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Non, je ne regrette rien

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Prince Laurent of Vere is a second son, the spare child, and he knows it. His family loves him, or rather, his mother and brother love him, and his father is fond of him as an idea. He thinks of his son more as an aid to Auguste’s eventual rule than as someone to love. Laurent is okay with that. His mother goes riding with him, and Auguste dotes on him (even though he’s turned eighteen now and is thus really too old to be doted on), and he has privileges in this world that most people can only dream of.

He also has duties.

“Will you talk to father?” Laurent asks.

“Laurent,” Auguste says, regretfully. “He is our king, and his mind is made up. This alliance will be good for both countries.”

Laurent looks out the window of his chambers, so that he won’t have to look at his brother. “So you agree with his plan then? That I should be sold like chattel.”

“We are Princes,” Auguste replies, calmly. Patiently. “I suspect father will find a match for me any day now as well. It is our duty to do what is best for the people.”

“Father hates me,” Laurent says. “He’s only doing this to punish me for what I did.”

“He’s not. He loves you. The timing is odd, I’ll admit. And you can’t blame him for finding it hard to talk to you after…”

“I can blame him and I will.” Laurent turns back around to face his older brother, one of the only people in this world that he has ever loved, and is resolved. “I will do as father asks of me,” Laurent says. “And when you are King, I will fake my death and come back to Arles and you can hide me away in the library.”

Auguste laughs. “Okay,” he says. “If that happens, I’ll give you refuge.”

-

Laurent has always been something of a planner. He has a natural talent for figuring people out - their lives, their motives, their future actions. He’s been using this skill to help his brother for years, and it has never failed him, except - once. And now he must pay the price for his mistake. His father has decided he wants to be rid of Laurent, and he blames Laurent for the added power Akielos has over them, and he fears being invaded by the Akielons, and so he has found a solution for all of these issues.

Delfeur is being handed over to become an Akielon territory - and Laurent is being handed over to cement the alliance fully. He is to marry an Akielon barbarian and spend a lifetime as the convenient toy of a brute.

To rub salt on the wound, the Akielons decide Delfeur is the perfect place for this uncouth sham of a union, and so Laurent travels with his family - and a few Veretian nobles who are keen to see the beginning of the end of Laurent’s happiness -  and they arrive in Delfeur in their best clothes and make nice with the enemy royals.

King Theomedes leans in towards his own son, Crown Prince Damianos, and murmurs, “At least he’s not ugly,” and Laurent realises that Theomedes has witnessed Aleron’s lack of proficiency in Akielon and figured that goes for the rest of the family.

Laurent was a curious child and had all the best tutors. He was speaking four languages before his voice had broken. He decides here and now that this underestimation is an advantage - he will pretend not to speak Akielon and then no one will watch their words around him. Perhaps he will learn things to report back to Auguste. It comes with the extra bonus that he will have a reason to avoid talking to his new husband.

Damianos does not deny his father’s words but he does give Laurent a shockingly wide smile and say, in almost perfect Veretian, “It is a pleasure to meet you, Laurent. We will be like family soon. Can we take a walk?”

“I can hardly refuse,” Laurent replies, crisply.

Damianos leads the way through the gardens and it feels like an insult to be taken through what was, until recently, Veretian territory by a foreign conqueror’s son.

“The weather is warmer here than in Vere, I’ve heard,” Damianos says. “Perhaps you will enjoy it.”

He’s trying to befriend him, Laurent realises. He doesn’t know why the oaf bothers. “I prefer the cold,” Laurent replies. “I am too pale for too much sun.”

“Ah,” Damianos says, awkwardly. “Well, there are lots of lakes, and the ocean is nearby for you to cool down in.”

“I don’t swim.”

“You’ll learn,” Damianos says. “And the people in the marketplace make some very nice hats.”

Laurent sighs, looks away. “Yes, okay. You’ve been very welcoming. You can report back to your father than I’m now overjoyed to be leaving behind everything I know to be permanently bound to a stranger. Water and hats; if only I’d known earlier.”

“A stranger,” Damianos repeats. “I can imagine that bothers you. I’d like to fix that a little, before the wedding tomorrow.”

Laurent says nothing.

“You’re very beautiful,” Damen bursts out with, as if he can’t control himself. And then he clears his throat and takes a step back. “That is, to say, that any man would be happy to wed you.”

“Until I open my mouth, I’m sure,” Laurent drawls.

The foreign prince leads Laurent down another pathway and then the space opens up into a training ground. Two men are practising there: one about Damianos’ age - so, in his early twenties - and the other perhaps seventeen.

They notice Damianos, who gestures the older one over. He is tall, almost the same behemoth height of his crown prince, and muscled. His hair, which is dark just like the rest of him, is pulled back in a long pony tail that almost reaches the small of his back. He smiles when he seems Damianos, and then his eyes stray to Laurent and the expression becomes neutral at best.

“Nikandros,” Damianos greets the man when he reaches them. “This is the Prince Laurent of Vere.”

Nikandros nods sharply at Laurent.

“Laurent,” Damianos continues, smiling dimples into existence. “This is the new Kyros of Delpha, Nikandros. He is a good man, a close friend of mine, and your future husband.”

-

Aleron puts a hand on Laurent’s shoulder, hard enough that Laurent can really feel it, and looks down at him. “Some time away will do you good,” he says, as if marriage is temporary and not a permanent life commitment. Laurent has little doubt that his father does not intend for him to set foot in Arles ever again. “Be amenable to your husband. Do not give them any cause to resent us.”

Wonderful advice, Laurent thinks sarcastically, as if he hadn’t already known what his role would be here. “Yes father,” he says, because there is never any point in arguing with Aleron.

Aleron drops his hand and nods. That is all the fatherly advice he seems inclined to give.

-

Auguste is too much the golden son to say anything against their father, but Laurent knows that he isn’t pleased with Laurent’s nuptials. Auguste purposely sits further down the table than his rank insists, so that he can be next to Laurent and make sure his wine cup is never empty.

“Drink,” Auguste insists, quietly enough that Nikandros cannot hear him from Laurent’s other side. “I spoke to some pets and they say it’s better if you’re relaxed.” As if reminding Laurent of his impending consummation is going to help in relaxing him.

Not that Auguste is in any place to be giving advice, when his position allows him to never have to be fucked like Laurent is going to be. Laurent drinks his wine.

“It is getting late,” Aleron says further down the table, an offhand comment. “When do we prepare for the consummation?”

Crown Prince Damianos, who appears to be the best at speaking Veretian (even with an awful accent), asks for clarification. Auguste leans forward in his seat, attention caught.

“Do you not have a public consummation here?” Auguste asks.

Damianos’ horrified expression is answer enough to that. He is a terrible diplomat. “Public? No!”

Nikandros may not be able to understand the conversation, but he has clearly noticed the way Damianos is reacting.

“What is it?” he asks.

Damianos explains.

Nikandros is silent for a very long moment. Then he says, “I’d prefer not to, if the King wills it. The honour of my word should be good enough, without the need for us turning this into any more of a spectacle.”

Damianos turns to his own father, who nods, and then back to Aleron to explain that a public consummation is unnecessary. Laurent can feel his heart hammering away in his chest. Perhaps the Akielons and their odd culture are good for something. Laurent can sense the tension leaving Auguste when their father agrees.

It is a small consolation, but nonetheless one that Laurent’s pride is grateful for. He may be getting fucked by a barbarian tonight, but at least it won’t be in front of a dozen witnesses. Laurent takes another long sip of his wine.

Eventually it seems to be decided that it is time for the newly weds to retire together. Nikandros rises from his seat and silently offers Laurent his hand. Laurent takes it because he must, and hand holding is hardly where he should make his limits. Perhaps he will be able to do enough to satisfy his husband, and then they won’t have to do everything . Not that he really knows what to expect when it comes to the bedchambers. He wouldn’t be entirely surprised if his beast of a husband pushed him to his hands and knees and simply mounted him.

Nikandros’ hand is large and strong in his, and he walks silently with Laurent through the halls of the fort. Nikandros hasn’t said anything directly to Laurent at all yet, their original meeting having mostly consisted of Nikandros showing displeasure in Laurent’s apparent inability to speak Akielon.

It isn’t long before they are both stepping into the quarters. The sound of the door closing behind them almost makes Laurent jump. Nikandros drops his hand and steps away, but Laurent can’t bring it to himself to look up or move from where he has frozen, just in front of the door. He wonders how far he could get if he runs, he wonders what the punishment will be when he gets caught. It’s hard to know, now that he no longer belongs to his family, but to a stranger. A Prince, the property of a lowly Kyros. It is shameful enough as it is.

Something is held in front of Laurent’s vision. A cup of wine, a rich red colour. Laurent takes it, and finally looks up. Nikandros has his own drink, and he turns away from Laurent and goes to the chaise in the sitting room to drink it.

Laurent watches him. Nikandros gestures for Laurent to join him, so he does. Laurent thinks maybe he could keep refilling his husband’s cup until he passes out from the drink, but it seems unlikely a newlywed would prefer sating his thirst over sating his lust. Perhaps Laurent should be the one who passes out from the wine. He’s a little dizzy from it, as is.

They sit together for a long moment, before Nikandros sighs, clearly frustrated. “You truly speak no Akielon?” he asks.

Laurent blinks at him. He’s already committed to this ruse, and he doubts tonight will be any easier with Laurent speaking his mind.

Nikandros frowns and keeps drinking. He makes no attempts to touch Laurent, but merely rests back against the couch and looks straight ahead. Eventually there is a light knock at the door, and then it is opening before either of them can say anything and in walks Damianos.

The Crown Prince grins when he sees them awkwardly on the couch, at least a foot between them. “You look like a virgin,” Damen tells his friend, sounding amused.

“His hand was trembling in mine the whole time we walked here,” Nikandros says, getting up to pour a glass of wine for his Prince. “Can you please make use of your education and tell the boy I’m not going to ravish him?”

Damianos looks at Laurent. “He’s not going to ravish you,” he says, in dry Veretian.

Nikandros hands his prince some wine. “A public consummation,” Nikandros scoffs. “And they call us barbarians.”

“Yes, I’m sure all this couch sitting would truly scandalise, were there witnesses.”

Nikandros laughs. Laurent continues to pretend he has no idea what’s going on. Damianos sits up on the arm of the chaise, on the opposite side to Laurent, so that he is right next to Nikandros. He looks over at Laurent curiously.

“Are you enjoying married life so far, Laurent?” he asks.

“If my husband has no further use of me tonight,” Laurent replies, “I’d like to go to sleep.”

Damianos looks down at his friend. “You’ve bored him,” he says. “He wants to sleep.”

Nikandros waves a hand, dismissive. That’s permission enough for Laurent, and he ducks into the bedroom. He can hear the discussion continue on between the two friends.

“I was hoping for something a little more interesting,” Damianos is saying, “when you asked me to your quarters tonight.”

Laurent closes the door.

-

Before Auguste leaves back to Arles, he pulls Laurent into a lengthy hug. “Take heart, brother,” Auguste says. “I will work on convincing father to forgive you.”

“He has married me to off to some green Kyros, and banished me to this backwater fort.” That isn’t strictly true, Delfeur is a valuable section of land, but Laurent knows his father doesn’t intend for him to see it like that. “He will never forgive me.”

“He might,” Auguste insists. “Surely he has a plan. He hates Akielos as much as we do.”

It takes a lot for Laurent not to respond that perhaps their father just hates Laurent the same amount as he does Akielos.

Next, the Akielon royals return to their own capital and Laurent is left alone in the fort with his new husband. It becomes quickly clear that Nikandros doesn’t have much interest in Laurent at all, and Laurent begins to wonder whether the man is only interested in women, in the same way that Laurent is only interested in men. Perhaps this truly will be nothing more than a political marriage.

After a week of being left to his own devices, his husband finds him in the library, with another man in tow.

“Hello, Laurent,” the man says in Veretian. “I am Aktis. I grew up on the border, so I know some Veretian, and Kyros Nikandros has asked me to teach you Akielon.”

Laurent scowls. “I am a prince,” he replies, “My education warrants more than some inbred soldier whose only qualification is that he can bumble along in the slums of my language.”

Aktis shrugs and translates to Nikandros. He ends with “Your husband is a bitch, Kyros.”

Nikandros frowns. “Tell him I spoke to his brother, Prince Auguste, and he did nothing but praise Laurent’s intellect. Surely with his prince’s education, he has the wit to learn Akielon from a local soldier, who has better things to do than be insulted by a Veretian whelp.”

Aktis translates and Laurent sits back in his seat. He has never been spoken to like this before, excluding the case of his father. “I am a prince,” Laurent repeats. “Should my Kyros husband not be the one learning my language, in deference to my status?”

“I am also learning Veretian,” is Nikandros’ reply. “Half the fort speaks it. But you are Akielon now and if you ever want to travel outside this province, you should be able to speak to the men you meet. The choice is yours, Prince Laurent. I will not coddle you.” And then he leaves, as suddenly as he arrived.

-

Laurent goes into town the next day by himself, and meets a man at an inn. The man is completely unsuitable - a mercenary with ambiguous lineage, and a crass tongue, but he knows Akielon and Veretian. He’s stopping by here while on the run from his three lovers one town over, who just found out about each other. “Two were sisters,” Lazar tells him, shrugging and sipping his beer.

Uptight Nikandros is going to hate him. “Would you like a job?” Laurent asks. “My husband thinks I need a tutor - it’s all just a ruse really - and I’m sure he would love to pay you to sit around and pretend to teach me Akielon.”

“Can I drink?” Lazar asks.

“You can do what you want,” Laurent replies.

-

Nikandros gave Laurent his own quarters, so it is entirely possible for Laurent to go until dinner without seeing his husband if he sleeps in enough. They shared the bed on their wedding night, except Nikandros had come in after Laurent had fallen asleep, and Laurent had left before Nikandros had woken, so that hadn’t really counted for much.

Nikandros is displeased with Laurent’s choice of tutor, but he allows it. Laurent isn’t sure why he enjoys needling at Nikandros whenever he gets the chance, except that the only thing worse than being forcibly married to someone of a much lower rank, is being forcibly married to someone who is boring.

Laurent thinks it might be fun to annoy Nikandros into snapping - you can never quite tell the measure of a man until you’ve seen him truly angry.

Lazar is a good tutor in that he teaches Laurent a series of swear words in various languages, drinks a lot, and spends his free time trying to seduce various soldiers.

-

Laurent doesn’t have much to do during the days, as his husband sets him no tasks or duties. He spends a lot of time reading, and walking about the town, and faking language lessons, and then he eventually decides that even though his father took Laurent’s horse back to Arles - another act of spite - he should still be allowed to ride.

He goes to the stables and picks the horse that he knows is Nikandros’ favourite, sending the stable hand away so that he can saddle the creature himself.

Laurent doesn’t go far, but he stays out for a long time, because it feels good to pretend that he is riding back in Arles, perhaps leaving Auguste in the dust as usual. Riding is the only time he has ever really felt free. Horses are easy to love, and they are without hidden motives. Laurent sometimes wonders if the creatures feel like he does - someone who is meant to be wild,being forcibly tamed.

Nikandros is standing by the stables when Laurent returns, his long hair messily bundled at the back of his head. Laurent is beginning to suspect that Akielos hasn’t invented braiding yet. Nikandros gestures him over and Laurent wonders if he’ll be reprimanded for stealing his husband’s horse and disappearing. He wonders if Nikandros considered that Laurent might have run away.

“You ride… well,” is all that Nikandros ends up saying, in awkwardly halting Veretian.

Laurent watches him. It seems sincere. “Thank you,” he replies, in Akielon.

Nikandros nods and walks away.

-

He buys Laurent a horse.

“Technically,” Lazar translates uselessly for Nikandros, “It is a wedding gift from Prince Damianos. He didn’t know what to give you and so he left the choice up to Nikandros.”

“What did he get you, then?” Laurent asks his husband, pretending to trip over the Akielon.

“He said I deserved no gift,” Nikandros says, smiling wryly as he is translated, “as I was already getting a prize in you. You, on the other hand, apparently deserved some form of compensation.”

Laurent laughs. The horse is beautiful, a wonderful gift fit for a Prince, and Laurent allows himself to be openly happy about this one thing. Maybe he should be somewhat nicer to his husband.

-

He challenges Nikandros to a wager. They will study the other’s language for another month, and whoever is better by the end of it wins an unspecified favour from the other. It takes quite a bit of goading on Laurent’s part, as Nikandros is an honourable man and thus feels it more keenly to promise something like this.

When the month ends, Laurent wins. Of course he does.

“You sound like you’ve been speaking Akielon all your life.”

“Only since I was eight,” Laurent replies.

Nikandros frowns.

“Come now,” Laurent says, “It is easier to know what someone thinks of you if they also think you can’t understand them. I wanted to see who you were for myself.”

“I am someone who is displeased when people pretend to be what they are not.”

“Yes, that’s all very noble,” Laurent sighs, “but how was I to know that you weren’t going to brutalise me? I needed some kind of upper hand in case you turned out a beast.”

“Then I should be happy you’ve chosen to reveal yourself now?”

“I could have just kept pretending to slowly get better at the language.”

“Instead,” Nikandros says, still looking quite upset. “You engineered a wager so that I’d owe you something when I inevitably lost. How very Veretian.”

“I wasn’t being malicious,” Laurent insists. “I was just…” He doesn’t know what to say. He was in a situation where he had no control over himself and he wanted some modicum of power back. A ruse so that he could pretend at least a part of a - frankly terrifying- situation was his own doing.

Nikandros clenches his jaw, looking intense, and then the tension leaves his body, and he sighs. “No,” he says. “It’s irritating that we could have been talking for all this time, but it’s done now. I can’t get mad at you for behaving like a Veretian when that’s what you are.”

“That started off nice and then got worse the more you spoke,” Laurent replies.

“I just mean,” Nikandros says, “we’ve both been brought up in very different ways. Our cultures will probably clash a lot in this union. We’re going to have different values. It’s good that we can talk about it now.”

Laurent shrugs, feeling a little off balance. “Okay,” he says.

“What was the favour you were going to ask for?” Nikandros asks.

“Well obviously you don’t owe it to me now.”

Nikandros makes an impatient gesture for Laurent to go on.

“I was going to ask to be more involved in Delfeur’s politics. I find it tedious to have no duties here.”

Nikandros looks at Laurent incredulously, then he shakes his head and laughs softly. “Prince Laurent,” he says, “of course I intend for you to be involved. I just didn’t know how to make that happen when you couldn’t speak my language.”

“Ah,” Laurent says. Oops.

-

Makedon is the owner of Akielos’ largest private army. He is famous for being a bloodthirsty, warmonger in Vere, and Laurent has grown up with a sense of dislike for the man. It stands to reason, of course, that he is also a friend of Nikandros.

He arrives one evening, with absolutely no notice, and apparently has permission to go where he likes, as he appears while Nikandros and Laurent are about to sit down to dinner.

“Makedon!” Nikandros says, sounding pleased.

“I missed your wedding,” Makedon replies, and gruffly pushes a bottle of some kind of liquor into Nikandros’ hands. “Sicyon was having an issue with bandits and so I had to deal with that. I hear your husband is a pretty idiot.”

“Well,” Laurent drawls, from his place at the table. “At least people are saying I’m pretty.”

“Oh,” Makedon says. “He speaks the language! You’ve tamed him already.”

Nikandros shakes his head. “I haven’t even tried. I’d have more luck taming a feral cat.”

“Ha ha,” Makedon laughs and pats Nikandros on the shoulder with enough force that he has to take a step forward. “I’m staying for dinner.”

“Did you tell the servants that on your way in?”

Makedon sits down. “Of course.”

They are served their food and Makedon is a lively guest. He tells them a very colourful story on the aforementioned bandits that he had to deal with, and makes them all toast several times. Laurent hates it.

“Try some griva,” Makedon urges Nikandros, gesturing to the bottle he’d gifted him with. “It’s a wedding gift.”

“Would you like some, Laurent?” Nikandros says. “It’s about as flammable as you are.”

Laurent shrugs, and so Nikandros pours him and Makedon a small cup each.

“And one for yourself, Nik,” Makedon says.

“I’d sooner drink piss,” Nikandros says.

“Oh,” Laurent replies, sweetly. “I didn’t know you were into that. I might be able to oblige.”

“Ha ha!” Makedon says. “You have your options now!”

Nikandros smiles wryly, pouring himself a cup of griva. They drink.

Laurent coughs, and then swears violently in Veretian. Apparently curses were in Nikandros’ language lessons, as he laughs.

“You should have chosen piss,” Laurent says, grimacing. Drinking griva feels worse than he imagines eating glass would. It is absolutely horrible.

Nikandros pats his back sympathetically, an automatic gesture. It almost makes Laurent feel nice. “Makedon offered to train me, after I finished my service at the Kingsmeet,” Nikandros explains. “And we took care of some Vaskian raiders together, except more managed to get to our supplies the next night, and they took all of our food and water, and all we had left was a jug of griva that Makedon had fallen asleep clutching.”

Nikandros looks happy like this, comfortable in his new home, with his husband and his friend telling stories. His hair is out, loosely spilling across his shoulders in thick dark waves, and Laurent thinks he looks nice like this. He’s actually quite beautiful.

“Ha ha,” Makedon hits the table in a show of mirth. “He was younger than you are now, and he had to drink nothing but griva for two days until we found a stream. He was falling over drunk by the time we got to it.”

Nikandros cuts in, “And then we got to the stream and he pulled out a flask, and I asked what was in it and he said- ‘it’s water. Why did you want some?’.”

“I just wanted to see you lose that stupid serious look you always have on your face,” Makedon booms, laughing. “I thought some drink would help.”

“I didn’t think of that,” Laurent says, “Perhaps I should start getting you drunk, Nikandros.”

“Not now that I’ll suspect it,” Nikandros says. He has an arm casually across the back of Laurent’s chair and Laurent doesn’t know if it’s more noticeable for him to lean against it or not.

Laurent smiles. “You’re right. I’ll think of something worse.” And then he laughs when his husband groans dramatically.

-

He learns some things about Nikandros.

He is not an unhappy person, despite his typically serious countenance. He is a man of action, and when problems arise, he seems intent on solving them immediately. Laurent likes that. The people of Delfeur - no, it’s Delpha now - come to Nikandros with their problems and he listens intently and then solves it without complaint.

Nikandros sees Laurent watching these proceedings from the sidelines, and after that he starts asking Laurent his opinions on different things. It turns out that for governing Delpha, it is useful to have both a Veretian and an Akielon there to fully understand what’s going on.

Somewhere along the way, it appears, Nikandros also has noticed what foods Laurent does and doesn’t like at the dinner table, and now it is common to go an entire meal where Laurent is happy to eat everything presented to him. It happens so subtly, that Laurent almost misses it. This is the strangest revelation of all - Nikandros is noticing him, and silently trying to make his life easier.

Nikandros is also, the people seem to think, very attractive. Laurent supposes he can see it - in his broad shoulders and dark eyelashes, in his wry smile and voluminous hair. But there’s also something else about him. Laurent watches his husband carefully in the courtyard one morning, practicing swords with a few of the soldiers.

He is a great swordsman, but what is more noticeable is the way some of the soldiers look at him, swaying towards him rather than away from his blade. Laurent frowns as he watches Nikandros help a boy adjust his stance.

“You are very lucky, yes?”

Laurent looks beside him. “Ah, Pallas,” Laurent greets him. “What can I do for you?”

Pallas is one of the few Akielons that Laurent actually likes. He is maybe a year younger than Laurent and about a foot taller than him. Laurent once saw him tell off one of the older soldiers for saying some very unflattering things about Laurent. Pallas had been less offended about what the soldier had been saying, and more upset that Laurent didn’t understand the language enough to defend himself. It had been sweet.

“I see you admiring the Kyros,” Pallas says. He had laughed and called Laurent sneaky when he’d revealed that he actually can speak Akielon. “He is very handsome, and kind. You are lucky.”

“I suppose,” Laurent says, frowning.

-

Laurent looks up when Nikandros enters the stables. It is dusk, and Laurent has just finished a long ride out through the nearby woods. He only came in once the sky got dark enough for it to be unsafe to continue on.

“Ah,” Nikandros says, looking pleased. “I thought I might find you here.”

Laurent is in the middle of brushing his horse down, but he stops to give Nikandros his full attention. Laurent smiles. “You were looking for me?” He doesn’t know why the idea of that makes him happy; except it is unusual for Nikandros to seek him out.

Nikandros looks strangely at Laurent for a moment, and then he says, as if shocked: “Your hair looks nice.”

“Thank you,” Laurent says. “In Vere, we’ve invented these devices called combs and they’re very useful.”

Nikandros laughs and rolls his eyes. “Yes, okay. Will you come inside with me?”

Laurent says goodbye to his horse and follows.

“I could teach you how to do it,” Laurent says, walking alongside his husband.

“Do what?” Nikandros asks.

“Braids. In your hair. It’ll put it out of your way when you duel.”

“Sure,” Nikandros says. He opens the door and let’s Laurent pass through first. “I’d like for us to spend more time together.”

“Oh,” Laurent says, pleased.

Nikandros clears his throat. “I actually called you in because a letter arrived for you.”

That is enough to get Laurent’s heart racing. He hasn’t heard from any of his family since his wedding months ago, and he’s been fairly sure that that is because of his father. But maybe a letter has gotten through, or Auguste figured out his weren’t getting sent and found someone else or-

Nikandros hands him the paper.

It’s a letter, from the King of Vere. Laurent looks at the wax seal for a long moment before he retreats into his room to read it by the candle light. He should deal with this alone, he has no idea what his father might have to say, and he doesn’t want Nikandros to get a glimpse of the shameful distaste his father has in him.

My son, the letter begins, I hope you are well. Laurent scoffs and reads on.

I am sure the Akielon heat is doing you good; I remember you were often sick during winter as a child. You should write more often, your mother longs for updates of your life. She wants to know that you are getting along well with your new husband. Your happiness is very important to us, and we hope to see you again soon.

His father was never very good at letters; and there is no world in which he would write casually just to check up on his son. Laurent looks at the words again. He can see the subtext - his father has never been particularly good at obscuring his meanings. This letter is a promise. His father has a plan, and if Laurent ever wants to come home and see his mother again, he has to make sure his new husband is happy with him.

Carefully, Laurent touches the edge of the paper to the candle and watches it burn down until the flames threaten to lick at his fingers, and he drops it into a cup of water.

The worst thing is that he had already been doing what his father wanted, before he was told to do it. He has been getting along with Nikandros, and learning to… find a certain fondness for the man and his stoic nature. But the idea that this is something that he is to do for his country doesn’t sit right. Laurent thinks about locking himself inside his rooms until Nikandros gets tired of being chivalrous and friendly, and finds some lover to turn Laurent aside for. Then he thinks of his mother’s smiling face, and the way Auguste ruffles his hair, and-

It is no choice, really. And is it actually such an awful request? With Nikandros’ favour, and his father’s debt to him, perhaps Laurent can manipulate a trip to Arles for them, or invite Auguste to come to Delfeur. Nikandros may even be happier to feel like he has the affection of his own husband.

-

Laurent knocks on Nikandros’ door, and then opens it. His husband is in the sitting room, looking over papers. He looks tired. “Can I come in?” Laurent asks.

“Of course,” Nikandros says, and he moves some papers aside so that Laurent can sit on the couch beside him. “Is everything alright?”

“Yes,” Laurent says. “I just wanted the company. You’re working very late.”

Nikandros hums in agreement. “Sometimes there seems to be more problems than solutions in this province.”

Laurent carefully takes the document he is holding out of his hands and sets it on the table with the rest. “Perhaps clear eyes tomorrow will find the solution.”

Nikandros sighs and leans back in his seat, head resting against the backrest, eyes closed. Laurent thinks that when they first met, Nikandros would have never imagined letting his guard down in front of him like this. They truly have grown a semblance of camaraderie.

“I noticed the letter was from your father,” Nikandros says. “Is everything alright?”

He’s either fishing for information or noticed how unusual it is for Laurent to get correspondence. “Everything is fine,” Laurent says, and then he softens his voice so that it is vulnerable. “ Everyone is fine without me. I don’t know what I expected.”

Nikandros opens his eyes to look at Laurent. “Are you alright?”

Laurent turns his head away. “Yes,” he says.

He can feel the movement of the couch, Nikandros leaning towards him, attentive to the melancholy in his voice. This feels manipulative, dirty.

“Laurent,” Nikandros says. “I might be able to arrange a visit for you, if you think it won’t upset your father. It’s not unusual for spouses to visit their families after the wedding.”

Nikandros is a good person. It is very awful that Laurent is being forced to stay in the presence of someone who is good. Laurent is not good: he is a manipulator with hidden agendas. “My father would be displeased. He sent me away; he is happier without me.”

“I am sorry,” Nikandros says.

Laurent looks at him. His expression is concerned, his body language focused entirely on Laurent. “Do I displease you?” Laurent asks in a burst.

Nikandros sits back slightly. “What?” he says, and then controls himself. “No. You are lovely. If you sense displeasure, it is only in our situation.”

“Of course,” Laurent replies. “I know I am difficult to find affection for.”

“No,” Nikandros says again. His brow is furrowed. He is frustrated at Laurent misunderstanding him. “You’re not. What I meant, was that I don’t like that we’ve been forced into this marriage. That we couldn’t choose it. I do like you.”

Laurent kisses him. It is quick, just pressure between mouths. Nikandros pulls back and looks at him.

“You want this?” Nikandros asks, disbelieving.

“Yes,” Laurent says. He looks him in the eyes and tries to project a confidence he doesn’t feel. “You are my husband. I want us to be happy.”

Nikandros is the one who kisses him, this time.

-

Nikandros gestures at the oil and then himself. “Do you want to or should I?”

Laurent pauses. “Oh,” he says. “I assumed you’d want to fuck me.”

Nikandros’ brow furrows. “But you are a Prince.”

Laurent looks at him. “Do you people dictate your bedding positions based on your court positions?”

“It’s proper,” Nikandros says. “This is not the kind of cultural differences I expected.”

“Fuck proper,” Laurent replies, “and fuck me properly.”

-

Laurent’s mind is like an interlocking series of chains, thoughts running in every direction and sometimes bundling together and knotting. Nikandros’ mind, Laurent thinks, is more like a storage room full of carefully labelled crates. Almost everything Nikandros does is orderly and planned.

He wakes up early, Laurent learns this now that they share a bed most nights. He trains and works out in the mornings, when dawn has barely broken, then he bathes, then he returns to his rooms to eat breakfast and read over any mail or documents relevant to his day. Next, Nikandros will typically head in to the town, where he’ll check with the military men if they have any issues, and then the town hall to do the same with the common people. He normally eats lunch in town, in an inn where he can be available for any one else to come to him with queries.

Afternoons are set aside for one of three things: either pouring over documents and missives, solving whatever problems the people have brought him for the day, or going for rides on his horse. Laurent doesn’t know where he goes when he takes the third option, as he hasn’t offered to join him yet.

The evenings, Nikandros has taken to setting aside completely for Laurent. Over dinner, he will inquire about Laurent’s day and his plans for the next day. He’ll ask if there’s anything Laurent wants that can be provided. Laurent tries very hard not to feel like another issue in the list; like the soldiers and the townspeople. It’s just how Nikandros’ mind works.

After dinner, they typically retire together. Sometimes to read in companionable silence, or for Nikandros to pick Laurent’s brain for solutions that he hasn’t thought of. And sometimes, they’ll go to bed together and have sex. This is quickly turning into Laurent’s favourite option.

During sex, it turns out, is the only time that Laurent finds himself able to give up the full control he has on his body and mind. It is the only time when he can let himself be at the whim of someone else, and Nikandros is as attentive in bed as he is in his daily life.

-

“There is something I don’t understand,” Nikandros says one evening, while Laurent is still trying to catch his breath. His husband has quite the amount of stamina.

“I dare say,” Laurent replies, “there are quite a few things you don’t understand.”

“Cheeky,” Nikandros replies, lightly slapping Laurent’s bare thigh in retaliation.

“Mmm,” Laurent murmurs. “I’d prefer it if the hitting came before we fucked rather than after, husband.”

Nikandros gives Laurent a look, the kind of look that says he’s committing that sentence to memory so he can act on it later. Laurent finds it hard to ask for things in bed, but Nikandros seems to understand that - and so when Laurent makes half jokes like this, he takes them at face value. It works for them.

“I don’t understand why your father let you marry me,” Nikandros says.

Laurent frowns. “My father decided that war wasn’t worth the cost to our people, and we made an alliance.”

“Well yes,” Nikandros says. “But your father fought us so much on other things in the negotiations, and then when it came to the subject of your marriage, he accepted the first offer King Theomedes gave. Aleron could have negotiated to wed you to Kastor, at least.”

“You aren’t such a bad offer. Give yourself a little credit.”

“I’m a new kyros with barely any political standing,” Nikandros replies. “You’re the Prince of Vere.”

“I’m so glad that you’re aware that you married up. It’s hardly bedtime conversation though.”

“Really, Laurent, what was your father thinking? It concerns me to think there could be something I’m not seeing; that my feelings for you are blinding me.”

Laurent likes to think that he is not so soft that the mention of feelings affects him, but… “My father doesn’t care for me. He and I have different opinions on a lot of things, and we clashed a lot. Then I- This is very vague isn’t?”

“You don’t have to tell me,” Nikandros says, “if it troubles you.”

“I did something that upset my father,” Laurent says, quickly. “And now he hates me. He gave me to you partly because he wanted to hurt me, and partly because he wanted rid of me.” And partly because he wants Laurent to have Nikandros’ regard for some reason, but Laurent can’t admit that.

“Do you regret what you did?”

Laurent breathes. “No,” he says, finally.

Nikandros is quiet for a moment, then in a much more bearable tone, he asks, “Would you like to come with me to Ios next month? Theomedes-Exalted is hosting a tournament.”

If Nikandros had asked even a month ago, Laurent would have said no. As it is, he has no desire to immerse himself in the Akielon culture. But. The Akielons have been nothing but respectful to him, and he’s gotten used to sharing a bed at night. “Okay,” Laurent replies. “Let’s go to Ios.”

-

Ios, the Akielon capital, is gorgeous. White cliffs surrounded by crashing waves, the tall white buildings, the children running about teeming with joy and laughter. Laurent feels almost as if he has ridden into a dream.

“Husband,” Laurent says, catching up with his horse.

Nikandros looks at him.

“Let’s leave the horses with the others and walk.” By the others, he means Pallas, Aktis, and a handful of other soldiers coming in from the tournament. Nikandros seems pleased by Laurent’s obvious delight at the sight of Ios, and so he agrees.

“You look happy,” Nikandros says, as they move along side by side.

Laurent stops at one of the stalls they pass in the street, a women selling flowers. “Turn around,” Laurent directs Nikandros, and then he slides a ridiculous amount of flowers into the messy attempt of a braid that Nik’s hair is in. This is the kind of thing that Laurent used to see young lovers do in Arles. That’s what Laurent is meant to be like.

Nik laughs when he realises what Laurent is doing. “You can’t see it but I’m swooning like a maiden.”

“I’m just trying to cover up how awful your braiding is. I’m embarrassed to be associated with you.”

Nikandros laughs and turns back around so that he can put a hand around Laurent’s waist and pull him in. “Please,” he scoffs, “All the men here are jealous of your fine husband.” This is possibly true, but Laurent knows he means it in jest, as Nik very rarely seriously compliments himself.

“Well, you probably deserve a turn at admiration,” Laurent replies, “as I am sure every person in our inn last night was admiring me after they heard all the sounds I got you to make after dark.”

“Laurent!” Nikandros says, quickly paying the market stall owner and pulling him away, so as not to scandalise her any further.

Laurent, not to be swayed, tips his head back and, in a parody of a throaty moan, gasps, “Yes, yes, ah, right there.”

“Laurent,” Nikandros repeats a little more urgently. “In public!”

Laurent turns to him. “We can do it in public if you want, Nik. How adventurous.”

Nikandros laughs, a wonderful sound, and it fills Laurent with an odd sense of gratitude, that after all the ways this relationship could have gone wrong, and in all the ways his marriage isn’t perfect - he has at least been given a husband who laughs with him.

Laurent can’t help it; he kisses him. Nik allows it for a glorious moment before pulling back. “In public,” he reminds him, smiling softly.

“Cultural differences,” Laurent says. “We should compromise.”

“Your offer?”

“Only closed mouth kisses. In Arles we’d be considered prudes.”

Nikandros nods. “Deal,” he says.

Laurent kisses him to seal it, and then gives Nik a grin. “You should know better than to make deals with Veretians.”

“Hmm?”

“You didn’t specify where I could kiss you,” Laurent tells him. And then he has his hands on his husband’s waist and he’s kissing across his jawline and then down his neck, while Nikandros laughs.

“I should have locked you up at Marlas,” Nikandros says, “for the good of the public.” He gets a hand in Laurent’s hair and tugs his head back.

“Harder,” Laurent instructs, because he knows how to rile his husband up.

“Careful,” Nikandros says, “or I’ll have to find an inn or a stable or a room somewhere, so I can lock us in and-”

“Nikandros!” says a newcomer.

Nikandros immediately lets go of Laurent and takes a step back, so he can turn to their interruption. “Damianos,” he greets, smiling.

Crown Prince Damianos of Akielos is just as tall and bronze and dimpled as he was when Laurent met him. Between his dark skin, red cape, and golden pin, he looks like the sun personified. Damianos comes towards them so that he can pull Nik into a hug. He is somehow even taller than Nikandros. Laurent is cursed to be surrounded by giants.

The Prince pulls away and turns to Laurent. “Prince Laurent,” he says. “You are looking well.”

“Well enough to explore the capital,” Laurent replies. He feels odd suddenly, but he doesn’t understand the cause. “Nik was just telling me about all the inns and stables you have here.”

“So I heard,” Damianos replies, in a voice that tells Laurent that he heard a little more than just that.

“I thought we’d meet you in the hall,” Nikandros says.

“I got impatient,” Damianos replies, with a boyish smile. “And I missed you. But I see now that you have better things to do than miss me in return.”

“Of course I missed you,” Nik says. Akielons always disparage Vere and it’s eroticisms, but it’s these kinds of open displays of emotion that make Laurent want to look away. Isn’t a pat on the shoulder enough of a reunion?

“I can verify that,” Laurent says. “He carried around a locket with some of your hair inside at all times, so he could gaze upon it when the longing got particularly soulful.”

Damianos laughs. ”I can already tell that it’s going to be a delight getting to know you better these coming days, Prince Laurent. Shall we continue on to the palace together?”

-

Prince Damianos, it seems, is the kind of man who has a lot of admirers and companions, but very few close friends. Laurent notices this in the way the man seems to attach himself to Nikandros from the moment they arrive at the palace.

Damianos follows them into their rooms and, as Nik looks completely unsurprised and comfortable about this, Laurent chooses not to comment. He remembers Nik spending their wedding night with Damianos rather than him, and realises he probably should have expected this.

“Tell me about what I’ve missed,” Damianos says, sitting next to Nik on the lounge in their sitting room and throwing an arm around his shoulders.

Laurent sits down primly on an adjoining chair and tries hard to look like he’s comfortable. The rooms they’ve been given consist of the sitting room and two lavish bedrooms to either side. He’s unsure if it’s a sign of their joint status as a couple or the assumption that they’d prefer to sleep apart. It’s a fair assumption to make, Laurent knows rationally, as the last time Damianos saw them they were at least a meter apart at all times. Still, Laurent feels off kilter.

He feels even more odd, at the companionable way that Nik is laughing. It’s less jealousy and more an awareness that he has only known his husband for a couple of months, and there hasn’t been a chance for someone else to take up his attention like this until now.

“And what about you, Prince Laurent?” Damianos asks, turning to address him. (So he is aware that Laurent’s still in the room, after all).

“What about me?” Laurent asks, trying to look like he finds the conversation tedious rather than that he has been so caught up in his thoughts that he hasn’t been listening.

“How is Delpha?”

“Ask Nikandros. It’s more like Vere than Akielos,” Laurent says, just to annoy him.

Nikandros sits up suddenly, alight with an idea. “Where’s Kastor?”

Damianos looks perplexed. “Why?”

“I want Laurent to meet him.” Nik actually looks excited at the prospect.

“The bastard prince?” Laurent asks.

“Yes!” Nikandros grins. “Say it exactly like that when you meet him.”

Damianos tries to push Nikandros off the couch, and for a moment they look like two overgrown pups play-fighting. Then Damianos succeeds and Nikandros is on the ground and laughing.

“Kastor is in Vask,” Damianos says, looking down at his friend. “You’ll have to find another time to torture him.”

Nik is still smiling, unrepentant. “You must at least admit that he is going to hate Laurent.”

“Excuse you,” Laurent cuts in, mock offended. “I am a delight. All my nurses told me so, as a child. No one hates me.”

“I believe that,” Damianos says, earnestly.

Laurent must look bewildered, because Nikandros laughs again. “Damen,” he says, chastisingly. “Laurent is Veretian. If you are too honest or kind, he doesn’t know how to handle it.”

Damianos smiles, still looking at Laurent. “Then I will endeavour to tell him every kind thought, so he can get used to it.”

“And in return, I’ll tell you every criticism I have of you,” Laurent says, “so that you can get a thicker skin.”

“Tell me one now,” Damianos instructs him.

“You’re too…” Laurent pauses. Racks his brain. “…tall.”

Nikandros laughs at that.

“Nikandros told me that I bought you a horse,” Damianos says. “We should all go for a ride.”

“The orchard?” Nik suggests, still looking perfectly comfortable sitting on the floor before Damianos.

“Do you like oranges, Laurent? Or plums?”

“I like fruit,” Laurent admits.

“Wonderful!” Damianos stands, and gives Nik a hand up off the floor. Then, bizarrely, he offers Laurent his hand. Laurent blinks, and then takes it, letting Damianos help him up too. “Let’s go.”

Laurent wonders, feeling an odd fluttering in his chest, how the people deal with having someone so euphorically energetic as their future monarch.

-

They go wandering through the orchard, Damianos and Nik mostly chatting about mutual acquaintances, while Laurent takes the opportunity to enjoy the fresh air and warm sunshine. Eventually, he stops eavesdropping and just takes to trying to find the ripest fruit to try.

“Laurent, come look!” Nikandros calls, his voice casual enough that Laurent is immediately suspicious. “Your cousin is here.”

Laurent approaches. His husband is pointing to a snake that is wrapped around one of the branches of an orange tree.

“What a coincidence,” Laurent drawls. “I saw one of your ex-lover’s grazing in a paddock earlier.”

“It’s venomous,” Damianos cautions them. “Look at it.”

“You should move it somewhere,” Nik tells Laurent. “You’re immune to the venom, right?”

“You must be too, then,” Laurent says, “with the amount of times you’ve swallowed my-”

“Laurent!” Nik hisses.

“-venom,” Laurent finishes anyway.

Damianos is giving them both a considering look. He opens his mouth to speak but seems to change his mind. His jaw clenches with a determined look. Damianos rolls his shoulders back, then pulls out a small knife from a sheath on his thigh that has apparently been there this whole time. There’s something striking about the way the prince considers the snake. Then it takes one easy flick of his wrist, and the snake has been hit, pinned to the tree.

Laurent takes a step back, startled. It is a formidable hit - the creature is dead. It’s astounding the amount of control and strength that Damianos clearly has in his body.

“There,” Damianos says, pleased. “Now let’s find something to eat.”

Nikandros shrugs and pulls himself up onto the branch of another tree, as if Damianos throwing knives with impeccable accuracy is barely worth commenting on. All of this sun is making Laurent feel a little faint.

“What if they are more snakes?” he asks.

“Can’t you sense them?” Nik fires back, already reaching up to pluck a bright orange.

“Should I duel him for you?” Damianos asks Laurent, smiling.

“I’d rather you helped me get that orange there.” He points.

Damen squints against the sun in his eyes. “The one at the very top of the tree?”

“I’m a difficult man to please,” Laurent replies.

It’s only when Damianos gives him a suggestive look that Laurent hears the flirtation in his own words.

“I do enjoy a challenge,” Damianos responds. And then he, too, is climbing up into the tree.

-

Nikandros is a terrible husband, and so a few days later he gets caught up with some kind of meeting with Theomedes and the other Kyros, thus leaving Laurent to his own devices and without the attention he deserves.

“I can have one of the servants show you the library,” Nikandros offers, apologetically.

“I’ll show you around, Laurent,” Damianos says. “If you wouldn’t mind?”

Laurent is tempted to decline, except Damianos has been good company these past few days, and Laurent is eager to see more of Ios. “Alright,” Laurent says. And then Damianos turns to Nik, as if to gain his permission as well.

Nik is giving Damen a searching look. “If that’s what Laurent wants,” he says finally.

“Just us then,” Damianos says, after Nik has made his exit.

Those words shouldn’t inspire nerves in Laurent, and yet he’s suddenly very self aware. “It looks like it,” he says awkwardly.

“Do you want to go for a ride?” Damen asks. “I want to show you the cliffs.”

-

The white cliffs of Ios are like nothing Laurent has ever seen before. It is a long way to the ocean from Arles, and Laurent had never been particularly interested in going as a child, when all the important things tended to happen in the capital anyway. Here, after they leave their horses to graze and walk out towards the ocean, Laurent realises that he has been missing something wonderful.

Damianos stands on the edge of the cliff, closes his eyes, and breathes the salty air into his lungs. He is smiling; he looks peacefully happy. The midday sun gives his skin a glow to it that makes him look both like an untouchable beauty, and also someone that needs to be touched to be believed.

“Isn’t it wonderful?” Damianos asks, after his eyes are open again.

“Yes,” Laurent replies honestly.

Damianos steps very close to the edge and looks down. “How high do you think we are?” he asks.

Laurent follows his lead, taking small steps to the edge and cursing his riding boots - that are heeled for stirrups and not precarious cliffs. Looking at the drop, he feels a little dizzy. “Too high,” Laurent says, and the crown prince laughs.

Damianos unpins the top of his chiton, baring his chest, and then reaches for the one at his waist.

“What are you doing?” Laurent says, voice a little louder than intended.

Damianos gives him a smile at his reaction. “I promised I’d teach you how to swim last time we met.”

“You’re taking your clothes off.”

Damianos gives him an amused look. “You’ll have a hard time swimming if you insist on staying fully laced.”

Cultural differences, Laurent thinks, compromise. “Can we take our clothes off closer to the shore at least?”

Damianos laughs. “We can just jump into the water from here.” And then he gestures to the massive fucking cliff face they’re on. The Crown Prince of Akielos is insane. Good to know.

“Absolutely not,” Laurent says.

“Are you scared?”

“Yes!” Laurent replies. “I’m not going to go drown myself just because you goad me into it.”

“I’m jumping in too,” Damianos replies. “I won’t let you drown.”

Laurent looks down again, and then takes a few steps back. “No, thank you.”

Damianos turns to him and then moves in very close. There’s something very earnest in the way that he takes Laurent’s hands and ducks his head so that they are eye to eye. (There is also something very distracting in being this close to the man’s bare chest). “I promise you, the feeling you get from diving off the cliffs is incomparable to anything else. You can’t come to Ios without trying it. And I won’t let any harm come to you.”

Laurent’s heart is beating very fast. “Alright,” he says, before he really thinks about it.

Damianos’ grin is like the sunshine warming them. Laurent’s cheeks must be very flushed by now. “Really?”

“Yes, fine.” He pulls his hands out of Damianos’ and then leans down to take off his boots. When he is flat-footed on the ground, he pauses. “I might need… assistance with my jacket,” he admits. “It laces at the back.”

“Oh,” Damianos says, softly, “Yes.”

He is a prince, and a future king, and yet he doesn’t hesitate to step behind Laurent and take a hold of his laces like a servant. Laurent closes his eyes. Damianos takes his time, gently pulling and stopping to check on what he’s doing every now and then.

“These are very complicated,” Damianos says, still working at it. “They suit you.”

“Because I am also complicated?”

Damianos laughs quietly. “You’re lovely,” he says. “I like you. Even when you are spitting fire. Complicated is a word for it, I suppose, but I think it is more that you are very different to everyone I have ever known.”

Laurent takes a moment before he can speak. “Is that bad?”

“It is very-” Damianos tugs at the laces at Laurent’s waist with a little more force than expected, and Laurent takes an unsteady step back “-good.”

Then he is pushing the jacket off of Laurent’s shoulders and Laurent takes it as his cue to move away from Damianos. He watches the Akielon when he pulls off his undershirt, and sees him looking back. Laurent gets a very bizarre desire to step close to him again. “Get a move on,” Laurent says instead, and the moment ends.

When they are fully undressed, they step back to get a running jump. Damianos takes his hand again. He is very warm.

“Remember to take a breath before you hit the water,” Damianos says.

“Yes, thank you, I think I could figure that one out on my own.”

Damianos laughs, and then he says “Ready?” and his grip tightens. There is no time to answer or think, until they have already jumped from the cliff. Laurent gets a split second moment of regret when he is mid-air, the fear of doing something reckless, but it is exhilarating as the joy of impulsiveness usually is.

Laurent almost forgets to breathe, but he manages to gasp in some air before he is submerged in the shockingly cold water. The ocean is full of salt, and it burns his eyes to much to open them, and he doesn’t know which way is up. The panic almost sets in but then there are arms around his, pulling him up. They break to the surface together.

Laurent gasps. His heart is pounding, and his blood is rushing, and he is probably digging crescents into Damianos’ shoulders with his iron grip on them. And then, unexpectedly, he is laughing. His chest feels like it might explode with the giddy terror of something he has never felt before. When he opens his eyes, Damianos is silently staring at him, hands on Laurent’s waist, and his mouth slightly open as if shocked.

“You are laughing,” he says.

“I could have died!” Laurent breathes, ecstatic. “Let’s do it again.”

-

“What is your relationship with Nik like?” Damianos asks, after they have jumped several more times and while they sit on the grass to wait for the sun to dry them off.

Laurent shrugs. “It is like a marriage,” he says, finally.

“He looks at you a lot.”

“You told me yourself that I am nice to look at.”

Damianos smiles at him. “You are,” he says. “You will be even more of a spectacle if you spend anymore time in the sun.”

Laurent takes that as his cue to get up and start retrieving his clothes. As odd as it is to be outside and naked, Damianos has a quality to him that makes it easy to forget oneself. As if his confidence can wear off upon someone who stands close enough to it. Auguste has a similar quality, he thinks.

“Am I red?” Laurent asks, pulling on his pants. Damianos gives him a long look, enough to make Laurent certain that he is red now at least.

“A little pink cheeked.”

Laurent puts a hand up to his cheek automatically.

“That’s not where I was talking about.” Damianos is grinning at him so Laurent throws the jacket in his hands at the man. It hits Damianos in the face. “Thank you, but I don’t think it will fit me.”

“Make yourself useful,” Laurent says. Putting his undershirt on ruffles his already messy hair. “And assist me.”

Damianos, surprisingly (or perhaps not), complies. He helps Laurent shrug into the jacket and then brushes his hair over one shoulder so that he can stand behind Laurent and start lacing. Laurent realises suddenly that he has miscalculated. Damen is still undressed, and close enough that Laurent can feel the heat emanating from his body.

When he gets to the top, his fingers brush against Laurent’s neck softly, whispers of touch. It feels like an automatic reaction to let himself fall into the gesture, and then unthinkingly he’s resting his weight against Damianos’ chest. Laurent closes his eyes, because somehow that seems easier than moving away as he should. His heart is beating rapidly, or perhaps that is Damianos’ heartbeat pushing against Laurent’s back from how closely pressed they are. Damianos’ hands have dropped to hold his hips. They both stay like that for a very long moment, just breathing.

It has been a matter of days since arriving in Ios, and yet Laurent would be a fool not to realise that he is very attracted to Damianos. He is wonderfully handsome, more handsome even than fairytale Princes - but like a God of old times. He is strong, and good-hearted, and it is so very easy to be drawn to him. Laurent imagines that Damianos has more suitors than he knows what to do with. And then he imagines what Damianos might actually do with said suitors.

Laurent tips his head back against Damianos’ shoulder. He very selfishly wants to be kissed right in this moment, he thinks, and then a second later there is the gentlest caress of lips against his neck. Laurent shudders.

He has never been the kind of person to succumb to his own desires, and yet right now he wants to be. Nikandros has been Laurent’s only proper experience in matters of the flesh, and yet his mind is on anything but his husband right now. Even with his eyes closed, Laurent is very aware that it is the Crown Prince of Akielos who is putting hands (and lips) on him.

Damianos is setting off all the nerves in Laurent’s neck. It is such a soft touch - unlike anything that Laurent has ever felt - that he can’t help but sigh. The hitch in his own breath is what sends Laurent back into reality, in the end. He jumps away from Damianos suddenly, alarmed.

“That is inappropriate,” he says, voice breathless.

What is he doing? As much as he wants to let Damen undress him again, and lie him down on the grass and fuck him right here next to the ocean - it would be catastrophic to do so. What would Nikandros say? Or his father? Or the people of Vere? It is enough that he has been forced to marry an Akielon. If his own country hears that he is a barbarian fucking whore, it will be even harder to go back and see his brother and mother again. What is he doing?

“Alright,” Damen says, sounding a little unsteady. Laurent is grateful that he doesn’t argue or bring up that Laurent was clearly very into what they were just doing. And then he is annoyed with himself for being grateful at basic common decency.

“We should return to the palace.” He pulls on his heeled riding boots with haste, and is then mounting his horse before Damen has even finished fixing the pin in his chiton.

“Laurent,” Damen says. He looks as if he will continue speaking.

“I’ll race you,” Laurent strikes preemptively. He does not want to hear whatever Damen is planning to say. He digs his heels in, and his horse sets off.

-

It’s just a crush, Laurent tells himself. A fluttering attraction that can be reasoned away. Obviously, Laurent has had very little experience to romance, and now that he’s let that door open for his husband, his treacherous body is acknowledging other possible…avenues. Or something. Laurent doesn’t have the relationship experience to properly rationalise the way he can’t stop thinking about Damianos. Sometimes he is so busy thinking of the man, it keeps him from sleeping.

Laurent doesn’t know whether he should broach the topic with Nikandros. Nik hadn’t seemed suspicious at all when they had returned from the cliffs, and had only ordered a servant to get some plant for Laurent’s sunburn.

Two nights later, they lie in bed together, and once again Laurent can’t sleep because his mind is reminding him of the way Damianos had smiled over breakfast that morning. Damianos, who has not made any further romantic advances towards Laurent since the cliffs. Which is good. Laurent is glad for that. He is.

“Nikandros,” Laurent says, softly and half hoping his husband is already asleep.

“Yes?” Nik says, eyes still closed.

“How many people have you fucked?”

One eye opens to peer at him. “Is this what constitutes a bedroom story in Vere?”

“That depends on how good a story it is.”

Nikandros laughs, and rolls so that he can throw an arm around Laurent’s middle. “Including you,” Nikandros says, “Three.”

He’s surprised by that number. It was Laurent’s preconception that Akielons were constantly rutting away at each other. “Hmm.”

“What?”

“That’s a low number,” Laurent says. “You’re very beautiful, and I know from experience that you’re not defective.”

Nikandros laughs again. “What about you?”

Laurent snorts. Nik finally picks up his head and looks at Laurent properly. “Oh, you were serious?”

“Yes,” Nik says.

Laurent knows he pauses for too long here, but it’s embarrassing to admit now that he knows it wasn’t obvious. “One person.”

Nikandros is silent. Then he opens his mouth, and in a rather shocked voice says, “You have a natural talent.”

Later, Nikandros speaks again. “You were right to be surprised; I am probably in a minority with the number of lovers I have had,” he says. “I’m not sure how to explain it, except that I don’t know how to be attracted to strangers. Just, every now and then I will look at someone I’ve spoken with a thousand times and I suddenly want them. Feelings have to be involved, I think. Damen found it quite peculiar when I spoke to him of it once.”

It’s an unintended reminder that Damianos and Nikandros are very close friends, and Laurent once again resolves himself to never speak of what happened at the cliff to his husband.

“Arles has odd power dynamics,” Laurent says. “By the time I was old enough to want something, I was too aware that as a prince, no one could actually refuse me. And Auguste made it clear to all of the men in court that they weren’t to touch me without my enthusiastic consent. I suppose I never found an opportunity that sat right with me before our wedding.” Late nights are odd in the way they sometimes make it easier to say things you’d never say in the light.

“Well,” Nikandros replies, in that careful voice that lets Laurent know he’s about to be a bitch. “We don’t think much of you in this country, so at least that’s not a problem here.”

-

The tournament, when it finally begins, is largely boring in that it is just a group of athletic men and women showing off and adding to their egos. Auguste would enjoy this, Laurent thinks, and then he made a mental note to see if he can somehow get his brother invited to the next one. He misses his family very dearly.

There’s running, dueling, javelins, arrows, and every other event one can think of. Damianos and Nik are both competing in events and passionately excited about watching others, so Laurent spends most of the tournament alone as he still can’t even look at Damianos without feeling phantom caresses. He doesn’t need to see him excel in sports too. Laurent wanders around and talks to a few people, takes note of any one particularly skilled in case Akielos ever goes to war with Vere and he needs to better his home Kingdom’s odds.

On the second day, Laurent is reclining with a group of Akielon women - the wives of Kyros and men competing - in order to learn as much gossip as possible, when all of the women seems to perk up at something and start to stand.

“What is it?” Laurent asks, frowning.

“The wrestling is starting,” one of them replies in a pointed voice. “It is only right that we cheer them on.”

So Laurent joins them as a spectator for the event. He understands the interest when they arrive to the first bouts, and realises that the men wrestle naked here. Laurent turns back around and finds a servant, who is carrying wine.

Laurent sips his wine slowly and affects a nonchalant disposition while he watches the matches go on, as if he were merely birdwatching. Eventually the Veretian ambassador spots Laurent and makes his way over to converse with him. Laurent gets distracted enough asking about information on what’s happening at home that he manages to ignore the foreplay masquerading as sport for a time.

Then people start cheering, louder than they were before and Laurent looks over just in time to promptly choke on his wine.

“Are you alright?” the ambassador asks, handing Laurent a handkerchief.

“Excuse me,” Laurent replies. “I should support my husband.”

For that is Nikandros, standing proud and naked and covered in oil. Laurent feels a surge of disbelief that his husband blushes when Laurent kisses him in public but apparently finds no issue with this little display. And then his opponent enters the ring and-

Laurent has seen Damianos unclothed before, he tells himself. This shouldn’t be a big deal. Laurent clutches at a fencepost, the barrier to the ring, and tries to resist the urge to climb over it.

Damianos and Nikandros don’t seem truly competitive about this. They are both grinning at each other, and then Damianos says something that makes Nik laugh, and the referee has to call on them to focus. They both get into what must be their starting positions, still smiling. Laurent’s heart is in his throat.

The match starts.

Vere is a culture that is open with most of it’s eroticisms and sexual sports. Laurent remembers when he was deemed old enough to come to the after-dinner variety of court events and witnessing wandering hands and mouths, and propositions from the braver of the pets. Still, here Laurent stands, in broad daylight, watching sports and it is possibly the most sensual thing he has ever seen.

Nik and Damianos grapple, and grab at each other, hands slipping against their oiled bodies. At first, the match seems to be a game to them both, a repetition of moves that they have extensively practiced against each other. Then things turn more serious. Damianos knocks Nikandros to the ground and Nik pulls him down with him. He tries to pin Damianos but the Prince flips them so that he is on top. This imagery is going to be burned permanently into Laurent’s brain.

Eventually, Damianos has Nikandros pinned to the ground, hands forced against the dirt by his head. Nik makes a valiant effort to knock him off balance, but he is restrained so well that he can barely writhe. Laurent has to force himself to keep breathing. They are a picture of beauty like this, a display of masculinity and strength but there is also something softer about it. Nikandros concedes defeat and he is smiling. Damianos helps him up and they embrace.

Laurent feels like he’s going to die if he doesn’t do something about this.

Laurent barely waits for Nikandros to pin up his chiton before he’s at his side.

“Husband,” Laurent says, feeling urgent. “Is there a break now?”

Nik gives him a curious look, amused by the clutch Laurent has on his bicep. “Yes,” he says. “We have some time before the next event.”

Laurent nods, and then takes his husband’s hand and pulls him towards the halls. Damianos watches them go with an interested look on his face, but Laurent finds it difficult to meet his eyes in this moment so he just keeps dragging his husband away. Nikandros bears with this until they’re in a quiet part of the palace. “Is everything alright?”

Laurent retaliates by shoving him against a wall and kissing him. Nikandros kisses back, and Laurent pushes their bodies as close together as possible. Chest to chest, and it’s still not close enough.

“Laurent,” Nikandros says against his mouth in an attempted protest. It doesn’t have much credibility as he’s also currently grabbing Laurent’s ass. Maybe naked wrestling gets him a bit hot and bothered too.

“Shhh,” Laurent replies, and then licks into his mouth, hot and dirty. He can feel Nik’s resolve weakening - or perhaps it wasn’t there much in the first place. His hand slips up, under Laurent’s jacket, and then Laurent can feel him untucking the back of his shirt so that he can access the uncovered skin of Laurent’s lower back.

Laurent moves to kiss his husband’s neck, but it turns out to be a mistake to free his mouth.

“Laurent,” he moans, like it’s hurting him to argue against this. “Not here.”

“This is the compromise,” Laurent replies. “In Arles we would have started fucking while you were still naked and covered in oil.”

That’s meant to be a winning argument, except Nikandros one-ups him. “You’re right,” he says. “We need oil. That’s in our rooms.”

“Fuck.” Laurent pulls away.

“Oh,” Nik says, in that same pained way. “You’re a mess.”

Laurent can imagine what he’s seeing. His hair must be everywhere, pupils wide and shirt untucked, almost painfully hard in his constricting Veretian trousers. Out in the open like this, down a hall where anyone could walk by. That must make it even more illicit to Nikandros. His husband looking like a wanton whore.

“Let’s hurry,” Laurent says, “or I might actually be able to find someone who will fuck me here.”

They only pass a couple of servants on their way to their rooms, hand in hand and walking more than briskly. Laurent wonders whether the servants will gossip; whether that gossip will spread all the way to the Crown Prince, and he will be forced to imagine Laurent getting undressed in the halls and pressing up against Nikandros.

Laurent is unlacing his jacket even before Nikandros has closed the door.

“I didn’t think you’d get this excited over seeing me lose,” Nik says, leaning back against the door so that he can watch Laurent undress.

“Please,” Laurent replies. “The true winner was everyone who got to watch that performance.”

“I think you’re the only one who saw it like that .”

“I find it hard to believe whoever invented the sport of getting rubbed with oil and embracing while naked made it with entirely pure thoughts.” He pulls off his jacket and drops it carelessly on the floor. The undershirt follows immediately afterwards. “Take of your chiton.”

Nikandros does as instructed, and takes off his shoes as well. Then after another moment they are both naked and facing each other. Laurent feels like if he doesn’t get touched right now, he could die, the desperation is so palpable. He almost considers just pushing Nik against the door and rutting against him like an animal. The Veretian slut who gets hot watching his husband roll around in the dirt with another man. The image of thick, bronze thighs sliding together flashes in Laurent’s mind and he almost moans.

“Show me the moves you did out there,” Laurent says, suddenly.

He can see Nikandros’ surprise at Laurent outright asking for what he wants, and then the way Nikandros nods slightly when he decides to accept it. Laurent doesn’t know what to expect when Nik stalks towards him, and he can feel his heart racing in his chest.

Nikandros picks him up, as if he weighs nothing - and he probably does, after the solid muscle of Damianos - and then he walks over to the bed and tosses Laurent on it. Laurent barely has enough time to turn onto his back before Nik is on him, pinning him down.

“Is this what you want?” Nik asks.

Laurent tries to buck his hips up, but it is fruitless with two knees digging into his upper thighs. “Fuck me,” he whines.

Nik gets off of him to grab the pot of oil and he tosses it onto the bed. Laurent spreads his legs, but Nik grabs him by the hips and flips him, so that he is face down, and then bodily drags him down the bed until he is kneeling against it. Nik is on top of him then, and Laurent closes his eyes, pushing his ass against his husband.

Nikandros shoves back, almost forcefully. Laurent’s breath catches in his throat. He can feel his husband’s arousal touching him. And then Nik pulls back slightly and there’s an oiled finger pressing into him, opening him up. Laurent can feel his fingers clench in the sheets.

Like this, on his stomach and with his eyes closed, Laurent can think of the wrestling match. There was a move quite like this, Damianos on top of Nikandros and pushing him down into the dirt. And now Laurent’s mind flashes, and he is the one being pressed into the dirt, with – with Damianos against him. Laurent gasps.

He feels his hips jerk forward, searching for some kind of contact - any kind of contact - against the bed. He has no idea how many fingers are pushing into him right now and he doesn’t care. “Fuck me,” he demands. “Now.”

There is a moment, after Nikandros has removed his fingers and before he lines up his cock, that is full of blissful anticipation. And then his husband is pushing in, and Laurent’s eyelashes are fluttering against his cheeks. He squeezes his eyes closed, and lets Nikandros, hands grasping onto his hips, manhandle them into a rhythm.

It’s Nikandros, Laurent knows. It’s Nikandros, Nikandros. It’s Damianos . He thinks he might tear the sheets in his hands. He imagines short curls, brushing against his shoulders while Damianos - no, Damen kisses down his back. It is Damen inside him, pistoning his hips - and Laurent has seen him naked, today and when they swam, and he knows the man is exceptionally proportioned but Laurent thinks he could take it. He could be so good.

Nikandros clutches a fistful of Laurent’s hair and pulls his head back. Laurent moans. He’s normally a lot quieter than this during sex, but right now he feels unhinged. He doesn’t understand how Nik is keeping such a relentlessly steady pace while Laurent feels so wild. The way his head is being pulled up off the bed creates a delicious tension on his neck and that brings another image to mind. “Nik,” Laurent mewls, no need for pride when he feels this good. “Nik, please - there was a– move.”

Nikandros makes a particularly well aimed thrust and Laurent groans. “Yes?” Nik prompts, sounding both smug and a little short of breath.

Laurent can’t mince words here, because he can barely speak. “Choke-hold,” Laurent manages.

Nikandros is a wonderful husband, and Laurent is going to have to reward him later, because he immediately catches on. He wraps an arm around Laurents neck, his chin resting in the inner joint of Nik’s elbow, and then he tightens his hold.

Damen had done this to Nikandros earlier today - wrapped an arm around his neck and pushed him down until he’d surrendered. Laurent doesn’t surrender. He likes it, it isn’t enough to cut off his breathing but enough to make him feel entirely covered, a more pleasurable version of being trapped. He feels it viscerally; Damen’s heavy weight across his back, grunting like he had when he’d hit the hard-packed dirt, arm wrapped around Laurent’s throat, taking him.

Laurent comes and it is a surprise. He feels himself clench and then his partner is coming inside him as well, and he pulls his arm away from Laurent’s throat just in time for Laurent’s mouth to open, unbidden, and out slips the name: “ Damianos .”

It takes Laurent a good twenty seconds before he realises what he has done, and in the time, Nikandros has pulled out of him and dropped to sit on the ground, leaning against the bed with his head dropped back on the mattress. Laurent pushes himself up silently and kneels beside him, facing him.

This is horribly awkward, Laurent thinks. He is struck with the desperate thought that maybe Nikandros didn’t hear him. Or maybe he just won’t say anything about the fact that Laurent was clearly fantasizing about someone else while they fucked. Nikandros turns his head and looks at Laurent for one long, painful moment.

And then he starts laughing, breathlessly. “Come here,” he says, pulling Laurent into his lap and planting a kiss on his shocked mouth. “You look so guilty, I don’t have the heart to torture you.”

Laurent feels himself make a petulant little ‘hmph’ noise. “Don’t laugh,” he tells his husband, and even to his own ears it sounds whiny.

Nikandros kisses the top of his head, where his hair must be sweaty and gross. “Laurent,” Nik says. He looks like he’s about to say more but there’s a knock at the door.

“Kyros?” comes Pallas’ hesitant voice. Pallas has learnt to just stand outside their closed door and talk, rather than try to come in. “The archery is about to start.”

“We’ll be right there,” Nik calls back, and he’s already standing up to get dressed.

-

INTERLUDE.

Nikandros first falls in love when he is sixteen, to a boy a few months his junior who has a sunny smile and open heart. It should be a blessing, to find his heart’s match so young, and with someone so true. Except.

Except Nikandros is in love with his prince, his future king, and there are some things in this world that cannot be. He accepts this when he realises the depth of his love for Damianos, and he moves on, except - there is no such thing as moving on from someone like Damen.

Damianos’ open heart is both a blessing and a curse. He is young and adventurous and he makes bedsport with just about anyone who catches his eye. This, on some occasions, includes Nikandros. But, Damen’s eyes always stray. He is too full of life and love, and he never seems to consider his dalliances with Nik as something that could be more… permanent.

That’s fine with Nikandros. It really is - he accepted his place long ago. And now he is married to someone who is beautiful and intelligent and really everything beyond his wildest dreams. Laurent is an unexpected wonder and Nikandros can be more than content with him. Except.

Damen smiles, and takes another sip of wine. They are on the chaise in his sitting room after dinner, sharing drinks and stories, and Nikandros takes every smile like a stab to his pining heart. Sometimes, when they are not near each other, Nik can ignore the longing. Close and alone like this, it is torture.

“It is good to see you again,” Damen says. “You look happier now than you did on your wedding night.”

Nikandros is tempted to say something forward: I’m happier in your presence , he thinks. It has been so long since he’s been with Damen, and he can feel the lack of contact on his skin. But, it would be doing Laurent a disservice. “I’ll admit my marriage isn’t quite the disaster I’d feared.”

“You like him, then?” Damen asks, and then softly, as if it’s a secret: “He is very beautiful.”

“He is,” Nik agrees. “And I like him.”

Damen looks pleased at that. “It gives me comfort, to think of you both happy together.”

Nikandros smiles but it feels bittersweet. It feels awful to be talking about how lovely Laurent is while his head is all caught up in feelings for Damen. “It isn’t comfortable for me,” Nik says, “Laurent is always coming up with ideas .”

Damen gives him a considering look. “So you are… with him ?”

Damen has never been concerned about Nik’s lovers before. Dare to hope. “Yes,” Nikandros replies, watching his Prince’s reactions carefully. “I didn’t expect him to be open to an intimate marriage, but he- well, he’s very sweet.”

“Is he?” Damen asks.

Ah, Nikandros thinks. This isn’t jealousy that Damen is feeling but interest. He doesn’t normally like talking about his sexual encounters - it feels like something best kept private - but all he can think about is how much he wants to kiss Damen again and feel his broad hands.

“Do you want me to tell you about it?” Nikandros asks, slowly as he watches Damen’s face. “Do you want to know what it is like when we are together?”

“Yes,” Damen says, simply, his body is turned towards Nikandros, on the chaise. They are very close.

Nikandros has never been much for words when it comes to sex, but he wants to do this - he wants to make Damen react to his voice, wants to watch him get turned on. He doesn’t know how to make his words sensual, but he lowers his voice and thinks of Laurent saying straightforward things like “I want you to fuck me” and how that works for him better than any poetry ever did.

“He came to me after he saw our wrestling match,” Nikandros says. He puts a hand on Damen’s thigh, at the edge of where fabric meets skin. “I don’t think he’s seen men interact like that before. He took off his clothing and asked me to show him some of the holds.”

“Did you?” Damen asks.

“Yes,” Nikandros replies.

Damen kisses him, once, and then he pulls back so that their lips are only on the cusp of touching. Nikandros wonders which one is doing the seducing here. “We went to the bed, because it would be softer - he bruises as easily as a peach - and I showed him” –Nik kneels on the couch, and puts his hands on Damen like he did in the match, like he did to Laurent earlier. The images run into each other in his head, Damen to Laurent and back to Damen.

He thinks, maybe Laurent wouldn’t appreciate him sharing this, and then he thinks that maybe Laurent would prefer to be here and watch, and share in it. That’s an idea to revisit later though, right now he wants to focus on Damen.

Damen puts his hands on Nikandros’ waist and pulls him bodily into his lap. They both have the muscles of Akielon soldiers, but they manage to make the position work. This time, Nikandros is the one who initiates the kissing.

It isn’t long before cloth is being stripped away and then Damen is lying over him on the chaise, and biting into the muscle of Nik’s shoulder as he moves into him.

“Did you do this with him as well?” Damen asks.

“Yes,” Nikandros says, and he thinks unbidden of the way Laurent had said ‘ Damianos ’ and he wonders whether he’s just a midway point in bringing together his husband and his love. He shouldn’t encourage this. “Except I was in your position, and he liked the thought of that.”

“Of you taking him?”

“Of you taking him,” Nikandros admits, and in this moment, with Damen over him and inside him, the image of Damen and Laurent together permeates his brain and it is – Nikandros moans, and tightens his grip on Damen’s hair – something to think about later. For now, he lets his mind fall empty of anything but the way he and Damen move together in the dying candlelight.

It is hours later, after they’ve moved to the bed to continue and Damen has fallen a sleep with an arm slung across Nikandros’ chest, that he thinks of Laurent again. Laurent, who is probably sleeping, bathed in the same pale moonlight that they are, in Nikandros’s bed. Where he faithfully goes every night now to sleep, even on the evenings when they don’t have sex - as if physical comfort is something that he craves now that he has allowed himself to have a taste of it.

And there it is, the guilt that Nik has been putting off until now. It’s an odd kind of guilt - if his spouse were Akielon, there would be nothing out of the ordinary in him finding pleasure with another, but Laurent is Veretian and Veretians equate marriage with monogamy. That makes this, what he has done now with Damen, something wrong in Laurent’s eyes and thus in the eyes of their marriage.

Nikandros, very slowly, moves Damen’s arm off of his chest, and eases himself out of bed. He knows that Damen hates to be left alone the morning after - he likes to dally with his lovers over breakfast in bed - but Nikandros also knows that he cannot leave Laurent to sleep in that big bed alone.

He redresses, and then quietly leaves the room. After a moment’s thought, he heads to the baths first - deserted at this time of night - and washes before going to his own rooms. And there, tucked into the white sheets of Nikandros’s bed and covered in silver moonlight as predicted, is Laurent. He looks softer in his sleep, his unconscious mind unwilling to hold up all the walls his waking one keeps in place. He is so pale that he almost disappears into the sheets, and all that white makes Nikandros imagine that he must be cold.

Even when he’s taken other lovers, Nik has always known in his heart that Damen was his heart’s match. Now, looking at Laurent and admiring his exotic beauty, he feels something pang in his chest and wonders how it is that he has been cursed to be torn between two people like this.

Nikandros climbs into the bed as unobtrusively as possible, but Laurent still stirs, and opens heavy-lidded eyes. His eyelashes are very long, and they brush his cheeks as he blinks slowly. “You’re back,” Laurent says, and he almost looks like he’s smiling. “I was almost concerned.”

“Go back to sleep,” Nikandros replies, and Laurent rolls so that their sides are touching, before he closes his eyes again and obeys.

Nikandros looks to the ceiling and focuses on keeping his breath steady. In the morning, he decides, he will tell Laurent everything. He cannot hope for his marriage to work if he keeps his actions in the shadows. It might ruin everything they’ve built so far, but Laurent deserves to know the heart of the man he married.

And who knows - perhaps Laurent will like the idea of Nikandros and Damen together, and they’ll be able to turn the complicated lines of their relationship into something more equal. Dare to dream.

-

-

When Laurent wakes up, the bed is empty of his husband. He can vaguely remember Nikandros coming to bed at some point in the night; he doesn’t think he imagined the added warmth at his side. Laurent sits up and looks around the room - all cool white and marble, better suited for a mausoleum than a bedroom. It makes Laurent feel even lonelier.

He drinks a cup of water from the bedside table, and then tucks his bedshirt into some pants to wander into the sitting room. Nikandros is sitting at the table there, his back to Laurent, and ignoring the breakfast food spread out on the table in favour of a book. Laurent smiles and sits next to him.

Nikandros looks up at him, then looks at the food, then back to his book. He glances at Laurent a second time, and then back to his book. He appears, Laurent realises, nervous. Laurent’s mind immediately conjures up a dozen worst case scenarios. He’s just about settling on one where Nikandros is about to send him back to Delfeur while he stays in Ios, when Nik speaks.

“Did you sleep well?”

“Better than you did, apparently,” Laurent says, and then, to just get it over with: “Why are you so twitchy?”

Nik sighs and puts the book down. “You’re too observant. You should eat something.”

Laurent takes an apricot from the spread, bites into it once and then sets it down. “There, I’ve eaten. Now tell me.”

“Honestly,” Nikandros says, “I don’t know how. This isn’t an Akielon problem.”

“It’s a Veretian one, then,” Laurent surmises. “Is it my family?”

“No. It’s your sensibilities.”

“Ominous,” Laurent drawls. He finishes the apricot, because it’s actually quite deliciously ripe. He’s only human. “Just say it. You’re not a coward, Nikandros. Whatever it is, we will just compromise.”

“I had sex with someone last night,” he says. To his credit, he looks Laurent in the eye when he says it.

It’s almost comedic that, out of all the awful scenarios that crossed Laurent’s mind, he hadn’t even considered this. He had thought that they were… Well, his opinion on their relationship is clearly wrong.

“Alright,” Laurent says.

“It’s normal in Akielos to- no, that’s an excuse. I know that Veretians expect monogamy when it comes to marriage. I should have spoken to you about this first.”

“I don’t expect complete monogamy,” Laurent says. “I knew when our marriage was decided on that you’d have to find a woman to make heirs with. I’ll admit I didn’t think it would happen so soon.” He’ll have to swallow his distaste for bastardry, but it is hardly something he can get upset about. Perhaps this is why Nik hadn’t gotten mad about Laurent’s little name slip the day before.

“It was a man,” Nikandros states.

“A man,” Laurent repeats, almost in shock.

“Yes.”

If it was a man, then it wasn’t procreational. So it was pleasure that Nikandros was looking for, and that means - “But you said you only fuck people you have feelings for.”

“I…” Nikandros looks guilty.

“It wasn’t a random person, then. It was someone who you care for?” Laurent thinks suddenly of the letter from his father, which was clear in it’s instruction- he is meant to gain Nikandros’ regard, not fight with him. He should say that it’s alright, and find some way to keep his husband’s head from turning again. But right now his pride is hurt and he doesn’t want to just let this go.

“I care for you,” Nikandros says. “I know it must be hard to hear, but the room in your heart doesn’t have to be limited to one person.”

“You have a lover,” Laurent says faintly. He feels slightly sick. It hurts to know that while he’s been wracked with guilt over his attraction to Damianos, Nikandros has had no such qualms. Laurent had even - well, he’d almost trusted him and now Nikandros has someone else. It has been foolish to assume that there wasn’t someone he was interested in when their marriage was decided on. “Who is it?” That information suddenly seems pertinent. Who is better than him?

He’s used to coming second as a Prince and as a son; he hadn’t expected it as a husband.

“I don’t know that I should tell you while you’re upset,” Nikandros says. “Maybe you should take some time to think about this and then-”

“Who is it.” Laurent interrupts. It’s a demand this time, not a question.

Nikandros purses his lips. “Damianos,” he says.

He fleetingly wonders whether they are both thinking of the last time that name was said between them - as a moan on Laurent’s lips. Nikandros is right: Laurent probably should have been given time to calm down before this particular revelation. He stands up, the legs on his chair screeching across tiles. He doesn’t know how he feels right now; he’s finding it very hard to think.

“You admitted that you know how Veretians feel about extramarital affairs and yet you have disrespected me anyway,” he bites out.

“I did not intend to hurt you, Laurent,” Nikandros says.

He is burning up with humiliation. He knows his cheeks are flushed. It’s bad enough that Nikandros wants someone else; it is worse that it is an apparent love affair with Damianos. They must have found it all so funny, especially Laurent’s crush on Damianos. They probably laughed about it before they fell into bed together.

“I might be difficult,” Laurent says, “and young and foreign and strange. I know I’m not your ideal choice for a husband. But I am still a Prince. You are barely a Kyros. You would do well to remember that.”

“You need to calm down before we discuss this further,” Nikandros tells him. “You know you use your words like daggers when you’re upset.”

“What is there to be upset about?!” Laurent throws his hands up dramatically. “I have been bartered off to some Akielon slut, who cannot even stay faithful to me for a single year. I should have thrown myself off a parapet the moment I heard of this alliance.”

Nikandros shoots out of his chair and grabs Laurent by the arm. Finally, he is showing some actual emotion. “Don’t say such a thing,” Nikandros hisses. “You are being purposely obtuse. It barely affects you if I care for someone as well as you.”

Laurent jerks his arm out of Nikandros’ grip. “Until the whole court speaks of it, and then it travels to my own country and everyone knows that I cannot even keep a husband.” And then his father will find out and he will never let Laurent see Auguste or his mother again, out of spite.

“You can be so childishly overdramatic,” Nikandros scoffs, and then he raises his head challengingly. “If gossip spread like that in Akielos then you would have heard of Damianos and I long before you married me.”

Laurent takes a step back. “For how long has this been happening? Did you fuck him on our wedding night too?”

“For mercy’s sake, Laurent, of course not!”

“I don’t believe you,” Laurent snarls. This moment feels like a precipice - he’s on the edge of destroying everything that he’s built with his husband. Spitefully, he wants to. He wants to tear it all down as revenge for not being good enough. Akielons are apparently all the same with their loose sexual morals and disregard for fidelity. It’s his own fault for ever thinking any different. For thinking he could be happy here. “Get out.”

“Laurent-”

“Get away from me!” Laurent pushes against his chest but it barely moves him, so it is up to Laurent to be the one to leave. When Laurent storms out of the room, Nikandros doesn’t even attempt to follow him. That feels like an even more grievous wound.

-

Laurent avoids Nikandros for most of the day, and then goes to the spare bedroom in their quarters for dinner - while Nik is dining with Damen and the rest of the court. He had considered retreating back to Delpha as a display of his displeasure, but that was a losing strategy when it meant leaving Nikandros free to do whatever he wants in Arles with his lover. It is also very unfair that Laurent has done nothing wrong and yet is left to sleep alone.

The next day, Laurent isn’t so lucky in his evasion. King Theomedes is at breakfast, and so it is only polite that Laurent joins. Laurent is seated next to Nikandros and across from Damianos, which is infuriating, and so he spends most of the meal shoving food into his mouth whenever he thinks someone is about to speak to him, so that he cannot answer.

Eventually, Theomedes excuses himself and leaves, which makes it tempting for Laurent to also leave except… except he doesn’t want to leave his husband alone with Damianos. Was Laurent always this jealous a person? Reasonably, it’s not as if Nikandros and Damianos are going to start fucking over the breakfast table the second Laurent leaves and yet he stays in his seat.

“Laurent,” Damianos says, in a guiless way that lets Laurent know that Nik has not told him of their fight yet. “What are your plans for the day? I missed you yesterday.”

“Why?” Laurent asks, deadpan. “Are you hoping I’ll be out of the way again so that you can-”

“Laurent,” Nikandros interrupts. He looks primed to say more, but then there is a knock at the door.

“Enter,” Damianos calls casually. He is giving Laurent a curious look.

“A messenger from Arles is here,” says a guard. “With a letter for Prince Laurent.”

“Yes, fine,” Damianos says. “Send him in.”

Laurent turns in his chair to see Chauvin enter, looking tired and dirty from what must have been a long trip. He has never liked this particular guard of Auguste’s - he’s too clearly on his father’s direct payroll. He’d also offered to fuck Laurent prior to his wedding, before his ‘ass gets destroyed by barbarians’ was the specific wording. Laurent hadn’t been charmed.

“Chauvin,” Laurent says, icily and in Veretian. “A messenger boy now? I can’t say I’m surprised.”

Whatever letter he has must be serious, for his father to send a guard all the way here.

“I am pleased to serve King Aleron in any way he chooses,” Chauvin says.

“Please don’t phrase it like that,” Laurent replies, “or I’ll suspect you’re letting my father fuck you as well.”

Chauvin comes as close to a scowl as he can in front of royalty and holds out the letter. “From your father, the King. He instructed me to deliver it to your hands only.”

“At the risk of my personal hygiene, from touching something that you have held.” Laurent takes the letter anyway. “There, task complete. You’re dismissed.”

Chauvin leaves. There is a long moment of silence. The crease in Damen’s brow is deeper than it was before.

“Is he…” Damianos begins hesitantly, “really your father’s lover?”

“What,” Laurent says, and then realises that perhaps such rapidfire Veretian was hard for him to follow. “No, of course not. My father is a happily married man, he has no need for a lover.”

Nikandros sighs. “You don’t make me unhappy,” he says, quietly.

“That sigh says different, husband,” Laurent replies.

Damianos is watching them with a frown. Laurent looks down at the letter in his hands and then, in a moment of impulsiveness, he tears it in half. It’s just going to be more thinly veiled demands that Laurent cannot fulfil. He can’t even keep his own husband interested in him.

“Are you still mad at your family?” Damen asks, concerned.

“It is none of your business.”

“Your brother has mentioned to me in his letters how worried he is that you aren’t writing back to him.”

Laurent freezes, in the process of tearing the paper in his hands again.  “Auguste is writing to you?”

“Yes,” Damen replies simply. “We are friends now.”

“We haven’t received any letters from Prince Auguste to Delpha,” Nikandros says.

“He’s been sending them.”

Laurent had been planning on spending the day being bitchy and making them both uncomfortable but… “Can I read them?” he asks. He can’t resist the lure that is correspondence from his brother.

“Of course,” Damen says. “We can meet in the library after breakfast and I’ll give you the letters.”

-

That is what happens. They sit on a lounge together and Damen hands him a stack of letters - beautiful with Auguste’s terrible penmanship - and Laurent reads.

“I am from an enemy kingdom and you trust me to read your correspondence? There could be codes in here.” Not that there are - Auguste is too honest and decent for such a thing. Laurent misses him like an ache.

“Nikandros trusts you,” Damianos says, smiling like Laurent is being humorous. “And he is the most discerning man I know.”

Laurent flicks through the letters. It is exactly as Damianos had said. Auguste seems to think that Laurent is upset with him and thus refusing to write him. No doubt his father is happy for that particular misconception. It also proves that there’s no point in trying to write to Auguste himself anymore, since Aleron is clearly controlling what he sends and receives.

“What have you said back to him?” Laurent asks.

Damen startles a little at being addressed. He’s apparently made himself comfortable watching Laurent read. “Ah,” he says. “I told him that Nikandros is a good man and that you’ll hopefully forgive your brother when you realise that.”

“Hmm.” Laurent puts the letters down. As much as he’d like to clutch them to his chest like a treasured gift from his brother. “I miss him,” he admits, suddenly.

“I’m sure he would be happy to hear that,” Damen says, gently.

“Will you tell him for me? That I cannot write to him for my own reasons, but I want him to know that I’m not angry.”

“Of course,” Damen says, like it is a small thing for a Crown Prince to pass messages. Damianos is very kind. He has been ever since Laurent met him, despite the fact that Laurent was apparently being wed to his lover.

“Why did you– at the cliffs?” Kiss me, he means to say but even the thought of the words distracts him. His eyes have strayed to Damen’s mouth, his beautifully shaped lips. Oh no, Laurent thinks faintly. He suddenly remembers that he had been avoiding Damianos before what had happened with Nikandros.

“Because I like you,” Damen says, open, honest. “I’m sorry that I made you uncomfortable.”

“But what about Nikandros?”

“I like him too.”

“No,” Laurent says. “I mean, did you think of Nikandros when you kissed me?”

Damianos mostly looks confused. “No,” he smiles, as if Laurent is being slow. “You were taking up all of my thoughts at the time.”

Laurent sighs, frustrated. “I’m trying to say that you should have thought about how he would feel about you kissing me. What if it upset him?”

Damen sits back. “Oh.” And then he laughs. “I had forgotten that Veretians are weird about such things. No, I knew Nikandros wouldn’t mind; he’s aware that he doesn’t control your actions.”

“What’s the point in marriage if it doesn’t include monogamy?”

“Alliances,” Damen says, “or inheritance. Or just because you love each other very much and want to have a celebration about it. Besides, I find it hard to believe that Vere is so monogamous. What about your pets?” He says Pet in Akielon, which has the humorous affect of implying that Veretians are fucking their house-cats.

“Pets don’t count.”

“Why not?”

Because no rational man is going to leave his spouse to elope with a pet. A Crown Prince, on the other hand. But then, Laurent truly doesn’t think Nikandros will leave him. He wasn’t even that upset until the revelation that it was Damianos. And rightfully, he should be much angrier with Damen. Except he’s not, he’s just.

Jealous.

Of which one? He thinks suddenly. “You didn’t make me uncomfortable,” Laurent says. Fuck it.

“Good,” Damianos actually relaxes at that. Smiles. “I want to be your friend, at least, even if-”

Laurent pushes Damen back against the couch and kisses him. Damen, with the good grace of a man that prefers kissing to talking, allows it and immediately clutches at the back of Laurent’s neck. He is the perfect partner for kissing - he lets Laurent lead but reciprocates with skill and enthusiasm. Laurent clutches at him, one hand clenched in the fabric on his chiton, and the other feebly wrapping around not even half of his bicep.

Gravity takes affect and Damen falls back even more, until he is lying on the lounge with Laurent over him, too busy with each other’s mouths to readjust the position. Eventually, Laurent pulls back and Damen smiles up at him.

“I like this,” Damen says.

“Having me on top of you?”

Damen shifts so that his legs are on either side of Laurent’s hips. “I think I’m open to the idea.” The look he gives Laurent is so beyond flirtatious that Laurent feels a little weak.

Things move in something of a blur after that. Laurent is distantly away of Damen unlacing his jacket, but he’s too concerned with getting his hands and mouth on the man’s broad chest to pay that much attention. Laurent unpins the top of his chiton to reveal the planes of pure muscle, evenly browned because Akielons exercise naked.

“You’re so,” Laurent breathes, “fucking attractive.”

Damen looks stupidly pleased about that, as someone who probably has people tripping over their feet for him on a daily basis. He grips Laurent’s gauzy undershirt in his strong hands - “I want to fuck you,” Laurent growls, - and the fabric rips.

As if Laurent weren’t already aroused enough. Damen seems a little embarrassed by his strength, but then he notices that Laurent has been stunned into silence and gets a sturdier grip on the fabric. The force of him literally tearing Laurent’s shirt off pulls him forward and Laurent takes advantage of the forced proximity to bite at Damen’s neck.

“I liked that shirt,” he hisses. He has twenty others exactly the same.

“I’ll buy you a new one,” Damen replies, “or even better, a chiton.”

“That’s hardly a fair exchange, it’s a sheet.”

Damen wraps his legs around Laurent’s hips, and uses them to pull him completely flush against Damen.

Laurent makes a noise, he can’t help it. “Keep manhandling me like that,” he says, “and you’ll owe me new pants as well.”

Damianos laughs, and then he gets a fistful of Laurent’s hair and directs his head so that Damen can kiss at his neck. Laurent’s eyelashes flutter shut. His hips automatically grind forward against Damianos, and Laurent has never more passionately hated wearing pants. He can understand the need for skirts when the men here are like this.

“Do you have oil?” Laurent says, a little urgently because the joke about coming in his pants is looking like a lot less of a joke now.

“In a library?” Damen says, humour in his voice.

“You people are prudes,” Laurent moans. He really doesn’t want to get up.

“I can suggest an alternative,” Damen says. He releases the hold he has of Laurent. “Take off your pants.”

Damen’s idea, it turns out, is for Laurent to kneel above him and thrust into his mouth. When Laurent is a little too hesitant to accidentally choke the future king of Akielos to death, Damen holds his hips and guides him. Since his wedding, Laurent has long ago lost count of how many times he’s had his cock sucked, but it has never been like this. This, is Damen deliberately giving away complete control. This is the Crown Prince of Akielos, letting Laurent use him like a whore.  

After Damianos has dutifully swallowed, Laurent reciprocates by using his hand on Damen while he whispers in his ear all the illicit things he wants to do with him.

When they’ve regained the breath, they redress together, Laurent’s undershirt a lost cause and so he has to let the rough brocade of his jacket go straight onto his skin. It is an unfortunate moment of timing when they step together out of the library and walk straight into Nikandros.

Nikandros, who takes one moment sizing them up, and then makes a very non-committal noise of “Hmm”.

“What.” Laurent says, sharply.

“Your jacket is laced wrong,” Damen says, smiling at him, “sweetheart.”

“Reading those letters must have been arduous,” Nikandros comments dryly.

Laurent knows he is flushing.

Damen laughs, “Were you looking for us?”

“Yes,” Nikandros replies. He is still looking at Laurent. “Do you forgive me, then?”

“I suppose I can… understand the temptation,” Laurent allows.

“I missed you in our bed last night.” It’s very unfair how sincere he sounds.

Laurent wavers. “We still have to talk later.”

“I know,” Nikandros replies. He sounds appropriately contrite, and Laurent just had a very satisfying orgasm, so when Nik holds out a hand in offering, Laurent bypasses it and hugs him instead. Nikandros kisses the top of his head.

“Were you two quarrelling?” he hears Damianos ask, sounding amused.

Laurent has the distinct feeling that he’s bitten off more than he can chew. He’s married to an Akielon kyros, and now fucking the Crown Prince. He isn’t prepared to deal with any of it, and he doesn’t really know what they’re doing, but. But maybe that’s alright.

-

It’s easier now that Laurent has rationalised his anger as a complicated kind of jealousy. He’s still not overjoyed about the way Nikandros behaved, but he can also acknowledge that Nik has made a substantial amount of concessions for the sake of Laurent’s comfort. And it is not as if Laurent is completely blameless - he still feels an amount of guilt for originally going to Nikandros’ bed because of his father’s orders.

Laurent waits until they retire in the evening. Damianos smiles at them when they excuse themselves for dinner and promises in a heavy voice that he’ll see them the next day. Nikandros leaves the door to the bedroom they share open in invitation when he goes in, so Laurent only ducks into the other room to change into his bed shirt before joining him.

Nik is already in bed, his long wavy hair out of its confines and his chest bare. He sits up when he hears Laurent enter. “Are you going to stab me in my sleep?” Nik asks, and it’s phrased only half like a joke.

“You’re not worth bloodying a blade over,” Laurent replies. He approaches the bed, and climbs under the covers next to his husband.

Nikandros follows his lead and lies back down, on his side so that they can face each other.

“Are you alright?” he asks, quietly.

He sounds genuinely concerned. Laurent likes that; he likes that someone cares about him enough as a person to be concerned for his feelings. Even during their fight, Nikandros had restrained himself from lashing out like Laurent does.

“I never intended to like you as much as I do,” Laurent murmurs. He’s always tended to balk at personal honesty, but he thinks he can be open to Nikandros, who has never seemed to judge him for his feelings. “I wasn’t upset because you fucked someone else, but more that you had someone to choose to be with, when I know you would never have chosen me. I don’t want you to think of me as another duty.”

Nikandros takes a moment to take this in. Laurent can see him thinking, deciding on his response, considering Laurent’s point of view. “I fear I haven’t been a very good husband,” he says, finally. “Especially if you think I still consider you a duty.”

“Alright,” Laurent replies. His chest is tight with an indecipherable amount of emotions. “I’ll admit I was also a little jealous. Of you.”

“I think I should explain that, my relationship with Damianos is-” Nikandros seems almost flustered to be putting it in words. “We have been intimate with each other since we were about seventeen, but it has never been something either of us have tried to – it’s only been dalliances, nothing serious.”

“But you love him,” Laurent says.

“Yes,” Nikandros agrees, and Laurent can appreciate his unwavering honesty even when it hurts. “I’ve always loved him. Even though I’ve long accepted that I cannot be with him truly. I thought perhaps he was to be my greatest love in this life, and then I met you and I–. Well, the love I feel for you is no less intense.”

“You love me,” Laurent repeats. It’s the first time either of them has done anything beyond imply that their feelings for one another are romantic.

“I’ve spent more than two minutes in a room with you,” Nik says, simply. “Of course I love you.”

Laurent buries his face into his pillow. He’s shown enough emotional vulnerability today, he doesn’t need to add to it by openly smile about this confession. “Good,” he says, voice muffled.

He feels a hand on his arm, broad and callused, affectionately stroking. “I am truly sorry for hurting you,” Nikandros continues. “I don’t know if I can promise it will never happen again, as I do not always have all my wits about me when I am with Damen.”

“It’s fine.” Laurent turns his face so that he can look at his husband again. “I am jealous but, I am also not entirely displeased at the thought of you two together.”

Nikandros kisses him, quickly. It’s not a prelude to something more, but a reassurance. “If it helps,” he says. “I think Damianos likes the idea of us together as well. And as you know, he makes no secret of finding you charming.”

“Everyone finds me charming,” Laurent tells him, because it’s easier than actually commenting on that. For now, anyway. Instead he pushes himself into Nikandros’ arms, and lets them fall asleep together just like that.

-

Now that Laurent has come to terms with Nik and Damen’s relationship, he finds that he is having… thoughts . Damen has an innate sense of confidence and authority that seems to open something up in Nikandros. A desire to please. Laurent hadn’t allowed himself to think of the dynamics before, but now he imagines that Nikandros must be the one spreading his legs in this equation. He’s too aware of rank than to let anything else happen.

It makes Laurent ponder other possibilities, like letting Nikandros fuck him while getting fucked by Damen. Or perhaps both of them taking Laurent at the same time. And then he thinks about how he and Damen are both princes, and he wonders how Nikandros would feel about watching his husband fuck his future king.

So yes, now Laurent has a lot of new things to think about.

-

It’s always in the back of Laurent’s mind, but he doesn’t act on his thoughts, until he sees them one evening in the court, after dinner. They are both sitting together at a table full of soldiers, side by side.

Nikandros isn’t as broad as Damen. He’s still more muscular than Laurent himself, but he also has a slimmer grace to him that is ideal in a nobleman. Still, they are both very beautiful, and this is obvious in the way that the soldiers around the table watch them interact.

Laurent watches them as well, but from afar, enjoying the sight. Nikandros says something, looking wry, and it must be funny because the men all break into laughter. Grinning, Damianos slings a hand around Nik’s shoulders, and Nikandros looks up at him with unconcealed affection. They are beautiful apart, but even more so together. Laurent doesn’t know which one of them he wants to kiss more in this moment.

The group gets distracted by other lines of conversation, but Damen and Nik are still looking at each other, smiling. Laurent envies how comfortable they both look with each other, completely at ease even before their fellow soldiers. And then, as if they could read Laurent’s earlier thoughts, Damen leans in and kisses Nik on the mouth. Laurent feels his breath catch.

The kiss is friendly - if sticking your tongue in someone else’s mouth can be considered merely friendly - in that when they break apart, they smile at each other and continue on with the conversation. But there’s something about their strong jawlines, and sun-browned skin pressing together that sets off sparks in Laurent’s brain.

He wants to watch them fuck. Laurent has only dallied with Damen a couple of times since the library, and he doesn’t know how often Nik does the same. The three of them have never been in the same room together, sexually. This suddenly feels like a massive oversight.

He’s walking towards them before he’s made the conscious thought to do it, and then Laurent drapes himself over Nikandros’ back, Laurent’s chest pinning the arm Damen still has lodged over Nik’s shoulders. He can sense the soldiers looking over at him, and it’s an oddly thrilling thought to think of them being attracted to him as well. Spellbound by the trifecta of beauty that is Laurent, Damianos, and Nikandros.

“Husband,” Laurent says, dropping his voice to an intimate volume. He makes sure his head is between Nikandros and Damen, so that the crown prince can also hear every word. “I have been waiting alone in our rooms for you to come and fuck me.”

One of the soldiers across from them, chokes a little on his wine. Perhaps Laurent’s voice wasn’t as quiet as intended. Oops .

Laurent hangs his arms over his husband’s shoulder, trails fingers down his chest. “Or you could stay here,” Laurent suggests, tucking fingertips under the fabric at Nik’s waist. Nikandros immediately grabs his wrist to halt him. Laurent keeps his hand where it is but looks up at the soldiers who are now all very openly watching with varying amounts of interest.

“In Vere,” Laurent tells them, “where we are less repressed, I could drop to my knees before my husband in the middle of court, and no one would blink beyond what a pretty picture I’d make with his cock in my-”

“Laurent,” Nikandros says, sternly.

He allows the interruption. What he was saying wasn’t true anyway. “Yes?”

“Go wait in our rooms.” His voice is very controlled.

“I will,” Laurent says. He pauses for dramatic effect and then adds: “For a kiss.”

Nikandros has turned his head to look at him, and with Laurent still resting his chin on his husband’s shoulder, that makes their faces very close and ah , Nikandros does not look entirely pleased. That makes sense, he does not like ultimatums and bargains.

“If you don’t,” one of the soldiers says, jokingly, “ I will.”

“See? I have offers.” Laurent looks to the side, where Damianos is watching intently. “What about you, Damianos? Are you amenable?”

Nikandros finally lets go of Laurent’s wrist, and Laurent takes that as permission to lean closer to the crown prince.

Laurent privately suspects that Damianos, while Akielon, might be a little more agreeable about public displays than Nik. He did let Laurent fuck his mouth in a library after all.

Damen straightens his shoulders, looks Laurent in the eyes, and says, “Come here then.”

Laurent barely has a chance to move towards him before Damen reaches out and grabs his face between his broad hands and kisses him. The position is almost uncomfortable, Damen still seated, turned towards him and Laurent having to bend down to meet his lips. He braces himself with one hand on Nikandros’ shoulder, and lets Damen take control.

Damen does not hold back. He licks into Laurent’s mouth in such a sultry manner that it leaves Laurent weak at the knees and profoundly grateful that he has Nikandros here to keep him up. Damen treats kissing like an art form, and one he is willing to spend hours practicing. Laurent feels as he did at the top of the cliff they jumped off of.

Then Damianos pulls back, and gently pushes Laurent’s face away. They look at each other for a moment, and then Damen smiles infuriatingly and says: “You are dismissed.”

Laurent blinks. His heart feels like it’s about to beat out of his chest. He clears his throat and then gets a hold of himself. “Come to bed soon,” he says to Nikandros, a little more urgently than intended.

Upon his exit, Laurent also makes sure to run a hand across Damen’s back and add, “You’re invited too.”

He is barely out the door when he hears the soldiers devolve into shocked exclamations.

-

He gets back to his chambers and then pauses awkwardly. What should he do now? Pose and wait for them to arrive? But then, he is not guaranteed that Damianos will show up at all, and Nik’s mood had been verging on unreadable. Perhaps the reason the three of them haven’t gone to bed together yet is because the others don’t want to? Or maybe it’s another stupid Akielon thing that he doesn’t understand.

Laurent doesn’t know what had overcome him out there, except that he enjoys the love and attention that Damen and Nik give him, and the idea of it happening from both at once is almost overwhelming. He wants them. He really wants them, and it is so rare that he gets to have something purely because he wants it.

When Nikandros walks into the room a few moments later, Laurent is sprawled lazily on one of the sitting chairs in the main room, a chalice of wine in his hand. The wine is less for drinking and more so he doesn’t look like he’s just been sitting there waiting. Which he has.

Nik closes the door behind him and then stands there, looking at Laurent.

All Laurent wants to do right now is ask if Damen is also joining them, but perhaps he isn’t and Nikandros is just here to let him down. Laurent stays silent.

Finally Nik opens his mouth. “Are you sure?” he says.

“I wouldn’t have done all that if I wasn’t.”

Nik takes a step forward, then he gently takes the chalice out of Laurent’s hand and has a long sip of wine. When he’s finished, he hands it back to Laurent. “I don’t pretend to be able to guess your motives. I’m just making sure you suggested it because you want it, and not because it’s what you think I want.”

“Is it what you want?” Laurent asks.

Nik is quiet for a moment. “What I want more is for you to be happy.”

“I don’t like it when you speak so sincerely,” Laurent lies. “Trust me, I want this. Is Damianos joining us?”

“He is,” Nik says. “I asked him to give me a head start so that I could make sure you were certain about this.”

Laurent takes in the way that Nik is standing, a little awkwardly, and the way his gaze keeps flicking away. He also remembers Nik saying that he has had three lovers in his lifetime, and Damen and Laurent are two of those. It’s highly likely that Nikandros hasn’t done something like this before. He’s not upset, he’s nervous.

That is oddly reassuring. Laurent had felt a little anxious earlier as well, but there’s something about seeing his husband like this that puts Laurent’s own reservations to rest. Instead, he feels almost protective. He wants Nikandros to feel like he can enjoy this.

“Is this what you want?” Laurent asks.

Nik gives him a look. “I would have made it known, if it wasn’t.”

“Good,” Laurent replies, then: “You should strip.”

It is always alluring to see someone as strong and forthright as Nikandros obey his demands without hesitation. Nikandros undoes the pin at his shoulder, and then the one at his waist, and his chiton pools at his feet. He takes a step closer to Laurent, and away from his discarded clothing, and then bends to undo his shoes.

“You’re very beautiful,” Laurent says, appreciatively. “I like your face, and your chest, and your arms.” He would add his cock to the list, but Nikandros blushes over stupid things like that.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Nik says.

“Damen is similar to you,” he continues. “He’s very attractive too. But you’re both very different also, and I like that. There’s something about him, isn’t there? An unnameable quality that very few men have.”

Nikandros smiles at this. “Yes,” he agrees. He is apathetic to comments on his own appearance, but rises with pride at compliments towards his future king. It is endearing.

Nikandros surveys Laurent for a moment, so Laurent spreads his legs, wide, as a hint.

His husband, with a familiarity to Laurent’s wordless demands in bedplay, understands. He drops to his knees. This is another thing that Laurent enjoys - seeing a man so formidable lower himself for Laurent. Nikandros presses a kiss to Laurent’s clothed thigh, in an unusually sweet gesture, and then undoes the laces at Laurent’s crotch.

“Are you keeping the jacket on then?” Nik asks.

“Doesn’t it thrill you a little?” Laurent replies, reaching forward to brush fingers through his husband’s hair. On a whim, Laurent does away with the ties binding it, and lets the hair cascade down Nik’s shoulders. He makes a nice picture like this, his hair softens his features when it’s out, and combined with the way he’s kneeling before Laurent, he could be a particularly well-endowed pet, pleasuring Laurent during the after dinner entertainments.

Nikandros takes Laurent’s cock in hand. “I can see it thrills you,” he says drily, and then ducks his head to take Laurent into his mouth. Nikandros is also very practiced in the art of sucking cock, which Laurent now realises must be courtesy of Damianos and that’s an interesting thought, his husband being unknowingly trained by the Crown Prince, so that he can please Laurent in the future. How very thankful Laurent should be.

He lets Nikandros work until he feels close to climax, and then Laurent gasps out, “Stop,” and Nikandros does, sitting back immediately.

“If you only stopped me so that you can come in my hair again,” Nik says, voice hoarse, “then I will be very displeased.”

Laurent laughs, breathlessly. “I just thought it would be polite to wait for Damen before any climaxes occur.”

Nikandros looks pleased enough by that remark. Or just relieved that his hair will remain unsullied. “How courteous.”

“Yes, I’m entirely selfless.” Laurent pats his still-clothed thighs. “Take a seat, so I can kiss you until our guest arrives.”

This is how Damianos finds them when he enters the rooms - Nikandros straddling Laurent and licking filthily into his mouth, hips making small, forcibly held back thrusts against each other. They are teasing one another, desperately wanting more, but not allowing themselves to have it.

Laurent doesn’t know how long Damen has been there, watching, only that at one point Nikandros is biting down on Laurent’s shoulder and Laurent’s eyes open enough to spot him. He is standing in front of the door, fists clenched into the fabric of his chiton, lips parted, and his eyes dark.

Laurent smiles lazily at him. “You’re late,” he says. “We have already started.”

At Laurent’s words, Nikandros looks over his shoulder to Damen.

“Don’t stop on my account,” Damen replies. He leans back against the closed door and looks so casual and smug that Laurent is struck with the sudden urge to wipe that look off of his face.

“I have an idea,” Laurent says.

“Of course you do,” Nik says, deadpan. Or as deadpan as someone can be naked, flushed, and hard.

“Husband, I want to tie you up.” Laurent tells him.

Nik opens his mouth to respond - perhaps to object - but then Damianos makes an interested sound, and Laurent can see the response turn to, “Yes.”

Laurent smiles, pleased. “You’ll have to get up first. Damen, perhaps you could get me the ties on the curtains? That fabric looks soft enough.”

After that, it is a matter of moments before Nikandros is sitting in the chair, wrists tied to the armrests. He raises an eyebrow at Laurent, and makes a show of being unable to pull out of the bonds. “Now what?” he says.

Laurent grins at his husband, and then turns away from him completely. Damianos is the most dressed man in the room, considering that Laurent hasn’t bothered to re-lace his trousers.

“Damianos, I was thinking,” Laurent begins, stepping forward to undo the pin at his shoulder.

“Yes?” Damen looks eager, curious.

“Nikandros was a virgin the first time you took him.” Damen’s chest is bared. Laurent runs a hand down it slowly, delighting in the firm muscle.

“Yes.”

“And I was a virgin the first time Nikandros fucked me.”

“Oh,” Damen says, and then he gives Nik an interested look. It’s nice to know that apparently Nik doesn’t share all their intimate details with Damen.

“Have you ever been taken, Damianos?” Laurent asks, even though he already knows the answer.

“No,” Damen says, slowly. Smiling.

“Laurent.” Nik sounds scandalised. But, Laurent notes, not in an entirely bad way. Perhaps Nik has never fucked Damen before, but even he is certainly not so controlled that he has never fantasised about it.

“Equality in bed,” Laurent tells his husband. “We agreed on that on our first night together. What do you think, Damen?”

“Well,” Damen looks like he’s enjoying Nik’s expression a little too much. “It sounds like it’s only fair. How do you want me?”

Laurent unpins his chiton completely, fabric dropping to the floor. He takes a step back so that he can appraise Damianos, in all his naked glory. Damianos is very aroused, considering he has barely been touched yet.

“On your knees,” Laurent tells him.

Damen has almost definitely never been commanded like this. He looks down at the tiles and then back to Laurent, almost questioningly.

“I can get you a pillow,” Laurent offers, a little condescendingly.

“No,” Damen says, after a moment. His eyes are very dark. He slowly, with the grace of a warrior, goes down to his knees. Laurent represses an odd urge to sit on his back, and make him take all of Laurent’s weight.

“Good,” Laurent says. “Wait here.” And then he walks into the bedroom to collect a jar of oil.

“I can tell why you’re so besotted,” he can hear Damen say to Nik.

Nikandros laughs. “That actually came before he showed me this side of him.”

“What did I say about sentiment, husband?” Laurent scolds him gently, as he comes back with his prize.

Nikandros is about to respond, but then his attention is seized by the jar of oil in Laurent’s hand. He falls silent.

Laurent smiles. He comes to stand behind Damianos. He puts a hand on the small of Damen’s back, tracing the line of his spine. Damen leans into the touch. “I’m going to fuck your future king, Nikandros,” Laurent tells him, “and you are going to watch.”

The best thing about Nikandros being naked right now, is that it means he cannot believably pretend that the idea doesn’t excite him.

Laurent kneels behind Damen, presses a soft kiss to his back, and then pours a liberal amount of oil into one hand. “I’ll go slow,” Laurent says, “I don’t want to hurt you.”

He has done this to Damen before, a day or two ago, used his fingers to open him up, after Damen admitted to being curious about the experience. They hadn’t fucked that time. Laurent had put his mouth to Damen’s cock, and then Damen had coaxed Laurent to thrust between his oiled thighs like an animal. It had been good. This will be better.

Laurent goes slowly, as promised. He starts with one finger, and moves it slowly in and out, encouraging Damen to rock into the movements. After Laurent is satisfied with the way Damen is pushing back against his hand, he adds another finger. Laurent knows how to curve his fingers, where to touch him inside to make him moan. He knows how to make it good and when to stop, and then he stops - making Damen moan in protest. He entices Damen, but never gives him as much as he wants. Every now and then Laurent will glance up at Nikandros, who looks enraptured by the view.

By the time Laurent gets to three fingers, pushing in and out rhythmically, Damen is a mess. His head has dropped, and he is clenching down on Laurent’s fingers with greedy noises. Laurent doesn’t stop until he hears Damen softly, almostly pleadingly, say his name. “Laurent.”

“Yes?” Laurent prompts, making great effort to sound unaffected.

“Fuck me,” Damen says. “I need it.”

“Remember your manners, and I’ll consider it.”

There’s a pause, and then Damen seems to decide that getting fucked is more important than any notions of dignity, because his hands are clenching against the cold tile, and he gasps out, “Please.”

Nikandros is the one who reacts to that, with a sound that is both shocked and unbearably turned on. Laurent looks up at him and smiles.

“What do you think, Nikandros?” Laurent asks. “Do you want me to fuck him?”

Nikandros doesn’t say anything, but his hands are clenching around the arm rests, and he looks so hard it must be verging on painful.

“Look at you,” Laurent says. “You’re going to rub your wrists raw if you keep pulling against your binds like that. Does it arouse you so much, to hear your Crown Prince beg for me to take him?”

Laurent moves his fingers inside Damianos, and is rewarded with a breathy gasp.

Nikandros tips his head back against the chair, eyes closed, as if he could feel that too. “Next time we fuck,” Nik grits out, “I am going to gag you.”

“Well, you’ll have to get through this first,” Laurent replies easily. “Now, tell me you want me to take him, or we’re just going to keep going like this all night.”

Laurent makes another well placed thrust with his fingers. Damianos keens. “Nikandros.”

Nikandros looks almost as if he wishes the old gods were still around, so that he could pray to them for relief. “Yes,” Nik says, finally. “Do it.” And he is opening his eyes up just in time to see Laurent remove his fingers from Damen’s ass, and then line himself up.

“Watch me,” Laurent says, and his voice is much too deep now, but it’s too late to play at unaffected at this point.

Laurent pushes himself into Damen slowly, and he has the distinct feeling that all of them take an unsteady breath simultaneously. Damen goes down to brace against the floor with his elbows, and then even further so that his head is resting on the cool tile. He’s arching his back like this, alluringly, making him look as if he is destined to be here, with Laurent inside him. He is beautiful.

Laurent pulls out, almost all the way, and then thrusts. It is gratifying to feel the force of it push Damen’s body forward slightly. “Fuck,” Damen manages to say, and then Laurent starts up a rhythm that seems to render him incapable of words.

Laurent can see Nikandros struggling, torn between the urge to watch and that to look away, and he wonders idly whether he could make Nik come like this, just at the sight of them. It’s tempting, but Laurent is feeling magnanimous, and his husband has been very good so far.

“Damianos,” Laurent says, or pants really. “I think Nik needs help.”

Damen doesn’t respond beyond a deep moan.

Laurent stops thrusting. It takes a substantial amount of effort. He almost feels like he could die from it. Laurent breathes. “What do you think? You don’t seem to be using your mouth for all that much.”

It is a sign of how painfully turned on Nik must be in that he doesn’t make any effort to protest that suggestion. That’s enough encouragement to convince Laurent to pull out of Damianos completely. “Well?” Laurent prompts.

Damianos takes a long moment to collect himself enough to raise his head.

“He’s not that far away,” Laurent says. “You can just crawl.”

Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Damen listens. He manages to crawl forward the agonisingly few metres to where Nikandros sits, and he takes the initiative to rest his forearms on the seat of the chair, either side of Nikandros’ thighs. They stare at each other, then Nikandros tips his head back in response and swears so violently that even Laurent is a little shocked.

He moves forward to join the two of them, and this time when he pushes into Damianos, Damen dips his head and takes Nikandros into his mouth. All the sport and training he has done must have taught him to multitask admirably.

It doesn’t take long after that. They are all wound up. Damen is making sounds that would make a brothel whore blush, Laurent locks eyes with Nik over his head. Nikandros appears beyond self-restraint, hips thrusting and wrists rubbed raw against their bonds. Still, he meets Laurent’s eyes, and despite the fact that there is a man between them, this feels like the most intimate experience they have ever shared.

“How does it feel,” Laurent asks him, “to have your Prince on his knees like a back-alley harlot?”

He can see Nikandros’ shuddering breaths in the rise and fall of his chest. The look he gives Laurent is dark. “How does it feel to be a Prince on your knees, Laurent?”

“Wonderful,” Laurent tells him. “Damianos-Exalted takes it so well. You should try him.” Laurent leans forward, drapes himself over Damen and bites at his shoulder.

Laurent wraps a hand around Damianos’ cock, who arches into the contact. Damen moans, the sound deep, and Laurent can see Nik’s legs jerk at the sensation. The three of them devolve into desperate thrusting and breathless gasps that will forever be buried into Laurent’s mind. Laurent closes his eyes, overwhelmed. He’s never felt like this before; consumed by molten flames.

When Damen finds his climax he clenches around Laurent in a way that is too tantalising to resist. It is too much for Laurent, and he comes, spilling inside of Damianos. By the time Laurent has come back to himself, he realises that he has missed Nik’s climax and Damianos is sitting back, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. It’s impressive, Laurent thinks distractedly, that he managed to swallow it all.

There are moments that call for poise and elegance. This is not one of them. Laurent lets himself fall back, exhausted, onto the cold tile. Damianos leans heavily against Nik, resting his head onto one thickly muscled thigh, and Nikandros is silent for a long moment before he lets out a shocked laugh.

“Shit,” he says. The lack of eloquence can be forgiven, as Laurent himself isn’t ready for even one syllable words in this moment.

Damianos laughs as well. “Yes,” he agrees.

“I think,” Laurent manages, looking up at the ceiling. “I may need to lie here for a while.”

“Of course, sweetheart,” Damen says, in a truly affectionate voice.

“Now he blushes,” Nik says, disbelievingly.

Laurent covers his face.

“I’ll untie you in a moment,” Damen tells Nik. “I think between the three of us, we might be able to make it to bed before sunrise.”

-

Laurent is typically a heavy sleeper, but for some reason that morning he wakes up with the sun. Slivers of light break through the gaps in the curtains, and kiss the skin of his lovers. He feels very warm. Damen is sleeping on his stomach, one arm thrown across Laurent’s waist. He is exceedingly beautiful like this, dark eyelashes prominent on sharp cheekbones.

Nik is on Laurent’s other side, but Laurent doesn’t have the opportunity to admire him, as his husband’s face is pressed into the crook of Laurent’s neck. It is a surprise that he can breathe at all like that.

Clingy , Laurent thinks, and then he smiles privately to himself.

It doesn’t take long before Nik, a consistently early riser, starts to stir. He picks up his head, obscured by his mess of dark, wavy hair, and blinks blearily at Laurent.

“Good morning,” Laurent says, quietly so as not to wake Damen.

The corners of Nik’s lips tilt up. “Hello.”

“Did you sleep well?” Laurent asks him, gently tucking his hair behind one ear.

Nik makes a noise of assent. “It is late,” he says. Only Nik can see the barely risen sun as a sign of overindulgence. “I should train.”

“Yes,” Laurent replies. “I won’t love you anymore if you lose all of those ridiculous muscles.”

Nik laughs, quietly.

When he makes an attempt to get up though, Laurent stops him with a hand on his shoulder. “Stay,” Laurent says.

Nik lies back down, and presses a kiss to the side of Laurent’s face.

It doesn’t take Damen long to wake up after that, and when he opens his eyes, he smiles at them automatically. Laurent smiles back.

“Don’t you have training to rush off to, Nik?” he asks, voice rough.

“Laurent is being sweet this morning,” Nikandros replies. “It must be savoured.”

Laurent frowns. “I’m always sweet.”

“You kicked me out of bed once because you wanted to steal my pillow.”

Damen laughs. He looks so happy and comfortable in their bed that Laurent feels a little light headed. He wonders what it would take to trap him here forever.

-

It’s an odd relationship in the way that Laurent and Nikandros are exclusively sleeping with each other and Damianos; while Damianos is… well, Laurent doesn’t ask. Obviously Damen needs to have a wife eventually, and while he seems to like them both very much, Laurent can’t imagine that changing.

Nikandros isn’t a stranger to this. “That’s just who he is,” Nik says one evening, smiling. They’re watching Damianos flirt with a Kyros’ daughter across the hall. “He loves all of his subjects.”

“Yes,” Laurent agrees. “But you’re different, aren’t you?”

“How so?”

“You’ve been together for years. He talks to you like a lover.”

“Hmm,” Nikandros takes a peach from the table and bites into it. “Not really.”

“What do you talk about then?”

“Sports, duty, hunting,” he brushes a strand of hair back from Laurent’s face. “How lovely you are.”

“So nothing of substance then? Even when you were younger you never spoke of being - I don’t know - his primary lover? Or something?”

“You mean like Lady Hypermenestra to King Theomedes?”

“Yes!”

“No,” Nikandros says. He looks away. “I’m more useful to the kingdom as a Kyros than a mistress.”

He puts his loyalty to Akielos before his own personal happiness. Laurent suddenly realises what a mistake his father has made, marrying Laurent off to someone with such good morals. He is glad he tore that letter, he thinks. He will see Auguste and his mother again one day but, not on his father’s call. His own loyalties have to be different now.

“What are you talking about?” Damianos says, seating himself next to Nikandros. He takes Nik’s own chalice of wine and sips from it.

“We were taking bets on whether you’d actually remember the name of the girl you were flirting with,” Nikandros says.

Damianos laughs, then looks over at the girl and back to them. “Kyra?”

“Are you asking me?”

“Kyrina?”

“Kassandra,” Nikandros says.

“I was close!” Damianos declares, somehow not at all embarrassed.

“I’m not sure Kassandra would have felt the same way when you said the wrong name at your climax.” Here, Nikandros gives Laurent a look.

Laurent kicks his ankle under the table, while Damen laughs, oblivious.

“No,” he says. “I was only speaking to her because her father kept dropping hints that she’s of a marriageable age. Did you know she has four older brothers? Apparently that means she’s likely to give me a strong son.” There’s a hint of annoyance in Damen’s voice. His mother died during childbirth - people must remind him of that a lot when trying to sell their daughters to him.

“A strong son,” Nikandros repeats in a light voice. “Perhaps you should marry a Vaskian then, if that’s your goal.”

Damen is smiling again at that. “Oh, didn’t you hear? Apparently the Empress has asked to marry Kastor to her eldest daughter. Apparently his diplomatic efforts in Vask have been impressive.”

“Is King Theomedes going to allow that?” Laurent asks.

Damen shrugs. “I think if Kastor wants it, father will let him.”

“Maybe a leopard will eat him,” Nikandros considers.

Damen playfully punches Nik in the shoulder. “Stop.”

“Why don’t you like him?” Laurent asks.

“I’ll tell you later,” Nikandros says with a frown.

Damianos laughs. “He once cut off Nik’s ponytail when he wasn’t looking. We were children.”

“We were children. Kastor was old enough to know better.”

“Even I was tempted to cut that thing off. You barely combed it.”

“This isn’t about me.” Nik frowns.

“You’ve seriously held a grudge for, what, upwards of ten years?” Laurent says. “What if I cut your hair while you slept?”

“I’d sell you back to the highest bidder.’

“Who would be me,” Damen cuts in, grinning triumphantly. “You should do it, Laurent.”

“It was a mistake letting you two spend time together,” Nik says.

“So you don’t want an invitation to my quarters tonight?” Damen asks.

Nikandros looks to Laurent. Laurent smiles.

“Come to our room tonight,” he says.

Damianos smiles, bright and beautiful. “Until tonight then,” he replies. And then he kisses them both on the head and goes back to talking to his people.

-

Two weeks later, and Damen is spending more nights in their bed than not. Laurent starts to learn new things about him. Like that he is an early riser like Nik, but much easier to convince to stay in bed for longer. He’s also clingy in his sleep, which Laurent finds he quite likes.

One day, Laurent is watching Nik and Pallas have a practice duel in the courtyard, when a group of visitors arrive. Nik approaches Laurent, while the newcomers get off their horses and out of their carriages.

“That’s a small Lord from Aegina, Bemus,” Nikandros murmurs, because he has apparently made it his business to know everyone in Akielos that is even slightly noteworthy. “He’s a friend of the Kyros. He must have business with the King.”

Bemus dismounts from his horse and then waits for the carriage to be opened up by a servant. Out steps a beautiful woman, tall and honey blonde, her skin is almost as pale as Laurent’s. She must avoid the hot Akielon sun religiously.

“Ah,” Nik says, upon sight of her. He gestures Laurent closer. “Damen tends to get distracted a lot by people like her. Don’t take it to heart when it happens; he’ll come back to us.”

Laurent frowns.

-

It turns out not to be a problem, as when the woman - Jokaste - is introduced to Damianos before dinner, he greets her politely, and then spots Laurent and Nik at the table and excuses himself to approach them.

“I have missed you both,” he says brightly, confidently pushing his way in to sit between them. “I wanted us to go riding today, but father is planning a hunt for next week and he wanted my opinion on it.”

“Did that really just happen?” Nikandros asks, sounding shocked.

“What’s wrong?” Damen asks.

That ,” Nik says, gesturing in the direction of where Damen came from. “The woman, Jokaste, she is exactly your type.”

Damen looks confused for a moment and then he looks to where Nikandros had gestured. “Oh. Yes. She’s beautiful.” He turns to Laurent. “I heard that there’s a merchant in the marketplace selling books from all different kingdoms. Would you like to come pay him a visit tomorrow?”

“I’d love to,” Laurent says, smiling.

“Wonderful,” Damen says, signalling a servant for some wine.

Laurent looks at Damen’s comfort sitting between him, and then to Nik’s still shocked face. “I am rather tired tonight,” Laurent says. “Nikandros made me duel him and he wouldn’t even let me cheat.”

“That’s because you keep throwing dirt in my face,” Nik comments, dryly.

“Your actual enemies will fight dirty too, it’s better if you’re prepared for it,” Laurent comments. “But that’s beside the point. I am tired tonight, but if you would like to come to our chambers, Damen, to sleep, you are more than welcome.” Damen only sleeps in their bed on the nights that they all have sex. Laurent wonders whether he’s ever just slept with someone companionably.

“Oh.” Damen smiles. “Yes, alright.”

Laurent takes in his and Nik’s pleasantly surprised expressions and grins at them. After that, Laurent is almost certain that Damianos isn’t fucking anyone else but them because he is in their bed every night.

-

Days pass, and soon it is time for the King’s hunt - which is also the last excuse Laurent and Nikandros have to still be in Ios. None of them have discussed what will happen when they return to Delpha and leave Damianos behind, because it is a matter that can’t be helped.

On the morning of the hunt, they sit at the breakfast table and trade looks while everyone else gossips happily about what excitement the day will bring.

“Will you be attending the hunt, Prince Laurent?” Theomedes asks in a gruff tone.

“I can’t imagine anything more boring,” Laurent says. He may be experiencing strong romantic feelings for Prince Damianos, but Theomedes is a war-mongering brute and Laurent has no intention of impressing him.

Nikandros gives Laurent a look. They went on a hunt in Delpha, at one point. Laurent had a lot of fun, and Nik knows this. He takes a sip of water and pretends not to notice his husband’s raised eyebrow.

Still, Laurent smiles and tries a politer remark. “I’m sure Nikandros will be impressive enough to represent Delfeur on his own.”

“Delpha,” Theomedes says and then turns to Nik. “You’ve been doing good work, Kyros. I hope you don’t feel as if I were trying to punish you with the spouse you were given.”

Nikandros is a loyal idiot, and so he looks flattered at the King’s praise, rather than insulted on Laurent’s behalf. He smiles. “Thank you, Exalted. Prince Laurent has proven to be a very fine husband.”

“Hm. And you will be returning to Delpha tomorrow, yes?”

Nikandros nods. “We thank you for your hospitality, Exalted.”

“Good,” Theomedes replies and then he loses interest in them and finds someone else to converse with.

“Good?” Laurent asks, in a quiet aside to his husband, after Theomedes has left.

“There’s a reason that I was given the furthest place from Ios to be Kyros of,” Nik says, quietly. “The King likes me, but he doesn’t like my… ability to distract Damen. That must extend to you now.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Laurent says. “Although I’ve already thought of no less than five reasons for Damianos to need to visit Delpha in the future.”

Nikandros laughs at that, and then he cups Laurent’s face in his hands and kisses both of his cheeks.

“This is inappropriate,” Laurent says.

Nikandros pulls back. He is smiling. “I think marrying you could be the best thing to ever happen to me.”

“We’re in public,” Laurent reminds him, but he grins back at his husband. When Laurent finally manages to look away from him, he finds Damen watching them.

-

“Are you sure you don’t want to join us?” Damianos says. They stand together in the courtyard while the horses and weapons are being prepared.

“Positive,” Laurent says. “But I’m willing to reward whichever one of you takes down a boar first.”

“Deal,” Damen replies, giving Nik a playfully challenging look.

Laurent kisses Nik quickly as a farewell, and then does the same to Damianos - mostly because he wants to, but also partially because Theomedes is looking over at them and frowning. Laurent shoots him a sunny grin.

-

Laurent sits in the library by the softest couch he can find - which isn’t that soft, because he’s in Akielos after all - and starts writing a letter to Auguste. According to Damen, Auguste is on border duty at the moment and so it may be easier for Laurent to get letters through to him. Failing that, and Laurent will just have to keep sneaking messages into Damen’s correspondence.

It dawns a little more on Laurent every day how some things cannot be expected or predicted. Laurent could never have predicted that he’d end up here - in Akielos, as the husband of a Kyros and the lover of a prince. He definitely hadn’t expected to fall in love with two men (and be fairly certain of their feelings in return). And there is also no way that he could have predicted the servant that runs into the library, looking harried.

The boy is a dark blonde beauty, Erasmus his name is, and he looks close to tears.

Laurent drops his quill. “What has happened?”

Outside, a bell starts ringing. The sound is so loud that Laurent can feel it.

“The King was injured in the hunt,” the boy says.

Laurent stands up. “Injured?” Laurent repeats.

“Theomedes-Exalted is dead.”

-

Another servant comes later, sent by Nikandros, who instructs Laurent to stay in his rooms. Relationships are not so good between the Kingdoms that the Akielon people will want to see a Veretian so soon after their King passing. Nik promises, apparently, that he will return to their rooms in the morning, but apparently for now there is a long walk at dawn to be organised and several other matters before then. The servant makes no mention of how Damen is.

The next morning, when Nik enters the room, he looks drawn and tired. Of course he does, he loved his King more than Laurent loves his own father. Laurent embraces him, unpins his cloak. “Wine?” Laurent asks.

“It is barely past dawn,” Nikandros replies, dropping onto their chaise heavily.

Laurent accepts that, and sits next to his husband, rubs a hand across his arm as a physical sign of support. “Where is Damianos?”

“In his chambers,” Nik replies. “Mourning.”

Laurent sits back a little. “Alone?”

“Yes,” Nik says. “He is mourning.”

“Nikandros,” Laurent chastises. “His father is dead and we’ve left him alone. Did he ask to be left?”

Nikandros gives him an odd look. “This is Akielos,” he says. “We do not make productions out of tragedy. This is the time for quiet.”

Laurent stands up. “That doesn’t mean Damen needs to suffer by himself.”

He gestures for his husband to get up, and then leads the way out of their rooms and towards Damen’s. The halls are quiet, devoid, and the few soldiers that Laurent sees look as if they are heavily upset. Laurent does not have a lot of respect for Theomedes  but he can see that the people of Ios at least must have truly loved their King. It is almost haunting to the walk these halls with only his footsteps making noise, and witness the heartbreak that permeates the very air itself.

The guards do not stop Laurent and Nikandros from pushing their way through the doors to Damen’s chambers.

Damen is sitting on his bed, shoulders hunched and his hands covering his face. He looks so small and so hurt like this, that it sends an arrow into Laurent’s heart. What’s worse is that Damen hears them enter and looks up, attempts to put a mask in place. The ideas of masculinity in this kingdom are shocking.

Laurent’s father cried publicly at Laurent’s uncle’s funeral, and the people knew that was a proper reaction. What King can be trusted to love his people, if he does not show love for his family as well?

“Do you need something?” Damen asks, voice rough.

“Oh, Damen,” Laurent says softly. And he steps over to him and takes Damen’s head in his hands so that he can cradle it against his chest.

Nikandros hesitantly comes to sit beside Damen, and rests a hand on his back.

“It is okay to grieve,” Laurent tells him. “We already know you are strong and brave and wonderful, we will not judge you for feeling your pain. We will stay for as long as you need us to.”

Damen is stiff against him for a very long moment and then something in him lets go and he falls bodily against Laurent’s chest, wraps his arms around his waist, and shudders.

Eventually Damen has to wipe his face and go talk to the people, let them see that while Theomedes is dead, they will still have a King who is strong and who they can place their trust in. Damen is particularly talented at hiding his own suffering in order to ease that of others. Laurent is sure he is the only person in the capital not struck with grief.

Once the necessary duties are done, Nikandros and Laurent stay by Damen’s side as he returns to his rooms. They have an early night, and Laurent is thankful once again that the bed is large enough to fit three grown men in it, side by side.

-

Damen’s illegitimate older brother, Kastor, arrives the day that Damen is crowned. He looks somewhat like an older version of Damen - just sans dimples and with a thick beard. His eyes aren’t as nice either. And he doesn’t have the raw, alluring charisma that Damianos exudes.

They go to the Kingsmeet, where Damen is laurelled and officially takes the title of King. Nikandros is the very first man to kneel at his feet and pledge loyalty, and Laurent can hear so much unadulterated love in his voice that Laurent should feel jealous, but instead he feels proud. It is an odd moment of optimism, where Laurent feels as if they will all truly support each other no matter what hardships are to come.

There is an order to these things, and so Laurent watches and waits as all the important men and women take the opportunity to officially pledge themselves to their new king. He watches Kastor carefully when he makes his pledge, as Nik had informed Laurent earlier that he does not trust the man when it comes to Damen’s throne, but he seems genuine enough.

Laurent will not kneel here, as it is not a place he holds sacred, but he thinks he might fall to his knees when they get back to Damen’s chambers and pay a different kind of offering to the king of Akielos.

-

“Let’s make a bargain,” Jokaste says.

“You have nothing I want.” Laurent turns a page. He is in the library, a place he will have to stop going now that people apparently know to find him there.

“I have something you need,” she replies. She sounds certain enough that Laurent looks up at her.

“Well?” he prompts. “I don’t have all day.”

“You and your husband are King Damianos’ lovers,” Jokaste begins. She comes to take the seat next to Laurent, uninvited. “Everyone knows that he is smitten. But there will come a day when he needs a wife, or children, at least.”

“And you are here to offer your womb?”

Jokaste laughs, “When you put it like that…”

“Why?”

“Hmm?”

“Why would you voluntarily offer to be in a loveless match, for the sole purpose of breeding children? Is that a common aspiration in Akielos?”

Jokaste looks at him for a very long moment, and Laurent can practically see her deciding on how honestly to reply. When she finally does reply, he suspects it is honest enough. “You are a man, and a Prince, so you can’t truly understand. But my future, and the future happiness of my younger sisters, depends on me securing a favourable match. I am willing to trade the love of a husband for the love of my family, and my future children.”

“And so you’ve come to me,” Laurent says.

“Damianos is too in love with you to consider me realistically. And your husband is… well, I thought you would be the most reasonable. I’m sure you can relate with family pressure.”

“I suppose so,” Laurent looks at her for a long moment. “How about a trial?”

She sits down, next to him on the couch. “I’m listening.”

“Damianos needs a wife who supports him. His rule is new at the moment, it is the riskiest time for him. You and I need to discreetly ascertain where all the kyros and people of import stand regarding their new King. And then we need to secure the favour of those who are not yet making the right decisions.”

“You are worried about his rule?”

“He is, and will be, a fine King. I’m just making the road a little easier for him.”

“Alright,” Jokaste says.

After that, they make quite a team. Laurent has no intention of introducing Jokaste to Damen as an option - a three person relationship is enough for him at the moment - but he can think of other plans for Jokaste. She turns out to be an able diplomat. She charms people with ease, and knows how to subtly maneuver them into saying things they shouldn’t.

It takes them two weeks together to build a list of where everyone stands. Damen is beautiful, strong, and well-loved, most people are happy for his kingship. There are some who are worried about what the new leadership will mean for other deals that were in the works with Theomedes, but that will be easy to help Damen with. It’s all very underhanded work. Jokaste would make a fine Veretian.

“How did my trial go?” Jokaste asks him, later.

Laurent smiles. “I am sure I can find you a position that suits your abilities,” he promises.

-

Laurent is woken one -very early- morning to the sound of soft spoken voices. Damen and Nik are both awake, it appears, and doing their best to have a conversation without disturbing him. Their best isn’t good enough, Laurent thinks.

“No,” Laurent murmurs, knowing it comes out whiny with how tired he is. “The sun isn’t even up yet.”

Damen, who is in the middle, is lying on his stomach and propped up on his elbows. He looks at Laurent. “We were trying to be quiet,” he says, apologetically. He presses a kiss to Laurent’s forehead.

“What’s so important that you have to speak of it now?”

“We couldn’t sleep,” Damen says, at the same time that Nik says: “The future”.

Laurent opens his eyes properly.

“I have to go check on Delpha,” Nik continues. “It’s been too long.” Especially after their trip back was postponed from Theomedes’ death.

There’s a definitive lack of the word ‘we’ here. “Are you leaving me behind?”

“No,” Nik says, “but it’s up to you if you want to go back there, or stay here, or move between the two.”

Damen makes a softly pained noise. “I don’t think I can bear either of you leaving me.”

“I can’t stay,” Nik says quietly, “you know that.”

Damianos closes his eyes. “I know,” he says, and then he lies back in the bed and holds one of their hands each. “I should thank you both,” Damen continues, eyes still closed. He is talking with some difficulty. “These past days have been very hard, but not as hard as they would have been without you. I am truly grateful that you two have found room for me to know you in these few weeks.”

Weeks, Laurent thinks with some shock. It has felt like much longer. And then he thinks of the way that Damianos is talking, as if he doesn’t expect them to want to continue on with him when they go back to Delpha.

“I think I have an idea,” Laurent says, slowly.

Nik and Damen both look at him, startled by the change in conversation.

“The Kyros of Ios is old, and he wants to retire soon so that he can spend more time with his daughter, who lives in the country with her husband,” Laurent says. “He will need a replacement. We could stay here. All of us.”

“I can’t ask you to leave your home for me,” Damen says.

“I don’t care about that.” Nik makes a gesture as if to wave the concern away. Damen gives him a charmed look.

Laurent continues: “I have been spending time with someone lately who has proven to be a cunning diplomat and strategist. They are untested, but I believe if Nikandros returned with them to Delpha to guide them, for perhaps a month or two, they will excel.”

“What is his name?” Damen asks.

“Jokaste of Aegina.”

There’s a long pause.

“The woman,” Nikandros says, in a tone as if there is only one woman in all of Akielos and he is not fond of her.

“Truly,” Laurent says. “She is very intelligent, and ambitious. She wants the power to support her sisters, and becoming Kyros would give her that as well as freedom. I think she will benefit the kingdom greatly.”

Damen looks deep in thought. Laurent lets him think. It’s a lot, but he hopes the temptation of getting to keep Laurent and Nik close for as long as he wants will be enough. Perhaps Damen is not as serious as Laurent is?

“Yes,” Damen says, and he smiles. “Nik, you take her to Delpha and teach her whatever she needs to know. If she shows promise at the end of the month, then I will appoint her Kyros in time. I trust your judgement on the matter.”

“You agree?” Laurent checks. “You want us to stay with you?”

Damen’s expression is incredulous. “I haven’t been able to even think of anyone else since I first realised how much I wanted to be between you both.”

Laurent feels the corners of his mouth tipping up without his control. “Since the first time we were all…together?”

“No,” Damen replies. “Do you remember when you both had just arrived in Ios? You hadn’t noticed that I was there yet, and there was so much happiness and love between you. At first I had thought it was jealousy, that I was so used to thinking of Nikandros as mine - even if it was never mutual - that seeing you together–”

“What do you mean it wasn’t mutual?” Nikandros interrupts. He shifts in the bed to face Damen more fully.

Damen looks almost embarrassed. “Just that when we were younger I was always the one chasing after you.”

Nik blinks. “It would have been improper not to let you lead.”

“I know that’s how you felt in bed,” Damen says awkwardly. Laurent rolls his eyes because he knows exactly what’s happening here and it turns out he has fallen for the two stupidest men in two kingdoms. “But emotionally I’ve always been more involved than you.”

“What,” Nik says, “are you talking about?”

“Every time I tried to bring up our feelings you’d remind me of my duty to have children and marry.”

“…I thought…” Nik closes his eyes and lets his head fall back against the pillow. He is smiling, suddenly. “I thought you were trying to tell me nicely not to get too invested in what we were doing. I was reminding you that I knew I couldn’t keep you for myself.”

“I asked you to refuse my father when he asked you if you’d marry for the alliance,” Damen says.

“That was out of friendship,” Nik’s voice makes it clear that he now understands how wrong his own point of view was; he’s almost grinning now.

“You’re both idiots,” Laurent says, affectionately. “And I am insulted that you tried to talk him out of marrying me.”

Damen laughs. “I am glad that he didn’t listen.”

“What if we just all agree that we love each other, and then continue on with as much dignity as we can salvage?” Laurent suggests.

“What dignity?” Damen asks.

“I was being generous in my wording. I’m well aware I’m the only one here with any of that.”

Damen rolls on top of him. “What was that?” he asks, a playful challenge in his voice as he pins Laurent down.

“You heard me,” Laurent replies.

Damen kisses him suddenly, several times across the face in quick succession until Laurent cannot breathe through his laughter.

“Stop,” he begs, “I yield. This is embarrassing.”

Damen just accelerates his pecks, all over Laurent’s cheeks and forehead and eyelids.

“I’ll go start planning my trip back to Delpha then,” Nik says, a smile in his voice. “While you two are occupied.”

That is enough to get Damen to stop. He casts Laurent a conspiring look. No words are needed between them to decide on a plan. They both dive across the bed for Nikandros, to pull him back towards them. They know they can keep him occupied together until the soldiers waiting on their morning drills are bullying each other into convincing one of them to come and see what’s stopped Nik from showing up to instruct them. Laurent is willing to bet they can keep him even after that.

-

Days later, when it comes time for Nikandros to make his temporary return to Delpha with a very pleased Jokaste, they stand in the courtyard together to bid him a temporary farewell. Nik kisses both of Laurent’s cheeks - which Laurent manages to endure with minimal blushing - and then turns to give Damen the same treatment.

“Look after each other,” he says.

Oh ,” Damen replies, “I was actually planning on throwing Laurent off the nearest ledge in your absence.”

“You won’t have the strength after I’ve poisoned your wine,” Laurent says, nonchalantly.

Nikandros smiles at them affectionately. He has smiled a lot in recent weeks, Laurent thinks, when he remembers how serious and stern Nik had seemed when Laurent had first met him. Not that he can be blamed - Laurent too feels unreasonably happy now. He is perhaps the happiest he has ever been.

Nikandros climbs atop his horse, and then Damen and Laurent are watching him go. Laurent can still feel the warmth of Nik’s lips upon his cheeks, and he can definitely feel Damen’s hand in his. He turns to say something to Damen, when his eyes fall upon someone else in the crowd.

Chauvin looks as he did last time he came bearing one of Aleron’s letters. He is looking directly at Laurent. Laurent feels, quite suddenly, a very keen sense of foreboding. Chauvin smiles.

-

Chauvin doesn’t even try to approach Laurent that day, which is both unnerving and a little relieving. Perhaps he’s just here to spy on Laurent for his father. But no, that’s naive and hardly worth the effort of his father. There are two possible options that Laurent sees as likely. Either his father has sent another demand for Laurent, or he’s realised that Laurent is ignoring the letters and is going to punish him in some way. Maybe he’ll get dragged back to Vere for the trial that he narrowly avoided a couple of years ago.

Damen, blissfully oblivious to Laurent’s internal worries, requests a private lunch for them together in his private gardens. Damianos is a man made to be in the sun, his dark skin glows in the light and he is a sight to behold. Laurent tries to focus on that, rather than what may be happening with Chauvin.

“My father,” Damen says in a soft voice, “had these gardens made for my mother.”

Damen is clearly still mourning his father’s death, but lately the burden has seemed a little lighter, as if he has decided to concentrate on the best memories. “It’s beautiful here,” Laurent says. There are picnicking - an unexpectedly sweet gesture on Damen’s behalf, especially when the intention here seems to be genuinely picnicking, rather than a ruse to fuck in the open like it would be in Vere.

“Have you been towards the East wing of the palace?” Damen asks. “I suppose not. It’s where Hypermenstra lived when she was alive.”

“I haven’t,” Laurent agrees.

“I am trying to decide,” Damen says, “what quarters to give you and Nikandros. If you would like to live in the palace, that is? You’ll obviously be given your own lands, suitable for a Kyros of Ios.”

“I had assumed we would live here, with you. That is the point of all of this maneuvering after all.”

Damen smiles. “Good,” he says. Then, seemingly moving onto his next topic, “What would you have done in Vere, had you not been married to Nik?”

Laurent picks a blade of grass, twirls it between his fingers. “It was my hope,” he says, a little wistfully, “that I would be an advisor for my brother when he became king.”

“I have noticed that you are well-versed in statesmanship,” Damianos agrees, as if this is the answer he expected. “And I thought I’d ask if you wanted a position like that in Ios. My father always advised me to surround myself with men I could trust.”

He says it like it’s an easy thing - to declare trust for a foreigner who he met only months ago - and Laurent is struck speechless for a moment. He, almost overcome, irrationally considers just telling Damen everything that is going on which Chauvin and Aleron. Perhaps Damen will sympathise, and they can take this on together. Except. Except Damen would not keep the information from Nik, and Nikandros would not forgive Laurent for the early manipulations that occured in their relationship.

He will take care of Chauvin - and his father - himself, and then they can truly build a future together.

Laurent smiles, slowly at his lover. “The only position I want right now,” he says, “is to be lying under you.”

Damen’s soft expression shifts into something more assured. It’s undeniably attractive. “We are outside,” he says, but he doesn’t sound displeased with the idea. In fact, he is leaning towards Laurent now.

“Lucky you brought that dipping oil for the bread,” Laurent replies.

“I want to make an offer,” Damen says.

“Are you trying to negotiate bed play with me right now?”

Damen is undeterred by Laurent’s amusement. “I know you are more comfortable when you are in control, but I would like for us to try it my way.”

“Have you not liked what we’ve been doing so far?”

“I treasure every moment you let me spend in your company. I have liked everything. May I show you a different way?”

He’s so sincere and beautiful. Laurent would probably be up for anything at this point. “Different how?”

Damen kisses him, very sweetly on the mouth. Then he kisses him again. This extends for an indeterminable amount of time, and then Damen undoes only the top of Laurent’s jacket so that he can make a path down Laurent’s neck with his lips. Laurent thinks that Damen is taking long enough that they could have fucked and redressed in the same amount of time. He feels unsteady.

“Don’t think so much,” Damen says, gently. “I adore you. I want you to feel that in every touch so that you never doubt my sincerity when I say it.”

“Okay,” Laurent says, breathless despite how little they’ve done. “Let’s do it your way.”

-

After Damen has taken his time taking Laurent apart in the sunlight, Laurent allows him to leave to do whatever Kingly business he has been putting off, and then continues to lie down in the grass, only partially redressed.

He feels the bizarre urge to write a letter to Nikandros, chastising him for not warning Laurent that Damianos could be like that . But then he also thinks once he took a quill to paper, the only thing he would be able to write to describe such an experience would be a series of exclamation marks. He also thinks that he could send that, and Nikandros would understand completely.

Eventually though, Laurent manages to recover his senses, and he redresses and then leaves the gardens. He wishes that he could just stay there, among the flowers forever, but he has to deal with Chauvin first before he indulges in any such fantasies.

He finds the man in town, drinking at the Inn where he’s probably staying.

“You took your time,” Chauvin says, when Laurent takes the seat next to him.

“There are more important things than you,” Laurent tells him. He accepts a cup of wine from the barmaid, out of politeness than any intention to actually drink. “Out with it.”

Chauvin smiles. “I have a message from your father,” he says. “It is spoken, as some things shouldn’t be written down.”

“Get to the point,” Laurent demands.

“Your father wished for me to congratulate you on dispatching Theomedes so quickly, and leaving the Akielons with no suspicions.”

If Laurent were any less than Veretian royalty, he thinks he would not have been able to hide his surprise. Laurent can only assume this means that the letter he tore up contained instructions to murder King Theomedes. Laurent forces his expression to stay impassive. “Is that all?”

“No.” Chauvin is outright grinning now. “He also wants you to know that he is impressed by your initiative to whore yourself out to Damianos and gain his favour. Once Damianos is taken care of, Akielos will be unstable enough to be ripe for the taking.”

“Father wants me to-” Laurent begins, and then cuts himself off before he says it.

“You should murder your Kyros husband as well,” Chauvin says, easily. “Just to close all loose ends. I’ll be waiting here in the capital to escape you back to Arles once the deed is done. Then you can be reunited with your family again.”

Laurent is silent for a long moment. “How much time do I have?”

“Two months,” Chauvin replies. “If you somehow haven’t succeeded by then, there are a few backup measures in place.”

Laurent stands up. He needs to get out of here. “I understand,” he says, and then makes his hurried exit. He is at the door when Chauvin calls back to him.

“I have something else for you,” Chauvin says. He comes over and presses a vial into Laurent’s hands. “I heard this is your preferred method.”

“What is this?” Laurent asks, hands closing around the vial. He already knows, he just wasn’t aware that Chauvin also knew.

“Poison,” Chauvin replies. “The same kind you used to murder your uncle with.”

-

That evening, he considers going back to that inn where he found Chauvin, and poisoning his food. He would deserve it, for asking this of Laurent. But, he mentioned having back up plans waiting, and Laurent cannot risk Chauvin’s death setting one of them off. He needs to make a counterattack, he needs to figure out what his father could have organised.

“Are you well?” Damen asks, while seeing to his evening correspondence at his desk.

Laurent is sitting on the bed, absentmindedly twisting the sheets in his hands while he thinks. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You’re being very quiet,” Damen replies. He looks concerned, because he is too good for Laurent.

Laurent sighs. “Do you trust the guards you have on the doors?”

Damen looks to him at that. “Should I be concerned?”

“You’re a new king,” Laurent replies, “and your brother is here. Such things might encourage someone to act against you.”

Damen stands up, pushing his chair up slowly. He walks over to the bed and stops in front of Laurent. Like this, his height is formidable. He looks stern. “Has Nikandros been talking to you of my brother?”

(“I don’t trust him,” Nikandros had said, “He has everything to gain if Damen were to lose.”)

“I’m not saying your brother is plotting against you. Just that someone who prefers him might consider it on his behalf.”

Damen shakes his head. “This isn’t Vere, Laurent. There are no plots. The people know I am going to do my best for them, and they trust me for it. I trust them in return. You don’t have a reason to worry.”

Laurent looks down at the sheets thoughtfully. All of the bedding in Akielos is white, from what Laurent has seen so far. So are the curtains, and the walls, and the tiles. Everything here is so clean and bright, he can’t blame Damen for growing up in such a place and being so naively optimistic. “You’re right,” Laurent allows. He closes his eyes. “But you are very important to me, personally, and I would sleep better at night if I knew you were always surrounded by men that can be faithfully trusted. Call it my Veretian sensibilities, but would you consider taking on a few more people, for me? Pallas and Atkis are still in Ios, and I know explicitly of their good opinions of you.”

Damen, thankfully, has stopped looking chastising and now has taken on the aura of someone that is charmed instead. He is smiling slightly. “You worry for me?”

Laurent gazes at him steadily. “I do.”

“I’ll add them to my personal guard, at least until Nik is back,” Damen replies, “for you.”

Damen reaches down and trails the sharp line of Laurent’s cheekbone with gentle fingers. “Thank you,” Laurent says.  

-

The next day, he sets to work. He arranges a lunch with all the wives and lovers of any important man who has reason not to fully support Damen, and gets them all tipsy on an expensive imported Veretian wine, until they’re all laughing and gossiping to their heart’s content. He is relatively certain that he and Jokaste have already taken care of any potential dissenters, but it is better to be safe after Chauvin’s threat.

His days take on a new form - every morning he wakes when Damen does and follows him to the training yard for the morning exercise. He justifies this by joining in, and makes sure to downplay his swordsmanship abilities. After that they bathe together, and take breakfast. Then while Damen is off doing his kingly duties under guard, Laurent scopes out everywhere that Damen will go that day to make sure it is safe.

He keeps track of the kitchen staff’s rotations, and what servants see to Damen’s personal property. He makes sure the poison tasters are being dedicated to their duties, and that the horses are well-looked after. Laurent convinces Pallas a part of his guard duties is to check a series of places where archers might set up every few hours.

And then at the end of each day, Damen comes to bed and he asks “What did you do today?”, and Laurent smiles sweetly, and says “Nothing.”

-

After a week, Laurent hasn’t found a thing. He doesn’t even know if he can trust Chauvin’s two month allowance, and then he considers that perhaps the man is bluffing and there are no plans to foil at all. He revisits the murdering Chauvin idea. It is difficult to make any drastic choices when the consequences will only fall upon the men that he loves.

In the end, this isn’t something he can deal with on his own. He doesn’t have the resources or the standing in this country to make a truly protect Damen. He sits down at the desk in Damen’s rooms, while Damen is in a meeting of some sort, and starts to write a letter. It is time for Laurent to tell the truth. In the end, having the love of Nikandros and Damen isn’t worth the risk of them losing their lives. It is better if they hate him for being a part in his father’s machinations than letting them get killed by Chauvin’s plan, whatever it may be.

My beloved husband, he writes. Please come back with haste. There is something important that must only be discussed in person.

That night, when Damen comes back for the evening, Laurent kisses both of his cheeks. “Make love to me like you did in the gardens,” he says, and he tries very hard not to feel like he needs to savour these moments while he still can.

-

For all that Laurent is aware that Kastor is in Ios, he doesn’t get many opportunities to see him. It is five days after Laurent has sent his letter to Nik, that he finally happens upon Kastor alone, in the palace gardens.

“Prince Kastor,” Laurent says.

Kastor opens his eyes from where he is apparently taking a nap on the grass. Laurent considers informing him of the events that have happened on that very patch of grass.

“Ah, the Veretian bride.” Kastor winces and sits up. “And here I was finally relaxing.”

“In Vere,” Laurent says, “we have good reason for hating bastards. Especially royal ones.”

Kastor rolls his eyes and makes an expression as if he believes he is dealing with an unruly child. “I’ve looked in your history books, and plenty of true born men have meddled in your line of succession. Your bias is faulted.”

“I’m not here to discuss history with you.”

“Are Veretian men so poor,” Kastor says, “that you are a slut for all Akielons? If you’re trying to add a third man into your harem, consider this my refusal.”

“You’d know all about harems, with that Vaskian fiancee of yours. I heard the empress has a hundred men. Is that how many you’ll share your own wife with, do you think?”

“So you didn’t come here to discuss history, just to antagonise me?” Kastor is outright scowling now. Laurent dislikes him very much.

“I came here to tell you that I don’t trust you,” Laurent says. “And I am Veretian, as you know, and that means I am very talented at making plans that you would not even consider.”

Kastor stands up at this and Laurent has the brief thought that it is lucky that the bastard is unarmed. “Are you threatening me?”

“No,” Laurent replies, coolly. “It is only a threat if you ever try anything to hurt Damen’s reign-”

“He is my brother,” Kastor hisses. “You barely know him. You have no right to come here and pretend as if I am the one who can’t be trusted, you little-”

“There you are!” Damen says, stepping through a copse of trees. And right behind him is-

“Nikandros!” Laurent steps towards them, forgetting about Kastor. “You’re here.”

Nik raises an eyebrow. “You sent me a rather urgent letter requesting I come back.”

“I thought you’d take longer,” Laurent admits.

“You called me beloved,” Nik says dryly, “I thought that palace might be on fire. What were you and Kastor talking about? It looked heated.”

“How stupid Veretians are,” Kastor replies, haughtily. He turns to Damen. “Surely even his appearance doesn’t make up for the fact that he spits venom.”

Damen smiles as if this is just gentle brotherly teasing. Maybe it is. “I like him,” Damen admits.

“The venom is a perk,” Nikandros says, with the fakest smile Laurent has ever seen. “Especially when directed at you.”

“Careful,” Kastor warns, “or I’ll find the scissors again.”

Damen laughs and pats Nik’s shoulder affectionately. “I have an audience to get to,” he says. “Kastor, why don’t you come too? I fear what will happen if I leave the three of you together.”

They leave together, and then it is just Laurent and Nikandros in the gardens. Laurent feels suddenly nervous.

“You had something to tell me?” Nik asks. He looks serious. He obviously knew it was serious with how quickly he got here.

“How is Jokaste doing as Kyros?” Laurent stalls. He wasn’t prepared for Nik to be here so soon. There’s meant to be more time.

“Surprisingly well,” Nik replies. “She won Makedon over.”

“Did she drink him under the table?”

“No, she took part in his morning drills. She struggled a lot at first, but it impressed Makedon that she didn’t give up.”

“That’s good,” Laurent replies. Even if Nik sends Laurent away, at least that means Nik will be able to stay with Damen rather than have to go back to Delpha.

“Laurent.”

“I want to discuss it with you both,” Laurent tells him. “At the same time. It’ll be easier like that.”

“You fill me with absolute dread sometimes,” Nik replies, but he accepts the answer. “Come back to our rooms with me, then. I’m exhausted, you can catch me up on what has been happening while I rest.”

-

Nikandros lies down on the couch in their room, his head on Laurent’s lap, while Laurent tries to think of something to say that isn’t “my father wants me to kill you and Damen”.

“You’re quiet,” Nik says. His eyes are closed because Laurent is stroking his hair, and Laurent has long ago learned that Nik is powerless to such an action. “It’s concerning. Can you give me a hint at least, while we wait for Damen to finish?”

Laurent purses his lips. “I missed you,” Laurent says. “More than I thought I would. Do you find it odd that we’ve only known each other a few months? It feels like longer.”

“I know you well enough at least,” Nik says slowly, “to know that you’re nervous.”

There will be no distracting him then. “I think it’s time that I told you both why my father hates me.”

Nikandros sits up at that and turns to face Laurent. He looks suspicious. “Why now?”

Laurent doesn’t know what to reply, but he is saved by a knock at the door. It’s Pallas.

“What is it?” Nik asks, sounding impatient for the interruption.

“Damianos-Exalted has asked for you both in the throne room,” Pallas says, nervously. Despite the fact that he is addressing them both, he only looks at Nikandros.

-

When they enter the throne room, it is silent. There are several guards in the room, as well as Kastor and Damen. Before them stands Chauvin. Everyone turns when Laurent and Nikandros enter, and Chauvin - looking so falsey sincere that Laurent almost recoils in disgust - immediately starts speaking.

“It is with a heavy heart that I do this, your majesty,” he says to Damen. “But I must-”

Damen holds up a hand, and he is so formidable and natural in his rule that Chauvin immediately stops speaking.

“Pallas, you stay,” Damen says. He doesn’t even have to finish the command, the rest of the guards hear the order anyway and file out of the room. The door shuts with a resounding clang.

It is only then that Damen acknowledges Chauvin. “You better have unarguable proof of your accusations, or I will personally see you executed.”

Chauvin, already pale, goes white.

“Save our time,” Laurent says, “and execute him now. Chauvin has never been particularly trustworthy.”

There’s something very tense in the set of Damen’s jaw and the line of his shoulders. “It is not your time to talk, Laurent,” Damen says. He doesn’t even look at Laurent. That’s definitely not good.

“I have proof of my claims,” Chauvin announces, once it’s clear that no one else is going to speak. “I would not make them otherwise. King Aleron was concerned when Laurent stopped replying to his letter, and then when I reported that the last one I delivered was torn up, he bid me to come here and make sure that Laurent was still acting with the alliance in mind.”

If Chauvin knows that the last letter was torn up, then he also knows that Laurent never saw the instruction to murder Theomedes. Laurent closes his eyes for one long moment. Chauvin knows that Laurent didn’t kill the King. Which means Laurent has been playing right into his hands. The real plan hits Laurent with sudden clarity now that it is too late to stop.

“Get to your point,” Damen demands. “And you will address your prince by his title.”

Chauvin nods. “I came back here in secrecy, and I found that my King’s worst suspicions were true. Prince Laurent is a traitor to the alliance.” Chauvin reaches into the inner pocket of his riding jacket and pulls out a stack of papers. “Here, I have a list of all the people that I have witnessed him meeting with - all people who are known to be disgruntled with your recent ascenion, your majesty. I also have a list of witnesses and servants who overheard the ideas of rebellion that was discussed.”

Aleron must have told Chauvin to bring up the threat of his back-up plan to Laurent, so that Laurent would indeed meet with all of these people. There was a time when Laurent had thought his father’s (and his late uncle’s, for that matter) talent for manipulation was impressive rather than disgusting.

“Witnesses can be paid for,” Damen waves his hand dismissively. “Next.”

Chauvin, visibly surprised by the obvious disregard, takes a moment to regather his senses. Or whatever it is that happens in his excuse for a brain, as it certainly isn’t sense. Laurent should have poisoned him when he had the chance.

“I also have,” Chauvin looks down at the papers in his hands. “A letter from Prince Laurent himself, that was sent to Theomedes. It involves information on your soldiers, training regimes, and general strategies.”

“It isn’t sealed,” Damen counters, “and forgeries are easy.”

Laurent wonders whether he might win this on Damen’s blind faith alone. Then Nikandros clears his throat.

“That particular letter is not a forgery,” Nikandros says. “It is from early in my marriage. I check all of Laurent’s correspondence before I allowed it to be sent. It had nothing in it that Aleron wouldn’t already know.”

As natural of a leader as Damen is, he’s also inept at hiding his own thoughts. He looks disbelievingly at where Laurent and Nik are standing. Laurent would be giving Nik the same look if he weren’t better at schooling his features.

“It was the only letter sent,” Nik continues. “I told King Theomedes and he asked me to invite Laurent into my daily business and see if he tried to pass any of that on. He didn’t.”

It’s hardly damning evidence, but it’s admittance as genuine is enough to shake Damen’s confidence a little. He looks back to Chauvin. “What else?” he says, shortly.

“King Aleron also gave me permission to share this, as proof of Prince Laurent’s lack of moral character.” This time, the letter is sealed. Laurent knows exactly what it is. He is going to murder Chauvin with his bare hands, and then he is going to hunt down his father.

“What is it?”

“A written confession by Prince Laurent, confessing to the murder of his uncle.”

“Is that true?” Damen asks. He asks it to Laurent.

“My uncle was a vile, wretched man,” Laurent says, through clenched teeth. Laurent can sense Nikandros taking a step back, away from him.

“He was a pillar of our community,” Chauvin declares. “His only endeavours were charitable.”

“He fucked little boys, while men like you guarded his door,” Laurent snaps. But no, anger isn’t helpful here. As quickly as the rage built in him, Laurent forces it to drop, turns to Damen and Nikandros. “My uncle was raping children and then discarding them when their voices broke. My friend, Aimeric, he– I told my father about it when I found out and my father refused to act. So yes, I killed my uncle. I would do it again.”

“That is the grievance that had your father send you to Akielos,” Nikandros says, faintly. “Why wouldn’t you tell me what it was?”

“How could I?” Laurent asks. “How could you love me if you knew I had put poison in my own uncle’s wine like a coward?”

He shouldn’t have been caught either. It had all been planned out –

“It doesn’t matter,” Damianos announces. “That crime was not in my Kingdom, and Aleron has already dispensed with his justice. What else is there?”

“More letters,” Chauvin says. “They are opened but you will see that they are in the same hand as the ones that Prince Laurent is known to have written. It is correspondence that clearly shows Laurent planned for the death of King Theomedes-”

“That isn’t true,” Laurent interjects, fiercely.

“- and is planning for your own death, your majesty.” Chauvin barrels on. “The recipient of the letters is your brother, Prince Kastor.”

There is a commotion, where Kastor jumps from his seat - where he had been lounging with an air of dark amusement at the proceedings - and launches towards Chauvin. Chauvin skitters back, even as Pallas and Nik step between them.

“How dare you?” Kastor hisses. “You fucking snake. I will see your head spiked.”

“Kastor!” Damianos says, voice booming. “Stand down.”

Kastor shakes off the restraining arm that Nikandros has on him and obediently takes a step back. “The Veretian is a fucking liar,” Kastor spits.

“Give me the letters,” Damen commands, holding an impatient hand out towards Chauvin. Chauvin obeys.

Damen looks down at the paper in his hands, skim reading it with a furrowed brow.

Alone, this supposed evidence is nothing. But all together, and with some pieces verified, it is too much to look past.

“I have one more thing,” Chauvin says. He pulls a final piece of paper from his jacket, this one is closed with a fine, deep blue wax seal. The seal of King Aleron. “King Aleron has written you a personal letter, to make sure you know that if Laurent is found guilty of treason and dealt with accordingly, he will still honour the alliance between the kingdoms.”

Laurent knows that promise isn’t true. He can see his father’s plan fully now. With Laurent out of the way, there will be no one who is used to Veretian deception to help protect Damen. With Kastor also locked up or executed, there will be chaos when Aleron has Damen assassinated. There will be no clear successor to the throne; Akielos will be thrust into chaos, and his father will finally have the advantage he needs to bring war.

-

The cell Laurent is put in is made of rough stone and barred walls, and it is in general not a very nice place to be. Damen had wanted to lock Kastor and Laurent away to their rooms, but Laurent had insisted it be the cells beneath the palace. Damen cannot look weak just because his alleged traitors are people he loves. Or loved. Laurent is not so sure what the expression on Damen’s face had meant.

A loud clanging of the main door opening and closing rings out through the cells, the sound of footsteps immediately following it. Laurent looks through the bars and waits until the visitor stops outside his cell. Even in the dim lighting, he can make out Nikandros’ form. His straight backed silhouette is intimately familiar to Laurent.

“Nik,” Laurent says, quietly. He stands and moves closer to the bars, to see him clearer, but Nik takes a step back. Laurent stops. He isn’t entirely sure of the time, but it has taken at least a few hours for Nikandros to come here.

“I wanted answers,” he replies. He sounds weary, of course he does.

“I won’t lie to you,” Laurent promises, despite how little good it will surely do.

Nikandros purses his lips. “You barely even tried to defend yourself, when that Veretian was slinging accusations at you. What am I to think of that?”

“I didn’t want to try until I heard all that he had against me,” Laurent shrugs, pretends that he isn’t overly concerned. “Damen was quicker to lock me up then I thought he would be.”

Nik’s fists keep clenching, his gaze is hard. Laurent hasn’t seen him truly angry before this moment. “Did you kill him?” Nikandros hisses.

“Be more specific,” Laurent replies. “There were a lot of accusations today.”

“I am not in the mood for this.”

Laurent sighs. “My uncle? Yes. Theomedes? No.”

“Were you colluding with Kastor?”

“No,” Laurent says. “Of course not. The only time I have spoken to him is when you happened upon us, and that was coincidence.”

“I told you I didn’t trust him, and then I caught you seeking him out in the gardens alone.”

Kastor makes an insulted noise from a cell over. “You warned him against me? I cut your hair once and we were children.”

“No,” Nikandros barely spares Kastor a glance. “ Damen and I were children. Just like we were when you stabbed Damen in his first duel with a real blade.”

“The way he was swinging that knife around in excitement,” Kastor argues, “it’s a miracle he was only wounded.”

“You stabbed him?” Laurent asks, horrified.

“He walked it off.” Kastor waves a hand dismissively.

“Laurent,” Nikandros insists. “You went hunting with me in Delpha. Why did you pretend you didn’t want to when King Theomedes invited you? And then you happened to be alone, unmonitored when he was killed.”

“I am not so powerful that I can cause a hunting accident, although thank you for your faith in my abilities, husband.”

“Don’t call me that,” Nikandros snaps. He looks shocked at his own words then, and takes another step back.

Laurent doesn’t know what his own expression is doing, he just knows that there is an awful feeling in his chest, and it must be bad because Nikandros looks away from him.

“These accusations don’t make sense,” Laurent tries, quietly. “If I had wanted Damen dead, I’ve had ample opportunities. He would be dead. I could have poured poison into your evening wine and you would have both died together. I wouldn’t have needed to conspire with anyone.”

Nikandros nods. “There was a vial found in your rooms, and we have a poison master who swears he sold it to you. He says he didn’t know who you were but his description of you was very convincing.”

Laurent tries to take heart in the fact that Nikandros is bringing these things to Laurent now, rather than just assuming that he is guilty. “He is lying. Ask people around his shop if they saw me as well. Chauvin gave me the vial,” Laurent replies. “If you test the contents, you’ll find that I tipped the poison out and replaced it with water. I only kept the container in case I needed to make a ruse with it later to draw him out.”

Nikandros is quiet for a very long moment. “For what reason,” he says, finally, “could Chauvin have to frame you like this?”

“He is answering orders.”

“You accuse your father then?”

“I cannot,” Laurent replies. He presses himself against the bars, urgent for Nikandros’ complete attention. “Listen to me, Nikandros. If I accuse my father then there will be war. If there is war then Damen will ride out against my brother, and no matter who wins that battle - I will lose. I refuse to risk either of their lives. I cannot accuse my father or defend myself.”

“Your father doesn’t want war,” Nikandros sighs. “He didn’t give us Delpha and marry you to me only to make us go to war anyway.”

“He’ll have Damen murdered first, and strike while Akielos is unstable. Kastor won’t be a suitable heir after this, and I’ve been put away from where I can help.”

Nikandros sighs again. He looks so tired that it is almost painful to gaze at him. Between rushing to return to the capital and then getting involved in these accusations, he must have barely had a moments rest. “This story that you’re weaving is so fantastical,” he says. “I can barely stand it. Your father hates you because you murdered your uncle, so he sent you here to spy and then tried to get all of us killed so that he can have a war that he has no guarantees he’ll win.”

Laurent shakes his head. “My father has always wanted this war between our countries. I didn’t know it at the time by my uncle was something of a spymaster. Apparently, he had the secret connections and information we needed to beat you on the field. When I killed him, I lost us our greatest advantage. That is why my father hates me. That’s why he sent me here, and why he doesn’t mind letting me die now that he knows I will not obey him.”

“So, that is your father’s plot.”

“It is. It’s why I’ve been ignoring his letters: I refuse to do his bidding. All he wants is to hurt you.”

Nikandros is massaging his temple with one hand. Laurent is used to the gesture, he tends to inspire migraines in people. “I’m supposed to believe - what? That the moment you married me your loyalties changed away from your family?”

“I have no love left for my father,” Laurent says. “I would do anything for my mother and Auguste but they would not ask it of me.”

“So you did nothing Aleron asked of you? Other than that first report you sent.”

Laurent pauses. He has promised honesty. “Nothing I wouldn’t have done anyway.”

Nikandros is perceptive. “Did you want us or was that all just your father’s orders?” he asks, in an even tone.

Laurent can’t help it, he looks away. “I did want you. I do.”

Nikandros won’t hear it. “Did your father tell you to come to me, to act sweet and vulnerable, and have me take you into my bed?”

There is a long, tense moment where they look at each other.

“Yes,” Laurent says. “He told me to keep you happy.”

Nik closes his eyes, his shoulders drop. “And Damen?”

“I didn’t love you at first,” Laurent says. “You didn’t want me either. But that changed, Nik. You have been nothing but kind to me. How could I not love you after all that has been between us?”

He looks unmoved. “Did you invite Damen to join us because your father ordered it?”

“No,” Laurent admits. “That wasn’t planned.”

Nikandros looks at him, closely. Perhaps honesty wasn’t the best policy after all. “Alright,” he says, simply. Then he turns and walks away.

Laurent reaches out between the bars. “Nikandros, wait!”

The door clangs shut. It echoes. Laurent sits down, on the dirty ground and tries to breathe. It must be hopeless now. Damen has not visited him at all; Nikandros is hurt and betrayed and he will not help Laurent. He might as well walk to his execution now. Auguste will be so upset. So will mother - and she is so delicate to stress; she was very ill when Laurent was a child, this will destroy her.

“That was honestly embarrassing to witness,” Kastor’s voice rings out from his own cell. “I think Nik will be scarred for the rest of his life.”

“Shut up,” Laurent says. “Just the idea that I would collude with the likes of you is disgusting.”

“I mean, at least I didn’t fuck a guy because my daddy ordered it.”

“It was a political marriage, that much is expected.” Laurent scowls into the darkness.

“Stop speaking as if you’re so much better than me when you were caught in this trap just the same.”

“There has to be some way to prove our innocence,” Laurent says, more to himself than to Kastor. “Before we are executed, preferably.”

“Damen won’t execute me,” Kastor’s voice sounds astounded that Laurent would even suggest such a thing. “He’s my brother. He’ll banish me back to Vask at worst.”

“He is a king. He has to set an example against traitors.”

There’s a long pause. “Have you ever actually told my brother to do something he doesn’t want to do? It’s like you don’t know him at all.”

-

There’s a window in each cell, high up and tiny. It’s too high for Laurent to look out of - although he knows that they are in the part of the palace that is on the cliffs, and so likely all he would so is a sudden drop to the ocean - but it lets in enough light that Laurent can roughly guess what time of day it is.

Five days pass, and all that happens is that every now and then a servant comes in with food or water.

“Tell Damianos I need to speak with him,” Laurent tells the servant each day, and each day Damen does not come.

Then, on the fifth day, when the sun is casting a small square of warmth on the floor of Laurent’s otherwise dark cell, Damen arrives. With him is a Vaskian woman, who is almost of a height with him.

“Damen,” Laurent says, stepping to the front of his cell.

Damen ignores him, going to stop in front of Kastor’s cell instead.

Kastor is sprawled lazily on the ground, his back propped against the furthest wall. “So it is like that then?” Kastor sighs.

“Khara is here to escort you back to your fiancee in Vask,” Damianos states. “We have chosen to waive a trial and execution. You will be banished to Vask instead, for the good of our alliance with them.”

Kastor is let out of the cell and he stands before Damen. “Take care of yourself,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about me.”

Damen nods, as if this is the situation to be taking brotherly advice from his supposed attempted-usurper. “Perhaps you can return one day,” Damen says softly. There’s something very delicate in his voice. Laurent remembers that Damen has just lost his father, and now is losing his brother and his lover. There is only so much pain a man can be expected to take.

Kastor looks back at Damen for a long moment, and then he hugs him. Damen returns the hug immediately, despite how easy it would be for Kastor to steal the sword at Damen’s hip and murder him with it. The sword stays in place.

Kastor pulls back and says, “Remember father’s advice,” and “I will write to you,” and “thank you.”

Damen looks very sad. He watches Kastor and the Vaskian woman leave. The door slams shut and then it is just Laurent and Damen alone together in the resulting silence.

Laurent waits a beat, and then begins, “Damen, you have to believe that I-”

“Wait,” Damen says. Laurent falls silently instantly. “I need a moment.”

Very slowly he turns and walks towards Laurent’s cell. Where Nikandros had stopped, as if afraid to let Laurent get close to him, Damianos does not. He keeps moving towards Laurent until they are both pressed against the bars, in front of one another. Damianos does not flinch when Laurent reaches between them and rests his hands in the crook of Damen’s neck on either side. His eyes are closed.

“Are you alright?” Laurent whispers.

It takes Damen a moment to speak, and when he does, it is quiet. “You could take my throat in your hands and squeeze and I would not fight you. Do you truly want me dead?”

“Damen,” Laurent says. He is pressing himself against the bars with so much force that he thinks he might have bruises after this. “Damen. No. I want nothing less. Those accusations were a farce.”

Damen opens his eyes.“I hope so,” he says. “I feel it in my heart. I don’t care if they were true once, even, as long as they aren’t now.”

“How is Nik?”

“He does not love easily,” Damen says. “He is unaccustomed to dealing with a broken heart.”

“He will never forgive me.”

“Before the wedding, everyone warned him about you. Myself included,” Damen tells him. “We said, he is Veretian, he can’t be trusted, you musn’t let him know your heart or he will eat it .”

Laurent breathes out, shakily.

“When my father invited him here for the tournament,” Damen continues, “he told Nikandros to leave you in Delpha. Nikandros wrote back and vouched for you. I read the letter myself. I thought he sounded like a fool in love, and I decided I would talk sense into him. When I saw you two together, I lost my resolve. How could I ask him to deny something I wouldn’t have the heart to deny myself?”

“I cannot bear this,” Laurent says. He cannot bear to hear of what he once had and has now lost.

Damen doesn’t stop. “Before we went riding to the cliffs, I asked him if he would be terribly jealous if I tried to court you. He said, that you belong only to yourself and so he had no right to stop you. Even as your husband. Even as he loves you.”

“You have to look after him,” Laurent pleads. “After you’ve dealt with me. You have to be there for each other.” Overcome, Laurent adds, “He hates me.”

“He told me that you were bid to lie with him,” Damen murmurs. “I told him no man is as talented an actor as to show love as sweetly as you do. He doesn’t hate you. He is afraid that his love for you might overpower his loyalty to the Kingdom.”

“Where is he?”

“I don’t know,” Damen admits. “He left soon after he spoke with you. I have been warned not to do anything stupid in his absence, but he didn’t tell me where he was going.”

“He won’t even stay to see me executed,” Laurent chokes out.

Damen grasps Laurent by the shoulders. “There will be no execution,” he hisses.

“You have let Kastor go. They will think you weak if you release me as well,” Laurent tells him. He puts a hand around Damen’s wrist so that he cannot pull it away. “It’s okay, I understand that some things must be done.”

“I am King,” Damen says, and his voice is stern now. “The people will think what I tell them to. I already have a plan in place. I think it will be ready tomorrow. I will come and see you again tomorrow either way.”

“What is the plan?”

“If I tell you,” Damen says, “you’ll tear it apart and ruin my resolve. I have to go.”

“Don’t leave me down here alone,” Laurent says, and he hates the weakness in his voice. At least with Kastor there, he hadn’t been entirely stuck with his own thoughts.

“I’ll send Erasmus to sit with you,” Damen promises. “He has been asking to see you. I will be back tomorrow.”

“I know,” Laurent says.

“I love you,” Damen replies. And then he is gone.

-

Erasmus does come down, looking brave with a bundle of blankets and cushions overflowing in his hands. He stays the whole night, camped out next to Laurent’s cell, and then he leaves in the morning after he collects breakfast for Laurent.

Laurent has nothing to do for the day except for wait for Damen’s promised visit. It is dark again when he finally does arrive. And he is not alone. There is a man shrouded by a dark cloak, quick on his heels.

“You’re back,” Laurent says, grateful just to not be alone.

Damen doesn’t get a chance to reply, because the man next to him pushes past him towards Laurent and then his hood is coming down and revealing thick, golden hair.

“Auguste,” Laurent gasps. He is already sticking his hands between the bars so that Auguste can clutch them.

Auguste’s grip is tight, and he looks Laurent up and down before turning to Damen. “Unlock the cell,” Auguste says. “ Please .”

In any other circumstance, Laurent might have chastised his brother for coming this close to begging. Damen is already brandishing a key, and then the lock is coming away and the door to the cells is being opening. Laurent basically stumbles out of it, into his brother’s arms.

“What a mess you’ve gotten yourself into, little brother,” Auguste says, holding him tight.

“Father has done this,” Laurent says into his shoulder. He thinks he might cry from the relief of seeing his brother so unexpectedly. He cannot be executed now because he is always safe when Auguste is nearby.

“We will talk about it later,” Auguste tells him. “We have to go.”

“This way,” Damen instructs, and then he leads them out of the cells and through the palace.

“What’s the plan?” Laurent asks, when they get outside. They are clearly going for the stables. “Are we going somewhere?”

“Too many people heard the initial accusation, before I called for you and sent the guards away,” Damen says. “I have Kyros telling me I should execute you and make an example.”

“I gave you the same advice,” Laurent says.

Auguste makes an annoyed sound and slaps the back of Laurent’s head. “What do you mean you gave the same advice?” he hisses.

“I’m not doing it, anyway,” Damen says. “But we have to get you out of Akielos and somewhere safe.”

“For how long?” Laurent says.

“Laurent,” Auguste hushes him, “We will talk about it after we’ve left Ios.”

“Until my innocence has been proven?” Laurent insists. “Or until my father dies?”

Laurent ,” Auguste says again, this time as a reprimand.

Laurent drags his feet when Auguste tries to hurry him along. He stops walking entirely. He turns to Damianos. “You’re sending me away forever.”

“You can’t stay here,” Damen says. “You cannot go back to Vere or your father will surely kill you. Kempt has an alliance with Vere, so does Vask, they’ll just send you to your father once they find you.”

“Patras,” Laurent says.

“Torveld has offered to house you,” Auguste replies. “He offered when I wrote him, concerned about your wedding to the Kyros, and I sent him another message when you told me in Damianos’ letters that father wasn’t letting me receive your letters. He will help.”

“No,” Laurent says. “I will not fuck him.”

“If you don’t go to Patras,” Auguste says, in the voice he used to use to reason with Laurent when he was six and throwing a tantrum. “You will die.”

“Grandmother won’t give me to father.”

“Kempt will make her. They cannot afford Vere’s ire,” Auguste says.

“I can hide in Vask, no one will know who I am.”  He’s finding it difficult to breathe.

“The Vaskian clans won’t let a random Veretian join them.”

He turns to Damen, grasps his chiton. “Let me stay here, in the shadows. I will find a way to clear my name and stop my father.”

Damen takes Laurent’s hand in his, presses a kiss to it.

“No,” Auguste says. “The risk isn’t worth it, Laurent. I will not have you die for this.”

“Torveld never offered to house me when my engagement was decided on,” Laurent hisses. “He offered to marry me in Nikandros’ place. I won’t fuck him. I am married.”

“That marriage was never consummated,” Auguste says.  “We can choose not to acknowledge it.”

“It was consummated many times.”

“There were no witnesses.”

“Damen witnessed and participated in my consummation more than once, actually.”

The expression Auguste makes at that is almost comedic.

“No it wasn’t,” Damen says, sounding pained. “Laurent, you have to go. I would prefer you alive and in Patras than dead in Akielos. Don’t make me mourn you too.”

Laurent yanks his hand out of Damen’s grasp and turns away. He covers his face and forces himself to breathe. He was willing to die for Damen and Nik, of course they would prefer this over executing him. It’s a terrible choice, but it’s also no choice at all.

“You will acknowledge my marriage,” Laurent says, face still covered. “That part is non-negotiable, or I will tell Torveld myself in great detail how far I am from being a virgin.”

Auguste, obviously sensing the unspoken acquiescence in this negotiation, sighs. “Fine.”

Laurent puts his hands down and turns back to them. “I will go to Patras, but if Torveld’s intentions are anything but kindness for a fellow Prince, I will leave. And you and Damen must both agree to try to clear my name and peacefully stop father so that I can come back.”

“Yes,” Damen says, immediately. “I agree.”

Auguste huffs, but he waves a hand in agreement. “Fine,” he repeats. “Now say goodbye. We have a long night of riding ahead of us.”

Laurent and Damen move towards each other instantly. “Look after each other,” Laurent reminds him, gripping his arms. “And be careful, have Pallas continue checking all the places I told him to. Make sure the poison checkers are performing their duties. Be cautious of who you trust.”

“I love you,” Damen says. “I’ll miss you. Nik will too, you know he loves you.”

“Listen to what he says, he is more perceptive to ill intent than you are,” Laurent continues. “Make sure you comfort him when he finds out I am gone, he doesn’t know how to ask for things for himself.”

Damen kisses him, and there are countless words that they don’t have the time to say in the action.

“I’ll just go get the horses,” Auguste says from somewhere behind them.

Laurent pulls Damen back in when he makes to pull away. “I love you,” he says against his mouth. “Tell Nikandros I love him too. And I’m sorry I wasn’t quicker to telling you both everything. I’m sorry I didn’t stop this in time.”

Damen kisses both of his cheeks, and then the tip of his nose and his forehead. “Write to me,” he says.

“I will,” Laurent promises. “I’ll write in code so there can be no forgeries.”

Laurent takes a step back, he knows he should go and meet Auguste in the stables, but he cannot bear to lose a moment more than necessary with Damen. He trails a hand across the dark skin of his cheekbone.

Over Damen’s shoulder, under the cover of darkness, the light reflects off of something metal.

The knife, withdrawn from Chauvin’s jacket - who has seemingly snuck up behind Damen while they were embracing - has barely caught Laurent’s attention before Laurent is unsheathing the sword strapped to Damen’s side and stepping forward.

It is barely a fight. Chauvin is clearly not expecting resistance, the coward that he is, and a dagger is no match for a sword. Laurent skewers him in one thrust. He falls to the ground, dead.

“Laurent,” Damen breathes, horrified. He didn’t even try to stop Laurent grabbing the sword, he is such a trusting idiot.

“Are you okay?” Laurent asks, even though he knows Damen must be because Laurent just saved him. Laurent turns to him and stumbles a little.

“Laurent,” Damen says again. His voice is pained.

Laurent looks down. There is a dagger lodged into his abdomen to the hilt. Laurent blinks. “I didn’t realise,” he says, almost nonsensically. Chauvin stabbed him. Now that he has seen the blade, staining his jacket dark with blood, the adrenaline from the sudden attack seems to be wearing off and the pain is coming in.

Laurent reaches for the hilt of the dagger to pull it out, but Damen grabs his hands. He is very warm. “No,” Damen says. “No, no.”

Auguste appears then and he is saying something and looking frantic, but Laurent is having difficulty hearing. His vision is spotting. “I need to sit down,” Laurent tries to tell them. He’s not sure if they hear him, but he feels his knees buckle anyway.

Auguste catches him, and Damen is yelling for help. That is the last thing that Laurent sees, before he cannot keep his eyes open any longer.

-

It is warm. Laurent has never been so warm as when he moved to Akielos, and it is as if the sun beats down differently here. Laurent can feel himself frowning as he skates the edge of asleep and awake, because someone has left a sheet on him and the thin fabric alone is enough to overheat him. He reaches out, eyes still closed, so that he can grasp at Nikandros or Damen, whoever is closer, but his hand closes on nothing and the movement makes his side twinge.

Laurent opens his eyes. “Oh,” he says, softly. His voice is rough.

He is in bed - Damen’s bed - and Auguste jumps up from the chair pulled next to it the moment he realises Laurent is awake.

“Shhh,” Auguste says, stroking Laurent’s hair off his face. “You’re okay, little brother. Just relax.”

Laurent is distantly aware of a servant darting out of the room - hopefully to get Damen. Laurent feels odd - still overheated but also a little muddled like when he caught a fever as a child and everyone pretended they weren’t scared he was going to die. “I was stabbed,” Laurent says. “Am I dying?”

Auguste kisses his forehead. “No,” he murmurs. “The physician took out the knife and stitched you up while you were unconscious. It’s barely been two days since then. He said you’re very resilient, which we all already knew anyway.”

“Sorry,” Laurent says. Auguste must have been so worried.

His brother looks ready to say something else, but then the door bursts open and in rush Damianos and – Nikandros is back. They both look very tired, and they freeze almost in unison when they see Laurent looking back at them. Laurent smiles, widely. He usually has a better handle on his expressions.

“Have I been drugged?” he asks.

“Heavily,” Auguste says, “you might feel a little odd.”

“I can’t control my face,” he replies, still smiling. “Hello, husband. Lover. Husbands .”

“How do you feel?” Damianos asks, softly.

“Hot,” Laurent says. “Nikandros is back.”

“Yes,” Nikandros says, with an odd quality to his voice. “I got back just in time for Damen to tell me you’ve been stabbed, and the servant to tell us that you’re awake. What happened?” His eyes are red, Laurent realises, and he keeps blinking.

“Auguste and Damen tried to free me,” Laurent says. It’s a lot harder to stop himself from talking when he’s been drugged, apparently. “They wanted to send me to Patras to marry Torveld, but he is too boring so I refused.”

Nikandros turns to Damen. “I specifically told you not to do anything stupid while I was gone.”

“Technically,” Damen says, “I had already messaged Prince Auguste before you said that, so you can’t blame me.”

“He didn’t want to execute me,” Laurent says. “Where did you go?”

“I think we can talk about this later,” Nikandros says, “when you are well.”

Laurent can’t think of a reason why Nikandros would want to wait, unless he has bad news, like he wants to end their marriage and send Laurent away somewhere. And then Laurent will be alone after all, and Nik wont forgive him for being an allegedly treacherous Veretian.

“No,” Laurent says. “Tell me now.” He can’t tell if this is worse than being stabbed or not. “You don’t want me anymore.”

“What.” Nikandros says.

“You left because you didn’t want to be here when I got executed,” Laurent says. “You told me not to call you my husband.”

“You were being a bitch,” Nikandros says, defensively.

Auguste makes a displeased noise.

Nikandros amends his words. “You mostly call me husband when you’re being upset with me.”

Laurent shakes his head. “But you walked away.”

Nikandros sighs, and then he grabs at the satchel slung around his shoulder to pull out its contents. He drops a cluster of pages on the bed, next to Laurent.

“What is this?” Laurent asks.

“You did hurt me,” Nikandros says, honestly. “But after I got out of that cell and spoke with Damianos - I realised that if you were truly deceiving us, you would have never admitted that you didn’t want me when we first -” he casts a wary look at Auguste “- were together, you would have tried to convince me to help you out of love. You told the truth, knowing it would disadvantage you.”

Laurent starts looking through the papers. “This is…”

“If they think they can use a stack of paper to hurt you then I’ll defend you with the same,” Nikandros says. He must be exhausted, physically and emotionally, but he sounds strong and brave right now. He sounds fiercely protective. “I have gone to every witness and made a record of what Chauvin had paid them to lie. I questioned the neighbours of the poison-master and none of them saw you go to him - but most are willing to swear they saw a man of Chauvin’s description.”

Laurent blinks. “How did you get the false witnesses to confess?”

This, out of all things, makes Nikandros look uncomfortable. “I did it the Veretian way,” he finally says. “I acted as if I were in on the plan to betray you, and talked to the men who agreed to accuse you. I told them I was planning on double-crossing Chauvin and that I wanted them to help me. I asked for every detail of their meetings with him, so that I could trap him better, and they told me.”

Nikandros, known for his loyalty and honesty, was willing to lie for Laurent and take on the mantle of a traitor. Laurent looks at his husband.

“Are you alright?” Auguste asks, grabbing a goblet of water. “Your face is going red.”

Laurent is wondering whether Nikandros would be willing to play a role in bed too, but he can hardly tell his concerned brother that. He accepts the water and takes a very long sip. “But what about the forged letters to Kastor?”

Damen is the one who looks a little embarrassed at that. “Actually,” he says, as if he thinks he’s about to get scolded. “I burnt them.”

“What?” Nikandros and Laurent say.

“My council wanted me to execute you and my brother!”

“Well, that’s one way of solving it.” Laurent shakes his head.

“You still can’t stay here, Laurent,” Auguste says. “Not if the council wants you dead.”

Laurent tries - and fails - to sit up, and then resigns himself to just continuing this conversation with only his head propped up. Whatever, everyone here has seen him in more embarrassing states before. “I can solve that,” Laurent says. “We will just tell them that the accusations are true - but I only acted with the King’s knowledge , to find traitors in the kingdom. We could not tell the truth until we had evidence against all the men. Tell the council they are lucky if I did not come to them, because it means we did not suspect them.”

“That could work,” Nikandros says, slowly. Then he turns to Damen, “Let me tell them, you can’t lie to save your life.”

“I didn’t think you could lie, either,” Laurent muses.

“Just because I appreciate honesty does not mean that I am incapable,” Nikandros says. “Honestly is often a choice, not a skill.”

“So that’s it, then?” Damen asks. “We have solved it. We can all be together?”

Laurent says, quietly “We’ll have to be careful about my father-”

“I’ll deal with father,” Auguste says. “If he wants an heir at all, he’ll leave you alone.”

Laurent gives his brother a grateful look.

“You will stay?” Damen asks.

“Do you want me to?” Laurent says. “After everything?”

He looks at them both, the loves of his life. Nikandros and Damianos have shown him so much kindness and love, and devotion, in such a short time of knowing them. He had never imagined he would get this, when his father decided to send him to Akielos. He had thought it would be a punishment, a life as an accessory to a man that did not respect him. Truly, Damen and Nik are more than Laurent would have expected even had his father let him stay in Arles. He wants them. He loves them so much, that he cannot bear the thought that they could go through all of this without getting to be together afterwards.

Damen and Nik both take a step forward, towards Laurent’s bed. And they smile.