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One the Other

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Games first. War later. The final events were happening. Then celebration. Then Damen just had to convince the most powerful men in Akielos (his family excluded) to support his call to war against Vere.

To reclaim their land.

For Laurent.

It was little wonder Damen wanted to enjoy the final portion of sports before the work began.

When Damen was a boy, he often sat at the edge of the dais with his feet dangling down towards the sand, air on his toes, chin resting on one of the wooden slats keeping the platform together. There was a little girl who used to play in the palace, a daughter of one of the cooks, who used to sneak under the dais and pull at his and Nikandros's legs to make them yelp. If she was there now, she'd be tasting the food for poison. The Regent did that. Damen wondered whatever happened to her. He couldn't even remember her name.

The dais was very packed before the racing.

So Damen recalled that boyhood habit and sat on the edge. His feet hung lower now. He didn't need to peek between any rails. As soon as he sat, Nikandros joined him. Damen glanced over his shoulder and that was all it took to have Laurent walking over rather like he had ice on the bottom of his shoes.

“Sit,” Damen said. Laurent looked dubious.

“You're in everyone's way now,” Nikandros said. Laurent sat.

He swung his legs and his boot briefly swiped the bare skin on Damen's leg. “This is so childish,” he said.

“I know,” Damen said. “We used to sit like this when were kids. Me, Nikandros and Kastor.” He looked for Kastor to see that Kastor was sitting near the kyros of Aegina (and Jokaste) and squinting again. “The view is better.”

“That's not how views work,” Laurent said. “They get worse the lower down you go.”

“Don't expect him to understand,” Nikandros said. “He spent his school days fantasising about ball games.”

“Thank you, I understand physics,” Damen said. “I'm telling you, the perspective is better here.”

“I thought you just wanted to escape Lady Jokaste.” Nikandros shoved him, gently, so not incite and of the guards or nobles to defend their prince. Damen didn't mind. It had the effect of his body being pushed against Laurent's for a second.

“You didn't look like you wanted to escape when you walked in,” Laurent said, matching Nikandros's teasing tone exactly. “Is that where you spent the break?”

“With Jokaste? Please,” Damen said. He wanted to say about the market and the jelly but he couldn't. “She waylaid me on my errands. Hush. The races are starting.”

“You don't need to be quiet to watch a race,” Nikandros pointed out

“Yes and once they leave the starting point we may as well be watching ants until they loop around again,” Laurent pointed out. Right. Damen had forgotten it was a long distance event.

“Stop pointing things out to me.” Damen wanted to watch, not because he particularly cared about a footrace, but to be decent to the competitors. If Prince Damianos took an interest, they would follow suit. And it actually was fun. The runners had different body types to most of the other event's competitors. Leaner and longer. They probably didn't excel at much else but this was their chance to fly faster than the wind. “Pick one to make it more interesting. Winner gets --”

“A future favour,” Laurent said.

“Deal.”

They all picked one at random to win and cheered them on and then so did everyone else on the dais. Once they launched, and ran out of sight, Laurent enquired why they didn't arrange entertainment while they could not see the racers and if not entertainment some of those glass things the ship captains have to make it more interesting.

“It is sports,” Nikandros said. “That is the point. Also, we don't need constant entertainment.”

“And those glass things are very expensive. Just pointing that out,” Damen said.

“In Arles, at court,” Laurent said. “You could sit like this for some pointless game and your pet could be down on the ground there sucking your cock.” His tone was so matter of fact that Damen burst out laughing. This was either another attempt to be shocking or an effort to befriend Nikandros. It did seem like Laurent thought all he and Damen spoke about was sex and fighting.

“That's one way to liven things up,” Nikandros said and he was laughing, too. “And I'll remember that the next time you denounce slavery. At least we are discreet.”

“Pets are paid. It's one of the few opportunities for social advancement.”

“If you're too lazy for hard work and too weak for the army,” said Nikandros.

“Or too clever.” Laurent leaned forward and slyly smiled. “What is the point of you barbarians wearing skirts all the time if you don't take advantage of their...ease of access?”

The runners looped by, kicking up dust. Damen peered over the rail to the sandy ground.

“To me,” he said. “It sounds like an excellent opportunity to get sand in places you really don't want sand.”

Laurent laughed. Nikandros, too. And they were laughing and laughing even though it wasn't that funny and then the runners looped around again. Damen shouted and Nikandros bellowed and Laurent even managed an angry hiss when another racer edged to close to his chosen competitor. It was fun, in it's own way. And behind them, Damen could feel the nobility enjoy their enjoyment – look at our prince, laughing like a boy, with his noble friend and the Prince of Vere who is usually as impassive as an iceberg.

Damen wasn't an actor. He was enjoying being a spectator. But it was as his father said – the games were about showing people the glory of Akielos. He was showing them, look how it can be with us and Vere and all we have to do is win a war first.

Next, the okton.

Damen won.

Easily.

The instant the final spear flew from his hands, he glanced at the dais and there was Laurent, not cheering, not really, but his hands clasped tight in front of his face, thumbs pressed against his teeth, concealing a smile and his blue eyes brighter than anything else.

After the games, there were celebrations. Lots of wine. Not enough food. Tomorrow, there would be a formal prizegiving where Theomedes and Damen would hand out prizes and the kyroi would reward the winners from their region. But on the day of the games, when the nobility had been drinking since early morning, formality could wait. Damen distributed his personal gifts to the winners and gave coins to his staff as tokens of appreciation. He caught Laurent watching him do this like it wasn't his usual habit.

“I went to the market,” Damen said, resting on his elbow on one of the long couches.

“How plebian.”

“I got you some of that rose sweet you like.”

Laurent's cheeks went the colour of roses. “Why?”

“I saw it.”

“Where is it?”

“I'm not sure, to be honest. Shall I get one of my men to get it? Don't worry. They know the protocol with our food now.”

“Later,” Laurent said. There was more wine, poured impeccably by Erasmus and Kallias. Mostly water for Laurent until Kastor insisted on toasting his wins. Kastor toasted the visitors, too, making eye contact with Jokaste. Damen asked her about poems from her region and bid Erasmus to say one and he did so, beautifully, and Laurent sent Kallias for water because his brown eyes were full of water. When they left the dais in the darkness for the casual meal in the hall, meat circling on spits and flat breads as big as tables, Damen offered Jokaste his arm.

Games.

“I'm learning,” he said in Veretian to Laurent as they passed him by. Laurent was telling one of the kyroi's wives about his puzzles and how her children might like them. At least Damen thought he was. There was distance enough between Laurent and the lady that she was more likely just smiling and nodding rather than ask a prince to repeat himself.

“He is in business?” Jokaste asked, surprised.

“He is very...enterprising,” Damen replied. “Do you actually like that poetry?”

“I like battle songs.”

“So do I.” In the hall, Jokaste was absorbed into a cluster of ladies waiting to hear about her day on the dais. Laurent was sitting stiffly with Theomedes and some men from Sicyon, including the General Makedon who arrived late because of his duty. Damen re-lived the okton with other competitors and ate with his hands. More wine. Some of that liqueur. He wasn't entirely sure Laurent wouldn't see the notched belts and commit regicide just to get in spitting distance of Makedon but he seemed perfectly well behaved. Kallias was beside him and when Damen caught Laurent's eye, Kallias was putting a grape between Laurent's teeth. More wine.

When Damen tapped Erasmus on the shoulder to retire, he also needed some help standing up. He could feel the enjoyment from the crowd at this, too – here is our prince, drunk and victory-high and swaying from the feast with the perfect slave who was picked from the vine especially for him.

Damen was feeling the influence of the alcohol but he still managed to catch Jokaste's eye on the way out. She and her ladies had been joined by Kastor and his men. A good time for all.

Erasmus stayed with Damen, bearing some of his weight on his lithe body, until Damen was deposited on his crisp white bed.

“Can I do anything else, Exalted?” Erasmus asked, eyes on the floor, once had lit the lamps and drawn the curtains and brought water to the bedside locker. Because he was a slave, impeccably trained and possessing a natural sensuality, the words were loaded. Damen let the notion beat a fleeting path through his mind. Fair Erasmus between his sheets. There had been a lot of wine. Erasmus had been trained for this. Damen almost thought the boy really wanted it. Then he remembered Kallias.

“Fetch Laurent,” Damen said. “If he is available.”

Laurent bound into the room, bed-robe swishing around bare legs, quite a few minutes later. Damen had almost nodded off. “You know,” he said. “I am not a dog to come when you bid.”

“Do I disturb you?”

“No.” Laurent neatly sat on Damen's bed. “I am in a good mood today.”

“Oh, dear. Who did you kill?”

“No-one, yet. Our old friend Makedon had a letter for me.” He dropped it onto Damen's bare chest. “Another piece of the puzzle falls into place.”

The words blurred before Damen's eyes. Wine and weak lamplight. But he forced himself to make sense of the code. “This is good,” he said. “More strength to my proposal.”

Laurent hid it along with the others in Damen's Akielon book of Veretian folk tales.

“I spoke with him,” Laurent said, seriously. “Makedon. He laughs at everything.”

“Did he --” Damen had a terrible vision of Makeon laughing inappropriately at what had happened at Marlas. He had once before. Makedon was a seasoned general, a man used to brutality and also being in charge. He would not take kindly to a pampered princeling.

Damen wasn't sure if Makedon had witnessed any of Laurent's victories at the games but he definitely had reason to dislike Veretians.

“Nothing happened,” Laurent said. “Well, he and Torveld got into some drinking competition. He swore to me he had no hand in what happened to Auguste. It was ... good to know he still remembered, considered it.”

“He has honour,” Damen said. “Beneath the aggression.”

“He's helped to get us another advantage,” Laurent said. “You, I mean. Akielos. I shall have a disadvantage after.”

“After,” said Damen. He had his ideas of after. They got him through hard days and other kinds of hardness.

“How much did you drink tonight?” Laurent asked. “Or did Lazar get you challis too? Your eyes are...”

“You understand, don't you?” Damen interrupted. “After. Now. This is for you.”

“No, it's not. You have to do this for Akielos. If I benefit, it's just a happy coincidence.” Laurent inspected the contents of the low bedside table. “I'm being nice with that assessment, by the way. I do remember the blow to your ego back then.”

“No,” said Damen. “It's for you.”

“Are these for me?” Laurent held up the paper sack of rose sweets Damen had innocently bought in the market. Nothing looked innocent in wine-soaked lamp light. Laurent shrugged off his robe and returned to the bed in only his night shirt which was still more substantial than much of Damen's day wear. These nights, he wasn't quite so remote when he slept alongside Damen.

Laurent used both hands to peel back the paper.

“You look like a hamster,” Damen said.

Laurent, for less than a blink, pulled back his lips and pushed out his teeth. “Better than a snake,” he said, then, composed himself again. “But nowhere near as strong as any of my comparisons.” He popped a whole square of the pink delicacy past his pink lips and there was a second, longer than a blink, when he closed his eyes and enjoyed the sweetness melting on his tongue. “Care to try?”

“You know my thoughts on flora and food,” Damen said “Unless...”

“Yes, yes, unless it's dire straits and only then perhaps a nettle or a dandelion.” Laurent sucked some powdered sugar from his finger, then dusted it up again taking another sweet. “These are quite different than that, I assure you.”

“I'll take your word for it.”

Laurent inched closer. “They're very sweet.”

Damen's head spun. “So is fruit. It's more nutritious, too and --”

“Try some,” Laurent said, again. Before Damen could protest further, Laurent's fingers were at his lips. He traced the outline of Damen's mouth with sugar and then, briefly, slipped his index finger into Damen's open mouth and dotted the sugar against the very tip of his tongue.

“There was no jelly there,” Damen managed to husk out. He was very very conscious of the fall of the sheet and if it would conceal the hardness of his cock. Erections happened. He was a young man. He and Laurent often shared a bed and a bath. They saw things. More accurately, Laurent saw things and showed no hint that he did and Damen saw nothing and looked for traces some of the time and steadfastly did not look the rest of the time.

“It was just a hint,” Laurent said. “Since you are so closed-minded.”

-
The prizegiving happened in the early afternoon in order to accommodate over-indulgence. Damen, who didn't believe in lying under a hangover, had two training sessions, some gentle exercise, and a couple of hours spent rehearsing what he would say to the kyroi about the war over him by the time they gathered in the hall to hand out the prizes.

Damen thought they should do this out on the field out of respect for the games themselves. His father disagreed, so it happened in the hall which again bore no trace of any revelry. It was a simple ceremony. He always tried to say a kind word to every winner. Sometimes, he tried to say a kind word to the losers, too, but that often just exacerbated their shame. Some games could be tricky.

It wasn't unusual for the royals to call upon a pretty young lady to help with the prizegiving. Damen often picked at random. He never paid attention when his father did, because there were things a person never wanted to associate with their parent. Today, Kastor called on Jokaste. Unsurprising. She was the most beautiful woman in the room.

(Laurent was the most beautiful person.)

Damen got a little warm when the thought crossed his mind and he remembered the taste of powdered sugar. Gracefully, Jokaste joined them at the top of the room. She smiled at the winners, who would possibly now remember her beauty brighter than the joy of being praised by the princes, and handed Kastor, Damen and Theomedes the prizes. It was tradition that they presented the prizes for their favoured events. Young Pallas was the only who appeared unaffected by her presence.

Damen had gotten leafy laurels for his wins yesterday. Princes did not need need further praise.

“Where is your prize, Exalted?” Jokaste asked Damen.

“My life is my prize,” he replied.

“Sometimes,” Kastor said, “We get other kinds of prizes. Practical ones.”

“He means a kiss,” Theomedes explained and Kastor shrugged. Jokaste pressed a playful kiss to Kastor's cheek.

“And you, Prince Damianos?” Jokaste said. Damen knew he should accept a kiss, too. It wasn't a big deal. He had received similar kisses from dozens of noble ladies aged between fifteen and seventy five. Games. Another one of those situations where he was unusually aware of eyes on him. He did not look at Laurent. He did look at Kastor.

Damen took Jokaste's hand and pressed a kiss to the soft perfumed skin above her knuckles. “As a thank you for your assistance,” he said. “And as a premature thank you for my next request – Can you sing Lady Jokaste?”

“A little,” she replied. Her eye twitched a little. Damen hazarded that all young ladies were taught to sing. If they couldn't they were taught other talents like instruments and verse. She would have mentioned one of them, if she couldn't sing.

“We would love to hear one of those songs we spoke about,” Damen said, looking right into her cool blue eyes.

“It would be my honour,” she replied. Then there was silence and Jokaste launched into the ballad of the first games. Her voice was high and practised. Her talent was not natural but worked at but the impact on the hall was well the same. All the people who hadn't gotten close enough to be bewitched by her beauty were put under the spell of her song. It would be talked about in years to come and if Jokaste had her way, it would be remembered as the first time the court came to know their future Queen.

Damen knew differently, of course. He would never marry Jokaste, not in this life, where she was so perfectly blonde and beautiful that she would always remind of him of an impression of Laurent, who would be by then reigning in Vere.

“What is it you said you were learning?” Laurent asked, as they exited the hall. “I didn't catch it yesterday. How to make your older brother dislike you even more?”

“Kastor loves me.”

“Doesn't mean he likes you.”

“I'm learning how to put puzzles together, Laurent.”

“I thought it was just playing them.” He let out a little huff. “Stop changing the rules,” he said. “It is not fair.”

“You do not care about fair play.” Damen remembered, again, the taste of powdered sugar. Games. Jealousy. Torveld. Jokaste.

“I do when it puts me at a disadvantage. Have you said goodbye to Torveld? He leaves soon.”

“He already gave his answer.” Damen did not care to be rejected twice. But he was learning to be a good prince and that meant being a good diplomat so he sought Torveld out one of the terraces, where Torveld was doing nothing but looking out to see. “I have come to wish you well on your journey home,” Damen said.

“Why do I feel like one of the losing competitors whose hands you shook?” Torveld replied and he did not sound unfriendly.

“We are not competitors,” Damen said. He had behaved badly. He should apologise. But it was never a competition because Laurent was not some prize to be won. Damen and Torveld were not the kind of low-brow bored nobility who placed unsuccessful bets on whether or not they could get the golden prince into bed.

“No, I would wager no-one is your competitor.” He faced Damen. “But I would shake your hand. I have enjoyed my stay here very much. Good people, good food.”

“A very good slave who is going to return with you to Patras.” The slave Aden, who Kallias and Erasmus implied would be better off away from the palace for the sake of the other slaves, had been trained for the King and was a very valuable departing gift.

“Yes, back to my camp at the border,” Torveld said. “Damianos, princes are not meant to get old. Be glad you have the crown in your future. Military success and bowing to an older brother are a poor substitute for this.” He inclined one hand and gestured to the whole city, the palace and the sea.

“This?”

“Would you prefer a prince who comes to you freely or a slave who has no real choice?” Torveld ask. “A man like me, beating back his brother's enemies, has little chance of real love in cold mountain camps. Perhaps I wouldn't anyway. Second sons who prefer men are not normally so lucky.”

“A princes rarely have someone to talk to,” Damen said. “That much I understand, Torveld. I am honoured you would talk to me.”

“Tell me the truth then. Are you and he lovers?”

“We are not.”

“But you do love him.”

“He has been in Ios a long time,” Damen said. “And I know that I am lucky.”

“Yes.” Torveld look at the sea again. “After your war, you will come back to this. Tell me another truth, do you really need Delpha so badly?”

“I need to win this war,” Damen said.

“I cannot over-rule my brother. I'm not like yours,” Torveld said. “But maybe I'm an old fool. Maybe if you help as promised I can leave those mountain borders. I accept your proposal, Damianos. You have my help, in its limited form.”

“Thank you,” said Damen, simple and honest. “And, Torveld, I am sorry for being an ass to you.”

“I would use the term disrespectful but that works, too.” Torveld laughed. “It's probably for the best that none of this was about a proposal to a Patran princess. I would hate to see what Laurent would try on one of my nieces to get them out of the picture.”

-

Late afternoon brought a meeting between the king and the kyroi. Naturally, the crown prince's presence was required. Damen was surprised to see Kastor and Nikandros there too. It made sense, in a way. Kastor was a prince and he and Nikandros had the most experience in the north. Still, they had to sit through several hours of unrelated business before Damen could broach the subject of war. That made less sense to him. Why did trade agreements and marriage contracts matter before the matter of the country who was picking at their edges like a vulture picks at bones.

Theomedes brought up the north, letting Meniados and Nikandros take the lead in the conversation. The questioned remained : what could be done?

Damen rose, he looked at his father and said, simply. “I'm taking us to war.”

That's when the real talking started – men and money and obstacles and deaths and what if, what if, what if. Damen had answers, carefully prepared answers for all their questions, but he let them talk first. He had learned that sometimes that was men wanted to do – speak and be heard. When they had finished, Damen asked if they would listen to him. He was ready.

“Oh,” said Theomedes. “It is getting late. Damianos, we will conclude this in the morning.”

Games. Damen was getting better all the time at hiding his reactions. He was perfectly serene as the men left and his father bid him stay behind.

“You better be sure of this,” Theomedes said. “Taking a country to war is no easy weight to bear. Even for one as strong as you.”

“It is the right thing to do for our country, Father. That was our land. We need it for food and we need the win. It has to be now.”

“Why?”

Damen thought, I need to kill the Regent and make Vere safe before Laurent goes home.

He would lead a campaign right up to Arles for the chance to kill that sad excuse for a man.

“It is the right time. It's been too long since Marlas. Our troops are trained, replenished and ready. The lands we have won't bear food forever. I need --”

“Son, you need a victory. But know that if you need a victory to rule well then you are not the ruler I thought you would be.”

“It's not just that.”

“Do you wish to have it done before Laurent goes home?”

“Yes, in a way.”

“If you wait until he is King our countries could be friends. It's just three more years.”

Damen thought, he will never be king while the Regent lives. Even if he is crowned, he will be the same scared boy we met at Marlas.

“He won't give us Delpha.”

“No. But...he might negotiate. With you.”

Damen thought, I will never use our closeness against him but he might and that would hurt like a kiss from a knife.

“He wouldn't,” Damen said. “He wants...”

“Damianos, is he privy to your plans?” Theomedes interrupted.

“Partly.”

“He will tell --”

“He will tell what I tell him to only,” Damen replied. Along with some of his suggestions about brand new weapons and fighting techniques that were better suited to fiction. In another life, Laurent could have written books of his own. “I promise.”

Theomedes looked troubled. There were creases deeper than Damen had ever seen in his father's forehead. War. Games. Sons. They all did that.

“Damen, I hope your faith is not misplaced. I remember the last time we trusted Veretians.”

“You think I have forgotten? That wasn't him. He was a child. He was --” Damen caught himself.

“If we had rat problem,” Theomedes said. “Would we catch them ourselves or get some cats? I am as aware of you of the Regent's comfort on the throne. He writes to me personally, you know.” Damen hadn't known. “He asks about the boy.” Damen felt sick at the thought. “He wants --”

“He is a rat. We are the lions.”

“What is Laurent?”

Damen thought, everything.

-

Laurent demanded to know how the meeting went. Damen regaled him with news of the engagement between the kyros of Dice's son and the kyros of Kesus's grand-daughter until Laurent threw the nearest object (an orange) directly at Damen's head.

Damen caught it, of course, and threw it right back in one smooth motion. Laurent caught it, picked up a second, and a third and juggled them like an expert.

“I'm not even going to ask,” Damen said, a little dazed.

Laurent grinned. “If you're good, I'll teach you. Those big hands should do quite nicely.”

That did nothing to decrease Damen's dazedness. “Torveld changed his mind before he departed.” he said.

“I know. He told me if I ever changed my mind that I knew where he was,” Laurent replied. “Tell me about the meeting, now”

“We barely touched on the subject,” he admitted. “My father wanted to clarify some things and then we recommence tomorrow.”

“I see.” Laurent put two of the oranges back and peeled the third. “He thinks I am influencing you unduly.”

Damen furrowed his brows. “I'm not sure. Really, what kind of crown prince would convince another to go to war against his country?”

“A devious one.” Laurent handed Damen an orange segment. “This was never my idea.”

“I know.”

“I hope you also know your father left you the night to continue your arguments,” he said. “Be on your best behaviour tonight. No wine. You've got kyroi to charm. Tell me, should I be sweet or should I be bratty? I think they need to hate me tonight.”

-

At the final feast Laurent was the prettiest, politest monster you'd ever laid your eyes on. The edges he had shown in jest the previous nights were sharpened to a knifepoint. He smiled at nobility and insulted them so subtly they walked away with the impression of humiliation and no real slight they could lay their fingers on. His clothing was finer, darker and glitzier than usual. He sneered at Akielon fashions, even the ones he had directly influenced, and sent away so much food Theomedes got two tasters up from the kitchens instead of just one.

He was saying, I am Vere and you can hate me. I deserve it.

Meanwhile, Damen ramped up his earlier offensive as high as it would go. He was finished being charming. He was here to be strong, be direct and make the people he spoke to love him for it. He assured nobility they would all be treated well during wartime, which really meant he was telling them they would not suffer like the poor. He assured them they would all be treated the same, which meant they would all be treated differently in different ways. He told one widowed lord's wife that he would allow her keep her sons at home and he told the same sons, one who had done came third in the archery games, that their dedication to Akielos would be honoured by the crown. Laurent challenged the same son to a duel and Damen had to send Nikandros to intervene.

War. Games. Sending boys to their deaths. This is what he would do Akielos, and for Laurent.

“What caused the personality change?” Nikandros asked, when he had stopped Laurent verbally eviscerating a potential soldier. “I was almost starting to like him.”

“I told him to be bratty,” Damen said. “You were at the meeting today, weren't you?”

Nikandros shook his head and before he could say more, Kallias brought Damen water and then offered to carry said water up to the dinner table. All those games and the meal hadn't even started yet. Damen estimated he had gotten to three kyroi, the ones who were most opposed, but he dare not neglect the ones who were most in favour in case they pulled away out of sheer jealousy.

“He warned me,” Kallias said, quietly, in Veretian. “I warn you.”

“What?” Damen asked but Kallias slipped away in that slave invisible way because the kyros of Aegina had joined Damen at the table with talk of Patran princesses and Akielon ladies and Damen had to remember another game he was playing. During dinner, Laurent spoke to one of the kyroi Damen had not yet gotten to, praising the excess of Vere to the austere man so thoroughly he definitely would give Damen support.

There were dogs that caught rats, too.

Laurent had very sharp teeth.

At the second last course, Kallias dropped Laurent's dirty fork right onto Laurent's pristine jacket. Erasmus was the one who gasped. Such gaffes were rare, because slaves were so well-trained, but not uncommon because slaves got nervous and men got drunk and talked with their hands. They happened. The proper reaction was not to notice, or if necessary, reassure the slave.

Laurent had his left elbow on the table. He turned his head, placed his chin on his fist, and levelled a look at Kallias that would make anyone's stomach sink. “Do you think,” he said. “That I put on this coat this evening for you to splatter sauce all over it?”

“I am --” Kallias began.

“That's right,” Laurent said. “I forgot. You slaves aren't capable of thinking at all. Remove that, you brainless cu--”

“Enough,” Damen cut across just as Erasmus started to step forward and Kallias's chin started to tremble. Warning. Games. War. But this Damen's proposal, Damen's county. He pushed back his chair and grabbed Laurent's elbow. The fork fell to the floor. Laurent's elbow shifted, and he sent the rest of the silverware clattering to the ground. “Excuse me,” Damen said to his tablemates. As he hauled Laurent to his feet, he pretended not to notice Nikandros hiding a smile behind his wine cup, his father's contemplation or Kastor's glare.

Damen dragged Laurent out to the foyer, shoved him onto the first couch he came across and dismissed the nearest guards.

“Well,” Laurent said, smoothing his ruffled hair. “I did not expect you to manhandle me.”

“I'm not going to apologise.”

“I didn't say I didn't like it.”

Damen threw his hands up in frustration. He couldn't think when Laurent behaved like this.

“Oh, calm down,” Laurent said, as Damen paced. “I thought you liked games now.”

“That is not the point.” Damen sat down. “Don't throw me like a dice, Laurent. This is too important.”

“This?” Laurent clasped his hands and raised them in front of his mouth.

“The kyroi,” Damen said.

“That helped you with the kyroi. And, it got you out of there. Here comes Kallias with dessert. We can eat in private. He can have some, too.”

Dessert was berries, dipped in cream. Damen wolfed his so not to have to watch Laurent bring each red berry to his mouth with the manner of one trying to seduce a berry.

Or a man.

He was probably as flushed as a berry when he made eye contact with Laurent. By the door, Erasmus and Kallias were gleefully sharing the same dessert.

“What do you think of the paint?” Laurent asked, when he sent the slaves away with the empty crystal bowls. “On the slaves?”

Damen shrugged. “I don't think of it.”

“It would rub off, don't you think? On sheets. On skin.”

“Yes. It does.”

“If one of them sucked your cock, would they leave paint behind?”

“They would clean it after.”

“Yes,” said Laurent. “I know. Kallias and Erasmus rub it all over each other, I suppose. They probably don't know what paint came from what body when they are ... finished.”

“I --” Damen heard the breathlessness to his own voice. War. Games. Seductions. “They probably apply it to each other to start with,” he said. “Maybe assign a colour and see where it ends up.”

Laurent's eyes danced. “If they weren't so pathetically cute I'd play that game with them.”

“Cute? Have you been poisoned again?”

“Shut up. You think so, too.”

“Are you so sure of what I'm thinking?”

“No,” said Laurent. “Not in the slightest. I had a whole train of thought and you interrupted me.”

“Paint.”

“Women don't wear paint.”

“Female slaves do.”

“On nobility, it is considered vulgar. It is the same in Vere, except for pets of course,” Laurent said. “But I have heard that some women cheat. They add gold-dust to their body oil and rub it on the places they want you to look.”

“What a waste,” said Damen. “If you want to look, you don't need any gold to draw the eye.”

Laurent opened his mouth, then closed it again once the foyer doors opened. “Oh, look. Lady Jokaste,” he said, the same way someone might say oh look, rain, when the dark clouds have already rolled across the sky.

“Forgive me, your highnesses,” she said, casually and deliberately joining the honorifics. A well born lady knew better etiquette than that. “The hall was hot and I needed air.”

“I'm going to flay Lazar,” Laurent muttered. He must have ordered the hall kept clear.

“You would think a Veretian would be more in touch with your ways,” Damen answered in Veretian, too. “He was your uncle's man.”

“He just likes to annoy me, I think. I hope.”

“Lady Jokaste,” Damen said. Manners. “The gardens are cooler if you are over-heated.”

“I do not know my way around the palace, yet.”

“Oh, sit down,” said Laurent, back to Akielon. “We both know you came out here to see what we were doing? What was your guess? Fucking or fighting? Or did you think I'd be alone and you could tarnish my reputation again?”

Because Jokaste did not flinch at Laurent's cursing, Damen did not bother to reprimand him. Jokaste smoothly sat on the low couch, ankles crossed, the movement making her skirt fall open. Damen smirked when he saw a sheen shine up her leg. Laurent smirked back and gave a pointed look at her oiled collarbone.

“My,” she said. “I feel quite on display. Perhaps the rumours that you no longer indulge in women are incorrect.”

“What was it,” Damen asked her, deferring to Laurent's earlier question. “Did you think you would find?”

“Perhaps I thought I would be followed,” she said. “And I had no designs otherwise. I am sure crown princes do not conduct their personal affairs in public.”

“But you are sure there are some,” Laurent said. “Shall I tell you what we were actually doing?”

“Plotting something world-changing?”

“Playing a game,” Damen supplied, “We've been playing it for years.”

“It's a guessing game,” said Laurent. “You pick someone in the crowd and guess their darkest secret.”

“But there is no-one here but us,” Jokaste said.

“And ten guards,” Damen said. “And a room inside full of the same people we have all been seeing for many many days now.”

“And I think you are very observant, Jokaste.”

“I feel rather on display again,” she said. “All right. I'll bite. The champion wrestler from yesterday is fantasising about your Veretian guard. He wishes he could lose a match against him.”

“Not bad,” said Laurent. “Your handmaiden is plotting to run away with one of the archers.”

“Good guess,” said Jokaste.

“Not a guess,” Laurent said. He looked at Damen, who did not know how to follow those guesses.

“I think,” Damen said. “That you don't plan on leaving here after the games, Lady Jokaste.”

“That's not so dark,” she said. “You must know darker things than that.”

Damen was glad of the practice at keeping his face neutral. “I am particular about the people I share them with.”

“I see,” said Jokaste. “I shall have to prove myself so.”

“Is it common for ladies to paint themselves with oil in your region?” Laurent asked, then, innocently.

“My skin gets dry,” Jokaste replied. Damen almost felt bad for her when she closed her skirt across her legs.

“In Vere,” Laurent continued. “There is a festival in spring called Sucres and we celebrate all the sweet things in life. The chefs make sculptures from boiled sugar as intricate as a beehive.”

“Sounds sticky,” Jokaste said.

“The young ladies, who are looking for husbands or perhaps just to seduce one of their fellow ladies, dust powdered sugar right along their collar bones.” Laurent traced his collarbone, over his thick jacket, with his index finger. “If you're lucky, they allow you to lick it off.” Damen tasted phantom sugar on his tongue. Not licking his lips was difficult. “Pets, of course, dust it in more interesting places. May I?” With a quick glance around, Laurent ran his finger over Jokaste's collar bone as a castle-master would inspect the work of a cleaning maid and came away with the tip his finger coated in oil. “

Damen had a whole host of new fantasies to suppress. What was Laurent doing?

“Is there a point to this?” Jokaste asked.

“Just something to consider,” Laurent said, before turning his attention back to Damen. “You do like hearing about Veretian traditions, my curious barbarian.”

“Yes,” said Damen. “My mercurial serpent.”

“That's better than a hamster,” Laurent said.

“Here is my guess,” Jokaste said, exhaling like a bored school child. “You are both carrying secrets and that is why you play at finding others. Yours --” She pointed at Damen. “Is to do with pride and integrity and yours --” She pointed at Laurent. “Is to do with fear and shame. If I cared enough, I could find them out. But I care more about me, if I am completely honest, so I shall give you some answers for free. The king is afraid of getting old. Nikandros is more ambitious than you realise and Kastor is consumed with jealousy.”

“None of those things,” Laurent said, in that ultra-calm way that made Damen worry. “Are the surprises you think they are. I am quite sure you have been banking on Kastor's jealousy for a while now. You want Prince Damianos to escort you back inside to make his brother want you. If you can't be a queen, you'll settle for a bastard's whore.”

“Laurent,” Damen said.

“The good news is,” Laurent continued. “I admire your game playing. We shall both walk you inside. It may make everyone hate you, I'm afraid. We do look alike and the people vacillate daily over how they feel about me.”

“But it may,” Damen interjected. “Make your apparent value rise. You and Laurent do look alike. The men may find something appealing in that. We do fight, so perhaps the court will think we are quarrelling over you.”

“It's a gamble.” Laurent rose. “But I do like games.”

“Winners always do.” Jokaste allowed Laurent to take her hand. “What do I get from this other than the prospect of people thinking you two share me like you do your slaves?”

“The chance to make my brother jealous,” Damen said, offering his arm. “You want him to want you.”

“What do you get out of this?” she asked.

“Games,” Laurent said. “I'm sorry. I did not realise you were dense.”

It worked. Kastor wanted Jokaste more than ever, Damen could tell. It was a challenge now, as winning over the kyroi was a challenge to him. Kastor wanted to win something against his brother who won the biggest competition as an accident of birth.

“What do you get?” Laurent asked Damen as the feast wound down.

Damen thought, ensuring your reputation and being left alone and letting Kastor think he has won something that I wanted.

War. Seduction. Games. Sugar.

It was never about Jokaste. Everything was only ever about Damen and Laurent. The real prize, Damen knew, was the confirmation of Laurent's jealousy.

“Are you dense?” Damen asked. “I just wanted you to see it was a game.”