Chaos. Screaming. Smoke and fire in the dark. Damen had hardly taken two steps when people gathered around him. Everyone counted on the prince for instruction. He couldn't let them see he was just as shocked as them.
“My father was right,” he said. “Never trust a Veretian.” His personal guards, his best man, flanked him. It felt wrong. They should have been fighting. “Come,” Damen barked. “To the lines.”
“There are no lines, sir. They came in one wave and then retreated.”
There was no-one to fight. Damen pressed on. The soldiers, servants and camp followers still trailed him until Damen saw Nikandros among the commotion. “Take command,” he said to him but Nikandros was already organising a water train and sand buckets. “Where is Kastor?”
“Getting people out.” Nikandros had a scratch on his forehead but otherwise looked unhurt. “None of us saw it coming.”
“Are they really gone? The Veretians.”
“There weren't that many. Some are killed. The rest gone. The ambush was a distraction.”
The fire was the real action. Slaves. Servants. In exchange for perfect treatment, slaves gave up their freedom. Akielos took their sacrifice seriously. They did not let them get hurt. Normally.
Damen jumped on the first unspooked horse and rode hard out of camp. He could sort this. This was what he knew to do. Exposed in no-man's land, he pressed on without care for his own safety. Veretian men had done this. He was going to find them.
He cut down a red-liveried man running in the dark. Fool wasn't even wearing armour. He found another, chased him down and sliced him through. He pressed on. There had to be more. They couldn't be that fast. Damen heard footsteps, followed them and found a lad no more than seventeen flailing over grass. He raised his sword. He ran him through. It was only when he pulled the sword out, that he noticed that the boy was wearing Akielon colours.
This is what Vere had reduced Damen to – killing his own people.
The Regent had absorbed himself back into the dark. Damen could not find any one else to kill. When he Damen pulled the horse around in the wide open space and the horror in his camp nearly overcame him. It was ablaze. The noise – spitting, shouting, crashing – was painful. Beyond Vere's walls were tinkling bells and clinking cups.
There was no-one out here.
Of course not.
Damen was thinking like an Akielon, where men did their business in the light of day and warned before attack. This was Veretian venom. The fires had not been started on the front lines. Of course not. They needed guarantee the Regent safe passage out. It sparked from the east corner, where the kitchens and slave quarters were situated. Damen spurred the horse around the edges of the camp. He could not let himself listen to the chaos. Focus. There had to be someone left.
Men who were cruel enough to set fires were men who would stick around to watch them burn.
There was mayhem but Damen's senses were sharp and battle-honed and he was hungry for a fight he could win. There was a crack like the snap of a twig, too isolated to be related to the blaze. He knew the sound a coward when he heard it.
Damen opened his mouth, then closed it again. This was where he should call out a warning. The Akielon way. But instead, he inched closer to the source of the sound. If it wasn't for the faint orange glow behind him, Damen might have missed the moose of a man hidden in the thicket.
His sword as at his throat before the man could stand. Sickening. Damen and his horse were not exactly stealthy. But the flat-nosed Veretian had been too busy enjoying the show to react.
“Don't move,” Damen said. The man still stood, but Damen's sword moved with him. “Who ordered this?”
In response, he showed his blackened teeth in some impression of a smile and pulled Damen from his horse. This man was older, heavier, glazed with the frenzy of violence. But Damen was the better fighter. He was always the better fighter because he approached every fight with the attitude that he could not lose. Even when this rank, repulsive Veretian, so unlike the shining princes, pinned him and punched him and knocked the sword from his hands Damen did not entertain the idea of losing.
It took longer than usual, but with a blow to the head from a nearby rock and a neat slice of his sword, Damen defeated the Veretian.
It was a hollow victory.
He left him to the ash and went back to the camp.
Thanks to the strict discipline of the Akielon soldiers, and capable instruction from Kastor and Nikandros, the fire was mostly contained. Damen took up a bucket of dry earth and joined his men in covering any remaining sparks. His lungs burned. His eyes stung. It was with no small amount of shame that he realised he should have been doing this all along. He was stronger than most. He was braver, too.
He could have done more here.
So he worked on the aftermath until the sky grew light. Things looked worse under the sun. Tattered canvas and shaking servants and scorched earth. There was little left for man of Damen's stature to attend to. The people might like him for hauling tent poles but he couldn't very well start shaking out ash-stained sheets.
He sought out Theomedes for further instruction. His father still sat straight backed on his wooden bench, circles beneath his eyes the only sign of the hard night that had passed. According to his men, the King had spent much of the night making sure no more soldiers broke rank.
“Damianos,” he said. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
“No,” Damen said. “What now?”
“Medic overspill in the slave quarters. The least injured men can bury the dead. Check how soon we can take our leave.”
Damen nodded. “The boy?”
“Drugged. It was the safest way.”
Damen did not have far to walk to find the slave tent. Soldiers crowded the outside. Some with minor injuries. Some coughing black dust. Some just sluicing ash from their skin. Damen was just as dirty, just as tired. The men would love him for it.
“Where were you?” Kastor demanded, as soon as Damon set foot inside the tent. “We could have done with your help for the water chain.”
“Putting out the fire. Just like everyone else.” Damen was too weary for his brother's reprimands. It wasn't just the fire.
Marlas would go down as his first defeat.
Akielons did not go in for excess like Veretians, but even during war they afforded their slaves some measure of luxury in exchange for their devotion. The quarters was usually white cotton and clean stone, while the rest of the camp was rough canvas and wooden logs. It was a shock for Damen to see it transformed to a maskeshift medical ward. Perhaps it would have happened the same if there had been a battle. But that was different.
He recognised his favourite cook with his leg an angle that could only mean it was broken. A boy who had polished his armour was bleeding from his head. Nikandros came towards him with both his hands wrapped in bandages like a baby in a crib.
“What happened?” Damen asked.
“You remember Helena,” Nikandros said. Damen did. A lovely slave girl who mewled like a kitten when you kissed her neck. “She was trapped beneath some broken frames. She wasn't alone.”
“Is she --” Damen looked around. He could not see any slaves in the tent.
“There's a partition,” Nikandros said quickly. “They were getting very distressed.”
Damen nodded. “How many deaths?”
“It was contained. Maybe thirty soldiers. Sentries mostly, and a few stragglers. We found two boys by the thicket in the west. They were still embracing. A few dozen civilians. Some won't survive their injuries. Some of the slaves won't want to.” Nikandros took a breath. “We're still working out the tallies With Makedon and – the numbers are not so clear,” Nikandros said. “Damen, what happened?”
“We never should have trusted a Veretian.”
Kastor had come to stand alongside them, smelling of smoke and sweat. “And my brother has inherited one of his very own.”
Damen reported back to Theomedes. It would take a day to bury their dead, take down their camp and allow the soldiers some rest before moving out again.
“I will send word to the Regent,” he said. “That we will be gone. There is no need for more attacks.”
“Father, let me.”
“No. You'll try to chop off his head or some other stupidity. We get can't into an impenetrable fort and we cannot win battles without Makedon's men.”
Damen nodded and looked at his own dirty feet. “Father, I am sorry for this.”
“As am I.” Theomedes did not need to let Damen admit that this would not have happened if he hadn't pushed so hard to break from fighting in the aftermath of the old king's death. Damen carried it heavy enough already. His father said it in his face. “You should rest. We have much planning to do. It will be a long journey back to Ios.”
“Yes,” Damen said. For all that he was born to lead men, he was a soldier and he responded well to instruction. He returned to his tent, where a soft clean slave girl was waiting by his soft clean bed.
“Exalted,” she said. “Let me wash you.”
Damen did need to be cleaned. He closed his eyes while she stripped his clothes and sponged his skin. His head fell back while he felt his body respond to her touch. He was tired. But he was still young man. The slave girl kneeled to clean his legs. To his disgust, Damen saw blood on the cloth. Veretian blood. Akielon blood. His stomach lurched at the memory of cutting down that scared boy. Had the civilians ever been taught that they should not run? He didn't know.
Memories were scarred on the backs of his eyelids now. Permanent and ugly and his alone.
The slave girl inclined her head, because that was as much as a slave would ask a question. And Damen saw a flash of raw flesh near her ear where her hair slipped.
“Wait,” he said. “Were you burned?”
“It does not hurt, Exalted.”
Truly, she looked healthy in every other way.
Damen let her continue washing him. He was always considerate in bed. He would not as much as breathe too close to that burn. She washed his thighs, his abdomen, his behind. Her touch came very close to part of him between his legs, which did not need washing, and was not roused by any of this. But it could be. He could let it happen. Let her clean him all over, with her hands and her mouth like a cat cleaning its fur. Let he make him forget for a moment, how badly he had failed.
He closed his eyes again.
And wrenched them open when a venom-laced Veretian voice said, from the corner of the room, “That is disgusting.”
Damen was going to have strong words with whoever put that boy in his tent again. How had he not seen him? Why had the slave --- well of course she hadn't said anything. It wasn't her place.
“You are excused,” Damen said to her. She left quickly.
Laurent looked more like a child as he wiped sleep from his eyes, his yellow hair resembling a haystack that got caught in the wind. There was no taboo against nudity in Akielos and Damen was decidedly naked for practical reasons, not sexual ones. But, well, Depha was not theirs again yet and the Veretian Prince was so young.
Damen secured fresh clothing with his lion pin as fast as he could move.
“Fetch me some water,” Laurent said.
“Get it yourself,” Damen replied. He would not wait on this pup of a prince. He would not even look at him because all he could see was the damage his people had caused.
“You drugged me.”
“Not personally. I was busy putting out fires,” Damen said while the boy straightened his clothes and smoothed down his hair. It was no surprise that he slept with his boots on.
“What did you expect when you killed my brother?”
“I --” Damen was not going to argue with a child. “I fought alongside him, if you remember.”
Laurent shrugged. A quick flick of his shoulders that made Damen see red. “Actually, I expect nothing from Vere. You probably knew what your uncle was planning.”
“I assure you --”
“Have you any idea of the carnage outside?” Damen stalked towards Laurent. The boy raised his chin, defiant. “Come on. I'll show you what your precious uncle has done.” He grabbed Laurent's shoulder and hauled him through the decimated camp site. Every man they passed urged him on. At the former slave tent, he shoved him inside hard enough for the boy to fall to his knees. “Look,” he said. “Look at what you have done.”
“You killed my brother,” he said again. The injured, and those tending to them, did not need to be able to speak Veretian to understand the boy's scorn. Damen tried to make him stand but he managed without assistance.
“Look,” Damen said, pushing him through the partition where even he had not looked. The slaves had fared the worst. Especially without substantial clothing to protect them. Damen's stomach heaved at the sight of so much scorched flesh. His nostrils stung anew. Beautiful faces burnt beyond recognition. The gold cuffs and collars the slaves wore with pride had melted into one boy's skin.
“Late to have sympathy for slaves,” Laurent said, in broken Akielon. “When they probably didn't move without being telling to run. And you were the ones who put the collars on them.”
Damen turned his back. It was that or hit the boy.
“Exalted.” A senior soldier, who yesterday had hair and now did not, approached Damen. “There is a messenger. From Vere.”
For the first time since he'd woken, Damen saw a light in Laurent's eyes.
Damen marched the princeling outside. Considering there were only two men arrived from Vere, an extremely large retinue of Akielon soldiers had given them escort with weapons drawn and bared chests too close to the Veretians for comfort. One man, in a ridiculous hat, struggled to push a wooden cart though the mud. The other, a soldier by his dress, squared his shoulders and kept his gaze straight ahead.
“You dare come to this camp.” Damen inclined his head and two of his men let the Veretians feel their blades at their necks. “You dare walk in here after what you have done.”
“Why you?” Laurent asked. “Where is – I don't need a physician. I need to go --”
“State your purpose,” Kastor said. Damen hadn't seen him arrive.
“I am Paschal. A physician. I was the King's physician and now I serve the Regent,” said the man behind the cart. “We have the Prince's things. I am to ensure his good health.”
“And you?” Damen asked the soldier.
“You didn't think my uncle would leave me unattended.” Laurent said. “Idiot. He is to be my guard. I know him. He fought with my brother.”
“I am Jord.” The soldier looked around at the Akielon soldiers. Damen could tell the man felt some sort of kinship. The Akielons did not return the feelings. Soldiers were the same, until they fought on opposite sides.
“Send his stuff to my tent,” Damen said. Laurent's eyes widened a little at the overflowing cart. There was too much there for it to be a short-term stay. Damen beckoned Jord over. “Deal with him. If he gets hurt or goes missing, I'll hold you responsible. Now, physician, come with me.”
“I am here just to see to the boy and leave.”
“You have no authority over him,” Laurent said.
Damen stared him down. “You don't need a medic.”
“I was ambushed in the woods. Don't you remember? And drugged.” Laurent raised his chin again. “This way, Paschal. I am sure there is some private area in the slave quarters where a man can undress in peace.”
Because Damen did not want to see him any longer, he did not object. “Kastor,” he said. “Thank you for intervening.” Kastor had been observing the whole sad exchange.
Kastor grunted. “They found a body in the woods. Pockets full to burst. Strange that whoever killed him didn't rob him.”
“What was in his pockets?” Damen asked.
“Jewels.” Kastor dropped a sapphire bracelet into Damen's palm and for a second, it was like they were boys again. “Veretian. Give it to the boy. A token from home.”
Paschal the physician did not emerge from the tent for a long time.
“Is there something wrong with the boy?” Damen demanded.
“What?” Paschal startled. “No. He is – no.”
“Is there some reason you need to check him over? What did the Regent think would happen when he left him behind? In Akielos, we don't hurt people who don't fight back. We don't hurt little boys.”
“It was not the prince who delayed me. I assisted your medics. That's what we do.”
“Veretians?” Damen snorted.
“Physicians. We have a code, you know.”
Damen would have known that if he'd been able to bring himself to go inside again. “Where is the boy now?” he asked. Probably enjoying the sight of burnt Akielon flesh. Would Damen, in reverse? For Kastor, had be been killed in front of him when Damen was a boy and Kastor was kinder. For his father? For Nikandros?
The world felt all askew today.
“Cutting bandages,” Paschal said.
“Right.” Damen did not like the idea of him with a blade.
He found Nikandros sitting against a tent pole. There was no longer a tent. But there was a log and someone had placed water and food on it for Nikandros.
“No,” Damen said. “Don't get up.”
“What a mess.” Nikandros looked at his bandaged hands.
“I know.” Damen began to tear the bread and cut the meat. “I don't know how any of it happened.”
“Aren't you eating?” Nikandros asked, when Damen set down the knife.
“I can't allow...”
“Not today, old friend. No arguments. I remember when you held my head while I vomited the night after my seventeenth birthday.” Damen said.
“That awful griva Meniados sent,” Nikandros said, fondly. “Another lifetime.”
“You know, retreat wouldn't be so awful if we could just click our fingers and be back in Ios. It's the journey that's humiliating.”
“Indeed.” Awkwardly, Nikandros picked up a morsel of food with his bandaged hands. He dropped it. Damen retrieved it and put it back on his palm. “Half the men will disappear to the brothels on the road. We'll have to watch. I hear some Veretians are on the move now the fighting is done. Whores follow us. They want them.”
“They will obey.” Damen speared some meat and handed Nikandros the fork. “Again?” he asked, as the prince Laurent approached flanked by his new guard Jord. He had changed from one tightly laced jacket to another and mouth was forming a little circle.
“Your guards won't let me at my stuff,” Laurent said. The circle was gone. “They won't let him in the tent.”
Damen stood. He was much larger than Laurent's guard. But the man did not cower. “Come on, then.” He made Jord wait outside the tent while one his men searched Laurent's belongings.
“That is rude,” Laurent said, as Damen's soldier shook out his fine clothing and inspected the inside of his boots. Damen drank a mouthful of wine. Never trust a Veretian. The Regent could have hidden any number of weapons, poisons or secret instructions among his nephew's belongings.
Damen poked through one trunk himself. It was full of dull books. Veretian poets. Veretian customs. Veretian history. He flicked through a dictionary with notes in the margins and rifled though a battered collection of adventure stories in the wrong dust cover. Books were prime for ciphers and notes. He had to check.
He pulled out a wooden puzzle. A child's trinket. He tossed it to Laurent. “It's not a spinning top but it'll do.”
Laurent caught it in one hand. Without looking, he began to pull the pieces apart and nimbly put them back together again.
Damen's soldier had reached Laurent's underclothes and sleep shirts.
“That is unnecessary,” Laurent said just as the soldier shook five small glass vials onto the tent floor. They rolled and Laurent dove. But Damen was bigger and easily blocked his way.
“No you don't,” he said, holding the vials up to the light. They could be some strange Veretian poison.
“Put that back.” Laurent's pale face had gone very red. “It's just – it's private.”
Damen uncorked one vial and held it to his nose. Understanding dawned. He dismissed the soldier. “Are you even old enough?”
“I'm almost fourteen.”
At fourteen, Damen had....well, he was old enough. And if he wasn't, well, he would take care of himself.
“All right,” he said. “Your highness.”
Laurent blushed harder. At fourteen, it would have taken more than that to make Damen blush.
“You're a coward and a thug,” Laurent said, but his voice was too high to be threatening.
“I'm not the one keeping you here, kid.” Damen said. “I am certainly not interested in making you blush. Tidy this up. Someone will bring you food.”
Damen needed wine. And to check in with his father and brother. But mostly wine enough to make the edges of this dreadful, awful day soften at the edges. He was not the only one in that mood. There were no campfires, not even for cooking, and the mood at the tables was low. Defeat was cold and sour and Damen drank his wine while packing the camp and making the wagons comfortable for the injured.
He would sleep in the barracks tonight. Better for morale. Better to avoid that brat of a prince. He slept easier on a cot among men who knew what it was to fight and now, to lose.
Until, several hours later, when a watchman shook him awake. “The Veretian Guard asks for you,” he whispered.
“What did he say?” Damen needed sleep.
“Damianos. Now. Damianos. Now. I don't think he speaks much Akielon.”
“What do you want?” Damen went to Jord, who waited with two more watchmen, under the cool night sky.
“It's the Prince,” Jord said, in rushed Veretian. “Laurent is missing.”