Damen dreamt the dream of a man away at war. His mind filled with his home, the cliffs of Ios out the balcony of his chambers, the smell of olive trees in bloom, and his favorite slave Lykaios serving him glasses of sweet wine as he watched the sun set and curling next to him in the bed during the night.
He woke to a movement in his tent. He froze. He heard the sounds of the horses and the muffled noise of the watchmen, all the normal sounds of the camp. Then he heard it again, footsteps much closer than the path outside his tent, and he moved his arm to clasp his knife as silently as he could.
The scuffle was quick. There were two men in his tent. Damen did not bother to ascertain who the intruders were before disarming them. He knocked the unsheathed blade out of the smaller one’s hand and pushed him toward the tent wall while turning to the taller man, and he had his knife at the taller one’s throat when the man raised his hands up in the air. He was not holding a weapon, so when he reached to remove his own hood Damen let him, and then he took a step back in surprise, because under the hood was Auguste, the crown prince of Vere.
“Damianos, please,” Auguste said in very broken Akielon. “We come to speak of peace.”
Damen had the shorter man’s sword in his left hand and his own knife in his right. He lowered the knife slightly but did not set either of them down or return the sword to Auguste’s companion.
Damen spoke better Veretian than Auguste’s Akielon, so he replied to the prince in the prince’s own language. “You come to speak of peace with a sword in the middle of the night.”
Auguste still had his arms raised. He spoke more comfortably in his own language. “I am sorry for the weapons. We had to sneak into the camp and it seemed imprudent to be unarmed. We wish to speak to you only.”
The other man had pushed himself off of the floor where Damen had flung him in the initial attack. Both of them men were dressed in dark riding leathers rather than typical Veretian finery. When the other man lowered his hood Damen could see the light golden hair that characterized the younger of the Veretian princes, Laurent. Laurent had a hand on the hilt of his knife on his belt, but he did not draw it.
Damen thought of calling for the guards, and he looked back and forth between the two princes of his enemy. Laurent was watching his older brother for cues, and Auguste was looking at Damen pleadingly, his hands still raised and his eyes wide.
Damen lowered the weapons to his side but did not put them away. “You came to speak to me; I am listening.”
Auguste did most of the speaking. He spoke of fighting at Sanpelier, of holding the head of a wounded childhood friend as he died. He spoke of the fields he saw ruined by war even before they were strewn with bodies. “Whoever wins Marlas, whoever wins Delfeur” – the Akielons called it Delpha – “I only see loss. We can both gain more from peace than we can from battle.”
Damen listened. “What do you propose?”
“Peace,” said Auguste.
“That simple,” said Damen, half a question and half starting to consider the idea himself.
“It will not be simple,” Laurent said. “It will be anything but simple.”
Auguste quieted him with a wave of his hand. “There are powerful men who wish war,” he said. “But if we two do not, how many other men sit in their tents tonight and dream of peace? Do we not owe them our attention as leaders, perhaps even more so than the dreams of ambitious men?”
Damen was quiet for a moment. “My father swore an oath to his father that Delpha would be Akielon once again, and he does not wish to be an oathbreaker.”
Laurent exhaled. “There is a reason we are in your tent and not his.”
Auguste was solemn. “If my own father had asked for such a vow when he died, I would have made it. He did not. But what is easy to swear as a young man roused by the sands and ignorant of death is much harder when you march past villages of widows and orphans. Let us swear a new vow. If we stand and embrace rather than draw a weapon, we can lead rather than follow.”
“Yes,” Damen said, hearing himself say the words before he knew he was going to say them. “I agree.”
Auguste smiled at him; he had warm eyes that crinkled at the edges when he smiled. He stretched out a hand and Damen clasped it in agreement. Damen offered his hand to the younger prince afterward, and Laurent shook also. “Wonderful,” Auguste said. “My brother has devised a plan.”
The moved to stools near the remaining embers in the brazier to discuss the plan in more detail, conversing in low voices.
Damen’s brow furrowed as Laurent stepped through the whole convoluted scheme, answering Damen’s questions impatiently throughout. Finally Damen sat back and rubbed his chin with his hand. “You are right,” he said. “It is anything but simple.”
“You agree?” Auguste said.
“I agree,” Damen said.
“How can we know to trust you?” Laurent said.
Damen raised an eyebrow. “Because I’m going to give you back your sword and to help sneak you past my own guards so you can return to your camp.” And he did.
His sleep having already been disturbed and it being near morning already, Damen walked the camp rather than return to his tent. He observed the physicians tending to the wounded, men talking quietly with each other, those preparing the horses for the battle and checking again over the weaponry and the armor.
He returned to his tent to dress and put on his own armor. He gathered his horse, patting the beast on the head as he inspected the gear and ensured it was to his satisfaction before mounting. He collected four men from the king’s guard to accompany him, selecting not only men he knew to be good on the field, but men he knew to be levelheaded and attentive to his command, who would not draw too soon and interrupt a delicate moment. He also collected a trumpeter, one of the older boys who signaled, as he could not bear to bring one of the youngest along with him into a possible ambush. As the sun reached the appropriate point in the sky, he went to speak with his father.
Theomedes was with their general, Nikandros. Damen addressed both of them together after greeting them politely with a small bow. “Father, General,” he said. “I am going to treat with the Veretian prince.”
His father frowned. “The hour before battle, when their messenger spat in front of us yesterday? Don’t be ridiculous! You are going to end up a prisoner—"
“It is the only hour left,” Damen said. “I must seek a peaceful resolution before I draw my sword.”
Theomedes opened his mouth again, but Nikandros spoke before he could. “It is an honorable man who uses war only as his last resort,” he said, his tone mild. “But have a care that you do not allow a hope of peace to guide you to anything foolish.”
“I must try,” Damen said again, and he turned his horse around and rode off. He signaled to his companions, and they rode to the meeting point. He thought, as he approached, as other soldiers were watching from either side of the valley, that perhaps it was already a trap, that Auguste and Laurent were not going to be there, or would be there only to take him prisoner.
But they were there—he could make out their blond heads approaching the meeting place on horseback with their own small contingent of men. Auguste’s hair was a deep gold in the sunlight and Laurent’s a lighter copy. When they intersected, Auguste said, “I am glad you have come.”
“I hope for peace sincerely,” Damen answered him in Veretian.
“I propose a treaty of perpetual peace,” Auguste continued, as they had discussed the night before, and Auguste gestured to one of his men who held out a scroll – the treaty. “We can sign the treaty now as a sign of our intent to fight each other no longer.”
“Yes,” Damen said.
Auguste continued through the conditions they had discussed the night before. “And to join our families in good will, you will take my brother as your betrothed, and I bestow upon him directly the lands of Delfeur, so that your heirs will be those of Delfeur and Akielos together.
“I will, if he is willing,” Damen said.
Auguste turned his head toward his brother. Laurent nodded once, sharply. Auguste gestured to the man holding the treaty. “I will sign first as a signal of good faith,” he said. One of Damen’s guard’s horses shifted, and Damen raised his gaze as Auguste signed. A Veretian messenger was approaching their treaty location at top speed. Damen was presented with the treaty himself on a wooden stand that permitted him to sign while still on horseback, and he did, just as the messenger reached them.
“Your grace,” the messenger said to Auguste, “the regent your uncle says –"
“You must turn back to the regent our uncle,” Laurent spoke before Auguste could say anything, “and tell him the important news; we have ended the war with Akielos.”
That was the beginning.
Damen had anticipated spending the day arguing with his father and his father’s generals. His father had already heard the news by the point that Damen returned to the camp. Theomedes regarded Damen atop his horse for a moment, and then turned his back to enter his own tent. Damen dismounted, handed the reins to a groom, and followed his father.
Theomedes had sat down near to the fire and the maps of war spread out across a long table. Damen sat across from them, looking at the small wooden figures of horses and lances that littered the table. One of them was knocked over on its side, and he righted it without thinking.
“So you have gained us Delpha,” Theomedes said finally, “and you have taken a consort.”
Damen nodded. There was another long period of silence. Damen could hear the call of a hawk outside.
Theomedes rose, and Damen stood in response. “It is done,” he said. “We will begin our return voyage tomorrow. Tell your fiancé to make ready to join us.”
They were invited to a small, impromptu banquet Auguste hosted that evening. Theomedes declined. The Veretian messenger delivering the invitation was the same one who had spat in front of them the day before.
Damen attended the banquet with three of his father’s generals and his half-brother Kastor. Kastor sneered at the typical Veretian opulence as they approached the Vere camp and banqueting table; Damen silenced him with two fingers on his arm. “We are both of us soldiers, not diplomats,” he said, “but this is a time for diplomacy.”
Auguste greeted them. He looked tired. Next to him Laurent looked as poised and composed as any time Damen had seen him, as though he had slept on a bed of luxurious Veretian down feathers and arisen to be served delicacies by servants. Damen knew, however, that Laurent had spent the night sneaking in to the Akielon tent, scuffling in Damen’s tent, explaining their plan in great depth, and then returning to his own camp to battle again. There was a myth of a man who bound his soul to a shade and the shade aged while the man stayed youthful; perhaps Laurent had made some such similar bargain.
Damen extended his hand to Laurent in greeting, but Laurent leaned in to brush a traditional kiss on Damen’s cheek. Damen could smell his hair, and it seemed absurd to him to think that had the morning gone another way he might have fought this man in the field. Laurent used the cover of the kiss to whisper in Damen’s ear in Akielon. “Do not drink the wine.”
Laurent’s eyes caught Damen’s as Laurent leaned back, and Damen nodded once, quickly.
“Cousin,” Damen said. “My father wishes to begin our return to Ios tomorrow. I hope you will be able to join with us on such short notice?”
Laurent swallowed. “Yes,” he said, clearing his throat. “Yes, of course. We will depart tomorrow.”
Damen signaled Kastor to watch for poison, and Kastor nodded, looking displeased, and they began the evening.
None of the Veretians spoke very much Akielon. Auguste had a few words, and Laurent slightly more, each of them spoke carefully and their lilting pronunciation made even ordinary phrases sound exotic. Damen did spy the corner of Laurent’s mouth turn up at one of Kastor’s more creative curses later in the evening, so he wondered if Laurent’s vocabulary was perhaps less diplomatic than the occasion warranted. The princes seemed to be on their best behavior. Their uncle was not present.
Damen spoke Veretian quite well, as did Nikandros, living as he did in the border territories, and Nikandros was calm and tactful throughout the evening, engaging Laurent in a quite practical discussion about governance in some of the recently disputed areas, nodding thoughtfully at some of Laurent’s responses. Everyone laughed lightly and falsely at remarks that might even circle the realm of insult, shook their head at offers of wine from the servant’s jugs, and waited for the evening to be over.
Laurent arrived early the following morning. Damen did not know how he could have slept, in between the festivities of the banquet and the organization of the prince’s guard and his retinue into a camp ready for marching. Damen looked over Laurent’s tightly laced riding leathers and austerely braided hair and was at least pleased to see he was practically attired for a journey. Damen’s camp was also ready; some of the other Akielon contingents were still disassembling. Laurent observed them from horseback; Damen could not determine what he was thinking.
“Do you –" Damen began, and Laurent’s eyes focused on him. “Wish to marry before we depart?”
Laurent frowned. “It will make more of an impact to have the celebration at Ios, to cement support for the new treaty.”
Damen nodded, it was a sensible plan. “Among my people it is traditional to marry before a bride or groom leaves his people, so that he might celebrate with his family before moving to his new home.”
Laurent regarded him for a moment. Damen stood next to his horse and rested a hand tentatively on Laurent’s boot. Laurent looked down at Damen’s hand. “It is my plan that we follow.”
Damen was not sure that a Veretian prince would be able to keep pace with the march in the same fashion as the Akielon army. He suspected his new consort was more accustomed to the luxuries of a Veretian palace – of which Damen himself had only heard rumors – than of the hardships of the march. He watched Laurent, considering whether he should surreptitiously shorten their days or ease the way in an effort to be diplomatic, but the prince was quiet and composed. Laurent and his retinue were the first to be ready every morning and the most fastidiously disciplined and organized of the entire camp. Damen observed their drills at one point. Laurent had been observing also, though he retreated off as Damen approached.
Laurent and his retinue did not mix much with the Akielons. Theomedes invited Laurent to eat with him one evening. Damen was not invited, which caused Damen to pace the whole evening worried at what was being said, but afterwards his father only remarked, “His features are very fine.”
“I am not marrying him for his features,” Damen said.
“No, you are marrying him for his dowry,” his father said, and Damen went to see Laurent, instead.
Laurent gave the impression that he tolerated Damen as an occasional visitor in his tent in the fashion one might tolerate a stray dog that happened to follow at one’s heel. He invited Damen inside with the same air Damen suspected he had when master of his own palace in Vere, though he was here a foreigner with only twenty of his own men in a tiny camp encircled by his recent enemy.
“You supped with my father,” Damen said.
“I am glad I will not marry someone unobservant,” Laurent said. His tent was more ornately decorated than Damen’s own, and Laurent sat in front of a small table with a jug and a goblet set upon it. Damen was surprised to observe that the jug was full of water, not wine; he had not thought Veretians appreciative of the virtue of moderation.
“I came only to say that I hope my father was tactful, and that he gave you no offense, for I know that this treaty was not his idea the way it was yours.”
Laurent tilted his head slightly as he regarded Damen. He was shorter than Damen, and young enough that he might still grow another inch or two as he matured from a man of seventeen to a man of twenty or twenty one. He would not reach Damen’s height, though. He was not of the same build. “There was no offense,” he said.
Damen breathed out. “Good night,” he said. He was already several steps out of the tent when he heard Laurent’s quiet reply echo behind him.
When they approached the cliffs of Ios, at the conclusion of their travels, Damen felt as though he was seeing his homeland with new eyes, trying to picture how the palace and the terraces and the crags of rock peaking out over the ocean would appear to one who had never seen them before.
The palace servants and the residents of Ios did not know what to make of this homecoming that heralded peace but was somehow not a clear victory. Laurent’s presence required special treatment – a welcome feast, new quarters for the prince consort, space for his retinue in the guardhouse. Damen spoke with Laurent only briefly on his first day home, finding there to be dozens with tasks for him flitting about and Laurent to be reserved as usual. He told Laurent, “Please tell me if there are things that you need, or that you find not to your liking.”
Laurent said, “Of course,” and Damen found his attention drawn away yet again.
Jokaste confronted him that evening at supper. It was an informal meal. Theomedes was not there; they ate late in the evening. Kastor was also not in attendance, so only Damen and Laurent sat at the high table. Jokaste arrived late, and entered the hall as Damen was demonstrating to Laurent how to tear off pieces of flat bread to dip in the spiced oil. Damen dropped the piece of bread in his hand onto his plate as Jokaste walked across the hall to the high table. She stopped across the table from Damen and slapped him hard across the face, and made to slap him a second time but Damen caught her wrist before it connected. “You’ve led me on.” She tore her wrist out of Damen’s grasp.
“I’ve made a political marriage for the sake of our people,” he said.
Jokaste ranted at him a bit longer, punctuated the conclusion of her rant by picking up Damen’s own wine goblet and dumping it down the front of his tunic and spitting in Laurent’s plate as he looked on curiously. Jokaste stalked out of the hall. Damen accepted a towel from one of the kitchen slaves and mopped at the wine covering his front and his lap. Laurent continued to regard the action with an interested expression as another servant removed his plate and set a clean one in front of him.
“I am sorry,” Damen said to Laurent, gesturing with the hand not holding the towel to the plates and the table and the door that Jokaste had departed through.
“She is creative with her insults,” said Laurent, admiring. “I expected such drama when I came eat with barbarians; I did not realize it would be so artistic.”
Damen sighed slightly at that, and handed the towel wet with wine to another slave and gestured for them to refill his goblet. They ate silently for a time.
“My plan did not account for you already having –" Laurent appeared to search for the correct word “—commitments.”
“I made no vows to Jokaste,” said Damen. Theomedes had never approved of his dalliance with Jokaste and likely would have withheld his blessing.
“The lady seems to think otherwise,” said Laurent, and Damen had no response.
Laurent excused himself shortly after the meat was served, claiming he had eaten his fill and wished to retire. Damen rose, and offered to escort him to his rooms, but Laurent insisted it was not necessary, and signaled to his guards, eating at one of the lower tables, and departing with them at his side. Damen did not stay much longer in the hall either, shaking his head at offers of music or more wine, and leaving for his own rooms thinking of the pleasure of sleeping once again in his own bed.
Lykaios, one of his favorite bed slaves, came in to help him undress and washed his face with a warm cloth. Damen was thinking of inviting her to stay simply to keep him warm within the bed; she was enough of a favorite of his that he permitted her to sleep with him through the night even when they were not engaging in bedsport, but then there was a slight commotion outside his chamber. After some sort of brief argument with Damen’s guards, Jokaste entered the chamber. The guards must have observed what had happened in the hall while they ate; they would not have previously barred Jokaste from his bedchamber. Lykaios froze next to Damen upon seeing Jokaste. Lykaios was also enough of a favorite that she often entertained Damen and his lovers together, but Lykaios was frightened of Jokaste’s temper.
Damen caressed Lykaios’s hair softly. “You can go.” She glanced at him for confirmation, seemingly torn between her own desire to flee and a reluctance to leave Damen alone with Jokaste. He smiled at this show of loyalty and small bravery, and nodded at her, and she left.
“Where is he?” said Jokaste, glancing around the room as though Laurent were hiding behind a piece of furniture and would emerge at her question.
“I told you I could make you no vows,” said Damen.
“Is he as frigid in bed as he looks? Some of those who seem furthest removed become the fiercest companions when alone, but some of them are always untouchable. Have you married a Veretian block of ice?”
“We are not yet wed,” said Damen.
Jokaste, seemingly having satisfied herself that Laurent was not hiding somewhere within the chamber, came to stand in front of Damen. Damen thought she might slap him again; he considered whether he would permit it.
Their coupling was without tenderness. Jokaste bound his hands with silk and took her pleasure over him without permitting him to touch her, and it was only once her own pleasure was satisfied that she finally brought their bodies together and allowed him to strain towards his own release.
She did not linger once they were finished, and departed leaving his hands still bound. Damen was reaching for his knife to cut himself loose when Lykaios crept back in quietly, and then he permitted her to gently untie the knots, massage his wrists, and curl up next to him warmly in the wreck of the bed Jokaste had left.
The next day the preparations for the royal wedding began. Damen himself cared not for ceremony or for protocol, and would have left the entire affair of getting married to the palace steward, but it soon became clear that Erkule had been completely overtaken by Laurent, who was apparently overseeing their wedding preparations personally. Erkule fussed ineffectually when Laurent deviated from Akielon tradition.
They had a betrothal ceremony, which involved a roaring bonfire and Damen tying an embroidered ribbon around Laurent’s wrist, and they had a ceremony to celebrate the betrothal, which involved a great feast and lots of dancing, though not by Laurent, who shook his head at any invitation.
There was a second feast, and then a very stylized reading of vows, and by the time there was a Veretian ceremony that was explained to Damen as a ritual mourning for the loss of oneness that came along with the union of marriage, Damen began to suspect that Laurent was simply inventing new ceremonies for no purpose whatsoever.
“Cousin,” he approached Laurent on his balcony. It was difficult to approach Laurent in a public occasion. When Damen was not following instructions and reading something to him or tying a ribbon on his wrist he found Laurent elusive and absent. Damen found it easiest to corner Laurent in the chambers that had been allotted to him, as they – like Damen’s own – faced out over the cliffs and therefore posed no back exit for Laurent to slip out of. “We have celebrated many times over. When we will be actually married?”
“Are you so anxious to culminate our union?” Laurent did not raise his voice, but there was a current of steel in it regardless.
“I am anxious to turn my attention to other affairs of importance besides holding your hand in front of crowds of commoners,” Damen said carefully.
Laurent had been looking out over the cliffs; he turned around to face Damen. In the light of the torches and the moon he looked very young. Damen suddenly thought – would he have had the courage to leave everything he had ever known for a vague hope of peace with a complete stranger, when he had been only seventeen? The idea would not have come to him as it had emerged to Laurent, and even if it had, he was not certain that he would have had the courage to persuade his brother to join him in enacting the whole plot.
Laurent’s face did not look young. His body, yes, and his hair blew around his face as though the wind thought he were a maiden waiting for her lover, but his face was set and his eyes were cold.
“Solidifying support for the peace treaty and the alliance between our people is the affair of greatest importance right now,” Laurent said. “Especially with Jokaste and Kastor spreading seeds of dissent. Kastor has several supporters amongst the cavalry, but the helots will follow you, I think, and the commoners have more sway amongst them, which is why their goodwill is so important.”
Damen felt as though he had been stabbed, somehow in battle but unprotected without his armor. “What are you talking about?” he said.
Laurent looked at him sharply. “You can’t possibly not know,” he said, and he walked in off the balcony and stood an arms-length away from Damen, and then he said, “You truly don’t know” and “I have to rethink everything.”
Damen pulled Laurent down next to him on a settee. “Explain,” he said grimly, and they were up half the night in talking.
The next day was the first of a set of trials of skill intend to celebrate their betrothal, and Damen went to oversee the first bouts in the ring. He felt as though his head were swirling with a million new thoughts, as though his vision had been fractured and reformed and he now saw everything familiar as though through a new light.
Kastor teased him when he arrived. “Brother, you haven’t slept. Finding your ice prince warmer than he looks?”
Damen was about to deny Kastor’s crude implication, when Laurent was suddenly beside them both. If Laurent felt any results of having been awake all night it was not visible. “Jealous?” said Laurent to Kastor in Akielon, raising an eyebrow and settling himself next to Damen on the bench.
“My engagement is entirely to my liking,” said Damen.
Kastor regarded Damen for a moment, but he spoke to Laurent. “Your Akielon is getting better, Veretian.” Laurent nodded his head regally at this as a compliment, and their attention was drawn by the start of the first match. Laurent rested his hand on Damen’s arm, and Damen felt absurdly conscious of his fingers touching there lightly.
Kastor’s teasing did not abate in the following days – he seemed to pay a close amount of attention to Damen heading to and from Laurent’s chambers – but Damen heeded Laurent’s advice and paid it no mind. Laurent seemed determined to encourage it, acting more flirtatiously with Damen in public, standing closer to him, touching him lightly with a hand upon his arm, leaning in to speak with him, looking up at Damen with his held tilted slightly.
Damen knew that it was for show because Laurent did not act that way when the two of them were alone. The most notable feature Laurent had when they were alone together was his mind.
At first, Damen was tempted to go to someone else for counsel. It seemed contrary to logic to him that his enemy would suddenly be the only one he could trust in truth within his own home. But he did not know, from the words that Laurent had already spun around in his head, whom he could even turn to for another opinion. To seek opinions on such topics as his brother, the loyalty of the guards, and the feebleness of his father were akin to treason. Anyone who Damen could have spoken to in trust would be as surprised as he had been when Laurent had first woven it out.
The more that he had Laurent’s voice in his ear, pointing out why certain members of the court did the things that they did, the more he could see it himself. It was as though he had been blind to Jokaste and Kastor’s ambition previously, but it was plain for him to see now. Equally as plain was that the two of them were fucking. Damen did not even have to pay as much attention to his brother’s nighttime habits as Kastor seemed to pay to his to figure that out.
It was as if an entirely new battlefield had been exposed to him, and Damen could not find a firm footing on it and felt himself stumble around. And Laurent, who was new, and alone, and three years younger than Damen himself, seemed to be moving surefooted across the field to defend his position and strike a killing blow.
They finally married in a three-day ceremony that culminated at a full moon. Laurent’s family did not travel to join them, but the ambassador from Vere, Guion, conveyed gifts from Laurent’s brother and uncle. Theomedes gave Damen a circlet that Laurent would wear as his consort, and the gold was almost the same color as Laurent’s hair.
At the banquet, in the evening after Theomedes had excused himself as an old man to his bed, Kastor was drunk. He sat at the high table with them but he was deep in his cups. “I thought you preferred women,” he slurred, as though Damen’s new consort were not two feet down the table and well able to hear him.
“Hush, brother, you are drunk.”
“Your harem is almost entirely women—" Damen signaled one of the servants to remove the jug of wine that sat in between he and Kastor. Kastor seemed to lose his thought before it was complete. “How are you going to have an heir, anyway?” Kastor said.
“We are young men,” Damen said. “There is plenty of time to consider such matters.”
Damen could sense Laurent was sitting quite still beside him.
“Is that some sort of Veretian flowery phrase for how you are hoping your first consort will die in a suspicious accident, and that you can take a second wife in your middle age—"
Kastor stopped, because Damen had drawn a knife from his belt, stood up so quickly it knocked his chair over backward behind him, and held the knife’s blade at his brother’s throat. “Such words are treason,” he hissed at Kastor. Kastor swallowed. Laurent stood up behind him.
“He is drunk,” Laurent said.
Damen took a step back. “He insulted you.”
“His insults were not very creative,” Laurent said. “Let him go sleep it off.” Laurent nodded at one of Kastor’s friends within the king’s guard, and the man stepped forward and slipped his shoulder under Kastor’s and helped him out of the hall.
Damen reached for his goblet only to find it empty and the jug taken from the table. Laurent signaled a servant. “Calm yourself,” he said quietly in Veretian, and then he began to ask after one of the musicians who had been playing, complimenting her skill with the kithara and asking what was the name of the piece and who had been the composer. It was already hard to remember when his Akielon had stammered and lacked one word in three. He spoke as fluently now in Akielon as he seemed to in Veretian, and Laurent possessed charm enough to turn a phrase when he did not know a word, or to ask politely in his still somewhat exotic-sounding accent what a particular word or idiom meant when someone made a comment that was new.
Damen drank his wine and attempted to focus on the music. His thoughts were on Kastor. There were rumors that Jokaste was carrying Kastor’s child. Jokaste hadn’t attended the wedding. Laurent’s words next to him washed over him – he was saying something about Veretian custom – and he only came back fully into the moment when he realized Laurent was standing and extending a hand to him.
Laurent raised a brow at his pause. “Is it not traditional amongst your people for the newlyweds to be anxious to leave their own banquet?” And Damen realized that Laurent was offering him a way out, and he followed.
They walked toward Damen’s chambers. Laurent freed his hand from Damen’s when they were alone in the hallway.
Laurent had been given his own suite of chambers in the same wing as Damen’s own, and he usually left Damen without comment when the hallways diverged. This time, he led the path down the hallway and walked past the divergence toward Damen’s room.
The bedroom had been elaborately decorated for the occasion. There were fresh flowers set out on a small table, small delicacies of the type one might feed a lover with his fingers, and a variety of oils for men’s pleasure set out near the bed. The room smelled vaguely of incense. Laurent was looking around, curiously; Damen realized that this would be the first time Laurent had seen his rooms.
Damen breathed deeply. “Laurent,” he started, and Laurent turned to look at him. Having taken in the room, Laurent’s attention seemed to focus on Damen solely, and Laurent began to undress Damen, unpinning the broach of his cloak and reaching for his tunic.
Damen stopped him by clasping Laurent’s hands in his own, and bringing them in front of him. He pressed his lips to the back of one of Laurent’s hands gently. “Laurent,” said Damen. “I made an oath to your brother that I would not consummate the marriage until after your coming of age.”
Laurent was so still that he could have been a marble statuary in the garden. Damen translated the sentence into Veretian. “I swore to Auguste that we –"
“I understand the words,” said Laurent. His tone was pure venom. He took three steps back from where Damen was standing and stood a swords-length distance away. “You would have fought me at Marlas. I was old enough then that you would have taken me in the field on your sword, except that I prevented it, that it was my plan that devised peace, and that I came here, and I have done everything. You are blind to your brother’s own treachery until I open your eyes, and yet now I am too young and somehow while only three years older, you are wiser than I, to decide with my brother what is in my best interest?”
“I did not know you when I made the oath to your brother,” said Damen, “so it was done in nothing but goodwill and my own desire for peace.” Laurent was wearing the circlet in his hair that Damen had gifted him with during a ceremony the day before, and it glinted in the light of the torches lit by the servants. “It did not seem too great a favor to grant a concerned brother.”
Laurent upended the entire table of flowers and finger foods. The glass vase the flowers had been contained in shattered on the tile floor into a constellation of glass shards and flowers stems. There was contained violence in Laurent’s body that Damen thought would any second be turned on him. “You do not know what is best for me,” said Laurent. “You swore earlier today that we would be partners; that we would be equals; you are not my uncle; you do not make my decisions.”
Laurent turned on his heel and left. The door echoed behind him.
Damen spent the following day inspecting a nearby stronghold with Nikandros. He had had vague thoughts of going to see it for a while, and since he had nothing else planned for the day it seemed as good a time as any. It was the type of trip he would have previously taken with his brother, though he no longer sought out his brother for such occasions and Kastor would not be feeling well from the night before regardless. He had thought he might invite Laurent along with him, but given their quarrel the evening prior, he decided that some space might be better.
Nikandros was a pleasant companion. He had good insights about the stronghold, spotting weaknesses that needed reinforcement, calling out strengths that could be taken advantage of in the case of a siege. As they rode back, Damen considered bringing Nikandros into his confidences, sharing what Laurent had opened his eyes to and asking his opinion of Kastor’s actions.
When they returned to the keep at Ios, Erkule came running out to meet them in the courtyard as Damen was turning over his horse to a groom. After a moment of stammering, Erkule burst out with the news. “He has sold all of your slaves!”
“Explain,” said Damen.
“Prince Laurent,” said Erkule, “has arranged with the palace slave master to sell all of your personal bed slaves to Reila of Patras.”
Damen confronted Laurent in Laurent’s chambers. Damen was still dressed in his riding clothes. The prince was alone, lounged on a settee and reading a book by candlelight.
“Explain yourself,” said Damen.
“And how was your day, husband?” said Laurent, turning a page in his book.
“You seem to have been busy with trade arrangements.”
“We are one now, husband,” said Laurent, “And the notion of bed slaves offends me.”
“If you are angry with me, you will battle with me,” said Damen. “To turn innocents out of the only home they have ever known with no notice to say goodbye to their families is completely unnecessary.”
“So you think of your bed slaves as innocents?” said Laurent. “That’s very interesting.”
Damen had spent the past hour in the slave quarters, wiping tear-stained faces and assuring his favorites that they had done nothing to displease him, that they had done nothing to displease the new prince except that Veretians did not keep bed slaves, and that Reila would be a kind mistress and that they would find their new home near the fruit orchards very beautiful.
He leaned over Laurent on the settee, close enough that he could feel the warmth of the candles on the small table next to him. Laurent had returned his attention resolutely at the page of his book even as Damen blocked his light. “What is between us, is between us. Do not involve others again.”
Laurent was very still. Damen was close enough that he could see Laurent’s pulse fluttering in his neck. He stood up, and left.
The season began to change; the weather grew colder. The sea hit strongly on the cliff, the winds brisk as they came from the north and chopped up the waves. Damen had several men and women approach him about replacing his harem – both individual lords and ladies as well as traders, and he could feel Laurent’s eyes on him as he declined the offers. Damen and Laurent sat next to each other at the high table at formal meals, and saw very little of each besides that. Laurent stayed in his chambers, supervised his men at arms occasionally when they occupied the training ring, and kept up an extensive correspondence.
Damen himself did not know what to do with his brother. There was a new hesitancy to Damen’s own actions around Kastor that had never been part of their childhood exchanges. Kastor’s words seemed to grow increasingly bitter; his jibes about Damen’s Veretian husband more venomous. Jokaste was thickening with her child.
One day in early winter, Damen awoke to find Laurent in Damen’s chambers, dressed in his typical Veretian fashion, and breaking his fast by picking at a tray of cut fruit set out in the antechamber. Damen pulled on his pants and padded out to sit down across from Laurent.
“Good morning, husband,” said Damen.
Laurent ate a berry. “Good morning, barbarian.”
“How do you do up all the ties on your clothing?” Damen asked, eyeing the tunic Laurent was wearing, which was laced up the arms and across the front.
“Oh, so now you are feeling amorous,” Laurent said, biting in to a piece of melon. “Calm yourself, barbarian, we have work to do.”
Laurent led Damen to the practice arena. “The men are doing outside drills, today.” There were two guards remaining on duty. Laurent directed the guards outside the practice arena. “The prince and I wish to have a private bout and do not wish to be disturbed.” The tone of his voice implied that they wished to use the practice arena to fuck, and Damen found himself turning slightly red as the guards grasped Laurent’s insinuation. But the guards nodded agreeably at Laurent’s direction, and promised that there would be no interruptions.
The door closed behind them. Laurent circled the arena, getting a feel for the wooden practice floor, testing his weight on the rail surrounding the floor. He concluded his inspection near the set of wooden practice swords. “I wish to know if you are as good as your reputation suggests.”
“You wish a friendly spar?” Damen said.
Laurent nodded. “Are you willing?”
Damen shrugged. “It is always wise to keep in practice.” He selected a practice sword of the correct length, and crossed out toward the center of the arena. Laurent was pickier with his weapon, but finally found one to his satisfaction and approached out across from Damen.
“And you have no objection to revealing your skills to your enemy?” Laurent said.
“You are not my enemy,” Damen said. He struck, attempting to get a feel for Laurent’s skills. His first blow was not especially hard or fast, and Laurent parried it seemingly without effort.
Damen had not expected Laurent to be an exceptional swordsman. He had not crossed Laurent in the field in the past. The prince was young, and did not have a particular reputation for training. To the contrary, from what Damen could gather from Laurent’s retinue, Ambassador Guion, and the image that Laurent himself seemed to project, Laurent was accustomed to luxury and not the type to train the calluses into his hands.
However, all of this was false. Laurent did not have the strength that Damen did himself – he might grow into more than he had at present, but he would likely always have a smaller frame. But he made the most of the gifts that he had. He was fast, lithe, and his body moved all in alignment with the sword as a simple extension of himself. He had grace and he had training. A young man did not become this adept with the sword by accident; it took years of practice every day.
They practiced for nearly an hour. At first Damen took the offensive, with increasingly more challenging blows, Laurent parrying the early sets without effort, and eventually with noticeable challenge until Damen began to reach a point where he would have landed a few, had he not pulled them at the last second. Laurent nodded with something like respect.
Then Damen held back, and watched Laurent’s style as he took over the attack, and his style was like that of a fox during the hunt, tricky to watch and elusively never where you thought he might be.
Damen was accustomed to filling his time in the practice arena with commentary, praising the men when they were doing well, offering corrections where they left themselves open or could move more efficiently. He and Laurent fought silently, and it was relaxing for Damen in a way that now sitting next to his father or his brother at a meal was not. This, at least, was a fight he understood.
Damen had disarmed Laurent a third time, and wiped sweat from his brow while waiting as Laurent decided to switch to a differently weighted weapon. Laurent did not have any of the poor habits of some of the men Damen trained with, who were defensive with words when their defensives with swords failed, or who nursed their bruises rather than attack quickly after a failure. Laurent kept his eyes on Damen, retrieved his weapon, and continued. He did not make the same mistakes twice. “You are very good,” Damen said honestly, admiring.
“You are better,” Laurent said.
“Have I done justice to my reputation?” Damen asked.
“I do not know; I have not yet had you in the bedroom,” Laurent said, and Damen laughed aloud, and Laurent took that as an opportunity to attack, and caught him with a blow in his unprotected slide.
Laurent continued their conversation after he punctuated it with swordplay.
“You exceeded your reputation,” Laurent said. “I did not believe it possible, what the men said of what you did.”
“Your reputation does not do you justice,” Damen told Laurent in return.
“My reputation is carefully cultivated,” Laurent said. “I prefer to be underestimated. We should practice again.” They concluded their match. Damen agreed to another match.
As they left the ring, Damen was conscious that the guards were looking at their sweat-beaded skin and reading in to it a different activity than swordplay. One of the guards winked.
In his childhood, Damen had observed his father meet with his kyroi by conducting annual visits to the different provinces. Each year, his father would pick several locations, based on who he knew to be having problems, or who had recently inherited, or where he had not been in several years. And then he traveled to their keeps or their manors or their villas, and thanked them for their hospitality and service, and listened to their grievances.
Now, Damen watched Laurent bring all of these men to him, at Ios. Some of them came of their own accord, for the wedding, or to see Theomedes, or out of curiosity to meet the new consort. Others came because Laurent summoned them. While Damen himself had never assumed any of his father’s responsibilities in corresponding with the kyroi, Laurent spent several hours each day on his correspondence, writing both to his brother back in Vere as well as to each of the Akielon kyroi in turn.
When they attended him at Ios, Laurent oversaw their visit. He met with them himself, invited them to breakfast with him in the garden, to lunch in his solar, and conducted banquets in the hall. He sent Damen out hunting with the younger men while he asked the older men about the history of their regions. He lectured Damen in private about how they must behave. “We must not argue in public,” he instructed Damen, “for it presents a weakness between us to be used by our enemies. If you disagree, or if I disagree, we will hear each other out when we are alone, and when we have concluded, we must act together as one.”
Theomedes remarked to Damen that it was uncommon for a consort in a political marriage to take such an active interest in ruling.
“Father, has Laurent displeased you?”
“No, he has been quite a help to me, in fact. He has a sound mind and a young man’s energy. If only he were a woman and you had an heir on the way.”
Damen ignored this as he ignored all insinuations about heirs. Thinking of heirs caused him to think of Jokaste, and to count in his head the weeks, but he had no way of knowing. Even if Laurent were a woman, there would be no heir on the way. The prince did not come of age until the spring. Laurent resided in his own chambers at Ios.
Kastor invited Damen to go hunting with him. Damen thought of all the times they had gone hunting as boys, and did not have it in him to say no.
They planned to go the next day. Damen was not sure who informed Laurent of the plan, but when he so discovered it, he confronted Damen. Damen happened to be bathing.
“You are a fool,” said Laurent. “Unless you mean to let him kill you off in the forest where there are no witnesses and far too many convenient accidents.”
“Watch your tongue; he is my brother,” said Damen.
“And you have even let him select the men to accompany you. Next you will graciously offer to fall on his sword, I suppose.” Laurent paused in his lecture to observe Damen in the bath, his eyes moving over Damen’s body. “I thought all barbarians marked their skin with ink,” said Laurent.
“You mean tattooing?” Damen gave him the word in Akielon.
“Yes,” said Laurent. “Where are your marks?”
“Who told you Akielons are fond of tattooing?” said Damen.
“Don’t you keep a litany of your kills on your own skin,” said Laurent.
“Yes,” Damen said, gesturing at the planes of his own chest, which were notably free of tattoos. “The Veretians on the left side and the Vaskians on the right.”
Laurent’s mouth turned up at the corner. “You will have to add Akielon traitors to your back after this is over.”
“I cannot attack my brother for foolish words while drunk,” said Damen.
“Pity,” said Laurent, “At least that would have the advantage of surprise.” He sat on a bench next to Damen’s bathtub, moving the stack of towels that had been sitting there to his own lap and staring at the tiled wall in contemplation, frowning slightly. “You would have justification enough to move against him in Vere,” Laurent added.
“Are drunken insults mortal offenses in Vere?”
“No,” said Laurent, “Well, perhaps sometimes. But I meant because of the bastard. They curse the entire family; you would be well within your rights to slay them both to mitigate the evil.”
Damen thought, ‘I must tell him,’ but the words did not come. Damen dunked his head under the water and emerged again, dripping. “I do not have your skill in divining the thoughts of others,” said Damen. “But I have listened to all that you have told me and I can see what you have said is true. Yet he is my brother, and I love him. I do not wish him to be my enemy any more than you wish to turn against Auguste.”
“That you do not wish it does not make it so,” said Laurent.
The water was growing tepid, so he stood and reached a hand toward Laurent for one of the towels. Laurent did not immediately hand him one, watching the water drip out of his hair and down his torso. Laurent passed him a towel finally, and watched as Damen scrubbed at his hair and brushed the water off of himself before wrapping the towel around his waist.
Laurent also stood, handing the second towel that had been sitting on his lap to Damen. He paused in the doorway to the bathing room. “I am very disappointed by the lack of tattoos, barbarian,” he said.
When they prepared to ride out the following morning Damen was not surprised to see an additional horse being prepared. Kastor was obviously surprised.
“I did not realize that your wife was going to join us,” said Kastor, well within hearing range of Laurent, who had emerged dressed in austere riding leathers and a woolen cloak.
Laurent mounted his horse and nodded a greeting to Damen and to Kastor. “Kastor,” said Laurent coolly. “And how is your whore and your bastard?”
Kastor bristled with offense, but Laurent had had him at a disadvantage, as Kastor’s groom was still settling his saddle on the horse. “You let him speak thus?” said Kastor, as Damen mounted his own horse.
“Did I offend?” said Laurent, “A thousand apologies, my command of your barbarian language is weak. I thought it was common politeness to inquire after a man’s family?”
Once he mounted, Kastor was much taller than Laurent – his horse a hand taller and Kastor himself larger, more of Damen’s build than Laurent’s. Laurent made no acknowledgement, sitting tall and seemingly unconcerned.
Kastor headed up the hunt, Laurent moved his horse in close to Damen’s in the courtyard.
“No objections that I am too young for the hunt?” said Laurent.
Damen smiled. “I am sure that would only be the fastest way to my death.”
“My fortunes in Akielos are entirely dependent on your own, so it is hardly in my interest to murder you.”
“Such kind words; I am glad you are warming to me, husband,” said Damen.
“So in the spirit of self-interest,” said Laurent, “Do not leave your knife too far from your hand.”
Damen nodded. “You are my sharpest knife,” he murmured to Laurent. “Stay close.”
The atmosphere of the beginning of the hunt was oppressive. Several of the men that Kastor had invited had found themselves dispensed with by Laurent in favor of members of the Veretian prince’s guard. Damen spoke Veretian with two of the men – they were called Jord and Orlant – and found them diverting enough, but the mixing of the Veretians and Kastor’s drinking companions was stilted.
Jord and Orlant both spoke Akielon fluently – apparently Laurent had instructed all of his personal guard that it was necessary – but they were happy enough to converse in their native language.
Laurent was conversing with each of Kastor’s men in turn, quietly and individually, rotating from one to another. Kastor and his own men spoke jocularly to each other, but they seemed to laugh a little bit too loud.
They broke for lunch in a clearing; some of Laurent’s servants had set up lunch. Damen watched Laurent eat before taking bites of his own; Laurent was far more worried about poison than he was, so he considered Laurent eating the food an assurance that it was safe.
Kastor’s plot unfolded in the afternoon. Having interrogated each of Kastor’s men, Laurent was riding next to Damen. Laurent made no effort at conversation. Damen ventured a few remarks on the quality of the weather, only to be met with a withering look from Laurent.
Damen was never sure how Kastor intended for the melee to proceed. But what actually happened was that Kastor’s men ended up separated a ways off from Laurent, Damen, Jord and Orlant. Then archers attacked them. Laurent’s horse was wounded and he almost fell. Jord and Orlant charged toward the direction the first volley of arrows came, Damen noted that one of the arrows had come from the opposite direction and turned that way. The archer attached Damen with a knife by leaping down at him from a tree; Damen narrowly avoided being unseated from his horse. He drew his sword; the archer wore no insignia. He disarmed the man of his bow and his knife and cornered him with his back to a tree; Laurent approached from behind him with his own knife drawn.
“The others?” said Damen.
“Orlant and Jord are fine; the two archers are dead,” said Laurent.
“Why do you attack us?” said Damen, to the remaining archer.
“That’s a foolish question,” said Laurent, moving in close to the archer. “Have you ever heard of the Veretian method of torturing a man?” he said, almost in the voice one might use with a lover. “Who hired you?”
“I never knew his name,” the man blurted, eyes focused on Laurent’s knife.
“And his appearance?” said Laurent.
Damen’s attention was drawn from the interrogation by the return of Kastor and his companions. “Brother,” said Kastor. “We heard the sounds of fighting; what has happened?”
By the time Damen had turned his head again toward Laurent, the man was dead. His throat was cut and his blood was on Laurent’s hands. Laurent wiped his hands and his knife on the grass before cleaning them more fastidiously with a cloth.
“Did he tell you who was responsible?” asked Kastor.
“Yes,” said Laurent. A streak of his hair had escaped his braid and caught in the smear of blood on his face. “He told me everything.”
Damen had a strange moment of dissociation, looking back and forth between his brother and his husband. On horseback, surrounded by his companions, all of them with weapons drawn at the ready, was his brother, the man he had looked up to his entire childhood. On the ground, covered in blood and sheathing his knife, was the man he had grown up taught to hate. And yet, he could only think that Kastor was outmatched.
They searched the bodies quickly, and dragged them to the same spot together under a tree where they might send others out later to bury them. Laurent’s horse was fatally wounded; Jord dispatched her, sadly. Orlant offered Laurent his horse, but Laurent shook his head, and stretched out his hand to Damen, sticking one toe into Damen’s stirrup. Damen caught on to Laurent’s plan in time to help Laurent mount behind him; he could feel Laurent settle into position and place hands on Damen’s waist.
Riding pillion at least gave them opportunity to talk. “I am sorry about your horse,” said Damen, because he could not say “You were right,” to Laurent while they rode back to the keep with Kastor only several horse lengths away.
“You can give me another,” said Laurent, in Veretian.
The evening was spent in conference with Theomedes, recounting the tragedy of their hunt. There was no proof. Laurent had told Kastor in the woods that the archer had revealed everything, but Kastor left that portion out of the story as he recounted the tale to their father, and Laurent remained quiet at Damen’s side.
Theomedes stroked his beard as he considered the matter. “How terrible,” he said.
Kastor suggested that possibly the archers were disgruntled Veretians who wished war with Akielos despite the treaty.
Nikandros replied mildly, noting that there were Akielons also who found the treaty distasteful, and that they too might have a grudge.
Damen watched Laurent. They had each adjourned to their chambers prior to the meeting, and Laurent had washed and was no longer wearing the blood of their attacker. He was still dressed austerely, as was his fashion, but he was wearing the golden circlet Damen had gifted him during their wedding. It blended closely into his hair. Damen himself would also be entitled to wear such a circlet, though he rarely did. Kastor was not afforded the same privilege.
Laurent came to Damen’s rooms after Theomedes retired for the evening.
“What did you discover?” said Damen.
Laurent handed him a ring. It was silver with a garnet inset, engraved with a sparrow so that the garnet was the eye. “It’s Veretian,” said Laurent.
“No doubt intended to support Kastor’s theory that the attackers are some Veretian faction,” said Damen, handing the ring back to Laurent.
“I do not know how to proceed,” said Damen. “I dislike sharing my home with a man I cannot trust. Yet I do not know how to move against him with no evidence of his ill will.”
“I will think on it,” said Laurent. He slipped the sparrow ring into a pocket in his clothing. “At our wedding -- was it true, what Kastor said?”
Damen cast his thoughts back to the wedding, to Kastor’s drunken and jealous words about how Damen might wish Laurent to die under suspicious circumstances. “Of course not! I am sincere in my hope for peace; my vows were made with no secret hopes or treachery.”
“Not that,” Laurent said. “I knew that – any man with so little an eye for treachery in others is not cultivating it in himself, and if he were doing so he would not confess it upon me raising the question. I meant –" his eyes flicked away from Damen and toward the balcony. “What he said about you preferring women?”
“Ah,” Damen said.
“Is it true?” Laurent said.
“Yes,” Damen said truthfully. “That has been my preference. You did not observe this when you sold my harem?”
“I’ve never –" Laurent said –“with a woman. It is taboo amongst my people. Is it pleasurable?”
“Yes, of course,” Damen said. He had thought that bedsport was the furthest thing from his mind this evening. The direction of his thoughts was starting to change. He thought again that he must tell Laurent. He did not wish to fight. Perhaps it was not his.
Laurent nodded. He ran a finger along the edge of a small table where the servants often put out breakfast.
“And have you, with men?” Damen said, echoing Laurent’s structure.
Laurent cast him a look. “How young do you think I am?” he asked.
“That is a not an answer,” Damen said.
Laurent did not speak further.
Days passed. He and Laurent sparred together in the practice arena, always clearing the arena for their practice, and likely causing rumors about their preference for coupling in the space, but Laurent insisted that it was better to be underestimated. They were likely closest to coupling when they were sparring, at other times Laurent was skittish and distant.
He stood closely to Damen when they were in public, but far from him when they were alone. When they sparred, at least, Damen could occasionally touch him, if he moved in close enough or caught him in a hold that was probably more like wrestling than like sword fighting. Laurent fought in riding leathers, he did not strip down as the Akielons did when they practiced, but the brushes of Laurent’s clothed body against his own while they fought were the only taste of him that Damen had, and he savored it.
It was the season of the olive harvest. Damen showed Laurent some of the vat rooms used for curing near the orchards. Laurent rode his newly gifted horse.
At midwinter, Kastor and Jokaste married. Theomedes gave his blessing even though Jokaste was not of old blood. It would have been hard to defer when Jokaste was so obviously expecting and Kastor was not the heir.
Their wedding was less elaborate than Damen’s and Laurent’s, as befitted their status, and the lack of Veretian ceremonies Laurent had insisted upon.
Damen took advantage of being seated next to Laurent at the high table during the banquet to comment to his husband. “I suppose it hardly seems like marriage to you, without seventeen commemorative ceremonies.”
Laurent regarded him as he sipped from a goblet. “It hardly even seems worth marrying when her belly is already so large. How would everyone not know the child is a bastard?”
“You do not think they marry for love?” said Damen.
Laurent’s coming of age approached around the same time as Jokaste’s child. Damen tried asking the Veretian ambassador about Veretian styles of courtship, framing his question by saying that he was so pleased with his new marriage he wanted to celebrate it with a gift his new husband might appreciate. But Councilor Guion recommended jewels and gold and silver, which Damen had never seen Laurent wear. He occasionally wore the circlet provided by Damen’s father during their wedding, but he did not wear it even at all court functions, and he did not decorate his face or his clothing with typical Veretian embellishments.
Damen turned his thoughts next to the type of gift that he himself would value most, and then he combined the advice of the councilor with his own thoughts and commissioned a set of decorated throwing knives.
The ironmonger came personally to deliver the knives, and Damen inspected the weight and found the work to be of high quality. He set the aside in a wooden box in preparation for the prince’s birthday.
Auguste wrote Damen a letter, the first portion in broken Akielon and the second portion in far more fluent Veretian. He spoke of his thankfulness for their peace and the treaty, how he was glad to hear from Laurent that both Damen and Laurent were well. He concluded the note with the news that he himself was to be wed the following fall, and that he hoped that Damen and Laurent might be willing to travel to Arles for the event.
Damen wrote back in the family solar. Laurent watched him curiously but apparently could not bring himself to actually inquire as to what Damen was writing. Damen wrote his letter in Veretian.
He congratulated Auguste on his upcoming nuptials and expressed his hope that he and Laurent would be able to join the celebration. He mentioned the marriage of his own brother in passing, as news of his family only. He knew Laurent wrote encoded letters to his brother that probably contained more of the full story.
Damen was uncertain at which point in the spring Laurent marked his age. But in the later days of spring Laurent received several gifts from his brother, and Damen took that as his cue. He retrieved the knives he’d commissioned and had one of the servants deliver them to Laurent in Laurent’s chambers.
Laurent came to Damen’s chambers that evening, holding one of the knives in his hand.
“So you’ve come to knife me in my sleep,” said Damen, teasing.
“Thank you for the gift,” said Laurent somberly. “The craftsmanship is very good.”
“Yes,” said Damen. “I was quite pleased.”
Damen felt the lack of consummation of their marriage as present within the room with them. He felt warm towards Laurent even though Laurent acted coolly toward him; it was hard to regulate his own behavior.
He had never before had a potential lover with him already in his bedroom and had so little idea of how to proceed. His bed slaves, like his favorite Lykaios, were trained in his preferences before they ever were let near his wing of the palace, and if the slave master Adrastus thought they were worthy of serving him in the bedroom it was certain that they were already quite accomplished and ready to follow the slightest cue. If even a new bed slave had been here to please him, Damen could have been confident that she or he were watching him and ready to act. The slave might offer hospitality to Damen, such as a beverage, or please him with the touch of skin by massaging oil into his hands or shoulders. He would help Damen out of his clothing and put it away as though it were as precious to him as his own skin, and if Damen were not yet ready to retire he would entertain Damen with quiet words or soft music.
And if he had taken another partner, it would be different, of course. Damen knew the ways of the ladies of the court well enough to understand how they wished to be flattered before receiving an invitation, how it was only fair to be clear to them about his intentions – whether they be courtship or only pleasure for the near time ahead – and how to wait for the right moment to invite them to his chambers. But if a lady of the court accepted his invitation, by the time she was in his room, they both knew why they were there. And then he knew his role as well, and he would have one of the slaves help both of them to undress, and he would treat the woman’s clothing as though it were as precious to him as his own skin, and he would look after her pleasure before taking his own, and allow her to stay in his bed until the morning if she wished.
With Jokaste, she had had a wicked way in the bedroom, and she had told Damen what she wished, in no uncertain terms, whether it was for him to please her, or for her to watch him take his own pleasure – she had had a particular fondness for watching him touch himself – or some other fancy that she had adopted. He had found Jokaste interesting in part because she had such ideas, and when she had come to his bedroom he had never been certain where the evening would go, and whether they would couple on the balcony looking out over the water and listening to the remnants of a party in the gardens below, or whether she would bring him to the edge of pleasure and torment with a clever toy of some sort before finally releasing him over the edge.
Now he had Laurent, present in his bedroom only slightly further away than arm’s reach, and yet Laurent seemed as far from him as though he were in the Veretian capital at Arles. Damen felt yet again adrift at sea, as he had as a young man when he had first been permitted to couple with a bed slave and he had not yet had the self control or the skills to pleasure her and had been so frantic and yet so worried about his own performance.
He did not know the pattern of Laurent’s thoughts, if Laurent was wondering the same things as he was, because he could not always read Laurent’s face to know what he was thinking. He did not know Laurent and neither did he know the ways of Laurent’s customs. He did not know how Veretians behaved when they were in the bedroom together. He knew they did not have bedslaves, but they sometimes had youths whose attentions they fancied, and upon whom they bestowed jewels in return for their favors. He was not certain that Laurent was not even still a mystery to other Veretians.
Damen was starting to rouse, a bit, as his thoughts raced past the question of how they would get there, and started to turn to what he anticipated when he eventually had Laurent under him in the bed.
He was not blind to the ways of political marriages. Some such marriages were much less fortunate than his. Sometimes a very young man or woman was settled with one very much older than him or herself, or one was matched with a partner whom one did not find appealing. Damen would have married Laurent for the sake of peace even if Laurent had been elderly or misshapen or foolish-headed, but Damen was not displeased or unappreciative that he was not.
He moved his gaze away from the fire and back to the subject of his thoughts, and found Laurent looking at him sharply. The fineness of Laurent’s mind was a mystery to him, and he thought ruefully to himself that while he contemplated such mundanities as their bed sport, Laurent was likely choreographing the next twenty years of their lives and the actions of all of the possible members of their court. It was not an unpleasant division of labor to him, and he smiled to himself.
Laurent’s voice broke the silence and Damen’s reflections. “I do not wish to have sex tonight,” said Laurent.
Damen was taken aback, for he had not yet made an overture, and he had thought Laurent’s thoughts on other matters entirely. “All right,” he said simply.
Laurent watched him closely, as though he did not believe Damen would acquiesce without further protest.
There was a jug of mulled wine near the fire and two goblets. Damen pulled the jug and one of the goblets closer to himself, and poured a himself a portion. He held up the jug. “Would you like some wine?” he offered to Laurent.
“I am not going to change my mind about sex if you ply me with wine,” Laurent said, his voice acid.
“I had no such intention,” said Damen. He set the jug back down. He was raising his own goblet to his mouth when Laurent interrupted.
“Wait,” Laurent said, he was staring at the goblet. Damen lowered it from his mouth. Laurent stood and took a step closer and picked up the other goblet from beside the jug. He held it up to Damen in the firelight. “What’s this, around the rim?”
Damen looked more closely, and the goblet had a layer of something waxy along the inside of the rim. Damen held the one he had filled up to the fire as well, and it also had the same waxy coating. Damen tossed the contents into the fire and the embers crackled in response. Damen sniffed at the coating.
“What kind?” Laurent said, inspecting the goblet that he held himself.
“Who brought the wine?” Damen asked, partially to himself. “One of the servants?” Damen said to Laurent.
“Your servants cannot be trusted,” said Laurent. “Neither can your guards. I am staying here. If I stay it is only natural that my guards would be on watch; my men can be trusted.”
Damen felt as though he had already been filled with too much drink, even though Laurent had caught him before he put the goblet to his mouth. “So I cannot be safe amongst my own family, in my own house, with my own guards.”
“We can take precautions,” Laurent murmured.
Damen sighed, running his hands through his hair. He prepared for bed and left his knife close to the pillow. Laurent watched him, and then sat down tentatively on the opposite side of the bed from the side Damen himself had taken and took off his boots.
“Do you want to call a servant?” said Damen, wondering how Laurent could possibly undress all of his own Veretian garments without assistance.
Laurent shook his head. He did not undress. He removed his boots, and he removed the leather vest he was wearing over his tunic, arranged his own weapons on a small table near the lamp, and then he stretched out on the bed still wearing his tunic and trousers.
The following day Laurent made a fuss in the kitchens. Damen was coming to know Laurent well enough to see how he acted, now, and he had the advantage of knowing about the poisoning attempt the night before, so he could observe with this knowledge that Laurent’s plan began in the morning when he found cavil with the foods presented in the family solar, moved them around his plate and then sent them back to the kitchen as unpalatable. Damen himself ate some fruit that he peeled with his own knife. Amidst his peeling and watching of Laurent’s fuss, Laurent passed him a pear, and he passed the pieces over to Laurent one by one and noted that those were the only foods that Laurent actually ate, though he inspected, stirred, and criticized almost everything else.
After his dissatisfying breakfast Laurent wrote to his brother, still in the solar. “Auguste will send me a chef who does not ruin the flavor of food with spices,” said Laurent. Theomedes ate his own breakfast while mildly watching Laurent pen his letter. Kastor rolled his eyes at Laurent obviously. Damen ate another peeled apple.
In the afternoon, complaining of the dissatisfying breakfast, Laurent installed several of his personal servants in the kitchens to supervise food preparation, and he leaned in close to Damen at the dinner table to whisper that any food served in the green porcelain was safe.
Laurent’s new chef arrived several weeks later by boat, along with letters from Auguste. Laurent’s personal drama continued, as he fussed over Damen and insisted that Damen also try all of the Veretian delicacies that his new chef was now making to remind Laurent of his homeland. Damen understood that his role was to play the dutiful husband, and he obediently ate from the dishes that Laurent told him to try, complimented the chef, and thanked Laurent with his eyes.
After dinner, Laurent retired with Damen to Damen’s chambers with the parchment bearing Auguste’s seal. Laurent decoded the letter slowly, reading over it near the fire. When he was finished, he raised his head.
“News from your brother?” said Damen, opening conversation.
“Auguste is quite distressed to learn of the terrible quality of the food I am served here,” said Laurent.
Damen felt the edge of his mouth quirk up, but Laurent was frowning.
“Ambassador Guion sends Auguste news that I am not responding warmly enough to satisfy your expectations in the bedroom, and Auguste suggests herbs.”
Damen would never have thought that the subject of who he bedded could be relevant information for an ambassador’s report. The idea made him uncomfortable, and he told Laurent so. “Is it common to have such prurient interest, in Vere?” he asked. “It feels intrusive.”
Laurent shrugged. “Perhaps. The ambassador combines a prurient interest with a brother’s concern.”
“Auguste can’t think that I would force myself on you,” said Damen.
Laurent’s voice was light as he replied, but Damen knew him well enough to listen closely nonetheless. “Perhaps Auguste is worried that if I am not pleasing enough to you in the bedroom, that you would find our treaty displeasing in other ways.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Damen said. “You might tell me you had taken a vow of chastity and I would still honor the treaty.”
“Is that so?” Laurent said.
“Have you taken such a vow?” Damen asked, wondering suddenly if that were the cause of Laurent’s skittishness. “I will respect it, if you have, but I would know, to stop asking and cease pressing my suit.”
There was a long pause during which it seemed Laurent was carefully considering his words. “No,” he said finally. “I have taken no such vow.”
“And my suit?” Damen continued. “Should I stop asking?”
There was another long pause. It seemed to be causing Laurent great difficulty to answer what Damen would have considered a simple question. He opened and closed his mouth twice, but gave no answer.
Damen ended the silence by returning to the earlier topic of their conversation. “Perhaps Auguste is concerned about your happiness, because you are far from him and alone.”
“Perhaps,” Laurent acknowledged. “I told him I am fine. He should not worry.”
Jokaste’s child was a boy. Kastor was thrilled; he had begun drinking at the first of Jokaste’s labor pains and drunkenly named the babe Konstanos on the second morning. Laurent watched the revelry without any emotion displaying on his face or in the lean lines of his body, even when Kastor waved a tankard in his direction and thrust his hips lewdly.
Damen sat down next to Laurent, if only to discourage further attention from Kastor in their direction.
“Your brother better fulfills my expectation of barbarian behavior than you do,” said Laurent.
“I apologize for being such a disappointment,” said Damen.
“Does he have tattoos, or have I been completely misled as to barbarian habits?”
Damen laughed, which earned him a sidelong-pleased look from Laurent. “Is there something it would please you to see marked on my skin, husband?” he said.
Kastor’s circle of companions erupted into another round of raucous cheering, which distracted Damen from any reply that Laurent might have made, and the moment passed.
Kastor and Jokaste departed in the early summer with Konstanos after Jokaste had completed her confinement. Damen spent the spring wishing fervently to see the small boy but not wishing to appear as though he had an unusual interest in the babe everyone was speaking of as Kastor’s son. Kastor and Jokaste did not ask permission before their departure, which at least saved Damen having to argue with his father about granting it. Damen himself was of the mind that perhaps if Kastor and Jokaste wished to leave court, and live out their time in the manor that Theomedes had given Kastor’s mother, that they should be granted that freedom.
Laurent told him that he was foolish, and that a wise man kept his enemies close.
“So they can try to kill me, slip poison in my food?” said Damen.
“It is easier to poison the food if you do not even eat at the table,” said Laurent. “They left with three-quarters of the cavalry.”
Damen sucked in a breath. “I had not realized it was so many.”
“Jord did a count from the battlements,” said Laurent, “and I had Orlant check it against the number remaining in the stables. That will make it a hard battle.”
“Yes,” said Damen.
The two of them spent hours talking strategy over a map with small figures of horses and men spread across the ground. Nikandros joined them; Theomedes did not. When Damen broached the subject of Kastor’s departure with his father Theomedes refused to hear any words against his elder son, which made it difficult to explain why they spoke so much of war.
Theomedes seemed much aged to Damen in the past year. His beard had gone white, he moved more slowly than the man at whose side Damen had rode to Marlas. Much of the daily work of governing – the councils, the petitions, the running of the keep with Erkule – was now handled seemingly effortlessly by Laurent. Laurent had placed himself by Theomedes’s side for several months, and once he was familiar with the kyroi and the geography and the council he did not hesitate to answer the questions men brought to Theomedes. And at some point over the winter men had begun to realize that sometimes Laurent’s answers were wiser than Theomedes’s, that things Theomedes shook his head at Laurent could make happen with a flick of his wrist.
Damen was better in training with the men, and it was men that he himself had trained that had ridden out with Kastor. It twisted Damen’s guts to think of facing those men again across a real sword, rather than in a practice bout.
“They will falter, against you,” said Laurent. “It is an advantage.”
Nikandros nodded, slowly, and moved another piece on the map, pointing out an advantage of the terrain.
They prepared to fight Kastor in Sicyon. Damen paced the camp one evening to find Laurent on horseback looking out northward, toward his homeland. Damen rested a hand on Laurent’s thigh, and Laurent looked down at him. “You could go,” said Damen.
Laurent looked up at the horizon again.
“This is not your battle,” said Damen, “and I would have lost it months ago if not for you. You have already won me several battles; you do not have to fight my brother at my side. It is my responsibility.”
“I have hitched my fortune to yours,” said Laurent.
“I would not hold you from your own homeland, from your own brother,” said Damen.
“We have a treaty,” said Laurent.
“You must know that I will honor the treaty even if you wish to return home,” said Damen. “We have had peace; after I deal with Kastor we will still have peace.”
“Yes, I suppose you would honor it,” said Laurent, looking down at him once again. “I am not leaving.”
“I am glad,” said Damen. “I feel less alone that you are with me.”
The battle was fought in three phases. The first phase went poorly. Kastor had the advantage of men on horseback; he caught Damen’s camp by surprise and the men scrambled for their weapons. The fighting passed in a whirl, Damen conscious of Laurent’s pale head fighting beside him.
The second phase turned in their favor, as Auguste showed up with mounted reinforcements. Auguste threw himself into the battle wholeheartedly, and Damen was relieved to be fighting on the same side as the prince with the golden curls, rather than having faced him across the field at Marlas.
After the skirmish, Auguste threw his arms around Laurent and embraced him, then kissed each of his cheeks and then embraced him again. Auguste finally let Laurent step backwards, still reluctant to let go of his brother. He saw Damen sheathing his weapon a few feet away, and Auguste said to Laurent, “I suppose you save your enthusiastic embraces for your husband, now, and there is no happiness yet to be had only for your brother.”
“I was very happy to see you,” said Damen, extending a hand in greeting to Auguste. “I did not know to expect reinforcements; they were very welcome.”
“Of course,” said Auguste. “I only worried as we approached and saw fighting already going on that perhaps we were too late.”
The third phase of the battle took place inside the manor, as they found the last of Kastor’s companions and retainers. Damen himself searched for his brother.
After it was over, Damen leaned against the wall of the manor in the ballroom. Laurent came running in to the room a moment later, and in a single glance took in Damen, catching his breath, and Kastor, unmoving in a pool of blood on the floor.
Laurent slowed, keeping his sword in his hand. “I thought to help you,” said Laurent. “I did not know if I could strike a blow against my own brother. I thought you might –"
Damen nodded, and beckoned Laurent closer with his hand. “You would not need to fight Auguste,” said Damen. “He loves you too much, he would lie down and wait for the blow to come, and then you could rule two kingdoms.” Laurent stood beside him, and Damen dropped his own sword and wrapped his arms around Laurent, burying his face in Laurent’s neck. Laurent stood stiffly in his arms, but made no move while Damen breathed into his neck and took a moment to comfort himself. After a long moment Laurent used his left hand to awkwardly stroke Damen’s back until Damen moved himself away, thinking again that they were not yet in a completely secured position.
Damen had very little energy to lead after he fought Kastor, but Laurent took over with the type of logistical orders he was best at, calmly directing servants a flutter at the fighting and the coup back to the normal tasks of preparing a meal and sheltering the wounded.
Retiring early to a small room and falling asleep quickly, Damen awoke to Laurent in the same room, frowning at the food on covered plates on a small table and writing a letter.
Damen rolled on the bed, half-sitting up, and Laurent looked over at him. “There is poached fish,” he said, nodding his head at the plates.
Damen nodded. He stretched his arms, feeling the soreness in his shoulders that came from true fighting, no matter how much time one spent in the practice ring. The stone was cool under his feet as he padded to join Laurent at the table.
Laurent watched him eat for a few moments.
“You do not care for poached fish?” said Damen, holding up a forkful.
Laurent shuddered delicately. “Ah, no,” he said.
Damen finished his portion and set his fork back down on the plate. Laurent passed him a parchment across the table.
“What’s this?” said Damen.
“It’s an annulment.”
Damen lowered the paper in surprise, and looked up at Laurent, who was impassively staring at the breakfast dishes. Damen returned his gaze to the paper, reading over the words quickly. He finished and set the paper down on the table next to his fork.
“We have not consummated our marriage,” said Laurent, still staring resolutely at the table. “And we have established that it is no longer necessary for our treaty. So—you can be free to marry a woman and keep a harem and have dozens of children.”
“And you?” said Damen.
“I do not think I will marry a woman,” said Laurent, a trace of something in his voice.
Damen looked at Laurent, at the curve of his jaw and the shape of his lips, and the way his eyelashes framed his eyes. He saw the tense set of his body and the tight laces of his Veretian clothing, the strand of hair that had been tucked carefully behind his ear.
Damen slid his chair across the stone floor with clatter, settling his chair directly next to Laurent’s while facing the opposite direction. He took one of Laurent’s hands, and gently held it in his own.
“Laurent,” he said, and waited for Laurent to meet his eyes. “I will sign this if it is what you truly wish. But for my part, I must tell you that I would infinitely rather consummate the marriage than annul it.”
Damen continued. “I married you because I believed in your idea of peace, because I wanted that for my people – and for your people – they are not so different in my mind, now. Once married, you not only brought peace to our lands but brought order to my home and Akielos’s council, you protected me from traitors within my own house, you guarded me against my brother, you recruited your own brother to fight at my side, and you have comforted me in my struggles. You have been, in short, more as a husband than I could have ever dreamed.
“I think of you, frequently. I admire the way you move when you fight, when we ride. I – Damen smiled at himself, ruefully, “I have a weakness for blond hair.” He reached out, tentatively, to stroke Laurent’s hair very gently as he went on. “The consummation of our marriage has been ever in my thoughts; I desire it very much. But more than that, I would like for you to be happy. Please tell me, husband – will this annulment make you happy?”
Laurent looked dumbfounded; it was the first time that Damen had ever seen him thus. His hand was still where Damen had taken it; Damen could feel his pulse fluttering in his wrist. Damen watched Laurent’s eyes, and they flitted restlessly around Damen’s own face, his throat, over his shoulder.
Damen raised his right hand, slowly, so that Laurent could discern his intention and protest if he wished, and then brushed his fingers slowly along Laurent’s jaw line. He let his fingers travel slowly, gently, to brush along Laurent’s hairline, to travel underneath his ear to caress his neck, and he listened to the pace of Laurent’s breath.
“I –" said Laurent, and then he swallowed. Damen could feel the movement of his throat beneath his fingers. “What if we do not find each other pleasing?”
Damen made a dismissive noise in his throat. He pulled the tail of Laurent’s braid over his shoulder, and unwound the thread keeping it bound at the end, running his fingers through the strands to loosen the braid and appreciating the softness on his hand.
“I am never going to be like one of your demure bedslaves,” Laurent was saying, “bowing at your feet and perfuming my hair and waiting to please you with my mouth.”
“I don’t want that from you,” said Damen, running both of his hands through Laurent’s hair now and very much enjoying how disheveled Laurent appeared. He cupped Laurent’s face in his hands, and was leaning in to kiss him for the first time when the door burst open.
It was Auguste. Damen sat back in his chair and sighed. Laurent burst out of his own chair, almost knocking it over in his haste to back away from Damen across the room, and he rapidly gathered his hair back away from his face and fastened it with a small leather tie. Auguste looked from Laurent back to Damen, taking in what he had interrupted, and stated his news. “Jokaste and the babe have escaped.” Auguste frowned as he continued. “What’s more, she slanders your house, cousin, for she insisted to her guard last night that the bastard is your son and not your nephew.”
Laurent made a sound of dismissive protest in his throat, ready to go to battle in Damen’s defense once again, but Damen could not let him.
“I had worried as much,” he admitted, taking in the mild shock in Auguste’s face and the disbelief in Laurent’s, their features so similar. “I am sorry,” he said to Laurent. “I should have told you; I did not know the words –"
“When?” Laurent said shortly.
“The night after she slapped me at the banquet. Never again.” Damen could see Laurent doing the same count in his head that Damen himself had done many times. Auguste had his mouth slightly open and was looking back and forth between the two of them as though he were at a tennis match.
Jokaste and the child had already been a problem when taken the day before and captive in the west tower. The punishment for treason was death, and Jokaste was clearly and self-admittedly guilty, but the babe was not yet weaned, and Damen had put off thoughts of what to do with his former lover in the exhaustion of having already killed his brother. But Jokaste was wily and they spent the three days after her escape in a hunt across the Sicyon orchards.
They cornered Jokaste on the third day, and in the culmination of three sleepless nights and the nightmare of the whole rebellion, Damen watched helplessly as Jokaste turned her knife on herself before they were able to stop her. She attempted to knife the babe as she bled out, but Laurent was the first there and slid off his horse to protect the infant, and Jokaste left a long scar along his upper arm instead.
The wound was not serious, and Laurent held Konstanos in his other arm as he allowed one of his brothers’ physicians to bind it and apply a salve.
Damen watched the funeral fires burn for close to an hour before turning away and retreating to his tent. He looked up a moment later to see Laurent entering behind him, seeming tentative. Laurent must have released Konstanos to the care of his wet nurse; the babe was no longer with him. Damen realized they were in the same tent that he had slept in the night at Marlas, when Laurent and Auguste had snuck upon him in the night. That was almost a year ago; it seemed to Damen both as though it had been only days and as though it had been forever.
Damen sat on a stool near the brazier, and Laurent pulled another stool up beside him.
“I do not have particular skills at comforting,” said Laurent quietly.
Damen couldn’t smile, but his lips twisted slightly, and he reached out and took Laurent’s hand, and Laurent grasped it warmly. “I am sorry,” said Damen.
“Do you have other secrets from me, husband?” said Laurent.
“No,” said Damen. “You have seen all of me, now.”
“All right,” said Laurent. “Come to bed.” Neither of them even bothered undressing. They simply shifted from staring at the fire while sitting on a stool to staring at the fire while lying on the woolen bedroll near the brazier, and Damen found himself quickly asleep.
He woke when it was nearly dawn. The fire was out. Laurent was still next to him but was sitting up and watching him in the darkness.
Damen rested a hand on Laurent’s thigh, which was the closest portion of him to touch. Laurent did not protest.
“Auguste is departing today,” Laurent said quietly.
“Let me touch you,” said Damen. Damen waited a long moment, wanting to be sure. “Please,” he said.
Laurent turned his face away, towards where the fire had gone out earlier in the night. “Yes,” he said, and as Damen reached for the ties of his tunic Laurent stayed still and let Damen undo the ties and loosen the fabric. Damen gathered the fabric in his own hands to pull it off over Laurent’s head, and Laurent shifted his weight off of his hands to free the garment and let Damen pull it off. He had a light shirt on underneath it, and Damen set about removing that also, and Laurent shivered slightly in the cool air.
Damen quickly divested himself of his own shirt, and then he gathered Laurent in close to him and reveled in the feeling of their skin touching, his ability to run his hands down Laurent’s arms and back up the planes of his back. Laurent seemed uncertain what to do with his own hands, and after a moment he reached for a woolen blanket that had tangled down over their legs, and pulled it up to cover the pair of them.
Damen was slightly disappointed. “I was enjoying seeing you,” he said.
“You shouldn’t have let the fire go out,” said Laurent. His face was close enough that Damen could feel his breath on his cheek. The warmth building beneath the weight of the blanket was pleasant.
“I think it was your turn to keep watch,” said Damen, gathering Laurent’s hands in his own and lacing their fingers together, and then their lips met. Laurent had said that he did not have particular skills at comforting, but he managed to comfort Damen simply by his presence. Damen enjoyed the touch of his lips, the exploration of his tongue, the warmth of Laurent’s chest where Damen had pulled his body close, and the softness of his hair as Damen cradled his head. There were a thousand things Damen wanted to do to Laurent, but he was sleepy, warm, and not roused to do more than lazily kiss and absently stroke Laurent’s face, neck, and hair.
“I love you,” Damen whispered to Laurent in Akielon, when he was almost asleep.
Laurent was gone from the tent when Damen woke again. Damen pulled his own tunic on and ran a hand through his hair, and then exited his tent, and which point two of the servants began to disassemble it. Damen accepted a breakfast sausage wrapped in a roll from one of the men at the fire, and found his eyes searching the camp for Laurent. He found Jord, and asked him where Laurent was as he ate the last bite of his breakfast.
“He’s talking with his brother,” said Jord. “They were walking together, they headed along the creek.”
Damen nodded his thanks, and he wanted to turn that direction himself, as though he were a sailor’s compass and Laurent were north. But he forced himself to go and see to his horse, instead.
Laurent and Auguste walked back to the camp shortly after. Damen could tell they were speaking, as Auguste had his head tilted slightly in listening to Laurent, and they walked slowly.
Damen walked up to them as they returned. “Thank you,” he said to Auguste. “Our treaty does not oblige you to intervene in the civil struggles of myself and my brother, but your assistance was much appreciated.”
Auguste waved away his appreciation with a dismissive gesture of his hand.
Damen let it go. “You are leaving today?”
Auguste nodded. “Laurent says I must not leave my own court too long unattended, or my uncle might have similar ideas to your brother.”
Damen raised an eyebrow at Laurent, who looked back at him evenly.
“And are you going back with him, to guard against the plots in another court?” said Damen.
Auguste laughed slightly, but Damen’s eyes were focused on Laurent. “No,” said Laurent. “I have just set things right in our court, now it is my turn to relax and enjoy it.”
Damen smiled broadly at him, and he reached for Laurent’s hand and held it for the remainder of their walk back to the camp.
They each bid goodbye to Auguste and his men. Damen thanked him again, and agreed with Auguste’s urging that the two of them travel to Vere later in the year to celebrate Auguste’s marriage with him. Laurent and his brother embraced tightly on their parting before Auguste put a hand on Laurent’s hair and messed it amidst Laurent’s protests and retreating a few steps to fix his appearance. Damen watched them fondly.
Damen followed Laurent for most of the day, and Laurent was prodigiously busy, focused first with arrangements for the ongoing occupation of Jokaste’s stronghold, and then with the arrangements of the baggage train for their trip back to Ios, overseeing things that did not truly need his attention in an attempt to occupy his mind. Damen could understand how he acted, now, and he contented himself by allowing his eyes to linger on Laurent warmly while Laurent fussed. They rode together throughout the afternoon in companionable silence, and while they ate their evening meal Laurent spoke of work ahead of them in Ios, and Damen nodded and paid more attention to the sound of Laurent’s voice and the way he looked while speaking than he did to the content of his words.
Damen had not been sure if Laurent would find some way to fly away after they ate, to disappear on one pretext or another, but Laurent did not linger once he was finished eating, and he sent a questioning look at Damen as he rose and stretched and turned toward their tent. Damen followed him.
Laurent prepared for bed without paying particularly much attention to Damen in the tent with him, but once he was unlaced from his clothing he dismissed his manservant and turned toward Damen with a faint look of uncertainty. Damen began to remove his own clothing.
“In Vere,” said Laurent, “marriage is consummated in front of witnesses.”
“Do you want to call in some guards?” said Damen.
Laurent smiled faintly. “I think not. I will soon be as barbarian as you.”
“We will have to call a tattoo artist,” Damen said. He teased, but he ran his fingers over Laurent’s skin, and he did not want anything to mar the pristine canvas of Laurent’s skin, except perhaps to redden it with his lips and the stubble of his face.
Laurent was laughing quietly.
“What,” said Damen, enjoying the lightness between them.
“I am picturing,” said Laurent, “our arrival in Vere for Auguste’s marriage – we should do something with inks just to see their faces.”
“I cannot picture the Veretian court,” said Damen. “Does it make us seem very outlandish in Ios?” He removed his own trousers, and raised an eyebrow at Laurent, who began to unbutton himself.
“You will think us superficial and petty,” said Laurent.
“I’m sure. I’m very disappointed that you don’t wear jewels on all occasions,” said Damen, but he was regarding Laurent nude in front of him and he really was not disappointed about anything at the moment.
“Well, you haven’t given me any suitable gifts,” said Laurent, because he was better at playing games than Damen.
Damen dropped the pretense of banter. “Anything you wish,” he said, reaching out a hand. “Come to me, I will give you anything you wish,” and when Laurent took two steps closer he was within reach and Damen embraced him, cupped the back of his neck with one hand, and brought their mouths together.
Laurent had spent half of the day talking, but he evaded questions of what he wished in bed as they settled in together, seemingly unsure what to say as Damen offered to please him with his mouth or to show Laurent how he pleasured himself while Laurent watched. So after a moment Damen decided instead to tell Laurent what pleased him, and murmured about how he liked to caress Laurent’s skin, and he interspersed soft talk with using his lips to smooth kisses down Laurent’s neck and along his collarbone. Laurent made a pleased noise. “I want to take you,” said Damen, half-senseless of his words in the delicious pleasure of finally having Laurent on his back under him. Laurent shivered, and Damen buried his face in Laurent’s neck as he sought control. “I want to spill inside you, to pleasure you, I would show a dozen witnesses if it meant I could have you for the rest of my life.”
But when the moment of consummation actually came, Damen found himself inexplicably glad that there were no witnesses, that there was only Laurent looking up at him, their fingers tangled together where Damen pressed one hand against the bedroll.
Damen rested, after, enjoying the warmth of Laurent at his side. He curled his head up, slightly, to look at Laurent for a moment. Laurent opened his eyes as he felt Damen shift, and raised a brow. “So,” said Damen, “you were concerned that we might not find each other pleasing.”
Laurent whapped him in the stomach, but Damen saw the blow coming and braced against it amidst chuckling to himself.
“I am trying to be considerate,” said Damen.
“Yes,” said Laurent. “You were adequate.”
Damen curled up again, this time to place a kiss tenderly on Laurent’s forehead. He settled back onto the pallet, contemplating another round, perhaps after a nap.