Damen gritted his teeth so hard his jaw ached. “You have lost the Prince of Vere.”
“I don't think --” Jord said. Damen could tell he did not kindly to reprimands from an Akielon. Well, Damen did not much relish having to give them.
“How long?” Damen asked.
“I don't know. I sent him to bed a while ago.”
“You sent the Prince of Vere to bed? You think he would listen to you?”
“He doesn't listen to anybody but --” Jord pressed his lips together. “We best look for him.”
“He's probably gone back your side.” That's what Damen would have done.
“Or he's got some Akielon soldier taking their anger out on him. Or he's alone in the woods. The boy has barely been outside Arles before and he's always had his brother to protect him. He's never alone.”
Damen was realising that this could jeopardise whatever terrible truce Theomedes agreed to with Vere. Losing the boy could bring the Veretian troops back. Damen would fight, of course. But he wasn't sure the camp could take much more.
“Saddle two horses,” Damen said. “And don't tell anyone else.”
They left the camp in silence. Damen wanted to go straight to the Veretian lines but Jord's expressionless face told him that he would likely get an arrow in the neck for his trouble.
“I doubt he's there,” Jord said. “But I know the sentries. And the spies. Wait.”
“Do you know the place where Auguste was killed?”
“I went with his men to investigate. After.”
“Follow me there.” Damen rode into the night. It occurred to him that this might be some Veretian trap but his course was already set. In his mind's eye, he kept seeing the image of Auguste fighting with one purpose – keep his brother safe. Damen didn't know if had ever fought for anything but the glory of fighting. He certainly had never seen that determination in his own brother.
The clearing, when he reached it, was empty.
“If you are here,” Damen called. “Speak. There are plenty of pissed off Akielons in these woods that would be less forgiving than me.”
No response. On foot, Damen searched the area half-expecting to find the boy asleep among the roots of a tree like a changeling. Nothing. Silence. Until Jord came clattering along.
“His highness didn't get past the gates,” Jord said.
“Nor is he here.” Damen climbed back onto the horse.
“Too many ghosts.”
“Are Veretians superstitious?”
“We mourn like any other man,” Jord replied. Damen knew that. He pressed to delay attack on the very basis of that. And look where it got him. Now, he would have to go back to his father and tell him he had lost the Prince, lost the only scrap of leverage they still held against the Regent. They'd have to waste their manpower on a search party. And their time. He would have to lead it.
Damen sighed. He remembered being Laurent's age, then he remembered his earlier conversation with Nikdandros.
“Let's go,” he said to Jord. “I want you to take me to the nearest brothel.”
Unsurprisingly, the nearest house of ill repute was thronged. It resembled an inn more than a brothel with the amount of drunks staggering about outside The local whores had probably never earned so much coin. Damen pretended not to see the Akielon soldiers among the punters. The Veretians were too drunk on victory and sex to notice him. Well, Jord went first.
“The men will be hostile if they see you,” he said. “At least take my cloak.”
Damen would rather fight ten horny Veretians, battle-high, than wear red Veretian velvet. For all he knew there were men here who had set the fires.
“No,” he said. It was unlikely anyone would know him by sight as the prince. It was dark and he was quite dishevelled. He marched straight to the door, glad of the coin in his belt. “Open the door,” he told the madame. “You have something belonging to me. Small, blond and bratty.”
“Ah,” she said, sizing up Damen's clothing and air of command.“I was wondering when you'd show up.” Jord followed Damen through the door. “And with a bold Veretian, too. Mostly they pretend like they just want directions or a drink. Your pet is the corner room.”
“Pet?” Damen asked Jord.
“You really don't know much about Vere, do you?”
“Why don't you tell me before I find out what happens when a Veretian soldier loses his sword hand.” Damen walked right by the workers who had emerged to see the man who had made their madame let someone in without paying. They moved like cats, sidling close to the men with a kind of practised distance.
“Pets,” Jord said. “Like your slaves but...paid.”
“Not exactly,” Jord said. “More like....accessories. Very expensive, very provocative. Often, the kind of young men the older men wish they could have been.”
“There are only soldiers around here,” Jord said. “In Vere, men only fuck the women they're married to.”
“I pity those women,” Damen said, half-recalling a mention in his schooling of how taboo they regarded bastards in Vere. It had been glossed over as one of the many peculiarities of their corrupt northern neighbours. Akielons did not talk openly about sex. No-one spoke too much about bastards in castle where Kastor would have been king, if Damen had not been born. Kastor was beloved in his own way. Mainly by reprobates. “Wait,” he said. “I'll be the bearer of bad news.”
He didn't know what he expected as he opened the door to the room. Worst case scenario, the crown prince had engaged the services of a boywhore or one of those pets. He was young but not so young to be disinterested in sex. It was not something Damen wished to see. The vials were proof enough.
Or perhaps, considering the madame's assessment of the boy, he would be sat waiting like some teenage girl's dream. Again, not something Damen wished to see.
“Sorry to --” he began, then stopped. Laurent was sitting alone, against the wall, with his knees drawn up to his chest and his hands pressed against his ears. His eyes were red but the ruby against his skinny white chest was redder. They were hopeful, when he raised them when the door opened, then sad as a grieving widow, when he lowered them again.
“You,” he said, viciously.
“Me,” Damen said and sat beside Laurent. “You were expecting someone else?”
“You said you weren't keeping me prisoner.”
“I'm not, lad.”
“I don't want to go to Ios.”
“I didn't want to Sicyon, the first time my father sent me. I wanted to stay in the palace and chase serving girls,” Damen said.
“Fascinating. I suppose you'll tell me next about how brave you were and how it made you a man.”
Sometimes Damen felt like, despite his age and his size, he was still waiting to become a man. “No.” He looked around the candlelit room. It was gaudy, really. So many silks. “This your first time in a brothel.”
“Princes don't generally need to pay.”
“Who did you plan on meeting?”
“No-one. Nothing,” Laurent said. “I'd rather clean the spunk from the floorboards here than spend another second in that --”
“You want a girl, just ask,” Damen said. “Here, I'll leave the room.”
“Don't be --” Laurent's mouth twisted in revulsion.
“It can be comforting.” Damen stood. “If you don't want a girl, we best leave. Believe it or not, this is their best room.”
“I know. I requested it.”
Looking like a pet must open more doors than Damen realised. “Is that why you stole some poor pet's necklace?”
Laurent shoved the shiny stone back under the loosened laces of his shirt “I – no. I'm not that.”
His face, when horrified, felt so familiar to Damen. It was so like Auguste's had been when he begged the prince of the country they were warring with to take his brother away.
“It's late,” Damen said. “We're going back.. Luckily, Jord is here to let you ride with him.”
Jord's neck was very red when Damen and Laurent rejoined him in the corridor. “Your highness,” he said.
“I have my own horse,” Laurent said, marching ahead. “The best one in your puny stables. And you better pay the maitresse. I have no coin.”
Damen paid her. He resisted the urge to thank her for keeping the boy out of harms way. “Why did you let me in?”
“You look like a master,” she replied. “And he told me to expect a very large, angry man. He never did say he'd be so attractive.”
“I'm not --” Damen stopped himself. He did not explain himself to Veretian brothel keepers. “Are all pets like him?”
She shrugged. “I hope not. My boy is one in Arles. Better than being a whore, if your mind is sharp.”
Damen pushed past more drunken men. He thought, by the state of them, the whores would not be as busy as he'd believed. Perhaps that was the madame's intention all along.
“Who was he really expecting?” Damen asked Jord while Laurent made a production of climbing onto his horse unaided.
“One of the Regent's closest guards is, well, the type you would find here,” Jord replied. “Big ugly fella.”
“Govart would gut you both like fish.”
Damen wondered if Laurent had read that phrase in a book. “Hair like an oil slick? Nose that's been broken one too many times? A bear in a man's body?”
“Yes.” Laurent's blue eyes flashed.
“I killed him in the woods last night.” Damen held the blue stone bracelet up to the starlight. “You can have this, for the next time you want to dress up. I took it from is pockets.”
Before they set out, Theomdes gathered his people on the trampled grass of what was once their campsite. The King of Akielos did not require some grand dais to be seen by his people. At his presence, they all went to their knees.
Even in defeat, they were loyal and strong. Beside him, Damen could see Laurent's blue eyes widen a little.
“My people,” Theomedes began. “Today we ride for home, be it Ios or Karthas or Dice or beyond. We mourn for our fallen people. We are loathe to leave behind our lands and blood here here in Delpha. But we hold our heads high. We do not cower. We do not run.”
Damen felt the crowd stir. His father's words had energy all of their own and he passed it onto every soldier, servant and slave in the crowd. He was not unaffected. He needed this as much as anyone else.
“Do you know why we hold our heads high?” Theomedes asked. “Because we know that defeat is temporary.”
The roar went up. Kastor leaned closer to their father. Damen almost thought he saw a glint in young Laurent's eyes.
Temporary. Damen could do temporary.
Since once again the boy's wellbeing fell to him, Damen suggested putting Laurent in a wagon.
“I can ride,” Laurent said.
“Let him ride,” Theomedes said, then walked Damen a few feet away. “He is not a prisoner.”
“What is he?”
Kastor fell into step beside them. “A foster brother, basically.”
Damen felt dread like he hadn't felt since their first losing battle here.
The horse Laurent had commandeered for his jaunt to the brothel, had been Theomedes' personal favourite. Damen didn't get how anyone could have favourites. A horse was a horse.
Laurent spent as long choosing another horse as a courtier might spend choosing a dress. He insisted on wearing an ornate blue cloak that draped over most of the horse. Damen did not argue. He did not care what the boy wore. He just wanted to get out of this cursed country.
Delpha still belonged to Vere. Now, as they left, Damen saw what he should have seen all along. He saw what his father had told him about but he was too busy envisioning tactics and formations and war. Delpha was not just a symbol of Veretian arrogance. Nor would it have been a symbol of Akielon might. It was a lovely place. Clement weather. Rich, fertile lands. A busy seaport, in calm, safe waters. It would have been a great asset to the country.
And Damen had not been able to win it.
Laurent rode alongside Damen and Kastor, just behind Theomedes and his guard. He kept his back straight and his eyes dead ahead. Whenever they passed occupied townlands, all eyes went to Laurent.
He was showing his people that the Akielons were taking him away. It could not be said better if he was in chains. There was no-one alive who remembered Delpha as being anything but Veretian. Here was their crown prince, a golden boy, riding away beside a failure and a bastard.
“Long night?” Nikandros pulled his horse in beside Damen, much to Kastor's chagrin. He had strong ideas about where men should stay in formation ie everyone should stay behind him. Laurent did not react.
“Don't even ask,” Damen said, straightening his back. “How are your hands?”
“Better. I got a salve from the slave quarters. And this is a docile horse.”
Laurent pulled his reins, and his horse, and Nikandros' horse faltered at the intrusion. His face stayed stoic but the shock and effort of keeping his horse in line had to have pained him.
“Careful,” Damen said.
“I'm not talking to you, Nikandros.”
“Cheer up, lad,” Nikandros turned to Laurent. The word lad made him raise one pale eyebrow.
“Your highness,” Jord mumbled. “Sir.”
“Cheer up, your highness,” Nikandros said, tossing Damen a smile. “You'll come to like Ios. I was fostered there when I was much younger than you. Didn't do me any harm.”
“What a glowing recommendation,” Laurent replied.
“You've got the best person there looking out for you.” Nikandros smiled at Damen,
“My brother was the best person,” Laurent said through gritted teeth. “He died. In his place, I have to go a foreign country filled with the uncultured swine who killed him. Oh, and a sweaty meatball on a horse.”
“Meatball?” Nikanndros frowned. “My Veretian is not great but --”
“I know what I said.” Laurent glared at Nikandros.
Damen regretted not putting him in a wagon.
As they drew close to the border, that Damen had been hoping would no longer be a border, swatches of red began appearing through the trees.
“Ah,” Theomedes said. “The Regent has sent a party to see us off.” To draw his entire party to a halt, he simply raised one hand. Laurent stopped his mare just as obediently as the rest. “Come, Herald,” he called. “I know you have something for me.”
They did not have to wait long before beak-nosed man in the Regent's livery emerged from the woods.
“I have the terms of your retreat,” he said.
“You had them at Marlas, too, I am sure.” Theomedes bid his guard to take the scroll. He unrolled it, still on horseback. Damen leaned forward to see the terms over his father’s shoulder. Laurent did the same. The terms were simple. The Akielons were to leave and stake no further claim on the land they called Delfeur. Vere would allow them foster their prized son, as a promise that they would not advance their armies further south. “Your uncle is reasonable,” Theomedes said to Laurent, as he signed his name. “We pledge to protect you.”
“Yes, Exalted,” Laurent replied, softly. The scroll must have been the final nail in the coffin for the boy. He kept his horse close to Theomedes for the rest of the ride.
“Why do you not build a bigger camp?” Laurent asked, when they finally stopped. “Send servants ahead.”
“One, we are retreating,” Damen told him. “So we like to keep our servants out of harm's reach.”
“Two,” Nikandros added. “We do not need silks and velvets to stop for one night.”
“I'm hungry,” Laurent said. “Jord?”
Damen shook his head in Jord's direction. “He is a guard, not a servant.”
“Fine.” Laurent took himself off to Theomedes tent which was, admittedly, more luxurious than strictly necessary. Damen would stay by the fire with the soldiers. Well, the officers. His presence spooked the lower ranks. But he was more comfortable among the soldiers than his family at the moment. He felt they shared the burden of defeat in a different way. To Theomedes and Kastor, it was a dot in the sand. Like taking a loss on a poor investment. They hadn't been there when Akielons failed to get through the gates at the fort. They hadn't seen those brutal early battles, before the old King had died, when he and his son pushed back wave after wave of Akielons, who just minutes before had been seen victory in their sights just because the Veretians came out from behind their walls.
Damen needed to be around his men. But, it seemed Theomedes thought the men needed their king to rally around them. It wasn't long before he and Kastor joined them by the low fire, Laurent trailing on their heels. He could see the discomfort ripple through the men, some of whom, had never even seen royalty in the flesh before this campaign.
But flowing wine and funeral dirges soon sorted that out. There had been death before the fire, too, fallen brothers in arms and no time to mourn or do the usual rites.
“Is he old enough to drink, Exalted?” A squire asked, when Laurent held his cup up expectantly.
“I am sitting right here,” Laurent said. “And I am thirteen.”
Damen waited for Theomedes to answer, then realised the squire had been asking him. He shrugged one shoulder. Let the boy get blind drunk for all he cared. This was his punishment. He had let Auguste die. He had begged to break from fighting. In return, he got the responsibility for a baby snake who matched men twice his age drink for drink. He wormed his way beside Theomedes and seemed to hang on his every word.
Damen leaned back, bracing his hands on the ground, and didn't listen to much of anything.
Jord all but carried the boy to Damen's tent. If it was Damen, he would have been ashamed. But Laurent's quiet drunkeness did not cause derision from the other men. They had all been there.
“You should sleep,” Damen told Jord. “No need to keep watch tonight. He's not going anywhere.”
“There are other dangers.”
“No. Not at present. Our agreement with Vere is too tenuous for anyone to attempt to hurt him. And my father has pledged protection.”
“He is safe from me. Do not imply otherwise.” He threw Jord a bedroll and didn't need to watch to know he spread it out in front of the tent, in plain view of Damen's guards. Jord had his own safety to consider. Damen realised he should have got him to deal with the boy's attire first. There were too many laces for him to do anything but yank off his boots before dumping him onto a bedroll. Feeling charitable, Damen turned him on his side and left some water within hand's reach.
Turning him, though, made him cough. Which made the Crown Prince of Vere vomit all over Damen's feet. “Easy,” Damen said, when Laurent thrashed about. He retched again. “Easy.”
For a second, Laurent's blue eyes opened and they were so clear Damen had to turn his head. “Auguste?”
“No,” Laurent said. “Uncle.”
In order to leave at first light, they had to rise before dawn to disassemble the camp. This was not unusual for soldiers and servants, used to surviving on little sleep. It was, Damen could tell, quite a shock to the system for the boy from Vere who was green in both pallor and experience.
“This is cruel,” he said. “I've decided we will leave a ten o clock instead.”
“Lad, we're fleeing a volatile foreign country. We only stopped because of the injured men. Get your skinny ass up off the ground or I will take down the tent around you.” Boys needed discipline. Damen had given the same speech, with more expletives, to plenty of young soldiers over the years. He had mostly likely heard it in his early years.
And if his father had decided Damen was to be in charge of Laurent, he was not about to have him lay abed.
Laurent unleashed a string of Veretian curses but he got out of the bed. “What is that smell?”
“You, your highness. You should probably wash first. Should I find a page to help you with those laces?”
“I do not need assistance,” Laurent said, just before he vomited again. To his credit, he did not look for a smidgen of help as he washed away the night before and tied himself into those ridiculous Veretian accoutrements. He only swayed a little as he climbed onto his horse.
“Watch him,” Damen said, to no-one in particular. Only Jord showed any sign of hearing. Kastor mostly ignored Damen. Nikandros was nursing a hangover of his own. “Am I talking to myself?”
“No, Exalted.” Damen's guards were usually impeccably obedient. Laurent's presence really had put the cat among the pigeons. Laurent was the cat.
They set out, in not quite perfect formation, as pink sunrise streaked across the sky. Damen didn't mind the ride. It set his mind to that same place it went during spars and drills and, sometimes, sex. He didn't need to think of anything more than his next action. He didn't hear anything but the huffs of the horses and hoof-fall on the dewy ground and, way back the lines, the dull chorus of singing soldiers.
Today, he couldn't zone out because his head kept turning towards Laurent. The boy's face was a shade of ash normally reserved for corpses. His back was still straight, though.
“You really are a good rider,” Damen said, conversationally. In his extensive experience of the after-effects of alcohol, distraction had been quite the balm.
“Fuck off,” said Laurent.
“And so polite, too.” Damen said. “Here. Water.” Laurent refused to take the cup. He pulled his horse up to Theomedes and commented on the weather. “At least I tried,” he said to Nikandros.
“I don't know why you do,” Nikandros replied. “His snake people lost us this war. This land is ours.”
“It might be again someday.”
“Speak your mind, friend.”
“You have Ios,” Nikandros said. “I only have your instructions.”
Damen would have found some conciliatory words, something to show that even though he was prince, he had empathy for his friends.
But just in front, he saw Laurent sway on his saddle. Theomedes was too busy being regal to notice the boy. Laurent swayed again. If he fell, under his horse or the many trotting behind, the effects could be deadly. Damen touched his heels to his horse and got his arm around the boy just before as he lost consciousness. He flopped, quite lifeless, and before Damen could signal to the riders behind to stop, Laurent's horse reared and Damen had to grab its reins.
“Halt,” he said. Then Kastor finally noticed what was happening, and brought some order before there was a trampling or a stampede. Lightly, Damen slapped Laurent's cheek to rouse him. “I don't think he's as accustomed to alcohol as he would have us believe,” Damen said to his father. He forgot that to Theomedes a man who could not hold his drink was not a man at all.
“Fuck's sake,” Laurent groaned, when his eyes fluttered open.
“Remember your elders,” Theomedes said sharply, barely breaking from instructing his guard to circle back and make sure there were no casualties of the unexpected stop.
“All right,” Damen said. “You're riding pillion.”
“If you wanted to get close to my arse, you just had to ask,” Laurent said. Damen jerked his arm away. It was up to the boy if he wanted to fall now. Laurent held on. No-one else heard.
“If you faint again, you could cause serious damage.”
“Maybe Nikandros will share with me.”
Theomedes shot Damen a look that said, unequivocally, hurry up.
“Jord.” Damen waved the guard up. “You should have been quicker. Your prince will share your horse now.”
“I'm not sitting with him,” Laurent said.
“Should I lash you to your own horse and tie it to mine?” Damen asked.
“Maybe Kastor will be so generous,” Laurent said, just as Theomedes looked at them again. “At least he's got some royal blood in him even if he is a bastard.” He dropped his voice again. “And he fucked a slave this morning so I don't need to worry to much about getting poked as we ride.”
“Kastor,” Theomedes said. “Allow the Prince to share your horse.”
Kastor reacted like he'd just been told to jump off the nearest cliff before saying, “Yes, father.”
“He's small. You'll have plenty of room.” Theomedes said, cheerfully. Damen was just relieved he could ride on without watching for the prince. Laurent was silent and his neck was red as he sat in front of Kastor. Quite a few miles on, he relaxed his shoulders. Damen thought he was going to faint again but he simply rested against Kastor, who this time reacted like he had been stung.
“After lunch,” Kastor said, in Akielon, “You can re-assume responsibility for your whelp.” They had been mostly conversing in Veretian out of consideration for Laurent and his basic command of Akielon.
“He's not --” Damen began.
Laurent sat straight again. “Kastor,” he said, sweet as babe, “I don't know that word. Can you tell me what it means.”
“Like a puppy,” Kastor said.
“I see. And what is Akielon for route?” Kastor told him. That continued, basic words, which were as far as Kastor's vocabulary went, as the trees got thinner and the horses began to sweat and Damen's eyes began to ache from the sun. They came to the end of the gravel road and Laurent glanced at Damen and spoke in rapid fire Veretian. “What is the Akielon for you are now leaving Delfeur, lands you lost and tried to reclaim but will never ever hold as long as my blood holds the crown?”
“What was that about blood?” Kastor asked. His Veretian was poorer than Damen's.
“Oh, never mind. I remember.” Laurent smiled and said the Akeilon word for failure.
Damen confined him to the wagons for the remainder of their journey to Ios.
Failure was no easy thing to live with.