Damen had plenty of princely skills. People liked him. He was good a protecting people, at fighting, at looking at maps and charts and field reports alongside his father and easily seeing the best plan of action. He was good at commanding people. He was good at sex (but, as much as it strangely pleased the general population that their prince was virile and considerate, that wasn't really a requirement of a good prince.)
Damen was not so good with money. Mostly because it had never been a concern of his before. His transaction with Laurent had helped, of course, and the donation of Prince Damianos's personal funds would go a long way towards making the kyroi and the populace support him.
He was, categorically, lacking in the skills necessary to send coded messages filled with loaded promises and probing questions out to the nobility in order to get them on his side. These things had to be done in private. So Damen had taken to drafting and re-drafting letters at his desk late into the evening.
“I nearly feel annoyed,” Laurent called, from the couch. “You have taken my seat.” Until lately, Laurent had been the only one to make any real use of Damen's expensive desk. Damen had preferred to dictate messages to an assistant rather than write them himself.
“You have taken over so many of mine,” Damen replied. “The couch. The right side of my bed. And there is a perfectly good desk across the hall.”
“Use some of that bestial strength to drag it across,” Laurent said.
Damen did not respond. He could already hear the familiar sound of Laurent setting down his book, the rustling of his dressing gown around his legs, the pad of his slippers and then creak of the wood as he leaned against the desk.
“I can't write while you sit there.” If Damen moved his hand, he'd come into contact with Laurent's hip.
“You haven't scratched that nib in at least ten minutes.” Laurent peered down at the papers on Damen's desk. Another new habit. It simply wasn't acceptable for the Crown Prince of Akielos to be showing the Crown Prince of Vere the inner-workings of the Akielon war campaign, so they had to be discreet even in the privacy of their apartment.
Damen was good at many princely things. But Laurent was better at deciphering courtly language and wording calls to war and debt reminders than him. Laurent helped. In truth, his mere presence was a help but in practical terms he was gifted when it came to words.
“Torgiers of Patras declines our invite,” Damen said. “So there goes my chance of appealing to him in person.”
“A slight?” Laurent's brows furrowed a little.
“No, Akielos and Patras are still friends. His brother Torveld comes instead.” It was common for second sons to travel instead of the king. Safer. It was generally a compliment to the country, except when the country was trying to acquire allies for an upcoming war. “So I must find a way to ask Torgiers in a letter instead.”
“Patran ways are similar to Akielon ways, yes? Begin like this.” Laurent called out a perfectly balanced request. Damen transcribed it. “Please be aware,” Laurent continued. “That we have a pest in our palace. They call him Laurent and men will lose their minds when they clasp eyes on – why have you stopped writing?” Damen responded by elbowing Laurent in the thigh. “I was just making sure you were paying attention.”
“I'll have to re-write it now.”
“You were always going to.” That was true, also. Damen would re-write the letter, adding some personal conversation and making sure it sounded sufficiently Akielon for no-one to suspect Laurent had any role in it. “What else?”
“That's enough for tonight. My eyes ache. You can read a legend to me if --”
Laurent yanked another letter from the pile. “I see my name.”
“That's only Nikandros.” Damen did not bother taking the letter back. No more secrets.
“Pen pals? How cute.”
“Not hardly,” Damen said. In truth, he and Nikandros rarely corresponded unless it was for official business. Theirs was not that kind of friendship. When they were apart, they did not need to communicate. When they were re-united, they could continue as if they had never been apart. Perhaps, in another life, Damen would have enjoyed a listening ear for his problems. But princes could not be so open. And Nikandros did not well blend the royal formal and the friendship familiar in his writing, and after an awkward response to a question about opportunities for romantic liasions at the Kingsmeet, Damen knew not to bother.
“You have spies, too,” Laurent said, when he replaced the letter face down.
“And their intelligence should please you,” Damen said. Nikandros had confirmed what first came to light on Damen's last mission to the border . The starburst flew throughout the south of Vere. The people loved their absent prince, lit candles to light his way home, and despaired at the thought of a war that could put him in danger.
“You are the only one who thinks any of that is about me,” Laurent said. “The love is for my brother. I'm the leftover, at best.”
“They love their prince. How could --” Damen stopped himself. Laurent would not appreciate sentimentality from him. “I thought you liked having your ego flattered.”
“Depends on who is doing the flattering. Mainly, this tells me I need to be very careful here. War might be popular on your side, but invasion will never be popular in Vere. If those candle-lighting peasants knew....”
“No-one will know,” Damen promised.
“Secrets are rather my forte.” Laurent quenched the lamp. “Come on, then. I'll read you a story.”
It struck Damen as odd that while he watered the seeds of war, he kept thinking about Laurent's slaves. His slaves. They had to be his before he could sell them. They had to be his to come to his apartments on a permanent basis and bear his pin and have a First Night with capital letters. But, really, there wasn't much of a distinction. He and Laurent were like that now. A pair accepted. It made Damen think of how his father and his mistress were viewed. It was not really a pleasant association.
The slave boys could be good for Laurent. Laurent deserved someone sweet, someone gentle, someone who would not judge. These boy slaves would be all that and more. It made sense.
It made Damen jealous. Perhaps he delayed their acquisition longer than strictly necessary.
But, mostly, it made sense. The slaves-in-training for Damen and Kastor were the most beautiful, the most talented, the most attractive. Because beauty and attraction were not the same thing. It made sense that the Crown Prince of Vere would receive slaves of their stature. Damen didn't mind. He outranked Kastor.
He didn't know why Laurent wanted two. Perhaps the second boy was purely to annoy Kastor. Perhaps he thought Damen might like to partake.
“What do you know of their training?” Laurent asked Damen at dinner while table attendant cut up their syruped pears.
“Considerably less than you, my scholar,” Damen replied. “It is sacred.”
“They're not even allowed to masturbate while they wear the training silks,” Laurent said. From Damen's other side, Theomedes gave Laurent a Look. Akielon and Veretian sensibilities would never align on matters of dinner table conversation. “Or touch each other as friends.”
“I've seen them lounge in the gardens. They use each other as cushions.”
“They have the finest cushions in the palace. They crave human contact.”
“They get plenty once the silks come off.”
“Yes,” said Laurent. “That's all part of it. Anticipation. Denial etc etc”
“Theories. Basic human decency. Call it what you will.” Laurent looked around the room again. They were dining the great hall because people were starting to arrive for the games. Not the nobles or the kyroi. Once the upper ranks got here, the people currently in the hall would be in the yards and the taverns. Theomedes always honoured the builders and the wranglers and the trainers before and after the nobles came and went. “What do you think their secrets are?”
“Who? The man from Thrace who makes the arrows. I think he has never had such rich food and he's already concerned about the thin walls in his lodgings.”
“The slaves.” Laurent pointed at a kithara player with tumbling curls so black they shone blue against the white marble column. “That one.”
“She would rather play a different song?”
“Yes, good guess. The master says the boys are almost ready. I think it would be best to take them into the household before the games begin.”
“Almost is not sufficient. They are vulnerable.” Damen heard himself echo the master in the gardens.
“Not in this instance,” Laurent said. “I promise. But, to appease you, we'll forgo the traditional presentation. We will start them slow. Ease them into it, before the real crowds arrive for the games.”
If Damen had seen these two boys before, he couldn't remember it. Most likely, he hadn't. Adrastus would have kept them away from their intended master in the palace. He would have noticed their striking beauty. It was immediately apparent, that boy with the fairer hair had been chosen for Damen.
They had been brought to Laurent's rooms, as requested. They were polished, primped,buffed and dressed in the flimsiest of garments. Damen felt if he breathed in their direction, their clothes would come clean off.
That was the intent, of course.
Two boys. Young men, really, but boyish in their features and their status. They knelt on the carpet in Laurent's room, heads bowed, cuffs gleaming, backs rising and falling in twin gentle breaths. One had curly dark hair that framed a classically gorgeous face. The other, fairer. Hair like wheat, still several shades darker than Laurent's. Skin like milk. He was trembling. Boys like these, prized slaves, their entire lives had lead up to the moment when they were prostrated on the floor in front of two crown princes. Damen wondered what had lead to this moment – their childhood, their training, if there was some kind of send off among the other trainees before they were brought to the palace proper. Laurent would know. But he couldn't ask just now.
It was the biggest kind of tribute – their whole lives dedicated to the simplest service. Damen felt an ache in his gut. He wished Laurent had not just assumed he would be here. He wished Laurent had not wanted this at all. He wished he could stop thinking about Aimeric and the whip. Lykaios, who had not screamed and trembled when Damen wore his soldier's uniform and jumped when a draft made a door slam shut.
“Rise,” Laurent said. This was his show, after all. Plain speaking was the way to address bed slaves. They boys rose like mirror images. “Be at ease. There is no need to be fearful.” He paused and popped a piece of rose jelly into his mouth.
Perhaps they were. Perhaps they were scared of the physical aspect. Their training would have been theoretical above practical. More likely, they were just overwhelmed with the prospect of what was about to happen. Damen before battle. Damen, in the future, before he would be crowned king.
“Tell Damianos-Exalted your names,” Laurent continued, using the form of address a slave would. It sent a strange thrill down Damen's spine to hear him speak like that. Evidently, Laurent already knew them. He had hand-picked them.
“I am Kallias,” said the one with the darker hair. “He is Erasmus.” Kallias glanced at Erasmus. Damen saw a glimpse of something in his errant look. Concern? He should have kept his eyes down.
“Erasmus,” Damen said, briefly resting his hand on the boy's wheaten hair. “Kallias.” He touched the dark curls. Protocol. “Welcome to my household. We recognise your service here. You will be under our protection.”
Lykaios. He pushed her from his mind.
“As you know,” Laurent stood beside Damen. The sight of the boots made Erasmus gulp. “I am from Vere. There is no equivalent there of First Night. Perhaps, you could remind me. Kallias.”
“Laurent,” Damen said. He didn't want the boys to die of terror.
“Yes, your highness,” Kallias said. “It would be my honour to remind you. Here, in Akielos, a few lucky slaves are born with the make-up that could make them appealing to the kings and kyroi and princes above us. We receive the best training. The best treatment. Our young lives are spent learning all that is known of their desires so we best serve them.”
“Could you give us an example?” Laurent said. “Erasmus?”
“This one has learned,” he replied, voice barely a whisper. “Damianos's favourite battle songs so that I may perform if he wishes. I can now if --”
“Hush, don't be forward,” Kallias interrupted. “I am sorry, Exalted, your highness. Erasmus took the silks much later and he hasn't been here so long.”
“It's fine.” Damen touched his head again. It seemed to sooth him. “What of you, Kallias?”
“I was meant for Kastor, so I have had less time to learn Prince Laurent's tastes,” Kallias admitted. Nothing was known of Prince Laurent's taste except that maybe he didn't have any. “But --” He switched to thick, halting Veretian. “I live to serve. I strive to learn.”
Who knew if that impressed Laurent? It definitely impressed poor Erasmus. It was written all over his face.
“How nice,” Laurent said, impassively. “Now tell me about First Night instead of party tricks. Turn. Face each other. For courage.” Erasmus and Kassias complied, of course. “You learn from stories and books, I know. And it is forbidden to touch, except for on the cheek. Show me.”
Kassias leaned forward and pressed his cheek against Erasmus. The touch was nothing, really, but it was a testament to Erasmus's training that kept he remained steady. Damen could see the deprivation these trainees endured. The nervous anticipation, And all for First Night. What a pressure. Of course, they didn't move again until Laurent, with a small frown, waved them apart.
“On First Night,” Laurent said. “You are to kiss and touch and feel for the very first time. With someone great, someone worthy of that experience. You are to have your body revered. You are to have your extensive training put into practise.” He stepped back. “Well, go ahead. This is my command.”
Confusion was little more than widening of the eyes, a look at exchanged for comfort or direction between them. This was cruel to the slaves. Not on a First Night. Not when they had been promised something so different.
“What are you doing? This isn't Vere,” Damen said to Laurent in rapid Veretian. “We don't watch. We don't make people perform like this.”
“Give me some credit,” Laurent replied in Akielon. “Right. I'll be more direct. Kassias, I want you to kiss Erasmus on the lips like you always wanted. I want you to taste every inch of his mouth, then his body. Use your hands everywhere. Explore. Suck his cock. Erasmus, reciprocate. Fuck each other, if you wish. Use the bed. Use the furs. Hold each and talk if you want. But just...enjoy it.” He stepped backwards as he spoke, all the way to the door.
Damen was a little stunned. “You heard the prince,” he said. “This is our command.” He followed Laurent to the door. Laurent never let anyone be alone in his room.
“You have the night,” Laurent said to Erasmus and Kassias. “We are just over there if you need anything.” He shut the door. He left the slaves to do as they pleased. “I ruined it with that last line, didn't I?”
“I'm afraid so,” Damen said, ignoring the guards. “Princes don't make those kinds of offers. They don't do that when they should having First Nights either.” His brain was tired. He went straight to his bed and threw himself down.
“You told me once that to a slave a First Night means everything,” Laurent said, settling onto the couch with his feet raised on the marble base of Damen's bed. “I was never going to take it from them. They love each other, you know? I saw it in the garden. I know, eventually, they may serve. They may even want to. But --”
“You're a romantic,” Damen said. It pleased him to say it. To have found some tangible sweetness in Laurent that wasn't dependant on four different filters to feel real. To know something about him that no-one else did.
“You're a cross between a water buffalo and a meat pie.” Laurent poured two cups of water. “Great. I'm stuck here. I should have brought my slippers.”
“You're always here. You never do anything without thinking it through,” Damen said. Without thinking, he sat forward and put his hands on Laurent's ankle.
“What are you doing?” Laurent stuttered.
“Helping,” Damen replied. He was strong. He wanted Laurent to relax. So he helped him take of his boots. No big deal. There weren't any servants about. And they were less easy to slip on and off than sandals. It really wasn't a big deal. He was just there. It was like...checking Nikandros's equipment when he was checking his own. He didn't know why Laurent's cheeks flushed and his mouth formed a small circle of shock. “Now. Stop complaining.” He dropped the boots on the floor.
“Why would you do that? You're a prince.”
“Why not?” Damen replied. He didn't want to think about it. Laurent pressed his lips into a thin line. “Tell me why else you want them.”
“Must I explain everything? Consider this, my Akielon bison, who else overhears as much as a slave?”
“Spying again? Laurent, I'm disappointed. You're really very poor at it.”
“Precautionary measure, purely. And since you're so well informed about my spying you will know I haven't sent anything of use in a few years now.”
“What you sent before that wasn't of use either,” Damen said.
“You have to take what victories you can,” Laurent said. There was a silence. Not unusual. Not uncomfortable. Just there. Damen listened to the ocean. He wondered if Erasmus and Kallias had recovered from the shock yet. They'd be loyal for life if Laurent's assessment was correct. “Have you ever done it?” Laurent asked, then.
“Spying? I rarely go un-noticed. Too bulky”
“You know I have. Remember Lykaios.” There were others. Jessa, who due to some major transgression didn't get to keep the pin. Nell who often bathed him now. Another whose name he couldn't remember. Kastor wanted her. Damen wanted to please his brother.
“Right. Only girls. You like men when they fight you.”
“Sometimes,” Damen said. “Why do you ask?”
“It doesn't matter.”
“You don't say things that don't matter.”
“I suppose I was ... curious,” Laurent admitted.
“You want me to tell you what it would be like,” Damen said. Laurent found a very interesting patch of white marble, the same as the rest of the white marble, to examine. “I will if you lie down beside me.”
Slowly, Laurent lowered himself onto Damen's bed. It wasn't the first time but he carried himself like it was. Damen couldn't remember if he had ever invited Laurent before. Not that it mattered. They were not the kind of people who depended on invitations to go where they wanted to go.
Laurent carefully placed his slender body on the bed, ankles crossed, arms folded across his stomach.
“Take off your jacket.”
“Could you not have said that before I sat down?” Huffing, Laurent deftly unlaced his jacket. “Why are you ordering me around anyway?”
“I simply made a suggestion,” Damen replied. “Relax.” Or course, telling someone to relax usually had the exact opposite effect. Laurent, when he lay back down, was stiff as a corpse. So Damen poked him in the ribs until he squirmed into something resembling a human being. “You always stay so far away. Nikandros plopped down on the bed like he owned it.”
Laurent made the concession of turning to lie on his side. A little victory. “Are you stalling?”
“No. Believe me, there are few topics I am better versed in.”
“That's not really something to boast about.”
Damen laughed. There weren't many people in existence who would insult Damianos of Akielos. It was refreshing. He stretched out in his bed, sat up, spread out his arm, so he was looking down at Laurent. It did funny things to his chest to look down at him like that. Laurent was nearly eighteen. Damen was already wondering what he could to mark the occasion, as he would mostly likely be away fighting a war for him when it happened.
A throne of his own would have to be a sufficient gift.
“First Night is special for lots of reasons,” Damen began. “It represents, I suppose, an exchange. A recognition that a slave has trained so hard and dedicated the whole of their young life to preparing for service. You have to cherish that.”
Laurent yawned. “What exactly do you think I've been doing in the slave gardens? I know the theories. Tell me how it would be with you or pass me my book.”
Damen smacked Laurent's shoulder with the book before he spoke again. “I wouldn't drink anything more than one glass of wine. I might offer one to the slave, if they seemed especially nervous. I would be kind. I know you have seen... I know you think I am selfish in that regard but I assure you that is not the case. That's not me. There's no rush. There's no outside influence. It's just here.”
“Here.” Laurent shifted a little on the mattress. Closer, maybe.
“With the windows open, so you could feel the breeze. There's the salt in the air and beneath that, the scent of the citrus. It's not too hot. Summer is over,” Damen said. “I would sit. You would kneel and --”
“The slave, you mean.”
“Yes, the slave would kneel. The slave would put their cheek on my knee and I would play with their hair. I'd caress his face. He'd press his whole body against my leg and I'd get a little hard and, Laurent is this what you meant?”
“Yes,” he said. “But...skip ahead.”
“I'd be hard but, despite assumptions otherwise, it really wouldn't be about me. I can come whenever I want. The slave never has. Imagine that.” Damen gave a little shake of his head. “I'd bid him stand. He'd be a little unsteady, so I'd take his hand. He'd put his whole weight on my arm. I caress his face again, and kiss him. Are you surprised? I love kissing. Slaves do, too. Standing, you can just kiss. It's simple. We'd still be kissing when I take off his clothes. Just a tug. Then I’d let him remove mine.”
“You should see,” Laurent said. “How many hours they spend practising taking off those simple garments. Perhaps that's why we don't have slaves in Vere.”
“For all the practise,” Damen said. “He would still fumble. It's natural. I would never tell anyone but I would still have to console him. A few more kisses. Holding, maybe. Slaves like to be held. Are you listening?” Laurent had closed his eyes. Damen expected a fake snore at any moment. He didn't know what Laurent wanted but he knew himself – he couldn't spew profanities and filthy scenarios at the drop of a hat.
“Yes,” Laurent said.
“I'd take his hand again,” Damen said. “I'd lead you to the bed --”
“Stop,” said Laurent.
“I meant him.”
“No, I know. I have just changed my mind.”
“All right,” Damen said. More quiet. “Do you think it's like that for them?”
“Kallias and Erasmus. I hope it's better,” Laurent replied. “Every one deserves that.”
“You did. You do.”
“I don't want to talk about that.”
Damen felt the urge to withdraw his own limbs in case they actually brushed against Laurent. Instead, he unpinned his clothes and pulled the sheets up over his body. The chiton didn't fall away until he was covered.
“Why do you stay so far away?” he asked.
“You never invite me closer.”
“I'm a little chilly tonight.”
“I am not a bedwarmer,” Laurent snapped. “And I am sure Nikandros doesn't get much closer.”
“He has. Oh, not like that. When there's been slaves.” Damen waited. Waited. He almost started to think about the things that held Laurent back and then, begrudgingly, Laurent slid closer. He was almost close enough for a gust of wind to make his hair tickle Damen's bicep. “We've been closer.”
“Just before.” Laurent's eyes were closed. His face was calm and unreadable.
"This is before," Damen said. His voice was raw. His chest was tight. Laurent's eyes opened, a flash of blue light so raw and alive that Damen felt his dreams take shape long before he slept.