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Damen always woke up early. Bright Ios mornings and a lifetime of training did that to a person. He had a strange sleep where he was restful and restless. When his eyes opened, he smiled to see that Laurent was indeed still there. He was awake, too, lying still and looking like perhaps he might bolt from the bed at any second.

“You stayed,” Damen said.

“You asked,” Laurent said. “I'm starting to regret it. You've got worse breath than a diseased donkey.” Damen smiled and breathed all over Laurent's face until he squirmed and he smiled through his displeasure. “Animal,” Laurent said.

“May I?” Damen asked, then he brushed some hair out of Laurent's eyes. “Better,” he said and Laurent, oddly shy, looked away.

“You never dawdle in bed.”

“You're normally gone in the morning. I'm a social creature, I think. And I’ve got a long day of war talk ahead of me. I prefer it here.”

“Me or a war-room full of ageing kyroi. I'm so flattered.”

“Laurent,” Damen said. “About last night..”

“No good conversation ever started that way. It's fine,” he said. “It's daylight. That was darkness and --”

“Don't interrupt me.”

“You don't outrank me.”

“I'm afraid I do. This my country,” Damen said. “Listen, I don't want to push you. I know that I am not what you want and this is not where you want to be --”

“You really don't know anything, you donkey.”

“Laurent, stop. I just...I want to say that you can talk about things with me if --”

“No. I have to interrupt you. Whatever things you mean have no place here. I'm not some innocent who needs a guiding hand through life,” Laurent said. “I'm a person like you. I'm a man like you. Fine, I may have some .. unusual circumstances in my past but, really, it wasn't that bad.”

“Not that bad? What would be worse than --”

“I got out,” Laurent said, in a voice that would heed no argument. “Don't you see? I got to leave. You brought me here and showed me another life. I was young, perhaps too young to really understand, or for the scars to go that deep. Can you imagine how different things could be? I do. A lot. If you hadn't been at the stream both my brother and I would be dead. If you hadn't brought me here, I would have been alone in Vere. With my uncle. My brother and my father loved me. They protected me until the war. It wasn't that bad. It wasn't that many times. And I am more than that.”

“Oh,” said Damen.

“Oh?”

“Yes, oh. I am hearing you. I understand.”

“Hear this,” Laurent continued. “I am more than what happened to me years ago. I have a whole life that does not include that. It was just a few ...It doesn't matter the way you think it does. I appreciate your noble intentions but they can stop now. Please, can they stop now?”

Damen heard him. He absorbed the words; let them soak into the mechanics of his mind.

“All right,” he said. “Come here.”

“I--”

“You're too far away. Just let me hold you for a few more minutes.”

Laurent slid closer, under Damen's outstretched arm, and put his head on Damen's chest. He almost seemed to relax. Until there was a knock on the door.

“Stay,” Damen said. And Laurent did, while one of Damen's servants came in.

“Excuse me, Exalted,” he said. “Nikandros is demanding entry.”

“Let him in then.” Damen had insisted on very tight controls of who entered his apartments. But they did not apply to Nikandros. “Laurent, don't--” But Laurent was already disentangling himself. He did not, however, leave the bed. Games. Progress. Maybe just that getting out from under the sheets would lead to more embarrassment than staying under them.

“Damen!” Nikandros bellowed. “Do you want to – oh.”

“Hello,” Laurent said.

“I cannot keep up,” Nikandros said. Damen took a second to enjoy the confusion.

“It's simple,” said Laurent. “People keep trying to kill me. What better guard dog is there than Damianos of Akielos?”

“In Akielos, we don't call our crown prince a dog,” Nikandros said.

“He doesn't mind it,” Laurent replied, then looked at Damen. “Remember the leash?”

“Play nice,” Damen warned. He had no shyness about getting out bed. “We're going to have breakfast here. Laurent, when you slink off to get your robe tell the servant to send enough for three.”

“I only came to ask you to go to the baths before the meetings,” Nikandros said.

“I want to train first,” Damen said. “But, yes, we will.”

“We?”

“Don't push me, Nikandros.”
They had breakfast. Laurent was mostly polite and Damen mostly found his sarcastic remarks funny anyway. Nikandros wavered openly between finding them funny, too, and then holding himself back. Laurent excused himself to 'work' while Nikandros and Damen did some basic sword drills and then some weights because they still showed off to each other. Work could mean Laurent napping, over-seeing his puzzle empire, barking orders at tailors or tending to the well-being of the palace slaves. Nikandros thought it meant filling Vere in on Damen's plans for war.

“It doesn't,” Damen said.

“And you know this...”

“I know him. I trust him on this matter.” Every matter, really.

After training, bathing.

Damen was only slightly surprised that Laurent was there before him. The water was clear. The attendants they usually dismissed waited by the walls. Laurent kept up a steady stream of chat about improving standards in the stables while Nikandros and Damen made their way to the water. He talked more, when he was nervous. But he had asked, basically, to be treated like a man and that meant casual bathing with friends.

Still, Damen sat between Laurent and Nikandros like a barrier. It's not that he was jealous. He just wanted Laurent to be more comfortable while he soaked in clear water and opined about the best horse feed. Nikandros also had opinions about horse feed. It was not, for Damen, the most scintillating conversation but he was pleased it was happening. He was also pleased about his seating choice when Kastor strolled in, too.

“Ah,” Kastor said. “I almost feel like I should be jealous. Here you all are.”

“Join us,” Damen said, shifting closer to Laurent. “And I think you have no reason to be jealous. How's Jokaste?”

Kastor smirked. “Sleeping.”

“So late? How lazy,” Laurent said.

“She is tired,” Kastor said. “Not that it's any of your business.”

“From listening to you complain?”

“Play nice,” Damen said, again. “It may be a long time before we're all together again.”

“Because we all four spend so much time together currently?” Laurent asked.

“Enough,” Damen said. Games. Wars. Excluding his father, these were the three most important men in his life. He was allowed to appreciate these moments.

“Sorry,” Laurent said, in Veretian, a word simple enough the less fluent Kastor and Nikandros to understand.

“Anyway,” said Kastor. “Laurent and I might finally get to know each other now you're not here, Damen.”

“Are you staying?” Nikandros asked. They would all soon go to the Kingsmeet and then to North to seal Akielos's fate.

“Yes. Father asked me to. We're hardly going to leave the palace wide open to the Prince of Vere,” Kastor said. “And I have other ... interests here now.”

“Interests,” Damen said. “So much for duty. Please remember your duty to keep Prince Laurent safe in my absence.”

“I think he can fend for himself,” Kastor said.

“Are there baths like this in Vere?” Nikandros asked Laurent. Ever the peacekeeper.

“They are not so plain,” Laurent said. “And the water springs from a natural place in the ground. But, yes, a bath is a bath.”

“Did you go to them with your brother?” Kastor asked. Damen clenched his fists beneath the water.

“As you are now? Yes,” said Laurent. “My father. The court. Even my uncle. You can write and ask him about it.”

“Why would I write to the Regent?”

“You seem very acquainted with what he was to say,” Laurent replied. “Although, really, my uncle didn't spend much time in Arles before he became regent. Looking back, I don't think my father approved of him very much. So it was me, Auguste, soldiers, our father, councillors and courtiers in the baths at various times. Scandalising stuff. So different to Akielos.”

“Nikandros,” Damen said. “Remember when you were...oh, fifteen, sixteen? Home from the Kingsmeet for the festivals and --”

“I drank too much --”

“And took too many drugs,” Kastor interjected.

“I didn't know that at the time,” Nikandros said.

“What happened?” Laurent asked. So Damen gladly recounted the time Nikandros was drunk, high and allowed to bathe with the king and the kyroi for the first time. It did not reflect well on Nikandros. Then Laurent contributed a colourful version of Auguste and Vaskian women, without ever naming his brother, and mostly focusing on the how he had to carry him home in the morning and the baths were such a happy place it was hard for Damen to believe had a war to plan.

-

War planning was difficult. Even with the ground work long laid, Damen had to over see logistics and technicalities. A taste of kingship. All these decisions. All these lives. It was confidential so Theomedes said none of the documents could leave the meeting rooms. But once Theomedes was gone, Damen would take them to his rooms and Laurent would look over his shoulder and point out potential dangers and discrepencies.

“Have you told your uncle?” Damen asked him.

“We are not currently in contact. He will hear nothing from me.”

“Just, I would understand if you had to tell them some things. For later.”

“I have not.” Laurent was standing over Damen at his desk. Then, his hands were on the back of Damen's neck, not rubbing, not really, but not still either. “You won't be able to lead armies if your muscles are damaged from hunching like a primate. Posture is very important, you know.”

“Yes, sir,” Damen teased, straightening his back.

“You're tense.”

“We will probably go to the Kingsmeet tomorrow.”

“Should I call for a slave?” Laurent teased, now.

“Don't even think about it,” Damen warned. “Unless you want to for yourself. Is Kallias craving like poor Erasmus?”

“Kallias was trained for Kastor. So he is definitely not,” Laurent replied.

“And you?”

“I don't want Kallias.” Laurent had stopped the movement on Damen's neck. His hand went to the front of Damen's throat like the ghost of a collar, a mark of ownership maybe.

“What do you want?”

“I--” Laurent said. “I don't know.”

“Do you want to come?”

“I am a man.”

“So, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Go to the bed,” Damen said. “Take off your robe. Let me hold you.”

“I'm not the one who is so tense,” Laurent said. But the robe was sliding off his slender shoulders and his feet were moving to the bed. “You can keep your eyes open this time, if you want.”

“I want --” Damen stopped himself. He wanted more than was fair to take on the eve of war. He shed his chiton. He let Laurent see his want. “Will you say my name this time?”

“No.”

“I might say yours.”

“Good.” Laurent levelled a contemplative look at Damen. “Do you want me to instruct you?”

“That's not necessary.”

“You never make yourself come. You have a constant stream of lovers between these sheets.” Laurent slipped under said sheets. Damen kicked them down to the bottom of the bed. Laurent had agreed, after all. He had shown Damen his exquisitely shaped body, the flawless skin and the lean muscles, in the baths before. Damen didn't look but he saw. Now, Laurent was flushing pink all over and he was stroking himself to hardness between his elegant white hand. His cock was just as appealing as the rest of him. Damen felt oafish and clumsy, blindly fisting his own cock without any finesse or technique.

“Not so much these days,” Damen said. “You're here.”

“So I am,” said Laurent. His eyes were on Damen, on the rhythmless movement of his hand. “Slower,” he said. “Press your thumb into the slit.”

“I think --” Damen said.

“Don't think,” Laurent interrupted. “Don't think. Just feel. I feel everything. There.” He licked his lips. “Like that. Just like that.” Damen watched Laurent. He copied Laurent's movements, as frustratingly slow and austere as they were. Laurent watched him. Mirror images.

“I do think,” Damen said. “I think about you. How it could be--”

“Don't,” said Laurent. “You're leaving tomorrow. Don't tease me.”

“You're unimaginable,” Damen said. He had to talk, had to let the words out, or he would lose his mind. It was like that for him. He wasn't as good at holding himself back as Laurent. “Don't give me that look. You are. You're the most beautiful person I will ever know. All laced up in your fancy coats, now, naked, leaking onto your own hand.”

Laurent's breath stuttered. His muscles contracted. He liked this, Damen realised. He kept talking. He told Laurent how pleasing his body was, how perfectly suited to him his cock was, how he wanted nothing more than to see him come for him.

“For you?” Laurent looked Damen straight in the eye. Was that the wrong thing to say? Damen didn't know.

“For me.”

Laurent did. He came, with a little sigh, and a screwed up face and seed dripping through his fingers. It was too much for Damen. He reached out, driven past reason, took Laurent's sticky hand in his and used the other to pump himself to completion. It shouldn't have been so strong for him. Boyish masturbating stopped being exciting ten years ago. He had so many more experiences since.

But it was so strong, his mind was gone to pieces. To share something so simple with Laurent. To start at the beginning of experience and experimentation. For Laurent to let him see that.

“Are you trying to glue us together?” Laurent asked, a note of amusement in his voice. Damen was still gripping Laurent's hand, come cooling between them.

“There's an idea,” Damen said. But he remembered what Laurent liked and let him go so he could clean himself and then Laurent towelled down Damen's skin. “You're so sweet,” Damen said.

“Fuck off,” said Laurent, smiling. “I am poison. You said it yourself.”

“I did? Oh, to Kastor. Don't pay any heed of what I say to him.” Damen grabbed Laurent's forearm and pulled him half on top of him. “You're rather petite, too. Luckily. We can lie like this quite comfortably.”

“I am above average height and have several more years to grow. Also, you are massive. There's no comparison.”

“Grow?” Damen fiddled with Laurent's hair. “I like how you grow.”

“You confuse me so much,” Laurent said. “You say Veretians are twisted but I can't make sense of anything you say.”

“ So ask me.”

“You hold me and act like you care--”

“It's not an act.”

“When you have never even given me leave to call you by your name.”

The breath left Damen's lungs. Words died on his lips and his heart gave a very peculiar sort of quiver. A million conversations, a thousand occasions came back to him. Had Laurent been waiting all this time to be told what Damen thought he knew? He recalled Laurent trying to get his attention down at the port, in training, talking about him in front of other people, throwing colourful insults his way.

“Before I even knew my own name,” Damen said, carefully. “The whole country did. Laurent, I am sorry. I didn't realise. You've never needed my permission.”

“In Vere, we don't just call royalty by their first names without being told.”

“This is Akielos,” Damen smoothed Laurent's hair. He tipped his chin up so he could see his blue eyes. “You could have just called me Exalted.”

“Again, I say, fuck off.”

“The people call me Damianos, the king's son. When I was a little boy, Kastor and my father called me Damen. It's reserved, really, for intimates.”

“I've heard it.”

“You can call me Damen,” he said. “When I asked you if you would say my name when you came, that's what I imagined.”

“Damen.” Laurent's accent made it sound different to the way anyone else had ever said it. Lyrical. Sensual. He spoke like his early days in Akielos, when he still called the country Achelos, and Damen used to think his tongue was too pointy for their language. “I'll consider it,” he said, sounding every inch the prince. “Damen. Damianos.”

“Stop. You're getting me worked up again.”

“Egotistical brute.”

“Poisonous snake,” Damen replied and hugged Laurent as tight as he could. Words fought to be freed from his brain. His throat tightened for want of speaking. His lips begged to touch Laurent's. But Laurent closed his eyes and kind of nuzzled against Damen's chest. He looked so content, so peaceful, perhaps the most peaceful Damen had ever seen and Damen just couldn't do anything to disturb that.

-

 

Damen planned as much as he could and after that he had to trust that the training and the ranks and the army's devotion of Akielos would be enough to make everything work. War was no simple thing. Just getting everyone where they were meant to be was complicated. If Damen had his way, he would have ridden ahead with just a few men and some fast horses and overseen everything up North.

But Damen was the crown prince and this was his war, so before it started, he had to go to the Kingsmeet and swear on the sacred stones. Ios was thronged. All the people wanted to catch a glimpse of Theomedes, Damianos and the various kyroi as they departed the capital. There was an expectation that the people would be introduced to their new kyros of Ios but war took precedent. So they just...looked. From the top of the steps, Damen couldn't make out any of their faces.

Kastor and Laurent had come to see them off. Protocol. Kastor bowed to their father and nodded to Damen. For brothers, an embrace would be acceptable but apparently they weren't those kinds of brothers any more. Anyway, Kastor had Jokaste on his arm. The people wanted to see her, too. It was time on of the king's sons continued the line. Kastor was older than Damen. A bastard heir was better than no heir at all.

If Damen didn't come back from war, the throne would not lie empty.

He allowed Jokaste, still entwined with Kastor, to kiss his cheek. Jokaste was the daughter of a minor lord from Aegina. Her father hadn't the funds to come to the games. He probably called in every favour he had with the kyros to get him to present his daughter. For Jokaste, a match with Kastor was a high leap indeed.

“Thank you,” she said.

“It's just a kiss,” he replied and turned to Laurent. Of course, they'd said a goodbye of sorts in private. Damen had left him many times before and Laurent was not prone to needless sentiment. But, still, he wished for privacy. An embrace would not be acceptable, not when Damen was off to start a war on Laurent's county. He had to wait while Laurent said goodbye to the kyroi and his father. Damen could no longer keep track of who loved and hated the Prince of Vere. He thought, perhaps, now that war was declared they had all began to pity him.

What was acceptable?

Laurent was the picture of princely decorum, head held high and the rarely worn gold circlet gleaming on his head. He'd already gone down the steps and handed out a few puzzles, so Damen was not the only one looking on him with adoration.

Masked adoration, rather. His father was here. Kastor. Laurent said that it did no good for people to know what you care about. They'd only hold it against you. But Damen thought that maybe if all of Ios knew how much he, the strong crown prince, felt for Laurent they would all band together to keep him safe in his absence.

“Try not to die,” Laurent said, acerbic as a lemon, which wasn't so bad because that reminded Damen of his hair.

“Try not to kill anyone,” Damen replied. Then, he raised his hand as Laurent had done once. Protocol. A perfectly acceptable way for two princes to touch. For a moment, Laurent did not move and Damen worried he would leave him standing like a fool but then Laurent copied him. Mirror images. Damen had stood on a lower step so it was possible for to look into each other's eyes without anyone straining their neck. Palms touched. Fingers entwined. Wordlessly, Laurent stared at Damen.

Politically, it made sense for the future. Damen was showing all these people, kyroi and commoners, our quarrel is with the Regent of Vere not this golden boy.

Really, he just wanted to touch Laurent one more time.

“I should,” Damen began. He should go. He should let go. Instead, he dropped his voice and though no-one was close enough to hear he switched his language. “I'm sorry,” he said. “I should have kissed you when I had the chance.”

Laurent did not react except for Damen could feel his pulse quicken where their hands touched.

“Don't believe what you hear up there,” Laurent blurted, then looked around quickly. He composed himself. “Good luck,” he said. “Damianos.”

-

It wasn't a long journey to the Kingsmeet but it felt like it to Damen. Ceremony and protocols. What a waste of time. The point was, of course, to make the war feel so true and proper to the kyroi and the people that they could nearly believe it was written in their destiny all along. Also, though he didn't say it aloud, Theomedes arranged this so if things went badly again the blame would be absolved. There was no faith more powerful than the ancient right of the kings. If it began here at the Kingsmeet and the kyroi all swore on it at the Kingsmeet, then whatever happened was the thing that was meant to happen.

It seemed a little contradictory to pledge a war in place of immense peace but Damen kept his mouth shut. He sat in the hallowed hall while kyroi and generals bowed to him and pledged their devotion to his crown and his cause.

“It's probably best Kastor stayed behind,” Nikandros said, as he rose. He was one of the last people to approach, because his status was relatively low. “He would possibly break the ancient laws if he saw you like this.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just..you know how it bothers him to see you take control. A reminder of what he will never have.”

Kastor was moody, sure. But he had made his peace with Damen's inheritance. He was nine when Damen was born. Children just accepted things. Theomedes was still king and would be for quite a while yet. The people bowed to him before Theomedes directed them to Damen. It was natural for things to happen like this. Damen couldn't, after all, just pop up from behind his father when he died and take over. It was a gradual thing.

“I am sure he is fine,” Damen replied, as his father gave him a look to hurry them along. There were a couple of minor lords waiting to take the pledge.

“Don't be sure,” Nikandros said, bowing once more before he left. Damen sat while the men that lead his country bowed at his feet and felt rather like a child trying on his father's clothes. The pledges were made. The scrolls were signed. The appropriate respect was paid. Then, Theomedes raised a toast. To Akielos. To the crown. The best wine was for him. Kastor had sent it as a gift, since he could not be here in person.

-
Damen wished there was some device that could get him to the front lines of the battle that hadn't started yet in the blink of an eye. The world didn't work like that. It was eight, nine days to the North. Longer, perhaps, with the size of the caravan they were travelling in. Supplies. Soldiers. Slaves. It snaked through Akielos – gaining men along the way, sending others off to take their assigned positions – with Damen at the head.

His own head didn't get to go to that mental space where he focused on nothing but movement. He had to work – oversee and listen and talk and, to his bewilderment, a scribe to track all his movements who rode pillion with a very irritated guard. Someday, the scribe said, epics would be written about the glory of Prince Damianos.

Damen, saddlesore and stinking and desperately missing his white bed and his blond bedfellow, simply snorted.

He also made sure his personal guard watched the scribe at all times. In case of spying. He had the whole troop on red alert for spies, rats and infiltrators. The Regent could be anywhere. He was already under Damen's skin.

Damen was counting on winning the battles. That was a given. Once the Veretian army came down south, his armies were ready to come at them from every direction. If they came east, he was ready for that too. Don't break the lines. Follow the command. Fight. Fight. Fight. His army was steady, strong and ready. They had to be good enough to being the Regent out from behind his forts so Damen could kill him.

It had to happen. He and Laurent had already put out the rumours that Theomedes was keeping him hostage in Ios now. Theomedes ruled by strength and so would overlook that particular dishonour. But Vere would not take kindly to a prince who sat out a war, so it had to be over quickly.

After, Akielos would have Delpha and Laurent would have his throne.

Damen would have....victory.

That was something.

And a friend in Vere who wanted peace. The end of fighting. Maybe, if it was appropriate, Damen could visit Laurent in Arles to foster harmony between their kingdoms. After. So much could happen after.

“Sol for your thoughts?” Nikandros pulled his horse alongside Damen and, thankfully, pushed the scribe and the guards back a little. “We have a few more days on the road. Too much time for thinking.”

“You don't want to know.”

“If it's a blond kryos-killer, maybe not.”

“Do you really think Kastor is so envious of me?”

“I do,” Nikandros said. “I know it pains you to hear it but it is true, Damen. You need to be warier of him.”

“Envy is just a feeling. It doesn't mean he would ever do anything.”

“What other reason is there to do anything?” Nikandros asked. Damen had answers – duty, honour, family, duty, love – but he couldn't get them past his lips. He acted because of all those things, certainly. He did not act when he wanted to because of those things. But here he was, marching men to war, and all he was feeling was wanting to kill the Regent. “We're leaving soon, my men and I,” Nikandros continued.

“My father's wishes.” Damen had wanted Nikandros to fight by his side but Theomedes said, due to his strength as a leader, they should split and Nikandros could support him from behind if need be.

“It makes sense. I'm not the fighter I used to be. I'll serve you better from the wings.”

“I suppose,” Damen said. “But if I send for you --”

“I'll be there.”

-

Camps. Riding. Monotony. Nikandros left. The men, strong trustworthy men, who remained were Damen's loyal soldiers. They were not his friends. Even when he was friendly, they were skittery. Aristocrats like the boy Pallas Laurent had beaten at the academy, who should have been accustomed to the company of royalty, were so busy behaving they forgot how to be.

They passed easily through Sicyon, into Delpha. They were expected. Some had fled. Those who remained posed no threat. The meat of the fighting would be, as Damen hoped, in the north-east, where they would have their reinforcements waiting. In the five years since Marlas, the army had swelled like the wildest wave. They were hungry, strong, ready. There were so many of them, Vere hadn't a chance. Empty villages. Fertile fields. Here and there, Damen caught a glimpse of the sunburst flag and it made his insides clench. There were people who were loyal to Laurent. People who loved their golden prince. People who hadn't bowed to the Regent. That was good. Except Damen had chased them right to the Regents stronghold. Maybe they would love him, if he fed them and kept their babies alive. Maybe they would hate Laurent for not being here.

In the heart of Delpha, Damen felt a ripple in the ranks behind him. An attack? Already. It was not his way. Battles were fought on battlefields not on the move. But they were prepared for this. Rogue Vaskians. Sly Veretians. It didn't matter. Hold the lines. Do your job. Push them back.

An outrider kicked up dirt to give Damen the report.

“Exalted,” he said, breathless. “Nothing to trouble you. It's at the very back of the caravan.”

The slaves were at the very back of the caravan.

Damen was in another place, just for a moment, where the smell of raw flesh pricked his nostrils. Then another, with the lovely Erasmus on his knees for him.

Nothing.

They were not nothing.

“Take over,” Damen said to his captain. “Pallas, you're second.” He broke his rules. He broke the lines and galloped like a scout in the wrong direction, back to the end of the line. The outrider remained. He would be rewarded. He shouted at Damen what had happened – a small squad of Veretian men, perhaps border guards, had cut off one slave wagon from the group. They was some confusion among the next column, for they were only horsehands and messengers and cooks, and definitely not fighters and they were afraid to break Prince Damianos's orders to hold the lines, always keep moving. Damen gestured for a squadron to leave the formation and follow him back. It was just as the outrider had said, separate from the caravan, a slave wagon was surrounded by a small group of Veretian soldiers.

The wagon was still closed. As Damen flew forward, he could see the men were making some kind of sport out of shaking it back and forth.

One man, presumably a Veretian commander, rode towards Damen.

“Slaves are valuable, I hear. Will you ransom?”

“Not with you.” Damen drove his sword through the man without stopping. The others stopped playing. Not that it mattered. He took down three before his men behind took down the rest.

“Exalted, will we take prisoners?”

There weren't exactly many men left to take.

“One, for information,” Damen said. “No ransom. Signal the scouts. Check the woods to see if there are more. Throw the bodies into the trees.”

It wasn't much of a fight. The Veretians were easily destroyed and Damen waited, alert, in case of more men and for the bodies to be removed before he approached the wagon's door. There was, to his surprise, one Veretian soldier skewered through the slats on the door with his own blade. Damen dragged the body off the sword and tossed it on the pile. The riders returned. No more men.

“This is Damianos, the king's son,” he called, as he slid across the latch. “The danger is gone. Do not be afraid.”

He opened the door and the slaves were all on their knees. Except for one, at the very back of the wagon. He just bowed his dark head. Well, it was cramped and they were shaken.

“Come out,” he said, offering his own hand to help them and seeing the flood of conflict among them to accept help from the prince when they should be the ones assisting him. These were the loveliest of slaves – trained for bedding and bathing and perhaps to serve him at dinner if there would ever be that kind of dinner during war. All the way from the palace just in case Damianos wanted someone to pop grapes into his mouth.

It was his duty to help them, to make them feel safe, to mutter small reassurances about their looks and their obedience and their graceful service as they emerged.

The last one out was the one who didn't kneel. He had oak-dark hair shorn short around the sides and longer on the top to cover his face. The slave took Damen's offered hand without any hesitation or awe as the other slaves would. He raised his head, a movement extrinsic to any slave, and Damen found himself looking into a pair of piercing blue eyes.

“Laurent,” Damen said. “What have you done to your hair?”