The sky is heavy with clouds when they approach the palace gates, and the air is softly promising rain. The sunlight is dulled. There is nevertheless enough of it to catch and gleam on the yellow head that is visible on the ramparts, standing apart from the guards.
Nikandros glances at his oldest friend, who has been alternately chafing and morose for the past two weeks, and who now, gazing up at Laurent, looks like a man coming across a clear stream of water after stumbling through the desert.
“Stop making that face,” Damianos says, not looking at Nikandros.
“I was going to say the same thing to you.”
Damianos smiles and kicks his horse into a final burst of speed, moving ahead of his men, through the gate and into the courtyard.
Nikandros sighs. He’s not unsympathetic. Lazar is another of the mingled Veretian and Akielon troop who accompanied Damianos on this extended tour of the surrounding forts while flushing out bands of mercenary clansmen; Lazar has been staring into their nightly fires and good-naturedly accepting the vulgar suggestions about which part of Pallas’s anatomy he misses most, and Nikandros himself has high hopes of a friendly tumble with one of the freedwomen working in the kitchens here.
However, it is still difficult for Nikandros to reconcile what he knows of Damianos’s exuberant bedroom tastes-–from many, many drunken conversations-–and the coolly collected Veretian, who looks as though he would barely deign to lift a finger, let alone muster any kind of encouragement, while being fucked. Lazar has confided to Nikandros that none of the Veretians have managed to get their heads around the idea either, despite the Prince–now the King–being a longstanding figure of popular fantasy.
Not the real thing, though, Lazar added, hastily. Gods, can you imagine? It’d be like trying to lick an icicle.,
Nikandros agrees with that comparison. As thirsty as you were at the time, it’d be cold beyond belief, and you’d be lucky to get away without losing some of your skin.
But then, Laurent’s looks are such that even a steadier head than that of Damianos, with his weakness for fair hair and blue eyes, might easily be turned, and stay turned. No matter his deficiencies in bed.
None of this is any comfort to Nikandros when he finds himself, half an hour later, pausing in his search for Damianos in order to sign off the acquisitions report for their tour so that it can be taken to the desk of the royal treasurer. He can hear Damianos’s voice, in the room that is the man’s private study, and Laurent’s as well. When Nikandros peers through the crack of the door, which is ajar, he sees that they are standing close together. There is something heated and deliberate about the foot of space between their bodies: like the choicest morsel on a plate, left uneaten until the last moment so that the anticipation of it can be savoured for the length of the meal.
“–-a very strenuous camping trip,” Laurent is saying.
“Yes,” says Damianos. His voice is low and amused. “I hear in my absence you have only negotiated new terms of trade with the Vaskian Empire, overhauled the entire system of grain taxation, and arranged hostage-taking by the major Veretian estates for the sons of the kyroi.”
“Fostering,,” says Laurent.
“What did I say?” Damianos grins at him.
“I also talked Makedon and Jeurre down from no less than three duels of honour over misunderstandings.”
“You’ll have to let Makedon fight sometime,” Damianos says. “Otherwise he gets snappy.”
Laurent gives a very soft laugh. “I’ll remember that.” His shoulders are drooping. It is the most physically worn that Nikandros has ever seen him, and for a moment he’s worried that there is some looming political crisis, for Laurent to look that way, but then he realises that Laurent just looks…tired. As any normal person might look tired.
“It was no more stressful than the easiest day of surviving in my uncle’s court,” Laurent says. “I had not realised it was so easy to become…accustomed.”
“To what?” Damianos asks
“Support,” Laurent says. The side of his mouth curves, rueful. “Partnership.”
Damianos touches Laurent’s hair, and then the space closes: Laurent is stepping forward, into his arms, to be kissed. It is artless,, which is a word that Nikandros would never have thought to apply to Laurent of Vere. It is sweet, and hungry, and eager; his arms are around Damianos’s neck and Damianos’s hands are roaming over Laurent’s body. Nobody watching this kiss would ever think that the people involved are anything but joyful and deeply intimate in bed.
After half an age, during which Nikandros’s sense of privacy loses a brief and heated battle with his sense of curiosity, Laurent pulls back. Again he looks like he has never looked in Nikandros’s experience of him. King Laurent looks like exactly what he is: a young man of twenty-one who has his whole life stretching ahead, and who is fathoms deep in love.
“Next time I go camping,” Damianos murmurs, “I will bring you along.”
“Oh? Thrown over the back of your horse?”
The air between them sings. They are smiling.
Nikandros finds that he is smiling too. He shakes his head, takes two silent steps backwards, and walks away down the corridor.