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One the Other

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“Are you joking?” Damen said, flat. He would have heard. Kastor rode into the city with him and his brother would have relished the chance to gloat about Laurent's misdeeds. He would, Damen knew, also relish the chance to go to war again and the murder of a kyros, who were second in rank only to the royal family, was reason enough indeed.

“I wish I was,” Nikandros said. “The whole thing feels like a farce. Damen, it was eerie. He was completely calm – that tantrum-throwing boy doesn't exist anymore.”

“Thanks to your discipline,” Damen said, and he heard the shallow quality to his voice. “Did he give an explanation?”

“The guard, Jord, restrained him right away. Laurent said something about touching. He didn't want Jord to touch him. That's all he said. Nothing more.”

“How am I meant to deal with this?” Damen had a hopeful second where he imagined Nikandros already had. Technically, he was in charge when Laurent struck. Tachenos was such a frail old man. He used to take him roughly ten minutes to get out of a chair. He never stood a chance against a quick, skilled boy like Laurent. “Tell me he's not in the dungeons or --”

“House arrest. Fit for a prince. Your house to be exact,” Nikandros said. “I did try to get answers since but...”

“It's all right. I know how stubborn he can be.” Damen suddenly felt the tiredness of the journey back to Ios hit him like tsunami. “Ios has no kyros, now,” he said. Tachenos had no heirs, if Damen remembered right. His only son had died in a hunting accident years ago. He had a scatter of daughters after. Damen remembered some pleasant nights spent with one of them but when it was became clear marriage was not on the cards, Tachenos shipped her off to be married overseas.

“No,” said Nikandros. And it dawned on Damen why his friend had been so calm about Laurent killing the last one.

-

Damen's instincts drove him to seek answers from Laurent. Preferably, through the use of his fists. A good throttling might make him feel better. It might clear things up.

Then, he thought of the boy he left behind, reserved and lonely at the side of his bed, and simply couldn't believe he had killed in cold blood. Tachenos had to have...there had to be something. The only possible explanation Damen could find was that the former kyros had said something about Prince Auguste, or worse, had some involvement in his death. He might have grandsons in the army.

Laurent wasn't evil enough to kill a man for no reason, was he? No. That was the uncle, not the boy.

A boy, not a leader, would try to solve this physically while anger clouded his vision. Damen wanted to be a leader. He would wait. Anyway, Theomedes had summoned him, finished with his tax business. His father would not thank him for being late for a meeting because he was strangling the Prince of Vere. Laurent could wait. Theomedes could not.

The details of the naval mission had been well relayed to Theomedes but he still insisted on hearing it in person. When Damen had finished, he waited for the usual praise and recognition to come his way. Oddly, he found that his whole self craved to hear them. But his father just shuffled his papers and moved on.

“I suppose your protégé told you of his actions with Tachenos,” Theomedes said. Actions. Well, Akielons were economical with their words.

“I haven't seen him,” Damen replied. His father looked over the top of the scroll like he didn't believe Damen's words. “But Nikandros told me. Has he been punished?”

“How does one punish the Crown Prince of Vere for the murder of one your most loyal bannermen, your trusted kyros, a frail old man who hadn't seen attack in since my own father was alive.”

Damen took that to be a rhetorical question and not one of his father's tests of leadership. But his father remained silent and Damen got nervous. “Send him to a foreign country?”

Kastor snickered. “I suggest Vask. There's women there that would make the little bugger shit his pants.”

“Respect, please,” Theomedes said. “It's not up to us. Co-incidentally, Vere is sending an ambassador soon. One of the old king's most trusted advisers. Herode can decide.”

“Tachenos's people won't like that,” Damen said. Outside the city gates, the common folk loved the kyros almost as much as the king. That is why Theomedes kept him out there.

“I know. That's why they're getting a massive tax reduction, food supplies and the leadership of Nikandros during this difficult time.” Theomedes waved one of his men over to take the papers away.

“Will this Herode negotiate for the boys' return?” Damen wondered if Laurent's show of violence was simply to engineer his trip back to Arles. Certainly it was a grave enough insult.

“As I am not a seer, I cannot tell you. Dismissed.”

-

Damen spent a short two hours alone in his training ring before returning to his apartments. As expected, he hadn't taken more than three steps in the door when Laurent appeared behind him. He was back wearing high boots, which clattered so badly on the tiles, there was no way he could sneak up on anyone. He was a back in Veretian clothing, too, though not tied as tightly as before.

“What took you so long?” Laurent demanded.

“Pardon?”

“They've confined me to my room. Do you know how boring it is to be stuck alone with nothing but the sound of Akielon grunts for company?” Laurent brushed by Damen to help himself to the food he'd requested. Naturally, he took the plumpest sausage and wrapped it in the most evenly baked bread. “They said it's for my protection. I said, isn't that what Jord and those weedy soldiers you left behind are for?

Damen needed to sit. Those weedy soldiers were an elite few worthy of the prince's guard. “Probably it is for your protection. Tachenos has many friends in Ios City.”

Laurent did not react to Damen knowing of his crime. “Ios needs to be more careful,” he said.

“Why did you kill the old man?” Damen refused to get drawn into another convoluted conversation. Being to the point was a much better way to communicate.

“He annoyed me. But that doesn't matter.” Laurent replied, as he ripped into an orange. “I'm quite versed in the law you know. Many people saw me pick up the knife. More saw me stick it into his artery. I'm good at anatomy, too. I knew where to aim.” He bit down in a segment of orange and a little bit of juice sprayed out. “I was not drunk or out of my mind. I knew what I was doing. My guilt is clear.”

“In Akielos we don't just kill people for no reason,” Damen said, still staying calm. He felt very mature.

“No? Tell that to my brother. Wait, that's not possible.”

“Come on,” Damen said. “I know you are not so cruel. I can help you, if you let me.”

Laurent shrugged. “Maybe I wanted attention. Everyone's talking about your success on the high seas.”

“Are they?” Not to Damen, they hadn't.

“Oh, yes. Prince Damianos vs the Mutineers. Any day now, some ridiculous verse will be published about your glorious triumph.” Laurent was likely making fun of Damen, but Damen still felt a faint prickle of pride. “I'll have to hear the boy soldiers recite it from my window. Half of them are in love with you, you know? I tried to tell them you favour women but they still hope. Poor fools.”

“They weren't mutineers,” Damen said, after he called for more food. “That is not the Akielon way.”

“Then how did this great country lose control of four ships? Don't blame Vere. It probably wasn't us.”

“It was pirates.”

“Pirates?” Laurent leaned forward, mouth taut, cheeks puffed. “Were there many pirates?”

“A few,” Damen said. “Considerably fewer once I was finished with them.”

“Did they have a captain?”

“The captain was a woman,” Damen said, drawing up his chiton enough to show Laurent the wound on his leg. “She was aiming higher.”

Laurent laughed and the action shook his hair onto his forehead. “Then what happened?”

-

The arrival of Herode had clearly been in the making long before Damen was informed. “Did you know your father's old friend was coming?” he asked Laurent who was pretty much a permanent fixture in his rooms these days. A consequence of his house arrest. He ate Damen's food and re-arranged Damen's furniture and sneered at his slaves. He slept on the couch when Damen didn't object.

“Yes. He told me in a letter.”

“Ah. I forgot. You like to write letters. I'm sure your Veretian contacts value hearing about how poor my taste in furniture is,” Damen replied. Laurent had seen little else while his house arrest continued. The skills and knowledge he'd gained while working with Nikandros was not specific enough to be of any threat to Akielon security. “What is Herode like?”

“Fair,” said Laurent. “He was a great friend of my father's. Auguste used to go to him first, if he wanted to do something...that skirted close to the edge of protocol.”

“You know he will mete out your punishment.”

“Yes.”

“Will you tell me why you did it?”

“I already did. He annoyed me.”

Damen asked Jord the same question. Jord had already told Theomedes all he knew. “Tell me,” Damen said. “Please.”

“I honestly don't know,” Jord said. “The excursion went very well for the prince. He wouldn't even let me help build camp. Just left me standing there like a spare bollock. It was over. He was...”

“What?”

“He seemed happy,” Jord said, pensively. “Maybe that's why he did it.”

Damen didn't understand. Laurent had to have a better reason than that. It had to be ploy to get home. Maybe even a cry for attention. There had been little communication from the Regent to the heir. Perhaps Laurent had something to prove, to him and to the people of Akielos. Killing a kyros was quite the show of strength.

 

-

Herode was not the oldest man Damen had seen, but he was the oldest man Damen had seen who still carried himself like a man. In Akielos, where masculinity was highly valued and strength was measured in muscles and battles, ageing was hard. It was different for women, Damen figured. They could still nurture, even when they're bodies had passed their peak. But for men, they had to work ten times as hard to maintain the kind of strength that garnered respect or else they had to modestly succumb to losing value, the way a drunk at an inn will whittle away their dignity to earn a cup of ale. Their roles shifted. Older men, if they lived, became gentle scholars and kindly advisers and beleaguered fathers and grandfathers who played at wrangling children the way the most skilled dogmen let the animals play before they called them into line.

Herode was none of those things. He was stooped with age, yet he carried himself with the kind of confidence Damen would have seen in himself if he looked in a mirror. Perhaps it was a Veretian thing. The Regent had only played at bumbling. Damen couldn't imagine Laurent ever getting that old, let alone losing his intrinsic grace.

There was, naturally, a feast in Herode's honour. Drinks were flowing. Slaves were moving through the crowd like ribbons caught in a breeze. Now, people wanted to talk to Damen. Courtiers and generals were caught in the splendor of a royal reception and wanted the prince to buoy them along with new tales of triumph.

Laurent was little more than a flash of blond hair as he navigated his way through the crowd. Drinks had been flowing long enough for people to forget his crime against Tachenos and the way his country had humiliated theirs. They were charmed by him. Damen saw more than one courtier wear a chiton held together with needless loose laces instead of a traditional pin.

Theomedes had told Damen to go straight to Herode, like Damen would somehow forget how to be courteous to visitors.

“Councillor Herode,” he said, inclining his head and speaking Veretian. What more could anyone expect of a Prince? “Welcome to Akielos.”

“Thank you, Exalted,” Herode replied and he bowed too low for a man of his age.

“Please, Damianos is fine. How are you finding our country?”

“Warm,” Herode said and his eyes followed a passing court lady whose breasts bounced unrestrained beneath a very sheer, laced chiton. “Have you been to Vere? Aside from Delfeur, I mean.”

“I have not that pleasure.” He did not wish to ever have that pleasure. But he could do diplomacy. In the crowd he caught sight of Laurent standing among the fathers of the soldier boys he had trained with, making them all laugh heartily.

“How is our prince doing?”

“He's...adaptable,” Damen said. “But you would know. He writes to you, yes?”

“Not so much lately. He was not pleased when his requests for me take him home went denied. Of course, it was never my call.” Herode trained his gaze on Laurent, who was now explaining the delights of the buffet to two members of Herode's entourage. The Akielons were paying him more attention. Damen did not need to be able to hear to know they were the same Akielons traded in bringing rare foods to the city. “He seems to be enjoying court.”

“He's been confined to his room for a while now,” Damen said.

“When last I saw him, he was confined by choice with his nose in a book,” Herode said. “When he wasn't tugging on his brother's sleeve, of course. You should know, Damianos, that whatever people say about those two is not true. There was never anything untoward.”

“I do know that.” Damen hid his confusion and moved on. “Not training? He fights well.”

“Not for pleasure,” Herode said. “He has changed, here.”

“Come. Try the griva,” Theomedes called to Herode. “It's strong, I warn you.” Herode took a measure like it was sugar water. Damen slipped away, smiling. It was a party, after all. He signalled a servant to bring him the best wine and spoke to all the people who wanted to speak to him. It meant a lot to them, Damen knew. Especially the visitors from the outlying regions who would one day tell their grandchildren of the time they drank wine with Prince Damianos. Thankfully, they mostly wanted to talk about wrestling and women and Damen's recent high seas adventures and Damen could handle that. His father could handle the more serious topics.

Eventually, Damen made his way to Nikandros. Someone he actually wanted to speak to,

He even handed him his wine which was superior to the varieties flowing freely around the room.

“No shadow tonight?” Nikandros asked. “I hear you're quite inseparable.”

“He has nowhere else to go,” Damen said. “Nor do I want to talk about him. I hear you're off to Tachenos's estate again.”

“I was to go north,” Nikandros said, “With a company of my own. But your pup put paid to that. I suppose I'll cope. Has the punishment been decided yet? I cannot go without news of that.”

“It's up to Vere,” Damen said. “But it won't be severe. He's just a boy.”

Nikandros shook his head. “Those were not the actions of a boy. I saw him kill him in cold blood.”

“We've all killed.”

“In battle,” Nikandros said.

“What's this about a battle?” Kastor joined them, carrying his own bottle of wine. He did not offer any around. “There are raiders to the east again. Are you going?”

“No. I don't think so,” Damen said, taking some bread and olives from a passing servant. At the same moment, before he could put even one to his mouth, Laurent dashed by and snatched them from his hand.

“Can you send him?” Kastor asked. “If old Herode doesn't haul him home.”

“He's just a boy,” Damen said. “He can't go.”

“What were we doing at his age?” Kastor asked. Nikandros was serving at the Kingsmeet, Damen remembered. He was beating men ten years his senior in the arena. “Look around, brother. Watch the slaves blush and the courtiers flock. You're the only one here who still thinks Prince Laurent is a boy.”

-

At meal time, Damen returned to his father's table. Ordinarily, guilt niggled when he sat at his father's right and Kastor was moved further away depending on what kyroi or general or ambassador deserved more attention. Tonight, Damen did not feel that guilt.

“I'm sorry our conversation was cut short,” he said, politely, to Herode before they sat. Herode was placed at his father's left and Damen would not dare talk across the king at dinner.

“It's all right,” Herode replied. “I understand now.”

“The perils of griva?” Damen grinned.

“No, the change in Laurent.” Herode sat. Damen assumed Laurent would be seated beside his countryman but he plonked himself into the chair beside Damen.

“Is that appropriate?” Damen asked him, giving him a chance to move.

“Kastor assigned the seats,” Laurent said. That made sense. Without Laurent, it brought Kastor one seat closer to the king. “It wasn't my choice. I've seen enough of you lately.”

“I'll swap with Kastor if you want to talk to Herode.”

“We've spoken already,” Laurent said.

“Has he told you your punishment?”

“I'm here,” Laurent said. “Isn't that punishment enough?” He declined wine and turned his nose up at the first course. The fleshy shellfish was a local delicacy and Damen did not judge him too harshly. Herode praised it. Damen, who had quite enough of fish on his last mission, declined it more politely.

The soup next was spicy and rich with beans and sausage. It reminded Damen of when he was a boy, nurseries and campfires, tucked in with gusto.

“Is it nice?” Laurent said.

“You've had the soup before.”

“Mine is over-seasoned. Can we swap?” He switched the bowls before Damen could answer. A dark-haired table slave produced a new bowl for Damen. “Peasant food,” Laurent declared. But he ate it all.

“You've not much gotten the chance to dine with us,” Damen said.

“I've had chances. Not obligations,” Laurent replied. “Court is court is court no matter where you live. Except of course, the entertainments.”

“We have a good kithara troupe for later,” Theomedes interjected. Diplomacy. “What do you have in Vere?”

Laurent smirked. Herode looked down at his soup. “There are often....performances. Veretian tastes are different.”

“One time,” Laurent said, switching to Veretian and dropping his voice. “Two of Audin's pet's were tied to a cross and --”

“Your highness,” Herode interrupted. “Please forgive me. You know how age betrays the mind sometimes. I forgot to pass on your uncle's regards.”

Laurent set down his spoon. “All right.”

“Did you see much of Veretian court?” Damen asked Laurent as his father, wary, engaged Herode again. “You must have been young. And you say you were at Chastillon, Aqcuitart, Sanpellier and Marlas in the run up to the war.”

“Have you been studying out map?” Laurent said. Their bowls were cleared. “I am never as young as you think me, Prince Damianos. I was at those places. I hunted. I fought. And somehow found time to attend courtly entertainment. My father and August banned it,” he continued, and because Damen so rarely saw the boy talk about his brother he allowed Laurent to take the choice cut of meat that the serving boy had been bringing for him. “But I'm resourceful. I managed to sneak in. There was another boy. I can't remember his name now. He used to help me hide.”

“Kastor used to help me hide,” Damen said. At the mention of his name, Kastor looked up.

“Remember when you hid in the winery and the door accidentally got locked?”

“No,” Damen lied. “I imagine you saw all sorts of things in Vere's court.” He wanted to draw Laurent back out.

“You're probably not imaginative enough,” Laurent said, quietly. “We used to play a game. The boy and myself. We would take turns pointing out people in the court and guess their secrets. Do you want to play now?”

“I'm too old for games.”

“Oh, shut up. If you were in Vere, you wouldn't yet be old enough to ascend to the throne,” Laurent said. “I'll start.” He pointed at one of the local courtiers that he had so thoroughly charmed before the meal. “He wants to fuck me.”

“That's no secret. Apparently, half the men and girls here do.”

Laurent wrinkled his nose. “Yes, but he cries at night when he has to go to bed with his wife because there is no heir and he'd rather be with me. Or so I guess.” The courtier noticed Laurent's attention and quickly looked back to his wife.

Damen's turn. He nodded discreetly towards one of Herode's men. “He wants to vomit ever since the griva.”

“I should make sure he gets extra bloody meat,” Laurent said. “But that's not a secret. Pick someone else.”

Damen found a curvy nobleman's daughter to speculate about. “She is wondering if she can tempt one of Herode's men to the delights of opposite sex love.”

“Interesting,” Laurent said. “Have you noticed how it pains them to sit around Kastor?” Damen hadn't but glanced now to see one very pissed off brother among Herode's men. “But I am quite sure Herode's nephew, the sickly one, is self-loathingly attracted to Kastor despite his bastard status.”

“The general over there would hunt men for sport given the opportunity,” Damen said. He had to slouch in his chair and lean in towards Laurent just for him to be audible.

Laurent laughed. “Dark. For you.” He inclined his finger towards a stocky guildsman from Dice, who if Damen remembered correctly, liaised with the craft guilds in Ios to ensure standardisation among apprentices. Damen had spoken to him once, out of obligation, and the man purred out some platitude about Damen's physique. Basically, he was a wet rag in human form. “That one,” Laurent said. “Likes to put a tailed dildo up his hole and pretend to be a cat.”

Damen burst out laughing. It rolled up from his belly and sprang tears from his eyes. “Laurent,” he said, but the chastisement was lost to his mirth. Laurent just sipped some water. His outburst brought much attention on him. Thankfully, Damen was used to being looked at.

“I never knew the prince was such a comedian,” Theomedes said, smiling. “Perhaps he can entertain us some time.”Then, he dropped his voice to a growl. “For god's sake, Damen, stop playing. And speak Akielon.”

Damen composed himself. He was a prince. Laurent did not point at any more people. More meat was brought around. When Damen glanced out at the court, he noticed one a soldier from Tachenos's retuniue glaring at the table. It had to have been at Laurent, who had killed their lord. Oddly, Nikandros was looking too.

 

-

 

Nikandros did not say anything when Damen rejoined his table. He may have sometimes spoken more freely than others would, because of their friendship, but he would never speak out of turn in company. There were times when Damen was glad that he did not have to hear things he didn't want to. There were others times, like now, when the lack of words said more than anything.

Nikdandros was popular. Damen knew that. He ran successful campaigns and shepherded younger men into the rigours of soldierhood with more generosity than most. Theomedes liked him, too, perhaps because he was similar to his son, or because he had seen him grow up, or more likely because he did not let his defeats or his status define him. He just kept going. So Nikandros's table was always full. Soldiers who hero-worshipped him or their fathers who were grateful and any number of people who would never see a battlefield who just liked being around him.

It had taken a while for Damen to get to the table. The head of the carpenters guild had detained him with questions Damen did not really listen to. He also tried to extract Kastor from the bastard-hating Veretians but he would not meet his eye and Damen knew his brother would not thank him for calling him away openly.

“Should we hide the cutlery?” One of Nikandros's men joked, when Damen joined them. “The little prince might crawl out from under the table for a repeat performance. Oh, don't be so sour,” the soldier said to another guard. “Tachenos's days were well numbered.”

“Prince Laurent has gone to the kitchen's to inform the staff that they're food is not up to Veretian standards,” Damen said, smiling.

“You shouldn't --” Nikandros said, then stopped. Damen nodded his chin just enough to tell him to continue. The other men were all occupied by the performance taking place in the centre of the room. The slaves were excellent dancers and tonight's display was slow and quietly sensuous, as if designed to say look, Vere, we do not need to be blatant to be erotic. It conjured longing. “Tachenos's men are here. His wife, too. It is not prudent to disrespect them.”

“I know,” Damen said. Though he did not even know Tachenos had remarried. When Damen stood behind his father offering sympathies, he had seen only children. “Now, I know.”

“You should have at least shared the joke.”

“When I am king,” Damen said. “I hope you will be my best advisor.”

Nikandros smiled, wryly. “I hope your father stays king for a long time so.”

“Don't fancy keeping me out of trouble?”

“Something like that.” Nikandros waved over a wine bottle. Jessa, one of Damen's own slaves poured for Damen first, then Nikandros, and then the man across from Nikandros who Damen had never met before and, of course, would never be bold enough to speak to the king's son unbidden.

“Good wine,” Damen said, conversationally.

“Yes, Exalted.”

“Please, Damianos is fine. We're all friends and soldiers here.” Damen figured, by the way the man seemed to think the average wine as actually good and the way his eyes had widened when the serving girl leaned over to pour it, it was his first time in the palace. “What is your name?”

“Farren, sir.”

“Farren was at Sanpelier,” Nikandros said. “He was sentry at the Kingsmeet when I served there.” His way of saying, Damen you have met this man before.

Damen wondered what he had been doing that has stopped him remembering. Granted, he met a lot of men. Soldiers in armour tended to look the same. So did white-uniformed sentries.

“A guard of the Kingsmeet is always welcome at our table,” Damen said, kindly. Farren smiled. He had a nice smile. Warm and inviting. He was muscled in a wiry way, like he'd have to move for you to really appreciate it. His eyes were golden brown and so was his hair, shot through with lighter streaks.

“Farren's going to be my second when we ride out,” Nikandros said.

“You'll be in good hands,” Damen said to Farren. “Is this your first time at the palace?”

“Not at the palace, but at a palace function,” he replied. “It's....something.” His eyes followed a passing slave, who like them couldn't have been much more than twenty, with gold tipped hair that curled around a very symmetrical face.

Damen smiled. “There are many good things about the palace.” He was feeling generous, so he beckoned the boy over and bid him pour more wine for Farren. Jessa kept their glasses full. Lykaios, who had given Damen her First Night, brought candied pears and cool water. The room got warmer and the laughter got louder and Damen let the heat of it all soothe him inside. He listened while Nikandros told the group of the mischief he and Damen used to get up to. He added, when necessary, and he noticed that Farren did not laugh just because Damen was the one who told a story.

Nikandros was funnier. He had more time to hone his skills because people didn't laugh on command.

Damen had to excuse himself, because he had consumed a lot of liquid, and on his return he crossed paths with Laurent in conversation with a glamorous courtier with peacock feathers in her hair. Jord, of course, stood chaperone.

“Finished raising hell in the kitchens?” Damen asked, drawing Laurent away for a moment.

“For now,” he said. “Oh, look. That guildsman wants to talk to me again. If he purrs, I won't be held accountable for my actions.”

Damen was laughing again, heartily, but remembered the other reason he had come over here. He put a hand on Jord's shoulder. “Keep Laurent away tonight,” he told him.

Jord's eyes flickered to the slaves and revelry at Nikandros's table and gave a brief nod.

“Veretian again?” Nikandros said as people moved to let Damen sit back down. Jessa perched on one of his thighs.

“I'm too drunk to break down Akielon to his level,” Damen replied. “Oh, look. Lykaios is performing. Isn't she lovely?”

“Yes,” said Nikandros.

The soldier Farren only had eyes for the slave boy.

More wine. More laughing. More new stories and old reminiscing. More touching. Candlelight danced on the marble walls. Damen felt warm all over, glowing from the inside. When Lykaios rejoined them, and blushed hot at the praise for her poetry which had seemed more like a song, there wasn't very much room left around the table.

“It's too crowded,” Damen said. “We should go to my room. I've got some rum. I stole it from the pirates.”

Everyone laughed. Damen felt it was natural this time, and laughed too.

“Who are you asking?” Nikandros asked, quietly.

“You. Farren. My lovely Lykaios here.” Damen caressed the supple skin on the slave girl's thigh. “Your new friends.”

It took several attempts for Damen to get off the bench. Eventually Nikandros offered his arm and hefted him upwards and it was like all those younger years when they would have drank too much and swayed arm in arm, putting the world to rights, while they made the long journey to bed. Tonight, Nikandros walked him towards the door and then left Damen to fend for himself. Damen wasn't mad. Two gorgeous slave girls were waiting to drape themselves around Nikandros.

“Can you manage?” Farren asked.

“I'm the Prince of Akielos. I can do anything,” Damen said. Well, Jessa helped a little. Damen's apartment had a large, comfortable seating area separate to his sleeping quarters. And a changing area. And a bathing area. Basically, his rooms were large.

Akielons did not have sex in front of other people. Maybe they would ignore a servant so not to interrupt their work. Maybe soldiers would fuck in a bunk or beside a fire or behind a thin canvas when times, and other things, were hard. But it was still private. That was the respect they gave each other.

In Damen's room, Farren's boy, who was really their own age but Damen found it difficult to think of slaves as men, poured three cups of rum. He looked like he would fall to the ground in appreciation when Damen told him to pour for himself and the slave girls if they wished. Farren's boy, without raising his eyes or asking directly, showed Damen a small vial of pink liquid he kept in his pocket among other vials of oil.

Damen waved it away. “You ever take this, Farren?”

“A drop only for that one,” said Nikandros. “I am his superior. I'll take two.”

More laughter. Jessa sat back into Damen's lap. He spilled some rum with the impact and found himself licking her breasts clean with his tongue. Nikandros mouth was similarly occupied.

“Not joking now, Nik,” Damen called. Nikandros replied with a choice gesture from his fingers, and then were occupied too. Jessa writhed on top of Damen. Luckily, Damen was large that a slip of a girl would not obscure his view. Through the open, gauzy curtains he could still see the infinite sea, dark in the moonlight. He did not look. But he saw Nikandros peel away Lykaios's, who wore Damen's pin, clothing, saw the other girl go to her knees. In the corner, Farren's pupils were so wide his eyes were black instead of gold. He and the handsome slave were head to head, talking.

Damen kissed Jessa's neck with forced delicacy and met Farren's eyes. His slave boy had reached under his clothing. Damen grinned at him, then lifted Jessa up as if she weighed nothing, which to him, she did and carried her away to his bed.

She was sweet and pliant in his arms and Damen was drunk and a had less control of his body than usual, so they were a perfect combination. She sighed when he touched her. She kissed back so enthusiastically that he didn't need to second-guess if he was being a little sloppy. He lay back, let her on top, and let his hands slide over her silk-soft skin. Though the divide, he heard the sounds of fucking and it was all so pleasant, until Damen needed things to be more than pleasant and he was sure Jessa was sufficiently pleased and he turned her over and took her on his knees.

The rooms were separate. But still, he could see. The soldier Farren had his head thrown back and the slave boy was expertly swallowing the wet length of his cock. Damen gripped Jessa's hips. He closed his eyes and came, quite suddenly, with a babble of curses.

He let her rest. He needed more wine, which she would have gotten, but he knew she needed rest. Naked, he padded to the sitting area but when he got there, he gulped a whole jug of water instead. Farren had drawn his boy into an alcove. The sound still carried.

“Damen,” Nikandros said.

“You call my name in the throes of pleasure. I'm flattered.”

“Fuck off,” Nikandros said. “Have you met Aune?” He gestured at the girl to his right. Aune was caressing her own nipples, which seemed like a waste.

“Can't satisfy two?” Damen asked, walking towards them. “And you took the --” His voice was cut off, when Nikandros grabbed his head and guided it towards Aune.

It was a blur, in the sense that Damen was drunk on wine and sex and the warm air sea air blowing in the windows and caressing his skin. It was a blur in the sense that his hands were everywhere and there were capable lips all over his skin and his nerve endings were on fire and his brain didn't have to function further than chasing things that felt good.

Distantly, he was aware of Farren rejoining them, of Lykaios playing with a feather, of Jessa pouring more water, of the slave boy wiping the sweat from his face by the door. Damen caught Farren's eye, or tried to be, but the young soldier did not seem to be able to focus. He took his hand and put it on Aune's flat stomach and Farren focused.

Damen beckoned the slave boy over. He could see the surprise on his face. The slaves knew it was unlikely that any of the royal family would take a boy to their bed. Damen had only occasionally been with another man and they were never slaves.

“What is your name?”

“If it pleases you, call me Ramon,” he said.

“You had fun with Farren.”

“He was satisfied, I believe. Exalted.”

“I was,” confirmed Farren, who was soon to be satisfied again between Aune's thighs.

“He bid me leave, Exalted,” Ramon said, which was a slaves way of asking if he should stay. “Forgive me for not waiting for my prince's command.” His body was so still, like all of a sudden, Damen had control over whether or not he breathed. Damen could see how it would go. The submission. Perhaps the feeling, for a change, of muscular legs around him instead of soft ones.
“I am --” Ramon's skin went pink and that was nice, too. “Unsoiled. Your friend Farren preferred to take.”

interesting. Damen found it all interesting.

“There's a guard...somewhere,” Damen said. “His name is Jord. Tell him I sent you as a way of thanks.”

“Yes, Exalted.” Ramon bowed and left. Damen buried himself in Jessa, until that felt boring, and Farren was just there and he was more exciting.

-

He woke up alone, with his arm flung over his eyes to keep out the sunlight. The night came back in flashes of pleasure and Damen found himself smiling at memories that were so recent he could still taste them. Vaguely, he remembered Nikandros and Farren staggering away as first light washed across the room. He had dismissed the slaves, then, and once there was no-one around to witness it, he promptly passed out.

“There's paint on your chest,” Laurent announced.

Damen refused to open his eyes.

He should have told Jord to keep him out for the morning, too.

“Go away,” Damen said.

“You should have a servant open the window,” Laurent continued. Damen found the will to squint and saw Laurent leaning against the arch that led to his sleeping chamber. “What is that smell?” He pulled his lips back to sneer.

“Sex,” Damen said. “Quite a lot of it. Quite a few women. You'll find out when you're older.”

“Akielons are vile.”

“Veretians are deprived,” Damen said. He was strong enough to sit up now.

“Did you mean depraved?”

“No. Your countrymen have eliminated half their population for loving because of superstition. They are depriving themselves of things you can't imagine.” Damen found clothes. He went behind the screen to relieve his bladder because that was just polite.

“Your servants didn't bring breakfast. I told them to.” Laurent took a long look around the living area before climbing onto a high stool left their since Damen's post-voyage hair cut.

“Good choice,” Damen said. “We didn't use the stool. Much. And I told my servants to hold off on breakfast.”

“I'll eat it so,” Laurent said. His eyes zeroed in on the pink vial Ramon had left behind. Damen made a note to have it returned to him. He had no need for it, nor did he know how slaves got their supplies.

“That's not for you.” Damen picked it up.

“Yes, hide it. Don't let your reputation down.”

“It's an Akielon drug. You wouldn't find in Vere.”

“We might. Once there was an incident with two pets and an ornamental challis receptacle ...” Laurent trailed off. “Never mind. You're not in the laughing mood I see.”

“I'm not unhappy.”

“You will be once you know why I have summoned you. Herode is ready to parcel my punishment. A witness is required.”

A page brought breakfast. Damen slapped Laurent's hand away and made him wait until he had taken what he wanted from the cured meats and cheeses.

“Will you tell me why you did it?”

“I already did. He annoyed me.”

“Existence annoys you. The birds in the sky annoy you.”

“They wake me too early,” Laurent said, squeezing his own orange juice. “Why are you so concerned about why?”

“So I know how far I should go in my defence of your good character when we meet Herode,” Damen said.

Laurent chewed his bread, thoughtfully. “You're only meant to witness.”

“Kastor or my father or any number of advisers can witness.”

“Do not say this publicly,” Laurent said. “I'll deny it and you'll look like you're smitten with me like the rest of them. I've got already got two noblemen, a blushing little girl, a rich widow and a carpenter looking for leave to call on me.”

“You're too young.”

“I'm nearly sixteen.”

“You're on house arrest.”

“For now.”

Laurent was silent. Damen waited.

“I did not." Laurent said, "Necessarily see that pink stuff in Vere. I saw it in Akielos. When Tachenos tried to show me some local hospitality, or as he put it, take me on a tour of his personal library. In the dark. Alone."

“I see.” Damen digested that.

Damen's mind flashed back to the feast. The talk. The people who liked to think Laurent was a flirt but, in Damen's experience, he just found Laurent to be some combination of angry, antagonistic and clever in his conversations. The men and women who saw him, just saw him. The cut-glass beauty and the prospect of a challenge. He thought of the road to Ios, after Marlas, and his purported attempts with Nikandros. But that was different. Nikandros would never but he was also, young, safe, influential. And it had been all Laurent.

“I will not,” Laurent said. “Tolerate anyone touching me against my will.”

“You could have told me sooner.”

“I didn't tell anyone” Laurent said. “You should bathe. Herode has been waiting a while.”

“Herode can wait for princes,” Damen said.