It's almost an hour before Nikandros finds them. Laurent doesn't know the Akielon palace, but he knows this: the slave baths will be one of the last places Nikandros looks. By now, the bells have stopped their peal, and Kastor’s blood has begun to cool on the marble floor. Damen is sluggish and barely conscious. When his hand becomes too weak to keep pressure on his abdomen, Laurent staunches the wound with the hem of his chiton. The knife had cut deep, but there's no indication that the injury is life threatening.
Blood loss is the most pressing danger. Laurent wonders briefly if he should shed his chiton and use it to bind the wound, but he can’t help but balk at the prospect. It would be absurd, he thinks, if the King of Akielos dies here and now because his lover’s Veretian sensibilities stopped him from tending to his injuries properly. Laurent fiddles with the pin of his chiton and is immensely grateful when the sound of footsteps echo through the slave baths.
Nikandros is pale-faced when he comes upon them. Kastor, dead on the steps; Damen, barely conscious; and Laurent, miraculously alive and unharmed. A bloody knife on the floor beside the two of them. There must be a keen horror in the sight. Nikandros, who has watched his friend, his brother fall at the hands of a cold, beautiful blonde woman, arriving to the sight of a cold, beautiful man drenched in Damen’s blood. Laurent is surprised that he doesn’t strike him down then and there.
“Fetch a pallet to carry him on, and a physician. Now.”
“I’m not leaving you alone with him”
“Then he’ll bleed to death.”
Nikandros bristles at his tone, but there's little Laurent can do about it. He can feel himself stretch thin and taut like a thread about to snap. He can muster nothing but the detached, commanding voice that he had learned in the years following Marlas. Exhaustion has left him with no capacity for mildness, but Damen lies wounded in his arms, and Nikandros has yet to move.
“Please,” says Laurent. “I’m not above begging.”
Nikandros looks at him for a long moment. The King of Vere is kneeling on the ground in a torn Akielon chiton, and he, a mere kyros, stands over him. Laurent wonders what horribly raw and vulnerable emotion must be showing on his face because Nikandros nods and swiftly leaves the slave baths.
The flow of blood is sluggish now, but Damen’s skin is cool to the touch, and his breathing is light and uneven. Laurent breathes deeply through his nose and watches the barely perceptible fluttering of his eyelids, the knot in his brow, the slightest of tremors in his lips. The last time they had been in a bath together, they were in Arles, and Laurent had just discovered that he looked exactly like the kind of man his brother’s killer would want to fuck. The irony is not lost on him now.
There are calluses mottling Damen’s hands, an old scar on his jaw, and his nose has a knot in it where it had been broken once. His calves are somewhat disproportionately large, and his brow crinkles ridiculously when he is confused, which is often. He smiles too quickly and broadly, and his face is too honest.
It’s laughable how long it took for Laurent to see these things. It’s easy to overlook when Damen is standing tall and radiant, and sunlight flatters his features so disconcertingly well. But the Damen now is vulnerable as he never has been before in his life, and so Laurent looks and notices for the first time. He slides a hand to cup Damen’s cheek, stroking his thumb over his skin.
The fighting in the throne room earlier was brief and decisive, so Nikandros is still fresh enough to return quickly. For some reason, Laurent expected him to bring Paschal, but of course, he wouldn’t. The physician is Akielon, and so are the men who prise Damen from Laurent’s grasp. They don’t look at him directly, but he can feel their scrutiny nonetheless. A Veretian in an Akielon chiton. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. A lover who is eerily reminiscent of the consort who betrayed him.
When the physician and Damen leave the slave baths, Laurent slumps against the wall and feels a tension slowly uncoil within himself. Nikandros hesitates at the doorway, eager to follow his king but too honorable to simply abandon Laurent.
“Can you stand?” he asks.
Laurent slowly picks himself up and leans against the wall. He closes his eyes and takes a breath before opening them. “Perhaps,” he says.
He lets his head fall back against the wall, and for a long time, he can look at nothing but Kastor. He is tall and broad-shouldered and strong-jawed. The resemblance to Damen should not surprise him, but somehow, it does. His eyes are still open, his expression caught in a rictus of surprise. For a single blurry moment, it isn’t Kastor slumped on the marble steps but rather Damen, his throat slit by Laurent’s own sword.
His sight tilts sickeningly, and then Nikandros’s arm is sliding around his torso, supporting his weight. It is clear from the expression on his face that the action had been reflexive—the instinctive reaching out to someone about to fall.
“You must realize that if I wanted him dead, he’d be dead. I wouldn’t kill him now when he is king, and I can barely stand.”
“If you couldn’t wreak havoc even at the height of exhaustion, I’d wonder how you managed to survive in the court at Arles.”
“I didn’t. You forget, but I would have been executed if Damen hadn’t walked in.”
Nikandros looks down at him, his brow furrowed. “You hadn’t anticipated that?”
“That he would walk to his certain death in Ios for the sake of a man whom he had despised less than a month ago, who used him for his own political gains at every turn, who flayed the skin off his back, who left him to die at Fontaine? No, I hadn’t.”
Nikandros is quiet for a long time, and Laurent can’t help but think then, as he often does, that Nikandros and Damen mirror each other. There were occasions when every one of Damen’s emotions had been plain on his face, but Laurent couldn’t read Damen at all. Even if he could never fully shield his thoughts, the sheer magnitude of emotion displayed was too much for Laurent to fully grasp.
“You knew you were going to die when you went to the Kingsmeet,” Nikandros finally says.
Laurent blinks. “Yes.”
“And still you went,” says Nikandros.
“Only one of us was going to be King. The throne has never been my birthright in the way that it has always been Damen’s.”
“And you would take the throne with indecisive thoughts like that. You would let your uncle be King.”
“If it came down to a choice between Kastor and my uncle to rule a kingdom, I would prefer my uncle. He, at least, is a competent statesman.”
“You would subject your own people to that.”
“After a lifetime of his rule, I can at least trust that there would be a kingdom left.”
Nikandros nods, and the blatant distrust in his expression has smoothed away into something more—assessing. He shifts Laurent’s weight more comfortably against his side and begins to shuffle the two of them out of the slave baths.
“Wait,” says Laurent. “We can’t simply leave hi—Damen will want Kastor’s body treated with respect.”
Nikandros hesitates, but he more than anyone understands Damen’s loyalty to his own. “I will send someone to retrieve him.”
Laurent allows himself to sag for a moment, the exhaustion of the last few days sweeping through him. Nikandros moves them forward into the chaos swirling the hallways of Ios.
There is a flock of guards keeping vigil outside the doors of the King’s rooms. They eye Laurent’s bloodstained chiton but don’t challenge him when he enters with Nikandros. The bedsheets are twisted under Damen, and it seems as if the physicians had only just managed to settle him down. His face is twisted, and he is talking, though his voice is too quiet for Laurent to hear. When he begins to struggle again, Nikandros quickly moves to hold him still. There are no slaves assisting the physicians, and Laurent is vaguely aware that Damen would be grateful for it.
He brings a hand up to rub his brow and notices the weakness in them. His fingers shake ever so slightly. The physician is talking to Nikandros, but Laurent barely registers the words. The rooms are austerely decorated, likely to Theomedes’s tastes rather than Kastor’s. The east-facing balcony would allow a view of the sun rising over the water. The last true King to sleep in these rooms died in them. He feels himself turn cold, his emotions pushed to some distant corner of his mind. Laurent stands and turns to the physicians.
Damen won’t die from the knife wound alone, but the threat of infection hangs over them still. Laurent dimly registers that he is issuing orders. Damen lying pale-faced on his father’s bed, the physicians fluttering around them, Kastor’s blood drying on his chiton, and Nikandros silently watching it all—everything recedes until they’re reduced to nothing but problems to be addressed. He is only aware of the thrum of Damen’s breath in his throat and the ceaseless steady functioning of his own mind.
When the room quiets, Laurent pauses to draw breath. The physicians are gone, and Nikandros is looking at him. He stands by the door, clearly about to leave.
“I can’t trust you to be alone with him,” he says.
The words strike some far-removed part of him, too distant for the effect to be felt. “Then don’t,” says Laurent. “He said he’d give you Ios.”
Nikandros watches him closely. “Because he gave you Delpha.”
“It matters little now. I’m giving you Ios.”
“Ios isn’t yours to give.”
“It isn’t,” says Laurent, “but Damen needs you to keep the peace, and no Akielon will accept a Veretian taking charge when one King is dead and the other may very well be on his way to that.”
Nikandros considers him for a long time before slowly kneeling. Laurent’s just exhausted enough to allow himself to pretend that perhaps Nikandros’s regard for him might have altered.
“Rise, Kyros of Ios,” says Laurent. Their present circumstances allow little room for anything but simplicity, even if he did know the proper customs involved in appointing a kyros. “With Damen’s current reputation as King Killer, most will barely tolerate him, and resistance from Kastor’s faction is almost a certainty.”
Nikandros’s eyes flick away to Damen’s prone form behind Laurent. His mouth twists ever so slightly.
“If staying out of his rooms is what it takes for you to keep the peace, I’ll do it.”
“Have you so little faith in my sense of responsibility?” says Nikandros, scowling. “I don’t need you to strike deals to keep me from shirking my duties.”
“I have faith in your loyalty to Damen, and I know that you will not be able to devote yourself to the task at hand when your mind lingers in the King’s rooms, wondering what I might do to Damen. The gesture is necessary even if the offer itself isn’t accepted.” Laurent pauses and draws breath. “I can do very little.”
“And yet your flags fly from Ios’s bannisters.”
“The task of securing the city will be easier once my uncle’s spies have fled. A dozen confused and fearful citizens are nothing compared to my uncle’s agents actively wreaking havoc. The flags will chase out any men my uncle had planted in the city. But it has been a few hours already. Word will have already spread through their network, so fly your flags now.”
Slowly Nikandros dips his head and asks, “What will you have me do?”
“Contact our forces in Karthas. Take control of the city guards and ensure that Ios is ours. The kyroi who supported Kastor have already staged one coup, they will not balk at inciting another,” says Laurent. “I will not have Damen wake to a kingdom that has collapsed under him.”
“He won’t,” Nikandros says and meets Laurent’s eyes. Perhaps there’s something approaching approval in his expression.
They meet each other’s eyes for a moment, a brief understanding passing between the two of them, before Nikandros turns on his heel and strides out of the room.
Sometime during their conversation, Damen had slipped off into an easier rest, his fever already beginning to subside. “You have good men beside you,” Laurent says to the quiet room.
He leaves the King’s rooms in the cool hours of dusk. It is too early in the evening for the torch lighters to begin their rounds, but the setting sun casts long shadows that make even the airy Ios hallways dark and murky. The marks of battle have already been scrubbed away. Even at this time, there’s a frenetic nervousness in the air. There’s a wary light in the eyes of the guards standing vigil, but they acknowledge him with a polite dip of their heads nonetheless. Servants and minor kyroi hurry past him, and Laurent senses that Ios will not truly be at rest for a long time.
Amidst the press of bodies, a servant approaches him and directs him to the guest rooms in the northern wing of the palace. The room itself is comfortably furnished to the Akielon standard of simple elegance. However, it is a considerable distance from the King’s rooms, and Laurent wonders how calculated the placement is.
It would be light and airy in the daytime hours with the windows affording a view of the palace garden’s myrtle and the marble of the northern hall. There is a lamp casting the room in a low golden light. The fresh sheets and the lingering floral scent of a perfume favored by Veretians suggest that this room had been occupied by one of his uncle’s party. He wonders if that, too, is deliberate.
There is a bowl of sweetmeats on the table. The powdered sugar has melted a little in the heat and humidity of the day. Laurent turns away, the taste of bile is on his tongue. There is still some part of him that is waiting for the executioner’s sword to strike him. His uncle is still sitting triumphantly on the Akielon throne, the doe-eyed, long-lashed boy beside him biting into another sweetmeat. Laurent is grateful there is no one to attend him. In the solitude of the guest rooms, he can be small and scared in a way that he hasn’t allowed himself to be since he was thirteen.
Sleep will not come easily in this room, he knows already. This strange country with its brash, proud people and its slaves and its heat and its many, many fickle gods. Before, he had little time for homesickness with the busywork of seizing a throne. He is afforded no such luxury now. The night ahead is long with little but his own thoughts to divert his attention.
The day’s heat lingers still, and Laurent finds himself eager to leave these rooms in spite of the exhaustion tugging at his limbs. The night lamps cast flickering shadows down the palace walls, making the guards on patrol sharp-eyed and wary. Laurent finds that he almost prefers Ios like this. He has always been a creature of Arles, with its convoluted pathways and many hidden corners. In daytime, the spacious, bright halls of Ios makes him feel oddly exposed.
He could seek out Nikandros who is no doubt feverishly clearing the path for Damen’s ascendancy. There will be much work and little time to finish it, but still he hesitates. It will not do for Laurent to intervene. Standing over Nikandros and directing his every move will do them no favors. Nothing good can come of a Veretian face appearing prominently in Ios with only rumors purporting that Damen is even alive.
Laurent can only trust Nikandros’s competency to steer them through the coming days. He is a respected kyros whose friendship with Damianos is well-known. The sight of him settling affairs in Ios would do a great deal to add legitimacy to the stories that Damianos is alive and taking hold of the throne. However, the political maneuvering required of Nikandros would be outside his realm of experience. Even Laurent’s own expertise means little here when his grasp of Akielon court affairs is mediocre at best.
He pauses in his wandering. The colonnades and arches around him are unfamiliar, and any landmarks he might recognize have been obscured by night. This part of the palace is unfrequented even by the guard patrols. Even the torches are sparse and mottled from neglect. He watches the flames gutter and throw uneven shadows on the pathway.
He finds a strange solace in the close darkness and the weak flickering light. Twisting shapes skirt the peripheries of his vision. As a child, in the dead of night, he walked down the corridors of Arles, half lost, half certain that he would find his way eventually. But there is no Auguste now to find him when he strays too far from familiar pathways. Somehow that thought has lost all the accompanying hurt.
Ahead of him is a cluster of light where the flame is strong and steady. The torches themselves are clean and newly replaced. He pauses here. They stand vigil over a door, the dust around it recently displaced. An aegis carved into stone stares down at him from above. A sign of protection. The woman’s face, twisted in a rictus of pain and rage, seems almost grotesque in the wavering torchlight. Even the snakes seem to be alive and writhing. It all makes for a rather foreboding tableau.
Naturally, Laurent opens the door.
There is a man and a woman next to a high bed. In here, the lamps have begun to burn low, but neither person makes a move to refresh them. He recognizes the man standing at attention, one of Nikandros’s personal guard, but not the woman. She is in her sixties, stooped with age and dressed in dark mourning robes. She has the high forehead and dark eyes of the Akielon classical ideal, though it is tempered by age. She sits in a chair, a puff of dyed wool in one hand and a spindle in the other. The thread she has already spun seems to shiver in the flickering lamplight.
Laurent acknowledges the guard with a nod, then sketches a short bow for the woman. The delicate folds of her clothing, the rich purple thread on her spindle, the fineness of the shears at her side—all the regalia of Akielon nobility. She arches an eyebrow when she sees him. His coloring—though not nonexistent in Akielos—is rare enough to draw a second look, especially this far south. There is only one person he could possibly be.
“Prince Laurent of Vere,” says the woman, “or shall I say King?”
“Prince would suffice.”
“What brings you to this low place?”
Nikandros’s man shifts in place, a muted flurry of sound and movement stirring the static air. It doesn’t surprise Laurent that even he picked up on her hostility. She makes little effort to hide it. However, it does surprise him when the guard settles with his back to Laurent, his hand edging closer to the sword at his hip than is polite. Nikandros has made no secret of his distrust for Laurent, and that his guard still chooses to protect Laurent reveals a great deal about this woman.
Her clothing is in the style of the traditional peplos with straight pins fastening the fabric at her shoulders. It’s odd that she would forego the modern chiton for something as old-fashioned as a woolen peplos. Upon closer study, Laurent realizes that one shoulder is missing its pin, and he remembers that straight pins have long fallen out of fashion in Akielon because it was used rather often to gouge out the eyes of men. The wariness displayed by the guard is suddenly eminently understandable.
For the first time since he entered the room, Laurent allows himself to cast his eyes to the bier at the center where Kastor’s body lies in repose. The shine of oil on his limbs indicate that his body has been washed and anointed. A gold coin is on his mouth. He has already been changed out of his bloody chiton and now wears the clothing befitting an Akielon prince. Not a King. Kastor’s eyes have been closed, a duty that should have been reserved for the dead’s closest relative, for Damen alone.
Laurent knows only the basics of Akielon funeral rites, but even he understands what a facsimile of a proper prothesis this is. This is the first juncture where the body is laid out for all to honor him. It is not something relegated to a dusty room in the far reaches of the palace, the rituals of mourning conducted by only a single kinswoman.
Hypermenestra had a sister once. Amymone.
The lines of her face are drawn tight and bitter, and a tremor passes through her hands. She watched Kastor become King, Laurent thinks. She watched him ascend the throne, alight with pride and triumph, and now she must watch him reduced to this. Even a common man would be afforded more respect in death than Kastor. In death, a common man would at least have all of his sisters and aunts and cousins gather around him. At least he would lie in the center of the house for all to see and honor. At least his brother would be the one to close his eyes and mouth for the last time.
“I am here to pay my respects,” says Laurent.
“His usurper’s whore,” says Amymone.
“His brother’s lover.”
Her mouth twists, and she tilts her chin ever so slightly higher. “It makes little difference.”
“Will you deny Kastor a mourner here to honor him?”
“I’m sure Kastor will forgive me denying you.”
The guard steps forward. His expression is apologetic, but his tone is firm when he says, “Lady Amymone.”
She casts a glance at him, and her eyes turn flinty. “My apologies, Exalted,” she says, her gaze never leaving the guard’s face. The man rises in Laurent’s esteem when he shows no sign of wilting under her glare. “I seem to have forgotten myself.”
Laurent steps forward before the bier. It's easy for his mouth to perform the Ios mourning song. Usually, the singer elaborates on the basic lament with tales of the dead and the pain of their passing. They tear at their hair and their clothes, emotion heightened so that it may all be spent once the days of mourning are over. Catharsis—it is very Akielon.
But Laurent doubts Amymone would appreciate such displays now. Instead, he performs the traditional Akielon gesture of respect. One used to greet an elder, a peer of great esteem, a King. There's a flutter of movement in his peripheries, a surprised exhalation. They are both shocked that he would acknowledge Kastor as King.
When the song concludes, Laurent steps away from the bier, dips his head to Amymone and the guard, and takes his leave. He had studied these same rituals upon first hearing news of Theomedes's illness—some half-formed fancy that he could perhaps gain an ally in the Akielons if he were to pay his respects upon the King's death. The first time he had actually practiced was in the weeks before their small army left Vere, and Laurent had begun to prepare for the possibility of Damen's death. The bitter twist of irony is not lost on him.
It’s midday when Laurent crests the hill overlooking Marlas. He imagined it much the same as it’d been a year ago—a muddy field, the bodies of horses and men tangled underfoot, a thousand Akielon voices roaring with triumph, and somewhere in the midst of it all, Auguste bleeding sluggishly in the dirt.
When he’d heard news of his brother’s death, he thought of a story he’d read as a child. An Akielon warrior tied the body of an enemy prince to his chariot and dragged the corpse in the dirt for three days as the prince’s family watched from behind their city walls. It had been the King who claimed his son’s body, but Laurent’s father was dead. He had felt nauseous, wondering who would be the one to beg the Akielons for Auguste’s body.
Marlas is a different place now.
The sun sits high and fat in the sky as little, grey clouds scud across the horizon. The grass has already grown over, covering most of the marks of battle. Wildflowers, almost obscene in their brightness, wave gaily in the breeze. Here and there, a helmet or the broken end of a spear pokes above the grass, flashing in the sunlight like a beacon. In time, those, too, will be covered by the wildflowers and the gently rippling grass.
Even the fort is altered. The carvings and high towers have been stripped down and reduced to nothing. Once tall and proud and timeless, it’s a shadow of its former self now. He shouldn’t have come here.
Laurent dismounts and wanders the whole field, looking for—something. In stories, the places where momentous events occur are always changed somehow. A salt-water spring would emerge from nothing, a particular kind of bird would be known to linger there, a boulder would split open, a golden flower, the first of its kind, would bloom.
He knows he will find nothing. He could stop at any one place in the field and wonder if this was the spot where Auguste died, and he will never know if he was right. Coming here had been a whim, a frantic flight from Arles. A week ago, it would have been a year since the battle at Marlas. A week ago, he sat alone and naked in his uncle’s rooms and wondered what Auguste must think of him now. A week ago, he noticed for the first time that his voice had begun to deepen.
A bird twitters in a high voice somewhere far off. He sits in the dirt and presses his forehead into the grass.
He sees Nikandros when he wakes.
"There were rooms set aside for you," he says, as Laurent carefully untangles himself from the myrtle branches around him.
"Yes," says Laurent, "and you chose to spend your time searching the palace gardens for me when you have a coup to divert."
Nikandros snorts. "You flatter yourself. A gardener informed me that a Veretian covered in blood had passed out in the late Queen's myrtle."
Laurent glances up at the interlocking branches overhead, forming a shaded arch that cools the air beneath it. He has a dim memory of the night before, of wandering slowly back to his rooms, but never quite making it. He is not surprised that he ended up here.
The Acquitart gardens are well-known for their myrtle, and the memories of the castle and of Auguste are suffused with mottled branches and sprays of crumpled crepe flowers. The myrtle here is different as most things are in Akielos. In a few months, they will bloom into white-petaled flowers nestled under a dozen thin stamens like a star bursting. The scent is clear and fresh, unlike the hints of lilac from the pink varieties at Acquitart.
"Your thoughts wander," comments Nikandros, "that's obvious even to me."
"I had an interesting night," says Laurent.
"Interesting often means trouble in times like these."
"You assigned your own man guard to Kastor's body."
Nikandros nods. "I see. Truly an interesting night."
"If a member of Kastor's own faction finds him, he will be made a martyr. If it’s one of our own, Damen will never forgive them for what they might do to his brother’s body. And you were careful to choose a man from your own retinue, not one of the palace guards," says Laurent. "Damen's trust in you was not misplaced."
Nikandros bristles. "You doubted my competence?"
"I doubt Damen's judgment. His choice of lovers leaves much to be desired."
Nikandros arches an eyebrow at him.
"Yes," says Laurent. "Especially me. If I were in your position, I'd be the last person you'd trust."
Nikandros almost smiles. "That we can agree on."
Laurent dips his head. It's strange—this armistice that they've established for themselves. His thoughts turn back to the room hidden deep in the palace, its high bier in the center. "And Kastor? What will happen to him?"
“He will be buried with all the rites befitting a King’s brother," says Nikandros.
It is better than leaving his body to rot on the battlements alongside his uncle’s head, Laurent supposes. “Will the northern kyroi be offended if Kastor is given a King’s funeral?”
Nikandros regards him for a long moment before replying, “It will not sit well with them, Meniados especially. Kastor usurped his position and was never the true heir. They will need a sufficient reason if they are to accept this peacefully.”
“Anything less than a King’s funeral will seem like Damen is deliberately undermining Kastor’s position. We can afford some slights against Damen’s faction, but Kastor didn’t take the throne alone. He had supporters amongst the kyroi, and it would be best not to incite them to rebellion when Damen’s power has yet to solidify.”
“It was easy for Kastor to court the southern kyroi's support. Damen never made it a secret that he favored the north.”
"And it will be next to impossible to gain it now," says Laurent, "but neither can you afford to offend them."
Nikandros frowns. "You think too much like a Veretian. Damen is their rightful King."
"Line of succession matters little now. Kastor was King."
"For three months," says Nikandros with a huff. "The south will follow Damen when the time comes."
"You speak as if Damen's legitimacy isn't just as uncertain."
Nikandros crosses his arms. A few days ago, he would have snarled at the implication. Now, he keeps his ire quiet and waits. A coil of tension unwinds from within Laurent. He had feared that Nikandros would never listen to him, but perhaps he had underestimated the man's capacity for fairness, for pragmatism.
"We find ourselves in a rather delicate situation."
Nikandros makes a noise of comprehension. "Akielos still believes that Damen killed his father to seize the throne."
"And they will not take kindly to him slaughtering his own brother barely a season after. This is not a story that your people will accept."
"They will accept the truth," says Nikandros. His jaw is set, but his voice is doubtful.
Laurent laughs. "That's a very Akielon answer."
"You're in a nation of Akielons, my friend."
They don't quite smile at each other, but it's a close thing. The two of them truly are building a peculiar rapport. Laurent never thought he'd find himself genuinely liking Nikandros. Respect him—well, Laurent has since the beginning. Nikandros is a competent and stolid sort of man with a knack for moving men to loyalty. Laurent knew they could be allies, but he'd never even considered that they could be friends. And yet here they are, almost enjoying each other's company.
"You should know," says Laurent. “Damen didn’t—he couldn’t raise his sword against his own brother, not even after all that Kastor had done to him." He glances slightly off-center from Nikandros's gaze, aware of how very Veretian the action is. Akielons look each other in the eye. "I was the one who killed him."
It’s easy to parse the expression on Nikandros’s face. He knows Damen well enough to believe that even until the very end, he would refuse to harm his brother. But Laurent had been small and thin on the wet marble, his chiton torn, his limbs shaking from the sheer effort of standing. It’s difficult to imagine him facing a swordsman like Kastor and coming out the victor.
“I have no reason to lie.”
"A Veretian prince murdering the Akielon King so his lover may take the throne," says Nikandros. "That story isn't much better."
Laurent sighs. "No, it isn't."
Nikandros shifts uncomfortably before saying, "It's very likely that our two nations will go to war."
"If it comes to it, would you—?"
"I have to put my people first."
Nikandros nods. "And I respect you more for it." he says before taking his leave. Nikandros doesn't have the luxury of lingering.
Laurent watches him stride away, calling out orders to his men in a voice pitched to carry. There's much work to be done, and Laurent can do almost none of it. He and any other Veretian should remain unseen in these times. Laurent pauses, turns on his heel, and begins to make his way to the northern reaches of the palace.
When Laurent meets with the Council, he remembers, suddenly, that he's still in the bloody chiton. Compared to himself, they are well-rested and refreshed. It's a display of weakness, and Laurent wonders if they'll refuse him.
Jeurre's lip is curled at the sight of him, but Herode's gaze is still cooperative. Herode has always been loyal to Aleron first and foremost. Jeurre has little love for Laurent and likes Akielons even less—he will be difficult regardless. However, Audin has always been irresolute, Chelaut is a creature of rationality, and Mathe has not held his position long enough to form rigid opinions. Laurent will gain the most ground with these three.
Laurent bows low as a King to his Council but not so low that they will believe he'll defer to them. For once, he's glad that Damen is still bed-ridden. He wouldn't have bowed. He would've demanded reparation, restitution, repentance. But that isn't the Veretian way.
There's little room for bitterness in the court games. When a noble loses, it's simply because he was too slow, too unobservant, too easily outmaneuvered by a colder, more cunning foe. After a match well-fought, a true Veretian would concede defeat gracefully. It's a lesson he'd been slow to learn in his youth, and it'd turned the whole Veretian court against him. He'd fought his uncle when he should've yielded. At first it was because he was young and angry, and then it was because the fight was too important to concede. It's a lesson his uncle never learned either.
He saw it in the Council's eyes at the very end, before the sword struck his uncle's neck. More than his brother, his nephews, Nicaise and Aimeric and every doe-eyed boy, it was how he had refused to accept defeat that damned him. Where Laurent had stood before them all, silently accepting his fate, his uncle refused. If he'd swallowed his pride, he would've lived.
This is not something that Laurent could ever explain to Damen, and he's glad that he doesn't have to now.
"I believe," says Laurent, "we've begun to impose on the kindness of our hosts."
"Akielons and their hospitality," snarls Jeurre. "Who said this to you?"
"No one," Laurent replies mildly. "Have you not thought on the state of Akielon? Of our own country?"
Chelaut leans forward. "Speak plainly."
"The Akielon King has been killed by Veretian hands. It is only a matter of time before word that the Regent has been executed reaches home. It is not difficult to imagine what will happen in Vere if the news breaks when there is neither Council nor King to keep the peace."
"Then we will return now," says Mathe.
"No," Laurent says, and Mathe raises an eyebrow at him.
"Word travels quickly, and we have no reason to linger. Why do you hesitate?"
"We will wait until King Damianos wakes."
"Ahh, your lover." Jeurre smiles sharply. "Be careful not to prioritize Akielon's interests over Vere."
Laurent suppresses a grimace. "True, it's unwise to linger. But if we leave too quickly, it will seem as if we're fleeing. And there are ties that we must establish with the new King before we leave."
"Is that really necessary?" Jeurre snorts.
"I agree. It's best if we look after Vere first. The Akielons can wait," says Chelaut.
Laurent spreads his hands and keeps his expression neutral. The situation is devolving rapidly. "We are presented with a unique opportunity. This is the first time an Akielon King is willing to open peaceful negotiations with Vere."
"As if the last one hadn't?" says Audin derisively, speaking up for the first time. Laurent despairs. If Audin is taking a firm position against him, then he truly has lost the Council. "The Bastard King seemed perfectly happy to strike bargains with us, and look where that's left us! The Regent's a traitor, a political nightmare waiting at home, and a King who's still wet behind the ears. To hell with peaceful negotiations—we have our own people to think of."
"Be mindful, my prince," says Herode. "We will be watching."
The Council bows as one, a hair shallower than is strictly politely. Laurent watches them file out of his rooms, resisting the urge to rub his temples. The coming months will be difficult. The Council has made their intentions apparent. They'd been too hasty in executing the Regent, and they will suffer the consequences if they don't act quickly. That the Council will draw a lot of suspicion for not holding the trial in front of the Arles court.
So they will paint the Regent as a traitor. The deaths of the King and Crown Prince will be presented as the Regent deliberately destabilizing Vere in a bid for power. He sabotaged the battle and gave Delfeur to Akielos for their cooperation. The unusual closeness between the two kingdoms since Kastor's coronation will be taken as further proof of the Regent's treachery. All the evidence will point to the certainty that Akielos is preparing for war, and Vere will ensure that they will respond in kind.
Laurent closes his eyes. If it comes to war, there's little he can do to stop it. He's already under heavy suspicion for treason. And to the Veretian courtiers, his relationship with Damen makes him a traitor at worst, and at best, a flighty youth chasing after the first handsome thing to catch his fancy. Certainly not a King.
Laurent sits under the branches interlocked above his head, forming a shaded arch that cools the air beneath it. He slows the anxious thrumming of his heart and focuses on his surroundings. Laurent has little chance of changing the Council's mind at this point, and the Council can do nothing until they return to Vere. He can't afford to lose himself to panic now.
The columns and carved facade of the eastern wing of the palace is just visible above the trees. That is where Damen is sleeping off his injuries. Laurent wonders again if it'd truly been wise to leave him alone to recover in his father's rooms. Grief is its own poison. If the mind is weak, death can take even the hardiest of men. Perhaps he should've pushed Nikandros to move Damen to his old rooms. A King sleeping in a prince's rooms. No, he couldn't have asked. He lies in the partially damp grass and closes his eyes, forcing his thoughts to quiet again. There's nothing he can do about it now.
He’s rather fond of this secluded arbor. Already it starts to feel like a small piece of Ios that belongs to him alone. A childish fancy. There is a story of a god turning an Isthima girl into a myrtle tree. It's a kindness to spare her from a worse fate, and there are few agonies that move a god to mercy.
Perhaps this is the fate that Theomedes would have wished for himself. Turned into some stolid tree or a broad-winged bird. He was a man who built his renown on the battlefield, and he would have gladly died by the sword. For a man like that, there's a particular horror in a slow death.
Damen had spoken of the last months of his father's life. Once. Discolored skin, a burning pain in the gut, limbs slowing and growing unresponsive, and white lines appearing in the fingernails. A common death in Vere.
The bouts of retching and pain can easily be mistaken for cholera. It's understandable for Akielon physicians to miss the signs. However, the inexorable deterioration of the King’s health speaks volumes to a Veretian. In the chaotic months following the battle at Marlas, there'd been a rash of Arles courtiers who decided to hurry their inheritances along. The symptoms of the Akielon King were remarkably similar to husbands and fathers with considerable wealth.
Laurent indulges the curiosity. Solving a months old mystery is a simple task for the mind. It keeps him from brooding.
“If I were contemplating regicide,” he says to the flowers, “how would I go about it?”
It wouldn't be in the meals, Laurent thinks. A King would have a taster, and poisoned food was much too obvious to be worth pursuing. The methods would have to be much more circumspect. The ladies at Arles favored slipping Aqua Tofana into the facial lotions of their rivals. Gloves laced with contact poison were also popular.
It warrants investigation. Laurent rises and begins to wind his way through the shaded pathways and bowers of the garden until he is back in the palace proper. A flock of guards patrol the corridors outside the King’s rooms at all times, but there is no one watching the storerooms that house his linens.
Theomedes favored the traditional, stark chiton pinned at the left shoulder and girded at the waist with a simple cord. The folded squares of cloth fill the shelves of one section of the storerooms. Laurent runs a finger over the fine cotton, marveling at the sheer amount of stored fabric. A display of a King’s wealth if nothing else.
It's immediately apparent that to steep all of the King’s chitons and himations in poison without drawing notice would be impossible. Perhaps only a limited amount of clothing had been altered. However, that would require Theomedes’s personal slaves who retrieved and clothed him to have betrayed their King. Unlikely.
Moreover, the King’s sickness continued even after he'd been bedridden and would no longer don the chiton to attend to his affairs. If that'd been the case, his illness would have been characterized by bouts of poor health followed by periods of recovery. The progression of his sickness had been steady. If anything, rest had hastened the deterioration of his health.
The bed linens.
Laurent turns on his heel and strides out of the store room. There would be no telltale traces of tampering, but Jokaste would've been clever. She would pick a poison that is both colorless and odorless. Low concentrations of white arsenic most likely. In Vere, it'd been rather affectionately dubbed inheritance powder. And with good reason.
Such poisons take weeks, months of contact to take hold. An image of Damen twisting and sweating on his father's bed. Blood on the sheets. He'd been injured. His open wounds had pressed into the bed linens. Laurent lengthens his stride—maybe they don't have the luxury time.
There's the white chiton, the plain sandals, the distinctive shorn hair of a female servant—he reaches out, pulls.
She stops and stares up at him with startled eyes.
"Please," Laurent says, "would you tell me where Lady Jokaste's linens are stored?"
She guides him through courtyards and colonnades until they are in the cool storage rooms of the women's quarter. Laurent pauses at the entrance of the room, a half-finished cloak catching his attention, before he snatches up an armful of linens and heads to the King's rooms.
The way back seems so much longer, and the expression on his face must be terrifying because the guards don't try to stop him when he arrives at the King's rooms, and they don't even complain when Laurent drafts them into helping him change the bedsheets. Once the task is finished, Laurent barely keeps from collapsing against the side of the bed, exhaustion tugging at his limbs.
There's a faint shuffling beside him. Presumably it was that sound that woke him. He rolls over and sees Damen beside him, his eyes open, a soft expression on his face.
"I fell asleep," Laurent says.
Damen smiles and slides his hand into Laurent's hair. "Yes."
So the days without proper rest finally caught up to him. He hasn't had a full night's sleep since they left Karthas. That was the night Jokaste revealed the existence of a child.
Damen had talked about his father after. Laurent realized then that Damen hadn't fully comprehended the reality of his father's death until that moment. How could he have? The Akielon King's death, his brother's betrayal, his new life as a slave in the hands of a man who would gladly kill him—it all happened in the span of one nightmarish day. Damen hadn't fully comprehended any of these truths.
In his mind, slavery was only a temporary misery because free men didn't become slaves in Akielos. They were born into it. He hadn't prepared himself for a lifetime of it, and Laurent is suddenly grateful that Damen wasn't a slave long enough for the implications to fully sink in. It would break him. No, he would've gone mad.
Laurent should've realized then that if Damen hadn't accepted his slavery of his father's death, he couldn't have come to terms with his brother's betrayal. Not really. Damen understood intellectually that Kastor dethroned him, plotted to kill him, bound him into slavery. But when his brother's voice said all the things he wished were true, Damen lowered his sword. Regardless of what he did, Kastor would forever be the taller, stronger, smarter older brother of Damen's childhood.
But Kastor is dead now, and the child is with Jokaste now.
"You think too much," says Damen, smiling.
"I shouldn't have left you to find Kastor alone," Laurent says. "I should've realized sooner that he was your brother above all else."
Damen's smile dims. He cups a hand against the side of Laurent's face, the gesture nakedly affectionate. It always catches him off guard when Damen is tender with him. He feels raw, cut open and laid out for all to see. "You can't plan for every eventuality, Laurent. You're only a man."
"I am a King. It's never been my birthright, I haven't been groomed for this, and I don't have the qualities or the charisma to pull it off. My country is relying on me, and all I have is my mind. It's the only part of me that I can trust to protect them, and it should've been Auguste. Auguste should've been the one to live." Laurent shudders, and Damen wraps his arms around him.
"You are more suited to the Crown than any man I've ever met."
"You didn't know Auguste," says Laurent.
"But I know you."
Warmth flushes through him, creeping down to his fingertips. He's always been too susceptible to this—affection. It's a weakness his uncle knew well and took great pleasure in exploiting. It was how he'd coaxed Laurent into his bed in the first place. Damen himself had been a weapon his uncle wielded to strike at this vulnerability. Laurent can feel his own defenses slowly peel back with a glance, a smile, a gentle touch. He's never been more terrified in his life.
Laurent wishes Damen wasn't kind. He wishes he were cold and cruel, so perhaps the prospect of returning home alone wouldn't be so daunting. But he is sweet, almost intoxicating in his attentions, and Laurent wishes he could stay here in eternal summer forever. He could go with Damen to his palace in Isthima, wander the streets of Akielos in disguise, taste plump olives and honeyed wine for the rest of his life.
"Damen," Laurent says, quietly, "I have to return to Vere."
He frowns, the vestiges of sleep still slowing his thoughts. "Of course, you have to return to Vere," says Damen. "You're their King."
"I mean that I have to return soon. Within the week even. I've already discussed it with the Council, and—"
"Yes, I know," says Laurent. "They would've executed me, but they didn't. And most importantly, their word holds more weight than mine does currently. I do have to respect their opinion."
"They stood by for years while your uncle did those, he—"
"While he took advantage of me? Raped me? I'm well aware." He knows his tone is too cold. He draws the callousness around himself like a cloak, and he wishes he didn't have to. But he has no other defenses. Not against Damen. "I'll be going back to a court that stood by for six years and did nothing. But I still need them."
Damen is pale, and Laurent keeps himself from reaching out to him, soothing the wrinkles from his brow, kissing him until he is sweet again. "It's so soon," says Damen, his voice hoarse. "Can't you wait any longer?"
Laurent doesn't say it. If he stays now, he will never leave. "I love you, but this isn't my country. My people are waiting. I need to go home."
Vere with its sharp-tongued people, its temperate summers and its damp, biting winters. A place where trust is never freely given, always hard-won, but so much sweeter for it. Perhaps it's more than just duty calling him back to Vere.
And Damen may never fully understand Laurent's genuine affection for his own country. In the same way that to Laurent, the days will always be too hot, and the people too friendly. He can never feel fully confident about trust casually given as the Akielons are wont to do. There are so many such things—small, seemingly inconsequential, but important nonetheless. It adds up to a lifetime with Damen where there will always be an element of his worldview that's just a bit impenetrable.
"Let me go home, Damen," says Laurent.
"I won't—gods, Laurent, I won't stop you. You can go home. I just—" Damen reaches out carefully like he had just before he kissed Laurent for the first time. When he still wasn't sure if Laurent was likelier to kiss him back or bite his tongue off. Damen has the same expression on his face as he did back then—uncertain and yearning. Laurent leans into the touch despite himself, soaking it in, memorizing the weight of Damen's hand on his cheek. "Please, if nothing else, please just stay the night here with me."
"I will," Laurent murmurs, closing his eyes. "I'll stay."
He knows this place. The light filtering through the doorway, the strange juxtaposition of a clean elegent stone bench against the gloom of the cell, a proud, familiar face. This is the underbelly of Karthas. But this time, Laurent is in the cell looking out at Jokaste. Just beyond her shoulder, he can see Damen's face peering through an iron grate. He wonders if this is truly what she saw, if she had known Damen was listening all along.
“Have you ever wondered what it would be like to fuck a slave?” says Jokaste, her smile sharp, her eyes watchful.
“I imagine it would be indescribably dull,” says Laurent. “If that was enough to satisfy him, Damen wouldn’t have favored you.”
"And you got what you wanted in the end, didn't you? You caught the eye of a handsome prince who swept you off your feet and saved you from it all," she covers her mouth with her hand, muffling a sound suspiciously akin to a laugh, “like a fairytale.”
"I didn't need saving."
"No? I was under the impression your dear uncle wasn't letting you walk away with your neck intact."
"If we gave you back to him, you would've suffered the same fate."
"Yet we are alive, and he is dead. How fortunate."
She shouldn't have needed luck, however. That's what has bothered Laurent about Jokaste since the beginning. If she didn't want it, the coup never would have happened. She's clever enough to dismantle a bastard's coup in its infancy. But she hadn't, and he doesn't understand why. True, Kastor was the more easily manipulated brother, but a coup is a capricious beast, and Jokaste's position as Queen Consort was already secure. He can't imagine her jeopardizing all of that for a marginal amount of extra control.
“Why choose Kastor?” he asks.
Jokaste inclines her head, her expression carefully inscrutable. “Perhaps I fell in love.”
Laurent raises an eyebrow. “Love.”
“They haven’t invented it in Vere yet?”
“No, we haven’t,” says Laurent. “You don’t love Kastor.”
“You're quite sure of yourself.”
“I am sure,” he says.
“A weaker man is easier to control.”
“A weaker man is likelier to betray you.” Laurent meets her cool gaze with his own. “You cannot love Kastor. Not when a man like Damen is beside him.”
“In the same way that none can choose you after meeting Auguste?”
“Is it? The understudy, the second choice, the prince in reserve.” She pauses contemplatively. “I’ve always wondered if you resented him for it.”
“I didn’t. It never even occurred to me that I should hate him.”
“No,” says Jokaste slowly, rolling the syllable on her tongue. “You loved him. More than you did yourself because even you can't help but choose Auguste first.”
“As you will always favor Damen.”
She smiles. “Perhaps.”
"Damen was yours. Akielos was yours. And you lost it all." Laurent curls his hand into his knee. "You should've told him what Kastor planned to do. He would've listened to you. He loved you."
"Would he have listened?"
Laurent stops. Jokaste folds her arms and looks back to where Damen is standing. He hasn't moved since they got here. Not even a breath. His expression is empty, and it's jarring to see him so—blank. Like a doll. A flicker of grief passes over Jokaste's expression as she looks at Damen's face.
"You tried to warn him."
"Poison in the linens—it's a very Veretian way to kill," says Jokaste. Her eyes are still fixed on Damen. "Much as you or he would like to forget, I am and always have been Akielon."
"I haven't forgotten," says Laurent.
"I never told him. It would've been Kastor's word against mine. If that man had to choose between his brother and his lover, what do you think would've happened to me? Damen is a good man, but what draws him to me is the fact that I am cold and beautiful, and those traits do not inspire trust. I would not win against Kastor."
She walks away from Laurent's cell and opens the door, cradles Damen's lifeless face in her hands. Jokaste leans her head against his shoulder. When she speaks, her voice is soft, vicious. "Who would choose such an underhanded tactic? Of course it would be the Crown Prince's whore. She stands the most to gain from the King's early death. And she's always looked so very foreign—who knows what blood really flows through her veins." She snarls out a laugh. "And no one would think to blame Damen's beloved brother."
"But it wasn't Kastor," whispers Laurent.
"You're right. It wasn't," Jokaste says. "I truly am glad that your Regent is dead."
"Damen's alive because of you. He still loves you."
"No," says Jokaste. "He doesn't. Even if he knows that I saved him, I chose Kastor. I sent him into slavery. There's no coming back for me." She strokes Damen's cheek one more time before turning back to Laurent. There's a bitterness to her smile. "Be glad that he has no family left. If he had to choose, he would abandon you first."
Laurent opens his eyes. Torchlight streams in through the half-open door, and night has fallen outside. He'd dreamt of—grey walls, a melancholic smile. For a moment, Laurent almost feels like weeping. He breathes deeply through his nose, slowly composing himself before he slips out of the King's rooms. There's still a matter that needs investigating.
He hadn't noticed when he passed through before, but the small outdoor courtyard adjacent to Jokaste's storerooms had been full of aristocratic women at work. Even in the early hours of the morning, there's a group at their looms, the day's work already well underway. The rhythmic clacking of the loom, the distaffs held just so, the hovering spindles—it's such an idyllic image of Akielon marital prosperity that it has to be calculated.
They don't acknowledge Laurent when he enters. The air is filled with the sound of whistling shuttles and rattling looms, but the women themselves are utterly eerily silent. Spinning and weaving are never quiet productions. Women hum, gossip and sing. They share the stories that have long since passed from the memories of kithara singers—of gods, of tragic love, of spurned women exacting their revenge. The hours of repetitive work pass more easily when occupied with song and conversation. Laurent doesn't linger.
Jokaste's linens are just as fine as Theomedes's. It's understandable. With Queen Egeria passed, Jokaste was the highest ranking noblewoman in Ios due to birth and her relationship with Damen. She would be responsible for overseeing the palace textile storerooms, and it would've been remarkably easy for her to poison the King with his own linens.
Laurent walks straight to the far corner of the storeroom where he'd seen the enormous loom and its partially completed cloak. It's a magnificent cloak. Boars and lions and white stags, creatures of Akielon myth prowl the edges of the cloth. There are scenes of hunts and battles scattered throughout, and at the center is a shining Akielon warrior striking down his enemy. The less intricate details alone would've taken months of effort. The whole cloth is interspersed with golden medallions, blue Kemptian faience beads, and detailing woven with thread dyed a purple from some long extinct breed of snail. Laurent nods. It's as he'd suspected.
A King's cloak.
It would be woven by all the aristocratic women in Ios for the coronation. A cloak worn by the King to the many many festivals of the year. It would be a symbol of his rule—one of the few extravagant indulgences the Akielons allow themselves. The color is like nothing Laurent has ever seen before. A red so dark it's almost purple. He knows well the crimsons and the scarlets of the Veretian court. Lavish and gaudy they may be but complemented so well by gold embroidery. This color, however—it's striking.
He walks closer to examine the intricate detailing and pauses. In keeping with most depictions of the gods and heroes of Akielon myth, the warrior at the center is the embodiment of kaloi k'agathoi—broad shoulders, deep chest, solid thighs, and a slim waist. The beautiful and good. Akielos's conception of the perfect man. He's pleasing even to Laurent's Veretian sensibilities.
Even unfinished, the cloak is beautiful, and he can very easily imagine Damen wearing it on the day of his coronation. The richness of the red against the gold lion's pin fastened on his shoulder. His face would be solemn but still radiating pride when he pays his respects to the gods, his hair almost burnished in the sunlight. He would kneel before the watching statues of the Kingsmeet and rise a new sovereign.
Laurent is interrupted in his musings when a woman rounds the corner and stops short at the sight of him. She's the same female servant he met earlier, he notices.
"Exalted," the woman says and bows deeply.
"I'm sorry for my behavior earlier," says Laurent.
"It's a privilege to be of use."
The submissiveness grates on his nerves. Laurent refrains from pinching the bridge of his nose. "Did Nikandros send you to check on me?"
The woman shakes her head. "I was ordered to remove this from the storerooms." She walks over to the King's cloak.
She carefully runs her hand along the fabric. Laurent can't help but notice that she's wearing cotton gloves even though it's not the fashion for Akielon women. "It's a beautiful color," he says. "What's the dye made of?"
"A mineral called dragon's blood. The ore looks like blood splattered on stone." The woman begins to remove the cloak from the loom.
"It's not finished," Laurent says.
The woman flusters. "Lady Jokaste is—away. The cloak will not be completed." Her back has become stiff under his scrutiny, but her movements are surprisingly economical, practiced even.
Laurent arches an eyebrow. "You're one of her attendants?"
"Can't some other noblewoman finish it for her?"
The woman slowly shrinks into herself. If she were Veretian, she would lie or distract him away from the line of questioning. Laurent feels a pang of guilt for pressing for answers so forcefully, but there is something distinctly wrong here. With Jokaste at the center of this, he can't leave this alone and hope nothing will come of it. "No, Exalted," the woman finally says.
"It's a cloak meant for Prince Damianos, it shouldn't just—" Laurent pauses. The woman's expression had twitched minutely at Damen's name. "It is Prince Damianos's cloak, isn't it?"
"Akielons aren't very good at lying."
She ducks her head, flushing.
"Who ordered you to remove the cloak?"
The woman bites her lip and remains silent for a long time before quietly, "Lady Jokaste."
Laurent leans forward. "You're in contact with her?"
"So she gave you these orders before she fled," Laurent muses. "Who's cloak is it?"
"I cannot say. Please, Exalted. I am only following my lady's orders." She's shaking, verging on tears. For a moment, Laurent thinks she's feigning distress. She's one of Jokaste's attendant—it's not outside the realm of possibility. Few things are with Jokaste, a woman who navigated two coups in the span of a year and survived both. She could've planted her attendant here. Perhaps she is a distraction—
Dragon's blood. He's heard that phrase before. In the Akielon stories of old, a proud woman retaliates against a fickle man. She sends a cloak dipped in dragon’s blood to the newly wedded couple. The girl, enamored with the beautiful bridal present, dons the cloak and dies instantly and horribly.
And the servant is wearing gloves when she handles the cloak.
Laurent sighs and takes a step back. It's clear what Jokaste's plans had been. She must've had something arranged to retrieve Damen once Kastor donned the cloak and succumbed to the poison. And now, she has no need for the cloak.
"My apologies for interfering with your work. Please, carry on."
Genuine gratitude weights her voice when she says, "Thank you."
Laurent lingers, though he knows that his presence only makes the woman nervous. Even knowing the cloak's secret, it's still a beautiful peace. He can't help but stay to luxuriate in the sight of it before it's inevitably hidden away or destroyed. The closer he looks, the more he realizes how carefully each detail was chosen.
Laurent had initially taken the man to be some diety, perhaps a sun god. But there is no wreath of laurel leaves in his hair, no lyre nor bow. No turnsole whose flowers face him wherever he walks, forever turning to watch the sun's passage. He is only a man. A swarthy triumphant man standing over a blond-haired knight in blue, his face turned ugly by wrath.
Laurent breathes in very carefully, very slowly.
Of course a King's cloak would showcase Damen's first and only major military triumph. Akielon may be a nation of warriors, but these past years have been that of peace. Aside from minor skirmishes along the border, Marlas was the only battle they'd seen in a long while.
And the Akielons did not view Marlas as Vere did. They saw victory, a restoration of a land that was rightfully theirs, the death of a hated King and his son. That was the day they saw their own prince come into his own as heir apparent. Laurent knows this. But it had never occurred to him that Damen could've been crowned with Auguste's death proudly emblazoned on his back.
He turns abruptly and leaves the storerooms. The women in the courtyard outside watch him, murmuring amongst themselves as he passes. Finally he stops in a quiet corner of the palace and leans against the wall, closes his eyes. The cool stone does some good in settling him, but he would give anything for one of Arles's many hidden alcoves. Laurent takes a shaky breathy, missing home so much he aches.
Laurent doesn't bother looking in the King's rooms for Damen. He's not the type to sit quietly and nurse his wounds, and by now he could be anywhere on the palace grounds. Laurent takes a breath.
The challenge is simple. A test of his intuition and knowledge of Damen's character against Damen's familiarity with the palace grounds. He needs only to think of this. No bitter truths, no uncertainties about their relationship, no kingdoms hanging in balance. Just a straightforward task: find Damen. Never mind what happens after. He won't think about that now.
Damen would go somewhere quiet to collect his thoughts and escape any curious passersby. But not any spot would do. It would have to be a place of personal importance. This is the first time Damen has had the chance to contemplate all that has happened in the past months. He hasn't truly had that luxury since the night his father died.
Well, he supposes the answer is rather obvious.
Laurent navigates through the palace much more quickly than he'd like. It's only been a few days, but he's already beginning to get a sense for Ios. Or at least, how misleading the seemingly uncomplicated logic of it truly is.
For a moment, he lingers at the door, staring at the aegis and her snakes. And Laurent doesn't know what he could say, how he would even begin to breach the topic. He enters the room anyway. The room has been dusted, the shabby furniture and wall hangings replaced with more attractive pieces. The torches throw light into the dimmest corners. Clearly Nikandros has taken some of Laurent's words to heart. Amymone is a bitter presence next to the bier, this time with a small handloom in her lap.
And Damen sits hunched over, his head in his hands. Laurent presses into his side, feels the warmth of him. It's a twisted thing that he can draw comfort from this when it was Damen's own King's cloak that caused this sick turmoil inside him. He can't bring himself to take out this anger and confusion on Damen. Laurent isn't the only one who lost a brother.
Laurent looks at Kastor's still form. Even now, he feels just a bit unsettled by him. More so than is rational. That day in the throne room, there'd been a hunger to him that was chilling. Even when he'd had everything he wanted—the throne and Damen at his mercy—he'd still been a starving man. That animal intensity. Laurent can't help but wonder if an observer would've looked at Laurent's own interactions with Auguste and seen Kastor in him. Not the buried resentment, but the single-minded fervor could be the same.
"One kingdom once," says Damen, still hunched over. His mouth is a taut line. Laurent can't see enough of his face enough to fully gauge his expression. "That dream's a long way off, huh?"
"It would be the work of a lifetime." More likely the work of many. They will probably never live to see the two kingdoms joined together. Laurent doesn't say it.
"Our people will call for war. Blood for blood. It may never end."
"It will have to end with us," Damen murmurs. He gusts out a breath and sits up, glancing at Kastor's body before turning away. His hands clench. "It has to end. No more of this. We've suffered enough."
"Put him in the family crypt," Laurent says instead. "Honor him as I know you want to."
"Is this how you felt?"
Laurent thinks of the old well of grief and rage, the sucking wound in his chest. He couldn't speak, couldn't think. The first time he saw Damen, he almost cut him down then and there. He shudders at the thought of Damen full of that same wrath. All of it directed at Laurent. "No, I hope not."
Damen stands and walks to Kastor's side. Amymone watches him warily, but he simply leans over and brushes his brother's eyelids with the tips of his fingers. A symbolic imitation of the proper tradition.
Damen draws back and begins to sing the funeral chant, low and mournful. His brother, his confidant, his friend. Friendly spars, morsels of wisdom bestowed, foot races through the wooded hills surrounding Ios, the first time Damen threw a spear in the okton. Kastor despised the man Damen grew into, but he'd still cared for the boy Damen had been. His chant rises into a wail. Amymone begins to weep, her voice joining his. Her fingers twist into her weaving. He doubles over clutching at his chest, the fabric of his chiton starts to tear in his grip.
And then the lament ends, abruptly. Damen takes shallow hitching breaths, his face drawn with exhaustion. He straightens slowly but doesn't return to sit beside Laurent. He continues to stare at his brother's face, a complex interplay of emotions in his expression.
Even with a basic understanding of Akielon mourning rituals, Laurent is stunned by the outpouring of raw emotion. In Vere, funerals are subdued affairs, the weeping muffled in handkerchiefs. Families displayed their wealth in the trappings of the funeral procession. The silver candlesticks, the elaborate pall, the ornaments, the coffin itself. The two nations truly are different in almost all aspects.
Laurent studies Damen's profile cast in soft shadow. His thick curls, his Akielon nose. Laurent's own features are drawn with a lighter hand. Sharp, proud angles on skin that blistered in the sun. Even in this, especially in this, they're different. The Akielon and Veretian people have grown apart, and they've grown to like it that way. They may have common roots, but their customs and perspectives have become decidedly foreign to the other.
"This will end with us," says Damen, his voice hoarse.
Laurent doesn't say that he thinks war is inevitable. The Veretian Regent executed on Akielon soil. The Akielon King murdered by a Veretian sword. The kyroi embittered by the loss of of Delpha. The courtiers certain of Akielon sabotage and treachery deep in Arles. The first years of their Kingship will be marked by paranoia and uncertainty, and Laurent feels so young. He can't bear this burden alone.
But to tell Damen that their kingdoms are teetering on the verge of a conflict that could span years when Damen is so exhausted already. He can't say anything when the beginnings of hope that they will soon see the end of these centuries of fighting are just taking root.
No. In truth, keeping this truth from Damen is entirely selfish. Laurent has never been a brave man. He certainly doesn't have the courage to ask Damen if he would love him even as their people slaughtered each other. It's better to keep quiet, keep the knowledge and the fear tucked inside his chest. Laurent's good at hiding vulnerabilities away. His uncle taught him well.
"We are Kings, and we are beholden to our people. If they want this to end, it will end," Laurent says instead.
Damen smiles. "Our people will learn peace, even if we must teach it to them."
Laurent says nothing and moves to stand beside Damen. He breathes in the scent of him, the haggard but cautiously hopeful look on his face, the determined set of his shoulders, the both of them breathing in unison. They're here now, and that matters. Even if their kingdoms howl for blood and war in the coming months, Laurent will still have this memory of closeness. In the passing years without Damen beside him, he can still turn this moment over inside his head and draw comfort from it.
"I'll miss this," he murmurs.
Damen presses a kiss into his forehead. Sweet. Gentle. Laurent closes his eyes and savors it. "It won't be long. We'll see each other soon."
Laurent leaves Damen alone with Kastor and Amymone. They both need time to gather their thoughts. In daylight, the aegis looks less foreboding. There is no wrath in the woman's expression as Laurent had initially thought. Instead, her expression is fearful as she gazes at some unknown horror. Perhaps there's even a hint of sorrow, and Laurent remembers the stories now.
A goddess had stripped her of her famed beauty after she'd been raped. No man could ever look at her again. Turning the woman monstrous rather than condemn her to death. It's a mercy in its own way. Yet the Akielons remember this story for the cruelty of the goddess, seemingly lost to wrath. And it's how they'll remember Jokaste who whispered into Kastor's ear that Damen was better off a slave than dead.
Perhaps it's how they'll remember Laurent for loving Damen and then abandoning him in the war to follow. Just as they viewed Auguste's death as a victory, they will view Laurent choosing his own kingdom as the cruelest of betrayals.
Laurent makes his way back to his temporary rooms. Now that Damen's awake, it's time for him to begin preparations for the journey home. His pace is unhurried, his path meandering, and he can't bring himself to enter the guest quarters. Instead, he walks to the marble and limestone hall at the northernmost point of the palace grounds. He'd seen it from his rooms on the first night.
It's magnificent even from a distance, and the grandeur of its high ceilings and columns imply that it's a building of importance. A temple perhaps. He realizes this was a mistaken assumption when he sees the first statues. They're shorter than the ones in the Kingsmeet, but the care and loving detail carved into each figure is the same. Laurent walks past the lines of statues. He scans the plinths for names he recognizes. Some he knows from myths and stories, but most he doesn't, and he wishes Damen were here to relay their histories.
Laurent slows to a stop. Her proud features, her heavy peplos, her hair curling around her shoulders, her eyes trained on some distant point in the north. In her hand, she holds a branch with soft silvery leaves and flowers like feathers. The olive tree nourishes its people, anoints its kings, and feeds its temple lamps. A symbol of Akielos.
His hands form the gesture for respect, and Laurent bows to Queen Egeria. "Exalted," he murmurs.
He can see Damen in her. There's a tightening in his throat.
"I'm sorry," Laurent says. "I can't take care of him. I can't protect his kingdom or his people." Egeria's eyes remain fixed up and away from Laurent. "I can't put Damen first. Not when I have responsibilities. A nation looking to me for guidance."
He flicks sweat off his fingers and follows Egeria's gaze to the cliffs overlooking Ios. The silhouettes of temples are faintly visible. The height of summer approaches and with it, the start of the new Akielon calendar.
Damen had told Laurent once that this is the time of the Festival of Polias. The four-year culmination of the Akielon festival cycle. Within the temples in the north, the Ergistanai and priestesses are working frantically to complete the offering to Polias: a peplos of hyacinth and murex purple in a field of saffron yellow. A textile that's supposedly so beautiful, men have wept at the sight of it.
Damen had spoken of showing Laurent the games and competitions of the festival. There will be great procession that spans the entire city. It's the time when all of Ios celebrates in its streets, the city alive with joy and movement. The festival will last many days until it culminates in the offering of the sacred peplos to the statue of Polias.
But Laurent will be gone by the time the festival begins. He will likely never see Polias don her saffron peplos. Nor will he visit the summer palace and walk through its gardens.
"Maybe he'll hate me the way he must hate Jokaste now. Maybe he'll find his Patran princess, and one day she'll visit you. She will make all the promises I can't keep. She will tell you that she'll give her life for his people. She will defend his kingdom as if it were her own. And she will love him more than she loves her own people." Laurent takes a breath and stills the shaking in his hands. "I can't make these promises. I wish I could."
Laurent looks at her face, smooth stone and inscrutable. Then he sighs and makes his way back to the entrance of the hall. He hesitates at the door and says to Egeria and all the other statues in the room, "As inadequate as it is, I can only promise that I love him now and will continue to love him until this life ends."
Morning dawns brisk and grey. A small congregation of kyroi and guards have gathered in the courtyard to see Laurent and the Court off. Some of the kyroi have brought their hounds for a hunt later in the day. A yearling stag who's horns have only just begun to grow in. The dogs are dark shapes prowling along the edges of the crowd, their noses low, their ears pricked. The horses shuffle nervously. Laurent can't help but wonder if they will hear the baying hounds once they leave the city limits. If the kyroi truly intend to hunt their yearling, or if they have different prey in mind.
Most of the gathered Akielons are visibly armed. It's not that they're necessarily expecting some sort of confrontation. No one would be foolish enough to launch a direct attack in the heart of Ios. It's a show of power, a warning that Akielos will be prepared for any Veretian armies marching on its borders.
Members of Laurent's retinue are moving amidst the crowd, quietly saying their goodbyes to those Akielons they've befriended. Jord murmurs to a group of guards. Paschal checks through his saddlebags while an Akielon physician looks on. Pallas and Lazar are at the peripheries of the group, their foreheads pressed together, speaking in undertones. Pallas curls Lazar's hand into his own and presses it into his chest. Each farewell is bittersweet and subdued, and Laurent remembers that he isn't the only one who will lose a valuable companion if their kingdoms go to war.
Laurent hears Nikandros's voice behind him and turns. "You brought quite a mess to Akielos."
He sighs. "I know."
"The kyroi won't forget that you brought Veretian soldiers into Ios."
Nikandros looks at Laurent for a long time before smiling and saying, "But Damen is alive because of you. You returned him to Akielos and helped him retake his throne. I won't let the kyroi forget that easily."
Laurent blinks. For a moment, he's speechless. "Thank you," he says.
Nikandros surveys the gathered kyroi, the thinly veiled distrust, the swords belted at their waists. "It won't be easy. But we'll be working damn hard on our end to keep peace. I trust that you'll be doing the same."
"Of course, but—"
"Just take care of your own. A kingdom suffers when its ruler's first concern is another country. Damen and I can worry about Akielos."
"Would he resent me?"
Nikandros sighs. "Damen is loyal almost to a fault, but it's a difficult thing—being pitted against each other."
The energy in the air shifts, and Laurent looks up. Damen is walking through the courtyard, his eyes searching the crowd. He looks pale and exhausted. The lines of his face are tight, and his mouth is slightly twisted with discomfort. He shouldn't have gone to Kastor's side yesterday. The wound is still clearly bothering him.
"Take care of him," says Laurent, watching Damen's progress through the courtyard. "I can't—"
Nikandros turns to take his leave, clapping Laurent on the shoulder. "We may never be friends, or even allies," he says. "But gods help me, I think I'll miss you."
"You're a good man, Nikandros," Laurent says, and then Damen is in front of him.
He glances at Nikandros's retreating back. "I thought he hated you."
"He did, but we've reached an—accord of sorts."
"I'm glad," says Damen. His stance loosens, and he smiles down at Laurent.
The sun is higher in the sky now, dispelling the pre-dawn mist. Even with pain etched into his face, Damen exudes confidence. There's a certainty in him that Laurent lacks. It's the conviction that though Fate is capricious, she always balances the scales in the end. Each misfortune is offset by strokes of luck. A life of slavery after the loss of his father and brother. And then, the throne back in his grasp, his kingdom looking up to him, a lover to share his joy. Equilibrium.
Seeing this quiet confidence in Damen, he aches.
"If Jokaste ever comes to find you," Laurent says, "listen to her. Her son is the only family you have left."
"The child is in Ios?"
"He's with Jokaste." Damen's expression turns strange as he turns the thought over in his head. "If you can," Laurent continues, "perhaps you should forgive her. She betrayed you, but sometimes there are more important things than love and loyalty. You're alive, and Akielos will see its rightful King restored because of Jokaste's decisions."
"I won't turn her away, but forgiveness is—complicated."
Laurent isn't a brave man. He doesn't ask any more questions. Laurent brings his hands up to cradle Damen's face and leans forward to press a kiss onto his mouth. Damen responds in kind, keeping it affectionate but chaste.
It's not the wisest decision to show such blatant affection here and now. The Court and the kyroi are watching with narrowed eyes, thinking of how much a King could betray his country for the sake of a lover. But Laurent can't refuse this last intimacy. Not when the coming months—perhaps years—will be that of solitude.
He closes his eyes and commits the sensation of Damen's body pressed against his to memory before carefully drawing back. "Remember this when I'm gone."
Damen laughs lightly. "We will see each other again, Laurent. But yes, I will keep this in my memory."
Laurent nods and mounts his horse, taking a moment to steady himself. Today, he is in his Veretian brocade. The stiff structured fabrics lend a sense of security after days of wearing the thin chiton. This morning, the ritual of dressing and carefully lacing up every part of his clothing had done wonders to restore some semblance of calm in him. It's easier to hide his emotions when wearing a brocade.
"Goodbye, Damen," he says.
"Goodbye, Laurent," Damen replies, still smiling.
The Veretian retinue begins to clatter out the courtyard, heading west. Homebound. Laurent is quick to follow. He refuses to turn in his saddle and look behind him. The warmth from the brief contact with Damen begins to dissipate in the early morning chill.