"Will you help me win a wager?" Laurent asks.
Damianos pauses with one hand on his horse's reins and glances at him. The horse is sweat-sheened and twitchy with the day's exercise, to Laurent's eye; it gives a little frisk and tosses its head, and Damianos moves his free hand to lie soothingly on its neck.
"What kind of wager?"
"It's more of a game," Laurent says. He nudges his horse into a walk, slow enough that Damianos can follow without exciting his own horse further.
"You haven't had enough sport for one day?" Damianos asks, with a smile. He nods around them at the brisk chaos of the hunting party. The tents and tables of the base camp that were erected before the crack of dawn are now being dismantled by servants, and slowly packed onto carts for transport back to the palace compound.
Laurent calls up a formal smile of his own and bows in his saddle. "Ah, you will not entrap me so easily into insulting Akielon hospitality."
Damianos shakes his head. "You're teasing."
Laurent tugs on a rein and moves one knee to steer his horse around where the smaller of the day's kills is being gutted with efficient strokes. The hunting dogs are waiting, with a well-trained motionlessness that barely conceals their eager tension, for scraps of unwanted offal to be thrown their way. The Crown Prince's half-brother is deep in talk with one of the huntsmen nearby, holding his leather gloves in one hand and using them to sketch out some point of argument as he speaks. As Damianos and Laurent ride past, the Prince Kastor looks up and nods at them with perfect courtesy. There is a streak of dried blood along his jawline.
"Alright," Damianos says, when they have ridden a little further and the sharp smell of blood has been replaced by one of trees and dust. "What game do you need my help with?"
"You know my brother's ambassador to your court is a relative of mine."
"Lord Genalt?" Damianos says. "No, I didn't know."
"A cousin of sorts, on my mother's side. There was a game he invented for me, when I was quite young and he was kind enough to spend time with a child. It was a game of stealth," Laurent says. "I would have to sneak into his rooms and steal something that was recognisably his, without being caught, and then show it to him afterwards. His guards and servants were under orders to tell him as soon as they saw me."
"It sounds easy to cheat at," Damianos says, "especially for a prince."
He's doing a poor job of hiding his curiosity as to what's going on. Laurent has been an envoy to Akielos for six days now, and the main event--the wedding of King Theomedes's niece to one of the myriad Patran princes--has been followed by what is, as far as Laurent can see, the Akielon court seizing the opportunity for as many different festivities can be crammed into the time between sunrise and midnight. On top of hunting trips Laurent has attended tournaments, dramas, military demonstrations and elaborate banquets.
His Highness the Crown Prince Damianos has been attentive and pleasant and Laurent has been pleasant in return, king's son to king's brother. They've never strayed into conversational topics as intimate as personal history, however, and Laurent has not initiated any public activities, let alone private ones.
"But that would ruin the point of the game," Laurent says, "which was to learn how not to be seen in the first place."
"Were you any good?" Damianos asks.
"Not to begin with. Genalt promised me a prize of my choosing every time I succeeded, but it took a long time before he actually had to buy me anything."
"And the prizes of your choosing were--"
"Ah," Damianos says. "Of course."
"I find myself feeling nostalgic," Laurent says. "I think my cousin will appreciate the joke, but I don't have the advantage that I did in Vere, of learning the territory and planning my attack accordingly." He warms his voice and moves his horse closer, matching intimacy of movement to the laughing conspiracy of his words. "That's why I need you."
Damianos smiles at him, his whole face and his dark eyes lit with it. His hair needs cutting, Laurent thinks suddenly and absurdly.
"I see. How do you intend to lure Genalt away from his rooms?"
"Fol-sol," says Laurent.
"Is this a metaphor?"
"No. Do you know anyone who plays?" It's a Veretian game, but popular enough.
Damianos nods. "Councillor Miltiades is a keen player."
"Good. You should make him aware that Genalt has a passion for the game; Genalt will talk a horse's leg off about history and strategy, if he finds a willing audience," Laurent says. "Make sure he asks to see Genalt's ivory playing set. It's an antique, and he keeps it with him at all times. That should keep him out of the way for at least an hour."
"You've thought this through."
Damianos's amusement is that of a man able to enjoy a joke, but uncomplicated, unbothered by intrigue.
Laurent wonders, for a moment, what that must be like.
"Tomorrow morning, then," Damianos adds. "I have to entertain the Patran delegation later in the day."
"I'm afraid I have been monopolising you," Laurent says. He drops his gaze for a few calculated seconds, and is rewarded with that sincere smile when he looks up again.
They ride for a while longer in silence, overtaking the first of the carts. The path is widening as forest gives way to farmland, and the hill of the palace compound is visible in the distance.
"Aren't you hot?" Damianos asks presently, for at least the third time that day.
Laurent is uncomfortably warm now, in the late afternoon, and it was worse when the sun was high. Nobody would have commented if he'd adopted a more Akielon style of dress and left his own dark, closely laced clothes folded away, but Laurent is Vere for the space of these ten days, and his clothes remind him--and others--of this fact.
He glances at Damianos, who has rolled the sleeves of his loose shirt so that they sit above his elbows. The Akielon prince has dirt-spattered forearms, strong and browned by the sun. Laurent wouldn't turn such a shade of brown, in this weather; more likely he would simply burn pink. Another good reason to insist upon a style of dress that covers him from wrist to neck.
"I'm fine," he says, also for the third time.
He doesn't wipe his brow; he doesn't rub at the muscles of his thighs, which are aching with the strain of a day spent largely in the saddle. His nose has been itching for the past half hour, and he's bet himself his pick of the lovely Akielon glass ornaments sold in the marketplace that he can make it back to the palace without scratching it.
It's a game.
"I should apologise for the way Kastor acted at dinner last night. I don't--he isn't usually like that," Damianos says, frowning. "I think the wine got to him."
There are probably more appropriate locations for this kind of conversation than twelve feet off the ground, on the wall of the palace's south wing, clinging precariously to a window ledge. They're well shielded from the eyes of anyone in the grounds by a dense row of trees, but the fact remains that they are two young men of royal blood sneaking around the sheer stone exterior like a pair of common thieves.
("Well, if we're recreating our childhoods," Damianos said. "I haven't done this in years, but I'm sure the cracks are still where they used to be."
Laurent, who had been envisaging a much less adventurous entrance, bit down on a delighted laugh and followed him out of the window.)
"It was nothing," Laurent says now. "These are days for celebration. Surely a bit of rowdiness can be forgiven."
Laurent has been watching the Prince Kastor carefully, these last few days, and thinking about him more carefully still. Especially Kastor in the context of Damianos. The relationship between the two of them, legitimate heir and illegitimate older brother, seems friendly enough. But Laurent would lay money that Kastor's behaviour in his cups is less an anomaly than a stripping back of false gilding to glimpse the ugly unrest beneath.
For Laurent to say anything about it would be foolish, not least because it could be seen as an obvious ploy to sow discord in the royal house. And it wouldn't do to show one's hand in such a fight before the victor is apparent; before the fight itself is even apparent. A situation to be monitored, then.
An impeccably concealed part of Laurent wants to recoil in disgust that Kastor was born at all, let alone granted station and acknowledged openly at court. But there is amity to be preserved here. Cultural differences must be tolerated, at least on the surface.
Damianos is the first to step onto the ledge of an open window leading into Genalt's rooms. He moves with a fighter's confident balance. Laurent remembers seeing him compete with the sword in one of the tournaments a few days ago. Damianos's skill was obvious even within the stylised confines of the duel, and his opponent clearly wasn't holding himself back for the sake of allowing his prince to win.
After a moment's pause, Laurent takes Damianos's offered hand and steps onto the ledge himself, then down into the room. Or rather, down onto Genalt's desk, which has been placed beneath the window to take advantage of the light. Laurent narrowly avoids spilling an inkpot with the toe of his boot before he follows Damianos and climbs off the desk, the fall of his feet muffled by a large rug. They're clearly in Genalt's study.
"Kastor is preoccupied. Probably worried about our father," Damianos says, picking the conversation back up. "He's--not as young as he was."
Not as well as he was, Laurent translates that to mean. It's not much of a secret. Anyone with eyes could see that Theomedes's hair is paler, his face more drawn, his steps more cautious than they were even a handful of years ago. Instead of attending the banquets he retires early and takes dinner in his rooms.
Laurent concentrates on opening desk drawers, and bites his tongue against a comment about the alarming ease with which Damianos will discuss such things as his royal father's failing health with--well, an ally, and a high-ranking one, but still a stranger, more or less. It'd be a lost cause for Laurent to try to fix this ridiculous Akielon openness, and it's certainly not in his interests to tighten the prince's tongue if it's shown a tendency to loosen in his presence.
"Anyone can see he's much loved. By his people as well," Laurent says, falling back on meaningless pleasantry.
Laurent can almost hear Damianos's mind tripping through the unaccustomed steps of diplomacy in search of something to say in return. Damianos is only a couple of years older than Laurent himself, and relations between Vere and Akielos are only now reaching a tentative warmth after years of ambivalence or outright strain; Damianos would never have met either of Laurent's parents when they were alive.
"Having your uncle around must have been a comfort to you and Auguste," is what Damianos--predictably, unfortunately--comes out with.
Laurent is almost certain that his uncle's fond, intelligent gaze has been fixed on the throne of Vere for many years now, and that the window of opportunity for a relatively clear path of succession grows smaller with every passing season; Auguste has been married two years now, and an announcement that Helene is carrying an heir could occur at any time.
Laurent will spend the rest of his life, if necessary, silently uncovering and mercilessly crushing the plots of anyone who would remove Auguste from that throne.
He adorns his smile with all the charm at his command.
"My brother and I have been lucky to have such an able tutor in statecraft," he says.
There are some interesting documents in the desk that Laurent wouldn't mind having another look at, but he can hardly pass them off as trinkets appropriate for this wager. He knows the fun way in, now; he can come back another time.
"I should compliment you on the rooms you have provided for my country's ambassador," Laurent says.
Damianos looks around with a distaste that he isn't practiced enough to hide. The decoration in the study is opulent and rich and far more Veretian than it is Akielon; Lord Genalt has been here long enough to style them to his own tastes, and make them feel like home. In a palace where the suites run more to simplicity, clean marble and heavy wood, Laurent supposes this sort of luxury could be an acquired taste.
"Try in here," Damianos says. He heads towards where embroidered bed curtains are visible through a half-open door.
Laurent follows him.
Genalt's bedroom is dominated by the bed itself, which stands well off the ground. The heavy embroidery of the curtains matches a deep green bedspread that features a chaotic stitched mural of armies and animals, and hangs down over each side of the bed to brush the floor. It's gorgeous. Laurent would like to run his fingers over the small textures of the embroidery and pick out each scene from history or myth.
"Good luck carrying it back out the window," Damianos says.
A small grin surprises its way onto Laurent's face for a moment. He pulls his gaze reluctantly away from the bedspread and approaches a dresser instead. Genalt is both unmarried and growing too old for jewelled ornaments to suit him; the wooden surface is scattered with boxes and shallow bowls, many of them the lovely flecked Akielon glass, but they contain everything from simple cloak-pins to dice. Set proudly in the front corner of the dresser is a hinged ivory box shaped like a small book. The fol-sol pieces inside it rattle as Laurent moves the box aside.
Laurent picks up a heavy ring of tarnished metal, with a flat surface like a wax seal showing a spray of bell-shaped flowers. "This should do. He--"
"Quiet," says Damianos. It's the voice of a commander, sharp and low, and Laurent finds himself closing his mouth. "Listen. No--down."
Laurent barely has time to hear the click of a door, the sound of a voice in the next room, before Damianos grabs him by the arm and pulls him to the floor, then half-rolls, half-shoves the two of them sideways until they're under the bed, just hidden by the embroidered cloth.
Laurent is too shocked to move. Damianos is half a head taller than Laurent, and more strongly built, and it's never seemed as obvious as it is in this moment. Damianos is more or less pinning him down; he has one broad palm over Laurent's mouth and their faces are very close, their bodies pressed together so tightly that Laurent can't tell if the heart racing against his ribs is his own.
"--to take an interest," says the voice. One of Genalt's servants, speaking to the guard in the corridor. "He keeps it in the bedroom, I'll only be a moment."
It takes almost no time at all, it seems, for the brisk footsteps of the servant to enter and cross the bedroom to the dresser--pause--and then fade out of earshot again.
The gentle sound of the suite's main door being pulled shut is like the fall of a red rag in the middle of a wrestling ring, awakening Laurent's frozen muscles. He wriggles his ungraceful way out from underneath both Damianos and the bed, and climbs to his feet. Now he has enough space to breathe, and to be angry. His head is ringing with frantic consideration, plans being instantly made and discarded, and his stomach swirls with irritation and something warmer, something like longing.
"Oh," Laurent snaps, before he can think. "We were almost--must you be so capable?"
"What?" Damianos pauses in the act of brushing down his clothes.
Laurent's sense of the ridiculous catches up with him all at once, and he closes his mouth on a laugh. He goes back over to the dresser, and drops the ring back into the shallow enamelled bowl where he found it.
"You wanted him to find us," Damianos says, slowly. "You wanted the ambassador to know that you were in his rooms. You --" He stops, and Laurent turns around, now curious enough to want to see his face. Damianos looks back at him, his firm gaze equal parts assessing and appreciative. "You knew he doesn't carry the fol-sol set around with him."
A deeply buried, attention-hungry part of Laurent feels a spark of pleasure, which then flies up and hovers around his own mouth; he can feel it there like the afterburn of honey spirits. He sits on the edge of Genalt's bed and quells the urge to lean back comfortably on his hands.
"Why am I here, then?" Damianos goes on. "I'm sure you'd have done a perfectly good job of getting caught on your own."
Damianos seems more than capable of answering his own question given a few minutes more of talking into Laurent's silences, but there are other things to consider. Laurent weighs his options, very quickly.
"You were here to swear up and down that we were in Genalt's rooms as part of a game. A harmless wager. Genalt would have known the truth, but he wouldn't have been able to call me on it." Laurent looks at Damianos sidelong. "Though I admit, I wouldn't have picked the window as an entrance point. You were proving useful enough until you ruined everything."
He doesn't bother to sound angry, and Damianos doesn't seem to be upset either. His eyes are sharper than Laurent has seen them thus far, glinting from within the amusement shaping his face.
"Did you really play this game with your cousin, as a child? Or was that a lie as well?"
"Oh, we played this game," Laurent says, coolly. "Genalt just didn't know we were playing it."
Damianos, he realises, has not asked him the most obvious question of all.
Laurent traces with one finger the plumage of a bird picked out in golden thread. "Genalt has been bought. I don't know who bought him, but I'm fairly sure it's one of the lords who came with me as part of the envoy."
Damianos is silent for a moment more. Then, "You'd have to have someone watching him."
Laurent nods. "I do. I wanted to see who he ran to, when he knew I'd been snooping around in his rooms along with the Prince of Akielos."
Damianos directs a speaking look at the bed. "I'm starting to think I'm lucky you didn't bite my hand off."
Laurent is going to flush. He can feel it. He looks away just before the prickle of heat and self-annoyance climbs his cheeks. The truth is that he was too sheerly surprised, and too distracted by his body's response to being pinned beneath Damianos, to improvise a suitable method of ensuring their discovery.
"I'm sure the gossips would have loved to hear all about how we were found rutting in the dust," he says dryly. "If I were a woman, you might have found yourself hosting another hasty political marriage."
"There are other ways to discover a spy's master," Damianos says. "What do you want me to tell him?"
It actually takes a second to sink in.
Part of Laurent's busy mind unfolds a new future for him to peruse. He's never believed in fortune tellers, in any predetermined truths to be found in tea leaves or candle wax or the creases of a person's hand. You make your own life, and you make it by acting on the information that crosses your path. This is something Laurent had not considered, and he prides himself on considering everything.
Damianos of Akielos is uncomplicated, yes, but that doesn't mean he's not clever.
He's standing there waiting for Laurent to rejoin the game, to decide what lies should be fed through Damianos, through Lord Genalt, and to the unknown employer, so that Laurent can discover who is acting on false information that they shouldn't have.
Laurent hadn't considered trust.
After many days and even more banquets, Laurent is starting to acquire a taste for Akielon wine. It is either paler or darker than that at home. The red wine like blackened cherries starts bitter and turns sweet on the tongue, making it easy to reach the bottom of a cup before you realise it. As Laurent allows himself no more than two cups of wine in a sitting, sipped slowly, he has been leaning towards the pale wine from grapes grown--as one agriculturally-minded councillor was delighted to tell him--in the vineyards just outside Delpha. It has an astringency like unripe stone fruit.
The palace slaves who serve as table attendants have clearly marked Laurent's preference, and don't bother offering the red in his direction. That doesn't stop them from offering him everything else. Laurent knows how to scatter his appetite over many courses, but even so, there are only so many local Akielon delicacies one can sample in a single sitting. By the time the platter of figs, candied with honey and then drenched in more of it, is held under Laurent's nose, he feels near-queasy with the prospect of that much sugar.
"No," he says, waving the slave away.
The Lady Charmion is seated to Laurent's right; she has tightly curled hair and a laugh like two buckets sloshing together. She has been drinking the dark wine, and in significant quantities
"Ah, so you really can't be tempted?" she says. She probably thinks her implication is subtle. "Perhaps you're worried about spoiling your slender figure, your Highness."
"One has to be careful," Laurent says. "I spend so much time in the library."
For most of the meal Damianos has been listening to a long story from his cousin's new-minted Patran husband, but the man is now applying himself to the figs with wide-eyed, sticky-mouthed enthusiasm. Damianos must be using this reprieve to eavesdrop on Laurent's conversation because he turns and gives Laurent an amused look in response to that comment, perhaps thinking of the morning's exploits in window ledge climbing. They'd come perilously close to being seen on their way back from Genalt's rooms, as one of the palace gardeners had been pulling a handcart of clippings across the grounds and had passed by beneath the fringe of trees; Laurent had pressed his face to the rough stone and tried not to smile too obviously.
Certainly nobody could accuse Damianos of being slender, or indeed of being a bookish, pampered noble. He's like some sculptor's ideal of a muscled warrior prince, handsome and tall and with the bearing of a soldier. Since they met, Laurent has been noting with a part of his mind the ways in which Damianos is like Auguste, and the ways in which they differ. Damianos is dark and steady where Auguste is a candle, a column of gold, but there's something in their manner that's the same. Unflinching and sure of their authority.
The musicians in the hall stop playing. After a few moments, the noise of conversation dies down as well.
Laurent, who has been looking too long in Damianos's direction, moves his attention to the centre of the room where the Keeper of the Royal Slaves is standing with his hands pressed together theatrically.
"My lords, my ladies. I can only hope that your appetites have not been entirely sated by the meal, and perhaps this entertainment can go a little way towards...refreshing the palate."
That was almost sophisticated, for Akielos. Laurent picks up his cup as a table attendant draws near with a new jug of wine, pretending at frequent sips so that the liquid level isn't visible and it won't be refilled.
The entertainment is to be provided by a group of the palace slaves, who walk in with their impeccably painted faces lowered in that demure way they all seem to have, and arrange themselves in a frozen tableau. None of them are wearing much of anything, and the gold paint that adorns their eyes joins a line that runs down their cheeks and then curls like a loving serpent all over their skin. The collars around their necks, if you do not look too closely, could be no more than an extension of that golden paint.
The slaves hold their position for long enough that a polite murmur of admiration at their discipline runs through the room. Adrastus bows very slightly in acknowledgment, then gestures to the musicians and a new song begins. Where the dinner's background music was meant to showcase the solo kithara, this is dominated by drums.
The dance begins slowly, then quickens its pace. The slim, graceful figures of the slaves bend and writhe, painted limbs coming into contact with the next dancer and falling away.
It's a stylised battle, Laurent realises. He casts his mind back through the ancient legends of Akielos that he has read, but it's difficult to determine if this is meant to be an act of concrete storytelling, or if it's simply titillation dressed up as war. There are no identifying props or costumes that could point to character or historical figure, even though individually the slaves' physical appearance is far from uniform: some are very pale, others so dark the gold glows on them like stars in the night, and most shades in between are represented. But their symmetry is exact, their bodies flawless. No scars, no spots, nothing that could be said to mar their beauty by even the smallest degree. When the slaves do strike one another, it's with barely enough force to be felt, let alone bruise.
It's all very pretty; and, for all its play at both violence and sex, very tame. A flirtation of a dance.
Before long, the flirtation becomes overt. The slave emerging as the hero of battle has milky skin and hair of a vivid honey shade, sleek and lustrous under the torchlight. With small glances and angles of his body he makes it clear that he is performing for the pleasure of the high table, and when Laurent looks at Damianos he realises that the performance is even more precisely aimed than that.
The Akielon Prince is leaning back in his chair, his lips parted in something that is not quite a smile, warm and brazen and intent. It should come as no surprise to Laurent by now that Damianos is as open with his arousal as with all his other emotions, but seeing it with his own eyes is like a trickle of water down Laurent's spine, making him more aware of his own skin. It's nothing. He pushes it away.
He has already heard, from wine-loosened lips eager to show off their level of knowledge, that the Crown Prince is liberal with affection to women but does not take male slaves as members of his permanent household, and certainly this one is not wearing the lion-headed golden pin that would mark him as such.
But occasionally, those same lips murmured, occasionally...
Laurent looks not at the slave, not at Damianos, but at Adrastas. The Keeper of the Slaves has the narrow expression of a merchant, haggling and calculating and moving numbers from one column to another. There's something more there, Laurent thinks, than the self-satisfaction of a man whose training has found favour with his future King. The Akielon court may not wear its intrigue like a bracelet, proudly complex and all-entrapping, but it writhes with secrets nonetheless. Given another sixty days here, Laurent might have a hope of grasping what all of these small wrong notes mean when taken together, what streams of influence and plot run beneath the crudely simple surface. For now all he can do is take notice.
The golden-haired slave is whirling through a final set of steps that takes him all the way to the front of the room, so that when the drums rise to a climax and then stop, he is left kneeling in front of where Damianos sits. When the applause dies away the slave straightens from obesiance in a single supple movement, his eyes downcast and his lips curved in a shy smile.
If this were Vere, Damianos might lean forward and offer a sweet from his plate, to be eaten from his fingers. But this is Akielos and it is, Laurent has seen over the last few nights, the slave who feeds the master, an act of service rather than reward.
Damianos stands and acknowledges the performance and Adrastas both with a toast, echoed by every courtier in the room. Laurent tilts his cup and lets the wine hit his closed lips. As Damianos sits down, he looks over and meets Laurent's eyes with his own, which are still bright and hot with pleasure.
Laurent forces his fingers to loosen where they are gripping his cup.
Well, he thinks. And drinks the rest of his wine.
It wouldn't do for Laurent to go back to his suite of rooms too early, but there are rooms and balconies off the banquet hall that provide places for private conversation, as well as other acts which tend to be private in Akielos where they would barely be blinked at, in Vere, should they take place in full view of the court. Laurent sits through a few more minutes of Lady Charmion's attempts at innuendo as she attempts to coax an opinion on the performance out of him, and then escapes to an unoccupied room. This room is bordering on opulent, for Akielos, with a mosaic of coloured marble set into the floor.
The noise from the hall filters through and strikes the hard stone surfaces, so it's not as quiet a hiding place as it could be, but it's private. The members of Laurent's personal guard, who have already made as much of a show of disapproval as they dare as regards Laurent's slipping away from them earlier in the day in order to play sneak-thief, have no doubt planted themselves near the doorway.
When he hears someone enter the room behind him, he doesn't bother to look up from the mosaic.
"If you're here to scold me about assassins again, Orlant, I think they had chances enough with the food."
"Well," says Damianos. "Now I think you are insulting our hospitality."
Laurent steadies his face and turns around. Damianos sounded amused. "You know my favourite game, now," he says. "Are you here to stop me from stealing things?"
"If you'd prefer a poisoning attempt, I could fetch the candied figs."
"I see. Your aim is to spoil my slender figure."
"Not that it would work." Damianos steps away from the door and moves closer, almost within arm's reach. "It's obvious that you work hard enough with a sword for a few sweets to make no difference."
Laurent blinks, not quite fast enough to hide his surprise.
"We shook hands," Damianos says. "At length. I know a sword-callus when I feel it."
That's--information. Whether it says more about Laurent or about Damianos, Laurent isn't sure, but he stores it away anyway.
"I'm nowhere near as good as Auguste, but he refuses to let me neglect it." Laurent allows some playful reluctance to colour his tone. "I can read all the books I like, he says, as long as I know how to defend myself."
That is not quite the truth. Laurent wouldn't go so far as to actively conceal a callus, but he works harder and for longer hours than he will allow even Auguste to know, because Auguste has no head for intrigue and would think nothing of proudly discussing his younger brother's prowess where anyone could note it. Laurent intends to be a knife hidden in Auguste's sleeve, and so he'll be nothing more than a harmless scholar in the eyes of the Veretian court for a while yet. Only two members of his personal guard, absolutely loyal and sworn to secrecy, know exactly how good Laurent is with a sword.
Damianos smiles. "I don't know many who are as good as Auguste."
"We could have a bout," Damianos offers. "None of this formal frippery, either. A proper one."
"It would be embarrassing for you to explain how the Veretian king's brother ended up bleeding on the ground."
"If Auguste trained you, you can't be as bad as all that."
"I've seen you fight," Laurent says, absolutely honest now. "Frippery or not, you're better than I am."
The silence between them is a warm one, and Damianos has been smiling at him for a long time, and the nature of that silence shifts in a way that Laurent is absolutely aware of but would find difficult to put into words.
Damianos lifts a hand and touches Laurent's face. His thumb barely brushes the corner of Laurent's mouth. The blunt edges of his fingernails are gentle on the tender skin beneath Laurent's jaw, just above where Laurent's pulse leaps and hastens in response.
It's not a shock. Despite what the court gossips may have to say about Damianos's sexual proclivities, Laurent is not blind, and he has been cultivating Damianos's easy, obvious regard for days now. Though he's a little surprised it survived Laurent's manipulation when it came to the too-successful invasion of Genalt's rooms. He wasn't sure if Damianos would do anything about it, but thought he was prepared to handle the possibility that he might. He knows how to refuse without pricking anyone's ego or bruising their pride.
What is surprising is the way he feels in the face of this. He should not be thinking of the low-lidded, appreciative heat on Damianos's face as he watched the dancing slaves, and he should not feel breathless in the face of that same heat turned on himself.
Laurent is not entirely inexperienced, but he has been--sparing. Cautious, always.
And now Laurent is hazy with the flush of desire and trying to quell it, to think above it, considering what could be lost if he were to do this, what could be gained, whether there could be motives here beyond simple attraction. If this could be an attempt to discover his tastes, or to use him to influence Auguste, to hurt him; to damage Vere somehow. Or if Laurent is a prize, the subject of a wager in his own right, a conquest to bolster Damianos's standing in his own court. But the Prince of Akielos has already shown himself to have little fondness for gossip.
A short rumble of laughter cuts across his thoughts.
"Your mind must be a mound of ants," Damianos says with exasperation. "My lips aren't drugged. I'm not trying to make anyone jealous. I'm offering you a kiss, not a treaty."
"You are the heir to a throne and I am the representative of another," Laurent says. "It's naive to think that our actions don't carry weight."
Damianos's mouth twitches at the edge. He has good lips, firm and full and stubborn. Laurent notices himself noticing them, and holds himself very straight.
"You could have just said no," Damianos says.
He doesn't sound offended. He shrugs and takes a step away; he is inviting Laurent to move back into the hall with him. In a little while Damianos will beckon to the golden-haired slave with the shy smile. And he and Laurent will carry on as before, enjoying one another's company for the two days that remain of this visit, and Damianos will be courteous and will not make this offer again.
"Wait," says Laurent.
Laurent swallows. His mouth is dry from that strange pale wine. "I didn't say no."
The tread of Damianos's feet is soft, even without a rug underfoot. He is not rushed, nor is he casual. He takes the few steps that bring him close within Laurent's space and then he stops, the lines of him shadowed and fire-brushed. There is almost no distance between their faces; but there is distance nonetheless.
A spark of annoyance in Laurent mingles with a spark of admiration. Damianos is no diplomat but he is astute enough, at least, to realise that to initiate is to concede. To require of Laurent this final admission of desire.
It's just a kiss. He's not--setting the future in stone.
He might be changing it, a little, but he does that with every step, every choice, every game. You make your own life.
He puts a hand to the back of Damianos's neck, sliding his fingers beneath the warm and silk-rough curl of black hair, and tugs down until their mouths meet.
At first it feels experimental, uncertain: the slow movements of Damianos's mouth on his, the tiny sounds that drop into the air, the gradual build of a hunger that seems to lodge in the base of Laurent's throat and ache there like a swallowed ember. They both taste of wine and the spices of the meal.
And then Damianos makes a low noise, halfway between a gasp and a question, and the hunger burns its way fiercely through Laurent and snatches the reins. Laurent tightens his fingers hard in Damianos's hair, not even sure if it's deliberate or a reflex, and then Damianos has a hand at the back of Laurent's head and another at the small of his back, pulling him close.
The kiss is a series of slickly questing pressures, each one deeper than the last. Laurent parts his lips further and allows himself to lean into the heat of Damianos's body and the promising, dizzying way Damianos is capturing his mouth again and again and again.
There's a sensation in Laurent's chest like the first crack of a new book's spine, like sinking into a bath in winter and feeling almost bruised with the heat.
Carefully, he untangles his fingers and pulls away. Damianos's hand remains resting on Laurent's back, steady and intimate, but relaxed enough that Laurent can take half a step backwards. Could walk away entirely, if he wanted to.
Laurent's not breathing properly. He has to think about it, has to tell himself to exhale.
Damianos's lips are wet and red.
Are you absolutely sure they aren't drugged, Laurent thinks, ridiculously.
Neither of them speaks for a few moments. They breathe, and they are no longer close enough that Laurent could feel Damianos's breaths on his face, but part of him is aware of them anyway. He's aware of the rise and fall of Damianos's chest, his broad shoulders, all that quiet muscle. The unfiltered desire on his face as he gazes at Laurent. The stroke of his thumb, almost imperceptible through the fabric of Laurent's shirt and jacket.
"I would like to take you to bed," Damianos says.
"Would you," says Laurent, very steady.
Damianos leans in, unhurried. This kiss is lush, a gentle sweep of his tongue against Laurent's that is almost unbearably sweet. Laurent thinks: my hands are trembling.
"Yes," says Damianos, against Laurent's lips. "What do you want?"
Nothing about this feels dangerous. But that in itself has Laurent over-aware, tense, a wire stretched between trees. He knows what to do with danger. He doesn't--
What does he want?
Enough, Laurent tells himself. You know what you want. Right here and right now you need to decide if it's worth it.
Take it, or don't.
He presses a fleeting kiss to Damianos's jaw, and keeps his mouth near the man's ear.
"I want you to tell me what you thought of doing to that slave," he says, as soft and as deadly as he dares. "The one who danced so nicely. And I want it. In your bed, from your hands. I want everything you would give me."
Damianos sucks in a harsh breath. "Laurent--" he says, his voice uneven, and Laurent steps clear. Clasps his steady hands in front of him, and smiles.
"Well?" he says. "Lead on."
The room has a second exit leading out and away from the main hall. Laurent follows Damianos with a silent apology to Orlant and the rest of his guard. They are, at least, well used to Laurent disappearing for long periods without any companions, and if they didn't trust the Akielon Prince then one of them would have found an excuse to interrupt before now.
Damianos nods in response to the bows and salutes from people in the palace corridors, and slows his steps so that Laurent is walking beside him. As they are about to step into the hall that leads to Damianos's suite of rooms, Laurent pulls to a halt and stops Damianos from rounding the corner with a hand to his arm.
Then he peeks around the corner. Two guards, standing at the kind of loose attention that implies they've been there a while and expect to be there a while longer, keep watch over empty rooms while the banquet stretches into the night.
Damianos looks a question at him, perhaps seeking nerves or shame in Laurent's expression, some sign that he's changed his mind. But Laurent's stomach is bubbling with nothing more than the simple joy of the challenge.
"Ah," says Damianos. "The game is not to be seen."
"We could always climb the side of the building," Laurent says.
Damianos gives a soft snort of laughter. "I can distract them. Is that enough deception for you?"
Laurent gives a small, very neat bow and waves his most imperious hand in a go on kind of gesture.
The guards salute as Damianos approaches them. Laurent, barely allowing a crack of his eye past the corner and rather hoping he isn't left in this awkward position for long enough that he's forced to explain it to anyone, can't see their faces well. But the salutes are those of soldiers to a commander, automatic and respectful, and there's no hesitation in the way they follow him further up the corridor as he talks and gestures to something. This puts their backs squarely towards Laurent, who seizes the moment and walks, as casually and as quietly as he can, towards the door.
Damianos has a lot to learn about stealth; his eyes keep flicking sideways, tracking Laurent's silent progress. Neither of the guards turn around, though.
Laurent realises when he touches the door handle that everything could yet be ruined by inconvenient creaking, but the palace slaves must be diligent when it comes to the upkeep of the hinges: the door swings inwards with barely a sound, and Laurent steps inside.
He has a short time to look around, before Damianos extricates himself from whatever conversation he's invented. Damianos's rooms are a stark contrast to Genalt's: simple, and roomy, with marble that glows in the spill of moonlight through the open window. A smell of oiled wood is detectable beneath the fine, cool breeze, which carries with it the faint scents of smoke and rosemary.
The central room is sparsely furnished, with some chests and low couches arranged around an even lower table. The second arched doorway that Laurent tries leads to the bedroom.
Laurent stands in the doorway. The sight of the bed has filled his head with a furious tangle of images, chaotic in this silence, too much at once. He's remembering Damianos kissing him. He is imagining--everything he's ever done, everything ever played out in front of his eyes, the rawest excesses of the Veretian court. Fingers in mouths and the drip of oil, the thrown-back head and small gasps of a boy being taken slowly, with steady thrusts. He's remembering Damianos in the fighting ring, the precise and expert force of the man's sword arm, and he is imagining all that bronzed skin laid out on these sheets, sweat-shining with effort and pleasure.
After a little while Laurent leans sideways, resting the heat of his cheek against the cool, polished stone of the arch. He breathes moonlight, and waits.
Alone in the expanse of the room, that sense of sneaking and challenge is still under his skin. This could be a grander game. He could have found his way here to steal a secret, to lay a trap, to leave behind some token as proof of victory.
Laurent is aware that that he's trying to distract himself.
He's on edge enough that when someone thumps--kicks?--the other side of a wall, he jerks on the spot, and then is annoyed with himself. He stands still, eyeing the room's shadows, ready to duck into them if necessary. These walls are thick; he can't hear even a murmur of conversation from outside.
After less than a minute longer, Damianos enters his rooms and comes to stand beside Laurent.
Laurent turns so that the marble is at his back, now. A support.
"What did you tell them?"
"I haven't your imagination," Damianos says. "I told them I'd heard some odd scratching noises last night, coming from the other side of that particular stretch of wall. We went to look if there were any marks. Then I kicked at it, to see if it could be hollow." Damianos gives a rueful twitch of his mouth. "They may have thought I was drunk."
"Ah, but I won the game."
"Yes," Damianos says softly. "You did."
The bubbles in Laurent's stomach are still there, more fretful now, but he thinks he's got firm control of his body back. So it's almost galling when Damianos looks down at him and then does nothing but place a hand on Laurent's shoulder that's controlling and comforting both, in the same way that Laurent has seen him lay that hand on a horse's neck, or stroke the ruffled wings of a hawk. Laurent has seen the way the pleasure-slaves here bend so bewitchingly beneath the hands of their masters, and no, he is no mild and trembling thing to be soothed in that way. Oh, he could play at being one, and it would be easy as turning the pages of a book. But this is something that Laurent is doing for himself, and he would like to be himself as he does it.
"If you're waiting for me to compliment the decor..." He leans into the hand, leans up. Deliberately he makes it a bite as well as a kiss, sucking Damianos's bottom lip into his mouth and pulling at it with his teeth.
Damianos returns the kiss with hunger, his body swaying close to Laurent's, then pulls away with a huff of approving breath. His grip on Laurent's shoulder isn't soothing any more; it pinches, like he can't help himself, like he doesn't want to let Laurent go.
"I was wondering where you'd sheathed those sharp edges," Damianos says.
His gripping hand moves abruptly and sweeps Laurent's hair back from his face, then runs through the short length of it, like a man fingering silk at a market stall and marvelling at the quality. Tiny, pleasurable pains prick at Laurent's scalp where the fine strands of his hair catch in the corners of Damianos's fingernails.
"I hear you like blonds," says Laurent.
"I hear you're particular," says Damianos. "Imagine my surprise."
Particular is probably the politest word that Damianos could have heard. Generally, Veretian nobles of nineteen years who look as Laurent looks have two acceptable options: to take a pet, or to acknowledge a lover. Laurent has done neither.
"So you were expecting a challenge."
"No," Damianos says. "No, I was not expecting--you."
He says it with such obvious, honest pleasure that it's easy for Laurent to turn his face into Damianos's hand; take his thumb between his teeth and bite, with affection. He doesn't say, me neither, but he lifts his arm when Damianos begins to unlace his cuffs and he spares a thought for how unlikely this is, how surprised he is, even now. That the two of them could have their pick of anyone in two countries, and have found themselves here.
Damianos kisses Laurent again as he pulls at the various laces of his clothes. His mouth is demanding and sure, and Laurent opens to it as he did to the wine.
The kiss is broken by a short word from Damianos that Laurent probably isn't supposed to know, an Akielon curse more suited to the guardroom than to affairs of state. Laurent's jacket, it seems, is posing problems.
"Trysts in your country," Damianos says, finally tugging a lace free of its eyelets with an impatient flick of his hand, "must take twice as long."
"Grapes grown on the highest slopes have the sweetest taste," says Laurent, in his own language.
Damianos barely blinks. "I haven't heard that one before. A proverb?"
"Effort means you value something more." His eyes are hot again, his hands at work now on the the high collar of Laurent's jacket. He's learning the trick of it, moving more quickly. When the jacket and undershirt lie discarded on the floor, Damianos bends down and kisses the bared side of Laurent's neck and Laurent's body seizes with a ripple of desire like a hunting horn or a roll of thunder, deafening his nerves with its insistence to be felt.
"You," Laurent says, and has to stop, has to lick his dry lips to hide the crack of his voice. He pulls at Damianos's shirt to make his meaning clear; he didn't insist upon the armour of his Veretian finery only to end up the most naked person in the room.
Damianos takes a step back and obliges, lifting his own shirt over his head. Far from the smooth, unmarked skin of the slaves, his torso is scattered with scars. Fine pale lines across his brown chest, and around his side like rivers on a map.
A kind of greed burns in the tips of Laurent's fingers, propelling him onwards, and it doesn't abate until they are lying side-by-side on the bed, Damianos's sheets watery-cool under his bare shoulders and Damianos's arm pulling him close, his mouth at Laurent's jaw.
Laurent wants this, he does. But without the protection of his clothes, with this new and immediate intimacy of skin against skin, his nerves throw up a flurry of alarm.
"Stop," he says.
Damianos pulls away at once.
Laurent breathes; moves his fingers and his toes. He hates this sensation of being at war with himself.
He's the one who closes the distance again, opens his mouth to the next kiss, but he is acutely aware of everything: every noise, every tickle of his own hair against his ears. At the first touch of Damianos's hand on his bare side, his muscles freeze again. It would be hard for Damianos to miss it; he pulls back again without complaint, as Laurent nearly hisses with frustrated longing, with wishing he could reach inside his chest and slap his heart down into a sensible pace.
"Alright," Laurent says, when he's mastered it.
"Are you pacing yourself?" Damianos asks, his tone teasing. "That's sensible."
Laurent raises his eyebrows. "I didn't know you were planning a marathon. Should I have brought supplies?"
Damianos must hear the tension beneath it, because he draws back even further, giving Laurent a few more inches of space.
"Laurent," he says, voice easy and warm on the word.
Laurent is a skin full of conflicting desires: to pretend and to not-pretend. Wanting to trust, but knowing the folly of trusting on such little evidence, in such a short space of time. All of his instinct is to close himself off, or to create a distraction. He concentrates on his breathing and the way the air feels on his skin, finding his way in unfamiliar territory like a man picking a lantern-lit path through mist. Speaking is an effort.
"It's not in my nature to throw myself headlong at anything," he says, balancing his words in a way that could be taken as apology. "I know the pace is--I know people say that the point is to--lose yourself."
"The point is to enjoy yourself," Damianos says. "Do you think I want you to be doing something you don't enjoy?"
He picks up Laurent's hand and kisses the side of his palm, the lightness of the touch sending a shiver all the way to Laurent's shoulder. Then another kiss, over the bones of Laurent's wrist. And another.
Laurent closes his eyes and tries to focus.
"No, but if you would prefer--perhaps we aren't compatible."
When he opens his eyes again Damianos is giving him a swordsman's look, measuring, and then in a few efficient movements his body is pinning Laurent's down, as it was when they were beneath Genalt's bed. Laurent feels slapped and hot and so aroused it's almost painful. Damianos's eyes are very dark and very focused, as though he's unable to look anywhere else. Laurent is aware of his own neck, exposed, the insistent thud of his pulse; some fierce instinct snaps through him and he conquers all of it but for a restless twitch of his legs. With the motion their hips brush together, and both of them catch their breath.
"I think we're compatible," Damianos says. His voice is lower, rougher. "Go on. Set your pace."
He lifts his head as far as he can and brushes his lips, very lightly, against Damianos's neck. Then the underside of his jaw. Feathery, careful kisses. Damianos closes his eyes and bends, obedient to the silent path of Laurent's mouth, and by the time their lips meet again Laurent is light-headed with the smell and the taste of Damianos's skin.
Now that the frantic feeling has abated somewhat, Laurent is aware that he could break out of this hold very easily. Damianos is giving him options, giving him exits, at every step. That knowledge undoes the worst of the knot inside of him, leaving him loose and bold.
Laurent twists his arms in a signal that he'd like the use of them back, and crooks one knee up, directing Damianos to the side. During more of those slow, thoughtful kisses, Laurent trails a hand down the plane of Damianos's chest and then lower, finding the laces of his pants and rubbing with the heel of his hand.
Damianos gives a low moan right into Laurent's mouth and Laurent cups him more firmly, tracing the outline of Damianos's cock until the man's hips are making small movements, pushing against Laurent's hand.
"Eager," Laurent murmurs.
Damianos looks at him. His eyes are dark with humour and that same low-lidded heat that makes Laurent feel exposed, but wanted, and alive with answering desire.
Laurent undoes the laces, taking more time about it than he could, and then Damianos's cock is filling his hand with its warm weight. The rest of Damianos's skin seems thick--impenetrable, despite the evidence of the scars--but Laurent takes a moment to consider the delicate, thin skin here, as if all that blood and urgency is closer to the surface and yearning after the curve of Laurent's palm.
"Laurent," Damianos groans, an entreaty.
But Laurent has more elaborate plans for this evening than a simple exchange of such favours, even though the stuttering push of Damianos into his fingers suggests that he could finish things quickly, if he were to tighten his grip.
He gives one gentle squeeze instead and then lets go, and addresses his efforts to pushing down Damianos's pants, which are still mostly around the man's hips. Damianos kisses him savagely, drops into his mouth an even filthier curse than before, and then helps. Laurent's pants follow his onto the floor; another barrier stripped away. The effortful tension doesn't return, but Laurent knows that it could.
What he needs right now is more control.
"You haven't given me what I wanted," he says, sitting up in the bed.
"And what was that?"
He looks down at Damianos's tousled head, the tease of his kiss-bruised smile.
"I wanted you to tell me what you'd imagined doing, when the slave was dancing for you. When you were looking like you wanted to fuck him right then and there, Akielon propriety be damned."
Laurent reaches out and touches Damianos' face where the cheek is beginning to roughen with dark, end-of-day stubble. The throb of tenderness from his chest to his fingertips is, he hopes, invisible. He steels his voice into something dangerous.
"I want to hear it, your Highness. Exactly what did I volunteer for, when I invaded your bed?"
Damianos's face is hot beneath Laurent's palm. He's flushing, Laurent realises delightedly.
"I'm not--it's not the sort of thing that you just blurt out."
"I know." Laurent taps his fingers against the warm cheek twice, something between a pat and a slap, and then moves backwards on the huge bed and settles comfortably against the pillows with a sheet tangled across his lap. "But you're going to try. Because I want you to."
His heart is knocking in his chest. He's not nearly as confident as he seems, but he needs this one weapon. Damianos has experience on his side and all Laurent has is his ease with obscenity, and his ability to exploit the man's Akielon restraint.
"I thought of--" Damianos sighs. "There were no specifics."
"Find. Some," Laurent says.
There's a small jerk of Damianos's head in response to Laurent's commanding tone. Laurent smiles at him, feeling like a man on the back of an unbroken horse.
"I thought of. How his mouth might taste," Damianos says. "He smiled at me, and I liked that. I wanted to see if that paint would come off on my sheets. What it would take for that to happen."
Laurent raises his eyebrows, playing at polite encouragement. In return Damianos lifts his chin and sets his mouth, with a stubbornness that makes heat pool in Laurent's groin and his cock twitch, beneath the layers of sheets. That looks on Damianos's face promises revenge, and soon.
Again Laurent remembers that Damianos must be accustomed to bedding slaves, trained in obedience, as lovely and as harmlessly simple as their dance had been, with none of the spirit of personality preferred in Veretian pets, who delight in pushing at boundaries.
Both of them in this room, in this bed, are accustomed to giving orders and having them obeyed.
"I thought, I could put him on his hands and knees, and take my pleasure. He would open for me," Damianos says, his voice firmer now, relentless. "He would take all of me, and--and I would hold him there, would keep myself inside him, until he begged for the relief of my hand."
Laurent can feel himself turning a slow, helpless pink.
"Oh," he says.
Damianos says, "Laurent, I want you."
He takes hold of Laurent's wrist, where it lies on the puddle of sheets, and moves closer. His fingertips press into the tendons of Laurent's arm as if against the strings of a kithara. When he tightens his grip, Laurent's fingers bend towards his palm in an involuntary beckoning.
"Oh," Laurent says again.
Damianos pulls him down from the pillows, gets Laurent beneath him. Damianos's hands are in his hair once more, framing Laurent's face, holding him steady so that Damianos can work into his mouth with tortuous strokes of his tongue. It's good, it's so good, lazy and consuming like the longest of summer days. Laurent is light-headed with desire; he winds his arms around Damianos's neck and rocks into the damp heat created as their bodies fit right up against one another. He moves just so, and Damianos cries out.
Laurent is used to power being about large things: motives and weak points. Strategy. Fol-sol.
This is a smaller kind of power, but Laurent is enjoying it just as much. He has no majestic goals. What he has is the ability to bring out that guileless look of happiness and want; the ability to make skin shiver, and a strong body curl under his hands.
And because he has that power it is easy, in the end, to lose himself a little, to let his legs fall apart and his hips rise when Damianos runs a hand beneath his arse. Damianos rubs a dry finger over him, barely more than a tease, and Laurent's leaking cock throbs in response.
"Have you done this before?"
Laurent ducks his head for long enough to catch his breath. The whole jumble of explicit images falls into his mind again and it's like he has to bend himself to handle them, like closing your hands on a thrown ball that's heavier than it looks. He feels shy. It prickles him all over.
"Fingers," he says. "No more."
Damianos makes a thoughtful sound, a low hum. His broad palm strokes Laurent's hip and down across the curve of his buttock. Laurent's joints yearn to unfold and lay his body out flat, to be mapped and caressed by that firm touch.
"We don't have to," Damianos says.
"I told you. I want everything you would give me."
Damianos leans in and kisses him briefly. It already feels familiar, like the most basic of sword exercises, drummed into the muscles, as though they've done it a hundred times and will do it a hundred more.
"Here, a first night is special. Slaves are prepared for months."
"Touched as I am by your flattering comparison," Laurent says, "I'm not sure we have that kind of time."
Damianos gives him a small grin and moves off the bed, going over to rummage through some small objects set atop a narrow table nearby.
Laurent props himself up with an elbow, watching. The power in Damianos's body is even more apparent from this short distance, now that Laurent can take in all of him at once. He's not as ludicrously over-muscled as some of the gladiators that performed a few days ago, but in perfect proportion. There's a scar high on the back of one thigh that Laurent didn't notice before; it looks paler than the others, a souvenir from a deeper wound.
"Perhaps you'd like to inspect my teeth next," Damianos says, not turning around.
"If it makes you feel better," Laurent says, "you'd fetch a good price in Vere. The novelty value alone."
When Damianos abandons his search and turns to face the bed again, Laurent is prepared; he holds Damianos's gaze with his own for a few seconds before directing a deliberate and cool-eyed glance downwards.
"I stand corrected," Laurent says. "An excellent price."
"I can't find the oil," Damianos says, sounding adolescent with annoyance. "I was sure the slaves keep it--" He turns around again and resumes his search, picking things up and putting them down again. Now he's the one who looks like a thief, and an indecisive one at that.
"Do your partners usually bring their own?"
"Usually," Damianos says, exasperated, "my partners don't insist on sneaking in just for the sake of it."
What can only be described as a giggle tries to climb out of Laurent's chest and into his mouth, but he quashes it. He gets out of the bed, drapes a sheet around himself and wanders out into the central room and then over to the door, which he opens.
The guards outside turn in response to the sound. One of them is quicker than the other; his eyes nearly startle from his head when he recognises Laurent, and his mouth drops open, but Laurent pins him with the coolest and most unreadable gaze he has and both guards scramble to a painfully sharp attention.
"Your Highness," the first guard stumbles.
"His Royal Highness the Crown Prince," Laurent says calmly, "finds himself in need of some oil."
This, too, is a game, and one that Laurent seldom loses. He arches his brows, fixes the cool expression to his face, and waits.
The sheet is slipping slowly, slowly off one of his shoulders.
The guard goes a shade of red and salutes. "I shall--I shall see to it immediately, your Highness."
And he exchanges a helpless glance with his fellow soldier and then sets off down the corridor at what, if he were any less well trained, would probably be a run.
Laurent closes the door again and turns around to see Damianos looking almost as stunned as the guards.
"There," Laurent says. "Now they can argue over who they think is going to fuck whom. Though I don't imagine the odds on me will be particularly good."
"You," says Damianos, "are--" and then he starts laughing.
Laurent can feel the smile growing on his own face, a true one, and he presses the back of his hand against it. Damianos backs him up against the door and takes hold of his wrist; Laurent resists, making a game of it, but Damianos will always be the winner in a sheer pitting of strength against strength.
Laurent has managed to school his smile into something less revealing, less hopelessly fond, by the time Damianos pulls his hand away and pins the wrist to the door above Laurent's head. Laurent thinks: that will bruise. Something complicated happens in his stomach at the thought, and he is more achingly hard than ever.
Damianos captures his mouth in a kiss that quickly has Laurent making tiny sounds of need, the fingers of his free hand gone weak where they're gripping the sheet. It only stays up because Damianos's naked body is pressed against him, as firm and unyielding as the door at Laurent's back, his erection rubbing against Laurent's through only a thin fold of fabric.
Time blurs, a little, but it's probably only a minute before there's a sheepish knock on the door; the equivalent of someone clearing their throat. The vibrations of it are like brisk knuckles against Laurent's spine. He's so aroused at this point that almost anything feels good, but the reminder of other people, less than a foot away, tugs him a way back down whatever hill his nerves were racing to climb.
Damianos pulls away from an endless series of hard, open-mouthed kisses and stares wild-eyed at Laurent like he's forgotten his own name; like he's forgotten all the words he ever knew.
"Shall I?" Laurent asks.
Damianos releases Laurent's trapped hand--it tingles, as the blood rushes back into it--then reaches around him. Laurent shifts his weight forward so that Damianos can open the door a sliver.
"Thank you, Timon," Damianos says. He has to clear his throat first. "Yes. That will be--all."
The door closes. The sheet gives up the fight entirely, and falls in a creased pool at Laurent's ankles.
Damianos's mouth opens a little way and he pulls the very side of his top lip into his mouth, a raw and unconscious expression of hunger that makes Laurent's heart skip giddily in his chest. When he takes Laurent in his arms, Laurent can feel the cool, smooth surface of the glass phial where Damianos is clutching the neck of it between the thumb and finger of one hand.
Damianos runs his hands down in a single sweep of skin on flesh, all the way from Laurent's shoulder blades and down either side of his spine, pulling him close, cupping his arse and then tightening on his hips. There's nothing between them now. No sheets, no words, no space at all. Laurent gasps as Damianos rocks them together once, twice, and then gives Laurent a little push sideways.
"Bed," Damianos says, desire rough in his voice.
Laurent is a mad heartbeat away from snatching the phial from Damianos's hand and demanding to be fucked up against the wall, but he's actually starting to get a bit cold, standing here, and it's such a nice bed. Maybe tomorrow.
"Hands and knees, wasn't it?" Laurent says.
"You don't have to--"
Part of him observes: you're doing it again. Reframing it as a game, because that makes it simpler.
But Laurent is not yet old enough to feel much shame at the prospect of being fucked, and this is Akielos, where they don't assign the same signifiers of manhood to the act. Besides, fair's fair: he coaxed the fantasy out of Damianos, and something in him likes the idea of seeing it through. Of taking the place of anyone else that Damianos might have thought to do it with, of making this his.
"Fingers first," Damianos says firmly, joining him on the bed.
The sound of the tiny cork coming out of the phial seems loud to Laurent. He traces with one finger the line of a puckered thread in the sheet beneath him, in the hope that this small act of concentration will stop his knees from giving way.
He wasn't lying, he's done at least this much before, but the first finger is still enough for his whole body to go tense with uncertainty, like a splash of cold water to the face.
"I'm fine," Laurent says.
Damianos waits, not moving the finger out but not adding any more. His other hand rubs gentle circles on Laurent's lower back while Laurent sucks air into his lungs and slowly manages to relax.
Actually, it's almost a relief. He'd started to worry that he was so close to the edge that they weren't going to get to any of the things that Damianos described. Now he's still hard, but the feeling in his stomach is less urgent, less like a bowstring pulled taut and ready to release.
"Good," he says. "Keep going."
Damianos takes a lot longer with the second finger, and drenches his hand in what Laurent suspects is far more oil than is really necessary. He stretches Laurent slowly, and somewhere around the second knuckle Laurent feels a whisper of light up his spine and heat unfurls within him; he drops his forehead onto his clenched hands and closes his mouth on a moan.
"Talk to me," Damianos says.
"Maybe if--ngh, maybe if you got on with it."
Damianos laughs, seemingly satisfied that Laurent's silence isn't an indication of ambivalence. He crooks his fingers and starts a slow back-and-forth rhythm; Laurent can feel himself mouthing at the side of his own hand, a mass of liquid craving, his knees like rough and sun-warmed rocks where they dig into the bed. Each slick movement inside him adds more intensity to the sensation of Damianos's thick, pressing fingers.
Sword-callus, Laurent thinks, from nowhere.
He bites down on his own tongue almost hard enough to taste blood.
When two fingers are moving easily and there's no discomfort at all, just awareness and the clench of arousal and the agonising bump of Laurent's cock against his stomach, Damianos adds more oil; this is getting ridiculous. Surely it wasn't that large a phial. It's already running down the tender skin of Laurent's thighs, and Damianos's hand is slick to the wrist as he works in a third finger.
Laurent shoves back against him and exhales the ragged scraps of his self-control and says, "Come on come on," his whole body on fire with raw impatience.
Damianos says, "Yes, I want--"
It's obvious, from the way his voice rasps, how close he is to some kind of breaking point. Satisfaction washes through Laurent at the sound of it, at the way Damianos's free hand is trembling, before he steadies it on Laurent's flank. They are together in this.
Laurent can't help the soft noise he makes as Damianos pulls his fingers out, but it seems as though the teasing is at an end. The nudge of Damianos's cock against his entrance is everything he wants, in this moment. He wants to feel this. He wants to take this, and for it to be something that he gives.
Damianos leans his forehead against Laurent's back as he pushes inside. His fingers are splayed in balance and reassurance against Laurent's stomach, and it feels as though all the nerves in Laurent's body have fled to the narrow region caught between Damianos's hand and Damianos's cock, huge inside him, shaking him apart.
Once he's fully inside Laurent, Damianos pauses; pulls out a very little, then pushes in again, as though testing. Then pauses.
"Now you pace yourself," Laurent manages, in a tone of sheer complaint.
"I knew I should have put something in your mouth," Damianos says, and that's enough to make Laurent shudder into the sheets.
Damianos moves. It lasts forever. Damianos is attentive, his hands stroking the sweat-slick hollows beneath Laurent's neck, ghosting over his spine, returning again and again to rake through Laurent's hair. He finds a rhythm that he likes and coaxes Laurent into it, long, shallow thrusts that strike the right place and send that brilliant light through Laurent every time.
Whenever Laurent finds himself moving towards the edge, though, Damianos slows himself enough to force Laurent back. Laurent had thought he was good at delaying gratification, but this is something else entirely.
He is enveloped, controlled, and even as part of him snarls against it, he is coming undone.
And then Damianos presses a hot kiss to Laurent's shoulder and groans, says in that ripped-apart voice, "I need--"
-- and something snaps, and the next shove of his hips drives him into Laurent at a new angle, and Laurent's limbs nearly buckle with the impossible pleasure of it.
Damianos puts his hands over Laurent's in a way that somehow keeps the angle of Laurent's elbows locked, which keeps his hips off the bed where they can meet Damianos's thrusts. Damianos is burying himself deep, harder and faster and harder again, until Laurent feels the force of it in all of his joints and has to turn his head to bury his choked-off sounds in the skin of his own shoulder.
He is all skin. He has been aching for months, for years. He is a piece of heated metal pulled from the embers, hammered and held tight, unable to do anything but bend and glow.
Then both of Damianos's hands clench, fingers locking through the gaps between Laurent's, and he groans long and low into Laurent's neck as his whole body shakes with release. Laurent feels it everywhere, in the press of Damianos's chest against his back, and hotly deep inside himself as well.
Laurent is so close. He needs to touch himself, he needs to, but Damianos has both of his hands.
The drag of Damianos pulling out of him is painful and wonderful all at once. Laurent has just drawn breath to do--something--perhaps order, or yes, perhaps beg Damianos to touch him--when Damianos releases Laurent's hands and rolls him over.
Laurent's hair is in his eyes and stuck to his forehead with sweat; he sees a brief flash of Damianos's face, wrecked and black-eyed and intent. And then Damianos moves down Laurent's body, presses his thumbs into the hollows of Laurent's hips, and exhales.
By now Laurent's cock is so sensitive he imagines he can feel the movement of the very air. When Damianos closes his mouth over the head, a sound rips unbidden from Laurent's throat, somewhere between a sob and a gasp. He struggles and breathes past it, panting now, looking down at the top of Damianos's head with eyes that can hardly focus.
"Damianos," he says, for the first time tonight.
It spills helplessly from his tongue, blurred by his own accent-- "Damianos," and then Damianos strokes hard with his tongue and two fingers slip inside Laurent, effortlessly filling the space where Damianos's cock had stretched him open, and the last of his air rushes out of him and he lets go. Eyes screwed shut, unable to speak and barely able to think, Laurent gives himself up to the crash of pleasure like a fevered storm, white sparks down every limb, and pressure like a clenched fist in his belly as he spends into Damianos's stubborn mouth.
When his mind is coherent again, Laurent's arms and legs feel heavy; it reminds him of the first day Auguste ever made him fight in full armour. His thighs are both sticky and slick, and Damianos is slipping out of the bed and wandering across the room.
Another man might try to embrace him, in the aftermath of Laurent's first time; might enclose him in warm limbs and good intentions. Laurent is deeply, quietly thankful that Damianos has seen enough of Laurent to guess that what he needs is space. Not much. But enough to find himself again, to gather and order his thoughts from where they've been scattered like leaves in a storm.
Usually, Laurent thinks, he doesn't like to be seen. To be known.
He turns his head as Damianos approaches the bed again, holding a copper basin and a cloth.
"I'm waiting for you to say something clever," Damianos says.
Laurent blinks. His body is brimming with that clean kind of aching tiredness. "You may be waiting some time," he says, in Veretian, and Damianos laughs and kneels on the side of the bed.
They take turns wiping one another down. Damianos is gentle with the cloth on Laurent's over-sensitive skin, and Laurent is the one who goes to put the bowl back on the table when they're done. He pauses near the window, then, looking up at the half-clouded sky and the lazy shine of stars. The evening breeze has given way to a warm, tangible stillness.
"I can see a ledge," Laurent says.
Damianos groans. "You'll break your neck. No, that wasn't a challenge. Laurent. Come to bed."
He stretches out one hand and Laurent takes it, lets himself be tugged back down into the sheets.
Laurent wakes up to the touch of sunlight on his eyelids and the realisation that his arm is asleep where Damianos has been lying on it.
The next realisation, when he remembers where he is, is that his guard will be split between fretting for his safety and gossiping like old ladies. There might even be a standing wager of some kind or other; Laurent will have to look into that.
Laurent carefully retrieves his numb arm--Damianos moves a little where he's lying on his stomach, head turned in Laurent's direction, but doesn't wake--and stretches some life into it. Then stretches the rest of his body, finding old aches and new in his muscles.
He remembers Damianos saying, I was not expecting you.
Laurent is young and in a strange land, in a strange bed, and he did not expect to feel as he does now. He feels calm, and happy in a way he'd thought he was growing out of: the easy, joyous happiness of allowing the world to surprise you. This isn't what he'd bargained for when he moved his horse close to that of the Akielon Prince and pretended to need help winning a child's game.
Once Genalt's employer is discovered and both parties are properly dealt with, there will be a need for a new Veretian ambassador. Laurent has a few candidates in mind; he does not ask Auguste for much, in the realm of politics and favours, so his few requests are always heeded and usually granted. It will be useful to have eyes and ears in Akielos. Eyes and ears and, if necessary, a pair of hands. Laurent has seen Kastor's restlessness in dogs kept too long on the chain, worrying at themselves and turning quietly savage. Damianos of Akielos may need friends, before long.
And when Laurent's uncle makes his move, Laurent knows he is unlikely to survive--let alone triumph--without some friends of his own. They are both of them living in the viper's nest. Laurent is only the first of them to notice it.
The early-morning sunlight is the colour of apricots and it falls over Damianos's bare shoulders like gilding powder left behind by a fine brush. Laurent lies on his side, halfway to drowsing again, and thinks about pressing his face into Damianos's skin and inhaling.
Before he can decide whether to act on this impulse, Damianos's face ripples and his eyelids open. Wakeful intelligence slowly sharpens the brown eyes, and he shifts position, curling onto his own side so that they are facing one another fully. Laurent watches him, not quite nervous, but suddenly shy.
"You look relaxed," Damianos says, wondering. "Two days ago I didn't think your spine knew how to bend."
Heat creeps up Laurent's neck. "Yes, well. You certainly proved yourself wrong in that regard last night."
Damianos gives him a tired, rueful look. "This is the cleverness I was asking for, isn't it?"
"As for you, two days ago I didn't think this could look any wilder, and yet--"
Laurent runs his fingers through the black mess of Damianos's hair. Damianos catches his arm and strokes his thumb over the place where the smudge of a bruise is forming, from when he held Laurent against the door. He directs Laurent's fingers down across the gentle scrape of his unshaven face, and presses a chaste kiss into the centre of Laurent's palm. It's a sleepy, sweet gesture that makes Laurent's throat ache.
Laurent shivers, closes his eyes, and allows himself to smile without guarding it. Without hiding anything at all.