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A Game of Pretend

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“I think,” said Laurent, in the careful tone that Damen had learned to pay attention to, “that it would be to our advantage if the Patran court did not realize that we had allied ourselves.”

They were relaxed in Laurent’s tent on their ride toward the border. The Akielon troops would have fallen over each other to set up a tent for their newly found lost king, but Damen found himself preferring to retreat to Laurent’s side nonetheless. He nodded, to show Laurent that he was paying attention. “But you will need to be there to recognize Jehan,” said Damen, “and I am the one with an invitation to visit Torgeir.”

“And we will need opportunities to consult together in private,” Laurent agreed. “I have come up with a plan.”

“And so?” said Damen.

Laurent explained.

***

Despite all of Laurent’s explanations, Damen could not really picture what it would be like to have Laurent pretending to be his slave until it was happening.

Laurent was shockingly good at it. Damen did not know how he had learned the behaviors of an Akielon favorite: if he had had instruction, and if so, from whom, or if he had simply observed carefully in his way, and then applied what he saw to his own behavior.

In either case, it was startling. Laurent, who so often commanded the attention of whatever group he was in, now faded into the background, standing a step or two behind Damen and so quiet that Damen hardly noticed when he was present. He performed a slave’s duties as if he had been born to them and nothing could bring him greater pleasure, and when the slaves served at meals, he appeared next to Damen with cups of Damen’s favorite drink and plates of the choicest foods.

It was Damen who was failing to perform his role. Laurent was a submissive shadow, tending to Damen’s needs and doing nothing that would have ever caused the slave master Adrastus to frown. But Damen could not play Laurent’s master. He found himself staring at Laurent, besotted with his movements. He found himself startled by Laurent’s appearances and disappearances and foresight of his needs. He thanked Laurent for things he ought to have taken for granted, he wondered how Laurent was able to find the kitchens and the cabinets where slaves must keep the supplies or how Laurent accomplished any of a dozen other tasks. He had never before wondered in much detail what it was that his slaves did when they were not right in front of him, but now he could no more keep his thoughts from an absent Laurent than he could his eyes from him when he was present.

Laurent handled the attention gracefully, preening very slightly as a favorite might with an obviously besotted master, and otherwise pretending not to notice Damen’s attentions and only trying to impress and flatter Damen with his service.

Torgeir noticed the two of them together, but drew all the wrong conclusions.

“I had heard what happened to your personal favorites,” said Torgeir quietly. “Tragic.”

It was a solemn thought. “They were devoted and undeserving of such brutality.”

Torgeir nodded sympathetically. “It is good that you have found another that pleases you so greatly.”

Damen found his eyes drawn toward Laurent helplessly. Laurent was across the room refilling Damen’s glass. “Yes,” Damen said. “Very fortunate.”

“I see you have not lost your weakness for blond hair,” said Torgeir, his tone lightening as Laurent returned to sit at Damen’s side, carefully bearing back a full glass.

And when Damen was so distracted by Laurent’s return that he lost the thread of Torgeir’s conversation, Torgeir was good-natured enough to simply wave it off with a smile.

***

Laurent himself was less forgiving.

When they retired for the evening to Damen’s chambers, Laurent dropped his subservience and blushing lowered gaze and was once again the man that Damen remembered, sharp in conversation and careful as they plotted.

Yet Damen himself could somehow not stop staring even when they were alone. He could not reconcile the two Laurents together. Laurent seemed no less himself when raising a goblet to Damen’s lips than he did when sprawled across the settee and speaking of a political coup, and Damen could not trust his own senses to tell him what was what. It made him question which Laurent was the true one. Or perhaps neither was. Perhaps Laurent was neither the creature Damen had first come to know nor the one he pretended to be in the Patran court; and he might be something else entirely that Damen had never seen. It was confounding.

“If I had realized how distracted you would become by my lowering of my gaze,” Laurent said finally, as Damen realized he had been staring once again, “I would have suggested an alternative disguise.”

“I am sorry,” said Damen. “I am paying attention. You were speaking of the search for Jehan.”

“It is no longer a search,” said Laurent, impatience in his voice. “Jehan is found. I was telling you of our discussion.”

“Yes,” said Damen. “I am listening.”

Laurent was silent for a long moment, staring at Damen in his own turn, his gaze contemplative.

“Is that really what you like?” said Laurent, tilting his head to one side thoughtfully.

“Finding Jehan?” said Damen.

“The bowing and the dancing and the serving,” said Laurent. “The manner of the Akielon slaves. It is really what draws your eye?”

“You draw my eye,” said Damen honestly.

“Moreso now than before,” said Laurent, looking inscrutable.

“Because I cannot puzzle you out,” said Damen. “I...worry that if you can pretend so easily to be something I believe that you are not, that then the other times when we are together might also be pretend, for you. And yet I want so badly to believe that they are genuine.”

Laurent laughed lightly, and it rang true to Damen’s ears. Laurent crossed the room to sit next to Damen on the settee he’d taken. “Oh, my straightforward Akielon,” said Laurent. “I thought you might enjoy a little deception.”

“I want you,” said Damen, his eyes drinking in Laurent’s bold gaze as Laurent sat next to him, and enjoying it more than he had the downcast glances of Laurent’s act.

“I know,” said Laurent. “The whole court knows. Men who have no idea who I am know that you want me.”

“I know who you are,” said Damen, already reaching helplessly toward Laurent’s body, resting one hand on Laurent’s upper arm and the other on his opposite shoulder, urging him to move in even closer. Laurent went willingly enough, letting Damen find his lips gently.

“Would it please you?” said Laurent, running a hand down Damen’s chest. “If I were to pretend for an evening to be your slave even when we were alone?”

“No,” said Damen, burying his face in the hollow of Laurent’s throat and breathing him in. “I want you as you are.”

Laurent made a considering noise. “And if it pleased me to pretend?”

“Whatever pleases you,” Damen said. The best thing about Laurent’s imitation of an Akielon slave was that it left him wearing a simple silk tunic rather than the elaborate laced affairs he wore in Vere. Removing the tunic was as simple as undoing the tie; it was the work of one hand and a single instant. Damen had not liked the way the tunic revealed so much of Laurent’s skin for the Patran court to see, but he enjoyed the ease with which it revealed Laurent completely to him alone.

“Would you be any better at pretending in the bedroom than you are in court?” said Laurent, reclining back on the settee and letting Damen settle above him.

“Probably not,” said Damen, and he sought to please Laurent in other ways that did not require him to be anything but genuine.