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The Oath

Chapter Text

Around him, the battle raged on, but it was distant, unimportant. All that mattered was the clash of his sword against the Veretian steel in front of him, the hard pressure of Auguste, Prince of Vere trying to drive him back. But Damianos would not be driven back, and that was beginning to become apparent to both fighters. The bodies of Auguste’s fallen honor guard were littered around them, coating the packed dirt with blood so that the footing became treacherous.

Neither had their helmets on any longer. Sweat and dirt and grime made for poor visibility, and Auguste’s blond hair was plastered to his face and neck. Damen brought his sword up in a high sweep and drove it down with all of his might behind it. Auguste was weakening, tired from long hours of holding the front, long hours where he was the rock the Akielon fighters broke themselves against before Damen arrived.

It was his advantage, another thing they both knew.

Blood pumped in his ears, roaring like lions. His arm throbbed anew, pain seeping from the stab wound Auguste left in his arm. This was it, the final push. He had to beat the Veretian prince now or die trying.

Auguste braced against the blow and twisted, letting Damen’s sword slide off his long blade. He stepped back as Damen pressed forward, into his guard, and his foot skid on the slick earth.

And that was it, that was all the opening Damen needed. He slammed his armored shoulder into Auguste’s chest, ignoring the pain of his stab wound. Auguste was knocked back, sword arm swung wide by the blow and in the split second when Damen pulled his sword back his eyes met the Veretian princes’ and found the same realization blooming there.

This would be a killing blow.

He thrust forward, aiming his sword for the soft spaces between metal plates—a weakness in Veretian armor he discovered early on at Marlas.

“NO!” a voice screamed. A child’s panicked voice.

It was the unexpectedness of the sound that made Damen’s sword hesitate. The blow pierced a long gash along Auguste’s side, sliding between the metal but not into his chest as initially intended.

Auguste gasped, in shock or pain or both, Damen did not know.

The sounds of the battle around them were suddenly back. He looked up from Auguste and the sword still in the prince’s side, to find the source of the cry. Behind him, Nikandros and his men stood, dirty, blood-streaked, and tired, but ready to defend their own prince if needed. It was clear, as they too watched the fumbling figure stumbled its way over fallen bodies, that they did not find the child any more dangerous than Damen did.

Because it was a child who flung himself between Damen and Auguste. He couldn’t have been any older than ten, slight and face round still with baby fat. His eyes were blue beyond even Auguste’s and his hair was such a shock of gold it seemed spun from the metal itself. The child was beautiful, delicate, and dressed in leather armor that would do him not a bit of good against a grown man with a sword.

“Get away from him!” the boy shouted. He shoved Damen hard, but the whole of his weight behind the blow did not move Damen at all.

The boy spread his arms wide to block Auguste’s now kneeling form from Damen, but he was too small to manage such a thing.

“No,” Auguste said. His eyes were wide and his face was devoid of color, but not from the wound in his side. He was watching Damen with stark, utter terror on his face.

Damen withdrew his sword, careful not to nick the boy. The prince hissed in pain, and the little boy cast a look of such venom at Damen it actually shocked him.

“I’ll kill you,” the boy said. “If you hurt him again I swear I’ll kill you.”

More quickly than Damen would have through possible with such an injury, Auguste reached out and wrapped an arm around the boy’s waist. As he stood, he swept the boy behind him and continued to watch Damen with fear plain on his face.

What was a child doing here, among all this chaos and death?

“He’s a boy,” Auguste grit out. “He’s no threat to you. Don’t hurt him.”

And all at once Damen knew who the child was. Laurent, second son of the kind of Vere, Auguste’s younger brother. It made his head spin to think about. Both princes, one barely even out of his nursemaid’s care, here on the field? What could their kind be thinking, letting them both into the thick of the fight?

“He shouldn’t be here,” Damen heard himself say without thinking. “This is no place for a child.”

“I’m not a child,” the little prince hissed in his high, unbroken voice.

“Laurent, silence,” Auguste snapped. His brother flinched and said no more.

Behind him, Damen heard Nikandros step forward. “Majesty?” he asked softly. It wasn’t how he would address Damen if there were not others present, their friendship was greater than such formalities, but he would show nothing but respect to his prince in front of two equally royal enemies.

Damen sighed and pushed his damp hair back from his face. He needed time to think. There was something wrong here. Both the heir apparent and the little prince, in the middle of a war zone? And the little prince without a single guard to defend him?

Now that the fight was over, every part of his body ached. He could not kill Auguste in front of his young brother, and he would not kill Auguste now that their battle was over and he had clearly won. There was no honor in defeating a man already beaten.

“You are going to come with me to my father, the king,” Damen decided finally, signaling to Nikandros. Nikandros, in turn, signaled to his men. One sprang forward from where he’d been observing the battle between princes at once with Damen’s horse.

“Send him back to our troops,” Auguste said. “You don’t need my brother if all you want is a prisoner.”

“I’m not taking you as a prisoner; I’m taking you as a representative of the king of Vere. We are going to have that parley your people broke and you are going to agree to our terms,” Damen said shortly.

He gestured for another horse to be brought forward. Injured as he was, there was no way Auguste would be able to walk back to the camp and Laurent was so small it was very unlikely he would have the stamina needed to reach the edge of the battlefield, let alone the tents. He wasn’t going to turn the little boy around to walk back across the field of death on his own. Men could not always be trusted to make honorable decisions with their blood high from the rush of battle, and a child was not safe alone here.

But Auguste did not move.

“We will not harm you brother,” Damen said. He held the prince’s gaze steadily. It was the truth. Laurent was a child, not a fighter, how he’d even reached them in the melee without injury was a mystery. Damen would not and could not offer the same promise of protection to Auguste, but he had no intentions of letting someone harm the boy.

“Prince Laurent is a guest in our camp, and will be treated as such. Now,” he added, turning to his horse, “mount your saddle and come.”

It was slow going to reach his father’s tent. Auguste rode with his brother seated before him in the saddle, one arm wrapped tightly around his waist and the other gripping the reins of his borrowed horse in a white-knuckled grip. Laurent, for his part, kept up a steady and furious glare that he directed at anyone who looked too long at Auguste.
They dismounted their horses outside the tent. Theomedes sat on a solid wood chair behind a low table centered in the middle of the tent. He did not rise when Damen entered the tent, followed by the two princes and Nikiandros bringing up the rear with one of his men. When he saw who followed Damen, Theomedes narrowed his eyes, one brow arching. Behind him was Makedon and Kastor, both of whom looked first at Damen, and then at the Veretian princes behind him.

Kastor made an aborted half step forward when he saw the two princes. A dark expression passed over his face, so brief Damen almost didn’t catch it before it was gone.

“Son, explain yourself,” Theomedes said, still without rising from his seat. Damen dropped into a quick but deep bow, as was customary, and behind him Nikeandros and his man did the same.

For a moment Auguste hesitated, staring across the tent at the man his armies had been fighting for weeks now. And then Laurent shifted beside him and Auguste was bowing as best as his injured side and his armor would allow him. Laurent glanced at his brother, then at Theomedes before frowning mutinously and bowing as well.

Kastor’s eyes glinted with interest as they locked on Laurent’s bright hair. Damen knew his brother and knew he had no interest in one as young as Laurent, but he also knew enough of his brother to realize he would not let either prince leave this tent alive if he had a say in matters. Half the reason he’d brought Laurent to his father’s tent was because he’d assumed Kastor was still out on the field, not here waiting for him with their father.

“I have defeated the Veretian prince in fair combat,” Damen said, straightening from his bow.

His father looked with narrowed eyes at Auguste and Laurent both. “And yet, the prince of Vere is alive, in my tent. In fact, two princes of Vere are alive and in my tent. Why?”

“Because Prince Auguste is going to listen to your turns for his people’s surrender and he will agree to them,” Damen said. He was realizing now that his plan might not have been as well thought out as he first imagined. Kastor’s interest in Laurent notwithstanding, Auguste could listen and he could wholeheartedly agree to the terms of surrender he was offered, but he wasn’t the king. He did not have the final say in what his kingdom did and only his father could legitimize the surrender.

Auguste must have realized that as well because he straightened his back but did not rise from his bow. Instead, he shifted closer to his little brother and said nothing. He had no power here. If Theomedes wanted him dead, he would be. The only assurance he had was for his brother’s safety.

“So, you heard then news then?” Theomedes asked. He leaned forward in his chair and addressed Auguste, rather than Damen.

When silence stretched on for an uncomfortable moment, Auguste broke it. “We learned of no news before or after our battle.”

He sounded strong, brave, not at all like he was in pain from the wound on his side. He was an honorable fighter, a true warrior, and so very different than his father or the rest of his people. They were soft, devious, willing to break a parley on the chance the deception would help them win a battle.

Theomedes glanced at Damen again and the intention of his look was unknowable.

“Your father, the king of Vere, is dead. Felled by a stray arrow when he learned of your defeat,” he said. A bitter curve came to his lips and Theomedes added, “Perhaps if he had
known you still yet breath, he would not have removed his helmet so hastily.”

Auguste rocked back, wide-eyed with shock. Damen felt his pulse quickening. That meant they did not have the prince captive in this tent, they had the new king. They had the entire royal line kneeling before them in the dirt.

They could end the royal line now and press their campaign forward, capture the entirety of Vere and return it to the single kingdom it was once long ago.

“Liar.”

Laurent’s little voice cut through the mounting tension like a whip. He straightened up and glowered at the king, his pretty face scrunched up in a look of severity far beyond his years.

“My father was still behind the walls of the keep when I left. My uncle said he would not leave the keep and your archers aren’t good enough to hurt him from any of the surrounding terrain,” he hissed.

Kastor stepped forward, a hand on the hilt of his sword. He was not wearing his armor anymore, he must have been back in the camp long enough to change.

“You dare call the King a liar, boy?” he demanded.

Theomedes waved the anger away.

Auguste reached up and pulled his brother back down to the ground. “Be silent, Laurent,” he said again.

“They want to trick you,” the boy insisted, looking up at his brother. There was such trust in his expression, such innocent faith, that for all the world it seemed as if the child did not realize the danger they were in.

“Ah, so this is, the second son,” Theomedes said, leaning forward in his chair.

Auguste’s eyes shot to Damen and then back to the king. Laurent did not look cowed to be the focus of such a hard, assessing gaze.

Kastor scoffed.

“I had heard he was older. This boy is hardly out from his mother’s skirts,” Theomedes said conversationally.

“I’m thirteen. Hardly a child,” Laurent said and then he yelped as his brother’s hand closed tighter around his arm.

“You swore an oath,” Auguste said. He spoke quickly, eyes narrowed and locked on Damen.

He felt something squirm in his gut at the look. Damen made the oath when he thought the king of Vere still alive. News of his death changed the dynamics of this meeting entirely. The stakes were higher, the shift of power changing how important the little prince and his brother truly were. Theomedes could do whatever he wanted, as was his right.
His father rose from the wooden chair. Smoothly, he stepped around the table to stand half way between Damen and the two kneeling princes. Ever line in Auguste’s body was tense, his shoulders turned just slightly towards his brother. If a blow came, he intended to block it with his own body and save the boy, but if Theomedes wanted them dead they would never leave the tent.

“You swore an oath,” Theomedes repeated. “And what oath did you swear to the Veretian?”

He watched Damen with a narrowed, critical gaze. Damen met the look head on. The promise he made was honorable, and it was the right thing to have offered at the time. He still felt it was. Laurent was a child, despite what he said about his age, and there was no sport in harming children. In his heart, Damen truly believed his father would agree.

“I said that no harm would come to Prince Laurent. That he was a child, and not involved in disputes between men.”

Theomedes considered this for a long moment. He turned his focus back to Auguste, still kneeling, and the tight grip he had on his brother. There were drops of dark, rich red blood still oozing from between the creases of his armor and it was very likely that he would pass out if he did not get some form of medical assistance soon, but no one was focused on that. No one but little Laurent, pressed against his brother’s side and smeared in his brother’s blood.

“And do you think I should honor this oath you brother made, when the Veretian do not honor their own?” his father asked, turning back to Kastor.
His brother seemed to consider the question for only a moment before he responded. “I think we should deal with the Veretians as they would with us. They do not deserve honor.”

Theomedes made a contemplative sound deep in his throat.

“He is pleasing enough to look at,” Kastor added. “If we must, we can send the boy to Adrastus.”

Adrastus, the Keeper of the Royal Slaves? Damen stepped forward, outraged at the suggestion. “That’s hardly—“

“Makedon, what say you?” Theomedes asked suddenly. He stood directly before Auguste and Laurent, but his focus was not on the little prince at all. His focus, every last bit of the cold steal of his gaze, was on Auguste.

Damen held his tongue and let Makedon consider the question. Makedon was one of Nikandros’ generals, but his army was so large it afforded him the right to speak with the king as if he were a Kyros himself. He was also significantly older than Nikandros or Damen.

Makedon glanced at Kastor and then at Damen. His chest swelled and he took a deep breath in through his nose and let it out again.

“Would you like my most candid thoughts, your majesty?” he asked, after a long moment.

Theomedes nodded, still watching Auguste. Auguste watched him back, never looking away, never faltering under the hard stare.

“I think the opportunity will never present itself again to take back our ancestral home and the campaign will be much quicker with no royal blood for the Veretians to rally around.”

“So, you both recommend death,” Theomedes said with a nod, as if he had expected as much.

The tightness in Damen’s stomach worsened. He would not fight his father, he could not, but he was duty bound to protect the little prince. He could have sent him back to his people like Auguste suggested, but he hadn’t. He took Laurent here, believing this was safer than a second solitary march across battlegrounds. It was looking like that had been a foolish thought.

“And you, Nikandros?” his father said. Nikandros had risen at some point soon after Damen, but stepped back to guard the door with his man. He looked startled to be called upon for his opinion. Damen watched as his friend half turned to seek his guidance, but Nikandros stopped himself at the last second. His king asked for his opinion, not the opinion Damen wanted Nikandros to give.

“I think we are men of our words,” Nikandros said slowly, blinking up at the king and pointedly not looking at Kastor. “It is the Veretian way to gain victories through deception, but not ours.”

Again, Theomedes nodded, but he looked no more convinced of Nikandros’ recommendation than he had by Makedon’ or Kastor’s. During these deliberations, Auguste’s face slipped into something resolved and hard. Daman knew without having to say anything that his father could see the prince’s thoughts as clearly as he could. Auguste would fight before he let them hurt his brother. His hands and feet were not bound—neither Veretian prince was restrained—and he was a fighter of Damen’s caliber. Perhaps, where he not tired and injured and fearful for his brother’s safety, the promise in his eyes might have been cause for concern.

“You are a king yourself now,” Theomedes said to Auguste. “What would you do if it were my sons bowing at your feet and my kingdom ripe for the picking?”

His eyes slipped past Auguste to lock instead on Laurent. And now, under the hard stare, the little prince seemed to wilt ever so slightly. His eyes darted down, and a furious blush came to his cheeks before he forced himself to meet Theomedes’ eyes once more.

The corners of Theomedes lips twitched upwards in the ghost of a smile. It was a look Damen knew, familiar with it from his own days as a boy trying desperately to play at being a man in his father’s presence.

“I would have honored the parley,” Auguste said, answering a question that had not been asked.

For a moment no one moved. Theomedes and Laurent watched each other, Auguste watching them both and hardly daring to draw breath. And then Theomedes gave a hard laugh and turned on his heel. He marched himself back to his wooden chair and waved a hand at the table before him.

“Someone bring the Veretian king a chair. We are going to discuss the terms of his surrender,” he said, punctuating the declaration with a grin that was almost all teeth.

At once Nikandros leaped to find a chair shoved in the corner of the wide tent. He brought it forward for Auguste to sit at the table across from Theomedes and then hurried back until he was standing beside Damen. They exchanged glances, and it was clear from the stark relief on Nikandros face that he too had feared Damen’s oath would not hold. Nikandros took oaths very seriously, a holdover from his time with the guards of the king’s meat.

“I discuss these terms with you, and what of my brother?” Auguste asked cautiously. He rose to his feet just as carefully. Laurent took a step closer. Had he not been looking for it, Damen was sure he would have missed the amount of weight the little prince bore as his brother used him as an anchor to help reach his feet.

“Your brother will not be harmed. Damianos,” Theomedes added, looking up. There was pride in his eyes. “Find the boy a cushion and keep him close. He’s your responsibility until he’s back with his own people.”

And Damen nodded because it was better than he had hoped it would be. For a terrible moment he’s truly feared his father would not care that Damen gave his word. It was understandable as well, with so much possibility before them. But Theomedes was a general of unparalleled intelligence. They might cut both Veretian princes down now, but that would not bring them an easy victory and the Akielon fighters had been far from home for long enough.

So Damen plucked three cushions up from the sleeping pallet of one of his father’s bed slaves and brought them back to the table. He piled them up beside where he stood off to the right, and then gestured for Laurent to came and sit beside him. He tried to look non-threatening, so as not to scare the boy, but it was likely a lost cause. He still had his armor on and there was blood from many fighters, including Auguste, splashed across the metal.

Laurent looked startled, his pale face draining of all color, and he took another step closer to his brother. Auguste hesitated beside the chair, Theomedes and the eyes of the Akielon men watching him.

“My son has given his word and I have sanctioned the oath; do you not trust our honor?” Theomedes asked, very carefully.

“Laurent, it’s alright,” Auguste said. He turned away from Theomedes to look down at his brother. For the first time since he appeared at the battle, the boy looked truly uncertain. Auguste gave him a gentle press in Damen’s direction.

“Go. He will keep you safe.”

For one moment more the little prince looked unwilling to leave his brother’s side. And then Laurent straightened his back and marched across the tent. He refused to look at Damen as he settled himself on the pillow. Instead, he watched his brother gingerly seat himself, trying not to aggravate the injury 0n his side any more than he had to.

“Don’t worry,” Damen whispered softly, for the little prince’s ears alone. “You will be safe here under my protection.”

Very blue eyes darted upward to narrow at Damen before he dropped back down to the table and those seated at it.

“My father is dead. Nowhere is safe now,” Laurent said in the same low tones.

And it made sense. The bereaved words of a child losing their king and their parent all at once, right after facing the mortality of his beloved brother. The day must seem like horrors, one after the other, to one so young and unaccustomed to the ways of war.

So, thinking to relieve at least one of his fears, Damen continued, “We will not harm your brother either.”

Laurent’s mouth twisted down and pressed into a hard line. The expression was, once again, not something Damen expected to see on so young a face.

“It’s not you people I’m worried about,” the little prince hissed.

Chapter Text

Laurent sat silently beside Damen for almost an hour, his knees folded up under him, hands clenched properly in his lap. He was so silent as Theomedes and Auguste spoke, trading ideas back and forth about land Vere would soon give up, that when Laurent did speak it caught Damen by surprise.

“If someone doesn’t call a physician soon he’s going to pass out and possibly die. And then no one will be able to sign your treaty because I certainly will not,” he said sharply.

Damen felt his stomach do an odd little flip at the sheer audacity of the comment. He twisted at the waist to look down at the little prince. He was still straight-backed and proud, but the tone he spoke with was full of such venom that Damen was almost more shocked by the contrasting concern on the boy’s face than he was by the brashness of his outburst.

At the table, Theomedes and Auguste paused. Kastor, standing behind their father, shot Damen a half formed smile. It was the same smile he used to give when he and Damen practiced swords together as children and Damen did something so colossally stupid Kastor questioned their shared lineage.

Theomedes did not look away from Auguste. Early on in their negotiations, Makedon had produced a sheet of parchment to go with the map the two kings poured over. The final terms of Vere’s surrender would be scribed onto that parchment soon.

“Children should be seen, not heard, and men know not to interrupt their betters. Which are you; child or man?” Theomedes questioned conversationally.

“Laurent—“ Auguste began, but the little prince cut off whatever he’d been about to say.

“You’re still bleeding!”

It was true. Auguste was doing an admirable job of hiding it, be he was in pain, tilting in his chair before he caught himself and managed to straighten up again.

“Laurent—“ Auguste began, and again he was interrupted.

“Only barbarians would ask you to give away our lands without even assuring that you’ll live long enough to put pen to paper and sign your name,” he insisted angrily.

“Shhh,” Damen hissed. He set a hand on the little prince’s shoulder and felt the boy go ridged beneath his touch.

“Laurent, be silent,” Auguste shouted.

Laurent flinched at the tone, sufficiently cowed.

Theomedes glanced between the two brothers. He pressed one assessing finger to his chin. An air of satisfaction hung about him. Prince thought Laurent might be, Auguste was still his older brother and now his king. One stern command was enough to silence the boy—a show of Auguste’s command and Laurent’s respect.

“Kaster, fetch the physician,” Theomedes said with a dismissive wave as he turned back to the map and the parchment draped across it.

For a moment, Kastor did not move. He narrowed his eyes at Laurent who grew, if possible, even stiffer. And then the anger dropped from Kastor’s face and he stomped out from behind the chair. He left the tent without a word. Once he was out of site Laurent jerked his shoulder out from under Damen’s touch.

“My brother means well. I apologize for his outburst,” Auguste said with a bow of his head. It made him sway ever so slightly.

A contemplative look came to Theomedes face. He sat further forward in his chair and tapped the wooden table forcefully with a finger.

“A word of advice for a new king; do not display what you hold dear so clearly. Were I a man like your father, I would use this knowledge against you.”

All traces of fatigue left Auguste at these words. He kept his reaction concealed as best he could, face carefully kept blank, but Damen would have been a fool not to see the unease his father’s words inspired. Quite honestly, it surprised him as well. Theomedes was not in the mood to dispel such wisdom at the best of times. Whether this warning was meant as a threat or a token of peace to build on, even Damen could not say.

He will respect the oath, he told himself. Father is a man of his word and he will let me be a man of my own.

Kastor returned a moment later with the physician in tow. The man was bent-backed and old, weathered by battles far older than this one. He served with Theomede’s father once on the battlefield and Kastor liked to joke that the physician would serve with the next generation of kings as well. It was because of this impressive lineage, perhaps, that the man gave no hint of surprise to see the two Veretian princes in the tent. He waited just long enough to get a nod of permission from Theomedes before hurrying across the tent to Auguste. He did not wait for anyone else to give permission before he began to pull at the straps keeping Auguste’s armor in place.

Auguste lifted his arm and let the physician remove his armor like there was nothing at all unusual about the situation. Again, his calm was met with an approving nod by Theomedes and the approval deepened once the chest plate was removed and the long gash along Auguste’s side was visible. Theomedes glanced at Damen and this look was easier to interpret. There was no doubt that Damen had won his victory fairly and decisively. Truly, had Laurent not interrupted the battle when he did, his brother would have been cleaved nearly in half. But he had interrupted, and instead all Auguste did was frown when the physician announced to no one in particular, “This will need to be sutured.”

“Do as you see fit,” Auguste said. He turned himself in the chair so that his injured side was more easily accessible and so that he would one more be facing the table. From where he stood Damen could see that the gash went deep—the white hint of bone was visible in some places. It was truly a wonder Auguste was still upright, or breathing.

Laurent must have realized this as well. He made to rise from the cushion he’d been sitting on only to catch himself as Theomedes focused in on the movement where there should be none. Lauren’s pale skin looked ashen and his very blue eyes were wide but unfocused. A small sound escaped him before he could stop it, one hand reaching out for his brother. And then he was folding himself back down onto the cushion, setting his hands on his lap and looking respectfully down at the floor.

It was too late. Everyone present saw the laps in control. Damen found himself moved, despite his better judgment. He knew what his father thought of Vere and, truthfully, Damen himself didn’t think much better of the neighboring country, but it was hard to picture all Veretians as petty, shallow and vindictive when Laurent so clearly cared for his brother. He was just a boy, trying very hard to play act at being a man because the moment necessitated it, but there was only so much one could ask for from a child. Were Laurent his prince, Damen would be proud of his bravery now.

Kastor gave a hum deep in his throat—a sign that he was thinking hard before speaking.

“Perhaps the proceedings are too much for the little prince.” He turned and walked across the tent. Auguste watched him move closer to Laurent, who did not lift his focus from the floor in such a way as to clearly illustrate how little he thought of Kastor.

It was, again, shockingly rood. If anyone else dared treat his brother in such a way Damen would have them beaten. The thought of such a punishment hardly entered his head, except as a notion to be dismissed. This was a boy whose father had just been killed, whose brother was injured and forced into a surrender he likely would not have accepted otherwise, surrounded by men that could hurt him without any effort, and his one act of defiance was to refuse to look at someone? It made something warm burn in Damen’s chest. If the little prince was this brave now, imagine how formidable he would be when he was old enough to have the strength to back his bravery?

Kasor did not feel the same fondness for the little prince, that was clear. He looked at Laurent with a hunger that made Damen shift closer to the boy. He knew his brother, he knew Kastor was a good man, but he did not trust his brother’s temperament to hold strong against a petulant child intent on antagonizing.

With one hand Kastor reached out and cupped Laurent’s chin. He tipped the boy’s head up so that their eyes were forced to meet. With no other choice, Laurent permitted himself to look at Kastor. He tried to look board and came very close to succeeding if not for the involuntary twitch of his hands in his lap.

“Kastor,” Damen said in warning.

His brother flicked his eyes up, his lips twisting into a smile, before both his gaze and the grin fell once more. “The child looks ill, father,” he said to Theomedes. “Perhaps it’s best he not be present while his brother is stitched up like a bleeding Veretion pig.”

“Better a pig the a bastard cocksucker,” Laurent hissed so softly, so delicately, that his lips did not move. Damen jerked back in surprise. The Akielon language was not soft or full of the unnecessary frills of Veretian, and somehow hearing a voice heavy with the lulling accent of the Veretians say something with such hard Akelion intent was unsettling.

Kastor’s hand on Laurent's chin tightened. The boy’s right brow twitched, the only sign he gave that the grip hurt.

But that wouldn’t do; no harm meant no harm, not no harm unless Kastor was displeased. Damen reached out and pried the tight grip away from Laurent’s chin. Two red marks, one on either side of his face, were left by Kastor’s fingers. They looked very bright against the boy’s pale skin.

“Perhaps your son is right,” Auguste said. His eyes were on the red marks on his brother’s face.

Laurent puffed out his chest in outrage, but one hard look from his brother had him deflating again. Theomedes outright laughed at their interaction this time.

He lounged in his chair and waved his hand towards the tent flaps. “Go, Damen. Take the boy with you and return to your tent. I will call for you when the negotiations are completed.”

It would not have hurt as badly if it had been a physical blow. Damen felt his mouth drop open, lost for words. He could not be sent away. He was the heir apparent, the one to bring father this victory, the one who made these negotiations possible in the first place. To be sent away, when Makedon and Nikandros and Kastor were permitted to stay was an insult he hardly knew how to qualify.

Theomedes smiled a lion’s smile at the look of outrage poorly contained on Damen’s face. “You are the oath bearer, you will be the one to guard the little prince,” Theomedes said. And then he said, “Go, Damianos. Take the boy with you before he faints in my tent.”

There was no arguing with the king. Laurent, however, still had not moved from his seat on the pillows. He was ignoring Kastor and Damen, watching his brother instead. Auguste ignored the physician dabbing at his side with a cloth, readying it for the sutures. Instead, he nodded once to his brother.

There was no time for the Veretian princes to have silent conversations with one another. If the king wanted Laurent and Damen out of the tent, then they would leave the tent. Damen reached down and hauled Laurent to his feet. The little prince did not regain his feet. Anger flared hot and fast through Damen’s belly. Laurent already got them both tossed out of the tent—got Damen tossed out of the negotiations he should have been a part of—and now the boy wanted to play at defiance again?

Laurent stumbled again and would have fallen if not for the arm Damen held in his tight grip. The boy’s feet were not holding him. And at once the anger faded to be replaced with hot shame. The negotiations had already been going on for an hour, during which time Laurent had not moved. His legs were likely cramping now from sitting for so long.

He gentled his grip and guided Laurent from the tent. Nikandros watched him go, a tight pinch to his lips, but Nikandros would not say anything against his king sending Damen away from the negotiations.

Damen led Laurent through the camp. His tent was not far from his fathers, but it was a great enough distance that there were many soldiers who saw him walk the Veretian prince out of one tent and into another. Some of the men he passed laughed or made lewd comments, each and every one of them directed at Laurent for there could be no mistaking where the boy was from, even if who he was was less immediately obvious.

“A new slave for the conquering prince?” one man asked, laughing drunkenly. He sat in the center of a group of men, all clustered around a fire pit. They were intoxicated, bottles of cheap wine passed around between them. There was a bright, buoyant feeling to the man’s words. He meant nothing hostile at all towards Damen himself. Everything about his posture—half at attention even while sitting—and his smile, said he was proud to be looking up at the man that won the war for him.

Everything about his words made Laurent go stiff and tense beside him and made Damen himself feel slightly sick. Laurent was a child, and he looked far younger than his actual years.

“He is my guest. That is all,” Damen said roughly.

He hurried Laurent along, pushing him to walk so fast the boy almost tripped twice as they made their way through the darkened camp. It would be better if he were out of sight faster. Father must have known what he was doing, asking Damen to walk someone so clearly of Veretian background through the middle of camp, and it was not Damen’s place to question his decision.

They reached his tent in record time. Inside the tent candles were already burning. A large bed, set on top of wooden slats to elevate it, took up the center of the tent. Beside it was a collection of pillows and blankets that made up his pleasure slave’s sleeping area. Lykaios rose from where she sat on this collection of pillows as soon as Damen stepped into the tent. She moved forward just enough to step out from the pile of pillows before dropping to prostrate herself on the floor. She bowed so deeply that her golden curls tumbled over her shoulder to brush across the dirt.

Upon seeing her, some of the tension eased from Damen’s chest. Lykaios was his favorite, new to his harem but quickly becoming his most beloved. She knew his wants almost before Damen himself, her touch gentle and calming in all ways. She, with her sweet smile and doe eyes, would not look at Laurent as if he were a threat or a treat. She would look at him and see exactly was Damen wanted her to see, which was a child in need of protection until the surrender was fully negotiated and the oath was fulfilled.

“You may rise, dear one,” Damen said. He made sure to inject a soft note to his voice, aware that so much blood and war taking place around her may have unnerved Lykaios while he was away.

She sat up and smiled shyly at him. “My lord has a guest?” she asked in her soft, timid voice.

Damen nodded. He pressed Laurent forward. There was nowhere to sit in the tent other than the bed, unless the boy intended to kneel in the dirt as well. It had been a long day and given the stress, it was a wonder the boy was even still conscious. He, like Auguste, was likely only on his feet due to force of will.

“This is Laurent,” Damen said, guiding the boy forward with a firm hand on his shoulder. He intentionally left out the boy’s title. The less people in the camp who knew who he was, the better.

Laurent would not move. He dug his heels into the ground and pressed back against Damen’s guiding touch with all his might. A brief inspection showed that the little color still in the boy’s face was rapidly vanishing. His eyes were so wide they seemed to encompass the entirety of his face. He would not look at Lykaios.

“What’s wrong?” Damen asked. He was still frustrated that Laurent was the reason he was not in the negotiations any longer, but an oath was an oath and the boy looked more terrified now that he had all night.

“I’m not getting into your bed,” he said and his voice cracked on the last syllable, making the accented Akielon hard to understand.

“Why not? You can sleep soundly there.” Maybe if he slept for a few hours the boy would look less like he was about to faint.

Laurent’s shoulders hunched right up to his ears. He stepped to the side, away from Damen and away from Lykaios. She watched him with concern, but stayed silent and seated, waiting for instructions from Damen on how to proceed.

“I’m not getting in your bed. I’m not a slave you can fuck anytime you want. Just because you made an oath to my brother doesn’t mean I owe you that and if you touch me my brother will kill you,” Laurent added quickly. It came out in a rush, his voice very tight and very high. He would not look at Lykaios, but he would not look away from Damen. The little prince was tense, clearly caught between flight and flight already.

The soldiers they passed, the jeers thrown Laurent’s way. It should have occurred to Damen that the boy might fear for his safety in more ways than one. The mere thought of such an idea, of someone laying hands on one so clearly unprepared for such a thing, was abhorrent.

“I will not touch you. I do not lay with children,” Damen said. “If anyone tries to touch you,” he added, unable to keep the anger such a thought inspired out of his voice, “I will make sure that man does not live long enough to regret the decision.”

“Because of your oath to my brother?” the little prince asked carefully, still tense.

“Because anyone who harms a child—regardless of the country that child comes from—deserves such a punishment,” he corrected firmly.

Laurent considered this for a very long minute. His shoulders did not un-tense, but the stiffness of his posture lessened enough for him to look away from Damen. The boy was blushing now, a pretty shade of red that stained his cheeks.

He shifted from foot to foot before blurting, “It’s improper to be alone with a woman without a chaperone. There will be talk of basterds.”

“Talk of--?” Veretians had very different ideas of courtship and lineage. Damen knew that Veretians frowned upon bastardy strongly, but the idea that a child being in the same room as a woman might be cause for concern actually had Damen laughing despite himself.

He moved around Laurent and to Lykaios. With one hand he reached down to pull her to her feet. She rose gracefully, the sheer silks of her clothes shifting attractively over the swell of her hips and breasts. Laurent flushed darkly and looked at the ceiling of the tent.

“Have you never seen a naked woman before?” Daman laughed. The little prince was all ice and waspish comments before, but in the face of his embracement he was almost sweet.

The boy did not answer. Damen laughed again. He pulled Lykaios close and pressed a soft kiss to her hair, still chuckling. Amusing as Laurent’s embarrassment might be, it would be rude to keep the boy in such a state of unease. The discomfort with Lykaios notwithstanding, the mistrust he had in Damen was disappointing. If nothing else, he’d hoped he’d shown Laurent and Auguste that Akielons kept their word and honored their promises.

“Lykaios,” he said, turning away from the little prince. Lykaios looked up at him with wide, earnest eyes. “My guest could do with some water and something to eat.”

“I will fetch you both something at once,” she said. She stepped back and bowed again, deep enough to display the curve of her back, before straightening up and hurrying from the tent. Lykaios could be trusted to bring Laurent back something pleasing and Damen something satisfying. Hunger was beginning to make itself known.

Silence fell over the tent. Laurent did not seem inclined to speak to Damen now that they were alone. Despite his assurances that the bed was perfectly safe, Laurent made no move to lie down and rest. Some of the color had returned to his face, but that was likely a result of his blushing embarrassment rather than any returned vitality.

“It could be a long wait,” Damen said. “You may as well rest while you have the chance.”

Laurent narrowed his eyes suspiciously, but did not respond. Instead, he crept forward one small step at a time, always aware of Damen on the other side of the bed. He inspected the mattress like one would a new horse, looking for imperfections.

“I am not tired in the slightest, so I have no need to sleep,” Laurent said with an air of haughtiness.

Damen laughed outright at the tone.

Laurent glanced up at him, lips pursed, but he returned to inspecting the bed rather than responding to the laugh.

Behind Damen, the soft swish of tent flaps opening once again drew his attention. Lykaios must have run all the way to the cook’s tent and back to have returned so quickly. A warmth of affection sprung up in his chest as Damen turned to greet his slave.

But it was not Lykaios at the entrance to the tent. Three men stood there. They were dressed in the armor of the Akielon army. They were not members of his father’s arms.

They held themselves wrong. They stood in a triangle, one taking point and the other two standing slightly back, blocking either side of the exit. They had their helmets on still, obscuring their faces, and that more than anything else was what sent Damen on alert. No soldiers in his arm would dare face the heir and future king without showing the proper deference. The men did not bow, and they did not remove their helmets. They did not want their identity known.

Laurent watched the men enter the tent with mild curiosity. He looked from Damen to the soldiers, expecting some sort of greeting or salutation, but none was given. Curiosity turned to unease.

“Who are you men, that you dare enter my tent uninvited?” Damen demanded. He walked forward slowly. Laurent was on the farthest end of the tent, farther away from the three soldiers than Damen, but also far enough away from Damen that he was vulnerable to attack. The leather armor the boy wore would do nothing against the swords all three soldiers drew from their scabbards.

“Leave. Now,” Damen commanded.

The man closest to him, the one foolish enough to take point, sneered. He drew his blade and charged, without as much as a word. Damen brought his own sword up, blocking the blow. He was not concerned about these men, even three against one, he would win, but it would take time. He was tired, sore, and injured already from his fight with Auguste. The three men would not go down easily either.

The concern was for Laurent. While the man on point charged Damen, his companions rushed for the little prince. With a roar, Damen locked blades with his opponent and forced the man back into his companion on the right. Both men crashed into one another, but it was not enough to trip either of them. While Damen struggled with two of the intruders, the third ran for Laurent.

The little prince flung himself across the bed and away from the soldier. His attacker swung his blade, biting deep into the sleeping pallet and blankets, missing Laurent’s head by a hair’s breath.

This fight needed to end quickly. If Laurent died the surrender would be in danger, his oath would be broken, and a child would be murdered in cold blood. Damen would not let any of those things happen.

He met the next attack head on. While one of the intruders charged him with a straightforward thrust, the second aimed for Damen’s injured shoulder. In a split second he made a decision; Damen allowed the second man to connect, the impact jarring his shoulder and making his hand go numb all the way down to his fingers. Damen ignored the pain. He dropped his sword and used his good hand to reach out and grab his attacker at the hollow where his armor parted to allow room from his neck. The man was too shocked by the insane move to realize in time what Damen planned to do.

He swung around and met the point soldier’s next attack without even attempting to get out of the way. He didn’t need to; the man stuck in his hold acted as a shield. He gasped as the sword meant for Damen pierced his abdomen.

But Damen did not let his advantage wane there. He pushed forward, once more driving the two men into each other until the one still standing lost his footing. All three went down, the man with the sword in his gut twitching as he died. The point soldier struck out, punching Damen hard in his injured shoulder.

Damen rolled away. He had a moment to see, out of the corner of his eye, that Laurent was still alive. He had a knife in his hand—where in the world had he found a knife?—and it was enough to make the third attacker use caution in his approach.

But the second was all Damen had before he was being attacked again. The point soldier flung himself at Damen, punching and kicking any part of him he could with the full weight of the armor he wore strengthening each blow. Damen forced himself to put the pain from his mind. He twisted, employing the wrestling move that always served him well to dislodge the man. They rolled apart.

Damen scrambled for his fallen sword, snatched it up, turned, hilt braced against his uninjured shoulder as the sound of running feet came to him—

The soldier did not have time to halt his charge. Damen’s sword struck him high, piercing through his chest in exactly the same move Damen had intended to use on Auguste earlier.

The man looked down at the sword protruding from his chest in mild surprise. And then the light left his eyes and his knees collapsed. Normally Damen would check to be sure his opponents were dead before daring to turn his back on them, but he could still hear Laurent and his assailant fighting on the other end of the tent.

Damen scrambled around. The third soldier had Laurent pinned on his back, on the hand still holding the knife trapped beneath the man’s armored knee while the other pulled desperately at the hands wrapped around his throat.

Damen flung himself at the man. He meant to tackle the assailant and pull him off of Laurent, but the man did not release his grip on the boy’s neck when Damen’s full weight crashed onto them both. Instead, all three became tangled in a wild, violent heap upon the ground, Lykaios’ pillows ripped and tossed around them. Damen pulled at the man’s hold on Laurent’s throat, kicked and punched and clawed at every inch he could reach, but the attacker would not release his hold. Laurent gasped, eyes wide and redened with loss of air as they filled with blind panic.

Panicked to the point that he forgot he had a knife still clenched in his hand—or possibly he had not the strength to wield it any longer.

Daman did not stop to think. He reached over the assailant, wrapped his hand around Laurent’s slackening grip on the knife, and then pulled his arm back and Laurent’s arm forward to stab the knife into the unprotected place where the chest plate ended and the helmet did not cover.

Blood spilled. The man gurgled and twitched, his fingers around Laurent’s neck going slack almost at once. Damen flung the man off of Laurent, but not before blood had soaked the boy’s face and front.

Laurent lied there on his back, gasping and choking.

Damen spared enough time to be sure the man was truly dead before returning to the little prince’s side. There was already bruising on his neck, and his face was scuffed and his lip cut, but it was hard to tell how much of the blood was Laurent’s and how much of it was his attacker.

There were tears in the young prince’s eyes.

“Are you alright?” Damen asked. He slipped an arm under Laurent’s neck to cradle the back of his head and help him sit up. Laurent’s chest heaved with the effort to draw breath and his body shook so hard his teeth rattled. His eyes were dazed and unfocused.

He’s walked across a field of death, but Damen was sure, in that moment, that Laurent had never seen a man die before now.

“What happened here?”

Damen turned, still crouched down beside Laurent. His father, Kastor, Nikandros, Makedon and Auguste all stood, either just inside or just outside the tent entrance. Huddled fearfully beside Nikandros and clearly the one to bring this group here, was Lykaios. She must have returned, seen the fight, and raced to get help all without Damen even realizing. She was truly the most wonderful creature.

Auguste took one look at the chaos inside the tent before rushing forward. His own armor was gone and his shirt had been replaced at some point by a loose, flowing tunic. He pushed himself between his brother and Damen, dropping to his knees amid the ruined pillows and blood stains.

“Laurent, are you alright? What happened?” he demanded. It sounded wrong and it took Damen a moment to realize that was because he’s spoken in Veretian, not Akielon like they had been speaking since the battlefield.

Laurent took a moment to answer. He opened his mouth, but words were not immediately forthcoming and he had to swallow three times before he could manage to speak around the mounting swelling.

“Someone tried to kill me,” he said, also in Veretian.

Damen looked back to his father. While everyone, including Kastor who had never had a head for languages, seemed confused by the exchange taking place, Theomedes merely raised a meaningful eyebrow. Let them speak when they think that may do so freely, the look said. And so Damen remained silent.

“Who were they? Why did they come after you?” Auguste demanded. His tone was hard, but his hands were soft as they brushed his brother’s hair back from his face to check for injury.

Laurent shook his head and winced in pain.

“I want to go home,” he said, very quietly, and more honestly than any words that had left his mouth yet.

A hard look came to Auguste’s face. He glanced at Damen, and he could not have been sure how he knew it, but Auguste was not fooled. He knew that Damen, at least, had understood his conversation with his brother.

“Your surrender is finalized,” Auguste said, his eyes lingering on Damen before turning to focus instead on Theomedes. He spoke once more in Akielon. “You were right earlier. War is no place for a child. I will take my brother home now and bring word of our peace back to my people.”

While he spoke, Auguste helped Laurent to his feet. Damen hovered, ready to help should Laurent need it. He was small and young and untrained, but he lasted alone against a grown and armored opponent long enough for help to arrive. Once again, Damen found himself wondering how formidable the little prince might become with the right training and time.

Theomedes pretended to consider the comment for a moment. He looked at the destruction of the tent and the three dead men before nodding.

“Yes, I think it’s time you return home,” he agreed. “A herald has already been sent to the fortress. They will know to expect you.”

Auguste inclined his head in a small bow, the deepest he would give with Laurent shaking beside him.

“We will provide you with horses and an escort,” Theomedes continued. He turned to Nikandros. “Assemble five of your best men and find the Veretian king and his brother a horse. They have news to bring back to their people.”

Nikandros bowed deeply and then rushed from the tent to do as he was instructed. While they waited, Auguste struggled not to express the concern he clearly wished to and Laurent struggled even harder not to ask for it. Little Laurent, covered in blood and bruises, shivering with shock and trying to look strong, made something clench behind Daman’s ribs.

Lykaios inched forward, eyes downcast, to offer a small but deep bowl of clear water and a rag. Damen took both from her with a small word of thanks and took it upon himself to dab away some of the red smeared across Laurent’s face. The little prince let him, but he stepped closer to Auguste while Damen worked.

“This will not be ignored,” Theomedes added. He kicked one of the fallen soldiers with a toe.

“It’s an outrage that anyone would even dare to attach the prince in his own tent, surrounded by his own men,” Kastor growled. He was watching Auguste and Laurent like he intended to accuse them of the wrongdoing.

“They tried to kill my brother,” Auguste replied, and it was the first time he did not sound diplomatic. Instead, he sounded like he would gladly rip Kastor apart with his bare hands if it meant keeping Laurent safe.

Laurent, for his part, watched Damen with eyes that were slow to return to focus. He did not react to the soft touch of the damp cloth cleaning his cheeks.

Before anything more could be said, Nikandros returned.

“My men and the horses are ready, your Majesty,” he said with another bow to Theomedes.

The king nodded. “And so now you leave,” he said. It wasn’t with the same tone of hostility that he’d begun his negotiations with Auguste. Damen wouldn’t have gone so far as to imagine his father had grown fond of the Veretian prince in the short time they were together, but he certainly did not hate the prince anymore.

Auguste nodded. “I will be in touch.”

“Yes. I Look forward to the return of Delpha,” Theomedes replied.

Auguste said nothing, just gave a curt nod. He guided his brother from the tent. Damen followed, the others making way or stepping out before them. Nikandros presented two horses in addition to the six already spoken for; five by his men and one for Nikandros himself to ride as they escorted the two princes back to their own territory.

Before mounting his horse Auguste and Theomedes shook hands, each gripping the other along the forearm. Auguste turned to do the same to Damen, but he added, again in Veretian and so low no one else could hear, “Thank you for keeping your oath. I will not forget what you have done for me or my brother today.”

Damen nodded but there was nothing to say in response to that. He gave his word that Laurent would be safe here and he kept it. That was not such a surprising thing that it needed special thanks, except, it seemed, it was in Vere where one’s word was easily broken.

More surprising still was Laurent. He bowed to Theomedes, the motion stiff and awkward but forgivable after what he had just been through. And then he turned and bowed to Damen. He straightened, considered Damen for a moment, and then offered his hand to shake as well.

“Because we are brothers in arms now. We have fought together,” he said in Akielon, voice raspy from pain.

Theomedes laughed, pleased with the idea. Damen was charmed despite himself. He reached out and clasped Laurent’s hand, keeping his grip softer than it had been with his brother. Laurent stepped closer and whispered in Veretian, so carefully that his lips hardly moved, “Watch out for your brother.”

And then he was on his horse, and he and his brother rode from camp, surrounded on all sides by Nikandros and his men. They would get back to their people safely.

“The Veretians breed weak men,” Kastor said scathingly. He spit on the ground and shook his head.

Theomedes made a contemplative sound. “Perhaps. Perhaps the weak men have been culled from the lineage.”

Damen looked to Kastor, to his father, and then to the retreating backs of the riders. Watch out for Kastor, Laurent had said, but what did that mean? What danger was Kastor in that the Veretians would know about and Kastor’s own family would not?

“Cease your contemplation for one night, my son,” Theomedes said. He placed a hand on Damen’s shoulder and gave it a tight squeeze. “We have ended a war, forged an alliance, regained Delpha, and learned reliable information about the Veretian king. All this is thanks to you.”

“What did we learn about the Veretian king?” That he was a worthy opponent and an honorable fighter? But were things they had been told before today.

Theomedes smiled. It was full of teeth. “A man in power should never display that which he loves so openly, and Auguste is a man who displays his love for all to see.”

Laurent. He meant Laurent. But to what end Damen did not know.

“We would not harm the boy,” Damen said slowly.

Theomedes glanced pointedly back at the ruined tent and the smile did not dim. “No, we would not. After all, you swore an oath.”

Chapter Text

“I do not think it’s a good idea to let him come here,” Kastor said.

Theomedes shrugged one large shoulder in a clear lack of concern. He stood behind the large desk in his council chamber. No one but Damen and Kastor were present, making the spacious room seem inappropriately empty given the delicate nature of their conversation. In truth, Damen agreed with Kastor. It had been four years since the end of the war. Four years with Vere and Akielos coexisting in relative peace. Why jeopardize that by bringing the little Veretian prince to Ios?

“The boy is coming. This is not something you have a say in,” Theomedes said. “The peace has gone well, and it will be strengthened with this visit.”

“You haven’t heard the stories about this boy,” Kastor continued. “They could not have sent someone less qualified to keep pleasant negotiations. In Vere, the boy is known as a cast iron bitch. His own people speak of him this way.”

“And you will not,” Theomedes replied.

Damen sighed. Kastor was red-faced with anger, and their father gave no indication that he cared about that anger at all. The disregard was something that stood out more and more in the last few years. Their father had never taken anyone’s advice over his own when his mind was truly made up—it was the mark of a good ruler to know his own mind—but Theomedes was particularly stubborn when it came to their relationship with Vere.

Kastor never supported the peace treaty or the trade agreements that came out of it, and his suspicion and mistrust of the Veretians was the least well-kept secret in all their kingdoms. But the treaty was made, the decision to create a relationship with Vere undisputable. Their role as sons was to support their father’s efforts, not to argue against him. Not even in the privacy of this room.

Still, to send the young prince and heir apparent to Ios as an ambassador of peace?

“Even Auguste wouldn’t believe his brother so infallible as to send him to us alone. Not when the boy has never been sent anywhere as a diplomat before and not when he’s so young,” Damen said. He stepped beside Kastor and set a calming hand on his brother’s shoulder. Kastor glanced at him before stepping away from the table and Damen’s hand to cross his arms over his chest.

Theomedes crossed the room. He stopped beside the window looking out over the bay. The white cliffs of the shoreline were particularly pleasing to view today, as the sky was clear and the sun was bright now at the height of noon. Soon—any hour now—the Veretian ships would dock and the diplomatic party would arrive.

In the four years since the Battle of Marlas, Damen had seen the new king of Vere only once. It was a few months ago, during a trade summit in Patras, where delegates from the surrounding countries all congregated to discuss the tariffs on silk trade. Theomedes insisted Damen attend the negotiations as well. It was an honor to join his father on such a journey, even if talk of silk qualities and the effect of fractional imperfections in cloth styles should have on cost was mind numbingly boring. Over the course of the summit it became clear that Theomedes held the most power at the table, but Auguste had a practicality to his calm tone that made his suggestions hard to ignore.

When negotiations were through, Auguste sought them out, Theomedes and Damen both. After a privet discussion with Theomedes that Damen himself was not invited to join, all three gathered together once more. Auguste embraced Damen like a brother and drank long into the night. They spoke of their homes, of friends, of inconsequential things, until Auguste brought up Laurent.

“He asked after you, you know,” Auguste said, leaning forward to gesture at Damen like he wanted to draw him in closer for a secret. “I wonder, do you ever ask after him?”

Daman remembered smiling, amused by the open friendliness Auguste showed despite their shared past, and curious about the little prince’s interest. “Certainly, I hope your brother is doing well.”

“Your oath. The promise you made so long ago, would you still honor it now?”

“My son is Akielon; we honor our word,” Theomedes answered.

Months since the summit and still the conversation returned to Damen. Now, watching his father gaze out over the bay, he couldn’t help wondering if Auguste planned on sending Laurent to Ios at the time of their conversation. If Laurent were to visit in the capacity of a diplomat, here in the capital to strengthen the peace built over the last four years, then there was little reason to worry about him. All foreign dignitaries were assigned a guard detail in addition to the men they brought with them from their own countries. Ios would be the safest place Laurent could be, with or without the oath.

“Prince Laurent is not coming to visit us on his own,” Theomedes said without turning from the window. “His uncle will be accompanying him as an advisor during his stay here.”

“So they sent the ice bitch with a babysitter,” Kastor spat.

“You will show our guests the proper respect when they arrive.” There was no room for argument in their father’s tone. Kastor struggled for a moment, half a retort formed on his lips that Daman tried hard to discourage with a warning look before he subsided.

“I would never embarrass you, father,” Kastor said. He dipped his head. “I trust your judgment in all things; it’s the Veretians’ intentions I question. It’s been four years, why send diplomats to us now when they sent no one after the war?”

“Skirmishes at the border.”

“What?” Damen asked. He pulled his attention away from Kastor to focus instead on their father. He looked grim, still staring out over the water. Distantly, on the edge of the horizon, white sails were just barely visible. The Veretians would arrive soon, by nightfall at the latest.

But news of discord at their borders was not something Damen was aware of until this moment. Since the summit, Theomedes made of point of including him in decisions of state. Anything that had an impact on the security or the stability of their borders should have been something Damen knew about as soon as his father did. In all likelihood, Nikandros’ territory was the area the skirmishes occurred within—he had the longest stretch of unbroken borderland between Delphi and Vere. Why hadn’t he told Damen of the unrest?

“So this diplomatic mission has an actual point to it?” Kastor asked, but Damen spoke over him.

“What skirmishes have occurred at the border? Where is it happening?”

Finally, Theomedes turned away from the window. “It’s occurred in Delphi,” he said, confirming Damen’s suspicion. “We will discuss this more when Prince Laurent and his party arrive.”

Damen shook his head. There was more to discuss here. How was he to be any use during the visit if he didn’t know the full scope of the issues at hand? Without a proper understanding of the severity of the skirmishes, or who was actually involved, he had no idea how to approach this meeting with the little prince. There were hill tribes, peoples not affiliated with Vere or Akielos, who could be the perpetrators of the incidents; without more information there was no safe way to approach resolving the conflict.

“We need to know who was involved before the Veretians get here, at the very least. Is this an act of aggression?”

“Undoubtedly. The Veretians can’t be trusted,” Kastor said.

Theomedes narrowed his eyes ever so slightly. It was the look he used to give them both when he wanted to punish them for some childish act of foolishness but didn’t have the time to bother in that moment. Kastor recognized the look as well, because some of the bluster left him.

“Go and prepare to meet our guests. They will be here soon and you will both be there to greet them at the dock,” he said, rather than respond to Kastor’s comments.

Again, Kastor appeared ready to argue before he thought better of it. With a stiff nod, he turned and marched from the room. Damen did not move. He was not inclined to argue with his father and king, but if he was expected to perform his duty he had to understand the situation.

“I cannot meet the Veretian prince with no understanding of the situation.”

Theomedes nodded. He looked past Damen towards the door, checking to be sure they were alone. There were, not even a slave was present, all having been sent away at the start of this meeting. Theomedes stepped in close and gripped Damen’s shoulders tightly. He used the grip to pull them closer.

“This is a delicate situation, my son,” he said, so low the words would not be audible beyond the space between their bodies. “Someone is trying to spark violence and twice already the prince has had his life threatened.”

This news was just as surprising as news of unrest at the border. Unbidden, Damen’s mind flashed back to the night he met the little prince, and the subsequent attack in his tent.

“These attempts on Prince Laurent’s life, are they connected to the unrest at the border?” Surely the death of a prince would be devastating, but he wasn’t the king and Auguste was young enough to have a child and heir of his own. What would anyone gain from killing Laurent?

At this question, Theomedes’ expression turned grave. “I do not know, but Auguste suspects as much. He’s sending the boy here to keep him safe.”

“They can’t keep their own prince safe in Vere?”

“You are honor bound to look after Prince Laurent,” Theomedes replied, ignoring the question entirely. “Keep him close and keep him alive long enough for Auguste and me to discover who is working against my peace.”

That was why Auguste asked him about the oath back at the summit. He had been planning on sending his brother here even then. Which meant, while Auguste was away from Vere, his brother was alone and vulnerable. He was such a small boy, so desperate to seem brave, and again, the night he first met little Laurent returned to his mind. Little Laurent in his useless leather armor braving a battlefield alone, little Laurent fending off his attacker until Damen could save him.

He knew then that he would keep his oath, regardless of how long ago it was made. The conviction must have shown on his face because Theomedes gave his shoulders another squeeze, but this time the action was meant as an expression of solidarity.

“Do not speak of this conversation to the boy, or of his brother’s intentions sending him here. The uncle is our true negotiator, but Laurent cannot know that.”

“Why? Wouldn’t it be simpler to keep the boy safe if he knew we were aware of the danger?”

“We do not know who among the Veretians can be trusted. If the boy dies on our soil, it may be the impetuses to further our enemies’ plans. Your duty is to make sure that does not happen.”

So, Damen did his duty. He stood beside Kastor, both at the end of the dock as the gangplank was lowered from the Veretian ship. He said nothing of the conversation he had with his father, instead focusing on the men descending the walkway onto the dock. Royal guards came first, four of them, and they split into equal groups to stand on either side of the walkway as the royal party came next.

A man with a kind face and well-trimmed beard in the Veretian, close-cropped style came first. His clothing was fine, clearly of high quality though it was significantly less ornate than the decorations of the ship itself. Behind the man, trailing uncertainly in his shadow was a young boy of ten or eleven. He had curly brown hair and a single sapphire earring dangling from his ear. The man’s son, likely, with him for the trip. The man smiled graciously when he saw Damen and Kastor, and dipped his head in a respectful bow. It wasn’t the full bow one of their own people would have given to a member of the royal family, but the man could only be Prince Laurent’s uncle. His status permitted him to avoid so deep a show of respect. Beside Damen, Kastor gave a huff but said nothing.

“It is an honor to finally meet the princes of Akielos,” the man said in Akielion. “I am Caracallus, uncle to King Auguste and Prince Laurent.”

At this last, Caracallus gestured behind him. The boy had moved off to stand beside the guards as more of the royal party exited the ship. A young man stood at the top of the gangplank. He was beautiful, shockingly so. His hair was a rich, golden blond that caught the setting sun and, even narrowed against the fading light, Daman could tell that his eyes were very, very blue. The young man frowned, his perfect lips turning down at the corners in a way that was unexplainably appealing, before he too descended the walkway.

“The honor is ours,” Damen said, but he wasn’t really paying attention to the words. He was watching the young man as he reached the wooden planks of the dock. His very blue eyes darted to the little boy, and then to Caracallus, before focusing in on Damen and Kastor.

It took Daman a moment to reconcile what he was seeing with what he remembered. Gone was the baby fat, the child softness. Gone was the useless leather armor. Laurent was not so little any longer. He was lean and bundled up in clothing that tugged at enough places to imply the rest of him was as pleasing to the eye as his face.

“Prince Damianos,” Laurent said and his voice was deeper now. “How nice to see you again.”

Damen felt a smile spring to life. “It is nice to see you again as well. Welcome to Ios.”

A moment passed where Laurent continued to look at him while Kastor waited expectantly to be acknowledged.

“Not quite so little anymore,” Kastor said, breaking the silence. His tone was as light as he could make it, but a note of challenge still found its way into the remark.

Laurent glanced at him. “Yes. That tends to happen over time.”

It was impossible to tell if the comment was meant to be an insult or not. The trip back to the castle was awkward and uncomfortable. Kastor was angered and disinclined to speak to any of the Veretians. He rode at the head of the party with Caracallus and for all appearances they spoke little, if at all. Laurent rode beside Damen and the silence stretched for far longer than he would have liked. Here was the little boy grown into the beginnings of a man, and someone in his kingdom wanted him dead.

The child trotted along on his horse behind Caracallus, beside one of the Veretian guards who exited the ship last. This man was massive, a small mountain atop his horse, and he kept close the Caracallus as they went. It was clear that half the guard were the prince’s men, and half his uncle’s. They had differently colored tunics over their light armor, with the prince’s dressed in blues and golds while his uncle’s donned a sharp red. The mountain of a man did not seem to be keeping a particularly close watch on the little boy, but one of the guards in blue had a constant eye on him.

Damen tipped his head in the direction of the child and ask, for no other reason than the hope to begin a conversation, “Your uncle’s son?”

Laurent let his gaze move from directly in front of him, where his focus had been since they began riding, to look over at the boy. His expression darkened.

“No,” he said.

It was an abrupt dismissal and for the first time Damen felt himself growing annoyed. It was fortunate Auguste thought far enough ahead to send his uncle on this trip, because Laurent seemed incapable of being personable.

They reached Ios as the sun began to set. Stable hands came to fetch their houses and anyone in the courtyard stopped what they were doing to bow deeply and show their respects. The party was led to the throne room, where they would greet Theomedes. Both Laurent and his uncle bowed properly before the king of Akielos, which mollified some of the annoyance Damen had felt on the ride back from the harbor. Perhaps Laurent’s poor manners were a result of a bad mood from too much time spent at sea.

The full court was in attendance. Up near the front of the room, closer to the throne, Jokaste stood with her hands clasped before her. She looked lovely, with her golden curls pinned up atop her head. She came to court barely a year ago with her father and had taken to the capital beautifully. The artistry of her face obscured her true gift; her very clever whit and sharp inelegance. She and Damen were friendly, but Kastor had an interest as well. The question of whether or not to pursue her favor anyway had seemed like a very large question yesterday.

Theomedes spread his hands wide in welcome and stepped down from his thrown. “Come,” he said as he came to stand before Laurent and his uncle. “A great feast awaits us, but first I will present you both with gifts.”

He led them out of the throne room and into an adjoining hall. On either side of the walkway, bowed low so their hair touched the floor, were pleasure slaves. At least a dozen waited, single file, along the walls. Each of the slaves was male, and each was beautiful in their own right. Adrastus rushed forward to meet his king and the distinguished guests. He rung his hands distractedly, but smiled under their scrutiny.

“Adrastus, the Keeper of the Royal Slaves,” Theomedes introduced.

“In deference to the Veretian custom, our most lovely males for your please while you stay with us,” Adrastus said. He bowed at the waist and the stepped back, gesturing to the hallway and the slaves.

There were many faces that Damen knew, some slaves he had taken to bed himself. Lykaios was not here, but it seemed women were not of interest to their Veretian guests. He knew there was fear of siring a bastard in their land, but had not thought the concern would extend to coupling with a slave.

Theomedes clapped his hand down on Laurent’s shoulder with more strength than he needed to. Laurent did not stagger under the blow but his face went very deliberately blank.

“Go ahead. You may choose first, as if your right as my guest,” Theomedes said. It was clear he took some pride in the beauty he had to offer the Veretians.

Laurent tipped his head to the side and considered the men kneeling before him. “Pleasure slaves are the Akielion way. In Vere, we have pets; free men and women that chose to serve.”

Theomedes did not move his hands from Laurent’s shoulder. Damen felt something tighten in his gut. Caracallus turned to watch his nephew closely.

“A slave gives their master perfect obedience in exchange for perfect treatment. It is an honorable bond,” Theomedes said. He gave Laurent a small, guiding push forward. “Go. Choose one.”

Laurent stood for a moment more, simply looking at the slaves before he moved up and down the row, inspecting each slave as he passed. He stopped in front of one of the few faces that Damen did not recognize. The slave before him could not have been any older than Laurent himself. It was a little young to be ready to take up the proper duties of a pleasure slave, and quite young indeed to be asked to serve someone so important.

Laurent knelt down and tipped the slave’s face up. The boy had curly copper hair and artless hazel eyes that widened in wonder as he looked up at Laurent. The slave was truly lovely and one look at him was enough to let Damen know who this boy would have been training for before today. He was exactly the sort to catch Damen’s interest.

Laurent smiled at the slave. “What’s your name?”

The slave looked momentarily too flustered to speak. He dropped his eyes demurely and sat up straighter so that Laurent would not have to bend to see his face. “Erasmus,” he said, and his voice was soft and pleasing.

“Erasmus, would you like to attend me while I am here?” Laurent asked, but it wasn’t really a question. If he wanted Erasmus, he would have Erasmus. It made sense, really. While Laurent was older than he had been at their last meeting, he was still only just stepping into adulthood. He would likely be more comfortable with someone closer to his own age than he would be with the other slaves, who were all very clearly older and, in some cases, larger than he was.

A blush stained Erasmus’s cheeks and he gave a very shy nod.

“Excellent choice,” Adrastus said jovially. “Erasmus has not had his first night yet, it is a great gift we are able to give you. You will be well pleased with him.”

“Can he attend to me at meals?” Laurent asked, looking up curiously from Erasmus, who seemed too in awe of the prince to do more than gaze adoringly up at him.

Theomedes nodded. “Of course.”

He turned to Caracallus as Laurent gestured for Erasmus to follow him back to stand beside the king. Erasmus kept his head bowed respectfully, radiating shocked joy at having been chosen. Caracallus smiled at Laurent, and indulgent set to his lips. He reached out and brushed a strand of brown curls back from Erasmus’s face and hummed approvingly.

“Quite lovely,” he said. Laurent gave no reply.

Caracallus chose a slave slightly older than Erasmus, but no less lovely. The slave was equally as please to have been selected to serve such an important guest. Dinner was an elaborate feast, tables laden down with all the best Ios had to offer. Damen sat beside Laurent. The prince did not seem to care that he was there. Instead, he picked at his food and it took a while for Damen to realize he was not actually eating anything. He also did not drink the wine Erasmus poured for him, choosing instead to lift the glass from time to time and swirl the contents within it.

Was the food so unsatisfying that he couldn’t even force himself to eat it? How was someone so petulant expected to be a diplomat?

There have already been attempts on his life, Damen reminded himself. It’s possible that Laurent wasn’t eating or drinking anything because he was afraid there might be poison in his food. It was irksome that he would imagine so nefarious and cowardly a danger something he would have to worry about here, but it was, at least, something Damen could understand.

He reached out and plucked a large persimmon from one of the bowls of fruit in front of him. Making sure Laurent saw each move, he cut the fruit and popped a slice into his own mouth. With an appreciative hum, he held out a slice to Laurent.

“They are unseasonably sweet this time of year. Please, try some.”

Laurent glanced at the slice of fruit in his hand, and then up to Damen’s face. His expression remained deliberately neutral when he reached out and took the offered slice of fruit. He took a very small bite, and then a larger one as the taste hit his tongue. Laurent glanced at the remaining fruit slices and then the bowl.

“Please, have as much as you would like,” Damen said. He tried not to feel too smug when Laurent pulled the more persimmons from the bowl and began to slice them up as well.

“When will we be discussing the border issues?” Laurent asked as he ran his knife through the fruit.

“Tomorrow morning, I expect.”

Laurent hummed but gave no further comment.

Across the table, the little boy watched Laurent with narrowed eyes. It was amusing, thought Damen still did not know who the child was or why he was part of the diplomatic party. Obviously, whoever the boy was, he felt comfortable enough in the prince’s presence to be making faces at him because whenever Laurent looked up, the boy scrunched his face up in disgust exaggerated to a degree only children could manage. Damen expected Laurent to react in some way—to be offended or to join in on the game and make a face back— but instead he looked down and focused on his fruit again like the boy wasn’t even there.

“Are you enjoying your meal so far?” Damen asked, because he hadn’t seen anyone speak to the boy directly yet.

The boy turned wide eyes onto Damen, clearly not expecting to be the focus of his attention. He sank slightly in his chair, but tipped his chin up with defiance and said, “Yes.”

Caracallus smiled widely and set a hand down on the boy’s shoulder. Some of the bristling tension left him now that Caracallus had turned away from his conversation with a reluctant Kastor.

“Nicaise is a lovely boy, but you must forgive his manners,” Caracallus said with a soft laugh. He squeezed Nicaise’s shoulder and rubbed his thumb soothingly up and down the exposed skin. “We are still working on the proper education for such an occasion as this.”

Laurent’s eyes followed the movement of his uncle’s thumb. “Nicaise is my uncle’s ward. He’s been with my uncle for three months now,” he said. “Undoubtedly, Uncle felt this was the proper place to bring Nicaise to further his education.”

This last comment was said with a sharpness that caught more than just Damen’s attention. Down the table, he saw Jokaste look up from her plate to watch Laurent and his uncle across the table. Nicaise sank in his chair again, face flushed.

Clearly there was something going on between Laurent and his uncle, but whatever issue they had was no reason to make an innocent child uncomfortable. It was a display of immaturity he would not have imagined from Laurent at his age. Surely he was old enough to stop throwing tantrums, even one as well contained as this.

Theomedes clapped his hands together with a loud bang at the end of the table. All heads turn to focus on him. He smiled like he hadn’t heard the strange conversation taking place not two seats away from him.

“Tomorrow we will attend to business, but tonight our guests will rest and recover from their journey,” he said.

Erasmus and the slave Caracallus had chosen stepped forward, their actions mirrored by their fellows stepping in close to others at the table. A light touch at his elbow alerted Damen to Lykaios as his side. She smiled sweetly at him and included Laurent in the look when he took a second glance at her. Perhaps he recognized Lykaios from their first meeting all those years ago.

“It’s hardly proper to take someone to bed with a child in the room,” Laurent said lazily, his hand stretched out to cup Erasmus’s face. He tore his gaze away from the adoration being directed towards him to focus once more on Theomedes. “I know you were not informed ahead of time of my uncle’s ward accompanying us on this trip, but are there rooms for the boy?”

Well, thought Damen, that was kind of Laurent at least. He might not be overly fond of Nicaise, but at least he was thinking about the boy’s comfort during their stay. He could quite easily have left the duty to see the boy looked after to his uncle. Perhaps this was a peace offering for his poor behavior a moment ago.

Theomedes nodded. “Of course. They boy’s rooms are near your own. Erasmus can show you both to your rooms.”

Nicaise shot a panicked look towards Caracallus. Caracallus stroked the boy’s hair absently while he smiled at his nephew. “You’re quite thoughtful,” he said.

Laurent shrugged as he stood from the table. “Yes, I try.”

Caracallus gestured for Nicaise to follow. Damen didn’t have to look at his father to know what was expected of him at the moment. He stood as well, Lykaios stepping back to make room for him to lead the way. She smiled encouragingly at Erasmus, who looked with each step they took away from the dining hall, like he might melt into the floor with nerves and excitement.

Nicaise stomped up to Laurent’s side, his little hands curled into first. “You’re going to make him mad at me,” he hissed in Veretian once they were in the hall and away from the other diners.

Laurent’s eyes flit to the little boy, up to Damen, and then—oddly—back to Erasmus. He stepped closer to Nicaise and spoke in an uncharacteristically soothing tone, also in Veretian, “He can’t be mad at you for being dismissed to bed by a king.”

Nicaise gave an angry huff.

“This will be your room,” Damen said, in Akielon. He stopped beside the large doors and gestured between them and Nicaise. There were no guards at this door, unlike the one not five feet further down the hallway with two men in blue standing at attention.

Nicaise stared at the doors with the same wide eyes trepidation he’d had when Damen spoke to him at the table. For such a young boy to be so far away from home and alone in a strange land, he could understand why the unease was showing. Laurent took in the expression on Nicaise’s face, and then frowned up at Damen.

“How secure are these rooms?” he asked.

“Very secure. You don’t have to worry,” Damen said. He directed the assurance to Nicaise, but it was meant for Laurent as well. It was Damen’s duty to make sure Laurent was safe during his time here in Ios, and he had no problems telling himself that the duty extended to Nicaise as well. “I’ll send extra men to guard the doors, if you would like that.”

Again, Laurent’s eyes darted from Nicaise to Erasmus. His lips pressed tightly together in a frown. “No, that will not be necessary. I will have my own men keep an eye on your room, Nicaise.”

This did not seem to soothe the boy’s fears, but he nodded anyway. Laurent gestured to the men standing guard at his door down the hall. Both trotted forward until they were in earshot.

“Jord, have Orlant and another man stand guard at Nicaise’s room,” he said.

The guard on the right gave a sharp nod and hurried back to the room, where there were presumably more of the prince’s guards stationed within the rooms themselves. While Nicaise only had the one room without any joining suites, Laurent’s bedrooms were elaborate and fit for the man occupying them. It would take more than two guards at his front door to keep the full collection of rooms monitored.

Only once the three guards in blue arrived and stationed themselves according to Laurent’s instructions did Nicaise slip into his room. He shot Laurent one last venomous glare before he slammed the door.

“It’s kind of you to try to make him feel more secure,” Damen said, because it was and it was, at least, something he could say to try and foster conversation. Laurent was not an easy man to pull into pleasant discussion and the most animated he had been all night was when he tried to make Nicaise less nervous.

But Laurent shrugged the compliment away. “We have much to discuss tomorrow and it will do no one any good if he's up all night with nightmares.”

They reached Laurent’s rooms. Jord and another guard stood on either side of the door. They saluted when their prince stood before them. Laurent paid them no mind. Instead, he turned to face Damen fully. He was shorter than Damen by almost a full head and his skin looked particularly pale in the dim hall light. He seemed to be searching for something, scrutinizing Damen’s face.

“I thought I would be angrier to see you again,” he admitted after a long moment of silence.

Lykaios took Erasmus’s hand in a gentle hold and pulled him to the side, giving Damen and Laurent the illusion of privacy if they ignored the guards still standing at attention. It hadn’t even occurred to Damen that Laurent might harbor some ill will towards him after how they met. Truthfully, if anyone had the right to be resentful it was Auguste, and he’d been so pleased to see Damen that it simply seemed reasonable to assume Laurent would feel the same.

“I hope our past does not hamper our ability to work together now,” Damen said. He was surprised to find that he meant it. Laurent was prickly, like a half-wild cat, but he’d shown kindness with Nicaise. This was his first diplomatic mission—it had to be, given his age—and he was already stressed with the knowledge that his life and his brother’s throne were in danger. Helping him was the only honorable thing to do.

Laurent smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. “We’ll see,” he said. He reached out for Erasmus and gestured for them both to return to the bedrooms. Erasmus gave a deep bow to Damen and one last look to Lykaios, who nodded encouragingly, before following Laurent into the room.

Even with the door closed, the guards did not drop their salute and Damen realized they intended to hold it for him as well. He smiled and took Lykaios’ hand. Together they walked back down the halls to his room. It had been a long day and all he wanted to do was lay down with Lykaios there beside him.

“The prince has grown so much,” she said softly, full of wonder.

Damen nodded.

“I’m glad he chose Erasmus. They will be kind to each other,” she continued.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
Dinner was an uncomfortable affair but not quite as uncomfortable as the walk through the halls that followed it.

The whole trip was uncomfortable but necessary. There was too much at stake here to let anything interfere with the plan, and so far Laurent had not been able to focus on anything useful. It was a small victory, convincing Auguste to send Uncle with him on this trip, but it was a victory nonetheless.

There was no way Laurent was going to leave his brother alone in the same country as their uncle, not while he had any say in the matter. Because there was no doubt in Laurent’s mind that there was a traitor in the capital, and there was no doubt in his mind that the traitor was Uncle. He had no proof, nothing he could take to Auguste to convince him other than suspicion and a greater understanding of how their uncle’s mind worked.

He liked to take advantage of weakness, of naivety. He liked to make you think family meant something to him.

It didn’t. There was nothing sacred to that man. Auguste was nothing like their uncle. He was honest and good. It would not occur to him to look to his own family for the source of the unrest in Vere. Laurent was certain that the unrest at to border had something to do with his uncle as well, but again, there was no evidence. Nothing specific he could hold up in front of his brother and the council to prove his uncle’s guilt.

Auguste might believe him even without proof, if Laurent told him everything. But he had no intention of doing that either. There were some things that his brother was better off not knowing.

The trip to Ios was the perfect opportunity to take care of two problems at once. If he was in Akielos, Laurent would be able to discover if the plot against his brother spread past Vere’s own borders, and he would be able to keep Uncle out of Vere and away from his faction for as long as possible. It wasn’t much, but it should weaken some of his plans if he was not there to see them carried out.

The child was an unexpected complication, and not one Laurent knew how to handle right away. He hadn’t known Uncle had taken on a “ward” or that he’d had Nicaise in his position for months even before the week-long boat ride to Akielos. There wasn’t much he could do about the situation on a boat in the middle of the sea where his men and Uncle’s were evenly matched. Any move to separate the boy from his abuser would result in conflict, conflict that could get Laurent killed and then there would be no one who knew or cared about that what happening to Nicaise.

What did Uncle plan to do when the boy grew older? Or, was the idea simple to get rid of him before his appeal wore off? It made Laurent physically ill thinking about, and knowing what was happening left him full of an impotent rage he could do nothing with.

Until they got to Ios. It wasn’t much, but at least tonight Nicaise was safe. One night free of abuse was something at least. It didn’t make up for Laurent’s failure, but nothing could.

And now he had a slave in his room, radiating nervousness and expecting sex. Why did it always come back to that? This boy couldn’t be any older than Laurent himself, and he’s only just turned eighteen. When he’d seen the hall full of kneeling bodies, and the slave master came forward to introduce himself, it felt like someone had physically struck him. He knew the name Adrastus. “Give him to Adrastus,” Kastor had said back in Marlas. Would this have been Laurent’s fate, if Damen and his father had listened to that advice? Would he be the one kneeling in see-through silks, waiting for a stranger to abuse him, trying to look pleased about it?

Well, it didn’t matter because he had no intention of sleeping with Erasmus. The true question was what would he say to make the refusal to sleep with this slave seem benign? He knew enough about the barbarous customs of Akielos to know that refusing to appreciate their “gift” would be seen as rude and he didn’t need to insult anyone with Uncle around whispering discord in people’s ears. There had to be a way to avoid this that would satisfy everyone, a way that wouldn’t cause issues…

And then the idea struck him. It was geniuses in its simplicity.

“I suppose I should tell you now, I don’t intend to sleep with you,” he said.

Erasmus blinked, confused. Laurent could see the words replaying in his head and wondered for a fleeting moment if his accent was off and making it difficult for the slave to understand him. Even in his mind, he didn’t like the distinction—“the slave” was demeaning. Erasmus. He had a name. His name was Erasmus. Erasmus, who looked like he might burst into panicked tears.

He dropped his head and rounded his shoulders, the picture of a beaten puppy. “I’m sorry if I have displeased you somehow.”

“You haven’t displeased me at all,” Laurent said. He knelt down to be at eye level with Erasmus and gently tipped his head up. There were tears in Erasmus’s eyes and it was impossible to tell if they were from sadness, fear, or some combination of both.

“In fact,” he said, trying very hard to quell the kernel of guilt those unshed tears inspired. “I picked you because I thought you could help me. You’re the only one I feel I can trust with this.”

A single tear slid down Erasmus’s cheek. He didn’t seem to notice, too enraptured by Laurent’s words. The kernel of guilt began to grow but it was ignored. It had to be. Besides, this wasn’t dangerous for Erasmus as long as he said nothing to Uncle.

“Can I trust you with this? Can I share me secret with you?”

Erasmus nodded emphatically.

“You won’t tell anyone?” Laurent asked, just to be sure.

Erasmus shook his head. “I won’t tell anyone.”

Laurent smiled. Despite himself, he believed Erasmus was telling the truth.

“Perhaps you know this already, but I met Prince Damianos once before. At the Battle of Marlas.”

A small gasp escaped Erasmus. He was a perfect audience for a story. They were only two sentences into the tale and he was already engrossed, sitting up straighter and leaning forward to show Laurent his undivided attention.

“Prince Damianos fought my brother and won. He could have killed my brother and me as well, but he didn’t.” That much as true. If Damianos had been a different man, he very well might have killed Auguste and Laurent. Or he might have killed Auguste and turned Laurent into another Erasmus.

“Today was the first day I even met Prince Damianos,” Erasmus said in an awed whisper.

“I…I,” Laurent stumbled over the words. He had no trouble lying. He lied often and to everyone, even Auguste. But this felt different somehow. Auguste sent him here to try and negotiate peace, but Laurent was ready and willing to burn Ios down and salt the earth behind him if he found out anyone here was trying to hurt his brother.

But he could do nothing until he knew the facts.

“I admire the prince,” he said, forcing himself to say the words with as much earnestness as he could. “I think I …I didn’t realize until I saw him again today, but I think I…”

“You love the prince!” Erasmus gasped.

Oh, thank all the lovelorn men who ever came before him for helping Erasmus make that leap on his own. All Laurent had to do was let his own eyes widen like the very idea of his secret attraction finally spoken out loud shocked him and Erasmus was beside himself with emotion.

“The prince will return your affections. You’re kind and generous and beautiful,” he said. And then he reached up to cup his hands around Laurent’s. For a moment, both were too startled by the boldness of his actions to properly react. Erasmus paled, but Laurent let his fingers curl around Erasmus’s.

“All I know of the prince is what I’ve been told. I don’t know of his likes, his dislikes, if we have anything in common but our station and the night he spared my brother’s life.”

“I-I can help?” Erasmus asked uncertainly.

Laurent beamed. Perfect, exactly what he’d been hoping to hear. “Can I count on you for this, Erasmus?”

Will you be my spy, my eyes and ears in all the places I cannot go?

Erasmus nodded, eyes wide, curls tumbling around his cheeks. “Of course. Of course, I’ll help you.”

And Laurent smiled, that kernel of guilt forgotten. He had a purpose here and he would not leave Ios without knowing for sure if Damianos was plotting against Auguste. And if Damianos, Crown Prince of Akielos, was in league with Uncle, he would die.

Chapter Text

Erasmus walked down the long hallway on bare feet, thankful for the cool tiles against his skin. It was already warm and the sun had barely risen; today would be oppressively hot near the windows and in the courtyards. Closer to the council chambers, deep inside the palace, would be cooler—a distinct pleasure for any of the slaves lucky enough to be allowed in that area.

Before leaving the room this morning, he attended to Prince Laurent. Erasmus had suggested tentatively the Akeilon clothing, which was lighter and would be more comfortable
than the heavy clothing full of layers and ties that laced up to the prince’s chin, but Prince Laurent turned the outfit down. Perhaps he was simply better able to stand the heat. He was such a strong man to begin with, something as minor as high temperatures would not be able to affect him.

Overall, Erasmus’ first night had not gone the way he’d imagined it would. In truth, he’d been rather nervous even when Lykaios did her best to teach him and sooth his fears of displeasing Prince Damianos. When Master Adrastus told him he was to be presented as a potential companion for the Veretian dignitaries—because the Veretian prince was so young himself—Erasmus nearly fainted. It took Lykaios and Ganymede some time to help calm his breathing enough for Erasmus to stop feeling like he might vomit or cry. He wasn’t ready. His training wasn’t complete and wouldn’t be for another year at least. While he had a vague idea what to do to please Prince Damianos, he knew nothing of a stranger from a strange land who might hate everything Erasmus had been trained to do.

He was lucky that Prince Laurent was so kind, and honored to be the one such a prince chose to confide in. Perhaps even princes felt frightened at times. No one was there to teach Prince Laurent how to woo Prince Damianos, Prince Laurent had to feel so lost without Lykaios’s wisdom to guide him. But that was where Erasmus was sure he would be able to assist. He spent most of the night awake, recounting everything he knew about Prince Damianos in great detail, his favorite foods and drinks, his love of wrestling and sports, his mastery of the sword, how he enjoyed holding his lovers, that he preferred to set the tone of his encounters, how he was said to be very generous and gentle in bed.
This Erasmus made sure to stress, because Prince Laurent paled when Erasmus began recounting such personal details and he could only imagine that the young prince feared that he would be overwhelmed by such an encounter.

“I need to know more,” Prince Laurent said once Erasmus ran out of information to share. “Who Damianos associates with, his friends, where he spends his time. If—“ And here the prince hesitated. His very blue eyes darted across Erasmus’s face, searching and unsure. Erasmus let his eyes go wide and earnest because Lykaios always said he was the picture of innocents when he did that and hard to resist.

“If he’s meeting with other Veretians in secret because…because his heart already belongs to another, I ask only that you tell me so that I know where I stand.”

Erasmus swore he would recount faithfully everything he learned and he swore to use all the discretion he possessed to aid Prince Laurent in his pursuit of love. Erasmus knew little of the world but he knew kindness when he received it and Prince Laurent treated him with the care and respect Lykaios always said Prince Damianos would. The care and respect perfect obedience was supposed to earn. The two princes had more in common than event they realized and it was Erasmus’ duty to help them find their way to each other.

This goal was what brought him back here to the slave quarters now to seek out Lykaios. She was not in the baths or in the communal sleeping rooms, which was why it took some time to find her. Lykaios was in the infirmary with another slave and a physician that Erasmus had never seen before. The physician was elderly and addressed in the Venetian style. He had his whole focus on the slave lying face down on the sickbed before him and it was only then that Erasmus realized it was Ganymede.

There were angry red burns trailing down the insides of Ganymede’s legs, originating from the most intimate of places. Dark green and purple welts littered the places on his legs not covered in burns.

Erasmus gasped, hands flying up to cover his mouth in horror. Lykaios, who had been stroking Ganymede’s hair while whispering soothingly to him, looked up, the physician mirroring her motion. She rose at once, casting one pained look back at the physician before she ushered Erasmus back out of the room and down the hall.

Erasmus shook, trembling from head to foot. Tears stung his eyes. Ganymede was his friend, was kind and talented.What could have happened to him? He was fine when he left the banquet with Prince Laurent’s uncle last night. A terrible fear crept up Erasmus’ spine. What would become of Ganymede if he was too injured to do his duties?

“How-what—How did he hurt himself so badly?” Erasmus sobbed. Ganymede must have knocked over a lit oil lamp and the burns were the result of the hot oil. But what about the bruising? Did burns cause bruising?

Lykaios hesitated. She looked back in the direction of the sick room and then to Erasmus. She ran her hands over his arms, lifting them from his sides and walked all around him to inspect every inch of flesh she could immediately see.

“Are you uninjured?” she asked rather than answer.

Erasmus nodded, his lower lip quivering. “Yes. What happened to Ganymede? Will he be alright?”

Lykaios circled back to face Erasmus. She cupped his cheeks between her soft palms and gave him the same searching look Prince Laurent had last night. It was only now, seeing the same expression on her face, that Erasmus realized it was concern to the point of fear that both regarded him with. She drew him in close for a hug that was so tight it bordered on painful.

“How was your first night?” she asked, face tucked into his hair. The question made sense but not the tone it was delivered in.

Erasmus clung to her and tried to stop crying. Tears were unbecoming, Master Adrastus told him that during training. You were only allowed to cry if they told you it was permitted, otherwise it ruined the mood.

“My first night was fine. How was Ganymede hurt so badly?” he asked again.

Lykaios said nothing, simply held him tighter.

“Lykaios?”

Finally, she pulled back. “I don’t know,” she said but it was a lie. Lykaios was a very good liar but not when it came to lying to him.

“Was it an accident?”

“I don’t know,” she lied again.

Why would she lie? Why keep this a secret from him? Erasmus wasn’t stupid. He knew that slaves—even pleasure slaves—sometimes hurt themselves when they were upset or wanted to leave their masters, but that almost never happened at the palace. Their masters were good here, mostly. He’d been warned about Prince Kastor but one warning was expected. And Ganymede was happy. He’d been proud to be offered to the Venetians and more proud still when he’d been selected by Prince Laurent’s uncle. He wouldn’t hurt himself.

Which meant that someone else hurt him instead. Lykaios must know who that someone else was or she wouldn’t be lying.

“Prince Laurent treated you kindly?” she asked, changing the subject. She wiped a stray tear from his cheek with the pad of her thumb.

Erasmus nodded. “He was wonderful and kind. He only wanted to talk to me. I think he’s very shy,” he said. He was only half aware of the words leaving his mouth. Ganymede was fine at the banquet and he was fine when he left with Lord Caracallus. Today he was not fine, Lykaios was lying and a strange physician tending to his wounds.
Erasmus thought he might start crying again. This was not how servitude was supposed to work; Ganymede offered perfect obedience.

Lykaios made a soft cooing sound and pulled him into another embrace, this one soft and comforting.

“You could tell Prince Damianos,” Erasmus whispered. Prince Damianos would do something.

She shook her head, tumbles of blond hair mixing with his copper curls. “We can’t tell him.”

“But why?” Erasmus demanded, pulling back. His eyes from the effort to hold back his tears. It wasn’t fair. Ganymede was doing exactly as he was supposed to do. He shouldn’t have been injured so terribly. Masters were supposed to tell you if they were interested in causing pain and they were supposed to stop before they did any lasting damage.
Lord Caracallus obviously did not stop.

“We can’t tell him, Erasmus,” Lykaios said firmly.

“Why? Do you think he would do nothing?”

Lykaios shook her head. “No. I think he would defend his people and ruin the peace talks the Venetians are here for, because Prince Damianos is an honorable man.”

“But…but something should be done.” It wasn’t right. Ganymede would scar. No one would want him then. He would be cast out of the palace.

Lykaios pressed her lips together tightly and blinked rapidly before she could make herself speak again.

“You will learn that sometimes we must suffer for the good of our masters,” she said. “We don’t matter like they do. We shouldn’t matter like they do, but Prince Damianos will not understand that if he sees these injuries. So we cannot tell him.”

“But Ganymede—“

“Promise me you will not tell him, Erasmus,” she said.

Erasmus stared at her. Part of him was in awe of Prince Damianos. Her fear that his reaction would ruin the peace talks could only mean that he would do something to help Ganymede. Prince Damianos would demand retribution. They mattered to him enough to confront the Veretians. The other, larger part of Erasmus, just felt sick. He understood what Lykaios was saying. He knew he wasn’t important outside of this hallway, he never had this pointed out to him so clearly before. Perfect obedience in exchange for perfect treatment, but if he was not treated perfectly, who would care? Who got to determine what perfect treatment actually was, because Erasmus knew the determination was not up to him.

Or Lykaios, who was the most important pleasure slave he knew.

But maybe he could do something about this.

“Erasmus,” she prompted again.

“I will not tell Prince Damianos,” he said softly. It was the truth. Erasmus was not brave like Lykaios; he could not lie.

She breathed a sigh of relief and brushed a lock of hair back from his face.

“And you will tell me if Prince Laurent treat you poorly?” she asked just as softly.

Erasmus nodded. Prince Laurent would never treat him poorly. Prince Laurent was beautiful and kind and deserving of Prince Damianos. Prince Laurent chose Erasmus, with Erasmus his uncertainty and his love. He thought Erasmus was capable of helping and actually told Erasmus that he trusted his judgment. So, Erasmus would trust Prince Laurent’s.

Erasmus would not tell Prince Damianos what happened to Ganymede. He would tell Prince Laurent.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Damon swung his sword with all the force he could manage. He was frustrated andbordering trying with all his might to drive the emotion away through physical exertion and force of will. Talks had not gone the way he had hoped this morning and it was difficult to determine who was more to blame for that: Laurent or Kastor?

The peace talks started off well enough. Theomedes sat at the head of the table with Damen on his right and Laurent on his left. Lord Caracallus sat across from Kastor and beside his nephew. Laurent came to the table looking as he slouched in his chairboard until Nikandros joined them with a respectful bow. He didn’t look exactly interested after the addition to the table, but it was clear that he didn’t know why Nikandros was there and that deserved some of his attention.

“Let us get to the border issues plaguing our two nations,” Theomedes said by way of opening the discussion. He looked paler than normal, like he’d had a night of no sleep.

“It would be wise to share whatever information we have collectively been able to gather,” Caracallus said.

Laurent glanced sidelong at his uncle but stayed silent. So, with a nod, Nikandros began. He explained about the riders in Delpha, the many villages ransacked and the villagers terrified, injured or dead. The more he spoke the more clear it became to Damen that this was not a new problem. It had been going on for months, almost a year in fact, with the severity of the attacks increasing each time.

Theomedes had known about this, had known that Nikandros’ territory was in danger, and said nothing to Damen about it. Why? He could not help govern Akielos if Theomedes withheld such large conflicts from him. Until today, Damen had been under the impression his father trusted his judgment enough to seek his council on matters involving Vere.
The realization that Theomedes did not trust him with this information before today stung.

“At first, we thought they were just riders from the hill tribes but the last raid changed my opinion about that,” Nikandros finished tightly.

“Why?” Laurent asked. He sat up straighter in his chair and regarded Nikandros skeptically.

“They had the starburst sigil on their clothing,” Nikandros said with such strictly controlled anger it shocked Damen. He friend was many things, but quick to anger was not one of them.

Caracallus made a grim sound deep in his throat and shook his head. Laurent, on the other hand, narrowed his eyes.

“This is obviously a lie,” Laurent said.

Damen felt his jaw drop in outrage. Nikandros flushed in impotent fury, hands digging into the armrest of his chair. How dare Laurent say such a thing?

“You dare to call one of our kyros a liar?” Kastor snarled in an echo of Damen’s own thoughts. He slapped his hand down so hard on the table that the wood vibrated.

Theomedes said nothing but Lord Caracallus raised a placating hand in Kastor’s direction before rounding on his nephew.

“Apologize,” he said sharply.

Laurent shook his head. “No. Obviously, I’m not calling you a liar,” he said, addressing Nikandros and no one else. “The situation, however, is a lie, a deception.”
It took a great deal of effort for Nikandros to remain calm. He turned to Damen, looking for an indication on how best to proceed.

“What exactly are you suggesting?” Damen asked. Better he speak that Kastor when Nikandros clearly did not trust himself to continue and Theomedes was silent still.
Laurent considered him with a raised brow. “Well, it must be a plot meant to undermine the peace treaty because the villages on our side of the border have reported Akeilon weaponry left in the wake of the attacks.”

Silence greeted this statement. Akeilon weapons? The plots went deeper than Damen had suspected. If someone was actively attempting to sow discontent they had certainly chosen the most devastating way to do so. Those that lived near the border already distrusted one another deeply. Attacks on both sides, seemingly from their respective enemies, had the potential to inspire war if left uncheck or responded to in a way that did not satisfy all parties.

Kastor scoffed. “How convenient. Akeilon weapons. As if that absolved you of suspicion.”

Laurent arched both delicate brows. “Yes. As convenient as the sigil of my house appearing on the clothing of the men attacking villages along the border.”

“Deception is the Venetian way. You would butcher children in their beds to further your own goal,” Kastor snarled. Beside him, Nikandros tried very hard to keep his agreement from showing on his face.

“It’s not our fault you have no cunning. Perhaps it is because you are a bastard? All the intelligence went to your brother.”

Damen hite hot indignation flared up, crystallizing into anger as Kastor stood so quickly his chair clattered to the floor, tipped by his haste.

“Laurent!” Caracallus hissed.

“Sit down,” Theomedes barked.

Kastor vibrated with fury. He glared at their father before he reached down to jerk the chair upright. He sat once more, but in such a way as to indicate how deeply he did not want to. Only when Kastor was in his chair once more did Damen permit himself to look at Laurent. The young prince did not exude anger the way that Kastor did, but his face was pale and his eyes were narrowed, vicious slits. He ignored his uncle whispering warnings in his ear and were he even slightly more formidable in stature, Damen was sure Laurent would have challenged Kastor to a duel right then and there.

“Those villages being attacked in Delpha used to be villages in Delflur. They were our people before this treaty turned the land over to you,” Laurent said. His voice was cold and sharp as ice. “Four years does not make them any less our people and we do not attack our own people.”

“They aren’t your people, they are ours and you outrage is sanctimonious,” Kastor snapped.

Theomedes shot him a look that quelled anything more he might have said, and then Theomedes turned his attention to Laurent. He was still pale and his uncle’s hand gripping him hard below the table. Kastor’s accusations must have truly upset the prince because he sat rigid in his chair, all color now drained from his face, staring at a point on the table that was near Theomedes but was not the king himself.

“You make a sound point, Prince Laurent,” Theomedes said. Even his voice sounded strained. He should retire after this meeting to nap and refresh for the dinner tonight. “If you are right and a third party is intentionally sowing discord the question becomes two-fold. Why? And who are they?”

Laurent opened his mouth to speak. Caracallus moved very slightly, his restraining grip under the table presumably growing stronger. Laurent closed his mouth and went perfectly still. For the first time since the start of this meeting, Damen felt a twinge of concern for the young prince. Had the brashness of his words finally registered to him? His uncle’s intervention must have highlighted how close Laurent was to overstepped his role here.

It frustrated Damen to realize that he was angry at Laurent for provoking and insulting Kastor, and he was angry at Kastor for allowing himself to be provokedand insulted and somehow still, over and above all those feelings, was the concern for the clear unease Laurent now radiated. His emotional well being was not part of the oath—at least, it hadn’t been what Damen had in mind when he made the promise to Auguste all those years ago—but he still felt some base need to break the tension.

The talks devolved after that, leaving little for them to do but adjourn and promise to look at the problem again with fresh eyes tomorrow. Theomedes made his way from the room and turned right, back in the direction of his bedroom, which Damen noted and was pleased with. Laurent was guided from the room by his uncle’s hand on the small of his back. Nikandros went with Damen to the training arena to burn off some of the frustration from the day but Kastor turned down the offer to join them.

“For what it’s worth,” Nikandros said, two hours later as he readied himself to leave the training arena, “I believe his concern for the people of Delpha is genuine.”

“So do I.”

It was frustrating. From the little Damen had seen of Laurent it was already clear that he cared about his people. He displayed concern for everyone, from Nicaise to the villagers in distress. He had the heart to be a great prince, a good leader, and a true asset to Auguste, if he would only learn to control his sharp tongue. The frustration came from the fact that Laurent was wasting his potential with his bad attitude, and the added realization that Damen could guess now why Laurent had been the target of attacks.
He was intelligent, suspicious, and deeply loyal to his brother. A dangerous combinations for anyone trying to cause trouble in Vere.

“You seem angry.”

Damen paused, his fingers curling tighter around the sword hilt in his hand. At the edge of the ring, looking in at curiously, was Nicaise. He bit his lip, eyes wide as Damen’s attention fell onto him. Damen smiled and let the tension relax out of him in an attempt to appear less intimidating. He had not forgotten the fear the boy had shown last night at being left alone in his rooms or the unease of being spoken to directly at the dining table.

Nicaise shifted from foot to foot. Whatever contemplation he had going on in his head resolved itself. He his chin up defiantly and walked into the ring.

“You are, yes? Angry?” he asked. His ascent in Akeilon was thick and hard to understand.

“I am not now. Thank you for your concern,” Damen said.

He expected Nicaise to keep his distance. After how startled he’d seemed at being addressed last night at the table and how uncomfortable he’d been with being left alone last night, it was clear that he was out of his depth. And why wouldn’t he be? He was a child in a foreign land whose guardian had just spent most of the day locked up in a meeting and was clearly still occupied even now, if the fact that he was here and not with Caracallus was anything to go by.

But Nicaise did not keep his distance. Instead, he walked close, the surety of his steps weakening as he drew within arm’s reach. The boy’s eyes darted to the weapon in his hands and he swallowed nervously. Damen walked the three steps backward needed to hang the sword with the others along the wall.

There, he thought, now I am far less frightening to a child.

When he turned back from the row of hanging weapons, it was to discover that Nicaise had moved with him. He ducked his head and looked up at Damen through his lashes. The gesture only highlighted his youth andhow small he was. Damen was reminded strongly of Laurent from years ago.

Nicaise was younger than Laurent had been at Malas but they had similar bone structure, similarly long-lashed eyes, even similar gestures with the way Nicaise was clearly working up to saying something and instead let his thoughts run wild reminded Damen of Laurent. The two must spend a lot of time together for the boy to be so like his prince. It was a thought that made Damen feel oddly warm. He enjoyed the notion of Laurent looking after Nicaise in the saw way that Auguste looked after Laurent.

“If you are still angry, I can help. With calming. I know how,” Nicaise said. Again, his words were stilted and hard to understand through the heavy Veretian accent. He also looked so nervous it made something ache in Damen. Nicaise was trying so hard to be respectful and speak a language he hardly new.

Damen smiled, amused and more than a little fond. Nicaise was so small he hardly reached Damen’s hips, and here he was offering to spar with Damen? He looked too delicate to even hold a practice sword properly.

“Thank you, but I am feeling quite calm now. How was your first day in Ios?” he asked, still smiling.

Nicaise’s brows drew down together into a pinched expression before he smoothed out his features once again. His eyes darted to the empty doorway nervously. He licked his lips and then took a very large step forward, directly into Damen’s personal space. He set a tentative hand low on the folds of fabric gathered along Damen’s waist.

The hand shook.

“I am very good,” he said.

Damen removed his hand and backward. This time Nicaise did not follow, he just watched Damen with wide eyes.

Surely, he was misunderstanding this somehow. Nicaise was saying something about sparring that would translate differently in Veretian, something completely innocent, but Damen had no idea what that could possibly be and he had no intention of letting this misunderstanding continue. Before he could say anything—and he intended to say something and do it in Veretian so there could be no confusion—Laurent stepped through the doorway and into the room.

“Nicaise, what are you doing here?” he asked in Akeilon.

“Go away,” Nicaise responded in Veretian.

Laurent took in Nicaise, standing there in the center of the practice ring and shaking. His face was aflame and he glared at the prince with lived fury. The inspection moved from Nicaise to Damen, standing a foot away andso relieved to see Laurent it was almost embarrassing.

“Nicaise, it’s time for your Akeilon language lessons. Go back to your room and I will be there to assist you in a moment,” Laurent instructed, still in Akielon.

Nicaise cursed in Veretian. He very clearly did not know that Damen could understand every word he said, or he would not have used such language. Laurent himself must not understand the extent of Veretian that Damen knew or he would have been forced to comment on Nicaise’s rudeness.

“Go back to your rooms right now, before you embarrass yourself any further,” said Laurent but he kept his voice light so that, had Damen not understood the language, he would have missed the reprimand.

“Stop interfering! He’s going to be mad. Why do you not want him to love me?” Nicaise demanded, but there was a note of true desperation in his tone now.

Laurent closed his eyes tightly and took a breath before opening them once more and responding. “He can’t be mad that I got here first. Just blame me if you need to.”

Nicaise stared at Laurent. Wordlessly, he took a step back, and then another, and then ran from the room. Only once he was gone did the danger of sending him away occur to Damen. If Nicaise’s actions were truly from miscommunication, someone needed to explain how his words and actions could and would be misinterpreted by most Akeilons. Until he was set to rights, the boy was actually unsafe. Not everyone had honorable intentions.

“You need to talk to him. Now,” Damen said in his own language. “Nicaise doesn't understand what he was actually saying or how his actions are going to be understood here. It might not anything in Vere to be so…so physical, but it’s different here.”

The sudden terrible thought of how this exchange could have ended had Kastor actually accompanied Damen here to practice flashed through his mind. Kastor would have thought he was being insulted. After what happened in the meeting, he would lash out at Nicaise.

“He understands exactly what he was saying,” Laurent said. He watched Damen closely, eyes narrowed. “He speaks Akeilon well. He’s intentionally mispronouncing words around you.”

“He must not understand or he wouldn’t have done what he just did,” Damen insisted.

Laurent’s eyes narrowed further but his expression was contemplative. “He was propositioning you.”

He hadn’t. He was a child. He had no idea what he was offering, even if he did understand the words he said. Good god, how old was he? And how could Laurent be so calm about something so horrifying?

“He can be no older than ten! Is that an acceptable age in Vere?” Auguste would never allow such a thing. It was deplorable.

“It is not, no.”

“So why would he think I’d—good god, if he thinks people here want that—is it because he thinks Akeilons find that acceptable? They don’t. Anyone who would touch a child would lose more than a hand for the transgression,” Damen growled, suddenly furious.

Had someone sent Nicaise here to humiliate him? Or to humiliate Damen?

A strange look came over Laurent’s face. Damen could not decipher it, except to say that it made him appear suddenly to be quite young. How old was Laurent now? Seventeen? Eighteen if his birthday was in the summer months. As young as Erasmus, the slave Lykaios told him Laurent had taken to bed last night, and even that thought was suddenly making Damen want to sit down with his head between his knees and just breath.

“I don’t know why he thought you would be interested,” Laurent said at last, slowly. “I have no idea what his life was like before my uncle took him on as a ward.”

“Whatever life it was, at least now he is safe,” Damen said. He shuddered at the thought. But Nicaise was surrounded by good people, people like Auguste and Laurent and Caracallus. He would come to realize he did not have to do things like that anymore.

The strange look on Laurent’s face intensified. “I don’t know what his life was like before my uncle,” he repeated, slowly now, like he was waiting for something to slot into place.

“And now you know what his life is like,” Damen replied. Laurent obviously wanted him to comment on the remark, but he wasn’t sure why.

Laurent nodded. “If you had said yes, and someone caught you and Nicaise together, it would be an international incident.”

“I never would have said yes,” said Damen, affronted.

“Will everyone here be as noble as you?”

“Why? Do you think Nicaise will try this again?”

Laurent bit his lip. It was an unconscious gesture and deeply humanizing. Laurent was trying very hard to present hard edges, but his youth and inexperience kept bleeding through. He was clever enough to realize the truth behind the border issues, dangerous enough that someone wanted him dead, nasty enough that Damen fully believed he could flay a man with his words alone, and here he stood, worried about the little boy in his uncle’s care while looking so alone. Auguste sent him here to protect him, but how had Laurent taken the news? He was attacked and his brother sent him away, alone, to a country that was once their most bitter enemy.

This was why Auguste reminded him of the oath. Because he knew Laurent would be standing here, in this moment, utterly in need of aid, and he could only hope that Damen would be willing to give it.

“I will help you keep an eye on Nicaise for the duration of your time here,” Damen said

Laurent blinked, focusing back in on Damen.

“Thank you. He doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions,” Laurent said. He sounded tired, like Theomedes had at the meeting this morning.

“Nicaise doesn’t understand the consequences of his actions but he know what he’s doing offering himself to strange men?”

Again, the undecipherable look came to Laurent’s face. It was caught somewhere between suspicious and hopeful and maybe a little afraid, but Damen could not be sure. There were too many thoughts flitting behind those bright blue eyes.

“No. I think someone told him to come and try to seduce you. Now that he failed, I think they will ask him to do the same tomorrow, to someone else, until they get the scandal they want.”

“Who would do that to a child?”

It was barbaric. Someone manipulated the trust of a child so perversely. Or, worse still, they frighten Nicaise enough to make him think he had to do this. No one had the chance to interact with Nicaise after the dinner last night because Damen and Laurent walked the boy to his room, and even the Veretian guards were present at the peace discussion, standing around the edge of the room watching Theomedes’ own king’s guard during the discussions. Whoever put Nicaise up to this would have to have done it before the talks this morning started. Possibly before they even reached Akeilon soil.

A terrible thought itched at the back of Damen’s mind. There was really only one person that had the opportunity, one person that brought the boy here, and had ample time to speak with him in privet. The same person, Daman realized, that Nicaise kept speaking about in tones of fear.
Caracallus.

Laurent was silent for a very long moment. He watched Damen, a thousand thoughts present on his face one after the other and then gone again before they could be deciphered. It wasn’t that Laurent kept his face impassive, Damen realize, it was that he felt too many things at once to let anything linger.
Laurent must have similar suspicions.

“I have no idea who would do something like this,” he said instead.

Chapter Text

He left Damianos with a newfound tightness in his chest. There was really no way to know if the outrage the Akeilon prince expressed was genuine or a ploy to try to make Laurent trust him. It would be a rather elaborate plot if the distress over the whole situation was just designed to draw Laurent in, and likely not one that Nicaise was informed of if that were the case. Nicaise was too angry at having been caught—which just meant he was angry at himself for being relieved he’d been caught—for him to have thought that the plan to seduce the prince was never meant to work.

Nicaise used to get the same look of relief and then anger on his face every time he interacted with Laurent on the ship during their travel here. Admittedly, that could have been an orchestrated reaction was well—something to make Laurent pity him more than he already did— but it seemed unlikely that a ten-year-old would have that much skill at acting. Laurent certainly hadn’t been that skilled at lying at the age of ten but, then again, he hadn’t needed to be. That skill came later in life.

“Prince Damianos seems like a good man,” Jord said as he stepped away from the wall to fall into step beside Laurent. They made their way from the training arena and back to his rooms at a quick pace.

Laurent hummed at Jord’s comment but gave no further reaction. Auguste himself had recommended Jord for this trip, citing his superior sword skills and sharp mind as a good fit for his little brother. Laurent trusted that Jord was loyal to him because he knew that Jord was loyal to Auguste. He trusted Jord with his life, as much as he trusted anyone with it, but that didn’t mean he was going to take Jord’s opinion on Damianos with any real seriousness. Anyone could give off the appearance of being a good man if they tried hard enough.

Laurent stopped for a moment outside the door to his room and took a deep breath. The conversation he was about to have with Nicaise would likely not be pleasant. Depending on how much Uncle chose to tell the boy, it could also veer into deeply personal information that was best left privet.

“Jord, got find Orlant and switch shifts with him,” Laurent said. He pitched his voice low in a board drawl. “You have been with me all day and deserve a respite.”

Jord’s footsteps paused on the stone behind him. Laurent could actually feel the hesitation emanating out from the guard. After two attempts on his life back in Vere, it was likely that Auguste’s orders to Jord were to never leave Laurent unattended. But Laurent had learned long ago that a studious refusal to make eye contact or acknowledge that his request might be denied helped to make sure he got his way.

“There is no one to stand guard in my immediate absence,” Jord said at last. An observation rather than an argument. A clever way to question without overstepping his boundaries.

“I promise not to die while you are away. Go, get Orlant and send him back,” Laurent said. Without waiting for a response he pushed open the door and closed it quickly. That should give him at least fifteen minutes alone with Nicaise to have this conversation.

The boy is question was seated at Laurent’s desk. The desk itself was in the front room, positioned before the dark curtains that separated this room from the bedroom itself. Nicaise had his knees drawn up to his chin and was scowling as he ran his nails along the grain of wood in the table. The scowl intensified as Laurent stepped into the room.

He jut his chin out in defiance and tossed his head back. “You should stop interfering or Lord Caracallus is going to be angry.”

“Uncle is always angry with me. I don’t find his anger much incentive to change my actions.”

Uncle did send him there to seduce Damianos. Or, maybe he just wanted Nicaise to let Laurent think that. A prince wasn’t likely to get in trouble no matter who he decided to fuck, but if Laurent were to find Damianos and Nicaise together and accuse Damianos of wrongdoing, it would give the Akeilons a perfect excuse to cut the peace negotiations short. King Theomedes already seemed like he had a difficult time dredging up the energy to care about the talks today, it didn’t take much imagination to assume an insult to his heir would destroy any hope of getting Vere and Akielos out of this mess without another war.

“You should,” Nicaise muttered, scrunching in on himself in the chair.

Laurent ignored the comment. There were a great deal of things he should be more careful about, but at this point he didn’t care to be cautious with invoking Uncle’s anger. He was almost positive that Uncle had something to do with the attempts on his life back in Vere, and he was almost positive that Uncle had something to do with the unrest at the border. The problem was, he was almost positive, not actually positive. He couldn’t stop a war and safeguard Auguste’s rule with guesses and gut feelings, he needed facts that he could act on. Someone in Akielos had to be helping Uncle with the border issues. The distance was too great and the unrest too targeted for one man to orchestrate on his own.

The more immediate issue at hand, however, was finding a way to make sure that Nicaise didn’t try something like this again. As much as it frustrated Laurent to have to admit it, Damianos was far less the brute than he could have been. For the second time that Laurent knew of, Damianos had been placed in a position where he could do great harm to someone without the resources to hurt him back and for the second time Damianos chose not to inflict damage.

The brother? The bastard, Kastor? He wouldn’t have walked away from Nicaise with the assumption of a misunderstanding. He would have taken the boy up on the offer—he seemed the type to like to feel more powerful than others. And, if he hadn’t taken Nicaise up on the proposition, he would have been insulted by the whole affair. After spending an entire day locked up in the same room with Kastor, Laurent was sure he would take pleasure in the prospect of getting to inflict pain on any Veretian at all.

In Marlas, Kastor had enjoyed watching Auguste bleed.

Resting atop the table was a pitcher and goblet. Laurent reached for both. Nicaise’s eyes followed the movement very closely. Bright red wine sloshed about inside the pitcher. Laurent had been hoping for water and had no interest at all in consuming alcohol while in enemy land. He thought he’d mentioned his preference for water to Erasmus last night.

Nicaise’s eyes widened when Laurent disregarded the wine and goblet both. It was a reaction Laurent filed away in the back of his mind.

He pulled out a chair and sat down across the table from Nicaise. The boy let his knees drop to dangle off the edge of the chair. He watched Laurent, head tipped to the side so that his curls fell across his eyes. It was exactly the same quizzical gesture Laurent himself used to make when he was young.

It was a learned gesture, not one that came to Nicaise naturally.

Nausea curled in Laurent’s gut. He ignored it, the way he’d been ignoring it for years.

“What would you have done if Prince Damianos had taken you up on your offer?” Laurent asked.

He decided he would approach this like the conversation could not faze him. Nicaise was still young. Uncle hadn’t had him long enough to instill the need to stay away from Laurent and his questions. There was a chance he could convince Nicaise not to try something like this again.

“I would have fucked him, obviously,” Nicaise said. He tipped his head back further to rest against the back of the chair and watched Laurent through his lashes. His eyes darted to the wine and then back to Laurent’s face.

The comment was meant to shock. He wasn’t shocked, but there was a pain growing in the back of his head that made the nausea worse. Laurent leaned forward and rested his elbow on the table.

“Really? You would have fucked him. Just like that, completely in control of the situation.”

“Yes,” Nicaise declared with a sniff.

“You would not have been in command of any part of that situation and you would have been aware of that fact very quickly and very unpleasantly. You understand that proportions are quite large with the prince, of course.”

Nicaise paled and looked down at his knees. “I could handle it.”

But that thought of having to wasn’t a happy one. “Uncle sent you to proposition Damianos, correct?”

Nicaise drew his knees back up to his chest and curled his arms around them silently. It was answer enough.

“Why did he want you to proposition the prince?”

Nicaise’s eyes darted to the wine again and then down to the floor. He curled in on himself, looking very small in his chair. He was a tiny child, and would likely age to be a small man as well unless he hit a growth spurt soon.

Laurent wished him towering height. Uncle didn’t like people who were taller than himself.

“I don’t know,” Nicaise said at last, still with his eyes on the floor. “He just…just suggested that I should. While we were still on the ship. He asked me to, so I did.”

“Perfect obedience is only asked of the slaves the Akielos keep. You are permitted to question any order he gives you, and you’re welcome to turn to your king for guidance if you feel you need it, like all of his citizens are welcome to,” Laurent drawled.

It was important that Nicaise knew that, but Laurent was afraid to let himself push the point too strongly. It might turn the boy away, drive him further into Uncle’s arms at a time when Laurent had no true resources to pull him free again. Or, worse still, he might tell Uncle about the particulars of this conversation and then Uncle would know that Laurent cared. That could get Nicaise killed.

“I love Lord Caracallus and he loves me. If he’s asked me to do something for him, it’s important and I will not hesitate to do what I’m asked.” Nicaise thrust his chin out and narrowed his eyes at Laurent but there was nothing intimidating about his expression.

Bile welled up and nearly choked Laurent. He rolled his eyes and turned away to cover the convulsive swallow. Nicaise was young and he was smart. Given time, Laurent could convince him that he didn’t mean what he’d just said.

But an idea was forming. Nicaise was close to Uncle, could listen when Laurent could not, would know things that Laurent would not, because Uncle wouldn’t stop to think of him as a threat. Nicaise might just be the key to figuring out who Uncle was working with here in Akielos and what his larger plans were.

But it wasn’t an idea that brought Laurent any happiness. What did it say about him that he was even considering using a child to spy for him?

A knock sounded at the door, pulling Laurent from his musings. Distractedly, he called, “Enter.”

Erasmus bowed his way into the room. At once, Laurent could tell there was something wrong. While Erasmus had been quite and demure last night, he’d at least been willing to make eye contact by the time Laurent directed him to sleep alone on the mat set up beside the bed. Now Erasmus’ bow was somewhere between cringing and terrified. He kept his head low so that his hair fell into his face and, once the door was closed behind him, sank to the ground. He pressed his forehead to the stone tiles as he prostrated himself flat.

Nicaise gave a derisive snort. Erasmus flinched at the sound.

Uncle got to him somehow and now he must think that Laurent was going to beat him.

“What did you do to him to garner this sort of a reaction? He’s terrified!” Nicaise said gleefully. He hopped down from the chair to walk around Laurent and inspect the slave from a better angle.

At his words, Erasmus shook his head. He still did not lift it, so the movement made his hair brush back and forth across the stones. “I’m not afraid of Prince Laurent. He’s the kindest, most generous man I have been honored to speak with,” Erasmus said to the stones.

Laurent could feel the muscles in the back of his neck growing tight and agitated. Nicaise was practically dancing on his toes now, looking back and forth between Erasmus and Laurent. He had his hands up to cover the smile on his face because he knew enough about high society to realize one should never openly enjoy anything around those they did not implicitly trust, but he was still too inexperienced to realize his little hands were not hiding his wide grin.

“I’m going to tell Lord Caracallus that you terrified your bed slave.”

Erasmus gave a full body flinch at Uncle’s name.

“What is wrong, Erasmus? Why do you refuse to look me in the eye today, when you could manage it yesterday?” Laurent tried very hard to keep his voice even and kind, but it had been a long day of fruitless and frustrating negotiations on top of Nicaise’s nearly disastrous attempt at seduction. It was likely that some of his frustrations slipped into the inquiry despite best efforts.

Slowly, Erasmus raised his head, not enough to actually look at anything but Laurent’s ankles, but it was a start. “I am ashamed,” he said. His voice was thick and there was a slight tremble in his fingers where they pressed against the stones.

Laurent’s stomach gave an unpleasant swoop. Erasmus was a trained bed slave, skilled at keeping confidence for those he served because his livelihood and very life depended on it. What else could he possibly have to feel shame over other than the shame of breaking his mater’s confidence to spill secrets? Laurent wasn’t stupid enough to tell someone the truth of his mind, but Erasmus didn’t know the story about a love kindled on the field of Marlas was a lie. Who had he told?

“What are you ashamed of, Erasmus?”

The room was very quiet. Even Nicaise had stopped his giggles and dancing. For a very, very long moment Erasmus said nothing. He dropped his face to the floor once more and spoke in a voice so tremulous and strained that Laurent was sure there were tears running down the cheeks he could not see.

“I ask this not for myself. I would never ask this for myself. I do not matter. But…but I must ask for another who cannot speak for himself,” Erasmus said.

“What are you asking for, Erasmus?” Laurent prompted softly.

“I ask only to show you something. To ask for your wisdom and your mercy,” Erasmus said but his voice tapered off at the end so that Laurent had to actually lean closer to catch his words.

“You want to show me something. In another part of the castle. Where courtiers generally do not go,” Laurent said.

They were not questions. He had absolutely no doubt that whatever Erasmus wanted to show him, it would be somewhere far away from the halls of the palace that Laurent was supposed to be in. Maybe Erasmus honestly thought he needed to show Laurent whatever it was that he was speaking about—maybe there was nothing to be shown at all, other than an empty room in a part of the palace that was secluded enough to hide Laurent’s body—but the bottom line was that this was a trap. Nothing good would come of letting Erasmus lead him away from this room.

Erasmus nodded anyway, like he thought Laurent was asking for clarification. He looked up finally, with hope shining in his very damp eyes. There were indeed tear tracks running down his cheeks.

“Yes, my lord.”

“What do you want to show me?”

Erasmus’ eyes darted to Nicaise. He wet his lips before focusing back on Laurent to answer. “I would ask to show you Ganymede, your majesty.”

“Ganymede?” It wasn’t a name that brought with it any ghost of recognition.

Erasmus nodded all the same. “He…he was injured. I do not…I am not sure…He was injured,” Erasmus repeated.

“That’s the slave that was with Lord Caracallus last night,” Nicaise said. He took a step back from Erasmus suddenly, like he was a poisonous snake about to bite.

The tension in the back of Laurent’s neck grew tighter. Ganymede was the slave sent off with Uncle last night, and now he was injured badly enough for Erasmus to actually expose Uncle’s wrong doing? Did he expect Laurent somehow had the power, based on rank alone, to order away the malady? It seemed like far better an idea to ask for the use of Paschal, the physician Auguste insisted Laurent take on the trip. Paschal at least knew something about medicine.

“Was there a guard at the door when you entered the room?” Laurent asked. He moved swiftly past Nicaise and Erasmus, to pull open the door without waiting for a response.

Orlant stood in the hall. He was breathing hard through his nose and trying to hide it so he must have run from wherever Jord found him all the way to the room. He bowed at Laurent as the door opened, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword. Laurent kept walking out into the hallway.

“Show me Ganymede,” he commanded.

At once Erasmus scrambled off the floor. He scurried past Orlant with hunched shoulders and a sniffle. Nicaise slipped out of the room after him. He crept closer to Laurent but tried to do so in a casual way, looking board and expectant when Erasmus did not immediately lead the way.

“Orlant, come with us,” Laurent said. Orlant nodded, wide eyed and still breathing heavily.

Erasmus took one last moment to gather his strength before leading the way. He took the back passages, hidden behind draping tapestries that Laurent had not known where there until he revealed them. Slaves in Akeilon were expected to be able to attend to their master’s needs at a moment’s notice, and to uphold the illusion of effortless grace while doing so. The passages lead throughout the palaces, Erasmus explained in a small voice at Laurent’s insistence, so that they could get from one side of the palace to the other more quickly in order to attend to their masters. It was a fact Laurent stores away for later; there was no telling when a relatively secret passage would be the difference between liked or death.

He still though this was a trap, just not Erasmus’. Uncle wasn’t stupid enough to harm a slave belonging to the king while staying as a guest in Ios trying to negotiate out of a war. But, if Erasmus was to be believed, and he didn’t seem to have the courage to lie, hurt a slave is exactly what Uncle had done. Why take the risk?

The slave quarters were far nicer than Laurent expected them to be. They were by no means extravagant or approaching any of the comforts and luxuries of the main palace, of course, but he’s been expecting barred cells and dripping darkness. The space was light and airy and actually had rooms, with beds. It didn’t make anything about the institution better—a gilded cage was still a cage—but it made for a stark contrast with the room Erasmus lead them to.

Right away it was clear that this was not a bedroom. The sharp take of medicinal herbs and another pungent odder that Laurent could not place was detectable before the door was even opened. Inside was a single desk laden with vials of clear colored liquid, jars of salve, a copper bowl with a green paste sitting in it, and other items that Laurent did not know the use of. Beside the desk was a bed. A single person lay, face down, on the bed.

For the second time in less than an hour, Laurent felt nausea grip him. The young man lying on the bed was indeed the slave Uncle had selected to attend to him last night. He’d been the second youngest—or at least looked to be—next to Erasmus himself. The young man was unconscious, drugged into a stupor, and it was a small mercy that he was not awake to feel his injuries.

Deep, bloody, blistering burns ran along his inner thighs and buttocks. They probably covered his front as well. It looked like a hot iron had been pressed into his skin, melting it clean off in spots. Laurent wanted to look away by he couldn’t.

This was his fault.

He picked Erasmus knowing his uncle would have wanted him. He set up events at dinner the first night to make sure Nicaise was beyond Uncle’s reach for the evening as well. He’d picked and prodded and hinted at knowing Uncle was up to something all while knowing Uncle would retaliate. Laurent had assumed the retaliation would be against him. He’d underestimated Uncle’s dedication to getting a message across.

Laurent knew first hand that Uncle enjoyed inflicting pain on his partners. He should have expected how much worse that pain would be when there was nothing to hold Uncle back.

Beside the bed, Paschal sat on an old stool. He pushed himself to his feet when Laurent and the others entered the room. A knowing looked passed across his face when he caught sight of Erasmus now hesitating just inside the doorway.

“Your highness,” Paschal said with an incline of his weathered head.

“You knew about this already?” Laurent asked, gesturing towards the bed.

Paschal nodded. “Lord Caracallus asked that I do what I could to keep the young man alive.”

“After Uncle did what he could to kill him?”

Paschal said nothing. He would keep saying nothing because it wasn’t his place to comment on the twisted sexual gratification a member of the royal house got from maiming someone who could not fight back.

Nicaise made a very small, very frightened sound deep in the back of his throat. He too was frozen at the door, unable to walk forward and unable to retreat back. His eyes were on the burns’ intimate location and his face was draining of all color.

“Uncle did this to Ganymede?” Laurent asked, just to be sure Nicaise realized what this meant.

Paschal nodded.

“Someone find me the man from last night, the one who’s in charge of the slaves.”

Erasmus bowed his way out of the room. Less than three minutes later he was back with the slave master. The man looked dumbfounded to discover three Veretians in the sickroom of one of his slaves. He bowed deeply to Laurent and used the dip of his head to shoot Erasmus a narrowed eyed look. Erasmus curled in on himself and stared at the floor.

“My lord, how may I serve you?” he asked.

“Adrastus, correct?”

He nodded.

Laurent waved his hand towards the bed where Ganymede rested. Paschal had some of the green mixture from the bowl smeared across some of the burns but not all of them, so the rawness of the injury was still clear.

“What do you do with bed slaves that have been disfigured?”

Adrastus blinked in rapid succession. He folded his arms across his chest and continued to stare. “Disfigured, my lord?”

“Yes,” Laurent snapped. What was the point in playing coy? They could both see what happened. “He’s going to be disfigured from this injury. He’s a bed slave. What do you do with the ones that have been disfigured?”

“Well…”Adrastus said slowly. He contemplated Ganymede for a long moment, stepping closer to the bed in order to examine the injury from all angles. Laurent had the sudden urge to cover the unconscious man’s nakedness but he did not take action. Any cloth on the burns could lead to infection.

“Well,” Adrastus said again. “He will never be able to serve his duty again. We have no use for him now.”

“So, you would get rid of him?”

Adrastus shrugged. “He’s unfit to serve any other function than the one he has been trained to perform. He cannot perform that function any longer, so we have no use for him.”

“Is it the king’s policy to return perfect obedience with such callous dismissal?”

Adrastus began blinking again. Perhaps it was a nervous habit. Laurent decided, in that moment, that he deeply hated Adrastus.

“Regardless, my physician is here to tend to him and when we return to Vere Ganymede will come with us.”

“What?”

“I am telling you that Ganymede will be returning as a servant in my household when I leave this place. He will, in the meantime, remain here to recuperate. You are welcome to send me any expenses you feel as necessary.”

“But—but sir, he’s not good for anything other than—“

“Most people are good for more than just sex. I’m sure we can find something worthwhile for him to do that will not result in a similar injury.”

Adrastus gave a bemused nod. He looked back at the bed and shook his head before hastily stopping the motion and shooting a guilty glance at Laurent over his shoulder.

“There are documents to draw up,” he said at last.

Laurent dismissed the comment with a wave of his hand. “Orlant will deal with that. Orlant,” he added, without bothering to make eye contact, “deal with whatever documents this man has.”

Orlant made a sound of objection but stepped forward to engage Adrastus in discussion. Paschal nodded his head to Laurent from his chair beside the bed. Laurent returned the gesture and ushered Erasmus and Nicaise out of the room. Erasmus ducked his head and shuffled out without a word, but Nicaise kept looking back, unable to look away from the injuries on Ganymede’s body.

“I wouldn’t let him do that to you,” Laurent said softly, for Nicaise’s ears only.

Bright eyes shot up to gaze at him in wide terror before dropping back down again. Nicaise understood how easily those burns could have been on his own body. Uncle was a dangerous, violent man but he was not a stupid man. Hurting Ganymede was foolish. Theomedes would find out and there would be repercussions, no matter what Laurent did to try and smooth things over.

So why would Uncle hurt Ganymede? How did this play into his plots?

The walk back to his chambers was silent and tense. The early afternoon had begun to fade into evening. Long shadows stretched from the windows across the hall and Laurent watched each and every one for danger. Ios was never safe, not for him, but the lack of restraint his uncle had shown made the possibility of attack increase tenfold.

He entered the room first—Nicaise would never stand a chance against a threat and Erasmus would lie down and let himself be killed if he was ordered to—but there was no one in either of the rooms. Laurent crossed back to the door once Erasmus had it closed and locked it. The sound of a bolt sliding into place eased some of the tightness between his shoulders but none of the nausea in his gut.

Ganymede was hardly older than Laurent himself, maybe nineteen or twenty. He would have trouble walking for the rest of his life and that was only if he managed to fight off the inevitable infection that came with burns. He might not live long enough to be sent to Vere.

“I am sorry, my lord, for troubling you. I am sorry I upset you,” Erasmus said into the silence of the room. He hiccupped and sniffed, wiping tears off his cheeks without a hint of shame.

Laurent expected Nicaise to criticize or insult Erasmus, a boy many years his senior, for crying like a child, but Nicaise said nothing. He stood to the left of the door, staring at the floor like he’d never seen stone before. It was pitiable, knowing that a child now understood how dangerous a position he was truly in.

In his life, Laurent had been driven to drink only once before. It was right after the first attempt on his life. The whole experience left him shaken and sick as Uncle ran into the room right alongside Auguste, spouting concern that would have sounded convincing if Laurent hadn’t known better. Auguste made him stay in the king’s chambers that night, and he’d known he was safe under his brother’s watchful eye. It was the only reason Laurent relented and drank the wine Auguste insisted would calm his nerves.

Auguste was not here, but the sick, slimy feeling underneath Laurent’s skin was making it difficult to breathe. He should have known that Uncle would hurt the slave. He should have known. If he’s been slower and he allowed Uncle to select Erasmus those burns would be on the man who stood in this room now and cried openly for a friend.

Laurent had no friends who would cry for him if Uncle killed him.

He needed a drink.

In three sharp steps, Laurent crossed the room, snatched up the pitcher of wine and poured a generous helping into the goblet beside it. He downed the drink in a single gulp.

“Don’t drink that!” Nicaise shouted.

Laurent froze, goblet still raised and very, very empty. Slowly, he lowered his hand to set the glass down on the table once more. He turned to Nicaise. The boy’s skin was white as the cliffs along the Ios beach.

“What did you put in the wine, Nicaise?” he asked, very softly.

He could feel nothing yet, but poison did not always take hold quickly.

“It’s not poison!” Nicaise said at once. He shrank backward, away from Erasmus who was watching him in horror and away from Laurent until his back hit the wall. “He made me try it on the ship. Before we got here. It’s not poison.

Laurent felt his head spin, and then spin again. Warmth was beginning to pool in his gut, sending soft tingles down his arms and legs so that they slowly went numb to every other sensation. He blinked his eyes rapidly, but the unfocused blur along the edges of his vision did not go away.

It wasn’t poison, but it would incapacitate him either way. He knew this drug. Knew it was one of Uncle’s favorites. In small doses, it relaxed sore muscles. In large doses, it did something else. Awake, but asleep as well. Aware of what was going on but unable to move well enough to do anything about it.

“Erasmus, I need you to find Jord,” Laurent said. It came out slurred. He swayed as the room seemed to tilt ever so slightly around him and he hit his hip into the table hard. The pain helped him focused but Nicaise must have put a whole vial of the concoction into the wine for it to be working this quickly.

Erasmus nodded so hard his curls bounced and slapped him in the face. Nicaise curled his hands into the edges of his clothing and shook.

“I’m sorry,” he said and Laurent could tell from the thickness of his voice that he was trying very hard not to cry. “He said it would make you relax. He said it I was helping.”

“Go find Jord,” Laurent repeated. He braced himself against the table and closed his eyes as the room spun again. “I don’t care what Uncle said right now, just find Jord.”

“Stay with Prince Laurent,” Erasmus said, speaking softly and with a kindness reminiscent of Auguste. “I will find Jord.”

Laurent did not open his eyes as the lock was turned and the door was opened. He opened his eyes when he heard the soft gasp and the cry of pain that followed.

Erasmus fell backward, his lip bloody. Nicaise sprang away from the wall with a terrified squeak. In the doorway were four men. The men were dressed as Veretian guards, but they were clearly Akeilon. One still had his hand raised after punching Erasmus in the face. They stepped into the room without a word and closed the door behind them.

Laurent heard the lock click into place.

Four swords were pulled free of their scabbards.

Chapter Text

They were going to die. Maybe he could have believed differently once, but Erasmus knew better now. Not everyone would treat him well and the fact that these men had drawn their swords on Prince Laurent far overshadowed the fact that one of them had hit him. Little Nicaise stood between the armed men and Erasmus, who was still sprawled on the floor, and all four armed men had their eyes set on the prince.

Quickly as he could manage, Erasmus pushed himself to his feet. He reached out and pulled Nicaise back by the edge of his tunic until the little boy’s back was pressed up against his front. They were all going to die, but Erasmus would not let this poor child die alone.

Nicaise shook beneath his touch.

The men stepped forward as one. Erasmus stepped backward, pulling Nicaise with him so that they were both closer to Prince Laurent.

“Gentlemen,” Prince Laurent said with a cold edge to his voice. His words slurred very slightly, but enough to be noticeable.

The man who had hit Erasmus—a very large man with a thick beard—laughed. “There will be nothing gentle about this,” he said.

One of the other men darted back to check the lock on the door. He was smiling and his eyes kept darting to Erasmus. When he saw Erasmus looking back, the man licked his lips and leered.

Erasmus whimpered and ducked his face to hide in Nicaise’s hair. They were all going to die but these men would not be kind. They would not make this fast. And they would kill Prince Laurent and little Nicaise, who’d made a terrible mistake. Tears gathered in Erasmus’ eyes, but he blinked them away.

He had to be strong. He had to be brave, like the prince. If he was brave, maybe he could keep the men occupied long enough for Prince Laurent to get away. Nicaise would have to help him escape, because of the drug, but there were passages all over the palace for slaves to get from room to room quickly. Prince Laurent could use one of them to get away.

“I want that one,” the man who had been eyeing Erasmus said, gesturing with his sword. “He said we get to fuck whichever of them we want, and I want that one.”

The man with the beard nodded. He was smiling now as well and stalking forward with intent. Erasmus backed up again, pulling Nicaise with him because the boy didn’t seem capable of movement on his own.

“We kill the princess first, then you can fuck whoever you want, however you want,” the bearded man said.

Prince Laurent laughed. “You’re going to kill me and then fuck—who? A slave and a child? That is truly the prize you are going to settle for?”

The bearded man’s smile grew sharper edged. The three men behind him exchanged confused looks. “You saying you want to live long enough to watch us have a little fun with your friends?” the bearded man asked.

Incredibly, Prince Laurent laughed again. “You have a prince at your mercy and you are more interested in raping children. No wonder you were sent to carry out this task—you have no imagination.”

The bearded man gave an angry growl. He lunged forward. With a hard shove, he flung Erasmus and Nicaise out of the way. The force of the blow sent Erasmus knocking into the edge of the large wooden table where the poisoned wine still sat. He bounced off of it and would have fallen had Nicaise not kept them both upright.

The man grabbed Prince Laurent by his tunic and pulled him up. The man was not particularly tall, nothing like Prince Damianos, but he was still taller than Prince Laurent. He lifted him until the prince’s feet did not touch the ground, and then he slammed the prince down onto the table top with enough force to make the prince cry out. The wine pitcher overbalanced and crashed to the floor, where it shattered.

Erasmus gave a wordless cry of horror. He reached out uselessly, like he was going to do something but he had no idea what that something was. Nicaise turned in his arms and tucked himself tight against Erasmus. For a moment he thought the move was because Nicaise could not stand to watch what was happening to his prince, but a sharp tug forced Erasmus’s head down lower so that the little boy could whisper in Akeilon, “That man was on the ship with us.”

Erasmus felt the ground beneath his feet shift as his mind spun. What did that mean? Why had Nicaise told him such a thing?

“Bet you never had a prince suck you off before,” one of the men closer to the door said gleefully. He shoved the man standing next to him aside and trotted to the bearded man and Prince Laurent, still pinned to the table.

“Let him suck me off first, then you can kill him,” he said. There was a hunger in the man’s eyes that Erasmus had never seen before. Lykaios used to tell him that lust could turn masters careless, could make them hurt where they did not mean to, but everything about the look on the faces of these men said that they intended every hurt they were about to inflict.

The bearded man shoved his companion back with one arm. While he did so, he stepped in very close to Prince Laurent. The prince had not moved at all after being slammed down on the table. The drug must have taken full effect. Erasmus could not tell if the prince was unconscious now or simply unable to move. The bearded man pushed Prince Laurent’s knees apart and stepped in between them.

“Stop! Stop! Please!” Erasmus begged. He was crying, crying so hard it was difficult to see. They were going to do something terrible to Prince Laurent and he couldn’t just stand here and watch.

“Shut up or we kill the boy first,” the bearded man said absently.

He pulled Prince Laurent down the table, his hands digging into the prince’s upper thighs until their bodies were flush together. The other man leaned in close from the opposite end of the table, so that his face was directly over Prince Laurent’s. He spat in the prince’s face and laughed when it garnered no reaction.

“He’s too drugged to move. Wouldn’t be able to suck me off if he wanted to now,” the man said. He sheathed his sword and brought his face even closer to Prince Laurent’s to add, “When you’re finished with him, I’m next. Always wanted to fuck a prince.”

The bearded man laughed as he reached for the ties fastening Prince Laurent’s pants.

Prince Laurent’s hand shot out and snatched the dagger strapped to the bearded man’s waist. In one sharp motion he brought his head forward to slam into the face hovering above him while swinging his arm up to plunge the dagger into the bearded man’s neck.

The bearded man gurgled and staggered back. The man hovering above Prince Laurent let out a howl as the prince’s forehead connected with his nose with enough force that Erasmus could hear the bone break from where he stood across the room. Prince Laurent rolled off the table.

But he’d used up the last of his strength. He crashed to the floor without grace and cracked his chin against the tiles. Erasmus could tell that he was trying to right himself, but the drug was too strong. He reached his hands and knees but shook so badly he fell sideways onto his elbows.

The bearded man dropped to his knees and then toppled over, dead. Blood pooled around him. The man with a broken nose had his hands pressed against his face as dark red droplets flowed freely.

The man who had leered at Erasmus cursed. He charged forward, sword raised.

Erasmus did not think. He pressed Nicaise back, away from the chaos of the room and then flung himself at the man charging Prince Laurent. Erasmus leaped onto the man’s back and dug his fingers into any part of his face that he could reach. Nicaise screamed. The man below Erasmus screamed. Erasmus sobbed. The man with the broken nose flung himself at Prince Laurent and began beating him with his fists.

A bellow like a wild beast split through the room and Erasmus froze. He had just enough time to realize the sound was a battle cry before the crunch of bone breaking came from behind him. He knew, without a shred of doubt, that he was about to be stabbed—there was one more man, one more attacker, he would kill Erasmus, might have already killed Nicaise and Prince Laurent was next—

The man attacking Prince Laurent looked up and Erasmus watched as a knife appeared like magic to protrude from his eye. The man did not have time to make another sound before he died.

Strong hands pulled Erasmus away from the last attacker. Erasmus was tossed back, into Lykaios’s waiting arms. She pulled him in tight against her chest and tried to shield his face but Erasmus pushed back until he could turn and see his rescuer.

The fourth attacker was dead near the door, his head twisted at an impossible angle. Prince Damianos had no sword. He had no weapon at all other than his bare hands. The intruder swung at him with a while swipe of his sword and Prince Damianos ducked under the attack. He slid in close to the man and punched him hard in the throat. The man gagged. Prince Damianos did something complicated with his hands and suddenly he was the one holding the sword. He cracked the hilt of the weapon against the man’s head and just like that the last attacker was down.

“What? How?” Erasmus floundered. Lykaios had Nicaise tucked behind her and he looked terrified but not injured. He was alive. They were all alive.

Lykaios pulled Erasmus in so close it hurt. She was crying into his hair. “The prince’s guard couldn’t find his way back to the room. I showed him and when the door would not open I used our way in. I thought he was going to hurt you like Ganymede was hurt, so I brought the prince,” she whispered for his ears only.

Erasmus had no words in him to express the gratitude, the deep relief and overwhelming love he felt for Lykaios, beautiful, caring, wonderful Lykaios. So he tucked his face into the curve of her neck, flung his arms around her, and cried.

( ~ )

Damen could still feel the beat of his heart hammering against his skull. Lykaios lead him to Laurent’s room and utter chaos. He’d almost declined to come with her through the slave passages but Lykaios would never ask something from him, had never asked something of him before, in fact, and curiosity more than anything else made Damen follow her.

If they had been even a moment later, Laurent could be dead. Erasmus and Nicaise would be dead. The Veretian diplomat would have been murdered in his room and Akielos would be at war.

Damen hurried around the dead man with a knife in his throat and realized Laurent must have been the one to kill him. A surprised respect filled Damen at the realization. But Laurent still had not moved from where he lied on the ground beside the table.

He knelt down to inspect the prince, eyes darting all over for signs of the wound that brought him down. There was a gash above the prince’s right eye, his cheek was swelling as bruises already began to set in, and his lip was split but there did not appear to be any injury severe enough to keep him from sitting up.

Laurent’s eyes tracked Damen, but he did nothing more than blink very slowly. His gaze looked far away and out of focus.

“He was drugged,” said a very high voice behind him.

Damon turned to find Nicaise peering out from behind Lykaios. There were damp trails on the boy’s cheeks and he was still trembling. He was younger even than Laurent had been at Marlas. Too young to be standing in a room full of dead men.

“What was he drugged with?” Damen asked. He spoke to Nicaise the way he would to a frightened horse because the boy looked like he was going to bolt or break down into tears like the slave in Lykaios’s embrace had.

“It…it is a muscle relaxer. But-but too much makes it difficult to move,” the boy said, voice trailing into nothing at the end. It was also in flawless Akeilon, without a hint of the accent or awkwardness of earlier.

“So, it’s paralyzed him,” Damen muttered under his breath.

There came a pounding on the door—perhaps the pounding had been going on for some time and he was only just noticing it now. Voices could be heard on the other side of the door. He recognized the timber of Nikeandros’s voice but not the others. If Nikeandros was there, Damen could be sure that it was safe to open the door.

“Let them in,” he commanded, nodding his head towards the door. Nicaise hesitated for a very long moment, staring at the door like it might bite him, before actually listening.

As soon as the door was opened Nikeandros rushed into the room, sword drawn. Behind him the soldier who had been with Laurent during the negotiations earlier in the day—as well as another that Damen recognized from the ship—ran in as well, swords out and ready. The soldier, Jord was his name, blanched at the chaos within the room and looked wildly around for his prince.

“One of you, help Nikeandros secure that man,” Damen said, pointing to the intruder he’d knocked unconscious. He intended to have a conversation with that man as soon as he woke up again. “Take him somewhere safe and leave only those you trust to guard him,” he added to Nikeandros.

Something was going on here, something devious and dangerous, and Damen was sure now that whoever had sent these men to kill Laurent was also involved in the unrest at the borders. He had an idea who the guilty party was, but the intruder’s testimony would prove his suspicions right.

Nikeandros and the guard Damen did not have a name for gathered up the unconscious man and herded him from the room. Jord hurried to Laurent’s side. He looked like he might vomit when he saw the state of the prince’s face and what was, admittedly, quite a bit a blood covering him.

“He’s been drugged but I think is largely unhurt otherwise. Go and get a physician to tend to him.” Damen reached out as he spoke and carefully rand his fingers down either side of Laurent’s neck. He knew enough about battles and injuries incurred during them to always be sure a neck was intact before lifting a man.

Laurent shivered beneath his touch and blinked rapidly.

“I will not leave my prince undefended,” Jord replied.

“You already did and he’s paid for that enough. Get a physician to make sure he’ll survive this. I will keep him safe,” Damen growled. He was not used to others arguing with him and, if he was honest with himself, he was furious that this attack had happened. It was his duty to make sure Laurent was safe while in Ios—he’d sworn an oath, no matter how long ago—Laurent should have been safe here.

 

Jord hesitated for another long moment before more sound came from the open doorway. Additional guards with Laurent’s starburst insignia clustered around the door, all looking wide eyed and shocked. Among them were members of Damen’s own guards.

But standing in the doorway, clutching at his heart and gasping in horror, was Lord Caracallus. He took one look at the room before sweeping in and dropping to his knees at Laurent’s side. Jord moved to make space at once, and his face remained impassive as lord Caracallus reached out to assure himself that Laurent was alive. Laurent groaned and tried the shift away. Daman could feel his pulse jump where his fingers still rested on his neck.

Jord did not seem pleased that his lord’s uncle was touching Laurent.

“What happened here?” Lord Caracallus demanded.

“We’re going to find out.”

Caracallus looked up from Laurent’s blood covered face. His eyes narrowed, assessing, as he looked at Damen. They moved from Damen’s face, down to where he still touched Laurent’s neck, and then back up again. For one wild moment he looked poised on the brink of action and Damen wondered if he would attack his nephew again, right there, in person or if he intended to attack Damen himself.

The moment was broken by Kastor entering the room. He cursed with a passion. “What happened here?”

“Someone attempted to murder my nephew,” Caracallus said. He held Damen’s gaze for another long moment, accusation clear in his tone and in his expression.

“Looks like your own men tried to kill him. Must be his pleasant disposition,” Kastor added.

Damen felt his jaw drop. Even if he hated Laurent, Kastor should have known better than to say something so flippant after what happened here. Caracallus finally turned away from Damen to cast a disparaging look at Kastor.

“I suggest you look again. The armor is Veretian, but the men wearing it are Akeilon.”

It was a mess and one that needed to be sorted out but not before they helped Laurent. Damen slipped an arm under the little prince’s head and behind his knees to carefully hoist him up. He pulled Laurent close, cradling him against his chest so that his head did not flop backward and strain his neck or jostle in any way as Damen moved. Laurent gave a pained groan but hung limp. Caracallus stood as well.

“Bring him to my rooms. I’ll look after him,” Caracallus said. He gave a deep sigh and brushed a strand of hair out of Laurent’s face. Laurent, drugged with the mysterious muscle relaxer, gave no response other than to close his eyes very tightly.

“He’ll stay with me,” Damen said and only realized the words were coming out of his own mouth when they were finished. He was insulting Caracallus by refusing to let him take his nephew, but if Damen’s suspicions about the man were right Laurent would be in even more danger if left alone with his uncle.

Caracallus gave Damen a hard look. “My nephew has just been attacked. We have no idea who is responsible for the attempt, and you dare to tell me that you will not bring Laurent to my rooms where I can keep him safe?”

“Brother, what are you thinking?” Kastor asked. He did it quietly, stepping up behind Damen to ask the question so that no one else in the room could hear.

“I think that I saved his life twice already and that I am sworn to keep saving him for as long as Prince Laurent is here. I swore his brother an oath,” Damen added. He looked down at the top of Laurent’s head. He still had his eyes closed but Damen could feel him shaking in his arms. Maybe that was the drug, or maybe it was from fear. Either way, it was Damen’s duty to protect Laurent as best he could. He’d failed him once today, he would not fail him a second time.

“Lord Caracallus, I will stand guard with Prince Damianos,” Jord said. He stepped forward and bowed his head respectfully, but kept speaking. “The prince has already instructed me to assist him in protecting Prince Laurent.”

Damon blinked in surprise at the audacity of this Veretian guard lying to not one, but three members of royal households. It spoke highly of Laurent that Jord would dare overstep his place like this to keep his prince safe.

Caracallus did not look convinced. He began to argue again when the sound of more tears filled the room. Damen, Kastor, and Jord all turned to watch Nicaise wipe at his face. He looked very small suddenly, standing in the middle of the room, away from Lykaios and the slave who had been attending to Laurent. As soon as he realized they were looking at him, Nicaise’s eyes found Caracallus. He gave a very deep sniff and bit at his lower lip to try and stem the flow of tears, but it did not help.

Caracallus softened at once. He held his hand out and gestured for Nicaise to come to him, which the boy did.

“I’m sorry,” Nicaise sobbed. “It was so frightening and those men were so terrible.”

Caracallus pulled him flush against his side and stroked his fingers through Nicaise’s curls. “You were very brave,” he said. “Did these men say anything? Give any hint at why they were here?”

Nicaise shook his head against Caracallus’s belly. He truly was a small child. Watching him cling to Caracallus made Damen distinctly uncomfortable.

“They made him drink something. They said it was a muscle relaxer, right, Erasmus?” Nicaise added. His tears did not stop but his voice took on a sharper edge as he addressed the slave in Lykaios’s arms.

The slave, Erasmus, pulled his face out of the curve between Lykaios’s neck and shoulder to stare in wide-eyed wonder at Nicaise.

“They gave him the poison. Tell them,” Nicaise insisted, and he cried harder.

Erasmus looked up from the little boy to gaze in terror at the men waiting for his answer. Damen was positive that Nicaise was lying about who gave Laurent the poison—if it had been the men attacking them, he would have said so when he explained why Laurent hadn’t moved when Damen came to his rescue. He obviously felt that he had to lie about this though. The lie did nothing but obscure the truth from everyone but Damen.

And then Erasmus did something so unexpected Damon nearly gasped. Erasmus nodded his head and lied, “The intruders made Prince Laurent drink something. They put it in the wine.”

“Monsters,” Caracallus said, wrapping his arms around Nicaise. “You captured one of them alive, I saw him being led away in the hall. I want to be there when he is questioned. I want to know why these men attacked my nephew.”

There was too much going on to try and figure out why Erasmus was helping Nicaise lie. Damon trusted that Erasmus had good intentions—he’d been trying to defend Laurent after all—so the mystery of why he would agree with Nicaise’s lie could wait. Right now Damen needed to get Laurent somewhere safe so that a physician could look him over and be sure that he was alright.

“Lykaios, Erasmus, go find a physician and bring them to my rooms,” Damon said. He stepped past his brother and past Caracallus, heading towards the door. “Kastor, alert the guards. There may be more conspirators. We need to be prepared.”

Kastor nodded. His hand dropped to the hilt of his sword. “Yes. And I will alert Father to what happened here.”

Alerting Father was not something that Damon had even been thinking about. He felt a rush of gratitude towards his brother.

“Lord Caracallus, you should return to your rooms for the time being. It will be safer for you there,” Damen added.

Caracallus nodded without comment. His eyes dropped to take in Laurent’s face—his eyes were open again, watching everything going on around him—and then lifted back up to narrow at Damen.

“I will see my nephew in the morning. Safe and unharmed, or there will be consequences.”

“Nicaise—”

“Will be safe with me,” Caracallus said.

“Fine,” Damen said and he stepped out the door behind Lykaios and Erasmus. Lykaios held Erasmus’s hand and together they hurried down the hallway to find a physician. Jord fell into step behind Damon, silent and watchful. There were two guards on either side of his door when they arrived at his rooms—good men that Damen recognized and had fought with at Marlas—and they did their best not to look interested in the bloody bundle he carried in his arms.

Jord stood awkwardly inside the door. The prince’s quarters were set up rather similarly to the rooms that Laurent had been using, with an antechamber for entertainment and then the bedroom itself, and it was clear that Jord was not sure he should come into the bedchamber until Damon walked right through the first room and made directly for his bed.

He set Laurent down very carefully. There was blood in his blond hair, staining it pink. There was blood on his face and on his tightly tied clothing. His face was truly swollen now and would hurt terribly tomorrow if it did not already hurt now and through it all Laurent watched him. His face was slack as if in sleep, but his eyes were wary.

He was powerless and had to realize that, should Damen choose to take advantage, Jord would not be able to stop him. The vulnerable position this forced Laurent into had not truly registered for Damen before this moment.

“I promise you on my honor and on the oath I swore to your brother, I am not going to hurt you,” Damen said softly. Laurent had grown into a beautiful young man, but traces of the wide-eyed boy from Marlas were still there. He’d called Damen a brother in arms once, and perhaps he did not understand how meaningful that distinction was, but Damon did.

Laurent killed one of his attackers and badly injured the other while drugged. Despite how beautiful and delicate he might look, Laurent was not weak.

“I’m going to remove your boots and your bloody top shirt. If the blood soaked through, I’ll find you something else to wear that is clean,” Damen said. He waited for some indication that Laurent understood, and only began to pull his boots off after some of the suspicion in Laurent’s eyes began to fade.

Damen worked quickly but carefully. After removing the boots he began untying the many laces that kept the Veretion style shirt fastened. He was still pulling at knots when Lykaios and Erasmus bowed their way into the room. They brought with them a physician that Damen did not recognize, a Veretian that must have come with Laurent and his uncle.

The man inclined his head in respect to Damen and then began to inspect Laurent. He somehow managed to pull the ties holding the top shirt loose in a matter of moments. Without hesitation, he pulled the shirt and the undershirt off to inspect Laurent’s chest. The blood had soaked through to his undershirt and stained his chest as well.

“Get water and a cloth to clean him,” Damen instructed Lykaios softly. She nodded and bowed her way out of the room. Erasmus remained, seated on the floor in the corner atop the array of blankets Lykaios used when she did not share the bed, watching with concern.

“He has a mild concussion,” the physician said, inspecting Laurent’s eyes. “The cut is shallow and will close on its own once it is cleaned. I have a cream that will reduce some of the swelling, and it will need to be applied twice a day until the bruising is gone.”

“I will make sure the medicine is used,” Damen assured with a nodded. “What about the drug? When will he be able to move again?”

“Soon, I expect,” the physician said. There was something sad in his tone. “By morning it will be like the drug was never used.”

Lykaios returned then with a wooden try clutched in her hands. On the tray was a large bowl of steaming water and many folded clothes. Both Erasmus and Jord moved forward to help her with the tray. Lykaios let Jord take the tray from her and blushed very deeply, bowing her head so that her hair fell into her face to shield the redness of her cheeks. Jord blinked, bemused, and walked the tray to the bed. Damen gestured for Jord to set it on the floor.

The physician handed a ceramic container to Damen before pushing himself to his feet with a stiffness that spoke of his age. “Once you have cleaned his face, apply the salve.”

“Yes. Thank you for your help,” Damen said at once, standing as well.

“My name is Paschal,” the physician said without prompting. “If your father, the exalted king, is not feeling well by tomorrow afternoon, call for me.”

Damen blinked. Paschal waited expectantly.

“I will call for you.” It seemed to be what the old man wanted to hear because Paschal gave a satisfied nod and began to walk to the door.

“I have another patient to attend to, but call for me if the prince should worsen in any way.” And then he was gone.

“I can clean him off,” Jord said at once. Damen waved the offer away. Jord appeared to be a good man, but Damen had no idea how Laurent would feel about letting one of his guards essentially bathe him while his was half naked and defenseless. Truthfully, Damen only felt comfortable to be the one who cleaned Laurent because Lykaios, Erasmus, and Jord were all present. He hoped having them in the room would give Laurent some sense of safety in a moment when he had no control.

“Lykaios,” Damen said as he dipped one of the soft clothes she brought into the warm water, “help Jord find something for the prince to change into.”

Jord looked mutinous but he followed Lykaios to the far end of the room to inspect what clothing Damen had to offer. He was larger than Laurent by a good amount, but there was bound to be something. He was not sending anyone back to Laurent’s room to find his actual clothing until the bodies were cleared away.

With a soft word of warning, Damen began to wipe the blood from Laurent’s face. It had begun to dry in some places. Laurent watched him with deep mistrust in his eyes and flinched at the first touch of the cloth against his cheek. He made a sound deep in his throat that likely wasn’t voluntary because it did not sound happy. Laurent struck Damen as the sort who did not like to lose control; this whole situation had to be a nightmare for him.

But he faced near certain death with bravery. He took down one man on his own and injured another. He fought. Just like he had when he was a child and Damen was the opponent he faced. Laurent was fierce, far more so than he looked. He was like Lady Jokasta, beautiful and underestimated because of that beauty.

“Prince Damianos, sir?” The whispered words were so tentative and soft that Damen almost missed them.

“Yes?” he asked, glancing back at Erasmus who still knelt in his spot on the floor. It was a surprise the boy could even form words after how frightened he’d been. His eyes were still red and swollen from crying.

“Prince Laurent tried to save Nicaise and me,” Erasmus said, eyes fixed firmly on the ground. “He…he is a very brave, very kind man.”

It was clear even saying that much was terrifying for Erasmus. He’d never been alone in Damen’s presence, never been out of the slave chambers before Laurent picked him as a companion for the duration of his stay in Ios. Laurent would have had Erasmus’s first night.

It made something warm pool in Damen’s belly to think about, so he told himself very sternly not to think about it at all. “Thank you for telling me,” he said instead. “Prince Laurent is very brave indeed.”

He smiled and Erasmus flushed with shy pleasure. His eyes darted up to take in the scene at the bad and then they darted back down to the floor. Erasmus nodded and whispered, “He is.”

When Damen turned back to the bed Laurent had his eyes closed. There was a faint blush on his cheeks beneath the blood, obvious only because of the painless of his skin. Another rush of warmth curled through Damen. It was such a small thing, such an innocent, childish thing for Laurent to be embarrassed by the praise that Erasmus gave him. It made Damen want to brush the hair back from Laurent’s face and whisper more words of praise to him, just to see how deep the blush could grow.

Instead, he kept his touch soft but clinical as he whipped away the remainder of the blood. Jord and Lykaios returned with a shirt cut in the Veretian style that left Laurent looking even smaller as it drowned him in fabric, but it was clean and free of blood so Damen put it on him. Once he had Laurent clothed once more and tucked beneath the thin blankets of his bed, Damen applied the medical cream to the bruises on his face. At some point, the exhaustion of the last few hours must have caught up with him because Laurent fell asleep. His chest rose and fell with deep, even breaths. Perhaps it was less falling asleep and more slipping into unconsciousness, but rest was needed after how close he came to death.

Across the room, Erasmus had slipped into sleep as well and had his head resting on Lykaios shoulder. She had one arm around his waist and kept them both seated upright. It was not proper for either of them to lie down to sleep until Damen told them to. Jord stood stiff and proper beside the door, watching Damen like a bird of prey.

“Lykaios, sleep. Make yourself and Erasmus comfortable,” Damen said. She nodded and gave a soft affirmation before pulling Erasmus down to lie on the mound of blankets they had been kneeling on.

“You will remain awake and on guard?” Damen asked. Jord nodded but said nothing.

It didn’t matter, it was the answer he wanted to hear. Damen lied himself out on top of the blankets, as far on the other side of his bed as he could be without simply falling to the floor. He kept as respectful a distance as he possible between himself and Laurent. It was safer to be in the same bed—if Laurent moved in the night it would wake Damen, if anyone moved Laurent in the night it would wake Damen as well—but he did not want to crowd the prince after such a stressful day.

Damen laid awake for a very long time, thinking about how lucky Laurent was. If he died, any hope for peace between Akielos and Vere died with him. The skirmishes at the border and the attacks on Laurent’s life were connected. Someone wanted their two countries at war and they were ready to kill Laurent to make that happen.

Why did Auguste trust Damen enough to send his brother here? Was it just the oath, or was Auguste hoping for something more?

Chapter Text

Laurent sighed and pressed the right side of his face deeper into the pillow. There was a dull throbbing under his left eye and his forehead stung, but he felt otherwise very comfortable. There was a heavy languidness clinging to his limbs that made him want to drift back down into sleep and a warm weight pressed up against his back and his waist that was oddly comfortable.

The pressure behind him breathed in and out deeply, warm sleep-tinged breath blowing past his ear. There was someone laying behind him.

He wasn’t sleeping alone.

Laurent’s eyes snapped open and he jerked away. The weight against his waist was an arm draped heavily against his hip and it kept him half pinned to the bed. His heart beat so hard he could hear it thundering in his ears like a rush of sea waves crashing against the shore. Tremors ran through his arms and he fell back onto his elbows because he didn’t have the strength to stay upright.

Damianos lay there on the bed behind him. Laurent’s quick motion had the prince sitting up just as suddenly. He was tense and ready to spring, hands clenched into fists and it made such a sharp spike of fear run through Laurent that his head spun.

Damianos did not move to do anything about Laurent trying to get out of the bed. Instead, his eyes darted to the door, the dark corners of the room, and the area behind the bed. He even leaned over Laurent, who shrank in on himself ever so slightly, to look over the edge of the bed. When he found no one in the room aside from Erasmus and Lykaios sleeping together on a pile of blankets against the wall he seemed to calm.

He gave a very deep, sleepy sigh and sat back to put some distance between himself and Laurent. It was then that Laurent realized he still had his pants on, even if the shirt he wore was not the one he’d had on before the attack. Damianos himself was fully clothed in the ridiculously revealing wraps the Akeilons favored. He was also on top of the blankets while Laurent was tucked beneath them.

“You’re awake,” Damianos said. He sounded tired and rubbed his hands over his face to will the fatigue away. “How are you feeling?”

Laurent found it very difficult to make his mouth work. He remembered what happened in his room—remembered the men coming in, the drug seeping into every part of his body, the man pressing up against him and Laurent forcing himself to remain still until an opportunity presented itself—but everything past that was hazy. He had a vague recollection of someone punching him in the face but after that, he could remember nothing. The drug did not impair memories, he knew that for a fact, so it must have been the blows to the head that were making him wonder why he was in bed with Prince Damianos.

“Why am I in your bed?” he asked, rather than answer the question posed to him. His voice sounded very raspy, like he’d been shouting. He didn’t remember shouting.

Damianos looked confused for a moment and then the realization that he was still pressed up along Laurent’s legs seemed to dawn on him and he moved further away. He coughed and rubbed at the back of his neck.

“It seemed safer than anywhere else,” he said, peering up at Laurent through his lashes. Prince Damianos was far too large a man to act so demurely, but somehow the gesture seemed genuine.

“It seemed safer to have me in your bed. Unconscious. With you pressed up against me while I couldn’t move,” Laurent repeated as flatly as he could.

Damianos looked, if possible, more chagrined. Like a child being scolded by a parent. “I didn’t trust leaving you alone with your uncle. Jord stood guard all night. And I didn’t fall asleep curled up against you,” Damianos said. He hung his head. “I’m sorry that we woke up like that. I had no intention of overstepping boundaries. I simply wanted to be sure I was close at hand and would wake if anyone tried to attack you again.”

Across the room, Erasmus and Lykaios were beginning to stir. So far there was no sign of Nicaise and the lack of his presence made Laurent’s stomach ache. He didn’t want to ask because it was unlikely that Damianos would give an honest answer, but he had to know what actually happened after he stabbed the man trying to molest him.

“What happened?” It came out small and bitter.

Damianos tipped his head to the side and regarded Laurent for a short moment in silence. He seemed to be considering something. Typical. He was more like Uncle than Laurent realized. In possession of information someone else wanted and willing to lord it over others. His demure looks, his earlier concern for Nicaise, it was all play-acting. Damianos probably has something to do with the attack and now—

“Four men broke into your room while you were with Nicaise and Erasmus. You were drugged. Nicaise told your uncle that the men who attacked you were the ones who gave you the drug but I don’t think that’s true. You killed one of the attackers on your own and Erasmus held another off until I arrived,” Damianos said. He looked Laurent right in the eye while he spoke.

It was…unexpected.

“One of the attackers is still alive. I plan on questioning him later today regarding the attack. Your uncle took Nicaise back to his room for safe keeping last night. I could not think of a way to bring the boy here as well that wouldn’t cause more problems,” Damen added apologetically.

He climbed out of the bed and stretched his back before walking around to stand beside Laurent. Damianos was very tall and the bed itself was quite near to the ground. It left Laurent in a vulnerable position that he did not like. If Jord was supposed to have been watching all night, where was he now? Only Erasmus and Lykcaios were visible in the room, and neither of them was going to be much help if Damianos had less than honorable intentions. Well, possibly, Erasmus would be.

“You wanted to bring Nicaise here, rather than leave him with my uncle?” Laurent said slowly. While he had his own private suspicions about Uncle, it seemed unlikely that Damianos would have them as well, which meant there had to be another reason he wanted Nicaise here last night.

Damianos did not answer right away. He reached out for a jar resting on a table beside the bed and pulled the cap off. A strong mint smell filled the room at once. Paschal put mint in almost all of his topical creams, so it was a safe bet that the jar contained medication of some kind. Damianos sat on the edge of the bed. Laurent shifted his legs to scoot ever so slightly away.

“I think you need more medicine on your injuries. They look aggravated,” Damianos said.

He dipped his pointer finger into the jar and scooped up a small amount of thick ointment. Without asking permission, he reached out and began to apply the ointment to Laurent’s face. If Laurent flinched away from the touch at first, neither of them commented on it. For a man so large, Damianos had a light, gentle touch that remained impersonal. His eyes did not stray and his hands did not linger, even as they worked the medicine into the bruising around Laurent’s lips and jaw.

But Laurent was not a fool. No one did something kind without an expectation of something in return. He believed Damianos’ story, believed that the Akeilon prince saved him from a very terrible death at the hands of the intruders, and he believed that Damianos kept his hands to himself last night. That didn’t mean that the prince expected to have to keep those same hands to himself today. Men of his stature expected to be rewarded for the good that they did. Auguste would have helped someone out of the goodness of his heart, but that was because his heart was good. Most men could not say the same.

So Laurent let his head tilt slightly to the side and ignored the minor spinning that followed the motion. He smiled at Damianos, because it was better to address this now than it was to let things linger. He had no intention of rewarding Damianos the way men liked to be rewarded, but he was in a delicate situation without Jord or any of his other guards in sight. He could placate Damianos, flatter his bravery, and hopefully avoid the situation altogether just like he had at Marlas all those years ago. Maybe calling them brothers in arms would work again.

“Thank you, for coming to my aide,” he said, voice pitched low and soft.

Damianos froze, paused with his finger still dipped in the jar. He looked up at Laurent and blinked a few times. Laurent forced himself to keep smiling even though it hurt with the bruises covering his face and even though he felt slightly nauseous. Damianos’ eyes darted down to his lips and then back up to dart across Laurent’s face, as expected.

“You defended yourself well without my help. Had you not been drugged, you would likely have beaten those men on your own,” Damianos said at last and unexpectedly.

What sort of man turned the focus away like that?

Before Laurent could formulate another response, Damianos set the jar down on the side table and reached out. Very carefully, he cupped Laurent’s chin and guided him forward. Laurent tensed.

“You might want to close your eye. It will be easier for me to put the medication on that way,” Damianos said and, with the lightest touch yet, he began to apply the medicine all around Laurent’s bruised and swollen eye.

And that was it. He did nothing else. He didn’t try to touch Laurent anywhere else—the grip on his chin was only to keep his head steady enough to get the ointment where it was needed around his eye—and Damianos released him as soon as he was finished applying the medicine. Behind his back, Erasmus was beaming at Laurent with clear joy and pride. He obviously thought this was a good thing, a step in the right direction for the love-sick Veretian prince trying to catch Damianos’ eye.

“There, that should do for now. The physician said to apply the medicine twice a day until the swelling is down,” Damianos said. He sat back on the bed and smiled at Laurent. It was a look as soft as the touches had been and Laurent pointedly looked away.

“I want to be there when you question the prisoner,” he said because it was easier than responding to anything that just happened.

“Of course. How are you feeling now? Can you stand?”

In response, Laurent pushed himself out of the bed and onto his feet in one very swift motion. His head swam and he swayed as pain pulsed behind his eyes. Large hands steadied him. Damianos made a soothing sound and guided Laurent back to sit on the edge of the bed.

It was then that Laurent realized he was in a night shirt so large it could drown him without difficulty. Somehow, that made everything that much more humiliating.

“You had a concussion. You might be dizzy for a little while,” Damianos said.

“Not so dizzy that I can’t ask a man why he tried to murder me, Damianos,” Laurent hissed.

“Damen.”

“What?”

“Damen. You can call me Damen,” Damianos said. And then he blushed. Like a child handing their crush a flower.

“…alright. Damen, then,” Laurent said slowly. Damen smiled almost as happily as Erasmus.

A loud bang came from across the room, making Laurent jump. Erasmus flinched into Lykaios, who wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close. Damen placed himself between Laurent and the doorway. Uncle swept into the room, Jord and Nicaise close on his heels. Behind Jord, looking over everyone, was Govart. Govart was massive, nasty, and one of Uncle’s favorite. Auguste disliked him about as much as Auguste disliked anyone and Laurent hated him.

Govart took one look around the room, focusing in on the disheveled bed sheets and Laurent’s oversized shirt and smirked. Laurent kept his face impassive and said nothing.

Uncle narrowed his eyes at Damen and Laurent both.

“I would like you to leave,” he said to Damen. “I will speak to my nephew alone.”

Damen did not move. Instead, he glanced back at Laurent and waited. It took Laurent half a second to realize that he was waiting for Laurent to tell him whether or not it was alright to leave. It was almost laughable. Laurent waved his hand dismissively to indicate that Damen should go.

Damen waited long enough for Lykaios to guide Erasmus out of the room before making any move towards the door himself. He stopped walking when Govort did not move.

“Lord Caracallus asked to speak to Laurent alone,” Damen said pointedly.

Govort raised an eyebrow and smirked. Damen shouldn’t have said anything. Now, Uncle and Govort both were going to speculate wildly about what Damen’s interests actually were.

Uncle nodded his head towards the door. Govort kept smirking but followed Damen out of the room after knocking his shoulder hard into Jord on the way out.

The room remained silent until it was clear that Uncle and Laurent were alone. He knew that Damen and Jord were just in the other room, but the silence still grated on Laurent’s nerves. His head hurt, he felt nauseous, and he knew Uncle was up to something.

Uncle looked slowly around the room. He peered down at the bed and it’s rumpled sheets before raising a single eyebrow. It was a look that was meant to inspire comment, meant to make Laurent feel guilty. It wasn’t going to work because he hadn’t done anything worth being guilty over.

Uncle tisked. He reached out and caught Laurent’s chin. It was a tighter grip than the one that Damen used earlier. Laurent said nothing. He did not step back when Uncle moved closer, into his personal space.

“They very nearly killed you last night, didn’t they?” Uncle said. He kept his voice soft and easy.

“I was lucky,” Laurent said. This was a dangerous situation. Uncle was fishing for something.

“Nicaise said you fought one of the attackers off. Despite the drug they made you drink,” Uncle said softly. “Do you know why they drugged you first?”

“I don’t remember,” Laurent said. This was the information Uncle was trying to ascertain with this conversation; whether or not Laurent remembered that Nicaise was the one who drugged him. “Damianos informs me that I had a concussion and may never remember everything that happened last night.”

Uncle hummed softly. He ran his thumb back and forth along the curve of Lauren's jaw.

“You seem to inspire a great deal of violence lately,” Uncle said. He reached up and brushed his hands across Laurent’s cheek.

Nausea swirled in his gut. Laurent took a step back, out of Uncle’s grasp. “I’ve noticed that as well. I must say, I can’t help but notice how you always show up after someone tries to kill me.”

"Can family not be concerned for one another?"

"Possibly, if I counted you as family, I would find your constant presence comforting."

Uncle gave a sad smile. He let his hands drop to his side and shook his head. “You were such a sweet child. So kind. So affectionate. What happened, Laurent?”

“I realized it wasn't love that you were offering,” Laurent replied. He stepped around Uncle and marched out of the room. It was stifling in here, the smell of mint and bodies pressing in too close so that he wanted to gag. Better to be out in the other room.

“Come, Uncle. We have a would-be assassin to interrogate.”

Chapter Text

Nicaise’s lips were bruised and finger-shaped discolorations marred the back of his neck. Damen could see them from where he stood behind the boy. When Nicaise left Laurent’s room last night he had not been bruised. He hadn’t been injured at all.

Caracallus hurt him after the fact. As punishment.

So much had happened in the last two days that he almost forgot about Nicaise’s failed attempt at seduction after the peace talks. The boy told Laurent someone was going to be angry with him for the failure and now Damen was sure he knew who that someone was. It seemed obvious in retrospect. Going as far back as Marlas even. The attack on Laurent last night and the first attack Damen knew off, the men attempting to kill Laurent while in the Akeilon camp while Auguste negotiated the terms of Vere’s surrender. They never did find out who sent those men all those years ago, but that attack and the attack last night were so similar that they could only have been orchestrated by the same person.

Caracallus wanted his nephew dead. Nephews, if he was involved in the unrest at the border as well and it seemed highly likely that he was. Auguste and Laurent were the only things between Caracallus and the thrown, and according to Veretian law Laurent wasn’t old enough to assume power on his own should anything happen to Auguste.

And here was Nicaise, a child hardly old enough to understand the machinations going on around him, let alone defend against them, pulled into the tangled affair. The poor boy had no more say in the events around him than one of the palace slaves—he wasn’t royalty, and Damen very much doubted that being Caracallus’s ward afforded him much power. Especially if Caracallus was sending Nicaise out with orders to seduce grown men. It made him sick to even think about.

“He’s not going to share with you, so you might as well stop looking,” said Caracallus’s hulking guard.

Damen glanced back at him. The man was smirking, his thin lips curled up at the edges. He looked very pointedly between Damen and Nicaise and then back at Damen.

“Excuse me?” Damen asked, very softly. The audacity the man had to speak to a prince, in his own palace, with such disrespect would have been enough to shock Damen, but it was the man’s actual words that made something hot begin to burn in his gut.

Caracallus didn’t share?

“Begging your pardon, your highness,” the man said with a half-hearted facsimile of a bow. The smirk never left his face. “I just want to help avoid any confusion. Lord Caracallus doesn’t share his pets.”

Here the man’s eyes shifted to Erasmus and Lykaios standing close together in the far corner of the room, beside Jord. His eyes roved up and down, lingering at a level below Lykaios’s face. “But I hear Akielons are much more generous with their slaves.”

The full impact of the man’s words registered like a blow to the gut. Damen felt his breath leave him in a shocked rush. His hands curled into fists and he was moving before he fully registered the fury building in him. The guard stepped away from the wall, planting himself in front of the doorway into the bedroom where Damen left Laurent alone with a monster.

Small hands wrapped around his fist and pulled. The grip wasn’t strong enough to stop Damen but the high cry of, “No, don’t!” worked were strength did not.

At once, Jord was between Damen and Caracallus’s guard. He had one hand on his sword and the other outstretched behind him as he faced the guard, his unprotected back to Damen.

“Gavart, shut your mouth right now,” he growled.

The guard, Gavart, remained in his half-crouch for another moment before straightening up. He chuckled. “Guess Akielons don’t share very well after all.”

“He’s a brute and a fool, and he’s trying to make you mad,” Nicaise said in rapid fire Akielon.

Gavart’s eyes narrowed at the sound of Nicaise speaking something other than Veretian.

“He insults you and he insults your house. You are not a pet, and you are not a slave,” Damen replied, also in Akielon.

“Yes, I am. I’m Lord Caracallus’s pet.”

Damen froze. His eyes locked with Gavart’s over Jord’s shoulder. It was clear that neither of the Veretian guards understood what he and Nicaise were actually saying but some of the horror he felt must have shown on his face. Gavart grinned and displayed teeth.

Damen was going to kill him.

“Get out of my way.”

The command was cold, calm, and startling. Gavart stepped to the right, an eyebrow raised to look behind him. Laurent and Caracallus stood behind him, waiting to leave the bedroom. Laurent was so small compared to Gavart that his entire body had been blocked from view by the man’s massive bulk. Despite that, Laurent swept into the room without any indication of the difficulty he’d had standing a few minutes previously, though he walked slightly slower than was his norm.

Laurent ignored Jord, who bowed his head as he passed by. He sniffed distastefully at the sight of Nicaise’s hands still wrapped around Damen’s clenched fist. Nicaise immediately let his grip fall away.

“We’re going to visit the man that tried to kill me yesterday, Damianos. Lead the way,” he commanded.

“An interrogation room is no place for a child,” Damen said at once.

Caracallus stepped around Laurent. He reached out and placed a hand delicately on the back of Nicaise’s neck. It perfectly covered the bruises there. There was a rushing in his ears that momentarily blocked everything else. It was all Damen could do to stop himself from pulling Nicaise free of Caracallus touch. As convinced as Damen was that Caracallus was a conniving monster, he could do nothing about a Veretian custom he did not approve of without throwing the peace accords into chaos.

An attempt on Prince Laurent’s life, however, would give him just cause to throw Caracallus into the darkest, deepest cell Ios had to offer. That was where he needed to place his focus now because that was where he could take action.

This realization did nothing to quell the fury he felt as he watched Caracallus stroke Nicaise’s neck.

Laurent swayed slightly where he stood. He reached out and set a hand on Damen’s arm to steady himself. His bony fingers twisted. He pinched Daman so hard it caused a full body twitch.

“I apologise, Prince Damianos. I appear in need of some assistance,” Laurent said, but he said it without even looking at Damen as he spoke. Instead, he was looking at Caracallus as well. “Uncle, you will, of course, send Nicaise off to his lessons while we deal with this unpleasantness?”

Caracallus looked between Laurent’s hand on Damen’s arm and the pinched expression on Damen’s face, before he nodded. He smiled down at Nicaise, who looked back up at him with a pleasantly blank expression that made Damen want to scream.

“I’ll see you after your lessons,” Caracallus said. His thumb brushed against one of the bruises and pressed.

Nicaise’s expression did not change as he nodded.

Unable to stand the sight of Caracallus touching him any longer, Damen reached out and—gently—tugged Nicaise away. He pressed the boy closer to Erasmus and Lykaios. Lykaios stepped back, mindful of the Veretian distaste for an unwed man and woman to be so close. Erasmus gazed up at Damen with utter awe as he lifted his hands to place them on the boy’s shoulder.

“Make sure that Nicaise gets back to his room in time for his lessons,” Damen commanded.

Erasmus nodded, too overcome to speak despite being perfectly able to speak before, when he was singing of Laurent’s goodness. They made a pretty picture, the three of them standing there, and it struck Damen suddenly in a way it truly never had before how helpless a slave was. What horrors could Erasmus and Lykaios face, if they were not under his protection? What true protection could they afford Nicaise, two slaves alone, once Damen walked out the door and left them to their own devices? They were trained to please, not to protect themselves, and they had already been called upon to act outside their nature in defending Laurent.

I’m afraid to leave them alone, Damen realized. In my own palace, I fear for their safety. In my own palace, where they should be safer than anywhere else in the world.

“Come, before the brute decided to swallow his own tongue rather than answer our questions,” Laurent said. He pinched Damen once more, though not as hard as the first time, and took a decisive step towards the door.

“I will speak to you after this issue is cleared up,” Caracallus said, casting one last soft look back to Nicaise that made Damen want to growl.

Jord and Gavart fell into step behind them all as Laurent, pulling Damen along, led the way from the room. Once they were out in the hallway, however, the insistent tug on Damen’s arm lessened. Laurent did not know where to take them from here, but he did not look away from the hallway stretching out before him.

So Damen led the way. He guided them through hallways and down passages, deeper into the underbelly of the palace. He knew which cells Nikandros had taken the prisoner to because they were the very same set of cells he now envisioned Caracallus bound in. The walk was not quick, however. After only a few minute walking, Laurent slipped his arm out of Damen’s and strode forward without assistance, despite the lethargy in his steps. Damen said nothing but kept a watchful eye on Laurent just in case he should need assistance.

“Come, nephew, let me help you,” Caracallus said in the same soft tone he’d used to say goodbye to Nicaise earlier. He stepped up beside Laurent and threaded his hand around his nephew’s back, linking their arms together and pulling Laurent closer against his side than he had been when walking with Damen.

“I’m fine, Uncle,” Laurent said, but he made no move to pull away.

Unable to think of a suitable excuse to draw them apart, Damen clenched his teeth and forced himself to say nothing. Caracallus stroked his thumb back and forth over the smooth skin on Laurent’s hand while they walked.

“The cell is just ahead. There are steps here, be cautious as you descend.” Damen turned back as he walked to keep an eye on Laurent as the group moved down the steep steps. He actually did seem to need the grip Caracallus had on him to maneuver down the stairs safely. The lingering effects of the drug still in his system were lasting longer than Paschal implied they should when he’d check on Laurent last night. Perhaps, when they were finished here, he would call for the physician again.

The hallway the stairs brought them to was dim. There were no windows this deep into the bedrock the palace was build upon but torched burnt along the walls to keep the area lit. Long before Damen was born these cells had been carved into the stone, two on either side of the hallway, so that all four cells could be easily watched from the wall at the end of the hall. Two guards he recognized stood against the wall, as well as the four on either side of the cell door to the right; two in Laurent’s colors and two in Caracallus's bright red. Nikandros stood, leaning against the opposite wall, arms crossed over his chest as he gazed steadily into the cell itself.

The Akielons straightened to attention as Damen, and his party came into view. Nikandros stepped away from the wall and clapped a fist over his heart in greeting before striding forward. The space was cramped with so many bodies in it, but the number of guards quelled some of the fear that only just crept into Damen’s gut that the prisoner would be dead before they reached him for questioning. It was a foolish fear— Nikandros was guarding the man and Nikandros would never fail in his duty.

“The prisoner has not spoken once since last night, Exalted,” Nikandros said without preamble. He spoke in Akielon. “We questioned him, but cannot say who he works for, or where he hails from.”

“If he’s working for anyone at all, and not acting alone,” Caracallus said softly, also in Akielon. He still had his hands on Laurent. He stepped around Nikandros and Damen, guiding Laurent with him, to look into the cell. The Veretian guards on either side of the door bowed their heads.

“Respectfully, Akielons do not stoop to subterfuge when they wish to kill a man,” Nikandros replied. “The Veretian uniforms the men were wearing is also not in easy supply here in Ios.”

“You think they were sent here on order of a Veretian?” Daman asked. It was gratifying to hear his suspicions echoed back to him. Nikandros was one of the soundest strategic minds in all of Akielos. If he suspected a Veretian was behind these attacks it was only a matter of time before he found something tangible Damen could use to accuse Caracallus.

“Is that true, brute?” Laurent asked the prisoner with a lazy drawl. “Are you too stupid to think up an assassination attempt on your own?”

There was no answer. Damen stepped around Nikandros to peer into the cell as well. The prisoner was sitting with his back against the uneven stone wall. There was no bed, no blanket, nothing of comfort in the cell itself. Without windows, this deep into the rock, it was cold in the hallway and colder still in the cell, away from the torches. Nikandros and the guards had the added layer of their armor to keep them warm, but the prisoner did not.

“You’ve questioned him already?” Caracallus asked. His tone was conversational, but his eyes were narrowed. The man in the cell looked between him and Damen before lifting his chin silently in a show of defiance.

Nikandros nodded.

“I see no evidence of your interrogation,” Caracallus replied.

Laurent stiffened. Damen raised a brow at the remark. Nikandros was good at what he did; if he said he’d questioned the prisoner already, there was no reason to doubt his word.

“What evidence were you expecting to see?” Damen asked. Caracallus was still stroking Laurent’s hand with this thumb. Laurent looked pale in the firelight, washed out as he stared in at the prisoner.

“Perhaps Akielons are too delicate to interrogate one of their own? It’s certainly more plausible than a lack of effort being put forth to discover who tried to kill a guest in their country, because we all know Vere and Akielos want nothing but peace,” Caracallus continued. He stepped back from the cell and pivoted to look back down the hallway at Gavart and Jord.

Gavart smiled, slow and cold. “My turn to question the prisoner?” he asked in Veretian.

Laurent pulled away from his uncle and ignored Gavart’s question. He stepped right up to the bars, causing every guard in the hall, including Damen and Nikandros to tense. The prisoner just watched him from his spot on the floor.

“I think you’re too stupid to think up a plan to try to murder me all on your own, but you’re not too stupid to realize this is going to go very badly for you if you don’t answer my questions,” Laurent said. His voice was soft, detached almost, as he gazed down at the man who assaulted him. At the man who intended to do terrible things to him and Erasmus and Nicaise before killing them all.

“I know you’re a rather barbaric lot, but clearly you had someone with a spark of intelligence guiding you,” Laurent continued. Around him, the Akielon guards shifted and Nikandros frowned. There was a palpable annoyance filling the hallway at Laurent’s words and Damen couldn’t blame his men for their dissatisfaction with comments. They were intentionally incendiary.

The prisoner’s expression darkened.

“Nephew,” Caracallus began as Gavart moved forward, cracking his knuckles.

Laurent ignored them both. “I mean, obviously not someone too intelligent because if they had any brains at all, they wouldn’t have sent you to do the job. You lost to a child, a slave, and a man too drugged to move. Perhaps it’s the competence one should expect from Akielons?”

A murmur of outrage rippled through the hallway. The man inside the cell had had enough. He flung himself at the bars, fingers curled like claws to grab Laurent who stepped back and out of his reach with ease. When he couldn’t grab Laurent, the man grabbed the bars of his cell instead and snarled.

“You live because the prince saved you! You disgrace Akielos with your every breath! We should have killed you before we fucked you,” the prisoner snarled.

A growl built up in Damen’s chest but Laurent only cocked his head to the side and considered the prisoner. “Was killing me the point of that encounter? Because it seemed like you were more interested in fucking me than you were in killing me.”

“It’s all you’re good for,” the prisoner snarled. He spat at Laurent’s feet. “ Worthless, soft prince trying to destroy hundreds of year of tradition.”

At that Damen felt something shift in the conversation. Laurent was unruffled, clearly in control of every word he said and every reaction he gave, but the prisoner was not. Not anymore, at least. He was too angry at Laurent to be thinking clearly and because of that he was not only talking, he’d let slip the first useful piece of information. He’d attacked Laurent for “destroying hundreds of years of tradition.”

“I consider myself quite influential, but I must admit, I don’t recall any traditions I’ve destroyed lately,” Laurent said.

The prisoner pressed his lips tightly together and released his grip on the bars of the cell. Silently, glaring at Laurent the whole time, he slunk back to his spot on the floor.

“Gavart,” Caracallus said. “Please take care of this.”

Gavart grinned wider and nodded. He shoved past Laurent and waited only long enough for Nikandros to unlock the door before he was on the prisoner. He attacked the man without any prelude, without even asking a question first. Blow after blow rained down on the prisoner and it was clear almost instantly that the man was not going to survive this assault. Gavart wasn’t beating him to try to force an answer out, he was trying to kill the man.

“Stop!” Damen shouted. The two guards against the back wall, Nikandros and Jord all took a step forward, but the Veretian guards looked unsure about what to do.

Gavart did not stop his assault. The prisoner struggled and fought back but he had no hope of surviving the onslaught.

“Stop!” Damen shouted again. “If you kill him we learn nothing!”

He shoved his way into the cell and flung himself at Gavart. Damen was not a small man by any stretch of the imagination, but Gavart was larger and likely stronger. He struggled to move away from Damen and the prisoner, resulting in the prisoner twisting under their arms. The man snatched at the short dagger dangling from Gavart’s hip and pulled it free. Damen had just enough time to realize what was about to happen as the man drew his arm back, aiming for Laurent—

Caracallus lunged forward, a short sword from one of the Veretian guards in hand. He drove the blade through the man’s neck until hilt met flesh. Behind him, Jord and Nikandros had both placed themselves in front of Laurent. He found Damen’s gaze for just a moment, his eyes wide and his expression startled before he visibly locked the emotions away.

“You almost got my nephew killed for the second time in less than two days,” Caracallus said as he pulled the sword free. Blood splattered against Gavart and Damen where they stood. “If not for the care you took in attending to him last night, I would be deeply disturbed by this.”

Damen let his grip on Gavart loosen. He stepped around the body on the floor and the pooling redness surrounding it but Caracallus blocked the cell door. The expression he cast at Damen was one of deep disappointment, and it made anger ring in Damen’s ears.

“You are not in Vere.” Damen forced himself to say as softly and as calmly as he could. “This is not your country. This is not your palace or your prisoner. Because of the actions of your guard we lost the only source of information we had available to us and Laurent was almost hurt again.”

Caracallus raised an eyebrow, but his expression did not change. “You signed a treaty four years ago at Marlas. Under the terms of that treaty, attacks on our person are permitted to be dealt with as we see fit. If you truly wish to support your father and king’s peace, perhaps you should learn the terms of your own accord.”

Never in his life had Damen felt such anger. He could see Nikandros inching forward, one hand resting on the hilt of his sword. He could see the Veretian guards casting uncertain looks at their Akielon counterparts. He could see Jord edging Laurent backward, trying to herd him towards the stairs. Caracallus was standing there, waiting, expecting a reaction. It was exactly what Laurent had done just seconds ago to get the prisoner to talk.

“I think it best we leave my guards to deal with this,” Damen said. He gestured down to the floor of the cell and told himself that he would not be played. “Laurent should rest, and I’m sure you have reports to consider before we next meet to discuss the border issues.”

A long moment passed with Caracallus considering him and then he smiled. It did not reach his eyes. Maybe once Damen would not have noticed, but now there was no way he could miss the cold in the man’s gaze.

“Truly, I appreciate the concern you have for my nephew. As I said, it is the one thing that brings me peace of mind in all of this uncertainty,” he said.

Laurent stood beside Jord, watching the exchange with the same pleasantly blank expression Nicaise wore back in the room. The sort of pleasantly blank expression that said he was used to having other speak for and about him. The look made Damen’s mouth go sour.

“Are we done here?” he asked, and it was unclear who he was speaking to, Damen or Caracallus.

“There is nothing more for you to do here, nephew. I believe,” Caracallus began, sweeping around to usher Laurent towards the stairs, “that you should listen to Prince Damianos and retire to your rooms for the remainder of the day.”

“They were cleaned last night,” Jord added in an undertone.

“Wonderful,” Laurent bit off. He stepped away from Caracallus’s reaching hand and marched back to the stairs, Jord close at his heels.

With a snap of his fingers, Caracallus called Gavart forward. He cast one last look at the prisoner in the cell before following after his nephew.

As soon as they were out of hearing, Nikandros stepped up to Damen’s side. “I find it deeply concerning that our one witness and informant is dead before he can tell us anything of use,” he said softly, in Akielon.

Damen nodded. “I don’t think his death was an accident either.”

Nikandros gave a soft sound of agreement. “But who benefits from the death; the uncle or the nephew?”

That wasn’t something he could answer yet, even if he knew Caracallus couldn’t be trusted. Should Damen be wrong—unlikely though it was—he would be protected but Nikandros would not. To falsely accuse a member of the Veretian royal family of attempted regicide could cost Nikandros his life if Damen was wrong.

What he needed was more proof. More proof and another set of eyes to watch Caracallus. It was time to share with his father what he’d learned in the last few days and the suspicions they raised. Theomedes would know what to do about Caracallus.

Chapter Text

Damen made his way through the halls of the palace with swift steps. The events of the past two days were heavy on his mind, the stench of the dead prisoner’s blood still in his nose. It brought with it ghostly memories of Marlas, of the long ago battlefield, and the danger that seemed to stalk the two golden princes of Ver even after all this time. For he had no doubt that the attack against Laurent was meant to end in his death and, through grief and rash actions, somehow result to Auguste’s death not long after. Someone wanted the throne of Ver, and they were doing everything in their power to cause chaos and discord until they got what they were after.

He had very little doubt that Caracallus was that someone, but, as sure as he was within his own mind, Damen had no true evidence.

For the first time, he wondered if Auguste sent Caracallus with Laurent while totally unaware of the man’s potentially treasonous nature, or if the plan was to have the family feud play out across the sea on the shores of Ios. It seemed counter to Auguste’s nature to literally ship his problem away to dump on Damen’s hearth, but it didn’t seem quite as far fetched a plot if Laurent were the architect. The larger questions then would be, why let Akielons know so much about the internal underpinnings of Vere—with or without a peace treaty, knowing the royal family schemed against each other for the thrown did nothing but make Vere look ripe for the picking.

Damen pushed such thoughts from his mind as he came to the doors of his father’s rooms. When he was young, these double doors used to strike something like aww in him; now they roused instead a sense of duty. Beside the entrance, straight backed and at attention, were two of his father’s finest men. They did not move when Damen knocked on the doors, but their eyes followed him.

“Enter,” said a melodic voice that did not belong to his father at all.

What was Jokaste doing in his father’s rooms?

Damen pushed the doors open, unsure what scene would greet him. Briefly the thought of how disappointed Kastor would be to learn that Jokaste was entertaining the father rather than either of the sons passed through his mind, and then the thought was gone. Kastor knelt beside Theomedes’ bed, his hand gripping their father’s tightly. Standing behind Kastor, watching the door with a slightly raised brow, was Jokaste.

She did not smile when she saw Damen, as had been her custom. Instead her face went blank and she turned back to the bed.

The room was dark and felt stifling with heat—all the window shutters must be closed. There was the smell of sick in the air, turning sprawling rooms into something confining.

Theomedes did not rise from the bed as Damen came closer. He didn’t even seem to know anyone was in the room with him, lost instead in fitful sleep. The closer to the bed Damen came the more clearly he could hear the labored breathing rattling past his father’s lips.

“What...what is this?” he asked. He knew Theomedes had been feeling unwell yesterday after the negotiations, but this was far and away different than the slight headache and pallor of yesterday.

Kastor finally looked up. His eyes were glassy. He held his tension around his eyes now, resulting in the beginnings of lines wrinkling the soft skin of his face, turning him older in this moment than he’d ever looked before.

“The illness came on suddenly.” He looked back at the bed before continuing, “I came to tell our father of the events of last night and found him like this.”

Anger and hurt flashed through Damen. “Our father fell so deeply ill in the course of a single evening and no one thought to inform me?”

Kastor hunched his shoulders and glowered down at the hand he had clenched between his own. “You were occupied with the Veretians.”

There was an accusation in Kastor’s tone, but not one that Damen understood. Yes, he’d been intent on making sure Laurent and the others were safe after the attack, but
Theomedes was his father. Duty dictated he protect the guests in their home, but that didn’t make Damen incapable of attending to his family as well.

“And today? No one thought to call for me this late into the morning. I’m to believe that was due to the Veretians as well?”

Kastor turned to glare up at Damen, but Jokaste spoke before he could.

“You were needed elsewhere, to interrogate the prisoner who attacked our gust,” she said smoothly. “Duty and honor demand that you see to the threat before matters of the heart, even matters of the heart that concern the family you love.”

The anger left Damen as soon as it came, though the slight hurt remained. She spoke the very same thoughts in his head, but with an understanding that brought clarity back to Damen. Of course Kastor would try to deal with this illness by himself—he knew it was not his place, as a bastard —favored though he was—to handle matters of international importance in Theomedes’ name, but Damen could. He’d been trying to keep Damen from worrying.

As in all things, Kastor’s intentions were honorable.

“I’m sorry,” Damen said at last. He knelt beside Kastor, who watched him out of the corner of his red-rimmed eyes. “I shouldn’t have yelled—you were doing your duty. Tell me, what has been done for our father? Have the physicians been to see him yet?”

Kastor continued to watch Damen for another long moment before the tension drained out of his shoulders. He nodded, turning fully to face his brother now. He looked like he had not slept at all the night before, causing another pang of guilt to creep through Damen’s chest.

At least he had Jokaste here to keep him company.

“The physicians came and went. They cannot name the illness that brings our father low. They prescribed only rest,” Kastor said.

“They suggest we try sweating the fever out,” Jokaste added. She stepped forward and set a soft hand on Kastor’s shoulder. He lifted one of his own hands to curl his fingers around hers.

Damen frowned. Surely there had to be something more that could be done than bedrest and sweating. He thought, suddenly, of Paschal hovering beside Laurent last night. He’d insisted that Damen call him should Theomedes’ illness continue. Last night, when Damen agreed to do just that, he’d done so out of a sense of politeness, not because he’d actually intended to invite a Veretian doctor into his father’s chambers.

Now, the request lingered in his mind. It hadn’t seemed odd before, but now…now it felt like the doctor knew there would be a need to seek him out.

“When was the physician here last?”

Kastor turned back to their father, gazing down at the pale face. “This morning. At first light.”

Hours ago, then.

“It may be time to call them back,” Damen said softly.

Jokaste shifted beside him, the fabric of her long dress brushing up against Damen’s arm. His eyes rose to her face, expecting to see a look of soft sorrow there. Instead, Jokaste looked very pointedly at him, her expression flat and devoid of any emotion, before her eyes shifted down to Theomedes, and then back to Damen. She did this twice, each time just as mysterious as the last though, clearly, she was trying to communicate something.

Quick as a flash, a spark of frustration crossed her face, and then was gone.

“Yes,” she said, “it may be. Perhaps they can prescribe more than rest this time. A tonic, at least, to ease the breathing.”

That sounded reasonable, though it was unlikely she’d given him such a pointed look behind Kastor’s back simply because she thought Theomedes should have been given tonics.

“I’d like to ask the Veretian physician to assist as well,” Damen said without preamble. The idea grated against his better judgment—a Veretian physician tending to the ill ruler of a country not his own was risky—but something about Paschal’s tone from the night before would not leave his mind.

Kastor turned with a look of outrage. “You want to invite a foreigner with no allegiance to our country in to tend to the king of Akielos? Are you mad?”

Damen raised a hand in placation, dipping his head to acknowledge the truth of his brother’s words. “It was something he said to me last night,” he admitted. “He asked me to call for him should father’s illness progress.”

“As if he knew it would,” Kastor said very slowly.

Behind him, Jokaste continued to gaze at Damen with the same powerful though expressionless look.

“Possibly. That was not what I thought initially,” Damen admitted. Maybe he should have.

“If they know something—” Kastor continued, voice rising in anger, but Jokaste cut him off.

“It would strengthen our alliance,” she said, very softly, voice full of sweet concern as she locked eyes with Kastor. “A show of faith for the prince and his uncle to take back to their king.”

Kastor blinked at her for a long moment before nodding with careful movements. “A show of faith. Yes. The uncle would appreciate that.”

“He is not the one we need to keep faith with,” Damen said before he could stop himself.

Kastor narrowed his eyes, focusing once more on Damen instead of Jokaste. “Just because you want to fuck the prince doesn’t mean he’s the one we need to concern ourselves with.”

For a moment Damen couldn’t form a response. It wasn’t Kastor’s words—he’d made cruder observations in the past about Damen’s interests—no, it was the venomous tone in which he said them.

“My desires have nothing to do—”

“Your desires have everything to do with—”

“King Auguste would not have sent his uncle to us as a diplomat of peace if he did not value Caricallus’ opinions,” Jokaste cut in easily, derailing the argument before it could truly begin. “Asking the Veretian physician to give aid to our king sows faith with the prince and his uncle both. After all, they both serve their king.”

Kastor held Damen’s gaze for a moment longer before letting his eyes drop to the bed once more. He nodded, shoulders sagging. Damen waisted no time rising and returning to the double doors in three long strides. The guards turned to look back at him as he pulled the doors open.

“Fetch the physicians—including the Veretian physician,” he commanded. The guards gave a sharp salute, calling for a servant to carry out the orders before the doors had even closed once more.

They waited for a handful of tense moments, listening to the rattling breath and wet coughs issuing past Theomedes’ bloodless lips. When the physicians came, they shuffled into the room in a line of two, with Paschal bringing up the rear. Damen didn’t know the name of the Akielon physician. Paschel did not look surprised to be asked to come to the king’s chambers, his gaze seeking out first Damen and then Theomedes on the bed.

“Has the king’s condition worsened,” the Akielons physician asked, bowing before Damen and Kastor both.

Damen looked to Kastor, aware that he did not have the full information needed to answer that question best.

Kastor shook his head. “No, his condition remains the same.”

“We’d like you—both of you—to review our father’s condition. He breaths with difficulty—are there no tonics to soothe him?” Damen added.

Paschal stepped forward slowly, his eyes roving up and down Theomedes’ face like it was a map he could read. The Akielon physician made a dithering, uncertain sound, eyes darting to Kastor, but Paschal stepped past both princes to lean over the bed beside Theomedes’ head. He lifted a wrist, his weathered fingers pressed against the point of Theomedes’ pulse.

“What are you—” The Akielon physician began hotly, but Damen help up a hand for silence.

Paschal leaned forward, tipping his head to the side to rest one ear against Theomedes’ chest. He staid like that for the duration of three, long, rattling breaths before straitening up, reaching out for the king’s face, and pulling back his lips and opened his jaw.

“How dare you handle the king so indelicately!” the Akielon physician gasped. He rushed forward to pull Paschal away but stopped at Jocasta gasped.

Damen moved closer, leaning forward to better see what she was seeing.

Theomedes’ tongue was a light blue color. Paschal gave a grim humming sound deep in his throat before carefully removing his hands. He sat back and looked up at Damen and Kastor, his lips pressed tightly together.

“Well?” Kastor demanded. “What is that? Why is his tongue discolored?”

“It is the results of a poison,” Paschal said gravely, his gaze sliding away from Kastor to rest instead on Damen. “I have seen these effects before. They do not appear right away.”

“Poison?” Damen repeated. His mouth felt numb, like he was speaking through a split lip after a bad fight. Poison. Someone had poisoned his father.

“How do we combat it?” Jokaste asked at once. “What is the antidote?”

“Who would dare poison the king?” Kastor demanded. Before Damen could stop him, he reached out and pulled Paschal to his feet by the lapels of his coat. “How are you able to recognize the signs, when our own physicians could not?”

“The poison is made from a flower native to Ver,” Paschal said, still in the same grave tone. “I recognize its effects because I have seen it before. I have treated it before.”

“A Veretian poison?” Damen repeated. His head was swimming. This wasn’t a coincidence, only a fool would ignore the signs right in front of him. The Venetians have been in Ios a grand total of three days, and Theomedes began to show signs of illness on their second day. One of the Venetians had been poisoning him from the moment they stepped foot off the boat.

“Caracallus,” he growled, feeling a rage like nothing he’d ever known before swell up within him.

“What?” Kastor demanded. He had not released Paschal yet, seemed like he would not, in fact.

“Caracallus did this,” Damen said. He took three deep breaths to stop himself from charging from the room to find the poisoner and cut him down where he stood. “He’s worked to sow discord from the moment he arrived. He did this.”

Kastor gave an angry scoff once more. He released Paschal, throwing him back to half collapse against the bed. “Of course you would accuse the uncle; the beautiful, spiteful little prick of a prince couldn’t possibly be the one to blame for this.”

“Laurent isn’t the one that sent children to seduce grown men!”

“No, he’s simply the one that’s derailed every attempt at starting the very negotiations he was sent here to conduct while his uncle tried to move them forward!”

“Do you have proof?” Jokaste asked sharply.

Damen felt his teeth clench in frustration. The truth of the matter was no, he didn’t have proof. He had suspicions and the word of a scared child at best to support his claims of treachery. He knew in his bones that he was right, that Caracallus was not to be trusted, but that meant nothing. He couldn’t enact punishment on Caracallus on suspicions alone and expect Auguste to keep the peace.

“No,” Jokaste continued, answering her own question. “Neither of you do. If we are to punish those that dare harm our king, we need proof.”

She turned to Paschal, businesslike and cold. “You have seen this poison before and treated it, now speak plainly; can you save the king?”

Paschal nodded. “I believe so. I will need specific ingredients to create an antitoxin, but I do not think the poison has affected the king’s lungs too deeply yet.”

“Then you will tell the palace physician what ingredients you need in order to create your cure,” Damen said at once. Paschal nodded.

“And we will arrest the prince and his uncle,” Kastor said just as quickly and just as firmly. “Until we know for sure which of them is guilty, neither will leave their rooms.”

Laurent stood outside the door to his rooms. He took one deep breath, acutely aware of Jord and Orlant on either side, before opening the door. They moved to follow him inside, but Laurent closed the door on them both. No need for an audience now.

Inside, everything was in order. The table was cleaned, the broken wine pitcher was gone, replaced with a new, whole pitcher sitting right where the last one had been. The floor had not a drop of blood on it.

If not for the fact that he’d been in the fight that took place here last night, Laurent would not have believed such violence occurred in these rooms only hours ago. It was fitting, in a way; none of the things his uncle did left marks. At least, not on the outside.

And the attack last night was orchestrated at least in part by Uncle. The dead prisoner in the dungeons assured Laurent of that. The sloppiness with which the attack last night was conducted had made him doubt, but no longer. His uncle and another in this palace had tried to kill him. The plot against Auguste reached as far as Ios.

Now wasn’t the time to dwell on that, though. He needed to change out of the borrowed shirt and dirty pants he’d slept in. It was a mark of how unsettled the whole evening and subsequent morning had actually left him that Laurent even allowed himself to walk down to the dungeons in Damianos’ bed shirt.

A sound came from the adjoining room and Laurent froze.

Erasmus stepped out of the bedchamber, caught sight of Laurent, and then dropped to his knees in a deep bow. Some of the tightness in Laurent’s chest eased, but only slightly.

“Why are you in here?” he asked.

Erasmus flinched. “I’m sorry, I should not have entered your rooms without your permission. I wished only to make sure everything was…was tidy.”

A small flash of guilt gripped Laurent. Erasmus came back to the rooms where he was almost assaulted and killed, by himself, to try to make sure that nothing was left in the rooms to upset Laurent. As if returning to these rooms wasn’t going to be a traumatic experience for Erasmus himself. Laurent had lived through such dangers before, but even still, there was a reason two guards stood outside the door now.

“I’m not mad,” he said. He could hear how tired he sounded even to his own ears. “I meant, you should have waited until there were guards in the event more armed intrudes meant to pay us a visit.”

Erasmus half rose before dropping his head back down. His shoulders began to shake. Laurent shifted back on his heels, considered pretending like he didn’t see the overflow of emotion about the burst out of the hunched body on the floor, and then sighed deeply. He couldn’t ignore Erasmus even if the last thing he wanted at this moment was to have to speak about the other night’s incident.

“You do not have to kneel,” he said. He tried to keep his voice soft and kind. If he felt worn after what happened, Erasmus must feel battered. Erasmus was not accustomed to such abuse.

“I’m sorry,” Erasmus sobbed to the stones. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Laurent tipped his head to the side, felt a stab of pain drift behind his swollen eye, and went still for a moment to ride out the pain.

“What are you sorry for?” he asked once he was sure he would be able to speak without the hurt creeping into his inflection.

“I opened the door. I let those men in,” Erasmus continued to sob. “I let them in and they hurt you.”

“They hurt you too.”

At this, Erasmus finally lifted his head. He stared up at Laurent with wide, wet eyes.

“And Nicaise,” he added. “If I’m to believe what I have been told, you are half the reason we survived the night.”

Erasmus blinked, tears clinging to his long lashes. “I do not matter,” he said. “As long as you are unharmed.”

Anger made Laurent’s fingers twitch. He crossed the room to kneel down beside Erasmus. How could someone who seemed to genuinely care about others the way Damianos did allow a system to exist that made Erasmus feel his life was meaningless?

“I disagree,” Laurent said. He worked very hard to keep the anger out of his voice, but some of it still slipped through. He was too tired, his head hurt too much, to really care. Erasmus wouldn’t think less of him for displaying emotion.

“You shouldn’t be harmed, and you were. Because you were with me,” Laurent said. Erasmus continued to gaze up at him as he spoke. “I know it was hard for you to do what you did, and I thank you. You saved my life.”

For a moment Erasmus did nothing, just stared at Laurent like he was looking at something incomprehensible, and then he moved forward, his arms half rising, Laurent went stiff before he could stop himself, intensely aware of what Erasmus was about to do.

But Erasmus’s eyes went wide. He pulled his arms back and instead transformed the movement, using it instead to rise to his feet. He offered Laurent a hand to rise as well, his head bowed respectfully. Laurent took the offered hand without comment.

“Would you like assistance dressing, Prince Laurent?” Erasmus asked. He smiled, and it was watery and small, but kind. Sincere.
Laurent nodded.

With Erasmus’ help, he removed the overlarge shirt and the dirty pants before redressing in fresh clothing. Erasmus took longer to lase up the many ties along Laurent’s arm than a servant in Vere would have, but that was fine. They worked in companionable silence. After completing the ties for the first arm, Erasmus moved on to the second. Only then did he break the stillness of the room.

“Nicaise reached his lessons safely,” he said as he finished the last tie.

Laurent gave a hum of understanding, unwilling to nod and risk aggravating the pain in his head once more. He twisted his wrist left, then right, adjusting to the tight synch of the overcoat’s cuffs now they were properly done up.

Erasmus fell into step with him as he left the bedchamber to return to the main rooms.

“Should I return Prince Damianos’ shirt to his rooms?” Erasmus asked. He said it in a small voice. It wasn’t teasing or presumptuous at all, but something about the question had Laurent’s cheeks heating.

“Yes. I have no need for it,” he said. He wanted to inspect the wine jug. It looked to be full of water now. It was unlikely that someone would try to poison it twice, but given the added variable of a second conspirator in the palace, anything was possible.

“Your safety was very important to Prince Damianos,” Erasmus added, still in that same small, cautious voice. “He would not let even your uncle tend to you without being present.”

That’s one good thing at least, Laurent thought. He knew what Erasmus was doing, understood that he’d think Laurent would be happy to hear that his unrequited love had been so gallant in Laurent’s time of need, but he just didn’t have the energy to care. He felt drained, and sore, still slightly nauseous from the blow to the head, and more interested in crawling into bed than anything else.

“Who summoned Prince Damianos?” Laurent asked, struck by a sudden curiosity. “How did he know we were being attacked?”

Erasmus bowed his head, smiling with soft pride. “Lykaios heard that we were in danger and she brought him to save us.”

“Lykaios,” Laurent repeated. He remembered the name from Marlas. She was the one to bring them aid than as well, when the intruders attempted to murder two princes under one tent roof.

Laurent felt his lips turn down in a small frown. Was Lykaios’ timing fortunate or formulaic?

Erasmus gave a little gasp behind him, causing Laurent to turn. He was looking at the legs of the table, his face scrunched up in concern.

Laurent arched a brow in interest. “What is it?”

Erasmus hesitated. He looked up, then back down, clutching Damianos’ overlarge shirt to his chest.

“I—I’m sure it was a mistake,” he said quickly.

A second brow rose to join the first. “What was a mistake?”

“They…they forgot to clean under the table, my lord.”

Laurent stepped around Erasmus to kneel and peer under the table. At first, he didn’t know what had caused Erasmus such distress but, seeing his confusion, Erasmus knelt down as well. He reached out the lifted a small vial from where it rested against the wide leg of the table. He held it close in his hands, like he didn’t want to give it to Laurent, guilt almost bringing tears to his eyes again, before finally, Erasmus held out the vial.

At once Laurent understood where Erasmus’ misgivings stemmed from. Erasmus thought this was the vial used to drug him last night. Laurent brought the glass to his nose and sniffed cautiously. It smelt sweet, cloying, and vaguely of flowers.

Laurent was willing to bet quite a bit that the vial once held poison, but it was not the poison used to incapacitate him last night.

Which meant someone deliberately put it in his room sometime between then and now.

“Erasmus, when did you return to these rooms?”

“Not long—”

A knock at the door interrupted whatever else Erasmus was going to say. Without waiting for permission, the door opened. Damianos and Kastor entered the room, Kastor stomping like he wanted to hurt the stones beneath his feet. Damianos looked grim. Behind them both, Jord and Orlant entered the room. Neither was pleased as five more Akielon soldiers followed them in.

Erasmus seemed to shrink in on himself with some many armed men in the room. Laurent reached one hand up to the table to steady himself as he rose to his feet. He used the cover of Erasmus kneeling before him to slip the vial into the tight sleeve of his overcoat.

“Do I need so many guards?” he asked, eyes on Kastor. He made no effort at all to keep the withering tone out of his voice now. He liked Kastor far less than he liked Erasmus.

“You are under arrest for the poisoning of King Theomedes,” Kastor announced with volume.

Laurent went still. The glass vial in his sleeve suddenly made much more sense.

“You have proof that I have done this?” he asked as Jord and Orlant gave cries of outrage. They both attempted to shove their way to his side, but Laurent held a hand up for them both to still.

There were too many Akielon guards; if Jord or Orlant gave them a reason, everyone Veretian in this room would die.

“You aren’t under arrest,” Damianos corrected. He glanced at his scowling brother briefly before looking back at Laurent. “You are, however, confined to your rooms until further notice. The poison that was used against my father was of Veretian origins.”

“How very convenient, as you have a delegation of Veretians on whom you can assign blame,” Laurent said coolly.

Erasmus gasped.

Kastor stepped in close. He was taller than Laurent—not quite as tall as Damianos, but enough that Laurent had to tip his head back to look him in the eyes. There was pure hatred in Kastor’s gaze. It wasn’t unusual for Laurent to be on the receiving end of such an expression, though most of the time he felt like he understood where the visceral anger came from. He couldn’t say the same when it came to Kastor. Thin skinned as he may be, three days together seemed insufficient to cause such anger.

“You poison my father than then mock the deed to our face?” Kastor asked coldly. His lips curled back into a look of disdain, his eyes flitting down Laurent’s body before coming back to rest on his face.

He dropped his voice low, so low that even Laurent had trouble hearing him. “I knew what little you were good for years ago when I said to give you to Adrastus, you conniving little snake.”

Laurent very deliberately did not react.

Damianos did.

He stepped up beside Laurent and his brother to place a restraining hand on Kastor’s shoulder.

“Stop this,” he said, and he actually sounded angry. “We don’t know he did anything wrong.” His attention turned form Kastor to Laurent as Damianos added, “That’s part of why you are being confined to the rooms. It is as much for your protection as it is for our father’s.”

“I feel so much safer already, confined to the room I was almost murdered in not a day ago,” Laurent said.

Something like sorrow filled Damianos’ face. He pressed Kastor back another step while turning to face Laurent.

“I understand this is not ideal, but I will not let what happened last night happen again.” He reached out, his large fingers trailing from Laurent’s elbow down to his hands.

Laurent pulled his hand away, but not quickly enough. Damianos’ fingers brushed against the hard glass of the vial hidden up his sleeve.

Laurent took a step back. He could explain things, but not if the vial was discovered here, like this. It was exactly the trap he’d been meant to fall into.

“What was that?” Damianos asked. He voice was soft, but not like he had been a moment before. It was soft now like the quiet before a storm.

“Don’t presume you have the right to touch me. You said what you needed to say,” Laurent said as coldly as he possibly could. “Now go.”

Kastor reached out, his fingers digging hard into Laurent’s upper arm. Jord and Orlant gave twin cries of outrage from the doorway, as Kastor dragged Laurent closer to him.

Damianos once again intercepted, physically stepping between Laurent and his brother now, prying Kastor’s fingers off Laurent’s sleeve.

But it was too late. The vial slid free of the overcoats’ cuff to bounce off Damianos’ sandaled feet. The whole room went still as he bent down to retrieve the glass. He brought it to his nose to sniff in the same experimental way Laurent himself had.

The whole time, Damianos did not let go of Laurent’s wrist.

He looked up from the vile, eyes locking on Laurent. The grip around his wrist tightened.

“What is this?” he asked in that same level tone.

“It’s the vial used to poison your father,” Laurent said at last.

Chapter Text

Erasmus wiped the tears from his cheeks and tried very hard to remind himself that he should be grateful. He’d gotten lucky and only three sutures were needed to close the wound on his side. He’d be fine, so long as he kept the wound clean and free of infection.

He was fine. His injury was nowhere near as terrible as what had been done to Ganymede.

It was an accident. Prince Kastor hadn’t meant to strike him.

He’d meant the blow to kill Prince Laurent, not to maim a mere palace slave.

Prince Damianos himself was the one that brought Erasmus to the physician once he quelled the confrontation—the same Veretian physician that assisted with Ganymede’s treatment. The man was very kind to Erasmus, soothing his pain first with a few drops of sweet tasting liquid that made the world blur along the edges before he began to thoroughly clean the wound and gather the stitching needed to create the sutures.

Prince Damianos did not stay to watch the physician tend to Erasmus, but he did say, “Take good care of him, Paschal.”

The prince brushed the sweaty hair back from Erasmus’ forehead and smiled down at him. Erasmus blinked very slowly back up at his prince, head spinning from a combination of pain, fear, and medication.

“You were very brave today. You have been very brave every time bravery has been needed from you,” Prince Damianos said. “Thank you for protecting Laurent. I think it’s my turn to look after him now.”

Erasmus drifted into a deep stupor with those words in his head, eased by the thought of Prince Damianos sweeping Prince Laurent up into his strong arms and taking him far away from those who seemed to want nothing more than to hurt the Veretian prince. But the soft calm of his drugged stupor lifted quickly enough.

Lykaios rushed into the room—he wasn’t sure if it was hours or days later—and gave a horrified gasp when she saw the stitches running along Erasmus’ hips. She rushed to the bed and gathered him up into her arms, stroking his hair as she cooed soothing nothings.

“I’m so sorry, my dear, sweet, kind boy,” she cried, curled around him. “I’m so sorry he hurt you.”

“Prince Kastor didn’t mean to hurt me,” Erasmus said. Words were hard to form. His tongue felt thick and heavy. “It was an accident.”

Lykaios pulled back just enough for Erasmus to tip his head up where it rested against her arm to see her face. Surprise made her bright, tear-filled eyes seem even brighter.

“I was talking about Prince Laurent. I’m sorry he hurt you,” she said with a little sob.

Erasmus shook his head. It felt slow and unsteady.

“Prince Laurent didn’t hurt me.” That fact, more than anything else, he was sure about.

Lykaios’s brows scrunched towards her nose. She looked towards the door, where there was no one, towards the desk beside the bed where the physician had left bottles of creams and strong smelling paste. They were alone in the room.

“I heard about what he did,” she said very softly. It took Erasmus two times repeating her words in his head to feel like he understood what they were, but even then, he didn’t understand what she meant.

“What who did?”

She looked pained. Lykaios bit her bottom lip. Her eyes darted to the door once more before she curled over him even tighter, so her mouth was so close to his ear he could hear each inhale and exhale she gave.

“I know that Prince Laurent poisoned King Theomedes. I only pray he didn’t try to get you to help him,” she said in a rush.

Erasmus did nothing for a long moment. He knew he’d been sleeping for at least a few hours—the light coming in through the window was different now then he’d first been brought into the room. Plenty of time had passed for Prince Damianos to ask Prince Laurent what happened. Plenty of time for Prince Laurent to explain how Erasmus found the vial in the room, how it wasn’t Prince Laurent’s at all and therefore he couldn’t possibly be the one who poisoned King Theomedes.

When Erasmus said as much, Lykaios pulled back to stare at him once more. Her eyes were very wide, and her face was draining of color.

“What?” she asked.

“Prince Laurent didn’t poison the king. Prince Laurent loves Prince Damianos, he would never do something to hurt the royal family,” Erasmus said. His tongue still felt fat in his mouth, but at least it was moving now.

This news did not seem to ease Lykaois’s distress at all. If anything, it worsened it. She gathered Erasmus to her chest and started rocking back and forth on the sickbed, her eyes squeezed shut and her face pressed into the side of Erasmus’ neck.

“Don’t say anything about this to anyone,” she said. “Please, please, please, don’t say anything to anyone.”

“But, Prince Laurent is innocent,” Erasmus said. He lifted an arm that felt like stone to cling to Lykaios, trying to offer what little comfort he could. “It is my duty to tell the truth.”

Lykaios shook her head. “Erasmus, you are mixed up in something so much larger than either of us,” she said. “They are going to execute Prince Laurent for attempted murder. If he didn’t poison the king, someone else did and they are powerful enough to frame a prince. If a prince is powerless, how am I to protect you?”

Erasmus felt his stomach turn over. He had just enough time to twist out of Lykaois’s grip before he began to vomit over the side of the bed. Hot tears poured from his eyes, but he couldn’t make them stop. He loved Prince Laurent. Prince Laurent was a good man who had done nothing wrong, He tried to help Erasmus, he said Erasmus’ life was important too.

He didn’t deserve to die for a crime he hadn’t committed.

“I’m so sorry,” Lykaios said. She rubbed at his back until Erasmus stopped vomiting.

“I thought the physician had already seen to you?”

Erasmus went stiff. Beside him, Lykaios froze for the length of a full heartbeat before she slid off the bed, stepped around the puddle of sick on the floor, and then sank down to her hands and knees in a deep bow.

Kastor stood in the doorway. He looked far calmer now than he had when last Erasmus had seen him, but that did nothing to stop the near-paralyzing fear that turned Erasmus’s whole body to stone. Beside Kastor stood Lord Caracallus.

Erasmus couldn’t stop the tears that began to fall silently once more. He struggled to pull himself out of bed, too terrified to make eye contact with Lykaios when she made a subtle jester towards him.

He could feel the stitches pulling painfully against his skin as Erasmus dropped with an uncoordinated plop onto the ground. He pressed his face to the stones and wished fervently that Lykaios wasn’t here, that she was far, far away from Prince Kastor and Lord Caracallus.

“You need not bow,” Lord Caracallus said after Erasmus was already on the ground. “That must be quite uncomfortable for you right now.”

“This-this one is honored to humble himself before you,” Erasmus said, speaking more formally and with more deference than he ever had with Prince Laurent. The very first time he called himself this one Prince Laurent’s whole face had pinched up and he’d insisted Erasmus use his own name when they spoke.

Prince Kastor gave a snort of what Erasmus hoped was amusement. Lord Caracallus extended one booted foot. He slid the tow of his shoe under Erasmus’s chin and pressed upward, forcing Erasmus to look up. It was hard to see through the terrified tears.

Lord Caracallus looked soft and amused. “Are you this afraid of your prince, or are you simply in that great an amount of pain?”

It is not just my prince that I fear, Erasmus thought with blinding terror. This was the man that maimed Ganymede. This was the man that made little Nicaise quake with fear and left him covered in bruises. Lord Caracallus was a bad man. It was only now, seeing them standing there together, that Erasmus let himself begin to admit that Prince Kastor might be a bad man as well.

“Answer him,” Prince Kastor said sharply. He wasn’t looking at Erasmus tough. He was looking with consideration down at Lykaios.

“This one feels no pain,” Erasmus lied, unwilling to say anything that might upset Prince Kastor, even unintentionally.

Lord Caracallus smiled. It made his eyes look like the eyes of a viper.

“It must be shock then,” he said. He removed his foot from under Erasmus’s chin, looking down with enough interest to make Erasmus want to hide under the sickbed. “Hearing that the prince you served is a poisoning traitor cannot be easy.”

Erasmus could feel his whole body begin to shake. If they asked him directly, if they demanded to know if Erasmus thought Prince Laurent was innocent, what was he supposed to say? What answer could he give that would keep Prince Laurent and Lykaios safe?

“Was there any hint of his treachery?” Prince Kastor asked, finally tearing his eyes away from Lykaios. “Did you hear any whisper of his intentions? Anything at all that may help us prove his guilt?”

It was worded as a question, but the way Prince Kastor was looking at him made it clear that the only answer Erasmus was permitted to give had to be yes. They wanted him to lie.
Erasmus turned his face back down to the floor, hoping to by himself enough time to think, or for the physician to come back and save him from this moment. Instead, ringed fingers sunk into his hair and pulled his head back up. Lord Caracallus was kneeling before him now, looking soft and sad and very much like he didn’t want to have to pull so hard on Erasmus’s hair even though he was.

“It’s very important that you answer the question,” he said.

Erasmus sucked in great shuttering gasps, trying desperately to calm himself enough to even form words. Prince Kastor had his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. He could pull it free at any time and cut Erasmus in two. He could stab Lykaios. He could do anything he wanted, and Erasmus wouldn’t be able to stop him.

“Oh dear, did he fall out of bed?”

Prince Kastor and Lord Caracallus turned towards the doorway. Lady Jokaste didn’t pause for either of them to answer before she stepped fully into the room. She moved to the side so that the physician and Prince Damianos could enter behind her.

Prince Damianos’s expression darkened when he took in the room, but even before his eyes found their way to Lord Caracallus’s hand in Erasmus’s hair, the grip had loosened and turned gentle.

“He did fall, yes,” Lord Caracallus said with such a soft voice it made Erasmus’ skin crawl. “The poor thing thought he still needed to bow to us, despite his injuries. You have your slaves so well trained here,” he added to Prince Damianos as an afterthought.

Prince Damianos made a sound deep in his throat that may have been agreement, but Erasmus didn’t know. His head was spinning, there were more important people shoved into a small room with him than he’d ever had to serve before. He hadn’t the first clue what he was expected to do, he could only follow Lykaios’ lead and remain kneeling.

Prince Damianos lifted him up from the ground and deposited him once more on the sickbed with great care.

“Sweet Lykaios, did you come to check on him?” Prince Damianos asked.

Lykaios nodded, still without lifting her head from the floor.

“Thank you for keeping him company for me,” Prince Damianos said.

He turned to face Prince Kastor and ignored Lord Caracallus as if he were not there. “Father is awake. He would speak with us now.”

Prince Kastor looked over Prince Damianos’s shoulder to glance at Erasmus’ trembling form. “I want to know how much this slave knew of the prince’s plan,” Prince Kastor said. “If he was aware of the treachery and did nothing—”

“What could such a simple creature possibly know?” Lady Jokaste asked. Her bright eyes—so similar to Prince Laurent’s—landed on Erasmus. Her gaze was heavy, full of some kind of warning he couldn’t understand.

“He’s hardly more aware of the world around him than the little boy you keep by your side,” Lady Jokaste continued, speaking to Lord Caracallus now. His brows rose in consideration of her words.

She continued. “A slave is hardly a trustworthy source of information. If your nephew was devious enough to hide his misdeed from someone as accomplished as you, this poor boy had no hope of uncovering his plot.”

Prince Kastor seemed to consider the Lady’s words for a moment. He glanced back at Erasmus, his eyes narrowed to suspicious little slits, before he shrugged and turned away, apparently satisfied. Lord Caracallus, on the other hand, did not seem as convinced.

“Come,” Prince Damianos insisted, gesturing for all the room to exit save the physician and the two slaves. “Kastor, we must speak with father. Lord Caracallus, I have to insist again that you return to your rooms and stay there until we know the danger has passed. I will post guards outside your doors to ensure no one comes in or out without my knowledge.”

“Perhaps I can accompany you while Prince Kastor and Prince Damianos speak with the king?” Lady Jokaste asked, sounding hesitant. “I hate the thought of being alone just now, after all that has happened.”

Lord Caracallus glanced at Prince Kastor before offering Lady Jokaste a soft smile.

“I would be honored, Lady Jokaste.”

She linked her arm through his with a grateful sigh. Together they left the room. The princes followed after them, leaving Erasmus and Lykaios alone with the physician once more.
“You ripped open your stitches,” the physician said.

“I’m sorry.” Erasmus pressed his face into the sickbed’s blankets and closed his eyes.

He was beginning to understand where Lykaios’s fear came from now. Had Prince Damianos not arrived, he knew deep in his bones, that neither he nor Lykaios would have fared half as well at the end of the encounter with Lord Caracallus as Ganymede had.

But even still, he had to do something to defend Prince Laurent. He could not let the prince suffer for a crime he had not committed.

Erasmus wanted to save Prince Laurent. He just didn’t know how.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The change in Father that a few hours without the poison tearing through his systems was shocking. His color was still low, his face sallow and gaunt from the sickness, but his eyes were bright, he was sitting straight up in bed, and his focus was clear.

“Laurent will remain in his prison cell until I say otherwise,” father repeated for the second time.

Damen tried to contain the force of his frustration. He understood why Father thought that this was the best course of action, truly, he did. But Father was wrong. Incriminating vial or no, Laurent was not the one who poisoned the king of Akielos.

Caracallus was almost undoubtedly the one to carry out the deed. Or, if he hadn’t placed the poison in Father’s food himself, he’d had someone else do it for him.

Little Nicaise flashed through Damen’s mind. Would the boy have been able to evade suspicion long enough to poison the king if Caracallus told him he had to? Or Govart, the lumbering beast of a guard. He wouldn’t have been able to commit the deed using any form of stealth, but intimidation of others could sometime create opportunity where none existed before.

Once again, he was convinced of Caracallus’s guilt, but lacked the evidence to prove it. The very evidence he needed had instead turned up in Laurent’s hands. Perhaps, if he had not known Laurent from so long ago, had not grown to understand, at least in part, his character through correspondence with Auguste, Damen would have been taken in by the appearance of guilt as well.

But he did know Laurent. He’d made an oath years ago to protect him, and Damen was not going to break his oath now that there was actually someone and something to protect him from.

“I do not believe that Prince Laurent is actually the culprit we’re looking for,” Damen said for the second time. “If you confine him to the cells, we should confine the rest of the Veretian envoy to their rooms as well. The true enemy may still be free. If he, is both you and Laurent will be targeted.”

“Once again, you’re thinking with what’s between your legs rather than what’s between your ears,” Kastor said with a derisive snort. “You only think the prince is innocent because you haven’t had a chance to fuck him yet. Go down to the cell and take care of your itch, then you’ll see his guilt more clearly.”

Damen turned to his brother. He expected to see some sort of levity in Kastor’s face, some indication that what he’d just suggested was a joke. A terrible, terrible joke, but still not something meant to be acted ony. Instead, he was no hint of mirth in Kastor’s eyes. He saw only conviction.

“You want me to go down to the dungeon, force myself on the prince of Vere, and then assign him guilt?” Damen repeated slowly. He could feel the heat of anger turning his face flush.

Kastor’s eyes narrowed. He puffed out his chest and sneered. “I said it at Marlas, and I’ll say it again; we should have handed that snake over to Adrastus while he was still young enough to train.”

“What is wrong with you?” Damen demanded in outrage. He felt sick to his stomach suddenly. He’d sent Nikandros to guard Laurent’s cell until he could speak to his father because he’d been afraid Caracallus would send Govart to do Laurent harm. He hadn’t thought he’d need Nikandros to guard Laurent against his own brother.

“What’s wrong with you? He poisoned our father, the king of Akielos! We should have gutted him on the spot!”

“Silence!”

Even sickness was not enough to take away the power of Theomedes’s below. Kastor flinched and looked at the ground. He’d been unable to look their father in the face the entire time this conversation had been going on. Damen turned back to Theomedes, still hot in the face and angry. Angry at Kastor for his cruelty. Angry at himself for failing to keep Laurent from this danger. Angry at Caracallus for putting the people Damen cared about into jeopardy.

“Laurent will stay in his cell—alone, without visits from you or anyone else—until I am ready to have him stand before me and defend himself at trial,” Theomedes continued.
Damen took a stunned step back. “You’re going to try him?”

The possibility of Laurent getting a fair trial was laughable. He was a foreign prince, accused of poisoning a beloved king, with no one aside from a terrified child and an injured slave who might even be able to speak on his behalf.

“Yes. In four days he’ll answer for the charges laid at his feet. If he can prove his innocence, then the matter will drop,” Theomedes said with a stiff incline of his head.

“And when he’s found guilty?” Kastor asked.

“Then he will face the same executioner’s ax as any other traitor to the crown.”
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The cell was dark but not pitch black like it could have been, so that was something to be pleased with, he supposed. It was hard to see anything outside of the ring of firelight blazing from the torch across the wall. Three days in near darkness, three days with no word on whether or not King Theomedes was alive, no word on what happened to Jord and Orlant, no word on whether Erasmus was alright.

Three days. It felt like a lifetime to Laurent.

The chaos that erupted after the vial was discovered was something he’d not forget anytime soon. One moment, Damianos was looking at Laurent with confusion coloring his eyes—confusion but not anger—and the next Kastor had barreled into his brother with enough force to knock Damianos aside. His thick hands found their way around Laurent’s neck as their bodies crashed together.

Someone screamed—probably Erasmus—and a chorus of enraged shouts filled the room, but none of that mattered as much as Kastor, sitting on his chest, using every bit of his larger bulk to keep Laurent pinned while his fingers squeezed and squeezed. Laurent’s head pounded, his ears rang with roaring fire as the life within him fought to remain. He didn’t remember reaching out for one of the chair legs or yanking it sideways to crash into Kastor, but the crack of wood against bone was enough to break his hold long enough for Laurent to drive his fist straight up into Kastor’s face.

The crunch of bone breaking followed immediately by blood leaking from Kastor’s broken nose filled the space between them, even as the chaos in the room grew louder. Kastor cursed, pressing one hand to his bleeding noes while the other went for his belt and the knife strapped to his side.

Jord’s fingers dug into cloth and skin alike as he threw Kastor clear of Laurent. At once, Erasmus was there, trying to help Laurent stand, ignoring the hand Laurent was using to try to push him back. Kastor was going to attack again and he’d go straight through Erasmus if he was in the way.

Behind Jord, Orlant was swinging wildly at the Akielon guards, carving out a small semicircle of space to maneuver, with the guards on one side, Laurent and the Akielon royal family on the other.

“Stop!” Laurent commanded as Kastor drew not his dagger, but his sword.

There wasn’t enough room to maneuver, someone was going to get killed and that someone was going to be Jord or Orlant long before it was Laurent.

His command was ignored. Kastor charged at Jord. The force of the blow pushed Jord back a step, bringing him closer to Laurent, only for Erasmus to whimper and pull Laurent back. He couldn’t fight with Erasmus clinging to him, and he couldn’t let Jord hurt Kastor or he was dead no matter what happened here.

Laurent’s eyes fell on Damianos, busy trying to quell the battle beginning by the door as Orlant struck another Akielon soldier who dared to come too close.

“Damianos, I’ll tell you everything I know but I can’t do that if we’re dead!” Laurent snarled because anger was better than fear.

Damianos turned at the sound of his name just in time to see Kastor kick Jord hard in the center of his chest, sending the guard back into the table. Without pausing, Kastor swung out at Laurent. Erasmus pulled back again, gasping in terror, but he’d miscalculated where Kastor was swinging, pulling himself and Laurent further into the sweep of the sword, not out of it. Laurent twisted hard at the hip, angling sideways as fast as he could but it wasn’t fast enough.

Erasmus screamed as the edge of Kastor’s sword cut across his hip.

“Kastor, stop!” Damianos bellowed, but Kastor ignored him.

Laurent shoved Erasmus away with all his might, sending him crashing into Jord as Kastor swung again. Laurent waited until the sword struck tiled floor before grabbing the back of the chair he’d struck Kastor with before. He swung it hard, hitting Kastor across the back with enough force for the chair itself to break, but Kastor did nothing more than grunt at the impact.

He drew his arm back again, preparing for another powerful blow—

Damianos caught his brother’s arm in a grip that could not be broken. Kastor snarled at him, but Damianos spoke over the angry outburst.

“You are not killing an ambassador of Vere in his rooms without giving him even a chance to explain himself.”

“I’m killing an assassin hiding in our halls,” Kastor snarled.

It didn’t take a strategic master to realize nothing good would come of continuing this confrontation now. By the door, Orlant had already been overpowered by the Akielon guards, his sword ripped away, forced to his knees, hands locked behind his back. Jord was still standing, but it was clear from the bleached paler of his face that the blow against the table had hurt him. And Erasmus…

Erasmus was curled on his side, clutching his bloody hip, crying as quietly as he could.

“Arrest me,” Laurent said. He straightened up, keeping his eyes locked on Damianos, not Kastor. Kastor didn’t matter. “Arrest me and I’ll explain everything.”

Damianos regarded him with a shrewdness that seemed foreign to his normally congenial features.

“Guards, arrest Prince Laurent and his guards,” Damianos said, still without releasing his hold on Kastor’s arm despite the fact that Kastor had stopped trying to pull free.
The guards gave a shard bark of affirmation before rushing forward. Two went to Jord. They pulled the sword from his hands roughly, but Jord didn’t fight them. He kept his focus on Laurent, watching as two more guards gripped him on either arm.

“Prince Laurent is innocent. These accusations are baseless and harming him is grounds for war,” he said, speaking to Damianos directly, bluntly, without even an acknowledgment of his superior rank. It was a mark of his loyalty that he would risk such an overstep.

Damianos chose this moment to release his grip on Kastor.

The guards hesitated though, unsure what to do now that Jord’s warning had been spoken out loud.

“Take Prince Laurent and his men to the cells in the south wing,” Damianos commanded his men, ignoring Jord. “Bring Nikandros to me at once. No one is to come near Prince Laurent or his men without my permission first, no one, is that understood?” he added. He didn’t look at Kastor when he spoke to the guard, but everyone in the room knew who the extra emphasis was for.

“At least get him a damn doctor before he bleeds to death,” Laurent snapped, as Erasmus’s sobs continued to go unnoticed.

Damianos stepped around the guards as they pulled Laurent and his men from the room. The last glimpse he had before they exited was of Damianos crouching down beside Erasmus.

That was three days ago.

In three days, no one had been to visit or to interrogate him. Not the king, not Uncle, not Damianos. He wasn’t sure which absence was more surprising to him. The cells of the south wing were marginally more comfortable than the one they kept the would-be-assassin in before Govart killed him—this one had a small cot with a light blanket and a chamber pot at least.

The silence was truly what bothered Laurent most. It gave him too much time to think himself into circles. He was here under accusation of poisoning the king—what was to stop someone from poisoning the water the brought to him here? Or the food? Aside from the oranges they brought at meals, nothing was safe enough to consume.

They could poison him in retaliation and there was nothing he could do about it. They could poison the whole Veretian envoy. Perhaps little Nicaise was already dead. Perhaps Erasmus was as well, brought down by the sword strike meant to cleave Laurent in two. Was Uncle in a cell further along this hallway, or had he managed to weasel his way out of guilt by association?

Laurent knew before coming to Ios that someone wanted Auguste’s throne. He knew that the attacks on the border between Akielos and Vere were part of the plot to overthrow his brother and he suspected that someone within the court of Ios was working with the faction intent on unseating his brother from the throne.

Uncle was the one trying to steal the throne and kill Auguste, he’d speak in half-truths and cloaked wording to Laurent, faking kindness and concerns but his affections were poisonous. Laurent learned that years ago. Uncle didn’t care if his nephew knew of his wrongdoings because he would never be able to prove it and, without proof, the council would never let Auguste do what needed to be done.

Laurent thought he’d be clever enough to outsmart Uncle and discover who his Akielon co-conspirator was if he could just isolate the main suspect. He thought removing Uncle form Vere would keep Auguste safe. He’d never imagined that Uncle would try to kill the Akielon king.

He’d make the mistake of assuming, on some level, that Uncle wouldn’t risk another war between their two countries just to get the thrown. Laurent knew Uncle hated him, hated Auguste, but he’d thought, deep down, that Uncle cared about Vere.

You can’t rule ash, and if Akielos and Vere go to war again, so soon after the last conflict, there was no guarantee that Vere would be the victor.

But, Uncle didn’t care. Did he even care about the thrown?

Maybe all he cared about was making Laurent suffer.

Footsteps echoed off the stone walls. Laurent sat up on the small cot but made no other effort to ready himself for whoever might be coming towards his cell. It was likely Nikandros with the midday meal.

It was Nikandros, but he was not alone as he normally was. Instead, there was a beautiful woman with golden hair standing behind him. And, beside her, stood Uncle.

So, he wasn’t imprisoned as well.

“It pains me to see you like this, Laurent,” Uncle said. He held a tray weighted down with food—cheeses, bread, sweet smelling fruit spreads, and crisp water—in both his hands.

Nikandros stood before the cell bars, his shoulders stiff, his eyes troubled. He didn’t want Uncle and this Akielon woman here.

“I thought I was barred from receiving visitors,” Laurent drawled. “Has Damianos changed his mind, concerned I may be bored without proper entertainment? Or, are you here to interrogate me?”

The woman tipped her head to the side, her bright curls falling artfully around her face. Nikandros looked like he’d swallowed a whole lemon.

“Prince Kastor felt bad for the way he reacted to your misdeed, actually,” the woman said. “He wanted to give your uncle a chance to speak with you, to try to settle all this unpleasantness.”

She gave a small shudder at the end of her words, her arms rising to wrap around herself like the very idea of conflict unsettled her. Laurent didn’t know the woman’s name, but he’d seen her curled around Kastor multiple times.

“I’m sure I’ll find it in my heart to forgive him someday,” Laurent said. “False accusations of attempted murder are really a minor issue to move past.”

Nikandros lifted a small key from the pouch at his hip. Without a word, he opened the cell door, took the tray of food from Uncle, and then thrust the tray out to Laurent to take.
Laurent looked down at the food. It was far better than what they had sent him for midday meals the last two days he’d been down here, but every single thing on the tray was a prepared food. Normally, a small orange accompanied each of the meals—something self-contained and impossible to poison through its thick rind.

Something he could eat without suffering the same fate as Theomedes.

When he took too long to take the tray, Nikandros dropped it on the cot beside Laurent with a small, aggravated huff. He locked the cell door again, still without speaking to Laurent.

“You should eat,” Uncle said with false kindness. “You’ll need your strength for tomorrow.”

It was meant to quip Laurent’s interest and said specifically to highlight that Uncle knew more than Laurent himself, but Laurent refused to rise to the bait. Whatever tomorrow
would bring, he would rather meet it with ignorance than spend this time begging Uncle for information that might not even be true.

“Trials are such ghastly ordeals,” the woman said with a sorrowful shake of her head.

Uncle’s eyes slid to her, and then back to Laurent, the sad look never leaving his face.

“Perhaps this is too much for you, Lady Jokaste,” Nikandros said at last.

Nikandros was watching her with slight concern, like he’d never seen her before. In the few instances of interacting with her that Laurent could remember, she’d seemed capable enough, so the sight of her shuddering once again at the idea of conflict seemed odd.

Jokaste waved the comment away and stepped closer to the bars of the cage. “I want to look into the eyes of the man that tried to kill my king and the grandfather of my future child,” she said with breathy conviction.

Ah, Laurent thought. That was the connection. She was Kastor’s lover and, now that she was with child, she needed to ingratiate herself to the royal family if she had any chance of their union becoming official. The rank of consort was far below the title of princess she could get through marrying Kastor.

“How did you do it?” she asked. “Did you slip your vile concoction into King Theomedes’ wine? Into his meals? Were you devious enough to add it into the sweet jams he loves so much?”

Her eyes darted down to the fruit spread on the tray beside Laurent’s hip, fear flashing through them quite clearly before she looked back up at him. Laurent kept his expression carefully neutral as Uncle placed a consoling hand on her shoulder. Jokaste looked back at him and smiled softly, gratefully. Like Uncle was a friend she’d had for half a lifetime and not a stranger from a foreign land she’d known little more than a few weeks.

Unless she wasn’t a stranger. Unless she had known him for far longer than the duration of this trip.

There was a co-conspirator here in Ios; was Laurent looking at her right now? Or was she here as the co-conspirator’s envoy?

Jokaste’s sharp blue eyes traveled across Laurent’s face with more focus than he would have expected given her weak words.

“Poison is a coward’s attack,” she said softly. “You do not have to deliver the killing blow yourself. You do not have to take responsibility for your actions; blame can cast a wide net when no one appears to have blood on their hands.”

It took a great deal of effort to maintain the neutral disinterest of his expression. There was more going on here than just a visit from a woman trying to sleep her way into power. Jokaste was watching him with eyes full of purpose, despite the way she let her expression echo fear.

If she was afraid, it wasn’t because of Laurent.

“Only small men with devious minds would choose such a form of assault,” she added after a long moment of silence. “Don’t you agree, Lord Caracallus?”

Uncle made a sad sound deep in his throat as he nodded. “You must forgive my nephew, even if you cannot forgive his misdeeds. He was spoiled by his brother, indulged to such an extent I truly think he doesn’t understand the consequences of his own actions.”

Jokaste gave a sad tut-tut like the idea caused her actual pain. “I will not let such a terrible thing happen to my own child,” she said, pressing a hand against her flat stomach. “I understand the consequences of my actions. I will make sure they understand as well.”

Nikandros reached out to gently guide her away from the bars. “I know Kastor wanted you to pass on his apology, and you have, but I cannot in good cautious allow you to stay here any longer. Not when you’re in such delicate condition.”

Jokaste fluttered her lashes, looking down so that they brushed prettily against her cheeks. Even as Laurent watched, he could see Nikandros softening as he looked at her. Was it just because Jokaste was beautiful, or did the child she claimed to carry have something to do with his softness?

“You gave me your gift, you can leave now,” Laurent said with a dismissive wave of his hand.

Jokaste already revealed more than she might realize. Or, she’d revealed just as much as she’d intended.

A trial tomorrow. His trial.

“You have disappointed me more than you can ever know,” Uncle said after a heavy silence. “You had so much promise, so many chances to do the right thing. Did you realize that Prince Damianos was fond of you?”

“He was devastated by your betrayal,” Jokaste added with a shake of her head. Beside her, Nikandros’ face turned hard once more.

Something uncomfortable squirmed in Laurent’s chest. “I’m sure he found me quite attractive. I hear he has a fondness for our coloring,” he added, locking gazes with Jokaste. “I’m surprised you chose the older brother. Did the younger not find you satisfying?”

“How dare you?” Nikandros gasped while Uncle gave another disappointed shake of his head.

Jokaste smiled, very slightly, her eyes flashing with deep amusement.

And then she allowed herself to gasp as well, one hand raising to press against her lips.

“How could you say something so cruel to me?” she asked. “After what that little slave said, I thought you would be far kinder than this.”

“That little slave.” Erasmus was the only one she could be speaking about. He must have survived.

Uncle’s eyes grew sharp, calculating as he peered through the bars to watch Laurent. “The poor boy will have a nasty scar for the rest of his life because of you. That’s two of the palace slaves you’ve disfigured.”

“Two?” Nikandros asked with quiet horror.

Uncle nodded, still not looking away from Laurent.

“Laurent asked for the poor child I was gifted on our first night—he said he wanted his little slave to have someone there for him on his first night—it’s quite special when a slave has their first night laying with another, is it not?”

“It is, yes,” Jokaste said. Her eyes were on Laurent as well, just as sharp and assessing as Uncle’s.

“Laurent asked for the boy, said it was so his little slave would feel more comfortable, when in reality, he wanted to play out his warped fantasies of power. He burnt the slave so badly I thought the boy might not survive at all.”

“I have heard nothing of this,” Nikandros said. His eyes were narrowed, but the focus was on Uncle, not Laurent.

Laurent scoffed. “So, now I disfigure slaves while plotting to murder kings? That’s quite industrious of me. However do I find the time?”

“It’s not a joke, Laurent!” Uncle shouted. “I kept your secret because I feared what would happen if they knew what you’d done, but now I see that I should have alerted the king to your wrongdoing at once. Maybe then, all of this could have been avoided.”

Laurent felt himself flinch. Uncle so rarely yelled, his cruelty always spoken softly. It startled Laurent more than he wanted to admit to hear the shout. And that was the desired effect. The subtle suspicion in Nikandros’ eyes was gone now. Instead, he was looking at Laurent like he was some kind of two-headed monster, warped and ugly.

“How could you hurt someone who lacks the means of even defending themselves?” he asked quietly.

“Don’t pretend to care about those you enslave,” Laurent spat before he could make himself stop speaking. This would only add fuel to whatever fires Uncle was kindling here,

“You injure their mind, their souls, their bodies, every time you fuck someone who can’t tell you no.”

“And so you decided to physically maim a boy to make a point?” Nikandros asked with horror.

Uncle gave a sad shake of his head. “You are lucky Kastor was able to convince his father that the attack on his person was a treacherous act of a lone agent, and not the work of the Veretian crown,” he said. “I’ve already sent word to the Council; we cannot allow your recklessness to incite another war.”

“I didn’t poison the king, but you already knew that, didn’t you, Uncle?” Laurent said.

This was how it would end. Uncle would find some way to claim the poisoning was Auguste’s fault and turn the Council against him. He’d have Auguste dethroned or bring war to the halls of Vere. And he’d get away with it because Laurent was too stupid to figure out what he was trying to do before it was too late.

Uncle stepped closer to the bars and let his voice drop low. The flickering firelight cast deep shadows across his face, making him look deformed and unsettling, his outside matching what was within.

“You will be put on trial for your crimes tomorrow. Whatever the verdict King Theomedes declares, I will not go against him. Vere is more important than either of us,” Uncle said. “Auguste will understand.”

“Auguste will kill you himself once he finds out what you’ve done,” Laurent replied just as softly, but with far more heat.

Uncle smiled, there and gone very quickly, lost between the flickering shadows to all save Laurent.

“Auguste is king. He will put Vere’s safety before all else, or he is unfit to rule.”

And with that, the pieces finally fell into place. If Laurent died here, executed for a crime he hadn’t committed, Auguste would wage war against Akielos. If he did that, he’d die on the battlefield. Uncle would make sure of that. But it might never get that far if Uncle already sent word to the Council. They already knew that Laurent was accused of and they had no love for the second son. They would not support Auguste in a war for vengeance if that was the reason they thought he took up arms.

And Jokaste, or Kastor, or both stood beside Uncle, pulling strings in Ios, causing havoc at the borders, sowing unrest among the people.

Once Laurent died, Auguste’s days were numbered.

Uncle smiled. He could see the trajectory of Laurent’s thoughts.

“A trial and an execution,” he said, softer still. “You will die in disgrace. Perhaps they will take your head for what you did. His eyes came to rest on the fruit spread once more.

“Some might wish for the relatively quick death of poison over the executioner’s ax.”

He turned and gathered Jokaste’s arm in his, linking them together so that they walked in lockstep away from the cell without so much as a backward glance. Nikandros lingered for a moment longer. He was frowning, looking down at the ground and his sandal-clad feet.

“If you have something to say to me, you might as well say it now,” Laurent said.

Nikandros looked up, eyes still narrowed. He regarded Laurent for a very long moment in continued silence, which Laurent returned with an equally firm, unblinking stare. At last, Nikandros reached into the pouch at his hip, the same pouch he’d put the key back into.

He pulled a small orange free. He held the fruit through the bars of the cell.

Laurent looked down at it, then up at Nikandros, unable to keep the suspicion from color his voice when he asked, “What is this?”

“It’s an orange.”

“I’m aware of that. Why are you giving it to me?” Laurent gestured to the tray of food he had no intention of eating. “I already have a meal.”

Nikandros’s eyes narrowed even further. When he spoke, it sounded like the words were being pulled from deep inside his chest. “You don’t eat anything but the oranges.”

What kind of a trick was this?

When Laurent made no move to take the fruit, Nikandros bent down and set the orange gently on the floor of the cell. Without another word, he too turned and walked away.
Laurent sat in silence for a long time, watching the flickering firelight cast shadows across the orange, thoughts of what the next day would bring crowding his mind.

Chapter Text

Morning dawned bright and warm. Already the sharp scent of sea air blew in with the morning breeze, carrying with it the promise of a sweltering day. Damen hardly noticed the soft sunlight filtering through the open windows, too caught up in his own mind. His concerns were so great he hadn’t slept the night before. As each hour passed, bringing him that much closer to midday and the trial, his unease grew.

Four days and he hadn’t been able to convince Father to listen to him. Four days, and there was no further evidence to link the crimes to Caracallus rather than Laurent. With each day that passed, Kastor grew more distant, angrier, ready to do harm to Laurent in the name of Akielos even before a sentence had truly been given. The only thing keeping him at bay were Father’s orders to stand down, and even that control felt tenuous at best.

There came a soft, tentative knock on the wooden doors. Without pausing in his pacing, Damen called for whoever it was to enter. Father told him yesterday after the evening meal that he intended to call on Damen early in the day—perhaps he’d sent a servant already.

It was not one of his father’s servants who shuffled into the room, however. Instead, it was Erasmus. Standing behind him, wringing her hands already, even though not a word had been spoken yet, stood Lykaios. Her eyes were wide and watery with a fear Damen had never seen in them before, a fear that was echoed in the terrified trembling coursing through Erasmus.

“What has happened?” Damen asked. He strode forward quickly to place a comforting hand on Erasmus’s shoulder, thoughts of the attack in Laurent’s rooms a week ago suddenly fresh in his mind.

Erasmus flinched as Damen’s hand came to rest on his bare skin. Erasmus would not look up from the ground. Lykaios began to chew on her lip in a nervous habit not seen since her first night so long ago. A stillness fell over Damen.

They fear me, he realized. Whatever brought them to his rooms now, brought them with fear in their hearts. Erasmus’s concerns could be understood—he’d endured more in the time since the Veretian envoy arrived than most must survive in the entirety of their life—but Lykaios’s fear made something cold and heavy pull deep in Damen’s gut.

Lykaios knew him, knew his temperament, knew his touch, and still, she feared.

Was the fear always there, buried just under the surface?

“Whatever you have to say to me, whatever is causing your concern, know that I will not harm you,” Damen said. He tried to catch Erasmus’s eyes, but they remained fixed on the ground. Lykaios continued to chew on her bottom lip, but she gave a small nod to show she believed Damen.

She stepped closer to Erasmus, reaching out to place her hands on his back in a touch that he leaned into. “You must tell the prince,” she said softly.

“Prince Laurent is innocent,” Erasmus whispered to the floor.

Damen felt his brows rise in surprise. “Do you have proof of his innocence?”

Erasmus gave a small, tentative nod. His eyes darted up to Damen’s face before dropping once more to focus on the ground. “Prince Laurent did not leave his rooms in the evenings, ever, until we were attacked. King…King Theomedes grew ill the second day the Veretian envoy arrived.”

Damen nodded. He knew the timeline but did not see how this information proved or disproved anything.

“You must tell him everything, Erasmus,” Lykaios said. She rubbed her palms up and down his spine, a physical reminder of her support and closeness.

“P-prince Laurent asked me not to tell you that he is in love with you, Prince Damianos,” Erasmus squeaked. His eyes darted up, wide with fear and tears. “He asked to know if you were meeting with other Veretians and I thought it was because he wanted to know if there were others who might hold your heart, but…but now I think he wanted to protect you from danger.”

Damen let his information sink in. Still, it did nothing to strengthen the case for Laurent’s innocence. Instead, it added a worrying new dimension. Laurent asked a slave to spy for him. Regardless of the reason—and there was no doubt in Damen’s mind that the reason Laurent gave to Erasmus was a lie—it didn’t change the fact that if anyone else found out about the request if would just add more strength to the case being built against Laurent. It was unheard of to ask a slave to collect information about their masters in secret. It was even more unheard of for a slave to follow through with such a request. Erasmus himself could be punished for admitting he even entertained the idea of doing as Laurent asked.

“Why do you think he was trying to protect me?” Damen asked at last.

Erasmus gave a small shuffle, pressing back into Lykaios still further. “Prince Laurent is a good and kind man. He-he loves you. He almost died protecting me and little Nicaise from the intruders, he promised to protect Ganymede after what happened to him, and he let himself be arrested so the battle in his room would end before anyone got hurt.”

“Who is Ganymede?”

A high, pained whimper made its way past Erasmus’s tightly closed lips as he turned to look back at Lykaios. The question itself was upsetting, clearly, but Damen had no idea why.

“Ganymede is the slave Lord Caracallus selected the first night the Veretians arrived, Exulted,” said Lykaios. Her gaze traveled from Erasmus’s pail face up to Damen’s. She licked her lips, swollen from being bitten, her head half bowed and her eyes unable to finish their journey to look into Damen’s.

In all the chaos that transpired so far, no one had said anything about the slave Caracallus selected the night he and Laurent arrived in Ios. In truth, Damen forgot all about the boy. Unease wormed its way beneath his skin.

“What happened to Ganymede?” he asked.

Erasmus and Lykaios hesitated. Damen waited.

“Lord Caracallus poured hot oil on his legs,” Lykaios said, very softly. “He permanently disfigured Ganymede.”

Damen took a step back, a gasp stuck in his throat. How was this the first time he’d heard of the assault? It was barbaric—to harm someone who could not defend themselves, someone who was trained to display perfect obedience in all things, at all times—it was monstrous. There were no other words for it.

“Why would Caracallus do something like that?”

Erasmus hesitated, but Lykaios did not. Bright red patches colored her cheeks, the first true sign of anger Damen has ever seen in any palace slave.

“Because he was angry with Prince Laurent and harming Ganymede was meant to make a point,” she said, still softly. And then, more softly still, “Between his sobs, Ganymede told me Lord Caracallus intended for another to share his bed that night. Prince Laurent denied him this company. Lord Caracallus took offense.”

Nicaise. Laurent posted guards outside Nicaise’s room the first night they arrived and every night after, right up until the attack. Realization made nausea curl deep in Damen’s gut.

“Did my father know of this assault?” Both Lykaios and Erasmus shook their heads. “Why did no one tell me this happened?”

They flinched at the hard tone. At once, guilt struck Damen. He was furious, but not at Lykaios or Erasmus. They were not to blame for any of this.

“Lord Adrastus knew of the injury,” Lykaios said instead of answering the question. But that was answer enough.

Adrastus knew, and he said nothing.

“You said Laurent tried to help Ganymede,” Damen said. He ran a hand down his face, trying to calm his racing thoughts. “How did Laurent find out about this?”

Another long silence filled the room. Erasmus shared a glance with Lykaios, waiting for her small nod of approval, before he took a deep breath and blurted out, “I told Prince Laurent.”

Truly, there could be no more painful an answer. He’d told a prince of a foreign land because that felt safer than revealing to Damen what transpired.

“What did Laurent do when he learned of Ganymede’s injuries?”

Lykaios answered this time, the faintest hint of something hard entering her voice. “Lord Adrastus said he was going to get rid of Ganymede. Prince Laurent said he would instead be taking Ganymede back to Vere when he left.”

Damen began to pace. His own people felt safe going to Laurent to seek aid when they did coming to Damen. They felt safer asking Laurent to protect them. An anger like nothing he’d ever felt before began to heat his skin. He wasn’t mad at Erasmus and Lykaios, he wasn’t mad at Laurent; no, he was mad at himself and he was furious at Caracallus.

He was failing his own people if they did not think he was capable of protecting them. And, truly, Caracallus was proving that Damen wasn’t.

“Do you know who poisoned my father?” he asked, still pacing.

Erasmus and Lykaios both shook their heads. “But I know Prince Laurent did not return to his rooms after the attack until the night the vial of poison was found. He was with you.”
Erasmus hesitated once more. Lykaios slid her fingers into his and gave his hand a tight squeeze before he continued. “I—I think someone else put the vial in Prince Laurent’s room. I—I think someone wants to get him in trouble.”

Yes, Damen thought, I believe that too.

Erasmus wrung his hands together, looking intently once more at his feet. “I was the one who found it under the table, not Prince Laurent,” he admitted in hardly more than a whisper. “Prince Laurent took the vial from me. He protected me.”

These truths confirmed what Damen already knew; Laurent was not the poisoner, he had been framed, and the chaos of the battle in his room four nights ago robed Laurent of the opportunity to explain the situation fully. Unfortunately, the word of Erasmus and Lykaios, no matter how truthful, was not enough to sway a verdict in Laurent’s favor. Even if Erasmus and Lykaios had been standing there watching the poisoner at work, even if they could name the villain plainly, their word would never carry weight against the word of a man of royal blood.

For the first time in his life, Damen found himself doubting an institution as old as Ios itself. Perfect obedience, and on voice to speak their truth. Who would ever believe a slave if they were not rewarded with the perfect treatment that obedience deserved?

“I believe you.” A frustrated hand racked through his thick curls as Damen continued to pace. “Ganymede’s assault is new to me, but all else I already suspected, but without a witness to prove Caracallus was the assailant I fear the injuries will be blamed on Laurent as well if they are brought up.”

Lykaios and Erasmus exchanged a wordless glance. Erasmus gave a small, almost imperceptible nod, eyes wide in question. Lykaios bit her lip once more, her pretty face scrunching up in thought before she looked up at Damen.

“There is a Veretian physician. He came with Ganymede to our rooms and worked to heal him long before Prince Laurent learned of the injuries. The physician knows Prince Laurent did not hurt Ganymede.”

There was only one Veretian doctor in the palace that Damen knew of. One Veretian physician who specifically told Damen to contact him if Father’s illness grew worse.
“Paschal,” Damen breathed in a rush. Paschal was the key. He knew of father’s illness, he knew of the assault on Ganymede, he could speak to Laurent’s innocence.

He had not seen Paschal in three days. Only now did that absence bring unease to his heart.

A sharp knock sounded on the door. Without waiting to be given permission, a man in crisp linens entered the room. He bowed to Damen, ignoring Erasmus and Lykaios as if they were not there. Anger warmed the space beneath Damen’s breast at the slight, but he pushed it down. There were more pressing matters to concern himself with now that Father’s servant had finally arrived.

“I will be with you in a moment,” Damen said before the man could speak. He stepped closer to Erasmus and Lykaios, his large hands gathering up Lykaios’s smaller ones in a grip he hoped conveyed his gratitude.

“Find the physician; find Paschal. Bring him to the throne room for the trial,” he whispered for Erasmus and Lykaios alone. “Prince Laurent’s life depends on this.”

Erasmus nodded so earnestly his curls bounced and struck him in the face. Lykaios simply nodded her head, her eyes wide with more than a small spark of fear.

Damen followed the servant out of his room and down the long hallways to his father’s chambers. He wished he could send Nikandros to assist Erasmus and Lykaios, but he could not risk removing Nikandros from his post guarding Laurent’s cell, not when Caracallus still roamed free.

Inside the room, Father stood beside his window looking out over the ocean, his back to the door. He did not turn to great Damen when he entered the room. Instead, he squinted out at something drifting along the water’s edge, creeping closer to the shore. Damen peered over his father’s shoulder—was that a boat rocking in the waves, so far from the port?

“I have a task for you, my son,” father said. He turned at last, his shoulders blocking the view of the water.

“Below, in the water, is that—”

“This more important, Damen.”

Damen bit his tongue to stop the urgent response he wanted to give. Only once before had he felt himself question Father’s decisions, and that had been because of Laurent as well, back at Marlas.

Back when Damen first gave his oath to keep Laurent safe.

“The trial will take place at noon today,” Father said. He moved from the window to place his hands on Damen’s shoulders. It was eerily reminiscent of the day the Veretians arrived in Ios and Father reminded Damen of his duty.

“I ask again, that you reconsider. Laurent is not—”

“Damen, do you think your king is a fool?”

The question was surprising enough to make Damen replay the words in his head. Only once he was certain he’d heard them correctly did Damen give his head a slow shake. Father smiled, the corners of his lips curling upwards in a hard, satisfied smirk that would not have counted as a smile on the face of anyone else.

“Then do as I ask and trust that I understand the ramifications of my actions at least as well as you believe you do.”

Something more lingered behind the words then what was said. Theomedes, king of Akielos, did not speak in riddles. He was not Veretian, it was not his way, and yet, he was speaking in riddles right now, looking Damen in the eyes with all the conviction he approached everything else with.

“What would you have me do, Father?” Damen asked because there was no other question he could ask, not now.

Father’s smile grew marginally more satisfied.

“I would give Laurent the dignity that is befitting of his station.” Once it was clear Damen did not immediately understand what that meant, Father continued, “I will not have the prince of Vere stand before me to plead his case still covered in four days of stink. Take him to the baths and guard him while he washes.”

It was a silly thing, a small thing, but the request eased some of the fear building for Laurent. In his lifetime, Damen bore witness to many trials. No man brought before the king to argue his innocence had been given the dignity of fresh clothes before.

“Yes, of course, I will guard him,” Damen said.

Father nodded, clapped Damen once on both shoulders, and they gestured to the door in clear dismissal. Three steps from the door, Damen paused.

“Will you allow me to speak at the trial?”

It was something he’d been too afraid of the answer to ask until now. The king could choose to hear what testimony he wanted, from whoever he wanted, which meant he could choose not to hear just as easily. The heir to the thrown speaking in defense of a man accused of trying to assassinate the king would not look good for anyone involved, but

Damen was duty bound to defend Laurent. He took an oath.

And he would not let Laurent pay for a crime he did not commit.

Father regarded him for a long moment before gesturing to the door. “Go. Help the little prince make himself presentable.”

Damen took a step back, ready to press the issue. Father’s eyes narrowed ever so slightly.

“Go. Now.”

Frustration made the walk down to the cells seem twice as long as it truly was. Father was playing a game here and Damen did not like being one of the pieces moved across the board. Was this how Laurent felt all the time? Did he feel this sick, thick feeling, this unsettling realization that the very people he loved and cared for had motivations he knew nothing about, yet had the power to upend his life?

Did it leave him as alone and uncertain as it left Damen?

Nikandros met him at the beginning of the hall containing Laurent’s cell. He clasped Damen’s forearm in a tight handshake that he then used to pull Damen into a strong embrace.

Even without speaking, Nikandros always knew the shape of Damen’s mind.

“He’s got a sharp tongue, but his spirits are low,” he whispered so as to keep his voice from echoing along the stone walls.

Damen nodded, unsurprised by this news.

“His uncle has been down to visit. Jokaste came with him. Kastor came once as well but left without speaking to Laurent when he saw me.”

That was unsurprising as well, though deeply unsettling. Damen knew perfectly well what Kastor thought appropriate retribution for the poisoning was and knew, just as well, that

Nikandros was the only reason Laurent was still alive and unmolested.

“Thank you, my friend, for standing guard.” With one final squeeze, Damen pulled away from the embrace.

It was time to face Laurent. Time to admit that, despite four days of effort, he was no closer to fixing this situation.

“I wondered if you were ever going to show your face.”

It was said in the dull, half distracted way people spoke of things that hardly warranted their time. Laurent was seated with his back against the wall, legs stretched out along his thin cot. His hair was an oily mess, curling slightly at the ends, his skin pale against the flickering firelight, clothes rumpled. Still, he sat straight-backed and looked Damen in the eyes without an ounce of shame.

Damen looked at his feet, unable to maintain eye contact as the guilt worsened.

~

It was the first time he’d been down in the four days Laurent spent in this cell and Damianos couldn’t even look him in the eye. It was infuriating. It was cowardly. It wasn’t fare. Damianos didn’t get to play at guilt when he was the one who left Laurent to rot in a cell. Damianos didn’t get to make overtures of friendship and comradery, didn’t get to pretend he believed Laurent, didn’t get to act like he cared about Nicaise or Erasmus, didn’t get to pretend that his stupid oath meant something to him, and then abandon Laurent to a cell for four days.

“I’m sorry,” Damianos began. Laurent cut him off.

“Nikandros, your king said there were to be no visitors. I could stomach the others, but not this one.”

Nikandros allowed one thick brow to rise in silent question as he tucked his thumbs into the belt anchoring his sword and the pouch containing the cell’s keys to his hips.

“I’m not here to visit,” Damianos said. Then he winced, shook his head and started again. “I’m sorry. I should have come sooner to see you. I didn’t think—”

“I can’t imagine why you would think I’d want to you to come.”

Damianos glanced back at Nikandros, who let his second brow slowly rise. In the few days Nikandros acted as his jailor, Laurent felt he’d gotten a good read on the man. If he didn’t know how disgustingly devoted Nikandros was to Damianos, it might look like he was agreeing.

“I should have come,” Damianos said again. This time he managed to make eye contact. “I left you down here with no way to know that I hadn’t abandoned you.”

Fatigue hit hard and unexpected. He could deal with Uncle’s manipulations, he could deal with Kastor’s threats, but he didn’t have it in him to navigate fake empathy when he was hours away from getting his head chopped off.

“What do you want, Damianos?”

“I’m to take you to the baths.”

“So you can fuck me before I’m executed? I’m sure the change of scenery will make things more pleasant for you.”

Damianos gave a full body flinch, his mouth dropping open in shock.

Nikandros shrugged. “I told you he had a sharp tongue.”

“I-I’m not going to force myself on you,” Damianos stuttered. He extended a hand backward and waited until Nikandros dropped a small key into his palm.

Laurent’s eyes followed the key. He would not survive the trial, Uncle would make sure of that. But, if Damianos was determined to carry on his charade of decency, maybe it could be helpful. If he took Laurent out of this cell, there would be opportunities between now and the baths to escape. If he could make it beyond the walls of the palace, surely, he’d be able to find a way to reach Auguste.

“Fine,” he said. He unfurled himself from the sleeping cot, watching the way Damianos’s eyes followed the long lines of his legs. “Take me to the baths. At least I’ll die clean.”

Something passed across Damianos’s face, tightening his expression, as he unlocked the cell door. He stepped back, allowing Laurent to walk past him to exit the cell. For half a second, Laurent expected Damianos to strike—there was nothing he’d be able to do about it if either Damianos or Nikandros attacked at this moment—but nothing happened.

Laurent kept his expression carefully neutral as Damianos closed the cell door behind him and then gestured towards the stairs.

“I’ll guide you.”

“You’ll guard me,” Laurent corrected. “You guide someone who has the freedom to get lost.”

Nikandros ignored the comment that seemed to make Damianos react like a kicked dog. “Do you want me to come with you?”

Laurent stiffened.

Damianos shook his head. “No. I need you to help Erasmus and Lykaios locate the Veretian physician.”

“What’s happened to Paschal?”

Damianos hesitated for a brief moment before admitting, “I have not seen him since you were arrested. I think he’ll be able to help clear your name.”

Then he’s probably dead already, Laurent realized. It made his chest tighten. Paschal. Jord. Orlant. They were probably all dead, or about to be executed right alongside Laurent. The best he could hope for was that Nicaise and Erasmus were considered too unimportant to be condemned by association.

Nikandros glanced between Damianos’s still crestfallen expression and Laurent’s blank face and sighed. “I’ll find the physician.” He said it in a way that was probably supposed to be comforting.

It wasn’t.

Laurent walked behind Damianos as they climbed up the steps, Nikandros bringing up the rear. He broke off with a sharp nod the second they reached the main hallways, however, leaving Damianos and Laurent to walk the rest of the way to the baths in silence. It was clear the lack of conversation made Damianos uncomfortable, and Laurent took a small measure of pleasure in watching him squirm.

He knew they’d reached their destination long before he saw the steaming pool of water due to the humidity in the air. Down in the dungeon the air held a crisp, cold dampness to it. Up here, in the main palace, it was almost oppressively hot. Laurent could feel the sweat gathering along the back of his neck as Damianos opened the double doors to the bathroom.

Three slaves—two women and a man—dropped to their knees in deep bows of respect the second they saw Damianos. They were the only ones in the room. The bathing pool was wide—three grown men could have stood in the pool comfortably, submerged up to their waists. Bottles of sweet-smelling oils and soaps lined the side of the pool, with a large, plush towel waiting on a raised stool for after the bath.

Unease began to creep back into Laurent’s gut as the first shape of a plan formed in his mind. It required that he and Damianos be alone. Damianos found him attractive, that much was obvious. Damianos liked to think of himself as an honorable man, but he looked at Laurent with just as much interest as all the others. If they were alone, it would be easy enough to lore Damianos in, distract him with the physical conquest he clearly desired, and then incapacitate him in some way—just long enough to escape. The stool the towel rested on looked heavy enough to stun a man. Even the oil jars would do.

“How may we serve you, Exalted?” one of the women asked.

“You’ve already prepared the bathwater, yes?” Damianos asked.

Three heads nodded in unison, all still pressed against the floor.

Damianos shifted like he was suddenly uncomfortable. “Please, stand. You needn’t kneel.”

The three exchanged uncertain looks before rising.

“I don’t need them to help me bathe,” Laurent said. He injected as much smooth control into his voice as possible. He’d learned early in his life that if he sounded like he was in control of the situation he would rarely be questioned.

Damianos’s brows scrunched together as he glanced from Laurent to the slaves. At once a look of realization lit his face.

“Yes, of course. I wouldn’t have asked you to do anything to harm your reputation,” he said while gesturing politely to the two women. They stepped forward with another small bow. “Thank you for your assistance getting the bath ready. You may leave now.”

“All of them can leave. I don’t want him here either,” said Laurent bluntly, tipping his head in the direction of the man watching him with mild interest.

Damianos hesitated. “Are you sure you wouldn’t be more comfortable with more than just me here with you?”

“No.”

Damianos nodded his head and tipped it in the direction of the door and the two retreating backs of the women leaving the room. Slowly, the man inched towards the door. He bowed his head to his prince and Laurent both before scurrying out of the room, pausing only long enough to pull the door closed behind him. And that was it.

They were alone.

It was stiflingly hot. It was hard to breathe. Laurent felt his head spin.

He forced himself to take a deep breath past lips going numb with adrenaline.

“Laurent—”

He ignored Damianos in favor of inspecting the scented oils and their heavy jars. Rose. Lavender. Lemon. Which scent would be better when he died?

“Laurent, I know you must be scared—”

“I’m not scared.” Laurent lied.

Behind him, he heard Damian began to pace.

Better to get this over with. There was no telling how long they had until someone came looking. Or, until the trial itself started. No one had seen fit to tell him when that was supposed to happen today.

Laurent held his right arm out and began to untie the laces of his jacket. His fingers were cold despite the humid warmth of the room. He tugged on the string three times but it would not budge.

“Do…do you want help?”

It was tentative, soft. Laurent peered over his shoulder. Damianos was trying to make himself look small and unimposing, shoulders hunched, hands clasped together. It was ridiculous. Maybe he even thought he was being honest when he tried to project an air of non-threatening kindness.

For some reason the hot air was making Laurent’s throat feel tight. Rather than speak and risk his voice wavering, he simply nodded and held out his sleeve.

Damianos navigated around the wide pool. His long, red cape was pinned up at his shoulder. His whole body was a walking wall of strength. His calf muscles were larger than both of Laurent’s put together. If ever he truly intended it, he could take whatever he wanted from Laurent.

Years of practice was all the kept Laurent’s face neutral and his body from reacting to the first brush of Damianos’s skin against his wrist.

“There are so many ties,” Damianos said under his breath in slight wonder.

Laurent said nothing. He should say something if he intended to follow through with his plan, but he couldn’t make himself say anything.

It felt like a very long time before the first knot loosened. Damianos moved on to the next. When that one was loosened, on to the next. Laurent held out his other hand. Damianos repeated his actions on the second sleeve. Once the ties were off, Laurent let his eyes slide upward, first from the golden lion pin at Damianos’s shoulder, then to the long lines of his neck, to the full curve of his lips, to find Damianos’s bright eyes looking down at him with a softness that Laurent couldn’t quite place.

Laurent let the jacket fall from his shoulders, maintaining eye contact with Damianos. Damianos’s eyes dipped down to dart across Laurent’s collar bones before immediately moving to lock on Laurent’s face again.

He turned his back on Damianos. He bent at the waist to remove first one boot and then the other. Behind him, Damianos shifted back to the right with a small cough. With a carefully cultivated air of indifference, Laurent stripped the remainder of his clothing off, letting each article fall to the floor at his feet. He didn’t look back at Damianos as he stepped into the water.

The warmth was unexpectedly comforting. Laurent dipped down, immersing himself completely. Fleetingly, he wondered what would happen if he simply didn’t resurface. Would it be better or Auguste in the end if Laurent drowned himself? Certainly, it would be less cause for a war that would lead to Auguste’s death.

He had a plan. He was going to get out of here.

Laurent scrubbed at his hair with fingers that he could pretend weren’t shaking underwater before resurfacing. He swiped the rivets of warmth from his face, blinking the stink of bath salt-tinted water out of his eyes. Damianos stood with his back to the bathing pool, hands clasped behind his back.

How...gentlemanly.

Laurent busied himself with soaping his hair and scrubbing. The silence was beginning to turn unnerving, but he wasn’t willing to break the silence just yet.

“I don’t think that you poisoned my father,” Damianos blurted out.

Laurent went still, a thick bar of soap still clutched in his hand.

“What?”

“I don’t think you poisoned my father,” Damianos said once again, more firmly this time.

He kept his eyes on the bar of soap in his hands. Little rivets of bubbles drifted in the water around the soap.

“And yet, I was still locked in a cell for four days.”

The sound of shifting echoed oddly in the thick air behind Laurent. “I’m ashamed of that. You should never have been placed in a cell. Caracallus should have been in that cell, not you.”

It took an extreme amount of effort to stop himself from curling up and trying to become small in the water. This was a trap. It had to be. One last time to dangle hope out in front of him before taking it away again. It had all the marks of one of Uncle’s manipulations. Poor stupid, innocent Damianos was caught up in something he didn’t understand, being used by people far better at manipulation than he could ever be.

A twinge of guilt made Laurent’s stomach sour.

“Help me wash my back. I can’t reach,” he said, rather than respond to Damianos’s comment.

When Damianos didn’t immediately give a response, Laurent allowed himself to look over his shoulder. He blinked slowly, aware of how his lashes brushed against his cheeks.
Damianos gazed at him, his eyes wide and confused.

“Are you comfortable with that?” he asked. Laurent’s eyes began to dart down to the sword strapped to Damianos hip but aborted the impulse before it could fully form.

“Yes,” said Laurent. He made himself sound impatient because it covered up the nerves building in anticipation of what he was about to do. “I’d like to be clean for the first time in days. So, help me wash my back.”

Damianos raked a hand through his curls. He looked down at his feet, then to Laurent. Wordlessly, he reached down and began to untie the sword from his hip, Laurent watched silently as Damianos propped the sword up against the stool.

“There’s a basket over there,” Damianos said as he lingered beside his sword, rather than comment on removing his weapon unprompted. “It had a clean chiton for you to wear after your bath.”

Laurent shrugged. A chiton would help him blend in.

He held out the soap.

Damianos took the bar. Laurent turned his back after one last, lingering look. He didn’t flinch when Damianos began to gently rub the soap against his skin. The touch was soft, soothing. Damianos did not let his hands stray, he did not take liberties.

“I’m going to do everything I can to convince my father that you’re innocent,” he said very softly.

Laurent shrugged. “I’m innocent. I know that. It sounds like you know that. And yet, it won’t make a difference.”

Damianos’s hand stilled against his back. “It’s the truth, though,” he said. “It should make all the difference.”

Laurent let his mind drift. It was a shame Damianos was only a pawn in Uncle’s game. Under different circumstances, Damianos might even be someone to count as a friend. That wasn’t possible now.

Laurent turned. Damianos knelt behind him on the lip on the pool. They were at eye level now, Damianos on his knees and Laurent in the bath. The scent of lavender wafted from the oils in the bath. Outside, Laurent kept his face impassive. Inside, his pulse beat erratically, the sound of his own heartbeat strong in his ears.

He let his eyes slid purposefully from Damianos’s eyes down to his lips. As he watched, a pink tongue darted out to moisten those same full lips. In another life, this moment might have been thrilling.

It wasn’t.

But it was the only way out.

He reached out to place a tentative hand against Damianos’s chest. The water clinging to his fingers made the white chiton translucent upon contact. With his other hand, Laurent curled his fingers against Damianos’s strong jaw and guided him forward. The last thing he saw before allowing his eyes to flutter shut was the bright look of shock on Damianos’s face.

The first brush of lips against lips was soft, there and gone. It wasn’t terrible, even if the whole point was just to distract a threat. Laurent pressed forward, deepening the kiss. He ran his tongue along Damianos’s bottom lip, head tipped to the right. The sword was next to the door, too far to reach, but the oil bottles could be used as a weapon instead. If struck with one—

Damianos’s large hand brushed against his cheek, soft and warm, trailing down his neck, to settle on Laurent’s shoulder. A soft press pushed Laurent back.

“This isn’t a good idea,” Damianos said.

He licked his lips. His eyes were soft, pained.

Laurent blinked. He let his hands fall away from Damianos.

“You don’t think this is a good idea?” he repeated.

Damianos nodded. “After the trial, once we’ve proven you’re innocent, if you want to kiss me again, I won’t say no.”

Laurent pulled away. The water was just as warm as it had been a moment ago, but he suddenly felt cold.

“What I want is to avoid this farce of a trial altogether,” he snapped.

Damianos’s thumb rubbed a circle into Laurent’s shoulder. Laurent shoved the hand away roughly.

“Don’t. Don’t pretend to care,” he snarled.

Damianos blinked. He shifted his hand away, putting space between them both by rocking back on his heels.

“Of course I care,” Damianos insisted.

Laurent gave a hard laugh. He waded across the bath until he could climb out via the steps along the side with some measure of dignity. He didn’t care anymore if Damianos saw him fully naked, he just wanted everything about this moment to end.

“Yes, I forgot,” he snapped, pulling the chiton out of the box Damianos said it would be in. “Because of a stupid oath you made years ago that you didn’t even intend to keep then!”
Damianos didn’t move from his place beside the pool. “I meant the oath back in Marlas when I made it. I mean it now. I care about you.”

Laurent pulled the fabric over his head with a vicious tug. “You don’t know me. All you care about is the same thing everyone else who has ever pretended to give a damn cares about.”

“If all I cared about was sex, would I have stopped you just now?”

Laurent’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Then what do you want? Why are you even pretending anymore?”

At these words, Damianos finally stood from where he knelt beside the bath. He moved forward slowly, hands spread wide like he thought Laurent was a terrified horse ready to bolt. It made anger seethe under Laurent’s skin so hot and fast he wanted to physically attack Damianos.

“I’m not pretending to care, Laurent.” Damianos stopped when he was within arm’s reach. He made no move to touch Laurent, didn’t even try to loom, but it made no difference.

There was no negotiating around his sheer mass.

“I respected you when you were thirteen and brave enough to speak out against a king to defend your brother. I respected you when the first thing you did when you stepped foot in Ios was to protect Nicaise. I respected you when you took on a group of armed intrudes, dragged and outnumbered, and won.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

Damons reached out, very slowly, to brush the strands of damp gold hair back from Laurent’s face and Laurent let him. “More than anything else, I respect the way you protect your people…and the way you’ve been protecting mine.”

He held himself very still. The ridiculous chiton barely came to his knees. Damianos kept looking at him.

“If I die, Auguste’s days are numbered.” It wasn’t what he meant to say, but it was what came out.

Damianos nodded.

“We’ll just have to make sure you don’t die.”