The only way home was through Sicyon, home of the men Theomedes had turned off. Unlike Vere, Akielos was a collection of city-states bound together by the king's iron will. If Theomedes did not bind them, then he had little control and a king without control was no king at all. Damen's father made it clear that the loss of the Sicyon generals had lost them them Marlas and subsequently Delpha. Shame would be the only thing that kept them bound right now.
“We go straight to Mellos,” Theomedes said. Without the burden of Laurent, Damen could ride in his rightful place beside the king. “I will need you to make an account of the events at the stream. For the annals.”
“Right,” said Damen. “Should I include how the Sicyon men refused to stop when I commanded them?”
“We'll review it at home.”
“It bothers me,” Damen admitted. “How am I to lead if I count not command that much?”
“They did not know you, they had been on patrol long before you arrived. Perhaps they thought the Auguste had made a prisoner of you.”
“Perhaps,” Damen said. He would not contradict his father but, with great certainty, he knew the Veretian royal family would never make a captive of Prince Damianos. “So, are we doling out the insults are receiving them by bypassing Karthas?”
“Neither,” Theomedes said. “That's Veretian tactics. We are just going home.”
Damen longed for the white cliffs of Ios, where life was simple and you didn't have to second guess yourself. Mellos was two days away but at least there would be familiar comforts there. Damen could endure two more nights of the bratty prince Laurent who was currently making a game of saying the most inflammatory words and phrases invented in both Akielon and Veretian. If he was intent on shock, Damen would leave him to his childish crusade. He was among soldiers. They were quite unshockable.
“Damen,” Nikandros said, over a fireside dinner of hard cheese and harder bread, “I am shocked.”
“You've seen me eat worse food than this.”
“No, Exalted. Your pup has shocked me. He --” Nikandros made sure no-one was in earshot. The pup in question was sitting at Theomedes feet across the camp. “Made an offer.”
“To take him back to Vere? Clever. You're the most capable.”
“No,” Nikandros said. “He offered...himself.”
“Why are you shocked by the wrong thing here?”
“He's been going out of his way to shock.” It was posturing. The boy he saw in the brothel ad been terrified. “Did you hear the rumour he spread about the horseman?”
“It wasn't like that,” Nikandros said, but he seemed more relaxed already.
“I'll talk to him, if you think I should,” Damen replied. “But it's just a game to him. He's trying to get a reaction out of us.”
“What if he gets the wrong reaction?”
“No-one here would --”They were in Akielos. Laurent was a boy. “If they did, I couldn't think of a better reason for the prince to go home,” he said. “Or for the Regent to attack.”
“Talk to him.”
Except Damen found breathing the same air as him exhausting. Laurent stirred up a hurricane of annoyance and guilt and, occasionally, shame. Damen could not keep Auguste alive. He could not win the war. He failed. Laurent was a gilt-edged reminder. Sometimes, when Damen observed the arrogance that came with being a prince in his early teens, he saw flashes of his own self and wondered had he changed so much now nearing twenty.
“Jord, you can stand down,” Damen said, rather than greet Laurent. “My men are on watch.”
“Come to chastise me,” Laurent asked. “I was only kidding with the horseman.”
“Tent.” Damen said. “Now.” He was only a little surprise when Laurent obeyed. “You need to be more careful in how you conduct yourself.”
“Isn't that what you and Jord are for? Speaking of Jord, I need to order some things for him. And while you're at it, you should really get me another guard. I had two at all times in Arles and three at Marlas.”
“But not at the stream.”
Laurent pressed his lips so tightly together they disappeared. Quietly, he unlaced his jacket.
“Listen to me,” Damen said. “You are a prince and you must show yourself the dignity that role deserves. You can't go...making offers to older men.”
“But you can fuck slaves without making offers at all,” Laurent said. “Are you jealous? I might be nice to you if you try a little harder and bathe a little more often.”
“Enough.” Damen stood over Laurent. “No insolence. No filth. You're a prince.”
“So are you. Does anyone tell you who you can't fuck?”
“Someday, kid, someone might say yes and I don't think you'd like that very much.”
“You're wrong,” Laurent said. But that was all he said.
After war, came reparations. Their troops disintegrated as their men trickled home. There were homes that would never see their sons and husbands again, sacrificed to a lost war. There were kyroi and nobility who had been generous and now deserved, at the very least, visits from the royalty as they made the long march home. The kyros of Mellos had a sprawling estate, of which Damen saw none, because royal duty had him smiling at snotty children and listening to stories of wars won and, less unfavourably, availing himself of the finest slave Mellos had to offer.
She told Damen her name so quietly he didn't catch it. She blushed so deeply, pale skin blooming pink, that he did make her repeat herself. Words weren't necessary, anyway, while music played and she popped sweet fruit into his mouth.
“You should have let me stay in the wagons,” Laurent said. “This display hurts my eyes.”
“I'm sure there are displays of a much more scandalous nature in Arles,” Kastor called from behind the ample bosom of the third best slave in the castle.
“I know. Your people are uglier,” Damen teased. Laurent responded better to insults than to attempts at friendship. As a crown prince, he had to be at the head table with Damen's family, but his presence was not exactly welcome by good Vere-hating Akielons.
Laurent sneered. “No-one is forced in Vere. Slavery is disgusting.”
“Rude,” Damen said. If he could remember his girl's name he would have said that she was anything but disgusting.
“Laurent,” Theomedes said. It was hard to believe than in just a few short years he might face Laurent as an equal ruler. “Do not disrespect our host's hospitality. Cultures differ. That's what makes a country more than common land and a connection of memories.”
“I'm sorry,” Laurent said.
Damen gestured for his slave girl to look up. “Are you happy?” he asked.
“Yes, Exalted. This slave is honoured to serve a future king.”
Laurent snorted. “That one doesn't look too honoured.”
“What --” Damen followed Laurent's line of sight to a slight, mousy-haired slave boy who was packing up his kithara and being leered at by a soldier. “He's older than you.” Damen guessed by his training silks. Akielos made sure slaves had reached sexual maturity before they could be in any sort of bed service. They were a civilised people. They trained the boys and girls from nurseries to slave gardens to first nights, and this was extensive and delicate and time consuming. “He's old enough to fight.”
“He looks like he's about to die of fright,” Laurent said. He wasn't wrong about.
“Father,” Damen said. “May I interrupt you and the Kyros for a second?”
“Of course,” Theomedes said.
“What of the kithara player?”
Theomedes, for a second, let his eyes widen at Damen. It was so unlike him to show any reaction but the unshakeable dominance of a ruler in public that Damen worried.
“He is quite the prodigy,” the Kyros answered. “Still in training, of course, but we break the rules and take him from the dormitories to perform on special occasions such as this.”
“His talent is a testament to your house,” Theomedes said.
Damen rose. “I'm going to tell him so myself.” Naturally, the princes presence was enough to make the leering man step back. But Damen still spoke to him first, while the boy slave pressed his forehead to the wine-sticky ground. “If you serve my father's army,” Damen said. “You observe his rules.”
“Exalted, I did not think I had broken any. I was just --”
“Do you argue with me?”
“No,” Damen said. “You don't argue with me. And you don't even attempt to fuck boys. Understand? Find a man. You'll probably need to pay.”
The soldier bowed and literally ran away. Damen bid the slave to rise. “You are a wonderful musician,” he said, while the boy shrank into himself like he wished to become part of the embroidered carpet. “Some day, you will bring great pleasure to a worthy man.”
He was coming to realise that his intervention may just have brought the slave the very opposite of pleasure. The boy had to be used to hiding behind his status, his trainers, his music. Damen's interest had captured the attention of most of the room. Out of kindness, and a sudden discomfort at being watched himself, Damen brushed the boy's hair out of his eyes. The slave sighed with his whole body.
“Exalted,” he whispered. “I would kiss your foot.”
“Just go safely to bed,” Damen said and bid the handlers, who were really there to ensure slaves retained their value, take the boy away. He grabbed the first cup of wine he laid hands and felt a great surge of relief when Nikandros called him to his table.
“I did not know you had such an appreciation of music,” he said.
“I have an appreciation for decent human behaviour.”
“I'd rather appreciate that girl serving you apricots.”
“They're nectarines,” Damen said, “And so would I.” He was feeling lighter now, away from the pressures of his family and the boy Laurent. “So can you, actually.”
“You would reject her after...”
“You must be drunk if you're telling me what to do,” Damen said, lightly. “I won't reject her. But I will share.”
“I don't need charity.”
“I need a room,” Damen said. “Mine has a pest.”
“The pest is coming over with his babysitter.”
“Do we have a deal? Come on, remember your eighteenth birthday.”
Nikandros smiled and shook his head in that way that was an indulgent yes. Damen clapped him on the shoulder and rose before the boy Laurent could insult his bannermen.
“Tired?” Damen asked, deciding now that he was standing he may as well escort Laurent to the door. See, he took his duty seriously.
“Your father send him away,” Jord said.
“He didn't like my opinions on slavery,” Laurent said. “What did you say to the kithara player?”
“I told him he was talented.”
“I meant,” Laurent said. “Why did you nearly make that fat soldier piss himself?”
“Then you should speak plainly.” Damen cleared a path through some gambling drummers. “You know why I sent him away. We don't force boys in Akielos.”
“Except for me,” Laurent said. “To come here against my will, I mean. Plainly.” He looked up at Damen. “You actually think you are noble.”
“I'm a prince, of course I am,” Damen said. “Listen, I remember being your age.”
“Because it was not that long ago.”
“Because no-one ever thinks they are young,” Damen said, quoting his father. “It's different with other boys, of course. If you want to ... with someone, it can be arranged.”
Laurent waited until he was in the cool corridor to whirl around at Damen, who suddenly had the good sense to wait inside the banquet hall. “You think I would lower myself to lie with some ill-bred Akielon squire --” His voice cracked with the effort. “I would never touch a slave. And I wouldn't spit on --- you killed my brother! My brother is dead because of Akielon cunts and --”
“Jord,” Damen said. “My rooms will be unoccupied tonight. The servants have leave to give you both whatever you need.”
Damen shut the door. He was friendly with the men he needed to be friendly with, polite to the ladies, and respectful and interested around Theomedes. He even smiled at Kastor's bad jokes. He lavished attention the slave with no name and let her supple flesh make his unyielding body feel like it had the potential to be soft. Later, in Nikandros's plain rooms, his body was nothing but aching hardness and the pliant girl was a welcome distraction and a willing receptacle for all he had to give. She bucked back and drove him deeper but somewhere in the back of his mind, Damen was glad of steady Nikandros, kissing her breasts and cradling her head and stopping him forgetting himself completely.
Banners and pennants snapped in the sea breeze, signalling the King of Akielos home. The ocean beat against the cliffs, sprayed up to the mist Damen's legs, as he rode in behind his father. Theomedes' adviser Oreste had tried to wave Prince Damianos closer to the front. A grown heir should ride beside his father. But Damen outranked, and therefore could ignore, him and hung back beside Kastor and Laurent, who had been let of the wagon for the final ride.
This was no victorious march home. They were dogs with tails between their legs, pretending to be wolves. The journey had been a series of parades and power plays, all so Theomedes could say look : I am still in charge.
Damen remembered a particular sense of breathlessness come over him by a pungent cooking fire in southern Trace, as he father had boasted about the death of Prince Auguste. There wasn't even anyone around to impress. Just his guards, advisers and sons. Akielos may not have recaptured Depha but their attack had led to the death of Veretian King and his golden champion son.
That's not how it was. Damen had to move away from the smoke to catch his breath.
The same tightness squeezed his chest, despite the salt-fresh air coming in from the Gulf of Atros, at the sight of the white palace rising above the cliffs. It continued as the sentries went to their knees and the townspeople thronged the streets, tossing dry green leaves into the air and onto the ground to welcome their king home.
Damen glanced to the blank-faced boy Laurent, riding straight-backed to Damen's right, sheltered from the crowd. He wondered what he would have thought of Vere if he had been paraded in against his wishes. he fact that Laurent was back on horseback made Damen uneasy. For one thing, it made him harder to control. For another, it put him at risk. He had argued against it. His father shot him down. He was a prince, too, Theomedes had said. We must treat him as such.
Except now that the crowds were chanting and the streets outside the white-washed peasant houses were busy enough to stroll their arrival to a crawl, Damen thought the effect of Laurent's presence, dour and indifferent on the fourth finest horse, was not at all respectful.
Theomedes was saying, the king is dead. The oldest son is dead. And the youngest is in my possession.
“Not much further,” Damen said, but Laurent showed no inclination of having heard. He sat straight. His seat was excellent. He held the reins in one hand and manipulated a small wooden toy, a puzzle of some sort, with the other.
The chants thundered. Welcome, they said. Our king, they said. Damianos, they said, prince-taker, prince-destroyer.
Damen nearly lost control of his horse.
It wasn't like that.
“Brother, they love you still,” Kastor called.
False love. But, maybe, important love. Theomedes had made a fist, wielded a sword, and made a country once. Strength was not something you let slip through your fingers because of a lost messenger and a green regent.
In his rooms, his household greeted him with the kind of soft joy Damen imagined mothers all over Akielos had greeted their sons with when they returned stitched and scarred after the failed Northern campaign. His own mother died bringing him into the world and her loyal ladies disbanded, too grief-stricken to remain in her empty rooms. They had stayed by her side through so many fruitless pregnancies, but they could not stay for a son.
There were wet-nurses, the healthiest women obliged to put their own babies second to nourish a prince, and nannies but none that Damen remembered as anything but an indistinguishable impression of sternness. Out of respect for him, the same kind perhaps that kept Laurent on a horse in the blazing sun while people celebrated the death of his family, the King's mistress was kept far from Damen. He never asked Kastor about his mother, or what it was like to have a mother. Damen was the heir. He had to allow his brother the small victory of having two living parents.
Anyway, boys with royal blood were not allowed to be boys as long as other children. Etiquette and language, first. Schooling of a particular unique nature. Then, training in every pursuit that was required of a prince, and a prince had to be the best. He had no choice.
Even now, after so long away, and such a long journey, Damen had to be interested and generous to his household staff. He had to thank his personal guard and give them time off. He had to allow them tend to his armour and weapons, even though he would have rather done it himself. That was another thing he learned as a boy, and as soon as he was good at it, he never really had to do it again.
Finally, he could go to his bedroom.
He left his guards at the stairs but found Jord and Oreste right outside his bedroom door. Or, more accurately, outside the door directly across from Damen's that could be residences of a consort or a favoured friend if he ever felt the need to have someone that close to him.
“The King instructed him sent here,” Oreste said, nervously. “You are both Crown Princes. It is the most suitable place.”
“The palace is large enough to find another suitable place,” Damen said.
“I'm afraid you'll have to take it up with your father.” Oreste pressed his lips together. Damen wanted to split them with the force of his knuckles. “And perhaps consider a muzzle for the princeling. He's got quite the mouth on him.”
It may have Damen's imagination, but he thought Jord looked momentarily proud.
“I don't want to be disturbed,” Damen told Jord.
“It is not my role or my rank to do so,” Jord said. Smart. In the palace, he would have to bow to Akielon standards in ways that Damen had not enforced on the road.
“Well, I would if I hadn't already been sickened enough for one day,” Laurent said. He was so light. He kept managing to sneak up on Damen. “They listen to you, right? Make sure no-one comes in here. I want to be alone.”
“Fine.” Damen could not imagine that would be a problem. He closed his heavy door. His rooms were a retreat of cool marble and solid furniture and untainted memories. A servant had laid out food – his favourite flat bread and shiny peeled grapes – and there was a carafe of rich red wine. There was also a slave, kneeling, waiting. Her clothing was pinned together with gold poured into the shape of a lion.
She pressed her forehead onto the marble at Damen's entrance and stayed prostrate like that until he bid her rise. He did not require assistance. He wanted solitude.
He saw a fly crawl on the moist grapes.
A slave girl required nothing from him. She would not even speak without his permission.
“There is a bath ready,” he said. Not a question. There was a hot bath waiting. It had possibly cooled and been reheated several times before he had made it here. “Attend me.”
Silently, she wiped the dust of the road from his body and poured steaming water over his skin. When he was clean, he directed her towards his bed. She was silent. Even before his own desire made him impatient, and he wanted the thrill of her wanting him, she was silent. She made his own noises seem savage but he did not give her leave to speak.
There was a dinner. More accurately, a feast, to celebrate the return of the king and his children. Damen would have preferred to stay in bed, or perhaps share a drink with a couple of his friends. Nikandros would probably be reassigned soon. It had been a long time since Damen had seen the soldiers who stayed behind. But the king's son could not cry off. Damen dressed himself and left his room behind.
Jord was still in the hall.
“You should go down,” he said. “Impressions etc.”
“Prince Laurent was not invited.”
“Right. Has ...” Damen stopped himself. It was not his role to see if the princeling had been fed. “Has there been any trouble?”
“Nothing worth mentioning.”
“Make sure he's not alone too long.” There was danger in that, when people were upset.
Damen's guards stood at attention at the end of the hallway. They flanked him on the way to the great hall. They stood behind as he say beside his father.
“You look rested,” his father said, light-hearted now that he was back at his own palace. Families had boundaries. The slight drawl on the word rested was the closest his father would ever come to saying you look like you've been fucking all afternoon.
“It is good to be home,” Damen said. “Before we begin the festivities, I wanted to say about the report. I've told you and Kastor enough what happened. I don't think you need me there to transcribe it.”
“You're right, son. Good choice.”
Damen hadn't realised he made a choice until just then. But his judgement had not been reliable lately. Better to leave things up to his father, who was stronger, who knew about ruling and who knew how to turn a defeat into a show of strength.
For example, when Theomedes walked into the hall he did so beside Tachenon, the old Ios kyros, who had been there in his father's day and rarely left his estate now. Unlike the other provinces, Theomedes never had reason to court the local kyros by force or by charm. Tachenon obeyed without question and in return he got a sprawling estate outside the city, good wives for all his sons and the honour of being a wizened old man for whom the king slowed his gait to allow them to walk as equals.
“That boy has the foulest mouth I've encountered outside of a guardroom,” Kastor said, when the topic later shifted to Akielos's fosterling. “If it wasn't directed at me by a Veretian, I’d nearly be impressed. He called me a pox-ridden bastard cunt and all I did was say he was decent on a horse.”
“He called me a whoreson cunt,” said Oreste. “He called the man who offered him a hand down from his horse a horse-fucking cunt.”
“He sounds lively,” Tachenos said. “Boys today are too concerned with building muscle to use the most important one.”
“The mind,” said Damen, firmly, because he did not like the man's tone.
“He called me a crimson cunt,” said one of Kastor's men, who had a bright red beard. “I think he meant ginger.”
Damen couldn't help his laughter. “We know the limits of his Akielon vocabulary.”
Words lost meaning the more they were used. Knowing the Veretian distaste for bastardry and Laurent's distaste for Akielos, none of this surprised Damen. The men laughed, too, because it was right to laugh at a Veretian's mistakes. It was like laughing at a foal taking its first steps if you didn't care for horses.
“What clever nickname did the baby prince give to you?” Oreste asked Damen.
A meatball. Or was that Nikandros? Damen wasn't sure.
“It would not be polite of a prince to repeat them,” Damen said, then slyly grinned over the top of his cup and the men laughed again.
“You need to take him in hand,” Kastor said, quietly, to Damen.
Laurent would soon reach the limits of Akielon patience. Theomedes would not stand for such disrespect. Damen had seen his father bring men to their knees for an ill-thought joke and leave green boys standing with their backs to the cliffs if they bore insult to their betters.
He was informed by his servants that Laurent had broken three candlesticks, two pitchers, and shouted Veretian insults when one of them tried to light his candles. His food remained untouched outside the door. He slapped away the boy who was meant to help him dress, even though he had not baulked at the squires attending him on the road.
The best thing to do was ignore them.
A reasonable plan, until Damen was trying to enjoy a post-training massage and by trying he meant biting back yelps and wondering why he hadn't gotten a slave to do this instead of the most sought after wrestling expert in Ios who treated muscle with the care a blacksmith treated his hammer.
Maybe, just maybe, he was glad of the interruption and didn't wait for the shrieking to die down as usual. He leaped off the table and strode out the bedroom door.
“What is going on?”
“Why are you naked?” Laurent's face was frozen in shock. He did not avert his eyes as quickly as he should have. “Talk me when you're dressed. I have standards.”
Damen put his hands on his hips. There was no taboo against nudity in Akielos, especially in the context of sports. Also, these were his apartments.
“What is going on?” he repeated.
Jord, who also did not avert his eyes, cleared his throat in the direction of a servant woman. In addition to her kitchen garb, she wore the dripping remnants of duck in currant sauce down the front of her clothing.
Damen sighed. Laurent challenged him with his eyes.
“Go clean yourself up,” Damen said. He knew the woman's her face. She often brought warm, spiced milk to his rooms in the evenings. “In fact take the rest of the afternoon to rest. My guards will tell the mistress.” He turned back to Laurent. “We don't assault our staff in Ios.”
“I told you I wanted to be left alone.”
“To starve?” Damen noticed that Laurent was still holding a gravy boat. “Go on.” He stepped closer. “Throw it at me. Throw your boyish tantrums. Let your uncle down.”
Laurent's grip tightened. His shoulder pulled back a fraction. Damen hadn't thought the boy would actually do it. And even though some part of him screamed against using his size to intimidate the boy, he took another step forward.
He stared Laurent down.
Laurent dropped the gravy boat in a clatter on the marble floor. Its contents splashed onto Damen's feet.
“I hate you all!” Laurent slammed his bedroom door. Damen picked up the bowl, sighing. He could feel that Jord wanted to say something.
“Speak,” he said. “And I know you need time off.”
“In Vere, the stigma against bastardy is as ingrained as your slave culture,” Jord began.
“This better not be an insult to my brother.”
“No, sir.” Jord looked at the ground. “Among lowborn like myself, of course, the standards are less stringent. But among royals, it is completely out of the question. A royal would be ex-communicated if he fathered a bastard.”
“All I hear is insults to my family,” Damen said.
“We do not mix,” Jord said. “Men and women. We especially do not allow princes to be alone with women or girls. Ever.”
“Right,” Damen said. “Is he even old enough to – never mind. I will see to it. And if someone had just told me this, it would have saved my massage.”
“Exalted, we can continue,” called the masseur.
“No. I have to sort this,” Damen said. Jord smirked. “Is this bastard thing going to be a problem for you?”
“I prefer men,” Jord said.
“One less thing for me to worry about.” He was just waiting in the hall until he was safe from the masseur's clutches. “Is it an act?” He asked, glancing at the closed door. “The anger.”
“His whole world's been taken away.”
News of Laurent's latest tantrum reached Theomedes within hours. Or, more likely, he had been aware of all of them but throwing the tray at the serving woman had been the last straw. The King summoned the Prince of Vere to his throne room.
“Have you nothing better to do than escort me to see your father?” Laurent was dressed in full Veretian finery for a simple meeting. Damen pulled his own cloak around his shoulders.
“I'm just here for the fireworks,” Damen replied. “Come on. I'll show you the way.” He watched Laurent take in every detail of the route. Maybe he was curious. Maybe he was planning to make use of his knowledge and escape. “You wouldn't make it out there, you know. Ios is too barbaric for a swaddled princeling.”
Laurent glared. In the throne room, he was the model of good behaviour. Polite. A little shy. A good actor. Damen waited for Theomedes to rebuke Laurent's bad behaviour but he simply asked if he was settling into the palace. Before Laurent could answer, Oreste led a chained prisoner into the room. The man struggled against his holders, but was no match for an Akielon soldier. His head was shaved and there were sticky welts on his scalp. His clothes were tattered and brown with grime.
A common criminal. Possibly one of the bandits who sometimes haunted the road to Ios in order to rob unsuspecting travellers. He bared his rotten teeth and bucked against the chains.
From Damen's vantage point beside his father, Laurent looked very young and vulnerable standing in the centre of the cavernous room. There was a flatness to Laurent's expression as he deftly stepped aside, pressed his back to the wall, and glanced at the exits. This was the kind of roughness he seemed to expect from Akielos. Here it was, come to life on his first venture out of the royal apartments.
“Forgive me, Exalted,” Oreste said. “It took longer to restrain this one that anticipated.”
“We are busy speaking with the Prince of Vere,” Theomedes said. “Brother, do you mind if I take a break.”
“By all means,” Laurent said, casually.
“Father, what is the nature of this crime?” Damen asked. It had to be serious for the King to take a personal interest. Theomedes ruled his country with might. Or rather, he ruled his nobles and generals with an iron fist and they took up the mantle with the lower classes on his behalf. Theomedes did not normally bother with common criminals.
Before the king could answer, the prisoner reared back like a wild horse, and spat. His face was smashed into the marble in an instant. The rotten teeth rattled onto the floor.
Theomedes signalled. The guards raised their swords and then the prisoner's head rattled on the floor, too, rolling in a pool of blood.
Damen glanced at Laurent. The boy's narrow chest was rising and falling but his face was remarkably composed.
“That is what we do when men spit in front of the king,” Oreste said to Laurent.
“We do the same in Vere,” said Laurent. “Except we have a guillotine. It's much less messy.” Like a lady picking up a long skirt to avoid puddles, Laurent gracefully tiptoed around the carnage. “Theomedes, what was his crime?”
“Irrelevant,” Oreste replied. “He spat. He could have been innocent and --”
“Enough. Have that removed,” Theomedes said. “Laurent, that man attempted an attack on slaves as they were being transported to the castle.”
Laurent nodded. “My rooms are fine, though the view is abysmal. I require more papers and a qualified tutor in languages and law.”
“We're working on the latter,” Theomedes replied. “And Damianos is making sure we're getting acquainted with your customs.”
“Thank you,” Laurent said.
“Damianos will escort you back to your rooms now.”
Damen did as he was told. As he stepped over the still-warm blood, he remembered the times Laurent had spat and screamed without consequence. Theomedes was patient and wise. He was a king.
“What was the charge? Defilement of royal property?” Laurent asked Damen. “Also, I want books too. But I think your father wouldn't care about that too much.”
“We have a whole library. You just need to work on your Akielon,” Damen said. “The charge was attempted rape. We don't fuck boys in Akielos.”
“No,” said Laurent. “You just lock them away, strip away their will until they grow old enough to make you feel better about keeping them in bondage.”
Damen's instinct was to show the boy kindness. Children responded to tenderness, if they had a chance to receive it. But Laurent was sharp edges, when most children were softness, and he was going to be a king someday.
A future king who would face Damen on a warfield, most likely. The loss at Delpha was an open wound. Damen and his father would stitch it back together someday and make Akielos whole again.
Maybe he should be patient with him. Let him grieve and let him blossom. Maybe it would soften him and make him an easy opponent some day.
“Nikandros,” Damen said. “Have you room for one more in your class?”
Nikandros, between assignments, trained soldiers in the capital barracks. His job would never be a permanent teacher. He was too good a soldier and Damen felt that Theomedes was training his friend to be a future leader.
Boys all over Akielos competed for a chance to train in the palace. Damen called in on them sometimes but his presence usually caused skilled trainees make clumsy mistakes. When he was a boy, he made the other boys make mistakes too. Most of his sword training had been done alone with his old master Haemon.
“No,” said Nikandros. “You can't be serious. He'll eat them alive.”
He was a skinny thirteen year old who spent most nights crying for his dead brother. Damen found it hard to sleep and harder to focus on more pleasant bed activities these nights.
“He needs discipline,” Damen said. “It's what my father would do.”
“I don't need approval on this matter,” Damen snapped. “Look, can you think of something better? We're struggling to find a tutor my father and the uncle both agree on. He's just moping. In the barracks at least we can make his time here worthwhile for him.”
“What about that Patran woman?” Nikandros, referring to the one qualified person they had found in Ios.
“It's a thing with them.”
“The princeling is a misogynist? I thought he hated everyone equally.”
“One of their customs. They are literally terrified of bastards,” Damen explained.
“You should make him live with Kastor, then.”
Damen laughed. “No, he's not allowed to be alone with a member of the fairer sex in case he sires a bastard. It would ruin him, apparently.”
“They're pulling your leg.”
“All right,” Nikandros said. “There are no women in my training class. He'll be safe from bastards there. I won't treat him differently though.”
“Good. He needs taking down a peg or two.”
Laurent reacted calmly to the news of his new venture, which bothered Damen more than if had thrown the nearest sharp object.
“It is just as I suspected,” Laurent said, calmly, from the couch in Damen's room where he had been summoned for the discussion. “You Akielons are extremely stupid.”
“Go on,” Damen said. “Tell me why.”
“When I am King, I will remember everything I learned here. You know it. My uncle knows it.”
“Speaking of your uncle,” Damen said. “You're going to run out of paper soon if you don't stop writing so many letters.”
Laurent continued, undeterred. “I'll remember that you held me here. I'll remember how you hold your swords and ride your horses and how to chip away at your defences until there is nothing left.”
“Good for you,” Damen said. “When you're done with the academy, though, all you'll remember is how to follow orders.
The most promising trainee in Ios was ousted from his bunk so the Prince of Vere could pronounce it inadequate. Laurent was given the same basic supplies as the other trainees, the same living space, the same early morning wake up call. He refused to wear the uniform.
“I wouldn't be caught dead in a dress,” Laurent sneered.
“It is a chiton,” Damen said. “Also, it is practical. It's only going to get hotter here as the summer wears on.”
“I have suitable attire. Furthermore, it makes sense to train in the clothing you will fight in. “
“Very well,” said Damen. A compromise. Laurent had been quite reasonable about his relocation. Damen was certain once the boy was training in the mid-day sun, he would shed those ornate Veretian jackets and swap the long boots for open toed sandals. “But if you were right about training clothes, we'd all learn to swing wooden swords in battle armour.”
“Depends on the battle,” Laurent said. “I'll arrange my things now.”
“Your things can stay. The room is still yours.”
“Fine, I’ll go back to rub mint under my nose to mask the stink of Akielon sweat.”
“Do you sweat differently here than in Vere?” Damen asked. “Wait, are you even old enough for your sweat to smell?”
“That fact that you even wish to speak about this proves how right I am,” Laurent said. “See that I am --”
“Undisturbed, I know.” Damen wanted to talk to Jord anyway. “You've been told of your new location?”
“Yes, sir.” Jord, unlike Laurent, had made more concessions to the Ios climate. Damen couldn't remember the last time he'd seen him in the red livery. He wore plain clothing. The sunburst badge on his shoulder was the only that signified his role. “I'm not stranger to a training barracks. The instructor Nikolas has --”
“Nikandros,” Damen corrected. “You know him.”
Jord's eyes widened slightly. “I didn't know it was the same man, sir. He has given me a decent place to sleep and leave to practise. I've not had the chance here.”
“Right.” Damen should have thought of that. Couldn't have the prince's only guard getting rusty. “You know it will be different out there. Boys will take any change cut a royal down to size.” Damen remembered well
“He can handle himself.”
Damen glanced at the closed door again. “What does he do in there all the time?”
“Write a lot of letters. Throw orange seeds at the men in the garden,” Jord said. “And what boys that age usually do behind closed doors, I'd wager.”
Since he had initiated the conversation, Damen felt like he should wait with Jord. There were piles of letters on his desk that he did not want to read. A purchase order for new weaponry that he didn't want to be the one to sign final approval. If Jord wasn't Veretian, and therefore untrustworthy, Damen might like the man. You knew where you stood with soldiers.
“Aw,” said Laurent when he eventually re-emerged. “How cute.” He shoved a tote at Jord.
“Laurent,” Damen said. “What have you done to your hair?”
It was gone. His golden locks were roughly shorn to reveal pale scalp and emphasise the delicacy of his boyish face. He looked more street urchin than prince. He'd also swapped his jacket for one without sleeves and his pants were loose around his legs.
Laurent arched one brow. “It is clear that I have cut it.”
“Do you even have a razor?”
“No. I stole yours.” He strode ahead.
“Is that a Veretian thing?” Damen asked Jord. Mourning. Training. It had the smack of traditional symbolism.
“No,” said Jord.
Damen did not hover. He was not that invested in Laurent. He had palace business to attend to and wine to drink and girls to tumble. He did, however, request regular reports on the boy's progress.
Surprisingly, they were good. His fellow trainees were not easily shocked and most of them were well-versed in rough talk. Laurent fit right in, except he did not wish to fit in. According to Nikandros and his juniors, Laurent was compliant and quick. He cleaned without complaint. He worked with armour and supplies. He practised athletics and lifted weights and dove into the deep sea with the best of them. He even bore the cooking class without complaint. He was the model trainee soldier except for one crucial fact : he would not lift a sword.
No matter when the sword-training was scheduled, and it was of course a large part of the schedule, Laurent excused himself. With Theomedes permission, he was continuing his scholarly studies with a nervy professor sourced from the borderlands. He took lessons early, before training, and retired to his bunk to write essays while the other boys learned swordsmanship.
Damen went down to the barracks. The smell of sawdust, the sound of un-broken voices, the clash of wood all brought him back to his own youth, when things were simple.
“I think,” Nikandros said. “He may be afraid to show his lack of expertise. I suggested the guard, Ford -- ”
“Jord,” Damen corrected.
“ --take him aside from some basics but he, said he valued his fingers too much.”
“I see,” said Damen. He glanced out at the training ring, where dozens of sturdy Akielon boys learned the skills that would enable them to protect their country. Damen might even lead some of them someday. He might bury them, too.
Though he tried to be unobtrusive, just standing there made the boys stand taller and fight more aggressively.
“You should come by every day,” Nikandros said. “My job would be a lot easier.”
“If only I wasn't busy being prince.” But Damen wasn't much busy these days. Or, rather, he felt like he was doing busy work around Ios while his father tried to find him a role. There were jobs to be done around the country but just drawing up a travel schedule took three advisers. Damen wished sometimes he could just pick two good men and three good horses and go. “Speaking of princes...”
“He's there. Under the awning,” Nikandros said. Laurent sat in the shade with a book on his lap. If he noticed Damen's arrival, he didn't show it on his face. “Reading about plants. Do you think he's planning on poisoning you?”
“No. He would go for my father, first,” Damen said.
“He writes letters all the time.”
“Damen, he's definitely plotting something.”
“Of course he is. Wouldn't you be if all your family were killed and you got sent to a foreign court?” Damen took Nikandros's practise sword and walked onto the sawdust. All the trainees dropped to their knees. He had been hoping for a little more informality than that. “Rise, valued soldiers-in-training,” Damen called. “Your work here is exemplary. You do your country a great honour with your dedication.”
There. That should do.
His father would say that.
His father would also probably say that they needed improvement before they were good enough to fight but, well, that was the whole point of them being at an elite training academy.
“You, boy.” Damen pointed with his borrowed practice sword. “Come and learn from the Prince of Akielos.”