Then, he heard the scream.
Sword in hand, Damen was out the door in seconds. In the corridor – chaos. A thunderclap clattered inside his head. Chaos like Marlas when the men wouldn't obey.
“Halt,” he said, and half the men did. His men. The other half were in Akielon uniform, too. Attacking. An ambush. Subterfuge. And in the middle, Laurent wide-eyed, restrained by a soldier. Lykaios slumped on the ground, an oozing wound on the side of her head. Damen was a soldier. A commander. “Take the attackers,” he said to his men. “Unhand the Prince of Vere.”
The Akielon soldier did not let go of Laurent.
So Damen killed him.
It was normal. Soldiers had to obey leaders. Everyone had to obey the prince. As the man slumped, Laurent took his sword and then they fought. Damen felt like Auguste, fighting to keep the young prince alive, because as soon as he stepped into the corridor he knew that Laurent was the object of the attack. They fought. It was confusing, because of the uniforms, but it wasn't confusing because Damen's men would never raise an eyebrow let alone a sword to him. The space was narrow. That wasn't ideal. But it didn't take long. There was never any doubt in Damen's mind about how this would go.
There were no more men for him to kill. Of his guard, two out of four remained standing. One rushed to his fallen comrade. The other to Lykaios. Breathing hard, Damen glanced to Laurent who was, infuriatingly composed. Not a hair out of place. The sword in his hand relaxed.
“Sixteen,” he said. “Sixteen dead men to try to kill me.”
“Sixteen to try get past me,” Damen answered.
It felt so much like Marlas he couldn't think. Akielon soldiers. Sent by his father? Kastor? They only fought to get past him, not wound him. He should have let them by. Laurent had killed some, too. Had he been left out of some major Akielon decision again. Had things soured so much so shortly at the feast.
“Exalted,” said one of his guard. “We must inform --”
“Wait,” said Laurent. “Wait. This isn't mutiny. These are Veretians. I was the target.”
Damen realised the truth of it. Akielons wouldn't --- not again. Vere would. While the palace was distracted. “An Akielon would not have hurt the slave. She would have been quiet no matter what.”
“She was hurt. I told her to scream,” Laurent said. “They were waiting for me.”
“Seal the apartments,” Damen said. “Send for a physician privately. No-one is informed without my direction.” He bid his men to take the injured guard and Lykaios to a rarely-used reception room by the apartment entrance.
For discretion's sake, he began to haul the still-warm corpses into his room. Their blood trailed wet on the marble. Laurent, who was not as strong, helped without hesitation.
“Don't look at me like that,” he said. “You know I don't mind blood.”
“What are your theories on this one?”
“Opportunists. Guion or my uncle.” Laurent hooked his arms around a dead man's neck. “Or the entire population of Akielos and some of Vere who think I am a twisted little boy. I will need time to narrow it down.” He dropped the corpse as footsteps echoed at the end of the hall, away from the door, from someone who was already inside. “Wait. No, I won't. Hello, Aimeric.”
Aimeric surged forward, skidding on blood. “You,” he spat. “How are you still alive?”
“I have a knack for survival.”
Damen drew his sword. He didn't want to kill a Veretian aristocrat but he would if the boy didn't stay back from Laurent.
“I'll kill you myself,” Aimeric said. If he didn't look like a boy throwing a tantrum, Damen would have rushed forward. Anyway, he was Laurent's subject not his, and Laurent observed Aimeric with cool disregard. “
“That is treason.”
“I have an official order,” Aimeric said.
“To kill me.” Laurent still appeared to be very calm. But Damen could see something flicker in his eyes, something like hurt. “Oh, I see. From my uncle. Go ahead. Try. Do you really think he can protect you here?”
“I will be rewarded. He promised.” Aimeric drew a dagger from the under his jacket. A fine gold-dipped dagger, engraved with the imprint of a cat. He thrust it forward. He was never going to make contact. Damen stopped, disarmed and restrained him before his elbow was fully extended. He held Aimeric's arms behind his back. It was only the strange expression in Laurent's eyes that stopped Damen pushing Aimeric's face to the floor.
“You're going to die for that,” Damen told Aimeric, who struggled in vain against Damen's immovable grip.
“Wait,” said Laurent. Deliberately, he picked up the dagger. It was his, after all. And Aimeric had stolen it. Aimeric had somehow been here before.
“Aimeric, Aimeric,” Laurent said. He touched him under the chin to draw up his unrepentant face. “Aimeric who never left Fortaine. Aimeric with the pretty, pouty lips. I could cut them off, you know.” Caress-soft, he pressed the blade to Aimeric's mouth.
“You're just as twisted as he said,” Aimeric hissed.
Laurent shrugged as he turned the dagger around and drew it along the skin just below his sharp collar bone. Blood bloomed through his jacket. Aimeric struggled. Damen forced him down and pressed his knee into the boy's back.
“What are you doing?” Damen asked. He was witness. That was enough. Aimeric had been the one to mastermind this and his mind was not one for mastery. “Laurent!”
“Make sure the rest of the corpses are hidden,” Laurent said. “Guards!” Damen's one remaining guard came out of the reception room. “All right, Guard. Singular,” Laurent amended. “Send for a Veretian soldier and Councilor Guion. His son just tried to kill me. That is all that happened here.”
Laurent said nothing but go along with this, as they gathered in the Great Hall which still bore the alcohol and people scent of the feast. The night guards assembled quickly, along with a slightly drunken and then immediately sober Lazar.
“Your highness,” he said. “I have failed.”
“Lighten up. You were off duty,” Laurent replied. “Restrain Aimeric before he dies just from being touched by an Akielon.”
“Laurent.” Damen took him by the elbow, which was as much force or contact as this public setting would allow. “Explain.”
“If you want me to lie to my father --”
“It can't get out. Any of it. Me in your room. The female slave in the hall. The attempt on my life.”
“If your uncle--”
“Aimeric won't talk. He will have it covered. It will look like Akielos. He even had your dagger.” Laurent stopped talking as more men filed in. Guion. Theomedes. Oreste. The ones who had a duty to be here. Most people in the palace were too drunk. Guion's mouth fell open at the sight of his son on his knees in the hall. “Looks like the father wasn't in on it,” Laurent observed.
Damen had to go to his own father. Protocol. Guidance.
“Damianos, what has happened?” Theomedes asked.
“Aimeric attacked Laurent with a knife. I saw it.”
“What did Laurent do?”
“Come on, son. We know how he can provoke people.”
“I don't fully understand it,” Damen said. “Aimeric seems unhinged. Jealous. He has...heard a lot of negative things about his prince. May I be excused?”
“No. This is Veretian business.”
“It happened in my apartment.”
“Stay here, please.”
Laurent, off to the side of throne, addressed Guion. “Your son sneaked into my personal residence and attacked me with a knife. Remind me, because I have been away so long, what is the penalty for attacking the only surviving member of the royal family with a deadly weapon in Vere?”
“Death, your highness.”
“Death.” Laurent cocked his head. “Aimeric, do you have any explanation? Were you...confused? Misinformed?”
“Everyone knows he has been corrupted!” Aimeric said. Laurent raised a hand to stop Lazar shutting Aimeric up. “He sleeps in the Akielon prince's apartments.”
“I sleep in the only residence assigned to crown princes,” Laurent said. “It just so happens there are two of us in the palace in Ios. I have done so since I was fourteen. Where was I when you came across me?”
“The hallway between the rooms,” Aimeric said.
“The hallway that leads to every room.” Laurent looked around. “Guion, see that all your men are accounted for. Your son already went astray. What were you doing there, Aimeric?”
“I wanted to --”
“Laugh all you want. This was for the good of Vere and someday you will see --”
“Guion, I think your son is quite mad. I see now why he as never left Fortaine.”
Damen glanced at his father. “This is turning into a spectacle.” For whatever reason, Laurent did not want it known that the Regent was behind the attack and Damen did not think it was to protect anyone's reputation.
“I'm not mad,” Aimeric replied. His words rang clear through the cavernous throne room. Guion was busy counting his small retinue of men. “I'm not. This was --”
“Tell us,” said Laurent. “Put me out of my misery.”
“I am merciful,” Laurent said, to the Veretians and to Guion. “I will commute his death sentence. These are the qualities I have learned in Akielos. The boy is young.”
“We're the same age!”
Damen didn't like to hear that. He didn't like seeing Aimeric and Laurent look at each other tie each other up in lies that only protected the Regent. Laurent had blood. What had Aimeric?
“Instead, Aimeric will be flogged.” Cool as ever, Laurent appraised the room. “There is no cross but the columns will do. Theomedes, do I have your permission?”
“Father,” Damen said and he could not say anything more. Flogging was not uncommon. Damen had never ordered it or experienced it personally, but it happened every day in the army to keep men in line. Men who fought under the blazing sun. Men who broke rules and committed heinous crimes. Aimeric, the pretty aristocrat with the unblemished skin, had likely never been in a fight at all until he charged at Laurent.
Laurent had cut himself.
“I'm not afraid,” Aimeric said, as he was dragged to the column. “Father, look. I am not afraid. Tell him I was not afraid.”
“Wait,” said Laurent. “Undress him. There will only be .... thirteen lashes. I want to make it count.”
Lazar did not bother with the finagles of Veretian laces. He sliced through the jacket, the fine undershirt and bared Aimeric's skinny ribs to the room. Damen could see the ridges of his spine and at his neck, a fine silver chain. Laurent stepped closer, touching distance, and snatched the necklace from Aimeric. His mouth moved, very close to Aimeric's ear, before he shoved the tangled chain into the pocket of his trousers. Aimeric shuddered, those notches of his spine rippled like buoys floating in the sea.
“Later,” Theomedes said. “You are going to tell me what this is really about.”
“I did not lie about the attack by Aimeric,” Damen replied, as Aimeric was tied to the column. Guion looked on, pale but obedient. He could have offered to take the whipping on his son's behalf. Protocol. Lazar stayed close, ready to dole out the punishment.
“You have been drinking,” Laurent said. “Where is my guard Jord? He has been loyal all these years. Someone fetch him.”
“I am here.” Jord walked into the hall. He looked at Aimeric as he spoke. “Your highness.” Jord was sober. Jord's lips were still puffy. Not from sleep. “I don't --”
“Take the whip,” Laurent said. “Thirteen lashes for the man who tried to stab the Crown Prince of Vere. It is a kind punishment, as you well know.”
Laurent was seventeen, and terrifying.
Jord's hand shook slightly as he took hold of the whip. His face was drawn. Damen thought Jord might faint. When the whip cracked the air, it was nearly a struggle for Damen himself not to flinch. Years of soldiering and watching his father rule were the things that kept him still.
“One,” said Laurent. He didn't look. He leaned against another column and allowed a medic to bandage his knife wound. Guion looked. Theomedes looked, impassive. Damen felt his head spin. Aimeric and Laurent were the same age. The same lies. A second lash and Damen was grinding his teeth. He had killed ten men upstairs without batting an eyelash.
A third and Aimeric was not brave. He cried out when the whip snapped and Jord stepped back before it made contact. Damen put one foot forward. His father put warning hand on his arm. Jord didn't miss again. Because he could not move, Damen sent a guard to summon Lazar who came quickly like he wanted to move away from the violence.
“What did Laurent say to Aimeric?” Damen asked.
Four. Five lashes. Aimeric sobbing openly. Guion's eyes were red.
“That Aimeric shouldn't take it personally,” Lazar said. Six lashes. “That he was just one in a long line and it wasn't his fault.”
“When you left Vere,” Damen began.
“I've never seen the ambassador's son before,” Lazar said, quickly.
“But...the night shift.” Damen had to put his hand on the back of his father's chair to remain upright. The seventh lash and an ear-splitting scream. The skin was well split, too.
“Pets. Very young pets.” Eight. A whimper
“Thank you,” he said to Lazar. Wrong. All wrong. “Jord will need you in a minute, soldier.”
“Damianos. Stand up.” His father looked at him. “Have you been poisoned again?”
“I might be sick,” Damen said.
“Not. Here.” Nine.
Damen gritted his teeth. Ten. No. He had to be wrong. It couldn't be that. Aimeric was Laurent's age. Old enough. Now. But, the necklace. The lies. That strange behaviour. The intense personal quality to the rumours. Eleven. Twelve. Damen's teeth would be dust soon. Aimeric's back was ribbons. Thirteen.
Jord dropped the whip. Laurent left the room without a backwards glance.
Damen pushed away from the throne to follow.
“Wait,” said Theomedes. “Don't go after him.”
“But --” Damen couldn't say he needs me so he said, “I'm going to help Aimeric down. Can I explain after?”
Guion and Jord were already untying the ropes. Foolishly. They were the only thing keeping the boy upright. He was crying the way a child cries – simply to express something, and thin rivulets of blood trailed down his courtier's clothing onto the marble floor. How had Damen just earlier thought wars were only fought on battlefields? The ropes came away. Instinctively, Damen caught the boy.
“I can support my son,” Guion said, primly. Right. They hated Akielons. Damen still held on until Aimeric was safely secured in by Guion and his guard. Jord was shoved aside. Damen put a steadying hand on Jord's shoulder.
“I didn't --” Jord said. “I don't know what happened.” But his face showed otherwise. He did know. He let his head get turned by a pretty son of a lord and that was the thing that lead Aimeric to Damen's apartments and then to the whip.
“You are still off duty,” Damen said. “Both of you.”
Damen was never off duty. He summoned his guard, ordered them to remain silent until he said otherwise. There was clean-up to do. The guard who was hurt would be fine. A flesh wound, only.
Next, he sought out Lykaios who had been moved to the slave quarters. She was sleeping. Neither the palace nor the slave physician could be sure, but her head wound was cleaned and bandaged and she had woken enough to worry for the princes. Adrastus seemed more concerned about having to shear her hair and Damen was suddenly concerned with punching the slave master between the eyes.
The night wore on like the lashes did. Damen thought about Laurent, so beautiful, so capable of ugliness. How young he was when they brought him to Ios. The horror on Auguste's face by the stream while he was dying. Take him, he said. The attackers were all dead by then.
His father, next. Theomedes would not tolerate disrespect. He waited in his sitting room in his apartments, the equivalent of the room Damen had sent his injured guard and slave to just so he could talk to Laurent in peace. He hadn't seen Laurent since the great hall. For all Damen knew, he could have been attacked again. Duty meant walking away from people.
“Explain,” Theomedes said. “Don't make me ask your guard.”
“There was an attack in my apartments,” Damen said. “Veretians dressed as Akielon soldiers. That's how they got past the usual patrols. They attacked my men, a slave girl and tried to kill Laurent. We stopped them.”
“All of them. None of us,” Damen said. “The boy Aimeric knew. He engineered it, somehow. He came along to survey his handiwork and attacked Laurent with a dagger he had stolen from my room. You saw the rest.”
Theomedes processed this. “Why the secrecy?”
“Because it looked like it was our men,” Damen said. “And I don't think Laurent actually wanted to kill Aimeric.”
“You just went along with it.”
“Sorry, father. I made the decision. A --”
“All right,” Theomedes said. “Decisions. You are well entitled to make decisions about an attack in your personal apartments.” There was a weight in Damen's chest. He wanted to ask his father about his...suspicions that were really realisations. But he couldn't betray Laurent. He had other, earlier, softer realisations weighing on his mind. “Tell me this, were you really in the hall when Aimeric came along?”
“Yes. And before that, too. Laurent wanted to show me a book. He likes books and – they were waiting.”
“It's good that you look out for him,” Theomedes said. “It's good to have that ability. Like Kastor used to look out for you. But he is not your brother.”
“I know that.”
“And he will rule your enemy. He will be your enemy.”
“The Regent sent the assassins,” Damen said.
“Why do you think he left him here?”
I will be in Fortaine.
“Suits his political machinations.” Theomedes sighed. “I know you are...fond of him. But he is not your responsibility.”
“Seventeen is very young,” Damen said. Too young. For him. For killing.
“You were commanding at seventeen.”
“I had my father and my brother and a country,” Damen said. “He has no-one. How old was my mother when she came here?”
“Egeria was sixteen. Nineteen when we married. It was a long courtship.”
“Because of her age?”
“Because of me. I was half blind and half delusional. But it worked out. We had you,” Theomedes said. “We were a good marriage. You will make a good marriage some day. Good heirs. Put those protective instincts to their highest purpose.”
Damen nodded. He almost always agreed with his father. “I'm going to see Aimeric,” he said.
“All right,” said Theomedes. “I was dreading it.”
If Damen's father thought he was going to see Aimeric out of duty to the crown, Damen wasn't going to correct him. He made his way to the guest rooms with the heaviest lead in his feet. His bones were weary to their marrow. His brain was mired in fog. The Veretian guards did not protest when he tried to enter the sickroom. Damen was wondering how he could get rid of Guion but Guion was not there.
“The Councillor is making arrangements for the passage home to Fortaine,” explained an attendant holding a bowl of bloody water outside the boy's door.
“No. Not at this time of year, your highness. No-one but the physician has been in.”
“I won't be long.” Damen pushed open the door. Aimeric lay on his stomach, candle light bathing his youthful face, a sheet covering his modesty. If it wasn't for the open wounds, he'd be the picture of eroticism for lots of men. Damen felt disgusting for even noticing.
Aimeric was conscious. He did not turn his head. The flogging would not knock a man out for a long period. Drugs would. His eyelids flickered enough to give Damen a very brief sneer. Only slightly drugged, then. Enough to dull the pain or perhaps to stop him squirming while the wounds were treated. The things about lashes is that they were so thin that all you could do was clean and bandage them. Nothing more.
“Are you awake?” Damen asked.
“It is difficult to sleep when your back's been torn open.” Aimeric was clutching something. Damen noticed as he walked closer to the bed. He saw the glint of silver trailing from his palm. “That's mine,” he said when Damen grabbed it, but he could not stop him. A silver pendant, rimmed with a cluster of tiny red gemstone. Nothing expensive. A trinket, really.
“Cute,” Damen said. “I gave something similar to a girl from Mellos when I was fourteen.”
Aimeric turned his head. For one lash, the whip had landed closer to his neck than his back. Turning his head made Aimeric cry out. A flash came to Damen's foggy mind. Aimeric lying in that same position, crying out the same way for another reason. Something shifted in the vision and Aimeric's hair was blond.
“What did the Regent promise you?” Damen asked. “A position in his guard? A third son of a lord could get that anyway with a little hard work.”
“I don't have to talk to you,” Aimeric said. “Laurent sent his brute to do his dirty work. You're wasting your time.”
“Laurent doesn't know I am here,” Damen said. “Have you really never been outside Fortaine before?”
“My inexperience amuses you.”
“Not in the slightest. So...the Regent wrote to you and asked you to worm your way into my apartments while his nephew was attacked? Just randomly. Come on, don't deny it Aimeric. You were there. You're just lucky the whole court doesn't know.”
“He doesn't write to me. He's so busy cleaning up after Laurent. He came to Fortaine on his way back from the border last year.”
“That was the first time you met him? Odd to gain such trust so quickly.”
“He was there before. When I turned thirteen.” Aimeric glanced at the necklace. “I don't care what you think. I don't care what the liar prince says. I know --”
“What do you know, Aimeric?”
“Thirteen is old enough. I'm going to Arles. I'm going to --”
“You're going back to Fortaine,” Damen said. “But, listen, you don't have to. You can stay in Ios.”
Aimeric laughed and it sounded worse than his sobs in the great hall. “You don't know anything. I'm going to Arles. I'm going to see court and all the performances. We're all going to laugh at you, the stupid barbarian prince, too stupid to see that his country is going to crumble and Laurent is here feeding his uncle everything he needs.”
Damen went to the door. This was wrong. All wrong. He shouldn't be talking to this boy. He should... he should go back to his apartments.
“I am sorry,” he said to Aimeric.
“You will be.”
Damen thought that maybe Aimeric was right. Laurent was scheming all along. Secrets and lies. Spying. They knew about the spying. Damen had laughed about the spying. Nikandros and Kastor and Theomedes all warned him about Laurent, about Veretians. His head spun. Maybe they were right.
Maybe all those warnings made the Regent right and arrested Laurent as he was in by the stream, in the warfield tent, that scared and alone thirteen year old boy who clung to viciousness as his only weapon.
Nothing was right, tonight. Ruefully, Damen thought of his own ignorance. How stupid he had been to think a shallow epiphany about his regard for Laurent would be the most startling thing that happened tonight.
What a long night it had been. Damen's legs were heavy as boulders as he finally made his way back to his apartment via the service halls. He didn't want to see anyone. He didn't think that no-one would be about the main halls but that the slave corridors were already bustling with people starting their day's work. Laurent would have thought of that.
He had to go see Laurent. He should have ignored his father for once and gone straight to him before Aimeric had really began to bleed. But he couldn't. He delayed. He went, instead, after acquiring a flask of strong base wine, to the quarters that housed Laurent's personal guard.
Lazar, sober now, was alert outside the room as if it was the prince's room.
“Your highness,” he said, boldly. “If this is punishment for...”
“It's not,” Damen said. “I'm just checking in.” He was aware of the incongruity of it – a prince going out of his way to check in on a foreign soldier, one who had just spectacularly failed in his duty – but it was the right thing to do in a night full of wrong things. Jord was a good man. Damen respected him. “Neither of you are my men to punish, as you well know.”
“I thought you might be acting on behalf of the prince.”
“No,” Damen said. “No. Just on my own behalf. I'm always on duty.”
Lazar opened the door, which saved Damen the indignity of knocking on a door in his own apartment and saved Jord the indignity of him walking right in. Damen had never been here before. Why would he? But the room was a sad little shock to him – two foreign soldiers forced to make their own space in a corner of a foreign palace. There were tall cups in the Veretian style. A heavier blanket. An un-made bed.
Jord was sitting on the un-made bed. It was not soldier standards from a man who generally radiated steady soldier standards. Another sad shock. Jord braced his shoulders, tried to stand, put his hands behind his back so Damen wouldn't see them shake.
“At ease,” Damen said. “Here.” He handed Jord the flask. “It's good for shock.”
Jord took a long swig. “Sir,” he began. Army habits. “I accept whatever...consequence I face for my failure to --”
“Jord, you've had your consequences.” The whip was as much for Jord as Aimeric. Surely he knew Laurent well enough to realise that.
“I'm not trying to be insolent,” Jord continued. “I just...was it planned? Did you know?”
“Know? Neither of knew anything until there was slaughter in my corridor,” Damen said, shocked.
Laurent could be calculating. Damen was no stranger to strategic thinking. The poison plot was still fresh in their minds. But he would never -- “Jord, no. None of this was planned by anyone but Aimeric.”
The name made Jord flinch. “That makes sense. I never should have had my head turned.”
“It wasn't your fault,” Damen said. “There's no failure in not seeing badness. I've been to see him.”
“I'm surprised you could leave his side.”
“Aimeric, I mean.”
“They wouldn't let me in,” Jord said. He took another long gulp. The flask was light in his hands now.
“He will recover, of course. We both know lashes, especially so few, are recoverable,” Damen said. “He is...don't be too hard on him in your thoughts. He was convinced he was doing the right thing. And,” Damen added. “I did meet him, too. Don't be hard on yourself. I'm sure he did everything he could to--”
“Stop,” said Jord. “It wasn't like that. I'm not some green, easily flattered desperate thing unable to say no to a pretty young thing like Aimeric. He was annoying and petty and I thought to myself, I can be different.”
“You don't have to explain.”
“I thought,” Jord continued. “being direct is sometimes the kindest thing you can do for a person. Men should be like that. You should know where you stand. I thought, if Prince Damianos can be direct and considerate with Prince Laurent, I can do that with this visiting aristocrat. I can shape--”
“Enough,” Damen said, with more anger in his voice than he intended. Jord shrank. He closed his eyes and Damen was compelled to offer explanations that were not right for his title. He thought, is that what people think I am doing? Shaping the bright young prince into something suitable for me? He always let Laurent be.
“Forgive me,” said Jord. “This is stronger than what I am used to. I know better than to compare myself to a prince.”
Damen did not set him straight.
Pink streaks of dawn streamed down the long marble corridor that just a few hours ago had been awash with deep red blood. Damen came to Laurent's door and hesitated. Should he knock? Should he wait for Laurent to pad across to his room as he almost always did? There weren't any right answers. He allowed himself one calming breath and walked into the room.
In Damen's mind, it should have been bathed in darkness but of course the sun was rising here too. He could see that it was cluttered, clean, neat, still. He saw Laurent, back to the door, curled up in ball on top of his sheets. Laurent, who was always had the poise of a statue even when he raged, shuddered a little and didn't even turn his head. Like Aimeric.