“Let me in!” Laurent screamed as the soldiers held him back. “Let me in! I have to see him! Let me see him!”
They wouldn’t let him into Auguste’s tent, they wouldn’t-
Uncle walked out, weary and covered in dried blood.
“Uncle!” Laurent gasped desperately. Uncle would help him, now that he was here. Uncle would get the soldiers to understand, and then everything would be alright. He’d see Auguste- he’d see that he wasn’t dead. He couldn’t be dead.
Laurent had seen Prince Damianos strike him down on the field, but he’d been far away, too far to see if it was-
But it hadn’t been a fatal blow. It hadn’t been. Auguste had survived, would survive.
“Uncle, please,” Laurent begged, “they won’t let me in to see Auguste. You have to tell them-”
He was afraid at Uncle’s silence, the downturn in his lips. He was always kind and smiling but now he seemed somber. Tears prickled at Laurent’s eyes even before Uncle opened his mouth.
“I’m so sorry,” he said quietly. “You shouldn’t see him, like this. You should remember him as… as he was.”
“No,” Laurent gasped, tears spilling over. “No. No!”
He fought the guards but he was too small, too weak- he was always too weak. He should have been at Auguste’s side. He should have-
“Let him go,” Uncle said, falling to his knees and opening his arms.
The soldiers let Laurent go and he fell into Uncle’s arms, sobbing for real.
“Hush, my sweet,” Uncle whispered. “Hush, my beautiful boy.”
Laurent cried harder, the loss of Auguste hitting him all at once. He was alone. He’d always had Auguste but now he was alone.
“Darling, you have to get yourself under control,” Uncle said. “You can’t let your men see you like this. Come, we need to speak in private.”
Laurent tried to stifle his tears as Uncle stood and took his hand, and then they were walking away from Auguste’s tent, and into Uncle’s.
There was a bath set up in the center of the tent, and Uncle helped him take off his armor, and then the rest of his clothes. When he found himself trembling too hard to hold the soap Uncle helped him wash, and stroked his hair, and whispered soothing words.
Slowly Laurent calmed. Uncle was with him. Uncle would take care of him.
“You’ve always been such a sweet child,” Uncle said quietly, wiping the tears off his face. “Such a clever boy. I need you to be good for me, and strong, and clever.”
“Yes, Uncle,” Laurent whispered.
“I have a plan,” Uncle said, leaning in closer and setting his hand on the side of Laurent’s face gently. “But I need you.”
“What do you need me to do?”
“With your father gone, and with-”
“Auguste,” Laurent whispered, closing his eyes and leaning into Uncle’s touch. It was the only thing keeping him going, the only thing that mattered.
“Yes, my sweet,” Uncle said, stroking his cheek with his thumb. “Yes. Now that Auguste is gone, we have no chance against the Akielons in the field. I will take the role of Regent, and I will have to make peace.”
“Uncle, no!” Laurent cried out.
“Hush, darling,” Uncle said. “It has to be this way. But I have a plan. I have a plan for you to revenge Auguste, and kill Damianos.”
Laurent’s eyes widened. It was everything he wanted. He wanted to kill Damianos with his own hands after what he’d done to Auguste. “I should never have doubted you,” he said at last. “I’ll do anything. Please. What do I need to do?”
Uncle smiled, but there was something strange in his expression. Something dark that made Laurent’s heart skip a beat.
“The prince’s… preferences are well known,” Uncle said. He seemed excited, and Laurent told himself it was because he felt the same as Laurent did. The thought of revenge made his blood boil, and surely that was what Uncle was feeling too. That was why he was suddenly smiling so cruelly.
“I intend to offer the Akielons a gift, to seal our truce. Three Veretian pets, to train as slaves for the prince. Three pets of the highest quality.”
“Three pets?” Laurent asked slowly, not following.
“Yes,” Uncle said. “Ancel, Nicaise, and you, my sweet.”
Laurent’s mouth fell open in shock. This was- insane.
“Just think,” Uncle said, seeing his hesitation. “All three of you are beauties, all three are clever and loyal. All three can perform the task of slitting a throat in the dark. But out of the three- I think you’ll be the one to catch his eye. You can get close to him. And then you can kill him.”
Laurent wasn’t sure what to say.
“They treat their slaves well,” Uncle continued. “You’ll have to go through some tedious training, I’m sure, but you won’t be hurt. Their slaves are as obedient as little lambs, as children. No one would suspect a slave capable of independent thought, much less the murder of a Prince. Once the deed is done you can escape and come back to Arles. You’ll ascend the throne a hero in the eyes of your people. You’ll be a warrior king who did the unthinkable- you’ll be the one who bested the prince-killer. And then we’ll invade Akielos and make them pay for everything they did to us.
“On my honor, I swear to you- by the time you return to Vere I’ll be ready with an army like no one has ever seen. We’ll take Akielos and you’ll be the ruler of two kingdoms. And I’ll be by your side, supporting you always.”
Suddenly Laurent could see it. A future writ in blood, two kingdoms united. Auguste avenged and Laurent laughing as he slit the prince-killer’s throat.
It could work. It would work.
Uncle was looking at him intensely and Laurent found himself nodding.
“Yes,” he said fiercely. “Yes.”
The preparations started the very next day. Laurent was taken to a different tent, where Ancel and Nicaise were waiting.
He knew them vaguely. They must have been clever indeed if Uncle had brought them with him to the field of battle.
At thirteen, Ancel was Laurent’s age. Nicaise was quite a bit younger at eight. But he was no less clever for it, no less strong.
“This is fucking insane,” Nicaise muttered.
“Watch your tongue,” Laurent said sharply. Slaves didn’t swear.
Nicaise rolled his eyes.
Ancel licked his lips nervously but didn’t speak.
“This will work,” Laurent said firmly. “But we’ll have to stick together. We’ll have to remember who we are, and not let their- their- training,” he spit the word out like it was something foul, “affect us more than skin deep.”
Uncle had told him a little about Akielon slave training. It was horrific, to train the free will out of a man. But they weren’t fools. They could withstand it as long as they had each other.
“We’ll bide our time, and we’ll be the best little slaves the Akielons have ever seen,” Laurent continued. “And when the prince chooses one of us to share his bed- we’ll kill him and return to Arles as heroes.”
“If we return, that is,” Nicaise said.
“We will,” Laurent said firmly.
Ancel didn’t seem so sure, but at least he kept quiet.
The longer that Laurent thought about the plan the more he appreciated the ingenuity of it. It would work, he knew it would.
The three of them were kept out of the public eye while Uncle led the negotiations, and then there were servants to help them bathe and dress in simple clothing. They were led out of camp once night had fallen, accompanied by two guards- Jord and Orlant.
Laurent felt better for having them at his side- they’d been loyal to Auguste. It was a comfort to have them there, though they both seemed oddly sour.
Laurent had expected some sort of inspection once they reached the Akielon camp, but there was nothing of the sort. They were loaded into a wagon, and that was all.
Jord and Orlant stayed close, and Laurent was happy as he realized they’d be accompanying the ‘slaves’ to Akielos. There wasn’t very much to do as they traveled, but it turned out that Nicaise had managed to smuggle a deck of Veretian cards in his clothing.
They played a lot of games over the next few weeks. Games of chance and skill and strategy. Laurent preferred games of strategy- that was where he excelled. Ancel seemed to have the devil’s own luck, winning most of the games of chance. Nicaise was a bit of a dark horse and Laurent found himself enjoying his dirty jokes, his cursing, his crudeness.
He could tell when they arrived in the city by the way the road changed under the wagon- dirt tracks becoming smoothly paved streets- and by the sound of cheering all around them. The people were welcoming their barbarian warriors home.
Laurent tried to peer through the gaps in the the wagon’s covering but there wasn’t much to see except white stone and adoring crowds. Nicaise tried to peer out too.
“Their tits are out,” Nicaise observed of the women and Ancel hid a laugh behind his hand. Laurent rolled his eyes, smiling despite himself.
And then they arrived to the palace and were ushered into the slave quarters, and their training began in earnest.
They were sent to the slave baths first. Afterwards their clothing was taken and replaced by gauzy silks that did nothing to actually cover their bodies. Laurent assumed that this was, in fact, the point. He wasn’t particularly self-conscious about his near nudity, but it felt strange nonetheless. He felt vulnerable, exposed. He didn’t protest. It was not a slave’s place to protest.
At least it made the heat bearable. Even inside the cool white stone of the palace the afternoons sometimes grew so hot that the very air shimmered. There was nothing to do then but nap, and drink cool water sweetened with fruit, and sweat.
They were kept in comfortable quarters, and spoken to softly. They were fed well and permitted to have leisure time, and for the most part their lives were easy.
Laurent was bored to death.
He took the measure of the other slaves quickly and discarded them all just as quickly. They were submissive little lambs, just like uncle had said. They were actually excited to devote their lives to someone else’s pleasure. It was sickening.
The lessons were a joke. It was all about how to kneel, how to lower one’s eyes, how to properly set your feet while pouring wine and how to hold out a morsel of food while feeding a master. They were being trained for Damianos in particular and so many of the lessons involved annoying tidbits about his preferences. Laurent tried to file it all away, hoping for something he could use, but it was all so painfully trite.
“Prince Damianos prefers lobster over crab,” Adrastus, the slave master, said. “He enjoys opening the shells himself, but not having sticky hands. Let him shell the lobster on his own, and be ready with a warm damp washcloth for his hands when he’s finished.”
“Yes, Master Adrastus,” the class of slaves echoed in unison. Laurent saw Nicaise roll his eyes and stifled a laugh.
“He prefers lobster with a touch of lemon, so you may squirt the juice of a lemon slice over his plate without having been asked.”
“Yes, Master Adrastus,” they said.
Laurent felt like his brain was rotting.
“Prince Damianos prefers red wine to white,” Adrastus continued. “But not if there’s baked fish for dinner. If the dinner is baked fish, you will ask his preference before filling his glass.”
“Yes, Master Adrastus.”
“Prince Damianos enjoys flowers in his room. But not if-”
Laurent zoned out. This was pointless as well as boring. He wondered vaguely about what was happening in Vere, how uncle was faring as Regent in his absence. With a jolt he wondered how uncle would explain his absence at all. Would he have a stand-in? Would he say that Laurent was at Aquitart, or maybe elsewhere, recovering from the loss of his brother?
The thought made him feel strangely unsettled. He wished he’d asked more questions about how this was meant to go before agreeing. But it was too late now. He was in the slave quarters in Ios, and he couldn’t go until his mission was complete.
After the lesson about Prince Damianos’ culinary preferences they practiced bowing, and kneeling, and opening Akielon clothing. Not that it was particularly difficult.
They had supper and a few hours of free time, and Laurent stole a blanket off one of the beds to use as a cloak and convinced Ancel to give him a boost over the garden wall.
The Akielons liked to overindulge at supper, and it wasn’t so difficult to sneak through the halls until he found a linen closet and switched out his slave silks and blanket for servants garb.
Laurent was careful, he knew his coloring was unusual. He kept to the shadows as he explored the palace, making sure no one saw his golden curls. He strolled through the palace for over an hour until he managed to find the barracks, and Jord and Orlant.
They were in the middle of an argument when he arrived, but they broke off sharply when they noticed him standing in the doorway.
“Your highness,” Jord whispered, glancing around nervously. “You shouldn’t be-”
“I’ll do as I like,” Laurent interrupted, stepping fully into the room. “If I stayed confined to slave quarters I’d die of boredom. Tell me how you are faring.”
“Fine,” Orlant said. “It’s been… we’re fine.”
“I see,” Laurent said, reading between the lines. They were being kept apart. He couldn’t have that. “I’ll need you to find a way into Akielon training sessions,” he ordered. “I’ll need you to learn their tactics and swordplay, and then I’ll need you to teach me.”
“Yes, your highness,” Jord said.
Laurent nodded tersely. He knew he shouldn’t ask. There would be no answer, and if there was… it would only bring him pain. And still, he asked. “Do you have any news from Vere?”
“No, your highness,” Orlant said, looking down. “No, we… we have no avenue…”
Laurent nodded again. They couldn’t send or receive letters without the missives being intercepted. It wasn’t safe.
Auguste’s funeral must have happened already, and Laurent hadn’t been there to see it. He wasn’t sure he would have wanted to see it- he wasn’t sure he could bear it.
“Your highness…” Jord said, only to trail off.
“Don’t call me that,” Laurent said tersely. “Don’t call me that again. Not until… just don’t.”
Jord nodded awkwardly.
“I need to get back,” Laurent said, for lack of anything else. “But I’ll return soon. Find a discreet place we can practice, by then. And mingle with the Akielons. Make friends.”
They nodded and Laurent turned to go, making his way back to the slave gardens.
He made it back quickly, and was in his bed by the time Adrastus came by to count heads. Adrastus put out the lamps and Laurent found himself laying awake for a long time, thinking about so many things. About Auguste, his funeral, Uncle. What would Auguste have said if confronted with this plan?
Auguste would have thought it madness. He would have protested and fought, he would have kept Laurent from the lion’s den.
But Auguste was gone, and here he was.
Laurent turned to his side, suddenly overcome. There were no tears- he hadn’t cried since the bath, with Uncle. And still he couldn’t quite seem to get his breathing under control.
“Move over,” someone whispered and Laurent turned to see Nicaise standing over his bed.
Slowly he moved to make room, and Nicaise slipped in under the blankets beside him, and wrapped his arms around him.
“Control yourself,” Nicaise whispered. The words should have sounded harsh but instead they sounded kind.
Laurent didn’t bother answering, just buried his face in Nicase’s shoulder and wrapped his arms around the other boy. And then there was another body behind him- Ancel- and for the first time in a long time Laurent felt safe. He wasn’t really, not until they were gone from here. But for now it felt like a relief, to be held.
“It’ll be alright,” Ancel whispered. “We’ll get through this. And then we’ll go home.”
Laurent didn’t say anything. There was no home without Auguste.
The best he could hope for was murdering his brother’s killer, and after that-
He didn’t know.
He could die happy, perhaps. Or not happy. Satisfied, at least. For for the first time he found himself considering the fates of the other boys with him. He needed to see Nicaise and Ancel safely back to Vere, regardless of what happened to him in the end. That only helped steel his resolve. He would be the perfect slave, the one that Prince Damianos would choose to share his bed. He’d be the one to kill him, and Ancel and Nicaise would escape with the help of Jord and Orlant.
They’d go back to Vere, and if he died here, that would be alright.
It felt good, to have a plan. To have clarity.
He tightened his arms around Nicaise and closed his eyes, trying to soak in the warmth of Ancel at his back. He wasn’t alone, for now. But he would be soon.
Time seemed to slip past slowly, like molasses. Each day was much like the last.
There was breakfast, and etiquette, and lessons. They were terribly boring for the most part, but Laurent enjoyed learning the kithara, and he enjoyed learning Akielon history through their battle songs and ballads.
The other slaves were boring. The other lessons were boring.
But during their breaks Laurent would seek out Nicaise and Ancel and they’d play cards, or Veretian hand games, or guessing games. Nicaise would share gossip about the other slaves, and Ancel would hide his smile behind his hand.
Most evenings Laurent would find a way to sneak out and meet with Jord and Orlant, and they’d practice sword play. They taught him Akielon forms and he soaked it all in, in the way that he didn’t bother paying attention to proper bows and curtsies.
Laurent didn’t think of Vere, or Auguste, or uncle. He thought only of his goal, a prince’s blood spilling over his hands.
He and Ancel tried to keep to Akielon ideals of slavery, but clearly the thought of obedience rankled for Nicaise. He was stubborn, and willful, and obstinate. He was young, it was only to be expected.
And yet Adrastus grew more and more impatient with the boy, until a rude comment during lessons had Adrastus standing sharply, his nostrils flaring.
The comment had been something innocent- something about lobster and lemons and how a man of Damianos’ size should have been perfectly capable of seasoning his own meat. Nicaise had smiled after, as though expecting praise for his crudeness. He might have received it, back in Veretian court. In Veretian court, the gathered courtiers might have laughed.
But they were in Akielos, surrounded by scandalized slaves-in-training and Adrastus- a man who took his job too seriously by half.
He raised his hand, holding a switch, and Laurent acted without thinking. He threw himself over to cover Nicaise, and gritted his teeth when the switch came down on his back.
Nicaise seemed shocked and terrified. He was only a boy. He cried out with fear and Laurent screwed his eyes shut, holding him down and keeping him as covered as he could.
Adrastus whipped him harder in his anger, and out of the two of them Nicaise was the one that whimpered and cried.
Laurent wasn’t sure how long it lasted but he must have passed out at some point, because the next thing he knew he was lying in bed in a dark room. His back was on fire, and Nicaise was in his arms. Ancel was sitting by the bedside, holding Laurent’s hand.
“-unacceptable!” someone with a deep voice was saying outside the room, and then the door swung open and Laurent squinted against the light to see who had walked in.
“I know my craft,” came Adrastus’ voice, “I know-”
“You defy me?”
“No, of course not,” Adrastus said respectfully, and the unknown shadow walked into the room.
Ancel stood to oppose the stranger even though he was trembling with fear. Laurent felt a deep affection for him in that moment, even as the stranger set a hand on Ancel’s shoulder and smiled warmly.
“Don’t worry,” the stranger said in lightly accented Veretian. “I won’t hurt him.”
Ancel stepped aside. The stranger sank to his knees and raised his hand to brush the sweaty hair out of Laurent’s face. Laurent had to close his eyes at that, at how good it felt.
“I am so sorry,” the stranger murmured. “This isn’t how we do things. I promise you- this won’t happen again.”
Laurent opened his eyes to look into the stranger’s earnest face, and realized it wasn’t a stranger after all. It was Damianos, the prince-killer. Laurent tightened his arms around Nicaise, causing him to wake with a grumble.
Lauren’t didn’t know what to say. He was caught in memories, in fear. He was caught in the sight of Damianos, slicing through Auguste, and of being barred from Auguste’s tent. He hadn’t gotten to see his body, his funeral-
“Fuck off,” Nicaise spat out. Laurent was grateful as much as he was fearful.
Damianos drew back in shock.
“You can fuck right off, barbarian,” Nicaise said, and Laurent held him tighter, burying his face in the younger boy’s hair.
“I’m not…” Damianos started.
Nicaise sat up, and was bold enough to shove the prince hard in the chest. In his surprise Damianos fell back to sit sprawled on the floor, his chiton riding up his bare thighs.
“You are,” Nicaise hissed. “You’re a barbarian. A monster. You train boys to obey your every whim, and you think it’s your due. Fuck off. We don’t need your pity. Fuck off.”
“Stop,” Laurent whispered, but Nicaise ignored him.
“How do you sleep at night?” Nicaise pushed. “Knowing that you take slaves to bed? They don’t choose you. You’re a rapist. You-”
“Stop!” Ancel cried out.
Damianos still seemed a little lost as he sat on the floor.
Slowly, he rose.
“Please,” Laurent found himself saying. Begging the prince-killer made him feel ill, but he couldn’t bear the thought that something would happen to Nicaise. “He’s just a boy. Please don’t-”
“I won’t do anything,” Damianos said. “You’re safe. All three of you. Nothing will happen to any of you. You have my word- the word of the crown prince.”
He left and Laurent could only sag in relief.
“That was stupid,” Ancel hissed at Nicaise. “Your mouth has already gotten Laurent whipped, and still you talk back.”
“I told him the truth,” Nicaise said petulantly. “Someone had to say it. These self-righteous barbarians think they can own people, it’s disgusting.”
“Stop,” Laurent said. “Just stop it. Please. Come back and lie down with me. It makes my back hurt less.”
Even in the darkness Laurent could tell that Nicaise was flushed. Nicaise was sorry, but he’d never say it. Instead he lay back down and Laurent wrapped an arm around him and buried his face in his curls.
Ancel sat too, and stroked Laurent’s hair, and pressed a cool cloth to his brow. Laurent closed his eyes and thought of the prince-killer. He was bigger up close. He was so big that the thought of killing him suddenly seemed impossible. He’d defeated Auguste, and Auguste was- had been- the greatest fighter in the whole world.
What chance did Laurent have against him?
And then he thought of Nicaise pushing the great Damianos in the chest, and him falling back to sit on the ground. Pushed over by a child, he’d seemed human. He’d seemed terribly human in the way that he’d promised they would be safe. He’d seemed terribly kind.
Laurent put it out of his mind. He’d kill Damianos with his own hands, and then he’d laugh, and return to Arles a hero.