The year of the long autumn was one where they wintered in Arles. Damen preferred to winter in Akielos, where the weather remained clement throughout the season despite the choppiness of the seas off the coast. He liked to coax Laurent into wearing less layers of clothing or Akielon-style sandals that exposed his toes to the world. But they had spent the previous two winters in Akielos, and Laurent had Veretian concerns to attend to, and they decided to winter that year in Arles.
Damen was not certain how the Vaskian delegation knew of their decision, but they arrived in Arles during the first days of the winter, when the wind had turned chill and men awoke in the morning to see the tips of the plants covered with frost.
They received the Vaskian delegation in the great hall where Laurent held public hearings. Damen did not always sit beside Laurent during public audiences, but he had joined him on this occasion. The Veretian great hall in Arles was grander than any room that Damen had turned to a similar purpose in Ios. The room would fit five hundred men easily. Their voices echoed throughout. The hall was lit by dozens of windows -- panels of colored glass interspersed between the arcing stone pillars that supported the high ceiling. Laurent sat on a carved wooden throne arranged on a dais at the front of the room. On the days when Damen joined him a second such chair was set beside him, draped with cushions in Damen's own colors.
There were eight women in the delegation, one older and seven younger. They were dressed in Vaskian riding leathers and had elaborately braided hair in the traditional fashion; it would somehow not have seemed out of place had they brought their horses and hawks beside them into the main hall next to the Veretian courtiers gathered in the audience.
The older woman seemed to be appointed their spokesperson; she introduced herself as Kordil. As all of the women nodded respectfully to the two kings, Kordil spoke a greeting in Vaskian. Laurent, who understood the language, at first nodded, then offered some words of his own, and then listened attentively as Kordil gave a slightly longer pronouncement, gesturing to the seven younger women who had accompanied her.
Laurent laughed out loud; his genuine mirth echoing throughout the hall. Damen turned to look at him in astonishment; Laurent tended to be solemn in his pronouncements and serious in how he welcomed Veretian visitors. Laurent laughed rarely in general, and even less frequently in public in front of the court and their guests.
"What did she say?" said Damen.
Laurent's enjoyment of the situation was still evident on his face, but he seemed willing to share the joke with Damen more privately, because he spoke in Akielon so they could not be overheard by the rest of the assembled audience. "Kordil says that she has come as an escort to these girls, because it is traditional that when Vaskian women are sixteen they leave their mother's camp to be fostered with their fathers for a year."
"And so," said Damen, not understanding the humor.
Laurent's smile was gentle but he did not try to hide that it was at Damen's expense. "Your daughters," said Laurent. "They have come to stay with you to learn your fighting and hunting techniques."
Damen looked back at the girls. "Which one?" he said, looking at their faces as though he could somehow see evidence of his own features in theirs.
Laurent was laughing again, light chuckles half to himself. "All of them."
Damen turned away from the girls and back toward Laurent. “No.”
“Yes,” said Laurent.
Damen was trying to cast his mind back to the time they had spent in Vask. It had been so long ago; he supposed it had been almost seventeen years. “I don’t even think there were seven women,” he said. Though the memory was blurry. The passage of time had dimmed the details of the evening, though the experience had been a blur of the drums and Halvik’s girls even at the time.
“Do you wish for me to translate that for you?” said Laurent. The sound of his voice told Damen he was still on the edge of laughter.
“No,” said Damen, and he gestured for the Vaskian women to come up on the dais to be presented. They walked up to the raised dais, and Damen stood to have them presented to him. Laurent remained seated in his chair, leaning on one of the arms of the chair with a typically insouciant posture. He had his head propped on his arm in a manner that disguised the lower half of his face; Damen suspected he was grinning secretly.
Kordil introduced the girls to Damen one at a time.
They were named in the traditional Vaskian style, with the given name first and their mother’s name second. Two of the girls were called i’Kashel, and Damen looked to Kordil for explanation.
“Twins,” said Laurent.
Kordil added something on to Laurent’s comment.
“She says that twins are a good omen,” said Laurent.
There was a second set of twins in the two last girls to be presented, and Laurent seemed to be suppressing laughter yet again.
Damen looked at the girls, who stared back at him with frank openness that he was unaccustomed to as the king. They all had dark hair and eyes, which he supposed was to be expected given their mothers and his own looks. The second pair of twins seemed to have inherited his curls. He had already lost their names on his tongue.
“Welcome,” he said after a long moment, trying one of the only words he knew in Vaskian.
“Hello,” said one of the bolder girls, speaking Veretian with a heavy accent.
Kordil spoke again; it sounded as though she were asking a question. Damen could not draw his eyes away from the girls; he might have been alone with them.
Laurent’s voice interrupted Damen’s contemplation as he translated again for Kordil. “Kordil wishes to know if you acknowledge the daughters and agree to accept them for fostering.”
“Yes,” said Damen, turning back toward Laurent and Kordil. “What are my responsibilities in fostering? Will Kordil join us as a guest of the palace to help explain what I am to do?”
Laurent extended the invitation and Kordil and the girls disappeared with one of Laurent’s overly efficient servants. Damen found himself staring repeatedly out the side door they had exited throughout the remainder of the hearings.
Laurent was unsympathetic to Damen’s plight, and refused to do anything but roll his eyes at Damen’s complaints. “I don’t know how to raise children,” Damen told him that evening, watching one of Laurent’s pages help him with the ties on his jacket. After a moment, Damen gestured to dismiss the page, watched the boy leave, and took over helping Laurent out of his clothing himself.
“They want to learn how to fight,” said Laurent. “I should think you’re sufficiently qualified for that.”
Damen took the girls to the indoor practice ring the next to assess their skills, and he became convinced that he might not be able to help them for another reason -- they were very good. The girls were fast and well trained with knives. As archers they already exceeded Damen’s skills. They were not familiar Akielon or Veretian styles of swordsmanship, but with the short, curved swords that were common in Vask they were more than adequate.
The second week of their stay in Vere, Damen became aware that Laurent was observing their training session. “Here,” said Laurent suddenly, hopping over the railing that separated his position of observation from the ring. “I will show you a trick.”
Ireli, one of Kashel’s daughters, eyed Laurent suspiciously. “I don’t want to win with a trick,” she said.
“Oh, she’s your daughter all right,” said Laurent to Damen. “It is just a technique to use when your opponent is heavier than you are,” he said to Ireli, and she continued to look at him skeptically but watched while he demonstrated on Damen, gesturing for Damen to come at him after he took Ireli’s practice sword, and then showing her how to parry.
Ireli did not seem more appreciative when Laurent handed her back the practice sword and gestured for her to try it. “I came here to learn from my father the ways of fighting honorably amongst his people,” she said.
“I have learned much from Laurent myself,” said Damen. “He has made a great study of swordsmanship and it would be wise for you to listen to his instruction.”
Ireli made no further complaints, but she did not become especially welcoming of Laurent either.
Damen learned over the following weeks that Ireli was being groomed to be the clan chieftain after Halvik’s death. This seemed to be common knowledge amongst all seven of the girls, and after Kordil had left to return to the tribe for the season, the girls followed Ireli’s lead on matters of behavior. This made Ireli’s lack of respect for Laurent all the more frustrating to Damen.
Laurent himself shrugged it off, making a comment that he was accustomed to being underestimated, and that it was Damen’s fault for being an oversized giant who was always standing next to him and making him look out of proportion.
They had been preparing for bed at the time, so Damen had taken the opportunity to look Laurent over warmly and assure Laurent that he found him everywhere in proportion.
But when Ireli failed to hide her skeptical look toward Laurent the following week, Damen lost his patience. “You will fight with him,” said Damen.
Ireli turned her gaze on Laurent, and though she and Damen had the same shape to their brown eyes, Ireli’s look seemed to find Laurent wanting in ways that Damen’s never did.
“If you say so,” she said.
“It will be a lesson for you,” Damen said.
Laurent was kinder in his lesson to Ireli in the practice ring than he had been to Govart so many years before, though his skill in the ring had not deteriorated as he grew older. Laurent left Ireli with only bruises to her pride, and no true injuries. But Damen was pleased to see that she could recognize skill greater than her own when confronted with it, and hoped that she would treat Laurent with correspondingly greater respect while a visitor in Laurent’s home.
It seemed to have worked. By the time the two of them left the ring, Ireli regarded Laurent warily instead of skeptically, and she bowed at him with respect in the traditional fashion of opponents ending a well-matched set. Her sisters followed her example, and all of them treated Laurent with deference and grace.
Laurent shrugged his shoulders at the switch and it seemed to be to him no different whether they eyed him with suspicion or with respect.
“They are just like you,” said Laurent one morning at breakfast. “All seven of them -- I still cannot believe there are seven of them.” He laughed.
Damen was feeling somewhat frustrated that morning. “They are young, and hotheaded, and more stubborn than an unbroken stallion,” said Damen.
“As I said,” said Laurent. “It is as though you offended one of the fates and she wished on you seven copies of yourself in punishment.”
They had taken to speaking Akielon when they did not wish to be overheard, but Damen had spied three of the girls cornering one of the Akielon slaves in the garden recently and badgering the poor man into translating several common phrases for them, so Damen was uncertain how much longer that was going to be viable, and when the girls streamed in for breakfast they quieted their conversation.
Laurent was rarely ruffled, and not at all by Damen’s daughters -- he seemed to find them endlessly amusing -- so when Damen a few days later saw three of the girls--led by Ireli--purposefully go to confront Laurent alone in the garden, he did not hesitate to eavesdrop from behind a wall of greenery. The Veretians were holding a winter entertainment, which to Damen seemed a great excuse to wear elaborate fur costumes as they walked through the garden.
“Your grace,” Ireli said, and the other two girls who were with her made polite greetings in a more subdued fashion.
Laurent greeted each of them by name. He never seemed to struggle with their names, even the curly-haired twins who looked identical. “Are you enjoying the entertainment?” he said, the type of polite remark he might have made to any guest.
“It is not too frivolous,” said Ireli, which from her was a significant compliment for a Veretian event, and Laurent laughed lightly in response.
“I am glad it meets with your approval.”
“We wished to speak with you,” said Ireli.
Damen couldn’t see Laurent’s face from his position, but he could imagine the kind of lightly curious expression Laurent might have in the face of Ireli’s determination.
“And so?” said Laurent.
“You have proven yourself to be a strong fighter and worthy of respect,” said Ireli. “We wish to acknowledge your skill in the traditional Vaskian manner.”
Laurent was holding one of the goblets of warm beverages that the servants were passing out at the garden entrance. From what Damen could make out of his figure through the shrubbery wall, and he sipped from it before he replied. “Thank you,” he said, his tone even.
Ireli nodded, as though now something were settled between them. “We wish to bear your daughters.”
Laurent choked on his hot mulled wine, and Damen would have done the same if he’d been mid-swallow as Laurent had. Instead, he pressed his fist up against his mouth to stifle the laughter he could feel threatening to come out.
Laurent coughed again, and then seemed to gather back control of himself -- even a moment of surprise was unusual for Laurent. “Ah,” he said. “I’m very flattered by your respect, but I must tell you that my line doesn’t throw daughters at all.”
Anya, Ireli’s sister, was the one who responded, and she did so by quoting something in Vaskian. Ireli translated, “It is the strongest man with the strongest seed,” said Ireli. “It would be a very great service to us.”
“You lack an heir,” said Anya. Her Veretian was not as strong as her sister’s, but it had improved dramatically during her visit. “If we birthed boys, we could leave them here to be raised for that purpose.”
“I don’t think --” said Laurent, and Damen decided to rescue him, and purposefully created a great deal of noise as he walked around the corner of the garden hedge.
Laurent looked over with an expression of gratitude, and Damen greeted his daughters evenly.
“I am going to steal Laurent from you for a dance,” he told them, and bid them goodnight as he took Laurent’s arm and guided him across the garden.
Once they were out of earshot, Damen couldn’t help but chuckle. Laurent finished his wine and set the goblet on a bench.
“They are just as confounding as you are!” said Laurent.
“I suppose they come by it honestly,” said Damen. “I’m not sure you’re completely innocent in all of this, though.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said Laurent.
“Well, it wasn’t my idea to visit a Vaskian camp,” said Damen. “I was only there because of your business, and it was your plan to loan me out for stud services.”
Laurent sniffed. “I don’t recall that you required a great deal of persuasion.”
“Not like you,” said Damen. “Ireli is probably planning her second attack already.”
Laurent closed his eyes briefly. “I need another goblet of wine,” he said.
“Because you’re bracing for a defense, or for stamina?” Damen said, managing to keep a straight face until Laurent turned his glare Damen’s direction.
Laurent stayed close to Damen’s side the remainder of the night, and during evening entertainments for much of the season. Damen was somewhat pleased with Ireli’s fascination with Laurent, because her determination that Laurent was the most worthy father of her children at least meant that he did not have to deal with his daughters courting some untrustworthy Veretian noble that might have returned her affections.
“As if any man in court would dare,” said Laurent. “Bastardy isn’t the stigma it might have been twenty years ago, but with the king’s daughter?”
“What if someone offered marriage?” said Damen, suddenly horrified. A father’s life was never without something to worry about.
Kordil came at the end of the season to retrieve her charges again. The girls demonstrated all that they had learned from Damen’s instruction and Kordil nodded approvingly, and they departed in good humor, with plans for Damen to ride out toward the border during the summer months to meet up with them again for a visit. Damen embraced each of the girls warmly as they prepared their horses for departure, and Laurent stood next to him to offer a more contained farewell. They climbed up on to the ramparts to watch the girls ride off, and waved when they turned around to look behind them.
“Goodbye,” shouted Ireli, her voice carrying on the wind only faintly. “We will come back for the name day of the grandchildren!”
The eight women followed the road that led out of the city toward the foothills.
Damen turned to Laurent, standing next to him on the top of the city wall. “Did she say grandchildren?”