Damen came around in a series of blinks, feints and struggles. His room was warm, warmer than anywhere in Vere had been since he arrived. Fire crackled in the corner. He saw the blue drapes first and his brain conjured up the lovely memory of those same curtains being closed around him and Laurent when they made love for the first time. And the second.
The third time, they had opened the curtains and let the sun shine in. It had been hands and kissing and touching in the daylight, like the old times in Ios before Laurent was ready for the last act of sex, and it was no less special than the shadowed intimacy of the night before.
Next, he squinted and saw the knife nicks on the bedpost. Laurent had told them Auguste scarred that wood out of boredom. Another nice memory.
Damen tried to sit up against plump pillow. A sharp dart of agony in his shoulder made him go still again.
“No. Don't move.” A hand came on his other shoulder. “Wait.”
Damen smiled. Laurent's voice had that effect on him.
He remembered Laurent had been the one to stab him. He did not stop smiling. With the manner of someone who was not used to administering another, Laurent rather awkwardly adjusted the pillow behind Damen's head and helped him sit upright.
“What happened to the boy who did an excellent job of pretending to be my slave?” Damen muttered. “You act as if we have never touched before.”
“You weren't wounded, then,” Laurent replied, lightly. “Much. Anyway, I'm glad you're awake. The snoring was frightful. Half my staff thought an earthquake was upon us. I hardly got a wink of sleep.”
“Never bothered you before.” Damen forced himself to open his eyes before he said the last word. “Sweetheart.”
For all that the bedding was fine, the setting familiar, the presence of Laurent the greatest comfort there was, there was still the chance he could have woken surrounded by Veretians ready to kill him for the death of the Regent.
People were proud. Vere had reason to hate Prince Damianos, who had won the war for Delpha and been present for the death of Crown Prince Auguste and taken Laurent to his bed. The Regent's crimes may not cancel out the act Damen had a perpetrated in the heart of the Veretian court. Laurent was still not old enough to legally take the throne.
But whatever gods that watched over foolish princes in love must have been smiling down the them.
Because Laurent was alone. Laurent was leaning over him, golden hair falling across forehead, with the brightest light in his blue eyes.
“I've never had to drug you before,” he said. “That must be what caused the snoring. You caused quite a commotion when Paschal had to clean the wound, you see. You kept fighting him off. There was a small infection.” He looked away. “I was very worried.”
“You knew it was a flesh wound.” Damen took advantage of Laurent's worry by taking hold of his hand. He saw, his lion pin was fastened to the pillow again.
“I knew it was probably a flesh wound.” Laurent's gaze flickered to the bandages on Damen's chest. Damen's eyes followed. “You lost a lot of blood. The knife wasn't clean.”
“It's fine,” he said.
“I'm not sorry,” Laurent said. “Anyway, it's ancient history with all the upheaval at court these last few days.”
“How many days?”
“Two. A blink, in the grand scheme of things.” Again, he said. “I was very worried.”
“You shouldn't have stabbed me then,” Damen said.
“You shouldn't have been so proud. Jord told me he offered to tend to you before Paschal got there.”
“If I wanted the wound tended to then, I would have done it myself,” Damen replied. He was perfectly capable of stitching himself up. “What's the word you like? Verisimilitude. I still wanted people to think you fought me off.”
“Knife wounds cause bleeding.”
“You bled, for me.”
“Yes,” said Damen. “Wouldn't you do the same for me?
“Anything,” Laurent said. “It was just a couple of days. Don't think I've changed that much while you were unconscious.”
“It's not consciousness I worry about,” Damen said.
“What then?” Laurent still allowed Damen to hold his hand.
“Things were always going to chance when you re-took the throne.”
“Everyone wants to talk to me now. To offer their sympathy and regret and assure me they were loyal all along. I've had most of the court grovelling at my feet. Audin and Guion went to the noose, of course. Your father sent some very concerned messengers. Nikandros of Delpha rode straight here.”
“How convenient,” said Damen. “That he was so close by.”
“All part of my master plan, my dear barbarian,” Laurent replied.
“I thought it was my plan for war.”
“Mine for the future,” Laurent countered. “We can talk about it later.”
“What else happened?”
“A letter from Jokaste,” Laurent said. “Don't worry. It was simply a proposition.”
“Marriage? She doesn't waste any time.”
“She has said that perhaps she has remembered something new. That she was gravely threatened. That Kastor was afraid. A lie, of course.”
“Everyone knows my brother's misdeeds by now,” Damen said.
“It's a chance,” Laurent replied. “If you want to take it. A chance to redeem Kastor in the public eye.”
“Dishonourable,” Damen said.
“We're royals. We write our own stories. Anyway, it can wait.” Laurent looked down at Damen like he couldn't quite believe what he was seeing. “I had been thinking about sending the the charming Nicaise south in order to maintain our countries' grand tradition of fostering scarily beautiful children,” Laurent said.
“Send a warning first,” Damen said. “It is the Akielon way to inform of attack so they have a chance to retreat.”
“I'm sure the Lady Jokaste could handle him.” Laurent smirked.
“My poor father,” Damen said. “Those two in the palace. It would be worse than poison.”
Laurent smiled a little. “I only considered it. There's another option. Nikandros might take him. He is good with bratty, damaged children.”
“Of course, I'll leave it up to Nicaise.”
“He should be rewarded,” Damen said. “He was loyal. He brought us Paschal and Paschal was the key.”
“He's already demanding rewards,” Laurent said. “Starting with a pony and nicer rooms than Touars boy Thevenin.”
“Rooms,” said Damen. “Plural. You should send them both to a training academy.”
“But there won't be any more wars, though. What else? I've set the wheels in motion to change the laws regarding pets,” Laurent continued. “Called Orlant's men back. Sent Jord to Fortaine to see if Aimeric still wants to come to Arles.”
“Your sick bed was the only place I could find solitude,” Laurent said.
“My sick bed looks awfully like my bedroom.”
“Semantics,” Laurent replied. “Our room. Formerly Auguste's room.” Carefully, he lowered himself onto the mattress. He had sat like that before, in Ios, looking over his shoulder after Damen had been poisoned. Luckily, it was a very big bed. Damen did not need to move or risk inciting further pain in his shoulder. “Have you forgotten what happened here?”
“Never,” said Damen, and they shared a look that said more than any words. “Lie down,” Damen said. “I can see that you are tired.”
Laurent glanced at the door. “Someone might...”
“It never bothered you before.”
“It doesn't bother me now. But I do have to be seen to be strong.” Laurent curled his body alongside Damen's. He did not touch him, perhaps awkward of his injury or the memory of the night they had shared in this very bed. “Your father made it look easy,” he said. “Kingship. But it is not.”
“No,” Damen said. “I suppose that's what he was trying to teach me all along.”
“I'm not even a king yet,” Laurent said. “Two and a half more years until I am twenty one, and can ascend.”
Damen couldn't stop the little laugh that burst from his mouth, not even when Laurent glared at him. “How on earth are you still so young?” he asked, then feeling brave, he took a piece of Laurent's silken hair between his fingers.
“Oh, forgive me wise old man. You're only four years older than me.”
“Five,” Damen said. “Who will be your... representative now? Herode?” He couldn't bring himself to say the word regent. Not here. Not ever again.
“I've been reading the fine print.” With a flick of his wrist, Laurent gestured to a yellowed old book on the glass-topped night stand. “Naturally, Vere has some very complicated laws in place regarding ascension.” The way he held his shoulders changed. Damen stopped playing with his hair. “For example, when my great great grandmother Queen Jaquemina came into power, the council implemented a rule that if she was married before her 21st birthday she could take the throne with the knowledge that her husband would be an advisor and regent-in-action. ”
“Let me guess? She was married off to one of the councillors?”
Laurent lips lifted wryly but he still held himself still. “You are learning our ways.”
Damen was learning, somewhere deep inside himself, that it had been a very foolish thing to hope.
”So,” he said, and there was unchecked bitterness in his voice. “A Patran princess? The one you so deftly ended my marriage rumours via Torveld. Or a Daughter of the Empire. You do owe Vannes, don't you?”
There would be no consummation of course, but she could buy a couple of years of power for Laurent. Here. With Damen in Ios.
“Oh,” said Laurent, and he extracted himself from the space around Damen's body. “I did not think --” Sitting up, he scrunched his eyes shut and brought one hand to his neck. “Of course. I'm sorry. Forget I asked.”
Damen ignored the burn in his shoulder to sit up, too. He was still faster and stronger than Laurent. He grabbed his arm. “What were you asking?”
“It doesn't matter.” Laurent did not seem to able to look at Damen, so he glanced across the room, to a low table and a bright gold crown.
“Laurent,” Damen said. “Continue.”
“Your father is hail and hearty now. He wants to see all you are going to accomplish. Akielos doesn't need you as I --” He paused. “They can spare you. Jokaste's child can be second in line after you. Perhaps Galenne may even produce another half-brother for you. It was one kingdom, once. If I marry, I can rule. I can learn to rule alone, of course. But I think I could rule better with you by my side.”
Damen was quite speechless. In his wildest dreams, he never imagined anything like this. Not just Laurent, flushed and unsure and heartbreakingly open. But a future? He never imagined.
Damen leaned back against the pillow. “Yes,” he said.
“Are you enjoying making me sweat?” Laurent said.
“Yes,” said Damen, again. He was enjoying this now.
Laurent went across the room, open coat swishing around his thighs. “My uncle would not allow me access to all the statute books,” he said. “But...when I was younger, before I thought my life would be here as the second son and my work would be, if I was worthy, as an advisor to Auguste. They joked about sending me off as to cement international relations with another country as my mother had been sent to Arles.” He gave a little shake of of his head. “I never found it funny. I didn't want to be shackled to a princess. I read a lot of boring things about royal marriages in order to build a case to remain un-bethrothed. But I did not know about this for sure until I came back to Arles. Even as a boy I knew I would not make a strong marriage alliance.”
“You could make anyone strong who stood beside you,” Damen said.
“Idiot.” Laurent shook his head. “This is political negotiation, Damianos.”
“This is our bed, Laurent.”
He returned with the golden crown. “I would die of jealousy,” Laurent said. “If you married another. If you so much as looked at another. Torgiers tried very hard to wed a daughter to you. He would have given me a princess, too, perish the thought.”
“I would pity that princess,” Damen said, feeling the mood lighten again.
“In the spirit of full disclosure, you should know there was also a Daughter of the Empire interested. Her family had been interested in Auguste too. She was kind to me once, to impress him. So I wrote to her and told her the Crown Prince of Akielos was impotent and ugly.”
“Is this meant to make me feel better?”
“I also made sure every lady who came to court thought we were fucking,” Laurent said. “I told the curvy girl from Isthima that you couldn't get it up if I weren't in the room. Oh and I sent Diana to the attend to the kyros of Thrace's daughter and she later declared she could never marry a man.”
Damen took all of this without an ounce of surprise. Laurent had always been possessive. Damen had tended to be blind. “Jokaste?”
“We despatched her together.”
“Some questions,” Damen said. “While we're disclosing everything.”
“About my uncle? About the taint that exists in my family. Damen, I do understand your misgivings but I would --”
“That is not what I'm talking about,” Damen interrupted. “Is it what you want to talk about?”
“No.” Laurent looked down at the bed. “Not here.” Then, he finally sat back down on it with his legs crossed beneath him.
“There is nothing to talk about regarding your uncle,” Damen said. “As far as I'm concerned, we never have to speak about that man again. And I have no misgivings, doubts or concerns about your character, Laurent. You are the most trustworthy man I have ever known.”
Laurent said, “Damen,” and his cheeks were very pink.
Damen felt a lump in his throat. He had to touch Laurent's knee just to make the lump shrink enough for him to ask the next question.
“What did my father tell you when he thought he was dying?” Damen asked. Deep down, he felt it was important. That it had given Laurent strength.
“Information about what we were just talking about. People using me as a political pawn when I was still riding ponies.”
“You're going to need to be more specific,” Damen said. “Because I doubt he was interested in any kind of betrothal.”
“And now?” Laurent asked.
“I make my own decisions now,” Damen said. “If it's private, I understand but --”
“He told me that – before Marlas, or maybe during – my father wrote to Theomedes, ruler to ruler, to consider the possibility of sending the younger son south to Ios. A fostering. Part of the negotiation to end the invasion.”
“What would that accomplish?”
“Akielos would withdraw. They would have a valuable prisoner. I don't know. If any of us were women they would probably have hammered out a marriage alliance.” Laurent shrugged one shoulder. “War makes people desperate. He was still grieving. I could be spared.”
“We know this already,” Damen said. They had spoken of it the tent. His father treated it as a weapon. The Regent treated it as a gift.
“Your father told me, when he thought he was dying, that Auguste refused point blank to send me anywhere. He intercepted our father's letters. He sent his own after our father died. He never agreed.”
“But...” Damen wrinkled his forehead in confusion.
“Your father could lie and play games, too,” Laurent said. “I didn't protest --”
“I beg your pardon. You screamed that tent down.”
“I didn't protest after the first night because, well, I did think my uncle had a plan. But, that day by the stream, Auguste did mention something about me going away. He asked me lots of questions. I think he was starting to suspect.” Laurent pursed his lips and blew out, like that could blow bad memories away. “I was...careful. Auguste was gone a lot. He was like you – he did not see the ....dirt in the corners. He only saw the good things.”
“You knew him best,” Damen said. “There were only good things to see. Laurent, I'm sorry you spent those years in ignorance. If I had known...”
“It all worked out. If it helps, I think your father felt bad. And he did treat me well. You both did.”
“He lied even then,” Damen said.
“In the court...” Damen stopped himself. Of course the Regent lied. He was a man made of cruelty and deception and worse. Damen thought the knowledge his father had given Laurent about Auguste's continuing devotion had most likely given Laurent some measure of strength in the fight against his uncle. “I am glad,” Damen said. “That at least you know Auguste never used you as a bargaining tool. He wanted to protect you, always.”
“Even when he sent me with you,” Laurent said.
“I --” Laurent stopped. “What else do I have to do to convince you? Here.” He thrust the crown at Damen so abruptly Damen's shoulder burned when he rushed to grab it. “Take it apart. I had it made specially. Go on, you're strong. No need to treat it like a child's puzzle.”
Damen did not know much about Vere's royal regalia. The Regent had a ruling sceptre. That much he remembered. Laurent, in Akielos, did not have much occasion to wear his crowns nor did he care for accessories. His face and his hair were lovelier and rarer than anything the finest jeweller could create. When required, he had a plain gold circlet that sat among his yellow hair and rested in the centre of his pale forehead.
In Akielos, kings did not need crowns for their people to know who they were. The people knew just by the fact that they breathed. Mostly, jewellery was for slaves. As a babe, Damen had been brought to the Kingsmeet, presented to the kyroi, and crowed with a laurel made of fresh green leaves. Whenever Theomedes or himself wore a crown, it was a replica in gold leaves that sat at the back of their heads. It said, look, I am so much of a king I do not need my crown to be seen by a crowd.
The gold of Laurent's new crown was warm beneath Damen's fingers. Perhaps he was still fevered from his injury. Or maybe it was heated from Laurent's skin. Regardless, Damen felt clumsy as a chid as he fumbled with the crown. He took, as he generally always did, Laurent's advice and forced it apart. That did not require much strength. It separated as smoothly as a well-oiled lock would open.
Laurent dropped his gaze, lashes casting darker shadows on his high cheekbones
“Oh,” said Damen.
“That's mine.” Laurent extended his index finger to tap what Damen assumed to be the front part of the crown. Engraved, skilfully and delicately, in the solid gold was a lion surrounded by leaves. “That's yours.” The back part, which would sit from the nape of a neck, along the ears, to the temple, would be at first impression the standard laurel. Until you looked closer, as Damen did in wonder, to see an explosion of starburst.
Damen's heart burst like those sparkling night stars at the sight.
“Oh,” he said, again.
“Are you having some sort of fit?” Laurent asked.
“No,” said Damen.
“That is not as encouraging as you think it is. The sounds, you see, are very similar and --”
“Hush,” Damen said, and to make sure Laurent stopped the nervous babbling he caught hold of his jacket and pulled him on top of him. “Ouch.” The impact stung his wound. He still kissed Laurent, or rather Laurent kissed him, because he was lying on top of him and he was the one who pressed his lips against Damen's. Laurent was the one smiled widely against his mouth and deepened the kiss like he just needed to be closer.
“Is that a yes?” Laurent asked. “Or can you only speak in monosyllabic now?
“And you call me an idiot,” Damen murmured, running his hand down Laurent's back. “I said yes several minutes ago. You weren't listening.”
Laurent pulled back enough to angle his weight away from Damen's bandaged chest. “And you call me the cruel one,” he said, fondly. There was something different about his face. His cheeks were fuller. His eyes sparkled like sapphires. It was, Damen realised, joy. “By the way. I expect you to produce a matching set for when we ascend. A king needs a full crown and I am not about to pay for both sets.”
“You didn't come up with that design over night, did you?” Damen asked.
Laurent ignored him. “You have some fine gold. Write to the palace and have it melted down. I gave them to you once. The collar and cuff from my slave disguise. It was a gift.”
“No,” said Damen. “I've grown attached to the collar and cuff.”
“You're the one who gave them to me.”
“That was not sentiment,” Laurent said. “You never know when a disguise might be needed. Plus.” He grinned a sly grin against Damen's mouth. “You never got to wear them.”
“I've got a lot of gold, Laurent. I can make a crown another way. I could buy a million crowns.”
“I guess I'm going to be the one in charge of finances then,” Laurent said, with a sigh.
“When my parents married,” Damen said. “My father gave my mother enough gold bangles to cover both her arms. They're mine now. I would like to have them made into a matching crown for you.”
“I --” Shyly, Laurent looked away. “I'd like that, too. Do you think your father will agree?”
“He will,” Damen said, though he was not entirely sure that was the case. Theomedes would take some convincing. Damen was determined to make this happen whether his father agreed or not. “He said to me he wanted to see what I would accomplish. I think marrying you would be a very grand accomplishment.”
“Not everyone would feel the same.”
“Good. I would get very jealous if you had other suitors.”
“I would want no other suitors,” Laurent said.
Damen thought about his father. He had known him as a parent and known him as a king. He rarely thought about Theomedes as a person. The memory came to him, of his father's wistful gazes at the statues in the Kingsmeet. Laurent and Damen were so young, and they had spoken of how history would remember them. Surely, it played on Theomedes mind how he would remembered. He had been king when they lost at Delpha. He had been poisoned by his own son. Kastor was Damen's half-brother but there were no halves when it came to offspring.
“You know,” Damen said, puzzling the thoughts out aloud. “I think he just wants one major accomplishment to put under his sculpture at the Kingsmeet.”
“Your father is a good king.”
“Good doesn't get you remembered. Neither does strong,” Damen said. “But you gave him Delpha. That is important.” He remembered the admiration in his father's voice when he lead Damen around the statues once when he was a boy. Eradne, who ruled the six. Agar, who brought Isthima into the kingdom. Theomedes, who brought back Delpha.
“Speaking of Delpha,” Laurent said, pushing himself up from Damen. “Do you still think I stipulated Nikandros to be in charge so you would be alone?”
“I never thought you wanted me to be alone. It was just the result,” Damen said. “Did you engineer it so he would be close by?”
“In a way, yes,” Laurent said. “I like to look ahead. I think, Damen, Delpha can be our pilot study, so to speak. Don't look at me like that. You were the one filling my head with stories of Artes all these years.”
“Laurent,” Damen said, feeling like this couldn't be real. But it was nothing like the feelings of unreality he had experienced in the past when tragedy struck. This was a new sensation, as if he had grown wings and the ability to fly. He never thought he would ever be so blessed, so lucky in this life. “You mean...”
“It was one kingdom, once, Damen. It could be again.”
“Come here,” Damen demanded. He grabbed Laurent's elbows and pulled him back onto his lap.
“You are wounded!”
“I don't care,” Damen said. “You mean this. We can call it one kingdom and rule together.” His thoughts ribboned in a million different directions at the very idea. But it was possible. It would happen. Perhaps it started happening years ago, when Laurent started selling Veretian puzzles and influencing Akielon fashions and Theomedes took a strange foreign royal into his palace and treated him with all the respect he deserved. Perhaps it became inevitable when Damen took him into his heart.
“Yes,” said Laurent, and smiled. “Yes. Not right away. Delpha can be the first place we jointly rule. You can be the one to break the news to Nikandros.” He sat back onto his heels, tucking a piece of hair behind his ear, with a small self-conscious smile on his face.
Damen was treated to another lovely memory : Laurent on top of him in this very same position the first time they made love. He was overcome with the thought that they could have countless nights like the first one they shared.
“At the Kingsmeet,” Laurent said. “There will be a statue of you. And underneath it will say, Damianos, who united Akielos and Vere. Who ended slavery. Who brought peace to these lands.”
“There'll be a sculpture of you, too,” Damen said and it sounded like a question because he was still overjoyed and overwhelmed that this could really happen.
“Beside me,” Damen echoed. “Forever. But it won't possibly do you justice. You're too beautiful.”
“Oh, stop,” Laurent said, but Damen could tell he was pleased. “It will say, under my statue, Laurent, who actually masterminded the entire thing.”
Damen laughed, not caring that it hurt his shoulder to shake it. Then he thought how his days would be filled with laughter of those same sort of comments and he was so happy he thought his heart would explode.
The room was very quiet, then. Breathing was heightened. His heartbeat was loud as a marching army.
“Pass me the crown again,” Damen said. He took hold of the lion-etched circlet. “Lower your head,” he said. He could not resist pressing his hand to the side of Laurent's cheek.
Then, solemnly, he placed the golden grown on Laurent's head. It suited him before, the thin gold circlet he wore as a prince. But he carried off this king's crown even better, now that the weight was gone from his shoulders. Laurent's eyes were bright, his cheeks were flushed and his lips were slightly parted and pink as spring flowers.
“Your turn,” he said and picked up the starburst laurel. “Damianos of Akielos,” he said, almost reverently, and leaned close to place the crown among Damen's sleep and sweat matted curls. “My king.”
“I'm not,” Damen said. Laurent was Veretian.
“You are.” Laurent's face was open, young, loving.
“You are, too,” Damen said. And it was true. Laurent was king of his mind, body and soul. He would have been if they were both peasants. “Laurent, we are going to be kings together.”
“Better,” said Laurent, before pressing a soaring, searing kiss to Damen's lips. “We are going to be emperors.”