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Damen looked up at the stars and let the rowboat bob for a little while before turning them back towards shore. He assiduously looked at the stars and not at the starry-eyed young man splayed on the bottom of the creaky boat. Laurent was changed here out on the open water and Damen saw the luster of the person he would have been if his life was confined to the palace at Ios.

In the moonlight, his boyish enthusiasm was rare, gleaming and sad. It was meant for another life, with someone other than Damen to share it.

Damen turned the boat around.

“Can I help?” Laurent asked.

“I can manage.”

But Laurent wedged himself onto the bench beside Damen and took one of the oars. They fell into a rhythm more quickly than Damen expected.

“Thank you,” Laurent said in soft, courtly Veretian and kept his eyes on the oar. Damen knew he did not want an answer as well as he knew he was not thanking him for making room on the bench.

They reached the mooring with a little difficulty. Getting to the shore was one thing. Slipping back into a designated space took a little more finesse than either of them had. They got there. Laurent dropped the oar and stood and stepped, awkwardly, on some tarp on the floor of the boat Damen reached to steady him but that only unsteadied him further and somehow, Laurent slipped backwards, lost his balance, and tipped out of the boat.

“Laurent!” Damen had to stay very still or overturn the boat altogether. He looked into water, saw nothing but ripples. “Laurent!” he said again. There were all sorts of rocks and structures here in the place where boats were stored. Could he swim? He could. Nikandros had said. But what if he hit his head?

Damen shed his cloak, cast off his sword and jumped into the water. The temperature was a cold shock. But there was so much shade here, it probably never felt the heat of the sun. Damen felt around the seaweed as he stuck his head under the black water. It would be so easy to get tangled in seaweed like that. Damen should have given Laurent a knife. It was only his training that forced him not to panic.

Strong, methodical, he searched the water. He pushed down, then went back up for air. At the very moment he broke the surface, a soaking wet Laurent did too. There was a moment where they floated and looked at each other.

“I can swim,” Laurent said, the way another person might say fuck you. He flicked his wet hair from his face and went over to the mooring. He hauled himself onto dry land Damen reclaimed his sword and cloak and followed. Laurent stripped off his jacket and emptied sea water from his boots. On anyone else, his chiton would have been transparent but Laurent had wound the fabric more times than anyone else would, and it just clung to him in heavy white drapes.

“Here,” Damen said, holding out his cloak. There was a strange atmosphere of shared embarrassment and mutual irritation. “You'll catch your death.”

“I am not so delicate, unlike your clothing,” Laurent said. “And I would rather die of cold than wear Akielon colours.”

Damen did not point out that Laurent had worn them before, just a couple of nights ago. He drew it around his shoulders and walked away from the shore. Away from the breeze, they would both dry quickly. They hadn't made it more than a few steps when the guard Damen had ordered returned to to their jobs.

“You there,” a guard called. “What are you doing? This land belongs to the King.”

“I,” said Damen. “Am the Crown Prince of Akielos and you are in my way. The smuggler was just here. Find the crate with the fresh fake royal seal and deal with it. I'm going to bed.” He did not pause to see them react. But one aimed his lamp at a very wet, angry Laurent.

“I,” said Laurent. “am very much not in the mood.”

-

Damen sent a messenger boy ahead to tell the Ulbrecht's staff to light a fire and draw hot water for Prince Damianos. When he and Laurent, ignoring Lazar's mirth, got to their rooms they found that there was a fire and hot water only for Prince Damianos.

“Make use of it,” said Damen. He changed quickly and went out to the balcony. He waited there until Laurent made enough noise in the room for him to know he could return without offending his modesty further. Laurent was in a long Veretian sleep shirt and on his feet were a pair of pale woolen socks that made Damen inexplicably sad inside. Laurent folded a sheet and wrapped it around his shoulders as a lady would a shawl. Damen sat by the fire.

After a minute of fiddling with cushions and inspecting at least twelve pieces of fruit, Laurent sat beside him.

“You're quiet,” Damen said.

“Your skills of observance are truly remarkable tonight,” Laurent said. “Will you hear your official coming down the path? Those idiot patrolmen will surely report this to him.”

“I'm not dealing with any more of this tonight,” Damen said. “I don't care who comes by.”

“I had fun,” Laurent said. “And that was wrong.”

“Because stripey scarf got away?”

“Because I'm not meant to be happy here. Ever. My brother is dead and I am exiled. It is an insult to Vere for me to go on jaunts with you.”

“Yet here we are,” said Damen. “Oh, look. My flask did not let in any sea water. Do you want some?”

“No,” said Laurent. “Thank you.”

“How did you think you would be at sixteen?”

“Running around after Auguste. Visting my lands at Varennes and Marches and the kindly caretaker at Acquitart. Coming out of the tents are the fires. Training, even. A military career is perfect for a second son. No-one will care if you die but your father will prouder than if you stay at home reading books.” He looked at Damen. “You were leading armies at sixteen.”

“Seventeen,” said Damen. “At sixteen I was only second in command.”

“Will there be some grand ceremony for your twenty-first,” Laurent asked. “A hundred nude wrestlers. Three hundred archers. Countless slaves.”

“You would have noticed if that happened,” Damen said. “I've been twenty one a while now.” He knew that in Vere, twenty one was the age of ascension. In Akielos, you were expected to be an adult for a long time before that age.

“Your father didn't do anything.”

“I got a letter written by his own hand, some aged wine picked by Oreste and an idea of a hunting break at Heston's estate once things have calmed down.”

“Oh,” said Laurent. “I didn't know. I'm going to get my book.” Damen was going to get into bed. The night had made him weary. He felt all of his years. Laurent's childish enjoyment of the chase could only sustain Damen so long. This was another failure. He didn't catch the smuggler. If the smuggler was smart, he would not come back.

Laurent, when he returned, ignored the fading fire. He sat, above the covers, on the very edge of Damen's bed. If Damen tugged the sheet the tiniest amount, he could have sent Laurent toppling to the floor.

“You bring books on a trip,” Damen said, with his hands behind his head.

“Just one,” said Laurent. “It's a collection of Veretian folk tales. The kind the common folk tell to children in the hopes they will learn how to be men.”

“Fairy stories.”

“Monsters, gods and myths.” Laurent pressed the open book against his knees, like he didn't want Damen to see the cover. “It's quite good. Would you like to hear one? I would say you could borrow it but -”

“I'm not a bookish type.”

“It's written in the northern dialect. I'm not sure you would understand.”

“All right,” said Damen. “Listen, you did well figuring out the date pattern with the smuggler.”

“Yes,” said Laurent. “I am very smart. Now be quiet and let me read.”

-

Damen woke to the curtains ruffling in the breeze, a knock on the door and Laurent still lying at the edge of the bed. Still above the covers, ankles crossed, book on his lap as if any moment he would pick it up and continue on the word he last left off. He looked, for all the world, like a reposing corpse except his chest was rising and falling ever so slightly and there was a faint pinkness to his pale cheeks.

“Prince Damianos, I am sorry but --” The knocking grew more insistent. Lazily, Damen poked Laurent in the shoulder and smiled as he bolted upward, the bounced over to the wooden chair by the window, with his sheet-shawl still around his shoulders.

“Come in,” Damen called. Laurent drew his knees up to his chest. It was just his servant with breakfast. Perhaps his guard with news of their discovery last night.

Both of those people streamed in. Along with a very red-faced Ulbrecht and a face Damen did not ever really think he would see again.

“Hello,” he said, to the lady pirate Galenne, who he had the pleasure of winning against the last time he was at the dock. She wore boots as tall as Laurent's, trousers tight as Laurent's, with a rustic leather jacket over the top. She looked at Damen like he was a pig on a spit.

“Exalted, forgive me. She barged right in. I told her no women on this floor --”

“It's fine. You may leave,” Damen said. “Galenne, to what do I owe this unexpected visit?”

Galenne surveyed the room. There was nothing of value within stealing distance, he thought. At least nothing that belonged to him. If she wanted to steal Ulbrecht's crockery, Damen wasn't going to fight too much.

“Ah,” she said, casting an appraising look at Laurent. “A bed boy. I'm surprised.”

“I'm not a fucking bed boy,” Laurent snapped.

“That mouth does nothing to cast doubt on my assumption, boy.”

Laurent surveyed Galenne right back. “Clan or court,” he asked. “I know a Vaskian woman when I see one.”

“If I were clan or court, I wouldn't out at sea,” she replied.

Damen cleared his throat. “Is this a social call?”

“Here.” She dropped a heavy rubber stamp and a familiar striped scarf onto Damen's bare chest. He got out of bed. Laurent looked out to sea. “Ah, he really isn't a bed boy,” she said, while Damen pulled a loose chiton around himself.

“Tell me you're really not the smuggler,” Laurent said.

“Pssht. Smuggling is cowardly. If I want to steal from the crown, I just go ahead and take,” she replied. “The smuggler operates in my waters. He will no longer operate. There is your proof.”

“Or he'll need a new scarf and a forger to make him a new stamp,” Damen said. This was too convenient. “And they are my waters.”

“Perhaps,” she said. “Consider this a promise. You can confront me when I next see you, Prince Damianos. I remember your promise.” With that, she swept out of the room. When the door was open, Damen could see at least ten other people assembled in the hallway. With a look, Damen bid Jord see Laurent fully clothed and quite bewildered on a stiff wooden chair. The door closed and Damen sat back down.

“You left that part of your naval victory out,” Laurent said, popping a mint leaf into his mouth.

“No. I told you. I negotiated for the return of the boats with captain who was a lady.”

“I know Vaskians, my naive barbarian,” Laurent said. “I know they want to breed with warrior men to create warrior babies. I know that that ... woman.”

“Galenne,” Damen supplied.

“Galenne would probably like to stop pirating and produce in a few years.”

“She has promised her former tribe,” Damen said, flatly.

“And you have promised to oblige. Oh, my. What will your future wife say? What will your father say?”

“They wouldn't believe you.”

“No? I'm good at telling stories.”

Damen glanced at Laurent's still-open book. “I'll allow you that.”

-

Laurent chose to stay behind while Damen went down to the custom house. That was fine. Damen needed to be the one to explain their discoveries to the officials. Even if the words did stick in his throat a little. He wasn't one to take credit for someone else's work. Not that it mattered here. All that mattered was the guards understood that there had been progress and also that they needed to work harder.

Damen spoke like he imagined his father would speak to the assembled guards and officers. He thought how he would tell Theomedes about Laurent's excellent research when they returned. He thought, then, about how Theomedes would treat men who allowed this kind of thing to go on under their noses. These guards should have been more vigilant. The clerks and officials should have seen the patterns.

He docked all their pay, put them all on probation, and promised he would be back to monitor the situation when in reality he would just send some man who was not needed elsewhere.

He bid the clerk stay behind. “What was actually in the crate?” Damen asked. He assumed it was some potent drug, perhaps a valuable mineral.

“Mostly grain, Exalted,” the clerk replied, nervous. “Low value. But it adds up over time.”

“Grain. Where is the market for smuggled grain?” Damen considered if the grain, and indeed the pirate, all might be part of some larger decoy.

“North, I believe. Where....”

“Speak.”

“There are shortages. Soldiers and lords get first priority.”

“Of course they do,” Damen snapped. “That will be all.”

-

It took less time than anticipated to solve the smuggling problem and the Sicyons were most likely still in Ios. Damen could try entertain Laurent a while longer. Perhaps a ferry to Isthima. A visit to the ruins of the old empire. Markets. Stables. He didn't doubt that Laurent would find entertainment in any of the low brow places along the port. He could stay in the adjoining room and work through his little book of myths.

But that was not their life. Damen was not trying to impress a visiting royal on behalf of his country. Laurent lived in his palace. It would just be odd to linger too much.

“Done?” Laurent asked, on Damen's balcony that afternoon.

“Mostly. Loose ends to be tied. Courtesies to be paid. I really should monitor a while longer to make sure there aren't any other crooks waiting to step in.”

“You should fire some guards, if you really want them to work harder.”

“I docked them and put them on probation.”

“That's one way to do it.” Laurent leaned against the railings again. “When do we leave?”

“I'm not sure,” Damen said. “But – we won't rush back, all right?”

“All right,” said Laurent.

-

 

Damen really did have to talk to people and monitor people over the coming days. Some things he could delegate, like the work at the customs house. Some things he could not, like drinking punch with Lady Ulbrecht and her assembly of ladies. They had a lot to say about Ios fashion, which was Laurent's impact, and was making it's way through the land. Later, they cleared the solar attached to the lady's rooms which were directly beneath Damen's so he could meet with a man his father had sent to examine the forged seal.

At least, it was everyone's hope it was that it was forged. It was unthinkable that someone would have stolen it but not impossible. The man who dealt with these things for the crown was, as far as Damen knew, plucked from a prison and made to put his skills to work in reverse. Damen wanted to ask him about prison conditions but talked about jousting instead while one of his guards fetched the seal from his room.

It was not hard to talk to rough-natured men. They got to the point more quickly, anyway. He took one astute look at the stamp and pronounced it a very good counterfeit, but counterfeit all the same. Damen suggested he teach his technique to some of the guard and then talked about jousting some more.

He was ready to retire back to his rooms, when Ulbrecht's staff brought another visitor – the official Andries who looked drawn and dark-eyed and still very handsome. While he bowed, and apologised once more for his men's failure with the smuggler, Damen remembered his promise to himself take someone to bed once the task was complete.

“I'm sure you did all you could,” Damen said. “And we have put the appropriate measures into place to make sure it won't happen again. Would you like some wine? Or punch? The punch is left since the ladies but it's not bad, if you like sweet things.” He smiled in a way that felt un-natural, then felt more natural when Andries smiled back.

“Thank you, Exalted. It would be an honour. And I am not on duty for a while yet.”

Damen nodded. Andries poured his own punch.

“There are lovely views here,” Damen remarked.

“Yes,” said Andries. “I do like watching the boats come home.” He stood. Damen knew it would be too much too soon to tell him to sit. He stood beside him. Andries looked away. That was normal. A rank thing. On the table was the rubber stamp, and, ludicrously the striped scarf that his guard had brought too because they were wrapped up together beside Damen's bed. Andries looked at it and the colour drained from his face so rapidly that Damen steeled himself for another bout of apologies. Sorries did not make for fun seduction.

“Spot the difference,” said Damen. “The expert showed me the ways it was inaccurate. Can you tell?”

Andries took a step closer to the table. He picked up the scarf and held it like it was precious. “Pardon me, Exalted,” he stammered. “What did you say?”

“The stamp,” Damen said. “It was fake.”

“Does -- “

“The scarf was, I don't know, evidence. The smuggler will not be back. Andries, are you all right?”

He put down the scarf. “Yes, thank you, Exalted.”

“You may call me Damianos.”

“How do you know the smuggler won't be back? I didn't hear of any arrests. Has – the water? A body?”

“I'm taking it on faith,” Damen admitted. “Well and the word of one I shouldn't trust.”

“The word of one you shouldn't trust,” Andries echoed. “Yes.” He spun around. “If I am being impertinent, I will accept your punishment unequivocally, sir.” He stepped closer, making his meaning clear. “Am I – do you wish to?”

“I would like to,” said Damen. He put his warm hand on Andries neck and felt the speeding pulse flicker. “There is no rush.”

“I have duty. I want to. But I have duty,” he replied. Damen moved his hand around to the back of his neck. It was sweat-damp and slick. Gently, Damen pulled him closer. Before he could press his lips, just a tease, against Andries's mouth, he said. “Can we be quick?”

Damen kissed him hard, muscle firm against muscle. If that's what he wanted, that's what Damen would give. It made sense. He could hardly take the man up to his bed with Laurent lurking about. Andries kissed back, desperately, and said now, said quick, said hard. Damen reached under his clothes, found him only half-roused and jerked him with a kind of practised efficiency that he would not normally employ with a lover. He was ready. The skin and the grunts and the knowledge that he could push Andries and would not break him had him ready.

He emptied an oil lamp, pushed aside Andries uniform, and bent him over a table right in front of the solar's wall of windows. They fucked, looking out to sea, and Damen was rough because Andries wanted it but he was the one with who was left bright red scrapes on his thighs.

After, he helped Andries right his clothing. He kissed him sweetly on the nape of his neck, while Andries kept his eyes down.

“Every time I come down here,” Damen said, smiling. “I leave with a wound in my leg.”

“I should --”

“Halt, soldier. Is something wrong?”

“I can't be late. I'm on probation,” Andries said, his voice high. “Sir, Exalted. I – I know you are a good man.”

When he was gone, and Damen re-tied his clothing he saw that Andries had taken the scarf with him. Wearily, he left the solar. A slave slipped in behind him to clean the punch bowl, the broken flower pots, the discarded rag. There was more a mess than Damen realised.

He didn't acknowledge his guard outside or Laurent's guard on the top floor. He just wanted....he didn't know what he wanted. Maybe to hear a story.

Laurent was waiting, coiled like a snake, when Damen walked through the door. “How could you?” he hissed. “How could you do that right there?”

Damen looked past him, out the window, remembered the house was built like steps of stairs.

He was, briefly, speechless. Laurent seethed at him; radiated hate more pungent than any scorned lover.

“I --” he started, then stopped. “I don't have to explain--”

“No, that must be nice,” Laurent said. “No explanations. No-one to answer to. Running around down here while your father and your brother do your work.”

“This has nothing to do with my family,” Damen said.

“Do you know,” Laurent said. “That the locals had a pool going? I heard them all discussing it at the customs house. Who could get the prince into bed.”

“None of them tried very hard. We must be paying them too much.” Damen heard himself mimic someone who was icier than him when he was actually burning with flaming embarrassment.

“Why do you think they invited you to celebrate?” Laurent asked. “Oh, you poor fool.”

“I'm not normally like that,” Damen said, thinking of what it must have looked like -- physical and emotionless. “It's not normally – for me. I don't...”

“Fucking. That's how it was. That's how it is. I'm aware of the mechanics--”

“He asked for it like that!” Damen startled. He didn't know why his voice had gotten loud or how he had ended up standing so close to Laurent, looking down at his blazing blue eyes, feeling very much like he could close could them with a smack.

Laurent raised his chin, almost close enough to touch Damen's chest. “Don't lie to yourself.”

“I think he was the smugglers lover,” Damen said, wearily.

“Ah. Perfect. Did you enjoy punishing him?”

“I wouldn't --”

“Do you see now why he wanted to be around you?”

“Enough.”

“He fools you. Fools your father, your crown and your country and you fuck him and you make me watch!”

The fight went out of Damen. The words were a slap. Not because of the savageness with which they were delivered, or the emptiness that had been spreading since downstairs, or even the absolute ridiculousness that he was having a nonsensical stand up fight with the Prince of Vere about it. All of a sudden he saw himself through his father's eyes and knew his father would not like what he had seen.

Damen sat on the edge of his bed. He closed his eyes.

“I have never,” he said. “Made you do anything.”

-

Laurent was the picture of politeness during their last dinner with the Ulbrechts. He walked contentedly beside Damen when they returned to their rooms, as if he had tamped down all that boyish rage and sewn in tight behind his Veretian laces.

“I think,” Laurent said, outside his door. “I should apologise for my outburst.”

“You should,” Damen said.

Laurent said nothing and went into his room. Damen went into his. His guard followed. His servant lit the candles, enquired about the fire, brought some sticky treats while Damen gave instructions to his men for their journey back to the palace. There would be no ferry trips or market excursions. He would not rush home but he would go back in a timely manner. There was work to be done. He had to learn how to do that work.

Damen was twenty one. A man for several years. When he looked at himself he only saw a portion of himself, the prospect of what he could be. He was given corners of maps and portions of duties. He was going to be the King. He had to learn how to see the whole picture.

His men were gone when Laurent padded through the adjoining door.

“I thought you might lock it.”

“I didn't want you jumping over balconies.” Damen bit into a chewy concoction of sugared nuts and dried cherries which stuck to his lips and flaked onto his chin. These were the kinds of things princes had to do alone. No-one would take you seriously with half a sweetened almond in your evening stubble. “And I'm still waiting on that apology.”

“Would you like to hear another of these stories?” Laurent didn't wait for an answer. With the seriousness of a scholar, he swung onto the edge of Damen's bed. He read. Damen allowed himself to be soothed like that.

Later, Laurent set the open book down on his chest and his voice took on a new quality, nothing like the sure, eager tone he favoured while reading. “I didn't,” he began. And stopped.

“Is this the apology?” Damen asked, half-smiling despite himself.

“You got that already,” Laurent said. “No, I just --”

Damen waited. Words usually came so easy to Laurent. But this felt different, like when he was fixated on his brother or when he was troubled. Damen waited. He would not push him.

“All your slaves are women,” Laurent said. “I thought it was the Akielon custom that you only bed women.”

Damen processed that. Traditionally, yes, in his country men lay with women. But there was no stigma attached to sleeping with a member of your own sex. Damen was the crown prince. He could do as he liked. If he wanted an entirely male household, that would be fine. He thought, then, of Laurent's clear distaste for what Damen viewed as traditional, natural practice. In Vere, Laurent would have only male lovers. Perhaps he didn't know that was an option here. But when he mentioned, Auguste's preferences, he gave no indication of him having any of his own.

Damen had been viewing Laurent as a child, when that was no longer the case; as someone who treated sex like an outdoorsy boy would react to being brought inside and forced into formal clothing.

“Generally,” Damen began. “I do not discuss who I take to bed with you or anyone else.”

“Other than Nikandros,” Laurent said. “And you didn't take the guard to bed. Is that how it is with men for you?”

“Generally,” Damen continued as if Laurent had not spoken. He was no longer willing to entertain insolence from his Veretian companion. “I do prefer to lie with women. But sometimes, men.”

“When women are lacking.”

“When there is a man I prefer,” Damen said. “Laurent, you can meet people. Slaves. Courtiers. Your old classmates --”

Laurent snorted. “Thank you but no.” He picked back up the book but did not begin reading. “What was it about him – the guard who loves criminals?”

Damen considered that, thinking also how these were the kinds of conversations Laurent would have with his brother if Damen had been able to keep him alive. Andries was attractive, not as fair as Damen would have picked if describing his ideal partner, but that sort of colouring was quite rare in Akielos. Andries was, if you didn't know about his lover, was the steady, strong, similar-age sort that Damen should be tumbling. He was alive – out in the real world and smelling like work and sea air. He was there.

“What is it about anyone?” Damen replied. “They spark something and they are there.”

Laurent, satisfied by that vague answer, went back to reading.

-