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“I hear the King of Akielos has sent me a gift.”

For all his automatic, careless loathing of all things Akielon, there was still a part of Laurent that greeted the cyborg warrior, clamped firmly in the magnetic bonds and outfitted with a gag and dampening collars, with reluctant curiosity. The technology of Akielos was alien, intrusive, obscene – but fascinating, for all that. Laurent might hate the people, but still find the technology useful. And he needed all the help he could get – he could not afford to be precious, now, about where it was from.

Then Laurent took in the particulars of this cyborg, his slave, an insulting gift from the newly minted, clanking King of Akielos – and for a moment could not feel anything at all, as though he were made of nothing but cold metal himself.

It was a small room, full of too many people, but for a moment it seemed to hold only one. Or, half of one.

The right arm: a mix of flesh and metal that seemed uniquely organic, having been planned and grown and modified from birth to be used in battle. The left leg: metal from bared toe to broad thigh, where it disappeared beneath the short garment, entirely inhuman. Then the head raised and the eyes glowed from within, with a bronze, furious light.

Impossible.

Around him, courtiers spoke of the other slaves sent along from Akielos – all reassuringly, but also boringly, entirely organic. No modifications at all – no, not genetic, either. The Akielons preferred their slaves au natural. So archaic. Not like pets at all.

The conversations took on a faint air of unreality. Laurent would have happily slaughtered them all for a chance to think without their discordant hormones, their shifting colors distracting him now, when he needed clarity the most. Not to mention the scattering of eyes and ears watching and waiting to report back to his uncle.

It could not be possible Laurent was truly the only one in this room to know the slave for who he was. What he was.

But then, most of those who faced Damianos at Marlas and Sanpelier were dead, or serving on the border at Delfeur. Anyone else – Akielos had closed its borders to Vere, electronically and physically, years before. But Laurent had been there. And more, he had obsessively cobbled all he could find of the footage of the battle, from their own archives and through careful hacking of the secretive Akielon systems.

Councillor Guion held up small hand-held device of Akielon make, which Laurent, after a moment, recovered enough to take. It was cold in his hand, and heavy.

“To control the EMP cuffs, Your Highness. They’re currently activated, but I’m told he managed to cause some difficulty on the flight over regardless. Hence, the magnetic locks.”

Any other time, Laurent would have been excited to see a piece of the notoriously private Akielon technology in person, after years of scraps carefully hoarded and files salvaged and hacked.

Passing the device idly from hand to hand, Laurent watched the captive intently track its path, back and forth, following the arc of each toss. No one else in the room truly marked his identity in the slightest, except to marvel over his robotic additions, his brutish strength, his well-made face, ruined by the tracing of circuitry.

Laurent, who felt as though he were the one with optobionics, capable of replaying a scene that overlaid the one before him, saw it again: his brother, falling. Again. Again. Again. And of course, his opponent. Damianos. How he moved. How he fought. How he killed.

Now here in the flesh in front of Laurent, as he would never see his brother again, was Damianos. Shackled. Inhuman limbs frozen and dead. Eyes burning. Alive.

Laurent had dreamed of this for years, but his hands had no sword, but a leash, and were as chained by diplomacy as the creature’s before him were bound by magnet, implacable and unyielding.

For now.

He let his lids dip closed, so that he saw his opponent as a haze of bronze through a glimmer of gold, and tried to think. This was dangerous, Laurent knew, on some deeper level than thought. Even with the slave dazed and thoroughly restrained, its flesh redded and raw in places where it had thrown itself against the binds of its own body, like an animal in a trap. There was danger here.

But he was so close.

“He’s intended as a pleasure slave,” Laurent heard Guion say, and did not bother to hide disgust, letting his lip curl in a sneer. “But he isn’t trained. Kastor suggested that you might like to break him at your leisure.”

He raised an eyebrow, then opened his eyes. He had no inbuilt sensors, but he could take a measure of a room.

The slave was very still.

“I have no interest in sullying myself with the Kastor’s used toys. Break him on the cross and place him in the garbage after where he belongs.” Guion nodded with graceful relief, but was not practiced enough at concealing his emotions to hide his horror when Laurent added airily, “But bring his arm to me, when you’re done. As a keepsake.”

There was little response from the slave, at first. Only a slight hitching of a shoulder, then the slave settled again, into a semblance of acquiescence. But a semblance only.

The handler Radel prepared to have the locks disengaged, and Laurent watched Damianos. His face was maddeningly, infuriatingly calm, and worse, anticipatory. It was not the look of a slave, or a machine, but a man preparing to fight, and confident of the outcome.

“Wait,” Laurent said, and came forward, close enough that he could feel the heat from the flesh side of the cyborg’s body. He watched Damianos’s eyes track upwards, resting briefly on Laurent’s hand, holding the remote keeping him electronically immobile, deaf and dumb.

The rest of the room, for a moment, fell away, the background hum of an audience to the actors on stage. “What’s your name, sweetheart?” Prince-killer. Murderer. Vermin.

Damianos, perhaps intelligent enough to sense danger even without his systems online, remained silent in obnoxiously faux submission. A child could see his frustration, the tension in his muscled limbs enough to make even his heavy, dead arm twitch. He kept his eyes demurely lowered. He looked, for a moment, almost human in the low light, the flicker of sweat on one arm nearly as bright as the metal on the other.

“Perhaps he’s defective,” suggested Guion. “Without the cybernetic processing, he can’t understand us.”

Smirking, Laurent tipped up a chin with one finger. He kept his anger from reaching his body, his limbs and jaw languorously loose.

Their eyes met at last. Almost, Laurent fancied, he could see the gears behind them, grating slowly along. He repeated the question in the vermin’s tongue. And yes, quite possibly, defective was the right term, because the slave could not resist the prod:

“I speak your language better than you speak mine, sweetheart.”

Proud. Easily provoked.

Laurent allowed the handler the delight of a back-handed, ringing blow, and then watched Damianos’s face as Radel spoke his new, given name: Damen. A fond sobriquet between friends, or brothers. Or lovers. An audacious confection atop an already arrogant piece of vengeance. Clumsy, but effective in its shamelessness. Laurent almost admired it.

“So the country will be ruled by a bastard and a whore,” said Laurent, watching Damen closely. “How appropriate.”

Yes. Easily provoked, especially by mention of his family, which was viciously appropriate. Easily hurt, for a thing less flesh than circuit. Proud. Easily manipulated.

Good.

Now he had only to wait. Diplomacy be damned, he would see Damianos crawling and cowed.

For a start.

***

In retrospect, a great many things were clear. That the capture of Damianos had been not just the start of a long, drawn-out plan to destabilize Akielos, but the start of the same against the Prince of Vere.

His uncle knew him too well. Laurent had sensed the underlying danger, but it had been the perfectly chosen trap, baited with a victim he could not resist. And now he had lost his land, his troops, his funds, and was saddled with a slave who would as soon as murder Laurent as kiss his feet, given the opportunity.

Thankfully, said slave was dreadfully naïve, and as easily led as a blind dog.

And Laurent was accustomed to being backed into a corner, making an advantage of a disadvantage. Thinking of Damianos as an advantage turned the stomach, but that, too, Laurent was used to ignoring.

What was not clear: how Damianos had survived a day in any court. Well, then, and Laurent supposed that to all intents and purposes, he had not.

“They didn’t program you with any subtlety subroutines, did they,” Laurent noted with some amusement as Damen inspected the blood left on his thigh by Nicaise’s fork, blinking and ingenuous in a way that Laurent was almost prepared to admit was not feigned. Outdone by a thirteen-year old catamite. If only his younger self could see his hated enemy now.

No, the only thing Damen seemed capable of feigning, badly, was obedience.

Even the brute’s blood had an inhuman shimmer to it – the infinitesimal glitter of nanotechology. But only for a moment – his thigh had already stopped bleeding, the flesh knitting together cell by microscopic cell.

Damen shot him an affronted look. Pride. That was definitely a human trait his Akielon possessed. But he was not. Human.

“I wasn’t programmed,” he growled, a rumble Laurent almost fancied he could feel in the air between them.

“Not that part of you, no,” Laurent conceded, with an arch look down Damen’s body, at the glittering casing of his arm and the trace of circuitry almost like copper wire jewelry along his bared skin. Deliberately, he let his lip curl in distaste, then smirked. He held out a sweetmeat. “Another? Pet.”

The advantage of the days spent waiting for his uncle to leave for Chastillon, and for his pet to recover from his whipping: Laurent had had ample opportunity to analyze, break down, and reconstruct the dampening device.

Then, while Damen was weak, dazed and drugged and partially restrained (Laurent had seen how long it took Damen to be reduced on the cross; he did not trust pain or drugs alone to hold the brute), he had opportunity to test it.

As delightfully impressive as it had been to watch Damen stiff-legged pivot his body on his unmoving leg, his arm a weight beside him, his eyes promising murder, if Laurent was to make best use of him, it would be as a functioning warrior that willingly bent his head to Laurent’s yoke.

And Damen had agreed to do so. Not that Laurent gave much weight to a promise from an Akielon, but. He did believe Damen would continue the parody of obedience as best he could, flashing his teeth at all but Laurent.

At least while the promise of safety for his fellow slaves was on the table.

Laurent frowned down at his plate, the artistically unfurled flower of a brandied orange offering itself to be eaten at a thigmonastic touch. Erasmus and the other Akielons, at first glance, had been as human as Laurent – more so, in fact, without the genetic modifications for strength, or hearing, or sight. They were fragile and empty of intent, as willing to offer themselves up to be devoured as Veretian modified fruits. Another example of Akielon cruelty and barbarism, a surprise to none.

He did not like being wrong.

But he had not understood, precisely, the contract between Akielon slave and master. Gently prompting the boy Erasmus had clarified and corroborated Damianos’s story. Unfortunately. Even less propitiously, so had a circuitous, flirting inquiry with Torveld. Several independent sources confirmed it, and Laurent was prepared to believe it. Fragile, exclusive, yes, made to be protected and prized. Almost, you could not blame Damianos for his horror, his desperation. If you allowed that he had tender emotions at all, and was not playing a long, clever game.

He slid a glance between his lashes over at Damen, who was with undisguised alarm prodding the writhing fruit on his plate with a demitasse spoon. Which he held backward.

Laurent concluded himself forced to allow it.

There was an advantage to be had here, if he could swallow his bile at having his brother’s murderer left alive, sitting at Laurent's table, eating from his fingers.

“Cold?” Torveld asked, solicitously concerned. He draped a Vaskian cloak about Laurent’s shoulders. “You’re shivering.”

“He has a cold nature,” Damen offered blandly, and in a blatant imitation of the purple-and-yellow confection of a pet across the table, stole the orange from Laurent’s plate.

Patience, Laurent counseled himself, gritting his teeth into a semblance of a fond smile. There was a game to win.

***

It had seemed like a game, days before.

Now his horse was dead, Torveld had sympathetically but emphatically refused to commit on an alliance, and his personal security systems had been overridden. In the doorway of his chambers, there were three unfamiliar soldiers clad in the biosuits of his personal guard, and a light-limbed Damianos stood beside them, looking very like a statue come to life and made flesh. His hair was burnished in the low natural light Laurent preferred for his rooms, the ceiling above clear to a view of the glowing rings of Vere, the window of his balcony open wide to show their full arc across the horizon.

Damen, Laurent noticed absently, was made for such light. It made him look all of a piece, the sharp edges between skin and metal blurred. He looked, almost, like a fairy-tale creature, with the warm flicker of circuitry like firelight along his skin. As though he would burn the tongue, like cinnamon, and Laurent—

The world experienced a hard reset and a slow reboot.

And Laurent, indeed, who had clearly been drugged, was beyond the help of emetics – normally the thought of Damen’s skin on his tongue would have been enough. And yet: clearly not.

The goblet next to him – water from his own electrolysis chamber, built by his hand in his rooms. The poison sensors in his room had been disabled, along with the door security. And his electronic code to Damen’s dampeners, just as clearly, had not been kept as safely in his personal servers as Laurent had thought. He would have to see to that soon, and rewire Damen’s dampeners to respond only to Laurent’s touch. He would not think of Damen’s touch. He would not think of who had among his company had betrayed him now. Damen alone was not capable of the coding – he was mechanically minded, all schematics, and only wrinkled his brow when confronted with code. Or the subtlety. Damen was not subtle.

Someone allowed in his rooms. He would find them. He would—it had happened before. It did not matter.

These thoughts flickered like lightning, like the light playing along Damen’s broad shoulders, in the seconds it took Laurent to stand.

“Couldn’t sleep?” he said lazily, setting aside his tablet on Vaskian xenoanthropology.

Perhaps this was why Kastor spared Damianos—but no, any Akielon warrior would do. Still a mystery, then, but this was not the work of Kastor, was it? The guards had ignited blades of Akielon plasma – even the Clanking Cuckold would not be so foolishly obvious. Even Damianos had more sense of subterfuge. Laurent had thought.

It had been a warning. Laurent moved towards the balcony, his set of experiments casually layered across the low tables, the wall of antique books at hand. He had thought – the death of his horse, Aalis, had been a warning. Not the first in a series of—

Thinking was difficult. Standing still was difficult. He wanted—

He did not feel this. This was not for him. He was too muddled to see a way out – his death, or Damen’s death, they were tied together as intimately as if his uncle had chained them together and dropped them in a deep, drowning sea. One would pull down the other, it was only a question of which.

He had seen Damianos fight, the muscles put to purpose. He had drugged the man, sent him hobbled into the ring and seen him win against the odds. His uncle knew. It was the sort of thing his uncle would have done, and Laurent had done it, because his anger was not the clean sort, the burning flame that was pure and simple in Damen’s eyes. No, even Laurent’s anger was the poisonous kind, that curdled and tainted all it touched.

“The Prince does not seem to be in an amorous mood.” It was, almost, funny.

Laurent, for once, could not read Damen’s face. His expressive, familiar, hated face. A first. A last, too, perhaps. Perhaps with the drug, they expected him to roll over. He would deprive them of that; he would die fighting, at least. Fighting and fucking; the common parlance was there was little difference. Damianos – the one thing he was hot for, Laurent had said, in the baths, skin to skin – was a fight. It was hard to remember why that had made him angry, now. But he had been. He clung to that.

He said to the room, with deliberate precision, shaping each word like a command, “I take a while to warm up,” and prepared to fling obstacles and cling to life with undignified tooth and nail.

But.

But Damianos did not take the chance for revenge. Did attack, but not— in the direction anticipated.

For a moment, Laurent let himself stop thinking and simply breathed, and survived.

There would be time for thinking later.

***

His personal ship in orbit at last and aimed through the Vaskian belt towards Delfeur, Laurent ran his hands through his hair. He took a moment to watch as they passed through the rings of Vere, clouded and glimmering – a tradition he kept alone, six years now, whenever he left the planet. He closed his eyes and kept his emotions in check; he had decided Damen was right. He had brought Damen along.

It was done.

He gave a last series of commands to the pilot, and went to ascertain that his last-minute Akielon addition was indeed being outfitted in armor as he had commanded.

Damen, who before leaving the planet had accepted the light Veretian bioarmor dubiously, but with reluctant obedience, which was the best Laurent could ever hope for, apparently had balked when presented with the protective constraints of a personalized exosuit. Quelle surprise.

Laurent settled in against the armory wall to watch the increasingly exasperated head armorer and Akielon politely, silently, butt heads. The armorer won, and Damen’s affronted face disappeared behind the faceplate.

“Let us try the calibrations again,” the armorer said wearily.

“I dislike this,” Damen announced five minutes later, winning Laurent a bet with himself. He’d thought perhaps he’d wagered too low, given that Damen could apparently take an electric lash until he sizzled, fight a thug while drugged with only one working leg and arm, and survive a vacuum for hours outside a low-orbit palace, all without complaint.

But wearing the prized exosuit of the Prince’s Guard was apparently a far greater trial of endurance.

The dead Prince Damianos, more metal than man, greatest fighter of a star system, was sulking.

“My vision is impaired. And I do not have a full range of movement. Veretian suits are clunky and loud.”

“And so you are unable to fight,” said Laurent, coming around Damen to stare up into his faceplate. Behind the black glass, he fancied he saw a flash of petulant ember. Damen’s exosuit was much the same as Laurent’s own: fit for a prince, the peak of Veretian technology. It made very little sound, and bent with the motion of his body, supple as leather. “That will be a first.”

“Of course I am able to fight,” said Damen, sounding deeply insulted. “But it is like being wrapped in tin and tape. It is uncomfortable.”

“I am not sure why you think I care for your comfort. And unless you have a very well concealed rocket upgrade that allows flight, you will wear the suit,” said Laurent silkily, and lifted a hand for the engineers to continue their work modifying the standard suit to Damen’s shoulders. Which had again split the exosuit seams. “I do not recall seeing your thrusters causing Ancel much trouble.”

A resounding, offended silence.

He did not have time for this. Damen had offered to serve; Laurent was not fooled that it meant anything beyond self-interest. They were not friends, or even friendly. At best, they were unwilling allies, temporarily united by a common enemy. Neither of the two princes would survive the Regent’s ascendence for long.

Petty prejudice, the Regent had said, a month before. It was galling to agree now. It had been petty. There was a bigger picture.

And Delfeur, the disputed, divided moon, was near. Laurent intended all the men and weapons he possessed to be outfitted to their fullest before he arrived at the border between the Akielon and Veretian territories. And his men and weapons, it seemed, included a recalcitrant cyborg slave.

Who was now stepping out of the loading deck and followed after Laurent without permission. He had to be deliberately stomping, to make such noise on the deck.

“If you punch through to the next floor, I will not be pleased,” Laurent warned him, and wondered at the ease with which he received Damen’s next conversational volley: an indignant, inarticulate sound, the verbal equivalent of an eye-roll.

“I know you think if I am to assist you in battle, I must fight as your men do,” Damen said, putting a hand out to catch Laurent’s elbow and hold him in place to listen. Forgetting himself, again. Laurent had a running tally of times Damen acted with unconscious authority, with casual arrogance that would have made a King blush. But his grip was carefully light and deft; most first-time users of the suit did, in fact, accidentally punch through walls and flesh alike until they had had training. “But you must know,” Damen continued. “I am going to break this suit.”

“You are going to break the suit.” Laurent breathed out through his nose. He could not imagine another soul in the system subject to the insubordination he routinely tolerated. “If you do, I will take it out of your hide.”

“What is there left to take?” Dark humor, of the sort that still startled Laurent, coming from such a source. “Not deliberately. It was not a threat; I am only warning you. It is not a bad suit, as exosuits go,” he continued magnanimously, and that was a downside to the exosuit – not being able to read the expressions on Damen’s face, scrolling across as clear as text on a screen. He could read the flex of Damen’s arm, metal within metal, well enough. “But it can’t hold me long.”

Laurent would have, a week previous, dismissed this as Akielon boasting, empty and foolish. But he had seen Damen in the practice ring, clad only in his own metallic skin, move inside Orlant’s range and disable his suit. A man alone, in zero-g, against a soldier in battle armor. The men still spoke of it in tones equally of awe and alarm.

Laurent did not acknowledge the claim, only said: “I have suits to spare.” Though they would also have to be modified to fit his gargantuan slave, the breadth of his shoulders such that Laurent would have thought it entirely manufactured, except that metal matched flesh.

Damen opened his faceplate to glare, apparently under the impression his tantrum was not communicating itself effectively. Laurent had not previously appreciated that Akielon soldiers truly preferred to fight bare-legged, bare-armed. Another idiosyncratic idiocy in a society laden with them.

“I tread the lines of what the men will tolerate as it is,” Laurent cut him off before he could continue his protests, since Damen seemed incapable of reaching the conclusion himself. But Damen did occasionally listen to reason, once it was spelled out. “You cannot fight among them in Akielon style. Not yet.”

Damen opened his mouth, visibly considered this, then shut his mouth. “I cannot promise the suit will last,” he said finally. “But I will strive to keep it intact as long as possible.”

“Wonderful. You will be careful. My humblest thanks, for what that is worth,” said Laurent, drawled flatly, more to himself and the world at large, and was startled by the huff of laughter that produced from behind and above him. He was not prepared for the sensation this triggered in his chest, or his gut. His first instinct was to flay the skin from Damen again, to push him away.

He mastered himself. He did not have time for petty games. He had made his choice.

“Strip, soldier,” he commanded, not looking to see the response this produced. The memory of the last time he had given such an order hovered in the corridor between them, like another of the ghosts they shared. Perhaps, just a slight pettiness. “I need you in my rooms.”

Another resounding silence, the quality of which made Laurent regret again his inability to see Damen’s face. He could picture it well enough. He kept facing forward, and left the Akielon silent behind him.

He passed the soldiers training as he went, sparring in rooms of zero-g and of water and of long lines of battering robotic rams. They looked, as expected, largely abysmal. More soldiers than just Damianos would need repairs to their suits, before the trip was out. He quietly spoke to Jord, ignored Govart, observed Orlant and Aimeric colluding, and in his earpiece, several times, he had received encrypted messages from far-flung corners of the galaxy.

The galaxy which felt, at once, stiflingly close and insurmountably wide. He sat alone in his rooms, a moment, and stared out the translucent ceiling at the stars, and planetesimals, and fights ahead of him.

There was a soft clanging, and then Damen’s startled face appeared in the open door. “You have access,” Laurent explained. “I reprogrammed everything, from the code up, since I received the orders to Delfeur. Did you think me idle these past days, while you sat in your cage?”

“I have never seen you idle,” Damen said only, and looked across the room at him. “I have rarely seen you do a single thing at a time, in fact.” Laurent blinked at him. Damen did not drop his gaze. “You know, I thought it was just my personal link that you had blocked. But I can hear everything within the ship. I cannot hear past its walls.” He looked at his cuffs, then at Laurent again. There was a flicker of admiration in his eyes, in the slight pleased curl of his mouth. “You modified our dampening technology.”

“I modified your dampening technology,” agreed Laurent, and allowed himself to share with his slave - his ally - a smug look. “We may speak freely, for a time. No words spoken on this ship will leave it, until we land. I intend to make the most of this.”

Laurent inclined his head fractionally to the chair across from his navtable. “You have led men on Delfeur before, on both sides of the border. You said, you know the region. You offered your expert advice.”

“I offered advice,” Damen agreed cautiously, sitting and regarding Laurent as a man might regard a Veretian strangler fig, hungry and unleashed. Laurent smiled and leaned casually against the table. The look intensified.

“So. Advise me.”

***

It was not until Laurent had Govart turned adrift, to make it through the wastes between Baillieux back to Chastillon in a punctured exosuit, if he could, and subsequently asked Damen to speak his thoughts, that Laurent realized what was happening. What he had invited, by bringing Damen into his confidence, further than any yet had come.

Damen, familiarly, was regarding Laurent with shocked disgust, and speaking freely, with no care for propriety, rank, or common sense.

“You broke a man today. Doesn’t that affect you at all? These are lives, not pieces in a chess game with your uncle.”

“You’re wrong. We are on my uncle’s board and these men are all his pieces.” Laurent felt, as he said it, a deep familiar disdain for Damen’s naiveté. It was a tableaux he was well-acquainted with, from the weeks they had spent bound together. He was not prepared for the rejoinder.

“Then each time you move one of them, you can congratulate yourself on how much like him you are.”

It was, Laurent thought, much what Govart must have felt, bleeding out and stumbling through the dark, airless wastes. But for the navmap beneath his grasp, he might have fallen.

There was no one else in the world who could have said that to him. No one but Damen, with his natural, innate arrogance, would have dared. No one but Damen, with his simple but profound percipience, his slow gathering and synthesis of a hundred small details, could have noticed.

Auguste would have said it, Laurent thought, numbly. That is what Auguste would have said to me, if he could see me now.

The only sign Damen gave that he noticed he had upended Laurent’s brain was to furrow his brow and give Laurent that look he had, the one that suggested he thought Laurent been drugged again in while Damen wasn’t looking, or perhaps dropped upon the head.

It was only with half his attention that he realized Damen had continued, somehow had more to say, somehow was – trying to encourage him.

The words spilled out before he could stop them, a confession and a plea. “There’s no time.” He heard the undertone in his own words, the way they cut his throat coming out.

And Damen – his eyes sharpened, the pupils spiraling in and out, as though he was seeing something Laurent could not. And as ever, Laurent could see upon his face the thoughts play out, though he could not, with any regularity, manage to predict them.

“Two weeks,” Damen said, and as he continued, Laurent reexamined the options. Recalculated supplies, and the goodwill he had to draw upon, and the probability of retaliation.

Damen watched him steadily, as Laurent drew out the map of Nesson, the boundaries of the oxygenated zone where they could march in and out, and make camp, and Damen began to pull up shimmering lines of holographic men.

It was, almost, perhaps, something like a conversation.

After that, perhaps, the changes that followed between them were inevitable.

***

Cultivating a series of small touches to bind Damen to him, Laurent realized, may have had effects he had not anticipated. He could not take his eyes from Damen as he approached. He was streaked with blood and sweat, and there were, for the first time in Laurent’s memory, the beginnings of dark circles beneath his eyes.

“You came back,” Laurent said, face arranged in its customary forbidding expression. He could not alter it; even if he had not been surrounded by his camp, by evidence of traitors in their midst, he had frozen where he was. His heart beat against his ribs, slow but steady, a thudding he felt in his throat. In his body entire.

“I came back,” Damianos said.