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The Exiled Prince

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Laurent tapped his fingers against the carved arm of the throne and glared at the man who killed his brother. Damianos of Akielos - Prince-killer, Lion of Ios, second bastard son of King Themoedes - stared back, expression open and determined. He was very much like Laurent remembered him from Marlas - tall and solidly built, brown and handsome; looking at him made Laurent’s stomach turn. He had the temerity to meet Laurent’s gaze without flinching.

All around the audience hall, courtiers and commoners alike were whispering and staring at the bastard foreign prince. Former prince. Laurent had to give him credit for guts, if not guile. By making his declaration in public he had at least ensured that Laurent would have to consider his offer, rather than laughing in his face. Or having him quietly executed. Laurent could hear the blood pounding in his ears.

Threads of possibilities spun through Laurent’s head as he examined and discarded each rapidly. “Tell me,” he said, using every ounce of control he had to keep his voice steady, “Why I should not kill you now, in front of everyone.” The way you killed Auguste , he added silently, knowing every person in the room heard it clearly.

“One and half million crowns a year,” Damianos said. “The approximate annual tax revenue of Delpha. Or, I should say, Delfeur.”

Laurent felt a flash of irritation - the man was well-prepared as well as bold. It was what made him such a formidable opponent on the battlefield, and one of the things that had worried Kastor enough, it was rumored, to land Damianos here.

“Delfeur is rich, we all know that.” He propped his chin on his hand, feigning boredom. “If I am to make war on Akielos in your name, help you to the throne in exchange for Delfeur, why should I not go to war for myself, seize back Delfeur without you?” But he already knew. If Laurent was willing to waste money and lives on an independent war to win back the land his brother’s death had cost Vere, he would have done it already.

There would be lords in Akielos who would support Damianos against his older brother, even with the accusation of murder. Since King Theomedes’s two sons were both bastards, the only claim to the throne Kastor had was primogeniture, which was not ironclad in Akielon law. All his intelligence suggested that Damianos was the more popular of the two princes - with the support of Akielon kyroi for Damianos, they could do what Vere alone could not: win back Delfeur.

Damianos did him the small courtesy of not pointing any of this out, which only infuriated Laurent further. He merely said, “I would be an asset to you.”

“Why should I believe the word of a bastard who poisoned his own father?” Laurent said coolly.

That got a reaction. Damianos’s fists clenched at his sides and his face darkened. “I did no such thing. I would never harm my father and I would certainly never kill someone through a method as cowardly as poison.”

Laurent forced himself to breathe slowly. There was a heavy silence. Everyone in the audience chamber knew exactly how Damianos of Akielos liked to kill people - with a sword.  

This had to end, before Laurents subjects saw him listen to any more of this. Now of all times, with the end of the regency approaching, he could not afford any weakness. He flicked his fingers in dismissal. “Return next week to hear my verdict. I will see the next supplicant now.” Damianos looked hard at him, then nodded, and left the hall.

The rest of the audience time passed in a blur. A knot of rage and something horribly like grief was tangled up under his breastbone. When the afternoon was finally over, he retreated to his rooms, dismissing his servants. He poured himself a cup of water, furious to find that his hands were shaking, and considered getting drunk. It would do nothing but make him sick and lonely of course.

No one had lit the lamps, and blue shadows crawled slowly across the room, deepening in the corners. Laurent sat on his bed with his knees drawn up to his chest and thought about his brother. His throat was sore and tight, a tangle of unshed tears. He allowed himself a long, fierce moment of hatred, so bright and intense that It felt as if it would burn away everything inside him, leaving nothing but bones and breath. Hatred for Damianos killing his brother and then coming to beg his aid with his strong voice and handsome face; hatred for Kastor’s petty, predictable coup that had turned Damianos into Laurent’s problem; hatred for the council’s scheming and for the court, always reminding him of all the ways he was not Auguste; hatred toward Auguste and his parents for being dead; hatred for his uncle for being a monster and forcing Laurent to kill him even though he was the only person Laurent had left; a deep, bitter hatred at himself, for sitting alone in the dark, for letting Damianos unsettle him, for not being stronger.

His eyes were dry when he got up but he rubbed his palms over them anyway, feeling gritty and wrung out with the constant exhaustion of kingship. He wished he could tell Auguste, you didn’t miss anything worth having . Then he pushed all of the unhelpful thoughts and messy feelings down and pictured a lock clicking in his mind.

 

The council was chaos. Anyone who thought half a dozen grown men would be easier to handle than, say, a nursery of toddlers or a gaggle of geese, was sadly mistaken. Laurent let them shout over one another- he'd found it to be a winning strategy. He didn't remember so much shouting when his father held council sessions, unless Aleron was the one doing the shouting, but then, Aleron had been full-king, with the right to appoint and dismiss council members. Laurent was hampered by the council’s role as joint-regent since his uncle’s death. And anyway, no one had ever accused Laurent of being his father. Too much of his mother's Kemptian quiet, watchful eyes that made others nervous. He had cried to her once when some other child, one of the de Fortaine boys probably, had called him unnatural. They just don't understand you, little bird , she'd said. People fear what they don’t know.

Some people, maybe, but Laurent understood his fears intimately.

Guion and Audin were engaged in a predictable two-man routine on the topic of national duty and security, which would have been comedic gold on a stage but which had long since lost its ability to entertain. Herode, who could typically be relied upon as a moderate voice, was also agitated.

“He’s a bastard!” Chelaut was saying loudly to anyone who would listen, which was amusing considering everyone knew he regularly dismissed his household serving women for becoming likewise inconvenienced.

At least the debate over the bastard prince was a relief from the topic that had been otherwise consuming council sessions for the last few months as Laurent’s twenty-first birthday and the end of the regency drew closer. Since Laurent had been unable to appoint or dismiss any members, the council was still made up of his uncle’s cronies - universally venal, self-serving and unpleasant old men.

If they had their way, they would pass a law before Laurent’s ascendancy that would solidify their role as advisors and weaken the supremacy of the kingship. It had made a headache-inducing few months. Herode at least was against it - out of loyalty to the crown more than to Laurent. Chelaut was a coward who was wary of the backlash against such a move. Guion and Audin were the boldest in their bids for power and tended to take Jeurre wherever they wanted, politically speaking.

“Getting involved militarily in Akielos’s internal problems would be foolish,” Herode said, arms folded across his chest.

“Do you know what it would be worth to have Delfeur back?” Guion was pacing, waving his hands. “The annual increase in revenue alone would pay back the costs of soldiers in a few years.”

“You can’t be thinking of supporting this nonsense. Have you forgotten the price of the last war?” Herode asked, face thunderous.

“I have not,” Guion snapped. “But if the barbarians go to war we will be involved one way or another. Better to do it on our terms.”

The prudent thing to do would be to send Damianos away to rot in exile like Kastor had intended, Laurent thought. Damianos almost certainly was innocent of the charges his brother had laid to him, but that didn't matter. Kastor had proven himself a wild card with that move, and Laurent knew that as a border lord, Guion was more concerned than the rest about the instability in Akielos.

Laurent drummed his fingers on the table. If there was a chance that the deposed prince could be a useful tool, Laurent was loathe to throw away a potential advantage that had landed in his lap just because of his own weakness. Vere came first. Auguste had taught him that.

“I truly don’t think the potential gains outweigh the risks,” Herode said. “After everything we’ve lost in the last few years.”

Chelaut was hesitating as usual. “It would be an undeniably risky venture.”

“It would be a chance for our king to prove himself as a defender of the land,” Guion said, turning pointedly to Laurent. One of his favorite themes was Laurent’s lack of military experience.

An idea began to form, nebulous and fetal. Laurent barely dared breathe for fear of blowing the strands of thought away. Perhaps there was a way he could secure his kingdom and get his revenge on Damianos all at once. “Thank you for that consideration, Lord Guion. We will take it under advisement. The council is dismissed.”

 

Laurent’s father had enjoyed music and dancing after supper, and his uncle had been in the habit of hosting extravagant, debaucherous revels nearly every night. Laurent himself was interested in neither, so the court at Arles had become an increasingly sedate place under his reign. It wasn’t entirely a matter of personal preference - Laurent found that the pleasure-seekers and other hangers-on got bored. It meant that the courtiers who stayed had a reason to be there - either currying favor, or wishing him ill.

It simplified things, like separating the grain from the stem on a stalk of wheat.

Jord was behind him as Laurent left the dining hall. The lamps had been lit along the corridor, but it was still dim after the blaze of the hall. “Jord,” Laurent said. “When you toss the wheat in the air and all the light bits blow away - what do you call that?”

“Winnowing, your majesty,” Jord said, no trace of surprise in his voice. “To blow off the chaff.”

Ah. It was like winnowing off the chaff, to more clearly see who was a threat, and who could be a valuable ally.

But there was someone at the palace now who perhaps could be both. For a little while at least. Laurent changed direction abruptly.

The bastard Akielon had been lodged in an unexceptional wing of the palace - a slight he probably hadn’t even noticed, given the luxury of Arles compared to the barbarian asceticism he was no doubt accustomed to.

Laurent’s footfalls were soft in the deserted corridors, Jord following silently half a dozen steps behind him. At the door to the Akielon’s room, Laurent paused. It was beneath his dignity to knock and wait on a foreign bastard, and he had a skeleton key that would open the door. But he had a pretense of civility to maintain. He cocked his head at Jord. “Knock for me.”

Jord did, and Laurent schooled his expression into practiced impassivity.

The door opened, and the Akielon filled the doorway. His broad shoulders practically blocked the light from the room behind him. “King Laurent.” He sounded surprised, a little wary. Well, he wasn’t a complete fool then. “To what do I owe this visit?”

“I thought it in both our interests to discuss your proposal in greater...” Laurent paused, “intimacy,” he said, and watched Damianos’s eyes flicker.

“At this hour?” he asked, and to his credit, his voice was steady.

“Problem?”

Laurent watched Damianos calculate the likely odds of Laurent returning if he sent him away, and the possible purposes of the visit.

The Akielon stepped back from the door. “No problem.”

Jord entered first, and glanced around the room, looking for any threats. Laurent followed when he nodded. It was a bit of an unnecessary charade - given Damianos’s famous prowess for fighting; he was threat enough just standing there, hands open at his sides.

The bed was still made, and there was a lamp burning at the small desk. Damianos had been sitting up still awake, reading, or writing a letter. Laurent glanced at the papers on the table, and made a mental note to have them investigated later.

“So.” He turned sharply to Damianos. “You would trade away Delpha for my help winning you the throne of Akielos - and then we would be neighboring kings. So tell me what kind of a king you think you will be.” I already know what kind of a man you are, he added silently to himself.

Damianos nodded seriously, and gestured him towards a chair by the hearth, pulling up a second for himself. His enormous frame made the delicately carved chairs look a little ridiculous. “I understand your concern. I assure you that I would be no threat to Vere as king. My only interest is protecting my people, trying to be as just and wise a ruler as my father was.”

“Your own brother thought you enough of a threat to exile.” Laurent slouched, deliberately insolent. “Should that inspire confidence in you?”

Damianos clenched his fist on his knee, and then slowly relaxed his fingers. “My brother… Kastor has always been impulsive, but recently his poor judgement has become more pronounced - he was being careless with money, making extravagant promises to his friends. I thought it was just stress over our father’s illness, but then the accusations he made of me, and the exile…” Damianos trailed off, looking around at the ornate Veretian decor of the room. Lamplight played over his strong cheekbones and straight nose. “I’m his brother. How could he believe I would do that to our father?” He shouldn’t wear his emotions so plainly on his face, Laurent thought. “I think someone must be giving him bad advice, but I don’t know who.” He should also learn not to speculate on the inner vulnerabilities of his family and his court in front of strangers. Laurent resisted the urge to tell him so. “I’m worried that as king he will not rule wisely or justly over our people.”

“What should I care for the people of Akielos?” Laurent said, revealing nothing.

Damianos’s jaw tightened a little. “Beyond the compassion of a fellow human? A peaceful, prosperous nation makes a better neighbor than a fractious one.”

“And you think you could settle Akielos? You’re the one proposing civil war. It looks very like any other power hungry attempt to seize a throne.”

Damianos spread his hands. “I never wanted the crown,” he said, and Laurent felt something icy pour through his belly. In his lap, his hands clenched, nails digging into his palms. But Damianos was still talking, oblivious. “I was happy to be my brother’s right hand man - his military commander and advisor in matters of state. I love him very dearly, and I never envied him his place as heir. But over the past few years I have watched Kastor withdraw further from me and my father. I-” He stopped abruptly and swallowed. In the silence Laurent could hear the pounding of his own heart. “One of my most trusted friends believes he may have been plotting against my father. I don’t believe it,” he added, looking up at Laurent with wide eyes, as if seeking his reassurance. “Kastor wouldn’t act against our father, I’m sure of it. But it’s a mark of how distant he’s become, that Ni- that my friend thinks so.”

“So the answer is to make war on him?” Laurent asked, proud that his voice was even.

“If he won’t hear reason,” Damianos said, squaring his shoulders a little, which looked ridiculous while sitting in the slightly undersized chair, “then it is my duty to protect my citizens from an unreasonable king. My devotion to them must come before my devotion to my family.”

“That’s very noble of you,” Laurent said, hardly hearing his own voice. Was there anything in the world he wouldn’t trade away to have Auguste back? His crown, his country, his own right hand - none of it would hurt so much to lose as the ache in his chest whenever he thought of his brother. “You’ve certainly given me more to think about.”

Damianos sat forward, looking earnest. “The force I’m asking for wouldn’t have to be that large. I’m confident that there are kyroi who would side with me. I’ve always been more popular than my brother with the army, but the men will follow their commanders.” Laurent’s lips tightened. He knew all about Damianos the war hero, champion of Akielos. “With enough force to begin a legitimate campaign, I would be able to expand the force as we went. It would be a trade in your favor for the value of Delpha - of Delfeur.”

“And if you lose? I will have implicitly declared war against King Kastor by backing his usurper.”

“I won’t lose.” Damianos met his gaze, radiating sincerity.

Laurent wondered if that steady confidence would truly be enough to turn people to treason against their king. “Bold of you.”

“If I have the soldiers, Kastor is no match for me on a battlefield. Join me and see.”

He was charismatic, Laurent had to give him that. And there was no question of his skill in battle, both as a fighter and a commander. After the council meeting Laurent had sent some of his most trusted scouts out with orders to report exactly how many of the Akielon kyroi would be likely to support Damianos, but they wouldn’t return in time for the decision Laurent needed to make. It was early summer already, and a military campaign would have to be gotten underway soon, within a few weeks at the most. All Laurent had to inform his choice was the man in front of him. The Prince-killer.

“I will continue to consider it.” Laurent rose. “This has been an enlightening conversation. Good evening.” He turned on his heel, hearing the chair scrape behind him as Damianos stood.

“Good night, King Laurent,” Damianos said, as Jord held the door for him.

Chapter Text

“Ah Lord Estienne, good morning.”

“Your majesty.” Lord Estienne swept a low bow.

Laurent had cornered him in the corridor, a carefully calculated interception made to look like an accident. “How fortuitous to see you. Would you care to join me for breakfast?”

“You honor me.” Estienne was a man of middle years who retained a youthful flamboyance and energy. Like the young men of the court he wore his jacket unlaced in the front, showing a silk shirt in an ostentatious shade of yellow.

“How is the family?” Laurent asked, as he led the way to the solarium where it was his habit to take breakfast. “Does the new granddaughter have a name?”

Estienne beamed. “They named her Joanna, for her grandmother. Everyone is well, thank you for inquiring. Joan is staying with them at Rocheilly.”

“That’s good to hear. Send Joan my regards, won’t you?” Estienne’s wife, Lady Joan, had served on King Aleron’s council, before Laurent’s uncle dismissed her for being intractable and intelligent, and she was one of Laurent’s favorite courtiers. It was a shame she was away, but her husband had his uses also. “Have a seat,” he added, as they reached the solarium.

The solarium was a bright round room, facing east. The white cloth on the table and the silver platters of bread and cheese, and bowls of cut fruit and jam all gleamed in the morning sun. It was a political stage, just as much as the throne room or council hall. When Laurent took his meals alone, he ate in his rooms. But there was value in courtiers feeling the intimate attention of their king. Estienne sat down at the table, smiling.

Laurent smiled back, blandly, and buttered a scone as a light-footed servant poured them both fresh milk. “Our meeting this morning was timely. I have been curious to hear your thoughts on the problem of the Akielon exile.”

“Me, your highness?” Estienne asked, startled.

“Well,” Laurent tipped his head, “You are the man to speak to when one wishes to know the consensus of a room.”

Estienne chuckled. “You mean I gossip like a fishwife. Fairly asked, your majesty, fair indeed.”

“Allow me to impose upon your skill at disseminating discourse,” Laurent said, peeling an orange without looking down at it. “I’m interested in your thoughts and the thoughts of others.”

“The Akielon.” He wrinkled his nose. “We are angry on your behalf, Majesty, angry that… such a man should have the gall to stand before you, and request your help of all things. You were merciful in the extreme to not have him killed on the spot, for the wrongs he has done you.”

Laurent’s chest ached with the tight pain that talk of his brother always caused, but he nodded, solemn and composed. “Thank you. I know my father and brother were beloved by others as well as myself.” He spoke to not only Estienne, but to the three silent servants standing in the back of the room. Whatever reports they took back to the kitchen would be just as vital as the word that Estienne would spread among the nobility. “And as king, I know my responsibility is to my people, and not my grief. Politically, what do you think of his offer, Delfeur in exchange for a few thousand soldiers?”

Looking down at his plate, Estienne toyed with an orange rind, twisting it between his fingers so the fragrant oil gleamed yellow on his skin. “It is not my place to advise the king on such matters.”

That was a sensible answer, and not at all what Laurent wanted. “I know the council’s stance,” he said, allowing his audience to draw their own conclusions on what that stance might be, “but of course I do not want to act against the interest of my court and my citizens. It would be valuable to me to know their minds.”

Estienne, a man who enjoyed talking, only required so much convincing. “Your majesty, I know of no one who would not be overjoyed to see Delfeur returned to Vere. Fighting for her return is an honorable mission. But to give aid to the Akielons…” He shook his head. “Those dishonorable barbarians are not worthy of your mercy, much less your help.”

“You would as soon see me crush them, as help them?” Laurent bit into a slice of orange.

“Sooner, your majesty.”

“I would not want to shed the blood of my people for the personal gratification of revenge.” Auguste would not have wanted that.

Lord Estienne shook his head, leaning forward in his seat. “It would not be your revenge alone. If you went to war against Akielos, you would have Vere behind you, heart and soul.”

“Do you speak for yourself or for the court?”

Flushing, Estienne sat back. “Your pardon, your majesty. Of course I can speak only for myself but I am not alone in the sentiment.”

Breaking eye contact, Laurent picked up a boiled egg and said. “Well. I will consider what you have said as the council and I deliberate.”

Turning the talk to other things, Laurent finished his breakfast, and when the meal was done, Estienne took his leave. Brushing pastry crumbs off his fingers, Laurent looked over at the servants. Danton and Alard had been at the palace, serving the royal family since Laurent was a child. The youngest, Louis, was new.

“Alard, do you want to see us fight another war against Akielos?”

Alard was a calm man with a neat, gray beard, and Laurent’s favorite trait about him was his propensity to forget that the boy he had fed porridge to was now his king. “Your majesty, I should like to see us win a war against Akielos.”

Sitting back in his chair, Laurent laced his fingers behind his head and looked out the high windows at the pale morning sky. “Indeed.”


Laurent met Lord Berenger in the gardens later that morning. The roses were blooming in every soft color of a botanist’s dreams, and the air was full and heavy with their scent. The smell reminded him of Auguste and the soft, rose flavored candies he liked. It was one of those memories that now, so many years later, Laurent could cherish with only a bit of sorrow tainting the sweetness.

Berenger came alone as Laurent had asked. They fell into step together, boots crunching on gravel paths as they wandered through the rose garden. Orlant and Rochert followed behind them, out of earshot.

“You’ve heard the Akielon’s proposal?” Laurent asked.

“I wasn’t in the audience chamber when he arrived, but yes I’ve heard of it.” Berenger didn’t press him for his stance on it. That was one of the things Laurent appreciated about him.

“I may have to be away from court for some time.”

Berenger’s eyebrows rose. “Now?”

“Yes. Soon.”

“Is that wise?”

“That’s what I’m here to talk about.” A bee drifted across the path, drunk and lazy on the sweet scent of roses. Laurent turned his head to watch it. “I will need someone I trust in Arles, helping to ensure I have a throne to return to.”

“That’s a large task,” Berenger said mildly.

“It will not be to you alone. You have Herode on your side at least, and Chelaut. In any case, they cannot convene a vote without me but they will attempt to foment reliance on the council body in my absence. The court will need reminders of my virtues and their vices.”

Berenger nodded. “Ancel is very good at that sort of maneuvering.”

Laurent didn’t bother to ask whether Berenger was sure of his trust in the pet. Part of gaining people’s loyalty was respecting their judgment. “I believe Estienne may be of help also. The council will likely complain that I need not have gone personally, and accuse me of being delinquent or unwise.” He shrugged. “Remind people that it shows my dedication to Delfeur and to our border security.”

“How long will you be gone?”

“A few months at least. Perhaps for the whole summer.”

“The length of a campaign?”

“Perhaps,” Laurent said cooly.

“I see.”

“There’s something else,” he added.

“Of course.” Berenger’s tone was deferential, but the words reminded him a little of Auguste, who would have sounded indulgent and fond.

“There may be unrest coming in Akielos. Uncertainty of succession. Changes in power.” Laurent brushed a finger over the delicate petal of a yellow rose, considering how much to say. “If an opportunity presents itself to further Veretian interests in Akielos, I will take it. The council will not like me acting without their sanction, so I need someone here to justify and defend my course of action to the court and the citizens at large.”

“Course of action,” Berenger repeated, entirely expressionless.

“Let us just say…” Laurent dropped his voice, turning to pluck a rose from the other side of the path, and in the process letting his eyes sweep casually over their surroundings. “I may be gaining more than just the return of Delfeur.”

From the set of Berenger’s shoulders, Laurent thought he’d surprised him, but all he said was, “I will do my best.”

“Thank you, Berenger. When you write keep in mind your missives will likely be read by Kastor’s spies as well as all the usual people.” Glancing up at the position of the sun in the sky, Laurent said, “Now, I’ve got a council meeting to attend.”


Laurent chewed slowly on a slice of candied peach and listened to Herode and Audin argue.

“Supporting Akielon interests,” Herode raged. “The Prince-killer, no less. It’s unconscionable!”

“We cannot let events of the past stagnate our foreign relations or else we will be outmaneuvered sooner or later.” Audin tapped his knuckles on the table. “This is an opportunity we cannot let slip by.”

“Let Akielos sort out its own problems - getting involved would be foolish.”

Behind Herode, Chelaut was nodding. “We don’t want to get in the middle of a civil war,” he added.

“Cowards!” Guion exclaimed. “Don’t you think that unstable times are the most advantageous? If Akielos is allowed to secure their power again, regardless which bastard spawn ends up on the throne, they will be fully prepared to defend Delfeur, which,” he sniffed, glancing at Laurent, “we don’t have a hope of wresting from them through military might.”

Herode was red-faced. “Be careful who you call a coward, Audin.” The other four members of the council all began speaking at once.

Laurent stood abruptly, and the room quieted - he still had that much power, at least. “We are inclined to support the Akielon’s suit.”

Everyone stared at him.

“Your majesty,” Herode began, but Laurent held up a hand and he stopped.

“We have heard your concerns, about expense and retaliation. Damianos has a strong claim to the throne, given the barbarian customs toward bastardy, and he is popular among his soldiers and Kyroi. He is as reasonable a bet for the throne as Kastor and if we deny his suit there is still the possibility of having an enemy on the throne of Akielos. Indeed,” Laurent continued, “That would be nothing new. Before us we have the possibility of having some measure of influence all the way to the heart of Ios.” More than his councilors knew, if his plans succeeded. “Nothing gambled, nothing gained. And as for expense, the revenue from Delfeur would easily return the expenditure of a few thousand soldiers, as you were saying, Lord Guion.”

Guion looked rightfully startled at Laurent’s support, but recovered quickly. “Yes, indeed.”

Laurent smiled thinly. “Then certainly you will have soldiers to contribute to the effort. As the return of Delfeur will directly benefit your position on the border.”

He watched Guion’s face twist, enjoying the snap of the small trap. “Of course, your majesty,” Guion said finally.

“Good. We will discuss numbers at a later time. We expect Lord Touars will also be eager to make a contribution, once he understands the situation.” He tapped his fingers on the table. “You all understand the need for discretion in this matter? This endeavor should be kept secret from King Kastor until the last possible moment. In order to be successful, this will be treated like any other military campaign, and kept closely guarded. Our fiction will be that we are drilling forces on the border. There is to be no word outside this room that we have accepted Damianos’ petition for aid.”

“Your majesty,” Herode began, voice trembling with emotion, “surely allying with Akielons is a disgrace to the memory of the royal family.”

There was a stillness in the room as everyone else looked at Laurent, waiting for his reaction.

Breathing through the tightness in his chest, Laurent said, “Our brother would want me to consider the best interests of all of Vere.” He wondered vaguely if he would lose Herode with this maneuver. “He would not want our love for him to be an impediment to the best course of action.”


Laurent had sent Rochert to find Vannes before the meeting. On the way to Damianos’ rooms, took a detour to the east wing, where Rochert had found her.

She was watching her pet wrestle in the ring with another female pet. Laurent slid into the seat beside her as she startled a little. “Your majesty?”

“Vannes. Are you available to accompany me on a short journey, beginning tomorrow?”

“If you wish, your highness.” The other spectators around the ring were staring at them instead of the performance. The king was not a common visitor to these types of entertainments, particularly between female pets. “May I ask where?”

“As far as Acquitart, officially,” he said, and watched her piece the rest together.

“And then I might be… traveling independently?” she asked slowly. In the ring, her Vaskian pet pinned the other.

“Perhaps,” Laurent agreed. “Pack clothes for the mountain passes.”

Vannes nodded, and he rose from his seat leaving the room to the moans of the pet performance finishing.


Damianos opened the door at his knock and stepped back to let Laurent inside. Leaving his guards in the hall to deter evesdroppers, Laurent shut the door himself.

“King Laurent,” Damianos greeted him. The room was west-facing and brightly lit with afternoon sun.

“Damianos. Are you ready to ride south?”

“You mean… you’re saying yes?”

“I am.”

A grin broke across his face, radiating pleasure like a puppy with a new toy. He had dimples. “Thank you. You won’t regret it.”

Laurent hummed noncommittally. “See that I don’t. The sooner we leave, the better off we’ll be. I can have preparations completed in two days, and we can ride out morning after next.”

“Wait, you’re coming yourself?”

“I am.”

“I thought… you’re the king. Surely you have more important things to do here.”

“More important than supervising the relationship with our neighboring kingdom? Don’t forget that if your bid is unsuccessful I will find myself at war with Kastor for supporting you. Forgive me if I don’t trust that kind of military command to just any captain.”

Damianos squared his shoulders. “Your concern does you credit, but you can trust me with this command. I’ve been commanding armies since I was seventeen. And you aren’t a soldier.”

“I am well aware,” Laurent said sourly, “of the differences in our backgrounds. You will find I have other strengths to bring the endeavor. In any case, they are my soldiers and I will oversee them how I see fit.”

Damianos nodded. “Of course. Forgive me.”

“I’ve put out the story that I am going on a short tour of the border forts, Fortaine and Ravenel.”

“A story. To conceal your real intent?”

“Have you considered this at all?” Laurent snapped.

“I have,” said Damianos, sounding offended.

“If we ride out with banners flying, word will reach your brother in within a week that I have granted you aid. He already knows you’ve petitioned me for help, thanks to your public display when you first arrived, but he doesn’t know my decision.”

“Do you know who the spies are?” Damianos asked.

“I have my suspicions.” There was no point in killing spies when you discovered them - a dead spy you knew was simply replaced with one you hadn’t spotted yet. “So you see, this will not be a formal sortie, and we will not be traveling as royals, if there is to be any element of surprise.”

Damianos nodded slowly. “So we have a cover.”

“I will be riding to visit Fortaine, stopping at some of my keeps along the way. It is not such an uncommon journey for a king to make, visiting his lords, but Prince Damianos will not be accompanying me. In fact, I want you to return to the audience hall tomorrow so I can reject your suit publically. You will leave the city and rejoin my party outside Arles. We can disguise you as a new guard, or perhaps a camp follower.” He allowed himself to smile at the thought. “There’s no accounting for taste.”

Damianos’ brow was furrowed. “Is that level of deception necessary?”

“You tell me.” Laurent leveled his gaze at him. “I would not say, up to this point, that you have done a terribly good job at estimating your brother’s duplicity. Shall we be more cautious, or less so?”

After a moment, Damianos nodded. “You’re right. We’ll do it your way.”

“I thought so.” Laurent put a hand on the doorframe. “Oh, and one more thing. I can’t call you Damianos if you are in disguise.” Every Veretian child had heard the name Damianos spoken like that of a monster in a fairy tale. “What should we name you instead?”

Damianos considered for a moment and then said, “My friends call me Damen.”

“Damen,” Laurent repeated dubiously. It was a flimsy replacement at best, but the barbarian smiled and nodded. Laurent sighed. “Alright, Damen. I’ll see you in the hall tomorrow. Be prepared for a rejection.”

Chapter Text

Two days later, Laurent and his guards rode out from the southern gate of Arles just as the sky was lightening from gray to yellow with dawn. They had no other soldiers with them - all the men they would be crossing the border with would join them at Fortaine. Laurent had taken some pleasure in negotiating the numbers with a sour-faced Guion.

Jord was unhappy about their small contingent on the road. They were a motley group, a dozen soldiers, as well as Vannes and her pet, and Paschal the physician, riding with their king to meet an enemy prince.

Laurent might have travelled in such a small party, without fanfare, to Aquitart or Chastillion when he was still Prince, but it was unusual for a king to embark on a journey unannounced with such a small retinue. Likely, in his absence Guion and Audin would attempt to spin it into a story of his irresponsibility, but that was no longer his concern. If his plans went right, this small infraction would be utterly forgotten, by court and council both. Laurent cast his mind on the road ahead of him.

There was a lone rider in view around the curve of the road. Laurent felt his guards tense, although they knew who was joining them. Hearing the hooves, the rider reined his horse around and lifted a hand in greeting.

Damianos was armed and dressed in Veretian garb. Laurent felt his heart beating faster, an instinctive response to danger. Damianos was no threat, outnumbered and indebted to them, deep in the heart of Veretian territory, but they were riding toward the Prince-killer with a sword at his side. The Veretian jacket he wore strained across his broad shoulders and was laced tightly over his narrow waist. The riding leathers emphasized his strong thighs, muscles shifting as he gripped the horse. That brutal, towering strength had made him the villain of Laurent’s teenage nightmares.

Laurent looked away. “Damianos,” he greeted tersely.

“Damen,” Damianos said, dimpling.

Laurent did not return the smile, he simply jerked his head at his retinue and said, “My personal guards. For the purposes of this deception you will be joining them. I'm sure there will be ample opportunity for you to get to know them along the way.”

Damianos nodded. “Thank you again. I am truly grateful for your generosity in offering...”

“I’m not interested in your thanks,” Laurent said sharply. “Only in the turn of Delfeur. You would do well to remember that.” He enjoyed watching Damianos's cheerful expression fade a little but the man nodded again, and reigned his horse in readily enough with the rest of the party.

Jord was scowling heavily, and Laurent recalled that he had fought at Sanpellier. Orlant who had lost a brother fighting Akielos, also looks thunderous. Laurent reflected that the bastard prince might not be his only problem in executing his plan.

 

Their small party made good time across the lowlands from Arles. Each night they made camp and posted guards, and Laurent watched Damianos work just as hard as any of the other soldiers, never expecting exemption for his status. He noticed his men noticing too. It was not being particularly well received.

“Pretending he's one of us,” Rochert muttered, watching Damianos haul rolled up tent canvas out of the wagon. Orlant said something that Laurent didn't catch.

Huet was lifting an identical tent roll, arms straining under the weight. “Hey, lemme help with that,” Rochert said to Huet a little more loudly than necessary, as Damianos passed with his arms full. Laurent turned his back on the scene.

The small harassments continued, as Laurent pretended oblivion. It wasn't a responsible way to begin any endeavor much less a campaign, Laurent knew. His brother would never have tolerated it. But as he passed Orlant ‘accidentally’ tripping over a tent pole that Damianos was trying to erect, making the structure collapse around him, Laurent fought back a silent wave of vindictive satisfaction.

He told himself that he was simply gauging Damianos's mettle as a man and a soldier. It was important to know what made a man crack. And although Damianos wound tighter and tighter in silent anger, his natural cheerfulness vanishing, he did not retaliate.

On the third day of their ride, they passed Chastillion without stopping, pushing harder than he would have otherwise to reach Baillieux. The keep there was far smaller and less grand but it hardly mattered. After all, he was not trying to convince Damianos of the wealth or superiority of Vere as he might have with another visiting royal.

Their fiction was that Damianos - Damen - was a visiting Patran physician, apprenticing under Paschal, and accompanying them on this journey simply out of routine. There was no other reasonable explanation for a man of his complexion to be traveling with the King of Vere and his personal household retinue. This meant also that he was lodging in the keep with the physician, rather than in the barracks with the men.

Lord Maurus of Baillieux Keep was both honored and flustered to have his King visiting on short notice. He organized a feast that was no comparison to the royal extravagances at Arles, but respectable for a small midland holding with so little warning.

At the feast, Laurent was seated in the place of honor at the high table, with Maurus and his family, apart from the rest of his group, with Jord standing behind him on guard. Further down the table was Vannes, while her pet Talik was seated with the rest of the soldiers down the hall.

“You have an interest in history, do you not?” Laurent said to Maurus, as he lifted a slice of roast lamb off a platter.

“That is kind of you to remember, your majesty,” Lord Maurus said. “I am no scholar, it is merely a leisurely pastime.”

“Indulge me,” Laurent said, idly swirling the water in his glass. “I’ve developed an interest in the ancient kingdom that made up this land before Vere and Akielos.”

“The Artesian Empire?” Maurus gestured to a servant to fill his cup. “A fascinating topic. What we know is mostly reconstructed from ballads and folktales, passed down through the years.”

“So you would say the history is unreliable?”

“Oh, no more or less than most of our knowledge of the past, before modern record keeping. There are the forts, of course, and any number of old tools and weapons dug up around them. And you must know of the burial mounds.”

Laurent nodded. The earthen tombs of ancient kings and chieftains were to be found throughout Vere - universally they were sites of superstition and youthful dares. Laurent had been inside the one near Arles, and it was simply a musty, jumbled hollow of stones, nothing remaining at all of the person buried there or their worldly goods.

Servants carried out another course of game, platters of birds, carefully plucked, roasted, and then adorned in their own feathers. Laurent had always considered the presentation somewhat macabre. “The burial mounds predate the Artesians,” Maurus continued, “but the unity in burial practices from Ios to the northern forest suggests that even before what we would call the Artesian Empire, this land shared one culture, if not one ruler. So the division we have now may be the exception and not the norm, historically speaking.” The man blinked, and added quickly. “That is not to say that the separation between Vere and Akielos is not good and right. Obviously, we cannot forget the atrocities committed by the barbarians…”

Laurent held up a hand, cutting off his sudden digression. “How did the Empire cease to be? I’ve heard the story of the brothers. It seems… simplistic.”

“Ah, yes. The tale we tell now can only be traced back a hundred and fifty years or so, to a bard by the name of Olandrus. As far as we can tell he borrowed the story of the two brothers feuding from an older myth and embellished it with a love story and a morality tale about corruption.”

Down at the lower tables, the soldiers were well into the wine, the volume of talk and laughter in the room rising. Laurent had one eye on his guards and Damianos seated with them, as he listened to Maurus.

“The evidence gathered by leveller heads - and I say again, I simply dabble in these topics, your majesty, please understand - the evidence suggests that a series of lean times, perhaps a famine or a plague, had already weakened the Empire and that a dual-governance model was instituted in the north and south, with a member of the same royal family ruling in each place - joint rulers with different domains. Hence the story of the brothers, which, if it contains a grain of truth, likely was not a violent schism but a natural separation along already existing lines.”

Laurent propped his chin on his hand, idly playing with an empty mussel shell on his plate. “There was no battle, then? The rebellious brother inciting civil war, and toppling the mighty Empire?”

“Oh, there was a battle.” Maurus spread butter on a soft roll and brushed off his fingers fastidiously. “South of what is now Fortaine. There are still bones.”

“Given your surmise on the history of common governance, do you think it would be possible to unite the Empire again?”

A faint frown creased Maurus’ brow as he looked at Laurent. Laurent gave him his most bland and innocuous smile in return. “With the enmity as it is between Akielos and Vere? You would be hard pressed to hold it, even if you could unite them. And to win Akielos you would have to strike a decisive blow to their crown, not wage a prolonged war of conquest,” His frown deepened and he lowered his voice. “You are not thinking of such a thing, are you, your majesty?”

“Don’t worry,” Laurent said with perfect honesty. “I am not about to waste Veretian lives trying to expand our borders. I learned that very well from my father and brother.”

“They were only defending what was theirs, your majesty,” Maurus said.

Glancing across the hall, Laurent’s gaze found Damianos, who was sitting somewhat apart from the rest of the soldiers, head down as he ate. “Indeed. And when I win back Delfeur it will be in their names. But who is to say that Vere should end at Delfeur? If this land was so long one kingdom, can we truly claim any of it as Veretian or Akielon?”

Maurus flustered at that, clearly trying to deduce a correct response from Laurent’s carefully inscrutable expression. Causing such consternation in courtiers was one of Laurent’s dearest private pleasures. Taking a sip of water, he intervened in his own game. “It is only scholarly speculation of course, of no account.” He delicately sliced open a stuffed mushroom and continued. “Lord Maurus, certainly you have heard the notion that the council has, of entrenching their positions into a sort of life-time political privilege.”

Maurus blinked, his uncertainty morphing into a more concrete kind of unease. There were still no good answers, when speaking of this with his king, but at least he understood the trajectory of the conversation. “I have heard so, your majesty.”

“Now you must know that we, that is, the crown, have the interests of the people of Vere close to our hearts.” Laurent let his tone slide silkily over the words, court platitudes that any noble would recognize. “The role of the council has always been to strengthen the throne with their wisdom, and indeed if they could better serve this role it would be our duty, nay our pleasure to affirm permanent membership and more power for the council. Who do you think you should like to see appointed to such a role for life?”

Maurus’ mouth was slightly open like the beak of the pheasant on the table before him.

“Consider it when you are next at court, won’t you?” Laurent gave him a sweet smile and dropped the royal plural. “I imagine it is a question on many people’s minds.”

He let Maurus steer the conversation to safer topics - hunting and riding - until it was late enough to retire gracefully. Glancing around the room as he retired with Jord behind him, he didn't see the Akielon at the table where he had been sitting. “Did you see Damen leave?” he asked Jord. The man's small name felt sour on his tongue.

“Yes your majesty,” Jord said. “Not long ago. He left alone, perhaps to the privy.”

Laurent nodded. There were any number of innocent reasons for someone to leave a meal early - after all, Laurent himself was doing it. The corridor outside the great hall was cool and dim after the warmth of the feast.

On the way toward the stairs, up to his rooms, he passed the arched doorway that led outside, and heard the sound of someone retching. Frowning, Laurent redirected his steps toward the courtyard. It was early yet, too early for one of the men to be indisposed by drink.

Prince Damianos, the Lion of Ios, was bent over the gutter, heaving.

“Something I ate,” he rasped, looking up balefully.

Given that no one else appeared similarly inflicted, Laurent had a fairly clear idea of what had happened. There were any number of toxic berries or mushrooms that could induce this effect non-fatally. None of his men would go so far as to outright kill the Akielon prince - or at least, they would likely have already done so. There had been ample opportunity on the road.

He turned to Jord. “Did you know of this?”

“No, your highness.” Laurent scrutinized his face closely as Damianos heaved again, behind them. Jord was a steady man, who took his responsibilities as captain seriously. The balance of probability was that he was speaking the truth. “Go fetch Paschal,” Laurent ordered. Jord hesitated, clearly reluctant to leave him alone with Damianos, even indisposed as the man was. “Go,” he repeated, letting his voice deepen. Jord went.

When he turned, Damianos was watching him, one arm braced against the stone wall of the keep for support. His face was bloodless, turning his warm brown skin a kind of dark gray in the flickering light of the torches.

“Remarkable hospitality,” he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. “Poisoning a guest.” Bitterness didn’t suit him, Laurent thought.

“Not fatal poison,” he said blandly.

Damianos spat to the side. “Your men have every reason to hate me. As do you. I understand that. But to go to war together, you must trust your allies to watch your back, not to slip something into your super out of spite. It fractures your force and creates mistrust.”

“Is that so?” Anyone who knew him would have been warned by the deceptive pleasantness of his tone.

But Damianos was not a man for subtleties. He shrugged. “Even if I am forgiving, how do you expect your men to fight alongside me when they remember the wrongs they have done to me and wonder if I remember them too, enough to put a sword through their backs? In war, the whole is always more important than the individual. It reflects poorly on you as a commander if you cannot - or will not - stop it.”

“Would you say the individual was unimportant when you won a battle by killing my brother?” Laurent snapped, icy. “I do not need a lecture on command from a barbarian.”

There was little satisfaction to be had in Damianos's shock, when the man was pathetic looking already with illness. Behind him, Laurent heard the shuffle of footsteps. Paschal and Jord were approaching. He turned to the physician. “See that he gets to his room, and give him whatever ease you can. Make sure it's not deadly.”

 

The next morning, Laurent woke having slept well enough simply by virtue of the fact that Ballieux was not Chastillion. His men were assembled in the courtyard, looking reasonably alert, except for Damianos who looked as if he had spent half the night throwing up, grim faced and red eyed. Casting his sharp eyes over the troop Laurent noted who among the men looked particularly amused at that. Orlant, and a couple of others.

The stablehands brought the horses and the men began to mount up. The wagon was already prepared and restocked with supplies. Checking his mare’s girth strap and bridle, Laurent swung up onto her back. Lord Maurus was on the steps of the keep to see them off, in front of the open gate. Nudging his heels against his horse’s side, Laurent walked her over to say farewell to their host.

There was a disturbance in the company behind him. Damianos's horse was prancing and pawing unhappily, and he was struggling to keep it under control. The gelding snorted and tossed its head, almost pulling the reins out of Damianos's hands.

Maurus chuckled. “I thought Patrans were meant to be good horsemen,” he said.

“They are,” Laurent murmured, mostly to himself.

“Perhaps not the physicians though.” Maurus smiled at his levity, and bowed. “Your highness, it has been an honor.”

“Our gratitude for your hospitality,” Laurent said, distracted, and called to his men. “Ride out! Lord Maurus, until we meet again.”

They clattered out of the courtyard, under the teeth of the portcullis and onto the road. Laurent led them at a brisk pace, watching Damianos's horse become more and more recalcitrant. It was prancing, knees high, ears flat, kicking a little on each step like it was considering bolting. The whites of its eyes were showing. Damianos had the reins tight - he was displaying not inconsiderable skill as a horseman just keeping the gelding in line with the rest of the party.

When they were out of shouting distance of the keep, alone on the open road, Laurent called a halt, and swung down from his mare. He jerked his head at Damianos. “Bring the horse here.”

Dismounting, Damianos fought with the gelding, yanking on its bridle. Laurent strode toward the cart, and waited while Damianos dragged the animal over. The rest of the soldiers had gathered in a loose semi-circle around them, and Paschal was leaning out of the cart to watch.  The horse flared its nostrils at Laurent and pawed the grass.

“Hold him,” he ordered, and pushed the sleeve of his jacket and shirt up his forearm. “Keep him still.”

Damianos was big enough to corner the gelding back against the side of the cart, leaning all his weight on the heaving roan flanks. The cart creaked and swayed. Catching the horse’s angrily flicking tail in one fist, Laurent pulled it up out of the way, and, standing to the side well out of kicking range, inserted his hand up to the third knuckle in the horse’s ass.

There was an indrawn breath from some of his soldiers. A prince of the blood did not muck stables, but any boy learning to ride fell from a horse once or twice and landed in manure. As a child, Laurent had outgrown any natural squeamishness through imitating his brother, who was never fazed by anything. Auguste had liked to help with foaling, and Laurent had more than once had his hands inside a horse, although never up one’s ass.

The gelding stomped and snorted, tossing its head and trying to sidestep, but Damen had the beast pinned securely against the cart. The real danger, Laurent knew, was not in getting kicked, which was avoidable, but in getting one’s wrist broken with a sudden movement. The barbarian’s strength against the horse’s side was the only thing protecting Laurent’s sword hand. He kept his face perfectly composed as his fingers found what they were looking for in the warm, soft channel.

He withdrew his hand, not as filthy as he had imagined, holding a piece of shaved ginger root. It was an imported Patran spice, that burned when inserted in a sensitive place. Holding it up, he cast an icy gaze over his men, who stood transfixed in incredulous fascination. Damianos was also staring at him, mouth slightly open.

“This ends now,” Laurent said, letting his voice ring clear and harsh. “No more tricks and sabotage. You are displeased at riding with the Prince-killer, but you make an ill example of the caliber of Veretian soldiers. You have shown Damianos your hatred for him; now show him your loyalty to your king. You will treat him as you would any other soldier, because we order it so. Are we understood?”

“Yes, your majesty,” Jord barked, and the rest of them chorused after him, with varying degrees of reluctance. It would have to be good enough.

The gelding was still unsettled, skittish. It would be an uncomfortable and tiring ride for whoever was trying to keep him in check. Laurent took the bridle out of Damen’s hands and pointed him toward his own gray mare. “Take her,” Laurent said.

Damianos's eyes widened as he took the mare’s reigns. He showed all his thoughts on his face, Laurent noticed again. A flaw, in a prince of blood. Even bastard blood. Especially a bastard, who would need to be cunning and ruthless to make their way in the world. Unlike his brother Kastor, Damianos seemed to be neither. He would be no match for Laurent, in the end, if he couldn’t even conceal his expressions.

“Treat her carefully,” Laurent added, letting his voice carry. “She was a gift from my brother.” He held the barbarian’s gaze, letting no trace of sentiment show. His soldiers were watching silently. To them, this would be just another example of their frigid king’s unfeeling control, and a clear message that Laurent meant what he said about Damianos.

Laurent swung up on the gelding, who danced and tried to turn beneath him. Laurent brought the horse under control with his thighs and an adjustment of his grip on the reins. “Well?” he snapped. “Let’s ride.”  

Chapter Text

Laurent kept a close watch on Damianos as they rode.

Auguste’s killer sat gracefully on the mare, and handled her gently. She was not used to any rider but Laurent, and somewhat disgruntled at the added weight, but Damianos soothed her expertly until she was handling almost as easily for him as she did for Laurent. It was her impeccable training of course - no less than the best mount for the king.

Having spent much of the last three days ignoring Damianos's presence in their troop as much as possible, Laurent found himself noticing things he had not before. The Akielon style of horsemanship was subtly different than the Veretian one - more relaxed and loose in the saddle, his center of gravity closer to the horse’s. His dark, close-cropped curls gleamed in the morning sun. As they rode, his eyes swept from side to side, watching the soldiers and the fields, scanning the horizon and the road in both directions. It was the demeanor of a man used to command - alert to his surroundings and his men. No one watching carefully would ever buy their fiction of Damianos as a physician’s apprentice. He was clearly a warrior, from the breadth of his shoulders and sharpness of his gaze, to his seat on the horse.

As the sun rose higher in the sky, the dewy morning gave way to the thick heat of early summer. It beat down on their heads, making the riding leathers over-warm. Laurent tore his gaze away from Damianos's thick thighs clutching the horse’s sides, his collar feeling over-tight.

He was struck by a painfully vivid memory of watching his brother ride along these same roads, south. To war. The spring before Laurent turned fourteen had been unseasonably warm, the marching armies turning up dust instead of mud. Auguste had been resplendent in blue and gold, his uncovered hair shining like a gilded helm, starburst pendants snapping in the warm wind. The memory sent a sharp lance of longing through Laurent’s chest.

Curling his hands more firmly around the reins, he dug his fingernails into the meat of his palms and let the pain ground him.

 

That evening as they made camp, Laurent kept a sharp eye on the proceedings as he unsaddled and groomed the gelding. Damianos took his time seeing to Laurent’s mare, and then went to help with the camp set up as always. When Laurent went to check on his horse, he found that Damianos had done as careful a job of brushing her as Laurent himself would have done. She wuffled into his hand as he stroked her silken forehead.

Carding his fingers through her forelock, Laurent took a deep breath and let it out slowly, like his brother had taught him, and forced himself to release some of the tension from his shoulders. There was a hard, aching knot under his breastbone, ever-present, that would not unwind, but if he didn’t relax a little he would be sore tomorrow.

Hobbling the horses, Laurent brushed his hands off on his trousers and made a slow circuit of the camp.

Damianos was setting tent poles, unmolested but alone.

“Orlant,” Laurent called, and jerked his head toward the Akielon. “That tent will go up faster with two people.”

Orlant’s jaw tightened, but he went to help Damianos with the tent. As Laurent turned, he caught Huet and Rochert hastily looking back at their own tasks. “Problem?” Laurent asked. They shook their heads.

Their party was traveling as lightly as possible, so Laurent’s own tent was not the elaborate affair that Veretian royalty would be expected to travel with, but there was a small, lightweight writing table, with legs that folded up for storage. He lit the lamp and sat down, with the tent flap tied back to let in the fading light as he wrote.

Jord brought him a plate with slices of roast rabbit and hard cheese. There was a small, eating knife with it, and as Laurent sealed the letters, he used the butt of the hilt, smooth and unmarked, to indent the wax, rather than the seal ring on his right hand. Then he finished his meal, careful not to get grease on the papers, and called for one of his guards.

It was Jan who ducked into the tent and bowed. “Your majesty?” “

Laurent passed him the bundle of letters. “We passed a waystation two miles or so back. Carry these letters there and post them.”

“You don’t want to wait for the royal messengers?” Jan asked, and then flushed.

“If I did, I wouldn’t have asked you to send them by general post, would I?” Laurent said, allowing the reprimand to have a soft edge of amusement. Jan was the youngest and greenest of the troop, a wiry boy with faint freckles across his nose that disappeared when he blushed. “No need to announce that they come from the king. Take off your royal insignia also.” At the boy’s look of alarm Laurent shook his head. “You aren’t dismissed, I simply am sending you on an errand where the seal of the king is not needed. You will be a citizen posting some letters, like any other.”

Jan nodded jerkily. “Yes, your majesty.”

“Good.” Royal messengers were fast but conspicuous. Easier to track missives that way. Who was to say what letters were in the bulging mail bag on the saddle of some postman riding his regular route? “Get some civilian clothes from the wagon and go, tonight.”

“Yes, your majesty.”

Left alone, Laurent blew out the lamp. With the interior of the tent dark, the deepening darkness outside the tent became the brightest place - blue and vivid, except where light from the campfire painted the sides of the tent leaping orange and yellow. He could see the outline of Huet’s back, standing guard outside, and hear the steady thunk-thunk of an ax splitting wood.

Out there, close enough to call for, was the man who killed Auguste. A man who Laurent was coming to know as steady and self-controlled, a hard worker. His stomach twisted. How many other virtues could he count about the Prince-killer?

Laurent sent a silent apology to his brother, and then got to his feet, closed the tent flap and drew his sword from its sheath. Alone in the dark, silent and precise, he practiced drills until his arms and back ached, until sweat stood on his forehead and he thought he might finally sleep.

 

One of Laurent’s scouts caught up with them on their ninth day out from Arles, near the fort at Nesson. He came pounding up the road from the west, riding hard enough that several of Laurent’s men had their hands on their weapons before the man hailed them, breathlessly.

His name was Quentin, and he had grown up near Ravenel, sharing the darker coloring and unaccented Akielon that allowed him to pass unnoticed across the border. He was one of a handful of scouts Laurent had sent out as soon as Damianos arrived with his bold request. His clothes were dusty and his face lined with weariness.

“Halt,” Laurent called to his troop. “Water the horses and eat something.” He turned to Quentin. “Ride with me.”

Growing up in the palace, surrounded by servants and nosey courtiers, there was rarely a moment of true privacy. Something Auguste had taught him was that riding you could talk without fear of being overheard. As the other men dismounted, he and Quentin rode away from the group at a slow trot. The scout’s horse was lathered, sides heaving - he must have been changing horses along the way to ride like that, and it would have been exhausting for rider as well as mount.

It was nearly two days’ travel by boat from Marches to northern Akielos, each way, and then three days hard ride at least to catch up with their company out of Arles. Quentin would have had four days at the most to gather information in Delfeur, which meant that it was likely not particularly complete. A source of ongoing frustration to Laurent was that spycraft could be fast or thorough but not both. His spies were dedicated though - Quentin appeared to have barely slept.

Laurent gave his mare her head, letting the reins hang loose. “What have you learned for me?”

“Your majesty, news of Damianos's petition to you is the talk of Akielos. It will have reached King Kastor by now without a doubt. But as of my departure there was only speculation on your response.”

“What kinds of speculation?”

“Most people thought that you would turn him down. I saw odds anywhere from two-to-one to eight-to-one.”

Laurent nodded. Bookkeepers were always excellent sources for the opinion of a population. “And what did they think of Damianos attempting to usurp his brother?”

“Divided. He is popular in the northern provinces, revered even. They benefited more from his… his victories.” Quentin swallowed, clearly not wanting to mention Marlas. Laurent gestured for him to go on. “Almost everyone I spoke to agreed he would make a better king than his brother, but not all thought it was worth a war. Some thought he ought to seek peaceful amends with his brother, or take the exile gracefully upon the order of his king.”

“And of the death of King Theomedes? What do they say of that?”

“Few people seem to believe Kastor’s story that Damianos killed Theomedes. I heard whispers that perhaps Kastor himself did it, in order to blame his brother.”

Laurent frowned. “That doesn’t make sense. Kastor was heir, he had nothing to lose by waiting. Was he so eager to take the throne?”

“The original story, that was being told before Kastor proclaimed it patricide, was that he was ill with a swelling in his brain.” Quentin shrugged. “It could be true.”

“Theomedes’ true death is a low priority,” Laurent said, flicking his fingers. “Of the Kyroi and nobles, who are Damianos's supporters?”

“Kyros Nikandros, of course. A number of the nobles of Delfeur, including Makedon. Kyros Menaidos of Sicyon and probably Tarsus of Dice. I can’t report reliably on any of the nobles further south, but Damianos seems to have popular support among the lower classes throughout the kingdom.”

“What can you tell me of Kyros Nikandros?”  

“He and Damianos were childhood friends. He’s the most obvious threat. So much so that Kastor has a contingent of soldiers in Delfeur on routine patrol but everyone knows they are to warn Nikandros off from rebellion.”

“How many soldiers?”

“Two cohorts, so a little less than a thousand soldiers.”

Laurent twisted the smooth leather of the reins between his fingers, and his mare shifted a little in response, lifting her head from cropping grass and snorting. He soothed her with a hand on her neck. “That will be all for now, unless there is anything else.”

“That’s all. Where do you need me next, your majesty?”

Laurent shook his head. “You’re exhausted. Ride with us as far as Nesson-Eloy. It’s not far. You can rest there before your next assignment.”

 

They arrived at the fort of Nesson with daylight still to spare. It was a small but busy holding, a stop along a major trade route. Both the town and keep were crowded and prosperous.

When they rode into the courtyard they found it bustling even late in the day. A dozen men were constructing a new stable, hauling the heavy roof beams into place with the aid of ropes and pulleys. The normal business of the keep went on around them, making everything crowded and noisy.

As the soldiers handed off the horses and cart to the steward and stablehands, Laurent went up to the freshly aired guest chambers, and sent Jord to fetch Damianos. When he arrived, Laurent was urolling maps on the table.

There was a knock, and Laurent looked up to see Damianos's broad frame filling the doorway. “You requested my presence?” His words were deferential but his tone and posture less so. He did not bow.

“We are to run a campaign together.” Laurent gestured to the chair across the table. “We must speak sometimes.” He allowed his distaste to echo in his voice, and saw Damianos's mouth thin.

“By all means, let us speak of the campaign,” he said after a moment. “I am truly grateful for your offering to aid me.”

“I am not doing it for your gratitude,” Laurent snapped. “And I am no friend of yours, Damianos of Akielos.”

They glared at one another across the table. “I will remember that,” Damianos said. “So. The campaign?”

Leaning back, Laurent tapped his fingers on the map. “You plan to gather soldiers and support as you march for Ios - what route are you planning and where do you expect most resistance?”

Damianos gazed at him for a long moment, as if a moment of intelligence had reminded him that he sat opposite a foreign king. Then he looked down at the map and put his finger on Delfeur. “We’ll start in Delpha. I’m sure of support there, from the citizens and the Kyros.”

“Kyros Nikandros.”

“Yes. He’s... he warned me about Kastor. That he was jealous of my reputation. That he might do something rash.” Damianos looked down at the table. “I laughed, said he was wrong about my brother. I didn’t want to believe it.” He shook his head. “He will support me.”

“And the lords under him?”

“Will follow. They know…” He flushed and hesitated. “They know they rule in Delpha only because of my victory.”

Laurent’s lips tightened. “Indeed. And certainly your brother knows this also, yes?”

Damianos nodded. “He will expect Nikandros to side with me. I am sure he is urgently looking for an excuse to remove him as Kyros.”

“Do you expect resistance then?”

“Yes, but he doesn’t know I have support from you. He thinks I am still gathering forces to make a move against him. We are ahead of him.”

Laurent hummed, noncommittal. “How many soldiers can Nikandros rally?”

“He has two thousand men in the standing army of the province, and perhaps double that that he could call from reserve.” He rested his elbows on the table. “If you ever march against me in war, I will have to make sure those numbers change.”

“I have no plans to march an army of my own into Akielos,” Laurent said.

“Why don’t I believe you?” A wry expression twisted Damianos's mouth - not quite amusement.

“Because Veretians are untrustworthy and duplicitous.” Laurent gave him a cold, sharp smile. “So after Delfeur, the lord of Sicyon.”

“Menaidos. He was very dear to my father, so if he believes that…” he swallowed, “that I killed him, he will be Kastor’s man. But if not he might side with me. He always liked me. And he was a general himself - he respects a good commander.”

“If Menaidos is against you, we will have a fight on our hands with hardly more than a single legion.”

“I could take Sicyon with that number.” He said it with such perfect confidence that Laurent looked up sharply at him. He was leaning back in his chair, relaxed. The afternoon sun slanting through the open window made his brown skin glow and his hair shine. “Menaidos knows it, too. He may not support me, but he won’t oppose me. He would retreat, to meet with Kastor further south, and cut us off before we could reach Mellos and Dice.”

“And do you have supporters there?”

“In Dice. The Kyros, Nearchon, was commander at the Kingsmeet when I served there. I haven’t been able to get word to him, but I think he will take my side.”

Laurent leaned over the map. “To get to Dice will take us close to the border with Patras. How in favor is your brother there?”

Damianos shook his head. “Well enough, I think. There is no reason for him to be out of favor, but I don’t know if he has asked them for aid against me, or what they have replied. I’m not sure he thinks I am a serious threat.”

“On the contrary. He thought you were enough of a threat to exile.”

Damianos blinked. “Well, I expressed concern about some of his choices. But I would never have…”

Through the window, a shout of alarm rose in the courtyard below. Damianos broke off. Someone was screaming, hoarse, genuine bellows of agony. Shoving back his chair, Laurent rushed to the open window and looked down.

One of the rafter beams of the building under construction had slipped out of the men’s control, and the enormous length of wood had fallen onto one of the workers, crushing his legs and trapping him.

A voice swore in Akielon, near Laurent’s ear, and Laurent started backwards, shoulders bumping into a broad, warm chest. He hadn’t heard Damianos come up behind him. Down below, the other workers were straining to lift the beam off their companion to no avail, and someone was calling to bring a horse to pull it. Damianos swore again and bolted from the room. Frowning, Laurent followed at a run.

He burst into the courtyard half a dozen steps behind the Akielon, in time to see him stride over to scene of the accident, where Laurent’s guard as well as a crowd of Nesson’s civilians were gathered. The man on the ground was whimpering, and there was blood on the cobbles. Someone was bringing a draft-horse and a length of rope, but Damianos waved the men to his side.

“Jan, go get Paschal. Huet, be ready to pull him out. Everyone else, with me.” He spoke with such natural authority that they hardly glanced at Laurent before obeying. A dozen of the strongest soldiers and laborers gathered around the beam, but it would not be enough - they had tried to lift it before, all of them together, and it had been too heavy. The horse was their best chance. Damen bent his knees, so his riding leathers strained at the seams across his ass and thighs. “On my count. Three. Two. One. Heave .”

His arms bulged under his jacket as he tensed. The other men huffed and strained at the log, and slowly, the huge beam lifted, trembling. Sweat was standing out on Damianos's brow. “Quickly,” he grunted, and Huet and Jord darted forward to pull the trapped man out. He whimpered, clutching at their arms. Paschal was crossing the courtyard at a run, carrying his bag.

The beam thudded back to the ground, and Damianos straightened, rolling his shoulders. Laurent stood, arrested, staring at him. Blood was thundering in his ears as if it were he who had just exerted himself. He cut his gaze away as Damianos looked over at him, and swallowed hard.

Chapter Text

Laurent gave the scout, Quentin, his new assignment the next day and sent him south and east, then called Vannes to his room in the keep. With her pet acting as chaperone, he gave her his message for the Vaskians, and sent them on ahead. They rode out of Nesson before noon, and Jan left an innocuous bundle of letters with the keep steward, to be added to the general post. 

It was three days’ leisurely ride from Nesson-Eloy to Aquitart, but Laurent pushed them hard. Despite Quentin’s report that news of their gambit had not yet travelled south, it would not be long, one way or another, before word reached Kastor. They arrived at Aquitart late in the afternoon on the second day. 

As they rode into the keep, Damianos looked up at the flags flying on the ramparts. “Why are the pennants different?” he asked.

“Aquitart is an independent holding,” Laurent said, “which is ridiculous, of course, given its size. But legally I am king of Vere and Aquitart.” It was another title he had inherited from his brother. Laurent had a memory of being perhaps seven or eight years old and pouting to his brother, “Why do you get to be Prince of two kingdoms? What do I get?”

Auguste had smiled and picked him up although he was growing to big for that, and said, “You get to be prince of my heart.”

The fort at Aquitart contained many such dangerous shards of memory, like fragments of a broken mirror, reflecting pieces of who Laurent had been before the cataclysmic change brought about by the barbarian riding beside him. A cold shiver passed over Laurent’s skin.

Arnoul, the elderly steward, greeted them with a deep bow. The small holding was well-looked after in his capable hands, Laurent saw, looking around at the fresh repairs to the walls, the whitewashed outbuildings and tidy stables. 

“Arnoul, all looks well, as always.” 

“Your majesty is gracious,” he replied, hands clasped together.  

“Lady Vannes and her pet, have they arrived?” 

“Arrived and departed, your majesty, yesterday.” 

“Good. We await their return before continuing.” Laurent dismounted and handed his reins to a hostler. “See that the men are quartered and served in the hall. I will take my dinner alone.” 

 

The royal chambers were a suite of rooms at the top floor of the keep. On the rare occasion that all four of the family had travelled together, the king and queen had taken the wide bed in the main room, their two sons each with their own chambers. Laurent’s room had been a small east facing one that was bathed every morning in light. But when he and Auguste had come to Aquitart alone, as was much more often the case, they had slept together in the overlarge royal bed. 

Now, when Laurent visited Aquitart, he slept in his small childhood room, where he could watch the sun rise, and he slept alone.

Two servants brought up dinner on a silver tray, and Laurent picked at it, but found he had little appetite. From the window, in the fading evening light, he could see the peach orchard, where he and Auguste had spent long afternoons gorging themselves sick on ripe peaches and dozing in the sun. It wasn’t often that the Crown Prince had the time for lazy indulgences with his younger brother, and Laurent had always been jealously protective of the time they did have together. 

If only he had known how little time they truly had. That thought was bitter as bile. 

Laurent could feel a cold weight in his stomach, making him lethargic and self-pitying. Sometimes moods came upon him that seemed to drag him down like deep water, until even moving seemed like an enormous effort. In such heavy moods he felt as if he could sleep for a hundred years, like in the fairy tales his mother used to tell, and wake to find his kingdom cobwebbed and forgotten. 

Paschal said that it was a malaise of the mind, rather than the body, and Laurent’s mind was his best tool. He could not afford weakness. Especially not now. 

He forced himself to his feet. Once begun, movement was easier. He crossed to the door, and poked his head out at Orlant, who was on duty. “Find a deck of cards and two more to play,” he ordered. It was best not to be alone in such moods. Orlant knew better than to question him. 

He ended up sitting on the floor with Orlant, Jord, and Rochert, with the cards on the marble tiles between them. There was a certain awkwardness to the game - it was impossible for them to forget that it was their king they were betting against - but these three had been with him for years now, and their loyalty was borne partly out of affection for him. If their duty tonight was to sit on the floor playing cards with a barely-grown king a decade their junior, then the only question was who dealt the first hand. 

Shuffling the cards between swift fingers, Laurent felt a swell of gratitude in his chest, not quite filling the icy hollow of loss, but numbing it a little. 

 

Vannes and Talik returned the next day, as he had expected. He met them in the courtyard, waving away the stable hands as they dismounted, taking their reins himself. Talik’s horse put its nose under his arm, and he scratched it’s forehead absently. “Well?” 

“Tonight,” Vannes said. “At the eastward corner of the old fort.” 

Laurent nodded. “If all goes well with Halvik tonight, the two of you will be riding for Skarva. Pack whatever you need for the journey before this evening.” 

Then he went to find Damianos. 

The unmistakable clang of blades crossing made his heart pound as he approached Aquitart’s small barracks. Laurent quickened his stride, wondering who had finally snapped and challenged Damianos to a duel. 

It was Jord. He and Damianos faced one another in the center of a ring of spectators. Their swords flashed in the sun as they circled each other. Damianos had his back to Laurent, so Laurent couldn’t see his face, but Jord was frowning, wary. Laurent put his own hand on the hilt of his sword. Damianos was one of the best fighters alive - good enough to beat Auguste. Jord could be killed, but if this was a duel, it would dishonor him to intervene. 

Then, in a flurry of movement, Jord struck. It was a fast, brutal slashing stroke - not a Veretian technique but an Akielon one. Damianos stepped neatly to the side of the stroke, parrying so that the blow slid off his blade with a scream of metal and a shower of sparks. Then he disengaged and said, “That was very good. Try it again.” 

Jord struck again, the same move and the same parry, and Laurent felt himself relax, slowly releasing the hilt of his weapon. The men had already noticed his presence, falling silent and turning toward him. 

Damianos and Jord noticed the change also. Damianos turned, following Jord’s gaze over his shoulder, and said, “King Laurent.” 

“Damen,” Laurent greeted. “I’m pleased to see that Patran physicians are so skilled in arts of war.”

“Ah.” Damianos smiled sheepishly and push sweat-damp curls out of his forehead. “A physician can have hobbies, yes?” He was so terrible at deception that it was almost charming, like a theatrical farce. 

“I see your hobby includes teaching others.” 

Damen shrugged. “I was practicing my own drills and your captain asked about some of the moves, so I offered to show him.” 

Laurent sniffed. “I would speak with you.” He turned to the men. “And you all, I want you practicing that slash. Don’t turn down an opportunity to learn, even from a barbarian. Jord knows that.” 

Damianos raised his eyebrows at Laurent as they walked away from the group. “That was unusually charitable of you.”

“We are allies, are we not?” Laurent said, cooly. 

“So I’ve heard. What did you want to speak about?” 

“As long as we are here, near the border,” Laurent began, “I will be taking a short detour to Vask. You ought to come along.” 

“You have contacts there?” Damianos asked. 

Laurent shot him a look. “No. It is a detour to look at wildlife.” 

“Ah, well.” Damianos was smiling, an amused, endearing look. Laurent scowled at his dimple. “In that case, of course. Anything else I should know about this wildlife?”

 “It is a courtesy to our neighbors, to alert them before Vere and Akielos begin a joint military action. Such a thing could be seen as threatening.” 

“I see.” Damianos nodded. “You want the two of us playing nice to reassure them. But surely you aren’t going as far as Skarva. Even at this time of year it would take weeks across the mountains.” 

“No, I have connections closer to the border. We leave tonight. Be ready by nightfall.” 

 

The crescent moon was high in the dark sky when Laurent met Damianos, Vannes, and Talik at the eastern gate of the keep. 

The four of them rode out across familiar fields, east by northeast from Aquitart, following an overgrown footpath along the edge of pasture land where sheep bleeted suspiciously at them in the dark as they passed. The land rose gently, and on the ridge of a low crest, about a mile from the modern keep, was the ruin of one of the Artesian forts. The walls were mostly fallen and overgrown, saplings and flowers growing out of the once-strong masonry, but in daylight there were still places where the dirt and leaves could be brushed aside to reveal bits of mosaics; chipped, colored tiles in half-lost patterns - a style of art shared between Akielos and Vere.

They dismounted from their horses, for footing was treacherous near the walls, where ruble was concealed by leaves as well as darkness. In the moonlight Laurent saw Damen looking curiously up at the fort.

An aromatic weed, something in the mint family, grew lushly over the the tumbled stones. It crushed underfoot as they walked and released a sweet, pungent scent. The memory struck Laurent, hard as a blow, of walking with his brother through these ruins in the dark, clinging tightly to his hand while loudly denying being scared of the shadows and jagged shapes of the fallen stones. Auguste had laughed softly in his ear and put an arm around him, holding him close. 

They reached their rendezvous at the eastern corner of the ruin, and Laurent halted. Vannes and Talik were still and relaxed, knowing what they were waiting for. Only Damianos was on edge, hand on his sword, scanning the treeline warily. Seeing him, on the same ground where Auguste had walked before, sent a sharp pain through Laurent’s chest. 

Closing his eyes, he leaned back against the stones of the wall, vines tickling his neck, feeling the warmth of the day still lingering in the rock. He and Auguste used to climb up on the top of the tumbled wall, to look at the stars. He could still feel the calm delight of sitting between his brother’s knees, chest to back, Auguste’s jacket pulled around both of them and his arms around Laurent. The memory ached. 

Hoofbeats sounded on the thick sod beneath the trees, and Laurent opened his eyes as the Vaskians arrived. 

It was customary to blindfold strangers before leading them to a mountain camp. Damianos objected predictably but ultimately acquiesced when Laurent submitted to one himself. It made the skin on Laurent’s neck crawl to be blinded with the Prince-killer near but he forced himself to breathe through the feeling. 

In the camp, as Halvik greeted them, Laurent saw with satisfaction that while Damianos had some Court Vaskian, he did not understand the hill dialect that Halvik’s clan spoke. That would make his work easier. 

They all exchanged polite greetings in Veretian, and Laurent introduced Damen with his true identity and full name. 

Halvik raised her eyebrows, and said to Laurent in Vaskian, “An unusual ally, Little Bull.” 

“A temporary one,” Laurent said, keeping his tone light. 

As royalty, the three of them dined on the fur-piled dias together. They spoke of their campaign against Kastor in broad terms, using a mix of Veretian and Vaskian, telling the story that they had agreed upon. Damianos was visibly frustrated by his inability to follow the Vaskian parts of the conversation, and Laurent leaned over to pour him a cup of hakesh from the pitcher. “It will help you relax.”

Damianos eyed the cup. “You haven't drunk any.”

Laurent picked up a pheasant bone, holding it delicately between thumb and forefinger. “I don't need to relax.”

“You don't drink,” Damen said, and Laurent bristled although his voice was more curious than accusatory. 

“You don't know that.”

“I've only ever seen you drink water. Even when others were drinking wine.”

Laurent's brow furrowed. He disliked being observed, especially when he had not noticed the observation. Biting back the urge to say something childish like that doesn't prove anything , he shrugged his shoulders. “Suit yourself,” he said, nodding to the glass of hakesh. 

He turned to Halvik and asked an innocuous question about hunting in deliberately obscure Vaskian. Her mouth was curled up in amusement. Damianos huffed out an exasperated breath, and took a sip of the hakesh. 

Speaking to Halvik, Laurent watched out of the corner of his eye as Damen drank and ate slowly. He was observing the camp, his posture looser than before, propped up on his elbows on the furs. The effects of the hakesh were noticeable in the increasing rise and fall of his chest, and the way his tongue played around the corner of his lips, a certain glassiness to his gaze as he watched the Vaskians. Someone less dark-skinned would have been flushed. His long legs were sprawled out, knees apart, and Laurent couldn’t help glancing at the bulge in his trousers. In Laurent’s estimation, he was not fully hard, but well endowed. 

Halvik had said something that he had missed. Blinking rapidly, he looked back over at her, feeling his own cheeks grow warm. She smirked at him, and repeated herself. 

A curvy, broad shouldered Vaskian woman approached the dias. She smiled sweetly at Damen and spoke to Halvik. “Is the big one free for a ride?” 

Halvik said in Veretian, “Damianos, this is Kashel. She wishes to invite you to the coupling fires.” 

Damen’s eyebrows flew up. “Coupling fires?” 

“You look like you have the seed to breed strong warriors,” Halvik said, in rasping Veretian. 

“Certain visitors are invited to get children on the women of the tribe,” Laurent said. “It’s a great honor.” Damen looked dubious. “Were you raised to diplomacy or not?” he added, in his best Akielon, which was only marginal. “It would be a slight to refuse.” 

“What about you?”

“What about me?” 

“You haven’t been invited. Is that not a slight?” 

Laurent shook his head fractionally. “Halvik knows I have no interest in women. I would be… of little use for their purposes.” 

He saw Damen’s eyes widen a little in understanding, and Laurent felt the frustrating flicker of his own discomfort with self-disclosure. Then Kashel leaned forward, putting a hand on Damen’s leg, the front of her tunic gaping open, and Damen’s attention shifted. 

When he had gone with Kashel, Halvik turned to Laurent and fixed him with a steady, impenetrable stare. He returned it, calmly. The silence lengthened. Halvik had been playing these games longer than he had, but he was very, very good at waiting. Finally, Halvik smiled - a truce - and took another slice of venison from the tray. “Well?” she asked with her mouth full. “Are you ready to tell me your real purpose here?”

“I have a message for the Empress. One that I hope to convey to you first.” Because she lived in the mountains and wore furs and spoke roughly, people underestimated Halvik’s importance in the Empire.  

She inclined her head. “I’m listening.” 

“I have… an opportunity.” Laurent leaned forward, speaking softly and in swift Vaskian.  “Which may or may not lead to an increase in Vere’s power in the region. I want the Empress - and you - to understand my ambitions do not extend to Vask. I mean no threat to the Empire, no matter what may happen between Vere and Akielos.”

Halvik looked sharply in the direction of the coupling fires, the beads in her hair glinting as she moved her head. “The younger bastard, you are using him against his brother?” 

“He is using me against his brother.” 

“Or you are using his brother against him,” Halvik continued slowly, ignoring him. “Or both.” 

Laurent remained silent. 

“So why did you bring him here?” she asked, tipping her cup in his direction. “To show us how sweetly you manipulate allies you plan to betray?” She said it calmly. Laurent felt a jolt in his stomach, the lurch of a conversation taking an unexpected turn. He kept his face carefully impassive. 

“I thought his cock would make an acceptable goodwill gift,” he said, deadpan. 

 Halvik looked flatly at him. “And what would you know of his cock?”

Another shudder of emotion was tamped down. He spoke lightly. “Nothing but speculation. I’m sure you can get a thorough report in the morning.” 

“So. A speculative gift, and a reassuring warning. You are a bold diplomat, Little Bull.” 

He met her gaze steadily. “You are a worthy ally.” 

A Veretian would have demurred the statement, but Halvik just blinked at him. “I am. Shall we go observe the merits your gift?” 

That had not been part of his plan but he had no good reason to object to the invitation. A master of horse wanted to see his stallions mount - so too would he and Halvik observe the Akielon rutting. They crossed the camp to the coupling fire. The ground around the fire pit was strewn with furs, and a dozen Vaskian women lounged there, playing idly with each other. He recognized Kashel, looking sweaty and relaxed, with her head pillowed on another girl's thigh. 

Laurent was aware that he was looking at the women to avoid looking at Damianos. He was on the other side of the fire. The air shimmered between then like an insubstantial curtain, fretted with sparks. He was on his back, with a woman straddling him, rolling her hips sharply. One of his hands was splayed out on her belly, thumb between her legs where they were joined, the other cupping one of her heavy breasts, which bounced disconcertingly in his fingers like a jelly in a bowl.  

There had been few opportunities in Laurent’s life to watch fucking that was not a carefully curated performance, or at least between a pet and master - that is, between a skilled artist and their client. This was nothing like that. Their movements were artless and undignified. They were both panting, sweat shining on their skin, and smiling at one another. 

Damianos sat up with the girl still on his cock, muscles in his stomach bunching, and rolled her over so that she was beneath him. She squeaked and clung to his broad shoulders, laughing. He grinned back, curls falling in his eyes as he leaned over her. 

His hips rolled into her, his tight, round ass flexing in the firelight. It was almost hypnotic. Laurent felt warm, over-aware of his skin in a way that pet performances never inspired. The girl was groaning, Damianos's hand working between their bodies, her thighs clamped around his hips, lifting herself up into his thrusts. The laces of Laurent's collar felt too tight.

“He is finely made,” Halvik said, and when Laurent glanced over she was watching him, looking amused. 

Swallowing, he managed to speak normally. “I thought your clan might benefit from a little royal blood.” Halvik snorted, but didn’t disagree. Damianos was, indisputably, a specimen of a man. 

Bringing Damianos to the Vaskians had been a performance of power. Vask was a stable neighbor to Vere but only sometimes a comfortable ally, however fondly Laurent and Halvik felt toward one another personally. It did not hurt to bring the second son of Akielos to lay at Halvik’s feet - look what I can do. And more than that, look at what I can do away with. So that when he succeeded, she would know what kind of enemy he had been facing, and that news would spread.

The Vaskian woman coupling with Damianos yelled out in pleasure, hands clawing at his back, and he finished with a groan, body trembling as he spilled inside her. They rolled apart, both laughing and panting, beaming at one another. Damianos's cock slapped against his stomach as he sprawled on his back - glistening wet and still mostly hard, girthy and long. 

Halvik made a noise of approval in her throat as another girl sat down beside Damianos, trailing her fingers down his chest. He looked up at her, wide eyed, breathing hard, and grinned. His cock twitched against his abdomen and Damen pushed himself up on his elbows.

Laurent turned away, heart pounding. “I think I am ready to retire.” 

 

The Vaskians had prepared a tent for him, piled with furs, lit with a smokey lamp of animal fat. Laurent blew it out, and undressed by feel as his eyes adjusted to the lights of the fires coming through the stretched hide of the tent wall. The laces Veretian jacket was too stiff to sleep in although it promised to be a cold night.

Wrapping himself tightly in furs, shivering a little for warmth, he closed his eyes. Gradually he ceases to shiver and lay listening to the crackle of the fires, the murmur of voices in camp, and the susurrus of the trees. He was almost asleep when there was a crunch of footsteps outside his tent, and two women, speaking to one another in Vaskian - “Here?” “Halvik said here.” 

He jolted upright, knife already in hand, as the tent flap rustled, and an enormous shape blocked out the light. 

It was Damianos, being shuffled into the low tent by the clanswomen. He was huge in the small space, and Laurent drew back his legs to give him room.  

“What are you doing here?” he snapped. 

Damianos blinked at him, slow and stupid with drink and sex. “They brought me? Should I not have? I can go…” He gestured vaguely to the tent flap, and made to move toward it, managing instead to knock over the unlit lamp. 

Breathing out hard, Laurent shook his head. “Stay.” This was some kind of game of Halvik’s, and he was too tired to unravel it. Either she thought they were fucking and this was her courtesy, in which case he did not want to offend her, or else this was some subtle trap or jibe meant to unsettle him, in which case he refused to give her the satisfaction. “Stay,” he repeated, and Damianos made and agreeable sound in his throat. “But you will not touch me. And you’d better not snore.” 

Damianos nodded and stretched out on the furs. For a drunk man, he made a good effort to not touch Laurent but he was enormous. In the small tent he took up most of the space and Laurent found himself pressed against the stretched hide of the wall, with Damianos's shoulder in his face. 

“Roll over,” he ordered, and when Damianos didn't move, Laurent huffed a breath and shoved at his arm. He could feel the strength of the muscles bulging there, even relaxed. His skin was surprisingly smooth and he was warm as a bedstone. 

With a sigh, Damianos rolled into his side, back to Laurent. It was like sleeping beside a fleshy wall but at least there was more room now. Sighing, he curled up with his back to Damianos and deliberately closed his eyes. 

He was lying next to the man who killed Auguste. But he’d had thought that so many times in the last two weeks it had begun to lose its fervor. Damianos did not snore, just breathed slow and deep and even. He smelled of sweat and leather, which were comforting smells, and of sex with women, which at least was not part of Laurent's unpleasant memories. Heat radiated off him, comfortable in the chill mountain night.

Laurent's own breath was slowing, his limbs growing heavy. He had never liked sleeping alone. 

Chapter Text

Laurent woke with half his body over-warm, and half chilled. He had thrown off the furs in the night, the cool air raising hairs on his shoulders, but his chest was pressed against the furnace heat of Damianos's back. Tension snapped through Laurent's body as he processed the situation. His cheek was smushed against Damianos's shoulder blades, skin tacky with sweat where they were touching. He could feel the barbarian’s ribcage rise and fall gently with his steady breathing. Laurent's body was uncomfortably reminding him that it was morning, he had not gotten himself off in some time, and Damianos's firm, round ass was pressed against his groin. 

Easing himself back carefully, Laurent breathed through his nose and tried to move silently. Damianos made a soft, disgruntled sound in his sleep, and rolled onto his back. Laurent froze. Eyes still closed, Damianos reached out one hand, patting vaguely at the warm space where Laurent had been lying. Silently, Laurent shrank back, pressed against the side of the tent, until Damianos stilled. The furrow in his brow smoothed out, his curls falling in disheveled disarray into his eyes. His lips were slightly parted - Laurent had never noticed how full and soft they looked. 

Thankfully he was still wearing his trousers. He jerked his gaze away, reaching for his jacket. It was too confined in the tent to pull it on, so he crawled out into the dewy, brisk morning, feeling the sweat of shared sleep drying frigid on his skin. 

Despite the late night, the women of the camp were already up and beginning their day. Fires were being tended, horses fed, food prepared. The children who had been kept out of the way the previous night were underfoot everywhere, helping and hindering. In a few years, Laurent reflected, some of the children would have dark curls and sweet, bright-eyed smiles. Dimples maybe. Shaking his head to clear those thoughts, Laurent laced himself into his jacket and took himself off into the woods to relieve himself. 

Vannes and Talik were awake and dressed for travel, sitting by one of the cook fires. They would be riding on to the capital city, Skarva, as emissaries from Laurent, carrying to the Empress essentially the same message he had given to Halvik. It was not that he did trust Halvik to relay his message faithfully - she had no particular reason to misrepresent him to the Empress - but that it was an honor and a courtesy that would make the message more favorably received. 

At court, Vannes was a distinguished lady and Talik was an exotic pet - an erotic oddity. People made quiet, good natured jokes about their roles in bed, looking at Talik’s muscles and stature. But here, sitting side by side on a log, both dressed in riding leathers, they looked like what Laurent suspected they truly were - lovers whose affair had grown into a deep and familiar partnership. 

Talik said something that made Vannes laugh, leaning against her. Their heads were bent together and they were grinning at one another. Laurent halted a little way behind them, arrested by their laughter, feeling voyeuristic and sharply longing. The last time he had been that easy with someone was before his brother died. 

Before Damianos had killed his brother. 

Straightening his posture, Laurent strode forward and interrupted their morning. 

He managed to be absorbed in conversation with Vannes and Talik when Damianos crawled out of the tent, so he missed seeing him half-naked and stretching in the morning light. By the time Laurent had finished his business with the two women, Damianos was dressed in his Veretian clothes again, and eating roast rabbit off the bone for breakfast. 

Halvik insisted that Laurent eat too, as they negotiated safe passage for Vannes and Talik as far as the edge of Halvik’s region. Further east than that, the two of them would be in territory where Talik had been raised, and where she still had family ties that would protect them. The two would reach Skarva within two weeks time, but Laurent didn’t expect to hear news from them sooner than a couple of months - messages through the mountains were unreliable. 

By that time, his plans would be in motion too momentously to change. He could only trust that Vannes and Talik would do their job well in assuaging the Empress. Patras, a closer ally of Akielos than Vere, would require different handling, but Laurent had not yet found an opportunity to orchestrate that. Torveld, the younger brother of the Patran king, liked Laurent. There was influence to be had there, especially if Laurent were to perform some kind of prurient interest in return. A problem for another day. 

He bid farewell to Vannes and Talik, and then collected Damianos brusquely and took his leave of Halvik. “Good luck, Little Bull,” she rumbled at him in Vaskian. Their horses were saddled and waiting for them. 

Laurent took the reins of his mare from one of the women and nodded to Halvik. “Until we meet again.” 

She nodded gravely, and looked at Damianos. “You performed well. Any time you want to return, the tribe will have a use for you.”

Damianos looked somewhat flustered, but managed, “Thank you for your hospitality.” 

Swinging up into his saddle, Laurent jerked his head. “Well? Let’s go.” 

 

The ride back to Aquitart took the better part of the morning - the sun was high in the sky when they rode into view of the fort. His own banner was flying over the ramparts, signalling that the King of Vere was in residence. The gold starburst on blue was his brother’s emblem - it would have been more common for Laurent to assume his father’s sigil when he took the throne, but his citizens, who had also loved Auguste, had forgiven the lapse in protocol. 

The guards at the gate nodded them through, and Laurent swung down from his mare in front of the stables. The hostler came out to take the reins but Laurent waved him away. When he had time to see to his horse himself, that was always his preference. 

To his mild surprise, Damianos also led his horse into the dim interior of the stable behind him, and took up a curry brush. The air smelled comfortingly of hay and sweat and dung, a robust, earthy combination. Hauling the saddle off his mare’s back, Laurent carried it to the tack room, and as he was returning his eyes fell on one of the horses in another stall. 

Frowning, he walked toward it - a bay gelding with a distinctive white star on its forehead. He held out his hand and the horse whuffled into his palm. A cold, foreboding shiver ran down his spine. 

This was the horse that his scout, Quentin, had ridden out on five mornings ago, from Nesson - seventy miles east. 

Turning to the hostler, he snapped, “Where did this horse come from?” 

Both the hostler and Damianos looked up startled. “He was found grazing, your majesty,” the hostler said, looking uncertain. “And he had the royal brand on him. Don’t know how he got loose.” 

“Was he saddled?” 

“Yes, your majesty. The saddle is hung up where it belongs.” 

“And saddle bags? Any personal effects of the rider?” 

He shook his head. “No, your majesty.” 

Laurent drew a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Finish grooming my horse,” he said, turning sharply on his heel. 

Behind him, Damianos called, “Laurent!” 

The light of the courtyard was blinding after the dim interior of the stables, and Laurent halted, unsure of what he needed to do next. He swallowed hard against the feeling of helplessness and paranoia - less frequent since his uncle’s death, but familiar nonetheless. There was a heavy footfall behind him, and Damianos's voice suddenly close. “Laurent. Are you alright?” 

“Someone wants me to know that my scout didn’t get through,” Laurent said grimly. Who would go to the trouble to not only intercept Quentin but to ensure the horse was left where Laurent’s men would find it? Intimidation and warning as well as obstruction. 

“The scout you sent out a week ago?”

Laurent cast him a sharp look. He hadn’t thought Damianos was observing so closely. “Yes,” he said after a long moment.

“Does he know anything dangerous?” 

Laurent forced himself to consider the question seriously despite his irritation at Damianos. “He knows I agreed to your offer. But likely whomever had him intercepted already knew that.” Quentin’s nearest kin was a sister; he would write to her tonight, Laurent thought wearily. 

Damianos was frowning. “They could be as much as five days ahead of us with that information.” 

“That was always a risk,” Laurent said. “I gave orders in Arles to keep it quiet but there were too many variables. Even if no one who knew for sure talked, someone was bound to notice you disappeared at the same time I departed, and put the pieces together.” 

Damanios’ jaw was clenched. “Then Kastor could already be waiting for us.” 

“How far is the march from Ios to Delfeur?” Laurent asked. 

“With an army? Three weeks, maybe four depending on the time of year. But Kastor wouldn’t come all that way. He would get his closest supporters, in Sicyon or Mellos, to meet us. That would cut the time in half.” 

The sun beat down, growing hot already. It was an unseasonable spring. They were alone in the center of the familiar courtyard of Aquitart. Never in his wildest, most self-flagellating imaginings could he have pictured standing here with the Prince-killer, speaking as one ally to another. “We will make the best time we can to Fortaine, and re-evaluate then. We will know more when we have a measure of our men, and it may be easier to gain intelligence from closer to the border.” 

Sunlight made Damianos's dark curls shine. He met Laurent’s gaze for a long moment and then nodded and turned away. 

 

It took four days to ride from Aquitart to Fortaine, and every mile of it Laurent was on edge, scanning the road and the fields as far as he could see, eyeing every copse of trees. Damen rode beside him, mostly in silence, and his equal watchfulness was almost comforting. They had spoken to no one else of Quentin’s horse, but Laurent knew that Jord and Orlant at least had guessed something was amiss. 

Their party was subdued, making camp without discord every night, except for the usual grudging scuffles over who was to have last watch. Laurent took to rising at odd hours of the night to stand with whoever was on guard, keeping an eye on the camp and his men. His soldiers, accustomed to his unpredictable habits, said nothing. No one came or went from the camp unexpectedly, and though he half expected an ambush, none transpired. 

Nothing had gone awry by the time the keep of Fortaine appeared on the horizon, and if anything, Laurent was more on edge than he had been leaving Aquitart. He wondered if that was the intention - to unsettle him and then let him stew. It was the sort of tactic his uncle would have used. 

There was a prickle on the back of Laurent’s neck, and he shook his head sharply. He’s dead, he reminded himself. You saw his body. And there’s no such thing as ghosts.  

Jord looked over at him, frowning, having noticed the movement, but Laurent ignored him, spurring his horse forward. 

In the courtyard at Fortaine, Guion greeted them with his wife and eldest son - it was just barely within the protocol for receiving the king. Formally, all members of the household ought to have been present. Laurent noted the slight absently, having been ignoring worse from Guion for years. 

His men were installed in the barracks, and Laurent shown to his rooms in the keep to wash and change. The finest guest chambers had been aired and made up - clean sheets on the bed and a fire burning in the brazier. His uncle must have stayed here when he visited Fortaine, and Laurent dug his fingernails brutally into his palm to dismiss that thought. Being unable to sleep would do him no good at all. 

At dinner, he was seated between Guion and Rueven, the oldest son. Laurent would have much preferred to be next to Loyse, on Guion’s other side, or even Aimeric, who was making faces at him from further down the table. Guion captured his ear with innocuous talk of tariffs which Laurent knew he did not, in fact, support, and wondered for whom was this performance designed. If he intended to convince Laurent of his loyalty after so long as a thorn in his side, he would have to do more. Perhaps a guilty conscience on another count? Was Guion the one responsible for Quentin’s disappearance? 

Laurent took a sip of water, hiding a grimace behind the rim of the glass. Guion certainly had known where their party would be on the road, but he was not the only one. There was not enough information. 

When Loyse intervened in the conversation and turned her husbands attention toward her, Laurent gratefully put his back to Guion and looked at Rueven. They’d had only passing cause for interaction in the past - Rueven was a decade older than Laurent, almost of an age with Auguste although they’d never been close. Guion hadn’t been in favor at court until Uncle took power. Spearing a stuffed mushroom delicately with a fork, Laurent studied Rueven and wondered how many of his father’s faults he shared. One could often judge a man by his family, but not always. 

“Tell me of yourself,” Laurent invited. It was one of his favorite conversational gambits. Most people enjoyed talking about themselves. 

Rueven did not rise to it immediately, but looked at Laurent with some wariness. He was not a complete fool, then. “What would you like to know, your majesty?” 

Laurent gave him one of his most sparkling smiles, and changed tacts. “I would like to know whatever you would least like to tell me, I imagine. Shall we compromise?” 

He saw Rueven’s attention sharpen. “What kind of a compromise?” 

“Let’s talk of something in which we both have an interest and a reason to be honest.” 

“And what is that, your majesty?” 

“The border,” Laurent said, taking a bite of mushroom. “What do you know of my purpose here?” 

“You’re here to train troops,” Rueven said evenly, and Laurent was instantly sure that Guion had told him of the deal with Damianos, despite the need for secrecy. 

“And what do you think of that?” Laurent asked, gesturing to a servant to pour him more water. 

“There can be no harm in a strong military to secure the border,” Rueven said, and Laurent smiled into his cup.

“Yes, it must have been an adjustment for garrisons here to suddenly be borderland after Marlas.” 

“Of course. It was a blow to all of us.” Rueven was not bad at diplomacy. Better than his father, perhaps, or just less over-confident. 

“I hope my time here can increase the security of Fortaine,” Laurent said delicately, and let Lady Loyse draw him back into her conversation. 

When the last course had been served and the meal was beginning to disband, Laurent strolled down to the lower tables to see to his men, with Rochert, his guard on duty, following him. He was pleased to see that Damianos and Jord were talking civilly enough, and none of the others seemed bothered. 

Orlant greeted Laurent with a toast, and there was a ragged, cheerful chorus of “To the King!” Damianos didn’t toast, but he smiled. And after all, Laurent was not his king. 

Sliding onto the bench beside him, Laurent said, “No poison tonight, Damen?” 

“No,” Damen said, his smile widening. 

“I trust you found your accommodations in order?” 

“Yes, although all of Paschal’s belongings smell like salve.”

“You’ll become accustomed to it,” Laurent said, ducking his head to hide his grin. The distinctive smell of lanolin and herbs was one of the few comforting memories of his adolescence. 

“Perhaps he will teach me some. My skill with medicine is limited to stitching wounds and binding broken bones.” 

“Spoken like a soldier,” Laurent said. “Hopefully you will not have cause to practice when we start training tomorrow.” 

“I got a look at some of the men when we went to the barracks,” Jord said, low. “They look like an unruly bunch.” 

“We shall see.” Laurent rose from the table. “I’m retiring for the night. Huet, I believe you are relieving Rochert for the night?” 

“It’s me, your majesty.” Jan waved a hand shyly. 

Huet clapped him on the back. “Lost a bet.” 

Laurent pursed his lips. The men were not supposed to gamble with their guard rota, but Huet was too drunk to do his duty well, and Jan appeared sober. “Double shift tomorrow then, Huet. You know better.” 

He made a round of the hall to say goodnight to his hosts. As he kissed Loyse’s cheek and turned away, he was intercepted by her youngest son. 

Aimeric de Fortaine was a slender young man, six months or so older than Laurent, with glossy dark curls and a fine-boned, aristocratic face. “Laurent,” he drawled, a completely inappropriate greeting for a king. 

“Aimeric,” Laurent nodded back, a smile pulling at his mouth. As younger sons and boys of a shared age, they had often been expected to play together as children, and had deeply loathed one another for no particular reason other than that adults expected them to get along. After Marlas, Aimeric had been kept at Fortaine with his family and Laurent had not seen him until his uncle’s memorial. There, tearfully, Aimeric had confessed to him a closely held secret about the former regent, which had landed in Laurent’s stomach like a stone. Since then, they had been - not friends, exactly, but friendly, as young men who had some traits and acquaintances in common. Aimeric had no inkling of exactly how much in common, and Laurent intended to take that knowledge to his grave, but it kindled a sense of kinship in him nonetheless. 

"So that's him?” Aimeric tilted his head toward the table where Damen was still sitting with Jord. “The barbarian bastard?”

“It’s supposed to be a secret,” Laurent said, wry. Guion’s lips had been looser than he’d guessed.

Aimeric dismissed that with a flick of his curls. “I know all about it. My father is very eager to have Delfeur back. Do you think the Prince-killer will be as good as his word?” 

“I do,” Laurent said, with some reluctance. 

Aimeric was still eyeing Damianos, tapping his fingers against his chin. “He's better looking than I thought he’d be." Laurent shot him a sour look and Aimeric pouted in exaggerated innocent. "I'm just saying.” 

“I try not to make a habit of sleeping with my enemies,” Laurent said, thinking of Damianos at the coupling fires in Vask and trying to ignore the uncomfortable feeling that twisted in his stomach. 

“Suit yourself,” Aimeric shrugged. “Goodnight, your majesty.” 

Laurent left the hall without looking back to see whether Aimeric was in fact going to proposition Damen. Jan trotted at his heels through the halls of Fortaine back up to his rooms, and took up his position at the door. Laurent dismissed the two servants waiting for him, and undressed himself. Having bathed before dinner, he simply put on a night shirt, blew out the lamps, and crawled into the wide bed. 

Then he lay, staring into the darkness, unable to find sleep. Although he tried to calm his thoughts there was a restless, jittery energy under his skin. He tossed from one side to the other, kicking off the sheets. Rolling onto his stomach he buried his face in the pillows and tried to think of nothing. Gradually, he became aware of the unrest in his body settling low in his gut, and the pressure of the mattress against his cock. His hips hitched a little, increasing the friction. He was getting hard.  

Sighing, he flopped onto his back, rucked up his night shirt, and took himself in hand. Sometimes he used his fingers, inside himself, when he did this, but that would require getting up to wash afterward and he just wanted to sleep. So he tightened his fingers around his cock and ignored the deep ache that wanted to be satisfied with something more. Closing his eyes, he teased his cock, stroking around the slit and tugging his foreskin back until he was fully hard, letting his mind drift.

He never imagined a face or an identity when he did this, just the sensation of being touched and held. Held down sometimes, and taken roughly, but tonight he imagined gentleness - a hand cupping the back of his neck, pressing kisses to the top of his head; something whispered softly, a warm puff of breath against his neck. His cock leaked over his fingers, twitching. Someone strong enough to lift him up and put him in their lap, Laurent’s knees on either side of their muscular thighs. 

He dragged his fingers lightly up the slick length of his cock, not even stroking, imagining his cock brushing teasingly against someone else's.  Leaning against a solid chest, strong arms holding him, the scent of leather and horses filling his nose; a sense of safety, rushing through him like a tide, as strong or stronger than arousal. He could hear his own uneven breathing, loud in the silent room, and the thunder of blood in his ears. Longing and loneliness and heat rose up sharply and he turned his face into the pillow to muffle his soft gasp as he came.

Blinking hard, he relaxed slowly, letting the looseness of orgasm flow through him, and stared up at the dark ceiling. His hand and stomach were wet but his cheeks were not.

Chapter Text

What they found the next morning on the training grounds outside of the fort was just as Jord had surmised the night before. The quality of the men varied widely. There were three cohorts, one of garrisoned soldiers from Fortaine, one from Ravenel courtesy of Lord Touars, and one made of up reserve forces conscripted from Fortaine’s region, and supplemented with mercenary types. All together it was about 1500 men, the price in human life for Delfeur’s return. 

They would be enough to have an impact on a battle, provided they could hold their lines and maneuver. Watching the captains bark orders and put the men through their drills it became apparent that only some of these troops were capable of that. 

“Did Guion give us poor soldiers on purpose?” Damen muttered, drawing his horse up beside Laurent’s. 

Laurent, who had been wondering the same thing, pursed his lips. By speaking in the plural, Damianos, as usual, discounted the possibility that Laurent could have had a hand in it himself. As far as the Akielon was concerned, they were on the same side, apparently. Laurent had no intention of disabusing him of the notion. 

Perhaps Damianos found reassurance in the fact that Laurent would be riding out to war with them - the quality of his men bore directly on Laurent’s safety. Laurent wondered whether Guion was really so much of a fool as to be plotting for both Laurent and Damianos to die. Had Laurent been supervising this mission of support from Arles, he would likely have ordered Guion to find as mediocre a contingent as possible, within the bounds of believability, to saddle the Prince-killer with. Possibly with additional orders to kill Damianos as soon as they were across the border, and deliver him to Kastor as a peace offering. 

As it stood, however, the soldiers would need to improve. For Laurent’s plan to work, they would likely need to get as far as Ios, or near to. Guymar and Enguerran, the captains of Fortaine’s and Ravenel’s forces respectively, were decent men, and their soldiers reasonably well trained, although they were border patrol and inexperienced at working with a larger group. 

The miscellaneous conscripts were being captained by an insubordinate and unpleasant man named Govart, who reminded Laurent of the sort of useful lackeys his uncle used to keep around. Good at hitting things and following orders, as long as the orders didn’t require much actual work. The troops also would require thinning.

They faced another problem also. “The men won’t take orders from you,” Laurent said, frowning at the field. His mare shifted subtly under him in response to his mood. 

“I’d expect you to sound pleased about that.” 

Laurent shook his head once, sharply. “You are my strategist. When we are on the field, you are the best suited for command.” 

Damianos was looking at him with a bemused expression. Laurent scowled, but all Damen said was, “What do you suggest?” 

“We’ll speak with the captains.” 

“Do you plan to tell them who I am? Do you trust their secrecy?” 

“I do not. But the secret will be out soon, as soon as we cross the border. And it is out to someone already.” Their eyes met, both thinking of the lost horse. 

They gathered the three captains in Laurent’s chambers, where the anteroom doubled as a kind of receiving hall. The men saluted and bowed to their king, and looked curiously at Damianos. 

Laurent began in the royal plural. “We have undertaken an alliance with our neighboring nation of Akielos, and we will be offering military aid in exchange for certain concessions. The details do not concern you. Your men must be proficient in the maneuvers of both Veretian and Akielon cavalry. Happily, you will have an extremely valuable military resource.” He lifted a hand and gestured to Damianos. “This is Damianos of Akielos.”

There was a collective indrawn breath, and Enguerran said, “The-” and visibly bit down on Prince-killer .

“Quite,” Laurent said. Ravenel’s captain look like he had bitten a lemon, Guymar was wide eyed and perhaps a little frightened. Govart’s eyes were gleaming in a way that Laurent did not like. It stopped him short from saying, This must remain a secret, because men like that abused secrets. Instead, he said, “You take orders from him just as you would from us. You will put aside your cultural differences and you will be held personally responsible for the performance of your men ensuring they do the same. Understood?”

“Yes, your majesty,” they said, more or less together.  

“Well,” Laurent snapped. “What are you waiting for? Let’s go see what you can do.”

 

What they could do was most Veretian maneuvers with varying degrees of success, and gradually, approximations of Akielon technique also. Govart’s band were consistently stragglers, although there were clearly good soldiers among the number, frustrated with their comrades’ incompetence. 

Long days on the training ground honed Laurent’s appreciation for Damen’s skill. He chose exercises for their simplicity and applicability. His approach was that the men should master a few things well than many things poorly, which was a philosophy that agreed with Laurent - when mastering everything well was not an option, in any case. 

They met in the evenings, after dinner, to dissect the day’s work. Damen had a knack for spotting where a confusion or problem was arising among the men and suggesting a solution. 

“Govart is a liability,” Damianos said, sitting across the table in Laurent’s rooms. Between them there was a sheet sketched with military maneuvers, with gaming chips Laurent had liberated from Huet being used as markers. “I’m certain that he’s the one who has been spreading my name with the men.”

“I know.” Damen’s identity was an open secret now, mumbled about by the soldiers and residents of Fortaine alike. 

“Do you think it’s deliberate sabotage or just malice?”

“Malice,” Laurent said. “I hope my enemies would send a higher quality instrument if they meant to sabotage me.”

“What about my enemies?” Damen said, smiling slightly.

“I can’t speak for your enemies’ incompetence,” Laurent said. “Either way, I’ll take care of it.” 

“You’re going to dismiss him?” 

“I’m going to make him dismiss himself.” 

“I look forward to it,” Damianos said, and Laurent felt himself respond to the teasing note in his voice. Digging his nails into the palm of his hand, he shoved that thought viciously away. “Should we be concerned about the disent he’s spreading?” 

“I can handle it if it becomes a problem.” He hoped they would be riding south before the tension in Fortaine reached a breaking point. “They have more loyalty to their king than fear of the Prince-killer.”

“Except for Aimeric.” 

“Oh you noticed that, did you?” 

“Hard to miss,” Damen said, wryly. “But he’s not really my type.” 

“You prefer women?” 

“No. Sometimes.” He shrugged. “It’s more that my taste in men runs toward...men. People who can match me. Not… pampered lordlings.” 

Laurent could not help the mental calculation about where in that dichotomy Damen might put him. He reined that thought in, hard. “Well, I can’t fault you for passing over a spoiled brat like Aimeric.” 

“I thought you two were friends.” 

“A king doesn’t have friends.” 

Damen frowned. “That’s not… I don’t think that’s true. It doesn’t have to be true.” 

Laurent raised his eyebrows. “If it came down to choosing between your country and someone you loved, what would you choose?” 

“Akielos,” Damen said reluctantly. “That’s what it means to be king.” 

“We agree on that much at least. Can you truly be friends with someone who might be called upon to die for you at any moment? Someone you rule, whose life you hold ultimately in your hand?”

Damen shook his head, but it wasn’t agreement. “Kingship isn’t all grand decisions and crucial problems. A king can love his friends like anyone else, most of the time.” 

Laurent stood with his spine straight, feeling the tension across his shoulders. “You can tell me later whether you still believe that - if you manage to become king.” 

 

A handful of letters from Berenger finally caught up with them at Fortaine. Although they had been expertly resealed, Laurent was sure that Guion had read them, and likely a number of other people before they landed in Laurent’s hands.

Your majesty, the most recent began. 

All continues well here. Ancel has been getting along wonderfully - you know I was concerned court would not suit his temperament - Laurent snorted - but he seems to have settled in wonderfully. He is making many new and unexpected friends, who all have a surprising amount in common. I also have been socially engaged, to the extent that I am able, my own temperament being more retiring. I have particularly enjoyed the company of Lord Estienne, and I have been encouraging him to bring his wife back to court as you know how I esteem Lady Joan’s wit and conversational skill. 

Berenger, Ancel, and Estienne were having success, then, in rallying the court’s opinion around Laurent. If they could get Joan back to help, she would no doubt prove invaluable. 

You remember when we last spoke that I have high hopes for my herd of horses contracted for the postal service. The mares have been foaling easily, which is a great relief. However, my prime thoroughbred has been delayed in her delivery and I fear some complication with the foal. Hoping greatly that it resolves itself. 

Laurent frowned. Berenger was receiving his messages by general post, but not by royal courier. All of his letters were as carefully opaque as this one, so he was not concerned about them being read, but it was disconcerting to know that they were going awry in official channels. 

The letter closed with uncoded chatter to deflect a suspicious reader, and with a sincere wish for Laurent’s continued health. Putting it down, Laurent looked out the window at the darkening sky. 

He could still hear the distant shouts and hoofbeats from the men drilling outside the walls of the fort, under the supervision of their captains. Damianos was likely still out there with them. He was undeniably dedicated. Laurent was bitterly unsurprised to realize in himself that he would trust Damianos's report in the morning about the progress of the troops. 

Unrolling a map of the border, he pinned one corner under the pitcher of water, and pulled the lamp closer, frowning down at the faint marks he and Damen had made. 

There was a knock at the door and Rochert’s voice, “Your majesty, Aimeric de Fortaine to see you.” 

“Enter,” Laurent called. 

Aimeric was wearing more subdued clothing than his usual colorful fashions. He had on riding leathers and a simple jacket that emphasized his shoulders, although his hair was immaculately curled and gleaming. Laurent bit back a smile. He had rarely seen Aimeric work for something he wanted. “Good evening, Aimeric.” 

“Are you enjoying yourself, locked up here like a hermit?” Aimeric said without preamble. “You know, you haven’t changed since we were little. Always preferring books to people.” 

“Except I’m king now, so people aren’t allowed to criticize me,” Laurent said, pointedly. 

Aimeric ignored this, and flopped down on the broad bed. “So how long are you going to be gone? Is a king really supposed to just go off into a foreign kingdom whenever he wants?”

“That’s what a campaign is,” Laurent said, not looking up from the map. “And it’s not whenever I want. It’s with a purpose.” 

“And the purpose is to earn back Delfeur in alliance with Damianos?” Aimeric was lying on his back, head tipped toward Laurent and eyes glittering in the lamplight. “I know you. You never do anything for just one reason.” 

Laurent made a noncommittal noise in his throat. 

Aimeric sat up. “You’re planning something. What is it?” 

“Why should I confide in you?” 

“Because we’re friends?” 

“A king doesn’t have friends, Aimeric,” he said, repeating his words to Damianos the previous evening. 

“Fuck you. If you don’t want to tell me just say that.” 

Laurent didn’t bother to hide his smile this time. “I’ll tell you afterward, if it works,” he said. 

Aimeric tossed his hair. “You just hate anyone knowing about your plans in case they go wrong.”

That was true enough that it annoyed Laurent. “The more people who know, the more possibilities for mistakes.” 

“Hermit.” He dragged himself up off the bed. “What would you say if I told you I wanted to come on campaign with you?” 

The sudden change of direction threw Laurent briefly. His mind flung out a dozen trajectories this conversation might take. “You’re not a soldier,” he said cautiously. 

“I could be. I’m a quick learner, and I can ride hard and duel.”

“War is nothing like dueling,” Laurent reminded him, although he knew Aimeric had seen the gruesome aftermath of war first hand six years ago. 

“Maybe I’m just tired of being cooped up here with my father. Wouldn’t you be?” 

“Does this have anything to do with Damianos, by chance?” Laurent said. 

“What if it does?” Coming up beside his chair, Aimeric leaned over the map on the table and traced the lines with his fingers. “I think I’m jealous of you getting to spend all this time with him. Sitting here, plotting by candlelight, knees bumping under the table…” 

“Aimeric,” Laurent said warningly. 

“Oh come on, you can’t tell me you haven’t thought about it. Just look at him! That face, those shoulders. Thighs you could ride all night long…” 

Laurent set down his pen sharply, wishing that he had a book to slam shut. “I’m not interested in your salacious daydreams about the man who killed my brother.” 

That silenced him. “Of course,” he said, subdued, never one for apologies. 

“It’s getting late,” Laurent said, although the last of the light was not yet faded from the sky.

Aimeric was not stupid. He took his cue, and pushed up off the table, turning toward the door. “I’ll let you get back to your very important royal business then. Good night, your majesty.” 

 

The next morning, shortly after dawn, Laurent let himself into the rooms Paschal was sharing with Damianos. It smelled of mint, willow bark, and comfrey salve, as Damianos had said. Paschal’s jars, pouches, and pestles were spread out on the table, around the plates of last night’s meal. There were two beds, pushed to opposite walls. 

Paschal sat up in bed as he entered. “Your majesty?” he whispered. “Are you well?” He was almost as attuned to Laurent’s soft footfalls as Auguste had been, when Laurent crept into his room after a nightmare. 

“I’m here for Damianos,” Laurent said, nodding to the bulk of the Akielon curled on the other bed, not bothering to lower his voice. Damianos made a sound and stirred at his name, pushing a hand into his tangled curls. 

“Whatsat?” he mumbled, and then blinked. “Laurent?” He was shirtless, the blanket sliding down his broad, brown chest as he sat up. 

Laurent had expected him to be awake and dressed. There was an unsettled feeling in his stomach but it was just the annoyance of miscalculation. “Meet me on the south wall in half an hour,” he said, and swept out. 

The fresh air was bracing, and Laurent took the time to breathe deeply and try to calm his thoughts. His head felt over-full, and there was a constant pressure under his sternum, which he had been learning to ignore since he was fourteen. He pictured his thoughts like long tangled hair, and imagined running a comb slowly through it until the knots unraveled. Gradually, the tension across his shoulders eased. 

The sun was just up, and everything was gold with morning light. Laurent was leaning on the ramparts, watching two farmers and a dog herd their sheep down the road, when he heard footfalls behind him. 

“Walk with me.” 

Out on the open wall there was no place to eavesdrop, and the steady whisper of the breeze muted their voices. Jord followed a dozen steps behind them. Once they were out of earshot of the guards in the southeast watchtower, they would not be overheard. It was almost as secure and less time consuming than conversing on a ride. 

“We need to get word to Nikandros,” he said. “My messengers are being intercepted, and I have not had reports from any more of my spies, which I can only assume means they have been waylaid. We cannot cross the border with an army blind.” 

“What are you planning?” 

“To go myself, of course.” 

Damianos raised his eyebrows. “What makes you think you will have more success than your spies?” 

Laurent smiled, falsely sweet. “Because I will have you with me.” 

“A body guard?” 

“A disguise. My Akielon is not all it could be,” he admitted - he would have to change that, soon, if he meant his plans to go forward smoothly, “And you know the area, yes?” 

“Somewhat. I’ve campaigned on the border, not lived here.” 

“We need to get to a town of moderate size, gather intelligence on the soldiers’ location, and send a letter to Nikandros. Can we do that?” 

“Even barbarians have a postal service,” Damen said, twisting the Veretian word with sarcasm. “Yes, I could get us that far.” 

“Come to my rooms tonight and we’ll look at the map.”

 

They spent the day drilling in the unforgiving sun. Summer was arriving ruthlessly, and they had limited time to make their move. Four months was a short time to wage a campaign, before rains and cold weather to the north would make their retreat dangerous. All the more reason for the men to be of the highest caliber possible - not divided under a petty tyrant of a captain, squabbling at one another and shirking their duties. 

As they all returned to the keep from their drills, Laurent could hear the usual murmurs of discontent - the men under Govart lacked discipline and were disruptive, and the other two cohorts resented it. No one liked Govart, not even his own men. Those who were loyal to him had the loyalty of the lazy and cowardly when recognizing one of their own. It would make Laurent’s job easier. 

He was swinging down from his mare outside the stables when Orlant gave him the signal. Orlant, being a rascal himself, was an ideal spy in the more unsavory kind of soldierly conversations. He told Laurent what the men said behind his back, and Laurent pretended not to know what Orlant said himself. 

Looping his reins over his pommel and leaving his mare, who was well trained, he crossed quietly to where Govart and a knot of his men were grumbling. Wearing riding leathers like the rest of the men, with his bright hair tied back and his courtly posture traded for hunched shoulders, Laurent knew he did not draw the eye. He sidled toward Govart and his cronies until he could hear Govart rumbling, “...a disgrace. Taking orders from a barbarian bastard, trading our likes for Akielon politics.” He spat on the cobbles. “Our own king can’t even hold a sword.”

One of the other men said something too low to hear, but his tone was unmistakably leering. 

Govart chuckled. “Oh he rides very pretty, but there’s not an ounce of real fight in him. He’d hardly know point from pommel on a steel blade. Now, other kinds of swords, mind you...” 

Captain Govart,” Laurent said, in his iciest tone. 

The man froze for a brief, gratifying moment before he squared his shoulders and swung around, cocky, obsequious smile in place. “Your majesty. Just jesting, you understand. All in good humor.” 

“An amusing jest. Your cronies seem entertained.” 

Govart laughed nervously, glancing from side to side. The other men were edging away from him subtly. 

“Let’s entertain them further. Care for a wager?” 

“Your majesty…” 

“I insist. It’s simple - you duel me.” 

Govart blinked.

“Given your own analysis of my abilities, surely you have no objection?” 

A smile was curling the edge of Govart’s mouth. He wasn’t bright enough to be frightened. He saw in Laurent only what he would have done - reacted rashly to a challenge regardless of skill. “None, your majesty. The terms of the wager?” 

“Your captaincy. If you win, you continue to hold the post unimpeded. If I win, I remove you for insubordination and disrespect toward your superior. I feel I am being generous.” Over Govart’s shoulder, where he had been eavesdropping since the beginning, Orlant grinned, all teeth. Laurent flicked his gaze at him in the barest acknowledgment. Orlant knew what was coming.

A space was opening around them in the courtyard. The uneven cobbles were not ideal ground for fighting but they would trouble Govart more than Laurent who was light and steady on his feet. Govart drew his blade without further preamble, making the straggling men scramble back, and lunged at Laurent. 

Laurent, who had already ensured that his sword was loose in the sheath, let it sing free with the momentum of his dodge, bringing it up between them to parry Govart’s next stroke. 

When Laurent had diverted the third negligent attack, Govart backed off a little, eyes narrowed. Clearly he had been expecting to gain the advantage with the first few moves. Govart, for all he was disreputable and undisciplined, was a professional mercenary, a veteran of the wars with Akielos. A solidly built man in his fighting prime, he had the advantage of at least seventy pounds of muscle, over Laurent, as well as a longer reach and heavier blade. Laurent could hear the consternation of their onlookers - murmurs of worry, confusion, anticipation - but he couldn’t spare them the attention of a glance. He watched Govart’s eyes, and the shift of weight in his center of gravity that telegraphed his next move. 

Continuing to parry and dodge, he watched Govart’s consternation and fury grow. Every minute that Laurent remained standing with his sword in hand was a humiliation for Govart. The noise of the crowd had changed; they were soldiers, they knew a well-matched fight when they saw one and this wasn’t it. 

Govart’s strikes were vicious, wrist-shattering blows, but Laurent had trained tirelessly to fight someone bigger and stronger than him, consumed with fantasies of revenge. Damianos, Laurent now knew from watching him fight, would not make the mistake of becoming flustered. Govart was becoming reckless. 

He swung too hard, leaving himself open on one side, and Laurent stepped into the space, catching the cross guard of Govart’s sword delicately with the tip of his blade, and yanking it out of his hand. Govart backed away, face blazing red. Sweat stood out on his brow and blood trickled down his wrist. Their onlookers shouted and cheered - they would have cheered for Govart as well, but it pleased them to see their king win. 

Laurent’s sword arm was aching a little, feeling his chest rising and falling, constricted in his tight jacket. Unambiguously, he had won. He could dismiss Govart and the contest would be over. 

Six years ago, standing on a battlefield, Auguste had disarmed Damianos and won their duel. Then he had let the young, injured prince regain his weapon.

“Pick it up,” Laurent said, harsh and flat. 

Govart did. He flew at Laurent with the fury and fear of defeat, and Laurent stepped inside his reach before he could bring his blade up to pary, slashing at Govart’s side so he had to step off balance or be gutted. Continuing the momentum of his stroke, Laurent brought the elbow of his sword arm up and snapped it into Govart’s chin, hooking a foot around his ankle. It was a childish, cheating move. The only time Laurent had ever won a fight against Auguste without Auguste letting him, Laurent had used the kick to the ankles. Honorable Auguste had not seen it coming. 

Govart landed on his back with a sick, meaty thud, sword still in hand. Before he could move, the tip of Laurent’s blade was pressed into the hollow of Govart’s throat - he could see the shiver of the man’s artery beneath it, blood beading up and matting his beard. They stared at one another, Govart’s eyes small and rodent-like in his sweating, ruddy face. His hand flexed on his sword - he had no leverage but he could probably still hurt Laurent if he decided to swing. It only took a split second for Laurent to decide. 

He did not like executions but Govart was the kind of sullen, spiteful man who would nurse a grudge into something terrible. The wound to his pride would fester fatally. Bracing the hilt of the sword against his hipbone for leverage, Laurent pushed it easily through Govart’s throat. 

Blood leapt into the air in a coppery, gleaming spray, and Laurent stepped back quickly, yanking his sword with him. Govart thrashed and gurgled on the ground, both hands clutching his neck, as he bled out onto the cobbles. The courtyard was deathly silent, faces watching Laurent with expressions ranging from fear to awe. Most of them had never seen him fight. Only his guards knew what he could do with a sword. 

Turning his back on Govart’s twitching body, Laurent found Damianos in the crowd. His mouth was open slightly, eyes wide. Laurent felt a pulse of something hot and satisfied in his chest. 

“What are you all standing around for?” he snapped to the soldiers. “You know your drills. Go!” 

They dispersed, muttering amongst themselves and looking sideways at him, until he and Damen were facing on another across a mostly empty space. Huet brought Laurent a polishing rag and he began to clean his blade. When he was finished he said, “I’m going to see to my horse,” and turned toward the stables, leaving Govart. 

He heard footsteps as Damen followed him. In the stable, they untacked their horses together. Damen kept glancing up at him, making Laurent’s neck prickle. His blood was still hot and swift from the fight. Finally, he turned, curry brush in hand. “Well?” 

Damen swallowed, throat moving visibly. “You’re good.” 

“What, did you think I was Auguste’s spoiled younger brother? That I had never held a sword?” 

“I.” Damen opened and shut his mouth. “I didn’t think.” 

Laurent’s heart was pounding. He felt flushed under Damianos's gaze, and it was not the exertion of the fight. There was a palpable, dangerous spark between them. Damen’s eyes were dark, and Laurent felt his body respond to the open hunger in his gaze, blood rushing. 

The stable door creaked open, and they both started like rabbits. Aimeric stood in the square of light, curls gleaming. “Lunch is ready, if you’re done killing people.” 

Laurent let out a long, slow breath, both annoyed and grateful for the interruption. “Aimeric.” 

“I imagine it makes you hungry, murder. Are you coming?” 

“Yes.” His hands were steady as he gave his mare a few more strokes with the brush, and put away his currying tools. “I imagine I have some explaining to do to your father.” He glanced at Damianos. “I’ll see you tonight.” 

Aimeric pouted theatrically and leaned against the doorframe, also looking at Damen. “I thought you were seeing me tonight.” 

Laurent felt something jar unexpectedly in his stomach, like missing a step on a flight of stairs. It took him only a split second to recover, long enough to see Damen flush and flick his eyes toward Laurent almost guiltily. 

“You can wait,” Laurent said to Aimeric, finding the words almost without thinking them. “I’m sure you’re entertaining enough to please him, even if I’ve tired him out.” 

Aimeric’s face colored a vivid, sudden red. “You don’t even want him,” he snapped. “You just hate when other people have more fun than you, you always have.” 

The snap of anger came from deep inside, from the place Laurent tried to keep locked tightly shut, where he put all the useless emotions. “I have priorities other than my own pleasure. Unlike some people.” 

“You can go suck your own righteous cock.” Aimeric turned on his heel and stalked away, back toward the hall.

Damen was standing with his mouth slightly open, looking alarmed. “I d-” he began, but Laurent cut him off with a scathing look and left the stables with as much dignity as he could muster. 

 

Late that evening, after the hubbub of dinner had died down, Damianos came to Laurent’s door. Laurent had taken the meal alone and the plate was pushed hardly touched to one side of the desk. He had the lamps lit and the maps spread out. 

“The physician’s apprentice, your majesty,” Jord murmured, showing Damen in and shutting the door behind him. 

“So.” Laurent looked up. Damianos was standing with his shoulders slightly hunched, looking sheepish. “I thought Aimeric wasn’t your type.” 

It was too dim to see Damen blush, but he wrinkled his nose self-consciously. “Well. He wouldn’t be my first choice but it’s not like it’s a hardship, when someone practically falls in your lap…” 

“I’m sure,” Laurent muttered, and bent over the map. “What do you know about these border towns?”

Damianos came to stand beside him, making guesses at population sizes, and tracing unmarked trade routes with his finger. Dipping his pen in the inkwell, Laurent made notes as he talked, marking the most likely towns to have information about Kastor’s forces, and also plotting out the route of the post. “It shouldn’t take more than four days or so for a letter to reach Marlas from here,” Damen said, tapping the map over a town called Alicarno. “But then there’d be waiting for a response also. We can’t be gone that long.” 

Laurent shook his head. “We won’t need a response. I will be gambling on the reliability of Akielon postal riders and Kyros Nikandros’ devotion to you.” 

Damianos straightened his shoulders. “I can vouch for both those things.” 

“Very well.” Laurent raised his voice. “Jord?” 

Jord stepped into the room again. “Your majesty?”

“Damianos and I will be going on another expedition, for three days or more. You are in charge here. If we don’t return within a week…” He hesitated, wrestling with the recklessness of this plan. The King of Vere truly should not go galavanting into other kingdoms on a whim. He hated when Aimeric was right. “If we don’t return, send border soldiers to look for us, people who won’t be out of place in Akielos. I don’t want to get delayed and return to find you’ve started a war in my absence.” 

Jord’s face pinched as if he’d eaten something sour. “You’re taking no other guards? Your majesty,” he added hastily, as if that would soften the tone of parental disapproval in his voice. 

“Damianos has a deeply vested interest in keeping me alive,” Laurent said lightly. “Without my aid he cannot win back his throne, and in any case if he returned without me, he would not live long enough for Kastor to beat him. Isn’t that right?” He raised his eyebrows at Damianos. 

Damen drew himself up, looking somewhat indignant. “Of course, if it’s in my power I’ll allow no harm to come to you. I don’t need to have ulterior motives for that. We are allies.”

“Quite. So you see,” Laurent said to Jord. “I will have the protection of the best swordsman between Ios and the northern forests. I could not be safer with my own brother,” he added in his most pleasant voice, and let the words fall like the stroke of an axe. Both Jord and Damianos winced, and Laurent let the silence draw out, cutting. “We leave tomorrow before dawn. There is to be no word of this to anyone until after we are gone. That will be all.” 

Gritting his teeth, Jord nodded, and left the room. Laurent had his back mostly turned to Damianos, the lamplight from the table casting both their shadows waveringly upon the marble. 

Laurent felt raw, as if one of his protective layers had been peeled away. He did not want to examine it too closely. “What are you still doing here?” he asked. “Isn’t Aimeric waiting for you to fuck him?” 

Damianos hesitated, as if about to say something, but then he turned toward the door. “Good night, Laurent.” 

Laurent let out a heavy breath as the door shut behind him, and stared, unseeing, down at the map.

Chapter Text

They rode out from Fortaine under cover of darkness, with the morning stars still overhead. At this time of year in Arles, a spring morning might have been hazy or overcast, but this far south the sky was clear and the night had lost the bitter edge of chill. With every passing day the season for campaigning shortened. 

The two of them were dressed in unremarkable border clothing - jackets and trousers in the Veretian style but lacking the intricate lacing and made of lighter fabrics to accommodate the heat. Although Delfeur had been under Akielon rule for six years, many of the northern fashions persisted. Laurent was grateful not to be wearing the scanty draperies that passed for clothing in southern Akielos. 

The main roads at the border were all patrolled, but the countryside was riddled with winding lanes and footpaths, and crossed with stone walls and farmers’ fields. An hour of furtive lurking through flocks of nervous sheep, and a couple of frustrating backtracks to find walls that their horses could jump, found them in Akielos. There was nothing notably different about any of the farms and houses that they passed, but of course, this had been Vere not so long ago. They are our people, his father had said. We must defend them against the barbarian aggressors.  

The barbarian aggressor at Laurent’s side said little, except to point out stiles and rough ground to avoid. Again, Laurent noted his skill as a horseman, although Laurent himself was better; Damianos sat well and jumped neatly. 

By the time the sun rose enough that they encountered other traffic on the road - shepherds, peasants, the occasional trader with a cart - they were miles from the border. Laurent had not brought the map - nothing that would mark them as outsiders if their belongings were searched - but he had a good memory for images and Damianos had some familiarity with the area.

“We should reach Alicarno by afternoon,” Damianos said, when they stopped at mid morning to water their horses in an irrigation ditch and to eat the dried meat and hard cheese Jord had packed them. He squinted at the sun and then at the shape of the hills. “No sign of soldiers yet.” 

“I suspect they are further west,” Laurent said, inspecting his horse’s hooves. He had left his mare at Fortaine, opting for a less conspicuously fine mount. Her shoes were in good repair, he noted, putting her foot down and brushing his hands off on his trousers. “Their purpose is to be between you and Nikandros.” 

“If I were Kastor, I would be anticipating a flanking maneuver. Marlas is not the obvious place to attack, when you could come from the east as we have just done. One could even march as far south as Karthas and wait. Whoever rode from the north, near Marlas, would have a disadvantage on that ground.” 

“Your brother is not your equal as a strategist,” Laurent said. 

Damianos shrugged, looking grim. “I suppose not.” 

 

The town of Alicarno was moderately sized, unlike the villages and collections of farms which they had mostly passed through on their way. The architecture had a distinctly mixed appearance - arched doorways and windows with elaborate fretwork in the Veretian style, and wide open verandas with simple lines that were distinctly Akielon. The people were equally mixed, all shades of color and speaking in both languages, as well as a fast pidgin of the two. At least Laurent and Damianos, a very oddly matched pair, did not stand out. 

It was a bustling trading town with a crowded market square. Walking their mounts, they wound their way through the throngs of people to a money-changer. The short, bearded man exchanged their Veretian coin for somewhat less Akielon coin, gabbling in rapid Akielon all the while. 

Laurent caught about a third of the words - something about an inn, he thought. His Akielon comprehension was better reading than speaking. As Damen changed their money, Laurent’s attention was caught by a small girl staring at him, apparently waiting while her mother haggled with a pottery-seller. She had light brown skin and wild Akielon curls pulled up in two puffy knots on top of her head. When she realized she had been caught staring, she blushed, and said in accented Veretian, “I like your horses.” 

“They’re not really mine,” Laurent said. “I’m just borrowing them.” 

“From the stable at the corner of Water Street? I wish I were old enough to borrow a horse and go riding.” 

“Someday you will be.” Laurent did not particularly enjoy children but they invariably seemed to like him. 

“Yes. And then I will have a horse just like this one!” She pointed at Damen’s mount, a rather unusually colored piebald. 

“Would you like to pet him?” Laurent asked. 

“Oh yes!” 

“Hold out your hand flat so he can sniff it.” 

Carefully, she reached up, holding out her hand, and the gelding wuffled at her fingers, ducking his nose to investigate whether she was hiding any apples up her sleeves. She squealed with laughter. 

Damianos thanked the money changer and turned back to Laurent, eyebrows raised. Laurent felt his cheeks heat as Damen smiled with all his dimples, looking between Laurent and the child. 

“That tickles!” she exclaimed, and the gelding snorted against her palm.  

“My friend and I have to go now,” Laurent said gently to her, and waited while she said goodbye to the horse. 

“That was sweet,” Damianos said as they walked away. 

“It’s good to encourage curiosity,” Laurent said shortly. “Did the money changer say anything useful?” 

“I told him we were merchants. He recommended a reputable inn, with a stable.” 

“Merchants?” Laurent glanced at their unladen horses. “Selling what kinds of wares?” Damianos opened his mouth and shut it again. Laurent tried to find his incompetence irritating rather than charming. 

They ate a hot lunch from a vendor at the market - spiced beans on flatbread, eaten with their hands. Damianos looked at ease in this setting, licking sauce off his fingers, turning his head absently to follow a young woman with his eyes. Laurent didn’t bother to see whether she was looking back. 

At the inn, Laurent slung the bag over his shoulder as Damianos paid the hostler and exchanged pleasantries with him. The innkeeper was a matronly woman, who glanced them over and asked, “One room or two?” 

“One,” Laurent said in Akielon, mentally calculating their coinage, and also the probable wealth of a pair of merchants with no goods to sell. 

She said something too colloquial to follow, and Damianos laughed, shaking his head. 

“It occurs to me,” Laurent said softly as they climbed the stairs, “That my Akielon leaves something to be desired.” 

“I could help you,” Damen offered, apparently guileless. Laurent considered and dismissed the possibility, not for the first time, that perhaps Damianos's straightforwardness was a brilliant act. 

“Why would you do that?” he asked instead, and then stopped in the doorway of the room. Damianos bumped into his shoulder. It was clean enough, swept and aired, with a hearth and a wide window, but there was just one bed. 

“Oh. That’s what she meant.” Damianos sounded somewhat sheepish. 

“What, the innkeeper? What did she mean?” 

“She made a joke about restful sleep, and I thought it was just, you know, a normal joke.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “It’s actually funnier this way.”

Laurent snorted. Tugging the top blankets off the bed, he tossed them on the floor next to the hearth. “I hope you’ll still find it amusing while you’re sleeping on the floor.” 

“Why do you get the bed?” 

“Only one of us is king,” Laurent said loftily, seating himself on the edge of the mattress. “We need to begin speaking to people about the whereabouts of Kastor’s soldiers. In a town with this much trade, people must have come from far enough to know something of the army’s movements.” 

Damen nodded. “You’d best leave the talking to me,” he said, in Akielon. 

Laurent called him a nasty name, and Damen barked a startled laugh. “That’s an archaic insult. Try this one.” He said something that Laurent approximately translated as dogfucker. 

Laurent repeated it. He had a good ear for accents when he had a chance to practice on a native speaker, and Akielon was closer to Veretian than Vaskian. 

They exchanged insults as they walked back to the market. “We’re trying to talk to merchants who might have crossed paths with the soldiers,” Laurent reminded Damen, mostly as an excuse to try the words in Akielon. He knew from experience that the only way to learn a language was to speak it. “Goods that come from the south or west, most likely.” 

Damianos nodded, setting off through the crowd. People stepped aside naturally for Damianos, who was nearly as broad as one of the horses. Laurent followed easily in the eddy he left.

They stopped by a stall selling wines, and Damianos spoke to the proprietor about the vintages and the vineyards. Damen was clearly making an effort to speak slowly and clearly so that Laurent could follow. The merchant had indeed come up from the south but it had been several months previous, before the old king died. 

“Terrible, just terrible,” he said, shaking his head. “All this business with the younger son. Damianos was loyal, everyone knows that.” 

Damen was subdued as they wandered on, past stalls selling colorful pottery and Kemptian silks. He stopped to buy a small waxed paper bag of candied figs, and Laurent raised his eyebrows at the price he paid. 

“You call that haggling?” 

Damianos shrugged, and made a face. “I don’t usually buy things for myself. You’ll like these though.” He offered Laurent a shriveled fig, its surface crystalline with sugar. He held it up to mouth level between thumb and forefinger, as if Laurent was simply supposed to lean forward and take it like a pet. He felt his stomach do something shivery and uncomfortable in response, and he very deliberately took the candy in his own hand before tasting it. 

The sugar burst across his tongue and he couldn’t help making a small noise of appreciation. Damianos was watching him, smiling. 

Laurent looked away. “Let me do the bartering, next time.” 

They halted before a merchant selling fragrant oils. The air smelled of crushed olives and rosemary. 

“Where were the olives grown?” Laurent asked, in careful Akielon. 

“In Thrace, from the groves of Lord Alipio. The finest trees in the land.” 

“You must sell such wares very widely,” Laurent said. “With such a…” he floundered for the right word in Akielon. “Reputation,” he settled, although it was not quite right. 

“Oh yes, all across Akielos. I’ve just come from the spring festival in Karthas.”

“Was business good?” 

“Other years have been better. Of course, people are unsettled.”

“We’ve noticed that also. Because of the soldiers?” 

“That by no means improves things,” the trader said, swallowing. 

“Will they be coming this way, do you think?” Laurent asked, aiming for casual. 

The man still looked nervous with that line of questioning. “These are uncertain times. But even hard times can be improved with some high quality oils suitable for a king’s kitchen.”

 “Thank you, but neither of us is particularly a cook.” 

“Perhaps this will interest you gentlemen?” He uncorked a bottle that had less of the green, olive-y smell than the others, and said something technical that Laurent didn’t follow about the pressing process. “More suitable to bodily needs, yes?” he finished, waggling his eyebrows. 

“Perhaps the large jar, then,” Laurent said, and took some pleasure in hearing Damianos choke behind him, and then more pleasure in talking the merchant down by a third in price. 

“So Kastor’s soldiers were in Karthas three weeks ago. That was about the time you arrived in Arles,” Laurent murmured as they walked away. Damianos, looking a little flustered, bent his head to hear Laurent in the bustle of the crowd. “Nikandros has been your obvious ally from the start. I suppose I should give you some credit for having the creativity to come to me.” 

“Nik suggested it, actually,” Damen said, and Laurent cast him a sharp look. 

“You didn’t think to tell me this?” 

“I didn’t think it was important?”

“Every detail could be important,” Laurent said. “Come. We can get supper at the inn.” 

The matron at the inn served them soup with potatoes and unidentifiable meat, but it was hearty and warm, and Damianos said the wine was quite good. They seated themselves at one of the large tables in the center of the room, and Laurent let Damianos take the initiative to introduce them to a group of well-dressed travelers across from them. He concentrated hard on following the conversation in Akielon, annoyed with himself. He had known for months that Theomedes’ illness would mean unrest in Akielos sooner or later. It had been foolish of him not to consider his options more broadly and prepare for involvement in his neighboring kingdom. 

“We are merchants,” Damianos said. “I am Damus,” he hesitated only slightly on the false name, “and this is my assistant Louis.” 

Laurent wrinkled his nose at Damen in annoyance and then smiled at the others. “Hello.” 

“What do you sell?” asked one man, wearing a Patran-style turban. He had introduced himself as Njal. 

“Cloth,” said Laurent, seeing that Damianos did not have a ready answer. 

“You’re Veretian?” He looked Laurent over. “You must know Charls then! I sell seeds and spices myself but I’m often crossing paths with Charls. He sells some of the finest silks money can buy.” 

“Oh, Charls ,” Laurent said, and nudged Damen. “Of course! Why we saw him not two weeks ago.” 

“Yes!” Damen agreed. “Charls.” 

“Did he say when he’d next be back down this way?” 

“He’s concerned about the soldiers in Delpha. You know how rough they can be with valuable goods.” 

Damianos made an affronted noise. “The soldiers of the Akielon king do not ransack merchants’ wares.” 

Laurent glared at him. “You know how particular Charls is.” 

Njal seemed to agree. “There’s always bad apples in the army. Doesn’t make a man easy to see a troop coming toward him down the road.” 

“Any news on where they are these days? We heard they were moving north.” It was an educated guess. “We’d like to avoid them if at all possible.” 

“Wouldn’t we all,” put in one of the other men. 

The group was eager enough to share stories about where they had last heard news of the Akielon forces. Laurent would lay only marginal odds on the reliability of any one piece of intelligence but together they formed a moderately coherent picture. The cohorts which had been in Delfeur since Damen’s exile were camped close to Marlas, on the north side, and there was a larger force marching through Sicyon, which was causing a great deal of murmuring and concern. 

With the active deception done, Laurent let Damianos take over asking oblique questions about the soldiers. Military intelligence meant more to him in any case, and carrying on long conversations in Akielon was more tiring than Laurent wanted to admit. He bent his head over his soup and followed the thread of the conversation with one ear.

One of the men in the group, a somewhat scruffy looking Vaskian who had been drinking steadily and had said nothing thus far, leaned across the table to Laurent and muttered, “Assistant, eh? I bet I know what you assist him with.” 

“I beg your pardon,” Laurent said icily. 

“Only if you’re looking for something new,” the man tipped his glass in Laurent’s direction, wine sloshing, “I wouldn’t say no.” 

Laurent narrowed his eyes. The man’s face was red with drink and Laurent could likely get a knife between his ribs before the man could so much as draw a weapon. That would be a messy solution in the middle of a tavern however. 

“I’m sorry, we don’t peddle spectacles. I wish I could help you but I cannot.” 

“Sorry?” the man blinked. 

“Spectacles,” Laurent repeated, enunciating. The word was Akielon-derived in origin, so he could only assume that it would be recognizable in that language. “For your eyesight? Because clearly if you think I would choose you as a bedmate over my impressive companion here, you are sadly in need of help with your eyes.” 

Damianos appeared to have caught only the last part of the exchange and was blinking stupidly at Laurent. 

“I apologize for Ratavask,” Njal said, shaking his head. “He is hopelessly uncouth when drunk.” 

“Impressive?” Damen murmured. 

Laurent shrugged, turning back to his soup. Ratavask, red faced, retreated to a different table. 

Eventually, they said goodnight to the other merchants and went up to their room. 

“That was productive,” Laurent said, in Akielon, lighting the lamp. “If we move fast enough can we beat Kastor’s reinforcements to Marlas?” 

Damianos shook his head. “I don’t think so. Not if they’re as close as Njal said. But from the numbers he was guessing, our forces can stand against them, with a little more tactical work, as long as we can get reinforcements from Nikandros. But how will he know where to meet us?” 

“Leave that to me. All we need to do is get a letter to him.” Rifling through his saddle bag, Laurent pulled out paper and ink. “Will he know your hand?” 

“Yes.” 

“Good. You write.” 

There was no table, so Damianos ended up seated in the nest of blankets on the floor, leaning forward over the page as Laurent dictated. He spoke slowly, contemplating not only the instructions and turns of phrase but their translations also, still speaking Akielon. When he was finished Damen looked up at him, somewhat wide-eyed. “Will that work?” 

"It will if the message reaches him in time, and if he's as loyal as you think he is."

"He is," Damianos said. "I'd bet my life on his loyalty."

"All our lives?" Laurent asked, fixing him with a hard stare. 

"Yes," said Damianos, bedrock certain. 

"Well." Laurent said after a long moment. "All that's left is to make copies. I think four should do it." 

"What am I, your scribe?" 

"Someone could intercept any one of them," Laurent reminded him impatiently. "Our success - and all our lives - rely on this message reaching the kyros.”

As Damianos dutifully copied out the letter again, Laurent sealed each copy with his thumb, the way a peasant might, and addressed them in his roughest hand to The Lord Kyros of Delpha. It would not necessarily ensure that they arrived at their destination unopened, but it would not be immediately obvious they had been written by the King of Vere and the bastard Prince of Akielos. 

Finished with the letters, Damianos put down the pen and yawned loudly. “Anything else, Exalted?” He used the Akielon honorific, and it rang strange and jarring in Laurent’s ears. Best accustom yourself to it, whispered a voice in his mind. 

“No more tonight,” he answered. “We rise early tomorrow.”

“I would expect nothing else.” Damianos was adjusting his nest of blankets on the floor, reminding Laurent of nothing so much as a giant hunting dog turning before lying down. “You know, your Akielon isn’t terrible.” 

“Oh, thank you very much,” Laurent said. The sarcasm came out more humorous than vicious.

“It’s improved some even today,” Damianos insisted. “If you keep speaking it your accent will be charming rather than atrocious.” 

Laurent threw a pillow across the room. 

Damianos caught it before it hit him in the face, and tucked it under his head. “Thanks.” 

Scowling, Laurent bit down on the urge to say give that back . It was something he might have said to his brother, and it suddenly felt dangerous to open his mouth. Instead he curled on his side and dragged the blanket up over his shoulders. “Put out the lamp,” he said, when he trusted himself to speak again. 

He heard Damianos grumble a little about getting up, a settled dog disturbed, the shuffle of blankets, and then the light went out. Slowly, Laurent’s eyes adjusted to the dark. There was a little light coming through the cracks in the shutters. He listened to Damen settle himself again, tracking the movements in his mind’s eye. 

Laurent had heaped most of the covers on the floor for Damen, to make up for not having a mattress, and he was covered in a thin wool blanket. Even doubled over and pulled tightly around him it was not really warm enough. He remembered sleeping curled behind Damianos in the Vaskian tent, how hot his skin had been in the cool night air. Shutting his eyes firmly, Laurent rolled over, hearing the ropes creak beneath the mattress, and told himself to sleep.

Chapter Text

In the morning, they split up to post the letters, three at different inns around the city, none at the one they had stayed at, and one letter with Njal, who was traveling in the direction of Marlas and promised to leave it at the keep when he passed. In addition, Laurent posted a number of innocuous letters of his own, which he had written hastily in the gray dawn before Damianos awoke. 

They met outside the northeastern gate, and turned their horses toward the border once more. They made good time through the morning and afternoon, stopping twice to water the horses and eat. Damen had begun pointing out plants and animals in Akielon, and Laurent protested that he knew the translation for “oak” - instead he began quizzing Damen on technical words for troop movements and tax clauses. As king, he would have more use for those than for the difference between oak, ash, and willow. 

It was another clear, bright day, with a few wispy clouds scudding high up in the sky, beginning to be tinted peach as the afternoon lengthened into evening. As they crested a ridge, Laurent could see all the way to the low, toothy shadows of the Vaskian mountains to the east. The contested land of Delfeur was fertile but hilly, with rocky outcroppings jutting up through the thick topsoil, and streams carving deep ravines, their slopes forested and cool. 

They were riding along the edge of one of these ravines, with the sun sinking behind them, casting long shadows along the road in the golden light, when the first arrows flew from the trees at the edge of the ravine. An arrow missed Damianos by inches only because Laurent’s pronunciation of “phalanx” had made him laugh so hard he listed in his saddle. Another thudded into the ground in front of Laurent’s mount and the gelding reared, not battle-trained. 

The ambushers had chosen their spot well. On the other side of the road was a gentle field, and only sparse clumps of trees - wide open range for archers if they ran. “This way!” Damen yelled, wheeling his horse and charging straight for the trees at the edge of the ravine, in the direction of the arrow shots. 

There were shouts of alarm, men’s voices, as two thousand pounds of horse and Akielon combined crashed through the treeline. Digging his heels into his own horse’s flanks, Laurent followed. The dappled shade beneath the trees was a chaos of shouting and whipping branches. At least here, with the thick foliage, the arrows were no use. 

There was one body on the ground, unmoving, with blood covering his leather jerkin. Through the trees, Laurent could see at least four other figures scrambling out of Damen’s way. The ground dropped steeply down toward the creekbed below and was littered with branches and a thick duff of leaves - everyone was struggling on the unstable footing, the horses most of all. 

One of the attackers - bandits? They were dressed for it - rushed at Laurent with a short sword drawn, and Laurent yanked his own blade out of its sheath. As he leaned forward to slice at the man, Laurent’s horse, confused and frightened, shied sideways and lost its footing. 

The loose earth of the slope shifted and Laurent’s horse went down hard. He threw himself off of her just in time to keep from getting crushed. His shoulder hit a tree trunk hard, and branches scraped his face, but he was skittering down the slope, low to the ground. 

“Laurent!” Damen shouted, alarmed, from further down the ravine. 

“Fine!” Laurent shouted back. Sticks and soil rained down on Laurent as one of the men above him took half a dozen leaping strides, practically sliding down on top of him, with a sword lifted. Laurent had lost his sword falling from the horse but he had a knife in his belt and another in his boot. 

He feigned a retreat and then dodged sideways as sharply as he could. His attacker overextended on the steep slope and went sliding right past Laurent in a cascade of dead leaves and swearing. The man grabbed a tree trunk to halt his fall, but Laurent already had a knife in the back of his neck by the time he steadied himself. 

Stumbling to the bottom of the ravine, Laurent splashed into the stream, barely caught himself from falling on the slick stones, and took his bearings away from the disorientation of the trees and the slope. A handful of strides away, Damianos, still mounted, was drawing his sword out of the neck of one of the men. Another lay sprawled at his horse’s feet, blood ribboning in the running water. That was four dead, and there had been at least five. 

An arrow whistled by Laurent’s head and he yelled, “Damen! Archer!” Someone had been smart enough to keep the cover of the trees and shoot at them in the open. 

Damen yanked his horse around, water flying like diamonds, and pointed to the opposite side of the ravine. “Up the ridge! Up!” 

They both bolted for the trees again, panting as they fought their way up the steep incline, leaves and debris sliding under their feet, thorns and branches tearing at their arms. Going up was too steep for the horse and Damen abandoned it, scrambling after Laurent on all fours, using their hands to drag themselves up. 

They had the advantage on the archers once again - high ground and the cover of the branches. Glancing back, Laurent saw below them two men emerge into the open area around the stream and look down at their fallen colleagues and then up at the ravine slope. He held out a hand to halt Damen, waiting. Bandits were opportunists - faced with the deaths of so many of their band, they would give up the pursuit. 

The two men standing at the stream bed conferred briefly, and then one bent to retrieve a sword from his fallen comrade and they charged at the slope. These were no bandits; these were killers who had known where to find the King of Vere and Prince of Akielos alone and undefended.

With the lay of the land against them though the two of them stood no chance. Laurent, who had never learned to throw knives, hit one of them in the head with a heavy rock and Damen dispatched the other easily with his sword. Both men tumbled back to the bottom of the slope and lay still. 

“That’s all of them,” Damen said. “There were six when I first charged them.” 

They shuffled back down to the stream, Laurent brushing leaves and dirt from his hair. His shoulder and hip were badly bruised by the fall from his horse - he would be stiff tomorrow. 

“Who do you think sent them?” Damen asked. He’d come to the same conclusion as Laurent then, that the men had been hired specifically for this purpose.

“And how did they know where to find us?” Laurent added, bending over one of the bodies. He was of a border complexion, and wearing non-descript leather riding clothes of the kind dozens of people in Alicarno had worn. He had a heavy purse in one pocket, and Laurent pulled it open. 

“Look at these coins.”

Damianos leaned over his shoulder. “Veretian. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything other than that whoever hired them knew a money-changer.”

Laurent shook his head. “Look at the date.” All Veretian coins minted were stamped with the year, as well as the face of the monarch on one side, and the crest of Vere on the other. It was common to see a mix of coins - many still had his father’s face on them, and some his grandfathers. Very occasionally, Laurent had seen coins with his great-grandfather’s visage. The coins in the purse were all from the current year, with Laurent’s own profile stamped in cold metal. 

A shiver ran down his spine as he poured the coins back into the back and tugged the string shut. It was too much to be a coincidence. “They were paid in Arles,” he said. “From the treasury. These are all new-minted coins.” 

“Do you know who it is?”

“Someone on my council, I’d wager,” Laurent said grimly. “It’s a short list.” 

Damianos frowned deeply. “You don’t sound surprised.” 

“My council are not all… fond of me, or my policies.”

“Yes, but to try to kill you?” 

“Your own brother exiled you, didn’t he?” Laurent snapped. “There are no guarantees of fidelity.” 

Grimacing, Damianos changed the subject. “So what now?” 

“We go back, as fast as we can. We still have to make our rendezvous with Nikandros.” 

“I’ll get the horses.” The two beasts had found one another by the water’s edge some distance down the stream. Damianos splashed toward them, along the bank where the water was shallow. 

Laurent waded out knee deep to look at the body of one of the other men. As he bent to look for another coin purse, he heard the sound of shifting rocks behind him and the crunch of footsteps. Laurent whirled, not fast enough. 

One of the men - the one he’d hit - had regained consciousness. A stupid oversight, not to check he was dead. He lurched into Laurent before Laurent could reach for a knife. His weight overbalanced them both and they crashed into the shallow, frigid water of the stream, which was just deep enough to cover Laurent’s face as the man’s weight bore him down.

Laurent sputtered and flailed for a weak spot on his neck or face, fumbling for the sockets of his eyes but the man knocked his hand away. His lungs were burning, his chest felt as if it were contracting from panic and lack of air. Water stung his nostrils and his eyes, trickled down the back of his throat as he snorted and thrashed. 

Then the weight of the man was knocked sideways and Laurent surfaced, gasping. Hands were dragging him by the shoulders up out of the water and onto the rocky bank. Damen was kneeling over him, blocking out the sky, and his hands were huge and warm on Laurent’s chest, through his jacket. “Laurent? Laurent!” 

Laurent heaved in a breath, choked, and coughed until he almost retched. He was shaking. Slowly, he caught his breath. His throat felt raw and his ribs ached but nothing was broken. “I’m fine,” he rasped. He looked over at the dead ambusher - Damianos's blade protruding from his chest. 

“Are you sure?” Damen’s hands were still on him. Laurent's blood was rushing fast with the slowly fading terror and something else, something hot and dark simmering under his skin.

He sat back abruptly and stood, ignoring how it made his muscles scream. “Yes I’m sure. The horses?” 

“The bay mare turned her leg.” Limping over to the two horses, Laurent checked the mare’s foreleg, which was swollen and hot. It must have been when she had fallen. 

“We’ll ride double back to Fortaine,” Laurent said. His chest was still heaving, breathing painful. 

“We’ll have to make camp tonight,” Damen said. Laurent was loathe to agree but he was soaked through, covered in blood, and a chill night wind was already beginning to stir the leaves. 

They trekked down the stream bed until the ravine opened out into a small valley, and found a sheltered spot at the base of a rocky outcropping. Laurent unsaddled the horses while Damen gathered wood. If they were being pursued by anyone else the fire would give them away but there was no choice with both of them wet to the bone. 

Laurent took his time with the horses, although every inch of his body hurt, brushing them thoroughly and checking all the buckles and harnesses. Out of the corner of his eye he watched Damianos hauling wood back to camp and building a fire up. For a prince of blood, even a bastard one, he was skilled with his hands. Laurent tugged too hard at a tangle in the gelding’s mane and it snorted at him. 

A fire was crackling when he finally tossed the horses’ blankets over them and went to sit down. He was chilled and stiff, muscles aching, and knew he should have gone to the warmth of the fire sooner but that meant being close to Damen, who had stripped naked with the shamelessness of a barbarian, and spread his garments beside the fire. 

Slowly, Laurent removed his soaking boots, and hesitated with his hands on the laces of his jacket, angry at himself. His riding leathers were heavy and clammy, not to mention bloody, and would hold the water against his skin keeping him cold unless he took them off to dry. His own hesitation, the feeling of vulnerability fluttering under his breastbone, made him furious. He yanked at the laces until he could tear the jacket off, and his trousers after, and tossed both over a rock. He hesitated again with his hands on the hem of his undershirt, but the cotton was cold and soaked. He stripped naked, his bare toes curled in the dirt, pebbles gritty under the soles of his feet. 

Damianos was watching him cautiously. “You should eat something.” He held out a small paper packet and Laurent recognized the sugared figs he’d bought in Alicarno. Though he didn’t feel hungry, sweets were difficult to resist. 

They stuck in his throat and it was hard to swallow, but the sugar brought some energy back to his limbs. Once he had eaten a little, it was easier to get down some watered wine from their flasks and a few bites of cheese and jerky. The blue evening sky faded from bright velvet to blue ink, and Damianos threw another log on the coals. 

Picking up a charred stick, Laurent poked at the fire, trying not to look at Damen. He had seen the barbarian naked, of course, at the coupling fires in Vask, but that had not been just the two of them, alone in the wilderness. And he had not known Damen so well, then; had not been fighting a sense of camaraderie in addition to his base attraction. 

Sparks flew up as Laurent shoved two logs closer together, bright specs spiraling up into the darkening sky, like stars falling in reverse. 

Damianos was polishing his sword, gleaming across his knees. The man who killed his brother had saved Laurent’s life today, with that blade. Of course Damianos wanted to protect him - the military aid Laurent had promised was invaluable to him. There was nothing more to it than barbarian self-interest, he told himself, but he knew better than that by now. He knew Damianos was loyal, and honorable, and honest to a fault. 

The fire was hot, scalding, on his front, but his back was freezing, wet hair clinging to the nape of his neck. Laurent realized he was shivering. Putting his blade to the side, Damianos got up, wordlessly, and went over to the horses. Turning his head away, Laurent refused to look at the elegant strength of his body in the firelight; the shift of his thighs, the sway of his soft cock between them. Staring determinedly at the fire, he startled when fabric brushed against his shoulders. 

Damianos had retrieved the saddle blankets from the horses, and had draped it lightly around Laurent. It was coarse and scratchy, and smelled of a stable, but he clutched it close, resentfully grateful for the warmth. 

The stars were out overhead when Damianos lay down on his side of the fire, blanket pulled over him, and said, “We should try to sleep.” He turned on his side, facing away from Laurent, and Laurent watched the light of the fire leap and dance over the muscles of his back.

A log collapsed on the fire with a crackle and a rush of sparks. Pulling the saddle cloth more tightly around him, Laurent laid down also, on the spongy duff of dead leaves and moss. He shifted, trying to get comfortable, the ground unforgiving on his bruises and sore muscles. 

He could hear Damianos's breathing turn slow and even, and knew he was asleep. How long had it been since he knew the sound of someone’s sleep? Since his uncle died, certainly, and that was a dark road that Laurent did not want to walk down. 

Rolling over, he pressed a hand against his face. Laurent’s whole body ached with the abuse of the day, but there was a sharp pain in his chest that had nothing to do with his bruised ribs. Every time he closed his eyes he felt the panicky rush of the water closing over his nose and mouth. He was shivering again, the saddle blanket not large enough to cover him entirely. Drafts snuck in under it when he shifted. 

He wanted desperately to sleep, wanted it all to go away and let him have oblivion for a few hours. Horribly, he felt tears pricking the back of his throat, stinging his eyes. He shuddered harder, feeling chilled and feverish. 

Sitting up abruptly, he crawled around the firepit, dragging the saddle blanket with him, and slipped between Damianos and the fire. Curling up beside him, Laurent threw the blanket over both of them, and tugged part of the blanket Damen was using onto himself. The two blankets combined had better coverage and Damen’s back was like a wall, trapping the heat of the fire and radiating it back. The convulsive, rattling shivers subsided a little. 

Laurent pressed his cheek against Damen’s back, as they had awoken the morning in the Vaskian camp, although he kept a careful distance between their hips. The skin between Damen’s shoulder blades was surprisingly soft, and smelled pleasantly of his body - of leather and armor polish and horses. It was a soldierly smell that reminded him of Auguste; a thread of comfort wormed its way through him unbidden. 

This time, when he closed his eyes, the steady rise and fall of Damen’s breath grounded him. Warm and less alone, Laurent slept. 

Chapter Text

Laurent woke poorly rested and in pain. His body ached at every small movement, and the shoulder that was pressed against the unforgiving ground was numb. The fire had burned down into feathery ash, but he was warm, with Damianos's arm wrapped around him. They had rolled over in the night, reversed positions. Damen’s nose was pressed to the top of his head, ruffling his hair with each breath, and his broad chest solid and warm against Laurent’s back. His cock, not fully hard but noticeably thick, brushed against Laurent’s thigh. 

Sitting up gingerly, Laurent reflected that waking up thus entwined with his barbarian enemy ought to have been the worst part of the morning, but it was decidedly not. Grimacing, he stretched the stiff muscles across his shoulders, feeling pins and needles running down his arms. Damen made a disgruntled noise as Laurent dislodged his arm, frowning in his sleep. 

Their leathers were still slightly damp, but Laurent dressed anyway, noting the purple bruises mottling his hip and thigh as he tugged on the clammy trousers. Tenderness in his back told him that he was likely colorful there too, where he couldn’t see. Paschal would have a salve, he thought, with a pang of something almost like homesickness. 

Kicking Damen in the shins, Laurent got him up, and together they saddled one of the horses, the gelding, and strapped their packs to the injured mare. Rolling up the second saddle blanket, Laurent put it behind the saddle as a cushion for whoever was riding pillion. 

It ended up being Laurent, as the lighter of the two. Damen swung up into the saddle and kicked his foot out of the stirrup for Laurent, holding out his hand. Laurent hesitated - his options were to take the hand, grab for the pommel squarely between Damen’s legs, or grip his thigh for leverage. Gripping his hand, Laurent let Damen haul him up with astonishing ease. It was one thing to look at the muscle in Damen’s arms and know he was strong, and another to be lifted onto the back of the horse like a sack of flour. 

Riding pillion was easier on the horse the closer the riders sat together, so Laurent scooted forward until the insides of his thighs were pressed firmly against Damen’s ass, and looped his arms around his waist for stability. After the previous night, it was almost a relief to be pressed so close with all their clothes between them. He rested his cheek against Damen’s back, and let his eyes close. After all, there was no one to see. 

 

They made it back across the border by field and forest again without meeting any soldiers. “I’m having a word with Nikandros about the border patrol,” Damen muttered as the fortress of Fortaine came into view over the crest of a hill. 

Laurent thought that he’d have to do the same with Guion and Touars, but he hadn’t taken leave of his senses so completely as to start discussing border security with the Lion of Ios any more than necessary. And of course, if all went as planned, there would be no need for border patrol by the end of the summer. 

The guards on the gatehouse halted them, clearly not recognizing two rough men sharing a horse, until Laurent lifted his head from Damen’s shoulderblades. “Lord Guion is expecting us,” he said in his most imperious voice, and the men were suddenly scrambling to bow before their king. 

Jord found him on his way to see Guion. “Any trouble in my absence?” Laurent asked, striding along the corridor. Jord was hurrying to keep up, but Damianos, taller than both of them, barely had to lengthen his stride. 

“Less so without Govart, but not much progress either. It is good to have you back, your majesty.” Jord was trying, without success, to hide his relief. 

“We have two weeks to get the men ready for battle. As ready as they can be.” He glanced over his shoulder at Damianos, and Damen nodded at him. With no way for Nikandros to reliably get a reply across the border to them, they had needed a hard date for their rendezvous, as well as a location. “Tomorrow we will review their progress and Damianos will direct a new training regimen.”

Guion was at an early dinner with his family. He rose from the table when Laurent entered with Damianos and his guards. “Where have you been? Your majesty,” he added hastily. 

“That's an excellent question,” Laurent said silkily. “Why don't you tell me.”

“Tell you where you've been?” There was a note of uncertainty in Guion's voice. “You left no word. How am I to know where you have been?”

“I would like to know that also. If you did not know where I was perhaps you have some idea of who did. Or any intelligence in fact, that would explain the six men from Arles who attacked us.” 

Guion's face went white and then red. Out of the corner of his eyes, Laurent could see Jord’s face pinch with displeasure. 

“I know of no such attack,” Guion blustered, and Laurent narrowed his eyes at him. Was it the truth? Guion looked uncomfortable, but he was under scrutiny for the attempted murder of his King. It was only reasonable to look uncomfortable. Laurent glared at him as he continued, “I swear I knew nothing of it, I do not even know where you went.” 

“Across the border, of course,” Rueven snapped. “Where else would he go, with the plot that he’s brewing? But we did not send anyone after you. Father has an interest in your gambit here - in winning back Delfeur. He would not sabotage you.” 

A double bluff? But Laurent thought that Rueven told the truth. His temperament was too angry to lend itself well to lying. Laurent turned away, his gaze sweeping across the others in the room, and was arrested by Aimeric's face. He was white as linen and clutching a goblet too tightly in his hand. His eyes were locked on Damianos. 

“Very well,” he said to Guion. “You are lucky that the prince and I came to no harm or you might have found my loyal soldiers less forgiving.” He pretended to consider for a moment. “If you did not order the attack, it would be a very convincing alibi for you to find the person who did.”

Turning on his heel to go, he put a hand on Damianos's chest and leaned close to whisper to him. “Aimeric is about to corner you in private. I suspect he has something to tell you.” Then he stalked from the room with Damianos and his soldiers behind him. 

Laurent and Damen parted at the end of the corridor, and then Laurent circled back to follow Damen down the steps toward the physician's chamber. He heard rapid footsteps ahead of him, and then Aimeric’s voice: “Damen!”

Damen replied too low for Laurent to hear and he crept closer, toward a turn in the hall that hid them from view. Jord was frowning at his back and Laurent motioned him to silence.

“Are you alright?” Aimeric asked. “You were attacked?”

“We escaped,” Damen said, making no mention of their fight. Laurent thought of frigid water closing over his face, and felt something almost like gratitude.

“I’m so glad.” There was a rustle and a wet sound like a kiss. 

“Aimeric,” Damen said, gentle but firm. “You were the only one who knew we were going.” Laurent scowled down at the flagstones. Tell no one, he’d said, but he should have known the barbarian couldn’t keep secrets in bed.

“I didn’t think...” Aimeric sounded distressed. “I was just jealous and angry and I didn’t think anyone would want to hurt you. I thought you were on the same side.”

“Who did you tell, Aimeric?”

“Lord Chelaut.”

Laurent clenched his fist.

“Who?” said Damianos, and Laurent stepped around the corner.

“One of my council members,” he said, and Aimeric spun around, face red. “But not the one I suspected. When did he arrive?”

“You were eavesdropping,” Aimeric spat. 

“You’re the one whose loose tongue almost got us both killed,” Laurent said icily. “Endangering your king and your lover in one move. That is skillful.” 

Aimeric seethed, fists clenching at his sides. “How was I supposed to know Chelaut meant you ill? It’s not my concern if you can’t keep your own councilors loyal.” 

Laurent ignored that, and crossed his arms. “Tell us everything. When did Chelaut arrive? What did he ask? Why did you tell him?”

Guion had heard the commotion and come down the hall to investigate. “What’s this?” he asked, taking in Aimeric, red-faced, Laurent, stony, and Damen looking uncomfortable.  

“Your son was just telling me about Chelaut’s visit,” Laurent said icily. “Which you failed to mention.” 

“Yes, it was just a brief visit,” Guion said, frowning. 

“Did it not strike you that I might want to know about one of my councilors arriving in my absence and departing again without leaving word for his king? What did he tell you he wanted?” 

“Just a social call. He was passing through.” 

“Chelaut’s province is Barbin,” Laurent snarled. “Two hundred miles north! On what possible business could he be passing through , socially? Don’t answer that. What did he ask and what did you tell him?” 

“He asked about you,” Aimeric said reluctantly. “But it didn’t seem odd to ask about the king. Father told him you’d gone and no one knew where, but Damen said you’d just be gone a few days, so I knew you hadn’t gone far,” Laurent shot Damen a scathing look that made Damen wince, “and I’d seen the towns marked on your maps.” Aimeric shrugged, expression defiant. “I didn’t see anything wrong with guessing about where you’d gone. He’s meant to be on your side.” 

“My side,” Laurent said, enunciating viciously, “is not a simple one. It would be naive to believe all Veretians love their king.” He cast his gaze over all three of them, Aimeric, Guion, and Damianos, feeling the righteousness of his anger burning down into exhaustion. “Did anyone bother to pay attention to which direction he went when he left?” 

“South,” Aimeric said, sullenly, after a long pause. 

“South.” Laurent looked at Guion. “Just passing through?” Guion colored a dull, beety red. “I see, when you put your mind to it, you are useful for more than bedsport and treason,” he added to Aimeric. “We will be here ten more days. I don’t care if you want to keep whoring yourself out to a bastard Akielon but stay out of my way. Now go. All of you.” 

Guion looked like he was thinking of saying more, but he just shook his head sharply and fumed off, back in the direction of his rooms. Aimeric followed him, white faced with fury. As he passed Laurent, he leaned in to murmur in his ear, “You tell yourself a king can’t have friends, but the real reason you are alone is because you are too poisonous for anyone to touch.” 

Then he was gone, before Laurent could muster an appropriately cutting response, leaving him feeling oddly breathless, as if he’d been kicked hard. He rounded on Damen. “And you!” he snapped. “Do you need a lesson in keeping your mouth shut in bed? I could gag you - some people enjoy that.” 

Damen held up both hands. “I didn’t tell him where we were going. I didn’t mean to say anything but he woke when I rose early that morning and all I told him was that you and I had some business outside the keep. That we’d be gone a few days.” 

Laurent tried not to picture Damen rising naked from Aimeric’s bed, shushing Aimeric’s petulance, kissing him, perhaps, while whispering reassurances. Then he thought of Aimeric in his rooms, leaning over his shoulder playfully, looking at the maps. There was a twisting, painful feeling in his chest. “Next time, I will keep more of the details to myself. I see I am the only person I can trust.”

Turning on his heel, he left Damianos gaping in the corridor, and strode back to his rooms with his heartbeat thundering in his ears. 

 

The following morning, after a much more restful night’s sleep and a warm breakfast, Laurent’s temper had cooled somewhat. 

Paschal arrived at Laurent’s chambers after breakfast with Damianos accompanying him. “Damen said that you were injured.” 

Laurent cast a sour look at Damen but his ribs were mottled blue with bruising, painful enough that he had not laced himself into a jacket that morning. He sat at his desk in his shirt sleeves. Moving hurt. 

“The salves Paschal gave me last night helped,” Damen said. “The third day is often worst, I’ve found.” 

“That’s true,” Paschal agreed. “You ought to have come to me before you slept.” 

It occurred to Laurent to feel annoyed about Paschal telling him off like a child in front of foreign royalty, and then decided that he didn’t care. He stripped off his shirt and let Paschal cluck over him. After the few days they had just passed, it seemed silly to worry over the appearance of dignity. Damianos had saved his life. 

After Paschal had gone, Laurent shrugged his shirt back on gingerly, the fabric sticking to the greasy salve. “So. Have you told Aimeric he must muzzle you in bed?”  

Damen shook his head. “He and I are finished, I think. It was just a dalliance.”

“Must be nice to dally with any lordling who catches your fancy, without a thought for the consequences,” Laurent said archly. The salve was beginning to spread a tingling warmth through his abused muscles.  

“You could have any man in this whole kingdom that you set your sights on.” 

“Yes, I am aware of the more sordid perks of kingship.” 

“Not because you are king.” 

Damen was looking at him intently. Laurent’s cheeks felt warm, and he wished suddenly for the defensive layer of his heavy jacket. “I have little interest and less time for such things. They do have a tendency to turn… political,” he added sharply. 

Damen sighed. "Vere is more complicated than Akielos. Back home, it doesn’t matter who you fuck. Politics stays out of the bedroom." 

"I very much doubt that is the case. Your father had two bastards and look where that landed the throne."

“He would have married my mother if she hadn't died bearing me.”

“He ought to have married her before he fucked her, then,” Laurent said. “Dissolute and lacking foresight. Great qualities in a king.” 

Damen's mouth tightened, and then he said, "You use unpleasantness as a weapon."

Thrown, Laurent said, “What?” 

“The nastiness, the sharpness. It’s a weapon. I’ve seen you use it against me, against Aimeric, Govart, your soldiers. I don’t think it’s your true nature, it’s just something you use.” 

“You’re wrong,” Laurent said after a long pause. “I promise you, I am truly this unbearable. Ask anyone. In any case, the true self is what one does, not what one thinks or feels.” 

“An Akielon philosophy.” Damen smiled, showing a shadow of his dimples. “I have always been partial to the Kemptian pedagogy, that the true self is a seed which must be nurtured and cultivated through good works and introspection.” 

“My mother was Kemptian,” Laurent said, the words coming unbidden. "She died, too. When I was eight."

Damen's eyes were dark and earnest. "I used to wonder if it would be worse to lose a mother that I had known, than to never have one at all," he said softly. 

Laurent bit his lip and looked away. He felt raw and unsettled. "We ought to discuss our next steps in light of Chelaut."

Clearing his throat, Damen sat back and the tense moment broke. "You're right. Do you think he was working alone?" 

“Almost certainly not. He doesn't have the ambition or the skill. Aimeric said he was traveling south, which suggests he expects a welcome in Akielos."

"Kastor," Damen said grimly, and Laurent nodded.

"If I had to make a guess I would say that he decided to gamble on our failing and to endear himself to Kastor proactively in the event that we are killed or captured."

“You were right about your council.” 

“I am usually right,” Laurent sighed. “Even when I wish I wasn’t. Chelaut surprised me though. I would have thought him too much of a coward. Guion and Audin both hate me more and Juerre is just as power hungry. All of them would jump at a chance to see me inconvenienced. After all, they’ve been working to undermine me for the last year.”

“Undermine you?” 

“A rather unimaginative notion of making themselves permanent lawmakers rather than appointees of the king. An idea not without merit - there are scholars of democracy in your country who talk of the senate model,” Damianos nodded agreement, “But in their case a transparent grab for power.” 

“That’s why you don’t trust them.” 

“That, and that they are my uncle’s men, all except one.” Laurent knew he shouldn’t be talking this freely. These were not exactly state secrets - anyone at Arles could have told Damen this story - but they were politically sensitive, revealing the instability behind the throne of Vere. “They’ve been trying to wrangle this motion through for the last year. All I’ve got to do is keep the court on my side for the next ten months, until I am formally of age.”

“And you’re spending two months on campaign with me. Was it wise to leave Arles with the council… like that?” 

Laurent smiled thinly. “They can’t decide it without me. I don’t get a vote but they wouldn’t make the move without me there for legitimacy. It would be political suicide. The move is unpopular as it is. This is a diversionary tactic.” If all went as planned, the council would be so diverted that all notion of making themselves into a formal senate would be forgotten. 

“Is it usual to have the council as Regent for a young king?” 

“No. After my father and brother were killed, my uncle assumed the regency.” 

“What happened to him?” Damen asked. “He died?” His voice was sympathetic, gaze earnest. 

“He was poisoned,” Laurent said, looking away. “They never caught the person who did it. He entered his rooms alone, and was found dead the next day. No one went in or out. His guards were executed, of course.”

It was not widely known that the royal chambers in the east wing were all linked together by a series of hidden passages. If they had any purpose other than the prurient or nefarious, Laurent had never guessed it. 

But the Prince was accounted for, the night his uncle died - he was in Paschal’s chambers most of the night, complaining of a stomach pain. And, when Paschal’s back was turned, carefully placing the half-dozen empty vials in the wash basin along with miscellaneous other beakers and flasks to be cleaned. If Paschal noticed the disappearance of a handful of his most potent poisons, he never said anything. 

Uncle was found dead in a pool of his own vomit, and in the absence of another member of the royal family to take up the regency, Laurent at sixteen was crowned king, with the council acting as joint-regent.  

“I’m sorry,” Damianos said softly. 

Laurent’s lip curled, something heavy and cold in his stomach. “What are you sorry for? Killing my brother?” 

“Yes,” Damen said, so simply and honestly, as if that were supposed to mean something, as if it were supposed to change anything . Laurent almost wished that it would. “I am sorry.” 

Rage roared up in his chest, white and consuming. It was almost a relief to feel something so familiar after the tangled emotions Damianos had evoked in him of late. Words arrayed themselves on his tongue, harsh, hard edged words, meant to do violence. 

He swallowed. "Get out."

Damen looked startled. "What?"

"I said get. Out." He jerked his head at the door. "We're done." 

Frowning, Damen rose. "I'll see you tomorrow for training?" 

"I know my duties," Laurent said icily, and didn't look around as Damen left silently.

Chapter Text

In the letters they had written Nikandros they had given themselves a date two weeks hence, in order that they would not miss the rendezvous at a place called Lanoevre. Knowing Chelaut had betrayed them and Kastor had time to prepare to face both his brother and the King of Vere could not change their timeline. To burn the torturous time of the delay, Laurent threw himself into training the soldiers. 

They drilled from dawn to dusk every day, until the men had gone through resentment and out the other side into exhausted obedience. Damianos was just as dedicated, never shirking. They spent most of their waking hours together, although they spoke only of maneuvers and tactics. Laurent was rapidly gaining proficiency in Akielon military terminology. 

Aimeric avoided them both at meal times, and Guion was subdued, but the rest of Fortaine bustled with the preparations for war. It was an undertaking that Laurent remembered in confused pieces from the winter he was thirteen. He had little applicable knowledge himself, and in the normal course of things, he would have left the logistics of war to his generals. Instead, the Lion of Ios took up that role, and Laurent found himself deferring to a foreign bastard without a second thought. Damianos handled the details of war with skill and confidence, on and off the training field. Slowly, Laurent saw his Veretian troops were coming to - if not trust him, at least obey him readily. Throughout the week, Laurent thought again that it would be foolish to face Damianos in battle as an enemy. Far better to be beside him, and catch him unsuspecting. 

The maps in Laurent’s rooms were scribbled over with markings, and the two of them spent every night pouring over them, discussing land, terrain, and tactics until the lamps burned low. Sometimes the other three captains, Jord, Enguerran and Guymar joined them, and other times they were alone with the scratching of the pen and the soft sounds of the night outside the open window.  

Spreading a blank sheet of paper on the table, Laurent said, “At Sanpelier, there was an Akielon maneuver that broke our eastern flank. Show me.” And Damen, out of guilelessness, or - as Laurent was coming to suspect was more likely - out of confidence that he could counter the maneuver if Laurent tried it against him on the battlefield, showed him. 

When he was finished, he sat back and said, “This maneuver is a bit of a desperate gamble but it could be of great help if Nikandros can’t reach us for some reason. Should we drill the men in it? It will take time we can’t spare from the other maneuvers, but if Nikandros doesn’t get our message, it could be vital.” He scowled at the table. “I wish we had more time. And I hate not knowing if our letters got through.” 

“We don’t know with complete certainty,” Laurent acknowledged. “But I have an encouraging piece of evidence.” Unearthing a letter from his stack of papers, Laurent handed it across the desk. 

Damen examined the broken seal - a thumb print, like any peasant might seal a letter - and the inscription. “Lazar? One of the mercenaries? Isn’t he the one who’s so good with the longsword?” Laurent nodded, but Damen was already looking back at the letter. He flicked it open and read, “Tell the physician that his master requires a tea of mint, willowfine, and licorice root to be delivered promptly.” Looking up at Laurent, he shook his head. “I don’t understand. This is your hand, isn’t it?” 

“It is a mixture Paschal used to make for me as a child, to help me sleep. More of a cipher, really, something I knew he would recognize.” 

“Willowfine is for pain,” Damen said, a little inanely. 

“So you have learned something from your apprenticeship after all,” Laurent said, looking away. “Yes. I often had growing pains, especially at night.” 

Damen nodded as if this made sense. Laurent did not particularly remember his muscles aching during adolescence - it had been the least of his concerns - but a big, active boy like Damen likely had them worse. “So you wrote a letter that you knew would reach you, without any way of someone reading it knowing it was for you. And you posted it in Alicarno?” 

“Yes. Just a little test of the Akielon postal service.” 

“It’s like you don’t trust us at all,” Damen said, but he was grinning, dimples deeply shadowed in the lamp light. “That was very clever.”

Laurent slouched down in his chair a little. “I am clever.” 

“I know.” The way Damen was smiling at him made him feel uncomfortably warm, restless in the pit of his stomach. “So now you have more certainty that the other letters reached Nikandros.” 

“Yes. So we may plan our maneuvers with more confidence.” 

“Alright.” Damen pulled the rough battle map closer and picked up his pen again. “In that case I wouldn’t worry about the flanking maneuver, as long as the west side of the force stayed close to high ground.” He was still smiling down at the page as he sketched, and Laurent found it a struggle to focus on his words. The lamplight flickered and danced, oil burning low. The gauzy curtains on the window shivered in a midnight breeze. Digging his nails painfully into the meat of his palm, Laurent bent over his own work, letting the twinge of pain ground him. 

 

Finally, the time drew near for them to depart. They would take a southeasterly route, similar to the path that Laurent and Damen had traversed on their outing to Alicarno. There would not be a cumbersome supply route to defend, just the provisions the soldiers would carry with them - they were gambling the lives of fifteen thousand men on the loyalty and hospitality of Kyros Nikandros, to meet them on the other side of the border. 

The day before they departed, with the courtyard full of milling soldiers and horses, Laurent cornered Rueven alone in the library after lunch. “Ah, Rueven. I’ve been meaning to speak with you.” 

“Why me?” Rueven asked.

“I’m afraid I’ve made enemies of both your brother and your father,” Laurent said lightly. “And I do not like to leave enemies at my back when I go into battle.” 

Rueven looked at him with cool appraisal - a Veretian to his bones. “Are you concerned with sabotage? I thought we had established my father’s innocence in Chelaut’s plot.” 

“No. It would be a different matter if I were leaving a supply line under his supervision, but since I am not, I have no concerns about attack from the rear. If nothing else, I would have had word of any number of soldiers gathered on the border, other than my own force. It is actually a different matter on which I would like your… collaboration.”

“Go on,” Rueven said slowly. 

“Surely you know of your father’s plans to entrench the council positions. There is no use in being euphemistic.” Cautiously, Rueven nodded. “You will be Lord of Fortaine someday, when your father is gone. And I will be your king,” Laurent continued. “Whether or not your father succeeds in his goals for a senate. Do you think he will make the positions hereditary?”

Rueven said nothing. 

“Would you like that, do you think?” Laurent asked. “Or no?” 

Rueven blinked at him slowly. He was no fool. 

“I have no clear heir,” Laurent continued, and watched Rueven’s trepidation grow at the direction of the conversation. “There might be a claim from one of my grandfather’s sister’s descendants, or even from someone of my mother’s family in Kempt. In all that, Vask and Akielos would be watching closely. What do you think the role of the council might be if I were to die, unmarried and unsucceeded?” 

There was a silence. “I imagine,” Rueven finally said, “That they would act as regents until such time as the succession could be established.” 

“A change like that could be misconstrued. Fortaine really is quite central between the border of Vask and the border of Akielos, isn’t it?” Laurent sniffed. “It would be very vulnerable, if either of our neighbors sensed weakness in our political structure.” 

“I understand,” Rueven said. “But I do not know what you wish from me.’ 

Laurent met his gaze. “You and I have long lives ahead of us, if we are both careful. We share an interest in the safety of Vere, and that makes us allies, of a kind, does it not?” 

“As you say, your majesty.” 

“If I return to find the power of the throne unassailed, I will reward your competence. If not, you may find your someday-position on my council quite uncomfortable. Ask yourself where you want to put your allegiance. I have allies at court, make yourself useful and they will find you. What do you say, Lord Rueven?” 

Rueven’s eyes flickered, nervous and trapped. It was an expression that Laurent liked to see. He looked like his father in the set of his jaw, and like Loyse in his nose and cheekbones. Mixed loyalties. But when he spoke, Laurent was satisfied that he had judged correctly. “I am the king’s man, your majesty. You will find me for you.” 

“Good,” Laurent said. “See that your loyalties remain that way.” He turned around, to leave the library. 

“Your majesty,” Rueven began, and Laurent paused with his hand on the door. 

“Yes?” 

Rueven bit his lip, as if he regretted speaking, but Laurent raised his eyebrows and fixed him with his most penetrating gaze, until Rueven continued. “It’s not my place to say but I believe my brother would be sorry if you and he were to part on bad terms.”

It surprised Laurent. “Aimeric is insufferable,” he said in as neutral a tone as he could manage. 

He saw the flash of anger and then wry amusement in Rueven’s face. “He’s my youngest brother. Of course he is insufferable. But he cares for you, in his way.” 

“And you care for him.”

“Of course.” 

“Enough to speak out of turn to your king?” Laurent asked, but it didn’t have a sharp enough edge to frighten Rueven, he just inclined his head in slight acknowledgement and remained silent, face calm. Laurent wondered if he was losing his edge. He sighed. “I will consider your words.” 

 

Laurent had no intention of seeking Aimeric out to make amends or apology. If Aimeric truly cared, he would come himself. After all, that was the proper order - to seek out the king and wait on his convenience. But he encountered Lady Loyse and Aimeric walking on the ramparts, as he was clearing his head, and halted to greet them. Loyse and his mother, Hennike, had been good friends, and Laurent still held a gentleness of regard for Loyse, wrapped up in memories of his mother’s laughter. 

“Lady Loyse. Aimeric.” 

“Your majesty.” Loyse curtsied immaculately. “I hope your preparations are going smoothly.” 

“As smoothly as could be hoped. Thank you for the assistance you and your husband have offered.” The de Fortaine household was gifting them not only the fifteen hundred soldiers but food and drink enough to feed the small army, not to mention the squires, servants, cooks, and laundresses making the keep run smoothly despite its increased population. 

“It is our duty and our pleasure,” Loyse said, butter-smooth, and Laurent thought not for the first time that Guion had never deserved his wife’s grace, poise and kindness. 

Aimeric made a noise that wasn’t quite a snort. He wasn’t looking at Laurent, instead had his gaze fixed on the hazy horizon over Laurent’s shoulder. His mother flicked a sharp glance at him and opened her mouth as if to say something. Then the keep’s steward appeared at the far side of the wall, obviously out of breath from his climb and looking for Loyse. “Please excuse me, your majesty,” Loyse murmured. “I’ve asked the steward to inform me immediately about certain logistical matters.” 

She glided away from Laurent and her son. Laurent could have walked away also, ending the chance meeting, but that suddenly struck him as cowardly. 

Instead, he jerked his head at Jan, who was his guard on duty, to make himself scarce. The boy complied, leaving them relatively alone on the wall. Laurent propped his elbows on the battlements, looking out over the rolling fields, west toward the ocean. 

“What do you want?” Aimeric asked stiffly. 

“I don’t like leaving enemies behind me when I go to war,” Laurent said. 

“If we aren’t enemies, what are we? You made it very clear it’s not friends.” 

“Surely there is something in the world between enmity and friendship.” 

“There may be, but I’m not sure you are capable of it.” Aimeric still wasn’t looking at him, arms crossed over his chest, glaring at the blue sky and lush landscape. Laurent forced himself to rein in his temper. They were too similar to ever have been easy together. Instead he turned so that he was leaning with his back against the warm stones of the wall, side by side with Aimeric, half-facing him.

“I am vicious and quick tempered and untrustworthy and cold,” Laurent said, staring up at the wispy clouds overhead. Aimeric was silent but Laurent could tell he was listening. “I use words harshly so that I have no need of a sword, because I started before I was old enough to hold one. I fight for every shred of respect I have. I must suspect even my closest advisors of treachery. I have made myself cold and bitter so that I can be king. What’s your excuse?”

There was a short silence, and then Aimeric said, “Can’t I be an insufferable bitch just for the fun of it?” 

Laurent let out a breath, fighting a smile. “That’s, just for the fun of it, your majesty. ” 

“Can’t I be an insufferable bitch just for the fun of it, your majesty ?” Aimeric repeated and Laurent knocked their shoulders together, back scraping against the wall. The tension between them eased to a familiar simmer, the knife’s edge of mocking sarcasm and genuine spite which their relationship had always teetered on.

“I have no use for an insufferable bitch in my army,” Laurent said, and felt Aimeric’s surprise.

“Are you - I…” 

“You said you wanted to come on campaign. Was it just to fuck Damianos, or did you mean it when you said you wanted to get away from your father?” 

“I meant it,” Aimeric said, uncharacteristically serious. “Laurent…” 

Laurent held up a hand to forestall any thanks. “You’ve missed drilling with the men these past few weeks, so you’d be working as a squire. Cleaning, polishing, fetching. Think your soft hands can handle that?” 

“I can work hard.” Aimeric’s jaw was set. 

“And no whoring yourself around, either. I don’t need my men distracted.”

Aimeric’s eyes flashed, and there was a spark between them, the possibility of an explosion. “I can’t help that men want me.” 

“That doesn’t mean you have to crawl into bed with anyone who’ll have you.” 

“Not anyone,” Aimeric snapped back. “Only the best.” They glared at one another, each waiting for the other to break. 

Then Aimeric looked away, and visibly relaxed his shoulders, assuming a posture of nonchalance that immediately put Laurent on guard. “Why him?” he asked, deliberately mild. 

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you don’t care who I fuck. You never have. Remember that time with the sailor?” 

Laurent laughed despite himself. “You shouldn’t let strangers tie you up.” 

“That’s what I’m saying! I had to bribe you not to tell my father but you weren’t angry. I’ve never seen you like this. I fucked your uncle, and you barely blinked!” 

Laurent felt a shock like icy water flood his stomach, a flash of panic that made his entire body tense. “We are not talking about that,” he snapped. 

“Okay.” Aimeric leaned back, and looked at him, considering. “It’s not like it was a big deal, with Damen. If you want him yourself you should have just said so, and I’d have left him alone.” 

“I don’t want him,” Laurent gritted out. His heartbeat was rushing loud in his ears. 

“Then there’s no reason to call me a slut and act like a jealous pet.” Aimeric glared at him, and Laurent felt the rage rise up, clean and safe and strong; the urge to lash out and put them right back where they started; to hurt Aimeric for knowing him too well, for speaking things better left unspoken. 

Aimeric could see it in his eyes, and lifted his chin stubbornly, silently daring Laurent to prove his point. 

Laurent swallowed painfully around the knot in his throat, and pushed himself to his feet. “We ride tomorrow at dawn.”

Chapter Text

Guion was not happy to see his youngest son ride out of Fortaine with the company, but there was no objection he could make to his king. “Look after him,” he blustered, while Aimeric rolled his eyes out of Guion’s line of sight. 

Laurent, who appreciated an opportunity to make Guion sweat, said cooly, “We will be sure to keep him close. In our absence, we expect you to look after the throne and keep things running smoothly on the council. We would not want to return to any...upheavals.” As Guion fumed, Laurent reflected that bringing Aimeric along was an excellent piece of leverage. He’d been letting emotion obscure possibilities. He kept his back to Damianos. 

Rueven, on the other hand, smiled at him when he made his farewell, bowing formally before Laurent. “You will remember what we discussed?” 

“I am my king’s servant,” Rueven said. 

“What did you do to my brother?” Aimeric asked under his breath as he tightened the strap of one of Laurent’s saddle bags. “Normally he’s eating out of my father’s hand about how you’re too young and frivolous and unfit to rule.” 

“Just reminded him that we’re all on the same side,” Laurent said. “Go check with the quartermaster to see if he’s ready yet.” 

Aimeric went. Laurent’s plan to take him on as a squire, since he was not battle-trained, had one obvious drawback. As a nobleman’s son, there were only two members of their company whom he was not too high-born to serve. Since assigning him Damianos’s squire was out of the question, he had ended up Laurent’s squire instead. 

The company rode out from the south gate of Fortaine in the growing gray light just before daybreak. They had two days to make their rendezvous with Nikandros, and the time for secrecy was over. Fifteen hundred men could not have crossed the border stealthily if they’d tried, and they did not. Their party flew the royal banners of both Vere and Akielos - there could be no doubt that Kastor knew they were coming, so speed was of the essence. 

The benefit of a relatively small party with no camp followers was that they moved fast. They rode hard all day, and only halted when they were losing light. 

“Did we cover enough ground?” Laurent called to Damen, who was riding two horse-lengths ahead of him. 

“I think so. We should be at Lanoevre tomorrow,” Damen answered over his shoulder. “That will give us time to be in position before Kastor arrives.” 

As they set up camp Laurent watched the proceedings carefully. The tents went up in a little under an hour, a respectable if not impressive time. There was no obvious shirking or petty bullying, as might have happened under Govart. The most important thing was that the watch rotas remain undisturbed while the rest of the men made camp - they were in Akielos already and while their best guess was that Kastor was too far to the west of them to stage an attack, there was no guarantee. 

By the time they had finished it was full dark, and the light of the watch fires painted the night orange and gold. Laurent walked between the tents and cookfires with Jan behind him, smelling the food roasting throughout the camp. 

The members of his guard who weren’t on duty sprawled around the fire not far from Laurent’s tent. Rochert had taken Jord’s place as captain of the King’s Guard, after Laurent had appointed Jord captain of the cohort Govart’s death had orphaned. It might have gone to Orlant who was a more experienced fighter and better swordsman, but the mischief and lax attitude to rules that made Orlant a useful asset to Laurent also made him ill-suited for captaincy. Rochert was a steady, competent man, like Jord. Orlant didn’t seem to mind his best friend being promoted and then being passed over himself. He was holding Jord’s shoulder for support as he roared with laughter at something Huet had said. 

The guards formed a sort of exclusive coterie among the soldiers, and had attracted a few hangers on, some of whom had joined them at the fire. Aimeric was there, curls shining in the firelight, and Laurent recognized Lazar, one of the soldiers from Jord’s new cohort, along with the other two captains, Guymar and Enguerran. 

Laurent stopped in the shadows near the tent to watch them, out of the light of the fire, and unnoticed in his riding leathers. 

“...fight some Akielons tomorrow,” Lazar was saying. 

“You’ll be fighting along side them also, don’t forget,” Jord said, throwing another log on the fire with a crash of sparks. 

“Never thought I’d be riding with the Prince-killer,” Rochert rumbled. “Turns out he’s not so bad.” 

Huet took a swig from a bottle of wine and passed it to Orlant beside him. “He’s not what I expected.” 

“Damn good fighter,” Orlant agreed, and cut his eyes to Aimeric, who was sitting on the other side of Jord. “Good at other things too, I heard.” 

“I’ll get more wood,” Aimeric said, getting up, and ignoring the eyes that followed him out of the circle of firelight. Wood , Orlant mouthed behind his back, gleeful as a twelve year old. 

Thus far, Aimeric had been as good as his word where Damianos was concerned. Damen had been visibly surprised when Aimeric joined their troup with his horse saddled at dawn, and not a little discomfited, but Aimeric had been reticent and polite in his presence, and mostly made himself inconspicuous, which was a feat Laurent had never before witnessed from Aimeric. When they made camp he did his share of the work without complaining, and ignored the curious looks from soldiers who had not expected to be working along side a nobleman’s son. 

Orlant nudged Jord’s shoulder as Aimeric walked away. “I saw you talking to him earlier.”

“Just logistical details.”

“Sure. Just logistical.” Orlant grinned with all his teeth. “I wouldn’t say no if he wanted to get logistical with me. Ever fucked someone noble born? Think it’s different?” 

“Shove off,” Jord grunted, yanking the bottle from his hand. 

Grinning, Orlant slung an arm around his shoulder. “What do you say, Jord? We could share him. Bet he’d look pretty filled from both ends.”

“He’s fucking the barbarian,” Rochert said. 

“No way,” said Huet. “The Akielon only has eyes for the King.” 

“I heard they had a fight over him,” Lazar said. “Aimeric and the King, I mean, fighting over Damianos.” 

Orlant snorted. “Laurent wouldn’t lower himself.” 

“To fuck the Prince-killer or to fight over him?” Rochert muttered. 

Guymar leaned forward. “What’s the story there? I’ve heard the King never takes pets or lovers, and the council is worried he’s never going to marry.” 

“Heard from who?” Orlant said. 

“Well, you hear rumors, even as far away as the borderlands.” 

“He’ll do his duty to the throne,” Orlant said a little beligerently. Guymar held up his hands placatingly. 

“He’s really never taken a lover?” Lazar asked. “He must have had offers.” 

“More than a few,” Jord said. “If you think he’s beautiful now, you should have seen him at fifteen.” Laurent felt his ribs tighten unpleasantly. Jord continued, “The entire court played at trying to catch him, but none of them ever managed to get him in bed. That was before he was crowned, mind you. It’s been political suitors since, and he keeps them all on a string.” 

“He’s a stone-cold bitch,” Orlant added, sounding proud. 

“Seems like a waste,” Lazar said, leaning back on his hands, feet up to the fire pit. “That’s one mouth I’d love to ream out.”

Jord snorted. “You’d piss your pants before you got anywhere near him.” 

Rochert nodded agreement. “I couldn’t get it up. You see a panther, you don’t pull your dick out.” 

“Anyway,” Orlant added, “It’d hardly be worth the effort. An cold-blooded virgin makes the worst tumble. I like someone who knows what to do with themselves.”

“Speak for yourself,” Lazar said, grinning. “It’s the frigid ones who are hottest when you get inside. All that repression and underneath they’re gagging for it.” 

Laurent dug his nails hard into the palm of his hand, breath coming shallow and fast. He could feel Jan vibrating with discomfort behind him. 

“You’re around him all day every day,” Lazar continued. “You can’t tell me you’ve never thought about how sweet it would be to make him take it.” Laurent swallowed, tasting bile.  

“Oh we’ve all thought about it,” Rochert chuckled. “Though I like my balls where they are, thanks.” 

 Aimeric was returning with his arms full of firewood. Distracted, Orlant called, “Hey, Aimeric, settle a bet for us.”

“What’s the bet?” he grunted, letting the wood crash to the ground beside the fire. 

“Did you fuck Damianos or not?” 

Laurent breathed out.

Straightening, Aimeric brushed bits of bark off his arms and smirked. “If you mean did he fuck me…” 

“I told you!” Rochert crowed. 

“What are you doing here instead of in his tent, then?” Lazar drawled. “Wasn’t he good enough for you?”

Aimeric shrugged. “Been there, done that. I’m ready for something new.” 

There were shouts and jeers. “Hard to please,” Huet said, admiringly. “Still want a piece of that, Orlant?” Jord elbowed Huet in the ribs hard enough that he grunted. 

Aimeric turned raised eyebrows on Orlant, who didn’t have the decency to look ashamed. “You could try me out for novelty. I bet my cock’s as big as the barbarian’s.” 

“Orlant!” Jord was red faced in the light of the fire. “I apologize for him, he was raised in a barn. Doesn’t know how to talk to his betters.” 

Turning away from the fire, Laurent found himself facing Damianos, who was standing a dozen paces away in the darkness, with a skinned rabbit in each hand, as frozen as Laurent, clearly listening. 

When he caught Laurent looking at him, he grimaced slightly, and stepped forward into the light of the cook fire. “What’s this I hear about my cock?” 

Orlant grinned unrepentantly as Jord sputtered and Aimeric turned pink. “Want to measure?” 

“I’ll pass. No man measures up favorably against an ox,” Damen said casually as he knelt beside the fire to skewer the rabbits. 

Laurent stalked away, Jan scurrying after him. He made two circuits of the perimeter, checking with the guards on duty, and stopped to talk to one of the outriders who was returning from scouting ahead. The man reported that there were no troops to the east of them, as Damen had predicted, and Laurent thanked him, and sent the scout to eat and rest. By the time he started his third lap of camp it was late enough that most of the soldiers were in bed, and the camp had fallen quiet. 

“Do you ever sleep?” Damianos’s voice said behind him. 

Laurent turned and raised his eyebrows, although the effect was lost in the dark. “You’re awake also.” 

“I wasn’t sure if you’d eaten. I brought you some dinner.” Damianos held out a thick slice of bread with a chunk of rabbit meat on top, half wrapped in a cloth. 

Laurent stared at it. His stomach grumbled a reminder that he had not, in fact, eaten. “I don’t need your pity.”

“Pity?” Damianos looked surprised. “No. Just concerned that you keep your strength. It’s not healthy to fast on campaign.” 

“I don’t need anyone looking after me, either,” Laurent snapped. He was still unsettled and edgy - a familiar spooked-horse feeling which he loathed.

“If you’re not hungry, I’ll eat it,” Damen said, unruffled. He was like a wall. Laurent wanted to hit him, hurt him, shake him out of his composure. He wanted to lean against him and let Damianos hold him up. 

The longing almost took his breath away, and Laurent grabbed the bread and meat out of Damianos’s hand to distract himself. 

They stood in silence while Laurent ate, watching the flicker of the watch fires and the slow movements of the perimeter guards. Food in his stomach calmed Laurent’s nerves somewhat. His throat was no longer tight with the urge to scream or cry. He brushed crumbs off his fingers. Jan was standing at a polite distance, watchful but out of earshot. 

“Thank you,” Laurent said, clearing his throat. 

Damianos nodded. “Don’t mention it.” 

Laurent wiped rabbit fat from his lips with the back of his hand. ‘Why are you kind to me? I have not been kind to you.” 

“You have been far more generous to me than I had any right to hope.” 

No, not generous , Laurent thought, and the food he’d eaten turned uncomfortably in his stomach. Treacherous . “That’s not the same as bringing me food because you noticed I didn’t eat.” 

“It’s something I’d do for any friend.” 

“We’re not friends. Haven’t you heard? I’m a stone-cold bitch.” 

“You know, if you told them not to talk like that about you, they would stop. Your guards, anyway. They care about you.” 

Laurent snorted. “Tell them to stop and confirm their speculations that I’m a frigid virgin? No.”

“It’s disrespectful.” 

He thought about Orlant’s proud tone when he’d called Laurent a stone cold bitch, about Rochert swearing colorfully when Laurent beat him at cards, about Jord’s endless patience drilling with him in the training ring. A little prurient speculation was nothing weighed against their loyalty. “It doesn’t matter. Anyway, it’s not as if they’re saying anything that hasn’t been said a hundred times at court. Everyone loves to speculate on my virginity.”

Propping his shoulder against the trunk of a tree, Damianos said, “It doesn’t really matter how much experience someone has. It matters more what they bring to bed. Curiosity. Compassion. Eagerness.” He looked sideways at Laurent. “Generosity.” 

“I’m not.” 

Damianos raised his eyebrows. “Generous?” 

“A virgin.” Laurent wasn’t sure why he’d said it, and Damianos stared at him, equally baffled. Anyone in Vere would have leapt on that information with rapt and salacious intensity, but Damianos just looked at him. A bubble of hysterical hilarity rose in Laurent’s throat and he fought back a laugh. Out of everyone in the whole world, the Prince-killer was the one man who didn’t seem to care about Laurent’s past or private desires. His stomach rolled on a surge of want and bitterness and he looked away sharply. “I’ve finished my perimeter inspection. We both should rest.” 

Damen cleared his throat. “Yes. Of course. We’ll be at Lanoevre tomorrow.” 

 

The field they had chosen as their rendezvous with Nikandros - and inevitably their battlefield - was Lanoevre. Twenty miles south and east of the fort at Marlas, it was close enough that Nikandros could maneuver his troops nearby without raising undue suspicion, but far enough that Kastor would have a disadvantage of travel time, since he had not been forwarned on the location. 

It was also near enough Marlas to bring back aching, bitter memories. The terrain was the same as Laurent remembered from the spring he turned fourteen - grassy meadows with granite boulders jutting through them, copses of trees, gentle hills. It made the back of his neck prickle and his throat feel tight. 

Laurent spent most of the day riding at the head of the collum so he didn’t have to look at Damianos behind him. He set a punishing pace, but the troop kept up. In the few weeks of training under Damianos’s steady leadership the men had drastically improved; another testament to the man’s skill, as if Laurent needed any more. 

They reached Lanoevre in the late afternoon. Laurent’s scouts brought back word of two Akielon forces moving to the west - one flying the lion emblem of the king, the other the pendant of the Kyros of Delpha. 

“Nikandros isn’t as close as I hoped he’d be,” Damianos said, frowning as he leaned over the map the scout was gesturing on. “He ought to have been here today.” 

“Both forces should arrive tomorrow,” the scout said. 

“Nothing more to be done about it now,” Laurent said, terse, and dismissed him. “We’ll do our best to hold our lines until Nikandros arrives,” he added. “Do you think the men can manage it?” 

“They’ll have to be.” Damen bit down on his lower lip, and then swiped his tongue over the mark, leaving it gleaming and pink. Laurent forced his eyes away. 

Laurent met with the quartermaster, the master of horse, and his three captains as the camp bustled with evening preparations. He stopped long enough to eat something when his guards changed shift, and then made his rounds again with Jord at his side, going from fire to fire. They crossed paths with Damianos doing the same, stopping to talk with small knots of men, making them laugh. Laurent could entertain a dinner table full of courtiers with his sharp wit but he was at a loss as to making common soldiers feel at ease. ‘At ease’ was not an emotion he cultivated in people around him. It came to Damianos naturally. 

Finally, long after the sun had set, Laurent circled back to his own tent. His mare was penned behind it, coat bright in the darkness. He had already groomed her after their ride earlier, but he picked up the brush and comb again and climbed into the pen with her. Putting her broad forehead against his shoulder she wuffled at his pockets, making him smile. The steady rhythm of currying her coat, the swishing sound of the brush and her familiar barnyard smell slowed his heartbeat some. 

“Grooming your horse is good for her and good for you,” Auguste had told him, long ago, when Laurent had still needed a wooden step to reach his horse’s neck. “It binds you together, helps you trust one another.” 

Sensing his melancholy, the mare twisted her head, looking at him sideways out of one of her huge, wet-obsidian eyes. Laurent stroked a hand down the warm, strong muscle of her neck and she sighed, flanks heaving. 

A shaky yellow light cut through the blue night, and Laurent looked over, squinting at the source. The broad, unmistakable shape of Damianos was carrying a lantern and he lifted a hand in greeting as he came to the edge of the pen. Laurent’s mare ambled over to greet him, and Damen stroked her nose gently.  

“Do you want to go over the plans one last time?” he asked, keeping his voice low - to prevent startling the horse, or waking anyone nearby. 

Laurent nodded and swung himself out of the pen, stopping to give his mare one last scratch under her heavy jaw. 

They entered Laurent’s tent in silence, nodding to Huet who was on guard. Damianos lit the lamps before extinguishing the lantern. The light made his dark skin shine like burnished bronze. The maps were spread out on the camp table and the two of them took their seats side by side, knees bumping. Laurent’s heart was beating fast again. 

They reviewed the maneuvers and contingencies that they had planned, heads bent together, speaking quietly. After so many repetitions, Laurent hardly had to look at the paper to see the movements of the little markers, indelibly etched on his mind’s eye. He was preoccupied with the brush of Damianos’s arm against his shoulder as he reached out to move one of the pieces. 

A short silence fell, and then Damianos asked, “Are you nervous?”

There was a flutter of something in Laurent’s stomach but he had locked it down too hard to name. “No.” 

“Have you ever fought a pitched battle?” Damen asked, tipping his head to one side. Laurent didn’t like his considering expression. 

“I was at Marlas. And Sanpellier.” 

“But you were a child. Vere hasn’t been to war since then. I know you’re good with a sword but the battlefield is different than the dueling ring.” 

“Are you about to give me advice?” Laurent asked bitterly, feeling sharp edged and brittle. “Lecture me on the hardships and subtleties of warfare? Offer to mentor me? That’s what brothers are for, you know.” 

Damianos sat back sharply. “You’re right. I apologize for my presumption in offering support to my ally.” The line of his jaw was hard-set, his handsome features thrown into stark relief by the light of the lamp. 

Laurent pressed his lips together and forced himself to breathe. It was not every day one got the opportunity to learn from the best warrior of an enemy kingdom. “No. The apology is mine. I would be grateful for any advice you would offer.”

Damen looked at him incredulously. Perhaps that had been too much. Then he laughed. “Courtesy doesn’t suit you.” 

“You prefer me insufferable?” 

“I have come to appreciate your thorns.”

“I knew Akielons lacked taste but I must say I am surprised at such an egregious error of judgement,” Laurent said, dry. 

Damen was smiling. Laurent wanted to shake him by the shoulders and scream, I am not your ally . You are foolish to trust me. His chest ached. “You discount your charms,” Damianos said. 

“I have been told a pretty face excuses a multitude of evils.” Laurent curled his hands into fists on his lap, swamped with the sudden urge to hit Damianos, or to kiss him. 

“Not that. Well, not only that. It’s your skill, your wit. Your cleverness and sharp tongue.” 

“Most people would not call that charm.” 

“I find it charming.” They were sitting close. The air between them was molasses, thick and sticky, hard to breathe. 

“The Akielon sun has damaged your head.” Laurent was proud that he managed to keep his voice steady. 

“I think not,” Damen said softly. “I think anyone who bothered to look closely would see your worth.” His eyes dipped down to Laurent’s mouth and Laurent reflexively licked his lips. His body thrummed like a tuning fork, his mind running in circles unable to think beyond the terrifying surge of hunger. 

The moment stretched, excruciating. 

It felt inevitable, inescapable, when he tipped forward the last few inches and kissed Damianos. 

Damen made a pleased, hungry noise, part way between a sigh and a growl, and parted his lips. His tongue was gentle and exploratory and it sent unexpected tremors through Laurent’s stomach. He had not been kissed at all since Auguste died, and never like this, wet and open. It shook him - the newness, how unexpectedly good it was to have Damianos coaxing his mouth open, nibbling gently at his lips, teasing with his tongue. Laurent felt lightheaded, adrift, anchored only by Damen’s body, the soft hunger of his kisses. He twisted one hand in Damen’s thick curls and held on. 

They were breathing the same air, his nose full of the now-familiar scent of Damianos, his skin and sweat, leather, oil and horses. Damen’s mouth slid from his leaving a damp, cooling trail across his cheek to his chin, Damen nuzzling under it until Laurent tilted it up. Again the dizzy disorientation of uncertainty swamped Laurent, lighting up his nerves - it was vulnerable to have his head tipped back like this, throat exposed. And then he felt Damen’s tongue swiping over his pulse point, and Laurent shivered hard, a full body convulsion. Damen made a pleased noise that reverberated against his windpipe, and sucked lightly where his tongue had been. 

Laurent became aware that his hands were opening and closing in spasms on Damen’s shoulders. Their legs were tangled together under the table, Laurent on the edge of his seat, practically in Damen’s lap as Damen kissed back up his throat and claimed his mouth again. Damianos slid a huge warm hand up the back of his neck, cupping the base of his skull, and Laurent felt a hot thrum through his gut at being held - cradled and trapped. 

It was followed almost instantly by a twist of horror, and he tensed, trying to pull away. Damen released him immediately, making an inquiring noise as their lips parted with a soft smack. Laurent felt as if his ribcage ought to be trembling visibly with the force of his heartbeat. Spit was cooling on his lips, tingling. 

Pushing his chair back from Damen’s, putting space between them, Laurent swallowed hard, and forced himself to breathe until he could speak steadily. “You should go. We both need sleep.” He kept his head turned away as Damianos got up, listening to the creak of the camp chair and the rustle of his chiton as he moved. His lips felt tender. 

Damen hesitated for a long moment at the tent flap, and Laurent’s heart pounded, but all he said was, “Goodnight.” 

He sat perfectly still at the table until long after his footsteps had faded away. There was a sick, tight heat in his gut, arousal and longing and horror all knotted together. His cock was uncomfortably hard, pressed against the laces of his trousers. Laurent resisted the urge to send the contents of the table crashing to the ground, and instead, put out the lamps and rose. 

He undressed in the darkness, refusing to acknowledge that his hands were trembling. The night air was cool on his flushed skin as he peeled the layers off. When he crawled into bed, the sheets felt rasping and unpleasant, as if his whole body had been sensitized by the Prince-killer’s mouth. Closing his eyes, Laurent tried to ignore both the nauseous tightness in his throat and the ache of his insistent erection, but neither subsided. 

Running a hand down his chest, he wrapped his fingers around his cock, forcing himself to think of nothing, not even the warmth of skin or the other harmless fantasies he usually chased. Only the sensation of touching himself, the warm ache in his groin, the way it sent sparks of sensation through his body, just like kissing Damen had… 

Laurent rolled over with a groan, burying his face in the pillow. It had been an unexpected revelation, how intense tender kissing could be. His cock twitched in his hand thinking of it and he bit down on his lip, hard. What would Auguste think? he asked himself, and suddenly found himself thinking of the battlefield, not far from where they would fight tomorrow; of Auguste on his knees with Damianos’s sword through his neck; of Auguste, laughing, sweeping Laurent up in his arms, kissing his forehead, warm and strong and alive .

Yanking his hand off his cock, Laurent muffled a dry sob against the sheets and forced himself to lie still and count his breathing until his erection eventually began to soften. Sleep was a long time in coming.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Laurent was sharp and out of temper, which he knew was the wrong attitude to show his men the day of a battle. His expression was forbidding enough that Aimeric held his tongue, performing the duties of a squire in uncustomary silence. The air was tense. Dawn was lightening the rolling fields, dew shimmering on the grass and leaves. No sign yet of their opponent or their allies, and the camp was quiet, filled with the jingle of bridles and the scrape of weapons. Men kept their voices low when they spoke. 

Thankfully Damianos was calm, riding amongst the lines of soldiers, speaking to the men. Laurent saddled his mare and put on her heavy equine armor, and Damen pulled his own horse up in front of him. Looking up at Damianos across his mare’s back, Laurent reflected again that the Prince-killer truly showed everything on his face. Damen was nervous, not for the battle but to see Laurent’s reaction to him. Keeping his expression impassive, Laurent looked away. 

A shout went up from the perimeter - “Scout!” - and the moment broke, both of them whipping around toward the cry. 

The scout came pounding in, out of breath, horse lathered. “Two forces have engaged west of here, and another force of several hundred is coming this way from the southwest. Kastor’s banners.”

“How far is the fighting?” Damen snapped. 

“Three miles, more or less.” 

“Map?” Damen said to no one and Aimeric rushed to bring one. The scout pointed out the location of the skirmish and also the route of the second group. 

Leaning back from the map Damianos tapped his fingers on the hilt of his sword. “Kastor is gambling on separating us. He must not have good intelligence on our numbers.” Damen crooked an eyebrow at Laurent. “He thinks you are miserly with your aid.” 

It was the sort of teasing overture that Laurent might have responded to in kind, but instead he said, “What’s our response?” 

“We force his hand. Let’s go meet Nikandros.” 

They abandoned their carefully constructed plans for the field at Lanoevre and rode out at the head of their force westward as fast as the troops could go. Laurent’s blood was pounding with the nerves he had claimed not to feel - he didn’t like being off a familiar playing board. Beside him, Damianos was grim-faced but still calm, and Laurent found himself taking comfort in that against his will. 

They could hear the battle before they could see it; the carrying clang of metal, the screams of men and horses. Cresting a shallow rise, the two forces came into view. They both wore Akielon red and at first glance it was a tangle of blood colored chaos, but Damianos clearly knew what he was looking at, eyes scanning the vista below them with cool calculation. 

“Kastor’s force is to the northwest,” he said, pointing. The flags and insignias were different, Laurent saw now. “See how he’s spread himself thin? Their main goal was stopping Nikandros from joining us, not to beat this force decisively. They hoped to catch us separately before we caught on.” 

To Laurent the battlefield was an inscrutable muddle of men and violence, but he nodded assent. He had no choice now but to trust Damianos, and, worse, no real impulse to distrust him. 

“Kastor’s men wear the lion insignia,” Damen called to the men, voice carrying. “Kyros Nikandros will hold their lines to the south as we attack. Follow your captains, they will guide you. Ride hard and we will smash them open!” He looked at Laurent, waiting to see if he had something to add, but Laurent shook his head slightly. 

Damen kicked his horse forward and Laurent leaned over his own mare’s neck, urging her down into the valley.  The sound of hooves and wind snapping their banners rang with the noise of the fighting below. 

Damianos lead the force west by south west, holding the line in a neat geometric formation as they pounded down the slope, curving around behind Kastor’s lines. Below them, Kastor’s commanders were realizing they were outflanked, turning in confusion. Laurent pressed a hand against his mare’s neck, beneath her armour. Orlant and Rochert on either side of him, Huet guarding Damianos’s weak side. 

They were close enough to see men’s faces. Standing in his stirrups, sword upraised, Damianos yelled a battle cry in Akielon which boomed across the field, and there was a ripple in Kastor’s ranks. It was not just the sudden awareness of being outflanked or the fear of seeing the Lion of Ios bearing down on them, sword gleaming - these men had fought under Damianos, Laurent realized, had followed his orders, and were torn now. There was only a moment to have that realization and then the fighting was upon them. 

It was not like dueling in the ring, as Damianos had said. On some level it was far easier, because the caliber of the men who flung themselves against his weapon was so much lower than his usual opponents. He was fighting to kill, also, which was easier technique than fighting to disarm, but it was a shock to see a man before him and then sprawling bloody on the ground. Laurent had killed assailants before, but never in such numbers or in such a methodical way. 

There was no time to reflect on the morality of war, he thought wryly, dispatching another man with a sharp slice to the back of his knee, which sent him tumbling from his horse. In the melee of hooves and falling bodies, being unmounted could prove as fatal as a blade to the heart. 

In another way, battle was far more difficult than dueling. It went on and on, no time to catch one’s breath, or reevaluate. Laurent, who relied on his mind and impeccable calculation to win duels, found himself stymied in the mindless rhythm of killing. Sweat stung his eyes and the meaty, hot smell of blood filled his nose. Every time he tried to lift his head, to assess the rest of the battle, he was confronted with another enemy to dispatch. He heard Damianos shouting orders, and Enguerran, the only captain close enough to hear, repeating them, and Laurent felt a surge of new appreciation for the many skills of a commander. 

Then, unexpectedly, there was a lull. Damianos was pointing east, and turning, Laurent saw the second half of Kastor’s contingent, which they had evaded, pouring down the incline of the valley, battle-fresh and with the advantage of elevation, just as they had been on their first engagement. 

“About!” Damianos roared. “Hold the line! Hold!” 

The impact of the new force against their line was thunderous but here, unlike the first charge, was something they had drilled. Their line faltered under the first assault, but held, and then the fighting was upon Laurent again, and he no longer could take stock of the rest of the field. He put his sword through one man’s neck and turned to help Orlant dispatch another assailant coming up from behind. 

The battle was deafening on all sides, pressed close around them in a chaos of steel and horses and death. An Akielon soldier, bearded and broad like Laurent’s childhood nightmares, got through Rochert’s guard on Laurent’s left while Rochert was engaged and took a cowardly swipe at his mare’s neck, sword biting into the gap in her armor. 

Laurent’s mare shrieked and Laurent swore, standing in the saddle to kill the man with a clean swipe. His horse swayed under him, trying to keep her footing but blood was spurting from her wound with all the force of her huge equine heartbeat. The blade had hit her artery. Her pale coat was soaked with it, the hot coppery smell filling Laurent’s nostrils. 

She listed to one side and Laurent barely had time to leap from the saddle as she came crashing down. He landed badly, on his knees beside her. Her flanks were warm and heaving. Unexpected tears stung Laurent’s eyes and he blinked them fiercely back. Other mounted soldiers thundered around him. Orlant was still on one side of him, dispatching men brutally, but there was a soldier in Kastor’s red coming for Laurent on the other side, too far for Orlant to reach without trampling Laurent himself. 

There was a thunder of hoofbeats above the din, and Damianos wheeled his horse around hard toward Laurent. He lifted his sword and yanked back on his reins so the horse reared, hooves and blade flashing above Laurent’s head. Man and horse were one heaving mass of muscle, crowned with the gleam of steel, blocking out the sky. 

It wasn’t until he crashed down, slamming his horse into the mount of the Akielon soldier that Laurent realized he had not for a moment been frightened of Damianos rearing above him.  

With Damianos on one side and Orlant on the other, Laurent was momentarily shielded from enemy attack but all around were mounted men and crushed bodies, the heaving flanks of horses at head-height. 

“Your majesty!” Huet bellowed. He was fighting his way through the melee gripping his horse just with his thighs - one hand holding his sword, the other the reins of a second mount. Orlant, without needing to be told, wheeled his own horse to sheild Laurent as he stumbled toward Huet. 

There was sticky blood on the saddle and drying on the beast’s flanks, making the hair clump. Seizing the pommel, Laurent swung himself up onto a dead man’s horse, and turned her back to battle. 

Victory began gradually, as the edges of Kastor’s force disintegrated into uncoordinated retreat, and then swept the field suddenly, as men surrendered. Laurent found himself without an enemy before him, and turned slowly to survey the field. 

Men were shouting, cheering; Veretians and Akielons united in victory. Laurent himself felt brittle and shaken - blood still thrumming with battle. His mare was dead, he was alive, they had won; it all swirled close beneath the surface of his skin, making him tremble. Or perhaps that was the exhaustion. 

In the center of the milling, celebrating soldiers, Damianos pulled off his helm and greeted kyros Nikandros. Late afternoon sunlight shone on his curls. He embraced his friend, beaming, and Laurent was transfixed by his face. He was filthy with blood and mud, sweaty hair plastered to his forehead, dimples showing on grime-streaked cheeks. He was so beautiful it hurt to look at him. 

Wheeling his horse sharply, Laurent turned to the unpleasant task of counting the dead and captured. 

 

Damianos found him some time later, as Laurent was taking a report from Paschal on the wounded. Damen waited until they were done speaking and said, “Are you ready to discuss our next move?” 

Laurent nodded assent, and turned to leave the medical tent, grateful to be escaping the stink of blood and bodies. It brought back memories better left buried. His eyes felt gritty with exhaustion and smothered grief. Sweet young Jan had been among the dead, and Laurent had closed his eyes himself. 

As the most spacious enclosed area of camp, Laurent’s tent became the impromptu headquarters for strategy and diplomacy. The tent was crowded, and it was easy enough to ignore the fact that the last time he and Damen had been here together, they had been kissing. Nikandros, Jord, and the other two captains were all gathered around the table. To one side, Aimeric was cleaning Laurent’s armor and listening raptly to something Jord was saying about horses. Laurent pursed his lips as he glanced between them, and filed it away to worry about later. 

“Laurent, my friend Nikandros. Nikandros, King Laurent of Vere.” 

The man narrowed his eyes slightly as he assessed Laurent and Laurent made no secret of his own perusal. The man had Damen’s Akielon coloring and nearly his size, but there was a shrewdness that Damen’s open expressions lacked. “Kyros,” Laurent greeted him, inclining his head. 

“Your majesty.” He didn’t seem impressed by Laurent. 

“You got our message.” 

“I did.” Like Damen and Laurent he had removed his armor but there was still blood dried and dark on his face. “Damen has been telling me about your generosity.” 

Laurent flicked a glance at Damen, whose cheeks darkened with a blush. “Damianos needs at least one ally who is not late to battle.” 

“He took a longer route to avoid Kastor’s force,” Damen said hastily, as Nikandros opened his mouth. “The added time caused the delay.”

“Not a stunning success as far as evasions go.” He would benefit from Kyros Nikanros’s goodwill but his tongue ran ahead of him when he was tired. Laurent sniffed. “Nevermind. What now?” 

“We ride back to Marlas first thing tomorrow,” Damen said as Nikandros fumed beside him. “We can’t afford to get cut off from the fort at any cost.” 

“Does Kastor have more soldiers in the province?” Laurent asked, frowning. 

“No, but his field commander, Tassos, is competent. If he has time to regroup the soldiers who fled, he might have the presence of mind to get between us and Marlas.” 

“And when we get to Marlas?” 

“Prepare to march south, with whatever force we can muster here and in Sciyon. Kastor knew that keeping myself and Nikandros separate would be his easiest chance for victory. Now he’s failed, he will be scrambling for as large a force as possible, and we must do our best to match him.” 

Nikandros was looking back and forth between them, arms crossed over his chest. He said, “There is another general that I think I can convince to join us.” 

“Makedon?” Damen asked. 

Nikandros nodded, and said in Akielon, “He’s not happy.” 

“Of course he’s not. He’s a traditionalist.” 

“But he favors you.” 

Damen grimaced. “Like all the generals. Kastor knows that, that’s part of the problem.” 

“Yes, the difficulties caused by being too likeable.” Nikandros rolled his eyes, still visibly annoyed with Laurent but a shadow of humor curved his mouth. 

They conversed with palpable familiarity. Looking between them, Laurent could see the relaxed set of Damen’s shoulders, the curl to Nikandros’ mouth, the way they leaned comfortably in one another’s space. Old friends, or old lovers, maybe. 

“Then we ride for Ios,” Damen said, in Veretian. “With or without Makedon.” 

“Hopefully with,” Nikandros said. “Even with Veretian support we will be thin without him.”  His gaze rested on Laurent. “King Laurent has been… very generous already.”

The tone was a challenge and Laurent eyed him cooly. “I have.” 

“And why is that?” Nikandros asked sharply. Damianos had never questioned him like that, not even at the beginning. 

Laurent widened his eyes in innocence. “Is it so odd that I would want an ally for a neighbor?” 

“Why not endear yourself to the reigning king?” 

Laurent raised an eyebrow. “I could ask the same for you.” 

“I imagine it is not your personal devotion to Damianos which brings you here,” Nikandros drawled, and Damen made a small choked noise. Nikandros’s eyes narrowed. 

Laurent ignored the way his stomach flipped. “You are a man of integrity and loyalty. Personal devotion would not incite you to treason unless you also had reason to believe Kastor were corrupt or incompetent.” 

Nikandros just returned his gaze blankly, neither agreeing nor denying. 

“We are in agreement in that assessment,” Laurent said. “That is why I am here.” 

“You don’t know Kastor.” 

“Only what my spies tell me. But I am coming to know Damianos.”  

Nikandros flicked his gaze toward his old friend, who was watching them both with some trepidation. “That’s what I am afraid of.” 

Chapter Text

They marched to Marlas the next day, with the captured soldiers under guard and the injured men on carts, leaving behind a small unlucky number to finish burying the bodies. The twenty miles or so between Laneovre and the fort would have been a comfortable day’s ride for an army in fit condition, but with wounded men and horses it was nearing dusk by the time the familiar shape of Marlas came into view. 

Despite the late hour, they were hailed from the walls with cheers and celebration. Laurent and Damen rode side by side at the head of the column, with Nikandros and Jord as honor guards, neither of whom looked happy with the arrangement. They flew the royal flags of both Vere and Akielos, as clear a message as possible for Kastor. The atmosphere of buoyant goodwill was astonishing, given the fraught history of Delfeur. People who remembered fondly being Veretian citizens were overjoyed to see Laurent, and Laurent was discovering that Damianos was as beloved among the Akielons as Auguste had been with his people. The gates were thrown open and the tired troop filed through. 

The last time Laurent had set foot here, he still had a family; his brother and father, even his worthless excuse for an uncle. A wave of memory made him so dizzy that he clutched at the reins, making his death-borrowed horse dance uneasily beneath him. 

The fortress at Marlas was very like Fortaine and Ravenel, although much of the Veretian lattice work and geometric tiling had been removed or plastered over. Although the architectural changes were an insult to veretian culture, Laurent was grateful for them. They dulled edges of the memories that clammored in his head. The war council had been through that door off the main hall, Laurent had stood on this rampart with his brother or walked down this corridor. It was here in the courtyard that he’d said goodbye to his brother for the last time.

It was in the same courtyard that Damen addressed Kastor’s conquered men, gilded by the last light of the setting sun. It was less eloquent and more honest than Laurent would have been; he spoke earnestly about the future of Akielos, his dedication to his people, his hopes for change, even his love for his brother. When he was done, most of the soldiers had pledged their loyalty to him, and the rest were released without condition. Laurent and Nikandros at least were united in their disapproval at that. 

There was a feast prepared, the exhaustion of the last two days transmuted seamlessly into a delirium of celebration. Seated at the high table beside Damianos and the Kyros, Laurent picked at his food, although the kitchens at Marlas had produced an impressive offering. The grand hall had been remodeled as the rest of the fort had been, but the last time he sat here, it had been at his brother’s right hand. 

Laurent knew what it was like to have been awake for days on end, and he felt that cobwebby exhaustion now although he had slept some in his camp tent the previous night. His nightmares had been familiar ones about Marlas, but colored with the fresh sense-memory of his blade tugging through human flesh. 

His guards were busy getting drunk with the rest of his soldiers, all except Jord who was on duty. As a captain of the general force, Laurent had offered to relieve him of his guard duties but Jord had declined. Everyone was mourning someone and the volume in the hall was steadily rising as the night drew on. 

Laurent excused himself as soon as he was able, and left the hall to the sound of off-key voices singing a slow Akielon ballad in drunken solemnity. Jord paced at his heels. His rooms were not the royal quarters where he had stayed last with his brother, for which he was grateful, but Marlas was not a large fort, and the corridors were all haunted for Laurent. 

His belongings were laid out in a tower room with a south facing window, from which he could see part of the crenellations on the wall, and the flickering light of the guards' watchfire. Pushing it open for a breeze, he leaned on the sill as he unlaced his jacket. The methodical, mindless task of tugging the ribbons free let his attention drift. In between the rustling of fabric he could hear the guards on the wall. 

“...fought under him before,” one man said, voice thready on the wind. “Going to be a damn good king.” 

“Better than his tight-fisted brother,” another agreed. “Pass the bottle.” 

Another voice, younger, said, “You shouldn’t drink on duty.” With a pang, Laurent thought of Jan. 

“We beat Kastor’s men square, they won’t give us any trouble tonight,” the first voice replied. “Just bad luck we aren’t down there feasting with the rest of them.” 

“Not bad luck, it was you making eyes at Antonius’s boy right before Antonius assigned the shift rosters.” 

There was laughter, and the clink of a bottle. Laurent sighed and turned away from the window.  

He could summon someone to carry a message to Damianos but it was late enough that no one in the fort was both awake and sober - which was manifestly the problem - except for Jord who would not leave his post. Instead he went to the door and let himself out into the hall, gathering Jord in his wake as he strode toward Damen’s rooms. He considered relacing his jacket, decided it was tedious, and left it open, showing the fine white linen shirt beneath. 

The guard on Damen’s door was a young, sweet-faced Akielon man who moved to announce Laurent but quailed under his glare. Leaving Jord and the boy outside the door, Laurent stepped into Damen’s chambers in silence. 

Shutting the door softly behind him, he could hear Nikandros’s voice in the next room, Damen’s bedchamber. “I don’t trust him.” 

“He’s helping us,” Damen said, familiarly obstinate. 

“And for what? Last time you refused to listen to my judgment…” 

“I know, I know. I promised I would be more careful, didn’t I?”

There was a long pause and then Nikandros said in a long suffering tone, “You’ve already fucked him, haven’t you?” 

“No!” Damen yelped. 

Nikandros sighed. “You handle your heart too easily. I cannot protect you when you insist on giving it away to the worst possible people.” 

“Laurent is not the worst possible people. He’s clever and brave and kind when he wants to be. He’s a good king.” There was a knot in Laurent’s throat, painful to swallow around. 

“A good king of an enemy kingdom. What does that make him to you?” 

“Nikandros…” 

“You killed his brother! Is that really someone you can trust to care for you?” 

“Nikandros!” Damen snapped. Closing his eyes, Laurent breathed out slowly. His fingers were curled into fists.

“I am thinking only of your well-being, Damen,” Nikandros said, tightly. 

There was a shuffling sound as someone moved and another sigh. “I know, old friend. I know.” 

“I will do my best to watch your back,” Nikandros said, softer and slightly muffled, “But you make it difficult.” Damianos replied too low for Laurent to hear. 

Making a great noise of crossing the antechamber, Laurent entered the room to find the two of them stepping back from an embrace. He raised one eyebrow sharply. “Am I interrupting something?” 

Damen shook his head at the same moment Nikandros said, “Yes, actually. A private conversation.” 

“I merely came to tell you that your lookouts on the south wall are getting nearly as drunk as the men feasting. But by all means, don't let that interrupt you. I will retire for the night,” Laurent said, turning to go, “and leave you two in privacy.” 

“Wait!” Damen exclaimed. Laurent leaned against the arch of the doorway, waiting, his jacket gaping open. “Nikandros was just going. He'll see to the guards."

Nikandros glared thunderously at both of them, and took his leave, making only the barest salutation in deference to their ranks. 

“Kyros Nikandros is charming,” Laurent said as the slam of the door echoed around the chamber.

"His straightforwardness grows on you. He's a good Kyros and a great friend."

"He's not happy to have me here."

Damen smiled a little. “He thinks I am too trusting.” 

“You are,” Laurent told him. 

Unreasonably, Damen’s grin widened, dimples showing. “You two will like one another. When you stop posturing like a pair of bantam cocks.” 

Laurent opened his mouth, indignant, closed it again, and frowned. Damen laughed. Laurent scowled at him. 

There was a silence, more comfortable than it could have been. They were standing across the room from one another, a breeze wafting the curtains on the open window. A lamp on the table glowed on Damen’s brown skin and cast gold light across the flagstones to Laurent’s feet. 

“Are you feeling alright?” Damen asked, eventually.  

“Should I not be?”

“Battle can shake people.” 

“I’m fine.” 

“I’m sorry about your mare,” Damen said, looking at him earnestly. “I know she was a gift from your brother.” 

There was a stab of pain in Laurent’s chest and he turned away sharply. He hadn’t expected Damen to remember. “She was just a horse.” 

Damen absorbed that in silence, and Laurent didn’t look at him. Somewhere in the courtyard a dog barked. The lamp guttered in a gust of wind. Finally, Laurent said, “There will be far more losses on all sides if you cannot win your civil war decisively.”

“I hope it won’t come to that.” 

“What happens when we get to Ios?” Laurent asked. 

“I will challenge Kastor. It is an ancient tradition among kings of Akielos.” 

“Yes. Any commoner can challenge the rightful king for the throne. I’ve read about the practice.” 

The corner of Damen’s mouth quirked. “This is where you call me a barbarian again.” 

“Am I so predictable?” Laurent crossed to the table in the center of the room and sat. “So you will challenge your brother. Do you really think he will agree to meet you on the field? He knows he is no match for you. He would not have exiled you otherwise.” 

“He cannot honorably refuse.” 

“Then he will not let you get close enough to make the challenge. He will hide in his palace while his army meets yours.”

Damen shook his head. “That is the Veretian way, not ours. He will meet me.”

Sighing, Laurent made a mental note to make sure Kastor led his army personally, one way or another. He wondered how Kastor was most effectively influenced and who could tell Laurent about the king’s weaknesses. Not Damianos - too blinded by the brotherly bond to see Kastor clearly. 

Leaning a hip against the table next to where Laurent sat, Damen watched him with a small, soft smile on his face. “You mind is racing like an octon rider. I can see it.”

Distracted, Laurent said, “That must seem very fast to you.” The plan was coming clear, details unfurling which had been too far away to predict when this gambit began. There was a stone in Laurent’s stomach, and Damianos’s gaze was a brand on his cheek. The silence between them had grown heavy. Outside in the darkness a nighthawk cried. 

“I want to kiss you again,” Damen said, quietly. “May I?” 

The softness was terrible. It lanced through Laurent like a knife. He drew a shuddering breath. 

“Why do you say things like that?” Laurent said, throat too tight to speak louder than a whisper. His heartbeat was rushing in his ears. 

Damen looked bewildered. “Because I want you to say yes?”

“It’s not that simple.” Laurent was a string on a harp, a bit of sinew tightened to snapping point.

The lamp light played over Damianos’s face - his wide, earnest eyes, long lashes casting shadows on his cheeks, his generous mouth, lips parted and pink. “It can be,” he said. 

Laurent made a noise that he couldn’t quite choke back, and surged out of his chair to smash their mouths together. 

Damen gasped, lips parting in surprise, and Laurent pressed his advantage, kissing ferociously, all teeth and tongue. He bit down hard on Damen’s lower lip and heard him hiss in pain, and then, with a rumble that he felt more than heard, Damen was kissing him back. 

Laurent was between Damen’s legs, bending him back against the edge of the table, up on his tiptoes to meet Damen’s height. He was acutely aware again of his inexperience, but the messiness of their kissing concealed that. Damianos looped an arm around his waist and rolled their hips together, dragging Laurent’s hardening cock against his thigh. 

There was a raging current of emotion frothing just below the surface of Laurent’s cracked control. His hands were shaking, and he gripped Damen harder to still them, biting savagely at Damen’s mouth and grinding against his leg, feeling as though he would be ripped apart from the inside, if he didn’t let out some of the intensity. 

Damen was running his hands up and down Laurent’s back, soothing. “It’s alright,” he whispered between kisses, “it’s okay.” His hands and mouth were gentle and not what Laurent wanted. 

“It’s not okay,” Laurent growled. He dug his nails into Damen’s shoulders and dragged them down his back, through his shirt, desire for violence all tangled up with lust. Damen’s hips jolted up against his and the pressure made Laurent gasp into his mouth.  

They grappled, rutting together, hard between their bodies with constricting fabric separating them. Yanking at the laces of his trousers, Damen swore as they tangled. Laurent called him a name in Veretian and shoved his hands away to undo them himself, leaning in again to seek out Damen’s mouth. His lips felt tender with kissing, swollen, and the new sensation trembled like a spark in his body, intoxicating. 

The relief of freeing his erection from his tight trousers was nothing compared to the sensation of Damen’s cock brushing against his own. Laurent rocked his hips to feel it again, and had to bite down on a helpless sound. Damen gripped his hips and arched back up into him, the head of his cock velvety and wet. 

Desire and rage writhed in Laurent’s stomach, mostly anger with himself. How can you want him? How can you stand to touch him? Always wanting the wrong people, you disgusting, broken boy. But those thoughts were familiar companions, not enough to distract him from taking Damen’s cock in hand, smearing the sticky liquid at the tip with his thumb and watching Damen shudder. 

He wanted more. Needed more, or else he was going to start thinking about who he was in bed with. If they kept moving, he could pretend to have forgotten. Pretend that Damen was just a man - a strong, noble, honest man who had saved Laurent’s life. Someone Laurent was not planning to betray.

Shoving his own trousers further down his thighs, Laurent dragged one of Damen’s hands to the cleft of his ass. “Fuck me.” 

Damen groaned, sliding the pad of fingers, dry and warm between Laurent’s cheeks, skating over his hole and making it twitch. Laurent’s breath hitched in his chest, and he widened his stance. “Well?” 

Damen started to pull away. “I don’t have any oil. We’ll have to send for some.”

“We don’t need it.”

“Wha- of course we do,” Damen said, blinking at him. His hair was mussed, curls falling into his eyes, mouth pink from kissing. Laurent gritted his teeth. 

“I can take it. Do you want to fuck me or not?”

“I do.” 

“Then-” Laurent’s words were cut off as Damen slid his hands under Laurent’s ass and picked him up. Squawking, Laurent clung reflexively to Damen’s broad shoulders as Damen carried him easily across the room to the bed. His cock was trapped between their stomachs, his legs around Damen’s waist. When Damen tipped him back onto the sheets and knelt over him, Laurent was rock hard and fumbling for words. 

Damen kissed him again before he could find any and Laurent arched up against his weight, dragging their cocks together. Warm, sword-calloused hands slid beneath his shirt, pushing it up under his shoulders. Laurent shuddered when Damen’s palms dragged over his nipples. Making a pleased noise, Damen broke the kiss and mouthed down Laurent’s throat, over his pulse-point, as he had done when they kissed at Lanoevre. Laurent’s body reacted just as it had done then, shivering with a restless itch beneath his skin. It was too intense and not enough simultaneously. 

“Get on with it,” Laurent panted. 

“No.” 

“What do you mean, no ?”

“I’m not taking you dry,” Damen said, voice rumbling against Laurent’s sternum. “We can do other things.” 

“Wha-ah,” he began and his voice cracked as Damianos bit his nipple. His cock twitched helplessly as Damen worked one nipple with his mouth and the other with his fingers. One of his hands flew to the back of Damen’s head, not sure whether he was pushing Damen away or pulling him closer. His other hand was fisted in the sheets. Laurent’s hips were rocking without conscious thought, balls aching and tight just from this. 

Damen’s mouth left a damp, cooling trail from his chest down the hollow of his stomach, past his belly button, and Laurent tensed. “I don’t…” 

“You don’t want me to suck you?” Damen was still unfairly in possession of his vocabulary. He looked up from under tousled curls, eyes dark with desire. Laurent swallowed. 

“I won’t reciprocate.” 

“But can I?” 

“Are you listening?” Laurent dragged the words together along with the shreds of his composure. “If you want me to suck your cock, I won’t.” 

“That’s okay. I want to suck you.” 

“You want… ” He was cut off by the shocking heat of Damen’s mouth. He’d never felt anything close to this. The Prince of Akielos was clearly practiced at this, although his technique wasn’t showy. He took Laurent deep, the muscles of his throat fluttering around the head of Laurent’s cock. It was tight and slick and horrifyingly good. Laurent’s whole body curled up off the bed. He was clutching at Damen’s curls, mouth open, unable to draw a full breath. The intensity of the pleasure curled into an edge of panic - overstimulated and starving for air. He yanked unkindly at Damen’s hair until he pulled off, and Laurent gasped at the rush of cool air on his wet cock. “I…” he gasped. “I…” 

“It’s alright.” Crawling up his body, Damen nuzzled his neck and Laurent shuddered, heartbeat slowing from a frantic racing into the steady staccato of arousal. “It’s alright,” he repeated. One hand was curled loosely around Laurent’s cock, just a teasing tug at his foreskin and steady pressure against his shaft. The sensation grew gradually. Laurent was closer than he had expected, a hot coil in his gut. Every muscle in his body was pulled tight. 

“You like it gentle,” Damianos murmured, and Laurent could hear the smile in his voice. 

“I don’t-” Damen nibbled at the skin behind his ear at the same time as one broad palm rubbed over Laurent’s nipple, and Laurent’s voice choked off. He gritted his teeth, furious and aroused, fingers tightening in Damen’s hair. His curls brushed Laurent’s cheek, and his nose filled with the familiar smell of him.

“I’ve got you,” Damen whispered, breath warm against Laurent’s throat. He dragged his thumb over the tip of Laurent’s cock, just dipping into the slit, and Laurent came like being shattered open. 

He lay panting, thoughts hazy with the syrupy rush of climax. Damianos would fuck him now; take his own pleasure in Laurent’s body now that he had satisfied whatever pride had driven him to get Laurent off first. But Damen was still kneeling over him, one hand moving fast on his own cock, the muscles in his arm flexing. Laurent watched in confusion as Damianos’s brow furrowed, mouth opening in a silent shout as pearly liquid leapt from the tip of his cock. 

Unreasonably, Laurent’s cock gave another half-hearted twitch and leaked a little more as the hot strands of Damen’s come spattered over his stomach. Damen finished stroking himself off and lowered himself onto the bed beside Laurent. He was grinning, and Laurent felt his mouth curve to smile back. He breathed through the impulse, looking away. His body was heavy, pleasantly lethargic. He had forgotten how much more intense it was to get off with someone else. Or had it ever been like this? He couldn’t remember ever feeling so relaxed after sex, and that frightened him enough that he sat up apruptly, feeling the sticky pull of come drying on his stomach. 

He rose from the bed, putting his back to Damen as he went to the wash basin. 

Damianos said his name, but Laurent ignored him, wiping himself off with a damp rag. His hands were unsteady, weak with orgasm. Damen was propped up on his elbows, watching him, smugness fading into concern. It hurt to look at him, so Laurent didn’t, lacing up his trousers and tucking in his shirt. 

He wanted to crawl back in bed with Damianos and bask in the afterglow and that thought propelled him from the room at high speed. In the dark corridor, Jord followed him silently, and Laurent avoided his gaze. He needed to clear his head. Now was not the time for complications. 

Climbing the twisted staircase in the north tower, he felt the pleasant weakness in his knees with every step. At the top of the stairs, he stepped out onto the ramparts of the fort, and leaned against the stones. They were cold, and beaded with nighttime dew on the smooth-worn tops. Leaning between the crenellations, Laurent watched thin strips of clouds drift across the waxing moon. Beneath his shirt, his skin was still damp where he had washed Damianos’s come off himself. The near-full moon cast an eerie silver luminance over everything. Jord was an insubstantial shadow further down the wall. 

Laurent ran his fingers over the chill, rough stones of the battlements. The last time he had stood here, his brother had been beside him, a warm hand on his shoulder. Auguste would have liked Damen, he thought, bitter as willowbark. The surge of emotion was so strong his eyes stung, and he swallowed hard against the lump in his throat. 

Are you going to finish what you started? he asked himself harshly. Or are you going to let yourself be seduced by your enemy again? 

“Jord,” he called. There was a soft shuffle of footsteps. Laurent didn’t look up. “When we reach Ios, there will be two armies ready for battle but before that, Damianos will challenge Kastor to a duel.” Near the horizon a meteor fell and winked out. “Neither of them will survive the fight.” 

“Your majesty,” Jord said, not quite a question. 

Finally Laurent looked over at him. The moonlight shadowed Jord’s eyes, gilding his outline and making the rest of him a broad, solid figure in the darkness. Jord, who had kept his secrets for so many years, who had offered nothing but loyalty to Laurent and to Auguste before him. “You and I will make sure of that,” Laurent said.

Chapter Text

Despite the exhaustion of the last two days, Laurent slept fitfully, pummeling his pillows and tangling himself in his bedsheets. In the gray hours before dawn he slipped into a vivid dream, which began as a familiar memory. Laurent was barefoot in a white nightgown, padding silently down a dark, narrow passageway. On the edge of lucidity he was aware that the flagstones beneath his feet should have been cold, but he felt nothing. There was a hidden door, light showing from the cracks, and then he was through it without touching the latch and standing in an opulent, red-draped bed chamber. Asleep on the bed amid scarlet sheets was his uncle, and in Laurent’s hand was a vial of poison. 

He didn’t cross the room but he was kneeling on the bed and, in the fuzzy way of dreams, the poison had become a knife. Laurent tipped his uncle’s head back and drew the blade smoothly across his throat opening a red, rushing gash. Then suddenly it was Damen on the bed, mouth gaping and eyes fluttering helplessly as his blood soaked the sheets. Frantically, Laurent put his hands over the wound, fingers closing around Damen’s throat. Scarlet blood covered his hands and splattered up to his elbows but there was no sensation of slickness or warmth, only the icy rush of panic. There was an eerie, looming sensation of someone standing behind him, and then his uncle’s voice said, “Look what you’ve done. Such an irresponsible boy. You’re lucky I love you so much, Laurent.” 

Laurent jolted upright in bed choking on a silent scream. Sweat drenched the back of his neck and his hands were fisted in the sheets. His heart was thundering in his ears and his throat was almost closed. Tilting forward to put his head on his knees, he wheezed for breath. He was trembling, nauseous. 

Slowly he managed to uncurl himself and drag himself from the bed. Out of the warmth of the sheets he was shivering violently, sweat cold and clammy, but he felt less likely to vomit. The sun was not quite up, the sky shading from gray to blue, the dull illumination making everything in the room look flat and unreal. Wrapping his arms around himself, Laurent staggered to the washbasin and splashed his face. 

Finally he felt as if he could suck in a full breath, rather than frantic, shallow gasps. He leaned heavily against the wall, closing his eyes, then snapping them open again when the images from his dream appeared. 

He wanted to sink down into a huddle on the floor, wanted to drink until he couldn’t remember his own name, until he could sleep, like he hadn’t truly slept since Auguste died. He felt rung-out and weak, sick from the dream and the exhaustion, but going back to bed was not an option. There was too much trying to catch up with him to give in to the urge to rest. 

Feeling as if he were moving through thick syrup, Laurent dragged himself to his trunk and dressed himself. It was soothing, threading each lace through its eye and tugging them tight, one cross at a time. While his hands were busy with the laces he didn’t have to do or think of anything else until the task was done. Then he buckled on his sword belt and headed for the door. 

His guards had changed shift. It was Orlant in the hall when he stepped out, a little rumpled and worse for drink, clearly startled by his King’s appearance. Laurent led him through the corridors, past curious servants using the pre-dawn hours to light braziers and empty chamber pots, and down to the courtyard outside the stables. 

“Draw,” Laurent ordered, hand on his own sword. Orlant drew, and Laurent took a deep breath, losing himself in the familiar rhythm of the engagement, the precision of the footwork, the ache in his arms still sore from battle, and the taste of clean morning air on his tongue. 

They sparred until they had burned away both the remnants of Laurent's nightmare and Orlant’s hangover. By the time the sun had risen over the walls of the fort, Marlas was bustling. A laundry girl almost tripped over a stray chicken as she watched them spar, and a hostler yelled at a pair of dogs scuffling. Servants, soldiers, and peasants went to and fro in the courtyard around them. Laurent’s arms were aching pleasantly, and he was sweating again but it was a warm, earned sweat. The cooking smells drifting from the kitchen were beginning to seem actually appetizing to him, which he hadn’t expected to accomplish so soon. 

Orlant’s sword hit the sawdust, and a few of their onlookers applauded. Wiping sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand, Laurent looked up to see Aimeric among the gawkers. Clasping Orlant’s offered hand, Laurent left the ring, shaking the last of the nightmare’s cobwebs from his mind. 

Aimeric handed him a waterskin and Laurent drank deeply. “What are you doing here?” 

“You’re sparring, I’m your squire. Aren’t I supposed to… clean your sword or something?” They blinked at one another for a moment and then Aimeric said, “We’re going to mutually pretend I never said that.” 

“Yes, good,” said Laurent. “Have you seen Kyros Nikandros today?” 

“He’s in the hall. Breakfast is being served. Lose track of time?” 

Laurent ignored that. “I need to talk to him. You can distract Damianos.”

Aimeric raised an eyebrow. “Turning me loose on him again already?” 

Handing back the waterskin, Laurent said, “If seduction is your only method for misdirection, I’ve overestimated both your resourcefulness and your intelligence.” 

Aimeric’s eyes narrowed slightly in acknowledgment of the challenge. “Watch me.” 

When they entered the hall, Damianos and Nikandros both looked up from the high table. Damen rose to his feet, eyes on Laurent. As usual, he was showing his feelings on his face - concern, inquiry, eagerness. Laurent schooled his own expression, and met his gaze perfunctorily. Both Akielons wore chitons. If Laurent had thought Damen’s thighs were distracting in tight Veretian riding pants, they were doubly so with all the muscle-rippled brown skin on display. 

“Damianos. Kyros,” Laurent greeted, taking a peach from a bowl and biting into it, looking away from Damen’s legs. The sugary juice was refreshing after sparring. 

“Damen, I wanted to talk to you,” Aimeric said. 

“Oh?” Damen looked between Aimeric and Laurent, startled. Laurent blinked at him, impassive, and licked peach juice off his lips. Damen’s gaze followed his tongue and behind him, Aimeric rolled his eyes. 

“I promise it won’t take long. I’ve been helping the quartermaster - he doesn’t speak much Akielon - and I have some questions for you.” Aimeric angled himself so that Damen had to turn away from the table or else rudely turn his back to Aimeric as they talked. “Neither the quartermaster or I are familiar with the range of Akielon weaponry your soldiers are accustomed to and we want to be sure to keep everything in order.” His voice was earnest and reserved. Laurent was impressed. 

“Kyros,” he said, drawing Nikandros away from the table simultaneously, out of Damen’s line of sight, “I was hoping for a word with you.”

Nikandros looked suspicious, clearly unimpressed with their transparent maneuver. Perhaps Laurent ought to have had more control of his sharp tongue the day before, but he had been tired. It was time to regain the Kyros’s goodwill. He would need Nikandros on his side at the end. 

“I know you don’t trust me, and I don’t blame you. But you and I both understand Damianos’s strengths, and if his bid for the throne is to be successful he needs allies who balance his weaknesses.” 

Nikandros gave Laurent a narrow glare. “That’s a nice sentiment.” 

“Do you think a victory for Kastor benefits me at all, now that I have sided with his brother? I am on your side, Kyros Nikandros. Yours and Damianos’s.” 

“Veretians are only ever on their own side. Don’t think for a minute I believe you have no ulterior motive.”

“Beyond the return of Delfeur? Damianos is not a difficult man to judge, and he keeps his word. You think it is not worth a few hundred men and a month of my time to regain the land - and revenue - that my father lost?” 

“No, I’m not convinced.” Nikandros crossed his arms. “But I am willing to entertain the idea for the time being, since apparently Damen has taken leave of his senses and decided to trust you.” 

It was a concession that was not a concession at all. “He’s lucky to have someone like you.” 

Nikandros tipped his head in acknowledgment. “He’s my oldest friend.” The implied threat was obvious. 

Laurent took another bite of the peach, insolent. “You’ll have your work cut out for you when he is king.” 

“I hope I get a chance to find out,” Nikandros said levelly. 

“That’s what I wanted to discuss with you. Damianos told me he plans to challenge his brother when he reaches Ios.” 

“Yes, I know.” 

“Is that as foolish an idea as I think it is?” 

Nikandros sighed. “Damen will have popular support both from the army and the citizens on his side if he issues a challenge, but the problem will be getting Kastor to accept it.” 

“That’s what I thought also. If I were Kastor, I would make all efforts to intercept Damianos’s soldiers before he reached the palace. I would force a battle without ever offering to parlay.” He paused, peach juice dripping down his wrist. “But I am an honorless Veretian.”

A very faint shadow of a smile crossed Nikandros’s face. “You are. But I think your speculation is correct. Kastor will force Damen to fight his way through an army and kill his own citizens before getting close to Kastor. Even if Damen wins, at the end of it all, he will have more discontent on his hands from the deaths.” 

“So we need to get Kastor in a public place before battle, so Damianos can issue the challenge. How?” 

“An Akielon king is expected to lead his own army. It would be expected for Kastor to meet him in battle, and it is what the citizens will want to see. Especially if public opinion is leaning toward Damen, Kastor may feel he would lose more than he gains from avoiding battle.” 

“Does he have advisors? People close to him?” 

“Yes, mostly of King Theomedes’s generation. They’ve all known both Damen and Kastor since they were small. They are likely to be loyal to the throne."

“The more popular support we can rally around Damianos, the more uncomfortable we will make everyone close to Kastor,” Laurent said. 

“That won’t be our challenge. Damen has always been the golden boy, more than his brother. I only hope it will be worrying Kastor enough to bring him out from his defenses.” 

“How many weeks until we reach Ios?” Laurent asked, scraping the last sweet flesh off the peach stone. 

“Two, depending.” 

“Not much time. We need someone inside Kastor’s circle.” 

“Let me think on it,” Nikandros said, turning back to the breakfast table. Damen and Aimeric were still talking, and although Damen kept casting glances in the direction of their conversation. “We’ll talk again soon.” 

“I have one question, Kyros.” 

Nikandros paused, wary. “Yes?” 

“Damianos said you were the one who suggested he seek my aid. Why do so if you distrust me so much?” 

“He told you that?” Nikandros snorted. “I suppose I did. Damen was here, visiting me when we got Kastor’s missive - too much of a coward to deliver it in person. It was all I could do to stop him from galloping back to Ios all alone and challenging his brother to combat there and then. Kastor’s guards would have killed him, of course. I said a lot of things that night.”

“I was a diversion tactic,” Laurent said slowly. 

Nikandros’s mouth curved wryly. “I did not count on you being quite so diverting.”  

Flicking his wrist, Laurent tossed the peach pit into an empty bowl on the table, which rang like a bell. “Perhaps it worked out for the best.” 

Not quite smiling, Nikandros said, “I think that remains to be seen.” 

 

Laurent spent most of the day in his rooms, writing letters and making notes. Damianos was drilling the men on the fields outside the fort, and Laurent was not avoiding him. There were simply pressing matters that required his attention. His correspondence was stacked on the desk by a bowl of cherries. There were still three spies he was awaiting word from, and Vannes would have reached Skarva by now although any word she sent to him would not have made it back yet. He wrote several letters to Berenger, although no letters had reached him since leaving Fortaine, and sealed half of them with his signet and the others unmarked. Then he wrote a note to Prince Torveld of Patras, which also bore no distinguishing marks. 

I presume upon the congeniality of our acquaintance in writing thus. Forgive my informality but I fear that to rest on ceremony would impede my purpose. I’m sure you have heard of my most recent undertaking, and my unexpected company. Rest assured that I have no intention to trouble you with it, nor desire to strain relations between us. The situation may develop in an alarming direction - do not be dismayed. In the past you have expressed admiration for my intellect; if that was more than mere flattery, believe me when I say I have judged my course of action to be sound, and have no reason to suspect it will upset our mutual interests. I have written your brother also, although my letter may have gone astray. My best wishes to you and all of yours for continued peace and prosperity. It is my fervent hope that I can continue to call you my friend in the coming times. 

It was only marginally coherent, as coded letters went - he didn’t have the kind of rapport with Torveld that would allow him to communicate complex messages in innocuous phrases. Their rapport, such as it was, mostly included heated glances over state dinners, and suggestive comments followed by elegant evasions on Laurent’s part. It would have been ideal to have someone trusted to carry the message in person, as Vannes and Talik had done to Vask. Still, the letter would reassure him that Laurent thought fondly of him, and Laurent would have to hope Torveld’s sway over his brother the king would prove sufficient to stay Torgier’s hand if Kastor turned to him for aid. 

The letter to King Torgier was even more opaque, and intended for Kastor’s eyes. There was a high likelihood it would never reach Patras at all. It conveyed nothing more than his good wishes to the King of Patras and an assurance that Vere’s relationship with that nation would remain unchanged, regardless of the outcome of the situation in Akielos. He sealed it with his ring, and summoned Aimeric. 

“Post these letters by official courier,” Laurent said, handing him one stack. “To Vere and to Patras. And these,” he gestured to the rest of the letters, “find a soldier to put them in the general post.”

“You have a secret peasant lover somewhere?” Aimeric asked, examining the unmarked letters. “Who is Erasmus?” 

“A slave belonging to Prince Torveld. I understand he was a gift from King Theomedes.” 

“An affair with a Patran slave? I’d never have suspected you.” Smiling, Aimeric flipped the letter over. “Or is it Prince Torveld that you’re wooing in secret?” 

Laurent leaned back in his chair. “Did you ever meet Prince Torveld?” 

“No. I’ve heard he’s handsome.” Aimeric wiggled his eyebrows. 

“If you like older men, I suppose.” Laurent said it easily, but it snapped between them like a whip crack and Aimeric sobered. 

There was a short silence, and then he said, “What are you planning?” 

“You’ve already asked me that.” 

Aimeric shrugged. “Doesn’t hurt to try again. What does Patras have to do with it?” 

Laurent gave him his favorite blank look. “It’s my job to maintain a good relationship with our neighboring kingdoms.”

“Fine, don’t tell me.” Aimeric swept the letters up and turned to go. “Are you coming to dinner? There’s another general arriving.” 

“Makedon. I know.” Their eyes met briefly. They both knew the name of the barbarian northman who notched his belt for Veretian kills. “I’ll be there.” 

 

“Damianos,” Makedon boomed. They were all in the courtyard, greeting him formally on the steps of the fort. He was a huge, scarred man, slightly shorter than Damen but even broader, his mouth hidden in a thick beard and eyes shadowed by heavy brows. His soldiers were all equally rough looking, but arrayed in meticulous lines behind him as they filed through the portcullis. 

Makedon swept Damen a perfunctory bow, and then extended his arms for an embrace. It seemed Laurent would never be accustomed to Akielon informality, but a public embrace from an important military figure was probably a good sign. Pounding Damen briefly on the back, Makedon released the Prince and said, “You’ve been causing trouble.” 

It was insolent, but Damen just smiled sheepishly, and said, switching to Veretian, “Let me introduce you to my ally, King Laurent.” 

“The Veretian boy king.” Makedon turned his beady, sharp eyes on Laurent. 

“General Makedon. Your reputation precedes you.” 

Makedon looked Laurent over brazenly. It was not a purely prurient assessment, but neither was it free of appreciation. “As does yours. They call you a snake.”

“They call you an old bull. Would you like to try your hooves against my fangs?”

“Sharp and pretty,” Makedon said in Akielon to Damianos, and it didn’t sound like a compliment. “I can see what’s in this alliance for you.” 

“Damianos likes me for my grasp of Akielon, also,” Laurent said mildly, switching languages.

Makedon didn’t even have the grace to look embarrassed. “You speak it better than people say.”  

“Don’t believe everything you hear.”  

“That would be impossible, since all the stories are contradictory,” he said. Then he was turning away to greet Nikandros, and a couple of other Akielons of notable rank. “Kyros. I see you’re still cleaning up Damen’s messes. And Pallas! I didn’t expect you here. Your father can’t be happy with that.” He was addressing a fresh-faced young man that Laurent vaguely noticed over the last two days. 

“He doesn’t know I’m here,” Pallas said, and blushed under his dark skin. “I told him I was visiting our winter estate in Isthmia.” Makedon’s laugh echoed off the stone walls of the fortress. 

In the great hall, another feast had been laid out already, this time with low couches in the Akielon style, rather than rows of tables. As always, status was conveyed by nearness to royalty. Laurent and Damen were seated next to one another, Nikandros and Makedon nearby. Reclining on the couch made Damen’s chiton ride up even higher. If he looked deliberately, Laurent could see the shape of Damen’s soft cock beneath the fall of fabric. He wasn’t looking. 

Slaves brought platters of fruit, roast meat, grilled fish, and summer vegetables, and circulated through the hall with pitchers of wine, keeping cups filled. Laurent had to wave them away every few minutes, his own cup full of water. 

“You know I’m not happy about any of this,” Makedon was saying. “But your brother is making it hard to side with him.” 

“I didn’t want it to be this way either,” Damen said, through a mouthful of lamb. It was a sentiment Laurent had heard from him before, and he believed it. Earnest, and among his own people, Damianos was telling the truth. “I was trying to advise him, when father was ill, but he wouldn’t listen.” 

“He wants the same work done on half the funding and when I told him flat it couldn’t be done, he threatened to have me replaced. Me!” Makedon was a mountain thunderstorm. “I’ve been commanding soldiers since he was on his mama’s teat.” 

“I thought the regular border routes were under-patrolled,” Damen said, dropping the lamb bone on a plate and licking grease off his fingers. 

“We’ve had to cut down by two thirds since winter. Irresponsible is what it is.” 

“Corrupt, more like,” Nikandros muttered. “You know where that money is going instead.” 

Makedon snorted. “Doesn’t everybody? He’s making his friends very happy indeed, not making any new ones.” They shouldn’t be airing their internal instability so openly where Laurent - or any other Veretian nearby - could hear. But it wasn’t as if Laurent’s spies in Ios hadn’t reported the same thing, in the months of Theomedes’s illness and after his death. 

“Your father would tan both your hides if he was alive to see this,” Makedon continued. “That was my first thought, when I heard Kastor said you’d poisoned him.” 

Damen looked stricken. “You know I didn’t…” 

“Of course you didn’t.” Makedon leaned across the space between their couches to pat Damen heavily on the knee. 

“Those rumors didn’t start until after you’d defied Kastor, anyway,” Nikandros said. “The timing was obvious.” 

Makedon nodded. “It was the growth in his skull that took your father, just like your great uncle. Your brother just wanted another stone to throw at you.” 

Damen stared down into his cup. Makedon patted his knee again. “I miss him too,” he rumbled, low, and Damen nodded. “A drink! To your father’s life.” 

Laurent looked away as the Akielons toasted the memory of the man who had caused the deaths of his own father and brother. The room was growing steadily louder and uncomfortably warm. 

Huet and Enguerran were playing a tile game with a couple of Akielon soldiers. Nearby, half hidden by a pillar, Lazar was pouring more wine for Pallas, the young Akielon nobleman with the disapproving father. Laurent imagined his father would also disapprove of the hand that Pallas had high up on Lazar’s thigh. Further down the hall, Orlant and Jord were sharing a couch with a third man between them, hidden by Orlant’s broad shoulders but clearly engaged in something amorous. When Orlant shifted, Laurent saw a flash of gleaming chestnut curls, and felt a flash of annoyed resignation. It was Aimeric. 

“King Laurent.” 

He turned, making a mental note to keep an eye on Aimeric’s new interest in his guards, and looked at Makedon, who had spoken. 

“Won’t you join us?” Makedon asked, a challenge in his gaze. “Have you ever tried griva?” 

He was holding up a cup of something clear, which did not bode well for its intoxicating properties, in Laurent’s experience. All eyes were on him, assessing. Laurent had wanted to get drunk this morning, to forget his nightmare, but it had been a bad idea then and it was a bad idea now. He remembered his etiquette lessons, that Akielons drank to show hospitality, solidarity, and respect. It was an honor to be invited to toast - in fact, one they should not have excluded royalty from in the first place, although he was glad they had not asked him to toast to Theomedes. Laurent took the cup from Makedon and smelled the harsh waft of the alcohol. 

“A toast, to your alliance.” 

Laurent lifted the glass. “To the alliance.” 

He had braced himself for the burn of alcohol but he still wasn’t prepared for the way the griva seared. It was nothing like the smooth liquors he was accustomed to getting drunk on, easy for a boy’s palate. His throat spasmed, and he breathed shallowly through his nose, fighting not to cough. Makedon and his men were all watching him. Sucking in air he blinked back tears and swallowed hard. It was like swallowing around a cock, deliberately relaxing the panicked flutter of his esophagus. The burn subsided a little, and he set the empty cup down with a clink, looking up to meet Makedon’s eyes cooly. 

Makedon looked suitably impressed. 

“What do you brew it from,” Laurent managed, only a tiny bit strained, “horse piss?” 

“Ha! Ha ha,” Makedon chortled. Holding out the bottle, he splashed more alcohol both empty glasses and raised his own. “Another,” he boomed. 

 

Laurent’s cheek was pressed against warm cloth. He stumbled, and someone’s arm tightened around his waist. He was leaning against the man’s strong chest. His first thought was Uncle? - tensing, he rocked back and almost fell. 

“Easy!” said a familiar voice. “Easy now, we’re almost there.”

“Damianos,” Laurent said. His tongue didn’t feel right in his mouth. 

“A little further, here we go.” The dark room dipped and swamp in Laurent’s vision as he blinked. They were in his own bedchamber. The last thing he remembered was drinking in the hall with Makedon, the barbarian general’s booming laugh as Laurent took another burning shot. He hadn’t meant to get this drunk. 

“What are you doing?” Laurent asked. 

“Putting you to bed,” Damen said, and yes, that was the bed, against the backs of Laurent’s knees. He sat heavily, sliding down Damen’s body so his arm was around his waist, Laurent’s face pressed against his hip bone through the fabric of his jacket. Had he meant to end up like this? He didn’t think so. It was a familiar position, though. If he turned his head, his mouth would be on Damen’s cock. That was how this was supposed to go. 

Damianos was moving away though, kneeling down to tug at his boots. Laurent frowned. “Don’t you want me?” 

“You’re drunk.” 

“And so?” 

“I don’t want you like this.” 

“Why not?” Laurent tried to concentrate - had he done something stupid to make Damen not want him? Had he said something? He couldn’t remember. 

“You’re not yourself.” 

That didn’t make any sense. “Aren’t I?” 

“Here.” Hands were on the laces of Laurent’s jacket. Maybe he would get fucked after all. “You aren’t. You don’t drink.”

“How do you know?”

“I’ve watched you. Have you ever been this drunk before?”

“Yes,” Laurent said honestly. “You don’t know anything about me.” 

Damen’s hands paused. “I know enough.” 

“You’re an idiot.” 

“So you’ve said.” He finished with the laces and tugged the heavy brocade off Laurent’s arms. Sighing, Laurent flopped back on the bed. A warm, dry palm smoothed his hair back from his forehead. Auguste used to do that, when he was sick, and before that, his mother. 

“You shouldn’t be...like this.” 

“Like what?” Damen’s strong hands were rolling him onto his side, tucking a pillow under his head. 

“Kind,” he mumbled. “Kind to me. I’m not... good.” He was losing track of words. He felt heavy and a little queasy. He wanted to sleep. Was Damianos going to stay? That was bad, he thought hazily, he shouldn’t want that. Damianos was his enemy. Somehow, that didn’t seem important. Laurent was relaxed, unconcerned with anything except the growing feeling that he might be sick. 

“I think you are,” Damen said softly, and Laurent’s stomach rolled as his vision started to go black at the edges again. 

Chapter Text

Laurent woke with his head pounding, a foul taste in his mouth, and only patchy memories of the previous evening. Groaning, he pushed himself upright in bed, wondering if he was going to be sick again, although there was almost certainly nothing left in his stomach. His memory told him that much, at least. It had been years since he’d gotten so drunk as to lose entire pieces of time, and he’d sworn he would never do it again. It unsettled him to have his mind less than fully under his control. Damn Akielons and their barbarian concepts of hospitality. 

Someone had undressed him down to his undershirt. Damianos. A cold shiver ran through him at the thought of being so vulnerable in front of the Lion of Ios. The Prince-killer. He remembered being in this room, talking with him. What had he done? What had he said ? He felt sick with the weight of his secrets, all the things Damianos should not have heard. Surely, he would not be waking up alone and alive if he had spilled the whole truth. Even too drunk to stand, Laurent could keep his own counsel. Still, his heart raced as he struggled to reconstruct the mosaic of fractured memories. 

He remembered, startlingly clearly, wondering if Damianos would fuck him. They hadn’t; his body would know. He had no memory of his first intimate encounter with his uncle, during which he had been equally drunk, but he vividly remembered the soreness the next day and the slow, incredulous realization of what must have happened. Had they done something else instead? Laurent had a hazy memory of Damianos pushing him back, tenderly removing his boots. Inconclusive. 

Moving gingerly to accommodate both his head and his stomach, he rose, used the chamber pot and dressed slowly. When he emerged from his chambers, Rochert, the guard on duty, followed him to Paschal’s room in silence. The physician was already awake when Laurent entered, chopping herbs at the table, and the air heavy with the sharp scent of ginger and mint. Laurent wasn’t the only one with a hangover this morning.

“I find myself indisposed, this morning,” he said. 

It was the phrase he always used to use, when whatever Uncle gave him made him sick, and Pascal made the same noise of sympathy as always. He never had to ask what was wrong. They hadn’t done this ritual in years but it came back as easily as dancing; Laurent sat at the table while Paschal mixed ingredients and Paschal deftly felt his forehead as he passed behind Laurent’s chair with his pestle in one hand. It was too weighted with dark memories to feel comforting but it was… familiar.

When Paschal put the cup down in front of Laurent he sipped it slowly, feeling his stomach roll and breathing deeply against the nausea. Paschal placed a bowl beside him, which Laurent pointedly ignored. He was quite finished being sick for the time being.

“You should drink some water, if you can,” Paschal said when he’d finished the cup. “It will help your headache.”

Laurent sighed, and filled the cup again from the pitcher of water on the table. “I know.” He picked at the splinters at the edge of the table. There was silence, filled only with the dull thud of the physician’s knife working steadily and the scrape of the mortar and pestle as Laurent sipped his water slowly. 

“Have you replenished the supplies you need, after the battle?” Laurent asked finally. 

Paschal nodded. “Kyros Nikandros has been nothing but generous, and his military physicians are competent themselves.”

“Good. I hope there won’t be much more fighting now, but best to be prepared.” 

“Your Majesty? I thought there was likely to be a battle at Ios.” 

“Only a skirmish, if all goes as planned. With a few key casualties.” He wouldn’t have spoken so freely but Rochert was outside guarding the door, and Paschal could keep secrets. 

“I see.” Paschal had finished chopping ingredients, and was mixing them in a copper bowl over a small brazier. The smell of warm honey wafted through the room and Laurent realized his stomach had settled enough that he might contemplate feeling hungry, in the next hour or so. In one corner of the room, Paschal’s bed was neatly made. Laurent thought of two cots in opposite corners, and the fiction of Damen the Patran physician. 

“Did you and Damianos talk?” he asked abruptly. “When you were sharing a room?” 

“Yes, sometimes.” Paschal looked surprised. “He’s personable.” 

“Of what did you speak?” 

“Nothing of consequence. I would have told you if it had been.” 

Laurent said nothing, waiting. 

Paschal shrugged. “He would ask questions about my work, and I would answer him. He offered to help sometimes, and always seemed curious to learn. He was curious about you, of course, but I told him I wouldn’t discuss my king’s business with anyone, much less an Akielon, and he seemed to understand that.” 

“What did he ask?” 

“He wanted to know what sort of a man you are, and what it is like serving you. He asked also how I came into your service and I told him I had been the family physician since before you were born. And...” 

Paschal hesitated and Laurent leaned forward. “Yes?” 

“He asked about Auguste,” Paschal continued reluctantly. “He said he regretted not getting a chance to know him…” 

Laurent set his empty cup down with a sharp thud, and rose quickly enough that his head spun. “That will be all.” 

 

By midday, Laurent had managed to eat a buttered roll and a couple of figs, and had been forcing himself to drink water steadily. His head still hurt, but he was accustomed to ignoring pain. He went down to the barracks to speak with the quartermaster, and then to the stables, where he encountered Damianos and young Pallas also examining the horses. Pallas was listening to Damen talk about saddles with the kind of dreamy devotion that courtiers used to turn on Auguste. A handful of others were in the stables also, including Lazar, who was ostensibly grooming a horse but in fact mostly watching Pallas. 

Laurent approached behind him quietly enough that Lazar startled when he spoke. “I saw you with him at the feast last night. Did you get what you wanted?” 

Lazar grinned. “It was quite satisfactory, your Majesty.” 

“Good. Distract him.” 

Laurent strode forward, not waiting to watch Lazar scrambling to put down the curry comb and follow. “Damianos, a word.” 

Damen looked startled, but followed him out into the dung-scented daylight behind the stables. Pallas, clearly meant to be on guard duty, was waylaid by Lazar where he could still see Damen and Laurent, to allay suspicion, but out of hearing distance. His own guard, now Huet, also hung back. 

“How are you feeling?” Damen asked. 

“Perfectly well,” Laurent said stiffly, and they both ignored the fact that it was obviously a lie. “But I am afraid some of the details have slipped my mind. What happened last night?” 

“Nothing happened.” 

“Something happened.” 

“I helped you to bed. Undressed you. Nothing else. You were drunk and sick.”

“Yes, I remember that part,” Laurent said, sardonically. 

“Do you really think I would have taken advantage of you in that condition?” Damen sounded genuinely hurt. 

Laurent deliberated for show, although to his annoyance he had no need to think about the answer. Damen liked his partners enthusiastic and awake - he knew that much already. “No,” he conceded. “You would not.” But he had known that much already, or most of it. It didn’t assuage the anxious tension in his gut. “Did I… say anything?” 

Damianos looked at him sideways and Laurent felt a sinking sensation. “You called me an idiot.” 

Startled, despite himself, Laurent almost laughed. “You are.” 

“So you keep telling me.” The corner of Damen’s mouth curled up. “And yet you still seek out my company, what does that say about you?” 

It was too playful an exchange, the wrong tone for the sense of danger still lurking under the surface of Laurent’s incomplete memories. “What else did I say last night?” 

“You told me that I shouldn’t be kind to you. That you aren’t a good person.” 

Laurent clenched one fist, hidden behind his back, pressing his nails painfully into the meat of his palm as he fought to control his expression. It wasn’t the most damning thing he could have said, but neither was it appropriate sweet-talk to keep an ally comfortable. Damen was watching him closely and for once Laurent couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He cursed himself for becoming complacent, relying too much on Damen’s open nature. Foolishly, he had forgotten that an open nature might be exaggerated, like anything else. 

“And yet you put me to bed anyway.”

Damen shrugged. “I would have done the same for any friend.” 

“We’re not-”

“-friends. I know. You’ve said. I’m learning to pay less attention to what you say than what you do.” There was a short silence. They were both remembering that one of the things Laurent had recently done was come apart in Damen’s arms. But Damen was even more of a fool than Laurent thought if he believed sexual intimacy to be any indicator of fidelity or honest emotion. 

He cleared his throat. “You will excuse me. I have preparations before we ride tomorrow.” 

Damen stepped back. “Of course.” As Laurent walked away, he tried to ignore the way his heart was pounding. 

 

He summoned Aimeric to discuss preparations for the following day, and gave him orders to relay to the three Veretian captains, and to the quartermaster. His headache, which had gradually eased throughout the morning, was returning with the strain of the day, but he refrained from rubbing his forehead. 

When Aimeric turned to leave, Laurent noticed a slight, familiar hitch in his step. “Enjoy yourself?” he asked dryly. 

Aimeric shot him a wicked smile. “Oh yes.” 

“What did I say about whoring yourself out to my soldiers?” 

Freezing in the doorway, Aimeric turned back slowly, visibly steeling himself for a fight. Laurent sighed. A screaming match with Aimeric would be satisfying but not useful. “Have you thought about your future?” 

“What about it?” Aimeric asked, warily. 

“You’re ambitious. Stifled, living at Fortaine. The youngest son.” 

“And?” They both knew all that already, it did not need to be said aloud. 

“And I am a young king, with a long, perhaps difficult reign ahead of me. I need allies whose success is tied to mine.” 

“You have my loyalty already, your Majesty,” Aimeric said carefully. 

“I hope so. As soon as I come of age, I will be disposing of your father, and the others, and it will be time for a new generation. Your father will want his sons on his side against me, but you and your brothers are smart men. You know where the future lies.” 

“You’ve already used this speech on Rueven,” Aimeric said, still cautious, but vaguely amused. 

“A variation,” Laurent admitted. It was a pleasure to match wits with someone as consummately Veretian as Aimeric. “In return I would offer you status, of course.” 

“What kind of status?” As fourth son, Aimeric would never inherit his father’s title, and he did not have the training for a prestigious military position, the usual lot of younger noble sons. 

“Sooner or later, I will need an ambassador to Patras,” Laurent said lightly, and watched shock color Aimeric’s face. “Nothing guaranteed, of course.” Aimeric bit his pink lower lip, and Laurent thought - yes, he could keep Prince Torveld very happy. Even if he’s not blond.

“Does this mean you’ve forgiven me?” Aimeric asked after a moment. Out of the many infractions between them, beginning with broken toys and harsh words as children, ending with Damianos and Laurent’s uncle, and Aimeric’s ill-judged information to Chelaut, Laurent honestly didn’t know which he referred to. But the answer was the same. 

“I never forgive anyone.” 

The words fell heavily, and there was a long moment of silence, and then Aimeric rolled his eyes. “If you say so. Your Majesty.”

Laurent huffed an amused breath. “Get out of here, find the captains before the evening meal.” He waved a hand in dismissal. “Enjoy Jord and Orlant, but if I find you had any ulterior motives in getting into bed with my captain...” He let it trail off.  

“My only ulterior motive is Orlant’s cock.” Aimeric pursed his lips. “And Jord is a surprisingly excellent kisser.” 

“I don’t want to know,” Laurent called after him, but Aimeric was already shutting the door behind himself. 

 

Still feeling weak and somewhat ill with his hangover, Laurent skipped dinner and fell asleep early, on top of his sheets without undressing. He was woken by a knock at the door and Huet’s voice announcing, “Prince Damianos, your Majesty.” 

The sun had set, and no one had come in to light the lamps. Blue shadows shrouded the room. Rubbing his eyes, Laurent sat up, swinging his legs off the bed, and tugging at his jacket which had twisted uncomfortably around his torso in his sleep. His thoughts were still sluggish with sleep, but otherwise he felt much recovered. “Come in,” he called, fighting a yawn.

Damon entered, and stopped as he took in the dark room and Laurent’s disheveled appearance. “Did I wake you?”

The word no jumped to Laurent’s lips immediately, an instinctive denial of weakness. But it would be more revealing to tell an obvious lie like that. He just shrugged. “What was it you wanted?”

“I only thought... a few last details before we ride tomorrow." 

"Of course," Laurent pulled on his jacket again, one sleeve scrunched up in his armpit, but it was no use, laced too tightly. He began to loosen the ties instead.

“Makdeon formally offered his support this morning. And complimented your iron stomach, by the way.” 

“Don’t remind me,” Laurent muttered as he pulled his jacket open, and Damen smiled, teeth white in the dark. 

“With Makedon’s men we have five thousand or so. Easily as many as Kastor will be able to gather against us this far north.” 

“You don’t think we’ll meet resistance?” 

“Not until Ios. I wasn’t sure of Sicyon, but Nikandros says that Menaidos has gone south to join my brother. There may be soldiers still at Karthas that will serve me. Most of them have fought with me before, and their commanders certainly know me.” 

“Provisions?” Laurent tugged off the jacket entirely, rolling his shoulders a little. The white shirt underneath was damp with sweat at the small of his back. 

“Menaidos didn’t burn his fields behind him, if that’s what you’re asking.” They exchanged a glance, both aware that the most devastating effect of civil war was the burning of crops and slaughtering of livestock to starve the enemy army. “I think Kastor knows his popularity would not survive that.” 

Laurent nodded and thought about lighting a lamp. The dark room made everything seem more intimate, and they were speaking softly even though the words were innocuous. 

“If we make good time we can be outside Ios in ten days,” Damen continued. 

“You said it would take Kastor two weeks.”

“I can move soldiers faster than my brother.” He said it without particular pride, just a statement. In the fading blue twilight from the window, Laurent could see the strength of his arms, the breadth of his shoulders. 

“You could have called a war council with Nikandros and the others,” Laurent said, “to discuss this.” 

“I could have.” Damen’s voice dropped. He leaned against one of the bed posts and let the statement hang between them, heavy with meaning. Laurent was in his shirtsleeves, bare feet on the cool tile floor. 

He crossed his arms, wishing he had not removed his jacket. "Do you think we are lovers now?" 

“From your tone, I am guessing not,” Damen said wryly. “Have you ever had one? A lover?”

“I told you. I am not a virgin.”

“That’s not the same thing. You don’t let people close to you.”

“I have my reasons.” 

“Are you going to tell me something trite like loving others is a weakness you cannot afford?” 

“No,” Laurent snapped. “It is only a weakness to love the wrong people.”

He took satisfaction in the look of remorse that crossed Damen’s face. Looking down, Damen laced his hands together, curls falling over his forehead. “I was betrayed by my brother, but I still don’t think I was weak or foolish for loving him.” 

“Well if his actions haven’t convinced you, nothing I say will,” Laurent said. His chest felt tight as if his ribs were squeezing his lungs. 

Damen shook his head. “There is no shame in trusting someone, only in betraying someone who trusts you.” 

The space between them was an ocean, swelling with a full moon tide. On the black surface above the icy current was a question that Laurent knew he should not ask and yet could not stop himself from speaking. It came out hoarse and tight. “Do you trust me?”

“You keep telling me not to,” Damon said, far too relaxed when Laurent was drowning. 

“You should listen to me,” Laurent said, voice sounding brittle to his own ears. “I'm cleverer than you.” 

“I know,” Damen said, and showed all his dimples. “It's sweet of you to worry about me.” Laurent realized with a jolt that it was not stupidity which caused the man's injudicious easiness. It was confidence; the quiet certainty that he could match and master any trouble that arose. 

“Sweet,” Laurent spat and Damen’s grin widened. 

Laurent needed to wipe that expression off his face, to shake his infuriating calm. He was practically trembling, and Damen was lounging there, amused and relaxed. Taking two strides forward, Laurent curled both fists into Damen’s chiton, and yanked their mouths together. 

In darkness and fury, he misjudged the distance, knocked their teeth painfully and tasted blood, but Damianos’s lips parted readily for his tongue and then they were kissing - messy and rough. Laurent felt all the tightly bound emotion inside him surge against the boundary of his skin, dangerous and heady, tangled up with arousal. He was hard, almost dizzy with it, one of Damen’s legs between his, rutting against his thigh like an animal, Damen’s own erection pressed to his stomach. The edge of his chiton rode up so he was almost half naked already, Laurent’s nails raking bare flesh when he gripped Damen’s hips. 

When Damen cupped his cheek, trying to gentle the kiss, Laurent bit him, hard enough that he reared back, swearing. “I am not. Sweet,” Laurent panted. 

Something glittered in Damen’s eyes, a challenge of some kind, half-seen in the dark. “If you are such a terrible person, why do you keep trying to warn me?”

Damen’s hands on him burned through Laurent’s shirt, like a pair of brands. He felt as if he was going to have scars everywhere Damianos touched him. And that was good. That was right. The only thing about this that was right was that it should not be painless. 

“Find a better use for your mouth,” Laurent snarled.

Damen’s teeth left marks down his chest as they toppled backward onto the bed together, Laurent’s shirt and Damen’s chiton easily discarded, fumbling mutually with the laces of Laurent’s trousers. Damen bit and sucked at his nipples, scraped his teeth over Laurent’s sternum and down his ribs, Laurent’s fingers in his hair, yanking whenever he was too gentle. Laurent’s cock was aching, leaving smears of fluid where the pink head bounced against his stomach. His nipples were sore and swollen, and he moaned helplessly when Damen returned to them, spit leaving cool trails on his skin. 

It was too much like an act of service, of devotion. 

Drawing a deep breath, he shoved Damen back and climbed on top, relishing Damen’s expression - dazed with lust, eyes black in the low light, hungry, startled. 

The oil he’d bought at the market in Alicarno was still in his trunk, at the foot of the bed. He felt Damen’s gaze on him as he stretched for it, knowing what his lean, naked body looked like, pale in the darkness. 

Spilling the oil into his hand, he arched back, eyes closing momentarily, and jolted in surprise when a warm, calloused hand closed around his cock. The sensation reverberated through his pelvis as he fingered himself, and he let Damen work both their cocks together in his huge hands as Laurent opened himself up. 

The stretch was intense, and he was working fast and careless - it was going to hurt, given that Laurent hadn’t done this in years and given the size of Damen’s cock. It would have been terrible for it not to hurt. 

Damen was cupping the side of his face, murmuring nonsense in his ear. “...wanted this for so long, you’re so beautiful, so strong and sharp, let me, Laurent let me, I’ll make it so good…” It was laughable to imagine that Laurent could have something as simple and clean as sex for the sake of lust and affection, something as good and soft as Damen’s voice. He shoved his cock harder against Damen’s palm as he arched his back, three fingers deep inside himself. 

“M’ready,” he grunted, interrupting Damen’s monologue. Slicking Damen’s cock with one hand, he shuffled forward on his knees, straddling Damen’s lap. The head of Damen’s cock was huge and hot, pressing against him. Laurent took a deep breath, willing himself to relax, and sank down.

The stretch burned and ached, deep inside him. His skin felt hot and tight all over. He couldn’t draw a full breath. Sweat prickled on Laurent’s neck, and he panted shallowly, thighs trembling. 

Damianos made a soft noise, hands rubbing soothing circles on his sides. “Careful, slowly.” 

“Shut up,” Laurent gritted out, eyes squeezed shut. The middle part of Damen’s cock was thicker than the head. 

Finally he was fully seated. Laurent felt as if was going to split open, burst like the skin of a ripe plum, more from the tumult of his own emotions than the size of Damen’s cock throbbing in him. He struggled to draw air into his lungs, clutching at Damen’s shoulders. Damen was breathing hard, forehead tipped against Laurent’s shoulder. They trembled together, until Laurent managed to fight down the wave of horror and desire and self-hatred and rightness. 

Shakily, he raised himself up and began to work himself in a familiar rhythm. “Fuck me,” he ordered. Bracing himself on the bed behind him, Damen rocked his hips up to meet him. He couldn’t get much leverage with Laurent’s weight on his lap, and he kept trying to be gentle. Laurent couldn’t allow that. “Harder,” he hissed. “Is that all you’ve got? Give me more, I won’t break. Or where you lying when you said you preferred men to pampered lordlings?”

Growling in his ear Damen lifted him up by the hips and tumbled him over onto his back, cock deep in him. Bending him almost in two, Damen pounded him right through the edge of pleasure into pain, and Laurent bit down on Damen’s shoulder, hard. Damen swore and shoved him into the mattress, and then they were grappling roughly, almost like fighting, and it was good, better. “Don’t stop. Fuck me. Fuck me harder.” 

“For fuck’s sake,” Damen panted in Laurent’s ear, hips still snapping roughly into him. 

Laurent clawed and snarled, raked his nails down Damen’s back, writhing and clenching on his cock, until Damen put a forearm across his sternum and held him down. Laurent pushed at his arm but he was too strong to budge.

He came like that, pinned beneath Damen’s weight, arching up against him, his climax ripped from him in a contraction so intense it was almost painful, all the way from his curling toes. His cock spurted between their stomachs as the aftershocks rocked him, making the slide of their bodies slick. Dropping his head down on Laurent’s shoulder Damen groaned, and went still, hips hitching very slightly as he spilled also. Laurent felt the twitch of his cock, and the wet warmth inside him, and another shudder ran through him. 

Damen was a warm, enormous weight, no longer holding him down forcefully, just lying on top of him. Laurent waited for a jolt of panic but it didn’t come. That alone made him shove roughly at Damen’s shoulder until he rolled to the side. Sitting up, Laurent winced a little. 

“Laurent?” Damen asked, and the note of concern in his voice hurt worse than all the rest of it.  Laurent could feel his come drying sticky and itchy between his legs, and fought the urge to scratch himself bloody, the way he had when he was a boy. He wanted to be alone. He wanted to bury his face in Damen’s chest until the feeling went away. He wanted to hit something. 

Rising, he went to the basin, keeping his back to Damianos, and washed himself perfunctorily. He knew from experience that nothing but time would erase the slick, swollen feeling inside him. 

“You should go,” he said, when he trusted his voice again. 

There was a rustle from the bed as Damen sat up. “Are you alright? Did I hurt you?” 

Laurent pulled himself together with all the discipline of wielding a sword after hours of training, when everything ached and the only thing he had left to depend on was his iron will. When he had crafted a collected, neutral expression onto his face, he turned. “Perfectly alright. But we both need rest. We ride in the morning.” 

He held himself immobile and impassive, an uneasy horse on a tight rein, until Damianos had gone.