. “Does it not get in the way when you fight?”

“I tie it back when I fight, as you do, I’m sure,” Damen said.

“It takes two handmaidens to fix my hair in place,” Jokaste said. “And we have much experience in creating nests.”

Damen laughed, surprised at her self-deprecation. He pressed his forehead to her shoulder as she smoothed her hands up and down his back. When he turned his head, she was there to meet him. They kissed, slowly at first, as heat rekindled between them. Damen wet his fingers in the oil and slid a hand between them.

“I didn’t-” he said, hesitating.

Jokaste uttered a soft noise of dismay. “Didn’t what?”

“I have no means to prevent pregnancy,” Damen said. “I didn’t… think-”

“It’s fine,” Jokaste said. “I have the means. Please. Please, Damen.”

When they joined, cultural bonds fell away. She was simply a woman, and he was simply a man. She twined her arms around his neck and panted against his lips as he moved in her. She came silently, clutching at him, surprise clear on her face, and Damen shuddered through his own climax shortly after.

He collapsed to the side, spent, and carefully peeled away from her to grasp a cloth from the small chest. He dropped back onto the furs and wiped them both down. Jokaste weathered the care with sleepy eyes, and Damen reclined against her when he was done. He closed his eyes and listened to the settling rhythm of her heart until he fell asleep.

He became aware of low murmuring sometime later, and he shifted slowly. The murmuring cut off sharply, and Damen kept his eyes shut and forced himself to settle against the furs. He let his breathing even out, and over his shoulder the soft conversation picked up again.

“I won’t know until a few weeks,” Jokaste said. The only reason Damen could hear her was because of the enhanced hearing granted his people.

“We’ll be back from Akielos by then.” The second voice belonged to Laurent, apparently unphased standing in his sister’s room with her naked lover asleep on the furs behind them. “How will we keep our travels secret?”

“You’ve made no progress ferreting out the spy?” Jokaste asked.

“Aside from the obvious, no,” Laurent said. “And I will deal with him tomorrow. Aimeric is itching for another fight. I will ensure he is directed to the right outlet. Govart has pricked Jord too often in recent days, and Aimeric refuses to keep his mouth to himself.”

“I find it adorable,” Jokaste said, her voice dry. “What’s not to like about young love?”

“Your flair for the romantic is going to get us killed.”

“I was joking, brother. If you think I’m romantic then we’ve been apart far too long.”

“Yes, well. We are together now.” Laurent hesitated, the rapid flutter of his heart betraying his anxiety. “I will see you on the throne.”

“Only if you are alive to guide me,” Jokaste said. “Now go. It will be dawn soon.”

Damen heard the tent flaps part, and Laurent left. A few moments later, Jokaste returned to his side, curling up on the furs but wearing a thin nightshift now. Damen kept himself relaxed and loose as she wriggled under his arm once more and her breathing evened out.

Chapter Text

When they both roused some time later, Jokaste rolled over in his arms and smiled sweetly, as if she had not met covertly with her brother in the dead of morning to speak of spies and war. The warmth in her gaze was an act, and Damen found himself shrugging away from her sooner than he should have.

“Are you all right?” Jokaste asked. She watched him dress, her eyes fixed on the play of his muscles. “Worried that your people will discover you slept with a bird?”

“That will not be the most shocking thing for my people,” Damen said. He pinned his chiton in place as Jokaste climbed out of the nest of furs and began dressing herself. The Veretian air was brisk and sharp, even in the enclosed air of the tent, and Damen dragged his cloak around his shoulders as he entered the main section of the tent.

Laurent pushed through the outer tent flap and froze, eyes going slightly wide before he straightened and his gaze hardened. Today he was dressed simply in riding leathers, though his sword remained strapped to his side. “Eos.”

“Jokaste is getting ready,” Damen said. He made his way to a small table, where a platter of bread and fruit had been laid out.

Jokaste emerged wearing a white blouse and tanned pants tucked into riding boots. She joined Damen at the table, and snatched up some peaches. “Report, Laurent.”

“The men are wondering when we are going to make our push into Delpheur,” Laurent said, without regard for Damen standing right beside him. “We are ready to move on your word.”

“We are not marching to Delpheur,” Jokaste said. “The army is staying here. Only a small party is coming with us.”

Laurent moved suddenly, and Damen stepped out of his way as he went to the front of the tent and pulled the flap back enough to glance outside. He dropped the tent flap and looked to Damen. “Your man approaches.”

He took up position at Jokaste’s back and pressed his hand to the sword hilt at his side just as the tent flaps burst open and Nikandros exploded into the room, bristling, followed closely by two avian guards who were not so much flustered as exasperated.

“Nikandros, hold,” Damen said, before anything could happen. Nikandros looked like he was willing to be put down for a chance to pluck the feathers from Jokaste’s hair.

“What is the meaning of this? You disappear without telling anyone to come here, into the enemy camp unarmed-” Nikandros started.

“I see you made it without being hassled.” Laurent cut in, sharply. Nikandros staggered to an abrupt halt, eyes wide. Laurent nodded to the sword Nikandros was seconds away from drawing. All eyes fell to Nikandros’ hand on the hilt. Nikandros jerked his hand away as if scalded. “Surprising, that.”

Nikandros had plunged into the heart of the Veretian camp, fully armed and ready for a fight, and had not been scratched. Damen stared as the realisation dawned on him. Laurent must have known Nikandros would follow him, and sent orders ahead to his men. When he glanced away from Nikandros, he found Laurent’s eyes on him, watching him come to his realisation. The world was suddenly very quiet and very loud at the same time. He was aware of Nikandros’ heavy breathing beside him, and the incredible stillness of the avians, as if they were not even breathing.

The pact was already working.

“Nikandros, stand down,” Damen said, again. Nikandros frowned, but his hand fell away from his sword, though the tension remained between his shoulders.

“I apologise, milady. Shall we see this beast to the border?” The avian guard leaned forward with his shoulder, eager to eject Nikandros from the tent.

“Let him stay,” Jokaste said, with a dismissive wave of her hand. “Leave us.”

“Milady-” The second guard protested, and Damen recognised him as one of the members of the delegation that went to Patras. His head was shaved, and he had a rough, shadowed jaw, but his eyes were those of an honest man. He was clearly hesitant to leave the heir to his throne within arm’s reach of two leonis, who could crush avian bones as easily as breathing.

“Leave us, Jord,” Laurent said, enunciating each word with deadly precision. Jord clenched his jaw, but did not disobey a direct order. He nodded to the guard beside him and they both left the tent without another word. Once the tent flaps had fallen shut, Laurent looked at Damen. “That was Jord and Orlant. Jord will be your personal guard while you are in the camp. His presence will hopefully prevent any overzealous Veretian from putting a knife in you.”

“That does not inspire confidence,” Nikandros said. “Can you not control your men?”

“The men I can control,” Laurent said, dismissively. “The sight of the man that killed Auguste might ruffle some feathers. Which is why you will also be allowed to accompany the Eos.”

“Laurent, will you make arrangements for us to travel south?” Jokaste asked. Laurent nodded with a slight bow. “I will send a message to uncle and tell him we will be delayed. Send Orlant and Aimeric in.”

A muscle ticked in Laurent’s jaw, and he nodded. Resting one hand comfortably on the hilt of his sword, he strode to the front of the tent and held it open for Damen and Nikandros to pass through. The sun was well over the horizon at this point in the day, and Damen could see the full stretch of the Veretian encampment.

Jord fell into step behind Nikandros, dislodging himself from his previous post. The cool, collected mask that all avians wore sat harshly on his face, and Damen sensed it was uncomfortable for him. Orlant, whom Damen now recognised as the second guard who had attended the meeting in Patras, slipped into the tent.

They followed Laurent, who moved with purpose through the encampment, until they came upon a makeshift sparring ring, where a crowd had gathered just outside of it. Damen heard the crack of a bone breaking over the jeers and shouting, and realised a fight had broken out.

Laurent cut through the crowd with ease, and Jord placed a hand to Damen's chest to prevent him from following. The men parted like a stream around a rock, and Damen saw a clear view of the giant man who had escorted him here grabbing a much smaller, younger soldier. The younger man’s face twisted in pain, and it was his arm that hung at an unnatural angle.

“Captain!” Laurent’s voice snapped through the air and all motion halted. Govart, the man who responded to being called ‘Captain’, dropped the younger man to the dirt in disgust.

“This one keeps starting fights,” Govart said. He nudged the man’s leg with a thick boot. Chin smeared with blood, the younger man glared defiantly up at him despite his broken arm.

“Jord, take Aimeric to Paschal,” Laurent said, without removing his eyes from Govart. Jord stepped forward and gently gathered the younger man, Aimeric, from the ground. Damen caught a flash of bright tawny feathers at the back of Aimeric’s neck as Jord guided him through the crowd. “Your duty is to prevent fights amongst the men. As Captain.”

“Can’t be everywhere,” Govart said. “No man can be everywhere.”

“I expect you to at least try, and, failing that, pretend.” Metal sang as Laurent drew his sword, and the circle of gawkers collectively drew back out of reach. Damen held his ground, but Nikandros stepped forward just enough to nudge his shoulder in front of Damen's. For one, insane moment, Damen thought he was about to watch the Prince of Vere execute a man in front of half of his army.

And then, the scene before him reached the peak of insanity.

Govart drew on Laurent.

Nikandros flinched, almost violently, his shoulder colliding with Damen's, at the brazen act of violence that should never happen. The soldiers’ duty was to protect the royal family, not harm them. Damen watched an incredible fight unfold, with Nikandros pressed against his side, body vibrating with tension.

Govart was larger, stronger, and built more like a leonis than an avian. He loomed over Laurent, and his sword was more akin to an elegant battering ram as it smashed against Laurent’s. And yet Laurent stood, weathering blow after blow until Govart ceased, panting and confused.

And then, Laurent lunged.

Govart was pushed back, almost to the edge of the retreating crowd, and Laurent scored a slash across the man’s arm. Blood seeped from the wound, and Govart stood in shock from the blow. Laurent did not give him a chance to recover. He thrust again, and Govart parried, earning a small cut along the back of Laurent’s hand. It did him no good, however, as Laurent turned and smashed the flat of his blade against Govart’s shoulder guard. Govart stumbled, his arm shaking from the blow, and Laurent plunged his sword through Govart’s shoulder, dragging him to the ground.

Laurent braced his foot against Govart’s arm to pull his sword free, and backed away from the fallen man. His face was white and sweat-streaked as he handed off his sword to a soldier for cleaning, but his voice rang over the men gathered. “Strip him of his armour and clip his flight feathers. If his will is strong enough, he will walk to the nearest town.”

Three men closest to Laurent scrambled to comply, and Damen watched in abject horror as Laurent returned to his side, as if the detour were nothing out of the ordinary. Laurent cast a look at him, and his lips tightened. “I am returning to my tent to clean up after that unfortunate display. You are welcome to wait in the reception area. I do not think it wise for you to wander alone.”

Without waiting for a reply, Laurent started walking, and Damen and Nikandros had no choice but to follow with Jord gone. Laurent led them to his tent, and disappeared into the sleeping section without so much as a word once they had slipped inside. Nikandros locked eyes with Damen and lifted his eyebrows.

The waiting area of the tent was simple. There were several small stools for sitting. A small table sat against one wall, with a map sat atop it and several wooden markers spread out across it. Damen and Nikandros made their way to the table, and Damen realised he was looking at a reflection of his own strategy table, from the other side of the war. And he was not looking at a historical battle plan. The positions of the troops were far into Akielon territory, much further than the Veretians had pushed in recent years. Damen met Nikandros’ eyes.

“They were planning a surge,” Nikandros said, his voice low. “Look at how deep they are in our land. What if this is a trap?”

“If this were a trap we would already be dead,” Damen said, his voice just as hushed. He didn’t believe avians were gifted with advanced hearing as they were, but he could not be certain.

The flap of the tent snapped back, and Damen jerked away from the map table, in case he wasn’t supposed to be seeing it. Jokaste stormed into the tent, followed closely by Jord, and they both disappeared through the same section Laurent had vanished behind. Before Damen could even look at Nikandros, Laurent threw back the separator and entered the main area of the tent. Jokaste and Jord were on his heels.

Damen stepped back, out of the way, as Laurent made his way to a table covered in miscellaneous debris and grabbed a roll of wrappings. Jokaste hovered near the sleeping quarter, her arms across her chest and her face a careful blank mask of indifference. Jord, however, looked concerned and uncomfortable. Damen could feel the tension in the room scrape over his skin.

“Jord, you are the new Captain.” Laurent wrapped his hand as he talked, leaning against the table. “Tell the men to begin packing. We are taking a squadron of ten across the border. Are those acceptable numbers?”

Damen started when he realised Laurent was talking to him. He blinked. “That is fine.”

“Good. Tell the rest of the men to return home. They are to camp outside Aquitart until we return or send word.” Laurent taped the wrapping in place and turned, still resting his hip against the desk. Pink dusted the top of his cheeks, and disappeared down his throat under his collar. Damen frowned, and tuned his hearing to the rapid flutter of Laurent’s heart. It was irregular and too quick, even for an avian physiology. And his breathing dragged in his lungs.

“You destroyed the captain of your army in front of his men for something out of his control,” Damen said, unable to hold back his curiosity. “Is that a common means of discipline in the Veretian army?”

Jord opened his mouth, but Laurent cut him off briskly. “Out of his control? I wonder. Allow me a counter question. Is it common in Akielon culture to poke their cold, wet noses into matters that do not concern them?”

Nikandros bristled, but Damen had to concede. He lifted a placating hand towards his guard, and quieted. If he were disciplining his men, he would not want anyone to question him, much less the enemy prince. And yet- “Are you all right?”

Laurent stiffened, exhaling harshly. “Excuse me?”

“You-” Damen hesitated. He gestured to his own face. “Your cheeks are flushed, and your heartbeat is uneven, as if feverish.”

Laurent blinked slowly at him, and then cast his eyes to Nikandros. And then back to Damen. “You can hear my heartbeat?”

“Cats have very good ears,” Damen said, not without a hint of condescension. “And your bodies are very loud.”

“Laurent will be resting for the remainder of the day,” Jokaste said, before they could go any further. Damen felt a small thrill that he was not incorrect. Something had happened. “I am about to begin an inspection of the troops. Do you wish to accompany me?”

“I will accompany you,” Damen said. Jokaste nodded once, as if he had made the correct choice, and strode to the front of the tent.

“Jord, remain with Laurent. I will take Orlant as an escort,” Jokaste said.

“Yes, milady.” Jord bowed smartly.

Damen and Nikandros followed Jokaste into the sun, and saw Orlant was stationed just outside Laurent’s tent, waiting. He fell into step just behind Jokaste as she passed him, and Nikandros settled into his normal guard at Damen's left and just behind him. Damen fell into step beside Jokaste. She was the one who broke the oppressive silence.

“I am sorry you had to witness that,” Jokaste said. Her golden blonde hair fell over her shoulders and caught the sun as they walked. Damen remembered how it felt between his fingers. “We must seem harsh and unfeeling. I’m told that cats grow up surrounded by their people and roam in packs.”

“It is true that we are rarely alone since the time we are born,” Damen said. “Is that very different here?”

“Considerably. What you would consider a casual touch would be a gross breach of personal space, should it take place before an avian,” Jokaste said. “Holding hands might as well be a trip to a brothel if done in front of the court.”

“That sounds very lonely,” Damen said, unable to comprehend it. Growing up without the touch of his pridemates- It was unfathomable. They meant as much to him as his own body, they were an extension of who he was and how he was shaped.

“I assure you, I did not go without. It is quite normal in avian society.” Jokaste waved graciously at a passing soldier, who dipped into a quick bow until they passed. “I cannot say I am not curious, however. You realise you will need to restrain yourself when appearing before my countrymen.”

“I will try my best,” Damen said. He was still reeling, trying to reconcile the woman before him with the one who had come apart in his arms just hours ago. It was as if they hadn’t shared her bed. She was as cold as the day they met.

They approached a tent which bore the universal symbol of healing, and Jokaste stepped out of the sun into the cool shade beneath it. An older gentleman sat beside a cot, taking notes on a small pad of parchment. The beaten young man from Govart’s encounter lay on the cot, his arm wrapped and set firmly. His split lip was already healed, and the blood wiped away. His eyes went wide when he saw Jokaste, and he started to sit up. The man at his side pushed him back down with a light touch to his chest.

“Good day, milday,” the man said. He stood and bowed slightly.

“How is our patient, Paschal?” Jokaste asked. Ah. So this was the healer.

“It was a clean break. I set it, and he should be ready to ride tomorrow, if you intend for him to accompany you,” Paschal said. The man’s voice was a deep timbre, soothing and calm.

“I’m sorry. I will accept whatever punishment you decide for me, milady. It won’t happen again, I swear-” Aimeric did his best to raise up from the cot again, and Paschal gently urged him down once more.

“I only wish you to refrain from getting into fights with the other soldiers,” Jokaste said, stepping forward. She crouched beside the cot so that she could see Aimeric at eye level. “If I find you’ve been in another childish brawl I will have you sent home. Is that clear?”

“Yes, milady,” Aimeric said.

“Good. Now rest. We will have a long day ahead of us tomorrow,” Jokaste said. She straightened, nodded at Paschal, and then left the tent for the bright sunlight outside. It appeared that avians healed at a similar rate as the leonis. Because of the magic in their blood, Damen's people healed at a quicker rate than the humans that lived in the far corner of the world.

“Tell me of your festival,” Jokaste said as she walked. Damen lifted his shoulders.

“It is a festival, just as any other. We drink, dance, and enjoy each other’s company. For one week, the war doesn’t exist, and the only thing on anyone’s mind is which food stand to eat at first,” Damen said. “It is a relief, the heralding of summer. Standing on the beach on a summer night is almost akin to walking in a dream world. Trouble and strife fades away. There is only the press of the ocean air and sand beneath you.”

“It sounds very much like flying,” Jokaste said. She tossed her hair over one shoulder and lifted her eyes to the sky. “Nothing compares to the release of letting the ground fall away from you. Reading the air as it courses through your feathers- There’s nothing quite like it.”

Her cheeks had taken on a pinkish blush, and Damen glanced upwards. “I think I will keep my feet on the ground.”

The grin that spread over her face was wicked and sly. “I think you can be convinced.”

Damen glanced up again. The blue sky spiralled above him, pale and lackluster compared to the deep blue skies of Ios. He shook his head. “No. I’m a creature of the land. You will not find me in the clouds.”

Jokaste laughed, a light, delicate thing, and turned down another row of tents. The soldiers stood and saluted her as they passed. Damen was now met with confusion, rather than blatant mistrust. Word had spread, by now, of his presence in the camp. The immediate hostility was simmering just beneath the surface, and now the men merely wondered at his purpose. Jokaste seemed content to let them ponder and spread whatever rumour they could come up with, so Damen said nothing except respond to the gentle small talk Jokaste provided.

By the time they were back at the tent, they had made a tour of the entire encampment. Jokaste gestured to Laurent’s tent. “You will need to stay with Laurent, now that everyone is aware that you are here and free to move around. A servant will be by with lunch. If you have need of me, Jord will know where to find me.”

Damen slipped inside the tent, Nikandros close behind him. A platter had already been set out with small snacks, and a pitcher of water sat on the table beside it. Nikandros poured himself and Damen a cup of water, and for a time they were simply quiet in each other’s presence. Jord stood at the entrance to the tent, looking stoic and displeased.

A choked gasp caught his ear, and Damen looked sharply towards the direction it had issued. Hidden behind the tent separator, the sound came from Laurent’s bed. A glance at Nikandros told him his guard had heard it as well. Damen looked to Jord. “Your prince is troubled.”

“My prince can manage his own affairs,” Jord said. Damen was inclined to agree, but a second sound, like the ragged inhale before a scream, had him moving instinctively. “You cannot go in there! Stop!”

Damen thrust past the separator and into the adjoining room to find Laurent splayed across his bedroll and twisted in the sheets. Behind him, Nikandros planted himself bodily between Damen and Jord, while Damen crossed the distance to the bedroll in three quick strides.

The young man’s face was pinched and strained, fighting whatever visions his mind created for him. Damen crouched by him and grasped Laurent’s shoulder. Laurent went stiff under his touch, and he sucked in a great gasp of air as his eyes came open. For a moment, fever bright eyes cast about, trying to recognise his surroundings, and then he set eyes on Damen.

He jerked away as Damen let go, and Damen saw his hand grasping for something under a pillow. As he sat up, Damen saw the pommel of a knife slip into view, clenched in Laurent’s hand. The loose sleeping shirt he wore slipped from one shoulder, and Damen forced himself to take a step back.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

“You do not have permission to be here,” Laurent said. The flush had not faded from his cheeks and throat, and Damen wondered if he had fallen ill. Without looking away from Damen, he said, “Get him out of here.”

Jord strode forward and grasped Damen roughly by the arm, hauling him back away from the bed and out of the sleeping chamber. Nikandros said nothing about the rough handling, and stood, quiet, at Damen's back when Jord released him.

“Is he ill?” Damen asked. “Why won’t your healer look at him?”

“If he is ill, he will see a healer,” Jord said. He looked a bit pale himself, as he planted himself in front of Laurent’s bed chamber.

“Do you not care for him? Is it not your duty to assist him?” Nikandros spoke directly to Jord in uneven Veretian, his voice strained.

“If he needs me, he will summon me,” Jord said. He did not seem pleased about the notion, and fixed his eyes on a point in the wall over Damen's shoulder.

“I would summon a healer,” Nikandros said, leaning in to Damen's space. “If you were in such a state.”

“I know,” Damen said, quietly. But the Veretians were different. They had different culture and upbringings. Jord’s response could very well be normal for these people. Damen took care with the grip on his water cup as he lifted it to his lips. The pounded metal bent under his fingers.

Day passed slowly into night, and Damen and Nikandros spent the night in cots in Laurent’s tent. The next morning, Laurent rose before the dawn broke, and was sitting at his map table eating breakfast when Damen rolled in his cot to awareness.

Blinking, he sat up and scraped his hands over his face. It had gotten quite cold in the night, much colder than Damen was used to, and he shivered as he stood, naked, and snatched his clothes from the small table near his cot. Laurent’s heart rate quickened at his back, and Damen heard a sharp intake of breath. He wrapped his chiton around him and pinned it in place. When he turned to face Laurent, he found blue eyes quickly averted, dropped to the map on the table.

“There is a stream just outside of camp, if you need to freshen up,” Laurent said. When he looked up at Damen, the cool mask was back in place, and Damen couldn’t help but feel a little cheated. “Take Jord with you. Your man may also accompany you.”

“Thank you.” Damen nudged Nikandros into waking, and they followed Jord to the stream to wash.

The soldiers were taking down the camp as they returned, and Jord guided them to the edge of the encampment, where Jokaste and Laurent waited with a small contingent of avian soldiers. None wore armour. They were dressed in riding leathers; loose blouses and sturdy trousers. The horses that stood beside them carried sheathed swords, but their packs were for travel, not battle. Damen stared.

Jokaste held the reins to two horses, one in each hand. She lifted a perfect blonde eyebrow at him. “Will you run, or do you prefer to ride?”

Damen did not grace her with a response. He took the reins from her outstretched hand, and rubbed the horse’s nose in greeting.

“Your man can ride ahead and inform the Nest of our arrival,” Jokaste said. Nikandros was handed the reins to a horse of his own, packed with supplies.

“I am not leaving him to experience a tragic accident on the road,” Nikandros said. Laurent, behind him, swung up on his own horse, effortlessly graceful.

“I will be fine, Nikandros,” Damen said. He met Jokaste’s cool gaze. “She gave her word.”

“What little value it has,” Nikandros said. He practically vibrated with tension beside Damen.

“If someone does not go ahead, it will go poorly for the peace,” Damen said. “Someone must inform the guard to prevent them from attacking us upon entrance. And I trust no one else to settle the kyroi enough to allow the presentation of my- my partner. Nikandros, you must go.”

“Let it be established that I express disagreement over this course of action,” Nikandros said. His jaw clenched.

“It is noted,” Damen said. “Go with grace.”

“And you,” Nikandros said. He bowed, and then mounted the horse offered him. It was a good horse, strong and sturdy, and she took off at a decent clip.

“He will have to be quick to beat us there,” Jokaste said in a flat voice.

“He will be,” Damen said.

They set off on the road, with Laurent at the head of their procession. Damen and Jokaste rode just behind, surrounded on all sides by her guard. More than once, Damen caught her staring at his bare thighs. Finally, he said, “Do I offend, milady?”

“Most certainly not,” Jokaste said, though she tore her gaze away and fixed it at the back of her brother’s head. “I was simply wondering how you can be comfortable.”

“Practice,” Damen said, oddly endeared by this cool curiosity. “And our saddles are made of different material.”

She hummed thoughtfully, and the glances out of the corner of her eyes continued throughout the ride. That night, after the tents had been pitched and Damen had bedded down for the night, a soft rustle drew his attention. He propped himself up on his elbows, glancing around the confined space of his meagre tent. The bottom corner of the tent flap stirred, and a small shadow flitted in.

As he stared, the shadow of a bird shifted, lengthened and enlarged, and Jokaste crawled over his legs to greet him with a sound kiss. He did not question, simply fell back against his bedroll and let his hand roam up her back, beneath her shirt.

And so it went for over five days. During daylight, Jokaste was a cool statue of leadership, her head held high as she rode beside her men and brother. She barely spoke to him, deigning only to rehash the plan for their arrival in Ios. Once night fell, however, and the camp settled into their nightly rotation, she crept into his tent under cover of darkness and they fucked, silently. There was no other word for it. Jokaste did not linger in his arms for fear of discovery, and returned to her own tent well before dawn broke. While Damen relished their joinings, his only physical contact with any of the party, he wished for the quiet, sweet moments after climax, when he could wrap his arms around his partner and just be with them. Jokaste wanted nothing of that.

Once they had crossed the border, the men around him grew tense and quiet, watching the forest for motion. Nikandros appeared to have completed his duty, however. No patrols stopped them along the ride. Damen saw none of his army at all.

They stopped for a small meal along the side of the road, and then struck out again. By nightfall, the gates of Ios rose along the horizon. Damen felt the tension in his chest ease. Being home was a relief, even if he was bringing a flock of birds into it.

They were met at the side of the road by Pallas, his brown skin glowing in the light of the setting sun. Damen dismounted and said, “Did Nikandros make it through?”

“He sent me. He recommends the servant’s passages to avoid detection. But we won’t be able to take all of you,” Pallas said, looking over the party. His eyes lingered on one of the Veretian men, Lazar. “Four, at the most. The rest will have to stay here. I will send loyal guards to protect you from excitable soldiers.”

Jokaste and Laurent shared one of their conversational glances, and then Jokaste nodded. She swung down off her horse, and Laurent dropped to the ground beside her. She flicked her hand at Jord. “Jord, with me. Lazar, make camp. Keep quiet and out of sight. Anyone who engages with the Akielon soldiers while we are in their territory will be severely punished.”

“You need not worry about your bags,” Pallas said. “You will be made comfortable in the Den.”

“I do not like this,” Jord said. Damen could see the feathers at the back of his neck almost standing up. “Anything could go wrong. There is no plan, nothing.”

“Eos Damen walked into the centre of our army with the trust that we would not harm him,” Jokaste said, turning to pin Jord with a searing blue glare. “Is he worthy of less?”

Jord wisely did not answer, and instead set his jaw and dragged a dark cloak over his shoulders. Pallas pursed his lips. He nodded at the twins. “Their hair will stand out.”

Laurent reached into his saddlebag and drew out an Akielon style cloak, which he settled across his shoulders. He flipped the hood over his head, covering his golden hair. Jokaste drew a similar cloak from her pack. Damen felt a tendril of discomfort as he wondered where they had gotten the garments. Pallas nodded, accepting.

“Is this acceptable?” Jokaste asked. The hood shaded her face, and in the growing dark cast her skin in shadow.

“It will suffice,” Damen said. “Though we rarely wear our cloaks as head coverings.”

“Then we had best take care that nobody sees us,” Jokaste said, infuriatingly rational.

They began their clandestine foray into the city. Akielon architecture, Damen quickly realised, was not designed for secrecy in any shape or form. The sides of the buildings were white, gleaming in the firelight of torches that were lit all over the city. The house designs were open and sprawling, with fewer walls and more shimmering curtains, especially with the weather turning warm. The curtains blew in the ocean breeze, turning a hiding space into the centre of attention in the span of seconds. And, at one point, Jokaste caught sight of the moon rising over the ocean. She had to be nudged onward, reluctantly.

When Damen finally hoisted himself over the edge of his balcony, he breathed a sigh of relief. He leaned back over, both hands outstretched, as Jord grasped Jokaste’s hips and hefted her up. Damen grasped her arms and lifted her over the balcony rail and into his rooms. Next, Laurent heaved himself over the rail, without Damen's help, and Jord received a leg up from Pallas.

Standing in his room, with Jokaste before him, her skin warmed by soft candlelight, Damen felt dread clench in his gut. This was real. It would happen. He would wed this woman, not for love but for the sake of his people, and he would be forever bound to her.

He was going to be ill.

He strode to a table pressed against a wall and leaned against it, gripping the edge of the table hard. Wood cracked under his fingers, and he felt the pinch of splinters dig into his skin.

“Damen?”

Nikandros breezed into the room, his ornamental cloak flowing behind him. Damen forced himself upright to face the head of his guard. “I’ve stalled the kyroi. They are demanding to know where you’ve been, and the meaning of your letter.”

“It’s too soon,” Damen said, with a glance backwards at Jokaste and Laurent, who were wandering around his chambers, running their delicate bird-fingers all over his belongings. And he thought cats were curious. “Nobody can know about them yet. Laurent, do not touch that.”

Laurent ignored him, and lifted one of the royal seals from it’s cradle on his desk. He turned it over in his hands, smoothing his fingers over the engravings. Damen sighed and looked to Nikandros, pleading. His friend took pity on him.

“I will send the Senate home for the night. The festival starts tomorrow. Hopefully that will distract everyone enough until you present yourself to the people in the evening.” Nikandros clasped his hands behind his back. “Do you intend to stay here all day? People will notice.”

“I cannot leave them alone all day in Den,” Damen said. Not only was it rude, but who knew what sort of trouble they would get into if left to their own devices. Damen had a horrifying vision of the palace library aflame, with Laurent holding the torch and Jokaste at his back. “No. Absolutely not.”

“You look a bit pale,” Nikandros said, his brows pinched in concern. “Are you all right?”

“I am ill,” Damen said, a touch of horrified awe in his voice. He stared at Nikandros, willing him to understand. “I am ill, and I cannot attend the morning festivals. I will make my speech to my people for the evening gathering.”

“Okay,” Nikandros said, slowly. “I will inform the Senate and tell the kitchens to keep your meals light.”

“Thank you.” Damen clasped Nikandros’ forearm in gratitude. With a curt nod, Nikandros made his leave. Pallas stood awkwardly beside Jord on the balcony, not daring to enter the Eos’ chambers uninvited. “Pallas, go to the kitchens and bring up food. Discretely.”

“Yes, sir.”

And then Damen was alone with three Veretians. In his personal chambers. “You may make arrangements to sleep in my room, tonight,” Damen offered.

Jord cast a horrified look to Jokaste. “I cannot- in the same room as My Lady-”

“You can sleep out here, if you wish,” Damen said, quickly. He had forgotten. Men and women did not lie together even in the innocence of sleep. “And I will… on the balcony…”

Jokaste pressed her lips together, displeased. “I will not put you out of your own rooms.”

“It is the only way to ensure you will not be disturbed,” Damen said.

“And what if your servants come in the morning to prepare for the day?” Jokaste asked. “Will they not think it strange you found your bed wanting?”

She had tipped her hood back to look at him. Gesturing to the bedroom, she said, “You have a day couch. Sleep on that. I will sleep on the bed.”

“And your men?”

“They can have the floor.” With that parting shot, Jokaste walked into the bedroom. Jord, if possible, looked even more horrified at the thought that Laurent would be sleeping on the floor. Jokaste’s voice floated out of the room. “Oh, there is also a chair in here that looks quite comfortable.”

Pallas thankfully interrupted the discussion by arriving with a bag of smuggled food. Jokaste stood around the meal, confident that her decision would be obeyed.

And that was how Damen found himself staring at Jokaste, wrapped in his sheets as she closed her eyes and blatantly ignored him in favour of sleep. He was acutely aware of Laurent’s gaze drilling holes in his back. Damen didn’t bother turning to face him. “You can have the couch, if you like.”

“The chair is fine.” As if to prove it, Laurent sat down in the chair with his arms folded over his chest. He kept glaring at Damen, as if it were his fault that Jokaste insisted on sleeping in his bed. Jord moved past them, curling on the floor with his back to Jokaste on a pile of blankets that Damen had brought in for him. Damen went to sleep that night feeling the pressure of Laurent’s gaze between his shoulder blades.

He woke to the same sensation, and when he blinked sleep out of his eyes he shifted to see Laurent awake, cool as ever, still staring at him. Damen wondered if he had slept.

Chapter Text

The day simultaneously dragged and flew. Damen felt trapped in his room, overwhelmed with thoughts of what he could say to his people that would make them accept the arrangement. Every scenario he played in his mind ended in utter disaster.

Pallas spirited Jokaste away when it came time for the ceremonial dinner. Damen was to speak before the Senate and whatever audience had gathered for the dinner that would officially open the week long festival. Nearly every leonis in the city would be around the dais that night. Damen wondered if death would be preferable to facing his people and drawing Jokaste from the wings to stand beside him.

A huge fire roared in the centre of the dining hall, where the kyroi of the Senate sat around it, already partaking in some snacks while they waited for him. The scent of roasted meat and spices hung in the air, overlaid with the scent of the ocean. Even the warm, familiar scents of home could not ease him, though. He stood at his place in the centre of the table, and felt like the floor was dropping out from under him. He wondered briefly, hysterically, if he were about to pass out.

A small commotion in the wings rippled outwards and grew, and Damen turned to see Jokaste hadn’t waited for him to begin speaking. She strode across the room, Pallas trailing mindfully behind her, and came to a stop perilously close to Damen's person. So close, in fact, that she could grasp his ring finger beneath the table and twist, shifting his balance enough that she could reach up on her toes and kiss him lightly on the mouth.

When she drew back, she was smiling, and in his state of shock, Damen almost did not hear her next words, spoken with calculated softness. “Hello, lover.”

Around them, the hall was in chaos. Pallas stood solidly between Jokaste and the kyroi to her back, and Damen found himself jostled by the kyroi behind him. He shifted so that his bulk was between him and Jokaste. She used her grip on his finger to drag his arm around her waist, and he finally took the hint and tugged her in close.

“Are you going to address your people?” Jokaste asked, the smile still painted in place. Her voice was low, meant to be between them.

Damen blinked, and nodded. Holding her before his people felt different. He could almost feel how brittle her bones were under his massive hands.

He cleared his throat. “Please! Listen. I can explain.”

The chamber fell quiet, despite half the kyroi being on their feet at their places. They stared at him, surprise and disgust clear on every face turned towards him. He fought the instinct to clutch Jokaste closer for support. She would not be able to help him. Nor would she care to.

“A few days ago, I left word that I was working on a plan to end the fighting between our races,” Damen said, his voice rolling through the hall. “Today, I bring you the fruits of that labour. I present to you Jokaste Rioux, soon to be La Reine Soleil of the Veretian peoples.”

“What is she doing here?” Makedon, one of Nikandros’ people, shouted from where he sat. He waved his goblet in the air. “You bring a bird to the sanctum of our nation!”

“She is here because we are embarking on an era of peace between our peoples,” Damen said.

“Are they surrendering?” Makedon asked.

“No,” Damen said, dread starting to rise in his throat.

“Are you surrendering!?” Came the horrified shout next.

“We are to be wed,” Jokaste said, resting her head on Damen's chest. She couldn’t quite reach his shoulder. “I love this man very much.”

“Yes,” Damen heard himself say. “We are to be married.”

He couldn’t have created more chaos if he had suddenly dropped dead across the dining table. The room exploded into shouting, every single man and woman jostling to be heard over the cacophony. Damen was in too much shock to do anything but stare. Jokaste snapped a sharp glance at Nikandros.

“Silence!” Nikandros roared into the chamber. The kyroi fell quiet. The only sound remaining in the hall was the crackling of the fire and the thunderous pounding of Damen's heart. “Agathe. Speak your peace.”

A dark woman stood, her braids spilling over her shoulders. “I don’t understand. If you are to be wed, why is this the first we are hearing of it? Why have you not mentioned it before?”

“I couldn’t,” Damen said, truthfully. He did not want to lie to his people. “Look at how everyone reacted.”

Agathe straightened. “I’m sure we could have- have dealt with the news better if we knew-”

“How long has this been going on?” Demosthenes shouted from somewhere in the corner of the room.

“Does it matter?” Jokaste cut in smoothly. Her hair spilled over Damen's bare shoulder, and the way she molded herself to Damen's body gave an impressive illusion of familiarity.

“Of course it matters! Your kind possesses magic-” Demosthenes jerked his finger in her direction.

Jokaste levelled a cool glare are the loud man. “Sir, you turn into a massive cat at will. And you accuse us of magic as if it is something tainted?”

A few leonis giggled at her riposte, and Jokaste leaned heavier against Damen.

“T-That’s different!” Demosthenes stammered over his words, and was yanked down by his boyfriend to prevent further embarrassment.

“I am of sound mind,” Damen said. “The sort of magic you are talking about is a myth. The avians possess the ability to shift, just as we do, but nothing more. I will not tolerate further disparaging questions. If you have an honest question, please come forward. If not, keep your silence and your seat.”

“Is the war over?” A younger girl stood on her chair to address Damen. “There will be no more killing?”

“Yes, Helena. The war is over,” Damen said. “Our nations will be joined as one, and we will lose no more countrymen to war and violence.”

Damen fielded a few more questions, and then sat, letting Jokaste perch on the seat just beside him. They began eating, and his countrymen wandered freely towards the table to speak with him, as they had always done in the past. An Eos was not an aloof, untouchable leader. He was one of his people, and he worked with them, played with them, and dined with them. To his surprise, several women spoke to Jokaste directly, and she managed to coax smiles and laughter out of all of them.

The crowd around them thinned, and Damen watched performers stride out from the wings of the hall towards the centre of the room, just in front of the fire pit. At his side, Jokaste perked up, her clear blue eyes fixing on the small group of dancers. They were preparing for a cultural dance of his people, which depicted the origins of Akielos and the birth of the leonis.

Thirteen dancers represented the thirteen Dasi, the group of priests and priestesses who worshipped the complementing forces of Ahnmik and Anhamirak. They made obeisance and then took their place in a circle around the fire, a theatrical representation of what they knew about the original shifters. A sound plucked across the gentle strings of [instrument], and the dancers raised their hands in the air. Jokaste’s eyes were pinned to the dancer who represented Kiesha, the Egyptian priestess from whom both their peoples descended.

The torches around them were put out to give the stage over to the dancers. Jokaste sank closer to him, her arm resting on his thigh as the dance began. Maeve, favoured of the gods and goddesses for her beauty and faith, quickly distinguished herself through the dance, rising above her peers as a dancer representing the creature Leben slunk out of the shadows and circled the Dasi. Maeve, dark and sinuous, was the only one who noticed him.

The other Dasi fell away as Leben and Maeve began to dance together, a heated back and forth of entwined bodies. Damen snuck a glance at Jokaste, and found her eyes wide at the sensuous display taking place before her. A light blush graced her cheeks, and her hand poised halfway to her mouth, with a forgotten bite of bread between two dainty fingers.

Damen leaned back in his chair and lightly touched her forearm, which still rested on his leg. She couldn’t be bothered by him, though, and kept her gaze on the dancers as they reenacted Maeve’s seduction of Leben. The costumes on the dancers left nothing to the imagination, and Jokaste was probably seeing more skin than she ever had in her life.

Turning his attention back to the dance, he watched Maeve tease a gift from the dark god Leben. The gift of the shift. Maeve transformed, into a gorgeous black panther who prowled the stage, growling at those seated around the fire. The children laughed in delight and clapped as Maeve neared them, her fur blue-black in the flickering firelight. Rounding on Leben, she drew herself up and into his arms.

The other Dasi returned to the stage, and Leben gave the followers of Anhanmirak, goddess of fire and passion and light, the ability to shift into the forms of great cats. One by one, they shifted into their leonis forms, and they lay on the cool tile in their furred bodies. To the followers of Ahnmik, god of stillness, ice, and death, Leben granted them the forms of falcons. Feathered capes appeared over the shoulders of the dancers, and they lifted their arms as if in flight.

“Is that Cjarsa?” Jokaste leaned close and whispered in Damen's ear. She nodded at one of the fairer dancers, meant to represent the falconess’ white-blonde hair and white skin.

“Yes,” Damen said. Jokaste was so close to him now that she pressed into him. Their faces were very near. Anyone looking would assume they were about to kiss.

“You are brave. She is not as lenient with our kind,” Jokaste said. “If we were to envision her as such, she would have her warriors upon us faster than any of your cheetahs.”

“We have never had issue with the falcons before,” Damen said. “Though we are aware they supply your cache of am’haj.”

“Obviously. They are the only ones who can produce it, and that poison is the only reason we have been able to survive this long against your people,” Jokaste said, still intimately close to Damen despite the violence of their topic. Damen fought the urge to pull away. They now had an appearance to keep up. “You can break us in half with your bare hands. How else are we meant to fight?”

By now, in the dance, Kiesha and Maeve were revolving around each other, two orbiting bodies drawing closer and closer. Behind them, the other leonis drove the falcons from the stage, and then returned to circle Kiesha and Maeve with intent. The song of the dance turned, and Maeve was the next one chased from the stage, her willowly costume turning black and dark as she was accused of dark magic. As Maeve vanished into the shadows, Jokaste let out a soft sound of dismay that Damen felt in his chest.

Kiesha danced in a solo movement around the fire, and as she emerged from the far side, drew a young man with her, wearing the golden costume of a lion. Here was Helios, the first in the royal leonis line. Helios danced alongside his mother, and the other dancers returned to the stage in their demi forms, upright on two legs but arms, paws, and ears like a cat, and their tails swirling behind them as they moved.

The dance ended to thunderous applause, and everyone got to their feet, Jokaste included. She leaned into Damen and clapped with a bright smile on her face. She appeared honestly pleased, as they sat to resume dining, the festivities of the night winding down after the performance.

“Do they train long, to be able to dance like that?” Jokaste asked, finally eating that bit of bread.

“Yes, since they were young. The dancers are taken into training at a very young age, and they grow up with their troupe. The dancers are as revered as the athletes. They are another form of display of the beauty of our human and animal forms.” Damen returned to his own meal.

“They do not wear much, do they?” Jokaste commented. She picked at the bread on her plate, and Damen noticed that she had not tried any of the meat. “Do they not get cold?”

“Our climes are much more forgiving than yours,” Damen said. “Is the meat not to your taste, my lady?”

Jokaste blinked at her plate. “No, we- We do not eat meat, often.”

“Often?”

“Ever.” Jokaste corrected. “My great grandmother disliked the taste to much she banned it from the kitchens. The quirk passed through following generations.”

“So it is not a cultural taboo? Or a religious transgression?” Damen asked.

“No. A simple preference, is all.”

“Can I entice you to try a piece?” Damen said. He selected a small piece of grilled beef from her plate and offered it, halfway between them. He let himself smile, well aware that several of the kyroi were turning his way. “I promise it is not bird.”

“You would not enjoy the consequences if it were,” Jokaste said. She exhaled sharply, and with a slight eye roll, leaned forward and plucked the meat from between Damen's fingers with her lips. She quickly retreated back into her own space, chewing thoughtfully. When she swallowed, she said, “It is not bad. Different. I could maybe learn to enjoy it.”

“Maybe I will make it a mission to sway you,” Damen said.

Jokaste hummed. “I wish you luck in that endeavour.”

They finished eating and made their farewells to those gathered. Damen dropped his hand from the small of Jokaste’s back as soon as they were out of sight of the hall. She instantly put a few extra steps between them, and he found himself missing the cool press of her body.

He shook the stray thoughts from his mind, and forcefully reminded himself that this was to be the rest of his life. Alone, trailing a few steps behind his queen, his Selene, as she waltzed through life controlling both of their peoples. The warm feeling from the dinner faded in the darkness of the Den’s halls as they walked.

Back in his rooms, he was relieved to see that Laurent and Jord had not dismantled everything he held precious. They were seated quite calmly at his tables, actually, and were perusing some of the scrolls he kept in his rooms. Jokaste walked straight through his apartments without a word to her men, and disappeared into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her.

Laurent glanced up and lifted one golden eyebrow at Damen in question. Damen found he didn’t have the energy or motivation to respond, and just walked through the room and then out onto his balcony. He stood against the railing and stared at the water rolling against the sand. Behind him, Laurent and Jord joined Jokaste in the bedroom, settling in for the evening. Damen lost sense of time as he let himself be entranced by the play of moonlight over the water.

His restless night was spent on the balcony, and when the sun crested over the horizon, his servants entered to set out breakfast. When they had finished, he sent them away with his thanks, and sat down to wait for the Veretians to awaken.

He wasn’t waiting long. They emerged from his room shortly after the servants had left, and arranged themselves around the table to eat. Damen picked at his food, his appetite lessened by his sleepless night. Jokaste flicked her eyes at him, and pursed her lips. “What happens today?”

“Sorry?” Damen glanced at her, confused.

Jokaste lifted her eyebrows, and gestured to the open balcony. “What happens in your festival today? Will there be more dancing? More… meats?”

Her expression was open, and earnest, and for a moment Damen stared, bewildered that she was speaking to him directly. He gathered his scattered words around him. “There- The games are today and tomorrow.”

“Lovely. And we will be watching them, yes?” Jokaste continued. Damen continued to stare. “Damianos?”

“We can watch them,” Damen said, hesitant. “I will prepare to have a dais set up for your comfort.”

“And you,” Jokaste said. Her hands paused over her plate, as if waiting for his answer before continuing. “You will also be joining us.”

“And I,” Damen said, unable to keep the weariness from his voice. Whatever she wished, he would have to acquiesce, and pretend to be pleased about it. Jokaste frowned at him, but said nothing for the remainder of the meal.

Damen arranged to have servants set up a covered tent to oversee the games. He walked out across the fields with Jokaste on his arm. She had chosen a lighter dress today, in deference to the heat, but it was still a dark colour and covered her skin in most places. Laurent was again wrapped up from head to toe, not even deigning to forgo his jacket in the heat. Jord wore a more practical uniform for a soldier and guard. He and Laurent took their places behind Jokaste as Damen guided her to a chair resting beneath the tent.

The early games were already in motion- shotput, racing, the javelin. Damen leaned back in his chair and resigned himself to a day of boredom interspersed with the sharp longing to join in the games. He couldn’t imagine it would be appropriate in Jokaste’s eyes to partake in the games considering their… dress code.

On the field before them, Pallas and Lydos were stripped to their skin and rolling around in the grass, fighting to get a grip that would provide a win. Pallas, with a slick twist of his body, gained the upper hand and pressed Lydos hard to the ground until the match was called. Victorious, Pallas stood with his arms in the air, proclaiming his victory. The spectators around them applauded his win, and Pallas hopped over the rope barrier to approach the dais.

Oh no.

Pallas dropped to his knee with a sly grin, his shoulders heaving from the energy spent in his last match. “I request my winner’s rights. Combat with the Eos.”

“You’ve won three of the games already?” Damen asked, unable to keep the interest from his voice. He leaned forward in his chair. “Which ones?”

“This, the short sword, and spear, Eos.” Pallas’ grin was infectious. Damen found himself returning it.

“And what is your request?”

“I would be honoured to challenge you, Eos,” Pallas said. Those who heard his request cheered in support, and begged Damen to grant it. And then, to his surprise, Pallas glanced at Jokaste. Damen followed his gaze, and Jokaste looked him up and down, appraisingly.

“Are you going to accept?” She asked.

Damen blinked in surprise. He looked between Pallas and Jokaste, and then tilted his head. “Is it all right?”

“It is your culture, no?” Jokaste asked. She waved towards the fields. “To award victory with prizes? I believe the man is waiting, Eos.”

It was as much permission as she was going to give, and Damen stood from his chair. He unpinned his chiton and draped it over the back of it before stepped into the bright, Akielon sunlight. The grass was cool under his feet, and as he stepped over the rope line, the audience erupted in cheers. Damen grinned as he stretched, feeling the sun warm his skin and his worries slip away. Nothing soothed him like the sheer physicality of the games.

Pallas was warming up on his side of the ring, and Damen allowed himself to be rubbed down with the wrestling oils. They set up in the centre of the ring, and then began.

It was a good match, Pallas was smaller, but slicker, and Damen found himself grinning as he fought for a purchase. The lad was extremely flexible. A hold that would have pinned Nikandros was immediately squirmed out of, and Pallas rebounded to his feet quicker than most of Damen's opponents.

It took a few moments, but Damen managed to drag Pallas to the ground and pin him there long enough for the match to end. They got to their feet, laughing, and Damen clapped Pallas on the shoulder. “You fight well. You make me proud.”

Pallas glowed with the praise, and Damen couldn’t stop smiling. He made his way back to the tent where the Veretians sat, and scooped up his clothing and fixed it back in place. He sat down, muscles burning with the pleasant ache of exertion, and glanced at Jokaste, unsure of what he would see in her face.

She stared at him, eyes wide and lips parted slightly. A faint red blush tinged her cheeks, and behind her, Laurent’s eyes were just as wide. Damen couldn’t help himself. “Did you enjoy the match?”

“I see you are everywhere in proportion,” Laurent said, sounding dazed. Damen had nothing to say to that, and leaned back in his chair with a smirk.

After lunch, the afternoon event was the okton. Attendants cleared the rings and set up the straight lines and boards that would serve as targets for the spears. Damen sipped water as he watched the men and women work.

“Have you trained long?” Jokaste asked, leaning over the arm of her chair to bring herself closer to Damen. “You were very good.”

“I’ve trained since I could hold a sword,” Damen said. “As you have, I’m sure. It was the only way to protect myself in case something happened.”

Steering the conversation away from the potentially dangerous topic, Jokaste nodded to the field. “What are they setting up?”

“It is an exercise in balance and endurance,” Damen said. “Several riders guide their horses in a continuous loop around the two poles, and throw spears at the target. The rider with the most throws on target wins. Pallas is very good at this game. He will most likely win.”

“He is not the best, though.”

Damen and Jokaste turned to the speaker, and saw Lydos standing just outside the shade of the tent, with Makedon, one of Nikandros’ men, just behind him. Lydos held a spear in one hand, one that would be used during the okton. “Eos is the best at okton. He has never lost.”

“Is that so?” Jokaste turned excessively adoring eyes on Damen. “You failed to mention this.”

“Okton is very dangerous,” Damen said. “It would not be proper to partake now that I am betrothed.”

“Do you not have faith in your own ability?” Jokaste asked.

“It is not a matter of my ability,” Damen said.

“If our nations are to be as one, surely our royalty can sport together,” Makedon said. He glared fiercely at the Veretians. “I propose a contest, in the interest of unity. The two heirs displaying their agility for the gods. What better cultural appreciation could occur?”

Beside him, Jokaste had gone stiff, though her expression had not changed. “Surely there is another means of cultural exchange that is mutually beneficial.”

“The okton is called the king’s sport. It requires balance, endurance, agility, and awareness. There is nothing more beneficial,” Makedon said. “It is known Veretians are cowardly from their fighting style. You swoop from the air because you cannot win on the ground. What better way to prove us wrong? Do you accept?”

Jokaste leaned back in her chair, stalling. Damen was about to put a halt to the entire show, when Laurent stepped between his chair and Jokaste’s. “I will ride.”

Damen could see Makedon take Laurent in, from the fair hair and pale skin to the tightly laced clothing and unapproachable demeanor. He was small, and slight, and looked as if an okton spear would break his arm before he could lift it to throw. He saw him take Laurent in, and come to the obvious conclusion that this boy would be injured, possibly very badly, in the okton. Damen felt ill as a smile spread over Makedon’s face.

“Wonderful! We will help you prepare. Come, come now.” Makedon lifted an arm for Laurent, who unstrapped his sword, handed it to Jord, and made his way out from the tent.

Chapter Text

“Come, Eos, I will help prepare you,” Lydos said. He nodded towards the fence where the horses were being kept.

Glancing at Jokaste, he saw her colour had dropped, and her eyes were wide as she watched her brother being fitted to ride in the distance. Damen leaned in and turned his face away from his men. “I will watch over him, I swear it.”

“He has never needed it before and I doubt he would appreciate the sentiment.” Jokaste’s lips did not move as she answered, and she did not take her eyes off her brother.

Damen pushed to his feet and followed Lydos out towards the field. Atkis and Pallas were the other contenders who would join them on the field. Laurent was already on a horse, getting situated. His eyes were on the field, taking in every inch of it, as he lightly held the reins to his horse.

Mounting his own horse, Damen guided the animal beside Laurent’s. “Do you have questions? Have you done this before?”

Surely he hadn’t. The okton was purely Akielon, driven by a feline’s natural agility and flexibility. Laurent didn’t even spare him a glance, and twisted his hair into a horsetail at the base of his neck. Damen repressed a sigh and faced the field. He could only do so much. The other contenders lined up beside him at the starting line, in the order that they would take the field.

Atkis and Pallas rode first, urging their mounts out into the field one after the other to begin the complicated dance.

At the third horn, Laurent pushed his horse into motion. Without hesitation, he raced across the field at a gallop, carving the traditional path through packed dirt behind Pallas. When he reached the proper distance, he drew his arm back and snapped it forward, sending his spear at the target. With a sound that reverberated through the audience, it hit dead centre.

Damen didn’t have time to admire the feat, as the fourth horn sounded, which was his mark. He dug his heels into his horse’s flank, and the horse leaped into motion. The pounding of the horse’s hooves against packed earth filled his awareness, and his focus narrowed to the sounds of spears cutting through the air. The trick to surviving and succeeding at the okton was not to focus on hitting a bullseye. It was acute awareness of the spears thrown from the other players.

With all the players on the field, the okton became a test of agility. Spears cut through the air, perilously close to the other contenders. Laurent did not seem to care. He kept his eyes forward, fixed to the target, and seemed not to even notice the other riders on the field.

Laurent, Pallas, and Damen had not missed a throw yet. They had each thrown three spears, and each hit dead centre. Damen felt his awareness stretch out, as it tended to do when taking part in a coordinated feat of physicality. It felt as if they were moving as one, humming along the okton field like a well-practiced pack.

Until Atkis, who had only struck one bullseye, missed and his spear took the target’s support beam, sending it tumbling to the ground. Damen's spear, meant for the target, was going to pass through open air and Pallas was galloping straight into it’s path, with Laurent so close on him they bumped knees as they rounded the course’s bend.

Damen, on the other side of the field, could do nothing but watch as Pallas recognised the peril. If he moved, Laurent would be struck. If he did nothing, the spear would catch him in the throat.

The decision was made for him when Laurent, instantly analysing the situation, dropped the reins and leapt from his horse onto Pallas’. He dragged Pallas down, low in the saddle, and the spear flew over them.

When he straightened in the saddle, pressed close to Pallas, he snatched the spear from Pallas’ stunned fingers, and neatly sent it into the centre of the target.

As the horses slowed, and gathered around the starting line, Damen finally realised what he was not hearing. Usually, at the end of the okton the crowd would be deafening in their support of the victor. The crowded field was silent. Damen could hear individuals breathing as he looked out over his people, trying to come to terms with what they had just seen.

A Veretian bird had just matched their crown prince at the King’s game.

Damen counted the spears that had hit the centre of the target. Four for him, four for Laurent, three from Pallas, and one from Atkis. He and Laurent were matched. He turned wondering eyes at Laurent, who had not a hair out of place as he rode pillion with Pallas. Pallas still looked shocked as Laurent swung from the saddle and straightened his tightly laced shirt. Damen looked to the dais, where Jokaste was on her feet, white-knuckled hands clutching her dress.

He dismounted, passed his horse to a stable hand, and followed Laurent back to the dais. Jord lurched forward as he stepped into the pleasant shade of the tent.

“He could have been killed.”

“He knew the risks,” Damen said.

“Did he?” Jord shot back. “Of course your people would call such a dangerous sport the King’s game.”

“They will soon be your people as well,” Damen said, weathering the anger. “Your prince moves well for a bird. The okton plays to leonis strengths, and yet he matched my tally.”

As he talked, his gaze drifted towards Laurent, who was in fierce, hushed conversation with Jokaste. With the noise of Jord’s anger in front of him, Damen could not parse what they were saying. As if sensing the weight of his eyes, Laurent flicked a cool look at him, long enough that Jokaste turned. Damen was struck by how similar they were, even under the chill of their eyes.

Damen reclaimed his chair, and steadfastly ignored Jord fuming behind him. A few moments later, Jokaste sat beside him, her complexion pale. She said, “I’ve never seen as sport like that. Entertainment is very different in Vere.”

“I find it hard to believe Vere has sport,” Damen said. “Athletics require emotion.”

“Do they? Laurent nearly bested you. I do not see him falling all over the field in victory,” Jokaste said. She folded one leg over the other and arranged her gown appropriately. “Most of our entertainment allows the performer to remain clothed.”

“What is your entertainment? From what I know of you, it appears that you are not familiar with ‘fun’.” Damen leaned on the arm of his chair, bringing himself as close as he dared to Jokaste.

Despite Laurent’s display of unphased sportsmanship, Damen could hear his heart fluttering away in his chest behind them, a hum instead of discernable beats. He was more affected than he let on, and Damen felt an illicit thrill at the knowledge.

“We value the theatre, and music. Storytelling.” Jokaste said. She kept her eyes fixed on the field in front of them, where another set of games was being arranged. “Almost like your dancing, but more proper.”

“You tell stories?” Damen asked.

“Yes. It is how we express our creativity. Because we cannot roll around in the dirt, naked.” Jokaste rolled a ringlet of her hair between her fingers. “We create stories and display them on stage. Acting.”

“You create stories? These stories are not true things?” Damen asked. Jokaste turned to him, confusion in her expression.

“Your dance was created, was it not? Imagined?”

“No, our dance tells of Kiesha’s betrayal and Maeve’s desertion, handed down from generation to generation since Helios. Your people are descended from Kiesha. Do you not know her story?” Damen leaned forward slightly in his chair, intrigued.

“We know of the betrayal, as you do. But it is simply that, a story,” Jokaste said. She shook her head. “What you showed… the seduction of Leben… It is just a story. Leben didn’t exist. We don’t even know if the Dasi existed. There’s no written record of them anywhere. How do you know it’s true?”

Stymied, Damen's jaw hung slack. “Why would anyone lie about such things? It is who we are as a people.”

Jokaste stared at him, her eyes wide. She said nothing further, and returned her attention to the fields. They sat in silence for the rest of the games.

That night, at the day end feast, Jokaste once again sat beside Damen at the main table. This time, they were joined by Laurent, sitting on Damen's left, being recognised as the foreign nobility that he was. Jord stood behind them, shoulder to shoulder with an irritated Nikandros and a mournfully quiescent Pallas.

Damen warily watched Makedon as he approached the table with a bottle of something in his hand. He leaned forward in his chair, to try and stop any confrontation before it happened. Makedon bowed, as was polite, to his Eos and fiancee first, and then to Laurent. He offered a cup to Laurent.

“You performed well in the okton, fletchling,” Makedon said, generously. He set the cup on the table in front of Laurent and poured from the bottle he carried in his other hand. “We drink. To your success in the King’s game! The gods have found you worthy, and who are we to deny them?”

Laurent stared at the cup, unmoving. Damen frowned. Surely the Veretians had drink in their land. Some things were universal to human nature. One of those things was alcohol.

The longer Laurent stared, the heavier the silence around them became. Damen almost reached for the cup himself, to spare Laurent the trouble, when Jokaste leaned over the table and touched two fingers to Makedon’s wrist. “Allow a woman to show him how it’s done.”

Surprised, Makedon shifted his hold and placed the cup in Jokaste’s waiting grasp. She tipped it back without hesitation, as did he, and barely withheld her grimace. “Most excellent. Thank you.”

Makedon’s roar of laughter surprised Jokaste and Laurent enough they both jumped in their seats. Damen tactfully hid his smile behind his hand as Makedon placed another cupful into Jokaste’s hand, and held his own cup out in toast. They drank again, and Makedon dragged a small stool in front of Jokaste, and Damen lost track of how many cups Makedon poured.

Damen leaned away from Jokaste, who, for all appearances, was enjoying herself immensely, and turned to Laurent. The Veretian prince had dropped his gaze to his plate and was picking at the meat still displayed there. Pitching his voice low between them, Damen said, “It will not hurt you.”

“No, you have killed it quite effectively.” Laurent leaned back in his chair, giving up on tearing his meat into miniscule pieces. He stared determinedly ahead, his hands deceptively loose resting on the edge of the table. “If it rises we will have bigger concerns than it’s taste.”

“How long have you been riding?” Damen asked, letting his curiosity take over. “I’ve never seen a bird ride like that. It was astounding.”

“I am very good at what I do, Eos,” Laurent said, lifting his chin slightly. Damen waited, patiently, until Laurent finally graced him with a frigid look. “Since I was five. My brother taught me.”

A sensation like cold fingers clutched at his heart, and Damen swallowed thickly. “Your brother was an honourable man-”

“Do not speak of him,” Laurent said, sharply. He clutched a fork in a white-knuckled grasp. “You have no right.”

Damen fell silent, chastised. The rest of the meal passed in a haze of awkward tension, until Jokaste fell against him, and nearly off her chair.

“I think it is time for bed,” Damen said. He scooped Jokaste into his arms and she slumped against him, arms going around his neck. Makedon pounded the table behind him in protest. “Makedon, see to your kyroi. Nikandros requires your assistance.”

“Yes, my Eos!” Makedon staggered to his feet, empty bottle held high. He weaved away, the crowd guiding him along to where Nikandros now sat, eating.

Damen heard Laurent follow them out of the hall, and Jord’s footsteps joined them as Damen made his way back to his rooms. As soon as the doors were closed behind them, Jord was in his face.

“How could you let her get like that?” He asked. “Look at her, she cannot even stand!”

“This was her own choice. She is an adult,” Damen said, weary of suffering Jord’s righteous fury. Jokaste moaned and giggled in Damen's arms. She lay her head on Damen's shoulder.

“Jord, shut up. That was fun. It was a fun dinner. You do know what fun is, yes? It is a thing to be had, at times. Despite what my uncle says.” Jokaste waved her hand at Jord, who pressed his lips together. He dared not directly reprimand his princess. “Damen, take me to bed.”

Jord’s mouth fell open, and his pale cheeks flushed a bright red. Before he could say anything, Damen took his leave. He strode into his bed chambers, with Jokaste still giggling in his arms. It was more emotion than he had ever seen her display, and he wondered if it had been her intention. She was normally a statue, cold and unmoving. To hold her in his arms, loose and pliant, was almost a gift, something he should not take lightly.

He placed her on his bed and unpinned her hair so she may sleep off the drink in comfort. As he moved to put the hairpins on the bedside table, she grasped his wrist. Her eyes were heavy-lidded, half awake as she ran her fingers over the pulse point in his wrist. She said, “Lie with me.”

Damen's heart stuttered in his chest. He carefully turned his hand over to take Jokaste’s and link their fingers. He said, “I prefer to have my partners’ full attention.”

“I am always attentive,” Jokaste said, even as her words slurred. She moved sinuously on the bed, her fingers trailing in the open laces at the hollow of her throat. Fabric teased open, revealing pale skin beneath. Damen reached for her hand to stop her movement, and gave her hand a firm squeeze.

“I have no doubt,” Damen said. “But another day, perhaps.”

“Is it because I am a bird?” Jokaste asked. She sent a pitiful look his way, and Damen felt his heart clench. “Am I not pretty enough? Do you find me wanting?”

“No, no, you are beautiful,” Damen said. He smoothed a lock of blonde hair back from her forehead. “Rest now. There is water on the table. I do not envy your hangover.”

He pushed away from the bed and grabbed a bowl from the table to place on the floor in case she needed it the next morning. As he stood, he caught sight of a shadow in the doorway. It was Laurent, watching him handling their princess. Damen, who had nothing to hide, exited his room without a word under Laurent’s careful watch.

Jord sulked at Damen's map table. His arms were folded over his chest and if he glared any harder at the map he would set it on fire with the heat of his gaze. As Damen sat on the couch, he listened to Laurent move into his bedchambers and settle himself on the seat therein. Jokaste was already asleep. Laurent drifted off shortly after.

Damen wasn’t sure how long he stayed awake after, but when the sun struck him in the face the following morning, Jokaste and Laurent were already awake and seated at his dining table. Damen groaned and rolled off the couch.

Jokaste did not appear worse for her adventures the night before. Her hair was pulled up in a stylish pile atop her head, and she was wearing a different gown than yesterday. Damen wasn’t sure where she was getting her clothing, and he wasn’t sure if he really wanted to find out.

A slight knock on the door drew Damen's attention, and he called for the person to enter. Lydos carefully opened the door and poked his head in, as if scared of what he might see. “Sir, there’s um- There’s a pigeon at the gates.”

Damen winced, but neither Jokaste nor Laurent seemed perturbed by the slur. “What does he want?”

“He is demanding to see the- your fiancee unharmed. There are… There’s a troop of them, sir.” Lydos grimaced. “At least five.”

Jord pressed his lips into a fine line, that his men had disobeyed the order to stay put, but Damen couldn’t blame them. They had been out there for days without word. He stood and wiped his hands of his breakfast. “Send them in, it’s all right.”

Lydos heaved a sigh but bowed and left the room. Damen quickly ducked into his room to change, and when he returned to the main room, the other Veretians had been brought in. They looked like they hadn’t slept well in days, and Aimeric looked as if a stiff breeze would knock him over.

“Help yourself to any food you might want,” Damen said. He gestured to the breakfast spread, and Aimeric did not wait to be asked a second time. He sat down on the edge of Jord’s chair and started stuffing food into his mouth.

“We should head north,” Jokaste said. “We have been out of contact for over a week. Who knows what Uncle is up to.”

“Your uncle is the Regent, what does he have control over?” Damen asked. “You are of age, are you not? Why have you not ascended the throne?”

“In our culture, a woman becomes Reine Soleil upon the birth of her first child,” Jokaste said. “Obviously that has been somewhat of a challenge given that my alistair was murdered when I was eleven.” She waved her hand at Damen's confused expression. “Alistair means betrothed.”

“You were betrothed at eleven?” Damen couldn’t keep the surprise from his voice. Jokaste stared at him.

“I was betrothed when I was three. It is customary,” Jokaste said. “The alistair walks alongside his betrothed through life, guiding and guarding her from harm and suffering. The pair grows together, and when they are old enough they wed.”

“What if the children do not like each other?” Damen asked.

“They learn as they grow,” Jokaste said. “It would not be a tradition if it did not work through the generations. I assume your kind marry?”

“Obviously,” Damen said. “Else we would not be sitting here.”

“How many partners does it take before you are sure you’ve met your bond?” Jokaste asked. Her eyes were like ice, hard and unfeeling. “Six? Nine? How do you know for certain that you will love her in ten years? Twenty? When she is old and frail? Or is one night of passion enough to solidify a lifetime of adoration?”

“We marry because we find ourselves unwilling to walk through life without our bond by our side. We make that choice consciously, and with all of our facilities. We do not force our children into a partnership they did not ask for, or possibly even want.” Damen kept his voice as level as he could, but he could feel the tension in the room rising.

“This is not pertinent to the topic at hand.” Laurent’s voice cut sharply through their conversation. “Which is returning home to announce your betrothal to the Council.”

Dragged from his agitation, Damen glanced up to see the Veretian contingent staring at him in horror. Even Aimeric had paused, his mouth half open, to witness the argument.

Jokaste moved gracefully into the topic, without so much as an acknowledgement of the prior discussion. “We will ride to Aquitart and collect our men. Then, to the capital. Leandros, you may take ten of your men with us.”

Damen clenched his jaw at the formal use of his surname. The subject of alistairs and bonds was not to be tread upon lightly in the future, it would seem. All of the small steps of progress they had made over the last few days seemed to vanish, frozen up behind the layer of ice that had descended over Jokaste’s features.

“I will gather a party immediately. We can depart when you are ready.” Damen pushed away from the table and left his chambers, leaving Nikandros and Lydos to guard the door and ensure the Veretians were not disturbed.

He made his way to the centre of the Den. The building surrounded a courtyard which, as a child, had provided a place of quiet for him when the world grew too much. He sat there now, staring at the small, trickling fountain at its centre, and tried to force his mind away from taxing thoughts.

“Is it true?”

A soft voice broke his imposed silence, and he looked over his shoulder to see Lykaios standing in the shade of an entranceway. Damen's heart sank. He did not want to have this conversation. He would rather be set afire.

“Is what true?” he asked.

“You are going to marry the feathered princess, and end the war?” Lykaios asked. “She is very pretty.”

“Lykaios, please-” Damen started.

“Were you ever going to approach me? It isn’t like you to run away, Damen,” Lykaios said. She eased into the courtyard, her bare feet soft against the grass. She stood before him, and he rose, respectfully. “I haven’t been able to get near you for days. Tell me what is going on.”

She reached for him, smoothing her hands over his arms, which were clenched tight across his chest. He couldn’t look in her eyes, even though he owed her that much at the very least. He took a breath. “It is true. I am going to marry her.”

Lykaios’ fingers tightened. “Of your own free will?”

“Of my own free will. I’m sorry, Lykaios.” Damen forced himself to look at her, to take in the pain bleeding into her features, as her dark eyes softened.

“Did she steal your heart so quickly?” Lykaios asked. Just standing near her was testing his will. She radiated warmth, a warmth he was desperately missing, and he found himself leaning into it. “Was I that easy to forget?”

“No. Never.” Damen gripped her upper arms. “I love you.”

“You are marrying another woman, Damen!” Lykaios gripped him back with equal fervor. “Is it something I did? Less than two weeks ago you kissed me farewell and you’ve returned with another mate! And even Nikandros is no longer at your side. Have you pushed him away as well?”

“It is complicated,” Damen said, helplessly. “But it was nothing you did. You could not have stopped this. I hope one day you will forgive me, but marrying Rioux is what I must do, as a leader to my people. The fighting will stop. I will make sure of it.”

“You will sacrifice your happiness for this?” Lykaios asked. She pressed up against him, yearning to comfort and be comforted. “The rest of your life, tied to a cold, unfeeling statue?”

“It is my duty to protect my people,” Damen said. “And that means ending the war. It is ended.”

Lykaios reached up and wrapped her arms around his shoulders, drawing his head to her shoulder. She gripped him tightly, and he allowed himself the small relief of pulling her close. As he pressed his face to her hair, he said, “I’m sorry.”

“If there is anything I can do to ease the way, please do not hesitate to come to me,” Lykaios said, lowering her voice. Her fingers carded through his hair, catching on rough tangles that he had not bothered to separate. “I know you have Nikandros, but please consider me an ally as well. Even if- Even if you do go through with the marriage.”

Damen carefully unwrapped his arms and held Lykaios at arms length. “Avians mate for life. I would not break the vow, even to someone who does not view me as an equal.”

Lykaios nodded, and let out a sharp laugh. “You are too good for her, Damen. You deserve to be happy.”

“And my people deserve peace,” Damen said. He let his hand slide down her arm and he squeezed her fingers. “Go home, Lykaios. There are other men who are eager to catch your eye.”

Lykaios lifted their joined hands and pressed her lips to his knuckles. She nodded, and left him. As she walked away, Damen sank down onto the courtyard bench and tried to dismiss the sensation that his last grasp at happiness was leaving.

She was out of sight by the time Damen became aware of another heartbeat near him. He twisted on the bench, for the rhythm was far too quick for a leonis. In the shadows, Damen saw Laurent pressed against an entrance, trying to make himself unseen and unheard. Damen did not possess the energy to call him out, and so he ignored him, and returned his focus to the water flowing from the courtyard fountain as the light around him shifted.

Chapter Text

Kastor did not see him off. Only a few of the kyroi attended the gates to bid farewell to the heir to their throne as he rode north with the Veretians. Damen did not think his mood could fall any lower, riding out side by side with Jokaste, but as they passed under the great white gates of Ios, it began to storm.

He did not pull his cloak over his head, though Jokaste and Laurent did. The physical sensation of the rain beating upon him matched his inner turmoil.

The ride north felt more like a march to his execution than the victorious announcement to an end to the fighting.

Even with his men at his side, as the countryside changed into the drier, sparser fields of Vere, Damen felt unnerved. Vere was a country where even truths contained lies, and deception was bred into children as surely as the feathers at their necks. As drastically as night turned to day, the clothing and faces along the road changed once they crossed the border. Gone were the flowing, easy garments of Akielos, replaced with firmly laced and constricting blouses and leathers of Vere.

Everyone stopped and stared as they went past, gathering along the sides of the roads with expressions of blatant distrust and concern. Despite Jokaste’s banner flying over the company, the Akielon armour and flags set the common people on edge, especially this close to the border.

The further north they rode, the colder it grew. The air dried considerably, and Damen began to pick up the scents of the mountains, of cold and ice and forests. He tugged his cloak closer around him as the temperature lost the heady, hot stickiness of his homeland.

Jokaste’s army was waiting for them at Aquitart, and they stopped to have a small meal before returning to the road surrounded by Veretian soldiers on all sides. Damen's men were nervous but stoically kept their seats as they rode.

Two more days of riding took them to the capital city of Arles, which housed the legendary fortress the Veretians called the Nest. The Nest had no ground floors. It rose straight up into the sky without any visible means of scaling the thick, stone pillars it sat on, and there was no discernable entrance once the building proper started. There was no landing deck on the sides. The Veretians either flew directly to the roof or arranged for one of the doors along the side to be opened.

The traveling party stopped in the shadow of the fortress, and when Jokaste dismounted, Damen did the same. A rope ladder unfurled from the first floor, nearly nine metres above their heads. Nikandros lifted an eyebrow as he took his gaze up the ladder to where a door had opened in the edifice.

“It is a good thing we do not fear heights,” he said, breaking nearly three days of silence in Damen's presence. He must have spoken to Lykaios before they departed.

“And have impeccable balance,” Damen said.

Jokaste and a handful of her guard flew directly to the top of the Nest, while Laurent and several of his men stayed behind to escort Damen and his squadron. Damen was allowed to bring up two of his men as guards, and the rest would be lodged in the small town that surrounded the fortress.

He stepped into the Nest’s hall and felt immediately enclosed by stone, as if the walls around him were pressing in closer and closer. Disoriented, he stepped back into one of the walls and pressed his back to it, to ensure that it was not moving, and a simple trick of the mind. The stone against his back remained solid and unyielding, and Damen exhaled shakily.

One by one, the remaining party entered the hall, until Laurent shut the door behind them and blocked out the natural light of the sun. The hall was lined with torches, leading further up into the dark centre of the fortress. Damen drew a deep breath to steady himself, and then followed Laurent as the young prince started walking.

Where the Den was open and sprawling, with as many natural fixtures as created ones, the Veretian Nest was all stone and ironwork. The corridors were lined with intricate carvings and paintings, gorgeous in their complexity, and almost dizzying to behold. As they entered on the first true floor of the fortress, Damen saw with some relief that large windows opened outwards to the sky so that at least some sunlight entered the building. Seeing the sky released some of the tension in his chest. He breathed easier.

“Oh my.”

Damen and Laurent both drew to a halt in an open chamber, where an older man sat, eating dinner. A young boy sat at his side, picking at his food with a supremely bored expression. It was the man who had spoken. “The prodigal son has returned.”

“Uncle.”

Laurent entered the room and dipped into a respectful bow as the man, his uncle, the Regent of Vere, stood away from the table. Damen held his ground as the Regent approached, weathering the intense blue gaze with all of the stubborn strength he possessed.

“You’re larger than I thought you’d be,” the Regent said. He drew to a halt in front of Damen, and practically ignored Laurent. The Regent wore the traditional open-backed blouse, and wore opulent jewelry on both hands. It was the first note of frivolity he had seen from the Veretians. Despite the intricacy of their detailing on their clothing and metalwork, it was never gaudy. The rings on the Regent’s fingers looked oversized and out of place. “I assume you are Damen, and not Kastor. I doubt Kastor would have caught my niece’s eye.”

Unsure how to respond, Damen said, “I am Damianos Leandros, of Akielos. Eos, heir to the throne.”

“Uncle, how kind of your to welcome our guest.”

Jokaste’s voice rang out from the opposite corner of the room, and she swept into the chamber with Jord and Aimeric close on her heels. During her trip from the roof to this room she had changed from her riding gear into a flowing gown fit to receive royalty.

The Regent smiled. “The heir to the Akielon throne? Presumptuous, aren’t we? Or have you already sealed a pact without the approval of the Court?”

“I do not need the Court’s approval to end a war,” Jokaste said. The low light in the room cast a warm glow on her skin. “And I certainly do not need your presumptions on my sex life.”

“So you have begun your claim to the throne?” The Regent asked.

“If you mean that I have brought a peaceful end to the war between us and Akielos, and that I have found an alistair to rule with me, then yes. I have begun my claim. Gather the Court.” She lifted her chin, her blue eyes fierce.

“At this hour? Surely it can wait until tomorrow,” the Regent said, with a gentle smile. “Most of the Court has gone home for the day, and with Festival beginning tomorrow-”

“Gather the Court. Now.” Jokaste sank her teeth into the words, though her perfect poise and stance did not waiver. “Send the pigeons with missives. I want them here within two hours.”

“You must understand my reluctance, dear one,” the Regent said. “You finally perform your duties at the border only to come home with this… beast trailing behind you like a lost kitten. It is all very odd, and how will it look to the Court? That you returned with a southern barbarian and stars in your eyes?”

“Take care with your words, Uncle. He may be from the south, but he is about to become your King.”

“My apologies, dear one.” The Regent tipped his head in the semblance of a bow. “I will send the pigeons at once. Nicaise, come with me, child.”

The Regent held out a hand and the young lad jumped down from his chair to take it, casting a vicious look over his shoulder at Damen as he did. Damen bared his teeth slightly, and Nicaise quickly turned away from him, quickening his pace.

“Are you sure about this?”

Damen overheard Laurent whispering in Jokaste’s ear. They were tucked away, towards the door, and out of earshot for a Veretian, probably.

“We have to move quickly before he can get more of a foothold in the Court.”

“I fear it may already be too late.”

Damen turned towards them, and Laurent cut himself off when he caught the movement. Jokaste, her back to Damen, glanced over her shoulder. She wore sapphire earrings that glittered in the firelight. Trying to look like he hadn’t been eavesdropping, Damen relaxed his shoulders.

“Is everything okay?” he asked.

“It is fine,” Jokaste said, sharply. “You only need to be quiet and look pretty.”

Damen couldn’t help his smile. “You think I look pretty?”

Jokaste’s eyes narrowed slightly, and she crossed her arms over her chest. “I did not say that.”

Damen was saved from response when the Regent came back into the room, his son trailing behind him still. “The missives were sent. The Court should be arriving shortly by air. Will you have… this gentleman prepared?”

“Laurent.” Jokaste did not look to her twin.

Laurent jerked his head towards the door, and Damen followed him out of the room. The walls closed in around Damen again, as they entered a long hall lit only by torchlight. He talked to keep his mind occupied. “Your cousin does not appear to like me that much.”

“Cousin?” Laurent threw a look back at Damen as they walked. “I have no cousin.”

“The young boy, in the room. He looked at me like I was going to strike him in front of everyone.”

Laurent’s shoulders drew up, and he continue walking, at a brisker pace. His words were sharp and final. “That is not my cousin.”

“I was unaware that children were so interested in court politics,” Damen said. He received no response, and was forced into silence for the rest of the short walk.

He was led to a larger, more open room somewhere on the third floor. It had an entire side carved out of the stonework that opened up towards the mountains of Vask, and Damen was instantly drawn to the railing. He stood against it and inhaled fresh air. The stale smell of stone and iron cleared out of his lungs.

“These will be your rooms until the bonding ceremony,” Laurent said, from his place by the door. Damen turned, hesitant to leave the relief of the breeze blowing in from the outside. Laurent gestured to an over-large bed situated against one wall. “You have clothing there, if you need assistance getting into them I will send in a servant.”

Damen caught sight of the laces and intricate bindings on the shirt and trousers, and said, “I will need assistance.”

“I will send someone in. I will be just outside this door. Do not dally.”

Damen set his jaw against any response he might have made, and when Laurent exited, another Veretian entered, with his head bowed low in deference and shaking like a storm-blown leaf. It took several tries and pushing Damen's patience to it’s breaking point to get him into the confounded Veretian style clothing, but he eventually managed it.

The close-laced blouse did not help his growing sense of claustrophobia. It forced his back straight, and the cloth scratched against his skin. His shoulders were too broad to be comfortable, and he felt like an overdressed parade horse.

When they were finished, the servant rapped his knuckles against the door to be let out and Laurent held the door open with an expectant look on his face. Damen sighed, and left the sanctuary of the sprawling room.

He could hear raised voices as they approached the hall on the first floor, and Laurent made him stop just outside the doorway. He held up one hand towards Damen's chest, and Damen just barely stopped from walking into it. In the shadow of the doorway, Laurent pressed his back against the wall and his gaze lost focus, as he listened to the voices coming from the room. Damen rested a hand on the wall beside Laurent’s shoulder and listened.

“-done as promised. And I have even created an opportunity to end this horrible war once and for all yet you intend to try and stop me, Guion. Is that what I am hearing?”

“Not at all, your grace. I meant nothing of the sort but surely there is another way-”

“Any means of ending the war will involve the Akielons. They stand before you unarmed and without malice. Explain to me exactly and in small words what I have done incorrectly. Please.”

Movement near Damen caught his eye. He saw Laurent looking at him. His lips moved, but his voice was barely above a whisper. “What are they saying?”

“They are questioning why my men are there.” Damen leaned in close, having to duck slightly so that he could keep his voice between them. If Laurent was opposed to his proximity he made no show of it.

“Did your uncle know of this?” The voice Jokaste had called Guion spoke again. “Was this part of your plan when you went to the border?”

“My uncle wishes to bring an end to the fighting, just as all of you do. My plan will end the war.”

A light touch at his arm startled him, and Damen looked down to see Laurent holding up the golden bird pendant. Damen slid the chain over his head and held it in his hand.

“You must walk up to her and place this around her neck. Do nothing further. Do not kiss her or put your arm around her. Let her do the talking.” Laurent’s voice was still nearly silent. Without any further instruction, he pushed away from the wall and entered the room. Damen hurried to follow.

The table was full now. A mix of men and women sat around it, and the Regent sat at one end while Jokaste stood at the other. Laurent moved to stand behind her, putting himself between her and Nikandros and Pallas. Damen did as he was instructed and moved to the table, to Jokaste’s side, and as she lifted her hair to the side he hung the pendant around her throat. His fingers brushed against the brilliant blue feathers at the nape of her neck. And then he stepped away.

The shocked silence was very different than the explosion Damen had caused in Ios. He wasn’t sure exactly what he had done, but the way everyone stared at him- specifically stared at the armband he proudly wore- he knew it was something very important. He wondered about the meaning of the pendant.

“Prince Killer,” Chelaut said. His eyes were fixed on Damen.

“The man who bested Auguste in fair combat stands before you, yes. Because he is also the heir to the throne of Akielos, and the man I will marry.”

One of the Veretians blanched and fell from her chair in a faint. Damen had a brief moment where he was viciously pleased that the announcement had caused such a reaction, and then he squashed it. He had to keep his expression free of any emotion. As much as he did not like Laurent at his back, he knew that he had very little choice in the matter.

“Marry!?”

It was the first time Damen had heard a Veretian raise his voice, and he looked to the man who had spoken. The feathers at the back up his neck stood up, almost comically, and he carried a flush along the fair skin of his neck. “You cannot be serious, my lady-”

“Can’t I? Well that will be difficult considering I have already brought him all this way to present to you. It is a shame that he came all this way, of his own free will, for nothing.” She turned to Damen with a limpid expression in her eyes. “You will have to return home, I’m afraid. The war will begin again at dawn.”

“Exaggeration does not suit you, my lady,” the Regent said. “Your ascension was dependant on you bringing a solution to the conflict, but this was not what I had in mind.”

“And yet here I am,” Jokaste said. Her hands were folded tightly behind her back, and only Damen and Laurent could see the whites of her knuckles, which were the only outward signs of her tension. “The war ended and the queen’s line ensured. I am quite confused at the resistance I am facing.”

“The queen’s line to be bred with…” A hand was waved dismissively in Damen's direction. “A mongrel.”

“Who I wed was not part of the requirement,” Jokaste said. “The requirement is only that the war end and the queen’s line will continue.”

“So you have already… lain with the beast?” The Regent lifted his eyebrows, the perfect image of a concerned family member.

“I have not sacrificed our culture to make this treaty,” Jokaste said. Her heartbeat did not change. This was a lie she was very familiar with making. “I have not consummated a marriage that has not been officiated by the Council, as is tradition.”

“You will forgive us if we are hesitant to believe this, given the… nature of his people,” the Regent said.

Jokaste leaned on the table, the golden bird pendant swinging forward as she delivered a glare that would stop a man’s heart in his chest. “Are you going to check, Uncle?”

Damen heard the collective intake of breath, and the quickening of the Regent’s heart as he leaned back in his chair with no outward appearance of distress. He said, “Do you intend to make the announcement at Festival tomorrow?”

“The bonding ceremony will also take place tomorrow night, after the opening ceremony,” Jokaste said. “Have it arranged.”

“Yes, my lady.” One of the other Veretians bowed her head. “Do you require anything further from us?”

“Just quiet. I will be in my chambers.” Jokaste left the room in a swirl of silken skirts, and every single eye turned to Damen.

Damen felt someone approach him from behind, and heard Laurent say, “Follow me, sir.”

Without a word to the Veretians staring at him, Damen turned towards Laurent and followed him out of the room. Laurent led him back to the rooms designated for him, and closed and locked the door behind him. Damen was left alone in his rooms, to wait for nightfall and the coming day.

Someone knocked on his door, and Damen turned when it opened. Nikandros edged around the door and stepped into the room. He shut the door behind him to give them some privacy. Then, he crossed the room in five sharp strides and dragged Damen into his arms.

Damen sank against him, tension leaking out of his muscles as familiar scents and sounds surrounded him. Nikandros’ voice rumbled through both their chests. “How are you doing?”

“Things are moving very quickly,” Damen said, his voice muffled in Nikandros’ cape. “I feel like I’ve missed something vital somewhere, but cannot fathom what it might be.”

“They do seem rather intent on tying you to their house,” Nikandros said. “Very intent, for someone who hates our kind so much. There is something deeper at foot here, and I’m not sure I want to know what it is.”

Damen sighed heavily, his forehead pressed hard against Nikandros’ shoulder, even though he had to stoop to do it. Nikandros rubbed reassuring hands up his back. “Come. We will play your favourite game. ‘Undress the prince’.”

Damen snorted, pleasure welling in him at the familiarity. He let Nikandros draw back, and start to work on the infernal laces that twisted along every seam of the Veretian blouse. Nikandros worked slowly, frustrated by the ties, and when he finally peeled the outer jacket back from Damen's shoulders he laughed in success.

“I do not understand why anyone would design clothing to be so needlessly complex,” Nikandros said. He dropped the jacket on the floor and nudged it away with his foot. “How do they even fight in these clothes? They are so tight. Oh, I think you tore a seam at the shoulder.”

Damen picked at the loose threading with disinterest. “I do not know, nor do I care to. Once the ceremony is over I will be back in my own robes.”

He drew the lighter undergarment over his head and threw it on top of the jacket. Nikandros let his fingers play over the scar just under his left collarbone. Damen caught his hand and held it against his skin, and closed his eyes to relish the sensation of another person beside him. Someone who did not mean him harm and did not have a hidden motive.

Nikandros touched his forehead to Damen's, and they stood there, breathing together as Nikandros’ thumb warmed small circles in his skin. It was Nikandros who broke the healing silence. “Are you all right, Damen? Tell me the truth.”

“I will be.” Damen took in a breath. “I will have to be. Stay with me tonight.”

“Damen-”

“Just in sleep. Put Pallas at the door. One final time.”

He could see indecision warring in Nikandros’ eyes, but finally his friend nodded. They broke apart, and Nikandros went to the door to speak to someone outside. As he walked back, he started disrobing, letting his clothing fall atop Damen's Veretian outfit. Passing Damen, he walked into a small alcove where a large bed sat, and he dropped himself onto the bed.

Damen peeled himself out of the Veretian trousers and followed after Nikandros. He slid behind Nikandros, and arranged them both until they were comfortable. With his chest pressed to Nikandros’ back, he could feel the man’s heartbeat like an extra sense. Sighing against Nikandros’ close-cropped hair, Damen hugged him close.

“One would think you were an octopus rather than a cat,” Nikandros said. “I will remain at your side throughout, you know this, yes? You will not face it alone.”

“Thank you. I know it. It is good to hear you say it, though,” Damen said. He touched his lips to Nikandros’ bare shoulder.

It was a long while before Nikandros fell asleep, being in a strange place surrounded by unfamiliar sounds and scents. He finally did drift off, going lax in Damen's arms. Damen did not sleep.

Chapter Text

“Do not talk to Nicaise,” Laurent said.

After a grueling day of being locked in his own rooms, Damen was now seated at a banquet table about to eat a feast in his honour. His bride to be was several seats away, dodging questions from the Council, and Laurent was sat directly beside him. The show horse analogy was looking to be more and more appropriate. Especially when Laurent picked apart his table manners like he enjoyed the dressing down.

Damen glanced at the child, who sat on his other side, and then back to Laurent. “You really do begin quite young, don’t you?”

Laurent opened his mouth, but then closed it, thinking better. He narrowed his eyes at something just over Damen's shoulder, but returned to his meal without another word, or explanation for the warning. Damen said nothing about Laurent’s racing heartbeat.

“Your eyes are funny,” Nicaise said.

Damen rolled his eyes and nodded. “That is because I am different than you and your friends. Instead of turning into a bird, I turn into a lion.”

“I know that, I am not stupid.” Nicaise kicked Damen's shin under the table, and Damen steadfastly ignored it.

Nikandros stood against the wall behind him, and Damen heard him snicker.

“You’re only here because you surrendered,” Nicaise said. The bright red feathers at the nape of his neck lifted slightly.

“I am here to end the war,” Damen said. “We are going to make an accord, not a surrender.”

“I heard otherwise. You must be weak, to surrender.”

Gold flashed in the torchlight, and warmth blossomed along the skin of his thigh. He glanced down, surprised, to see Laurent half in his lap with his hand firmly gripping Damen's leg. A fork pricked into the back of Laurent’s hand, and Nicaise’s galloping heart belied his blank expression. Three small beads of blood welled up on Laurent’s skin, under the prongs.

“That’s enough, Nicaise,” Laurent said. “My sister will not like if you break her husband.”

He twisted the fork free from Nicaise’s grasp and withdrew from Damen's lap. He settled back in his own chair as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, and he had not found himself practically in the arms of an Akielon. Nicaise went back to his meal, without his fork, and said nothing more. Bewildered, and struck by the feeling that he had once again missed something, Damen turned his attention to Jokaste.

She made her way over to him and gestured for him to stand, which he did. A platform had been set up with two chairs, and Jokaste led Damen to one of the chairs and he sat in it. Only about twenty Veretians had gathered in the room, but he felt as if he were facing their entire society. Looking at their faces gave no insight to how they felt about the night’s proceedings. Each face was a blank mask, carefully constructed to reveal nothing.

Jokaste sat in the chair beside him, holding herself as if she owned the room and were Queen already. A night in her own bed had softened her colour, and despite the harsh lines and cut of her Veretian gown, she looked gorgeous and capable. Long blonde hair was piled atop her head in clean curls, and there was victory in her blue eyes as she surveyed the room.

The ceremony was… long. Damen had to sit through every member of the Royal Flight swearing their allegiance and life to them, followed by all of the Council members, and then finally, Laurent and the Regent. Curiously, Nicaise did not move from his chair during the entire ceremony.

Damen's butt had gone numb by the time everything was finally over, and he was more concerned about boredom killing him then one of the Council members. Jokaste stood, but held a hand over Damen to keep him in his chair. The show horse feeling returned.

“This night I announce the end of the war. With this union, our countries will become one, and we will no longer be enemies but brothers and sisters. Our people will see prosperity, and our children will learn peace and hope, not fear and pain. And we will never again fear to take flight.” She cast her arms wide, to encompass the Veretians standing before her. “This will be our legacy.”

Gathering up her skirt, she stepped away from the chair and turned to Damen, extending her free hand as an offering. All other motion stopped in the room as Damen stared at her hand. He had been told not to touch her in public. Yet she was the one who offered. Surely…

He slid his palm into hers and she urged him upright. He stood, and she tugged him out of the hall behind her while every single Veretian in the hall looked on in undisguised horror. Damen enjoyed the feeling of her hand in his, and ignored everything else.

“I think that was successful,” Damen said as Jokaste led him through more winding halls. “Did I behave well enough? Will I receive a treat?”

“I think you will enjoy your treat,” Jokaste said. “If you behave just a bit longer.”

Damen grew curious at that, not having expected an answer. He found himself being led up a staircase to the fifth floor, and into a tasteful yet clearly luxurious receiving room. The patterns and colours were Jokaste’s, vibrant blues with the starburst pattern emblazoned on them. These were Jokaste’s private apartments.

“I thought I was not allowed to be here if we were unwed,” Damen said. He tugged her to a halt just inside the doors. “I don’t want to make anyone hate me any further. Perhaps I should go.”

“What do you think that insufferable ceremony was?” Jokaste asked. “You remember the words you said, yes? All of that about protecting me and serving my people. That was you, was it not?”

“Is there no celebration?” Damen asked. “Do your people ever enjoy themselves?”

“I don’t know. Why don’t we find out?” Jokaste reached behind him and threw the lock on the door. She stood before him, and lifted her arms, placing delicate wrists atop Damen's shoulders. She rolled her hips forward, and bumped against him.

Startled, he put his hands on her hips to steady her motion. Her arms tightened around his shoulders, and she pulled him into an embrace. Pushing herself up to her toes, she pressed her lips to his.

Damen jerked back. “Rioux- What-”

Jokaste leaned against him and sighed. “We are married now, it is not unseemly to sleep together. Perhaps if we bragged about it to the Council a few feathers might be lost, but we can now enjoy our rights as a pair bond. Take me to bed, Damen.”

“Is this what you want? Or are you only doing it for your sense of duty?” Damen asked. He had to ask.

“Does it matter? I know it’s been a while since we’ve joined. Why are you hesitating?” Jokaste tilted her head, and her eyebrows drew together.

“Because, as I told you before- I want my partner’s full attention,” Damen said. “And I want them willing.”

“You want me to say it in plain terms? Fine. Damianos Leandras, Eos to Akielos, I want you to fuck me in my rooms with the entire Keep just outside,” Jokaste said. “Is that clear enough for you? Shall I say it louder? I think the guards would be able to hear.”

“No- I just-” Damen cut himself off and growled in frustration. Jokaste stiffened in his arms briefly, before forcefully relaxing herself. “It should be something enjoyed between two people. Or three, if you are inclined. The way you speak of it and treat it- I don’t believe you realise.”

“Then show me,” Jokaste said. “I do not know what more you want from me. Shall I begin undressing right here? Anyone passing could see.”

“Stop, stop. Let’s go to the bedroom.” Damen conceded. Jokaste turned in his arms and grasped both his hands, pulling him forward behind her as she led him into her bedroom.

The colour pattern pervaded into this room as well. Large, sloping cuts in the stone work provided windows that poured evening sunlight onto a low, sprawling bed. Jokaste dropped his hands and separated from him to hold her arms out at her sides. “It is customary to undress each other, is it not?”

Damen moved around her, taking in her form, which was not displeasing at all. In fact, she was very much to his liking, and had she been anyone else he would have tried to bed her already. A cool blue gaze followed him as he moved, and he noticed a slight smirk in the uplift of her lips. He circled twice before reaching for the ties at the edge of her sleeve.

“A lion on the prowl? Is that how you circle your prey after your women catch it?”

The instinctive spike of displeasure at the comment rose, but he bit down on it because the tone of her voice was different. It had taken on an almost lyrical quality, as if, almost as if-

“Was that- Are you joking?” Damen paused, his fingers curled around the laces of Jokaste’s sleeve.

“We sometimes do have fun,” Jokaste said. She met his eyes steadily, without trepidation of what was to come. “I know this has not been easy for you, but I do intend for us to be equals.”

Damen unlaced the sleeves of her gown, which turned inwards towards her chest in an incomprehensible design. He carefully worked the laces free, and the fabric of her gown began to fall away, revealing pale skin beneath. As he unhooked the laces that drew her dress together down the centre of her chest, she helped by rolling her shoulders.

The dress slipped away, and Jokaste stood in a puddle of silk and reached for him. She was much quicker divesting him of his Veretian jacket and trousers than he could have managed on his own. As she reached for the hem of his blouse, he caught her hands. This was still too clinical. Too strict and precise.

But now, they had time.

He leaned forward, tipping his head down towards Jokaste. She used their joined hands to draw him closer, and she lifted herself up on her toes to meet him. They kissed, a gentle, fragile thing that fluttered between them. The kiss deepened, as Damen found himself drawn closer to Jokaste.

Emboldened by his responsiveness, Jokaste placed her hands on his shoulders and jumped into his arms. He caught her, and she wrapped her legs around his waist for leverage as she pushed her fingers through his dark, thick hair to tip his head back and grant her a better angle. Damen tucked his hands under her thighs to support her, and walked her to the bed.

He dropped her onto the soft straw mattress, and she laughed. Damen, in the act of following her, paused with one hand planted in the sheets beside her head. He grinned, helpless against the sound of her pleasure, and trailed his fingers down her arm.

“What?” she asked.

“You are different like this,” Damen said. He rubbed the bare, pale skin of her arm. His own skin was very dark against it. He smiled. “Unlaced.”

“You think you are very clever,” Jokaste said. “Making a joke. While I am naked on my back and you still have your trousers done up.”

“It is not my fault your clothes are unnecessarily complicated,” Damen said. “By the time I am out of my trousers you will be out of a mood.”

“I suppose I should help you, then.” Jokaste reached for his trousers and gave them a sharp tug. His hips knocked against hers, and he bent over her to press his face to her hair. She made quick work of the laces securing his trousers, and pushed the cloth down on his hips. He rolled slightly to the side to kick them all the way off, and the trousers hit the floor with a soft whisper of fabric. Jokaste pulled his shirt over his head, and it joined the trousers on the floor.

Jokaste’s thigh slid up Damen's as she pressed against him and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. Damen captured her lips once more, and rolled them. Jokaste broke away from him, surprised when she emerged atop Damen's chest. Damen ignored the question in her eyes as he reached up to unpin her hair, and let it fall around her shoulders in a veil of blonde curls.

The smile that spread over Jokaste’s lips made Damen's heart quicken. Perhaps he had been mistaken. She wasn’t a statue. She wasn’t cut from the same stone that her fortresses were. She had emotions. And he alone was allowed to see them.

Overwhelmed with the possibility, Damen cupped her jaw and brought her in for another kiss. She allowed herself to be guided, and she rolled her hips against his. Pleasure rolled through him at the friction, and he reached between their bodies for Jokaste. She sighed against his mouth as he found her, warm and smooth to the touch.

They moved together, and when they joined, Damen's fingers brushed over the feathers under her hair. Their motion stuttered, but Jokaste bit the skin at the base of his throat and he groaned into her hair. He forced himself to caress the feathers again, and she shuddered in his arms with a helpless sort of noise. They were soft under his fingers, and after the initial shock melted away Damen was left with heated curiosity.

He kissed his way behind her ear and nosed at the feathers there. Jokaste gasped but did not draw away. She pressed in closer, her hips stuttering in their rhythm as she reached the height of her pleasure. Damen lost his sense of self as he followed her. He was surrounded by her; her scent, the cool press of her skin everywhere, and the hot clench where they joined.

After, Jokaste pulled away from him and sat up beside him. The skin above her breasts was flush from exertion as she bent a knee and hugged it gently to her chest. She pressed her lips to her knee and stared at something on the floor near the door, unfocused.

Concerned, Damen reached for her. He ran his knuckles over the skin of her thigh. “Are you all right? Were you displeased?”

“No- It was-” Jokaste cut herself off. Her words were muffled against the tough skin of her knee. She closed her eyes and huffed a small laugh. “It was very pleasing. Much more comfortable than a tent floor”

Damen pushed himself off of the silken sheets and padded to a bowl of water. He scooped his shirt from the floor and dipped it in the water bowl. He walked back to the bed and saw Jokaste watching him with tired eyes, her head tipped onto her knee.

Without comment, Damen carefully and gently wiped her skin. She weathered the attention, and Damen gave himself a cursory wipe down before he tossed the shirt back on the floor. Unsure how to proceed from there, Damen lay down in the bed with his body turned towards her, receptive if she needed to talk. He wanted badly to hold her, to rest with her after their exertions, but she did not appear open to the possibility.

“Do all of your people fuck like that?” Jokaste asked, suddenly. Her voice cracked the peaceful quiet.

“I don’t understand,” Damen said.

“Nevermind,” Jokaste said. Her voice pitched low, as a shadow passed over her face. “You should rest. We have all night.”

“We have all night, and it is our wedding night,” Damen said, trying to lighten her odd mood.

“Indeed.” Jokaste slid from the bed and approached the table which held the water bowl. A separate bowl of fruit sat on it, and she selected a strawberry. She munched on it, her tumbled hair catching the dying light. Her skin practically glowed. “I suppose we must make the most of it, in that case.”

Once, when he was younger, Damen had taken a sort of virulence enhancing drug that was meant to sustain performance in bed. It had taken three partners to satisfy him. As if the first tumble had awakened something within her, Jokaste could not be satisfied. Damen managed three enthusiastic rounds before he pled exhaustion, uncaring that Jokaste laughed at him. If he were the cause of that sound he would be content.

The next morning, he slept until the sun was high in the sky. When he finally rolled over, his legs catching in the sheets, he saw Jokaste sitting at her desk with a scroll in her hands. Noticing his movement, Jokaste glanced at him. “Ah. He wakes. Did you rest well, kitten? You sleep like the dead.”

“I don’t usually,” Damen said, and was gratified when Jokaste flushed a lovely shade of pink. Avians were unusual and odd, but their colouring allowed for a wonderful display of blushes and- “Is that a lovemark?”

Jokaste’s hand flew to her neck. She wore her sleeping gown, which was looser and more comfortable than the strictly laced jackets and dresses Veretians wore in public. Damen could even see her collarbone. “Probably. You are very enthusiastic.”

Damen hummed in content and closed his eyes briefly. When he opened them he found Jokaste staring at him. Her eyes were wide. “Are you purring?”

Damen let the low rumble increase in volume, and smiled when Jokaste laughed in delight. She put the scroll on the table and stood. She approached the bed and sat down in front of Damen. “I’ve arranged for you and Laurent to tour the countryside. You’ve never been this far north, correct? Our kingdom doesn’t quite extend to the mountains but the foothills are lovely this time of year.”

“Great. I would love to see the mountains. Will you be joining us?” Damen did not touch her, but let his fingers rest on the puddle of gown that had pooled when she sat upon the mattress.

“Not today. I will ride out tomorrow to join you. I have things I must attend to with the Council. Things I have been putting off while we made our arrangements,” Jokaste said. “After I am finished here I will follow. Now get up. Laurent is already irritated with you for existing. We do not want him to be waiting any longer.”

“How long has he been waiting?”

Jokaste stood and handed him back the golden hawk pendant. “Two hours.”

…*...

Damen sat in his saddle and maintained his silence. Beside him, Laurent rode with his eyes straight ahead and a pinched expression on his face. He had not said one word to Damen since they left the Nest at Arles, even after Damen explained it had been Jokaste who let him sleep through the arranged departure time. Purely for fun, he imagined now, as the silence fell heavily across his shoulders and chest. It made no difference now, hours out of the Nest. Damen sighed.

They were traveling with a light party, only two guards each, because they were riding up along back roads and staying away from major population centres. They were not expecting trouble.

So when trouble found them, they were taken by surprise.

An arrow whistled through the air and took Damen's guard through the chest, sending his horse into a panic. The horse took off, and Damen watched with horror as an entire pack of men emerged along the roadside, flanking them. Laurent took in the odds and spun his horse.

“Fly! Now!” Laurent’s voice lanced through the noises of the approaching men. After a moment’s hesitation, Laurent’s two soldiers shifted into their bird form and took to the air. Arrows followed, but they twisted out of the way and vanished into the sky.

“Rioux, go!” Damen said. He drew his sword. When he didn’t hear the flutter of wings, he twisted on his horse. “What are you doing? Go!”

“No,” Laurent said. Metal sang as he unsheathed his own sword and resettled himself in his saddle. He kicked the riderless horses towards the approaching bandits.

“Fly!” Damen tried once more.

“You may be my king but you do not give me orders,” Laurent said, with a sharp look at him. “I hope you’re as good as they say.”

And then the men were upon them.

Damen instantly realised this was not a robbery. Beside him, his second guard was pulled from his mount and stabbed through the chest with a spear. Damen kicked his horse, and the beast reared, lashing out with its hooves. A rope lashed around his neck, and he let himself fall from the horse lest he be throttled.

He landed hard on his back, but his sword was still in hand. He stood with one hand gripping the rope around his neck, and he yanked on the rope, dragging two men near enough that he could dispatch them quickly. They fell, and two more men leapt into the fray. They snatched up the rope and as they pulled, Damen was struck hard in the head from behind.

He went to his knees, the world spinning precariously, and tried to strike out only to have his sword parried and knocked out of his grasp. Another rope wound around his wrist, and three men secured that line. Damen did the only thing left to him. He shifted.

His human limbs thickened and he dropped forward on all fours. His neck thickened, giving him some slack in the rope as the men attacking them backed away in trepidation. He planted all four feet on the ground and roared, sending the men back a few paces.

Damen looked for Laurent, and found him overwhelmed by their attackers. Before he could move to help, the rope around his neck was back, tighter this time. A club struck him across the face once, twice, and on the third time the world fell dark around him.

Chapter Text

Damen woke to the smell of blood. The heady scent of it was thick in the air. Someone was badly wounded. Shifting, he tested his mobility. He had regained his human form at some point while unconscious, which wasn’t something that normally happened. His muscles felt abused and cramped, as if he were with fever. He shook his head to clear his clouded thoughts, and then opened his eyes.

He was in a cart of some sort, with a cover draped over the back to hide them from curious eyes. With a soft groan, he rolled onto his side and discovered that his hands were bound behind his back with simple rope. The golden hawk pendant was gone. After taking a deep breath to steady himself, Damen called upon sore muscles and snapped the bindings. His wrists were abraded, but otherwise uninjured.

The laboured drag of a breath caught his ear, and he looked towards the back of the cart to see Laurent lying on creaking wood, motionless. Cautiously, Damen moved towards him, and realised the smell of blood was getting much stronger.

Heart pounding, Damen reached Laurent’s side to find him pale as death. His eyes were half-lidded, and Damen could find no reaction in them to his motion. He carefully reached out and cupped Laurent’s jaw in both hands. He said in Veretian, “Rioux. Rioux, can you hear me?”

He felt for the pulse point just under Laurent’s jaw, for the noise of the cart’s wheels striking ground made it impossible for him to hear a heartbeat. A pulse struggled under Damen's fingers, but Laurent’s skin was clammy and far too cold, even for an avian.

Warmth seeped into Damen's trousers at his knees, and he glanced down to see jagged wounds ripped into Laurent’s arm that bled sluggishly onto the cart bed. Both arms held the same injuries, torn into the soft flesh beneath Laurent’s biceps.

Urgency enabled Damen to peel out of his Veretian jacket in record time, and he tore the arms free. He didn’t know what created such wounds on a man, but they still bled as if fresh. Quickly, he secured the sleeves of his jacket around the wounds to try and stem the bleeding. He wadded up the rest of the jacket and tucked it under Laurent’s head, and then lifted Laurent’s legs and tucked his calves atop a box that rode alongside them. Laurent was losing too much blood. His avian healing wasn’t able to keep up with such a traumatic wound.

Around him, the cart rolled to a stop. Damen tensed, the sudden silence pressing hard against his ears. He could hear at least four men outside, moving around the cart. Unsure what to expect, Damen crouched over Laurent’s body and shifted. His lion form came slowly, and he had to work at it in a way he hadn’t in a very long time, since he was young and learning control over shifting. The thought worried him, but he had no time to dwell on it, because the tarp overhead was being thrown back to expose them, and Damen only had one chance at surprising their captors.

When the sun cast down on Damen, he let his displeasure sound through the trees and fields surrounding them. His roar forced the men to cower before him, just long enough for him to leap at them and drag two of them to the ground. The escort around him dissolved into chaos once they realised he was free, but their numbers had dwindled considerably and the remaining men were no match for Damen's weight and claws. When he stopped, dizzy from the movement after being stationary for so long, six men were dead on the ground around him. The horse stared at him blankly.

Not without effort, Damen shifted again and staggered when he regained his bipedal stance. He leaned against the cart briefly, to catch his breath, and wondered why he was so fatigued. When he looked around him he discovered the answer.

They were in the mountains.

To be more precise- they were on the opposite side of the mountains. They were in Vask.

It would have taken days to reach where Damen stood now, and his body was used to the thick ocean air of Akielos, not the dry feeble air of the mountains.

Days. They had been gone for days.

Jokaste was riding to meet them. She would find no one waiting for her.

He had been unconscious for days.

His skin crawled at the thought, but he pushed it down. Laurent was still in danger. This high, the air was thin and cold. He was already in shock. If Damen didn’t stop the bleeding and get him warm, he would die.

Swiftly, he rummaged through the bodies of the men, picking out weapons that he and Laurent would be able to use later. He discovered that the men were wolves, the native peoples of Vask. Damen knew that Vere had dealings with Vask, but to find mercenaries over the border would not bode well for the Veretian people.

Once the bodies had been picked clean, Damen secured the items in the cart. He tore the tarp free and used it to swaddle Laurent, hoping it would keep him warm until he could find a place to camp for a short while. The mountains were notorious for bandit hideaways, and Damen was in no shape to fight anyone else.

He clambered into the driver’s seat of the cart and guided the horse into an about-face. He started up the road they had come, hoping that once Laurent awoke he would be able to give them a better heading. About an hour on the road, Damen found a small cave nestled away that looked to be empty. He stopped the horse and got out to investigate.

He shifted into his lion form, and loped up to the lip of the cave before slinking into it, his ears hyperalert for any sense of movement. He heard nothing, not even the scuttle of small rodents, and when he was satisfied he made his way back to the cart for Laurent.

As he gathered Laurent into human arms, the man stirred. Damen stopped and knelt down, propping Laurent up with a hand under his shoulders. Tipping Laurent’s chin towards him, Damen said, “Rioux, can you hear me? Do you know where you are?”

“Please- Uncle, please-” Laurent shuddered, his head rolling back against Damen's shoulder.

“Your uncle is not here, but I will protect you in his stead,” Damen said in Veretian. “I swear I will return you safely home.”

Laurent said nothing more, and Damen gathered him up to settle into the cave. Once he had a fire banked, he unwrapped Laurent and eased him down in front of the flames with the tarp spread out under him to protect him from the cold dirt floor. Then, Damen spared a few moments to bring up some supplies from the cart and then push the horse and cart off the road and hopefully out of direct sight for someone who wasn’t paying attention.

When he returned to the cave, Laurent was breathing in tight, sharp gasps and he moved restlessly on the tarp. Kneeling before the fire, Damen gently grasped one of Laurent’s arms. The makeshift bandages were already soaked through. If the cloth was not enough to seal the wounds, Damen was going to have to seal them another way.

Leaning over Laurent, he held the man still with both hands gripping Laurent’s face. “Rioux, you are bleeding out. I need to seal the wounds, do you understand?”

Laurent slapped at Damen's grip, ineffectually, and cried out in pain. “You-”

“Are you with me? Can you hear me, Rioux?” Damen pushed sweat-soaked hair back from Laurent’s forehead. “Rioux?”

Laurent fell silent once more, and Damen cursed, fervently. He grasped a knife he had taken off of one of their attackers and set its blade in the fire to heat. While he waited, he used a second knife to fashion a gag out of what was left of his Veretian jacket. It was a good thing he was so large compared to Veretians. He was in danger of running out of fabric.

Damen made quick work of the laces down the front of Laurent’s jacket by dragging a knife across them. He snapped some of the strings that caught, and he peeled back the outer jacket. He had to saw through the seams at the shoulders, and cut Laurent’s sleeves away. Blood made the undershirt wet and heavy, and Damen simply cut through that as well.

Seeing Laurent’s arms made his stomach turn. He had seen mortal wounds before, but these wounds were messy and done with no instrument or weapon Damen knew. It was as if muscle had been torn from Laurent’s arm, straight through the skin.

He couldn’t wait any longer. Damen fixed the gag between Laurent’s teeth, and then pulled the knife from the fire. Steeling himself, he braced himself against Laurent’s arm and pressed the hot metal to pale skin. The smell of searing flesh filled the air, and Damen breathed shallowly through his mouth. The most worrying part was Laurent’s frightening stillness through the entire process.

Once the wounds on both arms were sealed, and the bleeding stemmed as best as he could manage, Damen wiped the knife down and tucked it back into the sheath he had fixed at his side. With care, he took the gag from Laurent’s mouth and threw it into the fire. He forced himself to shift into his lion form once more, and he snatched a water skin gently between his teeth as he made his way out of the cave. It did not take long to find a water source, with the snow from the mountain tops melting with the approach of summer. He filled the skin and returned to the cave to find Laurent exactly where he had left him.

Padding silently into the cave, Damen moved to Laurent’s side before shifting back into his human form. He crouched by Laurent’s side and eased his shoulders up so that he was braced against Damen's leg. Damen tapped Laurent’s cheek lightly, trying to rouse him. “Rioux.”

Laurent twisted away from his hand, under his own power, and Damen held his breath. Pale gold lashes fluttered, and Damainos moved until Laurent could see him fully. There was no recognition in his eyes, but there was no fear or panic, either. Damainos had to take that as a good sign.

“I need you to drink some of this, and then you can go back to sleep,” Damen said. He tipped the water skin towards Laurent’s mouth, slowly, and eased cool water into Laurent’s mouth. Laurent’s hands twitched, as if he were going to move and grasp the water skin himself, but the pain in his arms left him useless and weak.

Pulling the water skin back, Damen gave Laurent a few moments to orient himself. Drinking had drained him, however, and Laurent fell unconscious once again, pressed heavily against Damen's thigh. Damen cupped his head and let him lay back against the tarp with his head on the bundled up Veretian jacket.

Once his breathing had evened, Damen moved to the mouth of the cave to take up watch. He couldn’t comprehend why they were taken, or what had possessed the mercenary wolves to cross so far into Veretian territory, but if they had gone to so much trouble then it was very probably they would come after them. Once they realised that their envoy had been decimated.

Night fell, and Damen kept his ear out for their captors, and also for any animals that he may be able to hunt for food. His stomach curled painfully as he sat up, but he did not dare leave Laurent alone for the time needed to bring down prey. The wolves had some jerky tucked away in their travel bags, but they were hunters as well. They most likely planned on catching their dinners along the roadside. Still, he was grateful for the jerky as he munched on it while he fixed his eyes on the forest around them.

Near dawn, Laurent let out a pained whimper that drew Damen to his side. Laurent tossed on the makeshift bedroll, and his eyes opened, bright with fever and agony.

“What- What happened?” Laurent managed between chattering teeth. He shook, violently, against the ground despite his proximity to the fire.

Damen nudged the tarp closer to the flames, and Laurent rolled his head as they drew near. He closed his eyes and seemed to be having difficulty catching his breath.

“What do you remember?” Damen asked. He took Laurent’s frigid hand between both of his and rubbed his palms over it, trying to warm it and keep blood flowing.

“We were attacked-” Laurent cut himself off as he gasped. “On the road.”

“Just lie still. We’re safe here for now. I’ve killed the men who were escorting us, and none have followed. You’ve been badly wounded, and need to regain your strength.” Damen touched a hand to Laurent’s shoulder when the man tried to sit up. “I had to seal the wounds. You will- You will probably scar.”

“How long were we-”

“We are in Vask,” Damen said, when Laurent trailed off. Laurent took in the words, weathering them like a man taking a blow, and exhaled shakily. “It must have taken us several days to cross the mountains. We were on foot. The men were Vaskian wolves. Mercenaries.”

Laurent stared blankly at the fire. Gingerly, he lifted an arm and placed a hand over his eyes, pressing fingers into the skin of his temple. Damen uncurled his leg and relaxed his position beside Laurent. He asked, “Do you need anything? I don’t know what I can do about the pain, but I have water and I found jerky in the Vaskian’s bags. When you are well enough, I will find fresh meat.”

“Why do you need me for fresh meat? I will not taste very well.”

“Not- We don’t eat people,” Damen said, with a frustrated noise. “When you are well enough to keep watch for yourself. I will hunt, but not before then. It isn’t safe.”

“How noble of you,” Laurent said. He let his hand fall away, and his eyes were clearer when he turned to look at Damen. “Give me a sword, and you can go. With your mass you must eat an entire storehouse in a week.”

“You can’t even grasp a water skin. I am not leaving you here alone,” Damen said.

“I do not want you here,” Laurent said with excruciating precision.

“You do not have a choice, princeling,” Damen said. “You would do well to lie quiet and let me take care of you. I will protect you, and see you home.”

“I do not need you to protect me.” Laurent practically spit the words out. The flush in his cheeks was as much fever as anger.

“I’m sorry, but you will have to manage until you are back on your feet and can find your wings,” Damen said. “Then you can fly ahead and send an escort for me.”

The flush disappeared from Laurent’s face, leaving his skin white as a sheet. Damen thought he was going to be sick, and moved to roll Laurent onto his side. Laurent stopped him, slapping his hands away with a sharp motion. Damen forcibly clamped down on his irritation.

“Are you going to be ill?” He asked flat out.

“Do not touch me,” Laurent said.

“You would have died, fletchling, if I had done nothing,” Damen said.

“I am not a child,” Laurent said.

“You would have fooled me,” Damen said. “I do not expect gratitude but I will have respect and cooperation. I did not wed Jokaste to allow her beloved brother to die in the wilds of the mountain.”

At mention of his sister, Laurent fell stubbornly quiet and cast his eyes once more upon the crackling fire beside him. Damen, content to sit him out and not bear the brunt of his childish tantrum, stared out the mouth of the cave and watched for movement.

By the time evening fell, Laurent was strong enough to be lifted into a sitting position. He grunted his consent, and Damen lifted him and carried him to the side of the cave where he would have support for his back. He did not mention that Laurent trembled viciously in his arms despite the severity of his expression. Laurent studiously avoided his eyes through the transportation, and turned his head away when Damen set him on the ground.

The wall was away from the cave opening, which would keep Laurent out of sight as long as nobody investigated further than a cursory glance. Damen crouched beside him. “May I lift your arm?”

“Why?” Laurent asked.

“I want to test your grip. The wolves had a recurve bow and I want to get some meat in you so that you can heal faster.”

“I find your medical knowledge to be somewhat worrying and without basis,” Laurent said. But after a moment’s hesitation, he lifted his hand and placed his forearm across Damen's palm.

Damen supported the arm with both hands, and cupped Laurent’s elbow with one. “Make a fist.”

To his surprise, Laurent curled his fingers into his palm, and Damen felt the muscles in Laurent’s arm tighten with the movement. Laurent relaxed his hand and then made another fist, and when Damen glanced at his expression, he saw nothing revealed though his face was deathly white with strain.

Damen sighed. If he was going to be difficult, then Damen could not stop him. He let Laurent’s arm fall to the ground, and then stood to retrieve the bow he had scavenged from the wolves. When he returned, Laurent had tipped his head back against the cool stone, and Damen could hear his breaths dragging in his lungs.

“Here is the bow, and a full quiver.” Damen laid both at Laurent’s side. Laurent immediately grasped the bow and drew it into his lap. He plucked one arrow from the quiver and nocked the arrow. Then, he seemed to realise Damen was not moving, and glanced at him with an expectant glare.

“If you feel you are in danger, shift and get out,” Damen said. “There is no honour in dying needlessly.”

“No, just dying for a brief pause in an eternal war,” Laurent said, turning his eyes away. He fixed his gaze on the mouth of the cave. “You should go before the light fades completely.”

Damen shook his head and shifted until he was on all fours, his magnificent lion form comfortable and powerful around him. Then he trotted into the forest to hunt.

Chapter Text

Contrary to popular opinion, male lions did know how to hunt and bring down prey. He prefered to hunt as a pride, but he did not have an option at the moment. Most of the larger game was settling in for the night, and Damen could not find anything for a while. Then, as the sun was setting, he came across two large deer. He quickly scented the air to ensure they were not shifters, and then lunged at them.

He brought them down with little effort. After slinging one over his back, he grasped the other in his mouth by the throat and slowly made his way back to the cave where Laurent waited.

Laurent had not moved from his spot against the wall, and Damen felt he couldn’t, despite the young prince’s assertions. He trotted into the cave and dumped his prize on the other side of the fire, where Laurent would not have to watch him skin and carve the deer.

After completing the bloody affair, Damen set up a roasting spit for several slabs of meat, and set them to cook over the fire. He spared a glance at Laurent, whose eyes drooped precariously.

“Rioux, I’m going to wash. I will return shortly. Can you keep watch?”

“I’m awake,” Laurent said, unconvincingly. Damen shook his head and walked back out to the stream he had found the day before.

Darkness had fallen by the time he quietly made his way back to the cave, and as he stepped into the cool air he heard the twang of a bowstring. He felt rather than saw the arrow cut through the air towards him, and instinct forced his hand up. He snatched the arrow straight out of the air. “Rioux!”

As a leonis, Damen's night vision was much stronger than Laurent’s. He could see Laurent, braced against the cave wall, panting for breath as he lowered the bow. Laurent undoubtedly only saw a hulking shadow of a man enter the cave. “It’s me.”

Laurent said nothing, but let the bow drop against his legs as he lost the strength to hold it up. Damen exhaled sharply and snapped the arrow between his fingers, allowing himself the brief display of frustration. “That was a decent shot.”

“I should hope so,” Laurent said. “I only had one, apparently.”

“Do you think you can keep any food down?” Damen stalked into the cave, still dripping from his dunk in the frigid stream. The warmth from the fire was welcome against his skin, and he stood as close to it as he dared as he turned the spit.

“You’re going to force the matter, why bother asking?”

“Because I would rather know your preference than stumble around blindly trying to keep you alive,” Damen said. He glared at Laurent over the orange glow of the fire. “But if you would rather I let you die, please say it right out.”

He met Laurent’s hard stare, furious that the man was being so incredibly petulant in the face of his injury. An injury that had nearly killed him, and had weakened him to the point he could barely manage one pull of a bowstring. Finally, Laurent looked away.

“I could eat,” he said.

Mollified for the moment, Damen gave the meat a few more turns over the fire, and pulled it from the spit. He carried the spit to Laurent’s side, and opened a clean cloth beneath the meat. With a small knife he had stolen from one of the wolves’ packs, he cut the meat into chewable slivers. He paused halfway through one cut, and lifted his eyes to Laurent.

“Will you require greens, your highness?”

“I do not require your attitude,” Laurent said. Damen smirked, and continued slicing the meat.

“The feeling is mutual.”

They ate in silence, the roasted meat tender and filling, even without spices and basting sauce. Damen leaned back against the cave wall and let his spinning mind quiet. With his eyes on the cave entrance, he kept one ear on the forest outside, and one on Laurent’s shuddering heartbeat. For the first time since their capture, he felt himself relax. They weren’t safe, but he would be able to fend of anything coming. And in a few days Laurent would be able to fly home and send help.

“That was… adequate,” Laurent said. He wiped his fingers on the rag between them, which still held a few strips of meat.

“I will be sure to add another course when I serve you next,” Damen said, without malice. If he had been as sorely injured as Laurent, he would probably be anxious as well. Uninjured, Damen had to keep his head about him. He was gratified to catch a small lift of Laurent’s lips out of the corner of his eye. “Drink from the skin. You need to stay hydrated.”

Damen finished the meat and cleaned up their shoddy picnic. He tucked the remaining meat a little further back in the cave, hoping the chill of the rock would keep it until the next day, and then returned to Laurent’s side. “Will you allow me to help you lie down?”

“I am not an invalid,” Laurent said. To prove it, he tilted sideways, and carefully settled himself on his side with a sharp wince. After a moment, in which he didn’t breathe for the pain, he rolled onto his back and exhaled shakily.

“No, you certainly are not,” Damen said. He lifted the tarp up around Laurent’s shoulders. It was a poor excuse for a blanket, but it was better than nothing and Damen wasn’t willing to skin the wolf shifters for a blanket, even if they had kidnapped and brutalised them. “I will keep watch. Rest as long as you need.”

“When did you last sleep?” Laurent asked. Despite his prickled obstinence, he curled under the blanket as if it was his right, watching Damen with lazy blue eyes.

“I slept for days, I doubt I would be able to now if I tried,” Damen said. His body burned for movement. The hunt earlier hadn’t been challenging enough. “Do not worry. I will not doze off.”

Damen listened as Laurent’s breathing finally evened out in slumber, and then he turned his full attention to the forest outside the cave. Darkness fell, and the creatures of the night started to emerge with their song and bustle. And he did not fall asleep. The sun was rising when Laurent stirred, barely suppressing a hiss of pain as he moved stiff limbs.

He left his guard, and crouched beside Laurent, who was able to push himself upright on shaking arms. Damen listened to his heartbeat, and found that it hadn’t quieted during the night. He asked, “How do you feel?”

“Shaky,” Laurent said, to Damen's surprise. “Cold. It is freezing, why are you naked?”

“Your wounds were wearing my shirt,” Damen said. “It is not terribly cold. May I touch your forehead?”

“Fine,” Laurent said, again surprising Damen. Before he could change his mind, Damen pressed his hand to Laurent’s forehead. The skin was flush and warm to touch, and Damen gritted his teeth.

“You have a fever,” Damen said.

“That explains the shaking,” Laurent said. His teeth clacked, and Damen dragged the tarp up around his shoulders. Laurent weathered the motion without comment.

“How are your arms?” Damen asked, quietly.

“They hurt, terribly,” Laurent said. “But I think I could manage two arrow draws today.”

“If I prop you up, would you be able to cover our back? You need to be home. The dry air is not helping, and you will rest better in your own bed.” Damen put distance between them, and kept his gaze on Laurent.

“Probably,” Laurent said. “I think I can walk with support.”

The meat held, and after a quick breakfast, Damen banked the fire and helped Laurent to his feet. Laurent swayed heavily against him, and Damen had to tuck an arm around the young prince’s waist to keep him steady. Laurent gripped his shoulder with a shaking hand, and dug his fingers into Damen's skin as they moved.

Damen guided him down to where he had left the cart, and was relieved to see it still there. The horses were lazily chewing on grass around their hooves, and Damen eased Laurent into the back of the cart. Laurent crawled towards the back of the cart, and braced his back against the wall that separated the cart and the driver’s seat.

After gathering and packing the supplies he had scavenged, Damen hopped into the driver’s seat and steered the horses into motion. He led them back to the road, and headed towards the mountain pass that would take them back into Veretian lands.

Damen glanced back, over his shoulder, after about an hour on the road, and saw Laurent had tipped his head against the panel and his eyes were shut. Damen called the horses to a halt on the side of the narrow road and hopped down from the driver’s seat. He climbed up into the cart and gently tugged the bow from Laurent’s lax grip.

Cupping Laurent’s head, Damen carefully eased him down on his side. Moving to draw the tarp over Laurent’s shoulders, he caught a flash of motion. Battle reflexes dragged his arm up to catch Laurent’s knife strike. Damen compressed Laurent’s arm with a quick strike to the inside of his elbow, and snatched the knife from his grasp.

“Rioux!” The exclamation was closer to an exasperated grunt than anything else. His annoyance faded instantly, like fog being pierced by sunlight, when he saw Laurent’s face. The colour was completely drained from Laurent’s skin, and his breath came in quick, sharp gasps.

Laurent looked away when Damen met his eyes, and fixed his eyes on a spot on the floor beside Damen's thigh. His body went limp in Damen's grasp. Damen lowered Laurent to the floor of the cart, and slowly, very slowly, removed himself from Laurent’s space.

“Rioux?”

For a heavy moment, all Damen could hear was the ragged intake of breath as Laurent tried to calm himself from whatever nightmare had disturbed him. Then, Laurent dragged a hand over his face.

“You should not surprise me,” he said.

“You fell asleep,” Damen said. He clamped down on his frustration. Laurent was not well. “I was going to cover you so that you could rest securely. As secure as we can be.”

“I am not myself,” Laurent said. Damen ignored the slight tremor in his voice.

“Rest assured, fair prince. When we return to the Nest you will be back to your frigid self in no time. Proper food and rest will heal you right up,” Damen said. “And then you can return to insulting my heritage and culture. I will even remind you.”

Under Laurent’s hand, Damen saw an uptick at the corner of his lips. With a huff of breath, Damen finished dragging the tarp over Laurent’s shoulders. Then, he leaned over towards the corner of the cart and started fixing the cover to the fastenings there. He made his way towards the edge of the cart, casting Laurent in shade.

He fixed the cover in place, and Damen climbed back up into the driver’s seat. He urged the horses into motion once more.

They rode until midday, when Damen pulled over once again. This time, he meant to eat.

He flipped back the cover on the cart, and pulled himself up into the bed of the wagon. Laurent stirred, and Damen paused to watch him, bemused. Laurent had made himself a nest of the tarp, and was curled inside the makeshift blanket like a kitten curled in a beam of sunlight.

Laurent opened his eyes and blinked hazily in the bright sunlight. He pushed himself up, his tousled blonde hair twisting free of his braid as he moved. “Why have we stopped?”

“Food, and you should work on your grip to make sure the damage is healing properly,” Damen said. “How do you feel? Were you able to sleep at all?”

“I believe the worst is over,” Laurent said. He crawled out of his nest and slipped down from the cart bed without Damen's help. He leaned against the cart for support, but was standing under his own power. Some of the colour had returned to his cheeks.

“Will you be all right if I hunt?” Damen asked. He glanced around for a place to move the wagon. He should probably unhitch the horses and let them roam for a bit as well, to stretch their shoulders.

Laurent, as if understanding his intentions, picked up the bow and nocked an arrow, and quietly began scouting outwards in a spiral from where Damen stood. For his part, Damen moved the wagon off the road and unhitched the horses. A few moments later, Laurent drew near.

“We seem to be alone,” he said. “There is a stream to the southwest. I will start a fire.”

“I will return,” Damen said. He paused, and threw a look over his shoulder. “Don’t shoot me this time.”

“We shall see.”

Damen grinned and shifted, falling forward onto four legs. He shook out his mane and arched his back, the long hours in the cart had cramped his muscles. He cast one last look at Laurent over his tawny shoulder, and saw with amusement that Laurent stared at him, lips parted slightly. Then, caught, Laurent quickly lifted his gaze towards the sky, finding it incredibly interesting suddenly. The bow hung in his grasp.

With a snicker, more like a snort in his lion shape, Damen bolted into the forest. He would bring back the largest deer he could take down for Laurent. To recover his strength. The bigger the deer the more Laurent would recover. It was simple.

Damen was on the prowl for less than an hour before he took down a large buck, and dragged it back to camp with him victoriously. When he trundled through the brush, Laurent glanced up. Damen was pleased not to receive an arrow between the eyes, and he dropped his prize before Laurent with a smug air.

Laurent lifted a pale brow. “Well done, oh king of beasts.”

Damen shifted into his human form, unphased by Laurent’s unimpressed expression. “It is the largest one!”

“Is this your way of telling me that I need to change my eating habits?” Laurent asked. “By dropping a dead thing at my feet?”

“Would you prefer I chew it first and spit it up to save you the effort of moving your jaw? Though you seem to have no concerns on that front.” Damen slid his knife from the sheath and started cutting into the deer to get to the meat. Laurent watched him work without another word.

The carrying silence was companionable, and Damen wondered if Laurent was merely tired. His colour was healthier, and his heart had slipped back into its normal flutter. He had seemed to regain some strength in his arms. He would be able to fly soon. And Damen would be alone to cross the mountains.

Ignoring the potential future, Damen stuck several pieces of meat on a spit and thrust it over the fire to roast.

“Haven’t you wondered why we were captured?” Laurent asked, breaking the silence.

Damen glanced at him. “What do you mean?”

“Don’t you wonder why we were taken and not killed? Or why we were brought to Vask? Or why mercenaries were so far into Veretian lands?” Laurent glared at him.

“Of course. But I see no answers here. I must return you home, and then I will speak with Jokaste on the matter.” Damen noticed a shadow fall across Laurent’s face when he spoke Jokaste’s name. He frowned. “What is it?”

Laurent was silent for a long moment, his eyes fixed on the flickering firelight. Then, he took a breath, and pinned Damen with a sharp look. “My uncle meant to separate us.”

For a moment, Damen was extremely confused. “Why would your uncle mean to separate us? I would have eventually found my way back to the Nest.”

“No, he-” Laurent stopped again, worrying his lower lip between his teeth. He exhaled sharply. “He meant to separate me from Jokaste.”

“What does this have to do with our adventure into foreign lands?” Damen asked. Laurent narrowed his eyes at him.

“Those mercenaries were probably hired by my uncle. What I can’t figure out is why I’m not dead. I believe you had something to do with it.”

Damen knew Veretian politics were convoluted and perverse, but this was beyond the scope of what he had imagined. When he found his voice, he asked, “How can you be sure this was your uncle’s doing?”

“Why else would Vaskian mercenaries be so far into Veretian territory? We have legitimate trade deals with them, there is no reason for them to raid over the border,” Laurent said.

“But-” Damen forced himself to be quiet as Laurent stared at him, watching as he tried to gather his thoughts. Auguste, the blessed protector of the Rioux house, was killed in single combat by Damen. That same day, a stray arrow had killed the Tuuli Thea, and left her country to mourn her passing. Laurent and Jokaste were left without a mother, and brother, and the queen’s brother had stepped in to rule in her stead until Jokaste came of age. “I find it very hard to believe that your uncle would arrange for something as traumatic as this. You nearly died. He would never put you in harm’s way like that.”

“Wouldn’t he?” Laurent echoed. The following silence grated on Damen's nerves, and he felt unease settle under his skin. Something about Laurent’s tone scraped up his spine like icy fingers.

He didn’t want to ask, but he had to know. Morbid curiosity was a dangerous and heartbreaking thing. “Why would he do that?”

“Why do all men do anything? Power,” Laurent said. “The power of a nation is in his reach. And he wants it.”

“But your line is matriarchal,” Damen said. “Unless he is hiding something, he is not eligible while Jokaste lives.”

Laurent held his gaze patiently, waiting for his own words to catch up to him. Damen pressed his lips together, feeling ill. “He couldn’t possibly- But you’re family.”

“We simply stand in his path to the throne. I doubt he’s considered us family in many years,” Laurent said, his voice strained.

“But now that I’m wed to Jokaste, he has to stop his ambitions,” Damen said. “She will take the throne.”

“Traditionally, she cannot take the throne until her first child is born,” Laurent said. “To prove that she can continue the royal line. And my uncle has the ear of several influential Council members. If anyone can bend tradition, it will be him.”

“And what of my fate, if Jokaste is dead?” Damen asked. “Does he intend to kill me as well?”

“It would not be hard to stage an accident with a poisoned knife,” Laurent said. “Nearly every Veretian has access to the am’haj. Even Nicaise can obtain it.”

Damen was thrust back to the night of the ceremony, where Laurent had intercepted a fork aimed for his thigh. “The fork was poisoned.”

“And Nicaise would have been blamed,” Laurent said. He accepted a chunk of roasted meat and brought it to his lips, taking a small bite. Damen held his own portion in hand, feeling vaguely nauseated by the discussion. Nicaise was a child.

“Does the poison not affect your kind?” Damen found himself asking.

Laurent did not answer for a long while, staring hard at the roasted meat in his hand as if it held the secrets of the universe. Finally, he took another deep breath. “Yes. It is not fatal, but can cause fever, nausea, and disorientation. The falcons designed it. They would not have created something that could be used against them by us lesser beings.”

“The fight with that turkey Govart,” Damen said. He pieced together his memory from that day. “His blade was poisoned. You fell ill after the fight.”

“Yes.” Laurent gave nothing else away.

“You saved my life,” Damen said.

“And you have saved mine. Twice now.” Laurent tore a strip off and chewed it. “As much as I hate the idea of it. The facts remain.”

“I’m sorry to inconvenience you,” Damen said. He let his lips quirk up. “I think your dead body would be a poor wedding gift for your sister.”

“Did you fuck her?”

Damen choked on his spit and had to clear his throat before he could say anything. “Excuse me?”

“Was I not clear?” Laurent asked in Akielon. They had been speaking in Veretian, because Laurent’s fever and disorientation had hampered his ability to recall Akielon.

“No- I just-” Damen shook his head. “I thought it was not appropriate to discuss it.”

“It matters to her ascension, and considering our plight, I need to know how much danger she is in,” Laurent said. “So did you fuck her?”

“Yes. Several times. With great enthusiasm,” Damen said. He kept his voice even and curt. “Over the span of several weeks.”

Laurent pressed his lips together until the skin turned white. “Good. It means we must return quickly.”

“As soon as you are healed you can go,” Damen said. Laurent grunted, and continued eating the rest of his meat in silence.

A twig snapped in the distance, and Damen heard a boot crunch down on it. He froze, turning towards the sound. Laurent went still as a stone across from him, watching for his reaction. Damen strained to listen, and heard several more boots trudge through the undergrowth.

“Douse the fire,” Damen said.

Laurent quickly and quietly kicked dirt over the fire and smothered it while Damen gathered up their stolen packs. They turned for the cart when Damen heard the creaking wood of a bow being drawn. He lurched at Laurent and dragged him to the ground. An arrow passed over their heads.

“Can you fly?” Damen asked. His lips almost pressed against Laurent’s hair, as he lay half on the younger prince to shield him.

“No,” Laurent said. He kept his eyes fixed on the ground.

Damen was about to push him up to make a run for the horses, but froze when he heard one of the men say, “Here’s the cart. They must be nearby.”

“They found the cart and the horses,” Damen said. Laurent met his eyes.

“Lions are faster than wolves,” Laurent said. His voice was low, a breath above a whisper for fear of discovery.

“I’m not leaving you after all the work I did to save your life,” Damen said. This close, he could see the ocean in Laurent’s eyes.

“I would very much like not to be left,” Laurent said. The colour had left his face again despite his stern expression, and Damen knew without a doubt that he would carry this man on his back if it meant they both lived.

Oh.

“Leave the packs. Take the bow and arrows,” Damen said. Laurent obeyed without hesitation, as if he already knew what Damen's idea was. “I’m going to shift, and we are going to ride out until we lose them.”

Laurent nodded. Damen pushed his fingers into the cool grass beneath him and shifted. It would be impossible to hide his lion form in the short grass, but Laurent had swung a leg over the second his shift finished. When Damen felt fingers twist into his mane, he took off.

Behind him and to the right, he heard men shouting. Laurent pressed himself low to Damen's back, making himself almost flat. Damen could barely feel him, as light as he was. An arrow sliced through the air and Damen instinctively swerved to avoid it, in the very last second remembering someone was on him.

Laurent leaned into the turn fluidly, and stayed seated. This was the man who had tied him in the okton without prior practice. Laurent could ride.

Fear of Laurent falling had slowed his pace, and now Damen burst forth into the forest, letting his instincts guide him around obstacles and away from the men pursuing them. Three wolves broke from the rest of the men and dropped to all fours to pursue them. Used to the terrain, they drew close and Damen pushed forward harder, his claws out for traction in the soft moss of the forest floor.

Branches whipped past him, and one of the wolves drew close enough to nip at his back heel. Laurent kicked out hard, and his heel connected with the wolf’s muzzle, and he fell away with a yelp. Then, the fingers in Damen's mane loosened and Laurent sat up. He sat up, nocked an arrow, and loosed it into the eye of another pursuing wolf. The wolf crashed to the ground.

The trees thinned, and for a moment Damen hoped they were reaching flatlands where he could run without care. To his horror, it was not flatlands but the edge of the land. Laurent barely had time to reseat himself. Damen was going too fast. There wasn’t enough time or ground to stop.

Damen leapt.

His heart roared into his throat as the ground fell away, and a chasm opened beneath him. A river rushed, far below, but that was not his intent. He slammed into the opposite wall of the chasm and his claws dragged into the stone as his weight threatened to bring him down. They stopped sliding, and Damen's shoulders quaked with the effort of holding himself still.

Laurent grasped Damen's mane and heaved himself up. He planted his feet on Damen's shoulders and used the sparse handholds to haul himself onto solid ground. Damen slipped a little further, his hind legs scratching at smooth rock that gave way to open air. Above him, Laurent fired two more shots, then reslung his bow and knelt.

“Shift back,” Laurent said. He stretched an arm down and dug his fingers into Damen's massive paw. “Shift back. I can’t pull you up, you’re too heavy.”

Damen gritted his teeth and shifted. Without his claws to provide traction, he started sliding down. Laurent threw both hands out, gripping Damainos’ arm with enough force to leave bruises. He gasped as the effort tore at his wounds. “Damen, I cannot pull you up. You must climb, damn it.”

Heart pounding, Damen tucked his feet into the cliff face and managed to catch a hand hold. He carefully lifted himself along the sheer stone, until, chest heaving, Laurent dragged him over the top and they collapsed on the ground.

For a moment, all Damen could hear was the thunder of their hearts. As his adrenaline faded, he became aware of the wolves on the other side of the chasm, readying their arrows. Damen rolled over and dragged Laurent to his feet. Together, they staggered into the shelter of the trees and dropped into a low, hidden ditch where the arrows would not find them.

Glancing at Laurent, Damen could see the effects of their treacherous ride. Small cuts from branches lined the sides of his face, and his hair was a wild tangle, freed from his braid by the wind and the branches. Before he could think better of it, Damen reached out and wiped away a small drop of blood from Laurent’s cheek. Laurent stiffened painfully under the touch, and Damen quickly withdrew his hand.

He cleared his throat. “I saw you ride the okton, but I still underestimated your skill.”

Laurent lifted his shoulders. “Your back is much bonier than a horses.”

Damen chuckled, relief from their escape making him giddy. “That was an incredible shot. I’m surprised you didn’t beat me at the okton.”

“I couldn’t very well undermine the future king,” Laurent said, his tone cross. “Your people would have been bitter and closed their hearts further. I would have gained nothing from winning.”

“You would have gained the victory laurels,” Damen said.

“Ah yes. What a coveted prize. Leaves,” Laurent said. But there was no edge to his voice, no sharpness in tongue. Damen smiled and fought the ridiculous urge to laugh.

Laurent shifted, and winced. With a frown, Damen asked, “What is it?”

His face pale, Laurent said, “I think I’m bleeding again.”

Damen reached for his arm, stopping just short of touch. “May I?”

Laurent nodded, and Damen carefully lifted his arm and turned it over in his hands. As Laurent had suspected, his bandages were red where his wounds seeped. “Do they hurt?”

“I will let you know when I have calmed down enough to feel it,” Laurent said. Damen pressed against the red gently, and the patch did not grow or spread.

“It looks minor. Hopefully the damage was minimal,” Damen said. He released Laurent’s arm, and they both fell back against the soft ground. “We’ve lost all our supplies.”

“Not all of them. We have the bow and arrow. I see you still carry the knife. And your claws never leave you,” Laurent said. He gazed out into the forest, as if he would find a solution there.

“You should not be walking long distances in your state,” Damen said. “You can ride on my back until we stop for the night.”

Laurent said nothing. Damen was much less vulnerable in his animal shift than Laurent was. Handling a Veretian in their animal shift was a tremendous gift, because they were small and slight and could easily be injured. Damen's people were much less strict when it came to touching each other while in their animal shift. Damen was not looking forward to having the conversation regarding sleeping in the frigid mountain air. Without their packs they had no cover and no blankets. Laurent would have to sleep close to Damen if he did not want to succumb to hypothermia.

“The river is snow melt, and flows towards Vask,” Laurent said. “If we move against it’s current, we should cross back onto the road that leads to Vere.”

“If it’s snow melt, will it not lead us higher into the mountains? We will not survive if the temperature drops further,” Damen said. “I may, but your feathers will not protect you from the chill.”

“We can’t stumble around the woods, blind and without direction,” Laurent said. He rubbed his arms, as if thinking about chill air had summoned it. He tucked his knees up to his chest.

“Can your wings survive a short flight straight up? Long enough to get our bearings? Maybe you will see the road from such a height,” Damen said.

“No,” Laurent said. Damen waited for further explanation, and received nothing but frigid silence from the young prince. Damen slumped against the soft moss in resignation. “If we don’t take the river, what do you suggest? Is your nose sharp enough to guide us home? I didn’t think that was your strong sense.”

“It is stronger than yours, fletchling,” Damen said. He heaved a sigh and folded his arms over his chest. “I have no other plan than simply move west until we find the pass. I will not have trouble finding water at this time of year.”

“Then we go west,” Laurent said. “That was easy.”

Damen stood and stretched. The exertion from his run after several days of staying in one place left him sore. He was almost glad that Laurent would be so close to him. Laurent’s mastery of archery was a welcome security in this unfamiliar forest.

He shifted, falling onto four paws, and waited while Laurent hoisted himself onto his back. He sat upright, ensuring that the bow and quiver were secure, before leaning over to grasp Damen's mane with both hands. Damen started off, at a much slower pace than their escape. Laurent kept easy stride with him, his body moving as if they were one being. Damen barely felt him astride.

They rode until sunset, where they used the dying light to find a secluded copse of trees with a reasonably flat patch of ground inside it. Laurent built a fire while Damen took down another deer for food. When he returned to the campfire, he saw Laurent was peeling the bandages from his pale arms.

“How are they?” Damen asked upon shifting into his human form. When Laurent looked up at him, lips turned down slightly, he clarified. “Your wounds?”

“Healing. The bleeding has stopped, and the edges of the wounds have sealed over again,” Laurent said. He bent his head over his arm, examining the burns and hardened blood around the wounds. His hair fell over his shoulder, cast gold in the firelight. He had given up on the braid, and had combed the leaves out of his fine hair with his fingers while Damen hunted. Damen caught a glimpse of bright blue feathers at the nape of his neck, almost identical to the ones his sister had. For a brief, insane moment, Damen wondered if they were as soft.

He shook his head and focused on skinning and carving the deer with their lone knife. The exhaustion and stress from the last few days was clearly affecting his facilities. When he set up a spit over the fire, he caught Laurent staring at him over the low flame. This time, he did not look away, and Laurent held his gaze unerringly.

“Do I offend, your highness?” Damen couldn’t help ask. His hands were covered in blood and fur, and he hadn’t had a chance to wash since the day prior. The Veretian riding pants he wore were beyond saving. He was just grateful they were sturdier than the normal Veretian garb.

“No.” Laurent flicked his eyes away, and instead stared into the darkening forest. He said nothing through dinner despite Damen's attempts to engage in easy conversation.

When it came time to bed down, Damen cleared his throat. “It will be cold tonight.”

Laurent broke his silence. “I’m aware.”

“With your injuries, you should not be exposed to it,” Damen said. “I felt that I could rest as a lion, and you could share in my warmth.”

“Who will keep watch?” Laurent asked, pragmatic as always.

“Who would disturb a lion?” Damen said back.

Laurent drew his shoulders back. “Your reasoning is sound. I’ll put out the fire.”

Damen shifted, and circled the campsite once before flopping down on the cool sod. He rolled onto his side and watched Laurent move carefully around the darkened space. He dropped to his hands and knees and crawled until he reached Damen. Then he lowered himself onto his side and curled up against Damen's belly. Damen couldn’t help nudging closer, until Laurent was flush against him, and then he draped a large paw over the man’s side. Laurent held his breath.

“This is… not ideal,” he said.

Damen huffed, ruffling Laurent’s hair, and dragged him closer with his paw. Laurent grunted, but slowly relaxed into the warm curve of Damen's leonis body and, after a long while, fell asleep. Despite his words, Damen found himself unable to rest. He managed a light doze, his ears pricked for malicious sounds throughout the night.

Morning came without incident, and despite his restlessness, Damen got to his feet and let Laurent mount. They started off at a decent clip. Damen wanted to find water soon. Laurent needed water, and Damen desperately needed a wash.

He caught the scent of freshwater, and started wandering in that direction. He drew near when he caught the scent of wolves in the air. Before he could react, they were moving. A massive net launched up from the ground, dragged by two wolves on either side of him. He was taken off his feet in his surprise, and Laurent just barely rolled out of the way to avoid having his leg crushed.

His roar of outrage did not faze the wolves this time. They were armed with spears, and Laurent pressed close against his back, away from the blades. They had learned from their previous error. At least ten men crept from the shadows of the forest. Damen could hear several more still moving in the trees out of sight.

Damen let his head fall against the ground. He did not have the energy or resources to fight his way out of this. They were recaptured.

Chapter Text

This time, his arms were bound tightly behind his back at his wrists, and at his elbows. His shoulders were also strapped down, with loops of rope criss-crossing over the skin of his back and arms. If he tried to shift he would break every bone in both arms, and he did not have the leverage to use his natural strength to break free. Laurent was likewise bound, though he was spared the iron bar clamped over Damen's biceps. He was silent, but his white face belied the pain he was in as the ropes scraped against his injuries.

They were bundled back into a cart, and Damen lay on his side in the bed to try and relieve the pressure on his shoulders. Laurent sat upright against the edge of the wagon, his face a careful mask, half hidden by the veil of his hair.

They rolled onwards, retracing their escape until they were out of the mountains and into the cold plains of Vask. Damen did not speak Vaskian, but he saw Laurent tilting his ear at some of the conversation around them. Laurent must have passable knowledge of the language.

As if by accord, they did not speak to each other for fear their captors would overhear. They travelled two more days in silence. They were at least granted periods of reprieve, for them to stretch after being bound so thoroughly. No less than five spears were kept on Damen at all times. He did not fail to notice that Laurent warranted none.

Finally, they were dragged from the cart, but Damen's relief was short lived. Though they unwound the rope from his arms, they clamped thick iron manacles around his wrists, and immediately shoved he and Laurent into two cages, made of strong iron and side by side.

Damen sat down hard at the side of his cage, which brought him closest to Laurent. If he had been well fed, rested, and hydrated, there was a small chance he would have been able to pull the chains of his manacles apart. But as exhausted as he was, he could only lean against the cross-hatched cage and try to think of way to get out.

His back to the wolves, Laurent reached out and hooked his fingers in the grid of their cages. He was unable to completely hide the disgust in his voice. “They mean to sell us. The women will apparently pay well for a.... stud of your build despite your heritage. I am destined for the south. Patras.”

Despite the chill Laurent’s words brought, Damen said, “It sounds like I may get the better end of that deal.”

Akielos did not have dealings with the Vaskian empire, because the geography did not make the path easy or profitable. However, he heard stories of the empire led by women, who kept men as toys and breeding studs for their pleasure. The stronger the man, the more valuable he was. And Damen outweighed most of these men, and was all muscle. If they were representative of their nation, then Damen would be very highly valued indeed.

Laurent drew in a deep breath. “I believe I can orchestrate a distraction that will provide a chance for escape.”

“What do you need me to do?” Damen asked.

“Be silent,” Laurent said.

He turned in the cage and called out to the man nearest them. At first he was ignored, then he said something different, and the man turned in one sharp motion. His friends turned with him, and suddenly Laurent was the centre of attention. Damen watched uneasily as almost all of the men gathered around their cages.

The leader unlocked Laurent’s cage and hauled him out by his manacled hands. Laurent stumbled slightly, hands fumbling for balance in the leader’s tunic before he straightened. He squared his shoulders and continued speaking in clear, striking Vaskian. Damen saw the men’s demeanours shift, from annoyed to outright violent. He didn’t know what Laurent was saying, but it was almost certainly backfiring.

The leader of the men suddenly lashed out, striking Laurent across the face. Laurent staggered, but did not fall. Instead, he lifted his chin and said something that earned him a second strike. The second hit sent him to his knees in front of Damen's cage, and something silver slid across the dirt. Without thinking, Damen moved to cover the item, and discovered it was the key to his manacles and the cage door.

As Laurent was hauled to his feet, Damen caught sight of a man striding towards them with a whip in his hand. Damen lurched for the bars of his cage. The Vaskian men were dragging Laurent to a post. With his wounds, and how little chance he had to recover, Laurent would not survive a flogging.

“Stop!” Damen threw his weight against the cage door. He spoke Veretian in hopes one of the men would understand.. “He will not survive! You must stop this.”

“Quiet, mongrel, unless you wish to take his place.” The man closest to him spoke in stilted Veretian.

Damen watched as the Vaskian leader hung Laurent’s manacles from a hook on the post, and then ripped Laurent’s shirt down the centre of his back. Pale, unblemished skin was displayed for all to see, and Damen felt a fire burning in his blood.

“Put me in his place,” Damen said. His knuckles were white as they grasped the bars to his cage. “Do you hear me? Stop this now. I will stand in his place.”

The man called out to his comrades, and the commotion around Laurent stopped as they all turned to look at Damen. Laurent even twisted in his bonds to glare at him, the blue of his feathers catching sunlight. Damen stripped the remains of his undershirt off and tossed it to the ground, covering the key from sight. He faced the cage door, his chest and back bare.

“I did not know Veretians took lovers,” the Vaskian leader said. His Veretian was thickly accented.

“I do not lie with Akielons,” Laurent said. He rattled something off in Vaskian, sharp words that dragged everyone’s attention back to him. The leader shook his head.

“No, no. This too interesting. Bring the cat. The bird can watch.” The leader waved his hand, and Laurent was lifted from the hooks and pulled away from the post.

The man beside him opened Damen's cage and grasped the chain between his cuffs and led him out. Laurent had been forced to his knees, a sword held against the pale curve of his throat. One of the Vaskians grasped his hair to hold him down, in case the sword wasn’t enough persuasion.

They hung his wrists by the chain, and at least gave him a gag to bite into. He pressed his face into his upraised bicep, breathing hard in anticipation, and caught sight of Laurent’s horrified expression before pain exploded across his back.

He came back to himself in stages. His back burned and it hurt to breathe. He came to realise that he was on his stomach in the dirt, his face mashed to the ground. Men talking drifted into his awareness. He forced himself to open his eyes.

He met Laurent’s gaze. They were back in their cages, and Laurent lay on his side, pressed as close to the bars as he could. He stared, unblinking, at Damen even as his fine hair dragged in the dirt. His face was deathly white, with streaks of mud stark against his pallor. He said in Akielon, “You’ve stopped bleeding.”

Damen groaned. The muscles in his back were stiff and aching. If he moved, he felt his body would rend in two. “How long-”

“Thirteen hours,” Laurent said. His unnerving gaze did not waver. “Your cage has a newly painted floor to match your royal colours. Jokaste would be pleased at your attention to detail.”

With effort, and painstaking caution, Damen turned his head. His blood had pooled around him, caking the dust beneath him. He turned back to Laurent and shifted away from his puddle. He ended up pressed against the bars as well, close enough to Laurent that he imagined he could feel him breathing. The imagined closeness comforted him through the agony in his back. He breathed, slowly.

“You ruined my plan,” Laurent said. “I told you to be silent.”

“Your plan was not working,” Damen said. He closed his eyes and focused his hearing on Laurent’s heartbeat, a familiar sound over the murmur of wolves around their cages. Laurent was silent for a very long moment, and Damen opened his eyes. Horror crawled along his skin. “Your plan was to be flogged.”

“My plan was to cause a distraction,” Laurent said. “The flogging presented itself.”

“You would have died.” Damen ground out the words, the rush of fury causing his wounds to throb. “You would not have survived with your injury.”

Laurent said nothing, and his gaze took on a faraway look as he stared at something over Damen's back.

“You will have to adjust your plan,” Damen said. “We can still get out.”

“And fight the entire camp? You can’t even stand,” Laurent said. “Your back is stripped. Without proper treatment it might not heal well. You could carry the pain for the rest of your life.”

“I will heal,” Damen said. “If the gods permit it, I will heal well. We still need to get out of here.”

“We can’t,” Laurent said. “I cannot carry you, human or animal shift.”

“Then you should go,” Damen said. He jerked when Laurent slammed his hand against the cage, rattling the metal.

“Those are not my keys,” Laurent said, his voice like a barbed mace around the Akielon sounds. Damen saw fury in the twist of his lips, and was awed by it. Gone was the calm, uninterested mask he wore. His eyes burned where they fell upon Damen.

He wanted to say something further, to find out why Laurent was so angry. But the sun blackened and he lost sense of the world around him.

Cool hands pressing into the hot skin at his shoulder dragged him to consciousness some time later, and he groaned. Above him, Laurent’s voice spoke.

“Damianos, you need to get up. It is time to go.”

Grasping at his hazy memory of recent events, Damen squinted up at Laurent. His back still ached viciously, and he wasn’t sure if he would be able to move. Laurent leaned over him, his hair falling on either side of his face like a veil.

“Get up,” Laurent said, in firm, unyielding Akielon. He held a hand in front of Damen's eyes, and Damen grasped it. With much effort, Laurent lifted Damen and slung an arm over his thin shoulders to bolster Damen's weight.

The pain in Damen's back spiked, and he couldn’t feel his legs. Laurent took one staggering step forward, and Damen could not follow. Against his will, he slumped, and Laurent was nearly pulled to the ground with him.

Laurent snapped out a forceful stream of Vaskian, and Damen heard footsteps approach over the pounding of his heart. He lifted his head, and saw several women dressed in Vaskian clothing approach at a quick pace. He was taken from Laurent, and the last thing he recalled was being lowered into the bed of another cart. Laurent hopped up behind him and touched hesitant fingers to his arm as his awareness fell away again.

Warm fur curled around him when he awoke next. He exhaled hard, feeling his muscles unlock, and he sank deeper against the bed. The pain in his back had diminished to a dull throb, and the skin around the edges of the whip marks tingled oddly in the air. Something had been smoothed over the skin, he assumed. The smell of it permeated the furs.

Carefully, he rolled onto his side and took in his surroundings. He was in a small tent, surrounded by a substantial pile of furs and pillows. The makeshift bed took up almost the entire tent, with a small space on the ground to set a pitcher of water and plate of plain bread. He reached for the bread. He did not even have to stretch.

The tent flap drew back, and Laurent slipped inside. He froze in the doorway, eyes widening when he saw Damen was awake and moving. In one hand he held a bowl of something that smelled much like the furs. He stilled his expression and said, “You’re awake.”

“I’m awake,” Damen said. “Where are we?”

“The Vaskian women from the local tribe raided the camp and recognised my hair,” Laurent said in Akielon. He closed the tent flap behind him with a wry, half smile. “I explained your relevance to my sister, and they have granted us safe passage and a place to rest while you heal.”

“To your sister? I am heir to my own throne,” Damen said.

“The Vaskian Empire is led by the Empress. Jokaste has far more weight than you do in these lands,” Laurent said. “You are lucky enough to warrant your own tent. I have the dubious pleasure of sleeping with the prisoners.”

“We can pretend you are my steward, and you can rest here,” Damen said before he could stop himself. Laurent stiffened, and Damen caught sight of a flash of silver at his wrists. He still wore his manacles. Laurent followed the line of his sight and lifted his wrist.

“One was welded on. They don’t have the tools to remove it here. Your left wrist is still shackled as well.”

Damen slid his wrist closer and saw Laurent was correct. One iron manacle still clamped down over his wrist. He heard Laurent take a breath.

“Lay flat on your stomach. I have salve to apply to your wounds. The Vaskians said it will help the skin heal and prevent permanent damage,” Laurent said.

Damen rolled onto his stomach and let his head fall against the furs. Just the small effort of talking to Laurent had wearied him. The first touch of cool fingers against his skin made him jerk, slightly. Laurent withdrew his fingers immediately, and Damen grunted. “It’s all right. Just cold.”

“Yes, your bodies are much warmer than ours,” Laurent said. “I will be quick.”

“It’s all right.”

Laurent said nothing further, and efficiently applied the salve across the length of Damen's back. Damen fell into a light doze as Laurent worked, and shifted uneasily when Laurent drew back and wiped his hands with a cloth.

“Are you awake?”

Damen grunted but did not move.

“The wounds have sealed and scabbed. If you stay still, you should be healed enough to travel in a few days,” Laurent said.

“And you?” Damen asked. He had to twist, because Laurent had moved out of his line of sight.

Laurent paused, and his brows furrowed in confusion.

“Your arms? How are your arms?” Damen asked.

There was a moment of hesitation before Laurent answered him. “They are healing as well.”

“When do you think you will be able to fly home?” Damen asked. “Jokaste must be told that we are well.”

Laurent handed the empty salve bowl to someone outside the tent, and let the flap fall closed again to grant Damen his privacy. Damen wished he could lay on his back. Following Laurent’s movement was exhausting. He relaxed against the furs and closed his eyes, focusing on Laurent’s heartbeat as he moved about the tent.

“You need an escort,” Laurent said. His voice was soft in the quiet space of the tent.

“The Vaskians can lend me an escort,” Damen said. With his eyes closed, his other senses seemed to heighten. He could hear the uneven flutter of Laurent’s heart, belying his calm expression and tone of voice. “What are you hiding about your injury, Rioux?”

Laurent said nothing, and was silent for such a long moment that Damen opened his eyes. He met Laurent’s gaze, and found himself being scrutinized by sharp blue eyes. Laurent’s face was tight with confusion, his brows pulled low over his eyes. Damen held his gaze quietly, hoping that whatever plagued Laurent he would speak of it.

“You are… not what I imagined,” Laurent said, finally breaking the somber quiet.

“What did you imagine?”

“The beast who killed my brother,” Laurent said. His eyes did not stray from Damen, even as he spoke of the terrible event.

“I wish it could have been different,” Damen said.

“You wish you had died that day instead?” Laurent asked, lifting one eyebrow.

“No. I wish we didn’t have to fight,” Damen said. “I wish it had not been someone you loved.”

“You wish to have struck another avian dead instead?”

“I have killed many in this war, as have you,” Damen said. He kept his voice calm. He wasn’t certain where the conversation was going, and he felt the air turn dangerous. He tried to direct the conversation back. “What aren’t you telling me? What’s wrong, Rioux?”

“I don’t understand,” Laurent said, his voice sharp. He flicked his eyes to a corner of the tent briefly. “I don’t understand why.”

For a moment, Damen lay confused. Laurent’s eyes drifted back to fix on Damen's back, and Damen exhaled, understanding. “I said before. You would not have survived. I could not let them kill you.”

“I am not as weak as you suppose,” Laurent said. “I have survived war. I have survived falling. I have survived the death of my father, my mother, and my brother. Do not presume you know me.”

“Fine. I did not want to take the chance,” Damen said.

“So you offer your back on the chance that I would die?” Laurent frowned, a delicate downturn of his lips. “What if you had not survived?”

The thought hadn’t occurred to Damen. He hesitated, reflecting on the possibility. Leonis were sturdier than avians. Their bones were not thin and light, because they did not have to fly. Damen knew. It was physical fact that he could take more of a beating than Laurent could. It was the truth of their natures.

“You did not think of it,” Laurent said. “You think me that weak.”

“No,” Damen said.

“I was raised to be strong. I do not need you or anyone else to neglect that fact,” Laurent said.

“No,” Damen said.

“I cannot fly,” Laurent said. The words rushed out, as if he could not contain them, and his eyes widened slightly at the revelation. As if he had not meant to say it. He did not meet Damen's eyes.

The fragmented pieces of the last few days fell into place. The wounds on Laurent’s arms, the uneasy look he got when Damen talked about their return plan… The Vaskian mercenaries had clipped Laurent’s wings. And had done a very poor job of it.

“Then we will walk back,” Damen said. The solution, to Damen, was simple. They would borrow horses from the Vaskians and simply ride back to Vere.

Laurent stared at him as if he had grown his demi-shift’s tail. He had rebraided his hair in the time Damen was unconscious, but in his haste he had missed a few strands. They floated around his face as he stood, frozen in his disbelief. Damen could not tear his eyes from Laurent’s hair. He blamed the pain exhaustion.

“I will see you safely home, I give my word,” Damen said. He was confused at Laurent’s hesitation and shock. He felt as if he were missing something vital to their interaction. But Laurent was alive. That was the most important thing.

“I am a grounded avian,” Laurent said. He took a sharp step forward, fists clenched at his sides.

“So you must fight on the ground like the rest of us,” Damen said. He closed his eyes and pressed his fingers into the soft fur around him. “I can show you some tricks.”

“I do not need your tricks,” Laurent said, slightly breathless.

“You should lie down before you hurt yourself. You look pale,” Damen said. He did not move, and eventually he heard Laurent huff out a sharp noise, before he lowered himself onto the pile of furs at Damen's feet. Damen let himself drift.

At some point during the night, he opened his eyes to see Laurent upright beside him, fingers clutching a piece of parchment. The paper trembled in his hands.

“What is it?” Damen asked, his words slurred in exhaustion. Laurent jumped, and hastily folded the parchment down.

“Nothing. Rest. Do not worry over it.”

After several days of bedrest, Laurent finally let Damen stand up and move around the women’s campsite. Every single one of Damen's muscles yearned for movement. He wanted to shift and run through the lackluster gold Vaskian fields surrounding them. Laurent would not allow it. He made noises about resting and regaining strength. Damen felt strong. He wanted to move.

Laurent caught him trying to sneak away from the camp for the fifth time before he finally said, “Spar with me.”

Surprised, Damen paused. “What?”

Laurent did not repeat himself, and walked to the section that the women had roped off as a training ground. Unable to believe his luck, Damen followed, trying not to look too excited at the possibility of having fun for the first time since he could remember.

They took up wooden training swords, fashioned in the Vaskian style- short and thick- and stepped onto packed dirt. It felt very light in Damen's hand. He wondered how it felt in Laurent’s hand. Laurent, who would be more experienced with a bow than with a sword.

Damen and Laurent squared off in the grounds. Laurent took the lead, testing Damen's guard with short, easy thrusts. The rhythm of their spar was kept easy and maintainable. Every time Damen tried to speed up the practice, Laurent effectively slowed his charge and returned him to a slower pace. It surprised Damen. He knew Laurent was good, had seen him handle a bow, a spear, and a sword before. But Damen was the best in Akielos, the Prince Killer, and Laurent deflected him time after time.

The hot thrill of challenge kindled in his chest, and he longed to push at it but Laurent would not let him. And despite Damen's frustration, after only a few short rounds he was winded and shaky. He let Laurent take his practice weapon and replace it on the racks. They made their way back to Damen's private tent. Slowly.

Damen drew the flap back and immediately went for the fur pile.

“Your stomach,” Laurent said.

Damen froze in the process of reclining instinctively. He groaned as he shifted onto his stomach instead. He hated sleeping on his stomach. His noise of discontent drew Laurent to him, and he sighed. “I’m fine. Just irritated.”

“You need to give your body time to heal,” Laurent said. “Perhaps today was not prudent.”

“If I keep lying here I will lose my mind,” Damen said.

“Your wounds have not reopened, even after the exertion. We may be able to leave soon.” Laurent sat on the furs beside Damen's head. He pressed a small chunk of bread into Damen's hand. Damen nibbled on it while Laurent breathed beside him.

“You’re very good,” Damen said. Laurent glanced at him and tilted his head, his braid falling over his shoulder. “With a sword.”

Laurent was silent for a moment, staring at the tent flaps. Finally, he closed his eyes. “Damianos of Akielos was nineteen when he rode out onto the battlefield and killed my brother in single combat. Auguste was the best swordsman in the nation. I knew that if I had to beat you, I would have to be very, very good.”

The thrill renewed in Damen, and he let himself smile. “I would enjoy a real spar, when we are back in Vere.”

The corner of Laurent’s lips tipped up, and Damen smiled wider when he saw it. Laurent said, “Maybe.”

“Come, lay with me. We will rest before the evening meal,” Damen said. He patted the furs beside him, and Laurent shuffled until he reclined beside Damen on his back.

“I am not actually your attendant, remember,” Laurent said. “Do not get presumptuous.”

“I would never. Apparently I have already wed your sister,” Damen said. “Avians mate for life.”

Laurent made a noise in the back of his throat, but said nothing. His eyes were locked on a spot in the distance again, which Damen was coming to learn was his expression when something trapped him in his mind. If Laurent had been a leonis, Damen would have offered the comfort of a hand at his shoulder or back. But Laurent was not. And Damen should not be touching the frigid brother of his wife whom was softening around the edges the longer they spent together.

He should not even be thinking about touching Laurent’s hair, feeling soft strands under his fingers. He should not be wondering what Laurent’s body felt like.

Damen exhaled sharply and closed his eyes. He curled and uncurled his fingers, trying to lessen the growing want in his chest. Laurent did not help by speaking.

“Do your arms hurt?”

“No. I am fine.” Damen sighed.

“Your fingers are twitching,” Laurent said, refusing to be silent and let Damen suffer, alone, in his head.

“I am doing that on purpose. Is it dinner time yet?”

“Not for another hour. Are you still hungry? I can fetch more food.”

“No. I am fine.” Damen reluctantly pushed himself up, feeling distance was necessary. He found Laurent watching him intently. He said again, “I am fine.”

Laurent pursed his lips but said nothing further. He placed a delicate wrist on his forehead and closed his eyes. Damen embraced the following silence with relief.

They were able to leave a few days later. Damen declined an escort, knowing that two could travel much more quickly than six or seven. He did accept a sword crafted almost like an Akielon blade, and Laurent armed himself with a spear and bow and arrow. Damen saw that he had a sword strapped to the saddle before they left camp for the mountains.

They rode in a comfortable silence. Laurent seemed content to keep a quick but steady pace along the mountain path. Both were almost fully recovered from their ordeals, and Damen maintained a loose readiness in case they came across any other groups of mercenaries. The mountain paths were too dangerous to leave the marked trail, so they had to tread carefully and quietly as they guided their horses.

Several days passed with sparse conversation. Damen did not dare broach any topic of conversation, for fear of tipping further into Laurent’s inexorable pull. He caught Laurent’s eyes on him several times a day and restrained himself from commenting on it. There was no malice in the glances. Now they held only curiosity, and at some points, exasperation.

Damen heard rather than saw Laurent’s sigh of relief when they finally crossed back into Veretian territory. His own shoulders relaxed. The mountain path they had taken had brought them south, close to the Akielon border. It was possible they would come across some of his own countrymen. A familiar face after weeks of strangers would be welcome.

Horses approached from over a small hill, and Damen swung down from his saddle when he recognised the Regent’s colours and banner. Laurent did the same, coming to stand with his shoulder just barely brushing against Damen's arm. Damen steadfastly held his position. Only their proximity let Damen know that Laurent had his hand on the hilt of his borrowed sword.

“Your Highness!” The man in the lead drew his horse to a halt and swung off, followed by the rest of his contingent. As they approached, and saw Damen, they all drew their swords. Two men on the outside of the group held spears.

Laurent gave a sharp twist of his shoulder and planted himself in front of Damen. “We were kidnapped by Vaskian mercenaries. You will escort us safely back to the Nest. I must speak with my sister, the queen.”

“Your sister was found guilty of treason,” the man said. “After your- death she was found to be colluding with Akielos against the interests of Vere.”

“My death?” Laurent’s hand tightened on the hilt of his weapon. Damen could not see his expression, but he did not envy the soldier’s position. Ice gripped his heart. Jokaste...

“We are to take Damianos of Akielos into custody,” the soldier said. He stepped forward. Laurent shifted his foot, gravel sliding under his sole. “You are safe now, Your Highness, please allow us to take this beast to justice.”

“Go,” Laurent said. He was not speaking to the soldier.

“You cannot fight six men on your own,” Damen said. He grasped his own sword. His words elicited a rough noise of annoyance from Laurent’s throat before the men were upon them.

Without his armour, fighting was tedious, exhilarating, and terrifying. The slightest knick of a Veretian blade would end his life, and he had to call upon every ounce of leonis flexibility to avoid being struck. But six men were overwhelming. There were too many blades to see.

He batted away a spear only to catch a sword slicing towards him out of the corner of his eye. He never felt the blade. Laurent stepped deftly between them and caught the strike neatly between his ribs.

He slammed back into Damen, and the soldier hastily withdrew his sword, horror crawling over his features. Damen grasped Laurent and lowered him, shaking, to the ground. One pale hand pressed hard against the seeping wound, and his blonde hair spilled over the grass beneath his head.

The red of Laurent’s blood filled Damen's vision, and for a long, breathless moment all he could hear was his heart pounding in his chest and the violent crash of steel against steel. When he became aware of himself again, his muscles ached with exertion. The men lay dead around them, broken and scattered as if a great force had struck them from the heavens. He saw with slight surprise that one had tried to shift to escape. Damen had broken both his arms in response.

He was covered in blood, and Damen threw down his sword to fall at Laurent’s side. He heard the rumble of more horses approaching as he scooped Laurent off the ground and gripped him close. He turned towards the oncoming horses, and almost dropped back to his knees when he saw his own banner flying behind them.

“Eos!” Leading the charge was Makedon. He drew the small troop around Damen, blocking out the bodies of the Veretian men around them. “We thought you dead.” He paused. “That is the bird prince.”

A shaking, slick hand reached up and cupped the back of Damen's neck. He glanced at Laurent, whose eyes were heavy lidded with pain. He said, in a low but steady voice, “Do not let me ride with him.”

Damen barked out a laugh, and tightened his grip on Laurent. He nodded, and Laurent dropped his head against Damen's arm, to weak to hold it up anymore. He kept his hand hooked around Damen's neck, his skin cool against Damen's.

“We need to ride for a safe resting place,” Damen said, in Akielon. “The Veretians drew on their prince.”

“My stronghold is less than an hour’s ride,” Makedon said. He squinted into the sunlight, looking towards the mountains. “You came from Vask?”

“Yes. We were taken,” Damen said. A horse was led to him, and with some aid he positioned Laurent in the saddle and then mounted behind him. Laurent leaned back into his chest, shaking with the effort of remaining upright, and gripped the reins just above Damen's hands. As if he would have control over where the horse moved. Damen leaned over Laurent, protective with his movement rather than restrictive. “It’s all right. You can let go. I will keep you safe.”

The words, passed in a low voice between them, had the intended effect. Laurent slowly unclenched his hands and let his weight lean more heavily against Damen. He moved one hand to his wound, and pressed hard against the blood flow. Damen mimicked the motion, lacing their fingers together over the wound.

Makedon led the way, guiding them away from the wretched mountains and into the blessedly warm flats of Akielos. By the time Makedon’s residence drew near, Laurent was unconscious, his fingers lax in Damen's hold. His blood slipped down both their legs and clung to the saddle. Before the horse had even stopped moving, Damen was out of the saddle and pulling Laurent into his arms.

“Send for the best medic in Ios, and get me your field doctor,” Damen said to Makedon. The man bowed and turned to his men to execute the orders.

Chapter Text

Damen carried Laurent into Makedon’s low, sprawling personal residence. It was locked behind the well-built, sturdy walls of a border town, and Damen felt no qualms striding into Makedon’s private quarters to lay Laurent against smooth sheets.

Makedon’s wife, Agatha, burst into the room, quickly and awkwardly prostrated before Damen, and then gasped when she saw Laurent. She snatched up a water bowl on her way to the bed, and sat on the mattress beside Laurent. With the experience of long years being wedded to a warlord, she began cleaning and preparing the wound for the field medic’s inspection.

Makedon’s field medic entered the room, with a bag of supplies in hand. She glanced at Damen. “You may not want to stay here, my lord.”

“If he wakes he will fight you,” Damen said. “I will remain.”

The medic hesitated. “I do not have much experience with avians, my lord.”

“I trust your abilities,” Damen said. “They are not that different from us, in flesh and blood.”

The medic nodded, and turned her attention to her patient. Agatha stepped away, her part complete, and stood ready to answer the medic’s needs. Damen knew it was best he stayed out of the way, and quietly sat down on the other side of the bed, his eyes intent on Laurent’s face. The younger man was deathly pale, his forehead beaded with sweat, and expression a grimace of pain.

It felt like hours before the medic had completed her treatment. When she finished, Laurent’s skin was drawn shut by a crisp row of stitches. The medic washed her hands and accepted the towel that Agatha extended. She glanced at Damen. “The blade was soaked in am’haj. I know it does not normally affect avians, but this wound was deep, and the dose was quite substantial. He may not wake.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “You are lucky to have made it out alive.”

“Luck had little to do with it,” Damen said, unable to tear his eyes away from Laurent.

The medic glanced between them, and let out a soft breath, piecing the events together. “I did not know avians cared for beings other than themselves.”

“They hide much out of necessity,” Damen said. “Their culture is very private. Being allowed to see emotion is something truly intimate to them. They are different, but they feel. Just as we do. They are quiet but forceful in their expression.”

“I will leave you to your watch. Lykaios informed the runner that she will be riding up with the court surgeon. They will be here before the week ends.” The medic stood and took her leave. Agatha still hovered, but at a discreet distance and appeared to be making herself busy.

“You boys got into trouble while you were up there, didn’t you?” Agatha said. She wrung her hands out in a rag and approached the bedside.

“The Veretians are quiet but they are also devious,” Damen said. “We were taken at the border and carried far into Vaskian territory. Rioux believes it was his uncle’s doing.”

Agatha pressed her lips together. She said, “His uncle declared himself king.”

Damen went cold despite the warm spring air. “What of Nikandros and my men?”

“There’s been no word,” Agatha said. “Makedon has been leading as if Nikandros will not return, but he dares not send anyone into Vere without the permission of the Eos. They waited for your return. Some kyroi further south were not as patient.”

“What has happened?” Damen asked, his heart in his throat.

“Kastor made a bid for the throne, claiming you were dead. He has the mark of the Helios as proof,” Agatha said.

Damen instinctively clasped his arm where the golden band usually sat. His skin felt bare without it. “I gave it to Jokaste.”

“No doubt taken from her during her uncle’s uprising,” Agatha said. “And offered to Kastor to give him enough confidence to finally reach for the power he’s always wanted.”

“I will see him,” Damen said.

Agatha shook her head, her dark hair rippling. “You should rest here until it is more settled. There is too much unrest. I fear for your safety if you approach Ios.”

“It is my home,” Damen said, unable to keep the pain from his voice.

“It is not safe,” Agatha said. She gripped his arm and gave him a slight shake. “You need to gather those loyal to you. Wait for Lykaois. Wait for support before doing anything.”

Laurent uttered a soft sound of pain, and Damen found his attention torn from Agatha. She spoke the truth. He had been away from his kingdom for more than was prudent. He needed to gather information before making a move. He needed to speak with his brother. Surely they would be able to sit down and work something out.

Laurent shifted, tipping his head towards Damen. Damen brushed sweat-soaked hair back from Laurent’s forehead, fighting back the concern over how hot Laurent’s skin burned under his touch. Laurent dragged in a ragged breath, and his eyes fluttered.

Damen gently cupped Laurent’s face as he forced his eyes open. His gaze was clouded with fever, and Damen saw no recognition within them. He said, in Veretian, “Laurent, you are safe. You can rest. Please rest.”

Laurent curled his hand around Damen's and held on, his fingers digging into Damen's skin with surprising strength. Damen pushed a hand through Laurent’s hair. “You are safe. I will remain here. Rest now. Stop fighting. You don’t need to fight anymore.”

Fingers still wrapped around Damen's wrist, Laurent’s eyes slipped shut once more. His body went loose against the sheets, and Damen slid closer to him. Agatha watched them with sharp eyes. She said, “What did you say?”

“That he is safe here and he needs to rest,” Damen said, in Akielon. He looked to Agatha. “Because he will not be harmed while in my care”

“I would never hurt someone the Eos looked at with those eyes,” Agatha said. She gave Damen a small smile.

“I don’t-” Damen found the words sticking in his throat. “I just want to see him home safely. I know what it is to be surrounded by strangers.”

Agatha patted him on the knee and pushed herself up from the bed. “I will be down the hall if you need me. Feel free to avail yourself to the rest of the quarters. Makedon will be in shortly, I’m certain.”

Damen leaned back against the pillows of the bed. Laurent still held his wrist captive, and he let it rest on the sheets between them. He sat back and listened to Laurent’s heartbeat.

…*...

The next few days were a blur of helplessness and borderline terror as Laurent’s body fought the am’haj. He swung in and out of consciousness, and when he was lucid he was in tremendous pain that wracked his body with violent tremors. Damen tried his best to keep him settled, and to keep him comfortable, but he nearly lost his mind when Laurent’s fever spiked to the point he seized. Agatha pushed him from the room and told him to jump in the backyard pond to cool down.

When Agatha allowed him back in the room, Laurent was resting on his side. Damen spared a moment to towel off before sliding back onto the bed despite Agatha’s grunt of disapproval. Laurent’s eyes opened at the movement, and Damen rested his hand, palm up, between them. During his fever, Laurent had not relinquished his grip on Damen. Whether his hand or his wrist or the remaining manacle, Laurent had gripped him like an anchor as the fever shook him.

Now, Laurent slid his clammy palm against Damen's, fingers clenching tight. Laurent opened his mouth, but was too exhausted for sound to come out. Damen squeezed their joined hands.

“Rest. Just rest,” Damen said. Laurent closed his eyes and breathed. Damen closed his eyes and listened.

Laurent’s fever finally broke on the fourth day. He stirred in the middle of the night and sat up, one hand gingerly holding his side. Damen, awakened by the movement, pushed himself up on one elbow. “Rioux?”

“Laurent,” he said.

Damen sat up further, the sheets falling away from his stomach and chest. “What?”

“Laurent is my name. I would have you use it,” Laurent said. His voice was quiet in the space between them, flickering like a waning candle flame. Damen felt himself warm.

“Are you all right, Laurent?” The word felt odd on his tongue. Then, he realised the scalding heat that had been pouring off Laurent for the past few days was gone. He twisted his hands in the sheets. “Your fever broke.”

“I feel… awful,” Laurent said. He rubbed his hands over his arms in barely concealed disgust.

Damen practically sprung from the bed and rounded the mattress to reach the bedside table. He poured a glass of water and handed it to Laurent, who lifted it to his lips and drank slowly until it was gone. Damen took the cup back, and extended a hand. Laurent stared at it.

“I will show you the bathing chamber,” Damen said. “You will feel better after washing.”

“Chambers? You don’t lick each other clean?” Laurent asked. The instant the words fell from his lips, his cheeks darkened.

“Only if you request it, your highness,” Damen said, unable to resist. Laurent cleared his throat, and slid his hand into Damen's.

Damen helped him to his feet and steadied him as they made their way slowly towards the small stream that fed Makedon’s bathing chamber. Heated rocks warmed the flowing water as it gathered in a low pool before flowing out of the room. Laurent sat down on an upturned bucket, and glanced down at himself.

“Oh.” Laurent picked at the soft Akielon robe he wore, which was not so much to cover him but to present the feeling of being covered. It was sheer and thin so as not to constrict him while he slept, and allow his body to naturally work through the fever. But it was not meant to conceal him. When he looked back to Damen, his expression was unnervingly vulnerable. Damen's heart clenched. Laurent’s voice broke though he strove for nonchalance. “This is Akielon.”

“Your Vaskian clothing was ruined with blood,” Damen said. “And you were so ill you could not make a decision. I was the one who dressed you. Only the surgeon and the medic touched you otherwise, to see to your wound. Are you all right? Laurent?”

“I am naked,” Laurent said. He looked slightly dazed. Damen worried briefly that his fever had returned. Laurent dropped his hands into his lap and glanced at the pool. “I will need assistance.”

Confused by Laurent’s unusual openness, Damen obliged. He dropped to one knee beside Laurent and unfastened the single tie on his shift. The sheer cloth fell away, and Damen grasped him under his elbow and helped him to his feet. Together, they stepped into the low pool. Damen paused just long enough to remove his own clothing. Laurent sat on a ledge just beneath the surface, and leaned back against the edge while Damen picked up the soap and a soft cloth.

“May I?” Damen gestured to Laurent’s arm, draped loosely over the edge of the pool. Laurent followed his gaze and took a slow breath.

“Do you not have attendants for such matters?” Laurent asked, a light tilt to his voice that had not been there before.

“Would you allow a strange Akielon to assist you?” Damen asked. Laurent’s silence was answer enough. Damen asked once again, “May I?”

Laurent lifted his arm in invitation, and Damen took careful hold of his wrist, and began smoothing the lathered cloth over Laurent’s skin. He kept his touches perfunctory and efficient, though his hesitation at Laurent’s feathers caused a sharp shiver to roll down the man’s spine. When he was finished, Laurent pushed away from the edge and quickly dunked himself. Soap suds drifted away in the slow current.

Water sluiced from Laurent’s body as he made his way back to the edge of the pool, and Damen could not tear his eyes away. Unclothed and weak from fever, Laurent was softer, his sharpness blurred and worn away. Even the fierce mask of indifference that he wore almost instinctively was gone, and Damen found himself enamoured by the gentle confusion he saw when Laurent caught him staring. As if he could not understand what Damen found so enthralling.

“You are not what I imagined either,” Damen said. Laurent tilted his head, his eyes narrowing. “Our people believe yours have no emotion. That you cannot feel. You’ve shown me different.”

“Have I?” Laurent said. He cupped one shoulder with a hand, unconsciously covering himself with his arm.

Damen pushed out of the pool and dragged a towel from the bench. He held it open for Laurent, who cautiously stepped up after him, and let himself be wrapped in the cloth. The uncharacteristic haze seemed to hover still over Laurent as they made their way back to the bed chamber.

Laurent sat on the edge of the mattress and let the towel slip from his shoulders to pool around his hips. Damen stood in front of him, unsure what to do or what had brought on this odd mood. Lauren finally said, “My sister is dead.”

And then Damen understood. The young prince was in shock, the last of his family torn from him. With a soft sound of comfort, Damen went to his knees in front of Laurent, who stared at him warily. “We do not know that.”

“If she was found guilty of treason the only punishment is execution,” Laurent said. “She is dead, and my uncle has assumed the throne. Your men are dead, too.”

The thought of Nikandros’ body decaying in a foreign land stopped his heart briefly, but Damen took a steadying breath and pushed the image away. “We do not know that either.”

“My uncle would not have let them live,” Laurent said. His hands were clenched into fists in his lap. “He will have executed them publicly.”

“Laurent.”

“Along with my entire detail.” Warming to his topic, Laurent’s expression became hard and unyielding. Damen did not like it at all. “With my sister out of the way he will have no need for me or my household. He will-”

Damen covered Laurent’s hands with both of his, stopping the words. Laurent looked at him, startled. With his eyes wide, and hair clinging to his cheeks and throat in wet ringlets, he looked indescribably young. Slowly, Damen reached up to cup Laurent’s cheek with one hand.

“Do not think on such things while you recover,” Damen said. “There will be time later. You need a few more days rest before we can do anything.”

“‘We’? This is not your concern,” Laurent said.

“It is my concern if your uncle turns his attentions south once more,” Damen said. “I know nothing of your uncle, nor his intentions. But we will think on that later. You need rest.”

Laurent peered at him, his fierce gaze fraught with unease. “I can’t understand you. I can’t understand why I am driven to trust you.”

“I am honoured,” Damen said. “Even if you cannot explain it. And you have my support. No matter the challenge.”

“Agatha said your brother had claimed the throne while we were indisposed,” Laurent said. “How do you intend to support me?”

“I have kyroi who do not want my brother on the throne. I am the rightful Helios. My presence will undermine him. It will work out,” Damen said. “He only did as was natural in the supposed death of the heir.”

Laurent said nothing, his eyes cast to the side, avoiding Damen. Damen pushed a hand through Laurent’s hair. “Now rest.”

Laurent reclined against the pillows, and Damen drew the sheet over him. He closed his eyes and, as Damen watched, fell asleep. Blonde hair splayed against the crisp white pillow, and Damen resisted the urge to touch. Instead, he went in search of light food.

He found Lykaois.

She sat in the kitchen with Agatha, and when she saw him, she leapt from her chair and threw herself into his arms. She trembled against him, and he gripped her tightly, burying his face in her hair. She said in a shaking voice, “They said you were dead.”

“I was taken,” Damen said. She squeezed him tighter. “I’m fine. I’m home now.”

“Home.” Lykaios jerked back from him. “Your brother cannot erase your memory quick enough. He has not even sent a party to retrieve the men in Vere. He is content to let them die while the Veretians fight over their throne.”

“He will see reason,” Damen said. “I will return to Ios and speak with him.”

“I fear for you if you do,” she said. “He will not relinquish his power to easily. He feels it is his right.”

“I am the rightful Eos,” Damen said. “He will obey tradition. He must.”

She was about to say something more, but her hand fell lower along Damen's back, and she frowned. With a light touch at his arm, she turned him, and gasped. “Damen! Your back!”

“Our captors were less than hospitable,” Damen said. He turned until she stood before him, distress in her eyes. “It is over. They are just scars now.”

“Damen!” Lykaios gripped his forearms. “You could have been killed.”

“As I could have leading my men into battle, time after time,” Damen said. “I had someone with me, someone to aid me. I am fine.”

“The injured man? The bird?” Lykaios said. Her dark blonde hair fell over her shoulders and along her arms. “Birds do not feel. They care only for themselves.”

“That is not true,” Damen said, annoyance flickering in him. Just now Laurent had laid himself bare to Damen, had trusted him completely to keep him safe and protected. “They are less free with their emotions, but not devoid of them. He is the reason I am standing here. He did not leave me behind when he could have.”

Lykaios bit her lower lip, uneasy and concerned. “And he helped you? Without want of anything?”

“He saved my life, nearly at the expense of his own,” Damen said, giving voice to the cold knowledge that gripped him since they had returned from the Vaskian foothills. “He can be trusted. He has a good heart.”

“If you can find trust in a bird, then I will attempt to do the same,” Lykaios said. “I trust your judgement, and anyone who has aided in your return to us deserves the chance. Come, I will prepare a meal easy on the stomach.”

Laurent was back on his feet within two days, the wound in his side well on its way to healing. In the absence of Veretian style clothing, he wore an Akielon chiton, which left his arms and legs bare. Damen found his eyes straying regularly to the play of pale skin when Laurent moved. This did not go unnoticed by Lykaios, who teased him relentlessly when Laurent was out of earshot.

Damen knew his affections were starting to become unmanageable when he came across Laurent in the hall one day, looking longingly at the sky as he leaned against a white pillar. Damen had to stop until his heart calmed before he could approach.

“Do you miss it?” He said as he drew near. Laurent glanced at him briefly before turning his eyes heavenward.

“I never flew much anyway,” he said.

“That’s not an answer,” Damen said. He lifted his eyes upwards as well, trying to figure out what appeal could be found in existing so far from the earth.

“A clipped bird can still fly,” Laurent said. His voice revealed nothing, as if he were reciting from a historical scroll. “Just without control. The air still flows beneath one’s wings, but one lacks the ability to shift in its currents, and can endanger oneself by creating the opportunities for collisions into objects such as trees or buildings.”

“You can still fly, then,” Damen said, surprised. Laurent had implied that the damage was disabling. “Have you not tried? Are you afraid you will fall?”

“I am not afraid of falling,” Laurent said, sharply. He gripped his arms tightly over his chest, and Damen could hear the lie in his heartbeat. Damen could see the tip of one of the scars on his arm. “I have fallen many times before and survived.”

“The lack of control, then?” Damen moved to stand beside Laurent, and leaned against the wall, protecting their conversation from anyone who happened to be passing.

Laurent’s expression twisted into something akin to a pout, and if Damen did not know him better, he would have smiled. “You are too prescient.”

“Go with me,” Damen said. Laurent tore his gaze away from the open fields and looked at him. “You say you do not fear falling but it must be a comfort if there is something soft to land on. I will not let the winds carry you away. I have been told I am very large and very persistent.”

Laurent’s lips ticked up slightly, and he cast one more glance out into the fields. Damen saw Makedon’s workers moving around, working the fields for the summer harvest. Damen leaned slightly closer. “I know a field where no one will see. It will be private.”

Laurent met his eyes, and Damen was pinned in place by the intensity of his gaze. Finally, Laurent nodded, and he pushed away from the wall. With the thrill of excitement growing in him, Damen grinned and led Laurent out of the house and down towards a secluded field. When they were younger and visiting, Damen and Nikandros used to practice in the field, away from prying eyes that would comment on his form or tactics. And if those fights sometimes ended in a more… pleasurable form of contact, then Damen was not one to complain.

He pushed those thoughts firmly from his mind. This was about Laurent healing, not his own inclinations.

Damen shifted first, and stretched the huge muscles of his lion form. He dropped to the ground and rolled on his back, uncaring that his tongue hung out of his mouth like an ill bred wolf. It had been a while since he shifted, with the travel and Laurent’s injury. Wearing his lion shift was a welcome relief.

When he realised Laurent was still staring at him, he heaved himself up and trotted over to the young prince, nudging his hand. Laurent tried to lift his hand from reach, but Damen followed with his head, trying to maintain contact. Laurent sighed in exasperation.

“It is unbefitting for the king of a nation to get his ears scritched, Leandros.” And yet he relented, and Damen felt bolts of pleasure shoot through him as Laurent’s fingers scratched at the sensitive skin behind his ears. But he was stalling. Damen nudged Laurent’s chest with his nose.

Laurent stepped back and held his arms out to his sides while Damen plopped onto his hind legs to watch. He had never seen anyone in the royal family shift.

Before his eyes, Laurent shortened and changed, his skin darkening into a brilliant shade of blue as feathers grew along his skin. In moments, a large blue jay stood in Laurent’s place, his head held high in the tall grass of the field. His feathers were an incredible shade of blue, reflected in his human shift’s eyes. Even his beak held a tinge of blue to it, in certain light. When his gaze landed on him, Damen could feel the judgement.

Damen shook his mane and pressed his belly close to the ground, tail swishing behind him. Laurent fluffed up his feathers, watching Damen warily. Ensuring to display his intent, Damen pounced at Laurent.

Laurent took off from the ground with a screech, and Damen was left empty-pawed. He glanced up and saw Laurent loop around in an uneven oval. His wings flicked uncertainly as he tried to keep his altitude. Damen pushed to his feet and kept his eyes on the sky.

Laurent took a frightening dip downwards, and Damen followed his descent with quick feet. He tucked his head and Laurent landed hard, talons digging into Damen's thick mane. He steadied himself, and Damen waited until he was ready to give him an upwards boost.

He shot into the air and when he spread his wings to catch himself in the air, Damen could see the terrible clipping job that had been done. The cuts were uneven and ugly, and Damen could not fathom how it felt to fly on them. He imagined it would be much like losing his tail, the balancing force in his lion shift.

Testing his strength, Laurent attempted to fly higher and managed an impressive height before he lost control and took a dive. Damen trundled beneath him and caught him again with his mane. Laurent struggled upright in a tangle of feathers and hair, and pushed off again towards the sun.

Every time Laurent swung close to the ground, Damen nudged him up with his nose, as if they were playing an elaborate game of keep away. Their playful adventure took them close to the edge of a ravine, and Damen did not realise until Laurent took a downturn straight towards it.

Alarmed, Damen gathered himself and leapt, paws out. The ravine was not fatally deep, but a fall would injure either of them. He grasped Laurent between his paws in mid-air, halting his fall, tucked him safely in his mouth, and vaulted to the opposite side. He landed easily on the other side, and deposited Laurent, unharmed, on the ground.

Laurent instantly shifted to his human form, hair a wild cloud around his head. His limbs sprawled around him. “Was that truly necessary?”

Damen shifted as well, and collapsed to the ground beside Laurent. He could not help the pleased grin that spread over his lips. “I swore I would catch you. I did not specify how.”

“In your mouth though?” Laurent made a show of wiping his arms and shoulders, and then brazenly smeared his hand over Damen's lips, as if wiping away the taste of himself.

Damen froze, stunned by the touch, and watched Laurent carefully for any sign of discomfort. None showed, and Laurent in fact looked happy. A warm flush graced his pale cheeks, from exertion and quite possibly the subsequent touch. His shoulders were lowered, and his body held an easy repose as he waited for Damen to react. Waited for Damen to meet his eyes and see the invitation there.

Damen rolled onto his back, his gaze locked on Laurent’s, and reached for him. He rested his hand at the curve of Laurent’s throat, and Laurent allowed himself to be guided close, until he practically lay across Damen's chest. He placed one hesitant hand at Damen's shoulder, and closed the distance between them.

The first kiss warmed Damen like the sun coming over the horizon on a cool morning. Laurent trembled against him, with nerves or something else, Damen was not certain, but he pressed himself to Damen without hesitation. Damen cupped Laurent’s elbow and allowed his lips to part against Laurent’s sweet insistence.

Laurent withdrew, a soft breath escaping him as he did so, and blinked down at Damen. “You are-”

“Don’t speak,” Damen said. “Unless to tell me something you dislike. You are safe. I will always catch you.”

“Don’t,” Laurent said. A chill skated through Damen. “Do not make promises you cannot keep.”

“I wouldn’t,” Damen said. He pushed his fingers through Laurent’s tangled hair, tugging gently at the knots there. Laurent moved his head away and grasped Damen's hand, placing it against a flushed cheek.

“Here,” he said.

Warmth spread out from where Damen touched, and Damen drew him near to kiss him again. Despite his propensity to hide behind a mask of indifference, Laurent kissed as if experiencing an entirely new sensation, something to be learned and subsequently mastered. Damen was more than happy to assist his investigation.

Damen let his head fall back against the grass and touched a restraining hand to Laurent’s shoulder. “If you wish to continue, it would be wise to move somewhere softer.”

Laurent furthered the distance between them, sitting up straight as he cast his gaze around the field, to the ravine they had nearly toppled into, and the horizon beyond. Damen felt the space between them like a weight on his chest. He touched the back of his knuckles to Laurent’s bare thigh.

“Have you done this before?” Damen asked.

“Yes,” Laurent said. His back straightened, and his muscles tensed. Damen sat up, surprised.

“Are you wed?”

“No.”

The crisp ice was back in his voice, and Damen floundered, wanting to go back to the feeling of Laurent pressed against him. He sat up, his shoulder close to Laurent’s but not touching. “Do you prefer women, then?”

Laurent gave him an odd look, curious and disbelieving, before shaking his head as if clearing a daze. “No. I- No.”

“We don’t have to,” Damen said. “Sex is to be done willingly or not at all.”

“Let us return,” Laurent said. He pushed off the ground and brushed dirt and grass from his chiton. Damen followed the motion. A quick shift got them back over the ravine, and then they walked back to Makedon’s residence. Laurent’s odd mood persisted, and Damen could not break it despite combining efforts with Lykaios and Agatha.

That night, Damen sat up in bed and stared at the moon while Laurent lay beside him, ostensibly sleeping. Damen knew that he was not asleep. His heart fluttered far too rapidly to be sleeping, and his breath hitched occasionally.

Damen missed the sound of the ocean. The pang of homesickness hit him forcefully and without warning. He folded his arms over his chest clenched his fists. He wished to be home amongst familiar faces, and people he understood.

“Leandros?” Laurent turned in the bed, his body loose and open. He tipped his head on the pillow to look up at Damen. “What is it?”

“Damen,” Damen said. Laurent was silent for a moment.

“Are you all right, Damen?”

Damen enjoyed the sound of his name in Laurent’s voice, but his mood did not ease. Now started, the ache grew and rumbled through his entire body like a living thing, threatening to overwhelm him. The sheets were suddenly restrictive.

He shoved them back and stood, walking to the open balcony of Makedon’s room where he could stand under the open stars. Even the open expanse of the bed chamber seemed to close in on him, the walls looming ominously. He inhaled the fresh night air, and tried to calm his heart.

A hand came to rest on his arm, and he startled. Laurent drew his hand back, his brows drawn together in concern. Damen folded his arms over his chest, and Laurent attempted to break the uneasy silence between them. “You are distracted.”

“Yes,” Damen said.

“Do you think of home or of… other matters?” Laurent asked. His voice was soft against the quiet of the night, unobtrusive and soothing against the ragged edges of Damen's emotions. He gently pressed his fingers to Damen's arm again. “Your kind touches so freely. The barest brush of your fingers lights a fire in me. How can you stand it?”

“Let me show you?” Damen turned, inviting Laurent into his space. Laurent watched him move, not cautious but calculating, trying to determine how he should react. After a breath-stopping moment, Laurent nodded. Damen covered Laurent’s hand with his own and turned it in his grasp, lacing their fingers together.

He tugged Laurent back to the bed, where the sheets were still thrown back, waiting. Laurent let himself be guided, let himself be gently nudged onto his back against the soft mattress and as he did, he parted his knees. Heat suffused Damen, seeming to expand under his skin as he moved forward. He pressed the flat of his hand to Laurent’s quivering abdomen. He hesitated.

“Is this truly what you want?” Damen caught Laurent’s gaze with difficulty.

“Why are you still talking?” Laurent asked. His thighs twitched on either side of Damen, as if it took effort to hold them in place.

Damen slid up Laurent’s body, letting both his hands rest against Laurent’s ribs. He could feel bone under thin skin when Laurent inhaled. Letting his chin rest on the centre of Laurent’s chest, he said, “I am ensuring your comfort because it is my concern.”

“Do not let it concern you,” Laurent said. He tugged one leg closer to Damen, securing their bodies together. Damen felt heat ignite when Laurent moved under him.

“You will always concern me,” Damen said. He slowly lifted the hem of Laurent’s night shift. Though the fabric was thin and sheer, it was still a barrier. Under Laurent’s heated eyes, he bared Laurent’s chest. They had to break the intense gaze to drag the cloth over Laurent’s head, and Laurent came off the bed slightly along with his shirt.

He looped his arms around Damen's neck, and Damen surged in to take Laurent’s lips. Where Jokaste had been enthusiastic and responsive, Laurent appeared shy and thoughtful. He responded to Damen slowly, as if learning what movement caused what response. Damen was happy to help him investigate.

When the sun rose the next morning, the light slanting through the curtains struck Damen across the eyes. He grunted, and tried to roll over only to discover resistance. Blinking, he opened his eyes to a head of blonde hair pillowed on his shoulder. He allowed himself a smile, and shifted until his face was out of the sunlight and pressed against Laurent’s hair.

Laurent was loose in his arms, and made a soft noise of protest when Damen moved. They resettled, and Laurent fell quiet, though his arm flopped over Damen's side. Damen's skin jumped as Laurent’s fingers tickled his abdomen.

“Oh.” Laurent’s voice ghosted across his skin. His fingers moved again, with purpose, and Damen's lethargy disappeared.

“No- oh no-” Damen scrambled for the sheets, drawing away, but Laurent was as quick as he was light, and Damen found himself pinned, his limbs not responding. He was not proud of the cackles that erupted from him, but Laurent was relentless. Damen's legs jerked involuntarily under Laurent’s onslaught and he rolled in a last ditch effort to escape.

He dragged the sheets and Laurent with him. They landed on the floor with a swish of silk and soft thud of limbs. Laurent groaned, but he had landed on top of Damen. Damen hit the hard floor. He wrapped his arms around Laurent and held him tight, so that he couldn’t go back to tickling him.

“You are suffocating me,” Laurent said, his voice muffled by the tangle of bedsheets. He wriggled, rubbing up against parts of Damen that were already firm and hot.

“It is your fault,” Damen said. “Take your punishment.”

“You are poking me,” he said in that infuriatingly collected voice.

Heat rushed through Damen's body, and not the pleasant kind. He immediately released Laurent, who pushed off him in one smooth motion. To further exacerbate Damen's embarrassment, he flicked Damen's cloth-covered cock before standing. He moved to the table and picked a piece of fruit to eat. “You should relieve yourself before the servants arrive. You might frighten them.”

“You are heartless,” Damen said. He rolled and pushed himself up, the sheets gathered around his waist. “Will you not assist me?”

“I think you can manage,” Laurent said. He turned, a strawberry at his upturned lips. He lifted a brow, indicating that Damen should get on with it.

“Oh.” Damen slipped back onto the mattress and gripped himself under Laurent’s watchful gaze. He let his thighs fall open, and brought himself to completion. Laurent’s gaze did not waver.

Laurent approached the bed with a cloth. He sank onto the mattress and took his time wiping Damen's skin, savouring the motions. Damen closed his eyes and let Laurent smooth the cloth over his flushed skin. He was almost dozing by the time Laurent finished, lulled into contentment by the motion.

He had tried to don a chiton, but the cloth hung loose around his frame. Sheer cloth hung forward, and Damen could see the line of the scar from the Veretian’s blade. Breath quieting, Damen reached out and drew a finger along the mark. Laurent followed with his eyes.

“You took a mortal wound for me,” Damen said. Laurent’s skin flushed under his touch, and he shifted slightly, just out of reach. Damen let his hand fall against the mattress. Laurent would not meet his eyes.

“It is my duty. I am bound to protect the royal family,” Laurent said.

“But who protects you?”

Laurent’s breath hitched, but Damen couldn’t see his face. “I have no need for a protector. Nor do I desire one.”

“I’m afraid you will have to become used to having one,” Damen said. Laurent finally looked at him, his hair shifting over his shoulder as he moved. Damen longed to catch the strands between his fingers. “I would have you at my side.”

“You do not command me,” Laurent said, softly.

“I request,” Damen said. Laurent shifted on the mattress, his bent leg falling more open as he relaxed. Damen's heart swelled briefly in his chest, before a pounding at the door startled them both. There was no pause before the door banged open and Makedon surged into the room.

Damen dragged the sheets up against his chest, the intimacy of the room shattered by Makedon’s presence. But he did not have time to be embarrassed. Makedon said, “The Veretians are overhead.”

Chapter Text

“Impossible,” Laurent said, immediately. “We are too far south.”

Damen lurched from the bed and ran out on the balcony, with Makedon on his heels. To the north, dark dots appeared in the sky, hundreds of them. Laurent stood at his back, craning to see around the edge of the building, with a hand at the small of Damen's back for balance.

“That is my uncle’s forward guard. While we were fucking he was organising an assault on this province,” Laurent said without inflection. Damen went cold.

“You knew of this?” Damen heard himself ask. Laurent glared at him with a face that would skin someone alive.

“How would I have known of his plots? I have been at your side the last three weeks.”

“You sound very certain of his tactics,” Makedon said. His hand was at his sword. Laurent stepped away from Damen.

“Who do you think developed the change in tactics that decimated your army within a few weeks?” Laurent said. He looked very small and very bare in the half-wrapped chiton, standing before Makedon, in full battle armour. Damen felt as if he were watching their conversation from outside his body.

“It was you,” Makedon said.

“It was not,” Laurent said.

“Your uncle,” Damen said.

“We need to move further south,” Laurent said. “If he discovers you are here he will launch his ground forces as well. He means to take back Delfeur.”

“Why?” Damen asked.

“Because it is ours,” Laurent said. “A victory here will solidify the people’s support. He will have their confidence and they will quickly forget Jokaste existed.”

“We can prepare to ride for Ios,” Makedon said. “Immediately.”

“Do it. You are coming with us,” Damen said. Laurent paled, but nodded without a word.

Damen dressed quickly, and straightened Laurent before they met Makedon in his stables where he was readying a small escort to head south. The avians were upon them when Damen mounted his horse.

“Please follow me, sir,” Aegeus, one of Makedon’s warriors, said from beside Damen. Damen led his horse after Aegeus.

They crept out the back of the stables, and were immediately hidden by a thick brush of trees which would prevent them from being detected from above. Aegeus led them with calm certainty of direction, even as Damen picked up the sounds of a battle starting behind them.

They rode until the battle sounds faded into the distance, until all Damen could hear was the pounding of their horse’s hooves against the ground and the pounding of his own heart. Ios. Where Kastor resided. He would have to face his brother and reclaim his throne.

Laurent was unnervingly quiet during the ride south, despite Damen's attempts to lure him into a conversation. It worried Damen, but he had no time to think on it. The men around him were tense enough already, heading south into unknown circumstances, while to the north the Veretians were closing in. He could not complicate things further by dragging his emotions into the fray.

Ilos was quiet when they arrived. Used to the decorations and festivities afforded a returning prince, Damen found himself disconcerted. No citizens exited their houses to greet them along the way, even though they rode along the main throughway. Damen had never seen his home so quiet, and he did not like it.

“It’s the Eos!” A cry went up from one of the houses, and Damen glanced over his shoulder to see a soldier halfway through the threshold of his house. “Eos lives! Damen lives!”

The echo resounded through the street, and Damen saw the city return to life before his eyes. Citizens, his people, left their dwellings to see him as he rode past. There was no cheering, or celebrating. Just awe that he was in their presence. Damen moved to the front of his escort when they reached the palace gates.

“Open the gates for the rightful Eos of Akielos,” he said. His voice carried, and he saw people on the front steps of the low, sprawling palace, turn their heads at his voice. The guards at the gate glanced at each other before hastening to comply.

Damen swung down from his horse and let one of the stablehands walk her away. Makedon’s escorts and Laurent followed, and they made their way to the palace on foot. Doors opened for him as the servants quickly recovered from their shock and remembered their duties. He strode straight into the Senate chamber, where several kyroi sat discussing something with Kastor.

Kastor looked up and blanched. He shoved his chair back from the table, and all of the kyroi turned to see what had made him react so violently.

“Damianos.” The kyroi were all of southern origins. Damen did not see one kyroi who represented the northern provinces standing before him. “You live.”

“I live.” Damen narrowed his gaze to the golden armband that was clasped over Kastor’s bicep. “I must speak with my brother.”

The Senate chambers had never emptied as quickly as after he spoke those words. Only Laurent remained as the rest of the Akielons scurried out with their tails between their legs, even Makedon’s men. Damen stepped closer to Kastor.

“I have returned to assume my birthright,” Damen said. “I ask you return it to me, and thank you for keeping it safe.”

“I have already begun the process of becoming Helios,” Kastor said. He took a step back. “We thought you dead. It cannot be undone. The ministers are already writing the accords.”

“Then unwrite them. We cannot afford to be divided. The Veretians attack Delfeur as we speak. We must rally the men and march north to meet them,” Damen said.

“You will divide us if you insist on this, Damianos,” Kastor said. “The people have accepted me as their Helios. You are upsetting the leadership by your presence. The Veretians can’t move. We have a treaty in place which prevents them from attacking.”

“Please restate the terms of that treaty because my uncle launches an assault on your lands this very moment,” Laurent said. “I think you have been misled.”

“What is he even doing here?” Kastor asked. The pallor had gone from his face, and now his cheeks were dark with rage. “He has no business here.”

“The leader of his people is very much his business,” Damen said. “He is the leader of the Royal Flight. Those are his men being commanded to invade. He is here upon my request. He offers valuable insight into the Regent’s tactics.”

“Regent? He is king now,” Kastor said. “I heard the princess lost her head for treason. I wonder how. It is good that you were away from her, brother. Who knows what could have befallen you if you went through with the marriage.”

“I did,” Damen said. “Take care with your words, for she was my wife and a disparaging comment towards her reflects upon you. Give me father’s armband peacefully. There is no need to continue this play for power. You are already one of my most trusted advisors. Please, Kastor.”

Kastor’s eyes flicked between him and Laurent, and then, after a moment of contemplation, slid the golden cuff from his arm and placed it in Damen's hand. He said, “May the Helios’ nine lives reign fruitful and abundant.”

“Thank you, brother,” Damen said. He fixed the cuff around his arm, relieved at the familiar pressure, and Kastor left them without another word. Laurent held himself very stiffly away from Damen.

“He means to kill you,” Laurent said. “I feel you should be aware.”

“He is my brother. He will not harm me,” Damen said. His hand seemed incapable of leaving the cool metal of the lion armband. It was one of the few things his father had left him, being a man who lived without emphasis on physical things.

“Family ties do not exempt one from causing harm,” Laurent said. Damen turned to him, and frowned when he saw how pale Laurent was.

“Are you well? Was the ride too much?” Damen asked. Laurent scowled.

“Why won’t you see what is in front of you? Your brother cares only for the throne and he will do you harm if he has the chance. Are you that blind?” Laurent said.

“My brother loves me,” Damen said.

“Does he love you more than the throne?” Laurent asked.

Perturbed by the direction the conversation had turned, Damen pressed his lips together and said nothing. He strode past Laurent and threw the doors of the Senate open. Makedon’s escort were waiting outside, and snapped to attention when Damen approached. “Call in the Senate. Send for the northern kyroi. We have a fight to win.”

After a day of planning with the present kyroi, Damen retired to his rooms. He kept Laurent close, unsure how the other Akielons would react after hearing the news of the northern push. He made it through the day unscathed, but Damen was not going to push his luck.

After he had closed and locked his chambers, and posted a trusted guard on the door, Damen made his way into his sleeping quarters. He heard Laurent follow, but he stopped just inside the doorway. Halfway out of his clothes already, and bolstered by the scent of the ocean, Damen turned to him. “What is it?”

Laurent stared at him. “I am to sleep here?”

Damen stared back, perplexed. “Where else would you sleep?”

“In the- the cells, with the other political prisoners,” Laurent said, with a casual gesture towards the doors. Damen stepped towards him.

“Laurent, you are not a prisoner. You are here as my advisor and guest.” Damen watched the disbelief flicker in Laurent’s expression, the slight downturn of his lips that meant something was not calculating properly in his mind. “Why did you think I brought you?”

“Leverage. In case Kastor resisted,” Laurent said. “It’s what I would have done. You need control of your armies to save your nation. No matter the price. There’s no way Kastor could know how useless I am to my people now-”

Damen stepped forward and cupped Laurent’s face with both hands. Laurent’s words ground to a halt as he weathered the touch, his eyes slipping shut. He held himself so tightly he practically vibrated, and Damen wished he had not caused this reaction.

“There is no price that would convince me to put you in harm’s way.” Damen applied light pressure to Laurent, to bring him close enough to place a gentle kiss on his forehead. Laurent’s hands came up to grip Damen's wrists and hold him in place. Damen ignored his trembling.

“Except free, apparently, for bringing me down here, alone, into the heart of the Akielon nation,” Laurent said, finally. His voice did not shake, given time to compose himself.

“You have nothing to fear from my people,” Damen said. “You know this.”

“Your conviction is admirable, if misplaced,” Laurent said. He shifted slightly. “Do you intend to hold me forever?”

“If it pleases your highness,” Damen said. He touched another kiss to Laurent’s forehead before releasing him. He made to step away, but Laurent’s next question made him hesitate.

“Were you like this with my sister?”

“Like what?” Damen asked. He stood a reasonable distance away, but was close enough that Laurent could reach for him if he desired.

Laurent pursed his lips, struggling to find the words even with his extensive comprehension of language. Finally he huffed an exasperated sigh. “Gentle.”

“She did not wish for gentle,” Damen said. “She wished for attentive. And… vigorous. And obedient.”

“She never did like her pawns to speak for themselves,” Laurent said. His eyes were distant, staring past Damen to the ocean outside the open balcony.

“Laurent?” Damen was hesitant to break him of his revere, but he could not bear the sadness in Laurent’s eyes.

The avian mask quickly slid back into place, and Laurent composed himself. He walked towards Damen's bed, unfolding the chiton from his body as he did. The cloth was folded carefully on a chair near the bed, and Laurent slid between the sheets. He sat up against the fluff of pillows and tugged the braid out of his hair.

“My uncle was behind the Vaskian kidnapping,” Laurent said. “And I have proof.”

“What?” Damen's head spun at the sudden change in topic.

“My uncle was behind our kidnapping, and he caused the death of my sister.” Laurent cast his eyes to Damen's desk, where a piece of parchment lay in the centre, held down under the royal seal. “That letter proves it. It must be presented to the Council, and my uncle will see justice.”

“Why did you not tell me before?” Damen asked.

Laurent stared firmly at the bedsheets. “I wasn’t sure what your motives were, or what you planned. You are unfathomable. I cannot predict how you will react to anything.”

Damen undressed, but was less careful about where he dropped his chiton. The servants would clean it up tomorrow. He slipped under the sheets beside Laurent, and propped himself up on one arm to watch Laurent’s fingers slide through silver blonde hair. Laurent flicked a cool gaze at him. “What?”

“My people have a myth about your people; that you do not have emotions,” Damen said. “I know that now to be false. But when you… You wear a calm face as a mask to hide what you are feeling. When you do that, it disorients us. It disorients me. As if you are no longer there. Like I am looking at a beautiful statue, rather than a living being.”

Laurent narrowed his eyes. “Do you mean… you can sense emotion? And a void when I suppress that emotion?”

“Yes, I believe that is an apt way of saying it.” Damen reached for Laurent’s hand, and felt a small thrill when he was allowed to take it and bring it to his lips. “It is what gave rise to the notion that your people are less than human. If you cannot feel then you cannot be hurt. But that is not true.”

“Does it hurt you? When you cannot sense someone’s emotion?” Laurent asked.

“It is a defense against us, is it not?” Damen asked. He breathed slowly against the skin of Laurent’s knuckles. “It does not hurt physically, but I want to be worthy of seeing them.”

“You believe yourself unworthy?” Laurent asked. His fingers closed around Damen's. “You are one of the best men I’ve ever known.”

“I am humbled to be counted,” Damen said. He flopped down on the mattress, against his pillows, still holding Laurent’s hand.

Laurent turned their joined hands over, inspecting the play of their skin against the white sheets. “Are you going to have the manacle removed?”

“Eventually, I suppose,” Damen said. “It is unfitting for a king to wear a shackle.”

Laurent slipped down until he lay beside Damen. He ran lithe fingers over the iron band, tickling the sensitive skin on the inside of Damen's arm. When he said nothing further, Damen could not help but continue to watch until his breathing evened in sleep, and his fingers went slack in their hold.

…*...

The kyroi from the northern provinces arrived in the palace the next morning, with news of an aggressive push into Akielon territory by the Veretian army. They were more than willing to provide their own forces to mount a defense. Kastor was nowhere in sight during the discussions, but Damen could not waste time on his brother.

With Laurent at his side, he spent hours hunched over the war map in his quarters, learning how to best defeat an enemy that fought from the air. It involved more trickery than Damen liked, but there was no other way to defeat the Veretians.

Damen and Laurent rode out several days later, leading the southern armies. The kyroi had protested Laurent’s idea at first, but when Laurent viciously reminded them of their recent failures on the field of battle, they began to listen more carefully. Damen and Laurent would meet up with the northern armies and launch their defense ahead of southern reinforcements.

Damen met Makedon at the encampment, with Laurent close at his side. Makedon bowed slightly and led Damen to the command tent, where he and Laurent would stay for the duration of the battle. The tent was only slightly larger than the ones his men were given, to hold the strategy table. The Eos fought with his men, and was no better than they were on the field. He slept as such.

The Veretian troop markers had pushed up in the time it had taken Damen to travel to Delfeur. Makedon updated him on their efforts.

“The birds can only launch short volleys,” Makedon said in Akielon. “The effort of holding their demi form seems to be too exhausting for more than half an hour of fighting.”

“You can draw them further from their camp. When they tire, they will have to land. You can kill more of them then,” Laurent said, also in Akielon. Makedon nodded, a slow smile spreading over his lips. Laurent ignored him, and pointed to the map. “If their camp is here, then their maximum flight distance in demi form will be approximately here. Set a trap of your quickest soldiers, and lead them to this point and further. They will be like lame ducks.”

“You are sure their camp is located here?” Damen asked.

“Yes. Marlas is where you struck Auguste down. It will hold significance to the veterans of the Flight,” Laurent said. “It will be where my uncle holds camp.”

“He will not stop with Delfeur,” Damen said.

“No,” Laurent said.

“He means to take Akielos.” Damen's fists clenched on the map. Laurent remained loose and insufferably calm beside him.

“It was one kingdom, once.”

“Yes, before your kind returned Helios’ generosity with murder,” Makedon said. Laurent stepped away from the table, clearing some room for himself if he needed to move quickly.

“Our legend says Helios stabbed Alisdair in the back. Were you there? You certainly look your age.”

“Enough,” Damen said. “Makedon, see to the men. Tomorrow we fight.”

“Eos.” Makedon bowed, and left them.

“He means you no harm,” Damen said, once the tent flaps were shut and still. “There is no need to decimate him.”

“I was merely stating,” Laurent said. He lifted a careless shoulder. “We are not solely to fault for the violence. Nobody truly remembers how the fighting started.”

“Come. We must rest. Tomorrow will be challenging.”

When they donned their armour the following morning, Laurent resisted the Akielon chestplate that would protect his fragile bones. Damen stopped just short of forcing it upon him only because he had seen Laurent fight. And yet, as they drew near the edge of camp, Damen could not stop staring at the bare expanse of Laurent’s back, thinking about easily the avian’s bones could break.

Traditional battle insisted that both sides remained human. Akielon agility against Veretian swordplay- and the am’haj- had kept the war even for eons before the Regent had changed tactics. So, even though Damen's pride rankled at the deception, Damen and his men shifted into their leonis forms and disappeared into the tall grass. Laurent rode Damen's shoulder, his bright blue feathers hidden by Damen's massive mane from anyone soaring overhead. He would remain unseen by the soaring archers until the trap was sprung. Damen moved silently through the tall grass, keeping his ears tuned on the decoy party of men they had sent ahead of them. They were making a sufficient amount of noise for a forward troop. The Veretians would see them without trouble.

When the archers appeared in the sky, the forward troop did as they were told and returned fire while under the guise of retreating. Damen and his men followed in the tall grass, and waited until the first birds grew tired enough to set feet on the ground. As they alighted, Damen and his men sprung from the grass.

Damen launched from the tall grass, adopting his demi shift as he moved. Fur sprung up along his forearms, and he felt his shoulders take on a slight hunch as the half shift settled into place. He grasped his sword and joined the fight with a deafening roar meant to cow the Veretians. It worked, and when they shied, the Akielons took the upper hand.

There were still a few birds in the air, and Damen's flanking archers tried to shoot them down from the ground. Out of the corner of his eyes, Damen saw Laurent rise from the tall grass. When it seemed like his shoulders kept rising, Damen stopped and stared. Laurent was shifting into his demi form. Bright blue wings were stretching upwards as he moved towards the fight. The wind caught his feathers and hair, and when he joined the fray he became like an avenging god as he took on his countrymen.

He whipped around to Damen, and grasped his elbow with a sharp yank. “Down.”

Damen dropped instantly, and was surrounded by blue feathers. An instant later, Laurent released him and Damen pulled back to see an arrow wedged in the feathers of his wing. It didn’t seem to phase him as he turned and sank his blade into one of the Regent’s men.

The Veretians were quickly overcome, and Damen achieved the first field victory in over a year. It was one small party of Veretian soldiers, but it was the first time Damen had been able to drag them from the air to fight on the ground. And it was all because of Laurent.

The victory bolstered Damen's men, and that evening the camp celebrated. Winning had provided a much needed morale boost, and Damen found himself sat by the fire drinking with his men in the dark hours of the evening. During a lull in the conversation, he looks for a head of blonde hair, and sees Laurent standing just out of the campsite, staring up. He wore a robe against the night’s chill.

Damen pushed himself away from the group, and made his way to Laurent’s side. Laurent graced him with a cool look before returning his gaze to the stars above them. “Do your thoughts trouble you?” Damen asked. “We would have you celebrate with us.”

“I cannot celebrate the murder of my own people,” Laurent said. “No matter how unavoidable and necessary it was.”

“It was necessary,” Damen said. He could not offer any words of condolences. “You enabled my victory.”

“It was a victory,” Laurent said. “Not decisive.”

“But much needed.”

Laurent said nothing, and Damen felt compelled to fill the silence. To do something to lift the oppressive mood that clung to Laurent. “Is your wing injured?”

“No. It was a flesh wound. It will be healed before morning,” Laurent said. He fell silent again.

Desperate now, Damen pushed down firmly on the urge to draw Laurent into his arms. “Where are your thoughts, if not on celebration?”

“I would rather not say,” Laurent said. His gaze softened when he finally turned to Damen. “Please do not concern yourself with me. Celebrate with your men. It is well deserved.”

“You would tell me if you were injured,” Damen said.

“I would,” Laurent said.

“You will join me later, in sleep,” Damen said.

“I will find you,” Laurent said. A soft smile crested his lips. “I will always find you.”

Damen bedded down that night alone and slightly drunk, but when he woke, he found one of his arms draped over Laurent’s shoulders. Laurent was on his stomach, propped up on his elbows, staring at Damen. His hair fell over his shoulder. Damen shifted until his hand lay flat on Laurent’s back. He rubbed the line of Laurent’s spine in slow, soothing movements, irrationally thrilled that Laurent had made his way to Damen's tent.

“You came,” Damen said.

“I said I would,” Laurent said. He took a breath. “I think that- after the fighting ends- you might need someone to advise you on Veretian culture and tactics.”

“Oh? And what would qualify someone for such a position?”

“The person should be well versed in Veretian politics. He should understand how Veretians think and react. Ideally, he should be Veretian but I’m sure a scholar would suffice if he has spent sufficient time amongst Veretians,” Laurent said. He lowered himself onto his pillow, never breaking eye contact with Damen.

“I think you have someone in mind,” Damen said.

“I do,” Laurent said. “Someone who will no longer have ties to the Veretian royal household once the fighting is over. I think he would be the perfect candidate for such a position.”

“Maybe I should meet this person,” Damen said. His fingers found the feathers at the nape of Laurent’s neck. Laurent closed his eyes with a repressed shiver. His pulse quickened under Damen's light touch.

“I can introduce you,” Laurent said. He arched into the touch with a breathy sigh, and Damen could not resist moving closer and touching his lips to Laurent’s bare shoulder.

“I would like that,” Damen said against soft skin. Laurent hummed.

The tent flap snapped back, and Damen jerked away from Laurent as a hot flush suffused his chest and face. Laurent pushed up from the mattress without care, and lifted an eyebrow at the intruder.

“Sir, the Veretians- There’s hundreds of them-” The soldier stumbled over his words in his haste. The sounds of battle rose up from behind him, and Damen threw back the sheets and grabbed for his armour. On the other side of the bed, Laurent paused only to snatch up a crossbow before bolting from the tent in a half closed chiton.

Damen had no time to shout for him to put on his armour. He tore after Laurent, and saw what felt like the entirety of the Veretian forces had descended upon his campsite. Caught unawares, his men were fighting to reach their swords and bows. As he ran, he heard Laurent shouting orders with such authority that Damen's men obeyed without question. They were sound orders, and Damen let Laurent organise his men. He would best know how to throw off this surprise attack.

The onslaught from the air kept coming. Damen dodged arrows at every step, and if they did not find a way to bring them down, his men would be decimated. He caught a flash of blue wings, and thought for one horrifying moment that Laurent had taken flight. When he looked properly, he saw bright blue wings on a figure in full battle armour. The figure spun in a slow circle before spying him, and turning her descent downwards.

She landed with the force of an avenging queen, and straightened, her wings flicking back as she drew off her battle helm and let her long blond hair catch the breeze. Piercing blue eyes held Damen in place as she approached. She said, “Husband.”

Chapter Text

“Jokaste.” Damen managed to find his voice, his body cold with shock. “You live.”

“I live,” she said. Strands of hair caught in her mouth and eyelashes. Damen stared. “My uncle has turned to sheer treason to obtain his ends. I will not allow it.”

Her gaze flicked over Damen's shoulder, and she lunged with her sword to cut away an arrow aimed for him. Her wings enveloped them both for additional security, and she cast a sly smile at him. “Did you miss me?”

“You have no idea,” Damen said when he was able to speak through his shock. She drew away, tucking her wings behind her. A choked gasp caught their attention, and Damen turned to see Laurent standing not a metre away, shock white and stiff as a statue.

“Brother,” Jokaste said.

Laurent’s fist tightened around the crossbow and he still could not move. Damen took a step towards him, drawn in by his agony and shock, and Laurent shuttered his emotions as effectively as if he had slapped Damen across the face. Stunned, Damen froze, and Laurent refused to look at him.

“My Queen,” Laurent said, his voice tight.

“Get the Akielons in order. My men will pluck Uncle’s chickens from the sky,” Jokaste said. She tightened the grip on her sword. “Get to it, Commander.”

Laurent snapped out a quick bow and turned to execute her orders. Damen merely joined the fight when it reached him, and did his part in taking down the Veretians who wore the Regent standards. At the end of the fight, the Akielon camp was in ruins but they stood victorious with Jokaste’s men behind them.

Damen had to force his exhausted men to clean up the campsite, and Jokaste provided aid in the form of manual labour from her contingent. The dead bodies were taken outside the campsite to be burned. Jokaste informed them that they did not have to worry about another attack. The Regent’s forces were mostly further north, she said. They would be safe.

Damen had a full tent drawn up for Jokaste, but she found her way to his at the end of the day. He stood in his tent while she started to remove her armour, setting plates of metal on the table for her servants to handle. Laurent pushed through the tent flaps and froze in the doorway, his fist white in the fabric. Jokaste narrowed her eyes at him.

“Come in, Laurent.”

Laurent cast a hesitant look at Damen before entering the tent, the cloth falling shut behind him. Alone, under Damen's eyes only, Jokaste broke her stoic mask and dragged her brother in for a fierce embrace. Laurent sagged against her, his fingers digging into her shoulders. Damen wondered if he should leave them. They deserved a private reunion.

He was about to turn away, when Jokaste said, “Don’t. We’re finished.”

Laurent slowly relinquished his hold, though he didn’t release Jokaste’s hand. “We thought you dead.”

“Imprisoned,” Jokaste said. “I am with child.”

The world tilted slightly, and Damen sat down hard on the chair right behind him. “Once more?”

“I am with child. Your child. I am going to have a baby, how else should I say it to you?” Jokaste said. She lifted their joined hands and pressed a chaste kiss to Laurent’s knuckles. “You are going to be an uncle!”

Laurent’s colour dropped further, but he did not pull away from his sister. He said, “Your birthright is almost complete. You will be queen in a year.”

“Yes. Uncle needed to take action,” Jokaste said. “He accused me of treason. One of his scouts returned with my necklace and your bloody feathers. He convinced the Council that I had purposefully brought Leandros to Vere to destroy the kingdom. That he had killed you and then escaped into the mountains. The Council believed him. He could not kill me, so he imprisoned me in the south tower. His mistake. Laurent and I have been sneaking out of there since we were five. I escaped, and while I was gathering my forces I heard a rumour from the border. The Eos and the wayward Veretian prince had survived.”

“We were taken by Vaskian mercenaries,” Laurent said. “Over the border and far into Vask. We escaped and then were recaptured. Damianos was-”

Damen met his eyes and felt gutted by the emotion he saw there. He was torn. Jokaste was alive. His rightful partner. But she did not care about him. She cared only for her throne and what he could provide her. His heart lay with Laurent, and in the silence since Laurent cut himself off, Jokaste frowned.

“Laurent?”

“I must go,” Laurent said. He slipped his hand free and gave them both a quick bow. “Please excuse me.”

He was gone before Damen could find his feet, but as the tent flaps fell shut again Jokaste looked to Damen with curiosity in her eyes. “What is going on?”

“We thought you dead,” Damen said. He spread his hands helplessly. “The men who accosted us at the border led us to believe you had lost your head. And we-”

He trailed off, unable to put to words what had transpired between them. He waited, for Jokaste to react in anger or disgust. Instead, her eyes caught something on his ribs. He held himself in place as she soundlessly approached and circled around to his back. He very deliberately did not move when she touched the marks the whip had left.

“How did this happen?” she asked.

“We were captured,” Damen said. “The treatment was not gentle.”

“My brother does not share these marks,” she said.

“Your brother carries different, deeper scars,” Damen said. “It would be best if he told you. I cannot speak to the pain.”

“But he shares this.” She grasped Damen's manacled wrist and lifted it between them. Damen had quite forgotten it was there, it’s weight familiar to him as his lion armband. “What else did you give each other, I wonder.”

“We thought you dead,” Damen said, again, with a hint of desperation. He had no precedent for this situation. Even if she had been alive, Damen felt that given enough time they would have ended in this same place. Jokaste had no interest in him beyond his station. Damen could not live like that, no matter how hard he tried.

Jokaste forced him to meet her eyes. “Do you love him?”

Damen resisted the urge to take a step back, away from her piercing stare. Love? He heard himself answer, “Yes.”

“And would you give him anything you could? Do you take comfort in his nearness? Knowing that he is safe?” Jokaste asked.

“I have and I would give whatever it took to keep him safe and happy,” Damen said.

“Then we are in accord,” Jokaste said. She stepped back, and the tension in the air lifted. Damen exhaled sharply, unsure where the conversation was going. She reached up, took her time unlacing her shirt and trousers, and stepped out of them while she moved towards Damen's bed. “Take me to bed, Damen.”

Confused, Damen divested and followed her into the private quarters of his tent. Once ensconced on his cot, Jokaste leaned close enough to breathe against his ear. “Do you hear anyone close enough to listen?”

Damen closed his eyes and concentrated. He could hear his guards at the front of his tent, standing outside and undoubtedly distracted by the noise of the campsite pulling itself back together. “No.”

“Here is what we will do. You and I will maintain our public face. You adore me and would do me no harm. You will assist me in producing heirs. I am not interested in any emotion that you want to give. I care only that my country is safe and whole.” Jokaste rested a hand on Damen's chest, where he felt his heart would beat straight through his flesh and bone. “You, in private, may carry on with my brother. I’ve never seen him this comfortable around anyone. You say he was grievously injured, but he looks healthier and sounder than I have seen him in a very long time. Whatever happened between you, it was good for him. You, Damianos, are good for him. I would not take that away.”

“You want… me to be with you both?” Damen asked, his head starting to spin.

“Yes, there is no reason for any of us to be unhappy if there is a solution which will accommodate everyone,” she said. She rolled closer to Damen, pressing up against him. He instinctively accepted her body, wrapping an arm around her to hold her close. “I was wondering how I would deal with your incessant need for emotional attachment. I am incapable of such things. However I find myself unable to stop thinking about fucking at the oddest times. It is quite distracting. You and Laurent have a connection. It is what you need. I would not deny you that, no matter what you think of me.”

“I admit, you surprise me,” Damen said. “I did not think Veretians looked kindly on multiple partners. Much less any sort of partner.”

“I have long been considered an outlier in regards to sex,” Jokaste said. “My libido is insatiable. When I was sixteen I was caught with a courtier’s head between my thighs. My uncle held it over my head since that day, and it was eventually what he used to finally imprison me. I am a whore who will fuck anything that moves. It is not seemly for a queen. Horrifying.”

“Sex is not something to be ashamed of,” Damen said. He ran his hand along her arm, trying to push from his mind that he had performed the same motion to her brother that very morning.

“Tell that to the peacocks that run my Council,” Jokaste said. “It was horrible enough that you had your arms bare. When I had to announce my pregnancy before the entire Council half of them fainted dead away. Imagine. The beast beget his progeny in their crown princess. Only our wartime rules about pregnancy prevented my death at that point, I think. So thank you for that.”

“For having sex with you?” Damen's head spun. This was too complicated.

“For putting a baby in me,” Jokaste said. She pinched Damen's ribs, and he jumped, startled. “It saved my life. When we overthrow my uncle we will let Laurent have the quarters directly below ours. There is a trick passageway that leads between them. It will make it easier for him to come and go. And because he will be the head of the Royal Flight and your Veretian cultural advisor, it will not be odd that you two are seen often together.”

“Are you going to explain this to him?” Damen asked. “I doubt he will believe it coming from me.”

“You can tell him it was my idea. He will believe that.” Jokaste tucked her head against Damen's shoulder. She smelled of battle, of fresh air and metal and sweat. But she was alive. And though Damen had felt no connection to her throughout their encounters, he was glad that she was safe. She was Laurent’s sister, but she was also a capable leader and an interesting person, once she allowed her guard to lower.

“We will need both of your heads clear to defeat my uncle, as well,” she said before drifting to sleep in his arms. Damen snorted, but conceded her point and fell asleep shortly after.

The campsite was in order when they walked the perimeter the next morning, with Laurent trailing slightly behind them. Jokaste had a slight smirk on her lips as they drew near to where the Veretians had set up their tents, and Damen found his eyes drawn to a peculiarly Akielon looking tent. His heart stopped in his chest.

Nikandros stumbled out of the tent, undoubtedly drawn by his voice, and locked eyes with Damen. He gasped out a short laugh, and even as he moved towards him, Damen had pushed past Jokaste to gather Nikandros in his arms. Nikandros’ laughter rolled through Damen's chest, and Damen had to force himself to let go of his best friend.

“I thought you dead,” Damen said. He gripped Nikandros’ upper arms, unable to go completely bereft of contact.

“They told me you were dead,” Nikandros said. “That bird had your necklace and his feathers. I know you would not let that pendant leave your person unless something had happened.”

“We were captured,” Damen said. “And taken to Vask.”

Nikandros closed his eyes, grasped Damen's face, and drew him near until their foreheads rested against each other. “I cannot express my pleasure at seeing you alive.”

“We have much to catch up on,” Damen said. “How did you survive?”

Nikandros drew back and looked to Jokaste. “It was the Selene. She got us out of the Nest and into the woods before she was imprisoned. She sent us with orders to her men so that when she escaped they were ready.”

Jokaste crossed her arms over her chest with a smug grin. “Yes. And it worked rather well, I think. We arrived just in time to deal a sizeable blow in my uncle’s army.”

“Please don’t tell me you’ve become friends while I was away,” Damen said. “I’m not sure my heart could take it.”

“I won’t tell you, then,” Nikandros said. “But she has a wicked sense of humour that I can appreciate.”

“As long as you don’t team up on me,” Damen said. One hand still cupped the back of Nikandros’ arm, reassuring himself that the man was alive and with him.

“We should plan our trip north,” Jokaste said. “My uncle must be dealt with.”

With Nikandros at his side, and Laurent standing across the map table with him, Damen felt his rioting emotions calm. Uncertainty had waged so strongly around him that he felt like a ship buffeted by a fierce storm for the last few weeks, but now he knew what he had to do. Planning a northern excursion was something he could do. He was very experienced in it. But now he would be allowed to pierce clear through into the heart of Veretian territory. It would not be a battle game played against his brother. It would be a true fight.

Nikandros stuck close to his side as they planned, constantly brushing against Damen's arm and shoulder. Damen appreciated the grounding touch, and it helped clear his mind while they planned. Around them, the sounds of the camp working created a white noise to serve as a background to their discussion.

It was late afternoon before they had a plan that could conceivably work, and Damen found himself dismissed from his own tent when Jokaste insisted that she needed time to herself away from the cloying menfolk. He and Laurent were left to their own devices. Nikandros excused himself to speak with his men.

Damen was left alone with a recalcitrant avian that couldn’t fly.

Damen steeled himself, telling himself that he had gone into battles more frightening than the prospect of speaking to Laurent. It did not help. He finally said, “I am glad your sister is alive.”

Laurent said nothing, but allowed Damen to keep pace with him as he left the campsite and made his way to the stream the men had been using to bathe. That was a good sign. Damen hoped. It meant Laurent was tolerating his presence.

However, Laurent continued to ignore him. He sat down at the edge of the stream and unlaced his Akielon sandals before dipping his legs into the cool water. The heat this far south must be uncomfortable for a Veretian. Damen sat beside him and tried to weather the oppressive silence between them. He failed.

“Laurent-”

“Don’t.” Laurent cut him off, sharply. Damen exhaled and dragged a hand through his hair. Laurent was once again locked behind a mask of casual indifference, and Damen could not fathom what ran through the young prince’s mind. “It is best if we pretend nothing happened.”

“You wish to pretend that I did not give you my heart?” Damen asked. That got Laurent’s attention. He stiffened, and managed a quick glance in Damen's direction. “I cannot erase from my mind what happened between us, Laurent, nor do I want to.”

When Laurent refused to move or look at him longer, Damen stood up and stepped down into the water. He sloshed through the water until he stood in front of Laurent, and then he dropped to his knees between Laurent’s legs. Laurent stared at him, the only hint of surprise the slight widening of his eyes. His lips parted.

“Your sister admitted that she could not love me,” Damen said. Laurent moved to pull himself away, but Damen leaned forward and pressed his hands to the soft sod of the stream bank. Laurent was not caged, but it would take effort to move. “In her own words she isn’t interested in love. She does not wish it. But she does not want me unhappy. But above all, she wishes you contentment. She will allow you to hold my heart if I continue to warm her bed.”

“I do not want you in my bed,” Laurent said. His eyes were like ice when they met Damen's.

“That is all right,” Damen said. “I said nothing of bed. I wish to give you my heart, and whatever you may desire that is within my ability to provide. Amongst my people, we will not have to hide. Multiple partners are not unusual. Over time, perhaps your people will come to understand.”

“It will not be in our lifetime,” Laurent said.

“Before the war, our kind lived for hundreds of years, just like the falcons. With the war over, maybe we will achieve such a lifespan once more,” Damen said. He leaned closer and was encouraged when Laurent did not draw away. “Imagine two hundred years together.”

“You are presumptuous,” Laurent said. “That I will agree to this arrangement without speaking to my sister first.”

Damen laughed, and rested his forehead on Laurent’s bony shoulder. “I warned her that you would not believe me.”

“She said to tell me it was her idea,” Laurent said, his voice rumbling through Damen.

“She did. I see that is not enough to sway you,” Damen said. He drew back, sitting on his heels in the cool water. “Speak with your sister. Take as much time as you need.”

He made to pull away, but Laurent’s hand in the cloth of his chiton held him in place. “Will you kiss me?”

Charmed, Damen smiled and shifted closer. “You need only ask.”

Laurent tipped his head back and tugged Damen closer until their lips met. Damen leaned heavily on one arm, to surround Laurent with his other and pull them together. Laurent made a soft noise when Damen's wet clothing came in contact with his inner thigh, and Damen grinned against his lips.

When Damen finally pulled himself away, Laurent looked thoroughly kissed. His cheeks were flushed, and his lips were very red. His normally pristine braid was tousled from Damen's tugging, and his eyes were bright and clear. Laurent said, “I will speak with my sister.”

…*...

They marched north to no resistance.

Either Jokaste’s intelligence was wrong, or the Regent had pulled back from the border and far into Veretian territory. Damen and his men did not come across stray Veretian soldiers while they travelled. The further north they moved, the more uncomfortable Damen became.

“This feels like a trap,” he said.

“It most likely is,” said Jokaste, riding beside him. Laurent rode on her other side, his eyes fixed on the road ahead.

“Are we riding into it?” Damen asked, frustrated.

“Yes,” Jokaste said.

“Should we form a new plan?” Damen asked. “I will not gratuitously sacrifice my men for your throne.”

“It is your throne too,” Jokaste said. She drew her horse to a stop and looked around at the men trailing behind them. “Fine. Set up camp. Alert me when my tent has been made.”

Laurent glanced at Damen but said nothing as he dismounted, and began instructing the men to set up camp. Damen dismounted, handed his horse off to one of the squires, and followed Jokaste.

She had walked her horse to the edge of the thin forest, and stared out at flatlands that stretched for miles. Veretian farmlands speckled the visage. Damen crunched down on dry grass to let the horse know he was coming up from behind, and stood at the horse’s shoulder to join Jokaste.

“When we defeated my uncle’s forward troops he was surprised. He has withdrawn. I fear Laurent and I cannot predict how he will react. You and Laurent together created an inconceivable pattern that my uncle cannot discern. We do not know what is coming,” Jokaste said.

“We will achieve victory,” Damen said. “You are not alone in this fight. With our combined might we are ready for him.”

“Yes,” Jokaste said. Damen placed his hand on her horse’s shoulder, just in front of her knee. “You and Laurent are unpredictable. Together, you are stronger. He and I have played the game against my uncle for so long that it is more a dance where both partners understand each other’s moves. But you, you are a wild card. He cannot predict you.”

“I do not want him to,” Damen said. Jokaste looked down on him, blonde curls falling over her armoured shoulder. “We need to finish this. Quickly. I am tired of watching my countrymen die for your civil war.”

“It is not a civil war,” Jokaste said. “Yet. But when I reach the Nest, it will simply be an execution.”

Damen could not argue with her plan. It was the same as his. He stroked the horse while he and Jokaste turned their attention to the fields below them. Damen heard Laurent approach them from behind, and he looked over his shoulder.

“The tents are ready,” Laurent said.

Jokaste kept Damen up all night reviewing possibilities for the Regent’s plan of action. She and Laurent thought of scenarios that Damen would not be able to comprehend in a million years. Before they parted for the morning routines, Laurent allowed Damen to kiss him in front of Jokaste. When they parted, and Laurent had left the royal tent, Jokaste graced Damen with an unrestrained smile.

With the morning sun they began moving again, further north. The air grew colder and drier as they went, and Damen drew his cape around him as they closed in on the Nest. When it rose up over the horizon, Jokaste stopped her horse. Damen and Laurent stood beside her. Behind them, the thick column of men ground to a halt.

“Shit,” Jokaste said.

Damen went cold when he saw rows upon rows of Veretian soldiers standing between them and the Nest. Amongst the Veretians, Damen saw his brother’s banners flying. Hot rage suffused him.

“I will kill him,” Damen said.

“You could not have known,” Laurent said, surprisingly kind.

“I will kill him,” Damen said.

“You will have to get to him,” Jokaste said. She scanned the formation before them. “They outnumber us.”

“Wait,” Laurent said. He turned towards the east. Damen breathed through his anger and turned towards the east. Dust clouds kicked up, as if hundreds of horses were galloping over dry terrain.

“Laurent-” Jokaste stared, her eyes going wide.

“Consider it a coronation present,” Laurent said. The dust clouds followed a dark column of Vaskian riders, and as they drew closer Damen could hear their war cries. “We should aid them.”

The Vaskians smashed into the Veretian columns, and Jokaste gripped her spear tightly in hand. She thrust it towards her uncle’s lines and issued the order to charge. Behind Damen, the swell of battle rose in the men’s shouts and cries. Damen charged forward, feeling his men behind him.

Damen and his men smashed into the lines of the Regent’s army. Jokaste and Laurent were on either side of him, fighting the grace and light touch inherent in the Veretian forms. Damen was not used to seeing it alongside him, and he had to force himself to focus on the red banners in front of him. The blue starbust was behind him.

He lost sight of Laurent in the fray, and he made himself fight beside Jokaste. She was the rightful heir, she needed to be protected. He cleared the space around them, while his and Jokaste’s men pressed forward, towards the Keep. She stepped over a fallen soldier and cast her gaze to the towering building.

“He will not be here.”

Blood covered her chestplate, and Damen had a moment of panic that he had been remiss in his defense. Jokaste said, “It’s not mine.”

The tension released in Damen. “Where is your brother?”

“He went inside, to find my uncle and cut the head off the snake,” Jokaste said.

“He should not be alone,” Damen said. A smile lifted Jokaste’s lips.

“The only way up is by flight,” she said. Damen followed her gaze.

“Can you lift me?” Damen asked.

“We will have to reach the Keep first,” Jokaste said. “I can lift you.”

“We can reach the Keep,” Damen said. His heart beat in his chest with the need to find Laurent. Laurent was alone with his uncle, unprotected. “Stay with me.”

“Don’t get hit,” Jokaste said. “My soldiers do not have am’haj, but my Uncle is not as kind.”

Damen did not need the extra warning. He had been trained to fight against poisoned blades since he could walk. He lifted his sword and pushed forward. Jokaste followed close behind him, guarding his back efficiently. The fighting broke as they neared the Nest, and Damen stopped in the shade of the massive building. He looked up.

Jokaste let her wings unfold, magic causing them to grow from nothing, and Damen found himself nearly enveloped by brightly coloured wings of a blue jay. Jokaste lifted herself into the air with a massive flap, and she held her hands down.

“Tell no one of this,” Damen said, his heart in his throat.

Jokaste just grinned.

Damen clasped her hands and his feet left the ground. He held himself as still as he could while she pumped her wings to lift them to the first level of the Nest. She hefted him into entranceway, and then immediately alighted, her sword ready.

Damen smashed through the chamber door and the two guards standing inside it. All heads whipped around to see what the noise was, and Damen had to strongly resist roaring his fury when he saw Laurent, head bowed with his arms chained behind his back. Jokaste’s hand on his shoulder as she strode past him was all that held him in check.

“Release him,” she said.

“My darling, your rebellion has gone quite far enough,” the Regent said. “Our countrymen are dying below us because of your treachery. Call off your army and come quietly. This does not have to end in any more deaths.”

“You cannot deny Jokaste her birthright,” Damen said, once his voice was under control. His fist gripped tight around the hilt of his sword. “The pretenses under which you imprisoned her were false. I did no harm to your prince, nor did I run once being sworn to your peoples. I stand before you, ready to accept their burdens as my own. Release him.”

“Why would we believe you? You have brought your men against us in battle. That seems the opposite of what you say,” the Regent said.

“You have been the one spouting lies, uncle,” Jokaste said. “You said that Leandras kidnapped and murdered Laurent. You were the one who told everyone that I was degrading our culture and everything we stood for. Clearly Laurent is alive. Leandras did no harm to him. Rather, he protected his life at great risk to his own from mercenaries sent by you!”

“That is preposterous. I would never harm Laurent,” the Regent said.

Damen held up the letter Laurent had stolen from the Vaskian mercenary leader. “This letter is written in your hand with instructions to the Vaskians. Shall I read it to the Council? It is very interesting.”

“Give it to Herode,” Jokaste said. “Let him verify it. Nicaise, come here, child. Bring Laurent with you.”

The child at the Regent’s side slid from his chair and grasped Laurent’s chains before trotting to stand beside Jokaste. The guards flanking Laurent stood silently, their eyes firm on Herode as he read the letter with care and diligence. Damen did not wait. He grasp the chains binding Laurent’s wrists together and snapped them while Laurent swayed before him. Laurent was so white Damen worried he would faint, but he could not hold Laurent while in full view of the Council.

“This is the Regent’s handwriting,” Herode finally said. He shuffled forward to return the letter to Jokaste. “A most grievous offense, to harm the royal family.” He turned to Jokaste. “What shall we do with him?”

Jokaste drew herself up to her full height and lifted her chin. “I have waited far too long for this moment, uncle. Guards.” The guards snapped to attention. “He is to be stripped of his feathers and his manhood. Cut out his tongue so that he may no longer spread falsehoods and before you set him upon the human population flay him until he begs.”

Laurent sagged against Damen, who instinctively gathered him up. Laurent’s fingers gripped Damen's armour until his knuckles went white. Jokaste turned to them. “Get him to his rooms. I will see to this.”

Damen wrapped an arm around Laurent’s waist and guided him out of the chamber. Dazed, Laurent said nothing about being manhandled, which caused Damen's worry to spike. They were turning a corner when Damen spotted movement. They stumbled to a halt, and Laurent gripped Damen to haul himself upright.

Kastor stood in the hall, his eyes wide at being discovered. Damen's blood rushed hot and vicious. Only Laurent’s hand at his collar stopped him from lunging forward. “You traitor!”

“You are the traitor,” Kastor said. “Falling in bed with these creatures because you destroyed everything father gained. This is your fault!”

Damen did not see the sword until Laurent struck out, knocking it from it’s original path. Steel bit into Damen's flesh, and he gasped in surprise. He fell to his knees, dragging Laurent with him, and Laurent picked up Damen's sword.

“You fell in line with my uncle, the traitor,” Laurent said. “And you struck at the king. Your life is forfeit.”

“No, Laurent-” Damen reached for him but Laurent was already out of the way. With Damen's overlarge sword in hand, Laurent swung at Kastor, and Kastor engaged.

The fight that unfolded was unlike any nightmare Damen could have imagined. Kastor was strong. If Laurent missed a single step there was a high possibility that he would break multiple bones. But as the fight went on, Laurent did not misstep. He matched Kastor, blow for blow, with the skill of long days of practice. As Damen watched, Laurent destroyed Kastor’s defense with a swift strike, and then plunged the sword into his chest.

Kastor died with a weak groan, and slumped to the floor with Damen's sword through his chest like a morbid flag. Laurent unwrapped his fingers from the grip and turned to Damen. He sank to his knees beside Damen, and pressed a hand to the bleeding wound.

“You killed him,” Damen said. His voice sounded far away to his own ears.

“He tried to kill you. It is my job to protect you. My duty and my desire.” Laurent cupped the back of Damen's head. “I’m sorry.”

“No he-” Damen couldn’t think. His brother was dead. Laurent lived. “He would have killed you. But you’re alive.”

“I think you are in shock. I need to get you warm and bandaged. Can you stand?” Laurent’s fingers were hot on his skin. Damen did not want to go anywhere. The fighting was over. The war was done. There would be peace.

“Yes, we will have peace. But not on the cold floor of the Nest,” Laurent said. “Come. Let me take care of you.”

“Yes,” Damen said.