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One the Other

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Damen had already noticed the aristocratic boy who stepped forward. He had brown hair, brown skin and he was the best swordsman on the practice field. He fought with the same even durability as Nikandros, who Damen would have called on if he had been more sure of the burns on his palms being healed.

“What is your name?” Damen asked.

“I am called Pallas,” he replied, with a slight burr to his Akielon that told Damen he had come from the North, possibly Sicyon, to train at Ios. “It is an honour to spar with you, Exalted.”

Damen went easy on him. He fell into the predictable rhythms he had learned as boy, before strength and counter-attack was part of fighting. Defensiveness was better when you were learning. Pallas knew his routines well his eagerness made up for lack of finesse. Damen was trying to assess the kindest way to get him down, when he misjudged an impact and split Pallas training sword into smithereens.

The crack echoed around the ring.

Laurent looked up.

“Well done,” Damen said and Pallas pinked like a brand new slave. “You have great potential. Work on your front guard.” Damen pointed at another boy at random. “Watch me,” he said. “If you keep your elbow down you have more control.”

It was child's play but it occupied Damen throughout the afternoon. Nikandros joined him, calling orders and keeping the soldiers in check. He mostly corrected posture and form.

“Remember,” Nikandros said, quietly, to Damen. “They won't all be as strong as you. They need to rely on balance, too.”

“I know that,” Damen said, just as the boy he was sparring with twisted badly and fell awkwardly on to his side. “I'll take a break.” At the edge of the training ring, a servant waited with cool water and towels. “Two cups,” Damen said and went to lean against the shelter where Laurent sat. He stood. Sighing, Laurent got to his feet. It was less a sign of respect than an unwillingness to allow such an obvious difference in their size.

“Hot?” Damen asked, as Laurent drank the water without saying anything.

“Yes. We are closer to the sun here. Would you like to borrow one of my astronomy books?”

“Not really,” Damen said.

“You'd rather show off that you knock down green boys.”

“That wasn't showing off.” Damen glanced at Laurent's book. Botany. A world away from the literature and pulp he had brought in his trunk. “Gardening more interesting than training?”

“I want some of those plants.” Laurent pointed at the sketch on the page. “Aloe vera. Can I ask you or do I need petition my uncle?”

“I'll talk to the garden keepers about your request,” Damen said. “Your hair is growing back.”

“My patience is dwindling.”

“Why don't you fight?” Damen asked. “Look, if it's a matter of inexperience don't feel bad. We all start at the bottom, even princes.”

Laurent shot him a disbelieving look. “I have nothing to prove here. I'm not going to play fight with some baby barbarian so you can feel you're teaching me something.”

“I'll make a bet with you, then. There must be something you want.”

“My brother breathing and the best berth on board a ship to Arles.”

“Something realistic,” Damen said. “Veretian books? A request for a companion? You did mention a friend in the court --”

“He was not my friend. Anyway, he grew up.” Laurent closed his book. “I want a horse. A good one, not one of those cliff climbing donkeys from around here. And I want to be able to ride it at least three times a week.”

“There aren't many runs inside the gates,” Damen said. Though there were paddocks at the stables.

“I'll find a way to improvise,” Laurent said. “Get me a horse that's mine and I'll fight.”

“No. Win a fight and I'll get you a horse.”

“Deal.” Laurent set down the book, carefully, and walked out to the training arena. He showed no care for the skirmishes happening all around. A glance was all it took to make strong, focused boys move out his way. He picked up the first practise sword he came across and pointed it at the boy Pallas. “You,” he said, in careful Akielon. “Let's duel.”

Damen did like it when a plan came together.

Pallas waited until both Nikandros and Damen nodded approval before holding his new practice sword in Laurent's direction. He had experience fighting. He was broad and strong and steady on his feet.

He didn't stand a chance against the Prince of Vere. Laurent held his sword differently to the Akielons. He wielded it like a lion wields his teeth. Here, they are part of me. Don't get in the way.

Akielon style was more about being yourself, separate from the sword. The sword was a vessel for your strength and honour.

Laurent may not have been partaking, but he had been watching. He guessed every one of Pallas's moves, stepping back, stepping back until Pallas faltered and then Laurent turned him around and drove him back across the sawdust.

The arena fell silent. Then it cleared and the other boys formed a circle as if it was a display match. Damen could see the hunger in them – here was the enemy prince, about to be cut down to size by their good friend Pallas. Here was a taste of the future, when they would be rallied north again to Delpha.

Damen hoped it was not a taste of the future.

Laurent was winning.

He feinted and dodged and struck a series of small but devastating blows. Laurent was fresh from resting. Pallas had already sparred with Prince Damianos and any number of fellow trainees. He tried. He was honourable.

Laurent was not. Damen saw the moment when Laurent leaned close enough to put his lips to Pallas's ear. He did not hear what he said, but he was sure it was crass and insulting. Pallas held his stance but a flicker of shock passed his face. Laurent used the distraction to stamp down hard on Pallas's foot and when he stepped back, Pallas was outside the ring and Laurent forced him onto his back.

“I yield,” Pallas said, even though his sword was still sure in his hands. He probably could have gotten back up.

“I know,” said Laurent and turned his back. “I fought at Sanpelier,” he said, loudly, in practiced Akielon. “When my brother and my father crushed your troops into the mud. I fought at Marlas, while you were all eating raisin bread at your mother's tables. Did you really think -” He looked directly at Damen. “That I couldn't fight?”

He threw down the sword and walked through the empty ring.

“I didn't think you couldn't, I thought you wouldn't,” Damen said. “But you did. And standing on his foot was dirty.”

“He shouldn't fight barefoot.”

“I bet you don't turn your back on a fighter in Vere,” Damen continued, though he really ought to have gone to Pallas. His toes were probably broken. A casualty of training.

“I'm not in Vere.”

“Not at the minute,” Damen said. “But you will be in the future, and you'll lead the whole corrupt place. And when I face you on the battlefield or in a war-room to parley, I don't want to have to go easy on you. Keep training. I'll see about your horse.”

“Fine. I won't go easy on you, either.”

Damen tried not to smile. “You're not bad for a thirteen year old.”

“I had the very best teacher,” Laurent said. “And I'm fourteen now.”

“I know. Your horse is a personal gift from the Crown Prince of Akielos to the Crown Prince of Vere. Her name is Kura.”

“I'm changing it,” Laurent snapped. But his mouth twitched, like he wanted to smile.

-

When Damen happened to be near the paddocks the following week, Laurent was coasting around the space with the tranquil grace of a calm sea. He did not see Damen. He had shaved his head again.

-

Damen left instructions for the boy's upkeep and told Nikandros to both keep a close eye on him and report any issues, but he did not see the need to say goodbye. The plans were finalised. The duties assigned. Damen took a portion of his company and rode out into Akielos. The people wanted to see their prince. He had to win them over so that when he ruled, he would never have to see them.

Damen felt like he was there to say, look I am not a complete failure.

He negotiated with a lord in Kesus for a better price on his grain. Well, negotiated was an embellishment. He looked at the man. He may have flexed his muscles. The price was lowered.

He stopped at a sprawling estate by the darker parts of the Ellosean sea, and collected two years' worth of taxes from a weasly landlord. A few miles away, he fired two agents on Theomedes own lands and had them sent to the local prison. He had his men enforce charters and break up brawls. He was invited to judge a tart contest (and was only mildly disappointed to be made taste seven million varieties of fruit pie) and a pig contest (where he just pointed at the fattest one.)

He clapped when children performed a skit for him and allowed one or two local girls into his bed.

He was bored.

There was a feast every year to mark Theomedes coronation. Damen, naturally, was required to attend. He galloped the road back to Ios.

“Father,” he said. “I feel I could serve Akielos better on patrol. Send me back to Delpha. Send me down to the bottom of the peninsula.”

“No,” Theomedes said. “Not at the minute.”

“I'm not a tax collector or a consort. There has to be more --”

“You are Prince Damianos. The people need to like you. And, we need their money. War is expensive. We have to pay off the last one before we can start anew.”

Damen wished his father had just told him that in the first place.

The academy took a break for the festival. The boys, soldiers now, performed parade and competed in the games. Laurent, naturally, was excused. He had gone back to his room in Damen's apartment.

“How is the cub?” Damen asked Jord, before he went into his room.

“Nipping less,” Jord replied. “If I may --”

“Speak.”

“The academy was a good idea. He did well.”

“I got the reports,” Damen said. “And his... mood?”

“Steadier,” Jord said. “There were a couple of bouts of sickness but nothing much.”

Damen would not concern himself with the exaggerated symptoms of a prince not used to discipline. He had seen plenty of soldiers feign illness and ignored it once, and expelled them on the second time.

He wasn't long in his rooms when Laurent burst through the door.

“You should knock,” Damen said.

“You have a lock,” Laurent replied.

“No welcome home?”

Laurent rolled his eyes. “Welcome back, Exalted.” The words couldn't have sounded less sincere if they were spoken by a parrot.

“Your hair is back,” Damen said. “You look -”

“What of the road?” Laurent interrupted. He surveyed the array of food left for Damen and snatched a plum. And most of the cured meats.

“Is is still there. Dusty this time of year.”

“Are there blockades of some sort? You were gone a long time.”

“It wasn't that long,” Damen said. “And no, all is clear.”

“My letters haven't been getting to me. I need new clothes. I haven't been getting anything.”

“Have you enquired?”

“Kastor said there was no issue but it doesn't make sense.” Laurent must have been really desperate to know if he asked Kastor.

“Leave it with me.”

-

Damen asked his servants, Oreste and made Oreste check with the palace post-master. The answers were all the same. The only letters that had come were from the Veretian Councillor Herode, and Laurent had recieved them. They came via ship. There was no delay.

Oreste made it seem like a good thing. If the Regent was too busy to write to the heir to the crown, Vere must be a very fractious place indeed. Veretian misfortune was a boon to Akielos.

Damen dreaded telling Laurent.

As it turns out, he didn't need to. Laurent asked with his eyes and Damen shook his head and then the door slammed. And slammed. And slammed.

-

Slaves and performers worked together to put on a great day-long show in tribute to Theomedes. Damen, who had seen quite enough bad plays while on the road, declined to attend. He made the excuse of overseeing the preparation for the next day's games and that was accepted without question. Everyone knew Prince Damianos was better suited to physical pursuits than the arts.

Damen knew that if arts were more entertaining, he might not have spent the day checking the equipment with Nikandros.

“Your charges are a credit to you,” Damen told his friend. “The parade was excellent. The lines were --”

“Sloppy. I hate to admit this, but they're better with Prince Laurent there. He binds them, somehow.”

“He's got his charms.”

“He binds them with a combined effort to be better than him.”

“That works, too.”

“Are you going to compete?”

“Of course.” Damen was itching to compete. He wanted the simple escape of sports well played and fairly won. He wanted to show his father, his city, that he was still the winning prince from the last games. “Are you?”

“Of course,” said Nikandros.

-

Normally, Akielons did not bother with the ostentation of a dais. Rulers did not need to raise themselves up when they made people kneel. But from a purely practical perspective, a platform was necessary for the King to observe the games held in his honour. Theomedes sat in the usual order – Damen to his right, Kastor to his left, Kastor pushed down to the end by two visiting kyroi and an ambassador from Patras.

Laurent was to Damen's right, laced tight in Veretian finery and wearing a simple gold circlet around his head.

“First time I've seen the crown prince in a crown,” Damen said.

“It's a little large. It might fall down over my eyes. Don't tell me if it does. I'll just be taking a nap.”

“This won't be boring.”

The jousts were intense! Damen sucked the air in through his teeth and leaned forward, elbows on his bare knees. Laurent scoffed. How did he not see how close that run was? The boy liked horses, liked danger. Where was the issue?

Javelin next, to let the ground settle. Wine was passed around. Laurent allowed the page to fill his cup and then placed it on the arm of Damen's chair rather than drink. The game-masters prepared the field. Pallas, the boy Damen had fought before, won his category.

Then archery. As sports go, it was less exciting but archers played a key role in any army and so it was treated with the gravitas it deserved.

“This is me,” Laurent said.

“Pardon?”

“I'm competing.” He dusted his hands. “King Theomedes approved. Aren't you going to wish me luck?”

Damen didn't need to. Laurent won. He won so spectacularly,splitting arrows, that the crowd forgot they hated him and applauded like he was a normal boy instead of their hated enemy.

“Well done,” Damen said.

“Thank you,” Laurent said, like for a moment he forgot to be hateful. “Aren't you doing anything?”

“The boys go first,” Damen said. “Men next.”

He stood on the dais, aware of the eyes of the crowd on him.

The compere announced the wrestling was about to start.

-

Damen disrobed, had his body oiled, and warmed up his muscles while one of the sentries beat one of Kastor's men. He smirked at Nikandros while one his trainees made an excellent effort to take down a soldier who had been their senior while they trained as boys.

He and Nikandros didn't wrestle for fun as adults but the spirit of their childhood lived on for the yearly games.

Theomedes joined him on the sidelines.

“I don't need luck, father.” Damen smiled.

“Schedule’s changed. You won't be fighting your friend. There's a lord's son for Sicyon for whom it would be an honour to fight the prince. It's time to build bridges, Damianos.”

Damen treated the Sicyon son with utmost respect when they met on the field. That was the linchpin of sports. He wrestled. He took no more advantage of the difference in size and strength than was necessary for the fight. He enjoyed it in the sense he was used to it, in the way he still enjoyed attention from an unskilled bed slave, but his heart wasn't in it. There was no spark, no spirit, none of the heart-racing joy of winning.

Of course he won. He bowed and helped the Sicyon son of the dirt and clapped him on the shoulder. While he was having the oil removed, Nikandros trounced Kastor.

That was fun.

Laurent was gone from the dais when they broke for luncheon.

-

The Okton was the last event. Because the field required the most preparation. Because it was the climax and highlight and everyone's favourite. Including Damen. He felt a flicker of excitement at the sight of the course and the targets.

“What's that?” Laurent demanded.

“The Okton.”

“You say it like it's meant to mean something to me.”

Damen explained the basics of the game. He used his hands. Possibly set out wine cups on the table to help Laurent visualise it.

Laurent's blue eyes flashed. “I want to play.”

“No.” Damen had trained for two seasons with the best masters before he was allowed compete.

“Why not?.”

“You're not trained. You're too young. You're not strong enough. Father.”

“Oh, yes. Run to daddy,” Laurent grumbled, poking around at Damen's plate until he found an untouched chicken drumstick.

“That does not help your case,” Damen said. “Father, tell him he can't take part in the Okton.”

“You may not take part in the Okton,” Theomdes said. “Your uncle wouldn't like it if the crown prince got skewered off his horse.”

Laurent's face turned to stone. He mumbled something Damen couldn't catch and sat back in his seat. The academy had been good for him. A year ago, he would have overturned the table.

“I'll teach you to wrestle if you like,” Damen offered.

“I'd rather wrestle a wild boar than take part,” Laurent said.

His wrestling had been soulless but Damen got the adrenaline-laced thrill of the chase from the Okton, the hoof-pounding, hair-raising, blood-pumping sheer and utter jubilation.

He won.

The only sourness to the event, other than Laurent's expression, was Nikandros's poor performance. His hands were healed. But his spear-throwing was not the same.

Damen was crowned and applauded and if he wasn't so large his fellow-players would have hoisted him onto his shoulders.

“Go on,” he said to Laurent, when he sat back beside the King. “Admit you enjoyed it.”

“It was adequate," Laurent said. "I suppose."

"I saw you watching me."

"I wasn't even here, then."

Damen paused. He peered down at the boy. “You can play when you're older,” he said.

-

There were celebrations. Music. Wine. Lots of wine. Slave girls and boys dancing, subtly, lovely, much more to his taste than the daytime follies. Food. Possibly not enough food.

Damen was quite drunk.

Everyone wanted to drink with the prince and who was he to disappoint them?

“What you don't understand,” he slurred to Nikandros, “Is my burden.”

Nikandros narrowed his eyes. He was quite drunk, too, and brave enough to laugh at Damen. Hurt, Damen laughed too and left the table. Adrastus, master of slaves, bowed to him as he passed. Not as as low as a slave. He was careful to make that distinction.

“Congratulations on the Okton, Exalted,” he said.

“Thank you,” Damen replied.

“If I may, Exalted, there is a girl I would like you to meet. She's been training all these months you've been gone. Her name is Lykaios.”

“I see,” said Damen. “Have I seen her before?” Meaning, have I bedded her before.

“No, Exalted. No-one has.”

A first night. For a slave, a first night means everything. For a girl who had been told she could have a first night with Prince Damianos, the anticipation and pressure would be immense. She would know him by reputation, perhaps slaves talked. He was kind. Kinder than his brother. She might have seen him win at the games.

Damen swallowed.

“I am very tired.” Damen said. “And I have drunk a lot of wine, most of it un-diluted. Out of respect for the tradition of First Night, I must decline tonight. But I would like to meet her tomorrow.”

-

It was probably for the best that Damen drank so much he only made it to his room under the supportive arm of one his guards. It wouldn't have been good to bring a soft new slave in and have them greeted with Laurent snoozing in the antechamber.

“Wrong room, kid,” Damen said.

“Mine is too noisy.”

Damen wasn't able to fight with him over this.

-

The next day, a prizegiving. They were jolly affairs. Perhaps the first since Damen had lost them Delpha. He was not able to drink or eat or chastise Laurent for quietly maintaining an unflattering running commentary about the prizewinners.

Later, though, the slave Lykaios was presented to him. She had milky skin and honey eyes and a lion pinned to her shoulder. She had been trained for him. She might as well have been made for him.

He offered his hand, helped her stand, and spoke gently until she managed a private smile. To a slave, a First Night means everything. Damen took his duty seriously. He started early, finished late, and because he was so glad of her touch and so much at the mercy of his instincts, it meant a lot to him too.

-

Damen woke to sunlight and the bonelessness of satiation, after a long night ensuring that Lykaios's First Night had been enjoyable for slave and prince. It had been a good night and Damen was loathe to let it go. He threw his forearm over his eyes and stretched out in the warmth of the bed.

“I ate your breakfast,” Laurent announced, from the archway that led to Damen's room. Damen refused to be annoyed this morning. He put his hands behind his head and looked at the boy.

“Call for more food,” Damen said.

Laurent huffed and went to the door. “I want to talk to you,” he said.

“I thought you were just admiring the view.” Damen sat up. “All right. Let's talk.”

“Get up.”

“No. Sit down if you want.” He could see Laurent weigh his options. Laurent could have sat cross-legged at the end of Damen's bend and not come within touching distance of him. Nikandros would have, when he was that age.

But Laurent was not Nikandros. He dragged a heavy couch from the sitting area, the one he had slept on before, and sat on it, directly across from Damen. “What's next?” he asked.

“There'll be a farewell for the bannermen and nobles who have come for the feast.”

“For me, I mean. I know I'm not going back to the academy.”

“Says who?”

“Everyone.”

“What do you want to do?”

“Return to Vere.”

“I'm not the one stopping you,” Damen said. “Look, don't worry about what's next. I'll arrange something for you. Was there anything else?”

“I don't like all these people in the palace.”

“I'm not about to kick them out.”

Laurent sighed. “What was the big deal with your slave girl? I heard the men talk about it.”

“First Night is an important right for slaves,” Damen explained. “It's... a culmination of their training. The first contact, first everything for them. And it's, I don't know, a promise for the future.”

“Oh,” said Laurent. “That sounds nice.”

“You never say anything sounds nice.”

“I was being sarcastic. What's nice about slavery?”

“You can train for next year's games if you want,” Damen said. “I'll help you.”

“I'm not wrestling. I made that clear.”

“The Okton. I know you want to.”

“No,” said Laurent. “There's no point.”

“You'll be older. I'm a Crown Prince, too, and no-one stops me.”

“No,” said Laurent. “No-one wants you dead.”

Damen's breakfast arrived. His bath. His fresh clothing. Laurent simply turned the couch so the back was to room. He sat there, facing the sea, with a book on his lap. Damen didn't tell him to leave.

-

“When does training recommence?” Damen asked Nikandros.

“Soon,” Nikandros said. “Is the princeling cramping your style? I hear he's in your rooms all the time.”

“Gossip, Nikandros. Really?”

“People talk, Damen.”

“I know.” But Laurent was a boy who kept turning up and Damen hadn't the heart to turn him away. Jord had told him of Laurent's devotion to Auguste and Damen hadn't been able to keep Auguste alive. If Laurent was looking for a substitute, he wasn't going to deny him.

Damen didn't tell Nikandros that Laurent had taken to sleeping on that couch by the window. And that Damen hadn't been able to ask the slave girl back (though she did attend him at the baths) but he had formed the habit of telling Laurent about his day and his time on the road and the hijinks he got up to at his age.

“I want you to take him out with you to Tachenos's estate,” Damen said. Training at the palace barracks had its limits. When the boys were not so green, they were brought outside the city walls to learn more about combat. There were wide open spaces where they could learn drills and lines and formations. There were mock battles and surprise challenges. The final steps to being a real soldier. The Kyros of Ios hosted the trainees every year and threw them a feast afterwards.

“I must state my objection,” Nikandros said. “Basics are one thing but we can't teach the enemy the traditional techniques of Akielon warfare.”

“The enemy has observed them and they have bested them. We were both at Delpha.” Damen noticed a hardness come to his voice. “Take the boy out with you. I'll send extra guards. And he can take his tutor. You can excuse him from anything you think he shouldn't know.”

“Very well,” Nikandros said, rising from the bench in the citrus-scented gardens. “And I'm still waiting to hear about your latest First Night.”

“Well,” Damen began. “She was very....flexible.”

-

Damen had been back barely a fortnight when Theomedes summoned him to his chambers.

“Son,” he said. “I have an assignment for you.”

Damen steeled himself for another tax expedition or pie contest. “Yes, father.”

“There's been an incident down the coast. Four of our vessels have been removed from our control.”

“Mutineers?”

“Pirates.”

A thrill went down Damen's spine. “It would be my honour to sort this.”

“I knew you'd say that. Look.” Theomedes pointed at a map. “Here is the situation.”

-

Akielos did not have a large naval fleet. As a country, they were not interested in exploration or conquering. They had quite enough to deal with one their own peninsula. But they had ships for defence, for transport, supplies.

After Delpha, Theomedes had moved half their fleet around towards Patras and brought the other half to the southernmost tip of Ios. It was a show of good faith to the Regent that their surrender was definite.

Damen hadn't paid attention.

No more busywork. A King could not know every inch of his country, but Damen's father had made it so that by the time Damen ascended he would know as much as possible. It was understandable. He did not have to toil the fields, but he would need some understanding of these day to day issues for when they boiled over into political problems.

They needed the money.

Also, it was a great sign of respect to farmers and kyroi and everyone in between when Prince Damianos was sent to deal with their issues.

Damen understood. He did. But deeper in him, some instinctual part that was immune to logic, saw these things as beneath him. Kastor should be sorting peasant disputes. Damen should be leading victories.

The waters down south were less sheltered from storms and more vulnerable to attack from other nations. And pirates. Wherever there were ships, there were pirates.

Damen took his best men and two former naval officers who didn't much want to be dragged from the comfort of court and made the short journey south. It was not a quick campaign. At sea, you couldn't just charge. You couldn't throw footsoldiers and mounted soldiers or any kind of soldiers at the enemy. You had to plot. You had to wait.

Damen had to learn things like co-ordinates and tides and whatever knots were. It had been a long time since anything related to warfare had been new to him, and it was both challenging and rewarding. He had to find more men, qualified men, to fight under him. They were rougher than ground soldiers and had mouth's that would make Laurent seem innocent. Much to his disgust, he even had to bribe a visiting merchant for intelligence. He had to recall the ships near Patras and send them out to the unowned waters of the Ellosean sea to make sure the pirates didn't simply sail their navy away. And there was the matter of the sailors still on board.

It was twisted and complicated and lengthy. Damen had pay to use the private vessels he couldn't commandeer. But they got out to the Akielon ships without injury. He climbed aboard.

He got his navy back.

He celebrated hard in the port taverns afterwards, of course, and rode home at his leisure stopping at the homes of old friends and, though it still felt weird, he held every baby shoved into his arms and smiled down at their innocent eyes.

-

Damen returned to Ios with the sun on his back, a gash in his thigh, faded bruises on his forehead and an immense feeling of pride. He hadn't had a victory since before Marlas. Success was a balm he hadn't known he needed until it happened. Damen couldn't wait to see his father.

But Kastor greeted him at the gates and rode beside him on the leaf-scattered journey back to the town. Kastor had been away, too, in Sicyon and he had a lot to say about the mood there. None of it good.

Inside the palace, Oreste informed Damen that Theomedes was busy with another tax issue and Damen, who had no desire to get drawn into bureaucracy, said he would wait until his father was free to meet with him.

He had the strongest instinct to go to his rooms and see if Laurent was still on couch facing the sea. Surely the trainees were back from the countryside by now. Back in the barracks.

Damen found Nikandros counting the small swords by the edge of the training arena. You had to do that to make sure none went missing. They weren't wooden any more.

At the sight of him, Nikandros dropped into a bow.

“Rise, friend,” Damen said. “I have missed you.”

“And you, Exalted. Welcome home.”

“How went the second stage of training?” Damen asked.

“Quite well,” Nikandros said.

Right. It was going to be like that. Damen bid the squires and servants in the vicinity to depart.

“Something wrong, Nikandros?”

Nikandros stepped away from the racks. “No. Sorry. I haven't even offered you my congratulations. The whole country is abuzz with news of your gallant actions at sea.”

Damen got the sad, distinct impression that Nikandros was being as discourteous as his training would allow him. “Thanks,” he said and where he would normally go onto to regale his friend with bloody tales of victory, he said nothing. “So..the manoeuvres?”

“I've been running those camps at Tachenos's estate for four years now and you've never asked me before.”

“You never had the Prince of Vere in your camp before,” Damen said.

“That was --” Nikandros paused to wipe his brow. “His highness performed admirably at the camp. Worked hard. Trained hard. Captured the flag, of course, in record time. Half the boys are in love with him.”

“You're holding back.”

“I'm waiting, Damianos.”

“What for?”

“For you to tell me I was right all along.”

“Nikandros, speak plainly. Has something happened to Laurent?” Damen's heartbeat got very fast. If anything had happened to that boy, Damen would have to act. He would not go easy.

“Oh,” said Nikandros. “I see. No-one has told you. I assumed your father just left the boring parts out.” Nikandros looked Damen in the eye, now. “The camp went well. The problems all occurred at the feast. On the last night, His Royal Highness, Prince Laurent of Vere took a dagger and shoved it into Tachenos's throat. He has killed the Kyros of Ios.”