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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.

Chapter Text

They left for Arles early in the morning. Auguste informed them that it would be a five day ride if they didn’t push the horses, and that there was no need to since it was a pleasant journey. The first day took them deeper into Marches and through low hills and grassy plains that made Damen inclined to agree. Small villages peppered their route, surrounded by farms and the occasional farmer who paused in working their field to bow toward the royal retinue.

Both breakfast and lunch they ate on the road, parcels of food packed from Vars that were much more elaborately prepared than what Damen was used to. He wondered if this was how Auguste ate when riding with his army, or if it’d been arranged specially in deference to those of their party less accustomed to hard travel. Jokaste, for one, usually arranged a wagon for herself when she visited home, though Damen knew she could ride. She had yet to complain about being on horseback with the rest of them.

The Veretians talked. It felt different to the welcome feast, here, speaking as men side by side on two horses and the open road. King Auguste was not unpleasant company, Prince Laurent was quieter but had a tendency toward dry comments and strangely communicative silences. Some of them made Damen laugh before he’d consciously decided whether he ought to find them funny. They were pulled about at one point by a commotion behind them, and turned to find the mixed group of Akielon and Veretian guards hooting as an attempt to cross the language barrier had apparently ended in amusing results. When they turned back, Damen caught Laurent smiling his barely-there smile.

They stopped at an inn in one of the larger villages for the night, run by a silver-haired woman with laugh lines around her eyes and a countryside accent disparate enough from Auguste and Laurent’s proper Veretian that Damen had some trouble deciphering it. From what he caught of the conversation, the King had arranged their stay there during the original journey to the coast. Damen wasn’t sure if he’d bought out the entire inn for the night or if the place was small enough that their party actually filled it to capacity.

There were no outbuildings, just the main house and a single set of stables. They ate together in the downstairs room, warm bread and neat cuts of meats, good despite the meal’s simplicity. Damen noticed that though the Akielons of their accompaniment took their own table, there were a couple of Veretians who deigned to join them. It was a quiet dinner, cosy in the confines of the bare wood walls with murmuring of conversation in two languages drifts through the background. It wasn’t so different from home.

Jokaste excused herself soon after the food was gone, probably more fatigued from the day in the saddle than she’d allow herself to show. Damen stayed a little longer, enjoying the tall mugs of beer brought out by the very accommodating innkeeper. He’d spent the earlier part of the evening sharing tales with Auguste of solders’ antics on the road, but talk was lulling now. On the opposite side of the table, Laurent leant over and said something to his brother that Damen couldn’t quite make out. It hadn’t been a whisper, but the words sat in an odd in-between of being familiar enough he seemed to recognise them, but not familiar enough he could actually follow their meaning. Not Veretian. Vaskian, perhaps, but also not the high language Damen knew. Auguste turned and quirked an eyebrow in reply.

Damen finished the last of his mug, then stood up to say his goodnights. There was another scrape of wood against uneven stone as he turned for the narrow staircase leading to the rooms, and he heard Auguste expressing his own agreement as to the lateness of the hour. Steady footfalls fell into step behind him.

As Damen emerged on the upper landing, he asked, “Which is Lady Jokaste’s room?”

“I believe she has the first,” Auguste replied.

Damen gave a nod in thanks, stopping at the room specified and reaching out to knock. He shot Auguste a quizzical look when the Veretian stopped also.

“If you’d like to speak to her,” Auguste said, “I can chaperone.”

“Excuse me?” Damen fought not to show his confusion too obviously.

Auguste stepped forward, closer toward him. “I can chaperone,” he repeated, “if you wish to talk in private before you sleep.”

His expression was earnest, as if he didn’t see the obvious contradiction in that suggestion. An old warning clicked through Damen’s head, Nikandros telling him not to approach any women when he’d first visited Marlas, especially not the highborn ones, not even for something innocuous. He sighed inwardly. Vere.

The door clicked open and Jokaste appeared in a nightgown, her hair loose. She smiled at Damen, then broke off to look between the two of them standing in the corridor.

“Is something happening?” she asked, a frown in her voice that was not present on her face.

“I came to see you,” Damen replied, tone careful, slightly resigned. “And King Auguste has kindly offered to chaperone.”

“Ah.”

He watched as the same realisation passed over her, tried to convey as much bemused exasperation as he could in his eyes. Her own reflected the sentiment levelly at him for a few moments, then flicked downward. Her jaw shifted a little and she stepped back.

“We are in their country,” she murmured, “I suppose we must follow their customs.” Then, louder, “Come in.”

Damen did, as did Auguste. There were no chairs in the small room, nowhere to sit aside from the bed, Damen hovered, not sure of what to do or say now that he was here. He did not how a chaperoned visit was expected to go. He had never had a chaperone, unless you counted the time he was twelve and Kastor had caught him trying to kiss a visiting noble’s daughter and then refused to leave them alone.

Earlier he’d been considering grinning and asking if she was sore, offering her a massage, though really he’d mainly wanted to ask her opinion of their hosts. Neither remained a possibility in front of Auguste. In the end Jokaste spoke first, filling in the gaps of awkwardness as she was apt at doing. Auguste, also on his feet, shifted casually in his place near the door as he affected an air of little attention. It appeared genuine, no doubt chaperoning was no thrilling task.

So it went on for a time, Jokaste prodding an easy conversation about the ride and the landscape, the quality of the drink and whether or not they were missing home. It was the kind of talk that didn’t mean a lot and probably wouldn’t be remembered in specific after. Not unwelcome to Damen that night, actually, one step along the road that would take them into the quagmire of the Veretian court.

After he bade Jokaste sleep well with a swift kiss to a smooth cheek, he turned to see Auguste already holding open the door.

 

* * *

 

The next three nights they spent in similar accommodations, farming towns and small inns, single rooms connected by single corridors with little privacy. On the third they had the little bonus of being greeted excitedly by the innkeeper’s children, a young girl and two slightly older boys who gasped behind their hands, pointed reverently at their King and Prince and curiously at the Akielons with their unfamiliar colouring and garb. They offered with perhaps more hindrance than assistance to help put away their horses, which the attendants accepted with some amount of amusement. At one point Damen saw the oldest boy tug on Laurent’s sleeve, and Laurent allow himself to be pulled down. Whatever the boy said in his ear made him cough in a way not dissimilar to when Damen had choked on the strange cheese. He looked in Damen’s direction as he said something in return.

“What did that boy whisper?” Damen asked later, seated at Laurent’s elbow at a rickety table in the courtyard, surrounded by the warm night.

“He wanted to know if all the people from your country are as big as you,” Laurent answered evenly. His lips twitched. “I told him I hadn’t met many, but I doubted it.”

Damen wasn’t sure whether to scowl or blush.

Their last night took them to the old keep of Chastillon, which Auguste informed them sat in popular hunting country outside of Arles. The castle was large, classically Veretian and reminding Damen inexorably of Marlas, but the staff was sparse and the rooms simple and apparently not in very frequent use. There was no grand meal prepared, and the guards and attendants of the party had been relegated to their own area. The small number of them populating the main dining hall made the absence of one member all the more apparent.

“Where is Prince Laurent?” Damen ventured when the second course was brought and the man had still not arrived.

Auguste replied easily, “He has gone for a ride. He informed me earlier he would take dinner in his rooms.”

Damen frowned. “Is he unwell?”

“No no, he told me he only wishes to clear his head.”

“I see.” He let his brows relax again. “There are good riding grounds around here, I expect? Do you visit often?”

“Not very often, I suppose. Less after—” Auguste broke off, paused. There was a moment, as if he were catching himself, but then he continued, “There was an incident here in Laurent’s youth.”

There was a click as Jokaste’s fork met her plate. “An incident?” she queried in casual curiosity.

Auguste’s lips thinned, and Damen abruptly noticed a weight on his countenance. The Veretian King had an expressive face that was unlike his brother’s precise reserve. It made him easy to like when he was telling anecdotes on the road, easy to want to trust despite all that was said of his country. Now, Damen wondered if it was giving away more than he was intending.

He elaborated after a pause, “It was during the treat at Marlas, in fact. Laurent did not come to the talks, and while in Arles he took a hunting trip here to Chastillon with our uncle.”

That weight was still there, along with an intensity in his eyes. A curl of apprehension, unbidden, began to form itself in Damen’s stomach.

“Our uncle,” Auguste went on—but then suddenly his face shifted again, the tension not quite gone but collected, sharpened—“was attacked and killed by one of his men for reasons we do not know.” The words came a sliver faster than before, more freely. “With myself and our father gone, it fell on Laurent to order the man’s execution.”

The King picked up his fork back up and speared a cluster of crisp green leaves. They crunched. Across the other side of the table, Jokaste’s fork began to scrape once more as well.

“I see,” said Nikandros with a dip of his head. “He must have been only—”

“Thirteen.” Auguste’s lips drew back, though it wasn’t quite a smile. “It is not so young. If there had been war instead of negotiations in Delfeur he would have been there on the field behind me, getting his first taste of battle.”

It was indeed not so young. Damen had been around the same age when he’d first accompanied his father on a handful of skirmishes with Vaskian raiders. And yet, “Taking a life in the head of battle is not the same as looking a man in the eyes and deciding him to die.”

In that moment it was a fact that Damen felt keenly, sitting across from a man whom he’d spent the last few days exchanging reminiscences with, but whom he could still too easily imagine meeting with swords between them instead of silver-plated knives. He wondered if King Auguste was thinking the same thing. Perhaps not, given how his gaze wondered away from Damen before he replied, falling slightly distant like he was recalling something quite different.

“Not exactly.”

If there was more to the story, it wasn’t for them. Had the young Laurent feared for his own life, maybe, had he seen his uncle die? Damen swallowed, throat catching thickly. Then he continued, partially musing to himself, “Neither is a simple rule of justice the same as discovering the taste of a personal revenge.”

Auguste’s lips turned up, it still was not a smile. There was irony in the twist of it. “Indeed not.”

 

* * *

 

Damen awoke the next morning to sun on his face. The bed was comfortable, mattress soft and sheets smooth, far above the straw pallets of the previous nights. He stretched, eyes still closed, enjoying the moments after wakefulness when he was allowed to laze and drowse instead of being called to immediate attention for watch or patrol. Then he realised the sun was a lot brighter that he should have been expecting.

He sat up, opening his eyes. Mid-morning light streamed into the room, through curtains he’d left undrawn around both the window and the bed. He’d also left open the door between the sleeping and living areas, and took a few seconds to notice that he wasn’t alone.

Prince Laurent was sitting at the round wooden table, a clear line of sight though the doorway, a book in his hands and a tray in front of him. He looked up at the sound of stirring and met Damen’s eyes.

“Good morning,” he said in Damen’s language. It sounded warm on his voice.

Damen rubbed a hand across his face, then pushed it up through this hair. “Why—How long have you been here?”

Laurent closed the book and set it down on the tabletop, Damen didn’t make out the title but he caught a glimpse of Akielon lettering on the cover. The Veretian was wearing a flowing white shirt and plain dark pants, managing somewhat bizarrely to look half-dressed even though he was fully covered from wrist to ankle. It was the looseness of his clothing that did it, Damen thought, sleeves hanging open at his wrists where he was usually so tightly laced, neckline falling past the grooves of his collarbone. His hair was loose too, spilling over his shoulders and down his back with a few strands tucked conscientiously behind one ear. It was a soft honey-gold in the morning light, a touch warmer than Jokaste’s silvery shade.

“I had them let you sleep,” Laurent said, standing and picking up the tray. “I brought breakfast.”

Without waiting for an invitation he made his way through the door and toward the bed. He placed the tray down on the empty side of the wide mattress, and Damen saw that it held two goblets of a dark drink—not wine with breakfast, surely?—as well two ends of crusty bread. And in a small dish beside the bread, several thick slices of cheese.

“Is this an acceptable way to eat cheese, Prince Damianos?” Laurent said, lightness in his eyes.

Damen laughed. It appeared to be the kind he’d enjoyed as well, pale and plain. His curiosity over the drink took him first, flaring a little faster than his confusion over exactly what this was, and he reached out to take one goblet. Laurent mirrored him with the other.

It was grape, sweet like rich wine but without the bite of the alcohol itself. Damen said, “Grape juice?”

“Yes. Kitchens keep it usually for flavouring desserts, but I find it a pleasant start to the morning.”

Damen took another long sip. It was good. “This is the standard fare in Veretian castles?”

“No,” replied Laurent. Something crossed his face, a flicker more unguarded. “This is just me.” He shifted the tiniest bit in his spot. “If you don’t like it, I’ll have yours.”

“I like it.”

Laurent smiled. He sat, perching on the edge of the bed, then placed his goblet back onto the tray and picked up a piece of bread with a slice of cheese. Damen hesitated before doing the same to give himself something to occupy his hands as he asked, “Is there a reason this couldn’t be served at breakfast with the others?”

There was an unhurried pause as Laurent took a bite, swallowed. “No, but I thought you might enjoy a late morning in a proper bed after the days on the road.”

Damen sat up straighter. “I am used to sleeping in camps with my men. I do not require luxury.”

“I know.” An incline of Laurent’s head, a nod, placating. “Which is why, perhaps, my actions are not entirely as selfless as that after all.” His voice dropped on the last words, very slightly, subtly enough Damen wasn’t certain he didn’t imagine it.

Damen was aware suddenly of his bare chest, the thinness of the summer sheet covering the rest of his body. Nakedness was not a thing he was self-conscious about, but this intricately-laced and high-collared country made him feel maybe he ought to be. Laurent wasn’t gawking though, or leering. He raised his eyes back to Damen’s face. The angle cast his gaze through his lashes.

The look in them hit Damen like the slap of a rising gale, sudden, stinging, staggering. No vulgar suggestion or crude innuendo but clear and level, there it was. Intent.

Laurent said, “I have waited six days so that you and I could be alone.”

Damen blinked, blinked again, didn’t find anything else to do. “Are you—are you courting me?" he asked, words edged with disbelief and a flicker of shock. People didn’t court him, they flirted with hopeful invitation or waited by sides of rooms trying to catch his attention. He was a prince, the next in line for the throne, the one who did the winning and not the prize to be won. Then again, so was Laurent.

“No,” replied Laurent, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. A fine, pale brow arched half a step upwards. “I’m bedding you.”

Damen was not a stupid man. He’d been educated by the best tutors in Akielos in strategy, language, history, economy, schooled in politics and diplomacy by his father, continued even now to be prepared for kingship. And yet, never in his life had he learnt how to respond to a proclamation such as that.

“Well.” His voice was clipped. It was also slightly high. “You’re not.”

And Prince Laurent laughed.

“Finish your breakfast,” he said, and turned away to take a bite of his own. Then he picked up his goblet for a long drink.

Damen wasn’t sure he’d felt this off-balance since the first time he’d switched from practice swords to steel. “You know,” he pressed, “I am already bound to another.”

That drew Laurent’s gaze back. His brows creased gently, almost daintily on his fine-boned face. He did not play dumb. “The lady gives no pledge to you of her own, yet expects one in return?”

“She does not expect—I made a gesture during my courtship, to limit my affections to her as proof of the strength of them. I intend to continue doing so.”

“It is not the norm, is it?” Laurent’s face appeared to open again. “A man like you, limiting yourself like that at the courtship stage?”

Damen did not let his mind linger on the way the Veretian had said ‘a man like you’. “Norm or not, it is what I will do.”

And that glint was back in bright blue eyes, that steady focus that could be called desire. It suited them. “Even if you are presented with a better offer?”

“I won’t be.” Damen swallowed.

There was something affecting about being on the receiving end of attention like this, from a man like Prince Laurent. They were sitting not very far apart across a comfortable bed, sheets silky against the top of Damen’s legs. He wondered if Laurent would lean over to close the space in between them and try to kiss him, run a hand over his chest and try to convince him with soft touches, take advantage of Damen’s position and tug away the insubstantial cloth that hid his modesty.

He didn’t.

“Finish your breakfast,” Laurent repeated. There was an easy curve on his lips. Then he drained his goblet and stood. “We ride in an hour. I’ll see you outside.”

A swish of a loose shirt, a flick of yellow hair, the thud of a closing door and he was gone.

In the silence that felt like the aftermath of a small gold whirlwind, Damen slowly unfroze his limbs. He dropped one hand from his bread to the side of the mattress, beside his tray, by the place Laurent had just vacated. The sheets were warm.

He finished his breakfast.

Chapter Text

They arrived in Arles at sundown. Townspeople gathered at the city gates, lining the cobbled streets, like the curious famers and villages of their earlier journey but multiplied tenfold. The Veretian royals were a fair sight even in riding clothes, no elaborate bundles of lace but sleek leather and shining hair easily filling the place. Auguste took the lead, casting warm smiles from side to side at his subjects, calling out a few words to them that were lost to Damen’s ears in the noise of the crowd. Laurent graciously relinquished his place beside his brother to fall behind at the narrower points. The younger man was more staid in his saddle, head high and back very straight. Proper, and not at all like a youth cantering across the countryside late to a meeting.

Damen watched the faces of the people as they passed. There was great love there for their King, certainly, most likely their Prince as well. There was less wariness, more curiosity for the Akielons here up North than down by the border, but not by too much. They were allies, but Vere knew just as well how the word had never rolled entirely comfortably off the tongue.

They rode up to the palace to trumpets in the air and banners flapping from the high turrets. It was indeed grand, walls managing to gleam even in the fading light, white but not the same white as the sedate columns of Ios. This was the heart of Vere, where the barbed tongues of the court exchanged their beguiling words. This was what Damen had come to meet.

The royal household awaited them on the front steps, the rest of the King’s and Prince’s guards decked out in full armour and coloured sashes of uniform, servants all around with a few more primly dressed who were probably the heads of the household. Damen watched with a prickling of unexpected warmth as Laurent and Auguste both dismounted with a hint more enthusiasm than strictly proper, to greet the men of their guards like old friends. He caught only a glimpse of forearm clasps and comradery embraces before they were all swarmed by attendants, bags and horses plucked from their sides as they were funnelled without pause into the welcome feast.

After Vars, Marlas, Chastillon, Damen would have liked to have thought he’d habituated himself to the country. He would have been wrong. The forts of the South were to the royal palace what a summer shower was to a thunderstorm. They passed through wide halls with marbled floors and carved ceilings, ornamental walls inset with gold-lined doors, not a single grand entry or featured chamber but on and on and on. This was the entire place. To live here, to call this catastrophe of extravagance home, Damen couldn’t imagine.

The feast was already laid in the great hall, the true extent of their reception party within. Nobles hushed as the doors were drawn open, stood in one great rustle of brocade as their King made entrance. Auguste lead their group around to the high table before he spoke, addressing the gathering to immediate applause and welcoming cheers. He introduced the Akielon guests and Damen bowed his head as his name was announced. Then, with a wave of the King’s arm, the room sat to a crunch of scraping benches.

The night proceeded a little differently to their first, clearly designed to better allow social exchange among the great number of their great court. Food came more sparsely, with breaks between courses and some dishes carted around the room instead of being set down, encouraging guests to move from their seats and accost whomever they had eyes on even as they ate. A space in the centre was filled without pause by performances, for the most part unextraordinary singers and musicians who simply provided background to the finely-accented chatter, though a fire dancer did at one point halt most of the hall. It all formed a sort of restrained chaos that Damen watched with some puzzlement. There were rules, about who was allowed to approach whom, when one may interrupt and which attendants followed, surely.

And then there were the pets. Damen had met two or three in his time, if telling looks and lowered lashes counted as meeting, but the ones here in court were not like the pretty things kept by the occasional very rich merchant or noble on the border. They could never be mistaken for common prostitutes, dressed as primly as the courtiers but dripping as many jewels and adornments as the walls. Some sighed and stretched in their seats, being fed and petted like spoiled cats, other flitted around the room from ear to ear with subtle purpose in their sinuous gaits. They must have rules too. Damen wondered, under all those smiles, how many were just as slippery as their mistresses and masters.

Damen managed to remain, through the whole meal, at the high table. He had some suspicion that Auguste had noticed him failing to find the pattern in the very precise ebb and flow of finely dressed people and was taking pity on him, keeping him in conversation and opening introductions with those who came to them. There were a lot of names, some familiar from what he knew of Veretian politics, others he had to tuck away into memory. And there were the names from names as well, wives or cousins or sons casually tossed in with pleasantries. Damen listened and smiled and graciously accepted compliments on the fluency of his Veretian. His greatest strengths may lie in the dust of battle, but it did not mean he was without skill on the field of words.

It was a busy night, with the attention of the foreign prince apparently a valued commodity. Eventually the meat gave way to dessert, after an even more varied shuffling of courses than there'd been at Vars. Laurent would probably tell him it meant something. Damen had not had a chance to talk to the Veretian though, the man having disappeared from his side barely after the first dishes had been laid. Long before the cheese course. Damen caught him out of the corner of his eye a few times, making a meandering turn of the room at first, then settling into conversation in one corner with a man in a brown jacket.

When dessert gave way in turn to drinks, a young man approached the high table from the side with a high carafe of wine. Damen recognised offhandedly, from the deep blue of his jacket, that he was one who’d been following Laurent most of the feast. But seeing him up close Damen wasn’t sure if he was a servant or a pet. He wore little jewellery, far from the luxurious decoration of the pets, but also far were his rich dress from the simple garb of a servant.

Auguste tipped his goblet in request for a refill, and gave a warm smile and a word of thanks when the server complied. Damen mentally shifted his assessment. The King did not thank servants, a pet then. Auguste’s pet? From what Damen had come to know the man did not seem given to excess, this less extravagant fashion would be apt for a pet of his.

And then the young man turned, facing Damen fully for the first time, and Damen realised his other mistake with a jolt. Not a young man. A boy. Fourteen, maybe, fifteen at most. Not without beauty, but in the unpalatable way of a child barely scraping adolescence.

A tight chill of unease snared its way down Damen’s spine. He held the boy’s gaze, resisting the urge to look to the man beside him, mind struggling to reconcile this with the beloved King he’d ridden alongside amid exchanges of hearty words. Before he could tip his goblet, quite unfreeze enough to decide whether to ask for more wine, the boy spoke.

“Get it yourself.”

Damen blinked.

The boy abruptly turned on his heel and walked away.

Damen stared, mostly in blank surprise. The shock of being startled out of his reverie left little room for offence. To his left, he heard Auguste sigh.

“Please,” the King said, voice exasperated but not managing to hide a trace of fondness, “excuse Nicaise. He is Laurent’s page, and I’m afraid my brother has not been entirely thorough in teaching him the concept of courtesy. Or decency, I fear sometimes.”

Laurent’s page. Damen let out a silent breath, relaxing inwardly. He did look over, finally, pushed past the extent of his relief at not having to raze the opinion he’d built of his travelling companion of the last few days. He flashed a small grin to show he was more amused than insulted.

“I see.”

Auguste pursed his lips, hesitating, and then elaborated, “He is from Delfeur. His was family killed in a border skirmish, he arrived here four years ago stowed away on a merchant’s wagon. Laurent convinced our father to have him trained for palace work. He has not managed to bring himself to have a very welcoming attitude toward you, toward Akielos.”

Damen swallowed. “I see,” he said again, more heavily. He wasn’t certain what to say. Auguste’s tone hadn’t been accusatory, just diplomatically cautious perhaps. Despite what they were here for, ‘diplomatic’ was not the fashion in which Damen generally thought of the border. His role in Delpha was battle. He had seen bodies left by raiders on both sides, destroyed villages, grieving families, but through the eyes of a commander and not a governor. The difference was to a commander, casualties were numbers. Not people. Not the life of a boy caught between constant tensions of proud countries and left behind with nothing but loss and a grudge.

It didn’t take long for the conversation to be swept away again, thankfully, as yet another courier arrived with introductions on her tongue. The rest of the night passed uneventfully and unremarkably except for the sheer number of people there were to speak to. Vere’s court couldn’t be very much bigger than Akielos’s, but it seemed to all consist of aggressive conversationalists. That, at least, hadn’t been unexpected.

When Auguste finally excused himself, Damen took the opportunity to do the same. A scan of the remaining guests on his way to the door revealed Jokaste and Laurent both already departed, and Nikandros sitting to one side in a circle of drinking men. He seemed to be having a better time than Damen had been. Damen left him to it, and followed out the servant who met him at the door to be shown to his rooms through the twists of glittering corridors.

He was left with a small bow in what he presumed to be the guest wing, before a door already posted with two of his guards. The room within had been prepared, lit by a few candles placed frequently enough for him to dimly navigate his chambers of these three weeks. He didn’t bother lighting a lamp, stripping off his cape and dropping it onto a couch in the sitting area as he passed. His attendant could nag him in the morning about putting his formal clothes away properly. His chiton went onto a dresser in the sleeping area, tossed with half an eye out for aim.

It had been a long ride followed by a dinner that had seemed longer. Sleep came quickly.

 

* * *

 

The flurry of social events began the next day. A few invitations Damen had accepted at the welcome feast, more arrived periodically by messenger and delicately penned note. The befriending leg of their trip was upon them, the time to mingle through the capital before the formalities.

His first morning was spent with Councillor Guion, an oily man whose company Damen did not in the least bit enjoy but who was lord of one of the great southern forts. He talked mostly of trade across the border, and managed to drop into the conversation three separate times that his youngest son was currently staying with them in Arles. Lunch Damen had planned to take by himself in the gardens, which were quite lovely, but he’d ended up running into Councillor Herode and been cornered into eating with him instead. The shrewd old man did manage to provide better company than Guion had, at least, and the afternoon passed not unpleasantly as Herode neatly passed Damen off to his boisterous grandson Adic.

Dinner Damen took in Nikandros’s rooms, where he heard his friend was being treated to something much the same on a lesser degree. Nikandros bore some amusing tales of a group of minor aristocrats who’d invited him to drink and proceeded to question him about Akielos. He’d apparently rather confused them with accounts of bare-breasted women in summer. When Damen asked as to his plans for the following day, Nikandros answered vaguely that he wasn’t quite sure, his secretary was handling it. Damen momentarily cursed the dedication his father had instilled in him across the more delicate of matters, which had him insisting on crafting his schedule himself.

It was some mix of hope and lassitude that had him trying to call on Jokaste after dinner. But, the Akielon guards they’d brought were only enough in number to form a full watch for himself, and hers and Nikandros’s were being supplemented by Veretians. One of whom there was that evening standing by Aktis and eagerly offering to chaperone Damen’s entrance into her rooms. Damen graciously declined, told the guard to merely pass on a message that the Lady Jokaste was invited to join him for dinner the next day if free, and truly resigned himself to following local custom for the whole duration of their time in this so very tightly-laced country.

A short walk across the guest wing took him back to his own chambers. He gave a small smile to the men posted at his door, and was a little taken aback when he received one in return. A wider one, slightly crooked, from the guard on the left. Bordering on suggestive.

Damen frowned, shooting Lydos an inquisitive look. The guard only quirked a brow, enigmatically, and turned back to gazing impassively down the corridor. Too tired from a day of having to watch the exact implications of the tone of his voice and the width of his smile, Damen pushed on through the door.

The room had been prepared like the night before. He had the shoulder of his chiton unpinned, was reaching for his waist as he stepped through into the sleeping area. And promptly stopped.

The bedchamber wasn’t empty. The bed wasn’t empty.

There was a man reclined on top of the covers, fair hair falling just past his throat, skin smooth and pale in the candlelight. He was barefoot, but only undressed as far down as to his loose undershirt, white gems hanging from his ears, neck, and one artfully outstretched wrist. Damen didn’t remember him from the first dinner, but there was no mistaking what he was.

“Who do you belong to?”

A shift of languid limbs, and a hint of a smirk. Unoffended by the brusque tone. “My contract is held by the palace steward,” the pet answered. His voice was soft, objectively pretty. “A number of us are retained for the purposes of,” he paused, lips parted, gaze falling to trace over Damen’s bare chest, “providing good hospitality.”

Damen weighed the potential political issues of refusing something offered, only briefly. He said evenly, “I appreciate the hospitality. But you may return and tell the steward it is not necessary.”

The pet shifted again, dropping from his inviting pose to a more comfortable position. “I can fetch another,” he replied easily, still unoffended. “I was sent because they thought I’d match your tastes, but if we were mistaken you’re free to make a different request.”

“It is not a matter of taste.” Certainly not, given the young man was the exact type who would have caught his eye. Sharply beautiful but not in the overly feminine way some of the male pets affected, mouth sure and eyes playful. A lean but not dainty body Damen would have loved to lay out on a supple mattress, once. Before Jokaste.

“Really.” The pet’s lower lip jutted out in a pout, more cute than genuinely unhappy. “Sure I can’t convince you? I can dance, you know.”

“Quite sure,” Damen said firmly. He strode over to the bed, laying a hand on the pet’s arm but only to pull him off the side and to his feet. “Please, you may go. I would like to sleep.”

There was a sigh, lingering. “Shame.” The pet lifted a hand of his own, running light fingertips over the muscle of Damen’s chest. He pulled away again before he could be reproached and turned without further argument. “Sleep well, Your Highness.”

Damen scratched idly at his chest as the main door scraped, then properly undressed the rest of the way and padded back out into the sitting area. A carafe of water had been left on the round centre table, he poured himself a goblet then took the turn of the room to extinguish the candles.

He could smell a hint of perfume clinging to the sheets as he slid under them. Not like Jokaste’s sweet fragrance but something richer. Spicy. It wasn’t bad.

 

 

The second night, he got all the way into bed before the interruption came. 

“This day treat you better, Your Highness?”

Damen started, almost knocking over the candle he’d learnt over to blow out. His first reaction was confusion, simple bewilderment at how the pet had managed to hide himself earlier. Damen thought he’d been sure the main room was empty. Had he been on the balcony? In the wardrobe?

The pet strode smoothly through the bedroom door and to the side of the bed, close enough to lay a questing palm on the top edge of the sheet. Not the same one as before, but a similar physical type. Blond hair, loosely curled, with light eyes and a bold smirk on his lips. A little less pretty, a little broader across the shoulders. No less appealing, though, easily enough to tug at Damen with a thin thread of temptation. He hadn’t dined with Jokaste that evening, she’d already been occupied by a group of noblewomen, he hadn’t seen her since the feast.

“You turned down Marcel last night. Does tonight see you in a better mood, perhaps?”

The hand pressed further, moving to slip underneath the sheet. Very bold indeed, these pets were, almost as bold as their Prince’s declaration that peculiar morning. The Prince whom Damen had also not seen except in passing since their arrival.

Damen shifted away. It was only a very thin thread. “No,” he said firmly. He pressed his lips together, mustered his perturbment at the persistence. “Really. I have no desire for a pet, not tonight or any other night. No pets.”

A pause. “You sound very sure,” came the light reply after a moment.

“I am.”

“Hm.” The syllable didn’t sound entirely convinced.

“No pets,” Damen said again, more sharply, calling on a hint of the voice he used to command soldiers. Then, snagged with a prickle of hesitation, he lifted his own hand and rested a couple of fingertips lightly on the back of the pet’s wrist, trying to affirm that no personal insult was intended. “Please,” he went on, voice softening, “I am flattered by your presence. But tell the steward that another has my full attentions, and that I am in no need of companions.”

The pet took a few more seconds to respond, his thoughts not revealed on the coyly-crafted set of his features. It had been, Damen reflected, some time since he’d had a man. Had been a while even before he made his promise.

The slim wrist under his fingers moved. But it was to pull back, as the pet flashed another heavy look under hooded lids and leaned in fractionally, but no more. Well trained. Knowing how to tease but also knowing the limits.

“Well,” he said slightly breathily, “do ask for Emil when you stop being stubborn.” He stood with an artful toss of his head. “I’ll see you soon.”

 

 

Through most of the next day, Damen had half a mind to track down the steward personally about the insistent pet issue. But in the end his priorities found themselves otherwise seized by a walk of the grounds with a surprisingly energetic Councillor Chelaut, a luncheon with an ambitious noble family, and a fairly interesting cultural discussion with an aspiring ambassador—in the presence of her chaperone, of course. Not that he didn’t take a few chances to speak to the staff too, in the snatches of time he had. The ones running the palace could have just as much to tell as the highbred titles living within, sometimes more so with their ability to blend in as scenery with ears. There was also the fact the cook had some quite delectable honeycakes she allowed Damen to pilfer. He wondered if Laurent would share his sentiment, on both the value of staff and the honeycakes.

Lydos was at his door again that evening. One glance revealed yet another smirk on his lips, and Damen sighed in exasperation. He resisted the urge to tell off his guards, he hadn’t left them with orders and it wasn’t their job to vet his visitors unless they could be deemed a threat. The door made a rattling sound as he pushed it open with a touch more speed than necessary. He strode straight through into the bedroom, and halted promptly to tip his gaze to the ceiling as he spotted the yellow-haired figure by the window.

“I told—” he started, and broke off.

“Yes,” said Prince Laurent, turning from the sill. “You did.”

Damen shut his mouth. His teeth clicked. He didn’t move.

Laurent was dressed in a formal shirt of his usual style but with top few criss-crosses of lace loosened at his throat. His hair was out except for a single thin braid winding it back from his face, twisted delicately around the top of his head. A glimmering chain of sapphires hung from one earlobe, as blue as his eyes. Damen had noticed his piercing before, had seen a pair of stately silver studs in Auguste’s ears as well, but this was different. This was not jewellery a prince would wear.

It was impossible not to see it. A golden prince, put together just enough like a pet to draw the eye. Damen’s eye. To the glint of his earring, the exquisite styling of his hair, that perplexing mix of modesty and impropriety at his throat. Only he stood straight- backed with the view over the city behind him, instead of stretched out in concocted allure. Lips not set in provocative insolence but gently parted, pink, under a haughty nose and shining eyes. Beautiful like the sunset of a dying day.

Laurent took a step forward. “So you really are serious about giving your word to your lady.”

Impossible not to make the comparison. And in that moment, trying to pull his head around being floored by this man for the second time in three days, the whisper of suspicion came sluggishly. That this was not a coincidence.

Damen snapped his chin up, a sharp flick. “I really was. Have I said it enough times yet?”

Another step forward. “Not tempted by a gift left on your pillow for the night?” Laurent said like he was musing to himself. His eyes dropped from Damen’s face, but not too low, a step to the left. To his shoulder. “No pet enough to intrigue you into reconsideration?” His lips curved upwards just shy of imperceptibly. He raised a hand. “But then, I did promise you a better offer, didn’t I?”

A last step brought them up together. Somehow, Damen didn’t feel the instinctive urge to step back, even as it occurred to him to expect it. Perhaps it was because Laurent had managed to make himself out as a nonthreat, both to Damen’s person and his virtue. He didn’t touch, not Damen’s skin, fingers falling instead to his chiton. Then, with a nimble tug, he unhooked the lion pin.

The falling cloth left Damen bare to the waist. The shock hit him a moment after the cool breeze from the open window, the sudden jumble of possible reactions flitting across his brain—covering himself, shoving Laurent away curse the political consequences, yelling at this barefaced princeling what in the kingdoms he thought he was doing—

But as with the last time, Laurent didn’t leer or grope or stare. He barely even looked at all, except for a single fleeting glance which Damen wouldn’t even have been sure he’d caught if it weren’t for the fact he could have sworn he felt it burning across his naked skin. Then Laurent’s focus was gone, completely, all concentrated only on the pin in his hand. He said, “Is this the sign of your house?”

Damen replied automatically, “Yes, it is,” before his mind had quite finished grinding to a halt. It did that a second later with a placid surrender to his own bewilderment. He pushed on instead of letting Laurent speak again, skipping over the interruption to say, “And, I also already said there will be no better offer. Please, Prince Laurent—”

“A prince.” The quiet words managed to cut Damen off as effectively as a shout. “That’s what you are, a crown prince.” Laurent looked up. His face was even. “Well then. If I must court you properly, I shall.”

Damen stopped his jaw from dropping. “That is not what I meant—”

“Can I keep it?”

“What?” He was falling into frustration now, at the labyrinthine turns of Laurent’s conversation, at how off-balance the man had managed to catch him again.

“The pin.”

“No.” He clenched his jaw. “Why?”

“As a token. From you.”

“I haven’t given you a token. I’m not going to give you a token.”

Laurent cocked his head. He stood silent a moment, in the mounting tension, and Damen wondered if he was going to argue or simply turn around and leave. He didn’t do either. He twisted his wrist and held out his ungiven token back. “I’ll wait then,” he said, with another smile, definitely perceptible this time.

Before Damen could reach up to take his pin Laurent pressed it forward, placing it again the skin of his shoulder. About the place it would be fastened on his chiton, but slightly off, slightly closer to his thudding heart. Laurent didn’t push hard enough to prick him with the sharp end. His fingers were warm. Damen slapped a hand over them to grasp his pin, freeing it and finally stepping back and away.

He thought about redressing, but Laurent was already briskly turning away like the contained whirlwind this had been, finely booted feet clicking on the smoothly-paved floor. “The pets won’t trouble you again,” he announced on his way out, a lilt on his voice. And then, like they’d been conversing nothing out of the ordinary, “Goodnight, Exalted.”

As the door opened and closed, Damen decided he didn’t want to imagine the look on Lydos’s face at that moment on the other side.

It felt like it took a long time to walk to the edge of the bed and sink down onto it. Damen ran a hand over his face, rubbed at his eyes. He felt rather awake, suddenly, despite his earlier weariness from the day. He wasn’t entirely certain what had just happened. Prince Laurent of Vere had happened.

On his next breath he realised there was still the faintest whiff of perfume in the room, the same rich spice like the pets had worn. Unlike Jokaste.

Chapter Text

The bundle arrived during breakfast. Apparently, if Damen had gotten as far though processing the last night’s conversation as hoping the promise of proper courting had been a bluff, he would have been disappointed.

He didn’t think anything of it as he told the messenger to leave her package on the dresser. Invitations were still trickling in, though their numbers were starting to dwindle, and a few had been sweetened with tokens. Fresh fruits mostly, a few local bottles of wine. This one spiked his interest with its wrapping of heavy grey cloth, possibly the only unembroidered stretch of cloth he’d yet to see in this country.

Damen sketched out the day in his head over the last of his figs, deciding he didn’t have the wherewithal that morning to deal with two old aristocrats in a row who would most likely be treating him like a curiosity to be patronised with slow, slightly suspicious questions. He mentally shifted around his afternoon, and realised it would leave him time to call on the sender of the latest package. He stood as he finished, licking his fingers and striding over to relieve himself of its mystery.

The first tug back of the cloth sent a flash of colour twinkling through the room. Damen’s brows raised. A few folds to unwrap, and there it was. He stared.

It was a dagger. The long blade was beautifully crafted—and sharp, as he verified with a tap of his finger. The hilt was studded with gems. A lot of gems. A completely ridiculous amount of gems.

Rows of red stones ran the length of the handle in four strips, meeting at a large green jewel on the apex. Not rubies, probably, or emeralds, something not as fine as what a jeweller would pick out. There was that at least. The metal of the hilt itself was bright gold, shiny from disuse and twisted into an intricate pattern, dotted with yet more pinpricks of small blue-black stones that wove between the others. The sheer incongruence of it boggled at Damen.

How was anyone supposed to wield this? The sharpened, well-forged edge meant it was not merely decorative or ceremonial, but a quick lift verified that yes, as expected, the weight of the hilt completely offset the balance. Surely Veretians didn’t use these to fight? No, in fact Damen knew they didn’t. He was not unfamiliar with Veretian steel, it had a different heft to it but it was not this monstrosity. What was this, then?

The thought struck him that of course, he knew exactly what this was. A gift.

There was no note, but a blank strip of paper was wrapped halfway down the blade. A flip of the dagger exposed the edges, revealing them closed in wax with the Veretian royal seal. Unless King Auguste had suddenly found himself with an abiding and previously very well hidden passion, that left one culprit.

Did Laurent fight with this? Damen had a sudden absurd image of the Prince imperiously refusing to defend himself with anything that did not sufficiently sparkle in at least four different colours. He had to concede that, strictly speaking, it was not a bad choice of gift. Selecting a weapon demonstrated Laurent was conscious of Damen’s status as a warrior, and the amount of expense in the thing made it an undeniably grand gesture. Damen supposed he could appreciate the thought. He was about as charmed as he’d expected to be, which was not at all.

He finally wrapped the dagger back up after a few more moments of puzzled contemplation, setting the cloth bundle down by his trunk and putting it out of mind as he readied himself for the day. He would consider what to do with it at the end of his trip perhaps, better than seeking Laurent out now when the man was still liable to take any rebuff as further challenge. Returning a courting gift would be a firm snub, although not nearly as much of one as publicly keeping it while still rejecting the suit. Damen would endeavour to keep things civil between them.

 

 

The next gift’s arrival in the hands of another quietly efficient messenger was no longer a surprise. The second morning bundle was smaller, wrapped in the same grey cloth as the first, and Damen opened it almost absentmindedly on his way to pouring himself a goblet of water. He grimaced as he unveiled a single wide bangle.

It was, again, not altogether unthoughtful. The band was plain gold, etched in an intricate but subtle pattern, closer to Akielon style than Veretian. It was also wide enough it resembled something like a warrior’s wristguard, calling to mind strength and battle more than delicate ornament. But still, the notion, presenting a bracelet to a prince as if he were a wide-eyed youth or a Veretian pet to be wooed by pretty things, just the idea of that—

Well. Damen did not wear jewellery at any rate. He would not be wearing this.

His social commitments were finally wearing down at least, and after putting his latest gift away he had a little time free. A quiet morning was followed by a pleasant chat with an off-duty guard who offered to show him the ways of the training ground, and Damen accepted with relish. He’d been rather enough days with a quill or a teacup in his hand instead of a sword.

The guard—Manon—gave him a quick rundown of the different weapons sheds, leading him through open areas where a few unfamiliar men were training and others where dummies were scattered in various patterns for practice. He hid his hesitation good-naturedly when Damen suggested a sparring match, standing back to let him select a practice sword. Damen took up one that was steel but blunted, longer and thinner than his own sword back in his rooms. A few curious swings gave him a quick feel of the difference in balance.

He’d never fought Vere in open battle, not this country that they called peaceful ally, but he had met Veretian blades with his own. Some were in the hands of small bands of raiders pushing their luck across the Akielon border, others carried by larger groups in skirmishes over reasons he didn’t always entirely follow. At home he’d learnt about the variations in style and weaponry across their neighbouring countries, but a teacher could only do so much from within the wide colonnades of Ios.

“Should I—” Manon began, making to remove his sword in lieu of also taking up a practice blade.

Damen smiled. “No need.”

And the Veretian drew.

The man was fairly good. As a mere palace guard he wasn’t of the level of skill as could probably be expected from someone of higher rank, but he had a cool head and showed a professional training that had been lacking in those that Damen had previously fought. Damen mentally noted the compactness of his opponent’s style, the unique Veretian flares of his quick thrusts and sharp cuts, taking time to assess in the way he wasn’t able to in the heat of true assault. His unfamiliarity with his own weapon drew the match on for a little time before he managed to push Manon into an awkward series of defensive manoeuvres that finally forced him off his feet.

“You live up to your reputation, Your Highness,” the Veretian said as he accepted Damen’s hand up in gracious surrender. True respect rang in his voice.

“And you do credit to your charge,” Damen replied sincerely.

Manon excused himself after sheathing his sword once more, stating that he had to return to duty. Damen thanked him and returned his practice sword to the shed, stepping out afterward to take a leisurely stroll around the yard. A few more people had arrived, no one Damen knew by name but he recognised one to be a member of Auguste’s guard by the colouring of the uniform he hadn’t removed. There was a small group going through drills with a precise focus that Damen could only admire, and also a handful of pairs scattered around in the midst of obviously friendly bouts, jabs flying as freely as laughter. Some paused in what they were doing to greet him with a nod. The easy camaraderie here even managed to include their visitor.

Damen did a loop behind another shed as he wandered away from the main area. There was a sweet scent on the air, wafting from the sea of small purple flowers that dotted the trees encircling the training yard. It formed an odd combination with the clangs of metal behind him, though not necessarily an improper one. Then, as a rustle in a thick patch of leaves between two trunks drew him to a stop, he realised there was more than just flowers among those trees.

A man half-stepped, half-fell out of the treeline, leaves tangled in his dark hair and a stubborn smile lingering on his lips. Damen had just a moment to recognise him, and his rumpled chiton, before he dragged out the second man behind him by the hand. The man dressed in a half-buttoned Veretian vest.

Another moment passed, and then the first man stumbled to an abrupt stop as he realised he had extra company. The second man didn’t, and walked into him. They both rocked then steadied with an effort.

Damen raised an eyebrow.

“Hello, Pallas.”

The young soldier, to his credit, did not jump nor shriek nor turn around and leave the country as one was probably tempted to do upon being caught by one’s prince. He was also probably fortunate that his skin was dark enough to hide a blush. With only the slightest deer-like widening of his eyes, he pulled his features into earnestly respectful composure and said, voice very, very casual, “Exalted.”

Pallas took a step sideways, only then seeming to notice he was still holding the other’s hand which he released gingerly. Damen followed the direction of his movement and spotted a pair of swords on the ground, one Akielon and one Veretian, lying where they’d been unceremoniously dropped. He said, “Good sparring match?”

Pallas bent and picked up his sword quickly, tugging his shoulder harness back into place to resheathe it. “I must report for duty,” he replied primly. And then he gave a little bow, not meeting Damen’s eyes, and spun on his heel to stride off at a fractionally faster pace than was strictly necessary.

As Pallas was one of Nikandros’s contingent, Damen couldn’t say whether or not that claim had been true. He doubted it. He watched the man’s escape for a few more seconds, finally letting his own amusement show on his face, before looking back to the Veretian. He recognised him also, he realised, one of Auguste’s men who had been with them on the first journey from Marches.

“Lazar, is it?”

Lazar didn’t answer. He didn’t even act like he’d heard, judging by the way his eyes were unashamedly following Pallas’s retreating form, a smirk he didn’t at all try to hide curving his mouth. After a long moment he said, “Well. You Akielons are something.”

In lieu of having any idea what else to say, Damen replied, “Thank you.”

Lazar turned, gaze moving now to make a sudden sweep down Damen’s body. “Of course,” he went on, “the Prince has got the right idea too there, hasn’t he?”

The look he gave at that made Damen resist the urge to tug down the hem of his chiton, and reflect that he possibly ought to be used to Veretian candour by now. He should have known gossip would spread here as fast as it did in the Akielon court, that even if he trusted his own guards to secrecy about the visits to his room—which he didn’t—there were also those gift-bearing messengers who must be talking like the best of them. Perhaps he needed to give some thought to this way that news travelled, to the potential political implications of one of his men taking up with a Veretian, but apparently that would appear rather hypocritical coming from himself right now.

He sighed heavily and said, “I am not Prince Laurent’s lover.”

“No?” Lazar gave something about half a shrug, not looking too put out. “Shame, thought we could trust anything Claudia said. Few of us did have trouble believing her, but I didn’t think she could make up a story like our ice Prince finally finding someone to turn him into a starry-eyed strumpet.” He said the last with complete cheer.

Not wanting to impugn the name of this Claudia, Damen allowed, “The rumours are not wrong about the Prince’s suit. I have not accepted.” He wasn’t certain what to do with the impugning of Laurent’s name, if even that was what it was. He couldn’t rather be sure.

Lazar’s response was a blank stare. “What?”

Damen stared back.

“You’re saying,” Lazar continued slowly, speaking as if to a child, “you turned the Prince down.”

“Yes,” Damen replied.

“Prince Laurent?”

“As I said.”

“Yeah, you did.”

Damen wondered if managing to thoroughly perplex people in conversation was not a trait unique to Laurent after all, but one shared among his countrymen.

Lazar was frowning, thick brows drawn in tight, when suddenly his face relaxed. His expression fell into something resembling sympathy. “Oh,” he said, weightily, as if coming to a great realisation. “Do you…” he trailed off with an incline of his head, “it is a problem?”

Damen frowned himself, really quite confused. “Is what?”

“You know.” Lazar inclined his head again, and looked down. “Does it not work?”

Understanding hit like the slap of a wet towel. “I, what?” Damen spluttered, “No—Yes. What?” He announced too loudly, “I do not have a problem.”

Lazar raised his eyebrows, then gave his little half-shrug again. “Alright there.” He was looking at Damen now like he was a particularly odd insect who’d landed in his bowl of soup. “Have a good day, Your Highness.” He nodded with a touch of languidness, and turned away.

As the Veretian followed in Pallas’s footsteps with the air of a man highly satisfied with his morning’s work. Damen sincerely hoped he was not going to Claudia with his new ‘information’.

 

* * *

 

Damen was back at the training yard the next day, dragging with him a blessedly unoccupied Nikandros. The gift that morning had been another dagger, not extravagantly bejewelled this time but instead fitted in a contraption that, after some fiddling, Damen realised meant it to be worn concealed against one’s body. A coward’s weapon, precisely without honour. He’d put it down with disgust.

This time, they’d brought their own swords. Sparring with Nikandros was familiar and more basic exercise than a real fight at this stage. With how well they knew each other’s styles, idiosyncrasies, it had long ceased to be a true training challenge for either. Merely a way to lose themselves in the simple burn of muscle and heaviness of steel.

After their first session, they looked around to see they’d draw a small crowd. Two men dressed in the Prince’s livery stepped forward and introduced themselves as Orlant and Rochert, making a few admiring comments at their display. They batted back and forth a couple of questions regarding moves and techniques before concluding their break for a second session.

As that one went on, the crowd gradually lost interest and peeled off, the Prince’s men falling back into their own drills lead by a man bearing a captain’s badge. By the time Nikandros called for a halt again, they were both breathing heavily through their grins. It was good to get back to this.

“Busy few days?” Damen asked as he straightened and began to roll his right shoulder.

His friend replied thoughtfully, “I ate a lot of cake. Some of it was quite good.”

“Tried asking the cook for the honeyed ones yet? She’ll let you have a few if you tell her how good they are.”

“Charming the staff already?” Nikandros straightened too, performing the same stretch. And then he raised an eyebrow and said drily, “Thought you’d been busy yourself these few days.”

Damen winced. “Not you too.”

“Is that a no?” Judging by the continued dryness of Nikandros’s voice, he didn’t believe it.

“I already explained my opinion of him on the first night, did I not?”

“That was before he was making himself a regular guest in your bedroom.”

That his friend had not required any clarification on who ‘he’ referred to didn’t pass Damen’s notice. He winced again. “Hardly regular. He called on me twice, I sent him away. That was the end of it.”

“Not as they’re telling it.”

“And,” he admitted, “he has taken to gifting me.” At the very amused look that got he scowled and complained, “He is not very good at it.”

“Really?”

“Really not very good at it.”

Nikandros laughed. He walked over to the side of the yard to take a drink from his waterskin, running a hand back over his face and through his hair. “What a hardship, tolerating clumsy overtures from a beautiful young man. I truly feel for you.”

“Shut up.”

Damen turned his sword downward, embedding it tip first in the sand with a sharp plunge. Before he could speak again, a little hush fell over the yard, the opposite of an interrupting noise in the absence of one. The ring of blades and regular thuds of steady footwork halted behind him, and he turned to see the cause. A familiar figure that had been scarce the previous days was making its way across the sparring fields.

King Auguste was out of formal clothing and adornments, dressed in a brilliantly green but otherwise plain vest, hair as bright as any crown in the late morning sun. He was meandering leisurely between the men, turning to exchange a few quick words with them as they paused in their training to bow. Sturdy, well-worn boots scuffed through the sandy dirt.

“Prince Damianos, Viceroy Nikandros,” he greeted as he approached. He spoke in Veretian, most everyone had taken to using it exclusively once the Akielon party had demonstrated their proficiency. Everyone except Laurent, in fact. “Tired of the inside of the palace already?”

“Your Majesty,” Nikandros returned formally. Damen hesitated, not quite sure what to make of the question. But Auguste’s lips lifted into a grin before either could continue.

“I cannot blame you, I frequently tire of it myself.” His blue eyes, so like his brother’s, met Damen’s. “There always seems to be only a certain number of meetings I can tolerate in a row before I feel myself wanting to resolve every disagreement by challenging someone to draw.”

Damen’s own lips twitched. “I did that once. Nikandros was there, he remembers.”

Nikandros made a noise in his throat that sounded marginally like the Akielon word for ‘please’.

Auguste laughed, an open laugh, surprisingly boisterous. “You’ll have to tell me that story someday.” He flicked his head to cast a look back over his shoulder where the rest of the yard had resumed their training, then raised one hand to gesture between the two Akielons. “You seem to have been impressing my men.”

Damen gave a dip of his chin in deference. “They are quite commendable themselves.”

The King raised his other hand, drawing their attention for the first time to the long leather scabbard he was carrying. Its surface was faded from use as the wrapping on the handle that stuck from the top, not a shining gem in sight. He asked, “Care for a demonstration?”

A sharp prick of apprehension sparked down Damen’s spine. It was a brief thing, like a fork of lightning, fleeting but bright enough to leave the hint of its afterimage behind. It was gone before he managed to form the exact reasons for why that may not be a good idea.

And gone also was the Veretian’s gaze, moving cleanly away, directing the request smoothly past him to Nikandros. In that moment, Damen had a sudden clear thought that Auguste of Vere had felt the same thing as he. The same echo, of old adrenaline at the sight of a sword between them, of a challenge not quite buried that had once been too real to prod again.

A few paces behind, Nikandros picked back up his sword. His smile was easy. “Gladly.”

The match began with the briefest of cautious circling. From the first engagement, it was clear that Auguste had not let his time in kingly duties dull his skill. He fought with an expert precision that spoke of the masterful tuition he must have received from a young age, but also an ease and fluidity that could only come from hard, regular training. Nikandros met him with level concentration, unfazed by the identity of his opponent in the way he’d long had to learn with his own Prince as a sparring partner.

The King of Vere was not a small man. Not as tall as Damen but admittedly few were, and still there was more brute strength in his blows than Damen had expected. Perhaps Veretian finery had a purpose to it after all, collars and frills and laces inviting underestimation in their delicacy. He was also shrewd, as it became apparent after a few minutes that he’d noticed the habit of Nikandros’s that Damen regularly took advantage of himself. Perhaps he’d been watching them fight earlier for longer than they’d realised, Damen was still pondering it when Auguste simply spoke.

“You drop your guard on your left after attacking from that side.”

The light, close to teasing note in his voice caught Damen by surprise, spoken like they were in the midst of a friendly bout and not a heated challenge between two almost-enemies. Then Nikandros huffed, muttering something in reply about hearing enough of that already, and Damen realised that they were.

Auguste winced visibly when Nikandros countered one of his intricate flourishes with a brutal slicing parry, and received a raised eyebrow in response. Nikandros scoffed at a move that involved a series of very Veretian flicks of his wrist, and reminded Damen suddenly that his friend had spent the last few years living among Veretians and most likely training with them too. When, a little while later, Auguste executed the same move a second time and managed to succeed in parting Nikandros’s sword from his hand, the Akielon ceded with a little roll of his eyes.

The blade had bounced a little when it thudded to the ground, skidding a few inches in a small puff of dusty sand to come to rest not far from Auguste’s boot. The Veretian stooped and reached down to pick it up, holding it out in return. Nikandros accepted it with a genial bow of his head.

It’s possible, when he invited you to offer friendship, that he intends to offer friendship.

“Alas,” Auguste said as he turned and picked his scabbard up from the side, “I have only a brief respite today. Duty calls.” He put away his sword with a quiet snick of leather, and looked back over to Damen. “Enjoy the training yard, Prince Damianos. I should apologise for being a distant host, but I do believe the rest of the court is keeping you sufficiently occupied. The palace is open to you and I hope you’ve make yourself at home. I shall see you when the talks begin.”

The words flowed naturally, coming before they could be too much debated. “Please, call me Damen.”

Auguste’s smile was warm. “I am honoured, Damen.”

 

 

Damen lingered a while longer after Auguste left, and after Nikandros also slipped off for a prior engagement. He took himself through a few routine exercises on muscle memory, then moved to the next field to make use of a practice dummy. Around him, the others had completed their drills and were breaking up, slipping away from the grounds. The yard was almost empty by the time he noticed he was once again being watched.

The man standing to the side was the one who’d be leading the drills, looking at Damen with a mild sort of curiosity. When he realised he was caught, he said in a very matter of fact voice like he was acknowledging an important point, “Prince Damianos.”

“Yes.” Damen recognised the crest on the man’s badge, though he was dressed in a light armour instead of uniform and vaguely familiar from maybe a few passing instances of crossed paths but not more. “You’re Prince Laurent’s captain.”

“Jord,” the man answered, and took a step forward. Then he paused a moment, gaze still a touch more intent than was called for, making Damen wonder if he was about to receive some inappropriate comment about his prowess. But no, all that followed was, “they say you’re the best warrior in Akielos.”

“They do,” Damen confirmed, with little modesty.

Jord’s lips twitched. As did his eyebrows. He acknowledged with a wry twist of his mouth, “It doesn’t seem undeserved.”

“Would you like to spar?”

A shake of his head. “I’ve just been curious. After everything I’ve been hearing.”

The grimace drew across Damen’s face a second before his sigh. “I don’t know,” he muttered, “if I should ask what they’re saying now.”

“Don’t worry.” Jord’s voice was dry. “Of all people, I think the Prince’s guard manages to know what’s really going on.” Something more considering slipped into his expression. “Everyone’s still trying to work out what’s so different this time, though.”

“Different? This time?”

“You.”

Damen swallowed. “Am I very different?”

That got him a short laugh. “Have you not heard what they say about him?”

He hadn’t. Of all the talking he’d done recently, everyone had been focused enough on their own objectives to not bother overly much with swapping gossip to the visiting Prince. Even as whispers were apparently circulating, Damen had only heard them peripherally. He frowned. “About him?”

Jord shifted from one foot to another. “The Prince has garnered a fair amount of attention, over the years,” he started after a moment. “By all accounts, he has never been very enthusiastic about returning any of it. He’s had no acknowledged favourite, nor contracted a pet. But the thing is, while people can’t say he’s never accepted an offer, no one can ever decide who exactly he’s meant to have accepted.”

It wasn’t unexpected, that Laurent with his pretty face and lean body had received his share of admiration. But, Damen wasn’t sure what he had exactly expected regarding the man’s past. While his attitude didn’t speak of inexperience, neither could Damen imagine him to be particularly popular with lovers with that manner of his.

“So,” Damen said after a moment, slowly, “his interests are all very mysterious?” Somehow, that seemed to suit Laurent. An enigma all around.

“Maybe,” Jord replied. “Maybe just he has very exacting standards. Or kills them all afterwards.”

It was enough to surprise out a laugh. “I see.”

“For your sake, I suppose we’d better hope it isn’t the last one.”

There was a crunch as Damen thrust his sword downward into the ground again, with a little punch of strength. He bit back another sigh. “If you’re supposed to know what’s really going on, then you’ll know I’m not—”

“I know.” Jord’s tone was as matter of fact as it had been in the beginning. He had a mild kind of face, neither bad looking nor very striking. A noncommittal type of face. “I know you haven’t yet.” He turned on one well-polished heel.

It occurred to Damen that, perhaps, the true shared Veretian trait was the ability to always get in the last word. It also occurred to him that despite the claim about knowing his charge, Jord hadn’t deigned to give any confirmations of his own regarding Laurent’s uncertain history. Damen let him go.

One thing he must know, certainly, was how capable Laurent was at handling himself. Yet, Damen didn’t think he’d imagined the little something he’d detected tucked behind the man’s bland interest. A little fold of protectiveness.

 

* * * 

 

When the book arrived the following day, Damen decided he’d had enough.

It was a beautifully bound tome, bearing the familiar title of a well-known collection of stories that he’d once read as practice for learning Veretian. When he was thirteen. Because it was a book for children.

He took two wrong turns during his attempt to find the prince’s apartments, which somewhat dampened the flow of his ire. He was, however, in no way going to stop and ask anyone in the castle for directions to Laurent’s chambers. The two men outside when he finally arrived, both thankfully unfamiliar to him, stepped aside to let him in without a word. He cleanly decided he did not want to think about what that was supposed to mean.

Figuring he was due his revenge after Laurent’s unsolicited visits, Damen pushed open the door without knocking. It swung to reveal the man himself seated at a round table in the centre of main room, a platter of small pastries on a plate in front of him and one in his fingers halfway to his mouth. It stopped, freezing mid-air, as Laurent’s head snapped up to greet his intruder.

“You,” said Damen.

“Good morning,” said Laurent.

“—are very bad at this,” said Damen.

Slowly, Laurent put down his pastry. His hair was unbrushed, tangled from bed, and he was still dressed in what must have been his sleepclothes. A surprisingly elegant gown of light gold colour rested loosely across his square shoulders, neckline of ribboned silk dropping low down his chest, short sleeves leaving toned forearms bare. He can’t have been wearing anything too warm in this weather. Probably, behind the obstructing wood of the table, his legs were bare too.

Laurent said, “Am I? And here I got you to my room.”

Damen, halfway through brandishing his offending book, froze like the pastry.

There was a click of wood against stone as Laurent pushed back his chair and stood, walking out around the table. His legs weren’t bare, the gown ended at the thigh but gave way to thin, loose pants of the same colour. Damen was surprised. Not disappointed.

As Laurent made his way closer he said, “Have you read it?”

Damen swallowed. “Yes,” he replied firmly, though a little less firmly than he’d intended. “When I was a child.”

There was a small smudge of powdered sugar on the left side of Laurent’s bottom lip. “My mother used to read it to me,” he said. His gaze moved to the book cover, silver lining etched into firm leather. “My favourite story was The Shepherd-Boy’s Shovel.”

The softness in those words pushed troublesomely on Damen’s annoyance, the exasperation that he was attempting to hold onto. He found himself replying, “I remember that one.”

Laurent’s lips curved, a smile that was directed at the Tales from Past the Mountains and not at Damen. “Did you have a favourite?”

Hesitation paused Damen’s tongue a moment before he admitted, “Not really. I didn’t really think about them very much, I just read them because my tutor gave them to me.” Then, grasping once more at his purpose for being here, he pressed, “You should stop with the gifts.”

“Ah.” Blue eyes twitched over to find his again. “Not suitably impressive for you?”

“Not at all.”

Laurent hummed, turning and striding for his abandoned breakfast. He was facing away from Damen when he said, “You’re a crown prince.” It was in the same tone of quiet musing as on that night, when he’d been beside Damen’s bed with sapphires in his ear. “You spend a lot of time surrounded by impressive things. Things of the highest quality, things of the greatest beauty. And people too. ” He cast back a look, half over his shoulder, and finished, “It takes something different, doesn’t it, to make a real impression with you.”

Damen felt it stir in his gut, that creeping feeling of Prince Laurent easing something out from beneath his feet. Not harshly, just inexorably.

“I know what you think of me,” Laurent was going on. “Ornamental, ridiculous. But not unformidable. You’ll do me enough credit to acknowledge that.”

Like a jewel-laden dagger still sharp enough to use. The dress of a courtesan for a prince, who could wear it perfectly. A weapon that used trickery and deception, and for which it was all the more impossible to dismiss as a threat.

Damen was aware he’d let his frozen silence drag out for too long. He was having trouble coming to a decision on how to break it.

Then, Laurent looked down. His gaze only fell from Damen’s for a moment before catching once more, but the tension loosened like the release of a bowstring. He made a gesture toward the plate he’d glanced at, and his tone fell to casual. “Have you eaten?” he asked. And then followed, “Not quite the way I was hoping to have you here for breakfast, but I do have enough to share.”

That, there, suited him well. The teasing light in his eyes. No vulgar insinuation, never that, just a little sparkle of promise.

Damen shook his head sharply like a cat throwing off water. “No. Yes. I should go.” He bent his arm, the one carrying the book, making to hold it out but then stalling. He ought to give it back, return the gift, like he should have with the others. But the silver of the cover glinted in the morning light, it really was exquisite. The spine was smooth, still waiting to be opened.

Laurent spun and crossed the room again in a few brief strides, lifting his hand to rest over the book, gently pushing it back toward Damen. Their fingertips brushed.

“Keep it,” he said in a quiet voice. “Give it another read. You may be surprised how a tale sounds to you now.” His lips tweaked with the hint of a wry smile. “Especially with talks starting, you may soon be grateful for a childish respite.”

It took a moment, but Damen nodded. “I will see you at the talks.” The words were said half into an open doorframe as he turned. 

He left with the book.

 

 

Damen managed to not get lost on the way back to his rooms, despite the preoccupation of his mind. By the time he reached his own door his thoughts were at least a little bit clearer, away from the commotion that was the other Prince’s company. It didn’t matter, he decided finally, none of it did. Because this was not a real courtship, and Damen was not accepting any suit. It changed nothing.

When he opened the door to see a blonde head seated at his couch, his first disconcerted thought was to wonder how Laurent could possibly have managed to beat him here. But, of course, he hadn’t.

“You were out early,” Jokaste said in greeting.

Damen beamed. “Jokaste.”

She stood to meet him as he strode towards her, taking her into his arms in a fluid embrace. Her perfume was familiar, like the press of her body, her hair fine against his cheek. It was she who pulled back after a second, reaching down toward the book still clutched in his hand.

“What’s this?”

“Nothing,” Damen replied. He stretched his arm without looking and set it cover-down on the couch.

Still close enough he felt the warm puff of breath against his cheek, Jokaste exhaled a little laugh. “Oh,” she said, a weight on that syllable. “I see.”

Damen sighed, loosening his arms and taking a step away. He should have been giving more thought to how he would handle the moment Jokaste found out, as it was rather inevitable she would eventually. But he hadn’t realised until just recently how severe the gossip already was.

“I’m not sure what you’ve heard,” he began.

She arched a graceful eyebrow. “I heard,” she said, “that I have a rival.”

She didn’t look unhappy, thankfully. Still, Damen shook his head.

“He’s not.”

A hint of amusement crossed her expression. “Oh but he is. That’s how it works isn’t it?” She dropped a hand, running three fingertips over the expensive leather of the book’s binding. “May the best of us claim your heart.”

He could deny it again, insist, remind her of his promises, but no. This point he’d yet to bring her around to. While she’d accepted his devotion graciously, it was still not a thing she’d deigned to truly define between them. There were no promises, not really. Just his loyalty given as any other gift she may at the end of it all decide not to keep.

Without waiting for a reply, she leant in and pulled Damen into another kiss, mouth parting to his. He hummed and savoured it, the taste of her lips and the demand of her tongue, the smoothness of a woman’s chin free from the stubbled growth of a beard. He’d seen barely anything of her since their arrival, aside from one short exchange they’d had in the gardens. She’d been with the noblewoman Vannes and her Vaskian pet, and it had occurred briefly to Damen then to wonder if Jokaste was partaking in the pleasures of the court in the way he wasn’t. There wasn’t anyone else in Ios, he was fairly sure, not while she stood tall under her status as the Crown Prince’s favourite, but this was not Ios. After the gardens, there had only been glimpses in passing.

When they broke apart this time, her expression was haughty and her smile was thin. Let him try, it said. And that confidence that she’d win when he did, whether it was genuine or not, Damen couldn’t be sure. She’d never let herself show anything else.

He grinned again, more softly. “Do you…” he trailed off as he sent a wandering hand down toward the hem of her dress. But even as she shook her head regretfully, he knew this was hardly the time.

“I’d better not linger too long,” she said, laying a hand on his chest and nudging him away. “Wouldn’t do to have someone notice me spending time alone in your rooms, and have it be said how perverse the Prince of Akielos is.”

Damen groaned, closing his eyes. When he opened them again it was to a sardonic quirk of Jokaste’s pink lips. “But really,” she said again, a touch more heavily. “Especially with treaty renewal due to be done. We shouldn’t give them any reason to raise difficulty.”

The amusement faded from between them into something more serious. Damen replied, “Yes. Of course.”

“Remember what we’re here for, Damen. Underneath all the frills.” Her gaze was steady.

“Of course,” he repeated, and ducked in for one last kiss.