The keep steward Erkule tucked it in amongst the other announcements he shared with Damen as though it were just one more piece of news, one additional petition to be heard that day, no more notable than any other the others.
"And the prince requests your presence in his chambers this evening."
Damen had only been paying half attention to Erkule in the first place. Erkule was a competent administrator and he approached Damen with more questions than Damen ever felt the need to answer. Erkule had found his match better in Laurent, who had just as many opinions about the running of the keep at Ios as he did on every other subject, and a tendency to interrupt Erkule's monologues with a sudden interruption that showed that not only was he still paying careful attention -- though he might appear as distracted outwardly as Damen himself -- but that he fully understood the running of the keep and even had ideas to improve its efficiency.
Damen stopped in the middle of the hallway. Erkule came to a halt a step later.
"What?" said Damen.
"The visiting musician from Patras is requesting an exorbitant raise --"
"No, before that."
"Prince Laurent requests your presence in his chambers this evening?"
"What about it, your highness?" said Erkule, looking apprehensive at Damen’s sudden attention to his list.
Damen hesitated. The request itself was clear enough, and it could only have come from Laurent. It was phrased in the traditional manner. There was an Akielon tradition that while the King ruled the keep and the country, the Consort ruled the King. The Consort could not remove the King from the field, or keep him from his men. But the Consort could request the King's presence, and from everything Damen had ever heard in stories of past Akielon kings, it was not an invitation that could be refused.
Damen had never seen his parents observe this particular tradition. If Queen Egeria had summoned King Theomedes in that manner it had happened before Damen's birth. Perhaps exactly nine months before; Egeria had died birthing Damen. Growing up, Damen had only seen Theomedes with Hypermenestra, his longstanding mistress. A mistress did not interact with the King with the same manners as a Consort.
"Those were the prince's exact words?" said Damen, starting again down the hall.
Erkule matched his step. "Yes, your highness."
Damen nodded. "Continue. The visiting musician--"
The King's bedchambers were separated from the Consort's by a set of elaborately carved wooden double doors.
When Theomedes had died, Damen had assumed he would move into the King’s chambers with the Consort’s still empty and the doors between them locked. Despite his father’s admonitions, he had not immediately planned to marry. But as events had unfolded, Damen had left Ios shortly after his father’s death and by the time he returned he did bring with him a royal consort.
Damen stood in his own bedchamber in front of the doors, oddly nervous. He rested his hand on the door, feeling the carving under his fingers. The wood was inlaid with a geometric carving, carefully done by some artisan for one of Damen's ancestors generations ago. He wondered how many Akielon kings had stood exactly where he stood at that moment, having the same types of apprehensions about what lay on the other side of the doors.
He moved his hand to ring of metal that served to open the doors, and pulled the door in toward his room.
There was a small chamber between the two rooms so that both the King and the Consort had his own set of doors and, most importantly, their own locks. The antechamber featured most prominently in comedies in the theater, where cuckolds tended to hide behind the doors in a series of implausible but humorous coincidences. There was no one else hiding in the small space between the two rooms now. Damen hesitated again, and then finally he raised his hand and pushed on the door that led into Laurent's room.
He had a moment, before his hand touched the door, of thinking that the door would be locked, but it was not, and it swung open slowly into Laurent's room, revealing chambers that were a mirror image of his own.
The room was not empty. Laurent stood in the middle of the room, looking curiously over at the doors as they opened, seeing Damen in the doorway. Damen suddenly realized that it would have been more polite to knock, first, even if he had been invited and the door was unlocked.
"Good evening," said Laurent.
"Good evening," said Damen, stepping into the room one pace.
"I did not know if you would actually come; I only know of the custom from the theater."
"In the theater, there would usually be a fat man hiding in the antechamber," said Damen.
Laurent wrinkled his nose. "That seems unpleasant."
Damen did not know what his place was in this room. "Did you send for me only to see if I would come?"
"I suppose I knew that you would come. I sent for you because I wanted to see what happened next."
Damen stood still, as though he were holding parade formation in a drill and the general were performing an inspection. "What happens next?"
"What traditionally happens when the Consort sends for the King?" said Laurent.
They both knew the answer to that; neither of them were talking about it. Damen looked at Laurent -- he could not help but look at Laurent -- but he was careful not to touch. Laurent touched, sometimes, leaning in to Damen's space when they were standing together, or bending over his shoulder when he was seated. But Laurent also sometimes flinched when he did not see Damen come up behind him.
Laurent moved across the room, his grace applied to simply crossing the mosaic tiles toward his husband.
He stood close to Damen. Standing close together, Laurent's forehead hit at about Damen's chin. Laurent tilted his head back, he looked up toward Damen's eyes. He was close enough that Damen could see each of his eyelashes; they were absurdly long and darker than his hair.
When Damen tore his gaze away from Laurent's eyelashes, he realized that the whole of Laurent's face was expressing his dissatisfaction. "You are such a giant," said Laurent, sounding annoyed. "Perhaps if you sit down."
"I am not sure that I can," said Damen, sounding choked.
"You have trouble sitting?" said Laurent, with a truly Veretian tone of disdain, somehow managing to express that Damen having trouble sitting would not surprise him, and yet it was a mild inconvenience. Laurent had a sitting chair arranged near to the bed, he dragged it across the tile floor near to where Damen was still frozen. He pushed on Damen's chest with two hands. Damen felt the pressure of Laurent’s hands on his chest, then he succumbed and fell backwards to sit down in the chair. Laurent followed him down, settling his knees on either side of Damen's thighs.
In this position, Laurent was taller, and Damen had to tilt his head up slightly to look at Laurent. Laurent rested his hands on Damen's shoulders; he seemed to be regarding Damen's lips closely, and then he was leaning in, and then finally they were kissing.
They had not kissed in the months since the wedding ceremony, when the Veretian attendant who had trailed Damen the entire day had informed him that a formal kiss was traditional, and Damen had bent willingly enough to brush his lips against Laurent's when he had been cued by the officiant. He had not felt anything at the time, it had just been one more step in the elaborate Veretian ceremony, no better and no worse than any of the others.
This was better. This kiss was not without feeling. Damen had not realized, when they married, that a kiss was something that ought to be treasured, that it might have been only begrudgingly given, or that it had even been something that he desired. He could remember almost nothing about that moment. He felt now, rather, that he might never forget. He could feel the weight of Laurent’s body partially on his lap, the warmth of Laurent’s hands on his shoulders, the velvet nap of the arms of the chair as he clutched the arms with white-knuckled fingers. Laurent had leaned in and brushed his own lips to Damen’s, then separated slightly, and then leaned in again for a longer pressure. Damen was close enough that he thought Laurent was holding his breath; he did not know how Laurent was not lightheaded.
Laurent leaned back again, slightly, and Damen tightened his fingers on the chair again as he fought the urge to bring his hands to Laurent’s face, and instead he let Laurent lean in, slowly, a third time.
Damen could not hold himself back any longer. He traced his lips along the edge of Laurent’s jaw, feeling the smallest bristle of stubble, and then move further along, nuzzling at Laurent’s neck. Laurent squirmed slightly as though he were ticklish, but he was smiling when their eyes met again.
Their lips met again. With their mouths coming together but his hands held steadily separate Damen felt like some sort of beast -- like a sea lion on the beach, perhaps, craning his neck for a fish, or a bird bobbing his head for bugs in the marsh. He could not bring himself to loose his hands from the chair. He felt as though Laurent were a phantom, and that if he reached out for him he would fade from the air as a vapor, substance-less beneath Damen’s hands.
Though even that did not entirely make sense. Laurent was sitting on his lap; Damen could feel his weight and his warmth.
Laurent squirmed on his lap, which seemed a prelude to his quest to bring the kiss deeper, as he parted his lips slightly and invited Damen to taste inside his mouth.
Damen did not know how long they kissed. He felt as captured and bound to the chair, entirely at Laurent's mercy, not able to think. In his mind, it might have been hours that they sat there, the spell of the kiss broken only when Laurent reached for Damen's belt with one hand.
Damen moved suddenly, his own hand leaving its tight grasp on the arm of the chair and wrapping warningly around Laurent's wrist. Laurent leaned back and looked at him, questioningly. It was as much a stalemate as when they had played chess the day before in the garden.
Laurent flexed his hand. "Let go."
Damen released his hold on Laurent's wrist; Laurent pulled his arm back toward his chest, like a child who reaches toward a fire and then pulls his hand back in surprise.
"I need to get up," said Damen, and after another long moment of regard, Laurent unfolded himself and stood up, freeing Damen from the armchair. Damen stood.
Laurent looked at him from two steps away, his arm still held against his chest.
Damen felt helpless. “Laurent,” he said, searching for other words. “Thank you for inviting me to visit you.”
“You speak as though you are leaving.”
Damen nodded. “I think it is time for me to say good night.”
Laurent looked off to the side for a moment, seemingly pondering one of the marble tiles in the floor. “And if I should issue another invitation tomorrow? Will you come?”
It sounded wonderful; it sounded like torture of the worst nature. “Yes.”
“And will you stay longer than half of an hour?”
“Laurent,” Damen said. “I don’t -- I can’t --”
Either Laurent could make more sense of Damen’s befuddled feelings than Damen could himself, or Laurent lost interest in his babbling. “Good night.”
The two sets of carved wooden doors seemed to echo loudly behind Damen as he retreated.