Their route had taken them toward the coast, and though they had yet to glimpse it, Damen knew that their steps curved about the sea. The air was different here, carrying salted breezes rather than dust and pine scents. Soon, they would cross over onto Akielon soil, and in time, he would stand in Ios.
For a few brief seconds, while the wind tugged at his memory, Damen closed his eyes and thought of home.
There was time for such indulgences. In four days, there was to be a rendezvous with Nikandros across the border. But Laurent, possessing an overdeveloped wariness of the unforeseen, had driven their contingent at a punishing pace, and they were a mere day's ride from the meeting point.
Laurent was on horseback to his left, and he was sparing no time for daydreaming. Eyes keen, he cast a long look at the sky.
It was a dismal sky, muffled with clouds and full of portent.
Laurent said, “The rain will hit before we arrive at the next town,” in a way he sometimes did now, musing and private, yet pitched so that Damen could hear. “We should make camp soon.”
The weather was yet contained, and with another few hours of riding, they would be met with warm food, warm quarters, and, for those who sought it, warm company. But Laurent was likely right. And the men would not complain about the change. That impulse had been trained out of them long ago.
“We’re too close to the river,” Damen said. “If it does rain, we’ll risk being mired in mud. We make our way west, and set up camp as soon as we reach higher ground.”
Laurent did not answer; his eyes were fixed on the darkening sky, his thoughts turned inward.
“It will save us time in the end,” said Damen. “Besides, we have little need for urgency. Thanks to you.”
This drew a glance. “If we don’t move quickly, we’ll be caught in a downpour. I consider that a cause for urgency.”
There was a note of vexation in Laurent’s tone that made Damen smile. “Are you worried that the rain will disturb your appearance?”
Laurent did not return his smile. But he never did, not when others were present to witness it. “You’ve taken to freedom as an unleashed hound might. Perhaps our proximity to your homeland is giving you airs.”
At the utterance of homeland, Damen felt his skin prickle. It was a reaction without reason. Of course he was Akielon, and of course this was known.
Laurent pulled hard on the reins of his horse. Imperiously, he said, “Westward, then. Inform the men,” before urging his horse toward the rocky slopes to the west, the acknowledgment of his order fully presumed.
* * * * *
The storm hit like an ambush, sudden and unforgiving. Fierce coastal winds sent their supplies tumbling and their pitched tents lurching, but there was work to be done, and Damen let neither himself nor the men relent.
The sky was still heaving violently when Damen fought his way to Laurent’s tent. He had been summoned by a page, who now announced him. Dismissed by a silent order, the page slipped out as Damen stepped inside.
The cause of the summons was not evident. Damen knew only that Laurent did not seek intimacy. They had not fallen into the habit of lovemaking since Ravenel. Indeed, little had changed. Damen wished it were not so. It did not seem that Laurent felt the same.
Laurent was at his desk. Though his shirt was fresh, even he had not managed to elude the rain. His hair had the look of being recently washed, and on a chair by the brazier, his jacket was hung to dry.
Someone else had helped him out of his jacket.
Damen looked away. That was no longer his duty, and the sight should not pain him so. He had been a slave and was now something else—a pawn, bandied between kings and commanders. This one stays with me, Laurent had told Nikandros, two weeks prior. He captains my troops, and I do not intend to dispense with his knowledge of the territory. Nikandros had agreed, had known not to betray his confidences.
“We rode past a waterfall yesterday,” Laurent said, after granting him a sweeping glance. There was a quality about his expression that wasn’t quite a smile. “If it was a bracing soak you were after, I would have permitted you a break.”
“Water dries,” Damen said. A few dripping curls hung over his face, and he pushed them out of the way. “Unlike you, I’m not bothered by rain.”
Laurent rose from his desk. Damen watched him as he crossed the floor, steps turned sly. He stopped before Damen. “Even so, you will serve nobody by creating a small lake in the middle of this tent.”
Damen could not tell what intention lay behind his words. For weeks, their evenings had been rife with wearying deliberations, battlelines drawn and redrawn, the contentions louder and more commonplace now that they were not two but four, sometimes five, with Nikandros and his men. Every evening had ended with an unravelling of the delegation, each retiring to his own tent. Every evening, he had waited to hear the word—stay—and heard nothing.
Even after Nikandros had taken his men east, Laurent had not asked after his company. He had not had reason to.
“I won’t stay long,” Damen said. “Why did you call me here?”
“Those are for you.”
Damen followed his gaze to a rack to his left, where a neat pile of clothes awaited. It was a second before he recognized them.
“From Nesson-Eloy,” Damen said, and he was helpless against the memory, at once sweet and complicated.
“From Nesson-Eloy,” Laurent agreed. “Although I don’t suppose you’ll need the jacket tonight, unless you’d like to play master and pet again.”
A silence stretched out in the space between them.
“You want me to change? Here?”
“You’re welcome to change outside. But you may find the results disappointing.”
Damen searched his expression and found only neutral expectancy.
“Are your objections with donning Veretian finery?” Laurent tilted his head, affecting concern. “You may receive my information in the nude, if you wish. I understand this is customary in even the majestic halls of Ios.”
Damen held his gaze for a few seconds more, then let it drop, finding nothing he could read. He began peeling off his sodden clothes, first the riding leathers, then the lighter underlayers, all of it already Veretian. His pants were next, and without looking at Laurent, he shed them, striving to match him in nonchalance. There was no reason for shame. They had been intimate, and he was known to Laurent.
He left his pants on the stand with the rest of it, and, ignoring the heat in his face, picked up the dry clothes Laurent had set out for him. They were as he remembered them, expensively cut and of refined material. He tugged on the pants first.
With a brief glance up, he realized that Laurent’s eyes were on him, too intent for the expression to be convincingly dispassionate.
It shorted Damen’s breath. He stopped, shirt forgotten in his hands. But Laurent said nothing, did not move.
Finally, Laurent said, “Is this meant to be a compromise?”
There was nothing to do but slip on the shirt, which sat loosely over his shoulders. It laced in the back, a frivolous design. It did not seem necessary to do up the laces. Damen turned to Laurent, ready to hear his news.
But Laurent stepped forward and said, “Let me,” and before Damen could understand, he was behind him. Damen could feel the brush of knuckles at his back, light and fleeting, and he closed his eyes to the precious offering of touch as Laurent made work of the laces.
“You proved to be invaluable at Nesson-Eloy,” Laurent said from behind him. “I expect your singular assets will be similarly useful tomorrow.”
Damen’s eyes opened, moment of heady enjoyment interrupted. “Tomorrow?”
“Our altered route will take us over a different river crossing. This should not surprise you. I know you have spent the last several nights scrutinizing maps of the borderlands.” Laurent paused, and when he spoke again, his voice was wry. “Your commitment to mastering the terrain surpasses even mine.”
“I know that Delpha sits on the other side of the river,” Damen said, frowning. “But that tells me nothing about what you have planned for tomorrow.” He was growing weary of his own ignorance, and he wanted to turn around and face Laurent, hear him state his mind and know just what he meant.
“The bridge in question resides within Lissos, formerly known as Lisieux, a coastal town of minimal consequence. Our scout has spun me a fearsome tale of the head of this town, and claims that passage is impossible.”
It took Damen a moment to place his misgivings. “But the head of such a town would answer to Nikandros, and therefore—”
“The Akielon crown, yes.”
He felt Laurent shift behind him, and as quickly as he had taken up the spot there, he was standing back before Damen, the presence of nimble hands no longer there. In the low evening flame, Laurent was numinous, and the refined fabric he wore suggested at the pale, silken skin beneath. His collarbone was exposed. Damen found his gaze drawn there. To trail a hand across it, slow and sensuous, would be a wonder.
Laurent, when he spoke, revealed no such desire. “So you see. I find my curiosity piqued. It would seem that the response to Marlas has not been favorable, even among the public.”
It was not in his favor to speak on Marlas. Nor, Damen realized, should he stare so openly, especially when such attention was not invited. Reluctantly, he lifted his gaze. Laurent looked back at him, the blue eyes placid. “So,” Damen said, “You intend to—what?”
“I intend to find answers to my many questions.”
“You will garner undue attention by appearing before such a town as a prince, or a pet.”
Laurent gave a single, perfunctory nod. “Here is a chance to hark back to your humble origins.” When Damen simply stared, Laurent raised his brows. “Dressing as common travelers will be disguise enough, I think.”
“That’s unfortunate. I liked when you played pet.”
“I think it was playing master that you enjoyed.” Laurent paused. He turned his head slightly, as he did when seeking refuge in his thoughts. Though motionless, he seemed balanced on the edge of a decision. He flicked a single glance at Damen, then returned to himself.
Damen waited, breath caught. In the stillness of anticipation, he was aware, suddenly, that his heart beat rapidly, racing against an unknown apprehension.
When Laurent turned forward again, he did not immediately act.
For a taut moment, they stayed like that, simply looking.
Then, unexpectedly, Laurent lifted a hand to his mouth, covering a stifled yawn, and the gesture was so impossibly human that Damen nearly took a step toward him. He fought down the surge of feeling in his chest. Laurent would not receive his touch, unsolicited, with kindness.
“Perhaps someday you will get another chance to play at master,” Laurent said, already turning—walking—out of reach. “But not tomorrow. Get some sleep. We ride at dawn.”
He retreated deeper into the tent, where his bedroll lay obscured by shadows, leaving Damen to stand there, wakeful, thoughts lost to the drumming in his heart and the relentless pelt of rain against canvas.
* * * * *
He woke to relative quiet. The storm had abated, but wind still lashed against the tent. Night was giving way to early morning, announced by the fluting call of birds and soft, trickling light, pulling apart shadows from the dark.
His eyes opened to the sight of Laurent across the tent, standing in the corner where he withdrew for sleep. He looked to be in the middle of dressing. Damen did not move, did not make a sound. It was a rare moment of peace, and he did not wish to disturb it.
He had lain awake long after Laurent had taken to bed, accompanied only by the measured rise and fall of breathing. Once the embers of the brazier had faded, there had been nothing to look at but muddled shapes in the dark, only some of them familiar from his time as slave.
In a few hours, he would find himself within the borders of Akielos. These days, he moved forward with the knowledge that every step brought him closer to reclaiming the throne, and closer to when he must disavow all that had arisen in Vere.
He could see Laurent now, though the corner where he stood had not been touched with light. He had already changed into pants that a man of modest means might wear on the road, coarse but practical. He was now pulling off the shirt that he had worn to bed.
The sight of him, exposed like that, was instantly arousing. There was a plain of unblemished skin, and it was all laid bare: his straight back, the proud shoulders, arms that were accustomed to expert swordwork.
Damen turned away. It was not the time for amorous feelings.
The movement did not escape Laurent’s notice. “I was thinking about how I might wake you,” Laurent said, and his voice, though low like the morning sun, carried across the tent. “Some of the ideas were quite inventive.”
Damen allowed a few moments to pass, then shifted back to face Laurent, feigning the half-consciousness of a man still shedding his slumber. “A simple tap on the shoulder would have sufficed.”
“I prefer not to stop at sufficient,” Laurent said, adjusting the shirt he had pulled on. Against the weathered cream of the material, his skin fairly gleamed. He was no longer dressed in the finery of a prince. “When you see fit to rise for the day, you’ll find your clothes laid over there.”
Damen was urged to alertness, by the remark as much as by the discipline of his habits. Outside, the sounds of morning were growing more insistent.
Laurent came toward him and settled into a nearby chair. “Having to change twice within the span of a few hours. Are you annoyed?”
It hadn’t occurred to him to be annoyed last night. He picked up the shirt that would serve as his disguise. It did not feature the same excess of laces that aristocratic fashions did. “No,” Damen said, “But do you always bring along variously sized outfits on your military campaigns?”
“This is my first,” Laurent said, “So I really couldn’t say.”
Damen’s focus was occupied by the task of removing his shirt. It was not difficult to loosen the laces in the back, but Laurent did not approach to help as he did last night. He simply watched, head propped loosely against his hand.
Damen tugged the shirt over his head and removed the rest of it, changing quickly.
Outside, the air was pure and sharp, like the bite of a blade, and the light had turned to blush. The land surrounding them glistened with fresh rain.
They readied their horses wordlessly. All around them stirred sounds of nature, puddling waterdrops and gusting breezes. Mud squelched beneath their boots. Had they stayed on their original course, they would have fared far worse.
Laurent wasted no time at all. They mounted their horses, and Laurent took off south, Damen following suit.
* * * * *
The land around them shifted from one stretch to the next, and they rode on companionably, finding little need to talk. They rode first across rocky slopes that were strewn with gravel, then over vast green expanses that Damen associated with childhood visits to portside towns.
Lush plains turned to forest, populated sparsely with evergreen trees.
Laurent slowed his horse. “Lissos is just over this slope. You have arrived home at last. Shall I allow you a moment for revelry?”
Only now did Damen permit himself to turn toward Laurent and take him in, as he had not done since this morning.
Laurent’s eyes narrowed at Damen’s expression. “Yes?”
Damen knew he was grinning. For even in a drab traveler’s cloak, Laurent had the bearing of royalty. With his chin lifted and his back unerringly straight, he exuded the effortless authority of the highborn. More than that: he exuded a cold, exacting arrogance that was all his own.
“You hold yourself like a prince,” Damen said, still amused—even more so by the way that Laurent frowned at him. “Your clothes have changed, but you haven’t. Not at all. And—” There was the fact of the discrepancy, but there was something else, too… a feeling that Laurent would be recognizable under any circumstance, regardless of his appearance. “And you have the look of a prince,” Damen finished, less certainly.
“I can only do so much to remedy that. But I suppose…” Breaking eye contact, Laurent paused, looking straight ahead—then tipped his chin down and caved forward a little, letting his shoulders drop. The changes sat awkwardly on him, but they had the right effect, diminishing the hauteur. Damen could not help his stare. This was yet another facet of Laurent he had never before observed.
The look on Laurent’s face was oddly strained, and, watching his expression, Damen realized that this was Laurent, self-conscious and without his usual means of hiding it.
“It’s alright,” Damen said, “Nobody else knows you’re here. Your reputation won’t be tarnished.”
Laurent turned a lofty eye on him.
Before Damen could offer further reassurance, an arrow whistled past. All at once, he had his sword drawn and his horse on alert, full focus swung to the threat at hand. The arrow had missed its mark widely and planted in the trunk of a nearby tree. But there was the sound of hooves pounding dirt, and then riders were upon them, a group of four. Their bodies were slight, and over their faces clung masks of black leather and discolored metal, like those of an executioner.
They circled briefly, holding still across the grove, and then two of them charged, swords aloft. Damen knew without looking to Laurent which rider they would each take, and he dealt easily with the blow aimed his way. It was a clumsy blow, one that might not have landed even without his parry. Beside him, Laurent simply dodged his attacker, not bothering to waste energy blocking the fumbled stroke.
There was not a second round of attacks. Their two assailants galloped back toward the group, and all four disappeared through the smattering of trees at the top of the incline.
“Formidable,” Laurent murmured, after a moment’s pause. “We should have brought a battalion.”
Damen frowned in the direction the riders had gone. That way led into town. Bandits would not flee toward the bustle; their domain lay in the wild, unguarded space between. And there were other signs that something was amiss.
“Did you see?” Damen said, turning to Laurent. “There was no technique to their fighting. If they hadn’t been trying to kill us, I would’ve dismounted and shown them the right way to wield their weapons.”
To Damen’s surprise, this provoked in Laurent a laugh, and, more than anything else, it transformed him. Laurent seemed surprised at himself and turned away a little, taking back the remnants of the moment.
After a few seconds, he said, with a look back at Damen, “Your nation is already proving my suspicions correct. I have always known Akielos to be a lawless and barbarous wasteland.” While the slight was delivered, the adopted diffidence of Laurent’s posture did not waver.
“They would have grown up under the rule of Vere.”
“So it was only later that they fell prey to the civilizing effects of Akielon culture.”
Damen fell silent, thoughts returned to the skirmish. “Maybe they fought so poorly because they could not see out of their masks.” It had not been clear in the thick of the encounter, but it was clear to him now that the whole affair had been ridiculous. The thought of their attackers’ failings preoccupied him for some seconds, so that he nearly missed the amusement that flitted over Laurent’s face.
“Give them a chance. Perhaps they will prove to be worthwhile adversaries.”
“Not within the day,” Damen said, directing his horse toward the incline.
* * * * *
The town of Lissos sat against the edge of a sloping cliff, its eastern border stretching off into fertile grasslands. It was over these grasslands that they approached, an initial smattering of domed, hay-thatched stone houses piquing the eye.
They spotted a stable on the outskirts of town, suitable for their horses, though only after some convincing did Laurent concede that there was no better place to leave them.
“Our horses will be whisked away by some hooded figure,” Laurent said as they neared the stable. No others had tried to thwart their advance; they saw only milling townspeople, a few dozen making their way down the cobblestone road. Damen looked toward the distance and saw that the bustle thickened closer to a towering archway, which must lead to the town center. “We will then miss our rendezvous, lose the kingdom, and be forced to while away our days as vagrants.”
“If we lose our horses,” Damen said, “I’ll carry you back.”
Laurent passed him by, but not quickly enough for Damen to miss the smile he attempted to conceal.
Several townspeople gazed up at them, whispering as they rode past. Laurent could sit as casually as he liked; his face, astonishing by nature and kept flawless by a lifetime of pampering, was not one to evade notice. But as Damen looked to the townspeople, intending to observe them covertly, he realized that their focus was not on Laurent. He himself was where their deliberating gazes hung, held unbroken during the time it took for them to ride up to the stable. Some of them leaned toward each other in quiet conference, nodding. He was used to being gawked at for his size, but this was something more.
The stable was open to air, and two women stood just within the entrance, tending to a mare. As Damen dismounted, the shorter woman, her hair only a shade darker than Laurent’s, stepped in close and said quickly, “You are here to compete, are you not? Do you know how to fight?”
Most likely, they were referring to some springtime festival, wherein the strongest fighters among neighboring villages might gather for a few spirited bouts.
“I know how to fight,” Damen said, “But that isn’t why we’re here. My companion and I have learned that travelers may not cross your bridge. We want only to find out why, and to offer what help we can, if something troubles this town.”
Laurent had dismounted and was now watching him, face carefully blank. Only now did Damen realize that the woman spoke in a lilting dialect of Akielon, one to which a foreign speaker would not be accustomed. Either Laurent did not understand, or he did, and was forming an unfavorable judgment of what was said.
But if there was disapproval there, Damen dismissed it. They were far from the heart of Vere, and they did not need to speak in serpentine twists.
The women exchange glances; the taller licked her lips, fretful. “Nothing troubles this town,” she said. “You have heard falsely. It is only weapons that are not allowed across. Such is our law.” Her voice stuttered and her gaze fell, seemingly affixed.
Damen looked down and realized that his grip had tightened around the hilt of his sword. Abashed, he let the hand uncurl, forced his fingers loose at his side.
“We have traveled widely. This is the first we have come upon such a law.” This was Laurent, outwardly civil, the hunting curiosity hidden away. Though his accent tripped along the hard, jutting sounds of the language, his meaning was clear, his vocabulary ample.
“It is how our ruler keeps the order.”
“Nikandros of Delpha is known for plucking fighters skilled in swordwork from the citizenry, is he not?”
A few seconds lapsed, as confusion resolved itself into understanding. “Lissos is Akielos in name only,” said the blonde woman. “Since the war, we have seen neither soldiers nor delegations. We have not considered the royal family in Ios, nor the Kyroi, our rulers in many years.”
The information curled in Damen’s gut, settling there like an ill-tasting brew. He had only ever heard his father discuss Delpha in the blustering tones of a triumphant prizewinner, and he himself had not thought to question how the coastal towns might have fared in reverting from Veretian to Akielon on the outcome of one brutal swordfight.
“Preventing an influx of weapons seems a challenge,” Laurent said, “When the people of this town do not carry weapons of their own.”
The blonde woman turned an eye to him, her voice jagged with nerves. “We have not the means to stop you. We will only be punished for our neglect.”
None of them spoke. To the side, the mare pawed the dirt and made a low, keening sound.
Then Damen started forward, pulling off his scabbard. In his mind, his aim was clear. He was not intimidated by unskilled fighters, armed or not, and he would free the town of its unease.
A hand clasped his arm; Damen looked down into Laurent’s face. There was an extended pause, in which Laurent regarded him, inscrutable.
“Excuse us,” Laurent said, and pulled Damen to the side, where gaps in the stable revealed the land—green plains stretching away, rifling in the breeze. There was the illusion of peace.
They came to a sheltered indent, shaded from the morning sun. Laurent stood very close, still gripping his arm. “It could be a trap.”
Damen freed his arm. It would not help to meet Laurent’s gaze, so he did not. There was little space here, and he was aware of Laurent’s body the way he might anticipate an opponent’s movements on the battlefield, a tingling in his skin, an alertness on his periphery. “It’s not a trap,” he said. “Their distress was plain to see.”
“Distress can be feigned.”
“Not like that.”
“If the words they speak are truth, and not falsehoods designed to ensnare, we can gather that the town suffers from simple corruption.” Laurent spoke carefully, as though picking his way through the sentence, word by word. “Those were not brigands at all, but a vigilante troop run amok. We have acquired the information we traveled here for.” Beneath the shade of the awning, the blue of his eyes had darkened to slate.
Damen knew the nature of Laurent’s suggestion, and he would not bow to it. “We are needed,” Damen said, simply. His head throbbed with urgency, but he could not bring himself to leave. Remaining here between the confines of the cool, stone wall was no less appealing than stalking off. At the edges of his mind glimmered a dangerous memory, of when he’d last had Laurent before him against a wall of dark stone. “We have the means to help.”
“Even you must realize the naiveté of relinquishing your weapon in a town of unknown threat.” Laurent had gathered about himself his customary haughtiness, in tone and carriage. “If you seek a quick death, I would suggest leaping off one of the cliffs we passed on our way here.”
“We do not need swords to help. They likely sent out the most highly skilled of their band to patrol the borders, and we dealt with them easily.”
“You underestimate the advantage of a weapon.”
“Will you leave this town to live in terror?”
“I will do what is necessary,” Laurent said sharply. “I am a prince on the brink of my reign. And you—you are my captain, and the fate of a kingdom turns on our word.”
“As do the lives of hundreds. Perhaps thousands. Return to camp without me, if it comes to that. I am no longer yours to command.”
Laurent did not answer. His gaze was askance and his body rigid, mouth an unforgiving slash. Damen watched him, hearing the uneven sound of his own breathing. He felt in himself a feverish anger, knotted tightly with an emotion he would not name. It did not matter whether the town was Akielon or Veretian. To abandon it to an unscrupulous ruler was an act of pure neglect.
At last Laurent faced him, and the tempest was wiped from his features. “We do not stray from the main road,” he said. “With a tournament comes crowds, and we are unlikely to be dispatched before the eyes of the public. This is a guess. Let us hope it is a correct one.”
* * * * *
The main road was alive with morning activity, some townspeople carrying large woven baskets of fresh fruit or bread, others dragging along bundles of garments for washing. Though on occasion, laughter cut through the clatter, the faces they passed seemed drawn with trepidation.
They had been searched for weapons, thoroughly. Damen had watched the blonde woman run her hands over Laurent and felt within himself the unfurling of an unwilling desire. The dark-haired woman had not been forthcoming on the particulars of the ban, nor receptive to his attempts at lighter conversation, and when a clang in the far corners of the stable—a routine sound, likely made by a fallen yoke or a pile of horseshoes—interrupted the quiet, both women had started and ushered them off, search concluded.
Beside them ran low, stone walls that were draped with fabric and strewn with delicate flowers, and twin channels of water, one on each side. The markings of a festival were present, but even the mood of those gathered in groups by the water, or upon the walls, seemed subdued. They wore fashions that crossed styles Damen recognized, loose, draping tunics that were pale in color, with billowing sleeves, and laces for decoration primarily. It was not quite like home, but neither was it the disconcerting opulence of the Veretian court.
The low-roofed stone buildings drew closer together now that they approached the town center. There was one behind the initial row that appeared to be abandoned, an overgrowth of weeds crowding a gaping entryway.
Damen paused, an idea forming. He signaled to Laurent and wove between passers-by to get to it, ducking under the frame.
It was a diminutive building. It may have served as a shed, once, but now it was splitting apart at the edges and exposed to air, the supports blackened like soot, ground matted in dirt.
Damen searched the interior of the structure for something that would suit his purpose, running a hand along a protruding metal rod along the back. He glanced at Laurent, who had followed him and stood just outside the structure, frowning slightly. The pretension was gone and the coolness receded, and yet, Damen felt that Laurent had remained distinctly himself. It occurred to him that he was glimpsing a truth beneath the veneer.
He wanted to make Laurent understand. He did not want Laurent to face this alongside him out of obligation. “I feel that I—we—are responsible for them,” Damen said, testing the ends of the rod. It would suit. “I can’t simply turn away from those who may need help.”
“I know,” Laurent said, eyes on Damen’s hands, which now ran over the rusted frame to which the rod was attached. “That has been apparent since your arrival in Vere. Your penchant for heroism can be—vexing.” The words ended curtly, and it was unclear whether he had simply halted the thought. But he did not go on.
Damen gripped the metal in both hands, muscles straining. He shifted his weight, and the structure creaked, sending down a waft of dust. After a moment’s resistance, the rod came free in his hands. It was perhaps two feet long, and would be an adequate substitute.
With the grim satisfaction of seeing a task through to its end, Damen looked back at Laurent, whose brow had lifted. “Do you insist on ripping apart buildings in every town you visit?”
“Do you want one?” said Damen.
“I prefer a more delicate weapon.”
Back on the road, the crowd had thickened further, bringing with it shouts and chatter and the ruckus of early morning trade.
They walked on, every so often forced to break apart as an overeager merchant or a parent clutching a straying child pushed their way past.
After a while, Laurent spoke. “I did not survive my uncle’s court by cultivating a tender heart.”
It was, Damen realized, a protraction of a prior thought. Laurent’s gaze, when Damen looked at him, was fixed straight ahead. “You are fighting to end your uncle’s hold over the court,” Damen said, “So that you might rule differently, with fairness and compassion both.”
A gaggle of children raced past them, laughter lifting to the air. Damen nearly did not hear the next words, so quietly they came. “As Auguste would have,” said Laurent, almost to himself, and did not say more.
The archway that preceded the town center was packed tightly with people, and they passed through it with some difficulty. He had enjoyed wandering the marketplaces of Ios, and did it often enough that his people grew used to his presence and accepted him as one of the crowd, much to the dismay of his most watchful tutors and attendants. But he did not know whether Laurent had ever found himself amid a bold, asserting crowd before. It was yet another thing he did not know.
Damen felt his elbow knock against a crate, hard enough to jostle its contents. As he turned to apologize, his eye caught on a loud crimson banner within the wall of the archway.
Damen balked; it featured an embroidered lion’s head and closely resembled the mark of Akielon royalty, the mark that decorated his pins and brooches, that spanned banners behind the high table. He stared—too long, he realized. He dared not turn to meet Laurent’s eyes. Impatient bodies were shoving past him, so he moved forward.
Finally, he let his gaze land to his left.
Laurent was not there. Laurent was not anywhere beside him.
Damen swore. Laurent had never been difficult to spot before, standing out easily in most situations, but here, the crowd was crammed tight, dozens of heads featured the same glinting blonde, and Laurent was not dressed to draw the eye.
Damen rose to full height and pressed onward through the crush, scanning. Like Laurent, his own coloring was matched by many in the throng, but he had the advantage of size. Laurent would be able to sight him more easily than he could sight him.
Laurent had been right, at least—any potential assailants would have found it impossible to reach them here, let alone strike against them without attracting notice.
He felt hands pushing at his back, and thought these the actions of especially hasty villagers. But the encroachment was joined by tugs on his forearm, and he looked down and saw that he was being pulled toward the side by a group of four young women, hair shrouded by muted veils. For a brief moment, he considered extracting himself from their grasps. It would not be difficult.
“We have something to give you,” said one of them, and the uncertainty waned. If he did not locate Laurent now, he would find him in the marketplace, their agreed-upon destination. This was a chance for information.
The crowd had thinned only a little here between the two ramshackle houses, where they had pulled him, and they took his hands and pressed into them an assortment of objects, knotted ribbons and seashells and beads of glass. “Tokens of luck,” the tallest of them said, standing on her toes and pecking his cheek. “See that you make it to the tournament unscathed, and see that you win.”
They streamed away from him, and he could not reach out to stop them without upending their tokens of favor. “Wait!” he called, “The ones in the masks—who are they?”
The last of them turned; whereas before, they had all seemed breathless with hope, her features were frosty. “They are meant to defend our town,” she said, and slipped away into the crowd.
* * * * *
He pushed through the swarm on the main road as quickly as he could, eager to reconvene with Laurent. It was no easy feat. The throng now included braying livestock and yipping dogs, in addition to people hefting outsized goods and hawking wares.
He was nearly to the mouth of the marketplace, marked by a crimson banner strung across two final squat buildings, when a shout seized his attentions.
A moment later, the source became clear: in a nearby alcove was a boy of sandy hair, barely on the cusp of adulthood, arms full with a broad, shallow basket of unshucked oysters. A boy of greater age had leaned his lank body over him, hand braced on the wall, the arm bracketing his space. His leer promised nothing kind.
Though they were a short distance from the main road and beneath the shadow, the shout had been audible over the commotion, and yet, Damen had not seen anybody else turn their way. The younger boy was pushing against the other boy’s chest, now, and the older boy simply moved closer, easily dislodging the hand and taking it in his own. Escaping would have required the boy to drop his basket.
Damen pulled away from the crowd and strode toward them. His awareness of the surrounding bustle dropped away. Beneath his skin, a familiar intensity seethed, and his heart beat loudly in his chest.
“Your position doesn’t impress me,” the younger boy was saying, attempting to turn away but having no place to go.
The older boy grinned, took the clasped hand and brought it to the hilt at his side. “How about my sword? Does that impress you?”
The hilt flashed in Damen’s memory; he had seen it earlier that day.
Damen stopped just short of the older boy. There he stood, allowing his bulk to make its impression. “Your sword impresses no one, as you do not even know how to wield it.”
The older boy’s face contorted. He had not the studied control of someone used to masking his feelings. In the lapse of his harasser’s awareness, the younger boy wrenched his hand away.
There was a screech of unsheathed metal, and the boy stepped into an inelegant stance, sword tipping forward.
Fighting an unschooled adolescent would be pointless. There were easier ways to disarm him. He would not even need his makeshift weapon. The boy lunged and Damen sidestepped him easily, moving around to stand at his back. He shot a hand forward in an upward knocking motion, loosening the knuckled grip.
It was over in a second; the sword was now his.
The boy’s face froze in stupefaction.
It then grew scarlet and ugly with defeat, but even he had the wits not to start a fight with neither weapon nor skill.
“Is this how you defend your town?” Damen said, knowing that his own face was writ with disgust. “By terrorizing the people that you seek to protect?”
Undaunted, the boy met his eyes with undisguised scorn. “We have already seen you,” he said, voice soft, dangerous, “And we will see you until you meet your end in Lissos.” He turned, darting off into the alleyway.
Damen snorted at his retreating sight. The scabbard bobbed uselessly against the boy’s leg as he ran. He would likely be equipped with another sword, but perhaps the encounter would dampen the pride that fueled his malice.
“That was a clever trick,” said a voice at his side. It was the boy with the sandy hair, basket of oysters intact. The only sign of the confrontation was a faint flush to his cheeks. “I hope you’re planning on fighting.”
“In the tournament, you mean.” Damen dangled the sword from his fingers, feeling slightly foolish for having no place to store it. The consequences for having it were unknown, but he could not simply leave it for someone to misuse. “All I know about it is that I am already a favored contestant, even without having signed up.”
The boy nodded, watching the crowd stream past. “Perhaps that is why you have been accosted so. You don’t seem like a typical candidate. The ones who volunteer are usually wild with zealousness.”
“So it is a worthy prize.”
“The right to rule this town. I suppose it is appealing to some. On festival day, people lose their heads with hope around travelers who look to be fierce warriors, for our ruler, an arrogant but consummate fighter, has promised to step down if bested.”
“But that is one person, and you are many,” Damen said, shaking his head. “Even against an armed group of no skill, even without true weapons yourselves, you can fight, and win.”
The boy’s gaze flicked over him, a keen look that missed nothing. His answering stare was remote, laced with something like pity. “You are quick to offer a solution, but it is not so easy. You should know, more have noticed you than have come forward. It’s not very safe to, you see.” He ducked his head as he said this, and gazed up at Damen in silent apology. “What you did was appreciated. I hope I’ll see you in the ring.”
“Wait,” Damen said, for the boy had already started off. “Take this, in case there is further trouble. It is not technically a weapon, but you can use it as one. Like this.”
He demonstrated, and offered the rod to the boy. The boy took it gingerly, stared at the thin length of metal. He did not seem accustomed to holding anything like this, but at least he would have something. “Thank you,” he said, uncertainly, tucking it into the loose folds of his jacket, and then he was gone, yet another nameless face in the throng.
Damen watched the boy disappear into the pack. His gaze idled, thoughts churning.
He did not know what kind of perverse mind would set brutes upon innocents while so openly inviting confrontation. A single defeat would not rid the town of its problems. But it would be a start. Cut off the head, and the rest would soon tumble.
If he fought, he would almost certainly win. Few people could best him in close combat. This was simply the state of things, and he understood it absent of ego.
His mind was made by the time he pushed his way back into the flurry of people, all intent on the market.
He would fight.
* * * * *
The marketplace was vivid with movement and hustle. Shouted proclamations punctuated the din of wares examined, orders haggled, trades conducted. The stands were jumbled, and all around him was novelty: giant boiling pots of stew and sizzling meats that he did not recognize, accompanying aromas spicing the air. There were expansive bolts of delicate cloth and stand after stand of finely wrought crafts with pale, milky coloring. Some goods he recognized: bundles of dark, withered herbs encircled with string; bushels of nectarines and mandarins and plums, and slender amphorae carefully arranged, but patterned in white and blue rather than black and red.
He moved along the packed rows systematically, alert to anyone whose hair shone yellow under the late morning sun. Some part of him wished that he had not advised Laurent to alter his bearing. He knew intimately the slanting line of Laurent’s typical posture, and would have found his eye drawn to it.
He stopped only once, to purchase a sheet of leather to wrap around the sword he had liberated, and ties to fasten it to his person.
The sun was visible in the sky now, unskirted by clouds. Though he had hastened his pace, more time had passed than should have. He was beginning to feel a verge of panic when at last, he spotted Laurent just a few feet away, deep in conversation with a woman selling ceramics.
Relief sank into him, and with the charge of the discovery, he reached for Laurent, clasping a hand to his shoulder. He could now share his plan, and together, they would root out the sources of peril in Lissos.
Laurent turned, displaying only the faintest signs of surprise. “Ah,” Laurent said, and Damen was amazed to see him smile. “You’ve made it. Perhaps you have an opinion on the matter: do you believe the Crown Prince of Akielos to be truly dead?”
It was like a hammer to the face, and wholly unexpected. His body thundered with shock, and he could do nothing but stand there mutely, the question ringing through his head.
He had stepped back without knowing it. He was not aware of what reactions came over his face. Neither could he find any hints in Laurent’s expression, for it held steady and patient.
“Yes,” Damen said finally, finding it hard to push the words out, his mouth gone dry. “Of course. That is common knowledge.”
“So you see,” Laurent said, shrugging at the artisan. “Opinions vary.” He picked up a ceramic and rotated it slowly, inspecting. He then held it up to Damen’s sight. “We might place it atop our mantel. What do you think?”
Damen did not know what to think. The blow had not yet subsided. He did not know what to do, in this moment when all should have shattered apart and yet nothing changed.
He waited—for what, he was not sure—and his insides writhed painfully. But Laurent did not unsheathe a sword and demand of him his truth. His expression did not harden to ice; there was no vicious lash of words.
Laurent’s face was calm, tended only by faint bemusement.
Damen felt his breath return, and through the pall of trepidation came the growing realization that his secret was yet safe, and another realization: that this was a game.
For Laurent still held in his hand the ceramic, and only now did Damen see it. It was small and strangely shaped, like two circles stitched together, edges overlapping.
But before he could speak, Laurent said, “Was this the cause of your delay?” His stare was on the leather-wrapped shape appended to Damen’s side. Much of it was obscured beneath his cloak, but Laurent was perceptive.
“No,” Damen said, tugging his cloak forward to properly conceal it. “It belonged to one of the riders who attacked us. He was harassing someone, so I took it from him.”
“You took it from him,” Laurent repeated, and there was an interval of silence. “How intent you are on violating this ban. You have nothing to compensate for, I assure you.”
He held the ceramic before Damen once more. “Will a gift restore your wilted pride? I find it pleasing. Is it to your liking?”
“I am not sure of its use.”
It was as though his remark had inflicted the deepest offense. Shaking his head, Laurent said, “It is art. Its import cannot be reduced to mere utility.”
“It is very nice,” Damen said quickly, glancing at the artisan. Her dark hair curled as his did, and her eyes were on him. “The colors especially. But if you are going to buy an object of art, a plate or a cup would be preferable.”
Laurent shared with the artisan a rueful look. “Excuse his ignorance. He grew up in squalor, and cannot help the consequences of his wretched upbringing. I have fought to right his tastes, but sometimes I think it would be easier to accept his faults.”
A protest began to form on Damen’s lips. Then he remembered what this was: a charade. Laurent would have a reason for playing pretend. And so he fought the urge to roll his eyes and said instead, “There is no space on our mantel for more artwork. You have filled our home to bursting with trinkets.”
Laurent turned to face him, wide-eyed. It was convincing; an onlooker might think him hurt. “I have always known you did not appreciate my eye for beauty.”
Even as a fiction, it was captivating to watch Laurent talk and move in this way, the imperiousness traded for an unassuming nonchalance.
“It’s not that I don’t. I simply want to be able to move freely in my own home.”
“If every corner were not strewn with your shiftless weaponry, you would not have such difficulty.”
Damen laughed. “Ungainly,” he corrected, gently. “Or did you mean unsightly?”
“Both,” Laurent retorted. His response did not falter, but the brazen affect was ruined by a creep of pink across his cheeks.
Damen found himself drawn, helplessly, to the gilded flirtation. For an insubstantial second, he imagined a lifetime of this: the ease of it, the simplicity. Careless hours flitting by, Laurent teasing and laughing and affectionate. He pushed the thought aside. It was better that Laurent’s sentiments were not genuine.
“Ah—” The ceramic seller lifted a cautious hand, ceasing their exchange. There was a note of alarm to her expression. Perhaps she expected the needling remarks to erupt into bickering, not knowing that this was Laurent at his warmest. “I did not wish to interrupt your—discussion. But the guard will soon make their rounds, and I wish to tell you that I have considered your words, and will do as you advised. And…” She lowered her voice, leaned in toward Damen. “You must be prudent. Carrying a weapon will surely attract notice.”
There was no reason to hide what was plain to see. “You are right,” Damen said, “But to leave it with anyone else would put them at risk. And it must not be left behind for those who might abuse it.”
Worry rose to her face, and she touched his hand, lightly. “Only be careful. For the fight later.”
A breath passed, and Damen nodded. He was aware of Laurent beside him, watchful.
“Lissos will welcome your rule,” the woman said, and then looked to Laurent. “You must keep the piece for luck; it will return your beloved safe to you.” And, with the apprehension lifting a little, she said to Damen, “It is a small piece. I hope it will not obstruct your path at home.”
Damen returned her smile. Duty had brought him here, and it comforted him to know that his instincts were true. For the people of Lissos, he would fight.
He felt a hand slip into his, and startled to see that it was Laurent’s.
“Everyone must gather, remember,” said Laurent to the woman, and Damen found himself tugged forward.
He was forced to wend past townspeople heaving bags and baskets and parcels, and had to quicken his pace to keep abreast of Laurent. He ducked his head to Laurent’s ear so that his words would not go unnoticed. “What are you doing?”
Laurent was all innocence. “What do you mean?”
“This,” Damen said, lifting their clasped hands, “And—and the mantel that we do not have. In the home that we do not share.”
“A stranger discerned that we were lovers within minutes of observation,” Laurent said. “I wonder how it is not clear to you.”
Nothing was clear to him, but Damen did not say it. “This is… a game.”
Laurent regarded him evenly. “You have stumbled upon comprehension at last,” he said, after a beat. “I thought an additional layer of pretense might be wise.”
They had stopped at a stand across the row. A crudely made sign was attached to a post, boasting in Veretian and Akielon and a third, unknown language, of its broad selection of curatives, both natural and talismanic.
“I am going to enter the tournament,” Damen said, following Laurent with his gaze. “Do you object?”
“If you cannot resist your barbarous impulses, let it be in an arena. At least there, any transgressions will be witnessed en masse.”
He released Damen’s hand and greeted the vendor, a small woman with a sun-creased face and a train of grey hair. Bending down to scrutinize an array of small jars, some containing a gnarled root, others containing powder, Laurent said, “You’ve been stressed as of late,” and skimmed a finger along the labels on each jar, as though looking for one in particular. “Perhaps this will help.” He plucked one out from the row and straightened, showing it to Damen. The crimped handwriting on the label read, Vanishes Anxiety: Beetle Horns, Crushed.
“I’m not stressed,” Damen said, frowning.
“He doesn’t like me to worry,” Laurent explained to the peddler. “But I can tell that he’s stressed.”
“You will want to avoid stress, if you are entering the tournament,” she said sagely. “It is an arduous task that awaits. But my goods will aid you.” She ducked behind her table and produced a flat wooden box, which she held out to Damen. “Contained within is a talisman, which will raise its wearer to power. Just two gold pieces, for an object of untold worth.”
Damen held up a declining hand and shook his head. She switched her attentions to Laurent. “I have seen it work firsthand. You wish for him to win, do you not?”
Laurent splayed his hands, a picture of remorse. “Alas, we are humble wanderers, with hardly enough coin to fill our stomachs each night. You see his size. He requires a vast quantity of food to be satisfied.” And then, an afterthought: “Perhaps that is why he has been so anxious lately.”
The seller eyed Damen. “You may not even need a talisman to win, the way you tower over us all. Have you Vaskian in your blood?”
The question bewildered Damen; he had never before been attributed to another nation.
Laurent cut in effortlessly. “He does not, but we don’t claim to be from any country. Wherever we may have been born, we are defined now by where we journey. Lissos seems to share this philosophy.”
“That may be, but we have had our share of negligent rulers. We are wary of those who seek to fight.” She leaned back, craning her neck to assess Damen in full. Her deliberation seemed to last an age. “I sense that you would do well to lead us.” She put a hand against her mouth in a comical show of furtiveness, drawing toward Laurent in close congress. “His eyes are very kind, are they not?”
Their gazes settled on Damen, the woman’s admiring and weathered, Laurent’s speculative, striking in its youth. “One might say that,” Laurent said finally. “Tell me, how has your business fared in recent months?”
The discussion turned to matters of commerce. Damen watched Laurent as he talked, compellingly, of trade and town politics. Laurent had taken comfortably to this new manner, found a way to whittle disdain into mere archness. But even in his slanting Akielon, he spoke with an exactitude that was confident, if not magisterial. Damen wondered whether he knew how he sounded.
Soon the conversation ended, and Laurent extracted himself, beckoning to Damen in departure.
The next stand featured great batches of seafood—lobster and shrimp and squid—slick and still fresh. Laurent, guise back in full effect, regarded the spread with great interest before launching into a coy exchange with Damen, their audience a pair of siblings who looked barely older than he was.
This and the next conversation, and the rest of them that morning, followed the same pattern. Each progressed in a desultory manner, with all the usual meandering diversions and pauses, and it was impossible to tell that Laurent was following a charted course to precision.
He always began with Damen, needling but affectionate, and almost invariably, the sellers would join in, and the talk would turn to Damen’s fighting prowess and suitability in leading Lissos. Here, topics of commerce and leadership would arise, and Damen would fall silent, mind adrift as the chatter filled with a haze of cryptic allusions and vague concessions.
Occasionally, Laurent did not lead the conversation in this direction, choosing instead of inquire into bland affairs, such as the local climate, or the craftwork behind an object, or the origins of an herb.
At several points, there was mention of a council. But after each stand, Laurent evaded Damen’s every question, entangling him in cheerful repartee, until they had arrived upon the next.
The morning passed like this, and Damen felt in his chest a growing weight as the sun poured forth its lengthening rays.
They had nearly reached the far end of the marketplace. Laurent strode forward, Damen in hand. The air was suddenly redolent with the perfume of baking bread. Damen paused in his step. It was a hot, honeyed smell that was difficult to resist. Laurent noticed him noticing the aroma, and stopped, head tilted.
“Shall I get us some?” Laurent said. His lips curved slightly, and their hands were still linked, as they had been for much of the morning. It had not ceased to be a source of wonder. Laurent stood only a brief distance away, and Damen did not think about the small step it would take to close that distance. “I believe it is once again my turn to be fed from your fingers.”
“That—I don’t—” Damen floundered through his words, all of them frustratingly inadequate in the face of what he felt. What he wanted was an explanation that was plain and clear to see, like an axe striking wood, or the heft of a spear, or the spread of warm fingers and palm against skin. What he wanted was to be able to read Laurent, his words and his motions, to understand whether behind these theatrics there lived a mote of true feeling.
“No? I will have some, I think. You may wait here if you like.”
Damen gritted his teeth and followed Laurent to the pastry stand, not wanting to lose him again.
The man selling pastries was enthusiastic about his goods. Laurent made his selection, and still the man waxed on, face pink with exertion. Damen had never heard such avid boasting from someone whose customers were already secured.
“A very excellent choice,” the man said, pushing up his flopping white cap and then bagging two of the pinwheel-shaped sweets that Laurent had chosen. “Did you know, our lady buys from my stand all the time.”
“She favors these especially. I made them for her, you know. You see the whirling shape of it—because of how she fights.”
“It is a lady that rules Lissos?” Deep in Damen’s mind, there was a troubled buzz, some unformed connection that wavered for his attention.
“The idea shouldn’t strike you as odd,” Laurent said, eyebrows raised. “Surely you have fought fearsome warriors who do not share your proportions.”
“Yes—of course.” The unease was hardening to suspicion, and he turned to the baker. “How long has your lady reigned?”
“How long has it been? I can hardly remember.” He dropped his voice, and continued on, tone conspiratory. “You know, some find her methods to be harsh, but what a boon to my livelihood it has been.” Jovial again, he exclaimed, “Six years, I think! Six years of ample business.”
Damen swallowed a shuddering breath. The baker’s voice, the swells of the marketplace—all of it receded as his horror was confirmed.
Six years before, he had commanded the troops of Akielos through peacetime. He had sparred with civilians and aristocrats alike, but it had been the height of his pleasure to train with the best of his country’s warriors.
Clear in his mind was one fighter in particular, brilliant with skill and grace. Years of single-minded training and far-flung travel had sharpened her abilities to a needlepoint, and they had sparred daily—wild, stunning duels, the polished metal in their hands scraping to ferocious end.
In the evenings, they had had a different kind of pleasure.
Her cruelty had not revealed itself immediately. When it finally did, it did so unequivocally. There had been no choice but to turn her out from the army, to supply the evidence for her exile.
Apparently, she had never left. He did not think he would face her again. Certainly not in a tournament of her own design.
She would see him, and she would know him instantly. There could be no question of that. To fight would be to forfeit the truth of his identity; to refuse would be an act of cowardice.
Damen turned to face Laurent, chest hollow. “I have…” he started, and Laurent looked back at him with a questioning glance, features softened by an animating spark.
Only now did he see the lengths of his own hypocrisy. More than anyone else, he was guilty of deception.
He held Laurent’s gaze, and was braced to speak when he saw Laurent’s glance shift to the left, the quality of his gaze changing, and heard behind him a commotion.
Damen turned. The guard had returned on patrol. They were not near them. But he could see, from their position several stands over, that six of them had their swords out.
It was disgraceful, a spectacle of intimidation. Their targets were a couple he and Laurent had met with earlier, fruit vendors who had supplied them with cheerful conversation and ripened peaches. They posed no threat. One of them clutched the edge of the stand, and the other sank to the ground in fear.
He sensed a fleeting hand on his elbow, but he pushed forward. He would not be stopped by anyone.
There were few onlookers. Passers-by had hurried away from the scene, and the closest vendors had stayed in place, averting their eyes from the injustice that played out before them. Batches of goods had been upended, and berries and fruits were scattered across the patchy grass like unstrung gems.
The hilt in his hand was unfamiliar, but it was no obstacle.
The guard saw him, and their swords shifted where their eyes did, in disorderly unison. He discerned no suggestion of proficiency, and prepared to disarm without killing.
“Stop this,” he said. A few townspeople had paused, curiosity exceeding self-preservation, and a loose ring was forming around them. It was another factor to consider.
“This is not your business, traveler.” From the contortion of metal and leather came a high, brassy voice.
“These women have done nothing to deserve this.”
“They have interrupted the order of Lissos, as you do now. You are not exempt from our law. You will be punished.”
The air seemed to slow, seconds sluggish as they faced each other.
Then the masked assailants leapt toward him, and all at once, the stillness splintered.
He was ready for them.
The sword he had lifted was slender but effective, and in a few well-timed strokes, he had half the group disarmed. Their swords clattered against one another and to the ground, and then more fell, until several of them were scrambling to retrieve their weapons. He sheathed the sword and prepared for a weaponless fight, applying fists and sheer strength to the situation. In a matter of minutes, he had thrown two of the guard to the ground, and sent a third sprawling across a spread of fish. More arrived; he counted half a dozen, all untrained. It was not a fair match of skill, but they had advantage in number, and he could not afford to be sparing.
Just as he was about to topple another round of guards, a voice pierced through the tumult like a killing thrust.
Laurent was standing to full height not far away, atop the center dais, overlooking the proceedings as he might preside over court. He had summoned all of the grace that he held within, and was lethal, beautiful beneath the blue of the unblemished sky and the high noon sun.
He has impunity.
That had been his pronouncement.
It seemed that the whole of the marketplace hung silent and still, waiting for his next word.
“He is a tournament contender,” Laurent shouted for all to hear. “It is the law here, is it not, that he must therefore be granted impunity.”
A murmur swelled from the crowd, the indistinct din of agreement expressed in hundreds of overlapping voices.
“This man has not signed up to compete!” It came from yet another masked face, sprawled on the ground and yet gravid with foreboding.
Laurent turned to face the allegation, showing no haste. Damen was among the guard and could see him plainly. Damen knew this to be an act, one that Laurent had perfected to deadly effect, but he could not help the chill that wound through him, a thin, bare thread.
The smile adorning Laurent’s lips was viperous. There was no trace of warmth. He was as he had been in those initial months.
“I advise you to examine your records more closely,” Laurent said coldly. “For I think you’ll find that he has.”
* * * * *
Impunity came with conditions.
“He will be the first to fight. We take him now.” They said this to Laurent, whose presence demanded compliance even under a commoner’s guise.
Laurent shrugged dismissively. “He will not resist.” He said it for the masses, but reserved his gaze for Damen alone.
And so Damen allowed himself to be dragged out of the marketplace. The square was hushed, and hundreds of eyes were on him. He saw in them his chances being deliberated, the suggestion of a carefully reserved hope.
Even if it had not been thrust upon him like this, he would have fought. There was no time for any other solution. Laurent was a prince on the defense, striving to retain his crown, and he himself—he had Nikandros and his men who bowed to him, and that was all. In three days’ time, it would be unthinkable for any of them to return here. He had to admit that, were he not here now, were he instead in a fortress hall conferring with his men on battle strategy and military tactics, he would not be able to choose aiding Lissos over pressing an advantage on Kastor’s troops.
He was taken to a tent-like holding area, a birch frame draped in fluttering layers of white cloth, parched grass underfoot.
There was a young woman inside, wearing the telltale black mask. She presented him with an array of weaponry, folded in leather and stored in a padlocked chest. There were knives and spears and swords that varied in size and shape, as well as less-familiar implements, swinging barbed spheres hanging on dual chains, blades that curved in the perpendicular.
They were good weapons. Even in the shadow of the tent, they gleamed.
The girl had a weapon of her own, a sheathed sword, too large for her. There was a faint tremor to her hands as she showed him the spread, and Damen realized with revulsion that she was there as collateral should he choose to revolt. She had as little practice as the rest of them. Yet she was expected to be an initial line of defense. Perhaps it was assumed that, in a quest for freedom, an unwilling challenger would be less likely to slit the neck of a young woman.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he told her. “Did they force you to join the guard? After this is done, I promise you will have my help.”
She did not shrink from him, and in fact seemed to harden at his tone. Her hands clenched a thick pane of leather that carried daggers of every size. Her knuckles revealed abrasions, and bruises stood visible along her arm even against the brown of her skin.
“I am glad to be in the guard,” she said, and seeing his expression and the object of his stare, she pulled off her mask, tilting her chin up. “Nobody did this to me, if you’re wondering. Training for the guard is no easy thing.”
Damen frowned. “You joined a band of terrorizing bullies.”
“I joined the only group of people who eat and live well in this town. You know nothing of my life. Now choose your weapon, lest you wish to take on our lady unarmed.”
Damen opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. The conviction behind his protests faltered. She did not speak falsely. This was a town of Akielos, and yet he had known nothing of its suffering until now.
In silence, he pored over his choices, the exchange leaving him with an odd sense of shame, like sweat sliding over skin. He picked out a simple baselard that fit well in his grip, then waved off the rest, knowing that anything more would distract. The woman stored the arsenal away, her glance never straying from him for more than a second.
He had not been offered armor.
“What are you after?” She had finished packing the weapons back in their chest. “Glory? Fame? Power? It’s usually one of the three.”
“To help,” he said. “To rid this town of—” The guard, he did not say. “Fear and corruption.”
He was reminded of the confiscated sword at his side. He undid the makeshift scabbard and held it out to the young woman, who after a second reached for it, forehead creased in confusion.
“I took it from one of the guard,” he explained.
“Because you could not stand being without a weapon for more than a few hours.”
“Because he was harassing a boy.”
The scorn in her face dimmed. “Cantos,” she said. “He’s a brute.”
He nodded. The nerves had emptied from his body. There was nothing to do but wait.
The flap of the tent was pushed aside, and four of the guard came blustering in. He was being hauled outside, an indignity he weathered, when the woman hurried forward and said, “Wait. I haven’t checked to see whether he has another weapon hidden.”
Her admittance was met with derisive laughter. She drew close to him and ran hands over his person, ignoring the guffaws that had turned to crass jeers.
A whisper drifted to his ear. He turned his face toward hers, sharply.
Her inspection was complete. “Take him,” she said to the rest, and they surged forward to pull at his arms. He craned his neck back and caught one final glimpse of her, sighting a strange, uncertain shadow over her features.
* * * * *
He did not understand how, but the woman had allied herself with him in the last second. Her dagger is poisoned, she had whispered, before he was taken away.
His mind went back six years. She had bested him a few times. Just a few, but enough that a win against her, with no armor and an imperative to avoid any marks, was not assured.
He was shoved into an arena, the portcullis slamming down behind him.
The arena was a broad hollow in the ground, the edges sloping up like a bowl. Before him were rolling mounds of earth and shoots of rock that limited his view of the arena, and above him was the lazing blue of the sky and arching stands. It was an arena designed for a spry, darting fighter. His size would not serve him here. But his skill was not born merely of size.
He could see the crowd overhead, but no sound rose from the stands. It was as though the stands were empty; and yet, he could see hundreds up there, a pale, shifting scrim.
He heard, rather than saw, her enter the arena.
“I’ve missed you, Damen.” Her voice slunk through the cool, dark air. “Or would you prefer Damianos? My guard did not recognize you, but it was obvious from their descriptions. You’ve always stood out."
He settled into his stance and didn’t answer.
All was calm. A treacherous stillness.
There was a beat; then his instincts twinged and he felt her blur across his periphery, fast enough that following her movements was not effortless, as it was with most opponents he faced.
She was very fast. But so was he. He flowed with her movements, spinning and dodging each glinting slash. He remembered this, remembered the joy of it, dueling on the palace training grounds. Memories of her body surfaced, as though freshly made.
Her style was like lightning, her quick cuts ceaseless like hail. She had folded into her style the ways of Akielos and Vask, and, he realized, Vere. Her dark hair whipped about her as she fought.
“I laughed when I heard of your death,” she said, only the slightest hitch in her breath. They circled each other slowly, and she held her long, elegant daggers close to her body, like trailing jewelry. “I laughed again when I realized you were alive, and here. In my very own Lissos. Dressed as a dirty peasant, no less. Kastor finally made good on his promise then, did he?”
She raced forward, striking at him tirelessly. The undulating terrain presented a challenge; he could not quite roll and leap along it as she did, but a lifetime of training had drawn his balance into a tight, fiercely controlled instinct, and he twisted seamlessly when she bounded past him, matching her turn for turn.
“Who was that with you?” Her smile was edged like her blade. “Very pretty. I’m jealous. We used to have such fun in bed. I’d always forget about your blundering ways and softhearted notions when your cock was deep in me.”
Anger roiled in his stomach at her goading. It would be foolishness to rise to it. He kept silent. Faint in his mind was the recognition that she would not reveal him to the crowd. It was not in her interest to.
“You gave that up. And for what? To uphold an outdated law? My only crime was to defend my kind.”
He narrowed his concentration on the flight of her grip, the lightness of feet, her relentless dancing blades. “Your aims may have been noble, but your methods were depraved.”
“It hardly matters now. Let us focus on the present. I want our reunion to be all sweetness.”
Her jagged blades sang through the air. The fleetness of her knife-strokes had been legendary back in Ios, and her prowess had not diminished. There were moments when she came close to nicking him, but each time, the length of his step was enough, and the danger was thinly averted.
There was another lull. His breathing had intensified, and he could feel sweat against his temple, trailing his skin. Neither of them had yet to land a blow.
“I know what I’ll do,” she said, pausing at the edge of the arena, eyes wide. She came at him, striking fast, their weapons strident in every clash. “I’ll have him fight next. Your pretty lover. He seems the scholarly type, I do not think he’ll fare well against me.”
A dart of hesitation paralyzed him for half a breath, and in it, she carved at him with deadly precision, and managed to draw a line of blood along his elbow.
His mind reeled into an immediate haze, blood pulsing feverishly. He staggered a step, and forced himself to assume a stance that he knew like his own skin.
“You don’t like that idea, do you?” She was a blur of reds and browns, fighting silks stark against her sweat-sheened skin. He managed to defend against her blows, but his vision was doubling, and he felt his limbs sag toward the ground. “Who could he be? Veretian, of course. Too lovely to be a commoner. Aristocracy?” She lingered, indulgent in her own advantage.
His heartbeat was insistent and knocking. It would be a mercy to close his eyes, but he could not. He would not.
There was a gasp. “Not the prince?” The look on his face was confirmation enough. “Does he know? Do they know?” Through his shivering vision he saw her look up, triumphant, and shout, “My town, we have in our midst a venerated guest! We must make the Crown Prince of Vere feel welcome.”
Horror lapped at him, but he could not think of that now. She came at him again, and this time he was too slow to block her advance; she caught him along his bicep.
“He couldn’t possibly know of your past. I am enamored with this drama. I think once I kill you, I will capture him and tell him stories of you, and then have him killed as well.”
Fury seized him, racing through his veins faster than poison. He surged forward in a blaze of energy and closed in on her, her face pulling into surprise. Their weapons clashed once, twice, a third time.
It was as though he inhabited a separate body; he did not comprehend the motions he made, and yet his instincts guided him with perfect clarity.
His weapon found its mark, and one graceful dagger was flung to the turf, landing softly.
Then the other fell. He had her.
The crowd was no longer quiet. Calls sounded overhead, and it was a cacophony of thunderous pounding; feet against wood; low, malevolent shouts.
“You will bring Akielos to ruin,” she hissed. “Lissos was nothing before me; they were rotting at the margins of your nation. They are thriving because of me.”
“They are suffering because of you,” Damen said, panting heavily, and paused, baselard poised to her throat.
She was defenseless. She had not answered for her crimes before her people. He let the sword drop slightly. “If you have done good for Lissos, then let your people decide your fortune.”
She stared at him. Her pointed features and sharp brows were just the same. He had loved her, once, her expansive mind and easy laugh, the way she spoke like an arrow striking its mark. “You haven’t changed at all,” she said softly, and held her hands up in surrender.
Their eyes locked. He did not allow his alertness to fall.
In an instant, she had dropped to the ground, rolling in vain toward the spot where her daggers lay idle.
She was not quick enough to avoid the clean slice of his sword.
The moment passed, and he swayed, tipping forward. Darkness swallowed his vision.
* * * * *
The light cupped him gently, lulling him awake to the hues of a softly fading day. His limbs were wrapped in unfamiliar sheets, sunk in a luxurious mattress that was oversoft. The throbbing in his head had eased to a faint but persistent pressure.
With a start, he sat up swiftly.
And regretted it immediately, for he was not alone. There were half a dozen occupants besides him, and he had just alerted all of them to his wakefulness.
They swarmed the bed like pups flocking to a treat. Several carried ribbons; two held immense bouquets of flowers. That was not the only profusion; the room itself was a ridiculously lavish affair, strewn with wreaths and garlands and further floral arrangements, sprays of green and white and yellow, and appointed with furniture draped in sheepskin. Whoever had furnished the room had done so with a couple in mind; along the dresser were phials of oil, and, laughably, a glass jar of rose petals.
“My Lord,” said an elderly man, bowing deeply and peering into his face. Damen wished he would not. “How do you feel? You are flushed. A sign of good health! You will be able to feast with us tonight. We feared that the poison would not leave your system in time, but we see that yours is a well-tended body.”
Damen looked down. He was unclothed from the waist up. The pants he wore were unfamiliar, loose and silken against his skin. He shifted and winced; pain lingered along his arms, which had been bandaged in a thin, yellow cloth.
He did not know how long he had been unconscious. Anything might have happened to Laurent.
“Where is—” He paused, not knowing how to refer to Laurent without invoking his name. “—my companion?” He met the man’s eyes, fearing what he might find there.
His fears were unfounded. Delight sprang to the man’s eyes. “The Prince, do you mean?”
The pause extended.
“Yes,” Damen said, uncertainly. “The Prince.”
Another woman said, pressing her hands together, “He is with the council now, but he was terribly worried about you. He will be glad to know that you are well.”
He could not imagine Laurent ever behaving in a way that could be interpreted as worried. Even the idea of Laurent experiencing feelings of worry struck him as improbable.
“Truly,” the woman said, responding to the incredulity on Damen’s face. “He asked incessant questions while the healers administered the antidote, and sat here until the council assembled.”
Damen extracted himself from the heap of bedding and struggled to his feet, causing some of the assemblage to back up. His balance wasn’t steady, but he could walk. “Take me to him.”
“You are still healing,” a flower-bearer said, and there was an attempt to usher him back into bed. “Rest now, and do not trouble yourself with other matters.”
He resisted their urging, and took a quavering step forward. He did not have time for frailty; he had to get to Laurent.
They followed, not daring to touch him. “You wish to have strength for the feast, do you not, Your Highness?”
Damen balked and quickly turned toward the woman who asked it. “What did you say?”
“What do you—is the idea of a feast not favorable to you, Your Highness?”
“I am not your king,” he said, voice low.
“Oh, but… of course you are.” There was a round of nods, many slowed by bewilderment. “Nobody else could have defeated our Lady like that. Your fighting prowess is known across Akielos. Even here.”
The coursing poison was nothing compared to what he felt now, a sick weight that rooted in his stomach like a rotting vine. “You mustn’t refer to me as your king,” he said urgently. “Do you understand?”
They had no chance to finish. A hush swept over the room, and eyes widened to a point behind him.
Damen turned, slowly.
Laurent stood at the doorway, arrogance fully restored. His common raiment was gone. It had been replaced by the striking turquoise jacket of a nobleman, fitted over an expensive shirt of pale and delicate fabric, cinched at the waist.
“Leave us.” His tone left no room for dissent.
The room emptied, tokens abandoned on the broad table that stretched halfway across the room.
Laurent did not speak. He did not meet Damen’s eyes. With languid steps he crossed the room, coming to the table. He seemed engrossed in a study of its contents. A platter of food had been laid out, along with twin sets of silverware. He extended a hand and laid a finger on the ornamented knife in idle examination. The finger dragged downward.
“Laurent…” The pleading was raw in his voice. Damen hadn’t thought he would ever hear himself desperate like this.
Laurent’s gaze had moved onto the opulent furnishings surrounding them.
“They insisted on nothing less,” Laurent said, sounding almost thoughtful. “You are a hero to Lissos. I suppose the title is deserved. You did suffer for them.” Laurent managed to pin a look at the bandages along Damen’s arm without finding his gaze.
He did not seem to know. But it did not seem possible.
Damen parted his lips; they were very dry. The words formed soundlessly in his mind, again and again, but they did not manifest on his tongue.
In a moment, everything would change. Unless it already had. Drumbeats of apprehension pounded his head. There was too much here. The crush of flowers and drapings seemed to press in, leaving no room to breathe.
“You have come far,” Laurent said. His gaze had fallen back to the table spread. “From slave to captain to town hero and lord. Now that you have your own domain, will you fritter away your days in the lap of luxury?”
“I…” Damen’s breaths were shallow. Too many of them had passed without giving way to the words clotted in his throat.
“It is a lucky thing that you won. I do not think the people of this town would have received the Veretian prince so readily, had I not been blissfully attached to their liberator.”
The words barely registered. “I am not who I have said I am.” It came out in a croak.
At last, Laurent looked at him. His eyes were like a chill in the dead of winter, but his expression was perfectly, disconcertingly neutral. “Are you not a common vagrant? I am shocked. You have committed the worst of deceptions.”
It seemed impossible that he could have so much trouble stating what stood clearly formed in his mind. “No. Before today. I claimed to be a soldier. I am not.”
“But how can that be? What have you been doing in my army this whole time, if not soldiering?”
Damen stared at him. The perplexity had been feigned. Something was not right here.
“You do know,” Damen said distantly. It was like realizing he was an actor before an unseen audience, inhabiting a world apart from his own. He did not know how it would play out. He would not be able to blame Laurent for the inevitable violence of his reaction. He half expected a carving knife to come arrowing at his chest while fury burned cold behind Laurent’s eyes.
But Laurent only raised his eyebrows and said, “I know you will detest the attention lavished upon you at tonight’s feast. I know you intend to ignore any advice to rest easy while the poison leaves your system. I know our keepers intend for us to fuck in this room. You are going to have to be more specific.”
“No. No, I mean that—you know who I truly am.”
“I gather from your affront that you are neither soldier nor vagrant. Do you wish to be called by your new appellation? Must I now refer to you as a lord?”
“That isn’t what I’m talking about.” His pulse sped as impatience and frustration converged with agitation. “You thought me a common Akielon soldier. I let you believe this. I am telling you now that I am guilty of deceit.”
“You are also guilty of prevarication.”
All at once, his temper spiked, and he moved toward Laurent instinctually.
“I am Damianos,” he said hotly, and the confession impacted like an anchor against stone, the weight of it reverberating between them. They stood but a few feet apart. “Prince Killer.” A flicker passed over Laurent’s face. “I am responsible for Auguste’s death, and I am sorry for it—”
“Enough.” Laurent had turned away. His face was not visible for Damen to read, but his fist was tight against the table, knuckles strained to white.
The moment stretched uncomfortably.
When Laurent turned back, he was smiling thinly. It struck a discord with the coldness in his eyes. “Is that all?” he said, mild. “That has been glaringly obvious since the day you first arrived in Vere.”
The words sank slowly, seeping through the air.
Damen braced a hand on the table. His mind was pure mayhem. A single word forced its way out. “How…”
“Subterfuge is not your strong suit. The signs were many. Your scar, your knowledge of the territory. Your entanglements with Akielon aristocracy.” Laurent made a sound just short of a laugh. It curdled in the space between them. “Imagine my amusement when you informed me of my princely carriage. Do you realize how you hold yourself? That in itself is damning evidence.”
“You have known. All this time.” A dangerous tumult gathered within him, threatening to break to fury. There was no fairness in what he felt. He knew that. Knowing did not stymie the feeling. “You made me believe I had to conceal my identity.”
A change came over Laurent, his moderate expression darkening to match whatever he truly felt. His quickened breath was just barely visible, the rise and fall shuttered to a controlled tension in his body. “And that, I suppose, is the worse crime.”
“No, but—” Damen thrust a hand through his hair. A tangle of thoughts competed for his attention, and he could not find sense in them. “You have made nothing clear.”
“Should I be striving to match you in lucidity?”
“I did not know what your plans for this town were—”
Laurent paused and lifted his chin, drawing forth all the arrogance at his disposal. “I have told you just what you needed to know.”
“You have not. The romantic charade, the exchanges in the marketplace—”
“You are surely accustomed to ignorance. But if it pains you so, I will inform you now. I knew a facade of courtship would render us sympathetic. Your presence was meant to secure support and inspire faith that their lady would soon be toppled. I was proven correct. When the time came, the townspeople rallied. The guard is now disbanded. Most defected as soon as their leader fell to your blade. What other topics would you have me expound upon?”
It was too much to comprehend at once, when his hands were still fisted, his body charged with the knowledge that he had suffered the burden of deception for nothing.
Laurent had asked a question. He had not meant it as a true offering, but Damen’s mind clung to it. “What of your feelings?”
“If your affections have waned since Ravenel, I want to know.”
Laurent blinked. His features were still cut for confrontation, but the surprise had made itself known, minutely. “We have not fucked since Ravenel, that is true, but there have been—” He stopped, glance skittering. For a second, some internal struggle seemed to manifest in his bearing, and then he started forward, facing Damen squarely. “I imagine I would have to suck your cock before a court of witnesses to make my feelings clear to you, since you are blind to the rest of it. That is what you want, is it not?”
“You know I don’t want that,” Damen said. There was an ache in his jaw from gritting his teeth.
“What, then? You want me to say that I have wanted to fuck you, that I have thought about your cock in me?”
“Why don’t you tell me what you desire. Whatever it is, I will be happy to supply you with it, Your Highness.” Laurent said the words in Akielon, spat them like they were repulsive to his tongue. It was all wrong, the title and his hurt. It was as though a wall had sprung up between them, the borders of their countries cleaving apart what they had so carefully fostered.
Damen ran his eyes over Laurent, stiff with barely suppressed hostility, and knew that they would not reach any agreement here. There was another question that rankled, rising above the rest. “Why didn’t you tell me you had signed me up to fight?”
The scowl did not ease and Laurent’s hands stayed clenched, but his shoulders fell a fraction. “Very well. The next time you charge brazenly into a tournament, I will not attempt to forestall your arrest by adding your name to the list.”
“I only wish that you had told me. You knew nothing of my opponent. You knew nothing of how she might fight.”
There was a long pause.
“No,” Laurent said. The bitterness from before had subsided. His eyes were serious, the blue like vanishing daylight. “But I knew how you fight.”
Damen did not understand the feeling that planted and spread within him. He closed his eyes briefly. His body ached, and he wanted to sit. A desire for peace and stillness fell heavily upon him.
He opened his eyes. The pain was keen along his arms, but that pain was easy enough to ignore. “She and I were lovers once.”
It was silent. For the first time, Damen slid his gaze to the window that lined the wall, an opening to air that revealed a view of cliffside and ocean. A breeze ruffled the thin silks that framed the window, and the sounds of rushing tide calmed him. They were higher up than he’d realized.
A minute passed before Laurent said, quietly, “I didn’t know that.”
Damen inhaled. It was the fresh sea air he had grown up with. “It doesn’t matter. The rest of it was planned perfectly.”
Laurent looked away. “Not everything. I didn’t know about the poison, either.”
“You couldn’t have.”
“Of course I could have. It was an oversight. If you hadn’t—” His words broke off in an uneven breath. “You might have—”
“Laurent,” Damen said, and met his gaze, tightly drawn. The knot in his gut was unraveling, strand by strand. He felt a reason to hope. “I want…”
Laurent huffed a breath. “To fuck me. I know.”
“No,” Damen said, softly. He paused to take in Laurent’s expression. There was the same wary air it often held during campaign evenings, when Laurent awaited the arrival of some information that would force him to alter his plans. Damen realized that it had grown familiar to him. “I want to know what you think, and what you feel.” Damen spoke slowly and with care. “I want to have your ear. I want—to hold you. And know you, and see you pleased. I want to make you laugh. I like when you laugh.”
Damen could see Laurent swallow, reactions carefully withheld. “Our romantic charades have gotten the better of you.”
“Maybe,” Damen admitted, smiling a little. “But I have wanted this before today.”
They faced each other now, Laurent before him, the breeze light in his hair. There was a pause. Though neither of them had moved, Damen felt his pulse quicken, felt the moment dawn upon them, the intimate proximity prickling his body.
“This is foolishness,” Laurent said, and—after another pause—reached up toward Damen, and touched a careful hand to his face.
Damen felt the touch flare through him like a fuse. He closed his eyes.
It would not be like before, when the finality of their encounter shadowed every movement, every revelation. Time had raced forward then, evading them. This could be savored for longer, at least. This simple awareness sent thrills of anticipation through him, bright and hot.
Damen felt the hand drop away, heard Laurent’s voice, quiet: “You were right.”
He opened his eyes, already aching with the loss of contact. “About what?”
“This morning. It was a pretense. It’s… easier when it is.”
Damen waited for Laurent to gather his full thought and drag it into the open, or to decide he did not want to.
It took a long while; you could see, and hear, the muted fits and starts, as one thought was discarded for another. Finally, Laurent said, “The sentiments were not disingenuous.”
“You are telling me that you want this.”
A pause. “Put simply.”
It was the permission Damen needed. He took Laurent’s hand in his own and lifted it, pressed a kiss to the delicate skin at the wrist. He glanced sideways at Laurent. There was no remoteness to indicate hesitation; Laurent merely looked back at him through low-lidded eyes. Damen kissed him again, this time to the base of his palm, then trailed his lips along the side of his hand.
“I’d hoped we were past this stage of chasteness,” Laurent said, but the archness was lost to a hitch of breath as Damen took in his mouth two of his fingers, dragging them along his tongue, taking all the time he wished. He knew Laurent preferred this pace, and he confirmed this in a glance, warming to see the stifled reaction that stuttered over his countenance.
He could have lavished attention upon the same small area for hours. He would devote a lifetime to tending to every aspect of Laurent’s body if he could, but it was Laurent who stopped the ministration with a touch, bringing the fingers to rest fleeting on his jaw, the gesture disarming him completely. Already, there was a disorientation to his expression that rarely manifested. Laurent slid the hand down and applied it to Damen’s chest, indicating the bed with his chin. His meaning was clear; they stumbled toward their destination.
The hand returned, a pressure on Damen’s chest; Damen did as Laurent bade and found himself sitting on the bed, looking up into an assessing gaze.
After a moment’s pause, Laurent braced a hand on Damen’s shoulder and lifted one knee to the mattress. He then stopped, gaze cutting away. There was an uncertain quality about his manner, as though he was surprised to find himself in this position. He stayed like that, arrested in motion, for some seconds.
Then the other knee came up and he shifted forward, straddling Damen’s lap, both hands light on his shoulders. When he spoke, he did so brazenly, all trace of uncertainty latched away. “There can be no question about my intentions now.”
“No,” Damen said, dazed, hands already coming around to clutch at Laurent’s back.
Laurent narrowed the space between them, so that Damen could hear the slight erratic rhythm of his breath. They were separated by inches, and for a time, they simply looked at each other.
Then Laurent shook his head, just so, and made a small noise between frustration and exasperation. Color had appeared on his cheeks.
He spoke into the whisper of space between them. “Once we reached the rendezvous point. I was going to…” The words dropped away. “I don’t want you to think that I have not thought of this.”
All Damen could do was nod, taking in a last, shaky breath before Laurent leaned down and gave him the soft warmth of his mouth.
The seconds trailed away, the parting space forgotten, and the kiss deepened. Damen felt Laurent’s hand entangle in his hair, and his chest ached with the pleasure of the anchoring grip. They had this, and he was lost to the headiness of it, everything else dwindling to a spare concern.
There was a sharp inhalation of breath, not without pleasure, and Laurent pulled away abruptly. Damen sensed in Laurent the movements that came of rapid breathing, and felt him lean into his neck.
It took a feat of willpower to open his eyes. He managed it, and the cause of the change became clear. His hand had slipped beneath the soft material of Laurent’s shirt and brushed upon his waist. The jacket had been pulled away and lay at the foot of the bed. It had happened without his knowing it, the desire to take advantage of a rare moment when Laurent wasn’t laced up tight in his Veretian garments.
Laurent’s face had stayed against his neck. One hand remained in Damen’s hair; the other, which had been hovering, tentative, at Damen’s jaw, now fell to rest on his shoulder.
“Are you…” Damen heard the roughness in his own voice.
There was a movement that felt like a nod, and he returned his hand to its place at Laurent’s side. In that moment, he could imagine no greater pleasure than to feel the flesh that curved there, fitting wonderfully beneath his hand.
Before Laurent, he had been accustomed to giving fully to those he bedded, attending them with broad, straightforward motions and having little need for subtlety or restraint. But he knew what Laurent liked, and he let his hand drift up a little, grazing the pads of his fingers upon the plain of sensitive skin. The grip in his hair tightened, fingers digging into his shoulder, and he knew that he had done right.
Laurent raised his head to him and shifted forward again, a small crease to his brow, and Damen let himself be pushed onto his back. Desire thrummed through him, hot and urgent.
Leaning over him, Laurent said, warm against his mouth, “Tell me what else it is that you want.”
It was galling that he could look like that and still talk in this way, forfeiting none of the precision. Damen felt the strain of his arousal, pressed against Laurent. Words would not come easily.
“This,” and that was all he could manage before reaching up to take Laurent by the shoulders, finding assent in a glance and shifting them both so that their positions were switched. Damen drank in the sight of Laurent laid before him, the gorgeous unravelling that he had been responsible for, a corner of his shirt hitched up to reveal a pale expanse of skin, where Damen knew the sweep of his hand could undo him utterly.
“Words from a true romantic,” Laurent said, and Damen smiled and leaned over him, then paused, for clothes were in his way. He tugged at the shirt, and filled with inexplicable pleasure when Laurent wound an arm around his neck for support, lifting off the bed to allow Damen to slip it over his shoulders. The pants slid off next, dropping to the ground. Obstacles removed, Damen bowed his head to meet the kiss-brightened lips. He relished the taste of Laurent’s mouth, the heat of it, the slow slide of tongue. He lifted his head and thrilled just the same at the flushed cheeks that he found before him, the dazed and heavy-lidded eyes, a few strands of blonde askew across Laurent’s cheek. The sun was dropping down, and the mellow-peach light was beautiful on him, a sharp-cut shape of it glowing against his skin.
“Are you going to keep gawking, or do you want my hand on you?” Laurent had turned his face enough to direct at Damen a wry look, but the breathlessness in his voice was all genuine. Damen was helpless against it; a sharp pang of need shuddered through him. He braced himself on his uninjured elbow and lowered his mouth to Laurent’s again. He felt Laurent’s hand move down, felt the pull of fabric and skin exposed to air. He felt a hand take him, and he nearly collapsed on his own arm as the trembling reached his every limb.
Laurent’s breathing had heavied against his, but Damen restrained himself to slow, flitting kisses, pressed his mouth to the pale skin at Laurent’s collarbone, tracing upward to kiss his ear and the skin just below it, nose brushing against soft hair. His hand was cupped to Laurent’s face, reverent. Restraint took every force of will that he possessed, for Laurent’s hand was clever, its pressured rapid rhythm causing heat to build at the base of his stomach, like a fire lit in the quiet of night.
His pleasure neared its peak, and he forgot, momentarily, to be gentle, capturing Laurent’s mouth roughly. Still, he wanted more than this; he buried his face in the crook of Laurent’s neck, wanting to be close to him, as close as their bodies would allow. He wanted Laurent’s pleasure to be his. He made to move down on the bed so that he might take Laurent in his mouth, feel the grip of hands in his hair as he brought Laurent to climax.
But Laurent’s eyes fluttered open and he reached a hand out, unseeing it seemed, for it did not meet with anything but air. “Stay,” Laurent said, the words roughly hewn, and Damen nodded through the haze. “The phials—”
Damen groaned, Laurent’s meaning revealing itself. He rose and groped at one of the conspicuous vials near the bed.
He returned, then stopped, vial in hand. Though his arousal ached for attention, all he wanted now was to look.
Below him, Laurent had shut his eyes and raised a hand to rest against his forehead, palm up. His face was tilted to the side, as though he wanted to keep a part of this moment to himself. Laurent’s pleasure had grown increasingly evident over preceding minutes, not only the obvious but elsewhere, too, in the quiver of hands and the clench of his jaw, as though he were bracing against an oncoming current. Laurent’s eyes opened and a glower appeared. “Are you waiting for me to perform some kind of spectacle? I might have some difficulty.” The attempt at scorn did not quite land. It simply wasn’t the same when his face was flushed and his hair in dishevelment, each word split in suppressed exertion.
Damen leaned toward him, unable to stop the charmed smile that found its way to his face. He nosed along Laurent’s navel, kissing a path up, making a stop to suck at a hardened nipple. Each reaction enchanted him anew, and by the time he ended up at Laurent’s parted lips, through which came traitorous, desperate sounds, he was dizzy with desire. They were kissing again, an abundance of bruised lips and shuddering breath.
Laurent tugged him down so that their bodies were flush, so that Damen experienced the wave of every tremoring arch like it originated in his own body. He licked along the sensitive skin at Laurent’s neck and reached down to palm at his cock, loving the sound that it provoked. At some point, the vial had been lost in the folds of the sheets; it was a faraway realization, and it no longer seemed necessary. He had Laurent in his hand, now, and was greedy for the shivers that accompanied each stroke, the sharp intakes that substituted for formless words. Laurent was speaking another language in the tightened curl of fingers and the arch of his back, hesitation giving way to surrender in ceaseless waves.
Laurent had reached up, somehow, and grasped another vial of oil, and Damen took it, mind wild with the need to return to Laurent. He was close, so close, and even the easy task of pouring oil over fingers temporarily eluded him. He was guided by a single thought: if this was Laurent’s desire, it would be done. He pressed a finger into Laurent, the heat that he felt there deepening his hunger; another finger entered, then another, each giving rise to a perfect tremble.
Damen felt his own breath stutter as he entered Laurent. He tried to breathe in slowly, and found that his breath would not hold steady. He had his mouth on Laurent’s shoulder and an arm wrapped tight around his waist. Standing true among all the incoherency of his mind was knowing that he did not want to let go. Their bodies were twined in sweat and heat, skin on skin and flesh against flesh, and as he pushed deeper, and again, arousal climbing higher with each thrust, he could feel the quivering sweetness that passed between them, their desire flowing in unison.
Then he was uttering Laurent’s name in uneven breaths, Laurent, twice, a sound to hold onto, and he was coming to release, undone by the blinding pleasure, feeling beneath him the jerk of Laurent’s body and hearing Laurent’s own sounds of climax, all of it telling him they were together in this.
* * * * *
Damen stretched, allowing himself to enjoy the sumptuous sheets that piled beneath and around and on top of them. He felt sated and languorous. A scout had been sent off, and their troops would arrive tomorrow, but today was theirs, a wonderful, precious lull as the hours lengthened toward dusk.
He smiled down at Laurent, who was peaceful in the crook of his arm. Laurent’s hand lay on his stomach, fingers occasionally brushing the planes there, the sensation an unexpected joy each time.
Laurent said, “I bought you a gift.”
It had the sound of a jest, but Laurent's face was relaxed in quiet contentment.
Laurent twitched a shoulder, a careless attempt at a shrug. “Because I wished to. But now I wonder whether it might serve as recompense.” He stirred beneath the weight of Damen’s arm, making to rise. The effort was apparently too great, and he turned his face back to Damen. “Are you attempting to hold me captive? You are royalty now, you realize; you must behave honorably,” and Damen reluctantly lifted his arm, letting him up.
Laurent was unclothed. He had tried to don his attire earlier, but a round of appeals had convinced him to wait a little while longer.
As Laurent stepped to a dresser by the window, the dwindling light washed over his pale skin, warming it in shades. From the dresser, he pulled out a small wooden box. Watching his movements, Damen realized that this was the very same box they had been shown in the marketplace that morning.
Laurent did not immediately return to bed. This was for Damen a source of deep disappointment. Instead, Laurent wandered to the window, as though drawn by some unknown force, and stood there, thoughtful.
“Come back to bed,” Damen said. As crowded as the bed was with silks and sheets and pillows, it felt empty without Laurent’s presence beside him. “Someone might see you.”
“I’m conducting a study,” Laurent said, gaze focused on the scenes outside. “Comparing the sights of Akielos to those in Vere.”
“You’re hardly an objective judge.”
“I am the fairest of judges. In fact, you could learn a great deal from me about exercising keen judgment, and other things besides.”
“The finer points of deception, for one.”
“I leave that to you. If the need for a disguise ever arises, I’m sure you will conjure just the right one for the occasion.”
“You assume I will be around to supply you with disguises.”
Damen paused, a note of uncertainty disturbing the pleasurable haze that had settled over him. “I leave that to you, too.”
Laurent turned his eyes to him. Sounds from the outside world floated into the room, and calls and laughter and music could be heard, signs of town festivities that had brightened since that morning.
Eventually, Laurent said, “Alright.” As though the decision had required no deliberation at all.
It was yet another dizzying revelation, and Damen felt a smile spread across his face, like the dawning of the sun. “Really?”
“Really,” Laurent said. “As you have requested, I am airing my thoughts. My thought is this: we are stronger and better united, and our aims are inextricable. And so, we should work alongside one another.”
Damen grinned. “There are other advantages as well.”
“Yes,” Laurent allowed. “I spent the morning making our dalliance known to an entire town; I do not think I need to belabor that point.”
For a second, Damen closed his eyes, a feeling like happiness winding its way through him and expanding outward. They had wars to win and countries to reclaim, but in this moment, he was content. His thoughts turned to marble monuments and garments that flowed, to pure and plunging cliffs and olive trees scenting the air. He liked the idea of taking Laurent through Ios after all this was done.
Damen said, “Does that mean you approve of Akielon sights after all?”
“Vere’s sights are vastly superior. This view is not fit for a king. But,” Laurent said, walking back toward Damen, mischief bright in his eyes, “This one is.”
“Stop,” Damen muttered with exasperation. But he knew he was smiling as he reached for him.
Laurent smirked and allowed himself to be pulled back, tucking back against Damen’s side. Damen shifted his weight to his elbow and leaned over Laurent, pressing a kiss to forehead, eyelid, nose. Laurent’s lips curved, and his face creased with each kiss, just a little.
“You are not usually forthcoming with sweet remarks,” Damen said, kissing the corner of Laurent’s mouth.
“You mistook my meaning," Laurent said, reaching out to stroke his thumb over Damen’s cheek. "I was referring to the many extravagances of this room. The rose petals especially. We must make use of them tonight. They will surely bring our lovemaking to untold heights.”
“I’ve had rose petals in bed before. I wouldn’t recommend it.”
“Must you always dash my plans? Regardless, you do not need my praise. I have already gotten you a gift; I wouldn’t want to spoil you to ruin.”
Laurent pushed him back to a lying position and placed the wooden box on his abdomen. He then bent down to press a brief kiss to Damen’s shoulder, and leaned back on his elbow, eyes lit.
Damen lifted the box to his sight. It was small in his hand and etched with a pattern of intersecting rings.
Laurent said, with a smile of his own, “You have not fared well in noticing the obvious lately, so I feel I must tell you: the box is meant to be opened.”
Damen rolled his eyes. The box latched in three places, and it took him a second to pry it open.
Inside was a gold bracelet.
The style was simple, the detailing subtle but carved ornately. The gold was polished to glowing.
As Damen stared at it, Laurent said, “A slave cuff is hardly becoming of a future king,” and placed careful fingers upon the gold encircling Damen’s wrist. The cuff there was dented and scuffed, tarnished by every encounter he had suffered during his time in Vere. It was a reminder of the past.
It was just like Laurent to gift him with something like this, at once maddening and—just right. An encapsulation of the future that did not neglect the past.
Laurent said, “I would have gotten a matching set, but I thought the subtlety might be lost on—well, everyone else.”
Damen put the box aside. Laurent's gaze was on him. Gently, he took Laurent's face in his hands and drew him into a slow and tender kiss, alive with all that they had shared and all that they would share. There was much that he had yet to understand, but outside, the light had waned to evening, and the ocean beat ceaselessly. In the coming months, they would find their way across this land—to Ios, to Arles, to the stretches that lay between.
But right now, they had this.