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One the Other

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It was a leisurely ride back to the palace. If Laurent saw a field he liked the look of, Damen approved him to go riding in it. They veered west, to see the ruins of an old mausoleum and camped in the shadows of history for a night. The lay traps for rabbits and set their fire themselves. Damen dismissed the guard and allowed Laurent so practice swordsmanship with Jord, wooden swords only. He called them back and they took turns with throwing knives and a chalk target on an ancient tree.

“I know you're stalling,” Laurent said.

“You only think you do,” Damen said. He had confirmed that their return was all right with his father. If he was stalling, it was for his own sake. He looked at the crumbling ruins, the kind that had been scattered all around Marlas, and felt a strange pull in chest. “It's hard to believe both our lands were once part of the same empire,” he said.

“Is it?” Laurent said, and threw his knife dead in the centre of the target.

-

Inside the palace, Damen did not wait to be summoned. He went straight to his father. “I want,” he said. “for you to trust me to do more.”

Theomedes sighed. “You have to work at that.”

“I do work. I should have been here to treat with the Sicyons.”

“If that was true, son, then you would have asked how it went the instant you got back. All is well, by the way. We are friends again.”

“Good.”

“It was always going to be that way. The north is hungry and their troops were detained since your training camp earlier this year. We have all our kyroi back.”

“I am glad we are united,” Damen said, evenly. “But this is what I don't understand. Why not tell me these things?”

“I am King. Not you,” Theomedes snapped. “I have tried to hard to give you what you want before you are so caught up in ruling that Akielos's needs surmount all of yours. You are bored, I give you tasks. You want to be a soldier, I send you soldiering. You are listless, I send you to play in Patras. You want to command men, I give you the hardest men to command. And still it is not enough.”

“Father,” Damen began. “I did not --” Though he saw the truth of it as clear as cloudless skies. His father did do all those things. His father knew that he had carried the pain of losing like a vain man refuses to give up a rotten tooth and tried to make him feel better, tried to keep him away from the north where his loss would hurt the most.

“Furthermore.” Theomedes cut him off. “You have to know the other reasons for not keeping you in my confidence about these sensitive matters.”

“I know,” Damen said. “Marlas. I will carry it with me forever. It was a bad decision to stop the fighting when – but I want to be better.”

“Oh, son. That is not it. I told you to look out for the boy, and you did. But he is not a playmate or a model to mould,” Theomedes said. Damen blinked, quite rapidly. “You let him under your skin after I warned you time and again not to trust Veretians.”

“Father, it is not --”

“He sleeps in your room.”

“He was being poisoned.”

“You drank his poison, Damianos.” Theomedes looked him straight in the eye and all Damen could see were the lines on his face and how little his father understood. “You gallivant with him, speaking his language and laughing at his crude jokes. Years ago, I witnessed him try to tempt men with his looks and charms and I never thought you would fall. Just tell me you're not --”

“Please,” said Damen. “Don't even think I would.” He didn't even consider it. But as his father spoke, he thought of Andries and Laurent watching and then the way his sunlight caught his hair on the ride back to Ios. This is what he knew in that top-floor room in the villa when he made the decision to stop acting so immature. “I accept your reasoning. I know I can improve. Please let me.”

“Son, that is all I want for you.”

In a satchel, Damen had a report from the port and then his own hastily scribbled outline of the patterns Laurent had found. He did not give them to his father. Laurent could speak for himself.

-

Laurent did speak for himself, Damen learned. He petitioned Theomedes directly to be allowed spend some time shadowing the king while he ruled. Not in the great hall, where Damen would sit beside his father. Laurent may observe from the crowd but they all knew he would not. But, perhaps, occasionally in his offices or at meetings that were private but not confidential.

“You'll never see anything that will benefit your country,” Damen told him.

“Perhaps not,” Laurent replied. “But I need to learn to rule. No-one ever taught me in Arles.”

“You want to learn from my father.” Damen was a little pleased.

“Learn what not to do.”

Damen had decided that he needed to keep his distance from the young Veretian prince. It was nothing personal against Laurent. But his father was right. He did have to stop acting like a youth and return to acting like a man, as he did before Marlas. That was all. It was nothing to do with the top floor room in the villa, nothing to with those stories and lies.

As it turned out, Damen didn't really need to try that hard to avoid Laurent. The boy was busy. He had a very exact routine that he went through every day as precise as a sun dial. He went riding. He exercised. He still worked with his tutor. He sometimes observed Theomedes. He other times observed the clerks and the advisers and the servant-masters. He was quite serious about learning, Damen realised as he was trying to be serious about learning from his father. There were things that were fine – audiences in the Great Hall, for example. Damen had been witnessing them since before he could talk. Planning with generals was fine. Overseeing palace security was fine. Other things, less fine. For example, Theomedes was trying to make sure every Akielon had enough to eat and that wasn't happening. They got word of a slaves being mistreated in Aegina. There was conflict to the North still – clashes and skirmishes and, oddly, raids of a type none had seen before.

In the high heat of the afternoon, Damen was glad to retreat to his apartments and let his mind empty of figures and hard decisions. Sometimes he went to the baths with the lovely slave Lykaios. Sometimes he sparred with new recruits. But mostly, he went to his rooms. He sat on the couch and watched the waves crashed and mostly Laurent would join him and review his lessons or scribble on a scroll.

“Why do you still have a tutor?” Damen asked. Laurent was well sixteen now, well past the age where boys needed lessons. It rang a bell that maybe girls took lessons longer, because they had to learn how to be ladies and run homes. But boys didn't.

“Same reason you're hanging on your father's every word. To learn.”

“All right.”

“It's a compromise, if you must know. For every thirty minutes of topics I want to learn about, I have to do ninety minutes of statistics, mathematics and economy. Also morality and philosophy. I think my uncle thought he would bore me to death but it's actually interesting, in its own way. It will make my decision making more efficient when I rule.”

“All right,” said Damen. He didn't like it when Laurent spoke about his uncle, rare as it was. Vere was another world except it wasn't. It was much a part of Laurent as Akielos was a part of Damen. “Do you hear much from your uncle?”

“You see the letters.”

“Not personally.”

Laurent turned his head. “No, not much. He is still angry about my actions with the kyroi. My mistake, I see now, was explaining why.”

Damen didn't see. He didn't say anything. “That's not mathematics.” He nodded at the book in Laurent's pale hands.

“No, it's, well, I suppose it's one of those morality lessons.”

“What's it about?”

“I'm too busy to read you a story.”

“A summary will do.”

“I suppose,” Laurent said. “It's about perspective. And how it changes.”

Before he could say more, there was a knock at the door. “Prince Damianos, your brother is here.”

“Well don't make him stand in the hallway,” Damen said, rising. “Kastor, my brother. Welcome home. How was the summer palace?”

Kastor did not, as Damen expected, offer his hand. He came to a stop and looked around the room. “What a scene of domesticity,” he said, looking at Laurent.

“Oh wind your neck in,” Damen said. “He's been here years now. What do you expect? Sit. Tell me of your trip. I will send for more food.”

Kastor sat on the opposite couch. He probably thought he was taking Damen's seat but Damen never sat with his back to the door. Laurent pulled his knees up to his chest when Damen sat back at the end of the couch they both sat on.

“The palace was as it always was,” Kastor said. “How was the port? I hear your smuggler has not been back.”

“No,” said Damen. He had read the reports, too. It hadn't been that long but it was positive. He tried not to think about the fact it was less to do with him and more to do with his father's renewed friendship with Meniados. “Actually, I wanted to speak to you about something. A trip to Heston's with father. Perhaps next month. Before you are redeployed.”

“With father.”

“For father.”

“I'll see,” said Kastor. “It's been a while.” He looked at Laurent. “Just family, I assume.”

“Yes,” said Damen.

“Laurent,” Kastor said. “You can relax. I'm not going to make the hair fall from your head just by sitting here.” Ah, the old Veretian distaste for bastardry.

“Thank you,” said Laurent. “I am aware that the folk takes of our country do not have a basis in practical reality. In fact, they were distilled to that form to make the common people adhere to Veretian rules and prevent the parcelling out of land, the ruination of estates and, I suppose, savage men breeding get on ones they should not.”

“Savage? I thought that only existed this side of the border.”

“Savagery can exist wherever men are not brought in line,” Laurent said. “There was a case once, where a man impregnated his own daughter near Chastillon. All three were killed as a result and as an example.”

“Sounds like the savagery came from the top,” Kastor said. Damen was feeling like he had lost control of his apartments. He had never been in control of the conversation because he was trying to please his father and reclaim something with his brother that was not there any more. “Incest is highly punishable in your region, too, I hear.”

“In every region,” Damen interrupted as a swatch of scarlet shot up from Laurent's loosened collar. “So, Kastor. Heston's?”

“I said yes.”

“I can't remember the last time we went anywhere as a family. Isthima, that time, for the anniversary.”

Kastor deigned to smile. “And father tried --”

Damen laughed. “Those urchins. And they made --

“He had to stand there shuffling while the kryros presented at least twelve daughters,” Kastor said.
They were both laughing now. Laurent had relaxed, slightly, watching them as one would watch animals behind a cage. Kastor took wine and a cup of chilled soup when the servants returned. He stretched one arm along the back of his couch. “Did you try anything strange down at the port, Laurent?”

“Something raw in a shell,” Laurent said, carefully.

Kastor laughed again. “Hard to swallow, right?”

Damen was quite surprised. This is how it could be, he realised. Relaxed with his brother if only he made the effort. Kastor looked around the room. How long had it been since he had visited Damen like this? Perhaps, never. Damen remembered thinking Kastor was annoyed that Damen got the best living quarters.

“What is that?” Kastor asked, zeroing in on the small golden Patran dagger on one of the low tables. It didn't stand out at all among the other decor because Damen's taste in interior design generally revolved around displaying weaponry.

“Don't quote me on this,” said Laurent. “But it appears to be a knife.”

“I can see that,” said Kastor. “Father has one just like it.”

“I had them made in Patras.”

“I see. One of the king and one for the heir.”

“No,” said Laurent. Damen felt a spike of panic. “One for his father and one for his brother. I was jealous, I remember.”

“Because you think you are entitled to a gift?”

“Because I'm not allowed have weapons.”

“Kastor, it is yours if you want it,” said Damen.

“What need have I for a flimsy decorative dagger?” Kastor asked. “Father uses his to open letters. Speaking of letters, I would like to speak to my brother in private.” Laurent rose without being asked and left. “Does he really sleep in your room?”

“No.”

“In Ulbrecht's?”

“Kastor, really. You've been spying on me.” Damen was very tired of... all of this. “What are you implying? Do you think I'm sleeping with him? He's a boy.”

“He's not a boy. And the whole fucking country wants to lie with him. There's a pool going among the courtiers. It's becoming very lucrative.”

“That's enough, Kastor,” Damen said. “He is not --”

“He is exactly your type, brother.”

“He is the Prince of Vere. His people are snakes. I wouldn't go near him, Kastor. It would be like bathing in venom.” Damen tasted venomlike bile in the back of this throat as the door re-opened.

“I forgot my book,” Laurent said in Veretian. “Excuse me.”

Damen wanted to jump up, explain himself, but he planted his feet on the floor. A test of endurance, some test he hadn't known Kastor had set. They made plans to go to Heston's. That meant Damen had passed. No-one ever said ruling was easy.

-

Laurent kept coming across in the afternoons, the evenings, the nights as if nothing had been said that time with Kastor. Because, practically, nothing had been said. Akielons hated Veretians and the feeling was mutual. Laurent had always been blatant and creative with expressing his adamantine dislike of Damen's people. There was no reason anything should be different.

If anything, Laurent grew bolder. He never knocked. He dismissed slaves and servants like they were his. Once, Damen had been lying on his back in the early dawn while a pretty slave girl with breasts that moved most hypnotically bounced in his lap and Laurent walked in, gave him a cool look, and sat on the balcony until Damen was finished. There may have been another time, when Damen was very drunk and Laurent was very asleep on the couch, that Damen drew the slave who had come to undress him out of the bedroom, behind the privacy screen, and pushed him to his knees.

Damen had been serious about learning and taking more responsibility. He was working for hard with his father. He needed relief. This day, he was in standing looking out at the sea, with Lykaios putting all her training and experience to practice on her knees in front of him, when Laurent strolled in at, well, the crucial moment.

“Shut the door!” Damen pulled away and, well, Lykaios's pretty face bore the marks of his orgasm.

“You should have swallowed,” Laurent told her. “It's rude to pull away like that.”

“It's rude,” Damen said, covering himself. “To waltz in here without knocking.”

“What you want to do,” Laurent continued addressing Lykaios as if Damen had not spoken. “Is watch for the signs he's about to come, stay very still and pretend you're somewhere else.”

She hung her head. Her face didn't even twitch as Damen's seed dripped. Any kind of...correction from one her social better would shame the poor girl. Damen was torn between comforting her and throttling Laurent, who was casually strolling through the room. He picked up a cloth, as one would pluck a grape from a vine, and to Damen's surprise, brusquely wiped the girl's face. That's not how it worked. Slaves cleaned masters.

“You may leave,” Damen said. It was kinder to remove her from Laurent's game. “You honour me with your service.”

“Don't look so scandalised,” Laurent said. “You use them for a purpose, then act surprised when the mechanics of it come into play,”

“That is not why I look surprised. We're going to have to have a conversation about boundaries.”

“Lately it bothered you.”

“I know you probably didn't realise what was happening --”

“Oh, I knew.” Laurent leaned against a desk. “You are a man who's never been told in his life to keep his voice down.” He lowered his the timber of his voice, not the volume, in some rough impression of Damen. “Look at that armour. Did you see me win? Oh, Nikandros, did you see how pink her nipples and pu --”

“Shut up,” Damen said.

“Come on. It's not like I've never seen someone get their cock sucked before.” Laurent almost said it fondly.

“How old are you now?”

“Sixteen,” he said. “And a half.”

“Right. Have you been on the receiving end yet?” Damen leaned forward. If Laurent thought he could shock Damen in the bedroom, he would shock right back. “The guards say you're frigid.”

“They say you're an ox in human form.”

Damen laughed. “Wine?”

“No, thank you.” Laurent did help himself to the crustiest slice of bread. He had never stopped stealing Damen's food. Damen poured his own wine. “You know, I can lend you a book if you are looking for a way to amuse yourself.”

“Girls are more fun.”

“Just girls?”

“Alternatively, I suggest exercise.”

“That's practical. Not amusing,” Laurent said.

“Well there are countless slaves whose lives would be complete if they could only serve the Crown Prince of Vere,” Damen said. “And don't get me started on the courtiers.”

“Hmm.” Laurent tore his slice of bread into crumbs. “Do you know who I was thinking of? That boy from the port.”

“Xavier?”

“Andries.”

“You wanted him?”

“Don't be absurd. I was wondering...do you ever think of what made him want you to fuck him?”

“I am very attractive,” Damen said.

“For an ox,” Laurent said. “I was thinking if it was self-loathing or guilt or --”

“I do think about it,” Damen said, though honestly he did not think of it frequently. It occasionally niggled in an abstract way, like a memory of a sad song. “I hope he has found peace.”

“Do you find peace in slave girls?”

“Sometimes,” Damen admitted. “Come on. My father is holding meetings.”

 

Dealings with city and kyroi representatives were among the few things Theomedes allowed Laurent to observe. Kastor suggested they put him on watchtower duty. Damen vetoed, because he knew someone would push Laurent off. Laurent's presence made the representatives angry or jumpy and both of those mindsets were advantageous to Theomedes. He always ruled best when he had angry men to be angrier than. Naturally, Laurent was excused when they spoke of the north. Meniados deferred most of his decision-making to the general Makedon. It was hard for Damen to think of the notched belts and the men who cost them the way. Laurent would only see his slain brother. Makedon's reports were still on the table when Damen and Laurent joined Theomedes for his next set of meetings.

“That's not for your eyes,” Theomedes said to Laurent. The unusual attacks in Eastern Sicyon were distracting Makedon from his more pressing work like beating Veretians, which was definitely not for Laurent's eyes.

“I am sorry,” Laurent said sweetly. Then he glared at Kastor. He insulted Akielon record-keeping and the fact that he was still unable to access his profits from the puzzles.

“There is a solution,” Theomedes said.

“Yes. Tax. My uncle would never forgive me if I paid Akielon taxes.”

“That money will never leave Akielos, boy,” said Kastor.

“I don't care. I wish to spend it in Akielos. On clothing and books and maybe a second horse.” Laurent's voice was very calm which Damen knew was worse than for him to show anger.

“I told you already,” Damen said. “Just ask if --” He stopped. This was the wrong place. And princes shouldn't have to ask.

-

“I have been thinking,” Laurent said, the next time he sauntered into Damen's rooms. “That I might take you up on your offer.”

“The Summer Palace?”

“A slave.” Laurent gave him a look that would wither fruit.

“The girl you...cleaned is very sweet,” Damen said. She would be ideal for a boy like Laurent, who for all his posturing had to be inexperienced with men and admitted to being completely inexperienced with women. “Or a boy, perhaps?”

“Auguste liked women,” Laurent said. “He told me I would grow into it.”

“You are sixteen now,” Damen said. Nearly seventeen, really. He also wondered why so many of his conversations had come to revolved around the Prince of Vere's sex life. Or lack thereof. “I thought it was taboo in Vere.”

“It is.” Laurent said. “He did like girls though. Only. I think. No matter what anyone says.”

“All right.”

“In Acquitart we used to go into the woods to hunt. We went there one time, after his victory at the border at our lands in Varennes.” Laurent had a tendency to talk about Auguste's achievements like the entire world should know of them. Auguste won a battle. The sun rises in the east. Auguste could beat any man at jousting. The tides came in with the moon. “We had...neighbours who were Vaskian clanswomen. Have you met a one? They make your lady pirate look positively tame.”

“I have not had that pleasure.”

Laurent looked at Damen speculatively. “Actually, it probably would be a pleasure to a brute such as yourself. They'd probably wrestle before they mount if you asked nicely.”

“Intriguing,” Damen said.

“They have....a practise. A coupling fire. Obviously, I was not interested.”

“How old were you?”

“I told them our family did not produce girls but they didn't care. Auguste owed them and --”

“He provided,” Damen said, not unappreciative. He had a similar deal with the pirate Galenne after all. No wonder Laurent knew the terms that day. “How many?”

Laurent snorted. “I didn't watch. That would be – he was my brother.”

“I'll take you to the slave quarters soon,” Damen said. “If you behave yourself during my father's meetings.”

-

Laurent called Kastor an imbecile on the next day. In Veretian. So only the royals could understand. He said the family of the old kyros he had killed outside Ios were better off without him in front of several members of the dead man's household. He said the Dicean Kyros smelled like rotten fish. He purposely spilled a glass of pomegranate juice on an important agricultural contract just before the King could sign his name.

“If you're afraid of our agreement,” Damen said, quietly, while a servant was cleaning the spill and Theomedes was changing his clothing. “Just say.”

“I'm not afraid of that,” Laurent hissed.

“What are you two whispering about,” Kastor asked.

“Nothing,” Damen said.

“I was just pointing out the mistake in this clause here.” Laurent rested on finger on the sodden scroll. “I'm certain the... what is the term? Farmer? Meant to have his people write annually not bi-annually. It must be hard, out there in the provinces, without access to education.”

“Let me see that.” Theomedes practically pushed Laurent out of the way. “Edgar?” He said, to the kyros' man at court.

“I'll change it immediately,” the man stammered.

Laurent crossed his leg and shifted towards Damen. “I hope you warned the slave master.”

-

It most certainly wasn't an unusual thing to ... guide a friend along the road to, well, sex. Not that the Veretian Prince was Damen's friend. But he had shared with Nikandros. He had pointed some fellow soldiers in the right direction over the years. But it certainly felt strange to Damen to accompany Laurent, who was tightly laced in tight Veretian clothing again, down to the viewing room. No-one had done this for him, because he not needed them too. But maybe if Auguste had not died, he would have pressed some wine into Laurent's hand and sent him though a set of curtains.

“You need to have your tailor make new clothes,” Damen said to Laurent. “That jacket is very tight.” Laurent had to keep his arms straight by his side as he walked to keep the back from splitting. He had grown. His hair was longer, still, so unlike the Akielon style.

“The tailors here are rubbish,” he replied. “I'll write to Arles and arrange it.”

“Write to him much, lately?” Damen couldn't resist asking.

“You would know as well as me.” Laurent blew some hair from his face.

“You could also do with a haircut,” Damen said. “It will get in your way.” No matter how pretty it was, long hair wasn't practical.

Laurent gave him a speculative look and tossed his hair over his shoulder. “What am I to expect in here?”

“The fairest people in all the land.”

“Impossible. I haven't gone in yet.”

Damen had told Adrastus to gather a selection of experienced slaves for Laurent's inspection. He didn't know his tastes, so better to keep it varied. He did know how vulnerable new slaves were, so he would save them the ordeal of Laurent so early in their career.

Akielos was a hot country. The people were used to sweat and steam. Nudity was nothing here. Still, the warmth of the airless viewing room was enough to change a mood with one breath. The slaves Adrastus had assembled were kneeling obediently on white marble. They were more clothed than the average courtier in summer but the fabric was to a purpose and that purpose was titillation. Fabric sheer enough to show the outline of a pierced nipple. Skirts that were little more than strips tied at the waist, highlighting curves and enough skin to make Damen forget this was not about him.

He winked at Lykaois. He patted the head of a lovely, slender boy with a slick of black hair tied at the crown of his head. The heels of Laurent's boots knocked against the marble as he walked through the room.

“Well?” Damen said.

Laurent's face betrayed nothing. “It's hard to judge by the tops of their heads.”

“Look up,” Damen said. Then, to Laurent. “You have to instruct them. No embellishment. Just speak.”

“I don't like paint,” Laurent said. He walked along the row of hopeful slaves, pausing at a dark-skinned woman with curly hair puffed all around her face. She was taller and broader than most palace slaves. Objectively gorgeous. Nikandros would lose his head for a woman like this. “We – I would like this one cleaned up and sent to my rooms tonight.”

“Make sure she knows how to deal with those laces,” Damen said to Adrastus and followed Laurent out. “Excited?”

“Do shut up.”

-

Damen was considerate. He made sure Jord and Lazar had the night off. He explained to Laurent that pregnancy was not a concern. He offered him wine.

“I don't want wine,” Laurent said. “I want to do it here.”

“Here. In my room.”

“The view is better.”

“Trust me, you won't be looking out the window,” Damen said.

“I'm not meant to be alone with women,” Laurent said. “You know that. Come on, this is not strange to you. I have been here while you fucked. You have shared with your friends.”

“You want me to chaperone.” Damen poured a glass of undiluted wine.

“I have never – with a woman. I have never seen seen it,” Laurent said.

“This is Akielos. I had not seen it before my first time either,” Damen offered. “I figured it out, eventually. There was a lot of fumbling first. Wait, you have seen me. You're not so innocent”

“I didn't look,” Laurent spat. “Nor did I ever say I was innocent. I already sent word to have her brought here.”

“That causes different kinds of talk. I gave your guard that night off.”

“They are not the ones who report to my uncle.”

“No gossip leaves my quarters,” Damen said. He had the feeling of being backed into a corner with no way out. “Laurent, do you see what you are asking of me?”

“I do,” said Laurent.

Damen would have to have a conversation with himself about boundaries. Tomorrow. For now, he would go along with this. Point the boy who was not a boy any more in the right direction and excuse himself. He had done more with other men. Shared more with Nikandros without even blinking. There were precious few years between them. If they were soldiers together, they would not be treated any differently. When Damen was Laurent's age, just a short while ago, no-one ever treated him as anything less than a man, an equal, except crown princes had no equals. Here, they were princes together Still, he had the hazy sensation of being in a waking dream when the slave girl was brought into the room. She knelt on the floor and the contrast of the white marble against her brown skin was enough to make Damen interested. She was wrapped like a present in pale green gauze that glinted gold like Laurent's hair.

She didn't move.

Laurent didn't move.

Damen wondered if he should have told him a bit more about how to instruct bed slaves. But Laurent had never shown any inability to tell people what to do before.

“I don't need to remind you,” Damen said to the slave girl. “That this is completely private.” He said it for Laurent's benefit. Slaves did not talk out of turn.

“Yes, Exalted,” she replied, steadily. Damen appreciated that.

“What is your name?” Laurent asked.

“Diana, if it pleases you, your highness.”

“Diana.” Laurent swilled the word in his mouth and then, extended his leg in her direction. “Come. Attend me.”

Damen stood to one side while Diana, on her knees, undertook the arduous talk of unlacing Laurent's clothing. Her fingers were nimble. Her face serene. Her mouth was parted, slightly, suggestively. Jacket first. That took the longest. Then, with that lovely face almost to the floor, she began to remove his boots. Laurent's breath hitched, when her cheek rubbed the leather stretched around his calf. Damen noticed. It was the first sign that Laurent was affected by any of this.

He allowed her to open the front of his fine white shirt. He stopped her at the waist of his trousers and rubbed his palm against her curly hair. She nuzzled her cheek against his thigh, let out a little sigh of enjoyment.

“Please sit down,” Laurent said. Diana did not move because slaves never heard the word please in this context. He looked at Damen. “You're making me nervous just standing there.”

Damen sat at the end of the couch where he always sat, spread his knees as he always did in his rooms. He was close enough to touch Diana, too. He restrained himself.

“You should kiss her,” he told Laurent in Veretian.

“I didn't ask for instruction.”

“But do you want it?”

“Perhaps your country's famed training is what is lacking,” Laurent said. “Shouldn't this one be sucking my cock by now?”

“Tell her to,” Damen said. “If that's what you want.”

Laurent put two fingers on Diana's shoulder and then tapped the same two fingers against the couch. She sat on her knees there, between Damen and Laurent.

“What would you do?” Laurent asked.

“Kiss her,” Damen said. Laurent didn't move. His breaths were coming shallow to his chest. Damen knew Laurent liked a challenge, liked a game. He shifted, slightly, so he was facing towards Laurent. He drew Diana back against his chest. Slowly, he ran his hand from her hip, over her breasts, up to her neck. Laurent watched. Damen turned her head to the side and kissed her full lips. She responded, sweetly, as slaves always did.

Damen pulled back, a little, as if to say see. Laurent just watched. Damen kissed her again, opened her mouth and explored with his tongue. The angle was a little awkward but the effect was the same. Diana kissed back, pressed her curves back against Damen. Pleasant. He hadn't anticipated this rousing but he was man. It felt good.

“Kiss her,” he said to Laurent. Take over. Laurent leaned over Diana. His eyes were darkened, slightly.

“Remove this,” he said. She peeled away her sheer clothing. “Lean back,” he said.

She was already as close to Damen as she could get. Laurent waited. Damen shifted, and then she was between his legs, her hair soft against his chest. His clothing came a little undone in the movement. He waited for Laurent to kiss her. While he waited, he cupped one of her full breasts.

Laurent, on his knees now, so Damen and Diana were both looking up at him, stretched one pale hand out and touched the other with the side of his baby finger. Curiously, he rubbed his thumb where she was most reactive and she let out a pleasing little whimper.

“Kiss her,” Damen said. He wondered if Laurent just liked it slow, or was drawing it out, or was caught up in what must feel very taboo to him. Laurent looked Damen dead in the eye and kissed Diana's neck. Her head fell to one side. No other part of Laurent's body touched her. He held himself away, even pushed her knees together towards the back of the sofa so he could lean his weight there. Damen was large enough to bend down and kiss her lips again. He needed something to do while Laurent kissed her neck sharply enough to make her gasp. He pinched one nipple. Damen caressed the other. He didn't mean for his hand to wander but then, for a second, there was soft blond hair under his fingers.

Laurent wrenched himself away.

Panting, he sat at the other end of the sofa. Damen had crossed a boundary then tore the wall down behind him.

“Tell her I want her mouth on me,” Laurent said.

“Tell her yourself.”

Laurent pointed at the floor at his feet, where Diana had been already. He dropped a cushion. She climbed off Damen and sank to her knees. This was normal. This was how people started. Who wouldn't want a girl with lips like that to wrap them around --

Damen stopped himself. This was where he should leave. Order Lykaios to meet him in the baths. Tease Laurent about this tomorrow. He was going to leave. Made that obvious.

He glanced at Laurent. He was breathing fast. His eyes were dark. There was something on his face Damen couldn't read as Diana put her hands under his loosened shirt and to the front of his trousers.

“Wait,” Laurent said in Veretian. Then again in Akielon.

“I won't go if --” Damen started to say.

“No,” said Lauren. “I've changed my mind. Diana, fuck the Prince of Akielos.” With that, Laurent stood. He stepped past the slave girl, picked up his boots and left Damen's room.