In the spring, breakfast was usually served on the terrace. But this season the weather had been unusually cold, and the servants laid out the breakfast spread in the family solar, instead. Auguste was idly inspecting the dishes on the sideboard when Laurent entered.
His brother was impeccably yet severely attired as usual. Laurent rarely wore jewelry – claimed when pressed that decorations of the body obscured qualities of character – and he tended toward dark colors. There had been a lavish party at the manor the night before, with music, wine, and dancing well into the evening. When Auguste had retired early with excuses about being a new father and wanting to see his little one, Laurent had remained at the party with a goblet in his hand. But there was nothing about Laurent’s appearance in the morning to suggest the type of revelry-filled lifestyle a young unmarried man of his age would easily be forgiven. Auguste sometimes worried that Laurent was too serious.
“Good morning, Brother,” said Auguste.
Laurent joined him in inspecting the sideboard, giving particular attention to the eggs. Laurent had an ongoing feud with the cook about herbs in the eggs. The head cook Niese was near ninety, blind, and had had full reign of the kitchens since before their father Aleron had been born, and she did not broke dissent about her culinary choices. Auguste thought that she and Laurent were fairly evenly matched.
“Are you ready for your trip to Akielos?” said Auguste, seating himself at the table and allowing one of the servants to place a napkin on his lap. Laurent sat across from him.
“Yes,” said Laurent. “I wish to ask you something before I depart.”
Auguste had a mouthful of food, but he raised his fork in a gesture for Laurent to continue.
"I would like your permission to marry," said Laurent.
Auguste swallowed his food quickly and wiped his face with the napkin. "To marry? What? Who are you going to marry?"
Laurent stared at the platter of fruit on the table and did not make eye contact. "Will you grant your permission?"
"Are you sure you know what you're doing?" said Auguste. He considered his brother across the table and steepled his hands in contemplation. "He was only here for a few weeks. You don’t know each other very well.” The reasons stacked on top of each other for Auguste like stones piled into a wall. “Akielos is so very far away, and so different. And he's the heir, so you'd have to live there."
Laurent said, “If it is too terrible when I visit, then I will pretend we never had this conversation.”
"I worry about you," said Auguste. He did think that marriage might mellow Laurent a bit, but he had pictured a match where his brother could still live in Arles and help Auguste raise his daughter. “There are reasons that it’s traditional to have a relative negotiate your marriage,” said Auguste. “It is hard to be objective about your own best interests when you are so emotionally invested.”
Laurent said, “You know I am not ruled by my emotions.” Auguste watched his brother stir two precisely level spoonfuls of sugar into his beverage. Laurent was not ruled by his emotions, generally; Auguste worried that he lived too much in his head. Auguste did not always recognize in the young man the boy who had followed him around in their youth.
"Do you withhold your permission?" said Laurent, sipping his beverage.
“I thought you might marry a Veretian,” said Auguste. He had, in fact, enlisted Amelie in introducing Laurent to suitable young ladies with just that end in mind.
If Laurent had romances, he managed to keep them entirely secret. Auguste had thought that Laurent was deliberately hiding someone – a woman, perhaps, or a lover who would be frowned upon by the court – but then Laurent’s somewhat obvious infatuation with the Akielon prince when he visited two years prior had made Auguste question whether Laurent was as good at artfully obscuring his feelings as Auguste had supposed.
“Brother,” said Laurent. “You have not answered.”
Auguste sighed. It was impossible to fight with his younger brother. "Of course I'll grant permission. I only want for you to be happy."
"Good," said Laurent. He signaled one of the servants to refill his beverage.
"I suppose it is very timely to tell you that there was a private note for you amidst the official letters from Akielos," said Auguste. He sorted through the papers he had set off on one of the empty chairs and found the small sealed note for Laurent. He passed it across the table. One of the servants handed Laurent a letter opener, and he slit the seal, leaving remnants of green wax on either side of the paper.
Having determined that his brother was eternally a mystery, Auguste had turned his attention to the food and almost missed Laurent’s noise of surprise.
Auguste looked up upon hearing it, if only because it was so unusual to hear Laurent make any sort of exclamation. Laurent was not surprised, as a general principle, and if something was so unusual as to startle him, he was too composed to show it through a noise.
“What?” said Auguste.
Laurent’s eyes were fixed on the note, and his expression was one that Auguste couldn’t recognize.
“Are you blushing?” said Auguste.
Laurent finished reading the note and promptly threw it in the fire.
Auguste’s surprise was probably more evident on his face than his brother’s. “What did it say?” said Auguste.
“It was private,” said Laurent.
“Did he insult you?” said Auguste. “Is there someone else?”
Laurent shook his head resolutely and began eating without even complaining about the herbs Niese had included in the eggs.
“Are you still going to Akielos?” said Auguste.
“Of course,” said Laurent.
“Of course?” said Auguste. “But what did the note say to make you look so stricken?”
Amelie swept in to the room. She held baby Joie wrapped a blue blanket. Joie stretched out her arms to her father with a noise of pleading, and Auguste found himself distracted by his daughter from the mystery of his brother.
Ios was charming, in a quaint sort of way. It had an aura of strength that emanated from the rough-hewn rock walls and the white cliffs looking out over the sea. The water was rough, and the sound of the waves pounding against the cliffs provided a constant accompaniment.
Laurent had been welcomed by the king himself riding out to greet them. Damen clasped Laurent’s hand warmly as he said the traditional words of greeting, calling Laurent his cousin in the way of royalty greeting royalty.
In the evening, they sat in the main hall. The meal was a celebration of Laurent’s arrival, with elaborate food served on small plates, dancers dressed in delicate silks, and a musician playing what appeared to be a small, oblong-shaped harp.
Laurent had read over the Veretian ambassador’s accounts of visits to Ios going back to the days of Agathon, and in earlier times visits often began with lengthy introductions to the king’s extended family. However, the current king had only one bastard half-brother who resided with his wife in the northern territories. There were no members of the court who approached royal status. Laurent was introduced, rather, to the king’s companions, military men who were older than the king himself, generals in their middle age who in their youth had distinguished themselves in war against Vere. Laurent could feel them size him up, take in his stature and build and dismiss him as an effete, and he contemplated whether it was worth relieving them of this misconception.
After the meal and the entertainments, Laurent asked one of the decorated dancers where he might be able to enjoy a breath of air, and found himself led to what the dancer told him was the queen’s private garden.
“The queen?” said Laurent.
The dancer recited a phrase that Laurent could not quite make out, but that had the sound of a song or a prayer, something repeated ritually.
“Pardon?” said Laurent.
“It is a prayer that the queen might rest peacefully,” said the dancer.
“King Damianos’s mother?” Laurent said.
“Yes,” said the dancer.
Laurent nodded solemnly, and thanked and dismissed the dancer as he stepped in to the garden.
The garden was small by Veretian standards, and entirely enclosed by the walls of the Akielon keep, a yard perhaps a quarter of the size of the main hall where the meal had been served. There was a pebbled walkway around the exterior of the garden, and benches set in to the wall of the keep and the garden so visitors could walk and sit in alternation. It was a garden in the old way of the word, filled not with flowers for decoration but with plants that Niese would use to over-flavor Laurent’s food. Laurent wandered past carefully separated plots of lavender, thyme, basil, and mint before encountering a plant he did not recognize and bending to break off a leaf and sniff it delicately.
He had not come out to the garden to meet Damen, but he was not surprised or disappointed when the king showed up to find him.
“Cousin,” said Damen, extending his hand in welcome the way he had when they had first met, though he did not stop there, and tugged on Laurent’s arm to pull him into a quick embrace. “I am glad that you came to visit.” Damen reached a finger out to stroke along the beard Laurent had been growing, the hair filled in unevenly across his cheeks and chin. “And you followed my instructions,” said Damen warmly.
The beard was at least good for obscuring the pink that flushed his cheeks, though Laurent thought that Damen might even be able to feel the warmth filling his face with his hand.
“I’ve started a new fashion amongst Veretian nobility,” said Laurent.
Damen smiled. “Of scruffiness?”
“I could have told you I’m not suited to facial hair,” said Laurent.
Damen cupped Laurent’s face in his hand, and laughed, warmly, and then slid his hand to the back of Laurent’s neck and bent to rub their faces against each other, as though he wanted to feel the brush of the short hair against his own cheek. “But you did it anyway, I’m so pleased.”
“Were you trying to accustom me to the barbarism of Akielos even before I arrived? I thought perhaps you lack sufficiently sharp knives…”
Damen laughed again. “I wanted to see if you’d do it.”
“It’s not that you require a pelt to be in the mood,” said Laurent.
“Come to my bedroom and let’s see,” said Damen, pulling gently at Laurent’s hand to guide him back toward the castle.
Damen’s chambers had a small antechamber and an airy welcome room with seating and an open balcony off to the south. Laurent could feel the breeze coming in from the balcony; the curtains drifted in to the room and then back toward the glass doors with the movement of the air.
Laurent was tempted to go and look out over the balcony, but Damen still had hold of his hand, and pulled him in the opposite direction through an arched doorway to the bedroom.
There was a woman in the bedroom without a chaperone. She was folding a blanket and laying it on the foot of the bed. She turned when they came in to the room, and lowered her head gracefully at Damen.
Laurent turned to look at Damen. Damen was looking at him with a contemplative expression.
“Would you be saddened to say farewell to this?” said Damen, rubbing a hand along Laurent’s cheek again to indicate the beard. Laurent shook his head, and Damen turned to the woman. Damen spoke to Laurent in Veretian, but he spoke to the woman in Akielon. He spoke quickly and quietly. Laurent had studied Akielon, and he could make out that Damen was requesting something, and a reference to what he thought was soap.
The woman nodded, and bowed again as she left the room.
Laurent took in the room. There was a bed in the center, laid with carefully folded blankets. There was a mirror and a dressing table off to the side, and a settee with plush pillows. Laurent’s inspection of the room and the furnishings was interrupted by Damen, who took hold of his face again with both hands, and then lowered his face to Laurent’s so their lips met.
They had kissed before, when Damen had visited Vere almost two years prior. Damen kissed him prudently, as though kissing Laurent were the only thing he wished, and his kiss did not reveal the other things that Laurent already knew Damen was capable of with his body. Laurent found his own hands settling on Damen’s waist amongst folds in Damen’s tunic, feeling the fabric in his hands over the warmth of Damen’s skin. Damen made a warm noise and stepped slightly closer to Laurent. Laurent could feel Damen’s breath on Laurent’s face. Their lips met again until Laurent was distracted by a noise in the room with them.
The woman had returned with a basket hanging over her arm and a basin full of water. She set the basin on the dressing table and the basket next to it, removing a towel form the basket to lay it carefully out on the table, and then arranging implements on the towel. A shaving brush, a razor, a small bowl of shaving powder. She took another towel out of the basket and then took the basket back over her arm. “Do you require assistance, sire?”
Damen looked over what she had set over the table, and shook his head. “No, thank you, Lykaios. Good night.”
Damen looked at Laurent with an expression that suggested Laurent was a puzzle to be solved. “Come here to sit on the bench,” said Damen, and when Laurent came over to straddle the bench facing Damen, Damen made a pleased noise at the height of Laurent’s face in relation to the table. Damen inspected the blade of the razor for nicks and found it to his satisfaction, and then turned to inspect Laurent’s face with the same intent focus.
“Perhaps we should call back Lykaios,” said Damen. “She has more experience shaving men than I do.”
“You are shaved by a woman?” said Laurent.
“Is that not how it is done in Vere?” said Damen.
“It would prompt accusations of impropriety,” said Laurent. “Not so in Akielos?”
“Given that she wears my pin, it would seem very odd to object to her tending my face.”
Damen wrapped a hot wet towel across Laurent’s face, which interrupted any sort of reply Laurent might have given. Damen turned back to the dressing table and spread shaving powder on to the brush.
He removed the hot towel and spread the powder across Laurent’s face, beginning under Laurent’s left ear and following to the right side. He concluded by leaving a dot on Laurent’s nose, so Laurent frowned at him, and Damen smiled.
The room was quiet as Damen tilted Laurent’s head to the left. His hands adjusted Laurent’s face in a proprietary fashion, as though Laurent were another of his things to be touched, like the razor or the fork he had used at dinner. Laurent watched the razor approach his face until he became cross-eyed, and then he watched Damen’s face as he worked. Damen’s left eye had a spot of gold on the inside of the iris. Laurent could hear the small splash of the razor in the bowl of water as Damen rinsed it. He was an arm’s length distance away from Damen and yet somehow felt as though he were closer than when they had been kissing.
Damen completed his work, wiped Laurent’s face clean, including the white dot left on the tip of his nose, returned to press Laurent’s face with a towel soaked in spiced water, and then used his palm to rub against the newly bare skin. Laurent felt sensitized, that now he could feel the texture of Damen’s sword calluses with the revealed skin of his face. Damen seemed determined to use his fingertips to ensure that he had not left any spots untended.
“You look now as I remembered,” said Damen.
Laurent thought his voice might emerge strangled, but it sounded clear when he spoke. “I am not scarred on my face by incautious shaving by a barbarian?”
Damen raised one corner of his mouth. “No, you are flawless.” He handed Laurent a small mirror from the dressing table so Laurent could inspect himself, but Laurent set the mirror down without looking at it.
“I believe,” said Laurent, “that you told me you kept ferocious animals in your bedroom.”
Damen hooked a finger in one of the laces of Laurent’s tunic up at his shoulder. Laurent could feel the fabric pull tighter along his arm as the sleeve constricted from the pressure of the laces. Laurent felt as though his chest were tightening along with the pressure of the fabric on his arm. “Ah, yes,” said Damen. “I must confess that was a lie.”
“And I traveled all of this distance to see a narwhal,” said Laurent. Damen had left the left sleeve of Laurent’s tunic pulled tight and turned his attention to unlacing the right side.
“Tell me of your feelings,” said Damen.
“I feel you have lured me here under false pretenses of seeing a ferocious fish,” said Laurent.
Damen said, “Do you think you could forgive me, Cousin? I am fond of you and wished so much for you to visit. Can you find any fondness for me in return?”
“I let you near my neck with a blade, didn’t I?” said Laurent.
Damen’s dropped his finger to the wrist of Damen’s sleeve and pulled open the tie. “Your clothing – is it also to preserve propriety?”
“I –" said Laurent, but Damen did not actually seem interested in Laurent’s reply, since he silenced it with his lips and pulled Laurent over to the bed.
Damen undressed him slowly, as though each layer of clothing were a separate course of an elaborate meal and he refused to be rushed to the dessert. When they were both naked, Damen covered Laurent’s body with his own on the bed. Laurent relaxed, slightly. Damen again kissed him with the same feeling of prudence, as though they might kiss forever and the touch of their skin on the rest of their bodies was not an inherent promise of more.
“I do not need to be lured with sweetness,” said Laurent, as Damen had turned the attention of his lips to the curve of Laurent’s ear.
“I like sweetness.” Damen kissed Laurent again, as though he refused to be rushed. “I like you,” said Damen. “I like that you came to Akielos. I like you here, in my bed.”
“I am not sweet,” said Laurent, and Damen captured his lips again with a noise of disagreement, and Damen supported himself with one arm and used the other hand to stroke both of them together to climax.
Laurent did not know what was to happen, after. Damen played manservant and fetched a towel from the basket that had been left by the woman earlier, and after a cursory cleaning of each of their bodies, fell asleep without any further instruction and with an arm slung across Laurent’s torso. Laurent considered leaving and finding a servant who could direct him to whatever rooms he had been allotted as a guest. Presumably that was where his trunks had been taken. He assumed, at least, that he had been allotted separate rooms as a guest. He supposed he could ask the servant after his things, rather, and then if the trunks were elsewhere, he could go to them without that seeming odd, and if there was no other place for him, he could have the trunks brought to him here. It was not strange to want to have access to the things that he had brought with him, or to know where his own manservant and guards were.
The candle sputtered out as it burned down to the base, and the room was lit only by the moonlight filtering in through the curtain.
He eased his way out of the bed and collected his clothing, dressing quickly. He found the woman in the antechamber, sleeping on a pallet, but she awoke upon hearing his footsteps, and her movement was dance-like, from the surprised way she arose from the pallet to the way she collapsed back into obeisance upon recognizing him.
“I am seeking—" Laurent was uncertain that was the right word for a thing and not a person, but his grasp of Akielon was not as good as Damen’s Veretian –“my baggage, can you show me where it is?”
“Of course, your grace,” the woman agreed, and she stood up and took a candle out of an alcove in the wall and lit the taper from the fire before opening the door and gesturing for Laurent to follow her in to the hallway.
She led him through the hall. Laurent could see that her nightdress was closed with a golden pin. Damen might have gestured to the pin on her person; Laurent was not so bold, and indicated the place it laid on her on his own chest, and nodded at it. “That is very good,” he said. “Does it have a purpose?”
“My pin? It is beautiful,” she corrected him.
“Beautiful, yes,” said Laurent, sounding out the word. “Is it a gift?”
“It marks those who serve the royal house,” she said, sounding as though this were the type of knowledge most people acquired in childhood. “Only those most distinguished in training receive can serve royalty. A pin shows whether you serve the king, or the former king, or the king’s brother.” She paused for a moment. “There are two slaves still in service who served the former queen, also.”
“I see,” said Laurent. “Do you train extensively, then?”
Her eyebrows rose. “Our whole lives.” She halted in front of a wooden door. “These are the quarters your grace has been assigned. There are two rooms. Your men will be to the left, your things to the right.”
“Thank you,” said Laurent. She nodded, the gesture somehow wordlessly implying that it was nothing. She handed the candle to Laurent, and left sure-footedly down the hall in the dark. Laurent watched her walk down the hall and suddenly realized she was probably returning to Damen’s chambers. He wondered if she would stay in the antechamber or enter the vacated bedroom and curl into the spot that Laurent had recently left behind.
Laurent decided the next morning to explore the market and the village. He took Orlant with him. Orlant was of the opinion that it would be more practical to tell their hosts where they were headed, and he had served Laurent long enough that he protested even after Laurent shook his head. So Laurent took him under duress. It was easy enough to find their way out of the keep by following the corridors to the courtyard and then following a woman with a pail out a side door. She turned off to the right to what must have been a well, but the keep was set above the city, so Laurent and Orland headed down the steps through the town.
It was bright, even in the morning sun, and women washed in their small yards without sleeves and with cloth wrapped around their heads. Laurent nodded at one of the head coverings and spoke to Orlant. “Do you think that would work for me as a disguise,” he said.
Orlant eyed the woman and then looked back at Laurent, and just shook his head as they continued through the street. They could start to hear the noise of the market. The market square was perhaps three times the size of the courtyard at Arles, and filled with seemingly as many people as there were brick pavings. The wooden stalls were set up with narrow aisles between them for the shoppers to pick their way through carefully with their baskets, occasionally all of the people pressing up against each other and the precarious stall walls when a cart or an animal pushed through.
Many of the stalls sold food. Laurent walked past many stalls offering fresh and dried fruit, green vegetables and tubers, ropes of onions and garlic suspended from a pole, open boxes and sacks of numerous varieties of grain, amphorae of oil or wine or olives. Other stalls sold prepared food, bread and pastries wrapped in paper, meats prepared and served on small wooden skewers. Others of the stalls sold goods – basic items one might need from a blacksmith, glasswork and beads, inks and paper and leather-bound journals.
Laurent took in what there was to see and hear and smell, and shook his head at offers of samples to taste or enticements to bargain by the marketers. Orlant, who spoke even less Akielon than Laurent did, became embroiled in some sort of impassioned debate between two women about which of their pastries were better, as they attempted to recruit him to judge between them. Orlant seemed to think this was an enviable task; Laurent suspected that there was no winner when Orlant would eventually choose.
He was facing down the hill and away from the keep when Damen approached, and he could sense Damen’s arrival even before he turned from the way the noise of the market shifted, first hushing, somehow, in awed notice of their king joining them, and then buzzing with an even greater excitement.
Marketers nodded respectfully and smiled at Damen as he came through the market, stepping carefully at one point to avoid a toddler who had wandered out in to the path, and then bending carefully to scoop up the errant toddler and hand him back to his grateful and embarrassed mother. Damen nodded back at the villagers, waving at children. A group of boys playing a game with a leather ball tossed it to Damen, and he caused them all to laugh delightedly when he caught it easily and threw it back to them lightly.
One of the men selling fruit offered Damen a pear, and he accepted with thanks, and then he stood in front of Laurent and offered the pear on to Laurent. “You were not at breakfast,” said Damen.
“Are you civilized enough to eat breakfast?” said Laurent, affecting surprise. “I had such low expectations.”
Damen took the pear back from Laurent’s hand and bit into it himself, smiling and throwing his other arm over Laurent’s shoulders. He was dressed in typical Akielon fashion in a tunic, and his arm was bare.
The market seemed to settle into the same hum of business that had been there before Damen had temporarily interrupted it with his arrival. “I thought to show you the sites, but you have already seen some of them,” said Damen. He took another bite of the pear, and then it up to Laurent’s mouth. Laurent thought of it, for a moment, of placing his lips against the skin and flesh of the fruit where Damen’s own lips had just been, and then he shook his head, and Damen shrugged a little and finished the fruit himself.
Damen guided him through another aisle of the market, pointing out with casual pride some of the craftsmen or local food delicacies. They stopped to admire the work of a particularly talented ironmonger for a few minutes, and then came across a woman selling a sauce made of fermented fish. The smell caused Laurent to wrinkle his nose but Damen insisted the sauce was excellent when served with custard and berries.
“The sun addles your taste,” said Laurent, staring disturbed at the amphora packed with salt crystals and small fish that the merchant had opened to explain the process of making the sauce. The merchant, who did not speak Veretian, smiled encouragingly at Laurent. The fish seemed to be staring up at Laurent with beady dead eyes, and he stood up and shook himself as though that could remove the image.
“It is very good,” said Damen, nodding encouragingly at the merchant and making noises of enjoyment. The merchant nodded excitedly back. Laurent wondered what would happen if he sent an amphora of the stuff to Niese. The cook might either topple over dead of shock, or, worse, share Damen’s taste for the stuff and start putting it on everyone’s eggs.
“Help me pick a gift for my niece,” said Laurent.
“How old is she?” said Damen.
“She was born at midwinter,” said Laurent.
Damen frowned. “I have little experience with babes so young,” he said. There was a woman shopping near them with two children, one a plump babe somewhat older than Joie strapped to her back, the other a young boy standing by her sandal and clinging to her tunic.
Damen squatted down next to the boy, who pressed his face into his mother’s tunic for a moment before peeping his eyes out. Damen regarded him with a very serious face. “We need to find a present for a babe the age of your sister,” said Damen to the little boy. “What types of things does your sister like?”
The boy hid his face in his mother’s tunic again, and then, as his mother took in the conversation that was happening and ruffled his hair encouragingly, he poked his face out. “She cries,” he said to Damen.
“Does she,” said Damen, frowning as though this were a significant problem of state.
The boy nodded seriously. “She likes her fox.”
“A fox?” said Damen.
The boy nodded again.
Damen looked puzzled, and glanced up at the boy’s mother, who helped him by tugging a piece of cloth out of the bundle of the babe and holding up a stuffed fox made of soft fabric. Damen turned back to the boy. “A fox, I see. That is a very good idea, thank you very much for the assistance.”
He stood again and turned to Laurent. “The seamstresses tend to be over near the north side, let me show you,” and Laurent followed and Damen took them off through the market again.
The plush fox was tucked in to Laurent’s trunk when he retired that evening, and he sat at one of the tables in the rooms he’d been given and thought of what to write to Auguste.
Once again, Laurent found that he could sense Damen’s approach before he arrived by the commotion that he caused, which was this time amongst Laurent’s guards in the other room. Laurent kept his eyes on his letter and listened to the noise from the other room. He could hear Damen’s voice, and then Jord, and Damen again, the walls thick enough to muffle the words but enough for Laurent to make out the speakers. Then there was the door. Damen closed the door behind him, apparently having either convinced Laurent’s guard that he meant Laurent no harm, or dispatched them all neatly with no screaming.
Laurent said as much.
“Bare-handed,” said Damen, assuming a smug expression.
“Without mussing your tunic,” said Laurent.
“It is true skill,” said Damen, crossing the room. He took in Laurent writing a letter with a glance, and then sat down next to Laurent on the same bench, facing away from table and the letter. Damen sat for a moment, looking at Laurent and not doing anything.
Laurent let his own eyes wander over Damen obviously, drifting down to his lap and then lazily back to his face. “Did you come here of a purpose?” said Laurent.
Damen let his own eyes travel in response. Laurent held himself quite still as Damen’s eyes traced back up.
“You…haven’t shaved,” said Damen, finally, reaching out to brush the back of his hand across Laurent’s cheek, feeling the fine bristle.
“Since yesterday,” said Laurent.
“Because I told you not to,” said Damen, as though a realization was coming to him. “I meant until you arrived, not forever.”
“Men with fair hair do not have to shave as often as you brutes,” said Laurent.
Damen nodded. “I shaved again this evening so as not to redden you overmuch.” He took Laurent’s hand and tugged it to his own cheek, as though to prove this statement to Laurent, and Laurent didn’t breathe for a moment, taking in the presumption of that statement.
“Is it true that fighters shave their entire bodies before they enter the ring?” said Laurent.
Damen did not seem interested in discussing that, he was rubbing Laurent’s face as though the texture were as pleasing to him as the babe they had seen earlier that day found the soft plush fox.
“I like this,” said Damen, intent on Laurent’s face. He turned his attention to look around the room, suddenly, “I would shave you again.” But there were not the right tools in the room and Damen seemed not inclined to send for someone.
“Right now?” said Laurent, and he found something in the tone of his own voice unrecognizable.
“No,” said Damen. “First I plan to touch your face with every span of skin that I have.”
“You are not as fair,” said Laurent. “Your skin will not redden in the same fashion.” Damen made a noise that was somehow not discouraged, having moved from having his hand on Laurent’s face to pressing Laurent’s cheek up the line of his inner arm.
Laurent arched his neck to rub his cheek along Damen’s arm like a cat stretching against a brush. He reached his own hand out to rest on Damen’s thigh, feeling the muscle flex through Damen’s tunic as he touched it. “Every span?” said Laurent.
Damen nodded stubbornly. Laurent moved his hand suggestively, as though to say, this part also? Damen nodded again. “Kneel,” said Damen, removing his own brooch and shedding his tunic without getting up from the bench.
Laurent hesitated. Damen caught his fingers in Laurent’s hair, making Laurent again feel like a cat. Damen guided Laurent’s head down, and there was a moment, where Laurent could have slipped, cat-like, out of the grasp and a step away. But he did not, and let himself fold in a dance-like move similar to the one the slave woman had used earlier that day, and he ended on his knees pressing his cheek along Damen’s bare thigh, feeling the brush of the coarse hair against his face. Damen groaned, pleased, tangling his fingers in Laurent’s hair.
“Do you not want to fuck?” said Laurent, and Damen’s fingers tightened, pulling Laurent’s hair slightly against his scalp.
“I want your mouth,” said Damen, using the hand not in Laurent’s hair to open Laurent’s mouth and tip Laurent’s chin down so Damen could guide himself in. And there was no further talk of shaving.
Damen did not seem to feel obliged to traipse out of Laurent’s room in the dark of the night. In the morning, Damen woke Laurent with the feel of Damen’s stubble on Laurent’s thigh as he burrowed under the thin linen blankets.
Laurent thought that Damen’s interest might be in flipping him over, after Damen had assured Laurent of Laurent’s own pleasure. Damen crawled up his body and emerged from under the blankets to kiss Laurent, and he rutted gently against Laurent’s thigh without pressing for anything further.
Damen led Laurent to the baths. Damen stripped unselfconsciously and Laurent remembered again that Akielons fought nude in their games. Damen immersed himself in the pool and emerged again sputtering, accepting soap and oil and a small towel off of a tray held out to him by one of the attendants. Another one of the attendants—it was a dark-haired woman, she did not wear the lion-headed pin—approached Laurent and made to help him with unlacing his clothing.
Laurent had not been helped by a woman to undress since his mother had died. This woman was nothing like his mother. Damen was fully comfortable, relaxing in the bath and enjoying having soap massaged on to his back by the other woman, who stood behind him in the bath. Her tunic was wet where the bottom inches of it hit the pool, and it floated around her like a lily pad. Laurent could see that she was wearing no other clothing under it.
The dark-haired woman finished helping him undress—Laurent had not fully laced all of his clothes between the bedroom and the baths in the first place, and she took his clothing off to fold it carefully and set on a shelf. Laurent stepped in to the water, and observed that the other attendant had returned to bring Damen a tray of shaving implements, which she set next to the side of the pool.
“Come here,” said Damen, looking at Laurent.
Laurent took three steps through the water toward Damen. Damen reached out a hand toward him. “Send them away,” said Laurent.
“Leave,” said Damen, pitching his voice for the attendants even as his eyes didn’t leave Laurent. Laurent could hear their feet on the tile as they exited.
They breakfasted after they bathed, and then Damen took Laurent on the guided tour he had intended for the day before, prior to Laurent’s interruption of the schedule by visiting the marketplace with Orlant.
They climbed on the top of the ramparts so that Laurent could take in a view of the entire keep, the village, and the cliffs and the ocean all from one vantage point. They watched a bird circle an invisible point on the water and the swoop down to emerge back up with a fish clutched in her claws. “There a famous ode about a watchman whose post was in this spot,” said Damen.
“Sing it,” said Laurent.
“No, no,” said Damen. “That would please no one. But if you wish to hear the ode we could ask one of the slaves to perform it.”
Damen continued the tour down from the ramparts. They went next to the stables.
In Vere, horses were distinguished by their lineage and their breed. Laurent’s horse, for example, was a gift from Auguste and descended from a line of horses that had served the Veretian royal family for longer than anyone could remember.
In Akielos, Damen and the stable master seemed to consider the lineage of a horse irrelevant in comparison to the attributes of the horse and the type of work the horse was suited for. The stables included two destriers, half a dozen coursers, chargers suitable for war, palfreys for riding, carthorses.
The stable master’s name was Euphemios and the man seemed to enjoy this opportunity to show off, having stable boys bring horses into the paddock and pointing out comparisons in stance and coloring. Damen was an appreciative audience, stroking horses soothingly and praising the Euphemios’s achievements.
The tour continued in the viewing gallery, where the slave master Adrastus had arranged his wares. There were a dozen men and women arranged for inspection. They wore golden collars and wrist-cuffs, some inset with rubies or emeralds. Several wore a lion-headed golden pin. They were mostly naked and draped with thin transparent silks to highlight their coloring.
They were posed in a stylized fashion, arranged each individually to highlight physique and also to make a pleasing group formation. When the king arrived they bowed, prostrating themselves on the floor, and then reassuming some of the forms as Adrastus directed them.
Damen allowed Adrastus to show off the slaves in the same fashion Euphemios had demonstrated the horses. One of the men rubbed his head affectionately against Damen’s chest in the same fashion that one of the horses had nudged him. Damen pressed a light kiss onto his forehead absently.
Laurent turned to one of the women who was wearing the lion-headed pin. “What is your name?” he said. She had the same characteristic southern coloring as Damen did.
“Melitta, your highness,” she said.
“Where were you born, Melitta?” said Laurent.
“Here in Ios, your highness,” said Melitta.
Adrastus had observed Laurent’s interest in Melitta and was hovering anxiously. “Melitta’s mother was a favorite of the late king,” he said.
“So you are not entirely ignorant of the notion of pedigree tracking,” said Laurent. “I think I have had enough touring for today.”
Damen reached out a hand toward Laurent. It shone with golden oil that one of the slaves had been rubbed with that had spread on Damen’s hand when he touched the slave. “Please, Cousin,” said Damen. “I should like to show you another place.”
Laurent clasped his hands behind his back. “Fine,” he said.
Damen took them through the keep, talking as they walked through the corridors about Akielon history, and the ancient practice of the king awarding status to his chosen consort before proposing. The intent, Damen explained, was that the recipient of the king’s favor was not over-awed by the honor accompanied by the status such a marriage would entail by making the status offer separately, and not contingent upon agreeing to the marriage. “It has changed in recent generations,” said Damen, “as the last few kings have married consorts already in possession of titles, and of temperament not like to be over-awed. Instead, the new tradition is to make a gift of a private space. So my father gave my mother her garden, or my grandmother had a shrine out by the olive groves.”
They had reached the library. There was a slave outside the door who bowed as they passed. Damen did not appear to notice. Laurent couldn’t tell if the slave wore a pin or not.
Damen opened the door to the library, looking slightly apprehensive. He gestured for Laurent to enter first.
The room was beautiful. The back wall was made up of large windows, so it was welcomingly bright. Much of the collection of books was clearly very old, but Damen showed Laurent how he had been working to expand the collection more recently on one of the north-facing shelves. “I’ve commissioned a scribe to produce more volumes,” said Damen.
Laurent bent over the open volume on the table; it was a philosophical treatise by the same author they had discussed during Damen’s visit to Vere. “A paper on freedom,” said Laurent.
Damen held out his hands. “I have pictured that this library might be my present to my fiancé.”
“Do you have other bastard half-siblings in your harem?” said Laurent.
“What?” said Damen, dropping his hands to his sides.
“I knew you had a bastard half-brother, I did not realize there were sisters also. Did you send your brother away because he was not to your tastes?”
“What are you talking about?” said Damen.
“Are you going to tell me that you and Melitta do not share a father?” said Laurent.
Damen was staring at Laurent as though he didn’t understand the language Laurent was speaking.
“Do you have your own crop of bastards?” said Laurent. “Where do you send the gravid slaves who can no longer perform a dance?”
“You insult me,” said Damen.
Lauren had opened his mouth to reply, when the door to the library burst open. It was one of the palace slaves. She seemed to grasp that she had interrupted something, and bowed to leave again.
“Wait,” said Laurent. “What is your name?”
“Don’t answer that,” said Damen. “Go.” The slave looked terrified and torn between collapsing to the floor and running. She left. “Attacking an unarmed opponent is unbecoming,” said Damen. He left after the slave. Laurent was alone in the library.