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The Masquerade

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Relations between Akielos and Vere were in the midst of change. The centuries of tension and outright war were finally at an end; the greatest achievement of his father's reign. But as much as things had improved, there was still strain in the countries' newfound bond. The hatred that had fuelled both nations and their people for generations was not going to dissipate with the signing of a peace treaty.

Damen did not see it ebbing any tonight, either.

"We're building lasting peace," Theomedes had said when Damen had voiced his doubts about welcoming the Veretian royal family, along with whatever dignitaries and diplomats they saw fit to bring along, for a weekend of lavish celebration in Ios. "It's a process of small steps, not one great hurdle."

Damen had rolled his eyes in response. He knew the real meaning of those words: he'd have plenty more state visits like this one to look forward to in the months and years to come.

He sighed now as he stepped up to the mirror and straightened his tie one last time. There'd been few times in his life that he had ever resented his position. This was one of them.

Objectively, he knew peace with Vere, and the stability in the region that would follow it, was the best thing for everybody — and he suspected that it was with thought to Damen's eventual reign that his father had worked so hard brokering peace talks — but if he was honest, he'd have much preferred their countries to go back to their tried and true method of resolutely pretending the other didn't exist. What could Vere really offer Akielos? Their wine was tasteless, their fashion overpriced and over-decorated, all flash and no substance, and they were hardly a nation of industry. The trade discussions between the two nations would be an amusing series of meetings to sit in on, Damen imagined.

But for now, there was this indignity. Damen eyed the mask sat in a silk-lined box atop his dresser as if it had caused him some great personal insult. The mask itself was beautiful, Damen had to admit: crafted specially for him, the rich crimson silk and golden detailing matching the colours of his family crest, though that didn't make him feel any better about wearing it.

Perhaps he could claim to have fallen victim to a sudden, intense bout of stomach flu, and spend the weekend hidden away in his rooms in the palace.

He discarded that idea almost as quickly as it came to him. His father would never believe it.

Before he could devise a better escape, the growing clamour drifting in from outside finally grew too loud to ignore, and Damen crossed into the living room to peer out of the window. The palace stood atop the highest point in the city, the rest of Ios a sprawling stretch of whitewashed buildings unfolding into the distance; from the front windows of his apartment Damen could look down the long, razor-straight promenade that sliced the city in two, until it shrank to a pinprick and was swallowed by the trees.

There was a crowd of spectators lining the road, cheering — or possibly jeering; Damen couldn't quite tell for sure — at the sight of a snakelike motorcade making its way up to the palace.

It was time, then.

Damen took a moment to rally himself while he returned to the bedroom. He fixed his mask into place, gave himself a last one-over in the mirror — like it or not, he was representing his country this weekend, and regardless of whether he particularly wished to welcome the Veretians with loving grace, he was going to show Akielos at its best — and he headed out.

"You drew the short straw tonight, Hektor?" he said with a smile when he stepped through his front door and the guard beside it stood to attention.

He bowed his head in response. A man in his early sixties, Hektor had worked as a palace guard for as long as Damen could remember; long enough to develop something of an easy rapport with not just the other staff, but many of the royal apartments' residents as well. Damen could remember galloping down the long gallery with a stick horse as a child, studying perhaps too enthusiastically under Hektor's amused guidance. Looking back on it now, he realised Hektor had probably never actually known how to ride, nor would the ability to ride a stick horse have been much preparation for the real thing.

"Oh, I volunteered," he said. "I'm getting too old for palace functions. Enjoy your night, sir."

"Thank you, Hektor," replied Damen, and with a leaden weight in his feet, he shuffled down the hall. Spending the night up here, sat playing backgammon with the travel game Hektor always kept stashed in his breast pocket, sounded far more appealing than putting on airs for the Veretian royal family. But he pushed on, pausing only when he reached the door to his brother's apartment.

There were no guards stationed outside it.

Damen hadn't expected there to be. Kastor had been an even more vocal opponent of the peace treaty than Damen, and had promised early on that he'd remove himself from the palace if a Veretian delegation was offered an invitation. He was most likely sulking at one of their homes in the Northern provinces. Damen would have joined him would their father have ever allowed it. But Kastor wasn't the next in line to the throne; he could be afforded leniency that Damen never would.

He picked up his feet again and made his way down to the central hub of the palace, bustling with noise and activity. There was already a crowd in the ballroom when Damen entered. They all wore evening gowns and fine suits, and a colourful array of styled masks. The only ones whose faces were unobscured were the wait staff, weaving through the room with drinks and food for the assembled guests. There were impressive displays of fresh fruit, native to Akielos and Vere both, arranged in bursts of colour to rival the flowers decorating the room. Damen couldn't imagine the combination of rich, flavourful Akielon pears and apricots with whatever overly tart, under ripe morsels that passed for fruit in Vere would be particularly appetising.

Almost hidden behind one of the marble statues that stood at intervals along the walls, Damen spotted a lone figure, sporting a black mask completely unadorned with decoration, as if in protest at having to wear one at all. The mask covered much of his forehead and cheekbones, but not the grim line of his lips. Damen smiled, and moved to join him.

"You're late," said Nikandros.

"Not as late as I'd like to be."

"You'd best not let your father hear you say that."

Not that Nikandros felt any different. As Kyros of Delpha, Akielos' northernmost province, Nikandros had more dealings with the Veretians on the other side of the border than any of them, and few of those dealings had ever been pleasant. He cast a disapproving eye about the room, which was certain to only intensify as the night wore on.

Damen was about to offer whatever words of encouragement he could muster, words neither he nor Nikandros were likely to believe, when Nikandros' attention passed to something over Damen's shoulder. He drew himself up to his full height, only to immediately dip his head and take a respectful step back.

That could only mean one thing.

Damen turned to face the crowds behind, now parted, the countless conversations that had been ongoing all around hushed for the moment. Theomedes was stepping towards him. His own mask was one of gold, and decorated with laurels to match those resting among his greying curls. There could be no doubting his identity. Damen gave a slight bow of his head in turn when his father reached them.

"You're late," Theomedes said, gently chiding. But from the set of his shoulders, he seemed to be in good spirits, if a little apprehensive. As long as Damen didn't push his luck any further, he doubted his father would be too disappointed in his behaviour. He was here, at least, which was more than could be said of Kastor.

"Sorry, father."

He gestured for Damen to follow him, and with a glance back at Nikandros cracking a smile after him — or as much of a smile as could be expected from Nikandros, under the circumstances — Damen set off across the room at his father's heel. They came to a stop at the head of the room, and the crowd fell silent. Even the string group that had been filling the room with delicate music from under a canopy of multicoloured flowers set down their bows. Theomedes had never needed to so much as clear his throat to demand attention from his subjects at events like this.

Damen stood at his father's shoulder, back straight and hands clasped behind him, stepping easily into the shoes of the Prince Damianos of Akielos that the crowd expected to see.

"This is a historic moment for Akielos," Theomedes said, his voice carrying to the farthest corners of the room like one of the great thespians on his stage. "This weekend, we say goodbye to animosity, and prepare to begin a new chapter, hand in hand with our Veretian allies. Many believed this day would never come, the day that we call Vere friend—"

Damen's eyes found Nikandros, come to stand nearby with the rest of the kyroi. He was wearing an expression that said they'd have been wiser not to. Had Damen not been stood at his father's side, he might have scoffed at the words himself. It was still an effort to keep his lip from curling in distaste at the mere mention of the word Vere, let alone the idea of ever considering Veretians friends.

"—but with patience, and trust, we can lay the foundations of a lasting relationship with our neighbours to the north. For our children, and our grandchildren, and for all the generations to come."

A ripple of polite applause swept through the room. Damen wondered if they were clapping more out of respect for their king than any real faith in his words. "They don't sound enthusiastic," murmured Damen into his father's ear while they strolled back along the dance floor towards the open entrance to the ballroom.

"Give them time," Theomedes replied.

As they swept through the room there was a shadow of movement from the hall outside the ballroom, and after a moment the first handful of Veretians appeared in the doorway. Their formal welcome reception was due to take place in the morning, but for tonight, Veretians and Akielons were to mingle as one, without the formalities of position inhibiting them. That was the plan, at least.

They entered the room preened like peacocks, with heads held high. In superiority, Damen thought to himself, his jaw clenching. He forced the flicker of anger he felt to subside.

But there was a hesitance to the Veretians' steps that betrayed their haughty demeanour, as if they perhaps expected to be walking into a trap. They came to a stop just inside the doors, as others filtered in behind, and for a moment the room was stood in stalemate; Veretians on one side, Akielons on the other, staring one another down and waiting for the other shoe to drop.

After tense seconds that stretched on in uncomfortable silence, Theomedes made the first move. He stepped forward to offer a deep bow to their Veretian guests. The Veretians at the head of the party followed suit, and with that the tension in the room seemed to ease a little. Waiters swanned towards the cluster of Veretians with obeisant offerings of food and drink, gratefully accepted, the music swelled, and the crowds began, tentatively, to enjoy the celebrations.

With the formalities out of the way, Damen slunk back towards the wall. There would be no more need for Prince Damianos tonight. Now all Damen had to do was find an opportunity to slip away from the festivities unnoticed.

He helped himself to a glass of champagne, and settled in to wait.

 

That opportunity was taking it's time coming.

Damen was still lingering by the wall, doing his best impression of Nikandros hiding between statues, and looking out across the ballroom at its swirling dancers. As much as the crowds seemed to move as one at first glance, upon closer inspection the division between the groups of dancers became clear.

The idea of the masquerade was to force the guests to come together as people, rather than as Akielons and Veretians; so far, that had been a resounding failure. The only thing broaching the distance between the small clusters of people was their matching suspicious glances. Even with a mask adorning every face, it was no challenge to tell one nation's guests from the other, their pasty skin and overly extravagant outfits making the Veretians in the room entirely too conspicuous.

That was probably the intention.

Damen rolled his eyes at the sight of one Veretian woman wearing a mask shaped like oversized butterfly wings, feathered and jewelled and extending as wide as her elaborately coiffed hair, and he sidled along the wall towards a nearby waitress to help himself to another glass of champagne from her tray. He was going to need as many drinks as he could stomach to make this evening bearable. Damen emptied his glass in one long mouthful.

The waitress was at his side again the moment he brought his glass from his lips, ready for him to deposit it back on the tray, and she swept away to the group of people leaving the dance floor with reddened cheeks and empty hands. Damen watched her go. Studying how the woman could be ready and waiting to offer guests a drink before they even seemed to realise they needed one was more riveting than anything else that had happened so far.

As she disappeared into a crowd of mingled courtiers, a blond head appeared in Damen's peripheral vision. It was enough to catch his eye. There were more blonds in the room than Damen was used to — evidently the colouring was not the rare delight in Vere that it was in Akielos — but the man strolling past the crowds had a head of pale gold vibrant enough to stand out even in the muted light of the room. Damen would surely have made note of the man had he encountered him before.

That was when he drew his eyes downwards. The flicker of interest that had swelled inside him deflated like someone had stuck him with a pin. The man wore a deep blue suit, overstitched and over decorated like too many others in the room. He was dressed like a spoilt dandy. As a Veretian, he probably was one.

Damen sighed, and drew his eyes away. This would be the ideal time for a member of the exquisitely trained wait staff to materialise in front of him with another tray of drinks. Something stiffer than champagne, this time.

"You don't look pleased to see us," a casual voice said from Damen's right, in accented Akielon.

Damen turned to see the Veretian dandy approaching.

Perfect.

Damen gazed back to the dancers gliding about the room, and did his best not to groan outwardly. "I welcome the alliance," he replied. He spoke in Veretian. He'd heard enough butchered Akielon from Veretian delegates over the course of their diplomatic meetings to last him a lifetime.

He could hear the smile in the man's voice when he spoke again. "How long have you been practising that line?"

That response caught Damen off-guard. There were plenty in the court who'd had their reservations about an alliance with Vere, but they had all been well instructed to keep their thoughts to themselves — Damen included. His face hadn't given him away too much, had it? It would not do well for a prince of Akielos to disagree with his king, especially not on a matter so important to national security.

He eyed the man again, still watching Damen with apparent amusement. "Well, what about you?" Damen said, if only to deflect attention from himself. "Don't tell me you Veretians are all eager to become fast friends."

"I support anything that will benefit my county."

Damen scoffed. "Now there's a practised answer."

The man gave a shrug in response, an admission of guilt which he clearly didn't feel very guilty about. "So," he began, and something in his tone told Damen he wasn't going to like where this sentence finished, "you don't consider Veretians friend at the moment?"

A huff of laughter escaped Damen's chest, out of surprise more than anything. He turned back to the centre of the room while he tried to devise the best answer to that question. He suspected it didn't exist, not if he didn't want to lie. And Damen had never been a particularly skilled liar.

"I know Vere pays the Vaskians to raid Akielon towns close to the border," said Damen. He hoped it sounded more like a simple statement of fact than an accusation. And Damen knew the fact of it all too well. His military service had been on the border, defending against those Vaskian raids, and he'd recognised the evidence of trade with Vere among the men and women they'd captured. It was an open secret in those parts.

He held little confidence that the raids would stop with the alliance.

The man looked like he was well aware of the raids too, though he didn't seem particularly concerned by them. Damen shouldn't have expected him to be. "And Akielos has no trouble retaliating with added force," he replied, his tone as matter-of-fact as Damen's had been.

"Then you'll forgive me for being wary of welcoming a Veretian delegation with open arms."

But despite Damen's concerns, his father's plan did at last seem to be working. The other guests were coming together with growing confidence, even if there was still an air of trepidation in the room. Damen caught sight of Theomedes at the far end of the dance floor, beaming like he already considered the night a roaring success.

Small steps, indeed.

Damen couldn't help but smile, just a little, before he gazed back to the Veretian at his side. He was watching Damen closely.

"What's your name?" said Damen.

"Ah, ah," the man chided with the waggle of a scolding finger, and tapped at the edge of the mask obscuring his eyes. It was tamer than some Damen had seen tonight, but still unmistakably Veretian in its design. "You seem to be missing the point of the masquerade."

"Because these silly masks are actually hiding anyone's identity?" Damen felt a strange warmth in his chest as he spoke. He nodded to the other side of the room, where a figure stood in exquisite finery, his hair and beard the colour of buttercream. "Look: there's King Aleron," he said, and his eyes travelled to the taller blond not far from the king; a warm golden shade this time, the colour not yet faded with age. "And Prince Auguste."

He turned his gaze back to the man in front of him and paused. Another blond head. And a suit finer than even the other Veretians', in the blue and gold of the monarchy.

"Prince Laurent," said Damen, in greeting.

It would have been better to have made that observation before expressing his reservation about their countries' peace treaty, but there was nothing he could do about that now. And at least he hadn't said anything worse.

If Laurent was surprised that Damen had identified him, he hid it well. He straightened his posture and looked up at Damen with a new air of arrogance befitting his station as a Veretian prince. "I could have you hanged for your words against Vere," he said.

Damen couldn't be entirely sure if Laurent was kidding or not.

"I think you might struggle with that."

Laurent's brow furrowed almost imperceptibly, and he studied Damen more closely than he had before now, until realisation smoothed his features. "Damianos," he said. He sounded as if he couldn't believe his bad luck.

Damen ignored the tone, and gave a brief, deep bow. He hoped the gesture didn't come off as too sarcastic — but then, if he had been that worried about offending Veretian royalty, he probably wouldn't have done it in the first place.

"Well that explains it," said Laurent.

"Explains what?"

Laurent blinked, looking back at Damen like he'd caught Laurent thinking aloud. "Oh. I had thought you and my brother would spend the weekend becoming insufferable bosom buddies," he explained. "I see it's your hatred of Vere that's kept you at a distance so far this evening."

"I don't hate Vere."

"Yes, you do," Laurent said. His tone was too flippant for the subject matter. "It's all right. I hate Akielos, too."

"That doesn't comfort me," said Damen. But he had to admit, there was something almost refreshing in Laurent's ruthless honestly. Too many people in Damen's life told him exactly what they thought he'd want to hear, for fear of placing themselves in the bad graces of royalty. He'd decided long ago that he'd rather face the hard truth than be placated with pleasant lies.

"What would you like me to say? That this pitiful attempt at sophistication has allayed my every doubt about forming an alliance with your country?"

"This is hardly the only thing Akielos has to offer."

"Then show me something that is actually worth seeing," Laurent said, a challenge in the arch of his eyebrows. "Perhaps you can change my mind."

Damen smiled. He knew a place.

He offered out an arm, too forward a gesture, perhaps, but Laurent took it all the same. They weaved through the room and back out into the long gallery that ran the length of the palace's southern wing. The masks were working better than Damen had thought; nobody had stopped them on their way from the room. Damen's father was certain to notice his absence eventually, though. Hopefully his spirits would be too high to be concerned by it.

As they headed through the halls, the music and voices carrying from the ballroom dropped away, leaving an eerie silence in their wake. The occasional member of the palace staff would pass, too busy or maybe just too well-trained to acknowledge them, but Damen couldn't think of many times he'd found the place so deserted. It made the palace look more beautiful, somehow, without the distraction of constant activity, and Damen looked over at Laurent, as if he'd have any hope of deciphering Laurent's thoughts from his face.

He couldn't, of course. Laurent was a blank canvas, his expression giving so little away Damen had to wonder if it was a skill that came naturally or one Laurent had developed through torturous practice. Neither would have surprised him. And maybe it was the closer proximity, or the better lighting out here in the main gallery, but Damen could now see tiny starbursts on Laurent's mask that he hadn't noticed before, stitched in gold thread amongst the deep blue fabric and glittering like jewels. They were gone when Laurent turned to look at him.

"Is Akielos really so poor that you cannot afford to run your palaces?" Laurent said. He'd noticed the peculiar quiet as well, then. He was probably as used to the hustle and bustle of a busy court as Damen was.

"No. Our staff are all occupied catering to your envoys and their every whim."

Laurent let out a hum that suggested he was satisfied by that thought. They passed through another barren hall, the only faces those of Damen's ancestors whose paintings lined the walls, and as they walked Laurent reached back to tug at the ribbons holding his mask in place. They came apart easily, and Laurent slipped the mask from his face and tucked it into his pocket. There was no need for it now.

He was even lovelier than Damen had first imagined: high cheekbones, a fine, straight nose, and a certain haughtiness to the line of his pale brows that Damen shouldn't have found quite as appealing as he did. The light and shadows of the room cast him in a striking image. It really was too bad he was Veretian.

Damen removed his own mask in turn. He could feel Laurent's gaze on him, and sure enough when he glanced over Laurent was watching Damen from the corner of his eye. The moment their eyes met, Laurent's expression shifted.

"Red isn't your colour," he said, and fell silent again, looking away to take in his surroundings while Damen led him up one flight of stairs, and then another. He didn't seem impressed, but he also wasn't openly disparaging them. It was an improvement.

"I'm curious," said Damen, "why would Vere even agree to an alliance with Akielos? You can't be the only Veretian who still hates us."

"It was my brother who supported it," Laurent replied.

Damen nodded. He had encountered Prince Auguste during the handful of diplomatic meetings Damen had attended in his father's stead on the path to peace. They had never properly spoken, but Auguste had addressed the assembled representatives with a dignity beyond his years, and the passion that comes from a fervent belief in the words. It was no surprise to hear he had been the driving force behind the alliance.

"He seems like a good man."

"He is," said Laurent. "Better than you."

A smile tugged at Damen's lips, those embers of warmth in his chest reigniting. Laurent's reputation as the icy counterpart to Auguste's engulfing sunniness was well-earned, it seemed. "What makes you say that?"

"Well, you did have the great sense to insult Vere to one of its princes' faces—"

"You insulted Akielos in front of me," Damen pointed out. "After you learned who I was, I should add."

"We're here to discuss your failings, not my own."

"Regale me, then."

Laurent gazed back at him. They had come to a stop partway down another gallery, this one looking out on one of the walled gardens the palace was famed for, but Laurent's eyes didn't turn to the view behind Damen. "Very well," he said, straightening to his full height and looking Damen up and down in search of his next argument. "Your overinflated bulk makes your head look too small for your body."

Damen could only laugh in response. "That's a new one."

"You face your share of insults, I take it?" Laurent said, curiosity in his voice, once they'd begun walking again.

Damen didn't offer details. The exploits of a young man with more wealth and power than wisdom would probably seem tame by Veretian standards, even if Laurent's own reputation cast him as more aloof than debauched like the rest of his countrymen, but that didn't mean Damen was proud of how long it had taken him to understand the weight of his position, to find the balance between duty and pleasure.

"Does that concern you?" he said.

"Far from it. The news brings me immense satisfaction."

Damen smiled. Laurent was still holding his head too high, still struggling to completely hide his enjoyment at their verbal sparring. "In that case, I'm glad you find me pleasing," said Damen, and his grin broadened at the way Laurent baulked at the words.

Before he could stammer out a rebuttal, though, or devise some new devastating insult to Damen and his country both, Damen stopped at the end of the hall, and Laurent paused beside him. But instead of turning right to head towards the residential wing of the palace, Damen turned left, and into one of the palace libraries.

Laurent eyed the books lining the walls with more interest than he'd shown anything else in the palace. Damen should have guessed he would. Prince Auguste was a soldier in his father's army, and well-known for his love of sports; a frequent competitor in the Veretian games he helped promote each summer. Laurent was none of those things. There had to be something that could hold his interest.

"You like books?"

"I'm just surprised any of you can read." When he met Damen's gaze again, Laurent was wearing an expression of boredom once more, as if he'd never looked any different. "Is this it?"

"No." Damen paced carefully down the length of the room. He didn't look back to see if Laurent was still following. "When Queen Agar commissioned this palace," he explained, "she was afraid the exiled lords of Isthima would stage a revolt to try and win back their country. She had a network of hidden passages built in case her stronghold here in Ios was ever held under siege."

A floorboard creaked beneath Damen's feet, and from there he counted his steps, eyes on the bookcases to his right. Once he'd counted out eight strides, he stopped. Laurent was silent. He'd followed Damen across the room, though, so it must have been an attentive silence.

"Most of them were eventually sealed." Damen stepped over the velvet ropes that cordoned off the antique furnishings from inquisitive tourists, pulled open the shuttered door of the closest bookcase, and flicked the catch hidden beneath the middle shelf. "But not all of them."

He pushed against the back of the bookcase, and it creaked open to reveal a dark, narrow tunnel. The musty smell of stale air swept into the room. Damen took a step into the passage and looked back at Laurent, hesitating on the other side of the rope. He was about to open his mouth and make some disparaging remark about whether Laurent was scared to dirty his suit, when Laurent climbed over the rope and followed.

Damen considered briefly the fact that Laurent was showing a remarkable amount of trust in him, letting Damen drag him into a dark, forgotten tunnel that could lead anywhere, the rest of his delegation ignorant to Laurent's whereabouts. Had their positions been reversed, Damen didn't know he would trust to put his safety in a Veretian's hands.

They slipped through the tunnel, an unwelcoming, coffin-like thing now where it had once felt large enough to swallow Damen's boyhood frame, just wide enough for Damen to press his palms to the rough hewn walls on either side as they moved. Luckily, they didn't have far to go.

"You used to be able to travel all the way from the royal quarters to the edge of the city from this tunnel," said Damen, though he wasn't sure Laurent would appreciate the history lesson while they shuffled along with cautious steps in the dark.

"Do you think it's wise, telling me the way to escape?"

"It's bricked off now. Besides which, you would still have to find your way back home. It's a long walk to Arles from here. And a golden prince would stand out, in these parts."

"I stand out everywhere."

Damen didn't doubt that, somehow. "That must make it hard to pass by unnoticed."

"I can when I want to," Laurent replied. "What about you?"

"I don't often feel the need to." He looked back at Laurent, his pale skin and hair just visible now Damen's eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and grinned. "Perhaps Akielons are more respectful of their royals than Veretians."

Laurent snorted, though he didn't offer any rebuttal.

The floor began to slope upwards; just a little at first, but growing steeper, and Damen slowed his steps. He ran his hands along the walls, waiting for the sharp bend that had always taken him by surprise as a child exploring these passages. It came up on them as quickly as ever, and Laurent stopped short at Damen's back. He was close enough that Damen could smell Laurent's cologne. It wasn't nearly as cloying as he'd have expected, rather an almost inviting scent, waiting to be breathed in and have the depths of its subtle, layered notes explored. Damen could smell orange blossom.

He swallowed and pressed on, a few more shuffled, crablike steps sideways until they reached the thin crack of light shining like a beacon against the dusty stone floor. Damen crouched to slide open the low door.

He stepped out into the bright light of the hall and straightened, pressing himself against the wall while Laurent followed. Damen slid the door back into place. It was virtually indistinguishable from the panelled walls, the pattern of the carved wood unbroken along its length. If you didn't know the door was there, you'd never find it.

"Now what?" said Laurent. He'd flattened himself against the wall beside Damen, sensing perhaps that their adventure wasn't quite over yet. There was something that could have been exhilaration in his eyes, but Damen didn't draw attention to it. Laurent's good moods were hard to come by, if you believed the torrents of gossip oozing out of Arles; Damen couldn't go scaring this one away, now, could he?

"Now we wait."

Damen checked his watch. They were coming up to the hour. It wouldn't be long. Those short minutes felt like hours, though, with Laurent stood close to Damen's side, his soft breathing at Damen's ear the only sound — until finally Hektor's voice carried down the hall.

"I'll see you in fifteen minutes, then," he was saying, though Damen couldn't make out the muffled sound of a response.

"Quickly," Damen said, and darted around the corner. Hektor was already halfway down the hall towards the exit, stopped to hand over duties to another of the guards. Neither of them were looking back Damen's way. Unnoticed, he and Laurent slipped into Damen's apartment.

"This will set the palace gossip alight," Laurent said, "you bringing the Prince of Vere back to your rooms."

"Don't worry; there's none in Akielos who would ever believe I'd invite a Veretian into my bed."

He closed the doors behind them and flicked on the light switch, casting his sitting room in a flood of warm light. The rustic chandeliers overhead gave the room a candlelit quality that was perhaps too intimate for welcoming the Ice Prince of Vere. Usually the guests Damen entertained here were far more agreeable.

Laurent dragged an unenthusiastic eye about the room, over the low gathering of couches in the finest Akielon cotton; the polished, handcrafted hardwood tables; the laboured metalwork of the lamps and sconces. "Well I daresay I'm not impressed yet," he said, and turned back to Damen, suspicion narrowing his eyes. "Especially if this is your cack-handed attempt at seduction."

Damen made no attempt to hide his revulsion at the suggestion. Laurent was a devastatingly attractive man, Damen would be the first to admit. The combination of such delicate bone structure and that porcelain skin was keeping Damen from drawing his gaze away as quickly as he'd have liked, and he was doubtless not the first to fall under that particular spell. The effect was somewhat ruined whenever Laurent opened his mouth, however. Maybe if Laurent kept silent the whole time, or changed every aspect of his personality first. Then Damen might find some enjoyment in a night of passion with him.

He brushed past Laurent towards the bedroom — which would do nothing to ease Laurent's fears. Laurent froze in the doorway. So the man thought nothing of embarking down dark, likely dangerous passages with no-one but a near-stranger, but recoiled at setting foot inside a bedroom. Damen couldn't begin to decipher if that was a quirk unique to Laurent or simply the product of a Veretian upbringing.

"I'm not about to jump on you," said Damen.

"Such a gentleman," Laurent shot back. But he followed Damen into the room without another word, albeit at a safe distance. Damen shucked off his blazer and loosened his tie as he crossed towards the balcony doors, pulled them open, and stepped outside.

The balcony was long, and narrow, just wide enough to take a seat and enjoy the view, though it had been some time since Damen had used it for even that. This wasn't their final stop. He led Laurent down the balcony towards the last of the stone benches placed along its length, and stopped to peer back at him.

"You aren't afraid of heights, are you?"

Laurent levelled him with a withering look. "Don't you worry about me," he said.

Very well, then. Damen climbed onto the bench and reached for the cornice that lined the top of the walls, hoisting himself up easily onto the red brick tiles. He'd done this enough times to find his footing on the roof without trouble, even if he was a little more overdressed tonight than he usually was when he did this, and he turned to offer a hand to Laurent. He was already stood atop the bench and reaching to pull himself up.

They carefully made their way up the sloping rooflines, the cupola that stood tall above the tiles their destination. It had been a watchtower when the palace had been built, centuries ago, but now it stood blocked off from the rest of the building below, empty save for the birds that nested inside its grand dome.

"An old watchtower," Laurent said. His voice held no trace of either awe, or the breathlessness Damen would have expected from one climbing along the outside of a building for the first time. "I've never seen one of those before."

"Be patient."

Damen pulled himself up onto the sill of one of the open arches and took a seat. He patted the stone beside him, cool beneath his palm without the high summer sun to warm it. Laurent sat, and looked out at what Damen had brought him all the way up here to see.

The gulf of Atros stretched out before them as far as the eye could see, the final dregs of the sunset casting a wash of rich purples on the horizon. Of course, Laurent had certainly seen the ocean before, but Arles was hundreds of miles from the coast; views like this would still be rare enough to impress. Damen hoped.

Laurent was silent.

Damen shouldn't have cared. If Laurent couldn't be moved by any of the treasures Akielos had to offer, it was his own failing. Yet Damen still felt the weight of disappointment in his gut.

But when he looked over at Laurent, braced for the sneering disapproval, he didn't find it. Laurent was gazing out at the view with fascination. It lit up his face.

Damen smiled and, emboldened, he shifted a little closer. "See the lights on the horizon," he said as he pointed towards them. "That's Isthima."

Laurent nodded. He looked like he was fighting not to smile as well. "I've never been to Isthima," he replied after a moment.

"It's beautiful." Damen looked away from Isthima, towards the north, across the patches of darkness where the city melted into the countryside. "On a clear day, you can see all the way to the Kingsmeet from up here."

When he looked back, Laurent's gaze was on Damen's face. "So this is what you do, is it?" he said. There was a wry look to him as he watched Damen. "Find someone you want to fuck, and bring them here to soften them up first?"

"You're the first person I've brought up here. I like to sit and watch the sun rise over the city." He glanced behind him, at the sea of lights that made up Ios, as if he could watch it again now, the warm sunlight pouring like honey over the tiny buildings of the city.

From the corner of his eye he could see Laurent turn as well, though his attention wasn't on the city behind them. "You're exactly the man they say you are, aren't you?" He said it like it was an oddity, something rare to be picked up and studied closely. There was a burning kind of intensity in his eyes that was a far cry from the dismissive glances Damen had earned from Laurent so far this evening.

"And you aren't, I'm beginning to suspect."

Laurent's smile faltered a little, as if Damen's words had caught him off guard. Damen got the impression that that didn't happen often. Laurent seemed the type to have had everyone around him fully sussed out long before they even understood their own motives. He looked back out over the sea. "I should hope not," he said quietly, after a long moment.

He fell silent again. The only sounds between them were the susurrus of waves far below and the occasional calls of sea birds. Laurent gazed upwards to the inky dark sky, it's only light now the waxing moon, a spectre flitting in and out of the passing clouds.

"I thought you would be able to see more stars, down here."

"Sometimes you can," Damen said. "At the solstice festivals, when the whole city goes dark, it's almost like the universe comes alive." He eyed Laurent again. He looked almost ghost-like in the moonlight, his hair and skin veering beyond pale towards translucent. His eyes, though, were still vivid as ever. "Is it really so different in Arles?"

"In some ways," said Laurent. "Not as many as I'd expected."

Damen smiled. "And you've only been here one night."

"Don't remind me."

The sound of a speedboat approaching echoed through the calm, scattering a handful of birds from the trees below, and as Damen watched it came careening through the gulf, leaving the boats down at the harbour rocking on the disturbed water in its wake. He eyed their bobbing lights, and wondered idly if Kastor had taken the family yacht. Laurent's claim to have never set foot on Isthima had given him an idea, if there were a spare few hours in their meticulously regimented weekend to steal away a Veretian prince.

"Do you sail?"

"I've been on boats," Laurent said, as if that was half the battle. He looked back up at Damen. "I imagine it comes naturally to you, living here on the coast."

He might have been right about that. Certainly Damen had taken to sailing at a young age, had always loved taking a boat out onto the gulf and spending the day on the water, with nothing but the sea and the sky and his own thoughts to keep him company. There was a peace there that Damen could never quite find anywhere else. His mother had been much the same, as Damen's father delighted in telling him each and every time Damen headed out to the water.

"You know, I used to think that if I hadn't been born into all of this, I'd like to sail around the world." It had been a foolish thing to dream about then. It was even more so now, but Damen couldn't stop himself sometimes.

"You still could," Laurent said. They both knew he wasn't being serious. Even the royal duties of a prince made for a full time position. "Theomedes is still fairly spry."

Damen laughed. "I think I'd make it halfway across the gulf before they caught up with me and dragged me back."

"You never know," said Laurent. "Maybe if this weekend turns out to be as dull as it sounds we can steal a boat and see how far we get. Perhaps we'll reach Isthima."

"You're going to steal a boat, are you?"

He shrugged, a smile on his face and mischief in his eyes as he glanced down towards the harbour. "There are plenty of yachts down there. How hard can it be?"

"All right," Damen replied. "If you manage to get your hands on one of those boats, I'll sail us to Isthima."

Their mingled laughter drifted away slowly on the breeze, and they were quiet for a moment, perhaps still plotting their imagined escape. Laurent was the first to speak.

"I thought you were happy in your position."

"I like serving my people," Damen replied, "and they seem to respect me. And it's a comfortable life, I'll admit. But I do think about it sometimes, what it would be like to be normal." He paused, a sudden realisation stalling his words. "I've never told anyone that before."

"Don't worry; I'll keep your secret," said Laurent. "It's nice to have someone who understands."

He spoke as if he longed for that himself.

It wasn't the first time Laurent had struck Damen as out of place among the Veretian court. If not for the arresting blond hair and his well-honed arrogance, it would have been easy to miss that he was royalty at all. He was vulgar, and devilish, and entirely disrespectful of the intricate dance that was manoeuvring tricky diplomacy. Underneath the pomp of Veretian fashion, he even looked the odd man out between his father and brother. Where King Aleron and Prince Auguste were both broad and strong, Laurent was lean. Where they were warm, Laurent was cool. Where they wore their hair long in the style of the Veretian monarchy, elegantly braided and decorated with ribbons and jewels, almost as elaborate as the hairstyles Damen had seen on the women, Laurent's hair was cut short, the most intricate decoration adorning it a perfectly tousled few strands tucked behind his ear.

Damen couldn't help but find that a tragic loss. He would have quite liked to tangle his fingers in Laurent's hair.

"You don't talk to your brother about these things?" Damen said, before he could lose himself in those thoughts.

Laurent dismissed the question with a brush of his hand. "He'll not hear a bad word spoken, about anything or anyone. He'd think me ungrateful."

He seemed so much smaller then, sat on top of the city, a prince in a strange land. Briefly Damen found himself wondering what might have happened had he and Laurent met in another life, away from all of this. Laurent would probably possess all of those same sharp edges, Damen suspected.

"Where's Prince Kastor?" Laurent said suddenly, his voice edged again, as if he'd realised Damen had witnessed a moment of vulnerability and was keen make him forget it. "He didn't see fit to join us?"

"Urgent business has called him away."

"You're not much of a liar, are you?"

Damen blinked. Swallowed. Coughed out a laugh when his mind faltered for a recovery, or some story that would shed more light on Kastor's whereabouts. But Laurent was already watching him with narrowed eyes, a knowing quirk to his lips that suggested he was well aware of the reason for Kastor's absence, and would see as easily through any further lie Damen tried to spin as he had the first.

"Well, what would you rather hear?" Damen said, after an internal moment of surrender. Laurent already knew of Damen's own reservations about Vere; what harm could it do telling him the truth? "That he thinks Vere is a land of treacherous serpents?"

Laurent grinned at that. Damen had never before witnessed a man relish being insulted the way Laurent seemed to. "He'd be right," he replied, simply.

Damen blinked again, and watched Laurent, gazing back out at the sea in apparent tranquillity, for a moment. Finally, the loudest thought swirling through Damen's mind found its way to his tongue. "You do things very differently in Vere," he said.

"Or perhaps you're just too naïve to notice what's really going on inside your father's court. Oh, come on," he added, when Damen could only stare back at him in confusion. "Your own king produced a bastard son with the mistress he's never made any attempt to hide, and you think the rest of Ios has nothing unseemly going on behind its closed doors? If you hope to be a strong leader one day, it would be wise to find out where the weaknesses in your court are."

"That's the stance your brother takes, is it?"

Laurent gave a small, private smile. Damen felt as if he was an intruder on something hallowed to be looking at it, as much as he was powerless to tear his gaze away. "My brother's like you," Laurent said. It sounded equal parts compliment and insult. "He thinks everyone is as good and noble as he is. Without me to watch his back, someone will plunge a knife into it."

"From the way you make it sound, I could probably do with keeping you around myself."

They stayed up there for some time after that, watching the waves and swapping stories of their lives at home. Many of Laurent's tales involved him being a menace to members of his father's court, which, from the sounds of it, they entirely deserved. He was surprisingly personable, away from the rest of the Veretian delegation. The Ice Prince was by no means thawed, but he was beginning to melt a little at the edges.

"You know what I think?" said Damen, after the realisation struck that he'd been sat studying Laurent in silence for too long, and before Laurent could notice the same.

Laurent eyed him again. Hopefully it would be too dark by now for him to see the warmth that had swept to Damen's cheeks, or his struggle to adopt an air of nonchalance.

"Enlighten me."

"I think this abrasive persona of yours was entirely of your own making."

"Why would I do that?" said Laurent. The expression on his face wasn't nearly as casual as he was no doubt striving for. That was confirmation enough, as far as Damen was concerned.

Damen shrugged. "To be difficult," he suggested. It was his first instinct, but then Laurent had already proved most of Damen's assumptions about him false.

Laurent's lip twitched ever so slightly, not quite a smile, but a sign that he wasn't offended — which, Damen suspected, was probably the best he could hope for. He'd learnt in terrifying detail tonight what Laurent could do to those who crossed him.

"Or perhaps just to keep the right people away."

"Then why come up here with me?" said Damen.

Laurent gave an elegant, if somewhat overdramatic, shrug, and, with a glint of humour in his eye when he looked back at Damen, he pushed himself off the ledge of the cupola and strolled back down the rooftop as if he'd been doing so all his life.

Yes, Damen thought to himself while he scrambled to follow, Laurent definitely did things just to be difficult.

"Admit it," said Damen, once he'd dropped back down from the rooftop and headed after Laurent along the balcony, "Akielos is a better place than you thought."

Laurent scoffed, stopping in his tracks and whirling back to face Damen. The conceit that had been missing for much of the last few hours was back, though now that Damen had seen what lay beneath it, the affectation wasn't quite as convincing.

"Why, because you showed me some pretty lights on the water?" As Laurent spoke his eyes flicked back to the view, lingering for a moment before returning to Damen's. They seemed to linger there, as well. "You're still a land of barbarians. Just because you managed to scrape together enough brains between you to build some huts and call it a nation—"

Damen kissed him.

He could feel the surprise in the way Laurent held himself — and he couldn't help the swell of pride that he'd even been able to catch Laurent off-guard — but Laurent made no attempt to push him back. Hopefully that meant Damen hadn't just made a terrible misjudgement. Laurent's lips were soft against his, and they opened to let the tip of Damen's tongue flicker inside; a tease, and a promise. Damen could taste the sour tang of Veretian grapes on Laurent's tongue. He should have guessed the only foods Laurent would have deigned to sample tonight were those of his homeland.

Damen pulled back. His body ached for him to continue the kiss, to deepen it, to wrap his arms around Laurent's waist and devour everything he had to offer, but he fought to ignore those urges. There'd be time for that later. He hoped.

"That was dangerous," Laurent said. There was a slight rise and fall to his chest, a hint of colour across his cheeks, which delighted Damen.

"I thought it was worth the risk."

Laurent raised an eyebrow, as if he found it curious that his carefully cultivated aloofness hadn't had its intended effect on Damen. "What made you think it would be?"

"I saw the way you looked at me," said Damen, unable to stop the grin spreading across his lips even if he'd have wanted to, "before you knew who I was."

"You didn't think finding out who you were would pour water on that flicker of interest?"

So Laurent had definitely been interested, then. It was nice to hear him admit it. And since he had yet to fling some merciless insult Damen's way and storm out, it seemed he was still interested. His gaze found its way to Damen's mouth before snapping back up to his eyes, but not quickly enough to escape Damen's notice.

"You've given me a great deal of leeway tonight for one who has no desire to get any closer."

Damen stepped back into Laurent's personal space, unsure if the scent of sweet flowers and citrus was from the gardens below or Laurent's cologne. Laurent didn't move away. He pursed his lips in a moment's consideration, before tilting his head up towards Damen; a silent command. It was one Damen was only too happy to follow.

He kissed Laurent again, and this time, he did push for more. Despite the very real possibility that Laurent would change his mind about this at any moment, Damen wound an arm around Laurent's back to hold him close, his free hand cupping Laurent's sharp cheek and sliding into his hair. It was as silky against Damen's fingers as it looked.

One kiss melted into another, and somewhere in between Damen's higher thought processes reawakened, the thought dawning in the back of his mind that this was a bad idea. Taking any of their Veretian guests to bed — and on the first night of the celebrations, no less, with a whole weekend left for anything to go wrong after passions had cooled — could have disastrous consequences, but King Aleron's youngest son? Damen was going to start another war before the peace treaty was even signed.

But with Laurent's tongue flicking teasingly against Damen's, hands fisted in Damen's shirt tight enough that the buttons threatened to burst off to freedom, his own qualms about Damen apparently laid to rest, those concerns slipped away like water through his fingers. Damen would gladly wage a war to keep kissing Laurent.

"This isn't what I'd expected from Akielon dating rituals," said Laurent, when they stopped again to catch their breaths. His lips glistened in the light spilling from the bedroom doors. Damen licked his own. "Are you sure you wouldn't rather court me for eighteen months before things progress any further?"

The notion of this progressing any further brought a sharp twinge of lust to Damen's gut. He'd hoped, before — he'd hoped the moment he'd laid eyes on Laurent — but now it seemed certain that there was only one place this thing between them was going to end up.

"I thought you'd be more comfortable with the Veretian method of 'fuck and run.'"

Laurent looked as if he quite liked the sound of that, but before they could so much as kiss again the sound of voices carried up from the western gardens below, mingling with the tittering birdsong and constant crash and ebb of waves against the cliffs. The party had spilled out from the ballroom. They'd have a fine view from the gardens; expertly cultivated and manicured all the way to the cliff edge, where they could gaze out across the gulf much like Damen and Laurent had done. They'd also have a fine view of Damen and Laurent now, wrapped in each other's arms on the balcony of Damen's bedroom, if any of them thought to look back towards the palace.

"Perhaps we should head inside," Damen breathed against Laurent's lips, and forced himself to take a step back. They were too close together still, but hopefully if anyone saw them they would think he and Laurent were stood with heads bowed in deep conversation. Or that they would see Damen nuzzled with a blond head and assume he'd spirited some other guest up to his rooms, anyone but the Prince of Vere.

"Afraid to be seen with a Veretian?" Laurent said. A teasing, elegant arch of his brow had Damen smiling.

"We're not as fond of rutting in public here in Akielos as I've heard you Veretians are."

Laurent gave a soft laugh, the sweetest sound Damen might have ever heard, and when Damen offered out a hand to him, Laurent took it. The moment they were back inside the bedroom, before Damen could even close the doors behind them, Laurent captured him in another fierce kiss.

He pushed himself up against Damen, bodies flush, his hands curled tight in Damen's hair keeping him from breaking their kiss — not that Damen had any desire to do so. Damen could feel Laurent's cock pressed hard against his own, and something tugged sharply deep below his navel at the sensation. He wanted to rub his palms along it; feel it on his tongue; pressed to the back of his throat. He wanted to make Laurent come.

His hands dropped to the round, firm swell of Laurent's backside, kneading him and pulling him closer. Sweat prickled to the surface of Damen's skin as he guided Laurent's hips in slow circles against his. He moaned into Laurent's mouth. The vice of Laurent's fingers tugged at Damen's hair, tight enough to spark a prickle of discomfort. Damen's own grip on Laurent was just as firm, just as desperate.

Finally Laurent broke their increasingly dizzying kiss to let a gasp break free, and, still clutched together in a hungry embrace, Damen swallowed down the air he'd forsaken in favour of Laurent's mouth.

"I heard you were frigid," he said.

Laurent froze. There was probably a more delicate way to frame that, Damen realised, too late. His brain had an unfortunate habit of packing up and taking off at times like this. And he suspected Laurent was the kind of man around whom Damen's mind needed to be switched on at all times.

"I'm not a virgin, if that's what you're asking."

"All right," Damen said. Before he could say anything else, Laurent was kissing him again, perhaps equally motivated to shut him up as he was to enjoy the feel of Damen's mouth on his, and this time as they kissed Damen steered them back towards the bed. They sank down, lips still joined, bodies writhing against each other again the moment Damen had settled between Laurent's thighs. It felt better like this. Not good enough that Damen didn't want more, though.

With some effort he pulled back, Laurent spread out like an offering beneath him. He was allowed only a moment to appreciate the image, before Laurent was propping himself up on one elbow and reaching forward to tug at Damen's shirt. His fingers slipped underneath it once he'd pulled it from Damen's trousers. They were cool against Damen's stomach. He felt a throb of pleasure at the touch before it was gone.

As much as he'd have liked to chase that sensation, to feel nothing but Laurent's hands on him, anywhere and everywhere, Damen let Laurent's hands fall back to his own chest. They had a more important purpose. Those long, slender fingers danced with the buttons of Laurent's jacket, and the instant they had unfastened the last of the (entirely too many) buttons, Damen reached down to push the jacket from Laurent's shoulders. Beneath it was a waistcoat, as extravagant as his mask had been and laced like a corset from waist to neck.

A snort of laughter found its way from Damen before he had the sense to stop it, and he shook his head. Veretians; they really were a different breed. His eyes flicked up to Laurent's face. "Did nobody tell you it would be hot in Akielos?" he said.

Laurent was unfazed. He folded his arms beneath his head and stared up at Damen, defiance in his bright eyes. "I know how barbarians react to a pretty face," he said. "I didn't want to make it easy for any of you."

"I imagine you regret that now."

Laurent's erection was still straining against the fabric of his trousers, eager to be let free, despite Laurent's apparent desire to hide himself under as many layers of clothing as possible. He'd be aching and desperate by the time Damen had stripped him to nothing.

Damen was quite looking forward to that.

"You're a smart man; I'm sure a few laces won't be too much of a challenge for you."

"I thought we were all barbarians," Damen said, and he leant down, over Laurent's taut body, to close his lips on the blade edge that was Laurent's jaw bone, almost as sharp as his tongue. Laurent's hips twitched, seeking out Damen's just above him. "Or is it just me that's exempt?"

"You know, the more you talk, the more I realise that my initial opinion of you was the correct one," said Laurent. "You're exactly like the rest."

"I'll take that as a compliment."

"Don't." There was humour on Laurent's face when Damen's gaze flicked back to him, though; a grudging kind, the kind that would have him rolling his eyes sooner than gracing Damen with another smile, but it was there. And he welcomed Damen's next kiss as eagerly as he'd welcomed all the others.

Damen let his hips roll with Laurent's again, brief enough to tease, and then he was back on his knees to get a better look at Laurent's waistcoat. From what he could tell, he needed to start at Laurent's neck and work his way down. Even that he wasn't sure of, though. Veretian clothing seemed as duplicitous as its people. But the silken ribbons came apart between his fingers, and after fumbling minutes he'd uncovered an inch of skin. The sight of it was worth the effort. With each tight knot he forced open, Damen's zeal grew, as did the throb of heat between his legs at the thought of having Laurent naked and spread out beneath him, and before long — though far longer than Damen would have liked — he was pushing Laurent's waistcoat over his narrow shoulders and tossing it aside. Laurent's shirt soon followed, and Damen sat back on his heels to admire the view.

Laurent looked like he'd been crafted from moonlight, his skin as light as ivory and blemishless unlike anyone Damen had ever seen. Damen should have taken Laurent on a walk through the night gardens, with their delicate sprays of jasmine and moonflower. He imagined Laurent would look right at home there.

He seemed even paler when Damen placed his own dark hands on that warm, surprisingly toned stomach. Laurent was more muscled than Damen would have ever expected of a pampered prince of Vere: slim but strong, and firm beneath his fingertips. Damen's palms slid downwards, slow, savouring every inch of smooth skin they traversed, but as he hooked his fingers under the waistband of Laurent's trousers and was about to pull, Laurent caught his wrists.

"You need to catch up," was all he said. He made no move to undress Damen himself, though. Whether that was because he'd never lower himself to do so or because he simply preferred to watch, Damen couldn't tell.

Damen wasn't half as careful with his own shirt and tie as he had been with Laurent's. He tugged them open blindly, his focus on Laurent's face as Laurent watched him with parted lips. There was something in Laurent's eyes, something he was struggling to repress; a flicker of what looked like hunger sparked and dissipated and grew again, and Laurent's breathing rose and tumbled. It was the farthest thing from his rigid self-control that Damen had seen so far.

But he still had farther to go.

In spite of his own need, his own growing impatience that ached and whined within him, Damen slowed. He climbed from between Laurent's legs, hands resting on his belt buckle. Laurent's eyes followed. They roved down Damen's bare chest to rest where his hands lay, waiting for them to reveal more.

Damen unfastened his belt, and worked open his trousers. He stepped out of them, leaving them abandoned on the floor where the rest of his and Laurent's clothes had been tossed. His arousal was stark now, pressing insistently against the fabric of his underwear, and Laurent made a small noise in response. His gaze was fixed on it.

As if remembering himself then, Laurent swallowed and looked away, pink embarrassment creeping to his cheeks. Damen smiled. Laurent had to be the only man in all of Vere who'd blush under this circumstance.

Damen waited, and after only a few seconds had passed Laurent braved another glance at him. He pushed his shorts down.

The desire returned to Laurent's eyes, and this time he wasn't quick to hide it. His legs parted, so subtly it seemed an unconscious response, and the pink tip of his tongue slipped out to wet his lips while Damen climbed back onto the bed. When Damen placed his hands on the waistband of Laurent's trousers again, Laurent didn't keep him from pulling them off.

Damen paused for a moment to take him in, desire sparking hot and ready at the sight of Laurent fully exposed. He wondered how many people had seen him like this — not many, he'd guess, from Laurent's virginal reaction to both Damen's body and the fact of his own arousal. It felt an almost sacred thing to be granted access to. Damen was going to take the Ice Prince of Vere to bed, was going to make him moan and keen and lose control unlike anybody ever had before. His cock throbbed in anticipation.

He dragged his thumb down the light trail of hair teasing the way from Laurent's navel, fair enough to only make itself known up close. And Damen was close indeed. But not as close as he'd like to be.

"Get on with it," said Laurent, aiming for coldly commanding and falling short, "before I change my mind."

Damen smiled again, and pressed a kiss more chaste than he'd have thought himself capable of to the sharp jut of Laurent's hipbone as he moved into place between Laurent's bare legs. "Do you really think my head looks too small for my body?" he said, rather than obey Laurent's instruction.

His hand caressed the inside of one velvet-soft thigh, force of will the only thing keeping him from sliding upwards a little farther and feeling Laurent's erection beneath his fingertips. That will threatened to crumble when Laurent shifted again, placing his untouched cock squarely in Damen's view as if Laurent was offering it up to him, to do with as he chose. Damen forced his gaze away, back up to Laurent's face.

Laurent paused and looked down at him. He pursed his lips for a moment. "Yes," he said, finally.

"Now who's the bad liar?"

"You know, I think this would be much more pleasurable for me if you didn't speak."

"Likewise," replied Damen. He had to admit, though, he was quite enjoying it. He wasn't sure he'd met anyone who spoke to him the way Laurent did. Even Nikandros, who was always quick to make his exasperation at Damen known, did it with at least some deference for Damen's position. Laurent was under no such restriction. Damen suspected Laurent would not be any more respectful if he was.

Laurent gave a tiny sigh when Damen's lips brushed his skin again; his stomach this time, his ribs, his chest. He tensed and fluttered and surrendered under Damen's attentions, his hands finding their way into Damen's hair and steering him upwards to meet Laurent's mouth. It was a deep kiss, a dizzying kiss. Damen never wanted to come up for air.

Their hips pressed together as they pulled each other closer, erections trapped between the heat of their bodies. Damen could have stayed like that for hours, curling together, acquainting himself with every spark, every bow, every flex of Laurent's body, but already there was impatience to Laurent's twisting beneath him. Evidently, he wasn't the type to draw this out.

Without even breaking their kiss, Damen reached into the small box atop his nightstand and withdrew one of the bottles inside. Wet fingers slipped back down between them and found Laurent. He arched beneath Damen when they pressed into him. Damen worked quickly, responding to the cues from Laurent's body, savouring the heat and pressure around his fingers. His own body sparked again with its craving, his arousal more insistent than ever now he could imagine so clearly how good this would feel, and with some reluctance to part himself from Laurent's receptive body, Damen settled back on his knees.

He could still hear the sounds of the celebration outside, but it was a distant thing, struggling to compete with his and Laurent's heavy breathing, the blood pumping in Damen's ears. His world was this room, this bed, and he didn't want to think of anything but Laurent beneath him until both of them had had their fill.

"Are you afraid you'll catch something or spread something?" Laurent said as he watched Damen slide on a condom.

"Well, you are a Veretian," said Damen, and grinned, leaning in to kiss away any rebuttal Laurent might have made. He was sure he'd pay for the remark at some point. Part of him was looking forward to it.

Laurent draped his arms across Damen's shoulders and spread his legs to allow Damen to move into position between them, even closer this time, and Damen pushed into him.

For Laurent's claim to not be a virgin, he certainly felt like one. Damen gasped as he sank deeper, slowly, feeling the tight embrace of muscle claim him. He was bigger than most, he knew — too big for some — but despite Laurent's apparent lack of experience he showed no signs of discomfort. His long, fair lashes dusted the tops of his cheeks, and his lips parted in a breathy sigh as Damen settled into place.

"You don't do this often?" said Damen. It needn't have been a question.

Laurent forced his eyes open to meet Damen's. He didn't answer, which was an answer in itself. "And you do this all the time, I suppose," he said instead. There was a hint of accusation in his tone, as if he feared he was just another in a long line of dignitaries Damen had taken to bed to curry favour for Akielos. And perhaps he'd be right, in part, but not about Damen's intentions when inviting someone to his rooms. And not that Laurent was just like all the others.

"Not with another prince." Not with a person he was supposed to hate, either. Not with anyone quite like Laurent.

Damen kissed him again, deep and deliberate. He began to move.

"Slower," said Laurent after a moment, and Damen's hips stalled to a gentle rocking.

Damen hadn't thought Laurent would want it like this. He hadn't thought Veretians were even aware sex could be something tender. But from the way Laurent's eyes slipped closed, the lightest of frowns furrowing his brow as if he was trying to hold some part of himself back — and failing, his chest rising and falling with ragged breaths — Damen had to be doing something Laurent liked. His fingers clutched at Damen's arms, legs curling around his waist as he pushed his hips up to meet Damen's movements.

"Is this better?"

"Yes," Laurent said, his voice strained with the effort of retaining his composure. His body was betraying him, though. His muscles clenched with every roll of Damen's hips, almost as if it was trying to hold Damen inside. The tight drag against Damen's cock was extraordinary.

But for as good as it felt, neither of them could hold that pace for long. Each thrust gained intensity, Damen's heart thundering in his chest and moans falling unchecked from his lips, until he and Laurent both were acting more on instinct than anything. Necessity would have demanded it even if Damen had any power over his body by this point; those slow movements, savouring the warm embrace of Laurent's body around him, would have brought Damen to his end far quicker than he'd have liked. If this was the only time he'd experience Laurent like this, he was going to make it last.

He straightened to rest on his knees, a merciful pause to try and regain his breath. Laurent's body was flushed beneath him, his hair in messy, sweat-dampened tendrils, chest rising and falling as rapidly as Damen's own. His firm thighs were draped over Damen's, and Damen brushed his hands along them, inching closer to the point their bodies met, and beyond. One hand curled around Laurent's hipbone, holding him in place as Damen picked up the pace of his thrusts again, and the other slipped to Laurent's cock, hot and hard and wet in Damen's palm.

Laurent groaned at the touch. Damen didn't ever want to hear another sound but that.

His hand curled into a fist, jerking Laurent faster as his hips snapped forward, sinking deeper into him from this new angle, and Laurent met his every thrust with a dancer's effortless grace. Damen's blood was fire coursing through his veins, his heart a drumbeat. He'd lost sense of the volume of his moans, lost the ability to care if anybody overheard the two of them.

Every movement of Damen's possessed hips had Laurent lifting off the mattress, his thighs tensing at Damen's sides and fingers clawing at his skin like he never wanted to let Damen go, until with a suddenness that caught Damen by surprise, Laurent let out a rush of laughter. It was a beautiful sound, though not one Damen would have wanted to hear at a time like this.

Damen came to an abrupt stop. His body ached for him to move again, but he fought the urge. "What is it?"

"My father implored me to ingratiate myself with the Akielons this weekend."

A laugh of his own burst up from Damen's chest. "I'd say you've managed."

"Good," Laurent said, and he rolled them over in a display of strength Damen wouldn't have expected from him. He pushed Damen back onto the bed with a firm shove, his hips moving unfalteringly all the while. Damen's hands curled over Laurent's on his chest, grounding himself, or perhaps just seeking some reassurance that Laurent was really there, writhing above him like something from Damen's most explicit dreams.

"You're most certainly not frigid," Damen gasped out, and Laurent grinned a crooked, breathless, perfect smile.

"I consider myself highly selective," Laurent replied. His voice had a rough edge that cut Damen to his core. "You should feel honoured."

"I do." He slid his hands up Laurent's arms, grabbing him at the biceps and pulling him down. Stomachs flush, Laurent's cock leaving a trail of moisture where it pressed against Damen's belly, they kissed again.

Laurent reached up and gripped the carved headboard with iron fingers, the tension in his grasp turning the length of his arm rigid, and he took control once again, grinding and circling his hips with military precision. If this was how Veretians fucked, Damen should have taken one to bed sooner. Laurent's eyes were on him as he moved faster, unblinking, twin rings of bright blue in the desaturated evening light melting through the windows.

Damen didn't break his gaze. He stared up at Laurent, hands on his hips to help keep him steady as their pace grew increasingly, blissfully frenetic, diving into the sea of Laurent's eyes and letting them drown him.

He arched, and with a cry Damen dissolved, mind and body coming apart piece by piece. The gasp of air he sucked in afterwards felt too real, as if its tearing through his throat and lungs was wrenching him back to earth, away from the blissful sensation flooding his every muscle. He felt Laurent's hand on him then. They rubbed cautious but soothing strokes up Damen's flanks, and the idea of cracking open his eyes and returning to himself was no longer such an unpleasant one.

Laurent was still moving above him, riding the last traces of life out of Damen's cock, his own flushed and weeping where it stood stiff between them. He no longer looked like he was holding himself back, but there was still something hesitant to him, as if he was embarrassed by the rigour of his movements but not enough to do anything about it.

Damen reached out and took him in hand again. He certainly had no objections to Laurent's enthusiasm.

He moved in time with Laurent, coaxing him on, each sweet sound of ecstasy fighting through Laurent's lips echoed on Damen's own, until Laurent seized, and with one last whimper of resistance he coated Damen's hand and stomach with his release.

The sight of him above Damen, head dipped, chest heaving, lips and cheeks a deep, sinful shade of pink, was one that would be staying with Damen forever.

"I don't cuddle," said Laurent, the moment his back hit the mattress beside Damen. His tone was a blade edge once again, but not quite as sharp as before, dulled by pleasure.

Damen laughed. "I wouldn't dare."

He looked over at Laurent, still glowing from his orgasm and staring back at Damen like he was about to say something. In silence Damen waited, but the words never came. Instead Laurent rolled over and climbed off the bed.

"Well," he said, businesslike, crouching to collect his discarded clothes and slip back into them, "that was..." He cleared his throat and looked determinedly at the buttons of his shirt.

Damen smiled and leant back, folding his arms under his head and watching the moonlight reflected on the sea dance across his ceiling. "Yes it was." He looked up when he realised Laurent was heading for the door. "You're leaving?"

Laurent glanced back at him. "You were right, I do prefer to fuck and run."

"You could stay a while," he said. He wasn't entirely sure if by 'a while' he meant an hour or a month. Damen wouldn't mind the latter. He had a feeling he'd still be grappling with the eccentricities of Laurent's personality by the end of it, but even that thought gave him a mild thrill. He'd always had a fondness for puzzles.

"Why would I want to?"

"Well, for one, I'm not sure I'd want the other guests catching me looking like that," he said.

Laurent followed Damen's pointed finger to the mirror and his reflection within it. His hair was ruined, a sheen of sweat clinging to his flushed cheeks, lips still swollen and reddened. Anyone spotting him slipping from the royal quarters would know exactly what had transpired this evening.

"You might want to wait until the party has died down a little before you make your escape."

Laurent pursed his lips, but he let the blazer and waistcoat clutched in his hand tumble to the ground. There was a tiny smile playing at the corner of his mouth when he looked back at Damen. For all his endless bluster, he didn't seem put out in the slightest to stay a little longer. "And I'm sure you have a wealth of ideas as to how we could while away the time?"

Damen grinned. "Just one, actually."

***

The rest of the weekend passed smoothly enough; a few moments of tension here and there, largely thanks to Makedon and his inability to keep his contempt for Vere under wraps, but once Damen and Nikandros had taken it upon themselves to keep him as far from the Veretians as possible at all times, the sense that the celebrations could descend into chaos at any moment disappeared. Damen and Laurent's fathers signed the peace treaty, to much fanfare, and the awkwardness Damen had feared would linger in the wake of his and Laurent's connection was thankfully absent. Laurent was good enough at feigning apathy towards Damen that Damen wasn't entirely certain that he had been pretending.

But maybe it would be better that way. Better to have had one night that would live on in fond memory than jeopardise a tentative political relationship by attempting to pursue a man who held no real interest in him.

Still, Damen couldn't help but feel a slight pang in his chest at the thought of Laurent. They never had made it to Isthima.

This morning, three days after the Veretian delegation had returned to Arles, Damen was sat in his father's drawing room, the morning's papers spread out on the table between him and Theomedes as they ate breakfast in comfortable silence, Damen trying resolutely to keep his eyes away from the images of Laurent staring up at him from the front pages. A knock at the door, and at his father's behest Hektor inched inside the room, not brave enough to take more than one step into the King's chamber.

"Exalted," he said with a bow of his head to each of them. "A package has arrived for Prince Damianos, from the palace at Arles. Shall we take it for inspection?"

"No," said Damen, at the same moment his father said, "Yes."

He shot Damen a stern look. "Damianos," he said.

Damen knew palace protocols. Even if he didn't, he had sense enough to realise the dangers of an unexpected package intended for the heir to the throne.

Not this time.

"Vere is our friend, isn't it?" Damen replied, with an air of nonchalance that belied the intrigued quickening of his heartbeat, gesturing Hektor over and pointedly ignoring the twin sets of disapproving expressions aimed at him.

There was no note attached to the package, save the dancing, curlicued scroll of Damen's full title. Yes, it was definitely from Arles. Damen unlaced the gilded string binding the box — and even their yarn was ostentatious — and pulled off the lid. He froze when he realised what was inside.

"What is it?" his father said, and from the corner of his eye Damen could see him straining to peer over the lid of the box. A sudden wish to have waited until he was alone to open the gift consumed what small area of his mind hadn't short-circuited. He could feel the heat rising to his cheeks, an echo of the fires that had swelled inside him at his last close encounter with Vere.

Inside the silks lining the box (obviously not from Vere, given their quality; an import from Kempt by the look of it, and a fine one too, fine enough to rival even the silks adorning Theomedes' walls) was nestled a mask. A mask of rich sapphire, jewels scattered about its edges, and stitched with tiny starbursts that would glint warm gold when the light caught them at the right angle. It was not the memento of the weekend that Damen would have expected to receive.

Damen smiled, and closed the lid of the box before prying eyes could spot its treasure. "You know," he said, gazing back up at his father still watching him with a mix of curiosity and concern, "I think this alliance may work out after all."