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A Fair Fight

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“What would it take?” Damen had asked once, on a balcony overlooking the gardens with Jokaste’s hair loose on the gentle breeze and her face as bewitchingly unreadable as ever. “What would it take to win you, truly? Jewels? A position? An estate?”

She’d smiled, a twist of perfectly pinked lips. “A kingdom?” Then she’d laughed, high and tinkling like she always did whenever anything close to the topic of marriage was broached. That was the night she’d invited him into her bed for the first time.

Her hair twisted a little higher now as the coastline came into view before them, flitting around her shoulders. They were bare despite the cool ocean wind. Damen took a step up behind where she was leaning against the railing of the ship and placed a palm on her lower back, skin tingling with the warmth of her skin through her dress. This close he could smell the rose oil and honey of her perfume even through the heavy salt in the air.

“It’s beautiful,” he said. And it was, pale sand and water thinning to a shimmering green-blue, so different from the cliffs of southern Akielos.

She sniffed. “It’s Vere.”

He grinned and leant forward to rest his cheek against the side of her head. “You wanted to see it.”

“And now I have.”

“They say the capital at Arles holds a palace grander than Ios and Bazal, possibly even the Empress’s court in Ver-Kindt.”

“Grandeur. How very Veretian.” She turned to face him, sliding smoothly into the circle of his arms. “Let’s not forget what we’re here for, Damen.”

Damen tilted his head to look her in the eye. “What we’re here for is a formality. There is no doubt they will renew King Aleron’s treaty, there’s no doubt I will.”

Jokaste raised a single, perfectly arched brow. “A formality which takes three weeks?”

“The King has offered to host us in Arles as a gesture of friendship, and a chance for a greater cultural exchange than our countries have had a chance for in the past. You know this.

She sighed and a look crossed her face that she sometimes gave him, fondness mixed with an indulgent exasperation. “Oh, nothing is so simple with Veretians.”

Damen frowned. “Do you believe that there will be threat to us here?”

A shake of her head. “Vere,” she replied, “doesn’t need threat to reach their ends, not when they have words and persuasion and what they call friendship. Your father fought for our side of the treaty seven years ago. Be wary, my prince, of what the Veretians may be wanting to take back.”

She smiled and raised herself up on her toes in order to reach his lips, kissing him briefly before slipping out of his arms again and striding away across the deck.

 

* * *

 

The Veretian retinue was waiting for them when they docked. Against the bustling backdrop of fisherman and seaport traders, they looked in all their finery a little like someone had accidentally dropped a wall hanging into a pile of dishcloths. Even the new king himself had travelled to Marches to greet them, and to ride with them back to Arles as a gesture of comradery. Damen probably could have recognised him from out at sea.

He was young, but still closer to Kastor’s age than Damen’s. He wore a laced jacket of gold and white brocade despite the oncoming summer and a low jewelled crown of gold. Combined with the blond hair that made him seem to glow in the afternoon light, he looked almost everything Damen had expected of Vere. Extravagant, ornamental.

Damen remembered him from last negotiation, the fraught days when relations had been at their worst and the Akielon army had been called to amass at the borders of Sicyon. But even Theomedes with all his expansionist ambitions had been hesitant about invading a country with which they’d had a long history of peaceful, albeit tense, conductance since King Eurandros had ceded Delpha almost a century earlier. It had not been a hesitancy Damen had supported, he was no longer proud to say, nineteen years old with skill already revered among his men and itching for battle.

It was, surprisingly, Kastor who’d argued the hardest for peace. Or perhaps not so surprising in those days when he’d still worked hard at their father’s side, before his dedication had turned to dismay as he found himself replaced more and more by Damen in official meetings, his devotion to his family bubbled down into a listless dissatisfaction. He’d been confident that good could come from the meet King Aleron was calling at the fort of Marlas, deep in Veretian territory, and he’d been right.

Damen remembered the late king too, a tall man with a solemn face, hair silver and long in the royal style. His son, in contrast, had sported the short style of a solider. Twenty-five years old and the general of the Veretian army, Damen had stared at the other prince across the map-strewn table with the simmer of an averted fight in his veins and thought, ‘I could beat you.’

King Auguste still wore his hair short now in deference to tradition, though he’d compromised by growing it to his neck instead of keeping it cropped above the ear. He was smiling, the openness of his expression so different than when he’d stood by with pinched caution and guarded determination as his father signed the treaty that had averted war. That had kept Delpha part of Vere but made allowances for Akielon presence in the territory, from the granting of local commerce rights to the sharing of a portion of tax revenue with Akielos.

To the King’s right stood an older man with a thick brown-red beard in just as elaborate but slightly less fine garb, behind them spread the uniformed figures of the guard. Off to the side, milling attendants held the reigns of a handful of handsome horses. The King spread his hands.

“Welcome to Vere, Prince Damianos,” he said in accented, noticeably slow, but clear Akielon. He nodded to the other Veretian noble. “This is Lord Vercoix of Vars, who is graciously hosting us tonight.”

Damen bowed his head and took another step forward. “It’s my honour to visit, King Auguste.” He turned and indicated to his left, where Nikandros had managed with some effort to drag himself out of his cabin. Sea travel had disagreed with him to a rather unfortunate degree, even though he’d only embarked halfway. “Nikandros, our Viceroy of Delpha, who has joined us from Marlas.” He turned to his right and opened his mouth to introduced Jokaste, only to be cut off by the approaching patter of hooves.

The Veretian guards and attendants turned first towards the sound. Lord Vercoix also turned, a small frown on his brows. Only the King didn’t, at least for a few long beats, an expression crossing his face that was almost exasperation but mixed with a little too much amusement. He moved, finally, to look behind him.

A man was riding up on a bay mare, beautiful both in its perfectly balanced proportions and its effortless canter. Her rider sat tall and relaxed in her saddle, dressed in a severely-cut jacket of deep blue. He pulled the horse about at the back of gathered group and dismounted in a single fluid motion, handing the reins off to an attendant. His long braid was a blond a few shades lighter than the King’s.

“You’re late,” King Auguste said mildly, in Veretian.

“I believe,” the man replied, walking forward to stand beside him, “they are early.”

Side by side, there was no doubt as to his identity. This, then, was the King’s twenty-one year old brother. The two of them had the same high cheekbones, pale lashes, and striking blue eyes. But while Auguste had the regal handsomeness of a man in his prime, Laurent’s softer features lent him a haughty, unassailable beauty. Like a blade honed so sharply one feared to use it.

He hadn’t been at Marlas, too young to join the discussions. Now, his gaze was keen and quick as it swept over the Akielon party, from their ship in the water behind them to the polished lion pin in Damen’s chiton then up to meet Damen’s eyes. At least, Damen assumed it was his pin. It was that or the breadth or his shoulders.

“May I present,” the King announced in Akielon again, with a hint of a drawl, “Prince Laurent of Vere. If you’ll excuse his struggles with time.”

“I struggled more with the countryside,” Laurent said, also in Akielon. His accent was smoother, the words coming more lightly.

Damen raised a brow. ”What’s wrong with the countryside?” he asked, cutting in.

“Nothing,” Laurent answered. “It’s beautiful.”

It was an incongruous statement, words too telling for the perfect composure of his face that was in direct contrast to the open fondness on his brother’s. He looked entirely at ease with the brazenness of his arrival, like a palace cat which stretched and stared at you with every conviction that it had to be right there on the bench you were hoping to sit on. Damen felt his lips curve.

Half a step behind him, Jokaste shifted and clasped a supple hand just above his elbow. Damen made a turn toward her again, prodded back to their interrupted introductions.

“And, this is Lady Jokaste of the Akielon court.”

He could see some confusion among the Veretians at her place in their delegation. Damen of course represented the crown and Nikandros, as the Akielon administrator of Delpha, was one of the primary parties in the treaty being renewed. Officially, Jokaste was to be an aide in any negotiation—in her time in Ios she’d demonstrated herself to be as sharp-minded and sharp-tongued as any courtier despite her status as a minor noble, easily capable of keeping up with the entanglements of the council. Truthfully, she’d told Damen she wanted to come and he’d arranged it.

“Welcome,” Prince Laurent said, eyes leaving Damen’s to look over at Jokaste, taking in the whole of her form with a quick flick. Damen had seen a lot of people look at her. Some she encouraged, some she spurned in a way that encouraged them all the more. But this didn’t wait for either before Laurent took a step to the side to turn towards the horses. “Shall we ride?”

 

* * *

 

The fort of Vars was small and a short distance from the coast, and served as the capital of Marches. Its rooms weren’t as grand as Marlas yet the decorations still managed to scream from the walls in full Veretian extravagance. Damen was placed in the second-best chambers—the best going to King Auguste—and found himself almost stumbling over the weight of richness on the air as he stepped into the room. Deep reds and bright blues hung heavy on almost every available space, from the curtains around the ornately carved bedframe to the drapes around the wide windows to the tall tapestries on the walls. He blinked, blinked again, and sighed inwardly.

The household attendants bringing up his things informed him that the welcome feast would begin in two hours’ time and asked if he’d like a bath drawn. Damen replied in the affirmative and made an idle circle of the room as he awaited the hot water. On either side of the main door were plastered imposing coastal landscapes embroidered in thin, shining thread. On the side wall was a well-woven depiction of what must have been some scene in either legend or history, a man on a rearing horse before a river in which a great wave appeared to be building. Damen raised a hand and ran it over the surface of the tapestry, fingertips tingling as they rubbed past the bristly wool. The man wore common clothes and no crown, a folklore hero perhaps. His horse was brown and his hair was yellow. He reminded Damen of Prince Laurent.

He dismissed the attendants when the bath was prepared, stepping into the steam-warmed bathroom and undressing gratefully out of his travelling clothes. The water was hot and clear and all too welcome after three days on a ship, Damen may have been used to living in camps and travelling with an army but the sea voyage had been new for him. As had been the perpetual crust of salt over his skin, only made worse by a wash with bucketed seawater.

He drowsed after he finished soaping himself, relaxing with his eyes half-closed in the large basin until the cooling of the water finally drove him out. He dried himself with a towel that had been laid out for him—even it was elaborate, patterned in bright floral twists—and padded back into the main room toward the trunk that contained his official wear. From what he’d gathered there were attendants on hand to help him dress for dinner, but the idea of requesting help for such as simple task seemed yet another bafflingly unnecessary aspect of Vere. He’d pinned up his formal chiton, a thicker and finer material than his usual one, and was wrapping his royal cape around his shoulder when there was a knock at the door.

“Enter,” he called in Akielon, then repeated it again in Veretian.

The door opened and Nikandros stepped inside, already dressed with his hair slightly damp. Damen smiled. “Ready to enter the viper pit?” he asked his friend.

Nikandros pressed his lips together, not quite a smile in return. “Theomedes never had the best things to say about Veretians.”

Damen raised his eyebrows. “And in the last seven years, you’ve had better?”

A sigh. “You don’t have to trust their words or their smiles or the games they play in their court to trust they will work for their country as we will for ours. Akielos has always trusted Vere with that much.”

It wasn’t what Damen was expecting. He took it in though, the oddly sombre expression on his friends face and something harder, more determined in his eyes. “They say King Auguste is just and fair,” he conceded, “and more popular already among the people than his father.”

“Oh, he’s always been that. Especially on the border.”

The banner of the starburst flying over the walls of Marlas, not the King’s gold but the Prince’s blue. That Damen did remember, a province edged long enough by the risk of war it had come to believe more in the man who carried the sword on patrols than the one who wrote decrees in the capital.

Nikandros turned, pulling the door open again. “Talk to him,” he said, throwing a look over his shoulder as Damen finished tying his cape and fell into step behind. “Hard to believe from a Veretian, but don’t rule it out yet. It’s possible, when he invited you to offer friendship, that he intends to offer friendship.”

 

 

The guard who stood at the doors bowed when they approached, then graciously stepped to the side. The banquet hall was already bustling, a high table set up for the lord and royal guests and the lower tables close to full. And it became clear, as Damen entered and cast around his gaze, why Veretians required assistance to dress for dinner.

The Akielons who’d come with them, a group of royal guards Damen and Jokaste had brought and a secretary of Nikandros’s, seem to sit with some uncertainty at being invited to a feast such as this. Their loose white chitons stuck out like stark mushroom caps among too tightly-pressed flowers. On the far side of the room, King Auguste rose from his seat in a jacket even more complicated than the one he’d worn earlier that day, gold laces trailing up his sides and his shoulders.

“Our friends from Akielos.”

Damen paused in his traversal of the room to bow, and stated his own formal words. “Brother of Vere.”

Jokaste was already present and seated two places down on Auguste’s left. She seemed to form a perfect mirror to Prince Laurent on the other side, both dressed in silvery white, blond hair pulled up in unforgivingly tight braids. Damen and Nikandros split off as they made their ways around the table, Damen taking the place of honour on the King’s right and Nikandros filling in the space by Jokaste. Barely a moment after they’d pulled in their chairs than servants began to slip in from the side doors like well-trained trickles of streamwater, arms laden with tall plates of meat.

Damen ate mostly in silence for the first two courses, vaguely aware of Nikandros telling Auguste something about Akielon festivals on one side and Laurent conversing with Lord Vercoix on the other. The food was good, better after three days of ship food and he was hungrier from his journey than he’d realised. The wine he hazarded he recognised as a popular Akielon export from Dice.

The third course was a wide range of cubed Veretian cheeses, which the Akielons regarded somewhat quizzically before following the cue to use the long-pronged forks to pile a few cubes onto their own small plates. Some were the usual pale yellow of the cheese they made in the south of Akielos, others were topped or mixed through with different swirls of flavour. Damen found himself fond of the plain kinds, less enamoured with the ones spiced with chilli or herbs, a little confused by the ones sweet enough to be named a dessert. He added a few of the cubes veined with black-blue spots to his plate after he spied Auguste helping himself to a fair portion of those, popping one in his mouth only to almost choke at the salty tang.

There was a soft exhalation to his right, quickly cut off. He turned. Prince Laurent looked back at him levelly, appearing supremely unruffled and not at all like he’d just been laughing at his guest. Damen’s brows twitched, not quite raising.

“Sweet tooth?” he said, nodding at Laurent’s own generous pile of the white cheese pebbled with dried fruit that Damen had found just shy of too rich.

An expression of mild surprise flitted over the other prince’s face. Damen had spoken Veretian, the first time he’d done so.

“I appreciate the finer tastes,” Laurent replied, and picked up the sole blue-black cube on his plate. He lifted it to his lips, closed them around it, chewed and swallowed with a smooth motion of his jaw and markedly no choking. There was something puzzlingly disarming in the act—too serious to be boyish, too light to be mocking. Damen felt his lips twitch, more in bemusement than pleasure.

“Is this the norm?” he asked after a beat. “A course only of cheese?”

Laurent cocked his head. “You don’t eat cheese in Akielos?”

“Not at formal dinners. For a quick breakfast or lunch maybe, and for soldiers at camp.” And a soldier Prince Laurent was not, Damen knew. A valuable advisor, by all reports, and his brother’s deeply trusted confidante, but not a fighter.

“It’s a palate cleanser between the other courses.” Laurent picked up two of the fruity cubes on his fork. “First courses were pork and next will be venison.” He ate them efficiently between words. “This is a light interlude before the heaviness of the game meat.”

“I see.” This production wasn’t the way they ate, feasted even, in Akielos, where different dishes would all be laid out together on the table and each individually replaced as it emptied. The only separation of courses was the bread, main, and dessert. Here, even the forks they were using was unique to the cheese. “It must be quite the task for the kitchens then, preparing dishes in an appropriate order.”

Laurent smiled. It was subtle and somehow inverted from the kinds of smiles usually seen at political affairs, barely widening his prim mouth but managing to touch his eyes. “A task for the host,” he said. “They say a good diplomat structures his meal to go with his words, the best can plan the flow of meat or wine or pastry to bring what degree of generosity or caution he desires.”

Damen huffed a laugh, brows shooting upward at the strange notion. “Where do you they say that?”

Laurent reached for the serving fork again, and turned back to refill his plate. “In Vere.”

 

 

The venison came, then fowl. Then another interlude, this time of a fluffy white bread, before the climax of seafood. It was the region’s specialty, and quite commendable even to Damen who’d grown up on Akielos’s southern coast. And finally two separate courses of dessert showcasing Veretian pastries and sweetmeats, which he noticed Laurent was not at all stringent with, as well as fresh fruit. By the time the plates were cleared away and the tables hefted toward the walls to make room for the social hour, he was feeling only slightly uncomfortably like a fattened hare among a den of snakes.

King Auguste gave Lord Vercoix his thanks for the meal, in Veretian, and Damen added his as well. Neither looked surprised at his proficiency in their language, probably having heard his conversation with Laurent earlier. They looked a touch more surprised when Jokaste made her way over and joined in with her own flawless Veretian. She’d always had an aptness for languages, Damen knew, rather the opposite of Nikandros who’d done his best in the last years but still spoke with a marked Akielon accent.

“Your Highness,” Auguste said, addressing him with the Veretian title. “I would like to say that it gladdens me greatly to receive you under less difficult circumstances.”

Damen gave a smile, the diplomatic kind. “Likewise.”

Laurent appeared with two goblets and wordlessly handed one to Auguste. Damen was taken a little aback at the display, a prince fetching drinks, but the comfortable way the brothers passed over the exchange with complete familiar ease tugged at him in an entirely different fashion.

“Not difficult,” said Laurent with no small hint of dryness, “remains far from an accurate description of where we stand with Akielos.” He turned, looking Damen in the eye. “But at least for the men in crowns to come together in peace is a first step to having our people do the same.”

Damen smiled again, and nodded, and didn’t dwell too long on the fact that the last time he’d been in Vere it had been in hopes of war. There was a swish of fabric to his left as Jokaste joined their circle.

“You speak as if King Aleron’s treaty was never signed,” she said, voice high and light and lyrical. “Peace has long been had between our countries, we are here for ceremony.”

Auguste gave a small nod in acknowledgement. “Yes, my father and King Theomedes made a treaty, and it was a good treaty. But time passes, and we know more of things now than we did then.”

He’d turned with his last words, addressing them to Damen, but it was Jokaste who answered again. “The terms of the treaty of Delfeur,” she said slowly, smoothly enough to be diplomatic, “are not up for renegotiation.”

Wariness pricked at Damen, echoes of his father’s warning. You work with them, you don’t trust them. Maybe not in exact words but a parting caution nonetheless, the same sentiment that had been reflected more recently by Jokaste. Treat with Vere. Ensure the new King’s pledge to the old agreement. Do not let them go back on it.

“‘Renegotiation’, in a word, is a complicated suggestion,” said Laurent, and he too was addressing Damen and not Jokaste, even as his precise and butter-mellow tone mirrored hers. “We all know what must go into making the numbers, the exchanges, the allowances of a treaty. There’s no need to go all the way back there.”

“Every word is complicated to a Veretian.”

Jokaste smiled, a smile that looked like it ought to soften her words but didn’t really try. Damen repressed the twitch of his mouth at her sudden candour, that quick tongue which was always almost as present as her beauty. Laurent paused for the barest of moments, then finally moved his full attention to her. A long attention.

It wasn’t the way, again, that Damen usually saw people look at Jokaste, gazes which lingered with any mix of desire, envy, or simple appreciation for a fine woman. In fact, Damen wasn’t sure if Prince Laurent appeared more like a rider admiring a new horse or one assessing the difficulty of an oncoming jump. Perhaps it was to be expected, he had heard from Nikandros the strange aversion Veretian nobles had to unions between men and women. There was a beat, then Laurent lowered his goblet to clasp it with both hands in front of him. Over the rim, Damen was surprised to see that it was full of water.

“Have you been to the border, Lady Jokaste?” he asked.

“Not the border with Vere. My family is from Aegina, on the border with Patras.”

“And you, Prince Damianos?”

Damen nodded. “Yes, of course.”

Before he could go on, Jokaste lifted her chin and interjected.

“Border patrol is one of his regular duties as Crown Prince and leader of our army. The suggestion otherwise is an insult.”

Laurent’s expression didn’t change. Behind him, though, Auguste gave a thin smile that looked to be placating. Damen shifted a little and raised a hand to rest on the small of her back, letting her know her words were appreciated but not quite necessary. She paused.

“I understand,” she said after a moment in more subdued tones, “that the situation at the border is not without tension. But we are two large and rather different countries, and we have come far. Those who refuse to respect the treaty are handled by our patrols, as I hope they are by yours on the other side.”

It was easy to let Jokaste talk, she often had many things to say that left you either stirred or struck. But it was only the first night of many, and the music and wine were good enough that Damen didn’t feel ready to resign himself to the probably unavoidable squabbles with these people who wore their laces and brocades like armour. He smiled at the closing of her words, and turned.

“I’m certain they are. Now, my lady, would you do me the honour of a dance?”

 

 

Damen danced twice with Jokaste, then wove himself off the floor between the couples of twirling Veretians. Even the dancing was overly complicated in Vere. Unless he cared to take his next with Nikandros, Damen decided he ought to bow out at risk of offending anyone by treading on them. Nikandros, though, was apparently more confident in either his skills or his ability to apologise and was braving the steps with Lord Vercoix’s wife. Auguste was also on the floor, with a young man who looked to be Lord Vercoix’s son, and who also looked to be more than a little star-struck by his partner. Laurent, at a glance, was nowhere to be seen.

It was a warm night, made warmer by the food and drink and people making merry. Damen took another goblet from a servant as he edged his way around the room, making for a pair of doors that he’d spotted off to the side. They fell open, unlocked, at his push, and he stepped out as he’d expected onto a small balcony. In the darkness past the railing he could make out the dim outline of narrow roads and short buildings, some lit on the inside with flickering firelight. The town of Vars. Vere.

“Enjoyed the feast?”

Damen started, and turned. Prince Laurent had slipped through the doors behind him, a hint of a smile on his lips and a glimmer of moonlight on his pale hair. He reached back and pushed the doors shut.

“The food was very good,” Damen replied.

“Even the cheese?”

He huffed. “The cheese was palatable.”

“Is that what goes for high praise in Akielos?”

“I’m not sure if that’s an insult or compliment.”

Laurent’s smile grew a sliver pronounced. “Neither. It is an observation.”

He walked forward, past Damen to lean his forearms on the railing. He said, after a moment of silence, “Even my own country looks different here. In Arles, even in the dark, you’d see watchfires blazing around the palace walls, torches lit in night marketplaces, at least a few bonfires in tavern courtyards. Here it’s all so much quieter.”

Damen joined him, bare arm a few inches from Laurent’s fabric-clad one. “In Ios you’d see a sea of small fires in the yards as families roast their dinner,” he replied. “Not all of them, mostly the ones rich enough to afford meat and fish, but even the poorer ones like to warm bread over a flame.” He turned. “You don’t travel often, even in Vere?”

Laurent shook his head, a little rueful. “My duties keep me mainly at the court, and the capital. Not like you, I’m sure?”

“I make periodic visits of the kyroi representing my father. And since he officially stepped down as the primary commander of the Akielon army, I have been leading the border watches more frequently.”

“Does the Lady Jokaste travel with you on these journeys?”

It was a question bordering on odd, but Damen answered. “Sometimes, if we are travelling in the direction of her father in Aegina and she wishes to return home for a time.”

“But otherwise she lives in the palace at Ios? As a lady of the court?”

“Yes.”

“Is she to be your wife?”

Damen swallowed. Laurent had no way of knowing that to be a sensitive question, it was a reasonable curiosity. “Perhaps. It is my hope.”

Laurent looked over at him and cocked his head. “A woman like that, she must have other suitors?”

Also a reasonable curiosity. “She does. None other whom she has seriously accepted.”

“Only a prince is good enough for her?”

The words, taken as they are, could be a joke. A tease among friends, though they were not friends, and Laurent didn’t sound entirely joking. Damen’s eyes narrowed.

But then Laurent made a sound in his throat, like he had been joking after all. “I know her type. You want her, she plays hard to get. I’ve seen it with the pets in Arles.”

It didn’t help. Damen bristled. “Jokaste is not a pet.”

“Of course not.”

And now, he was starting to feel somewhat lost in the conversation.

“A pet belongs to one master. A person like Jokaste knows what it means to be the mistress of an important man, even when that important man is off settling squabbles at the border and leaving her at court surrounded by other important men.” And then, like an afterthought to himself, “That bastard brother of yours is the one who takes over your position when you’re gone, I expect?”

Shock hit Damen first, chased a moment later by rolling anger. He wasn’t quite sure how to react, faced with magnitude of that insult made with soft self-assurance from a too-pretty mouth, the cool arrogance of the young prince leaning casually on the railing before him. “You have no right,” he said, switching to his own language, not keeping the harshness of the tones from his voice, “no grounds, to speak about the Lady Jokaste. Or I.”

He wasn’t sure what response Laurent had been expecting, if he’d even thought far enough ahead to expect a response. It was all just diplomacy, Damen knew, kings and princes and kingdoms. Unkind words weren’t any more personal than kind ones. He pushed off the banister, spun, and pulled open the balcony door.

“Your judgement is not required, Prince Laurent.”

 

 

The gathering this night was not very large, at least compared to the one that would surely greet them in Arles. Mostly Lord Vercoix’s house as well as a few lesser nobles of Marches, and a few wealthy merchants proud to be under their lord’s patronage who’d provided for the feast. Damen did his rounds of the room, swapping pleasantries while trying to get a feel for the strange culture. He had been to Vere before but never like this. The treat at Marlas had been wary and sombre, and the times he stayed in Delpha to visit Nikandros he deliberately eschewed ceremony. Everyone now was very proper, very polite, aside from the one notable exception. They hid their uncertainty well behind their curiosity.

Wine gave way to a liqueur Damen didn’t recognise that was very sweet and flavoured with citrus, which Nikandros gave his approval of when their paths finally crossed again.

“I thought you’d be gone for the evening,” he told Damen archly.

“Hm?” Damen raised his eyebrows.

Nikandros nodded to where Laurent stood in conversation with a finely dressed woman, also not dancing. Damen hadn’t seen when Laurent had followed him back into the main room, hadn’t seen him dance with anyone all night either. “Saw you step out with him.”

Damen scoffed into his glass. “We talked. He was not a pleasant conversation partner.” When Nikandros still looked sceptical, Damen went on, “And you know Jokaste has my loyalty.”

The scepticism fell off Nikandros’s face, though not to be replaced by anything much more pleased. He’d never been a great admirer of Jokaste, and had been somewhat perplexed at Damen’s gesture to forgo other lovers for her when there had yet to be any true promises between them. It was an argument they’d had on more than one occasion, to the point Nikandros had mostly resigned himself to not being able to have any sway over the situation. It didn’t stop him from giving Damen those disapproving looks, however.

Damen sighed, didn’t quite roll his eyes but grinned appeasingly at his friend. Nikandros half grinned, half grimaced back, finished off his drink and warned Damen before meandering back into the main crowd that there was a reason they were served in such small glasses. Damen took his advice with some disappointment and declined the passing servant’s offer of another. He had sat himself down on a bench, was considering whether or not the night was late enough for him to take his leave, when footsteps approached then halted in front of him.

“Dance with me.”

Damen looked up. Laurent looked back, standing straight-backed and hand outstretched, face neither outwardly warm nor particularly inviting. In fact, his expression looked like a challenge. Damen became aware that there were eyes on them, heads turning in their direction, conversations quieting in wait of his answer. This was not an offer he could refuse, he realised, even if Laurent had voiced it like a question. He wondered if Nikandros was watching. He probably was.

“Your Highness.”

Laurent only wore a single ring, in contrast to most of the other nobles, a silver signet with a band thin enough to be warm from his skin when Damen took that hand in his. He pulled them into position on the floor with himself leading, which Damen was happy to follow given his uncertainty with the dance. The clasp of Laurent’s other hand on his side was only just below where the fall of his chiton gave way to bare skin.

The steps were fortunately not difficult to follow as the musicians struck up a slow, lilting piece. Damen was not a bad dancer, with the swiftness and coordination of footwork from a life’s worth of hard sword training, but Laurent danced like he rode. Graceful and effortless, and managing even to not make Damen feel too much like a horse under his lead.

Halfway through, the piece changed in tone. The melody dropped into something softer, dreamier, and the dance followed. Laurent’s movements lulled and their bodies curled a little closer together. Then, into that space between them, he spoke.

“I have,” Laurent said, voice low, “a tendency to think. And to say what I think.”

Damen blinked.

“And my thoughts are not always fair, nor true enough they should be spoken.”

Of the things he’d been expecting, an apology was not one of them.

“Will you forgive me, Damianos-Exalted?” Laurent finished formally in Akielon. He was the first Veretian since they’d arrived to use Damen’s Akielon title. The slight discrepancies of his accent were more pronounced in the quiet murmur he was affecting, the honorific blurred as it rolled off his tongue.

Damen paused, then allowed himself a nod. “You are forgiven.”

The dance ended. Laurent led him out of the centre of the floor before releasing his hand, then spun on the toe of his well-polished boot to face him. He was smiling, not very widely again, but reaching his eyes. Eyes which also seemed to have something more focused in them as they looked on Damen, something considering.

It was late enough now that more people were beginning to leave the dancing, an appropriate time for Damen to begin saying his goodnights. He gave a small bow. Laurent was still smiling.

“Thank you,” he said. His eyes were very blue.