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One the Other

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“This one,” Laurent said in thick halting Akielon. “Is a slave from Patras. A gift from the princess for Prince Damianos.”

“What --” Damen wondered if his men would judge him if he shoved the slave back into the broken wagon. “I--” His mind was blank. Nothing. There was nothing there but shock. And then, from somewhere so deep it didn't register, laughter bubbled up inside him. “You --”

“Oh dear,” said Laurent, in Patran now. “Can this one do anything to alleviate the prince's brain troubles?”

“Stop.” Damen had to bite the inside of his cheek to stop himself laughing. This was not the time for games. “Sort this,” he said to the nearest soldier. “This one is coming with me to the front.”

“You are pleased with your Patran gift?” Laurent asked.

“I will murder my Patran gift if it doesn't stop parroting on.”

“Perhaps Patran slaves are less submissive than Akielons.”

“Perhaps they can't ride horses, either.” Revenge. Damen took the reins back from the apprentice who had taken them.

“Pillion.” Laurent shrugged. “Not ideal but acceptable.”

“Side-saddle,” Damen said. “Stop shrugging. You'll give yourself away. You're a gift of a slave? No-one would send me anything but a virgin. Front or back?”

“Back.” Laurent allowed Damen to help him up and slipped his arms tight around his waist. Closer was easier on the horse. He pressed his cheek to Damen's back. “It's good to see you again.”

“I wish I could say I felt otherwise. How long have you been back there?”

“A late arrival. It took a little time to the get hair right and tan my skin,” Laurent said, still speaking Patran. Damen hadn't even known Laurent could speak any Patran. Torveld. The slave gardens. Did Laurent do anything without ten different underlying reasons? “And to convince Jord and Lazar this was a good idea.”

“You didn't give them the slip?”

“Your food hasn't been worse than usual lately?”

“You're in Vere,” Damen said. “How does it feel?” Laurent did not respond. “If you wanted to get back so badly, to Acquitart or further, you should have just asked and I would have brought you.”

“I didn't. Not like that,” Laurent said. “I'm just...here. I can help you.”

“You shouldn't help me.”

“But you've helped me so much,” Laurent said. “And, honestly, I don't like that palace without you. Your brother wants to kill me and I'm quite sure Jokaste still wants to marry me.”

“He's meant to be looking out for you,” Damen said. “He probably has search parties out already.”

“I doubt that,” said Laurent. “Besides, this slave has heard Prince Laurent of Vere was sent to the summer palace for his own protection and to prevent any spying. A blond boy in fine clothes was seen in the company of the prince's personal harem en route. There, he is rumoured to have sequestered himself in a private room to pray for Vere's victory.”

“Do --” Never mind. Poor Erasmus. Damen hoped he would enjoy some pampering. “My father won't accept lies so easily.”

“I didn't see him.”

“If you have an ulterior motive, tell me now. If you lie, I'll return my gift.”

“I don't lie to you,” Laurent said. “I...it's not wrong to want to be part of things, is it? This is what my life should be all along.”

-

They made camp at dusk and the scouts brought news of a small Veretian camp relatively close by. Nothing big enough to be a threat. But enough to increase patrols and make the men jumpy. It wouldn't be long now. They were well in Veretian territory. Most likely, the Regent was drawing them in so they were too far gone to retreat when battles began. There was no point in sending a messenger. If the soldiers were any good, they would know they were there. They would fight or they would flee.

Damen listened to reports (the other companies had successfully acquired the strategic points Damen had instructed them to acquire.) Roads and fields and rivers and bridges. Back to Akielos. War in incremental chunks. The point was to stop the Regent gaining traction if he came at them from the west. But the meaning was the same. Everything they passed, they took. That was the point, too. Damen gave orders and praised slaves and men and finally retreated to his tent, where a blue-eyed false slave was waiting on his knees.

“Your form is good,” Damen said. “But there's too much fire in your eyes.”

“Some things you can't put out.” Laurent stayed on the ground while Damen sat on the large wooden chair left for him. War, for princes, meant there were at least four chairs grand enough for your status and large enough for your stature in the camp. “Shall I attend you, Exalted?”

Damen had dismissed his servants and squires for the night. His guard outside the door were chosen for their discretion and incompetence with languages. (An unkind man might say they struggled enough with their native tongue let alone a foreign language.)

Exalted. The effect was lessened, because of the Patran, but Damen still felt his head get a little light at Laurent's use of the honorific. He could only focus on the golden cuffs and collar, the kind only bedslaves wore, and that did not help him focus at all.

“No,” said Damen. “Unless you want to.”

Laurent rolled his eyes, rose from the ground, and shook off all the airs of slavery that had kept his body curled inward. He strode toward Damen and helped himself to a soft raisin bun on the table. There was a flicker of movement, then, at the flap of the tent. They both knew Laurent was standing proud over Damen in a way a slave never would.

Without blinking Laurent curled onto Damen's lap, slave soft again, as one last man came with reports for Damen. Pallas, actually. Laurent's old opponent and rising star of the Akielon army.

Damen received Pallas's report, which came direct from Makedon, and so was worthy of the interruption with Laurent's face pressed against his chest. The closeness was so familiar and so new that it was hard to take in the information. Once Pallas was gone, Laurent did not move.

“Comfy?” Damen asked.

“You're larger than most pallets.”

“About what I said on the steps...”

“You met this one in Delpha. It must have been someone else on the steps.”

“Yes, perhaps. He was not as pretty as you.” Damen's thumb brushed Laurent's lips. “Got a mouth like a harlot and a brain made of blades.”

“I hear all the men and women in the land want to fuck him.”

“I think they just like his hair.” Damen ran his fingers over the rough scalp where Laurent had shaved away his golden locks. “I love his hair.”

“Without it?”

“The eyes are pretty nice, too. Face. Body. The mind, though, it's a trap. ”

“There is no motive other than the one we share,” Laurent said.

“Victory for Akielos.”

“Justice.”

“I'm tired,” Damen said. “I haven't slept well on the road.”

“Imagine that,” said Laurent, smiling softly. The dark hair made his face his face a places of shadows. The golden prince reshaped into a wraith. “I wonder if I can't guess what's been missing.”

-

They sent the small Veretian force a warning which was really an invite to fight. The scouts, who were often really spies, reported dissension among the troops. They did not have a strong leader. For their sake, it made sense to retreat. Damen liked pushing them back but he did not like the thought of a massive army waiting once they got to the old border, which was really the real border and the new border.

Fighting was honourable. Maybe there was a shred of honour among these Delphan men who once had Akeilos in their hearts. They came to fight Damen's army. Unfortunately for them, they lost. The same thing was happening in spurts and flurries all through the province. That's how wars were permanently won. The little battles all added up.

“Congratulations,” Laurent said, flatly, when Damen returned to the tent. It was a new camp. Same tent. Same personal slave he had ordered to be guarded like a crown jewel. Damen had been grinning at some joke a guard made as he walked in. Victory did that – made you smile. But it was Veretian blood splatted on his leathers and skin and sword.

“I am sorry.”

“No, you're not.”

“Don't argue, slave.” Damen smiled, gently, but Laurent was in no mood to fall into that game. Who could blame him? If the roles were reversed, Damen would not be jolly. “Listen,” he said, “I can be sorry for this situation, for loss of life, and still want this. It's part of --”

“I don't care. Did you see the flags as we journeyed? Starbursts. I haven't seen one in so long.”

“Not even the cloak?”

“My view was...compromised,” Laurent responded. Damen divested himself of his weapons. His armour was outside with the squires. He just had to take off his soldier clothes. He could do it himself, but Laurent worked the straps free for him. Damen thought he probably just wanted something to do with his hands while he spoke. “I forgot what it felt like. To be loved, even in the abstract sense, and I liked it. That makes me weak, I know.”

“That's not weak,” Damen said.

“I want it back,” Laurent said. “Even if it makes rumours true, I want it back.”

“It's yours,” said Damen. That was the thing – he was doing all this to give it Laurent. Akielos would gain a province and Vere would lose one. Damen would lose...he hadn't the words for what he would lose.

Laurent would have his throne.

That's what mattered.

“Should I pretend to sleep while you're servants attend you?” Laurent changed the subject. “Maybe I can help.”

“That's not necessary.”

“What...what if I wanted to help?”

“You'd give yourself away.”

“If there was no-one else here, then.” Laurent pressed his lips together. “Send for water. I'm not sleeping beside you while you're filthy like that.”

When the water came, Damen planned on sluicing himself down and collapsing into bed. But Laurent had other ideas.

“Don't move,” he said. “Don't touch me.” He unwound the last layers of Damen's clothing and, starting at his shoulders, began to clean away the battle. Breathing was difficult. Laurent moved more boldly than real slaves. But he had the body language, averted eyes and gentle touches, all correct. “Don't worry yourself, either,” he said. “I chose this.”

“What should I call you?” Damen asked.

“Laurent is not that uncommon a name.” He poured warm water down Damen's back.

“You're the only one I know. Perhaps a shortened version. Laur? No, too similar. How about Runt?”

“Auguste used to call me that sometimes. He made it sound kind.” His hands were near Damen's buttocks now. Swiftly, he passed over them and worked on his legs.

“I'll keep thinking, so. How about...Lamen?”

“That's ridiculous. I'm embarrassed for you right now.”

“Lolo?”

“Sure, if I happened to be a clown.” Lauren was at Damen's ankles but Damen was feeling him everywhere. When he glanced down, he was struck by the wrongness of it all. A prince shouldn't be there. Even by choice. Damen could clean himself. So he sluiced the rest of the water, which had mercifully gone cold, over his front and roughly rubbed a towel over his body.

“Bed,” Damen said.

“Is that a command?”

“It's that or a pallet.”

“I can try harder,” Laurent said. “I'm actually quite good at pretend games.”

“I don't want you to pretend anything.”

-

Damen slept with Laurent in his arms and they pressed on in the morning. The scouts returned. The Veretian army was waiting for them.

It was time.

Damen didn't take part in the first battle. That was the plan, but as he wore tracks into the dirt beneath the war tent he couldn't remember why he had agreed to that. He was not a coward. But this was just the warm-up. Akielos won. His men returned triumphant. Pallas was so overjoyed with success he went all down the lines, right to the cooks, celebrating. Of course, it was just a warm up for Vere, too.

“Is he there? The Regent?” Damen asked only one question about the battle. He listened of course, to the reports of Veretian techniques and flaws.

“He did not fight, Exalted, and our spies did not see him.”

Damen went down the line to the cooks himself and hauled Jord away from pot-washing duties, away from the men, into the trees. They couldn't be overheard.

“Hello,” he said. “We haven't spoken in a while.”

“Nothing changes does it, though?” Jord looked around the war camp. “Tastes the same and smells the same, even if the tent fabric is different.”

“I know,” said Damen. Because he missed Nikandros and Kastor and Theomedes and, yes, there were seasoned men on this field but they didn't get things like he did. Marlas. Auguste. Haunting things. “You should know I can't guarantee your safety now, since you're not technically here. You know how men get in war. There's a soldier here somewhere who might lose a friend and here your accent.”

“I can look after myself.”

“You're meant to look after the prince.”

“He can, too.” Jord sighed. The whipping had made him bitter and Damen was nearly engulfed with regret for not seeking him out sooner. They had nearly been friendly, once, and the Aimeric thing had ended that. Damen didn't even know if Jord knew the truth of the matter. “But my loyalties remain.”

“Even after he made you whip your lover.”

“Lover? What's that? I had a quick fling with a traitor aristocrat.”

“You are sure he was a traitor.”

“Yes.”

“I have a mission for you,” Damen said. “You need to find out the Regent's whereabouts. And you need to be discreet.”

“He won't give you an advantage. There'll be a hundred decoys. The army is probably ripping retired men from their beds right now if they have the same build and the ability to grow a beard. I hardly ever saw him before all this. I was the lowest ranking of Prince Auguste's men.”

Damen considered that. “Actually, I have two missions. Find out who is still loyal to Auguste and who is to the Regent. Find out where he is is. I will reward you.”

“The first is the most doable.”

“I think,” Damen said, remembering awful confessions and Nikandros's report of his meeting with the Regent. “That there will be a boy with the Regent wherever he is. Young. Too young. He might even look like Aimeric.”

In the moonlight, Jord went bone white. “The only time I saw him in person was at court,” he said. “He had a pet who wasn't allowed go to the parties. He was too young. I'll get you your information.”

-

“I sent your guard Jord away,” Damen told Lauren in the privacy of his sleeping tent. “To spy.”

“He's not yours to send.”

“I thought we were past mine and yours,” Damen said. “Anyway, he's helping. Anyway, I'm tired. Lie down with me.”

“You don't look tired.”

“I'm tired in advance of all that's about to happen. There are so many people here, willing to die.”

“Well, I'm not and neither are you. They all feel the same.”

“It's going to get so much worse.”

“You are not alone,” Laurent said. “Remember that, too.” He stepped away from Damen to and began to straighten the cups on the side-table so they were all facing the same way. “I used to feel very alone,” he said. “Before us. When I was a boy, when the war started and my father and brother left and ...after, in Ios. I know what it is to feel alone better than you do. So, don't worry. I'm not going to let that happen to you.”

Damen had lots of things to say – that he was older and stronger and he didn't need a boy who was pretending to be a slave to look after him – but those sentences got swallowed back down every time he tried to get them past his lips.

“You are a gift,” he said.

“Yes.” Laurent offered a smile that was both coy and cheeky. “From Patras. Are you hungry? I hear that slaves in Akielos feed their masters. In Vere, it's the other way around.”

Images danced in Damen's head. Laurent with a pet. If he remained in Vere, surely he would have some pretty thing dancing attention on him. That was far as he would let himself think. The other possibilities were enough to make him dizzy. Laurent was playing. He liked games, especially when a game would further his personal goals.

“Have you eaten?” Laurent asked.

“Earlier. The stew was over-salted.”

“These pears are perfectly ripened.” Laurent speared one with a small paring knife and offered it to Damen. “Would you like one?”

“Why not?” Damen aimed for casual, princely, masterful. All the things he should be. But at best, his words sounded goofy and at worst like a particularly irksome brat. He was no great actor. But he was not immune to games so he smiled and sat back against his headboard with his hands behind his head. A signal. Laurent was just as likely as to drop the the sticky pear onto his chest as feed him.

But Damen wasn't really surprised when Laurent deftly sliced away a morsel of the pear and held to his mouth on the blade of the knife.

“Slaves in Akielos use their hands,” Damen said.

“This one is not worthy.”

“You are too good, you mean.”

Laurent fed himself a slice of pear and then, with his slender fingers, offered a sticky chunk of pear to Damen by pressing it right to his lips. The fruit was fresh and sweet against his tongue, like a first taste of something forbidden, and since they were still playing and Damen was a prince, he took the delicious liberty of swiping his tongue against the tips of Laurent's finger, where the juice had left its trace.

“All right. That's enough.” said Laurent. “Even animals can feed themselves.”
-

Damen led the next charge. His men fought bravely. Their lines held strong against wave after wave of Veretian boy soldiers. Even if they were men, they were all boys once. He wanted to call out alien commands like don't try to kill them but that's not how battles worked. You had to let the training take over. You had to make it impersonal. You had to win.

When he went back to his tent, he couldn't speak to Laurent. He normally was the one doing the holding, but somehow his head wound up pressed against Laurent's chest and he had to keep telling himself it was worth it and when he felt Laurent's heartbeat in his ears, it felt like it was.

The pressed on. They won the next battle. And the next. All along Delpha, Damen's men were winning. It wasn't part of the plan but Nikandros took Ravenel. An impenetrable Veretian fort. Damen was as jealous as he had been when Nikandros went to the Kingsmeet to serve. His father said Akielos would never take a fort like that. But when the battle was over, it was there for the taking.

“He doesn't care about any of them,” Laurent said. “That's the difference. He will throw every person in Vere at you to get what he wants.”

“He'll be the only one left,” Damen said. He hated the taste of the words. The truth of them. “We have losses, too. Injuries. I want it done.”

He had one more trick up his sleeve. It was not an Akielon tactic. The Regent wouldn't predict it. Damen would not choose to do it, except there was actually very little he wouldn't do to put his blade through the Regent's throat. He didn't even tell Laurent but that was a private kindness.

In the dark, like a coward, he had the Veretian horses poisoned. All of them. All their water and food. Perhaps some men, too. Collateral damage. The Regent would have to treat now. He couldn't send footsoldiers to fight mounted men. Treat. Get close enough for Damen to kill him. Get it done.

“Where were you?” Laurent asked, sleepily and painfully boyish, when Damen came back to the tent.

“You don't want to know.”

“I only ask questions I want answers to.”

“We've poisoned the horses,” Damen admitted. “All of them.”

Laurent pressed his hand to his mouth like he was keeping loud words inside. Slaves couldn't shout. The guard were right outside. Not that he needed to speak. Damen saw the horror in his eyes.

“You think I hate you,” he said. “But you're going to hate yourself tomorrow.”

-

Tomorrow, the Regent sent footsoldiers to fight mounted men. Damen saw them quiver like an archer's string. He saw piss leak from armour. Slender, smaller Veretian men sent to fight barbarians on horseback. They held the lines. The arrows flew. It was like putting your knife through butter on a hot summer's day.

“Fall back,” he shouted, in Veretian, across the no-man's land. “You can't win this.”

But whatever was waiting for them at home was worse. They held their lines, too.

“Dismount,” he instructed his men. “We are men. We fight like men.”

Hand to hand, foot to foot, Damen's squad still won. It was different with your feet on the ground. You remembered you were a person, not just a soldier. You remembered the ants. He lost more men than ever before but it was a drop in the ocean compared to the Veretian losses.

“Do you want to hear something you're not going to like?” Laurent asked, back in the tent, while he stripped Damen of his armour and wiped the sweat from his brow. He tutted at the graze on Damen's forearm and held a cold stone to the ache in his lower back. “Remember, Akielons don't mistreat their slaves.”

“Go on.”

“I stole a dead soldier's uniform and snuck to the other side.”

Damen went very still. Akielons did not mistreat slaves. So he wouldn't shout at Laurent. But that was never the point. The thought of Laurent across the enemy lines, unprotected, had turned him to ice.

Damen said. “They're your people.”

“I had to see for myself.”

“Your uncle?”

Laurent went still. He stopped attending Damen. He even stopped breathing.

“The horses,” he said. “There were so many. A sea of dead horses. Sweat dried white like the tip of a wave. Flies buzzing. Birds circling.They can't even use them for meat.”

Damen had to sit. He sank onto the edge of his bed and like a mirror image, Laurent sank too, except he was on his knees on the floor. Then Damen forgot how to be angry. He had probably forgotten once the battle was over. Because Laurent was on his knees, in front of him, and it wasn't like that because Laurent buried his face against Damen's lap and Damen could feel tears soak through his clothes.

He hadn't the strength to gather Laurent into his arms nor the words to make any of this better. So he looked at nothing and rubbed Laurent's head and let him cry.

“See?” Laurent choked. “I am so weak. It changed....it's ...I didn't see it before. And that's not even the thing you won't want to hear.”

“Believe me, it is.”

“I know the Veretian army,” he said. “The men they've sent so far aren't the first choices, the ones you send to win and then you send the weaklings. They are the weaklings. The men beyond the lines are strong and capable. The war has hardly begun.”

“Yes,” said Damen. “I thought that was the case. I'm calling our reinforcements.”

He didn't want to leave the bed, the tent or Laurent but the messages had to be sent and he was the only one with the codewords. He sent dozens of men, good men, knowing that they would count it a win if one got the messages through. There was no battle highs this night. There was just tiredness and contemplation in the camp. Then, ahead, a flurry of activity that had Damen's sword drawn and his feet moving. A red sigil. A riderless horse. Perhaps, if he let himself hope, the opportunity to treat.

The arrival of the horse sent a shockwave through the camp. The memory of the fire would never be quenched. Damen's men had caught it by its loose reins and they all stood around and stared. It was fine horse. Too fine for battle. The kind of glossy, elegant horse nobles trotted around castles on. There was no note. If it was message, Damen couldn't parse it.

“An escapee,” guessed a guard. “Perhaps it missed the poison.”

“Perhaps it is the poison. Don't touch it.”

Damen saw it then, too late, because Laurent back in the guise of a Patran slave had joined the fray. A flash of red around the horse's neck. A ruby necklace. That was the message.

“He knows I am here,” Laurent said. “That used to be my horse.”