The Regent could not hope to beat Damen in a fair fight. Damen was twenty years younger and also the superior swordsman even if they had been the same age. So the Regent seemed determined to ensure that it was not a fair fight. It was the end of the day. Damen had lost his own weapon earlier in the first skirmish and was using an inferior sword that he’d claimed from a fallen man on the field. Damen was injured, limping slightly, and the light was in his eyes.
The older man started, first, by attempting to approach Damen as a friend. “We can settle this without violence. There can be peace between us. I am not so hotheaded as my nephew.”
But he must have seen the grim resolution in Damen’s face, something of his attachment to Laurent or his disbelief, because he changed tone, suddenly. “So he has bewitched you also.” He used the same calm voice he might have used to lecture Laurent at a state dinner on a point of protocol, a tone of mild disappointment akin to an exasperated parent. Damen flashed suddenly back to wearing a collar and being next to Laurent in the Veretian court, Laurent holding out a sweetmeat and allowing Damen to nip at the fingers of others who tried to touch him like a wild cat in a cage.
The comment echoed in Damen’s head and all of the pieces came together for Damen suddenly. Damen knew that the other man was trying to wind him up, trying to drive him to do something foolish and make a mistake, probably just as aware of all of Damen’s weaknesses as Laurent was and even more inclined to take advantage of them. And if the Regent had said something lewd, something crude and insulting, Damen would have ignored it as a battlefield insult, as a dying man’s last attempts. But yet, all of the comments Laurent had made, the comments others had made about Laurent, the way he had talked with Nicaise – each of them came to have a different meaning.
Damen’s face reflected his thoughts, and he could see the Regent’s smug expression at Damen’s moment of disorientation while his world came into a new alignment. Disorientation faded into fury, and Damen attacked recklessly, without heed for his own safety, and in a matter of seconds the battle was over.
Damen won. Both of them were bleeding, Damen from a slice along his right upper arm and a scratch on his head, dripping down his neck. The Regent had a chest wound and was bleeding into his own lungs, drowning in his own blood as surely as a man whose head is held in a bucket. The Regent’s lips were moving, but he couldn’t speak, and Damen stared at him dispassionately for long moments as he died.
No one else dared approached them on the field. Damen took a deep breath, and then he could hear the hoof beats of a horse approaching behind him. There was a rider; the fair hair identified the rider as Laurent. Laurent slowed his horse as he came a few steps away, his eyes moving slowly between Damen and his dead uncle.
It had only been two days. It felt as though it had been longer.
Damen had to squint as he looked up at Laurent on his horse. The light was still in his eyes.
“You seem to be making a habit of killing my family.”
Damen flinched. Laurent knew.
Damen was still holding the sword he’d used. Laurent was a shadow in front of the sunset. Damen heard the approach of other riders; he recognized Nikandros’s helm and Jord’s shield as they stayed a respectful distance away, waiting for something. Jord was looking away.
Laurent was armed, mounted, and he probably was a match for Damen in his current state. Damen could have beaten him if they were both fresh, but at the end of the day, exhausted from the ride the day before and the injury he’d sustained that morning and the ones he’d gotten only moments before, Damen wasn’t sure he could have beaten Laurent even if he’d wanted to. Damen didn’t want to fight Laurent. He dropped his sword.
Laurent dismounted his horse in a disorganized half-slide, and took three steps closer to Damen. Laurent did not draw his own sword, and Damen thought, ‘Yes, a knife in the ribs,’ and he waited, making no move toward the sword he’d dropped.
It was almost hard to understand, when Laurent took the final step and flung himself at Damen, that it wasn’t an attack. Damen was expecting an attack, expecting a blow, a flurry of blows, and somehow the pressure of Laurent’s body wasn’t violent. Laurent did not strike him, did not knock him down. He merely pressed himself up against Damen and wrapped his arms loosely over Damen’s shoulders, and Damen stood awkwardly for a very long moment before realizing it was an embrace.
Damen slowly brought his own arms up, and tentatively he tightened them around Laurent’s back. He was still waiting for the knife in the ribs, but it did not come, and after a moment he squeezed Laurent tighter, pressing his own face into Laurent’s neck heedless of the discomfort of the leather and metal armor between them, until Laurent said, “Let me breathe, you brute,” and Damen loosened his hold reluctantly. He could not bring himself to entirely let go of Laurent, and kept a hand on his shoulder.
“I thought,” said Damen, “that this might have been the moment you were waiting for, while you were holding your knife.”
“Yes,” said Laurent, and his eyes flicked over to the crumpled figure of his uncle, “Except I was too late.”
“Laurent,” said Damen, his tongue searching for the words. ‘I didn’t know,’ he wanted to say, but somehow he had known and had refused to let himself know it. Or he wanted to say that he hadn’t meant to kill Auguste, but he had meant it; it had been the most deliberate act of his life. He just wished that the act hadn’t had the consequences it did for Laurent.
Laurent shook his head at Damen, a quick movement that dismissed all of Damen’s attempts at words. “You are my slave no longer,” said Laurent, “And yet if I said for you to go to your knees, now, you would.”
“Laurent,” said Damen helplessly, still feeling as though there were many things he needed to tell Laurent and yet unable to find words to say any of them. Laurent seemed to know them all anyway. “Yes,” said Damen, and waited for Laurent to give the order. Nikandros would not like it, Damen bending knee to the Veretian prince, but Damen would do it anyway.
Laurent gazed at him; he had to look up slightly to regard Damen’s eyes. “Perhaps later,” said Laurent. “When we are alone.” He looked around, taking in with a single cool look the assembled crowd of Nikandros, Jord, and the other commanders. “Tomorrow we fight against your family,” said Laurent. “Is your leg seriously injured?”
The troops were starting to shout in celebration of their victory in the background, a mix of voices in both Akielon and Veretian. Damen had not even answered Laurent’s question, but Laurent was smiling at him, a small expression of victory on his own face, and Damen felt like shouting in victory himself.