“My lords,” the head royal physician murmured. “It is time to say your farewells.”
Damen, the crown prince of Akielos, and his half-brother, Kastor, sat in the antechamber to the king’s bedroom. The bedroom was filled with their father’s sickbed and his attending physicians. The antechamber contained the two brothers and a musician playing soft chords on a kithara. Damen had been about to speak with the musician about his choice of composition when the physician spoke. Damen rose instead. Kastor stood beside him a second later.
They entered the bedroom. A breeze floated in from the balcony to the west that overlooked the cliffs, but yet still the room stank of sickness. Two other physicians consulted with each other in whispers in the corner far from the door.
The head physician that had fetched them nodded toward the bed.
Damen approached his father and sank to his knees next to the bed, taking his father’s hand. Kastor went to the other side of the bed and followed his example.
Theomedes opened his eyes slowly, looking from Damen to Kastor without moving his head. He was a man who did not yet have grandchildren, and yet he seemed very old, and very frail. The illness had given his skin a yellow pallor, and had taken from him the weight and muscle that had marked the strong man of his youth and middle age.
“My sons,” he said. “I have important things to tell you.”
“You must rest,” said Kastor.
Theomedes interrupted him. “Damianos. Peace is for the days of old men and babes.” Theomedes cleared his throat. “You are going to a peace summit, but you are a young man; your thoughts should be of war.
“As you travel, you must remember these three things. First, do not trust a Veretian. Their words are the webs of spiders, flimsy and interwoven and easily brushed away. Second, make no concessions in the name of peace that would weaken you in a time of war. You are a fine commander and a stronger fighter; do not let these attributes be stolen from you by a false peace accord.”
Theomedes coughed, suddenly, and one of the physicians rushed over to the bed with a cup, and helped Theomedes to sip it, gently.
“Finally,” Theomedes concluded, his eyes still on Damen, “You are of an age to be married. Nothing builds the spirit of the men on the field like an heir on the way in the keep. Take a bride.” Theomedes closed his eyes slowly, and Damen wondered if that was the last of it, but then Theomedes opened them again. “Do you understand, Damianos?”
“Yes, Father,” said Damen. “Of course.” It was nothing different than what his father had told him on many occasions prior.
“Kastor,” Theomedes continued. “Your lot in life is a hard one, but chance assigns us each our roles. You must love your brother. You must be his staunchest advocate, his wisest counselor, his tempered comforter. You must be the teacher of his sons and the guarder of his keeps. He has looked to you since he had the strength to raise his head. You have years and wisdom that must be used to guide him. Do you understand, Kastor?”
Kastor’s eyes were on the bed, where his own hand clasped his father’s frail one. He murmured something quietly that Damen could not make out.
“I love you both,” Theomedes said, and the strength of his voice was waning. “Everything I have done has been for you, and for Akielos.”
There was no time for both the funeral and a coronation before Damen had to leave for the summit, so Damen rode out as the uncrowned king, the ruler in all but name.
The season was good and the weather amenable to travel. The ship docked in Sicyon. Nikandros greeted Damen with the men who would make up the rest of the Akielon delegation. They saluted him as they would a king, not a prince, and Damen resisted the temptation to look over his shoulder for his father.
Damen walked along the lines and found the men to his liking. Their straight posture, precise lines, and careful armor spoke of a disciplined commander who paid attention to detail. He told Nikandros as much; Nikandros inclined his head in thanks.
The summit was to be held near Marlas; the Veretian camp was rumored to be made of cloth of gold woven with jewels. Each of the delegates were to camp on either side of a valley.
The night before they arrived in their location, they camped near Trikala.
Nikandros familiarized him with the geography of the area near Marlas in his tent. The map spread across a long table in Damen’s tent that took up more space than his bedroll. He and Nikandros discussed the advantages of various positions and moved small carved wooden horses and soldiers on the map.
Kastor sat with them, but his attention seemed more occupied by Damen’s bedslave Lykaios than by the tactical planning.
Lykaios unbuckled Damen’s armor and made the caress of her hand along his upper arm an invitation.
Damen shook his head at her and asked Nikandros another question about how the horses would handle the terrain.
Nikandros watched Lykaios retreat across the tent. “Perhaps your highness requires diversion,” he suggested, signaling Lykaios with a finger that his goblet was empty. “Toil of the mind in the evening is not fruitful. You are young. Join the men and the women who have come from Trikala.” Lykaios poured wine from a jug into Nikandros’s goblet, and he thanked her, which caused her to blush slightly.
“You know the Veretians do not liaise with members of the opposite sex to whom they are not married?” Nikandros asked Damen.
“Yes.” Damen had been told as much by Guion, the ambassador from Vere.
“We will meet again in the morning,” Nikandros said. Damen saw a glimpse of the night sky through the tent flap as Nikandros exited.
Kastor, having pulled Lykaios half into his lap, raised an eyebrow at Damen, requesting permission. Damen nodded, and Kastor retreated back to his own tent, Lykaios a step behind him.
Damen left his own goblet half empty in the tent, and followed the sounds of laughter and sex through the camp to the fringes.
He walked past one of his captains in the process of stepping in to a shadowed tent with a smiling woman. The captain paused to ask Damen if he needed anything. Damen dismissed him with a small shake of his head.
He moved through the camp, nodded at the men on watch who saluted sharply upon seeing him, and took in the sky across the plains, and how it was different from the sky across the ocean, and yet in other respects it was identical. The moon traveled between the lioness and the hunter while he walked. When he returned, the watch saluted again and the remainder of the camp was mostly quiet, sleeping or retreated into the tents.
Damen was passing one of the tents on the fringes when he heard the angry voice of a woman. “You are drunk,” she said. He took two steps backwards and entered the tent where he heard the voices.
Two women and one man occupied the small tent. One of the women was matronly and had her finger upraised and was lecturing the man. The man indeed had the slightly listing posture of one drunk. The second woman was wearing a disrupted veil and was straightening it. Damen’s entrance captured all of their attention.
The second woman had strands of golden hair escaping her veil and remarkable light eyes, they caught the light of the torch.
“What’s going on?” said Damen, his tone mild.
“Your highness,” the man slurred. The veiled woman turned to look at Damen more closely as the man attempted to salute.
The first woman was the one who spoke. “This man is drunk,” she pointed at the drunken soldier, “And this woman does not desire his attentions.” She concluded by pointing at the veiled woman.
Damen regarded the second woman’s eyes again, her face besides the eyes was obscured by the veil. “Is that so?”
“It’s not like that,” the man said, and then hiccuped, “she broke my hand!” He held up his disfigured hand as evidence.
“She doesn’t speak Akielon--” the first woman said.
“She attacked me!” the man insisted.
“—but I don’t need to speak her language to know that a woman who breaks the hand of a man who touches her doesn’t want to be touched.”
“She—“ the man started, but Damen cut him off with a raised hand.
“Report to the officer on watch,” he told the man. “Drunkenness is unbecoming. A broken hand is a mild punishment in comparison to what you would receive for rape.”
Damen stood in the doorway of the tent and watched the man’s slightly stumbling path through the camp reporting to the officer. Behind him the older woman was fussing over the veiled one. The veiled woman brushed away the older’s concern, pinning her veil more securely.
Damen turned back to the women. “Are you all right?”
“She doesn’t speak Akielon,” the older woman said.
Damen repeated himself in Veretian.
The veiled woman looked quickly back at him when he spoke Veretian. Their gaze held each other for a moment, and then she nodded. Damen nodded back, slowly. Her hair was under her veil, now, strands of golden yellow no longer visible. Damen wondered at its length.
The veiled woman took a step toward him; she seemed focused on the brooch on his tunic. It had been his father’s.
“Do you need a place to go?” said Damen, still speaking Veretian, wondering if it were desperation that brought a foreign woman to the Akielon camp.
She shook her head, but took a step closer to him in the tent. She was standing very close to Damen, now. She was close enough that he could see the individual threads of the fabric of her veil. The veil seemed like just another shadow in the torch-lit tent. The veiled woman reached out a hand and touched his brooch, running her longest finger over the ruby that decorated the lion’s eye.
The older woman was watching the pair of them closely.
Damen had thought himself too distracted, on the eve of war, to amuse himself with a lover. It had been part of his thinking earlier when he dismissed Lykaios. There was something about this woman’s eyes that was drawing his attention.
He raised one of his own hands, slowly, and cupped the hand the woman had on his chest, removing her hand from where it caressed his tunic and enclosing it delicately within his own hand.
Damen spoke, and his voice was deeper than it had been a moment before. “Will you accompany me back to my tent?” He punctuated his question by running his thumb across the back of the woman’s hand.
She gazed at him for a moment. She was tall for a woman, but not as tall as he was, and had to look up to meet his eyes with her own. After a long moment she nodded. He raised her hand to his lips and pressed his lips against the back of her palm.
The older woman cleared her throat suddenly, and Damen turned his attention back her direction, feeling oddly as though he were seeking her blessing. She nodded at him, and Damen led the veiled woman out of the tent and across the camp toward his own tent.
She looked around, taking in the size of his tent, the obstacle of the table full of maps and war pieces between the two of them and his bedroll.
“Can I offer you some refreshment?” Damen glanced himself around the tent for where Lykaios would have left the jug of wine and the goblets from earlier in the evening. He spotted them finally in the corner, and turned back to the woman only to find that she was much closer than he had realized, and she pressed him back on to his bedroll.
Damen was accustomed to setting the tempo of his own romantic entanglements. Those he bedded tended to wait for his invitation, to follow his lead, and to demur to his interests. He had half formed ideas about the woman he had met earlier this night.
He wanted to know her. He wanted her to speak to him -- in Akielon or Veretian it made no difference. He wanted to know where she was from and how she came to be here. He wanted to see her. He had caught a glimpse of her hair when he had first come upon her with the veil disarranged, and he wished to uncover her hair and stroke it softly. He wanted to admire the color of the golden strands in the light cast by the embers of the fire and continue to admire it as the light of the early dawn approached.
He enjoyed pleasuring his lovers, bringing them to the peak of enjoyment and watching them crest over the edge. He liked when they were so focused on their own pleasure that they almost forgot that he was there, and he got to see that secret joy and abandonment on their faces. He enjoyed taking his time, and saw no reason to be rushed.
The woman seemed to have other ideas. Damen knew almost nothing about her, knew almost nothing of her besides her eyes, and yet she seemed to know him intimately. She pressed him down on his pallet with hands on his shoulders and followed him down, ending up settled next to him in a pool of skirts.
Damen curled up his upper body and extended an arm toward her, wanting to pull her toward him, but she leaned her upper body back away from him, and shook her head. He paused, hesitating awkwardly poised somewhere between prone and seated.
Her head tilted slightly, as though she were considering him, and then she gestured with her own hands held above her head and clasped together.
Damen blinked, and then imitated the movement, settling back on the bedroll, raising his own hands above his head, and settling the back of his right hand in the palm of his left. The woman nodded in approval.
She touched him. He could not look away from her eyes. She did not bother to dispense with any of Damen’s clothing besides opening what was essential, and she did not offer to remove any of her own. Her hand held him in a way that was familiar; she moved with a rhythm that understood how a man is roused and brought to finish. And she seemed to work entirely by feel, for her eyes remained focused on Damen’s face. Damen felt as though her eyes were one of the currents that formed in the sea during a storm, that pulled men in circles away from the shore until they surrendered to the water and drowned.
He did not last very long, overwhelmed by his surprise at her touch, before he was arching backwards and gasping as he finished. He breathed in deeply, and curled up from the pallet once again, wishing to reach for the woman, to draw her in closer to him, to have his turn to enjoy her as well. But he was confronted only with the swaying of the tent flap at the entrance as it settled behind her departure.