Visits took time to arrange.
Damen had too much blood pumping in his veins and the palace walls were feeling very close to his skin. He had been here too long. He needed to be here when Guion came. He still needed to figure out if he was actually going to give Laurent those slaves. Of course, at seventeen Laurent did not need Damen's leave to take anyone to bed. He had many rules to obey within the palace but Akielons did not interfere with sex.
“I'm still thinking,” Damen told Laurent, as he prepared to leave Ios.
“Does it always take you so long?”
“Taking a long time isn't normally a complaint,” Damen replied, grinning. Laurent rolled his eyes. “I wish you would tell me what you want with them.”
“Maybe I just fancy the idea of a harem.”
“Or you want to set them free.”
“I would set them all free. But I am aware of my limits, here.”
“Hence your little endeavour in the slave gardens. I know there's no badness, by the way,” Damen said. “I know you want to help.”
“It's not so little,” Laurent replied, examining every peach in the bowl on Damen's table until he found the juiciest one. Damen snatched it from him. “Yesterday, one young man was brave enough to tell me his favourite colour.”
“What did he say?”
“Gold, for his cuffs,” Laurent admitted, twisting his lips. “It's a slow process.”
“I'm still thinking,” Damen said, again.
“Will you definitely be back before my uncle's ambassador comes?” Laurent asked. He was busy inspecting the grapes now. The grapes the servants made sure were clean and unblemished before they came near the prince's room.
“Yes. My father demands it.” Damen would be mere weeks in Sicyon.
“Good,” said Laurent. “I mean, yes, good. It's been a long time since I've seen anyone from Vere. I may need you to remind me they can't be trusted. Wait, don't move.”
Damen went still. Laurent sprang off his chair and ran across to his room. He returned with a package under his arm, wrapped in brown paper, tied with brown string.
“This is for you,” he said. “You know, it's very hard to find fine wrapping paper in Akielos. I could have waited but...you are leaving and --” He threw it at Damen. Literally, threw it like it was on fire. Damen had good reflexes. He caught the package, easily.
“May I open it?”
“Do what you want. You're the Crown Prince of Akielos.”
“I could open it on the road, if you prefer.”
“I refer to my previous statement.”
Damen tore open the package. Laurent called him a brute. The paper fell to the floor and Damen was holding a book bound in very fine calfskin bleached and dyed a muted gold. It had no title on the cover. Damen opened it with unusually delicate fingers. His heart was beating fast for no reason at all and when glanced at Laurent, he thought he saw a tremor beneath the pale skin on his neck.
It was a collection of Veretian folk takes – monsters, myths and gods -- on the finest paper Damen had seen outside of an official royal document, translated into perfect Akielon and written in looping familiar writing.
“Laurent,” Damen said.
“Well, you liked them. You got nothing of significance for a birthday that is very significant in my country and --”
“Another has passed since then,” Damen said.
“It took some time. I'm very busy with my studies and my business and helping your father,” Laurent said. “I had to go through several drafts, to get the nuances right.” His cheeks were very pink now.
“Laurent,” Damen said. “Thank you.” He took a step forward, then another. He made himself consider his actions. If Nikandros or Kastor or his father had given him such a thoughtful gift, he would hug them without thinking. But Laurent was not like that. Tactile. Open. Carefully, Damen set the book down. He raised his hands, palm open, fingers spread. As a king would great another king. They used one hand in formal settings. Damen held up two and Laurent mirrored him so quickly Damen wondered if it was an unconscious action.
Their palms touched. Fingers clasped. Damen felt like a squeeze from his hand could break Laurent's fingers. His skin was very warm. He thought of his father, as he leaned down towards Laurent's bowed head. Then he didn't think of anything, and simply pressed a kiss against Laurent's brow.
True to his word, he was not gone long. It took five days for his men, some of whom had served the city guard and some of whom had been reclaimed from other squadrons, to join with Nikandros and Makedon in Sicyon.
Damen relished the ride north, with good men at his back and the feel of leather on his skin. At the northern camp, he breathed in the woodsmoke and the clash of metal and the camaraderie in the air. It had been too long. He hadn't allowed himself to realise how much he missed soldiering until he was back among them. Because there would be a day, perhaps soon, when he would be sat on a throne signing documents when he would be better at charging a horse into battle.
He belonged here.
He caught himself thinking, as Nikandros personally escorted him to his tent, that Laurent would like this, too.
When Vere unlawfully claimed Delpha lines had been drawn on a map and lines had been chalked in the fields. Unfortunately, these lines did not always co-ordinate. As with any border, there were always volleys back and forth. It even happened between Akielos and Patras and those two countries could not have been better friends. But in the aftermath of the failed Akielon attempt to take Delpa back, the volleys that once felt like children pushing and shoving over a ball, were growing uglier by the day.
The Veretians in Delpha were emboldened by the loss. The Sicyons were weakened by defeat. Hardly a day went by when there wasn't a dispute over an acre or a bridge or watering hole. The Akielon soldiers were there to keep the peace as much as to make sure Vere did not push too far.
Damen nearly willed them to push. He was ready to push back.
He didn't expect the flood of memory that came with the glimpse of flags across the flat field that was both the border and a no man's land. They weren't even the same colour. Regency Red, Nikandros had called it. At Marlas, they had been starbursts.
“I know,” said Nikandros. “Makes you want to go over and tear them all down.”
Behind them, there was a gasp disguised as a cough. Most of the soldiers here were afraid to breathe too loudly in Prince Damianos's presence. It would shock them completely to hear Nikandros's familiarity.
What should Damen want? Was it right to want the opposite of what the Regent of Vere wanted? He didn't even know what that was.
“Someday,” Damen said.
“Yes. Defeat is temporary.” Nikandros echoed the King. “And, I have heard from our spies that the starburst flies in villages. The common folk don't want war.”
“They assume Laurent doesn't want war.”
“They don't want another royal death. Both brothers were beloved there and they think perhaps your father would kill him.” Nikandros couldn't keep the disbelief from his face.
“He would.” Theomedes would do whatever was necessary for Akielos. Maybe the Regent wanted instability instead of war to keep his nephew safe. Maybe when Laurent took the throne, the war would come and Damen would face him on a battle field the way he never got to face Auguste.
“You wouldn't allow him,” Nikandros said. “That might --”
“Come back to bite me on the ass? I am aware of that.” Damen grinned at his friend. “Tell me. What else do they say about him here? I know about Auguste, the fire --”
“He is under your thrall but young enough to relearn the Veretian standards,” Nikandros said, smiling too. “He cavorts with slaves. He has his own harem. He refuses to come home. He is impotent. He is a spy. He is a collaborator. He is building his strength and learning fifteen different sword-fighting techniques to come back to Vere and lead them into victory. His beauty would make men weep. His hair is spun gold and his tongue is forked. Can we move on now?”
“Show me the plans,” Damen said.
“We've been waiting on you to make the plans.”
The issue was a simple one. The Veretians in Delpha had claimed a stretch of river as their own. Something to do with irrigation. Damen didn't care. It belonged to Akielos. It sprang in Patras and ran into the Ellosean sea. It was on their side of the border. And it was, crucially, a supply route from the sea. A boat launched from Ios, a barge up the river, were quicker than wagons and men.
Damen was going to take it back. His instinct was too storm across and cut down any one who got in his way. But the river was too deep. He considered launching a steady stream of arrows and catapulted rocks but that was just so unsophisticated. So he gathered boulders. He built a dam. And when the occupying Veretians tried to counteract their plans, then he got to cut people down.
It wasn't glorious. It was the kind of tactical victory that made the lives easier of the men up here and showed the Veretians the Akielons were not as dumb as they thought. It was the kind of thing his father did all the time.
Damen was rather pleased with himself.
More Veretians came to retaliate. He was pleased then, too, to ride his horse and let his men who were so strong and so well-trained, beat them all back. He may have pushed them further into Delpha than he needed to. The army livestock needed more room for grazing.
And, as promised, he made it back to Ios before the Ambassador Guion's arrival. Just.
“You are like a dog who needs to be let out to play or it starts to tear apart the furnishings,” Laurent said by way of greeting. “And I am waiting on my answer.”
“I am still thinking,” Damen said, and then he was thinking about holding Laurent's hands in his before he left. “And I am nothing like a dog. Unlike you, I do not bite.”
When his father congratulated him on a job well done, Damen tried not to act like a dog getting petted by his master. The praise meant a lot to him. They talked in terms of locations and routes – nothing of the lives lost on the Veretian side. They were soldiers. That was what happened. These were the same things they were going to hammer out with Guion. A hill. A village. A stretch of road, a field and river and bridge. These were things that men died for. These were things that made countries.
A set of guards arrived first. Protocol. They were just securing the ambassador's rooms and making sure the passage to Ios was safe. They were brought to the throne room to bow to their prince. Laurent should have been used to it. He grew up with it. But Damen saw a brief burst of uncertainty on his face when the men's heads were bent too low to notice it.
In Veretian, he enquired about their journey and welcomed them to Ios. He asked one man where he was from and said it was a place he knew well, and that was all it took for them to look at the prince like guards should look at princes.
He was going to be fine when he got home.
Damen kept thinking about how this very visit could be the thing that sent him home. Laurent was a bargaining chip. They all knew it.
That night, earlier than usual, Laurent came to Damen's door. He knocked. He even waited to be admitted and stood awkwardly by the wall rather than throw himself onto the couch.
“I shall have to visit less while the Veretians are in the palace,” he said.
“All right,” said Damen.
“Definitely, I cannot sleep here.”
“All right.” Damen set down his cup beside the book on the table. Laurent's book. “I'll survive.”
“I --” Laurent stopped. He pressed his wrists together. “I came in here while you were gone.”
“I left the book behind so it didn't get damaged,” Damen said. “I am very much enjoying it.”
“When Guion comes, he will say bad things about me.”
“I won't listen,” said Damen. He had most likely heard them all at the border anyway. The thing he couldn't say was that none of those people knew Laurent. He thought that maybe he was the only person in the world who actually did.
They greeted Guion on the steps. Theomedes first, then Damen, then Laurent. Damen paid close attention to Guion's reaction to Laurent. He was sufficiently respectful. In fact, he was respectful of everything. He knew all the protocols for greeting royals. He admired the palace on the cliffs and seemed like he meant it. That would not be difficult. It was a sight to behold. Guion came with a small guard, a clerk, an advisor and a pouty mouthed youth he introduced as his youngest son, Aimeric.
Shyly, Aimeric greeted Theomedes and Damen in mangled Akielon. Damen tried not smile at his accent.
“You should greet your prince first,” Damen said, in Veretian, and Aimeric bowed to Laurent. They were about the same age. Maybe if Laurent had stayed in Vere, they would have been friends. To Damen's eyes, the greeting seemed perfunctory at best. Maybe he was nervous. Maybe he believed the lies.
“It is good to see my countrymen,” Laurent said, politely. “I am sure you want to get out of the sun.”
Theomedes took them to the great hall. Guion gushed about the marble. Laurent remained tight-lipped, white-faced, poised.
“First time to Akielos?” Damen asked Aimeric, to be polite.
“Yes. It is so obvious? I have never really been outside Fortaine before. I am so grateful the Regent allowed Father to take me on this trip.”
“It is good for a young man to travel,” Damen said.
“No better way to travel than to join the army,” Theomedes said, conversationally.
“Aimeric intends to,” Guion said. “In time.”
Damen thought his time was about three years ago.
“There might,” Aimeric said, quietly, proudly. “Be a spot for me in the king's guard.”
Laurent whipped around. “What King? I have never met you before. When I am king I will require guards who know one end of a sword from another.”
Aimeric flinched as if he had been slapped. Damen nodded. Strength was important. To every royal.
“Forgive me, your highness. I did not mean --” He looked to his father for guidance. Guion said nothing. “I was confused. I meant the Regent's Guard.”
Laurent did not respond. Damen suppressed the urge to say something to make the boy feel better.
“That was a little mean,” he whispered in Akielon. “He could have been a friend.”
“No. He couldn't.”
There were things all members of both royal factions needed to be present for. Damen sat on his chair beside his father's throne and went through the motions of ceremony. He sat alongside his father in meetings that made his head spin. He spoke up for Laurent's financial status and Guion stammered that family matters were outside of his remit. He was here to talk about rivers and hills and fields and things that could ease tensions in the north. Finally, there were things Damen was discreetly expected to leave the room for – his father was king and he would always do some things alone.
Laurent was long gone. To the stables. Perhaps a meeting with his tutor or his business contacts. Considering the tense way he held himself in Guion's presence, Damen guessed the stables.
He was on his way to his training arena when pretty little Aimeric pushed off the marble column he was leaning against in one of the long hallways and gave Damen a shy smile.
“Good afternoon, your highness,” he said, with the easy confidence of an aristocrat who didn't think they had to be greeted first.
“Exalted,” corrected a member of Damen's guard. “This is Akielos.”
“I'm sorry. I don't understand.”
“Damianos is fine.” Anything to prevent a diplomatic incident. “Your father will most likely be a while, Aimeric.”
“Actually, I was hoping to catch you.” Bold, indeed. “I would love to see more of Ios.”
For another prince, he would do it. He had done it for Laurent. For a soldier. If his father instructed it. But he could not, would not, play tour guide to a spoiled lord's son from Vere.
“You have a guard. The streets are safe to explore.” If the city dwellers could accept Laurent running around, they could definitely deal with Aimeric.
“That's what he said.”
“Prince Laurent,” Damen said.
“Yes, of course. I am sorry.” Aimeric trotted along beside him. “I'm not used to being outside Fortaine. Are you going to the practise arena? I would love to see a real winner in action. I hear --”
Damen gritted his teeth. If he had been at Marlas and Sanpelier like Laurent, he would have seen plenty of action. “I am going to the baths.”
Aimeric's eyes lightened. “Are they marble too?”
“I don't require company,” Damen said. Somehow, he found himself undertaking his plans in reverse. Baths first. Swords later. Maybe it would be better. His neck ached, not from anything physical, just the tension of sitting in pointless meetings. This Guion had the decision making skills of a dead bird and little to no authority to make any real choices. This visit was already a waste of time. At best, it would provide an opening for further negotiation. At worst, it was a distraction or nothing more than more proof that the Regent was reasonable. Reasonable and false. They were talking to the monkey while the organ grinder was designing puzzles and revolutionising their slave quarters.
He cleared the baths. The attendant came back. “Forgive me, Exalted. The other prince refuses to leave.”
“Kastor?” Damen didn't even know he was in town.
“The Veretian Prince.”
“Oh. That's fine.” He bid his guard not to let anyone else in. He walked towards a rather uncomfortable looking Jord and Lazar. “Both of you?”
“Prince Laurent has requested it while the ambassador is here,” Lazar said. “Better than talking to those pansy guards he totes around.”
“Have you met Aimeric?” Damen asked.
“No,” said Jord.
“I saw him,” Lazar said. “The kind of aristocrat you'd like to show the rougher side of life.”
They weren't Damen's guard. He had no reason to reprimand them. But it made him send Jord, not Lazar, to show Aimeric the delights of Ios.
“I half-expected to see Aimeric tugging on your coat-tails,” Laurent said, when Damen sank into the hot perfumed water.
“I have no coat,” Damen said. Laurent saw him walk in here naked. He saw him see. “But it wasn't for lack of effort on his part.”
“He asked me to take him riding. I would never be so cruel to the horses.”
“He is young. Smitten.”
“Don't be absurd.”
“Smitten in the way boys are when they see something they want to emulate. Kastor calls it hero worship.” Kastor actively encouraged it. “He's been sheltered and pampered. It doesn't make for a winning personality.”
“Ah, that must be what happened to me.”
“I don't think you were so sheltered.”
“Well.” Laurent huffed and it could have been a smile or a sneer on his face. The steam obscured things. “I applaud your honesty. You don't fill me with false platitudes about my personality.”
Damen rolled his neck. “I don't mind your personality.”
“No. I don't mind spiders, snakes or roaches either. Don't get too carried away.”
“Did he say anything bad about me yet?”
Damen considered that. “He told my father, all things considered, you were not entirely unpleasant.”
“Aimeric hates me.”
“He sucks up to you now.”
“I can tell he hates me. He believes the lies.”
“Why do you hate him?”
“He believes the lies.”
More meetings. A long debate about cross-pollination that made Damen crave a bee sting just to liven things up. More negotiations. Despite his ego making him think otherwise, Laurent was really not a topic at all. The Regent acted like there was no heir. Laurent had four more years before he would take the throne. That was nothing, really, in the histories of kingdoms.
Guion wanted a promise that Theomedes would withdraw troops from near the Sicyon border. But those were Makedon's men. That was their home. And it would make them vulnerable. Guion said as long as they were there, the Regent would have no choice but to keep men on his side. Which was fine, as long as they stayed on their side. Then the debates started again about where the boundaries of each side actually were.
Damen found it hard to stay awake. It was Theomedes who brought Laurent in for these talks. Not for his opinion. Damen thought it was just his father being fair – the young prince needed to learn. Laurent took it seriously. You could tell by the way he sat, the way he listened, the notes he made and consulted before he spoke. And when he spoke, he always had something of value to say.
Damen doodled a cat chasing a mouse. Then he added a mosquito. Laurent kicked him under the table. He only had anything to contribute when they spoke of military matters. But war was a dirty word in these meetings. They boiled down to those fabled rivers and hills and fields. Then again, that's what made a war. You just had to add blood.
Days ran into each other. Meetings with Guion. The absence of Laurent. Something about the way the boy Aimeric minced around, goading people and wooing them. Aimeric was everything Laurent of Vere could be, if he stayed in Vere, and when he was in a mood. And Aimeric was also everything that Vere was to Laurent – he looked at his prince like he was the brightest and the filthiest thing in the world. The rumours had done their job.
At the end of the pointless days of meetings, there was a farewell feast. Good food. Dilligent poison tasters. Refined entertainment. To no-one's surprise, once the Veretians actually saw some Akielon slaves they managed to set aside their distaste for the institution. Men were like that. Weak. Damen and Laurent could not make snide remarks in Veretian with their guests at table. Laurent was the picture of politeness, engaged with Theomedes and Guion and a story about getting a better price for his wood supplies. Theomedes appreciated strength. Guion appreciated a Veretian getting one over an Akielon. Damen spoke cordially with Aimeric, who mostly gushed about Jord's skill with a sword and his ability to haggle with the market sellers and the fact he had not lost his Veretian manners despite all these years in a barbarian environment, no offence.
None taken. Damen had been called worse by people whose opinion mattered more. As the night wore on, Guion had Aimeric escorted away to his rooms. The lad was old enough to stay. Nothing explicit happened at these feasts. But the Guion was being fed candied almonds by a slave boy and Damen understood why. Laurent left. He didn't need to stay any longer. Lots of people left. Damen rose, bid his tablemates goodnight, and tapped the slave Lykaios on the shoulder almost as an afterthought. He hadn't planned on company, tonight, but he didn't want there to be talk.
In his apartment, which tonight was only guarded by Akielons because it seemed fair to give Jord and Lazar some time to spend with their countrymen and Damen's personal guard who would guard Laurent because Damen required it and because they guarded anyone who needed guarding and they had grown to like the strange foreign prince, Damen bid Lykaios wait in the hall.
Laurent was waiting on his couch by the bed, as Damen had half-expected him to be.
“It's their last night here. I'm feeling bold.” He looked past Damen. “Alone?”
“Lykaios is outside.”
“Those floors can be cold.”
“I didn't want to send her to wait in your room.” Damen sank onto his bed. He rested his feet on the couch. “I'm learning to be a good diplomat.”
“When I am king, I'll put you to the test.” Laurent smiled. Helplessly, Damen smiled back. Laurent pulled one of his knees up so his boot rested on the seat. Damen's foot slipped. These sandals had no grip. It was resting, now, against the inside of Laurent's knee. “So,” Laurent said. “Are you going to give me my slaves?”
“Convince me,” Damen said.
“I wouldn't mistreat them,” Laurent said, carefully. “Or make them do anything they found distasteful. I just ... I want it. I don't often ask for anything. I make my own way most of the time.”
“You abhor slavery.”
“It still exists. I also hate tomatoes but they show up on my dinner plate and I manage not to starve.”
“You are starving now?”
Laurent tilted his head. “Peckish.”
“Sex isn't motivation enough for Prince Damianos?”
“For me, yes. But you are more complicated, Laurent of Vere.”
“And Acquitart. Everyone forgets Acquitart.” Laurent's lips were full from thinking. He looked Damen right in the eye and didn't break his gaze. “I have...a theory. I wish to examine it further. I've been reading a lot about the study of the human mind, lately. Philosophy. Behaviour. That kind of thing.”
“In the slave gardens.”
“Among other places. It's interesting to me to see how behaviour can be modified, minds can be moulded. And if I have closer access to slaves, I can see more.”
“You want them for research purposes?” Damen said, flatly.
“Partly.” Laurent smirked. “Not to mention, that no-one hears more than a slave. Apparently, some of you Akielons even continue mating while one of them is in the room.”
“Who do you wish to spy on?”
“No-one. Yet.”H is eyes were very dark. Damen kept noticing these things. He felt like his own eyes were darkened, too. His blood rushed at a new temperature. Damen was a man, like other men. He had eyes and desires and Laurent was a man too now, and he was very very attractive. “Did you not see my notes about the training though?” Laurent asked, blind to Damen's realisation.
“I had books here. No, I moved them when Guion arrived. You really never looked?”
“Why would I look at your private notes?”
“Wait. I'll grab them. It really is very interesting. Could benefit you, too, soldier and commander. We're both going to lead some day.” Laurent walked out of Damen's room, lighter on his feet than usual. Damen, a little dazed, ran his hands through his hair. This was....new.
Not necessarily wrong. He was twenty two and Laurent seventeen. That wasn't anything major. They were friends. Men. Future Kings of rival countries but that hardly seemed to matter now. The candles were brighter. The waves crashed louder. Damen's chest expanded and took on a new shape, a shape it had never held before.
Damen held onto the almost-present memory of Laurent dashing off to retrieve his notes - this clever, bright-eyed prince excited about a new theory, eager to share new ideas, showing an enthusiastic side that no-one else ever saw. Laurent, so sharp and so vulnerable. Laurent, who kept coming back to his bedroom. Laurent, who sometimes seemed too beautiful and clever to exist in this world – he belonged to ancient times and other places – but he was here, with Damen, and he was making this world gleam in brand new colours.
Damen ran his fingers through his messy hair. Re-ordered his breathing. Focused. Tried to focus. Thought about all the ways Laurent was open with him and closed off with everyone else. The book. Auguste's cloak. The baths. Damen thought, he comes to my room every single night.
Then, he heard the scream.