Only the fact that Laurent has spent a long time ruthlessly training himself to hide his inner workings allows him to remain still and silent, as he opens his eyes and realises where, when, he has ended up.
His shoulder twinges, as it often does when he’s worried, but it’s a phantom ache. This body is unmarked. This body has never ridden into action against his uncle’s troops, or drilled men to the point of collapse. It has no scar from the agonising twist of a blade, a pain that should have been unbearable and yet, somehow, had to be borne. This body has never been touched as Damen touches him, with such tenderness and teasing and love.
Laurent presses his lips together, then releases them.
This is where you are, he tells himself. Now bear it.
Looking at Damen in front of him, clad in the brief, brutal garb of a slave, makes Laurent’s stomach churn. It’s only half distaste, with perhaps a dash of horrified sympathy. The other half of it is remembering how pleased he was, how vindicated he felt, when he first saw Damianos of Akielos, Prince-Killer, the target on which Laurent had pinned all the blame for his life’s miseries–-if not, if this, if only-–forced to his knees and entirely at Laurent’s mercy.
If only. The irony of it grabs at Laurent’s mouth, and he feels his lips start to twist.
“Leave us,” he says, disguising it.
One of the guards frowns. He says, uneasily, “Your Highness–-”
“I do not believe,” says Laurent, “that my direction was at all unclear.”
He has more than a year’s experience commanding soldiers, and a lifetime’s experience controlling his voice. Soon the room is empty but for the two of them, and Laurent is exhaling slowly enough to force his pulse into something like normality. He feels at itch at his wrist, an oddness that makes him want to touch, and realises he misses the weight of gold there.
Damen, wearing both cuffs and heavy chains, is silent. His eyes are downcast in the calculated feigning of submission, but tense muscles stand out on his neck and bent shoulders, and the twin creases on either side of his nose shout the contempt he doesn’t know he’s showing. Laurent remembers. That contempt made his blood seethe, and his careful plans turn to so much steam inside his skull. Now he looks at Damen’s smooth back-–unmarked–-and his breath catches. For the first time he believes in the benefit of this kind of second chance. Actions, once made, that can be unmade.
He should release Damen immediately. That would be the right thing to do.
But if Laurent helps Damen to escape, then Damen will simply rush back to Ios at the first opportunity: headlong, unthinking. Unprepared. And if Laurent knows anything, he knows that neither of them can do this without the other.
Or…is that fair? Could they? Now that Laurent has the advantage and knows his uncle’s game from start to finish, could he play his way to victory on his own?
Perhaps he could. But Damen would be nothing to him–-no, be fair, be precise. He would be nothing to Damen. And Damen would be one man in the face of Kastor’s hatred and the Regent’s machinations; Jokaste can’t be relied upon to save him twice.
Laurent’s mind is a child’s toy, spinning in the dust, or an okton course busy with the thunder of hooves and the whistling danger of spears. Aimeric. Govart. Pascal. He knows everything; he could do it, he could–-oh gods, Nicaise, he could keep Nicaise intact and alive, he could reach into the morass of his uncle’s web and pluck out the innocent. The possibilities swirl and threaten to consume him.
Damen has raised his head. No doubt Laurent has been silent for long enough that Damen suspects a trick, or is simply becoming impatient.
Laurent’s head aches. He needs two nights by lamplight and endless sheafs of paper to sketch out all the ways he could play this; he needs to follow each thread ruthlessly to its end, and snip the tapestry down to its bones. He could, he is now fairly certain, do it alone.
He doesn’t want to.
He wants Damen across the table from him, giving him strategy, talking him down from anger, being the best half of Laurent’s soul and the only partner he could ever need. He wants Damen in this with him.
Laurent moves. He kneels down, suddenly, in front of Damen. He meets Damen’s startled gaze and compels it to hold.
“Your mother’s favourite place was her summer palace, outside of Ios,” he says. “There is a marble carving of a bird there, set just above the main entrance. Your brother gave you the scar on your thigh when you were thirteen, and it has only just occurred to you to wonder how deadly his intention was, when he came at you with the blade. Nikandros warned you about Jokaste, and he was right to do so; he would warn you about me, for the colour of my hair and eyes, and he’d be right to do that as well.”
Damen’s eyes are wide and shocked. He is showing everything on his face. This is the old Damen, before he learned from Laurent and Laurent’s treatment of him how to shutter and manoeuvre and dissemble. The bruise of betrayal is still vivid on his face.
“Damianos,” Laurent says; the name like a knife, like a gift, like a flame between them. “Damianos. Listen to me. I am going to tell you the truth.”