His father was sick. He was almost home but his father was sick. His father was sick enough to call him back from war. No matter what way Damen looked at it, there was nothing good about this situation. The victories at Delpha shrank to nothing. The familiar sight of the palace on the cliffs did not warm his heart as it usually did.
“It will be all right,” said Laurent, who was still pretending to be a poorly-trained Patran slave, as they approached the palace. He had said it so many times on the long journey home, the words had lost all meaning. The only other thing he did, beside serve Damen as a slave would and growl like a slave never would at anyone who dared approach them, was chatter nonsense as they travelled. He had read a lot of books, heard a lot of gossip, and witnessed more scandal before the age of thirteen than most Akielons would in their whole lives.
“We don't know that,” Damen answered, still speaking Patran. “You thought your father and your brother would be all right and look what happened.”
Laurent flinched. “That was different. It was so quick. And Paschal is an excellent physician.”
“We have plenty of physicians in Ios.”
“A second opinion never hurts.” They were too close to the palace and the bustle of the traders and the travellers to say much more. It would not serve in Laurent's favour to say any more here. He might be recognised. And if his suspicions were correct, well people would be very angry at the Veretian prince, who as far as anyone knew, had been in the country this whole time.
Laurent was quite convinced Theomedes had been poisoned. His uncle plans for everything, he said. Nothing like the death of a king to disrupt the war effort and it did always suit his plans to have instability rather than the end to fighting.
Damen was less inclined to believe Laurent's suspicions. No-one would get close enough to the king to make him sick. He had tasters and servants and countless trusted guards. When Laurent had first broached the subject, in a dank inn in Mellos where they had snatched four hours of sleep while a storm raged outside, Damen had ordered him away as if he was really a slave.
“You can't come in with me in disguise,” Damen said, rather than argue again.
“I don't want to see you again until that dye is gone from your hair and those cuffs are gone from your body.”
“You won't,” Laurent said and with no more than a curt nod, melted away with Lazar and Jord.
Damen supposed there was a servant entrance they would use to re-enter the palace. He didn't think too much about it because the sentries and the townspeople were noticing his arrival. Prince Damianos, who had led their army to victory and taken back their land in the north, was home and there was much celebrations to be had. Because he was prince and they loved him, Damen held his reins in one hand and used the other to touch the hands and heads that thronged towards him. He absorbed their praise and the joy like it was the current to take him on the last push home. Inside he was thinking, the king is sick. How can you celebrate?
But he accepted the adoration and even caught himself smiling at one small boy, no more than seven, who marched along beside his guards as if he was one himself.
Life was a complicated thing. Sadness and joy so often overlapped. Who was he to judge?
It did, however, come as surprise that Kastor met him on the steps. Damen had assumed his brother would not leave their father's side during his illness but Kastor stood proud, in a white chiton that gleamed compared to Damen's road-grubby leathers, on the palace steps.
Damen thought, he looks like he owns the place and then pushed that aside too. Kastor was trying to be strong in the face of sadness. They were brothers. Damen would not allow petty rivalries or assumptions to come between them when their father needed them most.
“Kastor.” Instinctively, he embraced his brother and felt him stiffen at the touch. Well, Damen had forgotten they weren't really those kinds of brothers. “Sorry. It's been a long journey. How is father? I must see him immediately.”
“He is unchanged,”Kastor replied. “You have time to wash and put on fresh clothing.”
“No. We go now,” Damen said. He walked, and servants and guards dropped to their knees in his path. He waited, but Kastor did not welcome him home or congratulate him on taking Delpha or do anything at all but look at Paschal the physician with unbridled contempt. Well, Kastor had borne the weight of this issue alone. Damen was home now. He would relieve him. As he walked, he demanded reports and barked orders and steeled himself for what would await in his father's rooms.
Which, as it turned it out, was a whole lot of clueless physicians, fretting servants and distraught slaves. Beyond the churchlike murmurs, the medicinal mint smell, and the hiss of brewing tonics was Theomedes, sleeping soundly as a child.
“Out,” Damen said. “Everyone out.” After so long at the head of his army, it was a small shock that it took them time to shuffle away. They all wanted instruction beyond being told to leave. These people, so-called professionals, craved praise like a slave with submission in their bones. Damen was a prince, a conqueror, and he was terrified of losing the only parent he had ever known.
Another time, he would reassure them he knew they were doing all they could. But for now, he just wanted to see the King.
But the King was unconscious, resting under a sleeping draft, and would be for some time. So Damen had to sit on the backless chair by his father's bed. He had to wait.
While he waited, he heard Kastor's account of the illness which Kastor gave as dispassionately as a steward. It was not that he didn't care about Theomedes. He simply disliked reporting to Damen. So Damen tried to mollify him by saying he didn't trust anyone else but Kastor grew more tight-lipped and said Oreste could fill him in. He had to check on Jokaste. She was sick, too.
“I'm going to be a father,” Kastor said. “Jokaste carries my child. We will wed when...”
“Congratulations,” Damen said. “Please pass my good wishes on to Jokaste. I hope the child looks more like her than you.” Trying for brotherly affection and just sounding flat.
“I'm going to continue the line,” Kastor said.
Damen thought, we do not share the same line, but said nothing. “Father will be proud. Will you send in Oreste as you leave?”
Damen did not care for Oreste one way or another but his father trusted the man and for that Damen would listen. He said Theomedes fell ill on the way back from Kingsmeet and insisted no-one know of his sickness lest it affect the war effort. No-one thought it would last this long. Kastor had done all he could. Even Lady Jokaste helped. They called every physician, tried every known remedy, but Theomedes kept getting weaker. The doctor's reports confirmed all this, as did the testimonies of the palace staff.
Damen, who had commanded armies at seventeen and saw clean lines and strategy where other people saw chaos and confusion, felt very very helpless reading the vague reports and hearing the painful rattle in his father's chest. He waited. His slave Lykaios, recalled along with the rest of Laurent's world-renowned harem, was admitted and she sponged away the dirt on Damen's skin and dressed him in fresh clothes. It was practical. And there was no taboo against this kind of nudity in Akielos. But it felt disrespectful to his father to stand unclothed and Damen's skin was still damp when he wrapped the soft clean chiton over his body. His body that had snatched lives as if they were ripened fruit on the vine while he warred all over the land. Perhaps this was his punishment.
“What do you wish to say?” He asked Lykaios, because he could by the way she lingered that she had words bubbling up her throat.
“This is a private time, Exalted. This one's words are--”
“Welcome,” Damen interjected.
“I – The slaves are all relieved you are home safely.”
“The slaves and I are in agreement on that.”
“The stories of your successes reached even us,” she continued. “It was like hearing an ancient tale. What an honour it is to serve our hero.”
“Thank you,” Damen said and his voice was hoarse. “Would you..” He gestured towards his father, who had beads of sweat on his forehead.
“It is my honour to serve the king.” Lykaios wiped Theomedes fevered head with cool water. Slaves were good at that kind of thing, Damen thought. He never would have known to wipe the skin under his father's chin the same way. There was some commotion at the entryway, then, that had him barrelling to his feet. Finally, people to shout at.
“Do not behave in ways that would disturb my father,” he snarled.
“Exalted, this Veretian begged entry,” explained the guard. Behind him, a red-faced Paschal stood carrying a leather apothecary bag. If that wasn't enough to indicate his profession in the respected field of medicine, he had a floor length gown covering his clothing and a floppy hat like a loaf of poorly-risen bread coving his head.
“Yes,” Damen said. “I have brought him to treat the king. Step aside.” On the journey south, Damen had been too busy worrying and sending orders back up the lines to Delpha to pay this Paschal much attention. But he had come without complaint and stressed, again and again, that his priority as a physician was treating sickness regardless of the nationality or lifestyle of the patient.
Laurent trusted him. That was enough for Damen.
And no-one Kastor had summoned had done any good.
Damen tried not to hang over Paschal's shoulder while he examined Theomedes and perused the record of treatment and symptoms left by the copious previous physicians. Paschal had a habit, which was perhaps a kindness to Damen, of muttering his observations aloud. It did not feel kind to hear phrases like fluid in the lungs, reduced kidney function, bacteria in the gut, rash along the nerves spoken about your father the king, but Damen bore them well. He was a commander. He was good at hiding his emotions, packing them away into a trunk so small it would only house a grain of sand, and leaving them their until a better time came and he could allow himself to feel again.
“Certainly,” Paschal said. “These treatments make sense.” He waved his hands at the tubs and tubes left on the sideboard. “But they alleviate symptoms, they don't treat the cause.”
“What is your diagnosis of the cause?” Damen asked.
“Your highness, I have seen this before once or twice. In Vere.”
Paschal's mouth twitched approximately twelve times before he spoke again. “I am sorry to say, your highness, that it looks like your father has been poisoned.”
Shock and surprise were not the same thing. Surprise was unexpected, a friend at your door. Shock was plunging into winter waves and the icy water over-taking your body. There had been poison in the palace before. The Regent planned for everything. Laurent had been convinced. But the words, still, were a shock. They made Damen splinter like his strong body was not enough to contain the anger and frustration that whirled up inside him. There was no way to put them back together until he destroyed the cause, and that was not an option, here in his father's sick room.
He had to make himself very still, very calm, and try not to break anything.
“I don't -” he began and stopped. This was not a place for talking. This doctor was not a man for talking to. Later, when it was over, he might tell Laurent or Kastor or Nikandros his thoughts. Damen thought, I don't understand why that man just can't let us be. If there is a devil in this world, it is the Regent.
Damen thought, again and again, I am going to kill him.
“Your highness, your father is waking,” Paschal said. “May I?”
“May you what?” Damen spat. “Your kind did this. What do you want to do?”
“He needs fluids, your highness. Something to help with the breathing and the fever. Your own physician can supervise, of course.”
Except Damen did not have a physician. He was never sick. And he did not know who among the men in the palace could be trusted and who was responsible. This Paschal could slip his father a killing poison and it would all be Damen's fault.
“I will administer fluids. I will clean him,” Damen said. “Ask for the advisor Oreste at the door. Kastor, if he is not there. They can assign someone to supervise.”
Damen was done talking to lessers. His father was waking. Eagerly, boyishly, Damen awaited his father's return to consciousness. He watched the flutter of eyelids and listened to the changing of breaths. He waited for his father to see him, to know that he was there, but when Theomedes came to his eyes were unfocused and his voice was a moan that called for Damen's mother.
“Father,” Damen said. “I am here.” He was glad of his natural strength when it came to helping his father sit up in the bed. He felt the weight only in his heart.
“Damianos. Of course you are here.” His eyes closed again. His lungs rattled. Damen waited, unsure of what he was actually waiting for. In his heart, he wanted acknowledgement more than what he had been offered. A word of praise or relief. Anything. But Theomedes was stoic and strong. The only relief he showed, was when Damen had his slave Lykaios bring water to the king's lips. “Delpha is won?”
“Delpha is won, father.”
Theomedes nodded. “I never doubted it would be. You have done well, Damianos.” The words caused a wellspring of joy to burst inside of Damen. His father was speaking. His father was proud of him. What more could he want? Other than a dead Regent and a cure, of course. “Where is your shadow?” Theomedes tried to lift his head to look around Damen but he wasn't quite strong enough. “Where is Nikandros?”
“Someone had to hold the lines,” Damen said, cheerfully, while he worried about his father's question. Shadow? “He even took a fort, you know.”
“Fetch the boy,” Theomedes said.
Damen bid a servant to find Laurent, who appeared much sooner than Damen anticipated. The cuffs were gone. He was laced back into Veretian finery. The dye was stripped from his hair and the burst of blond was as welcome to Damen's eyes as the sun rise after a dark night.
“Exalted,” Laurent said to Theomedes, bowing low. Damen thought, my father must be really sick for Laurent to be so respectful. “I do not wish to disturb you.”
“I sent for you. No need to for useless manners now, Laurent.”
“This physician Paschal is more capable, Exalted. He will help.”
Theomedes shook his head. He must not want to talk about doctors. “Come here. I want to tell you something important. At least, to you it will be important.”
Gingerly, Laurent picked his way to Theomedes bed. Damen was glad he had helped his father sit up. It was more dignified for both of them. Still, his heart gave a funny twist at the wrongness of the sight. A king should receive people from a throne not a sickbed. Laurent should never be summoned to anyone's bed.
Laurent bent down, stiff as a board, and Damen politely turned away while his father spoke quietly in his ear. He could not make out the words. But when Laurent stood up again, his jaw was clamped tight.
“Thank you,” Laurent said, stiffly. He was not used to saying those particular words together much. “That-- thank you. Damen?” Theomedes shifted his eyes a little at the use of the name. “Can I speak to you alone? I mean, Exalted, can you excuse us?”
“Go.” Theomedes closed his eyes again. Maybe the rare sight of a flustered Laurent exhausted him as much as it was overwhelming Damen.
“I need to stay with him.”
“I need to show you something.”
“If I may,” Paschal interjected. “This would be a good time for me to treat the king. You may want to step outside anyway. This girl can help.” He glanced at Lykaios, who nearly fainted from the assumption that she was capable of such an act.
“I said I would do it,” Damen replied. “Laurent, they will blame us if anything happens after bringing this man here.”
“Your brother is just outside. Working, I believe.”
“Damen, this is important,” Laurent said. The way he kept saying Damen's name was too persuasive. Damen followed him out of his father's rooms, up stairs he hadn't walked upon since he had achieved his boyhood goal of exploring every inch of the palace, until they emerged into fresh sea air. Damen hadn't appreciated the simple relief of having clean salt in his lungs until this moment under the late afternoon sky. He breathed. He allowed himself a moment to believe the only reason Laurent dragged him up to one of the watchtowers was to let him breathe.
Just a moment.
“All right,” Damen said. “Tell me the bad news.”
“Not going to pass remark on my hair first? I thought you preferred this.”
“Please. My father is sick.”
“The good news is, he's going to get better,” Laurent said. “It is poison. Paschal reckons it was a slow dose, perhaps an ongoing administration, and simply removing everyone else will be beneficial.”
“That's good news.”
“Comparatively speaking.” Laurent drew two letters from the inside of his jacket. “Here. Read these.”
Damen grabbed them. The words swam in front of his eyes. The cipher was not the issue. The content was the painful thing.
The Regent had a plan. While Damen was fighting for scraps of land in Delpha, the Regent was launching something bigger right here in Ios – a plot to remove King Theomedes from the throne. He did only ever want instability.
That was one thing.
But the other letter, in Laurent's familiar cursive, was the one that felt like a knife in the back.
“You agreed with him?” Damen demanded, incredulous.
“It wasn't— Look, I am showing you now. I never agreed. I had to --”
Damen thrust the letter in Laurent's face. It was that or his fist. “Your words are clear, Laurent. Yes, uncle, it is a wonderful idea to remove Theomedes the barbarian--”
“Stop,” Laurent said. “I had to agree. I thought it was test of my loyalty. I thought if I did not I would never get the proof. I had no idea he would manage if I was not here to help. I didn't know he would get past the guards.”
“You could have told me,” Damen said. “At any time, you could have told me.”
“I did tell you it was poison. I brought Paschal.”
A fog came down over Damen. “He could be killing my father right now.”
“No. He is a good physician. He has a code.”
“You still should have told me. Laurent, you can't expect me to understand when you only give me half the information.”
“Maybe if you weren't so blind,” Laurent shouted. The waves were loud. He had to shout.
“You are very stupid to insult me right now. I have never been more tempted to hurt you.”
“Do it. I don't care. You have your proof and your antidote. Hurt me. I have done all I can.”
Damen caught hold of Laurent's shoulders and even through his anger, he found himself careful not to hurt him. “Why do you keep acting like you're alone in this?”
Laurent's mouth opened. And closed. And opened again. “You should let go. I still have to tell you the bad news and I would rather not end this day on the bottom of those cliffs.”
“Don't push me,” Damen said. He loosened his grip but he did not quite take his hands away from Laurent. Their time under false pretences, with a collar on Laurent's neck, had spoiled him. It was natural, now, for Damen to touch him without thinking.
“That's what I was going to say,” Laurent said, handing Damen a long scope like the sentries and lookouts sometimes used on duty. “Here. See for yourself. In the bay, there are three ships. No, there.” He turned Damen to the left, so he was looking west. “See?”
“Not really. They are false flags. Those ships are full of Veretian soldiers. They are waiting.”
“Waiting,” Damen repeated. Flatly. “For my father to die. And then what? Storm the castle? I am here. I would be king.”
“For me, I think,” Laurent said. “My instruction. Look at the letters again. My uncle believes you would not be a problem.”
“I --” The word sounded weak and tasted bitter. It would be we, when Damen ascended.
“He believes that this play for your throne is the kind of gift you give a mistress you want to keep quiet,” Laurent continued. “He would keep my throne in Vere. I would wield my considerable influence over you to take your throne in Akielos. Ambition does not stop when you have one thing you want. Ambition grows. It destroys.”
Damen had not the means to respond to this revelation. He had hardly the strength to keep his temper in check.
“I won't,” he said. “Let it destroy anyone here.” Still, promises were one thing. He needed proof.
“I have brought some measure of proof.” Laurent signalled through the doorway. “You remember the lady pirate Galenne?”
“Pirate will do,” Galenne said, striding past some very confused guards in boots that came up to her thighs. “No need for the qualifier. Damianos. Laurent. What odd games you boys play.”
“This is not a game,” Laurent said, sternly.
Damen was quite in shock still and, in the back of his bewildered mind, he was contemplating that Galenne may want to call in her debt and for the first time in his life he may not be able to perform.
“What do you know?” Damen said, when he wanted to ask why are you in my territory and why are you in communication with Laurent?
“You've got pests in your bay, it is true,” she said. “A few hundred of them, to be exact. Right under your nose.”
Damen lifted his chin, he squared his shoulders, he straightened his spine. “Sink them,” he told Galenne and started walking. He was a commander. He was a prince. He could not be skulking on battlements with Laurent when there was work to be done. “I will pay you in coin and give what help you need. The men won't be much. Much of the army was destroyed in Delpha and the rest recalled.”
“Trust me, I will have seen worse than these. You can keep your coin if I can keep the bounty."
“Damen,” Laurent said.
“This is not up for compromise. You never had a problem killing your countrymen before.”
Laurent schooled his face and offered his elbow, some perverse version of a suitor offering his arm to a lady. The pieces fell into place. They were about to fall into step beside Damen's guards. So Damen roughly took hold of Laurent's arm and dragged him along the floors so fast his boots slipped and slid without purchase.
Vere had done poisoned their King. Laurent had given them proof. Vere had an army in their bay.
Laurent had been treated with all the courtesy his title deserved all the years he had been in Ios. But now Damen had to treat him roughly. For his own protection. To treat the situation with the gravitas it deserved. War. Games. Protocols.
“Sink the ships,” Damen repeated, remembering his father's swift actions when he had been poisoned with the pie. He barked orders at the guards next. “Close the gates. No-one gets in or out. Keep everyone but me from my father's rooms. No exceptions. No-one breathes the same air as him without my say so. Round up all the men, women and children who have treated my father and bring them to the dungeons. No exceptions.”
They had almost reached the bottom of the winding stairs. The guard went first. Laurent faked a stumble to hold Damen back.
“Make it hurt,” he said. “Make them believe you.”
“There can be no rumours, idiot. Hit me,” Laurent hissed. “He plans for everything. You know what they say about us. The last thing you need is people thinking you were in on it.”
Damen would never hurt his family. His father. It was unimaginable.
But the Regent was capable of all sorts of unimaginable things. A lie like that was the least of them.
“Laurent,” Damen said, helpless.
In the shadows of the curving staircase, no-one else could see them. Damen made a fist and drew it back. His other hand was gentle on the back of Laurent's neck when Damen punched him in the jaw. He held back, of course, but Laurent's head was still thrown backwards. He could have stayed on his feet but he let himself crumble to the steps. Damen crouched down after him as a reflection follows in a mirror. In the flickering lamplight, Damen could see the bruising impact of the punch on Laurent's fine skin and the first drops of blood spill from the side of his mouth.
It couldn't be just this – schemes and betrayals and the threat of the Regent hanging like storm clouds.
Damen didn't think. He didn't warn in Akielon fashion. His mind was breaking apart and his heart was desperately clinging onto the only sure thing in his life.
His hair fell onto his forehead. He braced his arms on the cold steps either side of Laurent. There was no time but he moved slowly enough to give Laurent time to move, to withdraw at he had done so often while he pretended to be slave. Damen knew how it looked, sensed the apparent inequality, in how it would appear to an outsider. His strength. His size. His anger. None of that mattered.
He tried to convey what he felt with his eyes. Laurent's blue eyes were wide, knowing, and Damen thought that he maybe didn't even need to try communicate anything now. Laurent knew. He knew.
So Damen kissed him hard on the mouth, that sweet vicious mouth. He felt Laurent's lithe body bend beneath him and the tiny moment of surprise that made Laurent suck air in through his nose. Then, Laurent pressed his lips back against Damen's as a fire kisses what it is about to destroy. It was a hungry, clumsy thing, this kissing. Contact replaced air in order of what was necessary for the body to function. The word was reduced to Laurent's parted lips, his soft mouth, the raw joy that rose because he was just as hungry and willing as Damen.
It couldn't last. Not now. There were guards around the corner. His father was sick. This was still before.
Reluctant, heartsick, Damen pulled away. There was a moment of gazing, eyes saying what words could not, and then it was back to being princes of enemy countries.
The guard was already turning back as Damen hauled Laurent to his feet and shoved him forward. “Chain the Prince of Vere,” Damen said. “Take him to his rooms. Guard them with his men. If anyone but me goes near him, I will have your heads.”
They took Laurent away. Damen went to his father's empty rooms to await their fate, which he had decided could only be positive. Theomedes would be healed. Damen would cleave him back from the jaws of death with his own bare hands if necessary.
“You can go,” Damen told Kastor. His brother deserved a break. Damen needed to be alone.
Kastor cocked his head. He did not enquire about the change in order or what had caused it. He gave Damen a long look that made him feel about eight years old and said, not unkindly, “You have blood on your lip.”