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Now Again a Beloved Son

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Prince Laurent is not what Damen had expected.

Damen remembers twin gauntlets engraved with the starburst insignia of the Crown Prince, Auguste’s powerfully built body shifting fluidly between forms, almost too fast to follow, the uncanny sense he had of where Damen would move his sword every time. Fighting him had taken every scrap of strength Damen had held in reserve, drawing on all the moments in training and battle that came before.

His younger brother and heir presumptive, Prince Laurent, looks like he would fall over in a bracing wind. His vivid pallor, set against his brother’s golden looks, reminds Damen of silver Apaliunas, the oracle god who tricked burnished Helios and took the sun for his own domain. However, from a distance, Prince Laurent more closely resembles Artemisia, sister to Apaliunas and austerely beautiful.

Prince Laurent stands in robes of blood-red and plush, the rich colours making his complexion peaky and ill-humoured; perhaps he dislikes Ios, dislikes the sea breezes playing idly with his hair while he alone waits to be introduced, surrounded by Akielon courtiers.

Somewhere behind Damen, Pherenike of Thrace says, not bothering to lower her voice at all, “My, isn’t he a pretty one. Are we sure Aleron didn’t whelp a girl for his second?” The comment ripples through the gathered audience, men chuckling and women hiding smiles behind glossy ringlets.

Damen feels sorry for him. He hadn’t expected Auguste to send his child brother - his uncle would be more adept at diplomatic overtures, certainly more experienced at handling a hostile court environment. He wonders, for a moment, how Kastor is dealing with the jaded Veretians in Arles. He glances over at his father, and realizes that Theomedes has no intention of stopping the vindictive gossip. It’s cruel, but his father, much like Nikandros, will probably never see Veretians as anything other than enemies to be cut down.

He turns piercing blue eyes on Damen when he walks down the dais to where the Veretian retinue stands, a riot of brightly coloured fabric and embroidery. “Prince Laurent of Vere, welcome to Ios.” He grimaces at himself - perhaps Kastor was right when he volunteered to go to Vere; Damen’s soldierly habits would have him the laughingstock of Arles in just days. “May I present to you my father, King Theomedes.”

Damen’s father nods, loathe to even acknowledge Prince Laurent’s in the throne room, and Damen is ready to usher him to his quarters when he walks past to drop into kneeling position, right against the first raised step of the dais. His movements are precise and calculated to within a hair’s accuracy. Despite the sense of dread fighting its way up into Damen’s throat, he cannot fault Prince Laurent’s sense of the dramatic: every eye in the room has fixed on his shining blond head.

“I thank you for your hospitality, majesty.” Prince Laurent’s voice cuts over the rustling of the crowd gathered behind him, high and still ringing with a child’s clarity. “I have long heard of the primitive splendour of Ios, but truly, the poets cannot do it justice.”

With that, he rises again, and sweeps out of the room with his reduced household, head held regally high.

Most of the court is still trying to parse their way through the Veretian lilts in Prince Laurent’s speech, and Damen desperately casts about for a distraction so that his father will not erupt in the manner of the venerable mount Milos.

Lady Jokaste steps forward. “My king, Prince Damianos appears to be forgetting his duty as a host.”

She is laughing at him, Damen is certain, but he takes his chance to escape and excuses himself. Moments later, he hears his father roar, “Damned Veretian brat! I’ll give him primitive!” Any more expostulations are mercifully muffled by the closed doors. Damen shuts his eyes in silent thanks; he had not relished the task of writing to Auguste and informing him that his brother has been sent back across the border atop a shaved donkey with Theomedes’ ill wishes.

-

“I do not,” Prince Laurent of Vere says with deceptive mildness, “require a nursemaid.”

Jocaste smiles at him, as one intimate friend might to another. “But was it not the orator Timoteus who said, ‘Let not the wise man spurn those who offer him aid’?”

Prince Laurent slants an eloquent glance at Damen, who shrugs, still sleepy from the previous night’s feasting. “Prince Damianos,” Jokaste says, “does not appreciate the subtleties of our philosophers. He favours epic tales of battle.”

Damen suppresses a yawn, lulled by the rhythmic sound of waves slapping against the white cliff faces of Ios. He has given Prince Laurent the prize pick of the palace, and on clear days the window opens to the foam-tipped channel, with a view straight to Isthima. Damen is idly tracking flocks of gulls when he hears Kastor’s name mentioned. He turns to face Prince Laurent and Jokaste, who are sitting close enough to be violating conservative Veretian notions of propriety. To Damen’s absolute lack of surprise, neither exhibits shame at being caught.

He sighs.

“Cosmas the playwright penned the Trials of Kleitos, which opens with ‘Let not the wise man spurn those who offer him aid’. I did pay attention to my lessons, Jokaste. Stop trying to mislead our guest.”

“It speaks.” Prince Laurent says to Jokaste, and turns to Damen lazily, almost as an afterthought. “I’m touched by your concern for my scholarship, Prince Damianos, but I speak Akielon far better than you do Veretian.”

Damen shrugs again. “Chaperonage is a Veretian tradition.” He pauses, waiting for Prince Laurent to understand his meaning, and then, “The rest of the court won’t get over your introduction for some time. Good luck finding another chaperone.” He grimaces, remembering his father’s angry silences and the court’s sullen nervous energy, aggravated by the wine and feasting.

Lady Jokaste laughs. “The rest of the court may fall into midden heaps of their own choosing if they wish. I think His Highness is charming. And you will stay, Damen, if you don’t want Solon to know who snuck into his apricot garden and stole all the fruits right before the midsummer feast.”

The apricots had been perfectly balanced against tangy and ripely sweet, had melted on his tongue when he bit into them. “That was three years ago,” he reminds her, “and old Solon likes me.”

“Solon is the head gardener,” Jokaste explains, “he’s a sweet man, if you get on his good side. The only reason Solon retains his fondness for Damen is because he thinks Kastor stole the apricots.”

Damen grins. “Well, it was his idea.”

Prince Laurent looks bored. “Your lives are so charmingly pastoral,” he says, “tell me, is it true that you couple with sheep in your spare time?”

“I - what?” Damen flounders, more shocked at his ease with the subject than the prurient speculation behind it.

“Some of our slaves are fairly sheep-like,” Jokaste muses, “they’re that pliant.”

It occurs to Damen, belatedly, that Prince Laurent is trying to impress Jokaste, and succeeding. He now regrets not listening to their conversation earlier; Jokaste is beautiful, ambitious, and descended from impeccable family from both maternal and paternal lines. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that she might seek to marry royalty. He shudders at the workings of their future court, when they both think in the most devious of mazes. No honest man would be safe.

“Sheep might be all that you can get, if you continue to refuse slaves.” Damen taps the empty table meaningfully.

Prince Laurent leans back in his chair, radiating graceful disdain and rearranging the elaborate lacing of his sleeves. Jokaste stands up and begins to pick volumes off the shelves. “Honestly, Damen, weren’t you listening? Adrastus offered him six women. If Prince Laurent weren’t so young it would have been a grave insult.”

“That can be fixed,” Damen says, jumping up to beckon one of his own household inside. “Go to Adrastus, tell him to send the four young men he’s training for me to Prince Laurent instead.”

When Lykaios has walked away, Prince Laurent says, “I’m not going to fuck Akielons. Or their slaves.”

Damen turns, appalled. “I am offering you the services of the finest slaves in Akielos because your own servants were found with ciphers in their packs. You’re lucky my father didn’t behead the lot of them.” When Prince Laurent looks unmoved, Damen continues, “You will be courteous to them. You will treat these slaves with every semblance of care they deserve. Our slaves are trained to submit, but their obedience is a gift, one that demands perfect handling. If I hear of even a whisper of abuse, I will strip you of every amenity you now possess until you learn to be appreciative of their service. Is that clear?”

Damen holds Prince Laurent’s gaze until he blinks and looks away, profile clean and unrepentant. He has to be aware of just how tenuous his position is, the treaty still in its nascent stages, and Damen can’t afford to let Prince Laurent fail under his watch. If he has to supervise the training of a spoiled, headstrong dilettante prince, then so be it.

Akielos and Vere need the treaty to hold.

He tightens his grip on the arm of his chair, remembering that they are not alone. Damen risks a look toward the library: Jokaste is facing the shelves, posture perfectly relaxed as if she is not even in this room.

-

Damen throws down the sheafs of tax reports when a knock at the door interrupts his already-strained concentration. He passes a hand over his face, and then waves at Euphemia to open the door.

“If you have the time to bribe my guards to let yourself in, then you can help me make sense of last year’s harvest reports.” Damen says to Jokaste, and then looks closer at her. Her chiton is almost slipping off one shoulder, and her glossy pinned hair shows none of her usual fastidious attention.

“What is it?” He asks, grabbing his sword from its stand near the door. “An attack?”

“Not - not precisely.” Jokaste manages. “A few of the more partisan northerners have cornered your Prince Laurent in the practice yard. I don’t think they mean to leave him unharmed.”

He runs.

Damen can hear it, as he approaches the palace floor that looks out directly over the practice grounds. The ringing of steel against steel, losing its rhythm and becoming faster and sometimes prolonged. He curses and redoubles his speed. Damen thinks of slender Prince Laurent, who barely comes up to his chin even in the heeled boots of Vere, and his indiscriminate anger towards any and all Akielons who cross his path.

Prince Laurent, who likes books and playing Jokaste’s harp, who sneers at his ‘musclebound savagery’ every time Damen offers to teach him how to wrestle in the Akielon style.

His opponents won’t even need a sword, they could just snap him in two with their bare hands.

When Damen skids into the packed dirt arena, Prince Laurent’s body servant is the first to notice, and he promptly prostrates himself in a flurry of limbs, dusty bronze curls and smeared chiton notwithstanding.

“Stop!” Damen roars, wading directly into the mess of bodies that have gathered at one edge of the circular practice ground. He throws his sword to one of the attendants and gathers the curls of two spectators in his hands, preparing to smash their heads together. Thankfully, the rest of the crowd splits away after a fleeting look at Damen’s face, and Damen steadily walks his way into the knot of people. He knows them, men and boys he’s trained with or bested; he doesn’t want to hurt them, but he’s prepared to take down anyone who resists, because he doesn’t have the time to gentle them, to talk them down from the precipice of hotheaded aggression.

Philokrates has both hands fisted in the fine material of Prince Laurent’s fencing jacket, and is shaking him as a hound would its prey. Neither of them are holding weapons any more, Philokrates having progressed, as Damen had feared, to more direct means of expressing his dissatisfaction.

“Stop this.” Damen says, “besting a child is no badge of honour, and whatever your grievances with the Veretians, I share a part in the blame. Let us resolve this like men.”

“I am kyros of Sicyon,” Philokrates says, matter-of-fact, “because my father fell in battle against the treachery of Veretians. You are too trusting in the good of others, and this little rat is but a first scout sent to weaken us from the inside.”

“The king of Vere is a good man.” Damen argues, “he was the one who brought the treaty to us.”

Philokrates shakes his head. “You can trust in Auguste of Vere all you like, but can you say the same for his men? His nobles, his commanders, even his heralds would sooner spit at our feet than deal with us, and you know it. How long before they find a reason to renege? How long before we lose Delpha to the same men who gave it to us atop a platter?”

Whatever Damen prepares to respond is lost in the horn call announcing the entry of the king. Theomedes surveys the crowd, the scattered attendants, a few of Laurent’s slaves still prostrated on the dirt. He looks at Damen, interposed between the newly minted kyros of a northern province and a foreign prince, something in his gaze shuttering closed.

Theomedes says, “A Veretian causing trouble, how novel.”

Belatedly, everyone in the room lowers themselves to their knees, Damen included. He is on thin ice with the court, after Marlas, and needs all the goodwill he can earn if he is to get Prince Laurent out of this in one piece.

The line of Prince Laurent’s mouth is sullen and bruised, but he speaks clearly enough for the whole arena to hear. “Majesty, I unwisely mentioned a hope that I would be able to cross swords with the crown prince, and lord Philokrates took exception, as he deems me unworthy.”

Theomedes looks at the top of Prince Laurent’s bright head as it remains bent low, and says, “Here in Akielos, we use the word ‘kyros’. And you would do well to remember not to speak in front of your betters without permission in the future.”

Damen sees Prince Laurent move his head even further downwards, and breathes a sigh of relief at his docility, unlooked-for but welcome.

“Philokrates is right,” Theomedes continues. “You are not worthy to cross swords with Akielos’ best warriors, but perhaps a bout or two with my son will teach you how a real man fights - with a sword, and not a wily tongue.” His lips curl derisively, and he gestures to the attendants, dismissive, assured in his power. Damen rises as slowly as he can, trying to buy himself time to think.

Theomedes nods once, and then walks out to the viewing area. Soon, the practice field is empty of everyone but Damen and Prince Laurent. Damen checks his sword with the automatic gestures that come of long practice, seeking a way to prevent killing Prince Laurent with an accidental stroke.

At the first parry, Damen is met and turned away, and the surprise makes him execute the correct series of counter-strikes, beating Prince Laurent back several paces, before he rallies and returns with a series of whirling fast deflections. The fight is engaging, and not as one-sided as Damen had feared. He has a solid grasp of footwork patterns, changing them to suit his needs, and he shows abundant promise in the grace of his maneuvers. Still, he is a child, and Damen a tested warrior. At this pace, Damen knows, Prince Laurent will soon tire, and the use of real steel will prove dangerous should he lose control of the bout.

A series of surprised murmurs have spread out around the viewing area, wrapped around the arena as it is, and under that, a current of anger at Prince Laurent’s Veretian tactics.

The longer this goes on, the more he is forced to show his training under Veretian swordmasters, training exquisitely calculated to stymie Akielon styles, the more the resentment will build, and Damen does not know if he can trust the crowd to be satisfied - others may step forward, others who are more eager to draw first blood from a child.

In Prince Laurent, Damen can see shadows of Auguste, the same talent, honed by practice, coupled with a quicksilver wit, a strategy that reveals itself only in layers. Briefly, he wishes he had the training of Prince Laurent; in years he would be nigh unstoppable with a blade. However, Damen can see Prince Laurent’s breath stuttering, his racing pulse, the steadiness in his hand matched by the concentration in his eyes -

Damen uses a move he had encountered once before, from Kastor, and Prince Laurent’s sword flies high into the air, to land behind Damen, quivering as it stands point-first in the packed dirt.

Prince Laurent’s eyes fix on Damen, wordless and angry. Damen notes, distantly, that the anger does not seem to be directed towards him. He doesn’t have the time to think further on it, as a squad of palace guards come spilling inside the room.

“My lord king,” the leader is saying, “We have found trespassers in the slave courtyards.”

-

“How glorious is Akielos, indeed.” Prince Laurent says, shamelessly, as the court files into the audience chamber to see who has dared to enter the slave gardens without permission.

“It is not only a violation of the king’s property,” Damen replies, sober, “to force someone who has been trained not to resist is accounted a monstrous thing, and the act of the craven.”

Prince Laurent hums consideringly. “But the legal punishments are for - ah, soiling the king’s property.” Damen turns to look at him, surprised that he has already ventured into the study of Akielon statutes. Then Damen registers what he is trying to insinuate. “The laws presume that men act with honour and punish them befittingly,” he says stiffly.

“Yes, I’d noticed the lack of women and those who hold no land. What do you think happens to them? Do the kyroi just sweep them under the eaves of the charnel houses and hope that no one notices?” Prince Laurent says airily, as if he had not been fighting Damen inch for inch just a few moments ago.

Damen is struck anew by the balance of contradictions that make up his charge, who finds the gathered splendour of Akielos primitive, who incites quarrels with men twice his size with no one to watch his back, who discusses the minutiae of legal discourse immediately after a sword fight. He places a hand on Prince Laurent’s shoulder, hoping to quell further inanity, when Prince Laurent looks up at him, eyes dancing. “Look to your hounds.” Damen turns and sees Philokrates, Kassander, and Theodoros in a knot at the center of the audience chamber, all glaring fixedly at him, or rather, the boy beside him.

Hypermenestra, his father’s long-time mistress, weaves her way through the gathered court, her retinue small and modest. Where she passes, the eddies and flow of the court straighten out, as though with a few words she unties the knots that hold them clustered together, and the court itself is nothing but a loom to her, the courtiers her threads. Damen holds out his hands to her, and Hypermenestra walks straight to him, smile blooming full and wide on her face.

He kisses her carefully on the cheek, and then shifts so that Prince Laurent is equally visible. She brightens at the sight of him and says, “I am glad they did not hurt you very badly.” Prince Laurent makes a graceful bow in return. “They are only boys, you know,” Hypermenestra continues, “and they have had Damianos to themselves for a very long time.”

Prince Laurent seems to choke at her explanation for Philokrates’ open hostility, but controls himself with a heroic effort. “I shall strive to keep this in mind, my lady.”

Hypermenestra nods, appeased. She turns to Damen, looking up into his face, as is her way with Kastor also. “Treat them gently, Damianos. Their actions speak of their love for you, and nothing less.”

Damen nods, and hands her to her chair by the dais. “Stay by me,” Hypermenestra commands, the calm on her face belied by the force of her grip on Damen’s forearm. “Your father is not well-pleased with you.” She follows his eyes to where Prince Laurent stands, clothing and newly minted hair the focus of attention even as he remains alone, pushed close to the front.

“Ah.” Hypermenestra says, and lets Damen go. “Then at least go to your boys in the other line, show that you are not all support for the Veretians.”

When Damen joins Philokrates at the other side of the audience chamber, Theodoros pushes forward, as if to shield his friend from Damen’s wrath. Damen looks back at Hypermenestra, and she smiles at him encouragingly. “If this keeps up,” Damen says, looking at the way Philokrates’ shoulders loosen with his every word, “people are going to think I cannot fight my own battles.”

“My prince.” Philokrates says, shaken.

“Your words have merit.” Damen admits. “Veretians are prone to deceit and vanity as a people, but the tragedy of deeds and hopes left undone is that they are undone.” He knows if he had defeated Auguste at Marlas, he would have become a man in his father’s eyes, acclaimed and a hero to his people. He does not say it, because he does not yet know what to answer when they ask why he chose otherwise.

“It is a sign of a true friend,” Damen continues, “that you are willing to speak of these doubts to me.” He claps them all on the shoulder, Theodoros and Kassander as well, and their surprise is worrying to Damen, that they should think him so inflexible.

The doors open then, ponderous and ancient, as his father enters with his guard and all five kyroi of Akielos, save Philokrates, who has yet to officially inherit Sicyon.

Theomedes takes his time settling into the throne, as he leaves the rest of court to realize the gravity of the situation. Finally, he nods to a guard at the foot of the dais, who says, “Call the prisoners in.”

There are eight guards in total, when they drag in the intruders.

Even with their heads held down and immobilized, Damen recognizes the men - Hyakinthos and Sophos, both noblemen from the royal holdings. They are captains in their own right, and fought under Kastor in the war; they have no reason to be in the king’s slave gardens at all.

“Do you deny your crime?” Theomedes says, voice echoing off the stone walls.

Sophos snarls something unintelligible, and is given a sound cuff in return. Hyakinthos kneels and touches his forehead to the floor, the ultimate submission to a king, an expression of unmistakeable penance. “Please, my king,” he begs, and then falls silent.

“Do you wish to plead for mercy?” Theomedes asks, disbelieving. Damen can feel the shock of it reverberate around the room - a king’s slaves are sacrosanct, the appointment of royal keeper a confirmation of trust and favour. Hypermenestra remains silent by the dais, but she has leaned forward, expression intent.

“Please, we were led there, Sophos and I, we were deceived.” Hyakinthos says, through tears. “We would not have done this thing knowingly, it is death to do so, everyone knows that.”

Damen feels a sudden shift under his feet, as if the room has tilted to allow for the details of the plot unfolding before him: Prince Laurent arranging for the men to be found in the courtyard, the insurmountable insult to Theomedes’ honour, the subsequent disgrace and war inevitable.

“How is it that you were deceived?” Theomedes asks.

“We were told to meet the Veretian prince, he had items that belonged to our kin, fallen in battle.” Purposeful or not, Damen feels their testimony building up a wave of resentment against Laurent.

Beside Theomedes, Hypermenestra is frowning. “Where were the guards? It is not possible to casually enter the pleasure gardens.”

Adrastus steps up, bowing from the waist. “My lady, the guards stationed in that part of the palace have disappeared. The royal guards are conducting a search as we speak.”

Damen can see it, the moment when the court’s suspicious turn themselves on Prince Laurent, who seems so unimpressed by this new revelation, he could be carved from marble.

“That’s impossible.” Damen says, in spite of himself. Theomedes taps the arm of the throne impatiently, waiting for his explanation, when Prince Laurent cuts in. “Yes, it is rather foolish, isn’t it? When I would be the first to be blamed the moment anything went wrong.”

“That presumes you intended to be caught.” Adrastus counters smoothly, as others nod with agreement, temporarily united in their hatred for Vere.

“Caught doing what, precisely? I have the slaves I need. Why would I exert myself unnecessarily? And dangerously, I might add.” Prince Laurent answers him.

“So you deny having sent for these men.” Nikandros growls, stepping apart from the other kyroi clustered around Hypermenestra.

“I deny having any correspondence with Akielon idiots in general.” Prince Laurent says, to the displeasure of the crowd. Damen wishes, with ten men between himself and Prince Laurent and the eyes of the entire court upon him, that he could put a muzzle to that exquisitely infuriating mouth. He sees Jokaste subtly making her way forward in the ranks of nobles, and hopes that she will prove a restraining influence, and not encourage him to further heights of drama, as is her usual habit.

“Your denial is unnecessary.” Adrastus opens his hands to reveal two golden pins, their glitter muted and tarnished. “These have been found in your rooms.”

Prince Laurent looks bored. “Yes, how pretty. My servants have them as well.”

“Until the slaves are assigned, they are under the protection of the royal house, that is to say, the king.” Adrastus says, vindictive. “There is no reason for you to possess pins that belonged to the favourite of the king.”

Theomedes says, impatient, “Enough of this quibbling. You come here, under the flags of truce, and yet I find that where you go, quarrels follow. Akielos was prepared to forgive the treachery of Vere, and the word of kings and princes is not easily doubted. Yet you dare intrude where it is forbidden and take trophies as proof? You wish to say that I am so weak I cannot even protect my own slaves? You dare pollute the memory of Iphegin, with your disrespect, with your interference?”

“I pollute nothing,” Prince Laurent says. “Didn’t I just say that my servants have the same pins?”

Damen looks at the mass of faces behind Prince Laurent, and thinks that fixing on details will only antagonise them further. Besides, Adrastus is unlikely to have missed the difference between the king’s pin and Damen’s own, wherever he’s procured these. The men are clearly scapegoats, meant as a diversion. The longer Prince Laurent argues, the less Theomedes is likely to believe him, with Adrastus muddying the waters.

He clears his throat. “Father. Prince Laurent was with me for the entire day.” Theomedes turns a disbelieving gaze on him. “He wished to discuss the intricacies of the Arsaces Cycle with Lady Jokaste, and I was chaperoning them both. So you see, it would have been quite impossible for him to dispose of the guards and steal the pins.”

Damen doesn’t dare look behind himself, to see if Jokaste will give the lie away, but she says, “It is true, majesty, I argued with Prince Laurent about the symbolism of conquest in various epic cycles, and we stayed quite late.”

Theomedes, eyebrows gathering for a thunderous display of temper, opens his mouth. Hypermenestra coughs, and says, delicately, “As for the pins, I’m afraid I am at fault. Adrastus had asked me to sort through Iphegin’s royal gifts, you remember, that promising young man who had such an unfortunate accident - well, he had quite a fine harp, and I knew that Prince Laurent was looking for an instrument to practice with, so I packed it and had it sent to his quarters. I suppose the pins must have gotten mixed up in the confusion of clearing out all the things.”

Prince Laurent is still frowning between Damen and Hypermenestra when Jokaste elbows him from behind. “I have never been in Akielos - how would I know of these men and their fallen kinsfolk? And my brother the king would never insult the treaty with Akielos by holding war trophies. I’m afraid you must look elsewhere for your intrigues. And as for the rest - a misunderstanding.” He says, sweeping one arm out to include Damen and the men around him.

Hypermenestra nods. “It does seem that way, doesn’t it?”

“As you say, my lady, I will continue to search for the missing guards.” Adrastus says, as if tasting horseradish for the first time. Worse, that he had expected golden honey, and bit into rotting lemons instead.

“What of the pins?” Nikandros demands. “Prince Laurent should have given them to Adrastus immediately.” Damen sees his father nod, satisfied that he will be able to deal a lasting punishment to Prince Laurent after all, and he kneels, before his father can ruin all his and Hypermenestra’s efforts.

Hypermenestra laughs, “My lord Nikandros, did you not hear Prince Laurent earlier? I think we may lay this at the feet of his ignorance, rather than any disrespect to poor Iphegin.” She looks up at Theomedes, all lighthearted amusement. “I think we have made quite a mess of a small misunderstanding, don’t you, my lord king?”

Theomedes sighs. “Your judgment is as in all things impeccable.” He replies, looking at Damen for a brief moment before fixing his eyes on Prince Laurent. “But you, my son, stole out of the palace to carouse with your troops, and were not with Lady Jokaste and Prince Laurent. I may be long in years, but I am not yet addled. Your eagerness to protect the Veretian betrays you.”

For a moment, the room is breathless. Damen knows without looking that he has just broken the last of his father’s faith in himself. Recognizing that he has as good as dealt a death blow to his father, Damen forces himself to remain still, to carve what he has done into his own heart.

Theomedes says, without looking at Damen, “I have loved you as a father should a son, but you have stepped too far in your presumption. I am king yet, and I say this, for the crime of speaking falsehoods in the presence of the king, you will be sentenced to one hundred lashes at sunrise tomorrow.”

Hypermenestra, as she leaves the audience chamber, looks back at Damen, the expression on her face strangely unhappy.

-

After the whipping, Jokaste comes to see Damen. He knows that she has, once again, bribed her way past his guards, but he is beyond caring about palace security at the moment.

She lays a hand in his hair, gentle as she has never been before. “You were the apple of your father’s eye, once. All the things that made you who you are have not changed, and your father will remember that he loves you, in time.”

Damen makes a noise in the back of his throat, unable to say more, but it is question and denial both, because he remembers his father’s incandescent pride, in the moments before he rode out to meet Auguste on the field, and knows that Theomedes would rather he die than have a son so weak.