“Damianos says you like card games. Are you any good?”
Laurent looks up. At his elbow and spread out on the table are a stack of dry treatises from the founding days of both countries. He is putting together his first set of notes for the meeting of councils, where the terrible headache of combining governments will begin.
Nikandros, hovering with a pack of cards in hand, looks like he is reconsidering whatever impulse led him here in the first place. Laurent considers and instantly discards the possibility of an easy deception.
“I am,” he says. He pushes the pen and parchment aside, a clear invitation.
“Cards. Riding. Swordplay. Is there anything you aren’t skilled at?” The man sounds irritated.
“Singing,” Laurent says, after a moment.
Laurent shoots him a look through his lashes. “No,” he says.
Nikandros snorts through his nose, a huff of exasperation that borders on amusement, and sits down. He deals the cards. Laurent has the sense of trying to formulate a useful plan of attack while staring at a map that has had half its major features crossed out.
He says, “You don’t have to be my friend.”
“I’m not your friend. Your Majesty.”
“But you are being,” Laurent says, “friendly.”
Nikandros frowns at his hand, and moves a card from one place to another within in. When he looks back at Laurent there is a frankness to his gaze. “I didn’t realise,” Nikandros says shortly. “Damianos-–he’s your only friend. You really don’t have anyone else.”
Nikandros is right. Laurent had Auguste, and then he had no one. Supporters, yes. Allies. Men more loyal to him than he deserved. But nobody was to him what Nikandros is to Damen.
“I never had the knack of it,” Laurent says.
Nikandros doesn’t look like he believes that, but neither does he argue. He is handsome, Laurent supposes, with a straight freckled nose and a firm chin. He might look even more so, if he smiled, but Laurent can only speculate on that point.
“Here’s a tip,” Nikandros says. “Don’t flog them half to death as an opening gesture.”
Laurent stares at his cards, pinched between his suddenly pale fingertips. He has two fives. He has a ten. He has a queen.
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Laurent says.
Nikandros throws down a pair of sevens. They play, for a while, in relative silence. Laurent loses the pair of gloves tucked through his belt, and his pen. He gains a sharp knife with a hawk etched onto the blade.
“Another hand?” Laurent asks, during a pause. Twilight is deepening outside.
Nikandros says, “Do you love him?”
Laurent goes perfectly still, watching Nikandros for information. For anything.
“Do you doubt it?” he says, finally.
“No,” Nikandros says. “I don’t. Not since I heard what you did for him, at the Kingsmeet. But I wonder if you’ve even said it aloud to anyone.”
Laurent has not. Suddenly there is a weight on his tongue.
“Yes,” he says. It takes all his strength. It is like the last few exhausted steps to the top of a mountain, to find the onwards path sloping down with the world spread out below. “I love him.”
Nikandros, gathering up the cards, gives a final nod. “All right,” he says. “Good night. Keep the knife.”
“Of course I’m keeping it,” Laurent says.
“I’ll win it back next time,” Nikandros says.