Such was Auguste's air of command, the royal bearing that shone out of him like the starburst on his uniform, that his purported sworn enemy Damianos of Akielos immediately reached for Laurent.
Auguste had asked him. August was dying.
“Touch me,” said Laurent. “And I shall gut you like a fish.”
Damen paused. The boy was no threat and everything his soldier's brain assessed indicated there was no immediate death. Auguste was dying, drowning from the inside in his own blood. It wouldn't take long. Damen would not interfere or intrude. The honourable thing, if there was any honour in a young man needlessly dying in the woods, was to let his brother hold him in these sad final moments.
In the instant the life flickered out of Auguste, Laurent was on his feet. He pressed the tip of his blade against Damen's throat.
Damen caught his breath. He gave the boy his second to feel powerful. Chances were, this was his first death and, also, the first time he had felt he could hold the life of another in his hands.
Then, Damen caught Laurent's slender wrist and manoeuvred the boy away from his veins. To his credit, he did not drop the knife. If Damen applied any more pressure, he would have fractured Laurent's bones.
“I've gotten deeper nicks shaving,” Damen said, still holding the boy at a distance. “You were way off. And I'm sure you know that drawing a sword on another prince is not acceptable.”
“My brother is dead.” Laurent was whiter now, which Damen would not have previously thought possible. He was whiter than Auguste.
“I am sorry.”
“My uncle was right about you Akielon scum.. You're lower than filth.” Laurent looked at the dead soldiers with more scorn than his young face should have been capable. He jerked away from Damen and drove his blade into the neck of the man who'd stabbed August. Again. Again. Again.
A fine mist of blood had splatted his face by the time Damen subdued him again.
“I was going to interrogate him.” But Damen could see the boy's point.
“What for? You were in on it.”
Damen had neither the time nor the patience to argue with a princeling, no matter how sorry for him he felt. Akielos had most definitely not authorised this attack. If Makedon had initiated it alone, then that was mutiny and his father had to know. The death sluiced clearing was no longer a place of peace. It made Damen feel exposed, vulnerable, and that was a very odd sensation for him.
There could be more attackers.
Or Vere could come looking for its glorious sons and find one dead, and one quite traumatised, among Akielon men and royalty.
“Laurent,” Damen said, gently. “We must go.”
“You do not have leave to call me by --”
“Your highness. Brother. Shining star of the realm. It is not safe here. We must go.” Damen tried to guide the boy out of the clearing. But he stuck his ridiculous polished boots into the bloody mud.
“I will not leave my brother here.”
“No. We shall take him. It is right. And I will have you both returned to your lines when it is safe.”
“Now,” Laurent demanded. “Take us to my uncle.”
Damen had no notion of wading in among the Veretians uninvited. With a dead King. There were protocols.
“Bring me to your horses,” Damen said. “Help me with your brother.” Although he was quite certain he could manage Auguste himself. Corpses were simply heavy when freshly dead. It would take some time before stiffness set in.
Laurent blinked. “My horse is -- she threw Auguste. She was acting jumpy earlier, and he made me take his. That's why we stopped. He fell quite badly. That's...”
Damen nodded. “I know.”
Auguste was a mighty swordsman – talented and strong. He had won harder fights than these traitor men crumpled around their feet. More than that, he was a commander-prince just like Damen. It was more than his desire to protect his brother that had him struggling. Auguste would have known the best way to protect Laurent was to stay alive.
Damen figured shock had set in because Laurent grew quite obedient. He showed Damen to the horses and it was clear he was right about one not being useful. It was sweating and lurching so badly Damen was loathe to leave it.
“You should put him on his own horse,” Laurent said. “It's a very good horse.”
There was no dignified way to do it, but the boy bore it well. Definitely, he was in shock. Or perhaps, like most princes, he was well schooled in hiding his feelings. To lose your whole family in such a short space of time – it was unthinkable. You would have to plunder the depths of your defences to be able to cope. Damen couldn't begin to imagine how he would react if he lost his father and Kastor.
“You can take my horse,” Damen said. “It's not far.”
“I will walk with my brother.”
“Then I will, too.”
Laurent shook his head, blond hair flicking across his face. “I will walk my brother. Do you not understand Veretian, you ignorant swine?”
Damen let him walk.
He politely pretended not to see the tears course down the boy's face, streaking clean streams through the misting of blood spray. Laurent's back remained perfectly straight the entire way back to the Akielon camp.
“Wipe your face,” Damen said, once the trees began to thin out. The boy was a prince, but more than that he was a boy on the cusp of manhood and things like tears mattered. It wasn't the blood Damen wanted him to wipe away.
“Don't speak to me, cur.”
“Do you really want Akielon blood all over your lily white skin?”
Glaring, Laurent wiped his face. The oddest impulse rose up inside Damen – something no-one had ever done for him but perhaps he had seen a peasant woman do to her litter in the crowded streets of Ios. It seemed like a natural thing to wet the corner of his cloak and dab the dirt for the boy Laurent's face.
But he stopped himself. Laurent was not his to look after.
Of course, when the soldiers saw Damen's unexpected cartage, they reacted. Roars. Swords. That kind of thing.
The boy did not flinch.
“Quiet,” Damen commanded, as he took leave of his own horse. The men obeyed. This was no kind of victory. Then, not knowing what else to do he lead both Veretian princes, horse and all, into his fathers white tent. “There has been an incident.”
He had never seen Theomedes look so shocked.
“Oh,” he said. “What have you done?”
The Prince of Vere, Laurent, tossed the reins towards Damen. “You,” he said. “King of Akielos. What are you going to do about the men who killed my brother?”
Theomedes rounded his table and crouched to his knees in front of the boy. Another new action. “Firstly, boy. Laurent, I presume? You're going to clean your face properly and have a drink.” He signalled for wine. “Someone tell Kastor to re-secure the camp boundaries. Damianos, tell me what happened.”
The boy sat in silence while Damen recalled the events to his father. The fact that the northern soldiers had not obeyed him caused an acute, physical ache to admit. That had never happened to Damen before. It had not happened to his father ever.
Laurent's face remained blank. Shock. Schooling. Perhaps he could understand Akielon that well. Damen switched to the low island dialect when he relayed the fact that Auguste had told him to take his brother.
“I did not order this,” the King said.
“I know,” said Damen.
Theomedes switched to Veretian. “Akielos did not order this.”
“It appears your men do not listen,” Laurent said. “Are you finished discussing us like we do not exist?” Damen, for a second, though Laurent was using the royal plural as they did in Akielon but that was not the Veretian way. Laurent simply meant him and his brother. “I would like to go home now.”
“You are very far from home,” Theomedes said, not unkindly, but Laurent winced all the same. “And you may not leave just yet.” He began to write a note. Damen presumed he was about to send word to the Veretian camp. The late King, not the one who was cooling on the floor of a sparse Akielon war tent, had a brother remaining. He would be in charge now.
“Would you like something to drink?” Damen asked Laurent.
“Sure. Maybe a spinning top to play with, too. I am not a child.”
“Leave him,” Theomedes said. “Kastor has summoned Makedon.”
Generally, political business was attended to in private. That was the Akielon way. But it seemed unseemly to parade Makedon in front of the dead king's brother, so he met his king outside under the fading sun.
“I know you agreed with Kastor,” Theomedes said. “But that does not give you leave to launch an attack without my permission.”
Makedon snorted. “What attack? My men have been at the griva during this lull. They only attack each other.”
Damen threw the notched belt down at Makedon's feet. “There are fifty more by the stream to the east. Do you deny them, too? The labourers are already bringing their bodies back.”
“Anyone can notch a belt.” Makedon dropped his head like it pained him. “Exalted, I did not do anything.”
“The new King of Vere has been killed before he could be crowned,” Damen said.
“I would count that as a win,” Makedon replied. “Ha!”
Damen had to clench his jaw shut. He knew his place. His father was already signalling and then Makedon was on his knees.
“We will investigate,” Theomedes said. “You will be treated fairly while you are contained. But know, General, that what your men do reflects right onto your own face like a mirror.”
When Damen returned to the tent, the horse was gone and the late crown prince of Vere was laid out on fine cotton. He saw that someone had cleaned Auguste's face. Even in death, he had an open handsome countenance.
“I sent the slave away. No-one else may touch my brother.” Laurent said. “Now, how long until we go back?”
“Soon,” Damen said. He could taste the lie like bad wine in his throat. “First, we will send your brother.”
“Your brother, the King. Then we will make arrangements.”
“I don't like waiting,” Laurent said.
“No, me neither.”
Theomedes personally escorted the dead king back to the gates of Marlas. Along with his best men and his eldest son and an invitation to parley with the man Laurent called uncle, who would now be the Regent.
Damen stayed behind and tried to coax the boy into a game of cards.
“You must tell the truth when we speak again,” Damen said. What he meant was, everyone needs to know that I did not kill Auguste.
“I don't lie,” Laurent said.
“I heard all Veretians lie.”
The boy gave him a look that would sour milk. “I'm tired,” he said.
Damen had a tent fit for a prince but he also had a bunk among the soldiers and that is where he usually slept. It boosted camaraderie. And it was a shorter walk at the end of a long day or a night of drinking. He gave the boy his tent and then it dawned on him he could not leave him there alone. He could not sleep there either. Men and boys did not do that. So he sat on a low chair and decided he would call it keeping watch.
“I heard you killed dozens of men today,” Nikandros, his old friend, said while he waited for Damen to tell him to sit. Damen wished he would just sit.
“I had help,” Damen replied. “I've rarely fought alongside anyone better than August of Vere.” He said it for the boy's benefit but also because it was true. “He died honourably.”
“I'm not sure that matters, once you're dead.” Nikandros took a flask from his belt and handed it to Damen first. “Meniados's other generals have all arrived. It is...noisy. They are all adamant neither Makedon or Sicyon had nothing to do with the attack
Sicyon was the closest province to the Delpha. They had suffered more from the Veretian occupation. They had a personal interest in making Veretians pay.
“Then he should have controlled this men better.” Damen took a long drink before letting Nikandros have a drop. “This is a disaster.”
“Or a change of fortune, according to some.”
Kastor, most likely. Damon glanced at the boy behind the curtains. He showed no indication of having heard but he had shown no indication of being asleep either.
“We'll see tomorrow,” Damen said.
Upon investigation, there really was no evidence of any wrongdoing on Makedon's part. The squadron, what was left of it, had been on patrol far from Marlas these past weeks. The did not know of any détente.
“They did not obey when I bid them stop,” said Damen.
“You could have been anyone,” Kastor said. He tended to get offended at the thought of the whole country knowing his younger brother by sight. “What did you sat the Veretians were doing? Fishing.”
“It's a complete breach,” Damen insisted. “Father, there must be consequences.”
“We need Makedon's men.”
“More than trust?”
Makedon, flanked by his guard out of respect, and Theomedes' guard out of authority, rose from his chair. “You need my troops more than I need this hassle. I did not come here to be accused of treachery and I certainly did not come here to laze about making flower chains while the Veretians do their mourning dance. It's war. Men die.”
“Makedon,” Theomedes said. “You are a good general. Meniados is a loyal kyros. But I cannot tolerate insolence.” To prove it, he signalled for his guard to draw their swords in an x in front of his throat. “Obey me or leave.”
Makedon left. He took all the Sicyon men, which made up most of the Akielon troops. They were in fact well trained. Their tents were dismantled with ruthless efficiency.
“If I was king,” Laurent offered. “I would have cut of his head, taken back his lands and absorbed his troops.”
“Let us all be glad you have a Regent,” Damen said. Thankfully, the boy was ill-informed enough about the court not to know that Theomedes had just let the killing of a Veretian King pass without punishment. “He has sent word, by the way. We'll meet tonight.”
Laurent finally smiled.
Damen had never paid much attention to the art of negotiation. It was his conviction that better results could be yielded on the battle field. Fighting made sense. You warned. You prepared. You won. If you didn't win, you weren't good enough.
There had been no letters, no ambassadors, no thinly-veiled threats. Theomedes sent supplies. He sent men. He sent warnings. Then Akielon troops tramped through Delpha. There was nothing to negotiate. It had had been effective enough to bring the royal family away from the tawdry splendour of Arles to the fortress at Marlas.
As such, he hadn't thought about what it had meant for his father to escort Auguste back to the Veretian lines until Kastor boasted about how little he feared while the archers aimed at them. If Damen wasn't so ashamed of his thoughtlessness, he would have pointed out to Kastor that he knew him well enough to know when he was lying.
It was a show of goodwill that the Regent was willing to come to their camp to discuss the newly minted Crown Princes return. Protocol (and common sense) pushed for a meeting at a midway point with both armies at their backs. Damen offered to go build a platform himself – a poor imitation of the Kingsmeet where he had his own fate sealed as a babe – but that was not going to be necessary.
Naturally, the royal tent was strategically placed within the Akielon camp for maximum security for its royal residents. The Regent knew this, too, but he was willing to meet with Theomedes there in person with only the requisite accompanying guard.
“You would think him green to wade into enemy camp like this,” said Kastor. “But he is well past his thirty fifth year.”
“Oh, how ancient,” Theomedes, who was much older, said, without glancing up from his work. Kastor clenched his jaw. Damen might have smiled, if this wasn't such a serious situation. “Veretians are not to be trusted, you know, even one as unused to statecraft as this Regent. If he comes here like this, it is to a purpose.”
“The purpose,” Laurent said, echoing Theomedes' Akielon word as carefully as one tasting vintage wine. “Is me.”
“Cocky brat, isn't he?” Kastor remarked. “Do you think he understands Akielon for shut the fuck up?”
“Yes,” Laurent said, and repeated as much in Veretian. With some embellishment.
“That is not princely,” Theomedes said.
Laurent made a gesture that was not princely. Damen turned his head, so neither his father or the boy would see him smile. This meeting did not sit well with him. He disliked the unpredictable quality that came with conversation and debate. Whatever the Regent would want in return for the Crown Prince would not be something Akielos would want to relinquish. No-one knew much about the man, either. Unlike Kastor, he had little involvement in Veretian politics. Apparently he preferred to enjoy court. He was only at Marlas to escort the boy to his family.
“He comes, Exalted,” Nikandros announced. “The Regent is almost here. He has just ten men.”
“Thank you, Nikandros. Please check in with the sentries,” Theomedes said. Then, in Veretian. “Our brother of Vere, please come and stand behind me.”
“He's talking to you,” Damen told Laurent, when the boy didn't move. He urged him along with a hand on the shoulder and was surprised when Laurent did not shrug him off. Kastor remained by the entryway, pointing positions for ten men to stand by to match the Regents number.
Very civilised. Damen would have rather been drilling.
He heard Laurent catch his breath at the sound of the hoof-fall and snippets of Veretian outside the royal tent. He kept his hand on his shoulder, to stop him simply running to his countrymen when they got close enough.
“Isn't that a picture,” Kastor scoffed. “Current and future rulers all together.”
Before Theomedes could chastise him, a herald was announcing the Regent's presence and protocol, as well as good manners, made the King get to his feet and leave the family squabbles for later.
“Welcome, Regent,” Theomedes said, in that booming way of his. It drowned out Laurent's soft cry of uncle to all but Damen. The Regent, all in red, walked in easily, a man on either side. Damen applied a little pressure to Laurent's puny shoulder. Otherwise, he would have had his hand on the hilt of his sword.
“Thank you for receiving me, brother.” The Regent used the royal fraternal. It sounded false to Damen.
“Would you care for some refreshment?” Theomedes beckoned a squire to bring them drinks. The wine bottle was sealed. The water was in clear glass.
“Why, yes. Thank you,” the Regent and he almost sounded grateful. Laurent, under Damen's hold, twitched his shoulders a little. “Forgive me, I am unsure of protocol. Should I pour?”
Theomedes poured. Kings did not usually do that. He also took the first sip and the Regent slurped so loudly even Kastor grimaced.
“Please sit,” Theomedes said.
The Regent awkwardly lowered himself onto a chair. “What a charming tent. It's been too long since I've had a chance to see the rustic charms of your little culture. Do you not have silks here?”
“No, not at war,” Theomedes said.
“I must send you some. Some of our cloth merchants are famed. Have you heard of Charls?”
Kastor's jaw was close to the floor. This was not how parleys were done. Damen steeled himself to do what his father had asked and also bring this conversation back on track.
“On behalf of Akielos, and personally too, I wish to sympathise again on the recent loss in your family. The new King Auguste --”
“Forgive me for interrupting,” said the Regent. “But Auguste never got the chance to have a coronation.”
“Crown Prince Auguste,” Damen amended. “Fought bravely and skilfully and it was an honour to fight by his side. You should know, sir --” Damen figured no-one had officially granted this man title of Regent yet either. “-- that he was wholly devoted to protecting his younger brother.”
There. Damen did it. His father would not hassle him. That strange blood-soaked kinship that had developed with these foreign princes was absolved.
“Noble, indeed,” the Regent said. “You speak Veretian very well, for a ... what is the word?”
“Barbarian,” Laurent helpfully supplied. Damen thought is odd the Regent had yet to acknowledge his remaining, very living, nephew.
“Both my nephews have, sorry had, wonderful attributes.”
Laurent almost glowed at the praise. Damen almost felt sorry for him. Bad enough to come from the amoral land of Vere. The boy had a bearded, bumbling uncle as his only family in the world.
“Before his passing, Auguste and I were in communication,” Theomedes said. Damen had not been aware of that. But why would he? When the King was around, Damen had less authority. He had been focused on recovering from the losses at Sanpellier and Marlas and getting fresh supplies from the south. “We felt that it is in both our countries interests to finish this thing quickly.”
“We? Is that how kings refer to themselves here?” The Regent asked.
“I meant myself and Auguste.”
“I was not aware...” The Regent trailed off. “What were the terms?”
Theomedes waved Oreste, his adviser and chamberlain, over with a scroll and handed it to the Regent.
“Laurent, my boy, have you been treated well here?” he asked, as he scanned the page. Damen felt Laurent stand straighter, like he was pleased at the acknowledgement on his own value finally matched the value he saw in himself. The boy had been confident all along his uncle would come. Now, here he was.
“As well as you can expect from the uncouth swine who killed my brother, uncle.”
“Please,” said Theomedes, in that way that mean enough. “With respect to your grief and inexperience, I will be generous. But insults are so childish.”
“He is a child,” Damen said, without thinking. Laurent pressed the heel of his polished boot into Damen's sandalled foot.
“Regent apparent,” Theomedes said. “We're all adults here. The demands are clear. Rescind your claim on the Akielon rightful territory of Delpha and we will return your nephew, Laurent. There was talk of fostering you know, in the negotiation with Auguste. Send the boy to Akielos to guarantee the terms.”
“My eldest nephew is dead, though,” said the Regent. “This could all be lies.” He glanced at his men, like they could somehow confirm this.”
“Auguste would never send me away,” Laurent said.
“We don't lie,” Damen said. Auguste had sent Laurent with Damen, when the attackers were all dead.
“Furthermore, you have done nothing to make amends for the wrongful death of Crown Prince Auguste,” the Regent continued.
Prince Laurent's chin gave a little tremble.
“Crown Prince Auguste's death was an accident. The killers have all been slain,” Theomedes said.
“According to you,” said the Regent.
“Damianos, my son, was witness. His word is enough.”
“Also,” said Damen. “There was the matter of the bodies. You saw them did you not?” He nudged Laurent to stand in front of him. “The young prince here finished the last one off.”
“I cut his throat, uncle.”
“And the kyroi in command?” the Regent said to Theomedes. “Is that the word?”
“Meniados of Sicyon remains in Sicyon. His man Makedon has left.”
“Yes.” The Regent smiled.
“You agree to our terms?” Theomedes offered his hand.
“Oh, I mean, yes I know he had left. He has taken most of your troops and much of your arsenal while mine remain protected in their fort,” the Regent said. “Or, rather, they did, until a couple of minutes ago.”
Damen felt his insides sink. Kastor, by the exit, looked prime to run. Akielon troops were not prepared for an attack. They were depleted. There were great gaps in their formations where Makedon's men had once marched and that was to say nothing of the lives they had lost at Sanpelier, on the battlements of the fort and the previous battles here at Marlas.
“We are in truce,” Theomedes said. “Because of your mourning.”
“Mourning is over.” The Regent was transformed. He sat tall, now. The hint of a smirk on his bearded face. Laurent, beside Damen, caught his breath.
“I knew he had a plan,” Laurent said.
They were outnumbered, Damen realised. They did not know these territories. Half his men were probably drunk on sour wine. It was classic Veretian, a cowardly attack in the dark.
“Go.” Theomedes jerked his head at Kastor. “You, Regent of Vere, will regret any harm that befalls my people if --”
“I don't think I will,” said the Regent. “But I must depart. Something smells funny.”
“Stop,” said Damen.
“No, I will not,” the Regent said. “You are in my land. You have killed my eldest nephew.”
“I hold your youngest one between my hands,” Damen interrupted. “You have not looked at him? Can you not see how I can crush his windpipe before you could get off that chair?”
“Uncle,” Laurent said.
“Call them off,” Theomedes said.
“No,” said the Regent. “It is done.” His men were all standing at attention now, swords in hand. Damen could take them, while Theomedes' men protected him. He could take the Regent. He could force him to call off his troops.
If it wasn't for the matter of the young prince standing very still now in front of him.
A page burst into the tent. “Forgive me, Exalted. There's been an attack. It's....there are so many.”
“This isn't warfare,” Theomedes said. “This is ambush. This is--”
“Father, let me go.” Damen stepped forward, dragging Laurent with him. Theomedes could take over Laurent. “I can take them.”
“Take what?” The Regent asked. “Can't you smell the burning?” Damen saw flickers of orange through the canvas of the tent. The first tendrils of smoke reached his nose.
The royal tent was so far from the edge of camp.
“You --” Theomedes drew his sword. He never touched it. Being King was enough. He did not aim it at the Regent or any of his men. He pressed the blade against the high collar of Laurent's shirt.
“Call them off,” Theomedes said. “I will kill another of your boys.”
Damen knew his father ruled with force. He had seen it all his life. But something twisted inside him at the sight of the heavy blade against the boy's throat. Laurent, to his credit, hardly flinched.
The Regent shrugged. “Do it. My men are gone. The battle is won. You will not take Delfeur, not tonight, not ever. It remains with Vere. Retreat. You cannot win. There is no battle. You are outnumbered here in your canvas city and we are behind the fort. Retreat.”
The screams, the fighting, were penetrating the tent now. Except it wasn't fighting. It was slaughter.
“I'll kill him,” Theomedes said.
“Your battle will still be lost.”
“Father,” Damen said, again. “I can help.” He did not want to keep a hold on the Prince of Vere any longer.
“No,” said Theomedes. “Damianos, stay. It is done. Regent, we accept. We retreat.”
“Excellent.” Lazily, the Regent stood. “I do hope you have ample water supplies.”
Finally, Damen let Laurent wriggle out of his grasp. “Aren't you forgetting something?”
“No,” said the Regent, as he bid for the exit. His men already tight around them. “Keep him. That part of the terms was acceptable to Vere. Consider it a promise that we shall honour our side of the bargain.”
Bargain? There was no bargain. Only Veretian snakery and dishonour. Damen had no intention of reclaiming the boy but Theomedes' men had already taken him by the arms.
“Uncle?” Laurent said. "I--"
“Hold him,” said Oreste and two of the King's strongest guards took hold of the little prince.
Damen stepped forward. He was considering throwing his sword at the Regent's skull.
“No,” his father said to him, then he looked at the Laurent's uncle again. “I don't know your name,” Theomedes said. “But I know a snake when I see one. The boy stays. You can't win everything.”
“Ransom?” Damen asked, his mind scrabbling to make sense of this turn of events.
“Uncle?” Laurent said again. He sounded very young.
The Regent spared one glance back. “You are old enough now, Laurent, to understand these things.” As he spoke, the life drained from Laurent's face. “Try not to embarrass yourself. I will write from Fortaine.”
“No! Uncle,” Laurent said. “You promised. You can't leave me. You promised!”
But the Regent had left and Damen was glad for the boy's sake that only he and Theomedes could speak Veretian. He looked at his father for instruction.
“Go,” he said.
Damen looked at Laurent as he left the tent. He saw the boy spit into the face of the Akielon guards. Outside, his army was dying. Their camp was burning.