“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.
Thank you so much to everyone who commented on the last chapter! You all made me realize that my pacing for this fic was WAY off and I ended up going back in and reworking large chunks of the fic. As a result I think the story is much better now, and although there's still some work left you can rest assured this fic will be finished.
Depending on how the rest of it goes, I'll be aiming to post, like I generally do, at a steady clip ;)
Laurent’s fourteenth birthday came and went unmarked, but for Ancel bringing him a flower from the gardens. For the time being he was excused from lessons while his back healed, and physicians came by three times a day to give him salves and medicines and poultices that smelled of mint and lemon.
It seemed to take a very long time, but Laurent was sure that it was the boredom that made it so. He hoped Jord and Orlant weren’t too worried about him, after he’d missed so many lessons.
Finally he was allowed to return to lessons and meals with the others. It was a strange relief, and even the other slaves-in-training seemed less boring than before. Erasmus even smiled at him, tentatively. They all seemed to be very impressed by the way he’d stood up for Nicaise.
They were even more impressed when Adrastus came over and placed a lion pin in Laurent’s chiton, and then did the same for Ancel and Nicaise.
Laurent wasn’t sure what it meant, and when Adrastus explained it he felt a little lightheaded.
“You’re to be part of the Prince’s household,” Adrastus said. “He’ll be overseeing the rest of your training himself.”
Laurent felt sick to his stomach. He wasn’t ready.
But he was playing slave, and slaves did not protest. He tried to look properly humble as he followed Adrastus through the halls, ignoring the looks and comments from Akielon courtiers and servants. There was some good natured joking about the Prince’s preferences and Laurent swallowed heavily, trying to put it out of his mind. He tried to remember the plan and told himself that this was better. It was better to be closer.
The Prince’s harem was mostly women. Laurent wasn’t sure why he was so surprised. He’d already known the Akielons were barbarians. The favorite seemed to be a woman named Lykaios and she welcomed the Veretian pets-turned-slaves with a warm smile.
“You’ll like it here,” she assured them, not batting an eyelash in response to Nicaise’s scowl. “Our master is kind, and gentle.”
“Our master,” Laurent echoed, and thought again of Damianos on the battlefield, covered in the blood of Veretians. Covered in Auguste’s blood.
Lykaios showed them around the slave quarters. She showed them where they’d sleep and eat, the private gardens. The prince’s slaves had the best of everything- the finest bedding and clothing, the finest food and wine. Even the gardens, arranged on a terrace overlooking the ocean, seemed particularly fine.
There was a fountain in the center topped by an elegant marble statue of some long-dead Akielon king. It was surrounded by beautiful orange trees and native flowers, carefully arranged in a facsimile of gentle wilderness. The terrace was only blocked off by a low wall, a decorative thing unlike the wall in the general slave quarters. This wall wasn’t meant to keep anyone from escaping. Why would a royal slave try to escape at all? It was unthinkable.
The terrace had a breathtaking view of the palace and the ocean laid out below the cliffs. Sometimes, on particularly clear days, Laurent could see Isthima in the distance.
Laurent felt like a bird in a gilded cage. This was no way to live, waiting on someone hand and foot. He wanted to go back to his own rooms in Arles, to ride, to read. It had been so long since he’d gotten the chance to simply read.
A few weeks passed more or less peacefully.
Damianos’ slaves didn’t do very much. Even chores such as cleaning and bringing food were performed by palace servants. The slaves spent a lot of time bathing, and painting their faces, and doing their hair- all manner of useless preening to make themselves more beautiful and enticing. They napped on soft couches in the shaded main room during the hottest hours of the day, and sometimes they practiced dancing, or playing music.
One day they sat in a circle and spent six hours practicing reciting Hypenor, one of Damianos’ favorite battle songs, from start to finish. “Cut off from his brothers, he strikes too short at Nisos,” they chanted in unison, and- “held steady in single purpose, twelve thousand men,” and- “in relentless victory cleaves Lamakos with his sword.”
“Fucking- eerie,” Nicaise muttered with a shiver and Laurent found himself agreeing, though he stayed silent.
The slaves seemed fascinated by the new Veretian additions to their number, and while Ancel and Nicaise seemed delighted at the attention Laurent found ways to escape it. It frustrated him that the slaves seemed so content, not even realizing that their lives were empty.
Laurent struck up conversation with the servants instead, who seemed scandalized at first but soon grew used to him. He was careful to make sure his questions and comments seemed innocent, even as he tried to glean any information he could from their conversations. The servants knew plenty of potentially useful things- who was staying in the palace, who was dallying with who, who was a drunk and who was a gossip, who’d lost money betting on the previous okton.
The Akielon names all blended together to Laurent’s ears but he made a point of noting them and trying to remember. Slowly he was building a mental map of the Akielon nobles and their particular strengths and weaknesses. He wished he could take notes, even as he knew such a thing would be foolish and dangerous.
It was even easier to sneak out of Damianos’ harem than it had been the general slave quarters. Laurent resumed his lessons with Jord and Orlant. They wrapped their blades in rags to keep the sound of steel clashing against steel dulled. As he progressed in their lessons they started to spar more often, which resulted in difficult-to-explain bruises.
He made a point of pretending to be clumsy around the other slaves to divert possible questions and asked Jord and Orlant to keep their strikes to where his chiton would cover.
Aside from that he found himself painfully bored and spent long hours in the gardens, staring out across the ocean and the way the sun glittered over the rippling water. It was otherworldly in some way, and he found it lulled him into a sort of peace where he could drift without thinking overmuch about anything.
He was on the terrace watching the ocean when Lykaios came and tapped him gently on the shoulder.
“Our master has called for you,” she said with a smile, like it was an honor.
Laurent shivered. He’d remained unmolested for weeks now, ever since Damianos had taken him into his harem. He’d been hoping it was just a symbolic gesture of sorts, a way of showing that his promise was true.
Maybe that had been foolish, wishful thinking. Maybe this was the moment. Maybe the barbarian would rape him tonight.
He was only fourteen, but maybe the prince-killer liked boys. He’d heard of such things, though it was frowned upon in the Veretian court. Slowly he stood.
Lykaios led him out of the harem and across the hall. He hadn’t realized the prince’s chambers were so close. There were guards on the door but they didn’t pay the slaves any attention, simply opening the door without comment.
Laurent followed Lykaios inside and she gave him a smile before turning to leave. He looked around with interest. The rooms were large and austere, decorated with restraint. There was a dining table in the center and low couches off to the side. A pleasantly cool breeze blew in through the balcony.
There was a sound like a footstep and Laurent turned to see Damianos stepping through an open arch that led to a bedroom. Laurent froze, his heart racing as he stared at his brother’s killer. It was the first time they’d been alone together. It felt like the air had left the room.
Laurent sank to his knees like Adrastus had taught him, pressing his forehead to the cool stone. He shut his eyes and pretended he was made of ice. It helped until Damianos set a giant hand over the bare skin of his back, where the chiton didn’t cover. The prince-killer’s hand was warm and heavily calloused. If Laurent had truly been made of ice, he would have melted at the touch.
“Your back healed well,” Damianos said thoughtfully in Veretian. His accent was very good. Even after a year spent in Ios, Laurent’s Akielon was not as good as the barbarian’s Veretian.
Laurent didn’t say anything at all.
“You may rise,” Damianos said and Laurent rose, a bit unsteadily, to his feet. He kept his eyes on the floor until Damianos reached out and took his chin, tilting his face up.
Laurent pretended he was made of ice, and that the hand on his chin was not the hand that had killed his brother.
Damianos looked at him for a long time, a faint frown marring his otherwise handsome face. There was a small crease in his forehead, between his eyes. Finally he let go and took a step back. The distance was a relief.
“I understand that Veretian customs are very different to what we have here,” Damianos said. “You and the others- I’d send you home if I could. But the political situation is… delicate. Is there anything I could do for you? To make your stay here easier?”
Laurent wasn’t sure what the prince-killer was asking. How could this possibly be easier?
“Is there anything you need?” Damianos insisted. “Is there anything you want?”
Laurent bit his lip, looking past Damianos rather than at him. He wanted his brother back.
“A book,” he whispered.
Damianos smiled, equal parts delighted and puzzled. “A book,” he repeated. “You can read?”
“What about the others?”
“They can read too.”
“No,” Damianos said. “I meant, is there anything they’d like?”
Laurent looked down. He couldn’t bear the sight of Damianos’ kind smile any longer. He couldn’t reconcile the man that had killed his brother with the man who was taking an interest in the desires of slaves.
“Nicaise likes sweets,” he said at last. “He likes games, too. Ancel likes to work with his hands. He’s been restless of late. It might help for him to have something to do, or make.”
Damianos nodded. “Thank you. I will see to it.”
There was a strange silence in the room and Laurent fought not to fidget. He was made of ice.
“You may go,” Damianos said.
Laurent bit his lip. He wasn’t sure when they’d be alone again. What if this was his only chance? He dared to glance around the room, but he could see no weapon. Even if there had been one within reach, he didn’t think he could kill Damianos like this, awake and alert in the middle of the day. Even if he succeeded, the guards would be on him in an instant.
He turned and left.
Nicaise and Ancel were in the garden, playing a game with Nicaise’s by-now tattered deck of cards. Laurent sat beside them and leaned his head against Ancel’s shoulder.
“How is the giant animal,” Nicaise muttered, so quiet the breeze nearly carried his voice away.
“As giant as usual,” Laurent answered.
“What did he want?” Ancel asked.
“He wanted-” even thinking it was strange, much less saying it out loud. “He wanted to know how he could make our stay here easier.”
Nicaise snorted. Ancel smiled and slapped him good-naturedly on the shoulder.
“What did you say?” Ancel asked.
“I asked for a book,” Laurent said. “Games and sweets for Nicase. And something for you to do, too. I don’t know what he’ll make of that.”
“I suppose we’ll have to see,” Ancel said.
Damianos himself escorted Laurent to the library and showed him around the stacks. It was glorious enough that for a moment Laurent forgot himself, and smiled.
“We have books in Veretian,” Damianos said, pointing towards a wall lined with shelves. “And of course in Akielon. Do you read Akielon?”
“Yes,” Laurent said. Damianos shot him a curious look and he couldn’t help flushing, his fair skin giving him away. He only hoped that he hadn’t given away too much. He could only hope that Damianos was ignorant about how much education a pet might have. Was it impossible that a pet might be able to read in two languages? Laurent wasn’t sure.
He fought back the impulse to try and explain himself, already mentally spinning a yarn about an owner who’d hired a tutor for him to help him negotiate with Akielon merchants. It was a ridiculous fabrication- there was no trade between Vere and Akielos. He couldn’t think of anything more plausible so he stayed silent.
“You can come here whenever you like,” Damianos said. “I’ll let the guards know.”
“Thank you,” Laurent said, feeling strangely overwhelmed.
“You may take what you like,” Damianos said, gesturing to the room.
Laurent wandered through the library, trailing his fingers over the spines of the books. He wasn’t sure what to choose. What would be the least suspicious? He could choose a Veretian book of fairytales perhaps, but that wouldn’t hold back his boredom, or his brain rot. He selected an Akielon book instead, a history.
Damianos looked at it, his expression inscrutable, and then he nodded as if to himself and showed Laurent back to the slave quarters.
Nicaise was lounging on one of the overstuffed chaises in the main room. He was eating candied fruit and playing with some sort of wooden puzzle, his fingers sticky with sweet syrup. Ancel was occupied too, humming to himself as he embroidered bright Veretian flowers into a length of cloth.
Laurent felt struck by the scene. They looked happy.
Back in the main slave quarters Laurent hadn’t been worried that they’d forget why they were here. The lessons, the constant instruction on how to be a slave, had been ridiculous and boring. But now that they were in Damianos’ personal harem everything felt different.
Lykaios brushed her fingers through Ancel’s hair and commented on his embroidery. He smiled at her and told her the Veretian names of the flowers he was picking out over the fine linen. Aenea, one of the other slaves, stole a sweet from Nicaise.
Nicaise grumbled but let her, and she laughed.
This was dangerous. This wasn’t their life. Laurent tightened his lips and pretended he was made of ice, and went to the garden to read his book.
Now that he had books again, time seemed to pass more quickly. He devoured Akielon histories, books of war and strategy. He learned about Akielon politics and tactics. He read in the gardens, and in the main part of the slave quarters, and in his bedroom.
“You’ve always got your nose in a stuffy book,” Lykaios teased him one evening. He’d brought a blanket out to the garden and laid it out in the shade of a tree while he read about Akielon tax law. Ancel sat beside him, embroidering the hem of a chiton with foxes and bears frolicking through dark Veretian forests amidst toadstools and tall grasses. Nicaise was napping with his head in Ancel’s lap and it was a wonder Ancel managed to avoid him with his needle with every stitch.
“Aren’t you bored?” Lykaios pushed. “Come bathe with us. We’ll paint your face and braid pearl beads into your hair, and rub you down with fine-smelling oils.”
Laurent blushed at the thought of Damianos’ mostly female slaves rubbing him down with anything. Ancel laughed.
“My book sounds far less boring than… all that,” Laurent muttered.
“Oh?” Lykaios asked, wide-eyed. It was as though this was the first time she was hearing books might be interesting.
“Have you never… read?” Laurent asked.
Lykaois shook her head. “Why would we? What would be the point?”
“It’s…” Laurent was at a loss as to how to respond to that. “I- well. Books are- they contain stories.”
“What sorts of stories?”
“Tell her the story of the Beauty and the Beast,” Nicaise said with a smirk without opening his eyes.
Laurent glared at him, though the expression was lost on him entirely.
“The Beauty and the Beast?” Lykaios asked curiously.
Laurent took a deep breath and shut his book about tax law, and told her a fairytale. She was openly delighted as she listened, and slowly the other slaves drifted in until Laurent was flushing a little as he told the story for an audience of nearly a dozen slaves in various states of undress.
Nicaise clapped at the end and the other slaves copied him, uncertain and giggling.
“Tell the one about the lost children and the house made of sweets,” Nicaise demanded.
Laurent started, only to pause when he saw one of the prince’s guards standing awkwardly by the entrance of the gardens.
“The prince has summoned Lykaios,” the soldier said uncertainly.
Laurent saw Lykaios’ face drop in disappointment. She’d been enjoying the story, and for once she found herself not entirely excited to go to her master. Nicaise must have noticed too, because he took her hand and sat up to glare at the soldier.
“Tell the prince we’re busy,” he said haughtily. “We’re not to be disturbed.”
The slaves gasped in shock and Laurent had to fight to hold back a laugh.
“That’s right,” Ancel announced. “We’re very busy, and will be for at least-” he glanced over at Laurent.
“An hour or so,” Laurent supplied helpfully.
“I… see,” the soldier said, and turned to go with the most delightfully dumbfounded expression over his face.
It would take the soldier mere minutes to go to the prince’s rooms and relay the message before returning to pass down the prince’s judgement. The dozen or so assembled slaves waited with bated breath as the minutes passed, and when nothing happened they slowly relaxed, and Laurent launched back into his tale.
He told a third story after, this one funnier than the last. It involved disguises and general mischief, and by the end of it the sun was starting to set and everyone was laughing. The blanket turned into an impromptu stage as Nicaise performed magic tricks with his deck of cards to the astonished gasps of the Akielon slaves.
Afterwards Laurent plucked out a lively tune on the kithara while Ancel showed off his juggling skills with some oranges they’d picked off one of the trees. Laurent only stumbled a little over the strings when he looked up to see Damianos leaning against the wall by the entrance with his arms folded casually over his chest.
Damianos was smiling. He didn’t seem at all put off by the fact that one of his slaves had refused a summons from him. Laurent pointedly looked away, focusing on the kithara in his hands. If anyone noticed Damianos here this easy evening would be interrupted with kneeling and silent trembling and all manner of subservient nonsense.
But the slaves were having fun clapping for Ancel, and pestering Nicaise for the secrets to his tricks, and giggling over stories. It was a night for joy, not masters. When Laurent looked up again it was to see that Damianos had unobtrusively taken his leave.
On Laurent’s fifteenth birthday there was a cake- layers of flaky buttery pastry interspersed with sweet nuts and dried fruits. That night Damianos summoned him to his rooms and presented him with a pair of sapphire earrings which Laurent took carefully. He hated them, but most of all he hated the way Damianos smiled when he put them on.
He didn’t wear them again, after that.
By then he was good enough with the sword to consistently beat Orlant, and sometimes Jord. He developed callouses on his palms and put salve on his hands every night to try and soften them. Slaves didn’t have callouses. They didn’t preform any activities strenuous enough to develop them, except perhaps playing the kithara. But kithara callouses were different, they formed on the fingertips, not the palms. Laurent had those too, and at least those he didn’t have to try to hide.
His hair grew longer and Lykaios fussed over him, braiding it carefully into complicated styles. She taught Ancel and Nicaise how to do it too, and they spent long hours practicing on her, giggling like they didn’t have a care in the world.
Laurent pretended he was made of ice, and read, and practiced the sword. Jord and Orlant were his only connection to the world outside Akielos but even that was next to nothing. They weren’t permitted outside the palace, and although they’d managed to join in at Akielon training sessions, the other soldiers didn’t speak with them very much.
Laurent was desperate for news from Vere, for any glimpse of life outside his gilded cage. When it finally came it was from an unexpected source. He was summoned to Damianos’ rooms.
The prince-killer seemed troubled. He was pale and had dark shadows under his eyes; he hadn’t been sleeping. He was favoring his left side like he was protecting an injury.
Laurent sank to his knees and pressed his forehead to the stone, careful to maintain the perfect submissive posture.
“You may rise,” Damianos said. “Come here. You read Veretian, yes?”
Laurent nodded, sitting at the writing desk as Damianos had indicated. His gaze fell on a letter-opener, laying out on the table. The metal caught the lamp light, glistening beautifully. He wondered if it would be sharp enough to pierce the prince-killer’s heart. He wondered if he’d have the strength to push it through the man’s skin, or if the barbarian’s hide would be too tough to pierce.
“What do you make of this?” Damianos asked, setting an open letter before him.
Laurent forced himself to stay very still, hardly daring to breathe. It was a letter from Uncle, addressed to Kastor. He read it. It was banal for the most part, there was no mention of anything of worth. Near the end Uncle waxed poetic about Veretian bakers, and a new type of pastry they’d invented, along with a recipe.
“It appears to be a recipe,” Laurent said slowly.
“I know what it appears to be,” Damianos said. “But it feels like there’s something I’m not seeing. Your Veretian is better than mine, perhaps you could… enlighten me.”
It was code- instructions for preparing a poison. Damianos’ strange manner suddenly made sense. He was recovering from an assassination attempt- a knife in the dark, a training ‘accident,’ perhaps a run-in with hired thugs. So then the poison wasn’t meant for him.
Uncle was conspiring with Kastor to depose Theomedes and Damianos. At a different time Laurent might have been pleased. Not now, not with his knowledge of Akielon history. He knew what happened during Akielon coups. Kastor would kill Damianos, and then he’d slaughter his entire household.
Laurent’s hand drifted up to the lion pin in his chiton.
He was part of Damianos’ household now, and so was Nicaise and Ancel. Uncle should have known they would be- that had been their plan all along.
How could Uncle do this? Did he not understand the consequences of his actions? Did he really not trust that Laurent would be able to go through with their plan?
Maybe he’d taken too long. Maybe Uncle thought he’d been caught and executed. Maybe he was trying to help. Maybe he needed Laurent to come back.
But then why hadn’t he sent word? Why had no one warned him, to tell him to be ready to go? To tell him to escape?
This didn’t seem right. None of it was right.
The prince-killer was waiting patiently. Laurent looked up at him. He had to protect Ancel and Nicaise.
“Apologies,” he said. “I see nothing amiss.”
Damianos looked away with a sigh, pushing his hand through his hair.
“If I may be so impertinent as to ask a question…?” Laurent asked carefully.
“Is it… acceptable for a member of the royal family to be corresponding with the Veretian Regent in such casual terms?”
Damianos seemed suddenly uncertain.
“In Vere such a thing might be considered treason. But it is not my place to cast aspersions.” Laurent looked down submissively, hunching his shoulders. “Apologies, master. Perhaps I should not have mentioned it.”
“No,” Damianos said with a shuddering sigh. “No, it’s alright. You may speak your mind.”
Damianos looked exhausted. Laurent felt a pang of sympathy for him and tried to stamp it down. But he knew what it was to lose a father, a brother. It was a pain that ran deep, one that was hard to wish on anyone, even a hated enemy.
“Thank you,” Damianos said at last. “You may go. Please don’t speak of this to anyone.”
Laurent nodded and obeyed.
Laurent waited for the new moon before going into Ancel’s room.
“I need your help,” Laurent said while Ancel sat up and rubbed at his eyes sleepily.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I need to darken my hair.”
Ancel seemed perplexed but didn’t argue. They snuck into the slave baths, empty at this time of night, and Ancel pulled out the paints and powders the other slaves used. He picked a powder and spread it over Laurent’s golden locks to dull them, and then Laurent bid him a heartfelt thank you and slipped away.
He walked through the halls, careful to maintain a casual gait as he walked through the grounds. Ios was a stronghold, but inside the city gates- and more importantly, inside the palace gates- it was easy to move around. Due to the heat most of the rooms had balconies open to the cool sea breezes, and most were unguarded.
It wasn’t very difficult to find Kastor’s rooms, and Laurent climbed carefully up the wall until he was on Kastor’s balcony and peering into the main part of his chambers. He could hear Kastor’s voice, and that of a woman’s. They were distracted with sex-play. Good.
Laurent snuck in, careful not to be seen, and rifled through the papers on Kastor’s desk. But there were no other missives from Uncle and he soon gave up. His eyes caught on a dagger, the hilt decorated with the gold lion of the Akielon royal family.
He took the knife and adjusted his plans.
It had been unlikely, anyway, that Kastor’s plot to kill Damianos and Theomedes would be revealed through letters. But Laurent needed to give Damianos a little push so he’d get rid of his scheming bastard brother.
Finding the king’s chambers was even easier, though it took longer to climb the wall up to his balcony. The room beyond was silent and Laurent spent a long time crouched on the cool stone, ready to flee, while he listened.
He couldn’t stay here all night, and finally he took a chance and glanced inside.
He saw a large bedchamber, austere and empty but for a wide bed and racks and racks of various potions and so-called medicines. The air was heavy with smoke and incense and there was a man lying in bed.
Laurent stole closer and bit his lip as he realized this was the king- Theomedes.
He’d read descriptions of Theomedes and seen him from across the battlefield at Marlas. It was different now. Theomedes looked on the verge of death- pale and skeletal. He was frowning as he slept fitfully, muttering nonsense as he tossed his head back and forth. So the poison was already at work.
Laurent took a moment to explore the room, and then he stood over the bed, watching the king sleeping as he pondered what to do next.
He could let Theomedes die, of course. But in the chaos of his death it would be so easy for Kastor to make his move. Damianos wouldn’t see it coming. He’d trust his bastard brother and end up dead at the end of a blade along with his entire household.
Laurent couldn’t risk it- couldn’t risk Ancel and Nicaise.
He set the dagger he’d stolen from Kastor’s rooms conspicuously in the sheets and then knocked over a shelf of remedies and screamed as he went to cower against the wall.
It didn’t take long for soldiers to burst inside, looking around wildly.
“There!” Laurent sobbed, pointing towards the empty balcony. He was careful to make sure his slave-cuff caught the moonlight. “The assassin went out there!”
No one paid any attention to a hysterical slave. In the commotion of soldiers and physicians streaming into the room Laurent slipped away.
He stole a hanging off the wall and spared a moment to fold it carefully, holding it in his hands as though he were delivering it somewhere as part of a task. He made his way back to Damianos’ harem, careful not to walk too fast so as not to draw any attention.
“-the slave alerted us when he screamed-” a guard’s voice carried from past an upcoming turn in the hall.
“-what slave?” And that was Damianos’ voice.
Laurent’s blood ran cold. There was nowhere to hide. He kept his eyes lowered and his steps steady. All he could hope for was that Damianos would not recognize him without his golden hair.
“What did he look like?”
Damianos and his guard turned the corner and Laurent kept walking, his heart threatening to beat out of his throat.
“Young, dark hair. That’s all I know, your highness.”
“Father doesn’t have slaves to attend him. Especially not young boys.” And then Damianos and his man were past and Laurent broke into a run.
The whole palace was in an uproar at the supposed assassination attempt. It was harder than he’d expected to find his way back without being seen and by the time he made it, at least an hour or so had passed. He climbed up onto the terrace, his heart pounding as he realized-
They were searching the palace. They’d search the slave quarters. There was already banging on the outer door.
“You fucking idiot,” Nicaise hissed, pulling him up and over the low wall. “What did you do? Come on.”
Laurent didn’t struggle as Nicaise dragged him over to the fountain and ducked his head inside, rubbing furiously at his hair to wash the dark powder away.
He couldn’t breathe and he panicked, jerking his head up.
Distantly he heard the sound of footsteps echoing through marble halls and Ancel’s sweet voice saying something, stalling-
“Hold your breath, you baby,” Nicaise said, and shoved him under again.
When Laurent next came up sputtering it was to see Damianos flanked by a contingent of guards standing before them. Damianos was frowning.
“What is this?” he asked.
“We’re playing a game,” Nicaise announced.
“Yes, a game,” Nicaise hissed acidly. “What’s it to you? It’s a Veretian game.”
“I lost,” Laurent said, as though that might explain any of this.
“...I see,” Damianos said, still uncertain. “Have you seen anything… unusual?”
“Lots of very undressed men and women,” Nicaise said. “But I suppose that isn’t unusual around here.”
Laurent laughed and pretended it was a cough.
“I see,” Damianos said. “There’s been… an incident. Keep your eyes out. Let me or my guards know if you see anything strange.”
“Yes, master,” Laurent managed while Nicaise continued to scowl.
After Damianos and his men left Nicaise slapped him hard on the shoulder. “Stupid,” he muttered, and turned to go.
Laurent laughed for real then, and went back to his own room.
As far as Laurent could tell based on the various gossip and rumors he heard from the servants, Theomedes had been sent away to the Summer Palace. Laurent could only hope that Damianos wasn’t stupid enough to send any of Kastor’s hand-picked physicians with him.
Kastor himself was still in the palace. He’d weaseled out of the assassination attempt somehow, despite the distinctive blade Laurent had planted.
Laurent wasn’t sure if he was pleased at that or not. He found himself doubting his actions, wondering if he’d been too rash. Maybe Kastor was an ally, maybe he had instructions from Uncle to spare the Veretian slaves.
Uncle was smart, maybe Laurent shouldn’t have doubted him. He resolved to put his faith in Uncle and trust that he should continue with their plan. He only hoped he hadn’t ruined it all with his childish paranoia.
It was quiet, for a while. For the most part Laurent filled the time with reading.
The slaves in the harem started a weekly ritual of “story nights,” as they called them. They held story-telling contests and other entertainments for each other in the gardens, and a few weeks later Lykaios stepped up to the blanket that had become the traditional ‘stage’ to tell a story of her own imagining.
It was a lovely tale of romance between a sea merchant and a flower seller. It was sweet and innocent, and clearly the story of someone who’d never met a merchant, or a flower seller, or even stepped outside the palace walls. Still, it was heartfelt and at the end Laurent found himself clapping loudest out of everyone, if only for the way she blushed with pride at the approval.
It was likely the first original thought she’d ever had, and he found himself happy that she was building an inner world for herself, outside the bounds of serving someone else.
It didn’t escape his notice that Damianos’ guards seemed to be functioning under a different set of instructions now. If they ever happened to find themselves intruding on story night when summoning a slave, they simply turned and walked away.
Eventually Damianos summoned Laurent again, and Laurent went, nervously. This time it was to read a letter from Vask. Laurent translated it to the best of his ability, unable to come up with a fabrication that would help his goals.
Damianos seemed pleased and started summoning him more frequently after that. Sometimes it was to read letters from Vask, or to ask about Veretian pronunciation. A few times he had Laurent write letters to Vere while he dictated the general sense of what he wanted, missives about trade and taxes, territory and tribute. Sometimes it was simply to share a meal. It was almost as though the prince-killer enjoyed his company.
“My father was ill for a while,” Damianos said one day over supper, apropos to nothing. “But he seems to be doing much better now, in the Summer Palace. It must be the fresh air.”
Or it could be that he was away from Kastor, and Kastor’s physicians. Laurent nodded.
“Do you know how to ride?” Damianos asked.
“Yes,” Laurent said, chasing a peeled grape around his plate with a fork.
“Would you like to go for a ride with me? Tomorrow?”
Laurent looked up slowly. He hadn’t been outside the palace in nearly three years now. He’d be sixteen soon, and a man. But still, he’d failed to do what he’d come here for- the only thing that mattered. Maybe he’d been too confident.
Lykaios and the other slaves weren’t shy about telling him how beautiful he was, how much the Prince favored fair hair and fairer skin, blue eyes. He’d assumed his looks would be enough, but so far the prince-killer had made no move to touch him.
Maybe he should put some work into it. Maybe he should seduce Damianos, entice him into taking Laurent to his bed. He’d have to pretend to enjoy it as he spread his legs for his brother’s killer, but it would only be one night. And afterwards-
He could go back to Arles, to Uncle.
Laurent forced a smile. “Yes master,” he said, as sweetly as he could. “I would very much enjoy riding with you.”
Damianos smiled too, but his was real. “Tomorrow, then,” he said, and sounded pleased.
No one batted an eye as Laurent trailed after Damianos to the stables.
Damianos led him through the stalls, talking generally about horses while Laurent stayed silent.
“I thought you might like one of the Veretian steeds,” Damianos said at last, pointing to a beautiful white mare standing in one of the stalls.
Laurent’s breath caught in his throat.
It was Auguste’s horse.
Belle. He’d named her himself when he’d been nine. He’d watched Auguste train her, and had been so proud when Auguste had let him ride her. She whickered softly in recognition at his approach and Laurent had to blink back tears from his eyes.
Jord, or maybe Orlant, had brought her to Akielos and he hadn’t known. And now she was here, and she knew him, and as he set his hands on her face she leaned closer and he trembled at the thought that this part of Auguste was here with him, to keep him company.
He wouldn’t cry. He couldn’t. Not now, not here. He took a deep steady breath and brought Belle out of her stall and saddled her reverently. She liked apples, he knew, but there were no apples in Akielos.
By the time he mounted, Damianos was ready too and Laurent carefully kept his eyes forward as they left the stables.
Damianos waved away a group of guards and they rode out into the streets of Ios unaccompanied. Laurent wondered if that was his habit, and then he was too distracted to wonder.
He was fascinated by the streets around him and considered hiding that fascination. In the end, he let it show. Let the prince-killer think he’d made Laurent happy, let him look at his smile and his golden hair catching the sun, and think that Laurent was his.
The buildings and streets were built of white stone but the people wore jewel-tones, their simple garments fluttering in the warm breeze. It was a striking sight- bare skin as far as the eye could see, the garments more of a tease than a cover.
The people bowed as their prince rode past, children yelled and laughed as they followed his horse. He waved at them and tossed them gold coins, and they loved him all the more for it before running off to buy sweets and toys.
Laurent felt a disoriented moment of deja-vu as he remembered riding through the streets of Arles at Auguste’s side. The people had greeted him just like this- with love and pride. He’d handed out coins to children too.
They rode through a market, rowdy with raised Akielon voices. It was overwhelming- the smells and sights, the bright colors. Laurent was reminded of the battle at Marlas, the chaos and smoke in the air. He tightened his grip on the reins and forced himself to breathe in deeply. He wasn’t smiling anymore. He was made of ice.
“Are you alright?” Damianos asked.
“Yes, master,” Laurent lied. It was a struggle not to dig his heels into Belle’s sides, to push her into a gallop. He was a good rider and he was lighter than Damianos by half. He could get away and ride for the border, for Arles.
The fantasy faded into tatters and Laurent breathed out.
A different voice rose out of the din and Laurent turned in the saddle to try and find the source. It was a man speaking Veretian.
It didn’t take long to find the man in the crowd. It was a cloth merchant, selling Veretian brocade and lace, embroidered ribbons and jackets with sleeves. How long had it been since he’d seen anyone wearing sleeves?
“What is it?” Damianos asked, not having missed Laurent’s sudden interest. He followed his gaze and smiled at the merchant, turning his horse towards him.
The merchant bowed deeply at the approach of the crown prince and his slave.
“There’s trade with Vere?” Laurent found himself asking in surprise. Before the war there had been no trade between Vere and Akielos.
“Yes,” the merchant said. “With the latest treaty. The King has opened the border to trade.”
Laurent felt his heart sinking. “The King?” he asked faintly. “Surely you mean the Regent.”
The merchant and Damianos both looked at him curiously.
“No,” the merchant said. “The King.”
Laurent felt dizzy. He thought he might be sick and swallowed heavily to hold it back. He couldn’t be sick now, it would be far too suspicious. There was a faint buzzing in his ears.
Uncle had stolen his throne. Was that what he’d wanted all along? With Auguste and Aleron both gone, Laurent was the only one standing between Uncle and power. He should have known.
“You know, you look a lot like him,” the merchant said curiously.
Laurent couldn’t help the way his lip curled in disgust. “So they say,” he managed. It was the eyes. He and Uncle had the same eyes. Laurent wanted to claw his own eyes out, so no one would compare them again.
Everything he’d thought he’d known about Uncle was wrong. Uncle had taken advantage of him at his lowest point and sent him away into the heart of his enemy’s kingdom to be raped by his brother’s killer. And when that hadn’t been enough, he’d started planning a coup with Kastor, knowing that Laurent, Nicaise, and Ancel would all be killed as a result.
“Please, allow me to give the prince a gift,” the merchant said, sensing the unpleasant change in the mood. He rifled through his things and pulled out a handsome blue jacket. It was embroidered with tiny golden starbursts.
Auguste once had a jacket like that. Instead of laces it had been fastened with dozens of elegant filigree buttons. When he was a child Laurent would help him button them all, standing on a chair so he could reach.
“Do you like it?” Damianos asked.
“No,” Laurent hissed viciously and pointedly turned his face away. He pressed his heels into Belle’s sides and rode off, too furious at the moment to remember who he was pretending to be. What he was pretending to be. He’d destroy Uncle for what he’d done.
Damianos caught up to him soon after, and though he shot him concerned looks he didn’t mention what had happened. They rode for a time over the cliffs and Laurent lost himself to memories of better times, of racing through the royal forests at Arles with Auguste.
They returned late in the evening and Laurent sat between Ancel and Nicaise for supper in the slave quarters.
His birthday was the following week. He found a blue Veretian jacket folded neatly on his bed, embroidered with starbursts. He clutched it close to his chest and buried his face in the heavy fabric. And for the first time in three years- he cried.
Laurent wasn’t sure what to do now. He needed to go to Arles and take his throne back. He needed to destroy Uncle for what he’d done. He needed so many things, and had no way to get them.
He’d been gone from Vere three years. He had no idea what was happening there, what the situation was like. Did anyone even know he was still alive? Would anyone recognize him, after all this time? He’d have Nicaise and Ancel to confirm his identity, and Jord and Orlant. Two pets and two guards. It was nothing.
Paschal, the royal physician, would know him. Maybe others. Maybe some of the councilors. They might support him. But he was only sixteen, he couldn’t ascend the throne for another four years. Should he go back to Vere now and try to make the best of the situation? Or should he continue his mission here, and avenge Auguste first?
But if he killed Damianos that would put Kastor on the throne, and Kastor was conspiring with Uncle. Laurent couldn’t abide a man such as him in a position of power. He could kill Kastor first, and Damianos after. Theomedes would die of old age in his own time. Except Theomedes had been the one to invade Delfeur. Who knew what he’d do in his grief if both his sons were dead?
Theomedes was still in the Summer Palace, as far as Laurent knew. There was no getting to him, not while Laurent was here.
Laurent found himself well and truly trapped.
His only plan was to stay close to Damianos while he tried to figure out his next moves. The guards knew now to let him come and go mostly as he pleased. He made an effort to be around when he knew Damianos might be about, to light the candles in his room and serve him at meals, to rub his shoulders after hard training sessions.
It wasn’t entirely unpleasant. Damianos was decent company, at times. He was clever, in his own barbarian way, and he had a sense of humor. He was handsome too, something that Laurent was having a difficult time ignoring now that he was older.
It didn’t help that being around the prince so much meant he’d sometimes come upon him entertaining lovers. Once he came across Damianos with his head buried under Lykaios’ skirts while she sighed and moaned. He came to Damianos’ rooms just as a woman with remarkably similar coloring to his own left, blushing and adjusting her hair.
Laurent wondered if Damianos preferred women exclusively, and his mission had been doomed to fail from the start. Auguste had been like that too. Laurent had caught him with a woman once, when he’d gone to Auguste’s bedchamber after a bad dream.
He’d been appalled at the time and had given Auguste a stern scolding, and Auguste had fallen to his knees and begged him not to tell anyone. Laurent had extorted three crates of books out of him in return for his silence, as well as a horse.
He wouldn’t have told anyway, and he had a feeling that Auguste well knew it. But he’d gone along with Laurent’s demands with the long-suffering air of a doting older brother.
“Is something the matter?” Damianos asked, pulling Laurent out of his thoughts.
“No, master,” Laurent said and looked down at the table where he was helping Damianos draft a trade agreement with a Vaskian border tribe.
“You don’t have to call me that in private,” Damianos said. “In private, you may call me Damen.”
Laurent nearly dropped the quill in shock. It seemed oddly intimate, to use the prince’s small name. But maybe it would build trust between them and make Damianos easier to manipulate in future. “Damen,” he whispered.
The prince-killer’s smile was so radiant that Laurent had to look away. But he couldn’t stop his traitorous face from flushing at the attention.
Laurent tried to put it out of his mind. On the inside he was made of ice. On the outside he was a pretty and pliant slave. It was alright for a slave to blush under the warm attentions of his master.
A few days later there was a man in Damianos’ bed when Laurent came to put out the candles. So he had a taste for men too, Laurent thought when he was in his own bed, later.
He could see the beginning of a plan forming. He needed to go to Arles and take his throne back. Vere would be in disarray, he’d need powerful allies. What ally could be more powerful than the King of Akielos?
He’d get rid of Kastor and seduce Damianos. He’d bide his time until he was old enough to ascend, and then he’d reveal himself to Damianos. He could come up with some sad story that would tug on the barbarian’s heartstrings.
Maybe he’d say that he’d run away from Uncle. He’d say that Uncle was planning to kill him, or maybe rape him. That might be a more viscerally horrifying story. As Laurent thought back to that long-ago bath in Uncle’s tent he couldn’t help shivering. Maybe the story was more true than he liked.
For the first time Laurent found himself wondering why exactly Uncle had brought not one but two pets with him to war. Nicaise had been just barely eight years old. It was too horrible to contemplate and Laurent forced himself to focus on his plan instead.
Once he had Damianos wrapped around his finger he’d return to Vere, at the head of an Akielon army if he had to. He’d kill Uncle for conspiring against him. And then he’d kill Damianos, for killing his brother.
He’d take Vere, and Akielos too while he was at it. And then he’d rule the two lands as one, and no one would ever hurt him again.
It was easier than he liked to play happy slave. Damianos was genuinely kind and attentive towards him. They went riding almost every day, until Laurent knew Ios nearly as well as he’d known Arles.
It was often the highlight of his day, riding with Damianos. He told himself it was because he enjoyed riding Belle, but it was more than that. When he was alone with Damianos outside the palace gates, when he was pretending to be happy, he felt like his troubles really were far away. He almost felt… free.
“Do you know how to swim?” Damianos asked as he took them down a narrow cliffside track towards the ocean.
“Yes,” Laurent said.
Damianos laughed and Laurent tried to tell himself that his laugh sounded hideous.
“It seems you know everything,” Damianos teased. “You know three languages-”
“Four,” Laurent said, and smiled at Damianos’ startled look. “I know Patran as well,” he said in Patran.
“What don’t you know?” Damianos asked, also in Patran. His accent was better than Laurent’s.
Laurent bit his lip and looked away, lost for a moment in the way the sun glinted off the ocean. “I don’t know how to cook,” he said at last. “Or how to sew. I suppose Ancel might teach me, but he’d tease me, so I haven’t asked.”
“I see,” Damianos said with a laugh. “I happen to have a steady hand with a needle, but don’t tell my soldiers that. But if it helps- I don’t know how to cook either. Not beyond charring meat over a campfire. Do you hunt?”
“The hunting isn’t very good in the harem,” Laurent said dryly. “Your slaves don’t even run when they’re chased.”
Damianos laughed again.
They made their way to the water and rode for a while through the damp sand. Damianos took them to an outcropping of rock and dismounted, offering Laurent his hand.
Laurent took it, careful to to avoid pressing his palm to Damianos’s skin so he wouldn’t feel Laurent’s sword calluses. They left the horses standing in the sand while Damianos led him over to pools of trapped water in the rocks.
Each pool was a tiny world of its own, full of fish and seaweed and other little creatures. Laurent’s eyes widened as he knelt to peer into one, completely charmed.
“These are called tide pools,” Damianos said, kneeling beside him. “Have you seen something of the like before?”
Laurent shook his head. “There were some nobles in Vere who had…” he searched for the word in Akielon, and when he couldn’t find it he said it in Veretian. “Aquariums.”
Damianos nodded like he understood.
“It was nothing like this,” Laurent continued in Akielon. He’d always had a strange dislike towards the aquariums. It had seemed unfair to trap and keep fish in such a way, like little more than decorations. They were living creatures. It seemed wrong to use them to brighten a room when a tapestry could serve the same purpose.
He’d made Auguste promise to outlaw them when he became King, and Auguste had, of course, agreed with a laugh.
“Look, a starfish,” Damianos said, pointing to a strange creature.
“It really is a star,” Laurent said in wonder, dipping his hand into the pool to stroke it carefully. It curled away from him and he couldn’t help laughing at the ridiculous thing.
In the distance he heard something like a snort and looked up to see Belle shying nervously, tossing her head. Damianos’ horse seemed equally unsettled and Damianos stiffened.
“Mount up,” he said, standing. There was steel in his voice- it was an order from a general to a soldier.
They mounted and Damianos took the reins in one hand as he let the other drift to the hilt of his sword. Laurent wished he had a sword too. But of course, he was a slave. So he had nothing.
He leaned forward to stroke the side of Belle’s neck, gentling her. And then he saw them- four men riding towards them. The setting sun was behind them, so Laurent couldn’t make out too much of their clothing or equipment. All he knew was that they weren’t Akielon soldiers. One of them moved distinctly like he was drawing a bow and Laurent leaned over to slap the rump of Damianos’ horse, sending it into a canter as he dug his heels into Belle’s sides and peeled away from him.
The arrow hit the sand where Damianos had just been.
Damianos shot him a startled look but then he drew his sword and urged his horse into a gallop as he approached the assassins. Laurent refused to be left behind and tightened his heels to signal Belle to follow.
He was very aware of the fact he had no weapon. But his greatest weapon had always been his mind, and he was never disarmed.
Damianos engaged the first man and Laurent raised his wrist so the polished gold of his cuff caught the light. It took a moment to get the angle just right, but then the attacker winced, drawing back as he was momentarily blinded, and Damianos cut him down. And then the three others were upon the prince, circling around him.
They paid Laurent no mind and it was easy to slip out of the saddle and grab the downed man’s dagger. Damianos caught one of the attackers in the side of the face with his elbow, knocking him out of his saddle. The man struggled back to his feet with a groan, freezing as he found himself face-to-face with Laurent.
The man was huge and holding a sword against Laurent’s tiny dagger. There was a dark glint in his eyes, he thought Laurent was no match for him. Laurent grinned at the man’s stupidity as the man lunged.
Laurent whistled sharply and Belle kicked him in the chest.
He had no doubt that Damianos could handle two men on his own, but when he looked over it was to see Damianos’ forearm bleeding from a wicked slash. He was focused on one man while the other crept up behind him and Laurent tensed, a multitude of plans and possibilities running through his mind.
It was a familiar track- he could let the prince-killer die and escape, he could- he could-
Laurent threw the dagger and it lodged in the attacker’s throat. Damianos dispatched the last man easily.
“This one’s still alive,” Laurent called out, approaching the man that Belle had kicked. “You should question him.”
He knelt and tilted the man’s face into the light. He looked Akielon. He coughed up blood and then his breathing stilled. Laurent drew away with disgust.
“Never mind,” he muttered.
Damianos still hadn’t answered, and when Laurent looked over it was to see him swaying in his saddle. He felt cold horror washing over him as Damen fell to the sand with a groan.
“What’s wrong with you?” Laurent demanded, scrambling over.
Damianos squinted as though he was having trouble seeing. His forearm was bleeding very heavily. Maybe the blade had been poisoned.
Laurent scrambled to rip a strip of cloth off Damianos’ chiton and hastily bound the wound.
“If Akielons wore more clothing, we’d have more cloth for bandages,” he said acidly.
Damianos laughed, a weak shadow of what his laugh usually sounded like. “I think you should… ride for help.”
“And leave you here alone?” Laurent demanded. “What if more come?”
“Go,” Damianos said, setting his uninjured hand to the side of Laurent’s face. He felt colder than usual and Laurent felt fear like a blade piercing his chest. “Go,” Damianos insisted. “Sweetheart- please.”
“I’ll be back,” Laurent whispered and practically ran to mount Belle. It seemed to take a very long time, but in the end it must have been less than half an hour. The sun hadn’t finished setting by the time Laurent flagged down an group of royal guards and led them back to the beach where Damianos still lay amidst the corpses of the assassins.
After that there wasn’t much for him to do but follow as they brought their prince back to the palace.
Laurent returned to the slave quarters where the other slaves looked at him in something like horror.
“What happened?” Nicaise cried out as he stormed over and took Laurent’s hands, lifting them up to the light. Laurent stared down at his shaking fingers. He was covered in blood.
“I- there was an attack,” he managed.
“Is master…?” Lykaios asked fearfully.
“I- I’m not sure,” Laurent said.
There was terrified whispering around him, and then Ancel was at his side and he helped Nicaise lead Laurent away, towards the baths.
He let them wash him while he sat in a stupor. He’d saved the prince-killer and it might have been for nothing. What would happen if he died?
Kastor would become king, and Kastor was plotting with Uncle. Laurent knew very little of Kastor, but that little was enough to know that Kastor was a fool. He was Uncle’s puppet, he had to be. Maybe it wasn’t enough for Uncle to steal one throne. Maybe he wanted two.
“You should rest,” Nicaise said with uncharacteristic gentleness as he helped Laurent dry off.
“Yes,” Laurent said. “Would you… stay with me?”
Nicaise nodded. “We all will.”
He led Laurent back to the main part of the harem and urged him to lie down on some cushions before lying beside him. Laurent wrapped an arm around him and buried his face in his curls, and then Ancel was behind him, and Lykaios was nearby, and then all the slaves moved to surround them.
They slept in an unruly pile that night, all waiting anxiously for word of their prince.
A week passed before Damianos summoned him back to his rooms.
“He’s like a bear,” Nicaise said, though his words didn’t have the same sting as usual. “He won’t be killed so easily.”
“Giant animal,” Laurent muttered, and Ancel laughed.
Damianos was in his bedchamber when Laurent entered, and the prince waved him over with a wide smile. His arm was bandaged neatly, though he still looked paler than usual. He patted the bed beside him and Laurent shivered a little as he climbed on.
“How are you feeling?” Laurent asked.
“Much better,” Damianos said. “But I’m dying of boredom. Would you read to me? Whatever draughts they have me drinking make the words blur on the page.”
“I didn’t think you enjoyed reading,” Laurent said as Damianos handed him a book written in Akielon.
“Who doesn’t enjoy reading?”
“Ancel, for one,” Laurent said, stroking his fingers over the fine embossing on the leather cover. The book seemed to be Akielon legends and fairytales. “He thinks reading is boring. He prefers his embroidery.”
“Would you read the one about the slave and the lion?” Damianos asked.
Laurent flipped to the correct page, smoothing his hands over the parchment. “There once was a slave who ran away from his cruel master,” he started slowly. “He ran into the desert, where he found a cave.”
As he read, he wondered why Damianos had asked for this tale in particular.
The slave found a lion in the cave, but instead of devouring him, the Lion held forward his paw, where there was a thorn that pained him. The slave helped the lion, and they became fast friends. Eventually the slave grew lonely and went back out into the world where he was captured once more by his master.
In a cruel punishment, the master sent him to the arena to be torn apart by wild beasts. But the beast was the lion that he’d befriended in the cave. Instead of ripping the slave to shreds, the lion laid at his feet. The audience was so amazed that they demanded both slave and lion be freed.
It was a pretty story, despite how foolish it was. Laurent paused for a long moment after he finished, wondering if it was some sort of message, a signal.
Damianos’ eyes were closed but he wasn’t asleep. He was smiling faintly, without guile. Maybe he simply liked the story, and it wasn’t any sort of message at all.
“Would you read another?” Damianos asked.
Slowly Laurent took a deep breath, and turned the page, and started reading the next.
The slave quarters grew more relaxed as Damianos recovered and started calling for his slaves to attend him again, Lykaios most of all.
To Laurent’s great surprise she came to him one night, blushing.
“What is it?” he asked, putting down his book.
“This slave-” she broke off and blushed harder. “I- I’d like… to write my stories down.”
“Good,” Laurent said, not sure what she was asking. He was glad that she’d found a pursuit she enjoyed.
“I need- I’d like… a book, to write in. And quills. And ink. Would you ask master for me?”
“Why don’t you ask him yourself?” Laurent said, tilting his head quizzically. “Are you afraid?”
She shook her head. “I- this slave- I- I’m not afraid of master. He’s never been anything but kind and gentle towards me. But I…”
“You’re afraid he’ll say no.”
She bit her lip and looked down.
“Why would he say no?” Laurent pushed.
Lykaios shrugged, nervously. “I’ve never asked for anything, before,” she whispered. “It seems… impertinent. But you’ve- you’re different. You and the others from Vere. And he likes you. He wouldn’t say no. Not to you.”
“I don’t think he’d say no to you, either,” Laurent said gently. “You’re his favorite. I think you should ask him.” For some reason it felt very important that she should ask Damianos herself. “And if you can’t, or if he refuses- I’ll try for you.”
She seemed afraid, and then determined. She nodded. “Thank you,” she said with a small smile. “I will ask. And if… if…”
“Then I will help you,” Laurent said firmly.
She smiled and hugged him tightly for a long moment before turning to go.
Later that evening he found her laying out in the grass of the gardens, practicing her lettering in a brand-new journal while Nicaise taught her the Akielon alphabet. Lykaios was radiant in her joy and Nicaise seemed to be having fun too. He reached out and twirled a lock of her hair over his finger.
She laughed and accidentally knocked over the ink pot, splattering ink over the page. Nicaise scolded her gently while setting the ink pot to rights.
“At this rate we’ll have to get a fresh book,” he grumbled.
“That’s alright,” Lykaios said with a smile. “I’ll simply ask master, and he’ll provide.”
“Not when he sees this shameful handwriting,” Nicaise said. “He’ll forbid you from ever writing again.”
“He won’t,” she laughed, nudging Nicaise in the shoulder, and began to write again.
WARNING: There's some sexual content coming up ahead, at which point Laurent is seventeen, aka technically underage.
Sorry for not mentioning it sooner ^^;;; In the grand scheme of capri fandom it didn't seem like that big a deal, and then I was like shit, uhhhh I should warn for this.
Laurent was often called to have supper in Damianos’ rooms, and Damianos would sometimes ask his advice regarding the treaty with Vere and other state matters as well. He recommended books for Laurent to read and they’d discuss them together. They still went riding, though now they were accompanied by a small contingent of guards.
Through it all Laurent made an effort to be sweet, engaging company. He smiled and pretended to be happy, and called the prince-killer Damen.
Slowly, Laurent started probing into what was happening with Kastor and Theomedes. The blond woman, Jocaste, was mixed up in it too. Laurent went on a few more furtive midnight strolls through the palace before he found out she was pregnant with Kastor’s bastard. He had a feeling she was the most dangerous out of all of them, excepting Uncle. Laurent carefully asked pointed questions and could practically see Damianos putting it all together.
He’d suspected Kastor ever since the letter with the ‘recipe’ but he’d been in denial since then. Not anymore. Before long Kastor and Jocaste were sent away from court. For a while Damianos was quiet, staring off into the distance whenever Laurent came upon him. But then he relaxed, and smiled more, and grew more at ease.
“You seem happier,” Damianos said one night as they sat on his balcony watching the ocean. Laurent was drinking water while Damianos drank wine. Red, like he preferred. There hadn’t been baked fish on the menu that night.
“Yes,” Laurent said. “Damen.”
“I’m glad,” Damianos said with a smile. “I like it when you’re happy.”
Laurent didn’t think he’d ever be happy again, but it was good to know he was doing a passable impression of it. “I’m looking forward to my First Night,” he said carefully. His seventeenth birthday was approaching quickly now, and he knew that was when Akielons considered their youths to come of age.
“Oh,” Damianos said, flushing a little. With his dark complexion it was nearly unnoticeable, but Laurent had made a point to notice everything there was to know about him. “I see. So you’ve given it some thought?”
“Yes,” Laurent said, averting his eyes. He thought of how much he hated Uncle, and felt himself flushing too, with anger. Damianos would think it was because he was shy.
“How would you like for it to go?” Damianos asked.
“I’m not sure,” Laurent demurred. “I suppose that is for my master to decide.”
“So you want it to be with me, then?”
“Yes,” Laurent said. “If you desire me.”
“I do,” Damianos said boldly. But there was no reason for him to hide his desires. He was the crown prince and everything from Ios to Delfeur would be his one day. Until Laurent took it all away from him.
“There’s nothing to fear,” Damianos said. “I’ll make it good for you. I promise.”
Laurent shivered. He thought of Damianos’ lovers, of the way Lykaios had sighed when Damianos had used his mouth. Would Damianos do that for him, too? Or was that something he only did with women?
For a brief moment Laurent let himself imagine it, Damen kneeling over him in his giant bed while a cool breeze blew in through the balcony. Before all this, he’d thought that the barbaric Akielons were rough and violent. He’d thought the prince-killer might simply bend him over the closest piece of furniture and shove inside to rut without care.
But he knew better now.
Damen would press soft kisses to his lips, his throat. He’d touch Laurent gently and slowly coax him to open for him. Maybe he’d bring him to climax with his hands or mouth before going further. Some of the other slaves had mentioned he’d done that, for them. To help them relax, and feel at ease. To make it last, the second time.
He’d push inside with oiled fingers first, to prepare him. He’d make sure it wouldn’t hurt. And once Laurent was ready he’d follow with his cock, and hold Laurent to him in a tight embrace as he started to move, slow and easy.
And Laurent would let him, and pretend he was enjoying the affections of his brother’s killer.
“I’d like to retire now,” Laurent said and Damianos waved him away with an indulgent nod.
Back in his own bed, Laurent imagined his First Night again. And in the privacy of his room he let his hand drift down his body and brush over his hardening cock. He moved slowly, trying to feel the sensations spreading through him. There was a distant pleasure, but at the foreground of his thoughts he could only see the battle of Marlas and hear the screams of dying men.
He drew his hand away and turned onto his side, his heart beating rabbit-fast in his chest. He couldn’t do it, not even on his own. How could he bring himself to sleep with his brother’s killer?
He had time, until then. At least two months. He’d practice. And when it came time, he’d be ready.
For his seventeenth birthday Lykaios and the other slaves helped him bathe and paint his face. They braided his hair and dusted his body with gold powder. They took off his plain gold collar and cuffs and replaced them with something heavier, more decorative. They draped him in jewelry and delicate gold chains studded with sapphires, to match his eyes.
And that was how they sent him to Damianos’ rooms, nude but for the jewelry.
It was a warm night, and still he trembled.
Damianos took in the sight of him with an appreciative gaze and offered him sweet wine that Laurent accepted in the hopes that it would make this easier.
It only made him sicker, his head spinning unpleasantly as Damianos led him to his bed. Laurent crawled onto it and lay down on his back, raising his arms to cross his wrists above his head in the proper First Night form. He closed his eyes and tried to pretend that he was anywhere else.
Damianos whispered soothing nonsense as he trailed his fingertips over Laurent’s arms and chest, watching with interest as goose pimples rose over his flesh. The gold powder stained his hands, standing out over his dark skin.
Laurent tried to keep his breathing steady even as in his mind he was trapped in Marlas, surrounded by screaming, watching Auguste fall to his knees. He was in the bath while Uncle washed his hair and wiped his tears. He was lost and alone, his kingdom stolen from him, his family stolen from him. Everything had been stolen from him. Everything.
When Damianos bent to kiss him Laurent couldn’t help but flinch. Damianos drew back with a frown.
“I’m sorry, Damen,” Laurent forced himself to say. “Please- keep going.”
Damianos looked at him intently and Laurent bit his lip as he looked back into his warm brown eyes. They were speckled with gold, framed by long dark lashes that any woman would be jealous off. He was handsome, and strong, and gentle. Surely Laurent could muster up some desire for him. He could feel it simmering inside him, far away like it was trapped under the surface of an iced-over pond.
In the heavy silence between them Laurent wondered what Damianos saw when he looked at him. What if he saw something he wasn’t meant to? What if he saw the truth?
“You don’t want this,” Damianos said.
“I do,” Laurent insisted, propping himself up on his elbows. He was ruining this. He couldn’t ruin this. “I want you. Damen, please.”
Damianos looked at him for a long moment, and then he shook his head and drew back. “You don’t.”
Laurent stared at him, suddenly terrified. He needed to fix this somehow but his mind was terribly blank. “Please,” he managed. “I’m sorry. Let’s- we can try again.”
“No, sweetheart,” Damianos said with painful kindness. “Not tonight. Not ever, if that’s what you’d prefer.”
“Don’t you want me?” Laurent asked in a small voice, and hated himself for it.
“Yes,” Damianos said, brushing a lock of hair away from Laurent’s face. “But I won’t force myself on you, or anyone. Why don’t you take the jewelry off, and I’ll call for a bath.”
Laurent nodded, relief warring with dread. Damianos left and Laurent took off the jewelry with shaking hands. Feeling self-conscious, he grabbed a sheet off the bed and wrapped it around his shoulders before going out into the main room, where servants had already set up a steaming tub.
“Would you prefer to bathe in private?” Damianos asked.
Laurent nodded, pulling the sheet closed tighter over his chest.
“As you like,” Damianos said. He paused and smiled, and stepped forward to set his hand over the back of Laurent’s head and press a kiss to his forehead. “Rest easy. Everything is alright.”
With that he was gone back to bed, and Laurent let the sheet slip so he could slide into the tub.
He was still shaking as he washed the paint and powder off his skin and pulled the braids out of his hair. Once he was finished he sat in the tub until the water went cold, and then he rose, and dried himself off with the sheet, and went back to Damianos’ bed.
The prince-killer was already asleep, the sheets only pulled up to his waist. It was easier to look at him while he was lost to slumber, less intense. Laurent let himself look. He was handsome, that much was undeniable. He was strong and powerful, muscular. His fingers still had smudges of gold powder on them.
He’d left his clothes in a heap by the foot of the bed, and with them- his belt, and the dagger he carried. Laurent took it, tightening his grip over the hilt. He watched the slow rise and fall of Damianos’ chest and imagined sliding the dagger into his heart. He’d need to press his hand over the prince-killer’s mouth to keep him quiet in his death throes. He’d struggle but it would be too late. His blood would look very dark over the moonlit sheets, nearly black. Like tar.
Laurent would go get the others after, and they’d go home.
Except he had no home anymore. There was no home without Auguste. And it was all because of Damianos.
He could do it now. He could do what he’d come here for, and figure the rest of it out as he went. He could avenge Auguste in one single moment. A present to himself, for his seventeenth birthday. A present for Auguste.
Damianos slept on, his breathing even. His eyelashes trembled like he was having a bad dream. Laurent wondered how long he’d been standing over the bed, holding the dagger. It felt like a very long time had passed, an eternity.
He tightened his grip on the dagger and realized abruptly that he couldn’t do it.
Damianos was a good man, and he’d be a good King one day. He’d killed Auguste on the battlefield to end a war. He hadn’t done it out of the desire to be cruel, but out of the desire to spare the lives of his men. He was like Auguste that way- a prince, doing his duty to his people.
Killing Damianos wouldn’t bring Auguste back to him.
Laurent felt something like forgiveness washing over him, and in that moment his heart shattered. Forgiveness felt like letting a part of Auguste slip away, and he already had so little of him left.
Laurent returned the dagger to Damen’s belt and went out to the balcony so he could hug his knees and look up at the stars. The air was clear, and in the distance he could see the dark bulk of Isthima.
He thought about what he’d do now. All his plans were crumbling around him. He didn’t know what all this had been about anymore. These past four years, maybe his whole life, just felt like one of Uncle’s cruel games.
“You’ll catch a chill.”
Laurent looked up to see Damen standing beside him. He hadn’t bothered to dress.
“Come to bed,” Damen said gently.
Laurent nodded, and when he stood his knees nearly buckled. Damen stepped forward and lifted him in his arms like he weighed nothing and carried him back to bed. He tucked the sheets securely around him and slid close, holding Laurent against the broad expanse of his chest. He was so warm.
In that moment Laurent couldn’t pretend anymore. He sobbed and Damen held him tighter.
He hadn’t let himself mourn Auguste, not really. He’d always had something else to distract himself with- a plan, an act, a scheme for revenge. But now he had nothing, and so he mourned his brother while lying in his killer’s arms.
“How was it?” Nicaise asked the next morning.
“I couldn’t do it,” Laurent said quietly. “I couldn’t do any of it. This whole thing- it’s all been a lie. I think Uncle just wanted to be rid of me so he could rule.”
“I thought so,” Ancel said, just as quietly. “But you wouldn’t have believed me at the start.”
“No,” Laurent agreed.
“What now?” Nicaise asked.
“I don’t know,” Laurent said. “I’ll figure it out.”
Nicaise nodded like that was the only answer he needed to satisfy him. Ancel seemed less sure, but he stayed quiet rather than voicing any doubts.
And so Laurent tried to figure it out. His plan had been to seduce Damianos, and he knew now he couldn’t do it.
Without that- he had no idea how to turn Damianos to his side. So maybe he’d simply… leave.
Escaping the harem would be childsplay. They’d go find Jord and Orlant and get disguises from the armory. They’d have to climb the palace wall, probably, but the walls were built to keep people out, not in. They’d manage it. And then they could buy passage on a ship to Arles. Between Laurent, Nicaise, and Ancel, they had a fortune in gold in their slave cuffs and collars.
So they’d get to Arles easily enough. And then what?
What would they do then? What could they do? Uncle was calling himself King, which meant everyone thought Laurent was dead. How could he fight back against Uncle’s machinations with just two pets and two guards?
And so they lingered in Ios, and Laurent took his suppers with Damen, and helped him with his letters and treaties, and Damen never once tried to touch him again.
Inexplicably, Laurent wanted him to. He wanted to be pressed into the sheets by Damen’s body, he wanted to give himself up to Damen’s hands. He wanted to let go.
He dreamed of it, sometimes, and woke covered in sweat and painfully hard. And every time he tried to take himself in hand something else came to the forefront of his thoughts- blood, death, battle. Auguste.
He couldn’t finish, no matter how hard he tried. He thought maybe he might be able to finish with Damen. He thought he might be too overwhelmed by him to think of anything else, and he wanted that. He just wanted relief, it didn’t matter what kind. He even tried crying again, in the privacy of his room, and couldn’t manage it.
He felt like a bottle of champagne that someone had been shaking. He felt full to bursting like an overripe fruit, and he wanted release just as much as he feared it.
And that was, of course, when Damen mentioned that there was a Veretian delegation coming to Akielos.
“A diplomatic trip,” he said. “Even the King is coming. Would you like to see him?”
“No,” Laurent said, and left the table without being dismissed. He feigned illness when the delegation arrived and stayed holed up in his room for days, slowly going mad with fury. And then Damen summoned him to his chambers one evening, and when he turned to go Lykaios pulled him back.
“Master said he wanted you to wear these.”
She was holding tight black trousers, boots, and the blue jacket. The one embroidered with starbursts.
Laurent scowled. Slaves didn’t scowl, but he was so tired now of the charade.
“Attend me,” he ordered Nicaise, and the younger boy rolled his eyes as he came closer.
“Why do you get real clothes while we have to wear handkerchiefs,” he muttered as he laced up the sleeves while Ancel laced up the back. Once Laurent was ready Lykaios pulled off his collar and cuffs, and he massaged at his skin self-consciously.
“What’s the point of this?” he asked.
“A sign of respect,” Lykaios said. “For your meeting with the Veretian King. They don’t have slavery there. They say the King finds it distasteful.” She had the most profoundly puzzled expression over her face, like she couldn’t possibly conceive of the thought that there was anything wrong with owning people like you’d own a dog, or cattle.
Laurent went across the hall with the most princely bearing he could muster. He wasn’t sure what he’d do when he saw Uncle again. At least wearing something like his old clothes felt like wearing armor. He was covered entirely except for his face and hands, the stiff fabric of his jacket forcing him to stand straighter. He needed the support.
The guards opened the doors to Damen’s rooms and Laurent stepped inside.
Damen was sitting with a man at the table, drinking wine. The man had his back to the door. The man wasn’t Uncle.
“...have better luck tempting me with a woman,” said a beloved voice that Laurent hadn’t heard in over four years, not outside his dreams.
“Trust me, brother,” Damen said. “This one will be to your liking.” His eyes were very clear and sharp as he stared at Laurent.
Laurent sank to his knees, helplessly. The ice was gone and he felt thirteen and lost again. This couldn’t be. Was he dreaming?
Auguste stiffened. Slowly he turned, his eyes wide and shocked. He stood abruptly, sending his chair falling to the ground. He looked older, tired. There was gray in his hair, and for the first time Laurent noticed the cane leaning against the table. Auguste staggered closer and fell to his knees too. Laurent couldn’t move as Auguste grabbed his face and stared at him like he was seeing a ghost.
“Laurent,” he whispered in wonder.
“Auguste!” Laurent sobbed and threw himself into his brother’s arms. His mind was buzzing, and all he could hear was Auguste chanting his name like he was afraid Laurent would disappear if he stopped. Laurent clutched at him and sobbed. He was real, and he was alive!
“I thought you-”
“-died at Marlas-”
“-gone, you were gone!”
Laurent didn’t know who was speaking anymore and didn’t care. It was the same story. They’d both been fooled by Uncle into thinking the other was dead. How could someone be so cruel?
“Your hair,” Auguste gasped in wonder. “It’s longer. Like a girl’s.”
“Yours is gray like an old man’s.”
Auguste laughed, and Laurent laughed with him, and he was home again.
“Brother,” Auguste said, and Laurent knew he wasn’t talking to him. Abruptly he remembered where he was, and looked up to see Damen watching them. “How- how did you-”
“You knew,” Laurent said accusingly. “You knew who I was!”
“I suspected for a while,” Damen said. “But I didn’t start to believe it, not until the market. I didn’t know for sure until you stood over me with a knife that night, deciding if you would kill me.”
Laurent flushed as he finally saw the full enormity of Uncle’s plot, the way he’d set the pieces on his board and rigged it all to his favor. Auguste was wounded at Marlas, and Uncle had taken that chance to send Laurent away. If Auguste died then uncle’s problems were solved. If he lived and Laurent had killed Damianos, they would have ended up going to war again. It would have been another chance for Auguste to die, in battle or perhaps from a stray arrow. A poisoned horse, a sabotaged piece of armor or equipment.
Either way, both princes would be off the field, no matter how this could have gone.
But Uncle hadn’t predicted Laurent’s forgiveness, or Damen’s cleverness. Uncle hadn’t predicted the three of them in this room, together.
“I’ll let you two have the room,” Damen said, standing. “I’m sure there’s a lot you want to catch up on. Tomorrow we plan.”
“Tomorrow,” Laurent and Auguste agreed. But for now, they had each other again, and they didn’t have to let go until sunrise.
Laurent wasn’t sure how long they sat together on the floor, but eventually Auguste shifted with a wince.
“What’s wrong?” Laurent asked fearfully.
“I’m an old man, is all,” Auguste said with a wry smile. “My knee gives me trouble.”
“Let’s go to bed, then,” Laurent announced, and helped Auguste up. It made his heart ache to watch Auguste limp over to get his cane. Was it the injury from Marlas? Something else? What had happened to him, in the four years they’d been separated?
It felt strange to be in Damen’s bedroom without him, but Laurent needed this time alone with Auguste, and it wasn’t safe to go anywhere else. Auguste sat on the bed while Laurent stood before him, stroking his golden hair and trying to convince himself he was real.
“Do you remember,” Auguste said, taking one of Laurent’s wrists and starting to undo the laces. “When you were a boy, you demanded I do this for you. You’d throw a fit if any of the servants tried to help you dress.”
“The servants were clumsy,” Laurent said. But that wasn’t the truth. “I wanted to be by your side, always. I wanted you to be the first person I saw in the morning. I hated to go to sleep, because it meant we’d be parted during the night. I must have been the most annoying little brother in the world.”
“Hardly.” Auguste smiled and pressed a kiss to his open palm, and stoked Laurent’s exposed forearm with his strong calloused hand, rubbing his pulse point with his thumb. “So it’s true,” he said thoughtfully, staring at the skin of his wrist. “You really were a slave here.”
Laurent had tried to keep out of the sun, but in Ios that was impossible. Four years of lounging around in practically nothing had darkened his skin to a golden hue and left him dusted with freckles. But there were rings of untouched ivory around his wrists and throat, where the cuffs had covered.
“It was terrible,” Laurent said dryly. “I was bored half to death.”
Auguste laughed as he unlaced his other sleeve, and then urged him to turn so he could open the laces at the back. Laurent didn’t think much of it until he heard Auguste’s sharp intake of breath and felt Auguste’s hands smoothing over his skin and the faded scars from Adrastus’ switch.
“Who did this to you.”
Auguste’s voice was shaking with fury and Laurent turned hastily to take his face in his hands, afraid he was on the verge of rampaging through the palace until he found the perpetrator. “Was it- was it Damianos-?”
“No,” Laurent said. “I took a beating meant for Nicaise. Damen was properly furious about it, I can assure you. He brought us into his household after, and nothing of the sort ever happened again.”
Auguste closed his eyes and leaned his forehead against Laurent’s chest, wrapping his arms around his waist. “Alright,” he said, his voice shaking. And then- “Nicaise?”
“He’s here,” Laurent said, carding his fingers through Auguste’s hair in an attempt to soothe the anger and fear away. “And so is Ancel, and Jord and Orlant. And Belle.”
Auguste laughed quietly. “It seems there are a lot of ghosts hiding in Ios. But none so beloved as you, baby brother.”
Laurent shrugged out of his jacket and boots, and then helped Auguste with his own clothes. Auguste had so many scars that Laurent didn’t recognize.
“I was so angry after Marlas,” Auguste said as they lay together under the sheets, arms wrapped around each other. “Angry and lost, without you. I did the only thing I could think of to pour it all out. I picked fights, mostly with the mountain tribes of Vask.”
“Fights,” Laurent said with a snort. “Don’t lie. I know all about Vaskian coupling fires.”
“There was quite a bit of that too,” Auguste said with a small smile. “I spent two years doing nothing but fighting and fucking, only to return to court to find- vipers and betrayal everywhere. This was an assassin’s knife,” he said, pointing to a scar on his shoulder. “There was poison, thrice. And an ambush, in the streets of Arles. That was the time they broke my knee, but my guard was loyal and we made it out. It’s only thanks to Paschal that I can walk at all.”
“I’ve had quite the rough go of it too, you know,” Laurent said. He couldn’t bear to think about Auguste weathering Uncle’s plots on his own for all this time. “For one, they don’t have proper cake here, just fruit and pastries with nuts in them. Nuts, Auguste!”
Auguste laughed, a surprised sound that rolled through the dark room like music.
“And the sunburn,” Laurent continued, “was horrific. And there’s no proper riding here, just cliffside tracks that Damen took me on. Plus, their books- their library is really too large. How am I meant to get through them all? There’s not enough hours in the day.”
“I’m so sorry for your troubles, baby brother,” Auguste said with a quiet chuckle. “I see somehow you’ve managed to weather them.” For a while he fell silent, and then- “you call him Damen?”
Laurent flushed. “You call him brother. Should I be jealous?”
“You like him,” Auguste said.
“I-” Laurent flushed harder, and thought of his First Night, and his dreams thereafter, and his guilt.
“It’s alright if you do.”
“It isn’t,” Laurent whispered. “I thought- all this time I thought he killed you. I was going to avenge you, and when I finally had the chance- or when I thought I did, at least… I forgave him instead.”
Laurent screwed his eyes shut, overwhelmed by shame. “I forgave him for killing you.”
“I’m glad you did,” Auguste said. “It pains me to think you’d carry hatred like that in your heart for so long. It’s good that you were able to let it go, and to forgive. It was war, baby brother. And we were the crown princes, doing our duty. It’s the way of such things.”
Laurent shivered and pressed closer, tucking his head under Auguste’s chin. “You’re too good for this world,” he whispered. “What did I ever do to deserve a brother like you?”
“I could say the same,” Auguste said.
For a long time they were quiet, and then Auguste poked him hard in the ribs and said the most annoying thing in the world. “If you want him you’d better move fast, else I might decide to take him for myself.”
“Auguste,” Laurent groaned, equal parts irritated and embarrassed.
“What? He’s handsome enough. And they say he likes blondes. You don’t think I’d have a chance?”
Laurent had forgotten that this was what it was like sometimes. Sometimes, Auguste was a monster.
Auguste was shaking apart with laughter as Laurent used a pillow to smack him in the face, and for once everything was just as it should be.
Laurent woke to a warm room bathed in sunlight, and the sun itself in bed beside him.
“You’re really here,” Laurent whispered. He’d half convinced himself that it had all just been a beautiful dream, but through some miracle it was real.
“As are you,” Auguste whispered back, and pressed a kiss to his forehead.
Auguste rose with a groan and reached for his clothes, and Laurent helped him lace himself back into proper Veretian garments.
He didn’t bother to do the same for himself. It was morning and already hot, he couldn’t bear to put the jacket or boots back on. The trousers he was wearing were already more clothing than he’d grown accustomed to, and he was shocked to find himself longing for a simple linen chiton.
They walked into the main room to see Ancel and Nicaise devouring breakfast at the table, and Jord and Orlant speaking with Damen.
“Sire,” Jord breathed out, eyes wide as he took in Auguste standing before him.
Auguste laughed and stepped forward to embrace him, and then Orlant. They held each other like brothers in arms did- close and heartfelt, if brief. Afterwards Auguste greeted Nicaise and Ancel.
The older boy seemed properly star-struck, but Nicaise scowled as he pretended not to be impressed by his King. Still, there was a faint blush over his cheeks.
The seven of them arranged themselves around the table and Laurent poured himself some water while he pondered what they had to do.
“I don’t know what’s going on in Vere,” he said. “But we have evidence. Damen- do you still have those letters between Uncle and Kastor?”
“And then there’s our testimonies. It should be enough for a trial. Hopefully.”
“There won’t be a trial,” Auguste said, and at his tone the temperature in the room seemed to drop a few degrees. Auguste looked at Laurent firmly, and then swept his gaze over the others in the room. “There won’t be a trial,” he repeated. “There will only be an execution.”
Laurent had imagined so many possibilities. He’d imagined Uncle, plotting and building up a base of power, spreading lies. He’d imagined Uncle surrounding himself with supporters and consolidating his power in Arles.
He hadn’t imagined that Auguste might be alive and countering Uncle’s plans.
“Councillor Guion’s wife came to me,” Auguste said quietly. “She told me that her husband had- had allowed Uncle… access to their youngest son. Aimeric.”
Ancel flushed, and in that moment Laurent knew for sure what had transpired between him and Uncle while he’d been Uncle’s pet. It was sickening.
“I exiled Uncle to Acquitart,” Auguste continued. “Almost a year ago, now. I am the King, and I have all the evidence I need. We’ll go to Acquitart, and there will be no trial. Only justice.”
Laurent was struck with a memory from long ago. When he was seven a nursemaid had tried to throttle him. Auguste had walked in, and grabbed her by the throat, and dashed her head against the stone wall. She’d been dead after one hit, but in his fury Auguste had done it again, and again.
When he was ten he’d watched his first execution. He didn’t remember what the man had done to warrant being flogged to death, but he remembered that when the executioner had wrenched his shoulder midway through it was Auguste who had gone down into the yard and taken up the whip.
It was so easy to think of Auguste as sunshine incarnate, easier still once he’d been gone. But Laurent had forgotten that this was what it was like sometimes. Sometimes, Auguste was a monster.
Auguste smiled, a vicious showing of teeth rather than an expression of joy. Laurent smiled back and felt vindicated that he wasn’t the only one harboring violent fantasies.
“We’ll strip the skin off his back,” Laurent said.
“Yes,” Auguste answered.
“I’m coming with you,” Damen announced. When everyone turned to look at him in shock he only smiled. “Your Uncle has caused me a great deal of trouble as well. I’d like to see this finished.”
Auguste agreed, and after that there was a whirlwind of preparations.
Laurent and Nicaise and Ancel bid the rest of Damen’s slaves farewell, and hugged Lykaios, and gathered what few things they had.
It wasn’t what they’d need for a long journey, but it seemed Damen had prepared for it in advance and there were riding clothes waiting for them, Veretian garments as well as Akielon clothes and sandals.
Laurent dressed in a chiton, and could only smile as he walked out into the courtyard under his brother’s shocked gaze.
“Unlike you, I won’t be fainting from the heat,” Laurent said as he mounted his horse.
Damen only laughed, and Laurent thought maybe he was pleased.
It was a strange journey, oddly festive for what their end goal was. But how could Laurent not feel festive, with his brother returned to him?
Damen was a distant presence, until a week into their ride when Laurent volunteered to get water from a near-by stream.
“I thought you were happy before,” Damen said from behind him, nearly causing him to drop the bucket. Laurent straightened and turned to face him.
“It was nothing,” Damen continued, “compared to this.”
“My brother is returned from the dead,” Laurent said as Damen walked closer. “It’s all I ever wanted. All I could ever bear to want.”
“Is that so?” Damen asked, stopping close to brush a lock of hair out of Laurent’s face.
Laurent had to close his eyes for a moment, and breathe deep.
“Is there nothing else you want, now?” Damen murmured.
Abruptly Laurent was struck with old fantasies- Damen pressing him down into the sheets, kissing him and touching him, making love to him. They felt real, possible, in a way they hadn’t before.
He didn’t know what to say as he stared up into Damen’s face, as Damen ran the backs of his knuckles gently over his cheek.
“I don’t…” he whispered.
“Don’t what?” Damen asked.
Laurent didn’t know what to say.
Orlant yelled something and Damen turned to answer, and the moment was broken. And yet- Laurent knew. Damen still wanted him. And he wanted Damen too.
They stopped at an inn close to the border. Laurent got a room to share with Auguste, as they’d done all along. After supper he massaged salve into Auguste’s bad knee and they laughed about silly stories from the past. Eventually Auguste fell asleep and Laurent found himself oddly restless.
They’d be in Vere tomorrow. And then everything would be different.
He paced the room, nervous. Oddly enough he wished for the familiar weight of his slave cuffs, but they were gone now. He was no longer a slave, if he’d ever been.
When he left the room it was as a free man. And it was as a free man that he nodded to the guards stationed at Damen’s door, and walked inside.
Damen was sitting in bed, reading a letter, but he looked up when Laurent came in. Damen’s chest was bare. The gentle light of the lamp on his nightstand spilled over his dark skin, his muscular physique, leaving him limned in gold. Laurent was struck all over again by how handsome he was and felt his heartbeat quickening.
Damen stayed silent as Laurent walked over, and it felt like every step brought him closer to some dangerous precipice.
“Laurent,” Damen said, slowly.
“That wasn’t what you called me before,” Laurent said, moving to climb onto the bed.
“Sweetheart,” Damen whispered, and reached for him.
Laurent shivered and pressed closer. He was the one to bring their lips together for their first kiss. For his first kiss.
Damen’s lips were warm and slick and open. Laurent wasn’t quite sure what to do, and Damen seemed hesitant.
“Damen,” Laurent whispered, feeling rubbed raw already. “I want…”
“Do you?” Damen asked. “Want? Truly?”
“Yes,” Laurent said. “Yes. I think… I wanted you even then. But I couldn’t…”
“With Auguste’s ghost between us.”
“Yes,” Laurent said, flushing. “It’s different now. Please.”
Damen took him in his arms and pressed close for a kiss, and it was suddenly easy to let him, to open for him.
Laurent had thought about this so many times, but thinking couldn’t compare to the way Damen was turning and pushing him down into the sheets, and trailing his fingertips up Laurent’s thighs.
He wasn’t sure how this was meant to go, but when Damen kissed him, and pulled open the lion pin keeping Laurent’s chiton fastened, it felt right.
“Please,” Laurent whispered.
“Please what?” Damen asked, curiously.
“I don’t know,” Laurent managed, with more honesty than he’d intended.
Slowly Damen opened his garments and left him bare for his attentions. Laurent shivered, but there wasn’t time to be shy with the way Damen was kissing his throat, and chest, and working his way downwards.
Surely he wouldn’t- surely those sorts of acts were reserved for women and slaves-
Laurent arched and moaned when Damen took him in his mouth, sucking gently and massaging his tongue over the underside of Laurent’s cock.
“Damen,” Laurent whispered. It felt so good. Good enough that he had no other thoughts in his mind, no thoughts of battle and death. Only this- pleasure, freely given and received.
He was overwhelmed by the slick heat of Damen’s mouth on him, the soft sounds they made together. He trembled at Damen’s affections and clutched at Damen’s hair, trying desperately not to pull or thrust up. It was just as overwhelming as he thought it would be, even better than he dreamed.
Damen pulled off, and smiled, and kissed his hip. “Would you like to keep going like this? Or…?”
“I want all of you,” Laurent said, and flushed.
Damen moved back to get a vial of oil and slicked his fingers while Laurent could only watch. Damen settled between his spread legs and pulled one up to his shoulder, leaving him totally open and exposed. It felt oddly thrilling to be here like this. And then Damen touched him, and Laurent couldn’t think of anything but Damen’s fingers on him, inside him.
For once he was purely in his body, his mind silent. There was no room for thought as Damen pushed his fingers in and out, opening him tenderly. He turned his head to kiss Laurent’s knee and did something with his fingers that made a wave of pleasure roll through him.
“Oh,” Laurent gasped, and Damen did it again, and again. He’d never been this hard before, this full of desire. The room was hazy around them, lit only by lamp light, and everything narrowed to where they were touching. There was no world outside this room, outside their bodies, so close together.
By the time Damen deemed him ready he was dizzy with want, his heart beating loud in his ears.
“Tell me if you want to stop,” Damen whispered. “Or slow, or do something else. Promise you’ll tell me.”
“Yes,” Laurent whispered back, and then Damen was shifting and pushing his legs open further, moving to press inside him.
Laurent groaned, throwing his head back. Damen’s cock was bigger than his fingers had been and the stretch of it was hot and glorious.
Damen was a generous lover, setting a slow easy pace that had Laurent gasping with each thrust. He angled his body so that he hit that spot inside that felt particularly good, and pressed kisses to Laurent’s throat, his parted lips.
“Damen,” Laurent moaned and wrapped his arms around Damen’s shoulders. He could feel the muscles in his back shifting as he moved, rolling with each thrust in the most delicious way. He’d never imagined it quite like this- the visceral animal pleasure of it, the way the sweat rose to his skin where they were pressed together.
It was so much more real than he could have ever anticipated.
There was pressure building at the base of his spine, his cock, everywhere. His heart was pounding and Damen sped up, drawing broken sounds out of him that made him flush. But Damen was making sounds too, and then he moved to stroke Laurent’s cock in time with his thrusts and Laurent felt himself falling apart, shattering in the sweetest way.
He’d never been able to finish, before. Now he knew he wouldn’t be able to stop it.
“Damen,” he gasped, and, “Damen, Damen- Damen!”
“Sweetheart,” Damen whispered and Laurent sobbed as he felt his release come upon him, felt every muscle in his body tightening before relaxing. It seemed to last a very long time, and Damen continued to move inside him through it, and then he pressed his face to the curve of Laurent’s neck and groaned, and came too.
When he pulled back Laurent could only smile, and then he looked down at the mess he’d made over his stomach, the mess they’d made over the sheets, and laughed. Damen kissed him, swallowing his laughter with his greedy mouth.
“How was your First Night?” Damen asked teasingly, biting at Laurent’s earlobe.
“Oh, is it over already?” Laurent asked, breathless.
Damen pulled back to look at him, his eyes glittering with mischief. “Do you want it to be?”
“No,” Laurent said, wrapping his arms around Damen’s neck to drag him closer. “Let’s do it again.”
Laurent snuck back into his own room before Auguste woke and dressed in Veretian clothes. He’d need his armor, if he was to see Uncle.
They rode for Acquitart, a somber mood taking the group over, and reached it by noon. They’d agreed that Auguste would go in first with his guard and the rest of the party would follow after.
Laurent felt restless and his horse must have sensed it, because she shifted from foot to foot while they waited on a ridge overlooking the castle.
Damen reached out and set a hand on his shoulder, his calm strength seeming to soak into him and wash some of the restlessness away.
“Maybe you should stay here,” Laurent said. It wouldn’t be pretty, what they were going to do to Uncle, and he was going to enjoy it a great deal. He didn’t want Damen to see that side of him, and think less of him.
“I’d like to see you through this,” Damen said firmly and Laurent knew there’d be no reasoning with him. He was a crown prince- he was used to getting his way.
They gave Auguste a fifteen minute head start before following.
The gate was already open, the retainer Arnoul waiting to greet them. At his signal, the gate began to close.
Laurent dismounted from his horse, his heart racing. His thoughts were racing too, running through endless worst-case scenarios. What if Uncle wasn’t here? What if he had some sort of back-up plan? What if he hurt Auguste?
He heard faint shouting in the distance, coming from the keep. As the shouting got louder he shivered, recognizing Uncle’s voice.
“Wait! You can’t do this! I- you need me! I know where Laurent is, I know- if you- if you execute me you’ll never find him-”
Laurent clasped his hands behind his back and stood ramrod straight. Auguste stormed out of the keep, flanked by his guard and dragging Uncle along with a firm grip on the back of his collar. He tossed Uncle down the steps with a snarl. Uncle tumbled inelegantly to the dirt. It was strange to see him brought low when he’d always been in control before.
Laurent wasn’t sure what he was feeling as Uncle finally looked up and saw him, his eyes widening.
“Laurent,” he whispered.
Laurent tilted his head to the side, wondering what was going through Uncle’s mind as he stared at Laurent, at Nicaise and Ancel beside him, at Jord and Orlant. What did he think of the fact that Damen was here, with soldiers of his own?
“Hello Uncle,” Laurent said, ice stealing into his tone.
“Laurent- I’m so happy to see you,” Uncle said. “I- I’m so glad you’re safe-”
“I tire of your lies,” Auguste said, coming down the steps. He didn’t have his cane. The sun reflected off his golden hair, hiding the gray. He looked like an avenging angel as he drew his dagger. “Perhaps I’ll cut out your tongue.”
“I find his lies quite entertaining, brother,” Laurent said, stepping forward. He was vaguely aware of soldiers in Akielon red and Veretian blue working together to set up a whipping post, but everything that wasn’t Uncle and Auguste seemed to fade away.
“I’m not lying,” Uncle insisted. “You have to understand- everything I did was for you-”
Laurent laughed. “Go on, Uncle. Tell us another.”
He hadn’t expected to feel pity at Uncle’s pathetic attempts to save his hide. He hadn’t expected to feel such disgust.
“Tie him to the post,” Auguste ordered. Jord and Orlant were the ones that stepped forward to drag him to the post and cut his clothes open at the back. Auguste held out his hand and someone handed him a whip.
“Would you like to start, baby brother?” he asked. “Or should I?”
“Perhaps we should flip a coin,” Laurent said, circling the post as Uncle trembled with fear.
“You can’t-” Uncle tried again. “You- do you see what they’re like?” This time he addressed the soldiers, Arnoul, maybe even Damen. “They’re rabid vicious dogs! Unfit to rule! Aleron was the same- bad in the blood. I was only trying to protect the realm-”
That time Laurent and Auguste laughed together.
“And you wanted to cut out his tongue,” Laurent murmured. “I haven’t laughed this hard in ages. How long do you think this will take?”
“A while,” Auguste answered.
“Then I suppose I’ll have to get comfortable.” Laurent motioned to one of the soldiers and they brought over a chair. He sat where he’d have a good view of Uncle’s face and crossed his legs casually.
Nicaise sat beside him on the ground, leaning his head against his knee with a yawn. Ancel followed. He was trembling and Laurent set a hand on his shoulder, hoping he’d find it a comfort.
“Go on, brother,” Laurent said and Auguste grinned. It was a terrible thing, dark and feral, and Laurent felt an answering smirk tugging at his lips. Bad in the blood. Maybe. In that moment he didn’t care.
Uncle gritted his teeth and fought not to scream as Auguste began, but as it went on he couldn’t stop himself. He pleaded for his life and made wild promises and accusations. Laurent filed each and every one of them away on the off chance that any ended up being true. He’d find out for himself once this was over.
It must have lasted for half an hour or more, and still it went on. Uncle was mostly silent. Auguste’s hair was wild, his face speckled with blood.
“Brother,” came a strong voice behind Laurent and he stiffened. He’d forgotten Damen was here, and suddenly he was afraid of what he’d think of the cruel display before him.
Auguste looked up, breathing hard.
“You’ll aggravate your knee,” Damen said calmly. “Let me finish it for you.”
Auguste seemed lost and oddly uncertain. He glanced back at Laurent as if asking for permission. Laurent felt the anger at everything Uncle had done boiling inside him and knew he wanted Uncle to suffer forever. Damen set his hand on Laurent’s shoulder and squeezed in reassurance, and suddenly the anger drained away. It was over already. There was no sense in drawing it out.
Laurent nodded and Auguste dropped the whip to the ground.
Damen stepped forward, unsheathing his sword, and finished it.
Acquitart was a small keep, but there was room enough for everyone in their party to be quartered comfortably. The room that Uncle had been residing in was left empty.
Laurent was in a tower room, his childhood bedroom. He stood at the window, watching as Auguste’s soldiers dug a grave outside the keep’s walls. Uncle’s final resting place would be unmarked, his name struck from the histories. It was still better than he deserved.
There was a quiet knock on the door before it opened and heavy footsteps approached. Laurent didn’t need to turn to see who it was. There were only two people who might come to speak to him just now, and Auguste was in no condition to ascend the stairs.
“What must you think of me now,” Laurent said softly.
“I think,” Damen started, just as softly, “that I’m glad you and Auguste are my allies, rather than my enemies. It is not my place to decide how you deal with what’s been done to you.”
“I thought Auguste was dead,” Laurent said. “I thought- for four years it felt like my heart had been ripped out.”
“I was unfair to you,” Laurent added. “I’m sorry.”
Damen stepped closer and wrapped an arm around his waist. Laurent leaned into him, turning to rest his head against Damen’s shoulder.
“I wonder sometimes,” Damen said softly. “If I couldn’t have handled this better. If I could have… told you, perhaps. That I knew who you were, that Auguste…”
“I wouldn’t have believed you,” Laurent said. “I would have thought it was a cruel joke. I would have… I’m not sure what I would have done.”
When he looked up it was to see that Damen was watching him with a small smile. He leaned in and pressed a tender kiss to Laurent’s lips. The thought that Damen might still want him after the horrific display in the yard made him dizzy.
“You saved my life,” Damen said. “You saved my father’s life. More than once, I think. You’re entirely singular.”
Laurent managed a small smile, still too shaken for more than that.
“What will you do now?” Damen asked.
“I’ll go to Arles with Auguste,” Laurent answered. “And I’ll stand at his side, and unravel Uncle’s plots, and destroy anyone who would dare move against him.”
Damen smiled. “You know, at the back of my mind… I’d really hoped you’d come home with me, to Ios.”
“Home is Auguste,” Laurent said. “But maybe you’ll visit Vere someday.”
“Someday,” Damen agreed.
They turned back to the window and watched the sun setting together.
Chapter 7: Epilogue
Thanks for reading and commenting! Hope you all enjoy the last installment :)
Damen couldn’t help but to feel nervous as he ascended the steps to the palace in Arles. Auguste strode out to greet him and Damen smiled to see he was without his cane.
“Brother, you’re looking well,” Auguste said.
“As are you,” Damen said, and meant it.
Auguste seemed so much healthier now than he’d been when they’d last seen each other two years ago. He still had streaks of gray in his hair but they seemed more silver now, and his limp was nearly gone.
“Laurent makes sure I don’t neglect my health,” Auguste said, smiling as brightly as the sun.
“And where is Laurent?” Damen asked, fighting for a casual tone and not quite sure he’d managed it.
“You know how he is,” Auguste said, waving his hand dismissively, and Damen felt a pang in his heart as he realized- he didn’t, not really. Most of what he thought he’d known of Laurent had been a fabrication. He’d only ever gotten to see the truth in glimpses- his bookish nature, his wit, his devotion to his brother. His capacity for cruelty and forgiveness, the soft look in his eyes as he came undone, and moaned Damen’s name.
“He’s probably out foiling some plot, or terrorizing the servants,” Auguste continued. “He’ll be along on his own time.”
“Like a cat,” Damen found himself saying. Auguste laughed.
There was a banquet that night with an approximately endless stream of courses, and an entertainment by a pet that Damen recognized. It was Ancel, nineteen now or maybe twenty. He’d grown taller and filled out, grown into the proportions of a man rather than a coltish boy. He performed some sort of fire dance, the fire playing over his striking hair and bathing the hall in red and orange light. Ancel was wearing a sapphire earring- one of the earrings Damen had gifted to Laurent for his fifteenth birthday.
“Hello, giant animal,” another familiar voice said.
“Nicaise,” Damen greeted him as the boy casually ushered a guest out of his seat to take it for himself. At fourteen he still looked like a boy, and was covered from neck to toe in elaborate Veretian garments. He was even wearing gloves made of blue lace. The other sapphire earring dangled from his ear and he seemed to make a point of turning his head so it would catch the light.
If it was some message from Laurent, Damen had no idea what it meant.
Ancel finished his performance and winked at Damen before bowing and taking his leave. To Damen’s surprise Ancel went over to sit in the lap of the sternest most buttoned-up Lord in the entire hall. The Lord’s eyes softened as he offered Ancel a tiny fruit tart and Ancel leaned in to take it from his fingers using only his mouth, looking at him flirtatiously all the while. The Lord flushed endearingly, suddenly looking younger and totally smitten.
“Ancel looks happy,” Damen said, pleased.
“He is happy,” Nicaise said dismissively, as though the mere notion of it was somehow ridiculous. “I have no idea why. Berenger is a bore, no matter how rich he is.”
The evening proceeded pleasantly enough between the entertaining ribbing from Nicaise and the heartfelt conversation with Auguste. It was late when Damen found himself strolling through the gardens for a breath of fresh air, hoping to catch a glimpse of golden hair that never came.
Laurent was nowhere to be found on the second day, or the third. That night Auguste invited him back to his rooms and they drank wine and laughed about nothing. Damen got drunker than he’d intended and by midnight he found himself feeling a little morose as Auguste topped off his glass.
“Does he not want to see me?” Damen asked, and knew he didn’t have to explain who he was talking about.
Auguste laughed. “All he’s talked about for weeks was your visit.”
Damen frowned and took a deep drink. “So why…”
Auguste shrugged. “Maybe it’s one of his games. You might try catching him in the stables. He goes for a ride every evening, and comes back just before sundown.”
“Thank you.” Damen smiled and Auguste patted him on the shoulder.
The next evening Damen went down to the stables as the sun was setting and his breath caught in his throat as he saw Laurent brushing down his horse.
At fifteen he’d been lovely. At seventeen he’d had a youthful beauty and grace about him. At nineteen- he was breathtaking.
He’d cut his hair shorter into a Veretian style. It was trim at the back and longer near the front so his golden locks fell to frame his face. He was taller, and broader. He was laced up from neck to toe in simple but well-made Veretian garments, dark blue velvet embroidered with gold starbursts, to complement his coloring.
He looked up as Damen approached, his expression betraying nothing.
“Laurent,” Damen greeted him warmly.
“Prince Damianos,” Laurent said, stiff and unyielding.
Damen frowned. This wasn’t the welcome he’d been hoping for. “Are you angry with me?”
“Angry?” Laurent asked, tilting his head to the side. “Certainly not. I’d only figured you were finished with me, on account of our irreconcilable differences.”
“You let our correspondence lapse,” Laurent said. “After I brought up the matter of the slaves.”
Damen winced and ran a hand through his hair. They’d been corresponding through letters ever since Laurent’s return to Vere. A year back he’d brought up his distaste for slavery as an institution, and although Damen found himself agreeing, it wasn’t entirely in his power to abolish the practice.
“I-” Damen started and wasn’t quite sure how to finish. “It’s not that simple.”
“The kyroi, of course,” Laurent said with a cool nod. “That’s why I sent you a very well-outlined plan for how to proceed, after which I received no response. I assumed you wished the discussion to end.”
Damen winced as he thought of the thick stack of papers he’d received a few months back, bearing Laurent’s seal. “It wasn’t that. I was simply- busy. The duties of the Crown Prince, you understand.”
“Do I?” Laurent asked, his gaze piercing.
Damen tried not to wince again. He had been busy, but not exactly with state matters. There had been an okton to prepare for, and tours on the border, and banquets. His birthday, his fathers’s, a minor issue with Kastor and Jocaste. He knew well enough not to bring it up.
Laurent probably already knew, for one. Based on some of the things he wrote in his letters he clearly had spies in Ios- Lykaios perhaps. Damen knew they wrote to each other. For another- it all seemed like a poor excuse for the delay.
“I’m sorry,” he settled for at last. “I’m still willing to… entertain your ideas on the matter.”
“I’m finished with entertainment for the evening,” Laurent said cooly. “Let’s settle things once and for all, in a way a barbarian like you can understand. With a duel.”
“A- a duel?” Damen asked incredulously.
“Are you hard of hearing?” Laurent asked with a faint frown. “Yes. A duel. If I win- you’ll enact my plan and end slavery in Akielos. If you win- I’ll remain silent on the matter, and our correspondence can continue as before.”
“Really?” It was too good to be true. Damen had no doubt he could win against Laurent. He’d won against Auguste, after all. And Laurent couldn’t possibly be as good, seeing as how he’d spent four years in a slave harem in Akielos rather than in training. Even if he’d trained with a sword over the past two years, there was no way he could rival Damen’s own experience.
“You have my word,” Laurent said. He seemed perfectly confident and for a moment Damen considered that this might be a trap.
But even Laurent- ridiculous, incredible Laurent- couldn’t think himself into becoming the superior swordsman.
“When?” Damen asked.
“I seem to be free now,” Laurent said, looking pointedly around the empty stables. “Unless you have a prior engagement? Perhaps there’s a pet that’s caught your eye.”
“Now is fine,” Damen said, flushing and hoping his dark complexion would hide it. Based on Laurent’s sharp look, he knew it didn’t.
He followed Laurent to a private training yard. It seemed surprisingly intimate, lit by oil lamps set into the wall and fragrant with sawdust. Laurent seemed to take a long time selecting a sword from the racks arranged around the walls while Damen simply picked a sword that was the closest to what he was used to and did a few practice swings.
He watched Laurent coming closer with a long elegant blade, more similar to a saber than a sword. He stood stiffly, no doubt uncomfortable in his tightly laced garments. He made a striking figure as he stood with his chin up and held the sword almost lazily, the tip resting in the sawdust.
“Would you care to change into something more appropriate?” Damen asked.
“Would you?” Laurent countered, letting his gaze slide pointedly over Damen’s bare arms and thighs, revealed by his chiton.
Damen shivered, a slow wave of heat rising through him. He wasn’t sure what sort of mood Laurent was in, just now. But suddenly the air felt heavy.
Laurent neatly dodged the first few blows, not even deigning to raise his sword. So it was games then, clever tactics. He was hoping to tire Damen out. Damen came at him again with a quick series of strikes and Laurent finally began to parry, the steel of his sword sliding sinuously against his. Damen recognized Auguste’s influence in the Veretian tactics- dodge and evade, parry prettily while conserving strength. But those tactics hadn’t worked for Auguste and they wouldn’t work for Laurent. Damen had a lot of strength to spare, he wouldn’t be tired out so soon.
He disengaged and pulled back, shifting his stance and circling Laurent slowly, taking in his posture. Laurent stood perfectly still, letting Damen get behind him.
It was a ridiculous thing to do, dangerous. Damen raised his sword and Laurent dragged his foot sharply backwards, kicking up a cloud of sawdust. Damen sputtered and reared back, his eyes stinging, and then Laurent was coming at him through the haze.
“Dirty trick,” Damen gasped as Laurent attacked with a purely Akielon set of strikes. It was only due to muscle memory that he was able to block the blows. “I thought this would be a fair fight.”
“There’s no such thing as a fair fight,” Laurent said and shifted forms until he was fighting with some mix of styles that Damen couldn’t quite predict.
It was breathtaking, and impossible. “You trained,” Damen managed. “In Akielos.”
“Yes,” Laurent said. “Not all of us were busy fucking slaves.”
Damen disarmed him and instead of being deterred Laurent ducked inside his guard and elbowed him in the solar plexus. Damen fell back, more from the shock than the pain of it, and Laurent made for a close-by sword rack to grab another weapon.
“How many lovers have you taken to bed, since me?” Laurent demanded, and threw a sword at him. The throw went wide and Damen wasn't sure if that was by accident or design.
Damen rolled out of the way, coming up panting. Laurent threw another.
“Laurent-!” he gasped.
“How many?” Laurent insisted. It seemed he was finished throwing swords for the time being because he stalked away from the weapons rack with a blade in each hand- a shortsword in his left and something that looked curved, like a sickle, in his right.
“You're- jealous?” Damen asked incredulously. Was that what all this was about?
Laurent scowled and launched into a whirlwind attack like Vaskian tribeswomen favored. Damen had only seen such tactics at a distance, at weapons exhibitions and in play fights. He had no idea how to guard against two blades with only one of his own.
“Have you found another pretty blond to replace me?” Laurent asked. “Erasmus, perhaps. He always seemed so eager to ride your cock.”
“Laurent,” Damen tried, on the defensive now as he tried to keep back from Laurent’s blades. “It’s been two years! Surely you didn’t expect-”
“Why not?” Laurent asked. Damen managed to disarm him, pulling the sickle out of his hand, but that meant he still had the shortsword. He flipped it from his left hand into his right. While Damen watched the showy maneuver, dumbstruck, Laurent tried to kick him in the balls. Damen avoided it, barely.
“I waited for you,” Laurent said, pushing forward with a flurry of blows. “I didn’t take any other lovers, no matter how many offered.” He was flushed and panting, his skin glistening with sweat. Damen thought of their night together, and how perfect it had been. How Laurent had opened to him so sweetly.
“Instead I lay in bed, alone, touching myself- pushing oiled fingers inside myself while thinking of you, and moaning your name-” Laurent broke off even as his attacks didn’t stop, and when he spoke again his voice was breathy and low. “Damen.”
Damen faltered, his mind imploding with shock and desire. The thought that Laurent had touched himself to thoughts of him, had waited-
Laurent disarmed him, and in the same movement hooked his foot around the back of Damen’s knee, sending him falling to his back in the sawdust. He followed, straddling Damen’s hips and setting his sword to Damen’s neck.
“I win,” he said with a mischievous glint in his eyes. Suddenly he didn’t look the least bit upset. If anything he seemed delighted.
Damen tensed in shock only to relax. “I’ve been had,” he muttered.
“Not yet,” Laurent said, and bent to kiss him.
Damen opened his mouth with a moan as his hands drifted to Laurent’s hips. He wanted to push up into the kiss but couldn’t with the dull practice blade at his throat. Somehow that felt oddly thrilling.
“Laces,” Laurent demanded between kisses, and Damen raised shaking hands to try and pull open the laces of Laurent’s jacket. “Not those,” Laurent said and Damen flushed, and let his hands drop uncertainly lower, to the laces keeping Laurent’s trousers closed.
Laurent’s erection strained the fabric, only making this more difficult, but Laurent moaned and shifted at every accidental brush of Damen’s fingers against him, rubbing his ass against Damen’s cock.
Finally the damned laces came loose and Damen shoved Laurent’s pants open far enough to get a hand inside. Laurent moaned, turning away from their kiss to pant against the side of Damen’s neck. He allowed himself to be touched for a few moments before rising up on his knees and throwing the sword off to the side. He pulled his pants down to his thighs and reached back, flipping up the hem of Damen’s chiton and taking hold of his cock.
He sank down on it in one slow easy slide, moaning breathily.
Damen’s head was spinning. Laurent was already slick inside. He must have been throughout their fight- for his ride? Or was the ride a ruse?
“You planned this,” Damen panted, pleasure already threatening to overwhelm him. Laurent was so hot inside, so impossibly tight.
Laurent laughed, a wonderful uncomplicated sound, and started to move, to ride him. Damen groaned and let his head fall back against the sawdust, staring up at Laurent moving over him. His jacket was still perfectly laced but his hair was a messy golden halo, and he had such a look of abandoned pleasure over his face that Damen felt overwhelmed with lust.
Sex had never felt like this, this wild and out of control. Damen had always taken the lead with his lovers, but letting Laurent have his way with him like this was an exquisite new pleasure.
“Touch me,” Laurent demanded and Damen wrapped a hand around his cock, trying to stroke him in time with his movements.
Laurent gasped and tightened, drawing another groan from Damen’s lips.
“Fuck,” he managed. “Gods- Laurent.”
Laurent screwed his eyes shut and bit his lip, intent on chasing his own pleasure. He was so beautiful. Damen sped up his hand and the motion of Laurent’s hips faltered. He made a small broken sound and then he was spilling over Damen’s hand and stomach.
“Laurent,” Damen groaned, dragging him down for a kiss as he braced his feet on the ground and fucked up into Laurent’s body. It only took a few thrusts with how turned on he was, how close he was. And then he sighed and let his head drop back against the ground.
Laurent lay on top of him for a few moments more, his breathing slowing, and then he winced and got to his feet, and pulled his pants up. He offered Damen his hand and Damen took it, surprised all over again at Laurent’s strength when he pulled Damen up.
“Come,” Laurent said, drawing him away.
Damen could only follow as Laurent led them to the baths beside the training room.
“Attend me,” Laurent ordered, holding out his hand. Damen took it reverently and unlaced the sleeve before moving on to the other, then opening the laces down the middle. He drew the jacket away, followed by the white undershirt, marveling at all the skin on display for him.
After two years away from the Ios sun Laurent looked like a marble statue once more. His skin was very fine, but Damen found himself missing the warm golden hue of before, the freckles. He knelt and took one of Laurent’s feet, setting it on his knee to unlace his boot, caressing his ankle and calf through the supple leather. He followed with the other boot, and then helped him off with his pants.
Damen’s own clothing was simple enough. His sandals came off easily, and then all he had to do was remove his belt and the pin that held his chiton together, and he stood nude before Laurent, who was watching with a small smile.
“Come,” Laurent said, leading Damen into a bath full of warm water that smelled pleasantly of minerals.
Damen sat on a stone ledge and Laurent climbed into his lap like he belonged there. They kissed lazily for a long time while Damen ran his hands over Laurent’s body and through his hair, and Laurent melted into his touch.
“It seems Akielos is getting rid of slavery,” Laurent said with laughter in his voice. “Who could have thought.”
“Laurent,” Damen groaned. He’d completely forgotten about their wager. “You cheated.”
Laurent laughed. “So? Will you go back on your word?”
“No,” Damen said, raising his hand to stroke the side of Laurent’s face. He knew Laurent was right, and he really had been thinking about it. But all of a sudden it seemed like a painfully daunting undertaking.
“Don’t worry, my dear barbarian,” Laurent said, leaning close to press kisses down his neck. “I’ll help you.”
“Yes, I know,” Damen smiled. “Your fifty-two point plan. It’s on my desk, back in Ios.”
“Oh, so you did open it,” Lauren said dryly. “I wasn’t sure.”
Damen flushed and Laurent bit his earlobe playfully.
“It’s fifty-seven points now,” Laurent said. “I’ll show you the updated clauses. But that’s not entirely what I meant.”
“What did you mean?”
“Things are different now,” Laurent said, smiling. “Auguste’s reign is secure, the traitors ousted from court. It won’t last, of course. But things are stable enough for now. I thought I’d come to Ios with you, when you go.”
Damen felt fit to bursting with joy. “For how long?”
Laurent shrugged. “How long will you have me?”
Laurent flushed, but he looked pleased. “I’ll have to return to Vere every once in a while to check up on Auguste, but otherwise… forever sounds… good.”
“So it’s decided.”
“Listen close, Damianos,” Laurent said, suddenly fierce as he took Damen’s face in his hands. “If you take any lovers but me after this- I’ll leave. I’ll leave you, and I won’t come back.”
“There won’t be anyone but you,” Damen said in the solemn tone of an oath. “You’ve ruined me for anyone else.”
Laurent flushed with pleasure and moved to wrap his arms around his shoulders, hiding his face against Damen’s neck, and whispered-