They retook Ios.
Damen stood once again not only in his homeland, but in his home, in the keep he had been born in and raised in and trained in. He could hear the familiar sound of the ocean waves upon the white cliffs. The keep smelled the same as it had when he had been a child growing up, as no other place seemed to smell. He recognized the calls of the birds down by the docks and the sounds that rose up to the keep from the village. The season was different from when he left those months earlier, but it still felt familiar.
And yet, when he stood in his chambers, everything was so different he felt as though he were shaking.
He was in his own rooms again, where he had slept every night before his father had died, and he was not at all convinced now that he could ever sleep there again. He paced the rooms. He was wearing Veretian-style boots and his heels clicked against the white marble of the floor. The rooms were objectively speaking as beautiful as they had been before he left, decorated with the same fine silks surrounding the windows and the bed, the walls covered in mosaic of white marble and colored glass. But all Damen saw now was the door through which the men had come when they took him, the tiles of the floor where Lykaios had collapsed when they slit her throat. He thought, if he stared at the seams between the marble, that he could see rust-colored traces of her blood yet there staining the floor.
There were two men standing guard outside his room in the hall – one of Guymar’s men and one of Nikandros’s, carefully picked as trustworthy and meriting the honor of guarding the king by each commander. Yet he felt as though at any moment he might again be attacked.
Damen left his room and went back down to the captain’s quarters in the barracks, where he proceeded to make a nuisance of himself amongst the men. He knew, as a commander, that the best way to run the troop was to appoint competent men in charge and to let them be in charge without managing every move that they made. Yet he could not help himself, and he performed a personal inspection of the weapons inventory, of the count of the injured and the manifest that had come with their recent supply ship. He found cavil with small things, negligible differences between the inventory and the manifest that could have been the mistake of one stroke of the pen when counting. The men did not object to his criticism or his methods, either because they were too well trained to object to their king, or because they were intimidated by having watched him kill his own brother earlier that day in the courtyard. Perhaps both.
He was contemplating performing his own maintenance on Laurent’s armor when Guymar returned to the quarters with Laurent actually beside him. Laurent took in the scene, Damen standing amidst the cowed commanders with their heads bowed and the scribe carefully taking note of where the records needed to be corrected, and Laurent dismissed all of this with a wave of his hand.
“Leave us,” said Laurent.
The men were only too grateful for the excuse to avoid Damen’s bad mood, and vacated the room quickly, Guymar closing the door behind them.
Laurent moved across the room toward Damen. Laurent glanced down at the desk. His eyes moved quickly over the spread out papers and notes on the inventory, and then up again to Damen himself, where Laurent seemed to take in Damen’s rumpled clothing.
“So?” said Laurent.
Damen felt peevish. “So?” he said, echoing Laurent’s own tone.
Laurent did not indulge Damen’s petty desire to bicker, and simply raised an eyebrow and waited in silence.
Damen sighed, finally, ran his hands through his hair and rubbed them against his scalp as though this would help him to clear his mind. “I cannot sleep,” he said. “When I am alone in the room I can think of nothing but –" he stopped, not wanting to think of it again even to put words to it with Laurent. “It is – it was easier to not think about everything when I was far away.”
Laurent tilted his head slightly, considering, and seemed to come to a conclusion. “I see,” he said. “That is easily remedied.”
Damen gave a disbelieving half-laugh, for it did not seem to him that any of his problems were easily remedied. There was no easy remedy for the fact that his father was dead, his brother was dead, that Jokaste was missing. “Is that so?” he said.
“Yes,” said Laurent. “You have grown unaccustomed to such luxury during your time in Vere, and now it distresses you. Return to your slave pallet in my rooms; your problem is solved.”
Damen laughed again, sounding even to himself over tired and desperate. Laurent seemed to take this as agreement, and he turned to exit the room without looking back to see if Damen was following him. He didn’t need to look back.
The men in the captain’s quarters cast their eyes down respectfully again as they exited. Guymar murmured a grateful, “Your grace,” at Laurent as they passed. Laurent paid them no mind.
By the time they reached the rooms Laurent was staying in – guest rooms in the east wing of the keep – Damen was exhausted again. He would not have put it past Laurent to actually have a pallet already spread out for Damen on the floor, and he felt as though he might just collapse down upon it and sleep for a week.
But when Laurent nodded at his own guards and shut the guards behind him and Damen after they entered, Damen did not actually see a pallet spread on the floor. He was going to say something, perhaps excuse himself again to go to sleep in his own bed with the hope that sheer exhaustion would let him sleep now.
Laurent interrupted his thoughts by gesturing peremptorily with his arm, holding his arm out expectantly in the same fashion he had every evening when one of Damen’s duties had been to undress him. Damen found his hands moving to the laces of Laurent’s jacket before he had made a conscious decision to play along.
There was something softly hypnotic about the ritual, drawing the laces through the fabric in the quiet of the room, listening to Laurent’s breathing beside him, the two of them turning carefully in synchronization like dancers who had practiced a particular pattern many times together. He finished unlacing the jacket and it separated in two pieces like a clam opening to reveal a pearl within to a persistent diver. Laurent removed his own white linen shirt by pulling it over his head.
The ritual diverged, then, as Laurent went in one movement from removing his own shirt to taking on Damen’s role and silently undoing the laces of Damen’s own clothing. He worked quietly, his fingers moving with confidence over the knots at the wrist and then loosening the lacing up the arm before moving to repeat his actions on the other arm and then to the laces that followed up the front line of the jacket and tied under Damen’s chin. He was better at this than Damen had been the first few times he had done it, more familiar with the fineness of Veretian lacing than Damen had been, perhaps, his hands more suited to the delicacy of the work.
Laurent pushed Damen on to a settee and knelt down in front of him. Damen could not suppress a surprised breath in at the position Laurent had arranged them in, and Laurent acknowledged it with a wry smile before he focused his attention on unlacing Damen’s right boot and easing it off of his foot. He repeated the action with Damen’s left boot.
Over the past weeks of travel across the plains of Sicyon and on the road to Ios, Damen had come to know Laurent better in bed. Laurent had made his distaste for performing oral sex evident, and he generally avoided even postures suggestive of the act. Laurent would touch Damen willingly enough, could bring Damen to climax with nothing but one hand and his voice in Damen’s ear. Laurent would roll in the bed together with Damen and let Damen thrust against his hip or his stomach as they kissed. One lazy morning Laurent had spilled oil on his hand, spread it to create a channel between his thighs, and then stroked himself as he and Damen rocked together slowly. And though Laurent did not usually suggest it, if Damen asked, or if Laurent sensed that Damen wished to ask, he let Damen take him. Damen had offered to reciprocate, first with subtle gestures, and then, when Laurent made no acknowledgement, with words, which had only caused Laurent to shake his head. Damen had not been fucked often by other men – it was awkward in Akielos for a man of lower rank to suggest such a thing – but he had tried it a handful of times in his youth and would have enjoyed it if Laurent wished.
However out of keeping it was with his general habits, Laurent seemed strangely comfortable kneeling in front of Damen now. Damen kept his hands carefully curled around the edge of the settee cushion. He could feel his nails pressing into the velvet nap of the fabric.
Laurent unlaced Damen’s trousers with the same calm movements he had used on Damen’s jacket. He left the ties loosened and tangled in Damen’s lap and moved his hands to Damen’s thighs, massaging firmly from the hip to the joint of the knee with his knuckles, and Damen groaned slightly. He followed the pressure of his knuckles with the pads of his fingers, stroking again. The pressure of Laurent’s massage left the muscle warm and sore as they relaxed, slowly.
Laurent shifted his weight gracefully back on to his heels and then managed to rise to his feet in a single motion. He gestured for Damen to stand, also, and then pushed Damen’s pants down his hips, leaving him half aroused and clothed only in his linen shirt in the middle of Laurent’s bedroom.
They were standing very close together. “You smell good,” said Damen.
“I bathed,” said Laurent.
Damen closed his eyes and breathed in again, slowly. He could smell some kind of perfumed oil that perhaps a servant had used on Laurent’s hair.
“The baths here are very beautiful,” said Laurent.
“They are,” said Damen. His internal conflict had resumed, because while he enjoyed the scent of Laurent now, and part of him wished to see Laurent in the royal baths, surrounded by the marble and the beautiful tiles, he could not help but thinking. Who would have been using the royal baths the last months but Kastor and Jokaste? Theomedes was dead. Damen had been gone. There was no one else.
Laurent, perhaps sensing the tension returning to Damen’s body, made a point of looking around the rooms. “You’ll have to unroll your own pallet.”
It had the intended effect; Damen laughed. “I’m the personal body servant to a prince,” said Damen. “Doing the work of an ordinary servant is beneath me. It might ruin my hands.”
Laurent looked at his hands, and Damen held them out in front of himself for inspection. They were clearly not the hands of a body servant. Laurent ran his own fingers over Damen’s calluses and the scab on the back of his left hand from a knife injury. Laurent made a considering noise, as though entertaining Damen’s mouthy protests. “You are no body servant,” said Laurent. “You’re the king now.” He was still looking at Damen’s hands, and then suddenly he tipped his head up, looking Damen in the face. “What is it like?”
“Being king?” said Damen.
“Yes,” said Laurent. “I have never been king. I have more experience being a body servant than you might expect.” There was something in the tone of his voice that discouraged further questioning.
“Being king is – exhausting.” He had reached the stage of tiredness where it felt as though his brain were wrapped in linen. He was tired enough that he sat down on Laurent’s bed. Laurent made a noise in his throat at this presumption, but he did not shove Damen to the floor or call for a servant to evict him, so Damen presumed further and let himself fall back onto the blankets. Laurent had turned to finish removing his own trousers, and when he turned back to the bed, he took in Damen laying there with a closed look. Then Laurent seemed to decide he was not going to protest and crawled into the opposite side of the bed himself. For a man who Damen had observed go without sleeping, drinking, or eating for close to two and half days and who was just as composed after that time as he had been at the start, Laurent was strangely fussy about the arrangement of his pillows. Damen watched Laurent fold, fluff, and turn the pillows for long moments as he felt sleep drawing nearer, and then Damen lost patience and pulled Laurent across the bed to pillow his head on Damen’s own shoulder. Laurent sniffed, like a cat who has to protest being interrupted from his own plan, but he settled against Damen’s shoulder.
“I suppose if you are the king you can have whatever you want, and no man might object,” said Laurent. Damen could feel Laurent’s breath on his shoulder.
“I think I preferred being a body servant,” said Damen, the edges of exhaustion-tinged sleep coming over him.