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One the Other

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Theomedes was back to his old self when Damen returned to his father's rooms. He was awake, alert and laying down the law. Understandable, when the law was regarding an attempt on his life. The strides Damen had made investigating were only baby steps compared to his father's stern command. The good news, if Damen was able to the world in those terms, was that he hadn't made any major mistakes.

“My son,” Theomedes said to his remaining guard and his adviser Oreste and anyone else in the vicinity. “Has once again done what no-one else in this kingdom has been capable of. He took Delpha, saved my life and weeded out traitors.”

Damen flushed with pride.

“Father,” he said. “What can I do?”

“Watch,” Theomedes said. So Damen observed his father put the final touches on the punishments to be meted out – who would be executed and who would be spared and who would be treated with kid gloves after the trauma of witness the king's illness. The working theory was that there were Veretian men lying in wait in Ios ready for any chance to get close to the King. The Regent had never wanted war – only the kind of instability that would make Akielos weak. The death of a king would do that. Look how much turmoil befell the Veretian crown after King Aleron passed. The death of a king, who had welded all the Akielon provinces into one great country, could well have them splintering again.

Theomedes did not once publicly mention Laurent's role in confirming the nature of his illness and for that Damen was grateful beyond words.

He watched his father give new orders, separate to the incident at hand, because a royal's work was never done. Damen scanned reports from the north while his father worked. Delpha was theirs by possession, not by law. He would have to finish that soon.

One thing at a time.

The room was never empty. Damen wanted to suggest to his father that he should rest. Such a lengthy poisoning had to take its toll on the body. Near dawn, he made a show of yawning. Damen had long learned how to play games.

“Are you tired?” Theomedes asked.

“I haven't slept in days,” Damen admitted.

“Just one of the sacrifices my son makes for his king and country,” Theomedes said, and he was no longer speaking to Damen. “Let's take a break. My men can use this time to read the reports of your exemplary work in Delpha.”

The room cleared.

Damen said, “That was laying it on a bit thick.”

“You have to assume,” Theomedes replied. “That most of what you say won't stick. Thank you for the intervention. I would rest a few moments.”

Once Paschal and his new assistant Lykaios made sure Theomedes was comfortable, he closed his eyes. Damen dragged a chair to door and closed his eyes, sleeping too deeply for someone sitting up, because his father was well and anyone who tried to get in here would have to get past him.

Later, the door hit the chair and Damen jumped up with his sword in hand.

“Relax, brother,” Kastor said. “I've been summoned. I'd like to make it over to father without losing my life.”

“Sorry,” Damen said. “You understand. War and then this. Makes you jumpy. Have you rested?”

Kastor had been at their father's bedside for much longer than Damen had been. And when Damen returned, Kastor had been pushed aside while once again Damen got the glory. Regardless of what anyone said about Kastor's nature, Damen respected his brother and was mindful of their different status.

“Not really,” Kastor said, the kind of glint in his eyes that men often gave each other. “Jokaste was feeling neglected.”

“I know,” Damen began, ignoring the insinuation. Their father had been dying. Their father was right there through the archway. “That you have done your best here. I know you cared for our father. I know that it is hard to stay behind while someone else does practical work.”

“Do you?” Kastor said, and then their father was calling him and Damen could not continue the conversation. “Father, it is good to see you so improved.” His voice was raw. Kastor was so pleased their father was well.

“Thank you, son,” Theomedes said. Then, “Damianos, you should clean yourself up and see about breakfast.” See about breakfast. As if he was a servant. The cleaning, though, was probably necessary. “There's something I've been wanting to talk to Kastor about alone. Send in the slave boy as you leave.”

-

“What does he want with Kastor?” Damen asked Oreste, after passing on his father's requests to his father's most trusted man.

“I do not betray my king's confidences,” Oreste said. “It's just some administrative thing that begun while he was sick.”

Damen bathed. Changed. Thought about Laurent. Not necessarily in that order. The pressure of his kisses still felt imprinted on his lips. The physical need he stirred within him was so acute, Damen wondered how he ever thought he had wanted anyone before. Beautiful, complicated Laurent who still did not have his throne, colluded with his uncle in a plot against Damen's father, and then turned it all on its head.

Every time Laurent sided with Akielos over his own country, it was done with the implicit understanding (at least on Damen's behalf) that it would lead to Damen restoring Laurent to his right place on the throne in Vere.

But, instead Damen had not succeeded in killing the Regent at Delpha and he had thrown Laurent in chains here in Ios.

He wanted to go to him.

He couldn't keep running off to Laurent, exiled prince of the enemy country, every time he wanted. For all that Damen was used to doing as he pleased, he took responsibility seriously. He heeded Laurent's warning about the Regent implicating him in this plot. A power hungry man could make other men look power hungry, too

Damen had to go back to his father and see if there was some way to right this mess before it was too late. For him. For Laurent.

The room was empty. Kastor had not waited. Theomedes, briefly, looked grey and drawn again before he recommenced barking orders.

-

The next person Theomedes summoned was Jokaste. Damen was only mildly surprised to see her without Kastor by her side. Pregnancy had neither dulled nor enhanced her appearance. She remained the same pallid, classic, yellow-haired beauty she had been before the war. Her breasts were larger. Damen would have to be blind not to notice. He wasn't sure if it suited her and then, ashamed, he was definitely sure he should not be thinking about her breasts at all.

His father did not greet her. He was busy with Oreste.

So Damen stood, politely, and said, politely, “Congratulations, Lady Jokaste.”

“Thank you,” she said, equally polite.

“Yes,” said Theomedes. “Pregnancy is a fortunate thing. It could save your life. Speak plainly, lady, did you know anything of the plot against me?”

“Exalted.” Graceful, she dropped to her knees. “I did not.”

“Lying is not permitted either,” Theomedes said.

Damen's mind scrambled. Could Jokaste be in league with the Regent? She had first gone to Laurent and had he succumbed to her charms there would be another black mark in the book against him. Could a bastard dethrone a prince? He didn't know. She was the newest person to wangle their way so deeply into the court that she was by the king in his darkest moments. Theomedes had clearly figured all this out before Damen.

“Were you threatened?” Theomedes asked. “You or the child? I would understand.”

“No, Exalted. Kastor protects us both.”

“I see. You will start your confinement immediately, Lady. Guards, see that she is comfortable.”

“Father, do you think she is responsible?” Damen asked, after Jokaste had left with her head held high.

“No. Not really. But maybe she knew something. Maybe she's a target while she carries Kastor's child.” Theomedes passed his hand over his face. “What do you think, Damianos?”

“It doesn't matter,” he said. “This is all down to the Regent.”

“Speaking of Veretians, Laurent is next. You may want to wait outside.”

“I prefer to stay.”

“Remember who your king is, then. Remember your kingdom.”

Akielos or Laurent? What a question.

Theomedes knew Damen well. Not since the stream had Damen felt the blind urge to draw his sword on one of his own countrymen. Anger, thick as the fog that rolled in with a storm, over took him at the sight of Laurent in chains being dragged into the room. The guards held his arms tightly, when they could have held the restraints. Laurent did not like being touched by strangers, by anyone. Damen should have thought of that. He should have gotten Laurent himself.

He made himself remain calm. He would settle, he decided, for breaking the fingers of the men who dared touch Laurent's skin.

“Clear the room,” Theomedes said. It was just Damen, Laurent and his father left. Laurent stood, then, with an insouciant grace that defied the restraints, and looked the king dead in the eye.

“I only want one favour,” Laurent said. “In exchange for saving your life.”

“Do you now?” Theomedes jerked his head at Damen. “I hope it is the removal of the chains. My son is about to take them off.”

Damen summoned all his soldier's determination to remove the restraints from Laurent's without stumbling. He had to stand close enough for his nose to nearly skim Laurent's hair when he bent at the neck. His body remembered how close they had been upstairs. His mind remembered how unsure Laurent had been so Damen, when he touched Laurent's wrist, grazed his thumbs as gently as he could against the fine, delicate skin where you could see the blue of his veins.

He was rewarded with a springing of goosebumps and nothing more. Laurent held himself defiantly and when Damen let the metal clang against the marble floor, Laurent gave him a little nod as one would a servant.

“Your son is part of the favour,” Laurent said. “Let us consider the chains the first step.”

“Let us consider,” Theomedes replied. “That you colluded with your uncle to have me killed. That is treason.”

“Not really. I'm not your subject. Didn't Damianos tell you I had to agree? It was only to get proof. It was only to secure my own future in Vere.”

“My life is more important than your future in Vere,” Theomedes said, voice growing louder in that way that made Damen feel like a small boy again.

“Everyone's life is most important to them,” Laurent said, unshaken. “For what it's worth, I never considered going along with it. I wouldn't do that to Damen.”

Theomedes softened. Damen knew because he did not shout any louder. He kept his shouting at the same level. “What do you want?”

“I want Damianos to come with me to Vere. These letters, among other things, are proof of my uncle's untrustworthiness. The council won't approve. They did not know. They, along with him, are supposed to hold the throne on my behalf until I come of age.”

“What does my son and heir have to do with your throne?”

“He is a witness, for one thing.”

“What are the other things?” Damen surprised himself without how rough his voice was.

“Ah, he speaks. I thought you lost your voice,” Laurent replied. “Do I really need to explain myself?”

“No,” said Damen. It was one of those questions that did not require an answer. Or perhaps an answer that did not require a question. “Father, once you are well enough I will go to Arles. The situation in Delpha is not sustainable. I need to end that, too.”

“I will think about it,” Theomedes said. “Negotiations can be done from the border, not the viper's pit. Laurent, my son is the future king of Akielos. He is not your personal assassin.”

“Yes, your majesty.” Laurent was a little flushed.

There was a knock on the door. Naturally, neither Laurent nor Theomedes moved so Damen answered it.

“Forgive me,” said the guard. “There's a woman causing quite a fuss.”

“Jokaste?”

“No,” said Galenne and moved the guard bodily out of her way. She had, gagged and restrained and wet and bruised, a man who judging by his epaulettes was the leader of the Veretians in the bay in her hands. She brushed past Damen, who was less apprehensive about his old agreement, and deposited the man in front of Theomedes. “Exalted,” she said. “A present to celebrate your return to health.”

Theomedes gaped. Damen smiled. Laurent sneered down at the man.

“Really, Orlant? You have fallen far since you worked for my brother.”

The man Orlant could not speak past his gag but Damen knew in his gut what he was trying to say. He followed orders. That was the life of a soldier.

“I suppose you want thanks,” Theomedes said to Galenne. “But I have exhausted my gratitude in giving it to my son.”

“I do not,” she replied. “I just like to see the job through to the end. This one--” She nudged Orlant with the toe of her boot. “Is talkative. He curses a lot --”

“That does not offend me.”

“He didn't want to leave his ship. But I took it anyway. He took some choice letters with him when he left and I made sure they stayed dry.”

Laurent's eyes grew very bright. More proof. “Orlant will lead the prisoners,” he said.

“Prisoners need supervision not leadership,” said Theomedes.

“We'll talk about it later,” Laurent said and Damen had the very thorough feeling of being dismissed .

Damen was distracted by the speculative way Galenne was looking at his father. She had looked at him like that once, on a naval ship near the port.

“You are this one's father,” she said, with a blink-and-you'll-miss-it glance at Damen. “And the other one from the row boat.”

Kastor must have joined in the effort to save the Veretian soldiers. Impending fatherhood suited him.

“Yes,” said Theomedes and a smile spread across his face. “You are Vaskian? I recognise the accent.”

“Damianos, I think we should escort Orlant to the dungeons,” Laurent said.

“It doesn't take two people.”

“I think,” said Galenne. “Your debt, Damianos, may be waived.”

Damen grabbed Orlant and left his father's rooms, grateful for all the years of training that made him strong enough and fast enough to move with haste while hauling a fully grown man. He left Orlant in the care of the nearest soldier and then Laurent grabbed his wrist, urged him down the corridor, and the were smiling, tripping over their feet, moving as fast as joy would let them.

His father was well. Embarassingly well. Laurent was here, free, smiling, blond again, and they were heading to Damen's apartment, where they could be alone, and Damen had the strangest, strongest urge to twirl Laurent around under his arm and then the not so strange, but equally strong, urge to push him against the nearest solid surface and devour him.

“You look awfully cheerful,” Laurent said. “For someone who just got passed over for his own father. What was it they told us near Acquitart? Ah, yes, they prefer to claim from the dominant male. You might have a taste how I feel around you half the time now.”

“Dominance is over rated.”

“Says the man who loved it when I played slave.” Laurent walked backwards and threw the briefest coy look at Damen before before grinning again.

“Says the boy who only liked it to tease me,” Damen said. “Now, please, can we change the subject?”

“Away from your father the dominant male. Come on. It must rankle you that Galenne passed you over.”

“She's not who I want,” Damen said. “And I do not want to talk or think about my father like that ever again.”

“You all keep bed slaves!”

“That is different.”

“The most important thing,” Laurent said, as they walked through Damen's doors. “For Vaskian women is that their men have the size to breed warriors. I guess Galenne saw that your father had bred two and didn't want to take any chances.”

“Stop. I beg you.” Damen covered Laurent's mouth with his hand.

“Make me,” Laurent said. A challenge.

Damen thought of a hundred different strategies and discarded them all. “Laurent,” he said. “What happened in your room...”

“Kissing.”

“Is that how it is between us now?”

“I hope you would not be so cruel to kiss me only once.”

“Twice,” Damen amended. “You know I am not cruel. Are you sore? From the restraints.”

“I've had worse.”

But Damen ran his hands all along Laurent's shoulders and arms, checking to see if there were any places that made Laurent wince. Laurent was very controlled, but the body betrayed itself, sometimes and there was a sharp intake of breath when Damen touched the nape of his neck.

“It's nothing,” Laurent said.

“How about,” Damen suggested. “We go to the baths.”

“Later.”

“How about,” Damen said. “We go to the baths and I use the oils there to massage all this tension from your back. It should be me. I was the one who chained you.”

“That could be...an idea.” Laurent was not so controlled now. Damen saw the temptation flare his pupils wide.

“An idea.” Damen couldn't resist nuzzling Laurent's cheek. Then he was compelled to lightly rub the faint swelling on the other cheek where his fist had made contact.

“I got a salve,” Laurent said. “It is fine. Honestly, your coarse stubble is more of a pain than that bruise. Do you always hit so weakly, brute?”

“Your insults are getting less creative.”

“I find myself at a loss when it comes to you.”

There was a knock at the door. There was always knocks at doors when Damen least wanted them. There was a knock and the perpetrator of the knock was arrogant enough to push the door open without being admitted. Damen expected to see his brother come through the door, come to complain about Jokaste's confinement.

It was not Kastor.

“Hello, Nikandros,” Laurent said. He did not step away from Damen. In fact, he stood closer.

“Damianos, your father's men sent me here. They would not let me in. I-- why are you smiling? I was summoned. I was told to hurry before it was too late. I don't--”

“Something has happened to your friend's brain,” Laurent whispered exaggeratedly.

“Hush. Nikandros, sit. Have some wine.”

“I thought they were lying when they said you were cavorting with the Veretian prince.” Nikandros sat. “While your father lies ill, you two are --”

“Really. Have some wine.” Laurent handed Nikandros the bottle and a cup. “And my name is Laurent. No need for formalities here. The king is well. He is fucking a Vaskian pirate as we speak.”

“Damianos?”

Damen caught Nikandros up. Briefly. He was more interested in hearing of Delpha and was relieved to hear the situation remained unchanged. They held their lands, even the fort, and several young soldiers were showing great promise. They were vulnerable in Nikandros and Damen's absence, though. Men like the defeated Lord Touars would strike if they knew. The Regent would strike in some new twisted way if he knew his plan had been foiled here.

“You were right. I shouldn't have been seen to be so ... carefree. There is so much at stake,” Damen admitted. “Do you know why my father summoned you?”

“Do you not?” Nikandros asked. “There was a sealed letter. I assumed...you approved. Apparently, your father wanted to get his affairs in order. Perhaps that has changed.”

“Nikandros,” Damen said, meaning stop waffling and tell me.

“Theomedes decided on the new kyroi. He was going to give me Delpha. I already have a fort. And Kastor, with the baby on the way, is to get Ios.”

“Oh,” said Damen. “He never said. You want Delpha?”

“I want to be a kyros. I will admit, I hoped it would be here. Your father said Kastor's challenge would be more valuable to you and I had taken so much of Delpha that --”

Something in Damen's face must have alarmed Nikandros because he trailed off. Damen was aware, in an embarrassed way, of Laurent and Nikandros exchanging a look above his head but his thoughts were elsewhere. Kastor.

That must be what Theomedes wanted to talk to Kastor about earlier.

But he never said.

Kastor and his resentment. Kastor, who had been in Ios the entire time.

“No,” said Laurent, as Damen pushed towards the door with his hand on the hilt of his sword. “You'll regret disturbing your father now.”

“But --” Damen couldn't think straight.

“Damen, listen.” Laurent adopted the tone of voice he normally reserved for calming his favourite horses. “Your father spoke with Kastor earlier. Without you. Before Kastor, he spoke to Kallias, who, as you know, tells Erasmus everything. I think,” Laurent said. “Your father wanted to tell Kastor his decision. Kallias spent a lot of time serving while we were gone.”

“I thought you sent them all away.”

“I asked him to keep an eye on Kastor,” Nikandros said. “Laurent, I mean.”

“He didn't help the drowning men. The rowboat was a different time,” Damen said, voice hollow, heart empty, betrayal like poison in his veins.

“Yes,” said Laurent. “My uncle got to him, too, I think.”

“But...patricide? That is automatic death. My father...” Theomdes would have to kill his son. Theomedes was the kind of king would would kill his son. “How would it even benefit the Regent? I would be on the throne and --”

“He would have told a different set of lies to your half-brother,” Laurent said.

“It should be me,” Damen said. “I have to talk to him. I --”

“Damen,” said Nikandros. “Come on. Let's go to the baths. Let's discuss strategy. We can talk to your father when we have bathed.”

“All right,” said Damen. “Clear the halls first. I have to be more careful now.”

-

Unreal things could become real. Like getting what you want – Delpha and Laurent – and losing things you don't have words for. Damen's heart remained empty and numb, while Nikandros and Laurent did their best to comfort him and put plans into motion to set this right. The things was – Damen wasn't quite sure what he had lost. His brother, of course, but maybe he had been losing him in pieces slow as sand through an hourglass for some time now. His trust? Family was not meant to do what Kastor had done. Security? If he and his father were not safe in the palace, what was the point in being kings? Faith in the world as he knew it, perhaps. The memory was clear now of the specially chosen wine from Kastor at the Kingsmeet which was their most sacred place and the place where Damen as a babe had snatched Kastor's chance at the crown. There was poetry there, if you were twisted enough to see it.

Anyway, it all amounted to the same thing.

Damen had lost a little piece of himself.

It would be gone always. He knew he could still fight and command and love, even, but the piece was gone like a chip in a sculpture.

“We can spar, while we wait for your father,” Nikandros offered.

Damen shook his head.

“You could fight us both,” said Laurent. “I might dredge up some anger for the punch and the chains and make it hard for you.”

Again, Damen shook his head. “I might hurt you,” he said. He'd suppressed a lot of rage already. Before the baths, he had slipped away to Kastor's apartments. Kastor's guard was nowhere to be seen. It was his father's men who blocked the door, hammering home the confirmation of the unreal, and Damen rather wanted to bash their heads in for the grave crime of doing their duty.

After the baths, Laurent slipped away to dress alone. He might have stayed if Nikandros was not there. Who knew what they would be doing if Nikandros was not there.

“I want to say,” began Nikandros, waving away body slaves who would have dressed them. “That I understand a lot of things with more clarity now.”

“Yes,” said Damen. “That is the case for us all.”

“Regarding Prince Laurent,” Nikandros said. “I have seen that he cares for you.”

“That is not a new thing.”

“What he did for your father was honourable and decent.”

“That is not new either.”

“Damianos, I heard you talking in the tent in Delpha. I have some Patran, too.”

Another truth for Damen to deal with. He wasn't sure how much more he could take. Slowly, he turned to face his friend. “Don't let him see that you know,” he said. “It would destroy him. You can't tell anyone.”

“I would never betray anyone --”

“I know,” said Damen. “I am sorry.”

“He has changed you. I don't think you've ever apologised to me before,” Nikandros said. “I know it is not my business who you take to your bed or to whom you give your heart. Anything I have ever said has been pure concern. But, I just want to say, I understand better now what I did not before. You have long been protective of him and I thought it was simply your usual protectiveness.”

“It was,” said Damen. “We have not – He was so young when he came here.”

“I am ashamed, to be honest. He made overtures to me on the road back from Delpha.He was under my care in the academy. And, to think, I parleyed with that man and thought he was the one protecting a child. I thought it must have been true that the Auguste planned the attack before his death.”

“The Regent fools many people. That's one of the many reasons I plan to kill him.”

“It is good to know the war was not pure arrogance,” Nikandros said, because talk of war came easier to them than these difficult things. “And I would apologise to Laurent, if it wasn't for the danger of him stabbing me in the neck if I tried.”

“No more dead kyroi,” Damen said.

“I am not one yet.”

“You will be.”

-

Theomedes sent for them hours later. Damen supposed, when a man crawled back from the brink of death, virility became more important ever. Still, it seemed distasteful that his father had engaged in bedsports while their family was in tatters. Granted, it seemed distasteful to ever think of his father in that regard but that was not the point. Then again, there was always comfort in the body of another. Damen had found it for himself more than once.

Theomedes had not sent for Laurent but he tagged along anyway, arrogant as ever. His presence was a comfort.

“Father,” Damen said. “We need to talk about Kastor.”

“Yes,” said Theomedes. “I'm afraid we do. You know, then?”

“I didn't think. I never --”

“There are worse flaws,” Theomedes said. “Than not seeing danger within your own family. I would not have seen it myself only for Kastor confessed.”

“Did he mention my uncle?” Laurent asked.

“Not everything is about your uncle,” Theomedes snapped. “Laurent, you're here as a courtesy to my son. Don't push me.”

“Sorry,” Laurent muttered.

“Yes, he confessed,” said Theomedes. “I told him my decision about the new kyroi and he confessed. None of you knew him as a boy. He was the most transparent thing this palace had ever seen. A great disappointment to his mother.” The king almost smiled. “He was a fine boy. Nikandros, you see how this changes things. There can be no appointment now.”

“Yes, Exalted.”

“You could have told me,” Damen said, fixating on the fact he was here and his father did not tell him. How he laughed with Laurent while his father faced this awful truth.

How, perhaps, if Damen had never been born Kastor would have stayed that fine boy and grown to be a fine king.

“It was not something I had the words for right away. You know the penalty,” his father replied.

“You are King. There are always exceptions.”

“The first time he poisoned me, I was at the Kingsmeet. There are no exceptions.”

There was a sacredness to the Kingsmeet that surpassed every other hallowed thing in Akielos. It was forbidden, wholly and completely, to spill blood there. Poison counted the same. You could possibly allow sentiment to influence your feelings about attempted regicide, especially, when the twisted influence of the Regent of Vere had a hand in the attempt. But brothers killed brothers for breaking the laws of the Kingsmeet.

There was no saving Kastor. Death was inevitable.

“I will do it, father,” Damen said. “If you wish me to, I will.”

“No,” said Laurent.

“No,” said Theomedes. “I don't wish that for you.”

“I want to see him.”

“Fine. But don't go getting any ideas, Damianos. This is not your fight.”

“Yes, father.”

“He hasn't got it in him to kill his brother. Don't worry.” Laurent sounded like a child again. Nikandros nodded. Damen bit his tongue. “May I suggest something?”

“You have thirty seconds,” Theomedes said.

“What you have right now is leverage,” Laurent said. “The best leverage is the most painful kind. If this remains under wraps, you can use it against him.”

“He is in chains, facing death. I don't need leverage.”

“He means his uncle,” Damen said. “Laurent, this is not the time.”

“That doesn't mean I'm wrong.”

“I'll consider it,” Theomedes said. “You may go. Actually, Nikandros, I would speak to you alone for a second.”

“I can go with you to see him,” Laurent offered.

“I think I should go alone,” Damen said. As befitting his status, Kastor was allowed to remain a prisoner in his own apartments. Jokaste was nowhere to be seen, which was probably a wise move. His father's men let him in. They asked for his sword, the king's orders, which was for Kastor's safety.

Damen refused. “I will not hurt my brother.

Laurent, once again, had been right.

“Kastor,” he said. And then found he had no more words. Kastor had aged ten years in ten hours. His face was drawn. His eyes were dull, defeated. He would not meet Damen's eyes at first, and then, like a soldier preparing for the last portion of a battle, he drew himself together.

“Come to crow?” Kastor asked. “Finally, you have been proven right. The trueborn son is moral and fair. The bastard is corrupt of heart.”

“I have nothing to crow about. You are my brother,” Damen said. “Do you need water?” Kastor's restraints were far more unforgiving than Laurent's had been. Already, there were angry welts where the metal bit his skin. There was no movement available to him. And, still, he was lucky because he was alive. Any other man who had done what he had done would be dead.

“I don't need anything from you.”

“Kastor, I don't think you are corrupt of heart. I do think you have been corrupted,” Damen said, returning to the earlier statement. “Confession was an honourable thing. That will stand to you.”

“In the history books. What good is that?”

“With father. There is still time to atone. And, we're making plans.”

“We? Remember Marlas, when father told us never to trust a Veretian. I should have heeded him. You should heed him. The whole country knows you are blind to that boy Laurent just because he has a smart mouth, a pretty face and a head of blond hair. It's embarrassing.”

“He's not a boy,” Damen said. “And I'm not here to talk about him.”

“You are blind.”

“You already said that.”

“The Regent knows the truth of his character,” Kastor said. “He was obsessed with his brother and look where that got that crown prince. Where will your obsession lead you? He's manipulative and cravenly and he refuses to go home long after this fostering is over. He is --”

“Enough,” Damen said. “Kastor, we are brothers. This is not how it should be. What did the Regent promise you to make you co-operate?”

“Nothing.”

“You did it for enjoyment?”

“Of course not! He was my father first, you know. It near killed me to watch him suffer but by then it was too late. I didn't know which physician was the Regents man and --” Kastor sighed. “I'm already as low as I can be. Do you know, I near cried when that slave boy touched me? I couldn't even look at Jokaste.”

“Your self-pity is remarkable,” Damen said, summoning all his battle-earned strength not to allow himself feel pity for his brother. “But you didn't answer my question. Did you plan to bump me off next?”

“That wasn't. No. You were at war, Damen. I didn't expect you back so soon.”

“Where else would I go? Did you think I would abandon my family and my throne for --” Damen stopped. Kastor did think that. The Regent, too. Damen's plan had been to go to Arles with Laurent. It was still his plan. Anything could happen, anything at all.

It was odd really. He hadn't even kissed Laurent when these people were all deciding what he would give up for him.

“I know,” said Damen, firmly. “That you are repentant. I know that you never would have launched this plan if not for that despicable ba-- man's influence. It's not too late. You still can atone.”

“You don't know our father as well as you think you do.” Kastor let out a long, harrowed breath. “I heard how you cared for him. That was kind.”

“I would do the same for anyone I love.”

“That's the difference, isn't it? Will you care for my child?” Kastor asked.

“Of course.”

“It will be easier, I think, to be born in shadows rather than shoved under them later in life.”

“Kastor...”

“Don't. It's torture to hear your kindness,” Kastor said. “Will you...before you go will you lengthen the chains? Just an inch or two. I'm getting old. My back aches.”

Damen assessed the scene. A short length wouldn't make a difference to the safety of any guards or servants that entered the room. Most likely, no-one else would enter the room until he or his father returned.

“All right,” Damen said and adjusted the chains that kept Kastor in place. His arms were still suspended above him but he would be able to wipe his own face, now, or stand a little easier. “I'll come back soon,” he promised. “I'll bring wine.”

“Something stronger,” Kastor said. “There's always something stronger.”

In the hall, Damen caught the arm of the nearest guard. The man's eyes widened. Damen loosened his grip. “Make sure my brother is well cared for,” he said.

“Yes, Exalted.”

-

There was always more work to do. Damen longed for another life, sometimes, when it would have been preferable to get drunk or play card games or lock his door and keep out the world, and instead he had to deal with missives, letters, reports on their Delphan reclamation and the well-being of his household. That was before he considered the scheming Veretian Regent, the fact his brother tried to kill his father, and the marrow-deep tug in his chest at the mere thought of Laurent.

They had kissed. It hadn't been a chaste, tentative thing either. The touch of Laurent's tongue had been searing. Damen had been ready to drop to his knees for him. Dominant, indeed.

But there was work. Like conferring with his father over what to do with the prisoners. The sensible thing was to keep them all chained and retain the pretense that Laurent was, too. Which would mean calling him back from his visit to the rescued Veretian soldiers. The near-drowned men had already suffered quite enough.

For all that he was strong, Theomedes was also fair. He did not like to keep people he had already deemed innocent behind bars but it was necessary. They had a small advantage here, if they could maintain the illusion that they did not know what had happened. There had been slips. But they could be overcome. Theomedes could relapse.

He still hadn't left his rooms. Damen and the only man his father trusted, Oreste, had come to work and left again. Tactics. Scheming. This was not the kind of war Damen knew. There was no pride here.

When he finally went to bed, he was surprised at the exhaustion that hit him. He was strong. A few sleepless nights and hard campaigns – what where they to a young man who would one day be king?

“Sleep,” Laurent said and, so, Damen slept.

-

It was not easier, exactly, to deal with hardships in the morning but there was a certain sense of renewal that came with dawn and rested bones. Laurent was gone from the bed when Damen woke and that caused a pang. But, when Damen went to the antechambers off his bedroom, where Laurent waited with his favourite breakfast foods and the messages that had come throughout the night laid neatly on the table, warmth spread through his veins.

“Old habits?” Damen asked.

“Something like that.” Laurent's eyes flashed as he helped himself to the first, best portion of everything on the table.

“Did I thank you for the cuff and collar?” Damen asked. “They were a bit bulky for a bookmark.”

“Effective, though.” He handed Damen the orange juice.

“One was missing.”

“I kept it.”

“Why give me the others?”

“Maybe you will wear them someday. The collar might fit around your over-sized wrist.” Over the top of his copper goblet, Laurent smirked and the burnished metal seemed to make his eyes glow. Damen found himself hopelessly lost. This was what they had. This is what he would give up to help Laurent re-take Vere.

“Maybe,” Damen said. “Perhaps I will have a secret reason to see you in Arles.” Rather than smile like the buffoon he felt like, Damen took a bite of the soft nutty bread that was a palace staple. There was no chance of smiling, then. “This is Kastor's favourite,” he said. “One year, he demanded it for his birthday feast instead of any of the delicacies the kitchen offered.”

“You should take him some,” Laurent said.

“Are you going to suggest I poison it, too.”

“No. I-- No. It is common knowledge how much I loved my brother,” he replied. “I worshiped him but...there were times when I held him to standards too high and raged at him when he did not meet them. I was petty.”

“You were a child.”

“If I could go back, I would be nice to him in every moment. Even when he did not deserve it.”

“My brother tried to kill my father. Who knows what he would have done to me?” Damen said and he could hear the emptiness in his voice.

You couldn't convince yourself not to love someone.

Laurent ate some fruit. Later, when he was dressed and when he had indulged in pecking Laurent on the cheek before he sent him back to his room to play prisoner and when he had paused in the hallway to appreciate the flush that spread on Laurent's face at the unexpected kiss, Damen went to Kastor's room with bread wrapped in fine white cotton.

“Has he had breakfast?” Damen asked the guard.

“No, sir. The orders were that no-one entered.”

Damen thought there was every chance Kastor would fling the bread back at him. Perhaps after chewing it first. But he had to try. And maybe his brother would recognise the gesture.

He pushed open the heavy door.

And stopped.

And blinked.

And tried to reconcile the sight.

A hanging man could only look one way. There was no doubt. There was his brother, in the soft morning light, with the iron chains wrapped around his neck and his feet high off the ground.

Damen rushed. He wrapped his arms around Kastor and bore his weight. “Guards!” He shouted and they came. They cut him down and Damen still bore his weight until he couldn't and he had to gently lower him to the floor.

He was too late.

Kastor was already cold.