The ship departed with Damen on the deck, painfully aware of the lie he was spreading to the people come to watch their heroic prince sail away and the absence of Laurent at his side. He waved, once, a new regal motion that was more about lifting his arm and showing his strength than anything else. The people saw a prince, strong and sure, gone to Vere to make sure the ruler there knew unequivocally that Delpha was reclaimed by Akielos. Look, he was returning that strange Veretian prince to cement the deal. Laurent, who was beloved by most Akielons who had clapped eyes on him and others who had heard of his bright ways and who was hated by a small few who remembered the dead kyros and the dead soldiers, was leaving too and had the good grace to stay below deck.
Damen had heard people talk – how their prince was so warm he had made a friend out of that twisted snake. It was sad to him. Damen had done nothing special to receive Laurent's friendship, if that was the word for it, he had just been himself. Laurent was the special one, layered deep and more humane than anyone ever knew.
They would appreciate him here, after he was gone, and took his light with him and made sure no more of their sons were sent north to die.
A familiar shadow fell over Damen's as the ship sailed away and, ridiculously, Damen's heart gave a little stutter in his chest. Laurent had been at his side for years now, yet it felt like the first time. He hadn't appreciated then, hadn't thought about it what it would be like when the space beside him was empty, and there was no shadow to recognise and the light, clipping footsteps would not announce his arrival long before his presence did.
“Came for one last look at the palace?” Damen asked, making room at the barrier for Laurent to rest his elbows. The castle on the cliffs loomed high in front of them, growing smaller as the ship sailed, and it was very white and very beautiful against the cerulean sky.
“It is not a sight I am likely to forget,” Laurent said. “My former prison.”
“Funny. I thought it was your home for a time.”
“It was, I suppose. But that was not down to the architecture or the location.”
“It won't be the same without you,” Damen admitted, so quietly his words were nearly drowned out by the gulls and the water. He had, not for the first time, the foolish fantasy of pretending to go along with the Regent's plan. Damen on the throne, Laurent by his side, whispering guessed secrets and making him laugh and helping him make decisions. A selfish thought, to consider that any kind of victory against the Regent. It would keep his bed warm but it was not the life meant for Laurent. “This is your final chance,” he said, when Laurent did not respond to his admission. “To turn back. You could rule here with me.”
“No, I couldn't,” Laurent said. “Not while my uncle is in Vere. But thank you for offering, despite the late hour. Do you propose we swim back to shore? Our last dip in the sea was not so successful.”
“Why did you come up here?” Damen asked, as they had agreed days ago that Laurent would stay below deck to keep their pretence alive. He was under no illusion that he was skilled at weaving lies but if they flung enough out into the world, some would stick. Here, on deck Laurent could not look less like a prisoner. He was in severe Veretian clothing, dark as the night sky, strapped tight to his lean body. The fabric was unadorned, embroidered only with a near-invisible brocade as dark as to not contrast the overall effect but to reinforce the severity. His hair was the only thing not under control, a wisps of gold flying in the wind.
“I don't like hiding away or being left out,” Laurent said. “You should know that by now.”
“I do know you,” Damen said, and he looked, really looked, and saw that Laurent had his right hand clenched into a fist. Gently, he opened Laurent's hand and saw the glint of a ruby against the white skin.
“I know,” Laurent said, wearily. “You told me to throw it away a long time ago. I did try to, if that makes a difference. I thought to give it Kallias, because of his colouring. Then, Jokaste to keep her sweet. Or one of the urchins in the market. But I didn't.”
“The sapphires, remember them? I sold them to start the toy venture,” Laurent said. “But I kept this. I don't want to keep it any more.” He let the chain dangle from his slender fingers. A gust was all it would take for the ruby to go to the sea.
“Drop it,” Damen said.
“No,” Laurent said. “It is worth too much, practically speaking. That would be wasteful. Jord,” he called, and tossed the necklace to him. “Consider that a bonus for your dedication. Lazar, don't look at me like that. Jord has two years service on you.”
“What use have I for jewels?” Jord said, and his voice was strained by the wind.
“You'll find use for the coin it will fetch,” Laurent replied. “There'll be more for both of you after.”
“After you ascend, your highness?”
“After the journey,” Damen said. “We have three days on this ship. You -” He turned his head to include his personal guard. “Keep everyone safe and keep everyone away from our rooms for that duration. That's an order.”
He swept away before the guard noticed how pleased that prospect had made him. Three days on ship with Laurent. Three days with no way to communicate with the outside world. Three days.
For appearance sake, Damen gave orders to anyone else he needed to direct and went to his assigned room alone. His belongings had been unpacked. His preferred variety of wine was waiting and it only made him think that he sometimes wished Laurent would drink more often because his lips would look lovely stained. The berth was as opulent as possible but there was nothing here for him.
He went next door to the second-best berth on the ship.
And was denied access.
“Don't strangle the messenger,” Lazar said. “I'm just following orders.”
“What exactly did he say?” Damen demanded.
“Don't let anyone in,” Jord said.
“Well, I'm not anyone.”
“Not even Prince Damianos,” Lazar said.
Damen folded his arms. “Are either of you willing to try to stop me?”
They stepped aside.
“You're both turned off as soon as we hit land,” Laurent yelled, once Damen had pushed open the door. “I mean it.”
“He doesn't mean it,” Damen said. Then, stopped smiling when he saw Laurent bent in two beside his narrow bed. He stopped thinking, breathing, everything. “Laurent,” he said, rushing to his side. No. No. It couldn't be.
No more poison.
“Go away,” Laurent said.
“What happened?” Damen demanded. “I swear, I will --” His threat was cut off by the fact that Laurent retched into the copper pot by his feet.
“You can't slaughter the Ellosean Sea,” Laurent croaked. “Do you know that I've never been on a ship before?”
“You're sea sick?” Damen was relieved enough to smile but wise enough to hide it.
“I'm dying. That may be the cause,” Laurent said. And retched again.
“I can send for the physician,” Damen said. Though he did not particularly wish to see Paschal after their last conversation had been so unpleasant.
“No-one is coming in,” Laurent said.
Damen went to the door, re-iterated Laurent's order, amended his dinner requirements, found a towel and a bowl of clean water, and used it wipe the grime from Laurent's face.
“No,” Laurent said. “That is not --”
“Hush. Would you rather a slave? Have you amended your views on their personhood enough to class them as no-one?”
“You're not the first person to get sea sick,” Damen said. “It will wear off.” Probably.
“You shouldn't --” Laurent was having trouble getting the words out. “You are a prince. I am – a mess. You're not meant to see me like this.”
“That doesn't matter. I looked after my father when he was sick. I will do that same for you.”
Laurent closed his eyes. “This is why I don't drink, you know. I hate feeling --”
“I know,” Damen said. “Lie down. I'll hold the pot. You'll get your sea legs soon.”
For all that he would have liked to stay with Laurent, Damen had to leave the berth eventually. The captain wished to dine with him. There was a dancer who wished to perform for him and any number of travellers who just wished to bask in his presence. It was a brief obligation but it was obligation all the same. All these years of currying favour with the population would be tested if took them to war for a Veretian cause. He had to make everyone love him now. Laurent, well, that wouldn't be a problem.
Most people, if they could overlook his murderous tendencies, loved him on sight.
It had been longer for Damen, of course, but Damen could be blind sometimes.
He was wrong about Laurent getting his sea legs. It had not happened by the time he returned to the berth with the last of the cool water and some salted crackers. Laurent's complexion was a translucent shade of death green. His forehead was pressed against the bedpost while the ship rocked and rocked and rocked.
“I've changed my mind,” Laurent said. “My uncle can have the throne. Turn the boat around.”
“You don't mean that,” Damen said. “Here, eat a cracker.”
“You're trying to kill me, too,” Laurent nearly wailed. “I can't eat anything.”
“Let it dissolve on your tongue.”
“Water?” Damen brought the cup to Laurent's mouth; watched him drink knowing he would have refused the water if he offered it first. He lowered himself onto the rug that covered the dark wood floorboards.
“This isn't what you imagined when you wanted three days alone in a room with me,” Laurent said.
“No,” Damen said, smiling.
“I'm glad my distress amuses you so.”
“It doesn't,” Damen said. “It's just – it makes sense. I should have known. We are moving and we are not moving. It's disorientating.”
“The word you are looking for is torture.”
“Laurent, my prince who likes to control everything, cannot control the waves. Of course it makes you sick.”
“Shut up,” Laurent said, smiling, and then he was retching again as the ship rocked in rolling waves.
Later, Damen said, “Where are your books? I'll read to you.”
“I didn't bring any.”
“So sure we would have better things to do during the journey?”
“Something like that.” Laurent took a deep breath. “I didn't bring anything I care about. Present company excluded. I'll send for them, after, but – no. My uncle is very good at destroying things.”
Damen nodded. “I'll tell you a story.”
“Only if it's not one of your romantic fantasies about if our lives were different. My stomach can't take that.”
“Rude,” Damen said, as he leaned against the wooden wall, legs hanging off the edge of the bed, and drew Laurent's head to rest on his lap. He didn't know many stories. No-one read to him or told him fairy tales when he was a boy. He never bothered to learn the endless verses, Akielon history and legend, in anything more than an abstract way because there was always a slave to perform them for him. The experience of listening to story and hearing the facts explained and having your mind remember them just as you heard them was more enjoyable than going over them in your own head.
He thought of Erasmus, learning lengthy war tales when he would rather memorise love verses, and Damen knew he could not to justice to any of the stories about his glorious ancestors.
But there were other stories, fantastical and less well known, and so hard to imagine they might as well be fiction that Damen could try to recount. A time with no borders.
“In Vere,” Damen began. “Do you learn the history of the old empire in your schoolrooms?”
“Not in any detail.”
“When Vere and Akielos were all part of one kingdom,” Damen said. “There was a village at the base of a mountain and the top of the mountain there was a monster.”
As he spoke the old story, he felt foolish, like he couldn't do it justice or that this was something he should have done a long time ago. But the more he spoke, the more Laurent relaxed, and Damen was foolishly glad that this could distract Laurent from his sickness and the pressure of their trip. He told Laurent all the stories he could remember, of the time when there were no borders, and only one throne.
The sea was not so rough as they approached Vere. But Laurent did not stop Damen telling stories or playing with his hair in the narrow berth.
Damen woke, on their last morning in that bubble of a berth, to a different kind of rocking. He heard first the low sound that was somewhere between a sigh and a moan in his ear. As the bed was narrow, it was necessary, if they were both going to sleep there, for he and Laurent to lie on their sides. Damen was on the inside, facing the wall, because it would well be necessary for Laurent to make use of the bucket throughout the night. And Laurent lay behind him, chest moulded to Damen's back.
Laurent had always been a light, nervy sleeper. Damen could count on one hand the number of times he had awoken first and if he had, the slightest stirring would have Laurent's eyes flying open.
But, now, Damen was awake and Laurent was asleep. Damen knew Laurent was asleep because of the way he was brazenly pressing his morning arousal against Damen's backside. Awake, Laurent never would have been so unrestrained. As another little noise escaped his mouth, Damen found that he did not mind the feeling, not at all.
Blood rushed. He hardened. There was no space for him to move his arm, of even move his hips back towards Laurent, but he rolled his neck in the way you do just because your awake, and raised his knees a little. Why not give Laurent a little more to work with before he woke up? Damen knew the sleepy pleasure of waking up flush against a lover.
Laurent moved again, a little more insistently, and Damen smiled to himself. Another few seconds and he would turn around and, well, that had its own possibilities but mostly he wanted to see whatever expression would pass across Laurent's face when he woke.
Self-indulgence was a costly thing. He waited too long, enjoying the closeness, and then the lazy sighs became a sharp gasp and Laurent was awake and he was moving as far away as he could without hitting the floor of the berth.
“I'm sorry!” Laurent said and Damen twisted around to face him. There was a twisted look of revulsion on his face.
“Did you vomit in my hair?” Damen asked. The revulsion turned to confusion. “Because there is no other reason for you to be sorry.”
“I was asleep. But -- you were asleep.”
“I was awake,” Damen said.
“I would never – you didn't know.”
“Laurent, I did know.” The bed was very narrow. He didn't have to work too hard to show Laurent that be both knew and liked the feeling of him shifting against him. “I would wake up like that every morning. Actually, I'm surprised I haven't before.” He brushed some hair from Laurent's sleep-narrowed eyes and pressed a soft, closed-mouth kiss to his dry lips. “I don't mind,” he said.
“Oh,” said Laurent. “Even like --”
Laurent closed his eyes. “With me...behind.”
“I like how you feel,” Damen said. “I never thought of it beyond that. I've never – I've always done what felt natural to me.”
“When you thought about this future where we fuck, don't tell me you imagined it as anything but you doing the fucking,” Laurent said, crude in the way that he got when he was scrabbling for control.
“No,” Damen admitted. “is that a problem?”
“No,” Laurent said, and a small smile came to his lips and betrayed him. “I thought of it like that, too.”
“You thought of it?” Damen put his hand on the back of Laurent's neck to kiss him again. The bed was very narrow. Bringing mouths together meant bringing bodies together and there was the slide of Laurent's tongue against his, and the slide of Laurent's hardness where he most wanted to feel it.
“You know I did. I thought about it with you, and no-one else, for a very long time. My Akielon barbarian prince.” Laurent said, and his voice was still so lovely and rough in the morning.
Damen slipped his hand between their entwined bodies and his voice was rougher now. “You used to think I preferred women,” he said, moving them both in a sure rhythym, somewhere between the slow that Laurent liked and the determined that he liked. “So you know,” he continued. “I am always open to trying new things.”
Laurent buried his head in Damen's sweat-damp neck as he neared his climax and Damen held them both in his hand when it happened.
Later, he said. “The waters are much calmer now.”
“I know,” Laurent said, rising. “Look out the porthole. We have docked in Arles.”
For appearance sake, they dressed and prepared separately. Laurent was no longer the suspicious, foreign prince. He was the prodigal come home and had to conduct himself as such. Damen was the foreign prince now, and he felt every inch of it, as he caught glimpse of the strange cityscape and caught snatches of Veretian drift into the ship. He was foreign here but foreign did not mean lesser. He wore his soldier garb, muscle bearing leather, and had his boyservant polish his lion pin to a shine.
He would face Arles with all his Akielon strength on show.
Ordinarily, princes would leave a ship first but Damen and Laurent's morning had started late. They left last. Perhaps Laurent just wanted to make his welcoming party wait. He joined Damen in the corridor, in a severely laced traditional blue jacket that covered all of his skin except for his hands and face.
“Remember what I told you in Ios,” he said. “There will be so many things said.”
“I will,” Damen said and they stepped onto the gangway that would bring them down to land.
“Try not to kill anyone.”
“That's my line to you.”
“We're in my country now,” Laurent said, and Damen could see how it was taking all his resolve to keep his head straight and not take in the dark sky and the jasmine vines and the twisting architecture of the buildings in the distance. Laurent was not the boy who had left here. He was a young man, back to take his throne. His pennant flew above the sails. His guard were waiting to flank him and Damen realised he would have to step back and let Jord and Lazar stand here and let his own guard stand by him.
“How does it feel?” Damen asked.
“Important,” Laurent said, and his gaze focused on the party awaiting on the dock. Herode, who he trusted, with the councillor chain around his neck. Guion, who had let his own son be used to further the Regent's plan.
And the Regent, all in red, with red guards and red wagons and a serene expression that made Damen see red. If he threw his sword from here, he'd probably behead him.
But he could not. Even though the slide of muscle in Laurent's neck and the tension that took over his body, made Damen's heart splinter. War. Games. Protocol.
“You're not alone,” Damen whispered, and he stepped back to let the Veretians pass him out.
“Uncle,” Laurent said, pleasantly. “I'm back. Thank you for keeping my throne warm for me. I'm ready to take it now.”