It was a tiny mistake—anyone could have made it. Auguste leaned too far into his strike, and the soft ground beneath him gave way, just a little. Just enough that his slash went wide, leaving his left side open. Damen saw his chance. He turned his blade and dove for the prince’s undefended flank. The sword found its mark, and Auguste’s eyes widened in fleeting shock.
Then Damen dumped him on the trampled grass of the practice yard. “That’s two,” he said, breathless and a little smug. “Shall we make it three out of five?”
Auguste shook his head. “You’ll only knock me down again, and it’s undignified.” He accepted Damen’s outstretched hand and let himself be hauled to his feet. “They said you were good, but they undersold you. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a swordsman like you, and you’ve barely grown into your reach.”
Damen shook his head. “You took me in the second bout, remember. I think we’re evenly matched.”
“A diplomatic answer if I’ve ever heard one,” Auguste replied, laughing. “But I don’t mind telling you that I wouldn’t want to meet you on the battlefield.”
“Nor I you.” Damen lifted the hem of his shirt to wipe the sweat out of his eyes. The shirt was in the Veretian style, which meant there was rather more fabric than he was accustomed to, and it was both heavy and hot. “But I think our countries’ peace will hold for a while yet.”
“Vere would beat Akielos anyway,” a voice piped up from the edge of the practice ground. Auguste’s little brother was sitting on the fence rail with a half-eaten green apple in one hand. He was twelve or maybe thirteen, and he made an effort not to look like he was following his older brother around. Watching Auguste lose a fight, even a friendly contest, couldn’t have pleased him.
“Oh, yes? How do you know that?” Damen asked, skirting the line between politeness and sarcasm.
“We have better archers, and our border forts have never been taken.”
Marlas was taken, Damen nearly said, but that wound was still too fresh. “That presumes Akielos would be the aggressor,” he said instead. “How do you know that the next war will not be a Veretian incursion into Akielon lands?”
“What does Akielos have that Vere would want?” Laurent sneered.
Auguste cleared his throat. “Laurent. Weren’t you supposed to be with the language master?”
“My Akielon is better than hers,” he replied, in prim but perfect Akielon.
Damen grinned. “Maybe, but your accent could use some work.”
Laurent flushed bright red and glared at him. “I’m right, though,” he said, in Veretian this time. “Vere would beat Akielos in the next war.”
“Better not to find out,” Auguste said, ruffling Laurent’s hair. “Wouldn’t you rather fight alongside Akielos, against a common enemy? Perhaps the Vaskian tribes. If they ever gather themselves, they would be a formidable enemy.”
Damen nodded. “There, you see? You should have your language master teach you Vaskian next.”
Laurent hopped off the fence, said something very rude in Akielon, and stalked back towards the palace.
“I don’t think I caught that last bit,” Auguste said mildly.
Damen shook his head. “Let’s just say he didn’t learn that from any proper tutor.”
Auguste laughed and then winced, rubbing his bruised side. “That boy can wield words better than either of us can swing a sword. I think I’ll make him ambassador when I’m king, but only if I need to start a war.” He slung an arm over Damen’s shoulder. “Come on, let’s go inside and clean up. It’s nearly time for supper, and no doubt my father has a dozen courses planned, with entertainment to match.”
* * *
Damen’s horse struck the flagstone path with one iron-shod foot, kicking up a tiny spark and jolting him out of his reverie. It seemed like a very long time ago that he had been in Vere, but some days it also seemed like it had barely ended. And now he was returning, for a more somber purpose.
Seven years had changed the palace at Arles very little, from the outside. The walls of the palace were the same, high and white and covered with carvings and finials. But now the bright blue pennants had been changed for black, and the palace was in mourning.
Vere mourned as it did everything else—elaborately and extensively, with mourning rites that lasted fifty days. The news had taken ten days to reach Akielos, and it had been another five before their party was ready to set out, yet they were still arriving two weeks before the end of formal mourning.
He was honored that his father had sent him to bring Akielos’ condolences in person, though the king’s parting words still rang uneasily in his ears.
“Go, and learn what you can of their defenses while you are there.”
“Their defenses? Are we at war with Vere, Father?”
There was the briefest of pauses, a cough carefully suppressed. “Of course not. But only a fool would waste the chance to learn more of his ally’s strengths and weaknesses, so that he knows how well they may be relied upon in a time of need.”
Damen had bowed and thanked his father for his wisdom, but he rode into the courtyard at Arles knowing that his purpose here was twofold at least.
He left his horse and his retinue in the courtyard and allowed the guard to lead him to the throne room alone. By now, the king had surely been informed of the Akielon delegation’s arrival and would be waiting to receive them, despite the late hour.
Damen passed by the guards at the doorway and walked up the long hall to the foot of the throne, where a black-clad figure waited. He offered a bow of such depth that his father would have reprimanded him for unseemly subservience. “Your Majesty, Akielos grieves with you.”
The man on the throne shifted as though to rise, but propriety held him in place. “Damn it, Damianos, there is no need for such ceremony.”
Damen straightened up, and then Auguste descended from the dais to embrace him.
“I am so sorry about your father,” Damen said, with less formality and more feeling than before. “How are you faring?”
Auguste offered him a weak smile; his prince’s circlet glinted on his brow. “Well enough. As soon as the mourning period is ended, they will hold the coronation.” He looked ill at the prospect.
“You have nothing to fear—you will be a good king, and the people love you already.”
“I hope so. I only...I thought it would be years before this happened. I thought my father would grow old, abdicate his crown, and live to a hundred. I thought...I thought I would be ready.”
Hearing his own doubts in Auguste’s voice was strangely comforting. At least he was not the only one who worried about the future.
Auguste took a deep breath and squared his shoulders. “But you did not come here to listen to all of my fears. You and your company have ridden a long time, I am certain, and will want your rest.” He gestured to one of the guards standing along the wall. “Philippe, please have the staff see to the needs of the Akielon delegation. Damen, you shall have apartments in the royal family’s wing, as you did once before—there are certainly enough rooms there. I will have your personal guard sent up to join you, but in the meantime my own steward will see you to your rooms. Go and rest, and in the morning we will talk.”
Damen inclined his head. “Thank you, Your Ma—”
“If you call me anything but Auguste you can sleep in the stables,” he warned.
“As you like, Auguste,” Damen said, pursing his lips to hide a smile. It was good to know that his friend was still there, within this sad-eyed prince.
Damen followed the steward down a long passageway and up the broad, shallow stairs to the royal apartments. The staircase was utterly indefensible, lined with a carved marble balustrade and lacking the narrow spiral of the staircases in Akielon fortresses. High ground would offer only the faintest of advantages in an attack.
But then, this was Arles, the capital. If the fighting reached this deep into Vere, there would be precious little left to defend.
The corridors in the royal wing were lined with windows. Most of the delicate wooden shutters were latched against the cool night air, but here and there a window stood open, offering a breath of breeze and a view down into the gardens.
The steward stopped outside an elaborately carved door. “If you have need of anything, you may ask any servant,” he said, offering Damen a bow.
“I thank you,” Damen replied, and the steward handed him the key before walking away. Damen felt the long days of riding descend over him like a cloud—suddenly all he wanted was rest. He reached out to unlock the door.
A hinge creaked, and a slim figure stepped out of a door at the end of the long hall. Damen looked away quickly, supposing the stranger to be a pet. Nearly every noble in the palace kept one, save Auguste himself, but Damen had always felt a little uncomfortable with the practice. It wasn’t that Akielos was prudish about sex, but they did consider it something to be practiced behind closed doors. The open entertainments of Vere only served as a pointed reminder of how far he was from home.
But the pet was walking towards him now, so Damen supposed he would have to put off his rest for a few moments more, for the sake of courtesy. He lifted his head, ignoring the pull of exhausted muscles, and found himself face to face with Laurent of Vere.
Seven years had given him a scant few inches in height but had fulfilled the youthful promise of beauty to come. He wore the severe black velvet of royal mourning, which accentuated his slender build and fine, pale skin. In the dim light from the lamps he was all of marble and gold, a sculpture shaped by a masterful hand.
Laurent blinked. “Damianos,” he said, dipping his head in the slightest bow.
Damen recovered himself and returned the gesture. “Laurent.” He only just managed to avoid some inanity like you’ve grown, which was obvious at best and lecherous at worst. “I am so sorry for the loss of your father.”
“Thank you,” he said, with a cool poise that left Damen wondering how this could be the same tagalong boy who once called him a whoreson bastard in painstakingly accurate Akielon.
Damen struggled for something else to say, but exhaustion and surprise had combined to render him practically mute. Laurent, quite unexpectedly, spared him the effort.
“You must have had a very long ride, and I do not mean to keep you from your rest. I will see you tomorrow, I am sure.”
Damen nodded. “I look forward to it.” He pushed open the door to his quarters and, with a supreme effort of will, stepped inside without looking back.