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Four things that didn't happen to Laurent, and one that could have changed everything

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At the signing of the Treaty between Vere and Akielos

Laurent was pleased that the Crown Prince of Akielos was less well behaved than him. The Crown Prince kept shifting his weight and gawking at the great hall where their fathers engaged in negotiations over contested land in Delfleur. It fitted with the things that he'd heard said at banquet tables and during lessons from his uncle: that the Akielons were barbarians at heart, that even their own King was adulterous, and that no amount of diplomatic intervention on his father's part would be able to overcome that bestial nature.

Laurent stood proud and still between his brother and his uncle, his posture elegant and erect without being rigid, his weight carefully balanced first on one foot then on the other, so as not to appear fidgety. The talks being carried out here in view of the whole court were merely a formality, and as with any formality, they were drawn out and involved. Most people didn't know, but Laurent and Damianos' fathers had really hashed the whole treaty out the night before in a small, private room. Auguste had been allowed to attend, because it was fitting for the Crown Prince to observe the intricacies of diplomacy. It was not fitting for the second son to observe these things. It was fitting for the second son to go to bed early.

Laurent had listened from a spyhole in the wall, one he'd found two years ago, that only a tiny spy would be able to use. He knew most of his uncle's agents, and none of them were narrow enough in the shoulders to squeeze between the brickwork. He knew there would come a day when he'd be the only person his uncle could call upon for a special mission, one that required wriggling through small spaces and being extremely brave. He was ready for that day. Unfortunately, the negotiations on this night had been supremely boring, and after a long, long day of feasting and speeches and performances by jesters, Laurent had been appalled to find he had fallen asleep in the crawlspace. Blushing and desperately glad that nobody saw, Laurent had crept back to his chambers, past his dozing nurse and into his bed.

They'd sign the treaty next, and then there would be a festival soon, to last for days and days. Laurent was looking forward to that, at least; people did such interesting things when they were in their cups, and one could learn a lot. He shifted his weight slowly again, left foot to right, and watched Prince Damianos trying not to scratch his nose. It was fascinating, how bad he was at statecraft. He was much older than Laurent, and he had worse manners than a stable boy. Not to say anything of the older brother, the half-brother, who had stood to inherit if Theomedes hadn't produced a legitimate heir. Actually, it occurred to Laurent that if Damianos hadn't been born, these peace talks would never have taken place. No civilised Veretians could have stood at the same table as someone with only a bastard son for an heir. Laurent filed that particular fact away; it would make a nice weapon, if launched at the right moment.

Beside him, Laurent's uncle pressed a hand to the small of his back. It was time for Laurent's part in the ceremony. He stepped forward and accepted a velvet cushion from a page. In the centre of the cushion sat a virgin quill, carved from a peacock feather and beautifully wrapped in gold wire set with sapphires. It looked splendid, and was an excellent representation of the artisan jewellers of Vere. He carried the cushion carefully to the table, and presented it with a bow to Theomedes, the King of Akielos. While he was bent over, he peered through his hair to see what Damianos carried to Laurent's father, and if it was of equal value.

Damianos' quill was a long white feather, the lines of it clean and strong on a sheet of black marble as thin as parchment. Laurent wasn't sure what to make of it. It was beautiful, but it was simple and unadorned. He didn't think it was an insult, but it certainly didn't have the value of the gold-wrapped peacock feather or the bejewelled cushion it sat upon.

"The sea eagle is strong, and he flies from my country to yours," said Theomedes, in his deep voice and accented Veretian. "I thought it a fitting symbol of the accords we wish to form."

Laurent's father inclined his head. "A worthy assessment." He took up the pen, and, waiting for Theomedes to take up the peacock feather, held it poised over the lengthy treaty to sign.

Laurent was standing next to Prince Damianos, at the end of the table. "You stole that feather from a chicken in the yard," he said in Akielon, so softly that only Damianos could hear it. "I can smell the chickenshit on you." He was proud of his insult. He'd worked hard to learn as many Akielon vulgarities as he could, mostly from the Akielon honour guard when they were taking their meals in the Royal kitchens. Unguarded tongues bore the best fruit.

Beside him, Damianos laughed quietly, but not so quietly as Laurent. "You're chickenshit, you little shit."

Laurent flushed, offended both by the insult and by the unimaginative nature of the insult. "You're pathetic. And a pig." He could spit that word while barely moving his lips at all. He was quite proud of that.

"No, you are," said Damianos, with implacable calm. Frustrated, Laurent lifted his foot to press it down hard on Damianos' toes, exposed by the ridiculous sandals he wore, but Damiano must have shifted his feet without any sign that he had moved at all – ridiculous, given that he had been shuffling about during the interminable speeches. Laurent's foot landed on nothing, and he stumbled, falling awkwardly against Damianos' body. Damianos grinned widely, and put his arm around Laurent's shoulders as if they were scuffling. As if they were good friends. Laurent caught his uncle's cool gaze and felt his stomach squirm.

"Brother, if I may interrupt, I believe the children are becoming rambunctious – it might be best if we send them outside to play a little, before the festivities begin."

Laurent wanted to be ill; the way that his uncle said 'children', so laced with scorn, filled him with shame.

Theomedes, though, gave that same easy laugh that Damianos had. "It has been a long day indeed, especially for young minds. Damen – why don't you and Prince Laurent go to the salle? Thanks to this treaty, it may be your only chance to observe the art of Veretian swordplay. It surely is an art, and one that will enrich you."

Laurent's father nodded, pleased with this deft compliment and the support it lent to the treaty. Beside him, Auguste rolled his eyes at Laurent, but he was smiling.

Damianos sketched a cursory bow to the table, and tugged at Laurent's arm. Laurent dared not shake the contact away, not with the attention of two kings on them. He made a much more complicated bow, and followed the Akielon prince outside to play.

---

On the field at Marlas

"Gods," said Prince Damianos, up to his elbows in Auguste's blood, kneeling beside the body of Laurent's brother. "You're a child. Go back to your guard – does they even know you're here?" There was blood and dust caked on his skin, and on his face, tears had drawn lines through the grime. All around them, all the way to the edges of the battle, soldiers moaned and cried out, in their dying and in their grief.

Anger cold in his chest, Laurent lifted Auguste's sword, and saluted in the formal manner. "I will take up my brother's banner," he said, and he was proud that his voice did not shake.

Damianos the murderer stayed where he was. "No – Laurent isn't it? – no, I won't allow it."

"You can't stop me!" The words burst unchecked from Laurent's mouth, and he hated himself for sounding childish and petulant, when Auguste was dead, when everything was wrong. He could feel the anger seeping out of him, like water from a cracked cup, and he tensed his whole body to hold it in, because without it, he would have admit defeat, admit that Auguste was gone. He reminded himself to breathe, he reminded himself that to win this duel, he would have to be as dispassionate as stone or steel.

To calm his mind, Laurent looked around the open area where the duel had taken place. The circle of men around the fallen prince, Auguste and Damianos' lieutenants both, formed an eerie pool of quiet in the middle of the collapsing battle. It was a shocked silence, the breath between the lightning and the thunder. At any moment, the armies of Vere would realise their Prince was dead, and then anything could happen. Laurent knew exactly how precarious this quiet was, and how near to chaos he stood.

"Someone escort this boy to the Veretian lines," said Damianos. Nobody moved, however, and Laurent didn't bother to hide a wry smile. Not even the animal Akielon soldiers would voluntarily go among Veretian troops, not after what Damianos had done.

Damianos didn't seem to notice that nobody was obeying his orders – a poor leader, Laurent told himself. Instead, Damianos gently took up Auguste's hands, and crossed them, then looked back to where Laurent stood with his brother's sword held low and ready. "Bring me his shield; your people will want to return him to your father with honour." Damianos spoke low and calm while his blood still mingled with Auguste's in the dirt. Auguste had struck him once in the shoulder; Laurent saw the spreading stain soak through the armour, turning the white padding red and dripping to the ground.

"My father is dead." Laurent delivered the news with a glacial voice.

That was enough to snap Damianos out of his trance. He looked at Laurent, appalled. The battle had been long, and reports had been muddled. Perhaps the truth of the situation had not yet come to him.

"Now you understand," said Laurent. "I will be the king, and I will kill you for what you've done."

"They'll think I've taken you hostage," said Damianos. He had turned pale under the dirt, whether from shock or blood loss or both. "Gods, the fighting, it'll all start up again, and it will never end."

"Good," said Laurent. "I hope they finish what Auguste did, I hope they gut you on the field, and you die slowly and you die in pain!" He was shouting, control completely lost, sword hanging useless in his hand.

Damianos reached out for the blade, and Laurent realised that he intended to disarm him. He pulled the sword out of reach, and there was a brief, inelegant struggle for the weapon. In the middle of the scuffle, the blade flicked towards Laurent's face, narrowly missing his left eye, but cutting deeply into his cheek. He looked down at his own armour, and watched blood splash against the silver. Each droplet fell with slow grace, and slid elegantly down the Royal Lion of Vere. Auguste was dead, he realised again. The whole world was disintegrating.

Damianos swore and pulled at the gold and red sash he wore over his armour. He balled the embroidered fabric up in his palm and pressed it hard to Laurent's cheek. "Bring wine!" he shouted. "Wine and a chirurgeon."

"Yes, Damen," said one of his lords, and hurried off. Kyroi, they were called, Laurent remembered from his lessons, dizzily. The schoolroom was far from this place.

Damen's hands, the hands that had killed Auguste, were filthy, but they kept the fabric against Laurent's cheek. His blood would not show on the red cloth, he realised. It was quite clever.

"Do not faint on me, Prince Laurent," Damen said, softly and urgently. "I know your head is spinning, but if you fall now, in front of the troops, there will be a riot."

"Good," said Laurent, but somehow he could not throw himself to the ground in spite. "You killed Auguste. He was, he was…" The world really was spinning around him, and a dark mist came rushing in across his field of vision. Wine, red and raw, splashed down his throat, and he coughed most of it back up again. He turned away from Auguste's body and violently emptied his stomach on the ground.

Damen stepped neatly to avoid the mess but kept the pressure against the wound on his cheek. "The chirurgeon will be here in a moment," he said.

"I don't want your filthy sawbones touching me," said Laurent. "You people are animals."

"Bullshit," said a rough voice from behind him. "We invented medicine a thousand years before your sorry little Veretian face poked itself out in the world."

"Socus," said Damen, tired and terse. "The boy is in shock."

"I've been sawing limbs off the men this boy's armies spent the day mutilating, Damen, I'm not in a mood to coddle." The chirurgeon tilted Laurent's chin backwards and lifted off the cloth. He nodded towards Damen. "Wash it out first."

Damen gripped Laurent's shoulder tight, and splashed the wine into the wound. It burned, but Laurent could bear the pain, as well as the stab and tug as Socus stitched the gash shut. It made his eyes water, and once the tears were flowing, it was hard to stop them.

Damen kept talking to his kyroi, as if Laurent wasn't crying like a child, though he did not let go of Laurent's shoulder. "Get to the Patrans, find some of the Patran noblemen. They're less likely to be slaughtered on sight in the Veretian camp. You, over there, break the side from that wagon, we can lay Prince Auguste out on that. Someone find some clean linen to cover him."

The wine had done its work, and Laurent shrugged out of Damen's grip. He was so tired, suddenly. His feet felt as if they were clad in steel as he walked to where Auguste lay, and knelt beside him. Damen had killed him quickly; it was clear from the expression on Auguste's mud-streaked face that he had not suffered. He looked surprised, if anything.

Someone placed a bowl of clean water by his side, and pushed a white cloth into his hands. Laurent stared at it a moment, then washed the mud from his brother's face.

"You'll return with the Patrans," said Damen, standing on the other side of the body. "You'll be the royal escort for Auguste, and you'll return safe to your own camp. And you'll stay there."

Laurent took in a breath, and fixed the feeling of this moment in place: the smell of blood and metal, the sound of men dying, and the blue of the sky above him. "I'll see you again," he swore. "Be ready, because then I'll make good on this day."

Damen sighed and watched his own blood drip onto the ground. "You know, I don't doubt it. At least then it will be a fair fight."

Six years later, Laurent separated himself from a crowd of courtiers. "I hear the King of Akielos has sent me a gift," he said, and felt the skin around his scar pull tight in a smile.

---

Delivered to Akielos in chains

They came for him in the royal stables, one of the few places that he could be alone, and one of only two where Laurent chose to dismiss his guard. He should have known better, but the stables were deep inside the palace walls, and he hadn't thought that his own uncle would attack him around the horses, not the horses that his uncle valued as much as Laurent did. Stupid, really, thought Laurent, as he snatched up the sword he had left carelessly beside the saddle when he dismounted.

In the panic three horses died, but Laurent's quick blade had nipped out the throats of six men. The Regent had whole regiments to send in against him, though, and Laurent knew that he would die here, amidst sweet smelling straw and sweating horseflesh. As he parried and kicked, he weighed the balance of things in his mind. Since he couldn't do anything about it, dying quickly in a fight was as good an ending as he was likely to get in this unstated war with his Uncle. Better than poison, which had would have been Laurent's first guess.

A plank of wood caught him across the temple, and ears ringing, he crumpled into the straw. His vision blurred and he started to fall backwards into black, but not before he heard Govart's footsteps draw close. The thug pushed a boot into Laurent's belly to make sure he was down for good. "Tie him up properly, and get him to the ship," Govart said.

Laurent remembered little of the journey. He woke from time to time to find he had been washed and fed. They kept him alone in a cabin, and they drugged his food, or his water, or when he refused both, simply held him down and poured the sedating tincture into his mouth. He had no idea how long he had been at sea, but each day he woke, the air was warmer and closer. Once, when he woke at night, he craned his head against the tiny porthole to see the stars. He was sure they were sailing southward.

Eventually, he woke and the room was still. The room was stone, also, with wide windows hung with gauzy fabric that billowed out in the gentle breeze. He stood to stretch the cramps from his calves and found a chain unravelled with him, anchored to a metal collar around his neck. Then he panicked, scrabbling at the thing, trying to open it or break the chain, but both were strong, if beautifully made. When his fingernails were broken and the tips of his fingers beginning to bleed, he gave up and walked as close to the window as the chain would allow.

White cliffs, he saw. White cliffs and gulls, and in the harbour below, the square, flat-bottomed ships of the Akielon navy. Laurent leaned as far as he could without bruising his neck, and watched men and women in Akielon tunics and chitons go about their business at the docks, tiny and distant from the open window that the chain forced him to stay a sword's length from.

A soft noise at the open doorway drew his gaze from the window. A young man stood there, with a tray balanced on his arm. Laurent turned in his direction, and raised an eyebrow.

"I'm to bring you food," he said in Akielon, his voice melodic and carefully modulated. He wore a collar, just as Laurent did, but his was open at the back, easy to remove.

Laurent bowed, and gestured for him to enter. He did so, guileless and unafraid, and put the tray on a low table.

"Is that how they bow, in Vere?" The man copied the movement, inexact but graceful. "How elegant," he said, mildly.

Laurent considered killing him or taking him hostage. The poor fool didn't seem to be trained to protect himself. And then what happens, Laurent? You fight your way clear to a ship, and then sail it to Vere, and then defeat your uncle, and then… Laurent sank to the bed, overcome with the magnitude of the situation.

"This is Ios?" he asked the other slave, suddenly.

The slave was bent over the table, arranging bowls and napery in a careful placement. "Yes?" he said, puzzled. A worried expression crossed his face. "You did not know?"

Laurent schooled his own expression. "The ship made me sick; they gave me medicine to ease the stomach but it left me stupid."

The man's expression became sunny again, and Laurent wondered, perhaps unfairly, if he was an idiot. "Seasickness is terrible! Paramis travelled with the Prince to Isthmia for the Summer games, and he was sick the whole trip."

Laurent nodded, and made a noise of sympathy. "You belong to the Prince?" he asked. A cold horror crept across him as he realised the nature of his captivity.

"As do you," said the slave, happily. "Forgive me, I am Erasmus, in the service of Prince Damianos."

There was a moment when Laurent truly could not speak. Hysterical laughter bubbled up inside him, and it was only years of etiquette training that prevented it from escaping. He stared at Erasmus, who was slender and fair, the very picture of an Akielon bedslave, and he shook his head in wonder at his uncle's plan to place him in the bed of his country's enemy. In the bed of the man who had killed Laurent's brother, and, as it eventuated, given the Regent the throne.

Erasmus waited politely for Laurent to complete the introductions, and realised that he was a stranger here.

Laurent was briefly tempted to introduce himself as Auguste, for the bittersweet pleasure he would derive, seeing Damianos' shock when he heard it, but fortunately, the sleep and good food had returned enough strength to gather his wits about him again. He reached for a suitable name.

"Nicaise," he said, finally. "I am Nicaise, of Vere."

His uncle had planned it all out well, he mused, as the days progressed. Laurent took the Regent's plan to pieces in his mind with dispassionate calm, to examine the details and understand it better. The Regent had banked his chances – he didn't kill Laurent outright, keeping him alive should he ever need to produce him again. By placing in Damianos' harem, there was a personal sting of vengeance that Laurent would constantly be aware of, presumably as the Prince raped him. Along with the practical outcome that Laurent would be sullied forever; no one in Vere would follow a Prince who had served as a concubine. And finally, the Regent now had every reason to declare war on Akielos. All he had to do was arrange for Laurent to be discovered – alive but disgraced at the hand of the Akielon Prince – and Vere would rise up in an angry wave to swallow Akielos whole. Laurent considered the scheme, and found calmness and determination. He didn't know how, but he would find his way home. Then he would cut out his uncle's tripes and serve them to him on a gold plate. Raw.

In the meantime, he played tame and obeyed orders: to wash, to eat, to dress in robes that showed the whiteness of his shoulders. They removed the chain when he showed no signs of rebellion. A Master, an older man, came to talk with him, to assess his skills and attitudes.

"It is my understanding that you were arrested as a criminal in Vere, but those days are behind you. It's clear you've had a genteel upbringing, I would hear more about this – do you play a musical instrument? Can you sing or recite?"

For the first time since he was a boy, Laurent drew on skills he had learned from his tutors in elocution. The Master declared his voice sweet and musical, but his lack of skill with the stringed instrument deplorable.

"Although perhaps not irredeemable," said the Master. "Erasmus has talent and patience; I shall task him with your learning. But it will be many weeks before you will be fit for the Prince. If it were not for your colouring, I would despair of it altogether."

It was not many weeks before he met the Prince. It was not even a week; Laurent was seated at the wide windowsill, practicing a simple melody on the kithera when the Prince strode into the room. Erasmus immediately folded to the ground, arms outstretched.

"Your Highness!" he said in a breathless whisper.

Was Laurent supposed to imitate this ridiculous posture? He weighed it up in his mind, and settled for an elaborate Veretian courtesy, that left him kneeling, eyes downcast. He stayed motionless, promising bloody murder to Damianos' ankles, and clenched his fists to stop them shaking. From rage, he told himself, and it was almost true. Please, please don't touch me, he willed the Prince.

"Is this your student, Erasmus? He's as pretty as you said." Damianos' voice was full of laughter, a sunny voice, without a care in the world. Laurent pressed his lips flat to prevent a hiss of frustration escaping. How dare Damianos be so blithely stupid? How dare he not recognise the political situation in which he was caught? I would know you, he said silently to the Prince. I would know you, in chains at my feet in my own country.

"Yes, your Highness," said Erasmus. "Shall we play for you? Nicaise is making excellent progress."

Erasmus was too kind; Laurent knew that Nicaise's kithara sounded like someone strangling a puppy. Nonetheless it would afford Laurent the chance to study his enemy.

"That would be splendid," said Damianos. He settled on the low divan, and helped himself to Laurent's lunch, pouring the wine into a goblet himself.

"Oh, your Highness, please let me fetch something more suitable!" said Erasmus.

"This is lovely, Erasmus, don't fret." Damianos threw a couple of olives into his mouth and followed it with a sip of wine. He winced and put down the goblet. "Well, perhaps some of the Patran red wouldn't go astray."

"At once," said Erasmus with a bow, and vanished through the door.

Laurent regarded the Prince from his position on the ground. He was tall, Damianos, and well-muscled, with curling hair and an easy smile. He was also clueless, realised Laurent. Damianos was an Akielon statue – perfect in form, and yet entwined in coils of ivy that would pull him to pieces, slowly and relentlessly, and he would have no idea until the very end. Laurent realised he was not the only piece in this trap his uncle had set.

"And do you like what you see, gorgeous?" Damianos stretched out his legs and spread his arms along the divan.

Laurent couldn't stop himself. His mind was occupied with schemes and plots, and the mental leash he kept on his tongue consequently loosened. "Passable," he said, and immediately regretted it. Damianos could have him whipped, or worse. Or killed, which might or might not be worse.

Damianos laughed. "They said you were peppery. Actually they said you weren't fit for my presence, which, to be honest, made me want to meet you more."

To hell with it, thought Laurent. This was the most dynamic thing that had happened since his arrival in Akielos, and with it could come change. "I'm glad they saw fit to protect you from my rabid incivility," he said. "I'm sure you'll be safer with people who never challenge your authority." He added, "Your Highness," much later than was decent.

"Is that how you seduce a man in Vere, Nicaise? By insulting him and calling him coddled?" Damen leaned forward, resting his elbows on his thighs. He still wore that stupid smile. He still believed he was in a pleasure house. "Who have you met, that you think Akielon men crave the whip?"

Laurent all but rolled his eyes. "It is not my position to think, is it?"

The prince stood, and walked towards him. "Is there something you'd rather be doing?" he said, casually, his hand reaching out for Laurent's chest.

Laurent reared back in reflex, as unable to prevent his body reacting in fear as he had been unable to still his tongue earlier. This would be the moment, he knew, and could not keep the panic down. This would be when Damianos took what was his. For all his control, Laurent would fail now, since he couldn't feign intimacy, not even to save his own life. He bowed his head and waited. When Damianos touched him, Laurent would retaliate, and then it would be the sword for him.

No touch came. He heard footsteps, and he opened his eyes to see the Prince step away from him.

"You're afraid," Damianos said, puzzled. "What are you afraid of? There is nobody who would hurt you, not here in the Royal Palace. You are safe here, I promise."

Laurent rocked onto on his heels, breathless with receding panic. "Thank you, your Highness, for your protection." There, that would have to do. He hoped it didn't sound too caustic, because he could not simulate submission, not while his heart was still racing. In the warm Akielon air, sweat prickled at his neck where his hair hung loose, as he had been told to style it.

Damianos brought the wine and held it out for Laurent, careful not to touch his skin. Laurent drained the goblet in two swallows, and then held it in his hand. It was the closest thing he had to a weapon, and it was weighty. The cellar master might serve the poorest vintage to the slaves but they could not skimp on the silverware in the Royal Palace.

"You're no slave," said Damianos. "How is it you are here? You are Veretian, and you're obviously noble. Were your crimes against the new King? There has been unrest, there, with the death of the Prince."

Laurent did not flinch. The wine had settled in his stomach, and the warmth of it steadied him. "Something of that sort, yes."

Damianos walked to the door, and spoke to someone outside. "Leave us. I wish to be alone with the new slave," he said. "Tell Erasmus to wait for me in my chambers."

Someone – a guard, perhaps – answered with deference, and marched away from the door. Laurent had no idea what lay outside the door, since he had been confined to this single chamber since the ship.

Damianos sat cross-legged on the floor in front of Laurent. "The King of Vere claims his nephew was killed by Akielon assassins," he said. "He's gathering on the border." He spoke in Veretian, well-pronounced, with little accent.

Laurent raised an eyebrow. "And who pushes for war in your cabinet?" It was a surprise how using his own language felt strange in his mouth. And how it freed the mind to strategise.

"My brother agitates, but he has always been… enthusiastic," said Damen.

"He stands to gain a lot. Things can change fast on the battlefield," said Laurent. "Vere knows this well; the crown moved very quickly at Marlas. Something you had a part in."

"You're very well informed," said Damianos. He regarded him silently, taking in the long golden hair, the pale skin.

He opened his mouth to speak but Laurent was faster. "Don't. Don't even say it – it's too dangerous, not here. If anyone heard, they'd kill you as well as me." Laurent kept his gaze on Damianos, willing him to understand the depth of the waters they navigated.

"You keep saying that," said Damianos. "Where could be safer than the Palace at Ios? My people are inviolate, and they love me."

"Your people," said Laurent. "Without seeing them, I am willing to wager they are not all your people, not anymore. If there was a snake in the court in Vere, then another is here in Akielos, dripping venom into someone's ear. The scope of the Regent's plan does not finish at the border, I promise you." Maybe it was different for Damianos, maybe he had not been raised to tread carefully in the viper pit.

When the smile fell away, Damianos' expression was sharp. He kept his position opposite Laurent on the marble floor, his mind clearly racing. There was nothing deceptive about this man. What Laurent had initially taken for stupidity might only be the laziness that comes from feeling safe.

"I am a trap," said Laurent. "I'm the invitation to war, or the reason for an assassination, or both. You need to open your eyes and you need to be cautious – how is it you're walking around unarmed? Drinking wine left on a table? Actually, I'm surprised you're alive at all, considering your lack of care."

That was too much; Damianos' face hardened. "All your cautions do not seem to have helped you in the slightest," he said. "Perhaps you are a danger, but you can be a danger in a prison cell. I promise, there will be no wine to trouble you." He stood to leave.

Laurent sprang upright too, and reached for his arm, stopping short because, because Damianos was a prince, and Laurent was nobody. "Damianos, think! What happens next? Who stands to profit, if something happens to you?" This was the man who killed Laurent's brother, but this was the man against whom the next attack would come. Laurent's enemies were his enemies, and it made the two of them allies of a sort.

Somewhere deeper in the palace, a clatter of dishes broke the silence, as someone dropped a serving tray. Damianos strode to the doorway, but to his credit, approached it on an angle, so he could see down the path. Laurent could hear shouting carried on the wind through the open window, and from the atrium below, the clash of swords. Damianos turned to Laurent.

Laurent shrugged. "The trap is springing, I believe."

Damianos held out his hand. "I propose an alliance," he said. "We can hash out the details later, when the throne is secure."

"Thrones," said Laurent, and shook his hand briefly. "Please don't think I will give any concessions. I am far more skilled at the bargaining table than I am at the kithera."

"Then we may have a chance of surviving," said Damianos, and stepped towards the window to begin his escape.

---

In a brothel in Nesson-Eloy

It was chance only that Damianos had brought swords to the bathing chamber, with two gladiators straight from the salle. He had been anticipating an afternoon's tussle with the two fighters, who were well-muscled and equally eager to spend time with their Prince. On any other day, he'd have been here with Lykaios or another harem slave, and defenceless when Kastor's soldiers attacked.

He gathered his guard as they fought through the palace, gaining men he could trust at his back as they reclaimed ground, leaving bodies in piles and blood soaking into the tapestries. Jokaste, he captured in the stables, attempting to flee. Kastor had not yet moved from his father's deathbed. Both claimed no knowledge of the coup, but Damen found coin and letters in Kastor's study to prove otherwise.

Kastor went to his death protesting his innocence, blaming Jokaste. Damen, now King Damianos, harboured some small doubt of Kastor's guilt, but there was nothing that could save him. Either he was a traitor, or he had been stupid enough to be manipulated by a traitor, and in either case, there was no possibility of leaving him alive. Not if Damen were to be taken seriously by his kyroi, who had one generation ago been a scattered group of fiefdoms. Damen would not let his father's good work be undone.

"I'm pregnant," said Jokaste, from behind the iron bars of her cell. "You cannot kill a potential heir."

Damen, bereaved of a father and a brother in an afternoon, could not stomach killing an unborn child, no matter the paternity. Jokaste was moved to better appointed rooms, and made comfortable for the duration of her confinement. Damen slept alone, though in truth, he did not sleep much anymore. He felt he had turned to stone, that the part of him that felt or loved or enjoyed things of beauty had been killed that morning in the baths.

It was surely no coincidence that news came of civil war in Vere, not two months after the attack in the palace. Once his cities were secure, Damen strengthened his lines along the border from Delpha, shifted his kyroi about strategically, and waited for the inevitable outcome, which was war between Vere and Akielos. If he were either of the self-styled Kings of Vere (for there were two now, and both called Laurent), he would use Akielos to weaken his opponent. Damen would not be used, like a sword you break on a rock and then discard.

He wasn't sure which of the two Kings was attacking their own villages, but using footsoldiers in Akielon garb was a particularly Veretian tactic. It worked, too, building ill will enough that old farmers took up their scythes and plough blades to tackle the troops Damen sent to provide aid and security.

Ver-Vask would have nothing of the matter, judging this to be men's business and therefore beneath contempt. Patras, ever ambivalent in the struggle between Akielos and Vere, encouraged caution and patience, and offered to assist in brokering a peace.

"Peace with whom?" Damen raged, throwing the letter to the ground. "Why not ask which snake I most want to kiss? And a damn two-headed Veretian snake at that."

At the table in Damen's tent, Prince Torveld of Patras, picked up the letter and folded it, tucking it into his belt.

"My apologies," said Damen. "I mean no disrespect to your brother the King, but I fear that he's a great distance from where I stand, and the urgency of the matter is felt less. Vere is a fever ready to break, and when it does, we will take the brunt of it." And I am not secure enough in my own seat, not yet. He did not say it, but it was true; there was no knowing how far Kastor and Jokaste's scheming had gone, and Jokaste would not give up the name of her Veretian counsel.

"Outside of the official Patran position," said Prince Torveld. "I may say that I have met both the Regent and the Prince of Vere."

"Outside of the official Patran position, whom would you rather have creeping along your borders?" asked Damen.

"The younger," said Torveld, without hesitation. "He is indirect in his speech, a Veretian problem, but I believe him to be a man of integrity." He sipped his wine. "When last I was at court, there were some unsavoury rumours about the Regent's predilections – none of which I can verify – which gave me cause for concern."

"Unsavoury even for a man of Vere?" asked Damen.

Torveld grimaced. "Even for Vere."

Some weeks later, a message came, proposing a meeting, a discussion of tentative alliance, supposedly from the younger Laurent. It asked that he send a representative, across the border in Nesson-Eloy. The younger Laurent was rumoured to be in the area; the older, safely ensconced in the capital, was happy to worry at his nephew's heels with mercenaries.

Damen considered the matter, weighed up the balance of things: the false Akielons had indeed been mercenaries, the younger Laurent's troops had been nothing but well-mannered amongst the border villages, and his spies told him that he had treated with the women of Ver-Vask.

The next day, Damen rode out towards Nesson-Eloy, despite the objections of his Captain.

"I've learned from Kastor never to take someone's written word, not when it really matters," he told Nikos. "I need to see this Prince to get the measure of him."

Nikos was dubious, but he kitted Damen out in Veretian clothing, with papers describing him as a Patran trader, and guards posing as manservants. "If you get killed out there, I'll tell them to put the crown on a donkey," he said. "I think a donkey would be more biddable."

The buildings in Nesson-Eloy were close and stuffy, typically constipated Veretian architecture. Up until his small entourage had reached the noisome town, Damen had been enjoying the subterfuge. It was clear he was not recognisable, not with his beard clipped in the Patran style, and affecting a Patran accent. When Xystos, his lieutenant for this mission, located the place for the meeting, he returned to their camp, appalled.

"It's a brothel, Damen," he said. "It's filthy and it's going to be difficult to get out of it if there's trouble. Let me go. I can pretend to be you."

Damen felt a warmth of excitement at the idea of a covert mission, and the strangeness of that warmth shocked him. He didn't want to be a leader who cowered in throne rooms and lavish pavilions on the battlefield. "If the Veretian Prince is willing to go into that place, how will it look if I send an agent? No, I'll go. Don't look so shocked – if I were still the Prince, you'd be laughing and telling me to hire a pretty blond."

Xystos shook his head. "You're not the Prince, Damen. You haven't been him for months. Don't leave us with nothing but Jokaste's bastard for the throne."

"I wouldn't do that to any child," said Damen. He checked his purse for adequate (and adequately battered) coin, splashed himself with ale, pushed his hat to the side in a drunken angle, and rode out for the town.

The brothel was as disreputable as promised: a dissolute madam opened the little peephole when he hammered on the door, took in the quality of his clothes and the reek of ale from his clothes, and decided he was a good prospect for fleecing.

"Come in, my lord," she said, with a bow that nearly tipped her breasts from her barely laced bodice.

Damen walked into a dimly lit chamber, hung with velvet drapes and scantily dressed whores. The madam produced a bottle of wine and two smeared goblets, poured a generous amount into Damen's and a more prudent splash into hers.

"Here's to a night of entertainment," she said, pretending to be drunker than she actually was. Damen raised his goblet, but did not drink. There were other customers here tonight, though none had taken an interest in his arrival. Each was doted upon by a willing and nearly-naked woman, and the atmosphere was of awe-struck wickedness. Brothels were taboo in Vere, Damen remembered, and the gentry generally frowned on intercourse with the opposite sex. There was no-one possibly fitting the description of Prince Laurent, or even anyone clean enough to be a nobleman of Vere. The chamber was dark, though, and shadows gathered in every corner.

"Can I interest my lord in young Fleur?" the madam said, bringing forth a sun-kissed woman with freckled breasts. Fleur simpered and held up a jug of wine.

Damen sighed, and nodded, holding up his goblet for Fleur to fill, then sat on a low velvet-draped divan and pulled her onto his knee with feigned passion. She squealed and slapped him on the shoulder, pressing her breasts to his face as she gulped from his goblet thirstily.

"Your enthusiasm is lacking," said a soft voice from the shadows behind him. "Especially for one well known for his lust." Veretian language, cut-glass accent. A man's voice.

Damen looked over his shoulder, but saw only golden hair. Someone sat opposite him, half-turned away. "Fleur is lovely, but she's not who I was hoping to meet."

"I was expecting an envoy," said Prince Laurent. "It's something of a surprise that you chose to attend yourself." Laurent was like his brother in colouring, but seemed to be made from knives: cheekbones, shoulders and wit, all gleaming sharp.

"You obviously considered it important enough to be here in person."

"I prefer to see who I'm getting into bed with," said Laurent. "I don't trust easily. Especially considering your history with men of my bloodline."

"I did what I had to do on the battlefield." Damen was unapologetic. "Your brother could just as easily be having this conversation with mine tonight."

"Oh, I doubt that very much," said Laurent, sourly. "Auguste had reasonably particular tastes, and Kastor was well beneath him. I can barely restrain my distress myself at being in your presence." He spoke flippantly, but in the dim light, Damen saw his eyes glitter.

"And shall we lie down together, you and I, Akielos and Vere?" Damen felt an odd exhilaration in this whispered negotiation in the darkness of a Veretian brothel. There was something to trust in this man. War may not be inevitable. "Do you wish this to begin here, in a whores' parlour?"

"Oh, I have a room upstairs," said Laurent. "Don't worry. The bed is very large and I paid extra for clean sheets. Let us begin the tussle."

---

At the very beginning

"I hear the King of Akielos has sent me a gift," said Laurent, looking at the man who put a sword through Auguste, who left Laurent without protection, who opened the throne to an insidious predator.

Damianos was pale from his journey, thin and hollow eyed and in chains so tight that he could not raise his head more than an inch. It was everything Laurent had dreamed of in those first years of the Regency. Why was it so unsatisfying? Perhaps he had outgrown such childish things. Still, the timing of this was troubling. There were only ten months left before he came of age, and Laurent had better things to do than to linger on Akielos' long-overdue punishment.

And yet, here it was, gagged and on its knees before him. Laurent was conflicted, and he did not like conflict, not within himself.

Despite the short chain, Damianos did not drop his gaze, even though he could not meet Laurent's face, even though Laurent could see the muscles twitching in his neck from the strain as he tried.

"Remove the gag," Laurent said. "I want to speak to him."

The handlers hesitated, and Laurent turned to regard them, instead. They quailed and loosened the cloth. Laurent bent to meet the eyes of his enemy.

"What's your name, sweetheart?" Laurent asked, just to hear what he said. He was going to play this new game of his uncle's, it seemed. At least an opening move, until something more important or diverting came up.

The moment lengthened, as Prince Damianos regarded him, and Laurent did the same. We are both in cages, Laurent realised, and we are both drowning. The instinct of a swimmer in troubled waters reared up; he would not be dragged down by someone else's struggle for survival.

"What's your name, sweetheart," he repeated, in careful Akielon this time. It was a good language for raw insult, he found. Sweet words dripping with scorn, a different flavour in his mouth.

Damianos launched himself forward in his chains as far as he could, so that their foreheads almost touched. Laurent heard the nervous gasps and giggles of the courtiers, though there was nothing to fear. Damianos could not touch him, and now the chains were cutting in deep. In the privacy made by a mere inch of distance, Damianos fixed his eyes upon Laurent's.

"I am Damianos," he said in his own language. It flowed from his mouth like a wave, and Laurent suddenly understood why Akielon poetry inspired such passion. "I am King of Akielos. Help me take my throne, and I will fight as hard for yours."