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~Tell him, I’ll wait for him at Ravenel.~
It’s feels like a well-worn path, this train of thought – of how, had anyone told him only months ago what he would weather and how he would come to feel in such a short while, Damen is sure he would have laughed in their faces.
Yet, the same sensation grips him tight when he realizes, there on the steps of Ravenel with the might of his countrymen kneeling before him, chanting his true name on top of their lungs, that it makes him uncomfortable. To be not only measured by the merit of his own deeds and personal bravery, but to receive this reverence purely based on the expectation that he should be their king, suddenly seems ill-fitted to the man he’s become.
He is stunned to discover about himself that the prospect of receiving a king’s glory, a thing that he that he thought himself groomed for and worthy of all his life, feels like false entitlement now, both undeserved and unwanted. The longing for his home and his people, his rightful place, has kept him going through the betrayal of his kin, the small and large indignities of his lot as a slave. But it is jarring and humbling at once: the loss and regaining of his sense of self, coming to see the world through the eyes of a man facing challenges so different from ones that Prince Damianos thought to be his highest achievements.
It’s a blow that lands with as much impact as the realization of just how deep the game ran that the Regent has been playing. Every path that Damen takes from here on out is designed to splinter him and Laurent to pieces; to run their jagged edges into each other until they bleed themselves dry, one way or the other.
In half-witted stupor, Damen pulls Nikandros to his feet, embarrassed now to find the wise and weathered warrior bowing to him, when not too long ago, this is how he would have expected to be honoured according to his station with barely a stray thought. He feels laid bare under the kyros’ watchful eyes. Nikandros is just starting to overcome his own surprise and instead wonder how the lost Akielon prince would come to command a Veretian border fort with the colours of the Crown Prince emblazoned on his flags.
Finally, this is the moment when Damen wonders if he hasn’t been behind a couple of steps behind again. Not only concerning the Regent’s machinations, but also the twists and turns of the man he’s grown to care for so deeply, the beautiful and familiar mystery. He puzzles if it’s possible that Laurent knows exactly who he’s left to greet his reluctant and fiercely bargained allies. Not just an Akielon, one of their own, but the one man who’d be able to ensure the treaty would hold past all the pitfalls of their people’s volatile history. Whether perhaps it’s Laurent’s patience for the game that’s stalling even the coldest, simmering hatred he has in his heart for Damianos of Akielos. Just long enough to topple the king on the opposite side of the board.
The question twists in his gut like a knife. Damen looks helplessly at the fist still holding the signet ring so tightly; the warm gold carving grooves into the flesh of his palm, while the metal encircling his wrist seems to grow heavier by the second. Sentiment, indeed. Nikandros, perhaps seeing the moment pass over Damen’s face in a flurry of emotions, saves him from further embarrassment by clasping his shoulder in a steadying grip. The touch shakes Damen out of his nightmarish reverie and Nikandros’ words come with simple acceptance:
“My liege, I believe we have much to discuss.”
It reminds Damen that, no matter who he is to himself, to Laurent or the men under his command, there is one promise he will keep above all else and it’s time to make good on it. The path is laid out in front of him in a moment of unexpected clarity, a plan come together through all the late nights pouring over maps and strategy, lit with nothing but a candle and subtle understanding.
Damen lifts his free hand to cover the one on his shoulder in a thankful grip.
“That we do, my friend, we do.”
~ Don’t be late. ~
And he isn’t.