Jokaste accompanied Damen as he visited the viewing gallery. The gallery was a corridor to the east of the main hall, wide enough that eight men might walk abreast through it and the length of the hall itself. The main attraction of the gallery was the light. At a time during which glass had been dear, the shale roof tiles had been replaced with colored glass laid in lead. As one walked down the hall, the patterns on the floor sparkled on a clear day like fish in a pond or the ocean off the side of a boat.
Tradition dictated that the king was introduced to new slaves in the viewing gallery. The king wasn’t well, and overseeing the slaves was just one of many responsibilities Damen assumed on his father’s behalf.
The slave master was responsible for picking the portion of the gallery that would most flatter the slave’s attributes. A slave might be positioned near glass that would reflect the color of her eyes or the tone of his skin. Usually when Damen arrived to view the slave master’s work, it was complete, the slave being presented for his or her first night in the full blossom of youth and the height of training. Damen tried to do honor to the young man or woman’s first time and to the effort he or she had put into training. The first night was a significant gift, and he valued it for what it represented.
But the slave he had been sent to see today was not one of Adrastus’s accomplishments. Damen reached the end of the gallery; Jokaste walking beside him. The slave had been stationed in contrast to white stone and blue light; wrapped in a blue silk, he seemed as though touched with ice. Damen thought that the position did him a disservice; he would have moved the man in to the light to see his skin kissed with sun.
Perhaps Adrastus was attempting to make a point. “He is too old,” said Adrastus.
Damen found his attention taken by the slave nonetheless. He was older than most slaves when first presented for service, but Damen suspected only by a handful of years; he was of an age with the soldiers who left training for their first service on the border. He was fair—he had white golden hair and lighter skin than most native Akielons. His body was well formed, with the light musculature of a dancer. He stood gracefully, but not submissively. The man stared Damen in the eye while Damen regarded him; a trained slave, looking to flatter the status of the prince with his submissiveness, would not have raised his eyes from the floor.
“What are you called?” said Damen, unable to tear his eyes from the slave’s gaze.
“Does the slave decide what he is to be called by the prince?” said the slave, and the words paid lip service to submissiveness, but the tone was arch and wrong. He spoke Akielon with a heavy accent. In the corner of his eye, Damen could see Adrastus shift uncomfortably.
“He should be called Nemein,” said Jokaste suddenly. She took a step toward the slave and her sandal echoed on the stone floor. The slave turned his head to take her in; he looked disrespectfully toward her as well as toward Damen.
Nemein meant revenge in the old language. Damen said, “Nemein? What reason has a slave for revenge?”
Jokaste shrugged one shoulder artfully, she was circling the slave slowly and the slave’s eyes were locked on hers. The man pivoted slightly on his feet to keep his eyes locked on Jokaste and she walked. “It would seem to me a slave might have many reasons for revenge,” said Jokaste. “He might hold a grudge against his family, for instance, that they were not better able to provide for him and protect him, that now he has come to service in a foreign land.”
She paused under one of the green ceiling panes, and her features were painted with color as she continued to stare intently at the man. “Or a slave might seek revenge against those who did his family wrong in the past,” said Jokaste, “to battle those who brought his family low.”
Damen had never before known Jokaste to bestow so great an interest in someone beneath her. She turned her face from the slave suddenly and looked back at Damen across the gallery. They were separated by perhaps four stone tiles in the floor. Jokaste crossed them and stood close to Damen. His chin almost brushed the top of her hair; he could smell the perfumed oil she applied to it. “Give him to me,” said Jokaste.
“He is not a virgin,” said Adrastus. Neither Jokaste nor Damen turned to look at the slave master.
“Nemein,” said Jokaste, stretching the syllables on her tongue. “I want him. I have need of him.”
Damen ran a hand along her side, smoothing the silk of her tunic. “Have you done something to deserve such a gift?”
“No,” said Jokaste, sliding her tunic up her leg and side and urging him with a hand over his to follow the same path again, under the silk. “Give him to me anyway.” Damen drew his eyes up from Jokaste’s thigh with effort, and found the strangely bold gaze of the slave resting on his face.
Damen murmured, “Yes, of course,” to Jokaste, his eyes still on Nemein, and then Adrastus led the slave away. Jokaste thanked him with suitable sincerity and several tricks she must have been withholding for just such a moment.
She kept the slave secreted away in her own apartments, or Damen assumed she did, since Nemein was not in the slave quarters or about the palace serving meals or participating in the entertainments.
Damen did not see Nemein for some weeks. He saw Jokaste—his father told him he had been seeing Jokaste for too long without marrying her, and Damen told Theomedes that he was not well enough to fuss about such matters. Jokaste preferred Damen's rooms for their dalliances.
He saw Jokaste less frequently than he might have, as well, finding as he aged his time more occupied by the business of ruling. Damen did observe Nemein occasionally, enough to know that he had not been sent away. Damen spotted Nemein carrying papers for Jokaste and her secretary as they spoke about invitations to the kyroi for summer visits. He saw Nemein in the garden, poised at Jokaste’s feet as she relaxed on a bench in the sun with Kastor.
Nemein was in the courtyard on a notable occasion as well. Jokaste and Kastor had been returning from a ride; Damen had not been able to join them because of business in the court.
“Good afternoon, brother, Jokaste,” said Damen, as they rode into the courtyard.
“It’s a better afternoon for riding than for listening to women cry about rape in the justice hall,” said Kastor.
“Justice does not wait for poor weather so that I can join you in leisure,” said Damen mildly. Damen caught the slave Nemein’s eyes on him, and he glanced over at Nemein and they regarded each other for a moment. He could not read Nemein’s expression, and then Nemein turned away.
Nemein took the reins of Jokaste’s horse and was helping her dismount with a careful hand. Kastor dismounted his own horse but was less careful in ensuring that his groom had control of the animal. Kastor had a passion for breaking horses, and a bad habit of riding them out of the paddock when they were still too wild.
A woman was crossing the courtyard from the justice hall back to the market. She was one of the women who had stood in front of Damen that day, not with an accusation of rape, but with a complaint against her husband, who she said refused to work, drank the money from her wages as a seamstress, and ate the food that she needed for her three small children.
The oldest child was walking ahead of the woman, and she had the youngest in her arms, but the middle child – a boy of perhaps two or three – ran out in to the center of the courtyard just as Kastor’s groom completely lost control of the horse.
The mother shouted at the child and the horse startled. Damen could see how the scene was likely to unfold, the horse bolting and the child trampled and lifeless on the cobblestones, and he found himself moving before he knew he had the intention. He grabbed for the child and rolled the boy out of the way of the horse, taking them each several feet away across the cobblestones and leaving the boy frightened and crying but unhurt.
Nemein had grabbed for the reins of Kastor’s bolting horse, and had a strong hand on his bridle before turning control of the horse back to Kastor and the now terrified groom.
Damen returned the boy to his mother, who scooped him in to her arms and alternated between scolding him for wandering too far from her and kissing him and speaking of her love. The boy looked at Damen with wide eyes, tears still crawling slowly down his cheeks from the frightening moment.
“Mind your mother,” Damen told the boy. The child’s mother turned to Damen, then, thanking him over and over, and he brushed it aside with a wave of his hand. “I am glad he is well,” said Damen, and he waved her on with her business, insisting that there was no need for thanks.
Kastor was helping his groom with taking the horse back to the stables; Jokaste had left. Nemein was still standing with Jokaste’s horse in the courtyard. “You saved the boy,” said Nemein to Damen.
Damen’s eyes refocused on Nemein. Slaves did not address the prince without being spoken to first, but it seemed to be spoken sincerely and Nemein had acted well in helping to steady the horse. “I am glad the child is safe,” said Damen.
“Kastor is overambitious,” said Nemein.
“Yes,” said Damen. “A horse such as that should not have left the paddock. It is one thing for Kastor to ride him, but to bring him in to the courtyard is irresponsible. But you handled the horse well,” he added. “Do you have experience with horses?”
“I mean,” said Nemein, but Jokaste reemerged from the door to wave at Nemein impatiently, and the slave left with Jokaste’s horse without completing the sentence.
Finding himself with an afternoon at liberty the next day, Damen sought Jokaste out in her apartments. Her guard let him in, nodding as Damen walked past, and Damen entered in time to see Jokaste strike Nemein hard across the face.
Nemein took a step back, but did not cry out. Jokaste kept her eyes on the slave for a long moment. Damen looked from one to the other and back again.
“Are you all right?” said Damen, uncertain which of them he was addressing. Neither of them responded.
Jokaste kept her eyes on the slave for a moment longer. “Go,” she said to Nemein, who left through one of the doors leading further into Jokaste’s apartments.
Then Jokaste turned to Damen. She walked to him and touched his face, gently, with the same hand she had just used on Nemein. “Darling,” said Jokaste. “I did not know you were coming to visit.”
“I was thinking of you,” said Damen.
“Were you,” said Jokaste. “And what kind of thoughts were you having?”
“Perhaps I could show you,” said Damen, his voice lowering in pitch as Jokaste moved even closer to him.
She caressed the brooch closing his tunic. It was fashioned as a lion with a ruby in the eye, she ran a finger along the animal’s nose before opening the brooch and letting his tunic fall to the floor while she held the gold brooch in her hand.
They moved to the bed.
Jokaste did not linger, after. She arose from the bed with a last long glance over Damen’s body, and then she was calling to one of her women slaves as she stepped barefoot in to her dressing room, making a mention of visiting the baths.
Damen stretched, enjoying the bed for a moment longer. Then Nemein emerged out of the archway with a glance cast over toward the door to the dressing room. Damen watched him as Nemein’s eyes moved around the room quickly, taking in Damen lounging on the bed and the drift of Jokaste’s voice from the dressing room as she talked with her slave about how to dress her hair.
Nemein gathered Damen’s tunic from the floor where Jokaste had let it drop, and the golden lion brooch from the table where Jokaste had set it, Damen’s sandals from where he had slipped his feet out, and brought them over to the beside. “Your highness,” said Nemein. His eyes were respectfully downcast as he offered the clothing; Damen found himself wanting to see them again. Perhaps Jokaste had struck Nemein due to his disrespectful attitude.
Damen reached a hand out and tipped Nemein’s chin up to look at his face. The reddened imprint of Jokaste’s hand was visible. Nemein’s features were quite fine; Damen could see why Jokaste had fancied him. Though if she struck him much harder she risked breaking his nose, which might damage his looks. Damen traced a finger over the reddened imprint and composed a question for Nemein with his face, letting his expression say, what happened here?
Nemein cast his eyes off toward Jokaste’s dressing room, and then back toward Damen. “Can I help your highness to dress,” said Nemein. His voice was pleasing, also. Damen wondered if he had any skill with the kithara.
Damen swung into a seated position and allowed Nemein to help him don his tunic and then to pin the brooch delicately at his shoulder.
Jokaste emerged from her dressing room, her hairdresser following after her and carrying a basket of Jokaste’s favorite bath oils. She paused as she saw Damen and Nemein standing together. She looked uncomfortable; Damen wondered if the unfamiliar aspect of her expression was jealousy, and at which of them it might be directed.
“Attend me in the baths,” said Jokaste after a moment.
Damen did not wish for Nemein to leave. He had started to have thoughts of falling back in to the bed. Not again with Jokaste, but with Nemein. He felt especially aware of the lingering warmth of Nemein’s hands where Nemein had helped to dress Damen. He could feel himself rousing again at the thought of bedding Nemein, but he saw that strange expression in Jokaste’s face again, and thought it better to remain silent.
The moment drew out long enough to be awkward, and then Nemein nodded obediently and fell in behind Jokaste’s hairdresser, and they swept out of the room in a caravan.
Damen did not realize there was a scrap tucked into his tunic until Lykaios helped to undress that evening. Lykaios did not read; it was not common for slaves to read unless they were needed especially for keeping the accounts of a household or the books of a ship. But she recognized writing on a piece of paper, and so when it fluttered to the floor when she unpinned the brooch of his tunic, she bent gracefully to pick it up and present it to him.
He inspected it. The paper was a small square that seemed to have been torn from something larger, there was a small circular hole it where it had been pierced through by the pin of his brooch, it must have been tucked in his tunic and held in place by the pin. The paper was blank on one side and on the other side read, in an ornate-looking script that Damen did not recognize, “Intercept Guion’s correspondence,” followed by a series of letters in a table that Damen recognized as a cipher. Lord Guion was the ambassador from Vere; he was new to his post the last three months. The note must have been pinned to him by Nemein when the man helped him to dress again, but who would involve Jokaste’s foreign slave in passing notes? Was the note from Jokaste herself? It was not her handwriting, and Damen could think of no reason she would not just tell him herself.
Lykaios went to her knees in front of him, sliding her hands up his thighs and raising her eyes to him in a question. He nodded, threading the fingers of one of his hands gently through her hair, and leaving the question of the note to the next morning.
The next ship came in to the harbor later that week, bringing with it a hold full of furs, grain, and carefully packed boxes of delicate porcelain and embroidered silks. Damen watched the ship come into the harbor from the keep wall, the wall combined with the height of the cliff making the men unloading the ship and working along the dock appear as dolls posed in a child’s toy house. News from Vere would travel up to the keep via several paths, through the packages and messages carried by official and unofficial channels up to the keep, through the formal missive from the Veretian Regent that would be delivered to Theomedes, through the tales that the men leaving the ship would tell in the taverns and the brothels in the town.
Catching the messages intended for Lord Guion did not require a very great attack. Damen knew Guion had a habit of reading in his library in the mornings, and his clerk arranged his papers for him there accordingly. Damen arranged for Guion to be distracted by the simple mechanism of telling one of the slaves at breakfast that Guion would appreciate an extra plate of cut fruit and honey, and then once the man seemed sufficiently distracted by the woman who was serving him and slowly sliding on to his lap, Damen excused himself and walked in the direction of Guion’s library.
In the library, he sorted quickly through Guion’s papers. Many seemed innocuous enough – logs of Veretian goods being imported, correspondence with merchants regarding anticipated demand for silks in the upcoming months, a note from his wife regarding his sons. Damen was starting to think that this was entirely a fool’s errand when he found a letter written in cipher.
He could not translate the cipher in the library with Guion only distracted from his work for a few moments, so Damen spread a sheet of thin paper over the letter, pressed down on it quickly to capture the words, and then he ducked out of the library and back towards his own rooms.
Damen translated the note carefully, using the cipher provided in the scrap pinned to his tunic and his own knowledge of Veretian, which was the language it was written in.
It was damning evidence, not only of Guion, but included references to Kastor, Jokaste, and the head royal physician.
Damen tucked the translation and the copy into a safe place where it would not be found within his quarters, and then stared at the note from his tunic for long moments, trying to still the thoughts in his head on to a course he could follow.
Finally, he rang a bell, and smiled at Lykaios sweetly when she came in and knelt in front of him. “Lady Jokaste has a slave,” said Damen. “A foreigner, with fair hair. You know who I mean?”
“Yes, your highness,” said Lykaios, nodding.
“Go and fetch him here.”
“Yes, highness,” Lykaios said, and seeing that Damen was not about to offer any further instruction, she left.
She reappeared leading in Jokaste’s slave. Nemein was wearing an ugly metal gag, and Damen could not conceal his shock. “What is this,” he asked Lykaios.
“Highness,” said Lykaios, sounding upset, “Master Adrastus said only that Lady Jokaste was not pleased by the slave’s mouth, and that now his mouth would upset her no longer.”
Damen moved closer to Nemein, leaning to inspect the metal gag, wondering if he could take it off. The contraption seemed to be designed with a keyhole in the back, allowing whoever held the key to open it and remove the gag. Without a key Damen suspected removal would require a very delicate blacksmith.
“How will he eat?” Damen said, speaking mostly to himself, but then he happened to meet the Nemein’s eyes. Nemein was staring at him full on in his unusually bold fashion. Slaves were trained to keep their eyes downcast, reserving eye contact for soft moments or for very private situations. Nemein was a relative stranger to Damen, in the presence of someone with greater standing than his mistress, and yet he stood straight without bowing and he looked Damen straight in the eyes. His eyes were the color of the sea on a clear day.
“Master Adrastus says he will eat only as it pleases his mistress,” said Lykaios.
The situation was visibly upsetting Lykaios. A perfectly obedient slave who was distressed by conflict, the idea of a slave who was so disobedient his mistress would turn to something so ugly as this gag was clearly concerning her. Damen sympathized. Not all slaves were as perfectly obedient as Lykaios. Some took longer to learn their forms or obeisance and needed motivation, could not suppress bad habits such as speaking back or moving too slowly and needed correction, and rarely there were more severe infractions of theft or something.
But to keep a slave who behaved so poorly was a bad reflection on the master, as well. It showed that the master was not capable of selecting a slave who was well suited to his needs, that the master could not express himself in ways the slave could understand. So a truly bad match between a slave and a master was resolved by finding a better match or by turning the slave off to some other kind of work more suited to his or her temperament.
For someone like Jokaste, who was well off and not forced to keep on an ill suited slave, to have a slave so disobedient was unusual, and if widely known, scandalous. Even seeing her strike the slave the day before was odd, the gag was shocking. However, it was also considered gauche to comment on how someone else treated or behaved to their slaves. Slaves were a matter within a household, not something for public speculation.
Damen caught the Nemein’s eyes again.
"Fetch the key from Master Adrastus," Damen said to Lykaios.
Lykaios moved uncomfortably. Even a mild contradiction or hesitation was painful for her. "Highness, Master Adrastus said that Lady Jokaste has the only key."
Damen inspected the back of the gag again. Lykaios was so obviously uncomfortable that he dismissed her, and he was alone in the room with Nemein. Nemein did not seem uncomfortable; apparently he lacked Lykaios's sensitivity.
"You may sit," Damen said to Nemein, gesturing to the chairs arranged around a fire. Nemein sat in the one closest to the door after a moment and Damen seated himself in one of the others.
"I am going to ask you a question," said Damen. "If the answer to the question is 'yes,' I want you to indicate with your right hand," Damen raised his own right palm in illustration. "If the answer to the question is 'no,' then indicate with your left. Do you understand?"
Nemein raised his right hand. The gesture seemed almost regal in movement, as though he were deigning to go along with Damen's game.
"Good," said Damen, and Nemein lowered his right hand again. He raised his eyebrows, as though asking Damen for the next question.
"Have you seen this before?" said Damen, producing the slip of paper that had been tucked in to his tunic.
Nemein nodded and raised his right hand.
"Did Jokaste give you it?" said Damen, and he could see even as Nemein rose his left hand that the answer was no, from the shape the man's features took around the metal gag, his eyebrows creasing into an expression that indicating that not only was the answer no, but that he was somehow disappointed in the question.
"Was it another slave who gave it to you?" said Damen. Another no.
"Someone who visited Lady Jokaste's rooms?" said Damen. No.
He tried to think of other questions to frame. "Someone who lives in Ios?" said Damen, and to this Nemein raised both his right and his left hand at the same time. Damen frowned, wondering what that mean, but Nemein began gesturing with his hand as though he were writing with a quill.
"You saw the person who wrote it?" said Damen, and then, upon another disgusted look from Nemein, "You wrote it yourself." Nemein nodded, and superfluously raised his right hand.
His initial question answered, Damen found that now he only had more questions that he wished he could ask.
They were interrupted by footsteps in the antechamber. Nemein moved quickly to grab at the paper slip in Damen’s lap, and crumpled it and tossed it in to the fire. Damen watched for a second as it turned to ash in the brazier, and then he turned to face the door in time to see Jokaste enter.
“You sent for my slave,” said Jokaste.
“Why do you keep him gagged?” said Damen.
“He spoke disrespectfully,” said Jokaste, as though it were a trifling annoyance. “I require his services again now,” she said.
Damen felt strongly that letting Nemein leave with Jokaste was unwise.
"Why do you keep a slave who displeases you so," said Damen.
"It pleases me very much to keep him," said Jokaste.
"But he is so disobedient you resort to keeping him muzzled like a wild dog," said Damen, gesturing at the man in illustration.
"I am capable of handling my own slaves," said Jokaste. "If you'll excuse me, your highness."
Damen rarely stood on formality with Jokaste, and she acted quite freely with him, her use of his title was a sign of how far the conversation had degenerated. And yet, at the same time, Damen was not finished speaking with her, and not inclined to excuse her.
"He should not be so disobedient," said Damen finally, because he could not bring himself to say that Jokaste should not treat him as she was.
"I can control my own house," said Jokaste, "And discipline my own slaves." Jokaste tilted her head to the side, suddenly, and then took two steps closer to Damen across the room. "Though, if you'd like to watch--" she trailed off suggestively, and she was two steps ahead of Damen, for he had not even realized until after she had how aroused he was, and he couldn't control his expression at her suggestion, and it was likely visible to both Jokaste and Nemein how desperately at least part of him did in fact wish to watch. He felt both interested and repulsed simultaneously; he pressed the palm of his hand against his forehead.
Jokaste smiled knowingly at Damen, and trailed a finger around the curve of his ear. Damen was seated and yet felt off balance. "What do you have?" said Jokaste. "Have you a crop?"
"In my bedroom?" said Damen. He felt adrift, as though he had been thrown from a boat in the middle of a storm.
"No?" said Jokaste. "Shall we send someone to the stables to fetch one, or be rather creative?"
Damen was breathing audibly, now, and he rose from the chair. Jokaste was standing in front of him, and as he rose she moved toward him and they came together as Jokaste lifted her legs over his hips, and Damen carried her over to the bed.
It was not even remotely creative; it was rutting in the most animalistic sense. Damen had likely been a more considerate lover even the first time he bedded a woman. He finished and caught his breath, torn between wondering what had happened to his wits and between still envisioning it, picturing what it would look like -- Jokaste would have the slave remove his tunic, of course, and Damen was imagining the way his skin might glow in the light, how the color of it might change after she struck him. Even in his head, Damen could not decide whether he wanted the blow to hit or whether wanted to reach out his arm and stop Jokaste’s arm before she could connect.
Jokaste left to prepare for the evening meal, complaining that Damen had ruined her hair.
Damen wondered where Nemein had left to. He was about to call to Lykaios to see if she had observed Nemein leaving from the antechamber, when he heard a footstep in the direction of his balcony. Nemein stepped in from the balcony quietly, looking around, and as he determined that Damen was alone, he walked into the room more confidently. He had something in his hand – it was one of Damen’s brooches, a plain one, made of bronze rather than gold. He must have taken it from Damen’s wardrobe, though to what purpose Damen was uncertain. It wasn’t valuable, if he was stealing it, and it was too small to be an effective weapon.
Nemein came up to Damen. Damen noted that while he moved gracefully, he didn’t bow or lower his gaze. Nemein held up the brooch toward Damen.
Damen took it, and Nemein turned around, seemingly waiting for something.
“I don’t understand,” said Damen.
Nemein turned around again, and Damen could feel the man’s exasperation in the set of his shoulders. He took the brooch back from Damen, held the pin of it carefully in his hand and reached around to the back of his own head, where he attempted to slip the pin into the keyhole of the gag, but he could not manipulate it sufficiently reaching his arm around to the back of his own head.
Damen understood. He accepted the brooch back, turned Nemein around, and made his own attempt. It took him a few moments to find the catch of the device. He tried not to be distracted by the proximity of the man’s body and the smell of his hair. The pin caught, finally, and Damen eased the lock open and the catch of the contraption separated. Nemein reached up and helped to ease it off of his own face, coughing somewhat.
Damen threw the metal gag on to the bed, and offered Nemein a cup of water that he had sitting on one of the dressing tables. Nemein accepted it, took a careful swallow, coughed again, and then took another swallow. His looks were marred by red lines across his face where the metal had pressed in to his skin. Damen wanted to touch them.
Nemein held the cup loosely in his fingers, cleared his throat, and said to Damen, “So, do you wish to beat me yourself, or is your interest exclusively in watching the lady do it?”
Damen inhaled. “Both. Neither.” He was startled into blunt honesty by the tone and impudent question. No palace slave had ever spoken to him like that before; no one had really ever spoken to him in that manner at all. The only people who spoke to him without deference were his father, his older brother Kastor, and, sometimes, Jokaste.
Nemein’s face twisted, slightly, as though he had not expected that response, exactly, but was not surprised, either.
“Can I distract you with information about the traitors in your own house?” said Nemein.
And Damen said, “Yes,” somewhat helplessly, suddenly understanding exactly how there might have been many reasons that Jokaste felt this slave was better off gagged.
He left Nemein in his rooms, and he gave strict instructions to his guards not to admit anyone to the rooms beside himself. He warned Nemein to stay there, for his own safety, at which Nemein had rolled his eyes and said, “Yes, because this is the last place Jokaste will think to search for me,” and so Damen was not completely convinced he would return to find Nemein there, but he was uncertain what else to do.
He sent Lykaios to ask General Nikandros to meet him in Damen’s mother’s private garden. Damen arrived there before Nikandros, and he paced along the back wall of the garden while he waited. Damen had never met his mother – she had died birthing him. But he had learned from others at the palace that his mother had had a passion for gardening, and she had insisted when she married Damen’s father on a private garden of her own that she could keep herself. The garden was still well kept by several of his mother’s former slaves who remembered her fondly, and they weeded the plants and pruned the fruit trees and watered everything during the height of summer with buckets carried carefully from the well. Along the back wall his mother had kept a small plot of kitchen herbs, each carefully separated from another by rows of pebbles. It was spring, so the plants were small, each seeming lonely in a patch of black earth with the rows of pebbles and the other plants far away.
Nikandros arrived. “My friend,” said Damen, inviting the man into the garden.
“My prince,” said Nikandros, walking in.
“I would seek your counsel,” said Damen.
“I would be honored,” said Nikandros.
“Will you walk with me among the fruit trees?” said Damen.
Nikandros nodded and fell into step beside him.
“It has come to my attention,” said Damen, “that certain people in Ios believe that there are traitors in the court.”
“A very serious allegation,” said Nikandros.
“Yes,” said Damen.
“Is there proof of the accusation?” said Nikandros.
“I am concerned that the proof that has been produced could have been manufactured by the accuser,” said Damen. “And yet it is sufficient that I believe further investigation is warranted.”
“Yes,” said Nikandros thoughtfully, and they walked the full length the orchard before he spoke again. “My prince, I hope that you will hear what I am about to say carefully – for I realize that my words also would be a very serious allegation. I have wondered how to broach the subject with you before. My question is – do the allegations concern your brother?”
Damen stopped walking midway between two of the peach trees and turned to look at Nikandros. “They do.”
Nikandros stroked his beard.
“Have you reason to think that my brother is –" Damen could not bring himself to say the word traitor, and trailed off.
“Your brother is ambitious,” said Nikandros, and the words echoed in Damen’s ears. He realized those were the words Nemein had used that day in the courtyard, with his foreign accent. Over ambitious. And Damen had thought they were talking about the horse.
“Ambition is not a crime,” said Damen.
“No,” said Nikandros. “But an ambitious heir is a worry for a ruler. It gives a ruler reason to watch himself cautiously. A ruler, really any man,” said Nikandros, “is best served by surrounding himself with men who profit by his own success, for they will turn their efforts toward his goals. A ruler who stands next to a man who profits most by his downfall needs to be prudent.”
Damen wished to defend Kastor again, but the words of Guion’s letter swam in front of his eyes. He began walking again, and Nikandros followed beside him.
“Have you any evidence?” said Damen.
“No,” said Nikandros. “Nothing save my own observations of Kastor’s behavior. I do not think he is as saddened as you by your father’s illness, for example, and he spends a great deal of time hunting with the Veretian ambassador.”
“I have gone hunting with them,” said Damen, still feeling though he must protest. “They both have a fondness for pheasant.”
“They might have interests beyond pheasant,” said Nikandros.
They walked the length of the orchard again.
“If I might make a suggestion,” said Nikandros.
“Please,” said Damen.
“Your first step might be to employ a new royal physician.”
Damen hired a new physician before the sun set that day. The reasoning he gave to the previous head physician was that he was disappointed that his father’s health continued to deteriorate rather than to improve, and the man protested with a series of excuses about how the king was an old man and potions could only do so much, but that the king would be much worse off without his services.
They both watched, with an accompaniment of Nikandros and three guards Damen knew personally to be loyal, as the new physician and his assistant reviewed all of the old physician’s things, reading over notes, sniffing sachets of herbs, uncorking small bottles to spill a drop or two of liquid on to a plate and hold it into the light.
The poison, when they found it, was only hidden in the sense that it was in plain sight amidst all of the chief physician’s things.
“The punishment for poisoning the king is death,” said Damen, staring at the drops of blue liquid spilled on the plate. “And yet, you are a physician, so you must well know that there are many ways to die.” The former physician swallowed heavily. “If you were to tell me who you are working with,” said Damen, “You might find me inclined to select one of the more merciful methods.”
The man was all too willing to speak.
That evening he confronted Guion in the main hall during the justice hearings, and told the man that there were allegations that he was conspiring against the throne. He expected protestations of innocence, but the man was a coward, and when Damen stood in front of him he gibbered instead that it was not his fault, that he had been approached, and Nikandros signaled two of the guards to remove the man from the main hall.
Damen then turned to Kastor. “Brother,” he said quietly. “Our father loves you so much. How could you do it?” and he watched as Kastor’s face turned pale.
“You don’t know what it’s like to have everything taken from you,” said Kastor. “I could conquer the entirety of Vere and father would still only have eyes for you.”
“As your brother,” said Damen, “I am saddened that you feel you have been treated poorly. But as your prince, I cannot forgive attempted regicide.”
Kastor attacked him. Damen had fought his brother before, hundreds of times over the years, had marked his own growth with the milestones of when his brother was willing to match against him with real weapons rather than practice ones, when he was able to strike his first blow, when he won his first match in wrestling or in sword fighting or in archery. Kastor had the element of surprise, as he tackled Damen to the ground and they sent the justice table tumbling in a flutter of paper that resembled an upset chicken coop, and several of the serving slaves screamed in shock. Yet Damen was the better fighter, and the guards attempted to assist him, and after moments of chaos and violence Kastor too was being led off to the dungeons for further questioning, with a larger accompaniment of soldiers than Guion.
Damen closed his eyes for a long moment. When he opened them the hall was still ravaged, the justice papers strewn all across the floor, some in a puddle of one of the wine pitchers a slave had dropped during the melee. Nikandros came to stand by his side. “The lady,” said Nikandros, and Damen nodded. It was time to finish it.
They could not locate Jokaste.
She was not in her chambers; she was not in the salon.
“We will have to search the entire palace,” said Nikandros, and he was raising a hand to one of the guards to give the order, when Damen thought, This is the last place Jokaste would think to search for me.
“I know where she is,” he said.
They ran to Damen’s rooms, Damen’s sense of urgency building as he became more and more confident that he knew where Jokaste was.
Damen had left two guards outside of his rooms. They found one of them in the hallway that entered the royal wing, apparently distracted away from his post, and now dead on the floor. The second man was found dead as well, though he had not strayed from his post outside Damen’s door.
Damen threw open the door to his own chamber, braced for a fight. The room displayed signs of a struggle, a dressing table upended, a wardrobe tipped over and clothes strewn all over the floor as though a troupe of dancers had done a silken veils dance and not picked up after.
He stepped in to his own bedroom in time to see Nemein hit Jokaste over the head with a decorative statue of a deer. Damen grabbed her by the arm as she staggered, and as she turned toward him he realized she was holding a knife, and he knocked it out of her hand. He checked her perfunctorily for other weapons and then turned her over to the guards.
Nemein put down the statue and held his arms up in an unthreatening gesture. But his words were defensive. “I suppose it is challenging, when a slave strikes a master, to defend with the insistence that the master struck first.”
“Are you truly the prince of Vere?” said Damen, speaking Veretian.
“Yes,” said Nemein.
“Can you offer any proof of this claim?” said Damen.
“Oddly enough they stole my signet ring when they kidnapped me and sold me into slavery in a foreign country.”
He certainly stood and spoke like a prince. He spoke Veretian like a native and with a noble accent.
“And who is ‘they,’” said Damen. “Why would they sell you into slavery?”
“I thought you had some experience with jealous relatives,” said Nemein.
“My prince,” said Nikandros. “Shall I return him to Master Adrastus?”
“Adrastus accepts bribes from Jokaste, by the way,” said Nemein.
Damen considered. “We will install him in guest quarters under guard.”
“And are the guards to protect me, or ensure that I do no harm?” said Nemein.
“Both,” said Damen.
The man gave a half shrug with one shoulder as though he understood the reasoning, and he let himself be led away by Nikandros.
Damen spent a sleepless night mourning, shocked and saddened that in the course two days he had managed to lose both his brother and his lover. In the morning he went to visit his father’s sickroom. The new physician was there, and a slave, who was throwing open the windows at his father’s direction.
“Father,” said Damen. “You are looking better.” His father had more color today than he had, and was sitting up in the bed.
“I feel much better today,” said Theomedes.
Damen came and sat on a bench next to his father’s bed.
“Father, I have sad news,” said Damen.
“Yes,” said Theomedes. “I think I have heard some of it from my new physician.”
They mourned together.
Damen’s father was still weak, and Damen left him in mid-morning so that his father could rest, and he met with Nikandros, who informed him on how the questioning was proceeding.
“I read over Guion’s recent correspondence,” said Nikandros. “Some of it is encoded, but he has a recent letter from the Regent of Vere that mentions that the younger prince of Vere was killed in a border skirmish.”
“I have a cipher,” said Damen. “From the slave – the prince. He is the one who prompted me to question. Jokaste attempted to convince him that assisting her and Kastor would be revenge upon me for killing his brother at Marlas.”
“I see,” said Nikandros, stroking his beard thoughtfully. “Will you offer him sanctuary? He would have a stronger claim to the Veretian throne than his uncle.”
“How would you advise me?” said Damen.
“He seems a valuable ally,” said Nikandros, “if the last days are an indication.”
“Yes,” said Damen. “I will offer him sanctuary.”
“Perhaps you might consult with the man in question first,” said Nikandros.
And so Damen went to call on his guest.
He nodded at the guards in front of the prince’s guest room, and he announced himself as he entered. “Prince Laurent?” he said.
Laurent was seated on a bench next to the window. He had a book in his hand.
“Prince Damianos,” said Laurent.
“I trust you are comfortable,” said Damen.
“Yes, much improved after you took that gag off,” said Laurent. “Or did you mean now that you know who I am?”
“You are free to go,” said Damen. “Though if you wish, I would offer you sanctuary here in thanks for your services.”
Laurent regarded him quietly for a few moments. “I…have allies left, in Vere. But it might be easier, given recent events, for me to take advantage of them with another base of operations.”
“So you will stay,” said Damen. “Good.”
“I trust you will curb your impulses to beat me, if I am your guest?” said Laurent.
Damen did not flush easily, his skin camouflaged the red rising to his face, but he could feel it nonetheless. “Perhaps we could spar in the ring instead,” said Damen.
“Perhaps,” said Laurent, and he seemed as though he were trying to suppress a smile.
“I look forward to it,” said Damen.