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One the Other

Chapter Text

Damen had the distinct feeling that this was all happening to someone else. It was his arms that laid his brother down. His ragged voice that sent for his father and warned for neither of the guards to breathe a word. His eyes that burnt with unshed tears.

But, in another way, it wasn't him at all. Some other man had gave his own brother length enough to kill himself. Some other man would have to tell his father that his oldest son had died.

Kastor was dead and Damen could only think about Auguste. He'd felt a similar feeling by the stream by the Artesian ruins when the Akielon soldiers refused to obey. Like it was too unreal to actually happen. How must it felt for Laurent, so young and so devoted to his brother, to see Auguste slain like that. How sore it had been for Damen to lose Marlas that he had never even brought it up with him.

They were the only two people who knew what happened, and he had never even spoken to Laurent about it.

Theomedes did not come to Kastor's room. He sent Oreste who nodded like Kastor's death was something he agreed with and Damen didn't think. He couldn't. It felt like someone else who had pinned the King's trusted friend to the wall and pressed his forearm hard into Oreste's windpipe and didn't move until three guards, who would not touch the prince, pulled Oreste away.

“That is not something to nod about,” Damen said, coming back to himself.

“I only meant,” Oreste replied. “That I am relieved he spared your father having to do it.”

Damen said, again. “No-one goes in or out. No-one knows. If this gets out, you'll all see the noose.”

Instincts drove him back to his own apartments. Laurent was there. The sheets might still be warm.

But that was not how honourable men behaved. Damen would not hide. He would not withhold from his father the things he wanted for himself – comfort, recognition, shared memories. There was no-one else alive who understood what it was to lose Kastor. Not even Jokaste, confined to her rooms with his get in her belly, would understand. It had been what he was, not who he was, for her.

“Father,” Damen said. “I am sorry.”

“Yes,” said Theomedes. “This is a very sorry situation.” He said no more. Damen waited and his father said no more. He called for some of the warm brown liquor made from base wine that was said to be good for shock, let it burn down his aching throat, and his father said no more.

“He was your son,” Damen said.

“Do you think,” Theomedes replied. “That I do not know that?” He turned his back, mumbling something Damen couldn't catch but maybe, he could and did not want to dwell on. A word he knew he well – the Akielon term for failure.

Damen said no more and his father said no more. Damen, having shook the feeling that this was happening to some other person, began to gather himself. He was the crown prince. There was work to be done. There was always more work, even when your brother was dead.

He meant to get to that work but his body was quite immovable. Then, the room began to bustle. A trusted servant, free from the cells, came with more drinks. Paschal and Lykaios came to attend the still-recovering king. Oreste came with reports. No-one mentioned Kastor.

“I should --” Damen made to leave.

“No.” Theomedes did not look up from his observation of Paschal's written reports “Stay.”

It occurred to Damen that maybe he judged his father's previous silence too harshly. You could be quiet with loved ones. A king never belonged to just himself. It wasn't that their subjects demanded answers – it was that a royal had the duty to provide answers.

Nikandros came, and sat obedient as a slave, beside Damen at the table in his father's private sitting room.

“Do you know?” Damen asked.

“Know what? Oreste said it was urgent. I assumed it was about the kyros position.”

There was an inkwell and a scroll on the table. There were too many people in the room. So Damen held the delicate quill between his clumsy fingers and wrote on the parchment in Veretian – Kastor is dead.

Nikandros's brown eyes got very large in the second before he snatched the paper and threw it into the fire. “I am sorry,” he said. “For your loss.”

“Thank you,” Damen said. They waited. Damen found the use of his brain. Kastor's death could be his absolution. No-one need know his involvement in the poison plot. It could be placed squarely on the physicians who had managed to infiltrate the palace. Except Kastor invited them. They could pass it off as a common illness, no poison at all. Except Theomedes could not ignore that it had started at the Kingsmeet. He would not.

Eventually, Theomedes cleared the room. He looked, for a moment, like recovery had never come his way – all tired eyes and weary bones. But, then, he straightened his back and rested his hands on the big wooden table.

“For now,” he said. “We tell no-one.”

“About --”

“All of this,” Theomedes said. “The Veretian princeling's ideas are not all bad. While I am believed to be slowly dying, the Regent will not make any further strikes. As far as anyone outside this room is concerned, Damianos exerted his right as heir to secure my health. I remain in isolation. He quarrelled with Kastor over Jokaste and keeps him away. That will believed, after the show he put on at the games.”

“Exalted,” Nikandros said. “Her ladies have ears everywhere.”

“They will keep them closed,” Theomedes replied. “Nikandros, what do you think?”

Damen was chagrined. His father asked Nikandros opinion first. That was not how it should be.

Except, unlike him, Nikandros was not unduly influenced by Laurent. He was, perhaps, the person with the least biased opinion of Laurent.

“It makes sense,” Nikandros said.

“When this is over,” Theomedes said. “You can choose where you want to be kyros, Nikandros.”

“When what is over?” Damen asked. “Kastor doesn't stop existing just because he died. He is still--”

“Damianos, that is exactly what happens when someone dies. Trust me. I know. Us three will light the ekthanos and walk at dawn. The rest can be done later. It is right. There is no-one who knew him better.”

“Jokaste,” said Damen.

“No. I do not trust her,” Theomedes said. “Also, there is the child to think of. Shock can make women miscarry. Trust me. I know.”

Damen's mother had lost many babies before the successful pregnancy that she did not survive. Hypermenestra quite likely had, too, or else she conceived only once. Loss was a bedfellow to Damen's father that had outlived his wife or his mistress.

There was, as always, a commotion at the doorway. Even in secret meetings and talk of grief, kings never belonged to just themselves. As almost always, the commotion was caused by Laurent, who was back in restraints and had somehow annoyed his personal guard into shoving him into the room.

“That,” he said, shaking out the chains that bound his wrists in front of him. “Was unnecessary. You are on my side.”

“That,” said Jord. “Was because you gave us very clear instructions to make you seem unwilling. And you should have told me Orlant was here.”

“They are old friends,” Laurent said, smiling. “Oh, dear. Never mind. Guards, leave us.”

“It's Kastor,” Damen said, because his father and Nikandros were silent again. They were looking at Laurent like they did not remember all the ways he helped them and all the efforts he made to be liked. “He's dead.”

“That was quick.” Laurent threw Theomedes a look that was not unappreciative.

“He killed himself,” Damen said.

“Oh,” said Laurent. “I am – oh.” Awkwardly, he stood beside Damen's chair. and Damen wondered, if they were alone and if he was not restrained again, would Laurent make some move to comfort him. As it was Laurent simply bowed his head, a mark of respect, directed towards Theomedes.

Then, facing Damen, he raised one chained hand. A gesture between princes. Damen copied him. Mirror images. For a moment, their palms touched, fingers entwined and Damen had never known a greater comfort.

He said, “Thank you.”

Laurent said, “I take it you are keeping this quiet for now.”

“Yes,” said Theomedes.

“It's good strategy,” Laurent said. “I take it this is your relapse? I'll have Paschal send word to Vere. He'll lie for me.”

“What about his code?”

“There are always exceptions. Do I have to lay down the plans or will I listen?”

“My father is sick again,” Damen said. “The whole palace is under suspicion. Even Kastor. Your bastard-hating country will believe that. The country is too unstable for me to leave the situation in Delpha as uncertain as it is. So I will go to Arles, to negotiate for peace, and Prince Laurent will come with me because I am serious about peace and, unlike my father, have no interest in using you as leverage.”

“If I was truly sick,” Theomedes said. “I would not send my heir into the viper's nest.”

“If you were truly sick you not be able to argue,” Laurent said.

“Let us not pretend this is only about peace. You want my son to help you take your throne back and he is big enough of heart to do so without hesitation or payment. I am not so generous.”

“I have helped you take Delpha.”

“Most of Delpha. And we could have done it without your help.”

Damen remembered Laurent in stolen armour fighting by his side. Laurent in slave cuffs, tending to his bruises at the end of the night. He was not so sure he would have taken Delpha alone. He hadn't managed before.

“What do you want?” Laurent asked. “King to king.”

“Surely this can wait,” Damen said. “We are – Kastor is.”

“You are not king yet,” Theomedes said.

“I will be by the time we are finished in Arles.”

“Relinquish your claim on Delpha. All of it.”

“Fine.”

“No way,” said Nikandros. “The people there won't forgive him. The border folk are more loyal to the starburst than anywhere else in the country.”

“To get what you want,” Laurent said. “You have to know what you are willing to give up. Akielos can have Delpha. On one condition.”

“Go on,” said Damen, bracing himself for whatever outlandish notion Laurent would fling their way.

“Nikandros still gets the kyros seat there.”

Nikandros closed his eyes. Damen thought his friend was engaging in some kind of mental exercise to stop himself lashing out at Laurent.

“Fine,” said Theomedes.

“No,” said Damen. “No.”

“It's right. Nikandros as kyros. He knows the territory. He won Ravenel.”

“No,” said Damen again. “Nikandros gets Ios. Now that Kastor is ... Laurent, you don't get to decide the politics of my country. When I am --”

“Nikandros?” Laurent said, not unpleasantly. Damen could see the conflict in his old friend's eyes. All those years of work. The glory of taking an antakeable fort. The chance to rule a brand new place.

Or Ios. Where Kastor should have sat. Where Damianos would always be the one in charge.

“Whatever my king wishes,” Nikandros said.

Damen looked away, out the window, at the bright blue see.

“We want reparations, too,” Theomedes said. “Compensation for every year Delpha was under Veretian occupation.”

“I'll consider it,” said Laurent. “I am sure you understand that I am not quite privy to Vere's account books at the moment. My uncle won't even allow me access to our statute books and I feel it is in all of our best interests to brush up on the laws of ascension there. I'm still not twenty one.”

“I'll take your puzzle profits in lieu.”

“You'll have to wait,” said Laurent. “I used most of them to finance your campaign. Come on, where did you think your son got personal funds?”

“He bought the slaves from me,” Damen offered, again having the feeling this was all happening to someone else.

“I'll draw up some terms,” Theomedes said. “You may go. All of you.”

“But--” The day was long and Kastor was dead. Damen couldn't see why they couldn't remain as a family to mourn him before the business of war and thrones took them over again.

“Now.”

They left. Nikandros offered to look after things and drifted away. That was good. Damen had no notion that anything needed to be looked after right now but, of course, the palace bustled on and their men in the north still needed orders and there was subterfuge to maintain. Nikandros was a good friend. He would be an excellent kyros. In Delpha.

“How could you do that?” Damen hissed at Laurent. “Are you trying to hurt me? Have I not been --”

“I do not wish to hurt you in anyway, Damianos.”

“My brother is dead. You are going back to Vere. Nikandros in Delpha and I will be here,” Damen said, and voice was splintering. “I will be alone.”

“You are accompanying the Veretian hostage back to his room,” Laurent said. “It's all right. Be as realistic as you need to be.”

Damen took hold of Laurent's elbow and lead him back to their apartment. There was no question of him bringing to Laurent to the chains in his own room. There was also no question in his mind that their guards would be disloyal.

“If you would unchain me,” Laurent said and Damen found that his hands were shaking as he opened the restraints. “Oh,” Laurent said. “Breathe. You can still breathe. Don't forget that.”

Damen focused on breathing while Laurent rolled his neck, soothing his muscles from the ache of the restraints. Damen had never been tied up. It must hurt. Some part of Damen, the youngest part, hurt in a yearning way. He and Laurent were alone again now. Laurent was not, generally, affectionate but he was, generally, compassionate. If he would just offer Damen some small comfort, Damen might be able to breathe easier. He might be able to see something other than his big, ever-present brother, swinging from the neck.

But Laurent had his own dead brother, his own brand of grief, and his own ever-present anger for how that death occurred.

“Do you want the baths cleared?” Laurent asked.

“No, thank you.”

“What about the bath here? I can ... I will attend.”

“No, thank you.”

“Should I send for a slave? Lykaios or --”

“I don't want a slave.”

“The training arena?” Laurent said, fussing like a mother hen.

“You're meant to be my prisoner.”

“Yes,” Laurent said. “I can clear the furniture. I can tell you want to hit someone. Damen, look at me. I didn't think. With Nikandros. It wasn't to hurt you. It's right for the region and you know it. ”

“I--”

“No, I understand. This is all the fault of my uncle. You're allowed to hate me. Hit me, if you want. Verisimilitude. Make the rumours true.”

“I could never hate you,” Damen said, and he couldn't really make sense of anything. His brother was dead. Laurent was acting like Damen was some kind of brute when he was meant to know him better than that. Damen had been imagining, just a little while ago, what it would be like to kiss Laurent when there was no plots or pain between them. When the time would come when he would kiss him all over and they would lose themselves in each other's bodies.

But he couldn't be mad at Laurent now, ever. Because it was a misjudgement of Damen that made him think these things. It was a misjudgement of himself.

“Oh,” said Laurent. He picked at their things, scattered around the room. Books. Rose jellies. A set of throwing stars. He balled one of his fine shirts in his hands and then folded it again. “Sit,” he said. Damen sat on the couch. “No, like this.”

Damen felt malleable as a slave in the training gardens as Laurent touched his shoulder and pressed him to sit on the marble floor which was blessedly cool against his bare legs. Laurent gracefully sat directly behind him. Damen got a flash of the time with Erasmus, the times in his bed touching. That would be wrong, in this mood, when they had just become people who kissed and they had so many more things to learn about each other.

“I want to court you first,” Damen blurted.

“Hush,” said Laurent. “This is not that.” His legs were spread wide either side of Damen's shoulders. His boots were warm leather against Damen's arms. “Did you know,” he said. “That they learn in the slave gardens how you like to have your hair combed?”

Damen felt the lightest brush of Laurent's fingers at the crown of his head. It took all over his soldier's strength not to lean into the touch.

“I didn't know that,” Damen said.

“I thought they were being overly diligent in their preparations,” Laurent continued. “Also, there really is only one way to comb hair.”

“Thought?” Damen asked. “Not think.”

“I'm entitled to change my mind about things. I didn't know you as well then.” Laurent's fingers were moving through Damen's hair now with the same kind of practised efficiency he applied to most other things, like puzzles and swords and peeling oranges. “You like this,” he said, a little surprised. Then, he started to use the comb. He started at the nape of Damen's neck and worked his way, in little increments, up to the crown.

Damen let himself melt into it now. The repetition, the tug, the little thrill of Laurent, ice-cold Prince of Vere, who once stabbed a kyros in the neck in cold blood, performing such a servile task of his own free will. There were no disguises or games here. This was just his way of being nice.

“Have I ever told you,” Laurent said. “How much I love your hair?”

Damen breathed out a laugh. “Are you making fun of me?”

“No. I am being honest. I'm always honest with you. I love,” he said. “Your hair.”

“It's regular brown hair.”

“I could write epics about it but then you would make fun of me.” Laurent abandoned the comb and worked his fingertips over Damen's scalp. “I love your hair.” He leaned over a little and held one arm, where he had rolled up his sleeves, against Damen's chest. “I love your skin. I love your eyes. You are so warm to me always.”

Damen hummed, glowing under his skin, at the unexpected compliment. Generally, Laurent insulted him. Generally, Damen felt rough and oafish compared to Laurent.

“You are kind,” Laurent continued. “You are fiercely loyal. You are a good man. You will be a great king.”

“It's my fault my brother died,” Damen said. “He asked me to lengthen the chains. I thought I was making him more comfortable. But all I gave him was a weapon to end his own life.”

“You didn't know. You don't think like that. Damen.” Laurent said his name so softly. His touch was so gentle. “Kastor sealed his fate the moment he gave your father the poisoned wine. Akielos is a place of honour. Perhaps he thought he was saving you and your father from more pain by killing himself.”

Damen did not know if there was any honour left in his brother. But it was a nice idea.

“I never told you how I sorry I was for Auguste,” Damen blurted. Laurent's fingers, momentarily, went still.

“No. You never had to.”

“But --”

“I was there. I saw you fight. And you have been here all these years.”

“He was your brother. He was a good brother.”

“The best.”

“Your life could--”

“No,” said Laurent. “That's not a game I play any more. We have the lives we have.” His hands were on Damen's shoulders now, kneading. “He would have liked you, Damen. I've always meant to tell you that. I remember twice seeing him utterly relieved and it was both because of you. When you ceased fire after my father and at the stream.”

“What would he think now?”

“The same,” Laurent said. “He was a good person. Not like me or – you would think he came from a different family. His instinct for deception was remarkably non-existent.”

“I wouldn't think that,” Damen said. “Because I know you.” He turned his head to see twin pink stains on Laurent's cheeks. Laurent firmly turned him around again.

“Even after what I did at the battles? They were Veretian people I killed.”

“Maybe I'm conceited enough to think it was about me,” Damen said.

“Funny. I was just thinking about how big your head is,” Laurent replied. There were no knots left in Damen's hair but Laurent continued to comb it all the same. “It was the horses.”

“Not my finest moment.”

“No. It was good. You are an excellent strategist,” Laurent said, matter-of-factly. “I think – it never made sense what happened at the stream. Everyone in Akielos worships you. They would cut their own throats if you commanded. And that general, Makedon, he had control of his men. I think that squadron was infiltrated. All roads lead back to my uncle.”

“That does make sense.” Damen's voice sounded hollow to his ears.

“He saw the chance to clear a path to the throne and took it,” Laurent continued. “You know, my father favoured Auguste. It was no secret. But my uncle did not. I think, even then, he recognised the goodness in him, the strength. Auguste would never have been controlled like --”

“He saw your pendant.”

“He sent me with you,” Laurent said. “And I'll never get to thank him for that.”

“We both lost our brothers. I know,” Damen said, “That Kastor is ... was responsible for his own actions but it feels like --”

“My uncle is the direct cause of all this misery.” Laurent rested his hands on Damen's shoulders. “We're not going to let him do any more damage.”

-

Damen was not tired in the way that allowed a person to sleep. He was tired in his soul, his heart and every one of his bones.

“I cannot sleep,” he said.

“Rest,” Laurent said and then Damen was being bundled into his bed. “You have to get up long before dawn.”

“Traditionally, you would stay up all night first. Talking. Remembering. Letting the incense burn.” Damen, again, was struck with the memory of Auguste prone in the warfield tent. His father brought the body back. He had never thought about what had happened after. “You were deprived of that,” he said.

“We have a book,” Laurent said. “In Vere. In villages, ordinary people leave scraps at the door of the deceased. For Auguste, for my father, there would have been grand leather books in every township for people to write their messages. I wrote my own. I still do.”

“It's an official thing,” Damen guessed. “When a royal dies. The books.”

“Yes.”

“What is done with them?”

“They are stored,” Laurent said. “In Arles.”

“When you go home, you will see them. There are probably thousands.”

That seemed to please Laurent. “You can tell me about Kastor, if you wish. I know he wasn't always a bitter man.”

“Perhaps before I was born,” Damen said. “You've seen my scar. That was him.”

“I wondered,” Laurent said. “But I never was brave enough to ask.”

“I was thirteen,” Damen said. “I thought it made me a man. I don't want to talk about Kastor.”

“Do you want me to read to you?” Laurent asked, a little shy. He had done that before, when he was younger, when Damen didn't know much more of him than that he liked stories of other lives. It was innocent then and it was innocent now. “Folk tales where everything is just and right at the end.”

“All right,” said Damen and he closed his eyes, listened, and held very tight to Laurent's arm.

-

The long walk at dawn was not so long, because of the need for discretion. The incense was snuffed out with haste. There were no stories and just three mourners. The sun rose behind a stubborn embankment of rare clouds and Kastor was deprived of that final burst of light in the sky.

It was terribly, painfully wrong to Damen. That his brother was dead. That this was his scant memorial. That the woman who bore his child and the men who served under him, loyal soldiers who knew a side to Damen's brother that his family never would, could not add something warm to his passing. It wasn't the suicide that lead to this point. That held its own kind of honour, for Kastor had saved his family from the indignity and pain of being the ones to kill him.

Except for Damen, who had lengthened the chain. Damen, who would never hurt anyone he loved.

“Father,” he said, when it was done. “I – must tell you something.”

“Is is about Laurent? Please, not now.”

“No. It's not that.” Damen, who was strong and who could command armies and destroy enemies, could not get the words out. But truth was the honourable thing. “It's about Kastor,” he said. “When I saw him, before he died, I wanted to ease things for him. He asked me to lengthen the chain so he could move more freely. I was just --”

“Enough,” Theomedes said, not sharply, not softly, just a simple word. “Say no more. You did what you thought was right.”

“It's my fault.”

“No,” said Theomedes. “It is not. Time to go back. The palace will awaken soon. There are arrangements to be made.”

“May I ask you something?”

“I may not answer.”

“What did you say to Laurent when you were ill?”

“I said it to him, not you,” Theomedes said. “But, while we're on the subject, what is your thoughts on Arles?”

“I am going,” Damen said. “I was always going.”

“That's your only thought? Come on, son. You can do better.”

“I know,” Damen said, carefully. “That Veretians are not to be trusted. But – he has been with us these five years. I want to help him.”

“They will all believe me truly incapacitated to send my son and heir to that viper's pit. Damen, you understand this? You must return. You must come back and lead your country.”

“I will, father.”

“You will be leaving him behind.”

“I know,” Damen said. “I know.”

-

It seemed ridiculous that the sun kept rising. Kastor was dead and Damen, who preferred simplicity, was embarking on an ill-thought out plot to restore balance to the enemy country. Kastor was dead, the Regent had caused all this, and Damen still had to sign off orders for the north and bolster the palace guard's spirits and breathe, breathe, breathe.

It seemed ridiculous, also, that he and Laurent had so little time left together in Ios where things were safe and simple and they were not together. Laurent was a pretend prisoner and Damen the doting son who put his priorities first. Why, he single-handedly brought them victory in Delpha and slaughtered a seven hundred horse troop all alone before galloping back to make his father well again. He needed to be seen so no-one would think about how Kastor had not. He sparred with Nikandros in front of new recruits because he knew he did not need to hold back. After, when Nikandros was in the sawdust, he helped him up.

“I will hold Delpha and do my best by your father in your absence,” he said. “But, please, old friend, come back.”

“You're the second person to say that to me today,” Damen said. “Do you think I will let a Veretian kill me?”

“No, I don't think that. I do think you're bedding one, though and that --”

“Is none of your business.”

“You didn't listen to me before, Damianos. Listen now, blind faith is a weakness. When a prince is cut, the whole country bleeds.”

“When he is king, there will be no more wounds between our countries.”

“And you?”

“Haven't you heard?” Damen said. “I am very strong.”

-

He thought it would be the right thing to do to go see Jokaste. That was his niece or nephew in her belly after all. Also, he thought it might be a comfort. But when he got to where she was confined, and peeped through the door, and saw her lounging on a velvet couch with her fawning ladies, he didn't see any place for comfort or honour.

So Damen went to his apartments, his place of solace, to Laurent.

Laurent had chains to wear and letters to write and a small Veretian troop to command, which he could only do through messages with that man Orlant via Jord.

Jord, who had not been the best judge of character in the past.

And Damen found the guard lounging, literally sitting on the floor in the hallway, talking to Laurent through the open door. Perhaps he had been too quick to judge Jokaste. She did not know about Kastor's death. People still lived when one person had died.

The men made themselves tall and behind them, the slaves Diana, Lykaios, Erasmus and Kallias made themselves one with the floor. They were playing cards. Even Orlant, the new prisoner, who Laurent also deemed trustworthy, and now hunched awkwardly unsure if he should be a soldier or an enemy here.

There was a moment where pride prickled like a bee sting. Damen was prince. This was his home, his tumultuous country, his grief and these lower ranking people were playing cards. But he brushed it carefully away as one would a bee that had not yet stung. He knew how Kastor would react to this sight. How his father would. He wanted to be different.

“I assigned you quarters for a reason,” he said to the guards “I suggest you make use of them.”

“Exalted,” Kallias began, taking his forehead from the tiles.

“Rise,” said Damen. “All of you.” Because he was not cruel, he saved the slaves having to ask what he wanted. They were trained to know what he would have wanted. But Damen no longer made it easy for them and lately, longer than lately, he preferred that servants saw to the practical needs of the prince. He said, “I do not require anything. Neither does Laurent. Do what you will with this time.” Damen did not look through the door at Laurent. He had a feeling he would do something ridiculous like smile and wave at him.

Jord helped Orlant walk, because of the restraints.

Lazar lingered. “If I may,” he said. “We were ordered to watch him.”

“Now,” Damen said, putting one hand on Lazar's shoulder. “I am ordering you to leave. Trust me, I can manage.” He walked him down the hallway.

“When Nikandros leaves, do you think he would pass on a letter for me?”

Damen had to take a second to process the words. He had never heard Lazar sound anything but annoyingly, Veretianly, confident before. “Nikandros will do as I ask,” he said. “So keep this corridor clear.”

“When you leave,” Lazar said. “It will be different for you.”

“No kidding.”

“For both of you.”

“I don't remember asking your advice.”

“All I'm saying is that if I was you, I'd make the most of this time. It won't come again. In Vere, half the population would keel over at the thought of their golden prince bending --”

“Watch it,” Damen warned. And he was thinking it was good that that many people cared for Laurent there still. He would need that, when he ascended to the throne. A kingdom, instead of what they had here in the private rooms in Ios. Bonds do not disappear, Damen thought, because they are lengthened. But bonds that are forged in unusual circumstances do not always feel the same after. There were soldiers who had served under him, inseparable in wartime and strangers in peacetime.

He and Laurent were the crown princes of rival countries, future kings, and for all that his heart believed they would find a way to bring peace, Damen knew that they could not find a way to be together when it was done.

Arles and Ios were very far apart.

The days of the land being all one kingdom were long over. Akielos had been made anew by Damen's ancestors. He could trace his line to the very first king.

Arles and Ios were very apart.

But in this moment, when the sun streaming and sea splashing, Damen and Laurent were separated only by a wall and the battlements built around their own bodies. Damen had set spikes around his own self, pointing inwards, because for all that he was a selfish pleasure-seeking creature, he had watched a scared boy become a brave man. Laurent had been hurt in so many private ways and they made Damen fearful, sometimes, that he would trigger some memory of a pain he could not imagine. But there was so much honour in knowing he was the only person Laurent shared his pain with and he hoped that there could be a future where Laurent could share joyful things with him too.

“You're going to need this,” Lazar said and tossed him a key.

The metal was heavy and sun-warmed in Damen's hands. It would open Laurent's restraints. Damen wished he had a key for every person in the kingdom. One that would open them up to themselves. For slaves to know some their own minds. For soldiers to see a life beyond the army. For mothers to go to a place where they would not have to worry about their children. To have been able to unlock and unknot the parts twisted parts of Kastor.

Damen used to think being a prince was about protecting those who were weaker. As Damianos of Akielos, even after Marlas, he thought that everyone was weaker than him. He never thought about strength of mind. He never considered different kinds of fighting or the personal kind of winning. Laurent, in his life, had been a key that turned very slowly and then revealed to him new ways to approach things. New parts of his heart.

In Vere, Laurent would be that kind of king. He would give people chances, not boundaries. Damen squeezed the key tight in his palm and hoped he could do the same.