By the time Damen allowed himself to be led from the main fire toward one of the tents, he had drunk a great deal of hakesh.
The Vaskian camp was celebrating. The women had made camp of small brown tents, tethered the horses and the animals nearby, and built up the fires. The flames flickered high up into the darkening sky, and the women talked and ate and danced and drank amongst the dimming light. Damen’s men generally kept to their own camp and fires, but occasionally one of the women would pick a man to whom she wished to offer an invitation, and the braver among the men would accept.
The drinking was an indulgence, but Damen excused himself. They were at peace and he did not need to remain alert. He had been with his command long enough that they knew their king and knew him to be a moderate man, and would not lose respect for him enjoying himself for one evening. He knew the Vaskians, both from their recent engagements along the border, and from his earlier interactions with them as part of Laurent’s guard, and he had seen enough glances from the women to know that he could expect traditional Vaskian hospitality and multiple offers to share his bed from the athletic, dark-eyed women who sat near him by the fire and kept refilling his glass.
He had returned the women’s gazes by the fire, accepting the food they offered him with gentle caresses of their hands, smiling back at them with heavy-lidded eyes as they flirted with words he couldn’t translate but whose meaning he well understood. He let his eyes follow one of the women’s hips as she danced with a friend by the fire, and when she offered him her hand he accepted.
He had thought that she would come to him where they had been near the coupling fire, but he was not disappointed as she led him away to a small, low tent.
As he walked, it was harder to place his feet than it was when he was sober, and the light of the fire seemed to glisten off of the features of the woman. He had perhaps drunk more hakesh than he had realized while seated.
The entire camp had something of the feel of a dream, the drums and the sounds near the fire fading to a background accompaniment, his attention focused narrowly on his footsteps and on the tent he was being led to, his belly full of food and pleasant anticipation.
When they reached the tent the woman gracefully raised the tent flap and gestured that Damen should precede her inside, and he did. He had to stoop down to make it into the low structure, and found himself on his knees on a pile of chamois and soft furs, and then he blinked as the tent flap dropped closed behind him. The woman did not enter.
The hanging lamp in the tent wasn’t lit, so the tent was dark, with only slivers of moonlight slipping in around the entrance flap. Even in the darkness, Damen could tell there was another person within the tent.
The other person moved a bit closer – the entire tent was so small that there was not that much room to maneuver.
“Laurent,” Damen said, and as Laurent scooted even a tiny bit closer a sliver of moonlight fell on his face and Damen caught a short glimpse of one of Laurent’s pale blue eyes.
There was no further discussion. Damen had decided that he was dreaming, and saw no reason to disrupt his appreciation of the hakesh-induced dream by talking about it. And it must have been a dream, because awake, Laurent would have undoubtedly been talking.
Damen claimed Laurent’s mouth and put it to better purpose, engaging him in a prolonged bout of kissing interspersed with heavy breathing. Laurent was pulling Damen out of his clothing in moments between kisses. As Laurent twisted to pull away Damen’s tunic Damen ended up with a mouthful of Laurent’s soft hair. When Laurent turned back his lips traced the shell of Laurent’s ear.
Like so many dreams, it was an odd mix of things realistic and unrealistic. Damen couldn’t see the scar along Laurent’s upper arm in the dark, but he could feel it with his fingers, and Laurent’s nose was not the aristocratic perfection it had been for most of the months Damen had known him, but had rather the slightly crooked cant it had taken after that last blow from his uncle had broken it.
Yet other moments felt too much like a dream. Laurent’s quiet noises were encouraging, his hands moved on Damen’s body with something like affection. When Damen presumed to move his caress from Laurent’s hip to something more intimate, Laurent raised his leg obligingly and Damen found him amenable and already prepared, as though he were a slave waiting eagerly to be bedded.
As they joined, Damen found that he wanted to talk, suddenly, during the moments he was so overtaken he could hardly have managed it. He said only Laurent’s name, and then repeated it over again, and one of his final grasps of the dream was Laurent’s voice saying his own name back to him.
The sun was high in the sky when Damen woke, and he was alone in the tent. The furs next to him were cool—if there had been someone with him the night before – and presumably he hadn’t scratched his own shoulders, he thought wryly – they were gone. Damen’s headache reminded him why he was too old for the kind of overindulgence of the night before, and he felt rueful toward whomever his bed companion had been. The Vaskian women were open and uninhibited, but they deserved better than a half-asleep partner whose thoughts were entirely occupied with someone else.
Damen stretched as much as was possible within the confines of the low tent. He rolled his neck carefully to only minimally aggravate the throbbing in his head, and then he searched out his clothes so he could go to find breakfast. He pulled his tunic over his head, and then ran his fingers through his hair. He had taken to wearing it longer, which made it easier to tangle and mess the curls, but had the advantage that it could be pulled back away from his face when he hadn’t the time to bother with it.
He’d just finished tying it at his nape when the tent flap opened.
Laurent stood framed by the sunlight in the entryway.
Damen could feel his surprise show on his face. Laurent was carrying a tray, which was odd, but it was identifiably him, and he somehow managed to be graceful even when maneuvering through the tent flap to his knees with what turned out to be a tray full of food.
“You’re here,” said Damen.
There were dozens of reasons Laurent should not be there. He had deliberately not involved himself in the Akielon and Vaskian joint efforts in Delft; he had not come himself nor sent a delegation, only a polite but terse message of good luck written in a hand Damen knew wasn’t even his own. His arrival in the foothills would have been announced; his company would have been spotted by the sentries, would have been mentioned in the reports and in the gossip of the camp. He must have had to sneak in almost solitarily to have avoided any notice.
Laurent had settled himself onto the furs close to Damen with the tray resting between them. He was eating a biscuit. He paused to dip it in some gravy, regarding Damen as he ate.
“How are you here?” said Damen. “Why?”
Laurent ate another mouthful, and seemed to take a long time in chewing.
Damen found he cared less about the answer to those questions than he thought. “What about your wife?”
Laurent finished chewing. “Collette and I have an understanding.”
Laurent nodded toward the remaining biscuit on the tray, as though asking whether Damen were going to echo him all morning or eat, and Damen reached for the biscuit. Laurent diverted himself with a piece of fruit, instead.
“What sort of understanding?” said Damen.
“An understanding that we have a political marriage and not a love match,” said Laurent.
“I see,” said Damen. “And so – the occasional secret visit to Vask.”
“I was clear with Collette, when I married. She knew that I had other attachments.”
Laurent had not been similarly clear with Damen upon his marriage. Damen and other Akielons had received an elaborate formal invitation to the event, and the event itself had been an elaborate schedule of ceremonies and events stretching over the course of several days. Damen had hardly had an opportunity to see Laurent when he had not been accepting traditional crowns of flowers or bowing over the hand of his new bride.
“You seemed happier to see me last night,” Laurent observed.
Damen pulled the tray of food closer toward himself and dipped his own biscuit into the remaining gravy.
It was Damen’s turn to chew slowly. When he finished, he looked Laurent in the eye and spoke deliberately. “I do not want to spend my life dreaming of you when you are not there.”
“You do not seem to realize that I am here,” said Laurent. He had set down the pit of his fruit and was gazing back at Damen with equal intensity.
“I do not want the occasional night in the foothills when I am on campaign and you are able to sneak away from your palace.”
Damen had never been especially good at reading Laurent, but it was apparent that Laurent’s expression was becoming more vicious. “You seemed to want me enough last night,” said Laurent, “Or was that just the hakesh?”
“I want you always,” said Damen simply, and Laurent’s temper seemed to dissipate visibly. “But to have a taste only, I cannot bear it. It is as though pouring a glass for a drunkard who has only just managed sobriety.”
“How am I to know you wish more than a taste?” said Laurent. “You did not reply to my letters.”
“I invited you to visit and you did not come.”
“I had only recently quashed a coup,” said Laurent.
The tent flap opened, suddenly, and one of the older Vaskian women poked her head in and scolded the two of them before retreating and letting the tent flap fall closed once again.
Damen turned to Laurent for a translation. “The essence of her point is that we are quarreling like girls not yet old enough to sit a horse, and that we ought to fuck and make up already.”
Damen let his dubiousness of the accuracy of this translation show on his face.
Laurent managed to seem deadly serious even while lounging leaning on one arm in the midst of the bed furs. “I miss you,” Laurent said. “I retire for the day and I look to my left to say something to you and you are not there. I find myself wishing that you had only ever been my slave, so that I could still have you beside me and lavish you with gifts that might make Collette jealous.” Laurent leaned in. “And then I think – perhaps I wish that I were his slave. That I could leave behind Arles and the councilors and the court and have my entire world be consumed of you. Where I might sit in the evening and think only of when you will come to me, that I might awake and think only of bringing you a tray of food –“
Damen shoved the tray of food off to the side with enough violence to cause a peach from the bowl of fruit to roll across the tent, and he moved across the space between them to touch Laurent, and Laurent reclined obligingly so Damen ended up on top of Laurent, bracing some of his weight on his arms.
“I forgot how you like to talk,” said Damen, leaning down so that their faces were close enough that their noses were touching.
“You love how I talk,” said Laurent.
Damen did not dignify that with a response, and there was a period without talking.
The Vaskian camp had dismantled while they were occupied, and when Damen emerged from the tent tying his disrupted hair back again, it was to find that the fires had been put out, the tents had been rolled up and tied up again to the pack horses, and the camp had departed. Their tent was left now in the detritus of an otherwise empty field. Damen’s horse grazed nearby, pinned near to a mare that Damen recognized now as one of Laurent’s favorites.
Laurent yawned and stretched as he emerged from the tent. He had his shirt on again but it was not laced, and it fell loosely off the planes of his shoulders.
The sun was in the middle of the sky, and yet part of Damen was still convinced that he was dreaming.
“What happens next?” Damen said. He was thinking of it himself. He had to return to his men; they needed to return to Akielos. He had commitments in Ios that needed to be tended. It pained him that he could not have those things and have Laurent beside him.
“Are you attending the wedding of Torgeir’s granddaughter?” said Laurent.
It took Damen a moment to organize his thoughts. “This summer? Yes.”
“So,” said Laurent. “I will see you then.”
Damen turned to look at him. He wondered who else had ever seen Laurent standing in the sunlight with his shirt unlaced and his face open and bright. A feeling of wakefulness came over Damen, as though he had enough energy to conquer the known world and then to celebrate the conquering for a week without sleeping. Laurent turned away toward the horses. “Race you,” Laurent called back over his shoulder, with the decidedly unfair advantage of having already saddled his mare while Damen was still standing in front of the tent. Damen chased after him.