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One the Other

Chapter Text

WE two boys together clinging,

One the other never leaving,

Up and down the roads going—North and South excursions making,

Power enjoying—elbows stretching—fingers clutching,

Arm’d and fearless—eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,

(excerpt from We Two Boys by Walt Whitman)

 

 

 

 

It was simple. Akielos needed a break from the fighting. There was no reason more valid to take a break than to allow the Veretians mourn their king in peace. That they would not do the same for Damen's family if tragedy struck was beside the point. Akielos was meant to be better than that.

“The ceasefire holds,” Damen said, again. “We have no reason to resume yet.”

“It is ours. Delpha is ours.” Kastor said, casting his hand over the sandbox on the table. “What reason more do we need?”

Damen glanced at his father Theomedes. His father the King. But his face was blank as an empty page. That meant he agreed with Kastor. Or it meant he was letting Damianos, for he was always Damianos during political talk, make the decision. He had been doing that all too frequently lately – giving Damen a taste of ruling.

Though to Damen it felt more like a test he was destined to fail.

“They are grieving,” Damen said. “The King of Vere is dead. It would be honourable to --”

“They were not honourable when they took Delpha all those years ago. They were not --”

“History,” Damen said. “This is now.”

“The King of Vere is dead. The Crown Prince Auguste rules now.” Theomedes said. “I hear he is quite capable.”

“Capable,” said Damen. “We know he is capable. He destroyed us at Sanpelier. Every time he rides out from behind the fort, we lose more and more good men. But that was before the father died. We won't attack during a funeral.”

“We?” Kastor leaned forward, hands flat on the knife-scarred table. His face was fierce, familiar. “Are you in charge now?”

Quite suddenly, Damen felt a twinge in his torso. Right on his long-healed scar. “I would prefer not to fight. That's all I'm saying. It is...disrespectful to attack during mourning.”

“Vere would not afford us the same respect.”

“Aren't we here because we are better?” Damen asked. “Is that not why we take Delpha back? So it can be ruled honestly instead of --”

“Son, you should get some air,” Theomedes said. “Go for a ride. “

“Good idea.” Kastor smiled. “Wouldn't want the cub losing his temper now.”

 

Damen stalked off. It was the hardest thing in the world to keep his temper in check around his goading older brother. He knew that was just Kastor's way and he knew that he would endure it graciously, because he would be the one on the throne and that is what kings did.

Or perhaps what family did. He could not imagine his father allowing insolence around him. But for all that Damen was the heir, he was also the younger brother. There were habits you did not forget so easily.

The mood has lightened in the camp since news of the death of the old King of Vere. White flags raised. Injured muscle given time to ease and sliced skin allowed time to knit itself back together.

Damen was not one for lying around the dirt ground no matter the circumstance. He took a serviceable horse and struck out East from camp. It was quite safe, while détente reigned, to venture further. Although, really, Damen always felt safe.

He hadn't been bested in a fight in some years. His strength was unparalleled. People bowed to him. Servants fought for the honour of washing his clothing. He had heard families were clambering to send their children to slave training just for the chance to serve the prince.

How could he not feel safe?

Damen spurred the horse faster and thick mud splashed and coated his muscled thighs. There was a clearing he had found, where the ground was smooth and the trees high and a small stream flowed right through the centre. Practise arenas were one thing, but sometimes Damen needed to wield his sword in preparation alone.

He tied his horse to a stump a little ways away so not to spook it when he began practise drills. Sometimes he forgot himself. Sometimes trees hit the ground and rocks were smashed into the air.

The clearing hadn't really been a clearing at all when Damen found it when they first rode to Marlas. It was just the bank of a stream. It was no different from any other place in these woods and fields, except that if you knew what you were looking for you could see some Artesian ruins crumbling the distance. Once upon a time, these lands had all been part of one kingdom. Ancient history.

Damen had taken just two steps from his horse, when he heard the murmurings. Odd. No-one else had ever passed here at the same time. Nomads and traders were naturally avoiding the area. Camp followers stayed in camp shadows.

Veretians did not cross the lines.

With his hand on the hilt of his sword, Damen took another step. It couldn't be more than two people, he deduced. If they had horses, they were quiet.

Perhaps it was two fellow soldiers, sneaking off for some ... relief. They did not all have access to slaves or money for whores. Certainly, Damen could not judge them for wanting to forget themselves in the pleasure of another. He was no stranger to that desire.

But he was the Prince and this was his clearing.

He peered through the trees.

He was right about it being just two men but wrong about everything else. Their clothes were not Akielon – they wore high collars and fitted trousers and the only skin on show was their fair hands.
The language was not Akielon. The sun-spun blond hair pressed together was not Akielon.

Nor were the engaged in practise or coupling. They were crouched over the small flowing stream, attempting to catch fish with their bare hands.

Damen waited, watched, until the larger one pulled his hands from the water and emerged with a sliver of a silver fish. Nothing worth eating. Nothing worth showing off. But he could sense triumph all the same.

“Now what do we do, Laurent?” The taller one asked in Veretian. Damen felt his heart thud in his chest. The blond hair was quite famed, now that he thought about it. The fine clothing was not the sort you normally saw in the woods.

Twin golden circlets shone amongst all that blond hair.

Damen had never seen the former prince, current King of Vere before. But he knew another who had been born to rule when he saw it. The set of his shoulders. The angle of his head. The unhurried way he spoke.

“Put it under uncle's pillow?” The response was high, clear.

“Throw it back.” Auguste let the fish slip from his hands and it splashed back into the stream. “You can come out now, observer.”

The boy, Laurent, spun around when August spoke. Damen stepped forward.

“Our Brother of Vere,” he said. “Forgive my intrusion.”

“Brother?” Laurent repeated. He managed to load one respectful word with endless derision. “He -- that's the Akielon prince? He looks like something from the fighting pits.”

“Hush.”

Damen held his hands up. “It's all right. Beside a shrimp, I can see how my size would be intimidating.” Two spots of colour bloomed on the boy's cheeks. He was still young enough to feel embarrassment, then. Damen had learned, with Kastor and with the soldiers, that it was better to bear insults with humour. Especially when they did not matter.

This was not the time for joking though. “I am sorry for your father,” he said, bowing his head at both princes.

“You'll be sorrier for crossing our lines,” the boy snapped.

“Have you come to parley, Damianos?” August asked. “Or is this a warning? Our reprieve is to end. You Akielons do like to give advance notice, after all.”

“Neither,” Damen said. “I came to – why have you crossed the lines?”

“We have not,” Laurent said. “Auguste, you should take him. Give the old king something to fight for.”

“I assure you, your brother could not take me.” Damen smiled.

“He is the best fighter in Vere.”

“I am not Veretian,” Damen said. “Listen, I shall leave you. I know this is a difficult time and --”

“Wait,” Auguste said. “We have truly crossed the line? My map was quite clear.”

“Dumb brutes can't read maps,” Laurent said.

“You should not speak of your brother like that.” Damen spoke sometimes before he thought. It was a problem.

Laurent disregarded Damen with a vicious little look. “He is lying.”

Auguste blinked, and slowly changed his stance. Damen realised this would be the first time he had backed down from a fight. He would not beat the King of Vere in front of his younger brother in the dirt in the woods. There was no honour there.

“I-”

Auguste held up his hand and both Damen and Laurent fell silent. That is what Kings can do. Damen heard it, too, then. The shuffling. A cough. The slip of a sword from a sheath. He said, with his eyes, these men are not mine. Auguste understood, because he was a soldier too. And by the stricken look on his face, he was not prepared either.

“Go,” he said to Laurent. But Laurent stayed in place, his blue eyes wide. He seemed to Damen almost curious.

Not that it mattered. They were on them, then. Twenty men, that Damen could see. Tight. Accomplished.

Wearing Akielon clothing, the badges of Sicyon, and the notched belt of the bannerman Makedon.

“Halt!” Damen said, angling his body in front of the Veretian princes. He was in charge here.

And he really did not want the hassle of a diplomatic disaster.

The men surged forward.

There were more than twenty. Much more. Fifty, perhaps. A practiced, well-oiled squadron.

They did not halt.

Damen spared only one glance at August and got to cutting them down. As much as he did not care for destroying his countrymen, this was his duty. They attacked, they disobeyed. You draw a sword on a royal and you die.

The Veretian Princes were merely catching fish.

Damen did not struggle to dispatch any man brave enough to cross him. But most were focused on Auguste. It made tactical sense for Damen to fall in beside Auguste and fend them off together. August fought well. His smooth manoeuvres easily overcame Makedon's mens's strength.

But Auguste was distracted by the boy, who had not ran, who held a sword that looked little more than ornamental. Auguste's moves were good. He was a King. But they were not moves of a winner. Everything he did was designed to block the boy. If Auguste got a man down in the process, that was just a bonus.

More men down. One got a slice of Damen's arm, then circled around his back. Before Damen could react, August had struck his sword through the back of his head.

Perhaps Veretians did have honour.

Damen dodged a blow and saw Laurent stick his bejewelled sword between the legs of a man who came close to him.

Perhaps not.

Damen fought. Auguste fought. Auguste kept looking for Laurent, which was, of course his mistake. Laurent defended himself. With his head turned, arms raised, body exposed, the last attacker managed to get his heavy sword lodged between Auguste's ribs.

The impact of sword on bone rang out through the clearing. Damen heard a gasp, a keening noise, and an Akielon curse. The man who struck the King of Vere went quite still as if he could not believe he had managed to make contact.

Auguste fell backwards. Laurent surged forward to catch him but he was not tall enough or strong enough to bear the weight, and hit the grass beneath his injured brother.

Damen and the Akielon soldier were the last ones standing. The other man braced himself, as if to run, but Damen leaped and apprehended him. He forced him to the ground with his knee pressed to the back of his neck.

“Who sent you?” Damen demanded.

“I can't stop the bleeding!” came a terrified voice, in Veretian. Damen whacked the Akielon over the head, hard enough to render him unconscious, and lurched over to the fallen princes. “Auguste. Auguste. Don't go to sleep.”

Laurent had sliced his own fine clothes to staunch the blood but they were already soaked through. It was hard to tell, since they were red also. They just looked like they had gotten dipped in the stream.

Damen had seen men fall before. He knew it was rarely quick. The bled for hours. Died for days. But when it was quick, it was definite.

Auguste's blood flowed denser than the stream. His breaths were blighted by bubbles.

“You! Brute. Pull the sword out.” Laurent waved at Damen. Auguste's head was in his lap now.

“That will not help.” Nothing would.

Laurent scrambled forward, like he meant to do it himself. Damen stopped him. It would not help. It would hurt more.

Laurent bit Damen's hand and knelt over his brother. Auguste's eyelids fluttered. Damen watched his eyes focus on Laurent, like the sheer force of his will was enough to control his failing body.

“What -” He choked out. Auguste's eyes were on a small red pendant hanging loose now from Laurent's stained shirt. Laurent pushed it beneath his clothes and then Auguste's eyes were on Damen. “Damianos,” he said. “Take him.”

Chapter Text

Such was Auguste's air of command, the royal bearing that shone out of him like the starburst on his uniform, that his purported sworn enemy Damianos of Akielos immediately reached for Laurent.

Auguste had asked him. August was dying.

“Touch me,” said Laurent. “And I shall gut you like a fish.”

Damen paused. The boy was no threat and everything his soldier's brain assessed indicated there was no immediate death. Auguste was dying, drowning from the inside in his own blood. It wouldn't take long. Damen would not interfere or intrude. The honourable thing, if there was any honour in a young man needlessly dying in the woods, was to let his brother hold him in these sad final moments.

In the instant the life flickered out of Auguste, Laurent was on his feet. He pressed the tip of his blade against Damen's throat.

Damen caught his breath. He gave the boy his second to feel powerful. Chances were, this was his first death and, also, the first time he had felt he could hold the life of another in his hands.

Then, Damen caught Laurent's slender wrist and manoeuvred the boy away from his veins. To his credit, he did not drop the knife. If Damen applied any more pressure, he would have fractured Laurent's bones.

“I've gotten deeper nicks shaving,” Damen said, still holding the boy at a distance. “You were way off. And I'm sure you know that drawing a sword on another prince is not acceptable.”

“My brother is dead.” Laurent was whiter now, which Damen would not have previously thought possible. He was whiter than Auguste.

“I am sorry.”

“My uncle was right about you Akielon scum.. You're lower than filth.” Laurent looked at the dead soldiers with more scorn than his young face should have been capable. He jerked away from Damen and drove his blade into the neck of the man who'd stabbed August. Again. Again. Again.

A fine mist of blood had splatted his face by the time Damen subdued him again.

“I was going to interrogate him.” But Damen could see the boy's point.

“What for? You were in on it.”

Damen had neither the time nor the patience to argue with a princeling, no matter how sorry for him he felt. Akielos had most definitely not authorised this attack. If Makedon had initiated it alone, then that was mutiny and his father had to know. The death sluiced clearing was no longer a place of peace. It made Damen feel exposed, vulnerable, and that was a very odd sensation for him.

There could be more attackers.

Or Vere could come looking for its glorious sons and find one dead, and one quite traumatised, among Akielon men and royalty.

“Laurent,” Damen said, gently. “We must go.”

“You do not have leave to call me by --”

“Your highness. Brother. Shining star of the realm. It is not safe here. We must go.” Damen tried to guide the boy out of the clearing. But he stuck his ridiculous polished boots into the bloody mud.

“I will not leave my brother here.”

“No. We shall take him. It is right. And I will have you both returned to your lines when it is safe.”

“Now,” Laurent demanded. “Take us to my uncle.”

Damen had no notion of wading in among the Veretians uninvited. With a dead King. There were protocols.

“Bring me to your horses,” Damen said. “Help me with your brother.” Although he was quite certain he could manage Auguste himself. Corpses were simply heavy when freshly dead. It would take some time before stiffness set in.

Laurent blinked. “My horse is -- she threw Auguste. She was acting jumpy earlier, and he made me take his. That's why we stopped. He fell quite badly. That's...”

Damen nodded. “I know.”

Auguste was a mighty swordsman – talented and strong. He had won harder fights than these traitor men crumpled around their feet. More than that, he was a commander-prince just like Damen. It was more than his desire to protect his brother that had him struggling. Auguste would have known the best way to protect Laurent was to stay alive.

Damen figured shock had set in because Laurent grew quite obedient. He showed Damen to the horses and it was clear he was right about one not being useful. It was sweating and lurching so badly Damen was loathe to leave it.

“You should put him on his own horse,” Laurent said. “It's a very good horse.”

There was no dignified way to do it, but the boy bore it well. Definitely, he was in shock. Or perhaps, like most princes, he was well schooled in hiding his feelings. To lose your whole family in such a short space of time – it was unthinkable. You would have to plunder the depths of your defences to be able to cope. Damen couldn't begin to imagine how he would react if he lost his father and Kastor.

“You can take my horse,” Damen said. “It's not far.”

“I will walk with my brother.”

“Then I will, too.”

Laurent shook his head, blond hair flicking across his face. “I will walk my brother. Do you not understand Veretian, you ignorant swine?”

Damen let him walk.

He politely pretended not to see the tears course down the boy's face, streaking clean streams through the misting of blood spray. Laurent's back remained perfectly straight the entire way back to the Akielon camp.

“Wipe your face,” Damen said, once the trees began to thin out. The boy was a prince, but more than that he was a boy on the cusp of manhood and things like tears mattered. It wasn't the blood Damen wanted him to wipe away.

“Don't speak to me, cur.”

“Do you really want Akielon blood all over your lily white skin?”

Glaring, Laurent wiped his face. The oddest impulse rose up inside Damen – something no-one had ever done for him but perhaps he had seen a peasant woman do to her litter in the crowded streets of Ios. It seemed like a natural thing to wet the corner of his cloak and dab the dirt for the boy Laurent's face.

But he stopped himself. Laurent was not his to look after.

 

-

Of course, when the soldiers saw Damen's unexpected cartage, they reacted. Roars. Swords. That kind of thing.

The boy did not flinch.

“Quiet,” Damen commanded, as he took leave of his own horse. The men obeyed. This was no kind of victory. Then, not knowing what else to do he lead both Veretian princes, horse and all, into his fathers white tent. “There has been an incident.”

He had never seen Theomedes look so shocked.

“Oh,” he said. “What have you done?”

The Prince of Vere, Laurent, tossed the reins towards Damen. “You,” he said. “King of Akielos. What are you going to do about the men who killed my brother?”

Theomedes rounded his table and crouched to his knees in front of the boy. Another new action. “Firstly, boy. Laurent, I presume? You're going to clean your face properly and have a drink.” He signalled for wine. “Someone tell Kastor to re-secure the camp boundaries. Damianos, tell me what happened.”

The boy sat in silence while Damen recalled the events to his father. The fact that the northern soldiers had not obeyed him caused an acute, physical ache to admit. That had never happened to Damen before. It had not happened to his father ever.

Laurent's face remained blank. Shock. Schooling. Perhaps he could understand Akielon that well. Damen switched to the low island dialect when he relayed the fact that Auguste had told him to take his brother.

“I did not order this,” the King said.

“I know,” said Damen.

Theomedes switched to Veretian. “Akielos did not order this.”

“It appears your men do not listen,” Laurent said. “Are you finished discussing us like we do not exist?” Damen, for a second, though Laurent was using the royal plural as they did in Akielon but that was not the Veretian way. Laurent simply meant him and his brother. “I would like to go home now.”

“You are very far from home,” Theomedes said, not unkindly, but Laurent winced all the same. “And you may not leave just yet.” He began to write a note. Damen presumed he was about to send word to the Veretian camp. The late King, not the one who was cooling on the floor of a sparse Akielon war tent, had a brother remaining. He would be in charge now.

“Would you like something to drink?” Damen asked Laurent.

“Sure. Maybe a spinning top to play with, too. I am not a child.”

“Leave him,” Theomedes said. “Kastor has summoned Makedon.”

-

Generally, political business was attended to in private. That was the Akielon way. But it seemed unseemly to parade Makedon in front of the dead king's brother, so he met his king outside under the fading sun.

“I know you agreed with Kastor,” Theomedes said. “But that does not give you leave to launch an attack without my permission.”

Makedon snorted. “What attack? My men have been at the griva during this lull. They only attack each other.”

Damen threw the notched belt down at Makedon's feet. “There are fifty more by the stream to the east. Do you deny them, too? The labourers are already bringing their bodies back.”

“Anyone can notch a belt.” Makedon dropped his head like it pained him. “Exalted, I did not do anything.”

“The new King of Vere has been killed before he could be crowned,” Damen said.

“I would count that as a win,” Makedon replied. “Ha!”

Damen had to clench his jaw shut. He knew his place. His father was already signalling and then Makedon was on his knees.

“We will investigate,” Theomedes said. “You will be treated fairly while you are contained. But know, General, that what your men do reflects right onto your own face like a mirror.”

When Damen returned to the tent, the horse was gone and the late crown prince of Vere was laid out on fine cotton. He saw that someone had cleaned Auguste's face. Even in death, he had an open handsome countenance.

“I sent the slave away. No-one else may touch my brother.” Laurent said. “Now, how long until we go back?”

“Soon,” Damen said. He could taste the lie like bad wine in his throat. “First, we will send your brother.”

“The King.”

“Your brother, the King. Then we will make arrangements.”

“I don't like waiting,” Laurent said.

“No, me neither.”

-

Theomedes personally escorted the dead king back to the gates of Marlas. Along with his best men and his eldest son and an invitation to parley with the man Laurent called uncle, who would now be the Regent.

Damen stayed behind and tried to coax the boy into a game of cards.

“You must tell the truth when we speak again,” Damen said. What he meant was, everyone needs to know that I did not kill Auguste.

“I don't lie,” Laurent said.

“I heard all Veretians lie.”

The boy gave him a look that would sour milk. “I'm tired,” he said.

Damen had a tent fit for a prince but he also had a bunk among the soldiers and that is where he usually slept. It boosted camaraderie. And it was a shorter walk at the end of a long day or a night of drinking. He gave the boy his tent and then it dawned on him he could not leave him there alone. He could not sleep there either. Men and boys did not do that. So he sat on a low chair and decided he would call it keeping watch.

“I heard you killed dozens of men today,” Nikandros, his old friend, said while he waited for Damen to tell him to sit. Damen wished he would just sit.

“I had help,” Damen replied. “I've rarely fought alongside anyone better than August of Vere.” He said it for the boy's benefit but also because it was true. “He died honourably.”

“I'm not sure that matters, once you're dead.” Nikandros took a flask from his belt and handed it to Damen first. “Meniados's other generals have all arrived. It is...noisy. They are all adamant neither Makedon or Sicyon had nothing to do with the attack

Sicyon was the closest province to the Delpha. They had suffered more from the Veretian occupation. They had a personal interest in making Veretians pay.

“Then he should have controlled this men better.” Damen took a long drink before letting Nikandros have a drop. “This is a disaster.”

“Or a change of fortune, according to some.”

Kastor, most likely. Damon glanced at the boy behind the curtains. He showed no indication of having heard but he had shown no indication of being asleep either.

“We'll see tomorrow,” Damen said.

-

Upon investigation, there really was no evidence of any wrongdoing on Makedon's part. The squadron, what was left of it, had been on patrol far from Marlas these past weeks. The did not know of any détente.

“They did not obey when I bid them stop,” said Damen.

“You could have been anyone,” Kastor said. He tended to get offended at the thought of the whole country knowing his younger brother by sight. “What did you sat the Veretians were doing? Fishing.”

“It's a complete breach,” Damen insisted. “Father, there must be consequences.”

“We need Makedon's men.”

“More than trust?”

Makedon, flanked by his guard out of respect, and Theomedes' guard out of authority, rose from his chair. “You need my troops more than I need this hassle. I did not come here to be accused of treachery and I certainly did not come here to laze about making flower chains while the Veretians do their mourning dance. It's war. Men die.”

“Makedon,” Theomedes said. “You are a good general. Meniados is a loyal kyros. But I cannot tolerate insolence.” To prove it, he signalled for his guard to draw their swords in an x in front of his throat. “Obey me or leave.”

Makedon left. He took all the Sicyon men, which made up most of the Akielon troops. They were in fact well trained. Their tents were dismantled with ruthless efficiency.

“If I was king,” Laurent offered. “I would have cut of his head, taken back his lands and absorbed his troops.”

“Let us all be glad you have a Regent,” Damen said. Thankfully, the boy was ill-informed enough about the court not to know that Theomedes had just let the killing of a Veretian King pass without punishment. “He has sent word, by the way. We'll meet tonight.”

Laurent finally smiled.

-

Damen had never paid much attention to the art of negotiation. It was his conviction that better results could be yielded on the battle field. Fighting made sense. You warned. You prepared. You won. If you didn't win, you weren't good enough.

There had been no letters, no ambassadors, no thinly-veiled threats. Theomedes sent supplies. He sent men. He sent warnings. Then Akielon troops tramped through Delpha. There was nothing to negotiate. It had had been effective enough to bring the royal family away from the tawdry splendour of Arles to the fortress at Marlas.

As such, he hadn't thought about what it had meant for his father to escort Auguste back to the Veretian lines until Kastor boasted about how little he feared while the archers aimed at them. If Damen wasn't so ashamed of his thoughtlessness, he would have pointed out to Kastor that he knew him well enough to know when he was lying.

It was a show of goodwill that the Regent was willing to come to their camp to discuss the newly minted Crown Princes return. Protocol (and common sense) pushed for a meeting at a midway point with both armies at their backs. Damen offered to go build a platform himself – a poor imitation of the Kingsmeet where he had his own fate sealed as a babe – but that was not going to be necessary.

Naturally, the royal tent was strategically placed within the Akielon camp for maximum security for its royal residents. The Regent knew this, too, but he was willing to meet with Theomedes there in person with only the requisite accompanying guard.

“You would think him green to wade into enemy camp like this,” said Kastor. “But he is well past his thirty fifth year.”

“Oh, how ancient,” Theomedes, who was much older, said, without glancing up from his work. Kastor clenched his jaw. Damen might have smiled, if this wasn't such a serious situation. “Veretians are not to be trusted, you know, even one as unused to statecraft as this Regent. If he comes here like this, it is to a purpose.”

“The purpose,” Laurent said, echoing Theomedes' Akielon word as carefully as one tasting vintage wine. “Is me.”

“Cocky brat, isn't he?” Kastor remarked. “Do you think he understands Akielon for shut the fuck up?”

“Yes,” Laurent said, and repeated as much in Veretian. With some embellishment.

“That is not princely,” Theomedes said.

Laurent made a gesture that was not princely. Damen turned his head, so neither his father or the boy would see him smile. This meeting did not sit well with him. He disliked the unpredictable quality that came with conversation and debate. Whatever the Regent would want in return for the Crown Prince would not be something Akielos would want to relinquish. No-one knew much about the man, either. Unlike Kastor, he had little involvement in Veretian politics. Apparently he preferred to enjoy court. He was only at Marlas to escort the boy to his family.

“He comes, Exalted,” Nikandros announced. “The Regent is almost here. He has just ten men.”

“Thank you, Nikandros. Please check in with the sentries,” Theomedes said. Then, in Veretian. “Our brother of Vere, please come and stand behind me.”

“He's talking to you,” Damen told Laurent, when the boy didn't move. He urged him along with a hand on the shoulder and was surprised when Laurent did not shrug him off. Kastor remained by the entryway, pointing positions for ten men to stand by to match the Regents number.

Very civilised. Damen would have rather been drilling.

He heard Laurent catch his breath at the sound of the hoof-fall and snippets of Veretian outside the royal tent. He kept his hand on his shoulder, to stop him simply running to his countrymen when they got close enough.

“Isn't that a picture,” Kastor scoffed. “Current and future rulers all together.”

Before Theomedes could chastise him, a herald was announcing the Regent's presence and protocol, as well as good manners, made the King get to his feet and leave the family squabbles for later.

“Welcome, Regent,” Theomedes said, in that booming way of his. It drowned out Laurent's soft cry of uncle to all but Damen. The Regent, all in red, walked in easily, a man on either side. Damen applied a little pressure to Laurent's puny shoulder. Otherwise, he would have had his hand on the hilt of his sword.

“Thank you for receiving me, brother.” The Regent used the royal fraternal. It sounded false to Damen.

“Would you care for some refreshment?” Theomedes beckoned a squire to bring them drinks. The wine bottle was sealed. The water was in clear glass.

“Why, yes. Thank you,” the Regent and he almost sounded grateful. Laurent, under Damen's hold, twitched his shoulders a little. “Forgive me, I am unsure of protocol. Should I pour?”

Theomedes poured. Kings did not usually do that. He also took the first sip and the Regent slurped so loudly even Kastor grimaced.

“Please sit,” Theomedes said.

The Regent awkwardly lowered himself onto a chair. “What a charming tent. It's been too long since I've had a chance to see the rustic charms of your little culture. Do you not have silks here?”

“No, not at war,” Theomedes said.

“I must send you some. Some of our cloth merchants are famed. Have you heard of Charls?”

Kastor's jaw was close to the floor. This was not how parleys were done. Damen steeled himself to do what his father had asked and also bring this conversation back on track.

“On behalf of Akielos, and personally too, I wish to sympathise again on the recent loss in your family. The new King Auguste --”

“Forgive me for interrupting,” said the Regent. “But Auguste never got the chance to have a coronation.”

“Crown Prince Auguste,” Damen amended. “Fought bravely and skilfully and it was an honour to fight by his side. You should know, sir --” Damen figured no-one had officially granted this man title of Regent yet either. “-- that he was wholly devoted to protecting his younger brother.”

There. Damen did it. His father would not hassle him. That strange blood-soaked kinship that had developed with these foreign princes was absolved.

“Noble, indeed,” the Regent said. “You speak Veretian very well, for a ... what is the word?”

“Barbarian,” Laurent helpfully supplied. Damen thought is odd the Regent had yet to acknowledge his remaining, very living, nephew.

“Both my nephews have, sorry had, wonderful attributes.”

Laurent almost glowed at the praise. Damen almost felt sorry for him. Bad enough to come from the amoral land of Vere. The boy had a bearded, bumbling uncle as his only family in the world.

“Before his passing, Auguste and I were in communication,” Theomedes said. Damen had not been aware of that. But why would he? When the King was around, Damen had less authority. He had been focused on recovering from the losses at Sanpellier and Marlas and getting fresh supplies from the south. “We felt that it is in both our countries interests to finish this thing quickly.”

“We? Is that how kings refer to themselves here?” The Regent asked.

“I meant myself and Auguste.”

“I was not aware...” The Regent trailed off. “What were the terms?”

Theomedes waved Oreste, his adviser and chamberlain, over with a scroll and handed it to the Regent.

“Laurent, my boy, have you been treated well here?” he asked, as he scanned the page. Damen felt Laurent stand straighter, like he was pleased at the acknowledgement on his own value finally matched the value he saw in himself. The boy had been confident all along his uncle would come. Now, here he was.

“As well as you can expect from the uncouth swine who killed my brother, uncle.”

“Please,” said Theomedes, in that way that mean enough. “With respect to your grief and inexperience, I will be generous. But insults are so childish.”

“He is a child,” Damen said, without thinking. Laurent pressed the heel of his polished boot into Damen's sandalled foot.

“Regent apparent,” Theomedes said. “We're all adults here. The demands are clear. Rescind your claim on the Akielon rightful territory of Delpha and we will return your nephew, Laurent. There was talk of fostering you know, in the negotiation with Auguste. Send the boy to Akielos to guarantee the terms.”

“My eldest nephew is dead, though,” said the Regent. “This could all be lies.” He glanced at his men, like they could somehow confirm this.”

“Auguste would never send me away,” Laurent said.

“We don't lie,” Damen said. Auguste had sent Laurent with Damen, when the attackers were all dead.

“Furthermore, you have done nothing to make amends for the wrongful death of Crown Prince Auguste,” the Regent continued.

Prince Laurent's chin gave a little tremble.

“Crown Prince Auguste's death was an accident. The killers have all been slain,” Theomedes said.

“According to you,” said the Regent.

“Damianos, my son, was witness. His word is enough.”

“Also,” said Damen. “There was the matter of the bodies. You saw them did you not?” He nudged Laurent to stand in front of him. “The young prince here finished the last one off.”

“I cut his throat, uncle.”

“And the kyroi in command?” the Regent said to Theomedes. “Is that the word?”

“Meniados of Sicyon remains in Sicyon. His man Makedon has left.”

“Yes.” The Regent smiled.

“You agree to our terms?” Theomedes offered his hand.

“Oh, I mean, yes I know he had left. He has taken most of your troops and much of your arsenal while mine remain protected in their fort,” the Regent said. “Or, rather, they did, until a couple of minutes ago.”

Damen felt his insides sink. Kastor, by the exit, looked prime to run. Akielon troops were not prepared for an attack. They were depleted. There were great gaps in their formations where Makedon's men had once marched and that was to say nothing of the lives they had lost at Sanpelier, on the battlements of the fort and the previous battles here at Marlas.

“We are in truce,” Theomedes said. “Because of your mourning.”

“Mourning is over.” The Regent was transformed. He sat tall, now. The hint of a smirk on his bearded face. Laurent, beside Damen, caught his breath.

“I knew he had a plan,” Laurent said.

They were outnumbered, Damen realised. They did not know these territories. Half his men were probably drunk on sour wine. It was classic Veretian, a cowardly attack in the dark.

“Go.” Theomedes jerked his head at Kastor. “You, Regent of Vere, will regret any harm that befalls my people if --”

“I don't think I will,” said the Regent. “But I must depart. Something smells funny.”

“Stop,” said Damen.

“No, I will not,” the Regent said. “You are in my land. You have killed my eldest nephew.”

“I hold your youngest one between my hands,” Damen interrupted. “You have not looked at him? Can you not see how I can crush his windpipe before you could get off that chair?”

“Uncle,” Laurent said.

“Call them off,” Theomedes said.

“No,” said the Regent. “It is done.” His men were all standing at attention now, swords in hand. Damen could take them, while Theomedes' men protected him. He could take the Regent. He could force him to call off his troops.

If it wasn't for the matter of the young prince standing very still now in front of him.

A page burst into the tent. “Forgive me, Exalted. There's been an attack. It's....there are so many.”

“This isn't warfare,” Theomedes said. “This is ambush. This is--”

“Father, let me go.” Damen stepped forward, dragging Laurent with him. Theomedes could take over Laurent. “I can take them.”

“Take what?” The Regent asked. “Can't you smell the burning?” Damen saw flickers of orange through the canvas of the tent. The first tendrils of smoke reached his nose.

The royal tent was so far from the edge of camp.

“You --” Theomedes drew his sword. He never touched it. Being King was enough. He did not aim it at the Regent or any of his men. He pressed the blade against the high collar of Laurent's shirt.

“Call them off,” Theomedes said. “I will kill another of your boys.”

Damen knew his father ruled with force. He had seen it all his life. But something twisted inside him at the sight of the heavy blade against the boy's throat. Laurent, to his credit, hardly flinched.

The Regent shrugged. “Do it. My men are gone. The battle is won. You will not take Delfeur, not tonight, not ever. It remains with Vere. Retreat. You cannot win. There is no battle. You are outnumbered here in your canvas city and we are behind the fort. Retreat.”

The screams, the fighting, were penetrating the tent now. Except it wasn't fighting. It was slaughter.

“I'll kill him,” Theomedes said.

“Your battle will still be lost.”

“Father,” Damen said, again. “I can help.” He did not want to keep a hold on the Prince of Vere any longer.

“No,” said Theomedes. “Damianos, stay. It is done. Regent, we accept. We retreat.”

“Excellent.” Lazily, the Regent stood. “I do hope you have ample water supplies.”

Finally, Damen let Laurent wriggle out of his grasp. “Aren't you forgetting something?”

“No,” said the Regent, as he bid for the exit. His men already tight around them. “Keep him. That part of the terms was acceptable to Vere. Consider it a promise that we shall honour our side of the bargain.”

Bargain? There was no bargain. Only Veretian snakery and dishonour. Damen had no intention of reclaiming the boy but Theomedes' men had already taken him by the arms.

“Uncle?” Laurent said. "I--"

“Hold him,” said Oreste and two of the King's strongest guards took hold of the little prince.

Damen stepped forward. He was considering throwing his sword at the Regent's skull.

“No,” his father said to him, then he looked at the Laurent's uncle again. “I don't know your name,” Theomedes said. “But I know a snake when I see one. The boy stays. You can't win everything.”

“Ransom?” Damen asked, his mind scrabbling to make sense of this turn of events.

“Uncle?” Laurent said again. He sounded very young.

The Regent spared one glance back. “You are old enough now, Laurent, to understand these things.” As he spoke, the life drained from Laurent's face. “Try not to embarrass yourself. I will write from Fortaine.”

“No! Uncle,” Laurent said. “You promised. You can't leave me. You promised!”

But the Regent had left and Damen was glad for the boy's sake that only he and Theomedes could speak Veretian. He looked at his father for instruction.

“Go,” he said.

Damen looked at Laurent as he left the tent. He saw the boy spit into the face of the Akielon guards. Outside, his army was dying. Their camp was burning.

Chapter Text

Chaos. Screaming. Smoke and fire in the dark. Damen had hardly taken two steps when people gathered around him. Everyone counted on the prince for instruction. He couldn't let them see he was just as shocked as them.

“My father was right,” he said. “Never trust a Veretian.” His personal guards, his best man, flanked him. It felt wrong. They should have been fighting. “Come,” Damen barked. “To the lines.”

“There are no lines, sir. They came in one wave and then retreated.”

There was no-one to fight. Damen pressed on. The soldiers, servants and camp followers still trailed him until Damen saw Nikandros among the commotion. “Take command,” he said to him but Nikandros was already organising a water train and sand buckets. “Where is Kastor?”

“Getting people out.” Nikandros had a scratch on his forehead but otherwise looked unhurt. “None of us saw it coming.”

“Are they really gone? The Veretians.”

“There weren't that many. Some are killed. The rest gone. The ambush was a distraction.”

The fire was the real action. Slaves. Servants. In exchange for perfect treatment, slaves gave up their freedom. Akielos took their sacrifice seriously. They did not let them get hurt. Normally.

Damen jumped on the first unspooked horse and rode hard out of camp. He could sort this. This was what he knew to do. Exposed in no-man's land, he pressed on without care for his own safety. Veretian men had done this. He was going to find them.

He cut down a red-liveried man running in the dark. Fool wasn't even wearing armour. He found another, chased him down and sliced him through. He pressed on. There had to be more. They couldn't be that fast. Damen heard footsteps, followed them and found a lad no more than seventeen flailing over grass. He raised his sword. He ran him through. It was only when he pulled the sword out, that he noticed that the boy was wearing Akielon colours.

This is what Vere had reduced Damen to – killing his own people.

The Regent had absorbed himself back into the dark. Damen could not find any one else to kill. When he Damen pulled the horse around in the wide open space and the horror in his camp nearly overcame him. It was ablaze. The noise – spitting, shouting, crashing – was painful. Beyond Vere's walls were tinkling bells and clinking cups.

There was no-one out here.

Of course not.

Damen was thinking like an Akielon, where men did their business in the light of day and warned before attack. This was Veretian venom. The fires had not been started on the front lines. Of course not. They needed guarantee the Regent safe passage out. It sparked from the east corner, where the kitchens and slave quarters were situated. Damen spurred the horse around the edges of the camp. He could not let himself listen to the chaos. Focus. There had to be someone left.

Men who were cruel enough to set fires were men who would stick around to watch them burn.

There was mayhem but Damen's senses were sharp and battle-honed and he was hungry for a fight he could win. There was a crack like the snap of a twig, too isolated to be related to the blaze. He knew the sound a coward when he heard it.

Damen opened his mouth, then closed it again. This was where he should call out a warning. The Akielon way. But instead, he inched closer to the source of the sound. If it wasn't for the faint orange glow behind him, Damen might have missed the moose of a man hidden in the thicket.

His sword as at his throat before the man could stand. Sickening. Damen and his horse were not exactly stealthy. But the flat-nosed Veretian had been too busy enjoying the show to react.

“Don't move,” Damen said. The man still stood, but Damen's sword moved with him. “Who ordered this?”

In response, he showed his blackened teeth in some impression of a smile and pulled Damen from his horse. This man was older, heavier, glazed with the frenzy of violence. But Damen was the better fighter. He was always the better fighter because he approached every fight with the attitude that he could not lose. Even when this rank, repulsive Veretian, so unlike the shining princes, pinned him and punched him and knocked the sword from his hands Damen did not entertain the idea of losing.

It took longer than usual, but with a blow to the head from a nearby rock and a neat slice of his sword, Damen defeated the Veretian.

It was a hollow victory.

He left him to the ash and went back to the camp.

Thanks to the strict discipline of the Akielon soldiers, and capable instruction from Kastor and Nikandros, the fire was mostly contained. Damen took up a bucket of dry earth and joined his men in covering any remaining sparks. His lungs burned. His eyes stung. It was with no small amount of shame that he realised he should have been doing this all along. He was stronger than most. He was braver, too.

He could have done more here.

So he worked on the aftermath until the sky grew light. Things looked worse under the sun. Tattered canvas and shaking servants and scorched earth. There was little left for man of Damen's stature to attend to. The people might like him for hauling tent poles but he couldn't very well start shaking out ash-stained sheets.

He sought out Theomedes for further instruction. His father still sat straight backed on his wooden bench, circles beneath his eyes the only sign of the hard night that had passed. According to his men, the King had spent much of the night making sure no more soldiers broke rank.

“Damianos,” he said. “Did you find what you were looking for?”

“No,” Damen said. “What now?”

“Medic overspill in the slave quarters. The least injured men can bury the dead. Check how soon we can take our leave.”

Damen nodded. “The boy?”

“Drugged. It was the safest way.”

Damen did not have far to walk to find the slave tent. Soldiers crowded the outside. Some with minor injuries. Some coughing black dust. Some just sluicing ash from their skin. Damen was just as dirty, just as tired. The men would love him for it.

“Where were you?” Kastor demanded, as soon as Damon set foot inside the tent. “We could have done with your help for the water chain.”

“Putting out the fire. Just like everyone else.” Damen was too weary for his brother's reprimands. It wasn't just the fire.

Marlas would go down as his first defeat.

Akielons did not go in for excess like Veretians, but even during war they afforded their slaves some measure of luxury in exchange for their devotion. The quarters was usually white cotton and clean stone, while the rest of the camp was rough canvas and wooden logs. It was a shock for Damen to see it transformed to a maskeshift medical ward. Perhaps it would have happened the same if there had been a battle. But that was different.

He recognised his favourite cook with his leg an angle that could only mean it was broken. A boy who had polished his armour was bleeding from his head. Nikandros came towards him with both his hands wrapped in bandages like a baby in a crib.

“What happened?” Damen asked.

“You remember Helena,” Nikandros said. Damen did. A lovely slave girl who mewled like a kitten when you kissed her neck. “She was trapped beneath some broken frames. She wasn't alone.”

“Is she --” Damen looked around. He could not see any slaves in the tent.

“There's a partition,” Nikandros said quickly. “They were getting very distressed.”

Damen nodded. “How many deaths?”

“It was contained. Maybe thirty soldiers. Sentries mostly, and a few stragglers. We found two boys by the thicket in the west. They were still embracing. A few dozen civilians. Some won't survive their injuries. Some of the slaves won't want to.” Nikandros took a breath. “We're still working out the tallies With Makedon and – the numbers are not so clear,” Nikandros said. “Damen, what happened?”

“We never should have trusted a Veretian.”

Kastor had come to stand alongside them, smelling of smoke and sweat. “And my brother has inherited one of his very own.”

-

Damen reported back to Theomedes. It would take a day to bury their dead, take down their camp and allow the soldiers some rest before moving out again.

“I will send word to the Regent,” he said. “That we will be gone. There is no need for more attacks.”

“Father, let me.”

“No. You'll try to chop off his head or some other stupidity. We get can't into an impenetrable fort and we cannot win battles without Makedon's men.”

Damen nodded and looked at his own dirty feet. “Father, I am sorry for this.”

“As am I.” Theomedes did not need to let Damen admit that this would not have happened if he hadn't pushed so hard to break from fighting in the aftermath of the old king's death. Damen carried it heavy enough already. His father said it in his face. “You should rest. We have much planning to do. It will be a long journey back to Ios.”

“Yes,” Damen said. For all that he was born to lead men, he was a soldier and he responded well to instruction. He returned to his tent, where a soft clean slave girl was waiting by his soft clean bed.

“Exalted,” she said. “Let me wash you.”

Damen did need to be cleaned. He closed his eyes while she stripped his clothes and sponged his skin. His head fell back while he felt his body respond to her touch. He was tired. But he was still young man. The slave girl kneeled to clean his legs. To his disgust, Damen saw blood on the cloth. Veretian blood. Akielon blood. His stomach lurched at the memory of cutting down that scared boy. Had the civilians ever been taught that they should not run? He didn't know.

Memories were scarred on the backs of his eyelids now. Permanent and ugly and his alone.

The slave girl inclined her head, because that was as much as a slave would ask a question. And Damen saw a flash of raw flesh near her ear where her hair slipped.

“Wait,” he said. “Were you burned?”

“It does not hurt, Exalted.”

Truly, she looked healthy in every other way.

Damen let her continue washing him. He was always considerate in bed. He would not as much as breathe too close to that burn. She washed his thighs, his abdomen, his behind. Her touch came very close to part of him between his legs, which did not need washing, and was not roused by any of this. But it could be. He could let it happen. Let her clean him all over, with her hands and her mouth like a cat cleaning its fur. Let he make him forget for a moment, how badly he had failed.

He closed his eyes again.

And wrenched them open when a venom-laced Veretian voice said, from the corner of the room, “That is disgusting.”

Damen was going to have strong words with whoever put that boy in his tent again. How had he not seen him? Why had the slave --- well of course she hadn't said anything. It wasn't her place.

“You are excused,” Damen said to her. She left quickly.

Laurent looked more like a child as he wiped sleep from his eyes, his yellow hair resembling a haystack that got caught in the wind. There was no taboo against nudity in Akielos and Damen was decidedly naked for practical reasons, not sexual ones. But, well, Depha was not theirs again yet and the Veretian Prince was so young.

Damen secured fresh clothing with his lion pin as fast as he could move.

“Fetch me some water,” Laurent said.

“Get it yourself,” Damen replied. He would not wait on this pup of a prince. He would not even look at him because all he could see was the damage his people had caused.

“You drugged me.”

“Not personally. I was busy putting out fires,” Damen said while the boy straightened his clothes and smoothed down his hair. It was no surprise that he slept with his boots on.

“What did you expect when you killed my brother?”

“I --” Damen was not going to argue with a child. “I fought alongside him, if you remember.”
Laurent shrugged. A quick flick of his shoulders that made Damen see red. “Actually, I expect nothing from Vere. You probably knew what your uncle was planning.”

“I assure you --”

“Have you any idea of the carnage outside?” Damen stalked towards Laurent. The boy raised his chin, defiant. “Come on. I'll show you what your precious uncle has done.” He grabbed Laurent's shoulder and hauled him through the decimated camp site. Every man they passed urged him on. At the former slave tent, he shoved him inside hard enough for the boy to fall to his knees. “Look,” he said. “Look at what you have done.”

“You killed my brother,” he said again. The injured, and those tending to them, did not need to be able to speak Veretian to understand the boy's scorn. Damen tried to make him stand but he managed without assistance.

“Look,” Damen said, pushing him through the partition where even he had not looked. The slaves had fared the worst. Especially without substantial clothing to protect them. Damen's stomach heaved at the sight of so much scorched flesh. His nostrils stung anew. Beautiful faces burnt beyond recognition. The gold cuffs and collars the slaves wore with pride had melted into one boy's skin.

“Late to have sympathy for slaves,” Laurent said, in broken Akielon. “When they probably didn't move without being telling to run. And you were the ones who put the collars on them.”

Damen turned his back. It was that or hit the boy.

“Exalted.” A senior soldier, who yesterday had hair and now did not, approached Damen. “There is a messenger. From Vere.”

For the first time since he'd woken, Damen saw a light in Laurent's eyes.

-

Damen marched the princeling outside. Considering there were only two men arrived from Vere, an extremely large retinue of Akielon soldiers had given them escort with weapons drawn and bared chests too close to the Veretians for comfort. One man, in a ridiculous hat, struggled to push a wooden cart though the mud. The other, a soldier by his dress, squared his shoulders and kept his gaze straight ahead.

“You dare come to this camp.” Damen inclined his head and two of his men let the Veretians feel their blades at their necks. “You dare walk in here after what you have done.”

“Why you?” Laurent asked. “Where is – I don't need a physician. I need to go --”

“State your purpose,” Kastor said. Damen hadn't seen him arrive.

“I am Paschal. A physician. I was the King's physician and now I serve the Regent,” said the man behind the cart. “We have the Prince's things. I am to ensure his good health.”

“And you?” Damen asked the soldier.

“You didn't think my uncle would leave me unattended.” Laurent said. “Idiot. He is to be my guard. I know him. He fought with my brother.”

“I am Jord.” The soldier looked around at the Akielon soldiers. Damen could tell the man felt some sort of kinship. The Akielons did not return the feelings. Soldiers were the same, until they fought on opposite sides.

“Send his stuff to my tent,” Damen said. Laurent's eyes widened a little at the overflowing cart. There was too much there for it to be a short-term stay. Damen beckoned Jord over. “Deal with him. If he gets hurt or goes missing, I'll hold you responsible. Now, physician, come with me.”

“I am here just to see to the boy and leave.”

“You have no authority over him,” Laurent said.

Damen stared him down. “You don't need a medic.”

“I was ambushed in the woods. Don't you remember? And drugged.” Laurent raised his chin again. “This way, Paschal. I am sure there is some private area in the slave quarters where a man can undress in peace.”

Because Damen did not want to see him any longer, he did not object. “Kastor,” he said. “Thank you for intervening.” Kastor had been observing the whole sad exchange.

Kastor grunted. “They found a body in the woods. Pockets full to burst. Strange that whoever killed him didn't rob him.”

“What was in his pockets?” Damen asked.

“Jewels.” Kastor dropped a sapphire bracelet into Damen's palm and for a second, it was like they were boys again. “Veretian. Give it to the boy. A token from home.”

-

Paschal the physician did not emerge from the tent for a long time.

“Is there something wrong with the boy?” Damen demanded.

“What?” Paschal startled. “No. He is – no.”

“Is there some reason you need to check him over? What did the Regent think would happen when he left him behind? In Akielos, we don't hurt people who don't fight back. We don't hurt little boys.”

“It was not the prince who delayed me. I assisted your medics. That's what we do.”

“Veretians?” Damen snorted.

“Physicians. We have a code, you know.”

Damen would have known that if he'd been able to bring himself to go inside again. “Where is the boy now?” he asked. Probably enjoying the sight of burnt Akielon flesh. Would Damen, in reverse? For Kastor, had be been killed in front of him when Damen was a boy and Kastor was kinder. For his father? For Nikandros?

The world felt all askew today.

“Cutting bandages,” Paschal said.

“Right.” Damen did not like the idea of him with a blade.

-

He found Nikandros sitting against a tent pole. There was no longer a tent. But there was a log and someone had placed water and food on it for Nikandros.

“No,” Damen said. “Don't get up.”

“What a mess.” Nikandros looked at his bandaged hands.

“I know.” Damen began to tear the bread and cut the meat. “I don't know how any of it happened.”

“Aren't you eating?” Nikandros asked, when Damen set down the knife.

“No.”

“I can't allow...”

“Not today, old friend. No arguments. I remember when you held my head while I vomited the night after my seventeenth birthday.” Damen said.

“That awful griva Meniados sent,” Nikandros said, fondly. “Another lifetime.”

“You know, retreat wouldn't be so awful if we could just click our fingers and be back in Ios. It's the journey that's humiliating.”

“Indeed.” Awkwardly, Nikandros picked up a morsel of food with his bandaged hands. He dropped it. Damen retrieved it and put it back on his palm. “Half the men will disappear to the brothels on the road. We'll have to watch. I hear some Veretians are on the move now the fighting is done. Whores follow us. They want them.”

“They will obey.” Damen speared some meat and handed Nikandros the fork. “Again?” he asked, as the prince Laurent approached flanked by his new guard Jord. He had changed from one tightly laced jacket to another and mouth was forming a little circle.

“Your guards won't let me at my stuff,” Laurent said. The circle was gone. “They won't let him in the tent.”

Damen stood. He was much larger than Laurent's guard. But the man did not cower. “Come on, then.” He made Jord wait outside the tent while one his men searched Laurent's belongings.

“That is rude,” Laurent said, as Damen's soldier shook out his fine clothing and inspected the inside of his boots. Damen drank a mouthful of wine. Never trust a Veretian. The Regent could have hidden any number of weapons, poisons or secret instructions among his nephew's belongings.

Damen poked through one trunk himself. It was full of dull books. Veretian poets. Veretian customs. Veretian history. He flicked through a dictionary with notes in the margins and rifled though a battered collection of adventure stories in the wrong dust cover. Books were prime for ciphers and notes. He had to check.

He pulled out a wooden puzzle. A child's trinket. He tossed it to Laurent. “It's not a spinning top but it'll do.”

Laurent caught it in one hand. Without looking, he began to pull the pieces apart and nimbly put them back together again.

Damen's soldier had reached Laurent's underclothes and sleep shirts.

“That is unnecessary,” Laurent said just as the soldier shook five small glass vials onto the tent floor. They rolled and Laurent dove. But Damen was bigger and easily blocked his way.

“No you don't,” he said, holding the vials up to the light. They could be some strange Veretian poison.

“Put that back.” Laurent's pale face had gone very red. “It's just – it's private.”

Damen uncorked one vial and held it to his nose. Understanding dawned. He dismissed the soldier. “Are you even old enough?”

“I'm almost fourteen.”

At fourteen, Damen had....well, he was old enough. And if he wasn't, well, he would take care of himself.

“All right,” he said. “Your highness.”

Laurent blushed harder. At fourteen, it would have taken more than that to make Damen blush.

“You're a coward and a thug,” Laurent said, but his voice was too high to be threatening.

“I'm not the one keeping you here, kid.” Damen said. “I am certainly not interested in making you blush. Tidy this up. Someone will bring you food.”

Damen needed wine. And to check in with his father and brother. But mostly wine enough to make the edges of this dreadful, awful day soften at the edges. He was not the only one in that mood. There were no campfires, not even for cooking, and the mood at the tables was low. Defeat was cold and sour and Damen drank his wine while packing the camp and making the wagons comfortable for the injured.

He would sleep in the barracks tonight. Better for morale. Better to avoid that brat of a prince. He slept easier on a cot among men who knew what it was to fight and now, to lose.

Until, several hours later, when a watchman shook him awake. “The Veretian Guard asks for you,” he whispered.

“What did he say?” Damen needed sleep.

“Damianos. Now. Damianos. Now. I don't think he speaks much Akielon.”

“What do you want?” Damen went to Jord, who waited with two more watchmen, under the cool night sky.

“It's the Prince,” Jord said, in rushed Veretian. “Laurent is missing.”

Chapter Text

Damen gritted his teeth so hard his jaw ached. “You have lost the Prince of Vere.”

“I don't think --” Jord said. Damen could tell he did not kindly to reprimands from an Akielon. Well, Damen did not much relish having to give them.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“How long?” Damen asked.

“I don't know. I sent him to bed a while ago.”

“You sent the Prince of Vere to bed? You think he would listen to you?”

“He doesn't listen to anybody but --” Jord pressed his lips together. “We best look for him.”

“He's probably gone back your side.” That's what Damen would have done.

“Or he's got some Akielon soldier taking their anger out on him. Or he's alone in the woods. The boy has barely been outside Arles before and he's always had his brother to protect him. He's never alone.”

Damen was realising that this could jeopardise whatever terrible truce Theomedes agreed to with Vere. Losing the boy could bring the Veretian troops back. Damen would fight, of course. But he wasn't sure the camp could take much more.

“Saddle two horses,” Damen said. “And don't tell anyone else.”

-

They left the camp in silence. Damen wanted to go straight to the Veretian lines but Jord's expressionless face told him that he would likely get an arrow in the neck for his trouble.

“I doubt he's there,” Jord said. “But I know the sentries. And the spies. Wait.”

“Do you know the place where Auguste was killed?”

“I went with his men to investigate. After.”

“Follow me there.” Damen rode into the night. It occurred to him that this might be some Veretian trap but his course was already set. In his mind's eye, he kept seeing the image of Auguste fighting with one purpose – keep his brother safe. Damen didn't know if had ever fought for anything but the glory of fighting. He certainly had never seen that determination in his own brother.

The clearing, when he reached it, was empty.

“If you are here,” Damen called. “Speak. There are plenty of pissed off Akielons in these woods that would be less forgiving than me.”

No response. On foot, Damen searched the area half-expecting to find the boy asleep among the roots of a tree like a changeling. Nothing. Silence. Until Jord came clattering along.

“His highness didn't get past the gates,” Jord said.

“Nor is he here.” Damen climbed back onto the horse.

“Too many ghosts.”

“Are Veretians superstitious?”

“We mourn like any other man,” Jord replied. Damen knew that. He pressed to delay attack on the very basis of that. And look where it got him. Now, he would have to go back to his father and tell him he had lost the Prince, lost the only scrap of leverage they still held against the Regent. They'd have to waste their manpower on a search party. And their time. He would have to lead it.

Damen sighed. He remembered being Laurent's age, then he remembered his earlier conversation with Nikdandros.

“Let's go,” he said to Jord. “I want you to take me to the nearest brothel.”

-

Unsurprisingly, the nearest house of ill repute was thronged. It resembled an inn more than a brothel with the amount of drunks staggering about outside The local whores had probably never earned so much coin. Damen pretended not to see the Akielon soldiers among the punters. The Veretians were too drunk on victory and sex to notice him. Well, Jord went first.

“The men will be hostile if they see you,” he said. “At least take my cloak.”

Damen would rather fight ten horny Veretians, battle-high, than wear red Veretian velvet. For all he knew there were men here who had set the fires.

“No,” he said. It was unlikely anyone would know him by sight as the prince. It was dark and he was quite dishevelled. He marched straight to the door, glad of the coin in his belt. “Open the door,” he told the madame. “You have something belonging to me. Small, blond and bratty.”

“Ah,” she said, sizing up Damen's clothing and air of command.“I was wondering when you'd show up.” Jord followed Damen through the door. “And with a bold Veretian, too. Mostly they pretend like they just want directions or a drink. Your pet is the corner room.”

“Pet?” Damen asked Jord.

“You really don't know much about Vere, do you?”

“Why don't you tell me before I find out what happens when a Veretian soldier loses his sword hand.” Damen walked right by the workers who had emerged to see the man who had made their madame let someone in without paying. They moved like cats, sidling close to the men with a kind of practised distance.

“Pets,” Jord said. “Like your slaves but...paid.”

“So whores.”

“Not exactly,” Jord said. “More like....accessories. Very expensive, very provocative. Often, the kind of young men the older men wish they could have been.”

“Only men?”

“There are only soldiers around here,” Jord said. “In Vere, men only fuck the women they're married to.”

“I pity those women,” Damen said, half-recalling a mention in his schooling of how taboo they regarded bastards in Vere. It had been glossed over as one of the many peculiarities of their corrupt northern neighbours. Akielons did not talk openly about sex. No-one spoke too much about bastards in castle where Kastor would have been king, if Damen had not been born. Kastor was beloved in his own way. Mainly by reprobates. “Wait,” he said. “I'll be the bearer of bad news.”

He didn't know what he expected as he opened the door to the room. Worst case scenario, the crown prince had engaged the services of a boywhore or one of those pets. He was young but not so young to be disinterested in sex. It was not something Damen wished to see. The vials were proof enough.

Or perhaps, considering the madame's assessment of the boy, he would be sat waiting like some teenage girl's dream. Again, not something Damen wished to see.

“Sorry to --” he began, then stopped. Laurent was sitting alone, against the wall, with his knees drawn up to his chest and his hands pressed against his ears. His eyes were red but the ruby against his skinny white chest was redder. They were hopeful, when he raised them when the door opened, then sad as a grieving widow, when he lowered them again.

“You,” he said, viciously.

“Me,” Damen said and sat beside Laurent. “You were expecting someone else?”

“You said you weren't keeping me prisoner.”

“I'm not, lad.”

“I don't want to go to Ios.”

“I didn't want to Sicyon, the first time my father sent me. I wanted to stay in the palace and chase serving girls,” Damen said.

“Fascinating. I suppose you'll tell me next about how brave you were and how it made you a man.”

Sometimes Damen felt like, despite his age and his size, he was still waiting to become a man. “No.” He looked around the candlelit room. It was gaudy, really. So many silks. “This your first time in a brothel.”

“Princes don't generally need to pay.”

“Who did you plan on meeting?”

“No-one. Nothing,” Laurent said. “I'd rather clean the spunk from the floorboards here than spend another second in that --”

“You want a girl, just ask,” Damen said. “Here, I'll leave the room.”

“Don't be --” Laurent's mouth twisted in revulsion.

“It can be comforting.” Damen stood. “If you don't want a girl, we best leave. Believe it or not, this is their best room.”

“I know. I requested it.”

Looking like a pet must open more doors than Damen realised. “Is that why you stole some poor pet's necklace?”

Laurent shoved the shiny stone back under the loosened laces of his shirt “I – no. I'm not that.”

His face, when horrified, felt so familiar to Damen. It was so like Auguste's had been when he begged the prince of the country they were warring with to take his brother away.

“It's late,” Damen said. “We're going back.. Luckily, Jord is here to let you ride with him.”

Jord's neck was very red when Damen and Laurent rejoined him in the corridor. “Your highness,” he said.

“I have my own horse,” Laurent said, marching ahead. “The best one in your puny stables. And you better pay the maitresse. I have no coin.”

Damen paid her. He resisted the urge to thank her for keeping the boy out of harms way. “Why did you let me in?”

“You look like a master,” she replied. “And he told me to expect a very large, angry man. He never did say he'd be so attractive.”

“I'm not --” Damen stopped himself. He did not explain himself to Veretian brothel keepers. “Are all pets like him?”

She shrugged. “I hope not. My boy is one in Arles. Better than being a whore, if your mind is sharp.”

Damen pushed past more drunken men. He thought, by the state of them, the whores would not be as busy as he'd believed. Perhaps that was the madame's intention all along.

“Who was he really expecting?” Damen asked Jord while Laurent made a production of climbing onto his horse unaided.

“One of the Regent's closest guards is, well, the type you would find here,” Jord replied. “Big ugly fella.”

“Govart would gut you both like fish.”

Damen wondered if Laurent had read that phrase in a book. “Hair like an oil slick? Nose that's been broken one too many times? A bear in a man's body?”

“Yes.” Laurent's blue eyes flashed.

“I killed him in the woods last night.” Damen held the blue stone bracelet up to the starlight. “You can have this, for the next time you want to dress up. I took it from is pockets.”

-

 

Before they set out, Theomdes gathered his people on the trampled grass of what was once their campsite. The King of Akielos did not require some grand dais to be seen by his people. At his presence, they all went to their knees.

Even in defeat, they were loyal and strong. Beside him, Damen could see Laurent's blue eyes widen a little.

“My people,” Theomedes began. “Today we ride for home, be it Ios or Karthas or Dice or beyond. We mourn for our fallen people. We are loathe to leave behind our lands and blood here here in Delpha. But we hold our heads high. We do not cower. We do not run.”

Damen felt the crowd stir. His father's words had energy all of their own and he passed it onto every soldier, servant and slave in the crowd. He was not unaffected. He needed this as much as anyone else.

“Do you know why we hold our heads high?” Theomedes asked. “Because we know that defeat is temporary.”

The roar went up. Kastor leaned closer to their father. Damen almost thought he saw a glint in young Laurent's eyes.

Temporary. Damen could do temporary.

Since once again the boy's wellbeing fell to him, Damen suggested putting Laurent in a wagon.

“I can ride,” Laurent said.

“Let him ride,” Theomedes said, then walked Damen a few feet away. “He is not a prisoner.”

“What is he?”

Kastor fell into step beside them. “A foster brother, basically.”

Damen felt dread like he hadn't felt since their first losing battle here.

The horse Laurent had commandeered for his jaunt to the brothel, had been Theomedes' personal favourite. Damen didn't get how anyone could have favourites. A horse was a horse.

Laurent spent as long choosing another horse as a courtier might spend choosing a dress. He insisted on wearing an ornate blue cloak that draped over most of the horse. Damen did not argue. He did not care what the boy wore. He just wanted to get out of this cursed country.

Delpha still belonged to Vere. Now, as they left, Damen saw what he should have seen all along. He saw what his father had told him about but he was too busy envisioning tactics and formations and war. Delpha was not just a symbol of Veretian arrogance. Nor would it have been a symbol of Akielon might. It was a lovely place. Clement weather. Rich, fertile lands. A busy seaport, in calm, safe waters. It would have been a great asset to the country.

And Damen had not been able to win it.

Laurent rode alongside Damen and Kastor, just behind Theomedes and his guard. He kept his back straight and his eyes dead ahead. Whenever they passed occupied townlands, all eyes went to Laurent.

He was showing his people that the Akielons were taking him away. It could not be said better if he was in chains. There was no-one alive who remembered Delpha as being anything but Veretian. Here was their crown prince, a golden boy, riding away beside a failure and a bastard.

“Long night?” Nikandros pulled his horse in beside Damen, much to Kastor's chagrin. He had strong ideas about where men should stay in formation ie everyone should stay behind him. Laurent did not react.

“Don't even ask,” Damen said, straightening his back. “How are your hands?”

“Better. I got a salve from the slave quarters. And this is a docile horse.”

Laurent pulled his reins, and his horse, and Nikandros' horse faltered at the intrusion. His face stayed stoic but the shock and effort of keeping his horse in line had to have pained him.

“Careful,” Damen said.

“Sorry, Exalted.”

“I'm not talking to you, Nikandros.”

“Cheer up, lad,” Nikandros turned to Laurent. The word lad made him raise one pale eyebrow.

“Your highness,” Jord mumbled. “Sir.”

“Cheer up, your highness,” Nikandros said, tossing Damen a smile. “You'll come to like Ios. I was fostered there when I was much younger than you. Didn't do me any harm.”

“What a glowing recommendation,” Laurent replied.

“You've got the best person there looking out for you.” Nikandros smiled at Damen,

“My brother was the best person,” Laurent said through gritted teeth. “He died. In his place, I have to go a foreign country filled with the uncultured swine who killed him. Oh, and a sweaty meatball on a horse.”

“Meatball?” Nikanndros frowned. “My Veretian is not great but --”

“I know what I said.” Laurent glared at Nikandros.

Damen regretted not putting him in a wagon.

-
As they drew close to the border, that Damen had been hoping would no longer be a border, swatches of red began appearing through the trees.

“Ah,” Theomedes said. “The Regent has sent a party to see us off.” To draw his entire party to a halt, he simply raised one hand. Laurent stopped his mare just as obediently as the rest. “Come, Herald,” he called. “I know you have something for me.”

They did not have to wait long before beak-nosed man in the Regent's livery emerged from the woods.

“I have the terms of your retreat,” he said.

“You had them at Marlas, too, I am sure.” Theomedes bid his guard to take the scroll. He unrolled it, still on horseback. Damen leaned forward to see the terms over his father’s shoulder. Laurent did the same. The terms were simple. The Akielons were to leave and stake no further claim on the land they called Delfeur. Vere would allow them foster their prized son, as a promise that they would not advance their armies further south. “Your uncle is reasonable,” Theomedes said to Laurent, as he signed his name. “We pledge to protect you.”

“Yes, Exalted,” Laurent replied, softly. The scroll must have been the final nail in the coffin for the boy. He kept his horse close to Theomedes for the rest of the ride.

-

“Why do you not build a bigger camp?” Laurent asked, when they finally stopped. “Send servants ahead.”

“One, we are retreating,” Damen told him. “So we like to keep our servants out of harm's reach.”

“Two,” Nikandros added. “We do not need silks and velvets to stop for one night.”

“I'm hungry,” Laurent said. “Jord?”

Damen shook his head in Jord's direction. “He is a guard, not a servant.”

“Fine.” Laurent took himself off to Theomedes tent which was, admittedly, more luxurious than strictly necessary. Damen would stay by the fire with the soldiers. Well, the officers. His presence spooked the lower ranks. But he was more comfortable among the soldiers than his family at the moment. He felt they shared the burden of defeat in a different way. To Theomedes and Kastor, it was a dot in the sand. Like taking a loss on a poor investment. They hadn't been there when Akielons failed to get through the gates at the fort. They hadn't seen those brutal early battles, before the old King had died, when he and his son pushed back wave after wave of Akielons, who just minutes before had been seen victory in their sights just because the Veretians came out from behind their walls.

Damen needed to be around his men. But, it seemed Theomedes thought the men needed their king to rally around them. It wasn't long before he and Kastor joined them by the low fire, Laurent trailing on their heels. He could see the discomfort ripple through the men, some of whom, had never even seen royalty in the flesh before this campaign.

But flowing wine and funeral dirges soon sorted that out. There had been death before the fire, too, fallen brothers in arms and no time to mourn or do the usual rites.

“Is he old enough to drink, Exalted?” A squire asked, when Laurent held his cup up expectantly.

“I am sitting right here,” Laurent said. “And I am thirteen.”

Damen waited for Theomedes to answer, then realised the squire had been asking him. He shrugged one shoulder. Let the boy get blind drunk for all he cared. This was his punishment. He had let Auguste die. He had begged to break from fighting. In return, he got the responsibility for a baby snake who matched men twice his age drink for drink. He wormed his way beside Theomedes and seemed to hang on his every word.

Damen leaned back, bracing his hands on the ground, and didn't listen to much of anything.

Jord all but carried the boy to Damen's tent. If it was Damen, he would have been ashamed. But Laurent's quiet drunkeness did not cause derision from the other men. They had all been there.

“You should sleep,” Damen told Jord. “No need to keep watch tonight. He's not going anywhere.”

“There are other dangers.”

“No. Not at present. Our agreement with Vere is too tenuous for anyone to attempt to hurt him. And my father has pledged protection.”

“That's --”

“He is safe from me. Do not imply otherwise.” He threw Jord a bedroll and didn't need to watch to know he spread it out in front of the tent, in plain view of Damen's guards. Jord had his own safety to consider. Damen realised he should have got him to deal with the boy's attire first. There were too many laces for him to do anything but yank off his boots before dumping him onto a bedroll. Feeling charitable, Damen turned him on his side and left some water within hand's reach.

Turning him, though, made him cough. Which made the Crown Prince of Vere vomit all over Damen's feet. “Easy,” Damen said, when Laurent thrashed about. He retched again. “Easy.”

For a second, Laurent's blue eyes opened and they were so clear Damen had to turn his head. “Auguste?”

“'Fraid not.”

“No,” Laurent said. “Uncle.”

-
In order to leave at first light, they had to rise before dawn to disassemble the camp. This was not unusual for soldiers and servants, used to surviving on little sleep. It was, Damen could tell, quite a shock to the system for the boy from Vere who was green in both pallor and experience.

“This is cruel,” he said. “I've decided we will leave a ten o clock instead.”

“Lad, we're fleeing a volatile foreign country. We only stopped because of the injured men. Get your skinny ass up off the ground or I will take down the tent around you.” Boys needed discipline. Damen had given the same speech, with more expletives, to plenty of young soldiers over the years. He had mostly likely heard it in his early years.
And if his father had decided Damen was to be in charge of Laurent, he was not about to have him lay abed.

Laurent unleashed a string of Veretian curses but he got out of the bed. “What is that smell?”

“You, your highness. You should probably wash first. Should I find a page to help you with those laces?”

“I do not need assistance,” Laurent said, just before he vomited again. To his credit, he did not look for a smidgen of help as he washed away the night before and tied himself into those ridiculous Veretian accoutrements. He only swayed a little as he climbed onto his horse.

“Watch him,” Damen said, to no-one in particular. Only Jord showed any sign of hearing. Kastor mostly ignored Damen. Nikandros was nursing a hangover of his own. “Am I talking to myself?”

“No, Exalted.” Damen's guards were usually impeccably obedient. Laurent's presence really had put the cat among the pigeons. Laurent was the cat.

They set out, in not quite perfect formation, as pink sunrise streaked across the sky. Damen didn't mind the ride. It set his mind to that same place it went during spars and drills and, sometimes, sex. He didn't need to think of anything more than his next action. He didn't hear anything but the huffs of the horses and hoof-fall on the dewy ground and, way back the lines, the dull chorus of singing soldiers.

Normally.

Today, he couldn't zone out because his head kept turning towards Laurent. The boy's face was a shade of ash normally reserved for corpses. His back was still straight, though.

“You really are a good rider,” Damen said, conversationally. In his extensive experience of the after-effects of alcohol, distraction had been quite the balm.

“Fuck off,” said Laurent.

“And so polite, too.” Damen said. “Here. Water.” Laurent refused to take the cup. He pulled his horse up to Theomedes and commented on the weather. “At least I tried,” he said to Nikandros.

“I don't know why you do,” Nikandros replied. “His snake people lost us this war. This land is ours.”

“It might be again someday.”

“Sure.”

“Speak your mind, friend.”

“You have Ios,” Nikandros said. “I only have your instructions.”

Damen would have found some conciliatory words, something to show that even though he was prince, he had empathy for his friends.

But just in front, he saw Laurent sway on his saddle. Theomedes was too busy being regal to notice the boy. Laurent swayed again. If he fell, under his horse or the many trotting behind, the effects could be deadly. Damen touched his heels to his horse and got his arm around the boy just before as he lost consciousness. He flopped, quite lifeless, and before Damen could signal to the riders behind to stop, Laurent's horse reared and Damen had to grab its reins.

“Halt,” he said. Then Kastor finally noticed what was happening, and brought some order before there was a trampling or a stampede. Lightly, Damen slapped Laurent's cheek to rouse him. “I don't think he's as accustomed to alcohol as he would have us believe,” Damen said to his father. He forgot that to Theomedes a man who could not hold his drink was not a man at all.

“Fuck's sake,” Laurent groaned, when his eyes fluttered open.

“Remember your elders,” Theomedes said sharply, barely breaking from instructing his guard to circle back and make sure there were no casualties of the unexpected stop.

“All right,” Damen said. “You're riding pillion.”

“If you wanted to get close to my arse, you just had to ask,” Laurent said. Damen jerked his arm away. It was up to the boy if he wanted to fall now. Laurent held on. No-one else heard.

“If you faint again, you could cause serious damage.”

“Maybe Nikandros will share with me.”

Theomedes shot Damen a look that said, unequivocally, hurry up.

“Jord.” Damen waved the guard up. “You should have been quicker. Your prince will share your horse now.”

“I'm not sitting with him,” Laurent said.

“Should I lash you to your own horse and tie it to mine?” Damen asked.

“Maybe Kastor will be so generous,” Laurent said, just as Theomedes looked at them again. “At least he's got some royal blood in him even if he is a bastard.” He dropped his voice again. “And he fucked a slave this morning so I don't need to worry to much about getting poked as we ride.”

“Kastor,” Theomedes said. “Allow the Prince to share your horse.”

Kastor reacted like he'd just been told to jump off the nearest cliff before saying, “Yes, father.”

“He's small. You'll have plenty of room.” Theomedes said, cheerfully. Damen was just relieved he could ride on without watching for the prince. Laurent was silent and his neck was red as he sat in front of Kastor. Quite a few miles on, he relaxed his shoulders. Damen thought he was going to faint again but he simply rested against Kastor, who this time reacted like he had been stung.

“After lunch,” Kastor said, in Akielon, “You can re-assume responsibility for your whelp.” They had been mostly conversing in Veretian out of consideration for Laurent and his basic command of Akielon.

“He's not --” Damen began.

Laurent sat straight again. “Kastor,” he said, sweet as babe, “I don't know that word. Can you tell me what it means.”

“Like a puppy,” Kastor said.

“I see. And what is Akielon for route?” Kastor told him. That continued, basic words, which were as far as Kastor's vocabulary went, as the trees got thinner and the horses began to sweat and Damen's eyes began to ache from the sun. They came to the end of the gravel road and Laurent glanced at Damen and spoke in rapid fire Veretian. “What is the Akielon for you are now leaving Delfeur, lands you lost and tried to reclaim but will never ever hold as long as my blood holds the crown?”

“What was that about blood?” Kastor asked. His Veretian was poorer than Damen's.

“Oh, never mind. I remember.” Laurent smiled and said the Akeilon word for failure.

Damen confined him to the wagons for the remainder of their journey to Ios.

Failure was no easy thing to live with.

Chapter Text

The only way home was through Sicyon, home of the men Theomedes had turned off. Unlike Vere, Akielos was a collection of city-states bound together by the king's iron will. If Theomedes did not bind them, then he had little control and a king without control was no king at all. Damen's father made it clear that the loss of the Sicyon generals had lost them them Marlas and subsequently Delpha. Shame would be the only thing that kept them bound right now.

“We go straight to Mellos,” Theomedes said. Without the burden of Laurent, Damen could ride in his rightful place beside the king. “I will need you to make an account of the events at the stream. For the annals.”

“Right,” said Damen. “Should I include how the Sicyon men refused to stop when I commanded them?”

“We'll review it at home.”

“It bothers me,” Damen admitted. “How am I to lead if I count not command that much?”

“They did not know you, they had been on patrol long before you arrived. Perhaps they thought the Auguste had made a prisoner of you.”

“Perhaps,” Damen said. He would not contradict his father but, with great certainty, he knew the Veretian royal family would never make a captive of Prince Damianos. “So, are we doling out the insults are receiving them by bypassing Karthas?”

“Neither,” Theomedes said. “That's Veretian tactics. We are just going home.”

Damen longed for the white cliffs of Ios, where life was simple and you didn't have to second guess yourself. Mellos was two days away but at least there would be familiar comforts there. Damen could endure two more nights of the bratty prince Laurent who was currently making a game of saying the most inflammatory words and phrases invented in both Akielon and Veretian. If he was intent on shock, Damen would leave him to his childish crusade. He was among soldiers. They were quite unshockable.

-

“Damen,” Nikandros said, over a fireside dinner of hard cheese and harder bread, “I am shocked.”

“You've seen me eat worse food than this.”

“No, Exalted. Your pup has shocked me. He --” Nikandros made sure no-one was in earshot. The pup in question was sitting at Theomedes feet across the camp. “Made an offer.”

“To take him back to Vere? Clever. You're the most capable.”

“No,” Nikandros said. “He offered...himself.”

“To you?

“Why are you shocked by the wrong thing here?”

“He's been going out of his way to shock.” It was posturing. The boy he saw in the brothel ad been terrified. “Did you hear the rumour he spread about the horseman?”

“It wasn't like that,” Nikandros said, but he seemed more relaxed already.

“I'll talk to him, if you think I should,” Damen replied. “But it's just a game to him. He's trying to get a reaction out of us.”

“What if he gets the wrong reaction?”

“No-one here would --”They were in Akielos. Laurent was a boy. “If they did, I couldn't think of a better reason for the prince to go home,” he said. “Or for the Regent to attack.”

“Talk to him.”

Except Damen found breathing the same air as him exhausting. Laurent stirred up a hurricane of annoyance and guilt and, occasionally, shame. Damen could not keep Auguste alive. He could not win the war. He failed. Laurent was a gilt-edged reminder. Sometimes, when Damen observed the arrogance that came with being a prince in his early teens, he saw flashes of his own self and wondered had he changed so much now nearing twenty.

“Jord, you can stand down,” Damen said, rather than greet Laurent. “My men are on watch.”

“Come to chastise me,” Laurent asked. “I was only kidding with the horseman.”

“Tent.” Damen said. “Now.” He was only a little surprise when Laurent obeyed. “You need to be more careful in how you conduct yourself.”

“Isn't that what you and Jord are for? Speaking of Jord, I need to order some things for him. And while you're at it, you should really get me another guard. I had two at all times in Arles and three at Marlas.”

“But not at the stream.”

Laurent pressed his lips so tightly together they disappeared. Quietly, he unlaced his jacket.

“Listen to me,” Damen said. “You are a prince and you must show yourself the dignity that role deserves. You can't go...making offers to older men.”

“But you can fuck slaves without making offers at all,” Laurent said. “Are you jealous? I might be nice to you if you try a little harder and bathe a little more often.”

“Enough.” Damen stood over Laurent. “No insolence. No filth. You're a prince.”

“So are you. Does anyone tell you who you can't fuck?”

“Someday, kid, someone might say yes and I don't think you'd like that very much.”

“You're wrong,” Laurent said. But that was all he said.

-

After war, came reparations. Their troops disintegrated as their men trickled home. There were homes that would never see their sons and husbands again, sacrificed to a lost war. There were kyroi and nobility who had been generous and now deserved, at the very least, visits from the royalty as they made the long march home. The kyros of Mellos had a sprawling estate, of which Damen saw none, because royal duty had him smiling at snotty children and listening to stories of wars won and, less unfavourably, availing himself of the finest slave Mellos had to offer.

She told Damen her name so quietly he didn't catch it. She blushed so deeply, pale skin blooming pink, that he did make her repeat herself. Words weren't necessary, anyway, while music played and she popped sweet fruit into his mouth.

“You should have let me stay in the wagons,” Laurent said. “This display hurts my eyes.”

“I'm sure there are displays of a much more scandalous nature in Arles,” Kastor called from behind the ample bosom of the third best slave in the castle.

“That's different.”

“I know. Your people are uglier,” Damen teased. Laurent responded better to insults than to attempts at friendship. As a crown prince, he had to be at the head table with Damen's family, but his presence was not exactly welcome by good Vere-hating Akielons.

Laurent sneered. “No-one is forced in Vere. Slavery is disgusting.”

“Rude,” Damen said. If he could remember his girl's name he would have said that she was anything but disgusting.

“Laurent,” Theomedes said. It was hard to believe than in just a few short years he might face Laurent as an equal ruler. “Do not disrespect our host's hospitality. Cultures differ. That's what makes a country more than common land and a connection of memories.”

“I'm sorry,” Laurent said.

Damen gestured for his slave girl to look up. “Are you happy?” he asked.

“Yes, Exalted. This slave is honoured to serve a future king.”

Laurent snorted. “That one doesn't look too honoured.”

“What --” Damen followed Laurent's line of sight to a slight, mousy-haired slave boy who was packing up his kithara and being leered at by a soldier. “He's older than you.” Damen guessed by his training silks. Akielos made sure slaves had reached sexual maturity before they could be in any sort of bed service. They were a civilised people. They trained the boys and girls from nurseries to slave gardens to first nights, and this was extensive and delicate and time consuming. “He's old enough to fight.”

“He looks like he's about to die of fright,” Laurent said. He wasn't wrong about.

“Father,” Damen said. “May I interrupt you and the Kyros for a second?”

“Of course,” Theomedes said.

“What of the kithara player?”

Theomedes, for a second, let his eyes widen at Damen. It was so unlike him to show any reaction but the unshakeable dominance of a ruler in public that Damen worried.

“He is quite the prodigy,” the Kyros answered. “Still in training, of course, but we break the rules and take him from the dormitories to perform on special occasions such as this.”

“His talent is a testament to your house,” Theomedes said.

Damen rose. “I'm going to tell him so myself.” Naturally, the princes presence was enough to make the leering man step back. But Damen still spoke to him first, while the boy slave pressed his forehead to the wine-sticky ground. “If you serve my father's army,” Damen said. “You observe his rules.”

“Exalted, I did not think I had broken any. I was just --”

“Do you argue with me?”

“No, sir.”

“No,” Damen said. “You don't argue with me. And you don't even attempt to fuck boys. Understand? Find a man. You'll probably need to pay.”

The soldier bowed and literally ran away. Damen bid the slave to rise. “You are a wonderful musician,” he said, while the boy shrank into himself like he wished to become part of the embroidered carpet. “Some day, you will bring great pleasure to a worthy man.”

He was coming to realise that his intervention may just have brought the slave the very opposite of pleasure. The boy had to be used to hiding behind his status, his trainers, his music. Damen's interest had captured the attention of most of the room. Out of kindness, and a sudden discomfort at being watched himself, Damen brushed the boy's hair out of his eyes. The slave sighed with his whole body.

“Exalted,” he whispered. “I would kiss your foot.”

“Just go safely to bed,” Damen said and bid the handlers, who were really there to ensure slaves retained their value, take the boy away. He grabbed the first cup of wine he laid hands and felt a great surge of relief when Nikandros called him to his table.

“I did not know you had such an appreciation of music,” he said.

“I have an appreciation for decent human behaviour.”

“I'd rather appreciate that girl serving you apricots.”

“They're nectarines,” Damen said, “And so would I.” He was feeling lighter now, away from the pressures of his family and the boy Laurent. “So can you, actually.”

“You would reject her after...”

“You must be drunk if you're telling me what to do,” Damen said, lightly. “I won't reject her. But I will share.”

“I don't need charity.”

“I need a room,” Damen said. “Mine has a pest.”

“The pest is coming over with his babysitter.”

“Do we have a deal? Come on, remember your eighteenth birthday.”

Nikandros smiled and shook his head in that way that was an indulgent yes. Damen clapped him on the shoulder and rose before the boy Laurent could insult his bannermen.

“Tired?” Damen asked, deciding now that he was standing he may as well escort Laurent to the door. See, he took his duty seriously.

“Bored.”

“Your father send him away,” Jord said.

“He didn't like my opinions on slavery,” Laurent said. “What did you say to the kithara player?”

“I told him he was talented.”

“I meant,” Laurent said. “Why did you nearly make that fat soldier piss himself?”

“Then you should speak plainly.” Damen cleared a path through some gambling drummers. “You know why I sent him away. We don't force boys in Akielos.”

“Except for me,” Laurent said. “To come here against my will, I mean. Plainly.” He looked up at Damen. “You actually think you are noble.”

“I'm a prince, of course I am,” Damen said. “Listen, I remember being your age.”

“Because it was not that long ago.”

“Because no-one ever thinks they are young,” Damen said, quoting his father. “It's different with other boys, of course. If you want to ... with someone, it can be arranged.”

Laurent waited until he was in the cool corridor to whirl around at Damen, who suddenly had the good sense to wait inside the banquet hall. “You think I would lower myself to lie with some ill-bred Akielon squire --” His voice cracked with the effort. “I would never touch a slave. And I wouldn't spit on --- you killed my brother! My brother is dead because of Akielon cunts and --”

“Jord,” Damen said. “My rooms will be unoccupied tonight. The servants have leave to give you both whatever you need.”

Damen shut the door. He was friendly with the men he needed to be friendly with, polite to the ladies, and respectful and interested around Theomedes. He even smiled at Kastor's bad jokes. He lavished attention the slave with no name and let her supple flesh make his unyielding body feel like it had the potential to be soft. Later, in Nikandros's plain rooms, his body was nothing but aching hardness and the pliant girl was a welcome distraction and a willing receptacle for all he had to give. She bucked back and drove him deeper but somewhere in the back of his mind, Damen was glad of steady Nikandros, kissing her breasts and cradling her head and stopping him forgetting himself completely.

-

 

Banners and pennants snapped in the sea breeze, signalling the King of Akielos home. The ocean beat against the cliffs, sprayed up to the mist Damen's legs, as he rode in behind his father. Theomedes' adviser Oreste had tried to wave Prince Damianos closer to the front. A grown heir should ride beside his father. But Damen outranked, and therefore could ignore, him and hung back beside Kastor and Laurent, who had been let of the wagon for the final ride.

This was no victorious march home. They were dogs with tails between their legs, pretending to be wolves. The journey had been a series of parades and power plays, all so Theomedes could say look : I am still in charge.

Damen remembered a particular sense of breathlessness come over him by a pungent cooking fire in southern Trace, as he father had boasted about the death of Prince Auguste. There wasn't even anyone around to impress. Just his guards, advisers and sons. Akielos may not have recaptured Depha but their attack had led to the death of Veretian King and his golden champion son.

That's not how it was. Damen had to move away from the smoke to catch his breath.

The same tightness squeezed his chest, despite the salt-fresh air coming in from the Gulf of Atros, at the sight of the white palace rising above the cliffs. It continued as the sentries went to their knees and the townspeople thronged the streets, tossing dry green leaves into the air and onto the ground to welcome their king home.

Damen glanced to the blank-faced boy Laurent, riding straight-backed to Damen's right, sheltered from the crowd. He wondered what he would have thought of Vere if he had been paraded in against his wishes. he fact that Laurent was back on horseback made Damen uneasy. For one thing, it made him harder to control. For another, it put him at risk. He had argued against it. His father shot him down. He was a prince, too, Theomedes had said. We must treat him as such.

Except now that the crowds were chanting and the streets outside the white-washed peasant houses were busy enough to stroll their arrival to a crawl, Damen thought the effect of Laurent's presence, dour and indifferent on the fourth finest horse, was not at all respectful.

Theomedes was saying, the king is dead. The oldest son is dead. And the youngest is in my possession.

“Not much further,” Damen said, but Laurent showed no inclination of having heard. He sat straight. His seat was excellent. He held the reins in one hand and manipulated a small wooden toy, a puzzle of some sort, with the other.

The chants thundered. Welcome, they said. Our king, they said. Damianos, they said, prince-taker, prince-destroyer.

Damen nearly lost control of his horse.

It wasn't like that.

“Brother, they love you still,” Kastor called.

False love. But, maybe, important love. Theomedes had made a fist, wielded a sword, and made a country once. Strength was not something you let slip through your fingers because of a lost messenger and a green regent.
-

In his rooms, his household greeted him with the kind of soft joy Damen imagined mothers all over Akielos had greeted their sons with when they returned stitched and scarred after the failed Northern campaign. His own mother died bringing him into the world and her loyal ladies disbanded, too grief-stricken to remain in her empty rooms. They had stayed by her side through so many fruitless pregnancies, but they could not stay for a son.

There were wet-nurses, the healthiest women obliged to put their own babies second to nourish a prince, and nannies but none that Damen remembered as anything but an indistinguishable impression of sternness. Out of respect for him, the same kind perhaps that kept Laurent on a horse in the blazing sun while people celebrated the death of his family, the King's mistress was kept far from Damen. He never asked Kastor about his mother, or what it was like to have a mother. Damen was the heir. He had to allow his brother the small victory of having two living parents.

Anyway, boys with royal blood were not allowed to be boys as long as other children. Etiquette and language, first. Schooling of a particular unique nature. Then, training in every pursuit that was required of a prince, and a prince had to be the best. He had no choice.

Even now, after so long away, and such a long journey, Damen had to be interested and generous to his household staff. He had to thank his personal guard and give them time off. He had to allow them tend to his armour and weapons, even though he would have rather done it himself. That was another thing he learned as a boy, and as soon as he was good at it, he never really had to do it again.

Finally, he could go to his bedroom.

He left his guards at the stairs but found Jord and Oreste right outside his bedroom door. Or, more accurately, outside the door directly across from Damen's that could be residences of a consort or a favoured friend if he ever felt the need to have someone that close to him.

“The King instructed him sent here,” Oreste said, nervously. “You are both Crown Princes. It is the most suitable place.”

“The palace is large enough to find another suitable place,” Damen said.

“I'm afraid you'll have to take it up with your father.” Oreste pressed his lips together. Damen wanted to split them with the force of his knuckles. “And perhaps consider a muzzle for the princeling. He's got quite the mouth on him.”

It may have Damen's imagination, but he thought Jord looked momentarily proud.

“I don't want to be disturbed,” Damen told Jord.

“It is not my role or my rank to do so,” Jord said. Smart. In the palace, he would have to bow to Akielon standards in ways that Damen had not enforced on the road.

“Well, I would if I hadn't already been sickened enough for one day,” Laurent said. He was so light. He kept managing to sneak up on Damen. “They listen to you, right? Make sure no-one comes in here. I want to be alone.”

“Fine.” Damen could not imagine that would be a problem. He closed his heavy door. His rooms were a retreat of cool marble and solid furniture and untainted memories. A servant had laid out food – his favourite flat bread and shiny peeled grapes – and there was a carafe of rich red wine. There was also a slave, kneeling, waiting. Her clothing was pinned together with gold poured into the shape of a lion.

She pressed her forehead onto the marble at Damen's entrance and stayed prostrate like that until he bid her rise. He did not require assistance. He wanted solitude.

He saw a fly crawl on the moist grapes.

A slave girl required nothing from him. She would not even speak without his permission.

“There is a bath ready,” he said. Not a question. There was a hot bath waiting. It had possibly cooled and been reheated several times before he had made it here. “Attend me.”

Silently, she wiped the dust of the road from his body and poured steaming water over his skin. When he was clean, he directed her towards his bed. She was silent. Even before his own desire made him impatient, and he wanted the thrill of her wanting him, she was silent. She made his own noises seem savage but he did not give her leave to speak.

-

There was a dinner. More accurately, a feast, to celebrate the return of the king and his children. Damen would have preferred to stay in bed, or perhaps share a drink with a couple of his friends. Nikandros would probably be reassigned soon. It had been a long time since Damen had seen the soldiers who stayed behind. But the king's son could not cry off. Damen dressed himself and left his room behind.

Jord was still in the hall.

“You should go down,” he said. “Impressions etc.”

“Prince Laurent was not invited.”

“Right. Has ...” Damen stopped himself. It was not his role to see if the princeling had been fed. “Has there been any trouble?”

“Nothing worth mentioning.”

“Make sure he's not alone too long.” There was danger in that, when people were upset.

Damen's guards stood at attention at the end of the hallway. They flanked him on the way to the great hall. They stood behind as he say beside his father.

“You look rested,” his father said, light-hearted now that he was back at his own palace. Families had boundaries. The slight drawl on the word rested was the closest his father would ever come to saying you look like you've been fucking all afternoon.

“It is good to be home,” Damen said. “Before we begin the festivities, I wanted to say about the report. I've told you and Kastor enough what happened. I don't think you need me there to transcribe it.”

“You're right, son. Good choice.”

Damen hadn't realised he made a choice until just then. But his judgement had not been reliable lately. Better to leave things up to his father, who was stronger, who knew about ruling and who knew how to turn a defeat into a show of strength.

For example, when Theomedes walked into the hall he did so beside Tachenon, the old Ios kyros, who had been there in his father's day and rarely left his estate now. Unlike the other provinces, Theomedes never had reason to court the local kyros by force or by charm. Tachenon obeyed without question and in return he got a sprawling estate outside the city, good wives for all his sons and the honour of being a wizened old man for whom the king slowed his gait to allow them to walk as equals.

-

“That boy has the foulest mouth I've encountered outside of a guardroom,” Kastor said, when the topic later shifted to Akielos's fosterling. “If it wasn't directed at me by a Veretian, I’d nearly be impressed. He called me a pox-ridden bastard cunt and all I did was say he was decent on a horse.”

“He called me a whoreson cunt,” said Oreste. “He called the man who offered him a hand down from his horse a horse-fucking cunt.”

“He sounds lively,” Tachenos said. “Boys today are too concerned with building muscle to use the most important one.”

“The mind,” said Damen, firmly, because he did not like the man's tone.

“He called me a crimson cunt,” said one of Kastor's men, who had a bright red beard. “I think he meant ginger.”

Damen couldn't help his laughter. “We know the limits of his Akielon vocabulary.”

Words lost meaning the more they were used. Knowing the Veretian distaste for bastardry and Laurent's distaste for Akielos, none of this surprised Damen. The men laughed, too, because it was right to laugh at a Veretian's mistakes. It was like laughing at a foal taking its first steps if you didn't care for horses.

“What clever nickname did the baby prince give to you?” Oreste asked Damen.

A meatball. Or was that Nikandros? Damen wasn't sure.

“It would not be polite of a prince to repeat them,” Damen said, then slyly grinned over the top of his cup and the men laughed again.

“You need to take him in hand,” Kastor said, quietly, to Damen.

“I know.”

Laurent would soon reach the limits of Akielon patience. Theomedes would not stand for such disrespect. Damen had seen his father bring men to their knees for an ill-thought joke and leave green boys standing with their backs to the cliffs if they bore insult to their betters.

He was informed by his servants that Laurent had broken three candlesticks, two pitchers, and shouted Veretian insults when one of them tried to light his candles. His food remained untouched outside the door. He slapped away the boy who was meant to help him dress, even though he had not baulked at the squires attending him on the road.

Tantrums.

The best thing to do was ignore them.

-

A reasonable plan, until Damen was trying to enjoy a post-training massage and by trying he meant biting back yelps and wondering why he hadn't gotten a slave to do this instead of the most sought after wrestling expert in Ios who treated muscle with the care a blacksmith treated his hammer.

Maybe, just maybe, he was glad of the interruption and didn't wait for the shrieking to die down as usual. He leaped off the table and strode out the bedroom door.

“What is going on?”

“Why are you naked?” Laurent's face was frozen in shock. He did not avert his eyes as quickly as he should have. “Talk me when you're dressed. I have standards.”

Damen put his hands on his hips. There was no taboo against nudity in Akielos, especially in the context of sports. Also, these were his apartments.

“What is going on?” he repeated.

Jord, who also did not avert his eyes, cleared his throat in the direction of a servant woman. In addition to her kitchen garb, she wore the dripping remnants of duck in currant sauce down the front of her clothing.

Damen sighed. Laurent challenged him with his eyes.

“Go clean yourself up,” Damen said. He knew the woman's her face. She often brought warm, spiced milk to his rooms in the evenings. “In fact take the rest of the afternoon to rest. My guards will tell the mistress.” He turned back to Laurent. “We don't assault our staff in Ios.”

“I told you I wanted to be left alone.”

“To starve?” Damen noticed that Laurent was still holding a gravy boat. “Go on.” He stepped closer. “Throw it at me. Throw your boyish tantrums. Let your uncle down.”

Laurent's grip tightened. His shoulder pulled back a fraction. Damen hadn't thought the boy would actually do it. And even though some part of him screamed against using his size to intimidate the boy, he took another step forward.

He stared Laurent down.

Laurent dropped the gravy boat in a clatter on the marble floor. Its contents splashed onto Damen's feet.

“I hate you all!” Laurent slammed his bedroom door. Damen picked up the bowl, sighing. He could feel that Jord wanted to say something.

“Speak,” he said. “And I know you need time off.”

“In Vere, the stigma against bastardy is as ingrained as your slave culture,” Jord began.

“This better not be an insult to my brother.”

“No, sir.” Jord looked at the ground. “Among lowborn like myself, of course, the standards are less stringent. But among royals, it is completely out of the question. A royal would be ex-communicated if he fathered a bastard.”

“All I hear is insults to my family,” Damen said.

“We do not mix,” Jord said. “Men and women. We especially do not allow princes to be alone with women or girls. Ever.”

“Right,” Damen said. “Is he even old enough to – never mind. I will see to it. And if someone had just told me this, it would have saved my massage.”

“Exalted, we can continue,” called the masseur.

“No. I have to sort this,” Damen said. Jord smirked. “Is this bastard thing going to be a problem for you?”

“I prefer men,” Jord said.

“One less thing for me to worry about.” He was just waiting in the hall until he was safe from the masseur's clutches. “Is it an act?” He asked, glancing at the closed door. “The anger.”

“His whole world's been taken away.”

-
News of Laurent's latest tantrum reached Theomedes within hours. Or, more likely, he had been aware of all of them but throwing the tray at the serving woman had been the last straw. The King summoned the Prince of Vere to his throne room.

“Have you nothing better to do than escort me to see your father?” Laurent was dressed in full Veretian finery for a simple meeting. Damen pulled his own cloak around his shoulders.

“I'm just here for the fireworks,” Damen replied. “Come on. I'll show you the way.” He watched Laurent take in every detail of the route. Maybe he was curious. Maybe he was planning to make use of his knowledge and escape. “You wouldn't make it out there, you know. Ios is too barbaric for a swaddled princeling.”

Laurent glared. In the throne room, he was the model of good behaviour. Polite. A little shy. A good actor. Damen waited for Theomedes to rebuke Laurent's bad behaviour but he simply asked if he was settling into the palace. Before Laurent could answer, Oreste led a chained prisoner into the room. The man struggled against his holders, but was no match for an Akielon soldier. His head was shaved and there were sticky welts on his scalp. His clothes were tattered and brown with grime.

A common criminal. Possibly one of the bandits who sometimes haunted the road to Ios in order to rob unsuspecting travellers. He bared his rotten teeth and bucked against the chains.

From Damen's vantage point beside his father, Laurent looked very young and vulnerable standing in the centre of the cavernous room. There was a flatness to Laurent's expression as he deftly stepped aside, pressed his back to the wall, and glanced at the exits. This was the kind of roughness he seemed to expect from Akielos. Here it was, come to life on his first venture out of the royal apartments.

“Forgive me, Exalted,” Oreste said. “It took longer to restrain this one that anticipated.”

“We are busy speaking with the Prince of Vere,” Theomedes said. “Brother, do you mind if I take a break.”

“By all means,” Laurent said, casually.

“Father, what is the nature of this crime?” Damen asked. It had to be serious for the King to take a personal interest. Theomedes ruled his country with might. Or rather, he ruled his nobles and generals with an iron fist and they took up the mantle with the lower classes on his behalf. Theomedes did not normally bother with common criminals.

Before the king could answer, the prisoner reared back like a wild horse, and spat. His face was smashed into the marble in an instant. The rotten teeth rattled onto the floor.

Theomedes signalled. The guards raised their swords and then the prisoner's head rattled on the floor, too, rolling in a pool of blood.

Damen glanced at Laurent. The boy's narrow chest was rising and falling but his face was remarkably composed.

“That is what we do when men spit in front of the king,” Oreste said to Laurent.

“We do the same in Vere,” said Laurent. “Except we have a guillotine. It's much less messy.” Like a lady picking up a long skirt to avoid puddles, Laurent gracefully tiptoed around the carnage. “Theomedes, what was his crime?”

“Irrelevant,” Oreste replied. “He spat. He could have been innocent and --”

“Enough. Have that removed,” Theomedes said. “Laurent, that man attempted an attack on slaves as they were being transported to the castle.”

Laurent nodded. “My rooms are fine, though the view is abysmal. I require more papers and a qualified tutor in languages and law.”

“We're working on the latter,” Theomedes replied. “And Damianos is making sure we're getting acquainted with your customs.”

“Thank you,” Laurent said.

“Damianos will escort you back to your rooms now.”

Damen did as he was told. As he stepped over the still-warm blood, he remembered the times Laurent had spat and screamed without consequence. Theomedes was patient and wise. He was a king.

“What was the charge? Defilement of royal property?” Laurent asked Damen. “Also, I want books too. But I think your father wouldn't care about that too much.”

“We have a whole library. You just need to work on your Akielon,” Damen said. “The charge was attempted rape. We don't fuck boys in Akielos.”

“No,” said Laurent. “You just lock them away, strip away their will until they grow old enough to make you feel better about keeping them in bondage.”

-

Damen's instinct was to show the boy kindness. Children responded to tenderness, if they had a chance to receive it. But Laurent was sharp edges, when most children were softness, and he was going to be a king someday.

A future king who would face Damen on a warfield, most likely. The loss at Delpha was an open wound. Damen and his father would stitch it back together someday and make Akielos whole again.

Maybe he should be patient with him. Let him grieve and let him blossom. Maybe it would soften him and make him an easy opponent some day.

“Nikandros,” Damen said. “Have you room for one more in your class?”

Nikandros, between assignments, trained soldiers in the capital barracks. His job would never be a permanent teacher. He was too good a soldier and Damen felt that Theomedes was training his friend to be a future leader.

Boys all over Akielos competed for a chance to train in the palace. Damen called in on them sometimes but his presence usually caused skilled trainees make clumsy mistakes. When he was a boy, he made the other boys make mistakes too. Most of his sword training had been done alone with his old master Haemon.

“No,” said Nikandros. “You can't be serious. He'll eat them alive.”

He was a skinny thirteen year old who spent most nights crying for his dead brother. Damen found it hard to sleep and harder to focus on more pleasant bed activities these nights.

“He needs discipline,” Damen said. “It's what my father would do.”

“Theomedes approves.”

“I don't need approval on this matter,” Damen snapped. “Look, can you think of something better? We're struggling to find a tutor my father and the uncle both agree on. He's just moping. In the barracks at least we can make his time here worthwhile for him.”

“What about that Patran woman?” Nikandros, referring to the one qualified person they had found in Ios.
“It's a thing with them.”

“The princeling is a misogynist? I thought he hated everyone equally.”

“One of their customs. They are literally terrified of bastards,” Damen explained.

“You should make him live with Kastor, then.”

Damen laughed. “No, he's not allowed to be alone with a member of the fairer sex in case he sires a bastard. It would ruin him, apparently.”

“They're pulling your leg.”

“I checked.”

“All right,” Nikandros said. “There are no women in my training class. He'll be safe from bastards there. I won't treat him differently though.”

“Good. He needs taking down a peg or two.”

-

Laurent reacted calmly to the news of his new venture, which bothered Damen more than if had thrown the nearest sharp object.

“It is just as I suspected,” Laurent said, calmly, from the couch in Damen's room where he had been summoned for the discussion. “You Akielons are extremely stupid.”

“Go on,” Damen said. “Tell me why.”

“When I am King, I will remember everything I learned here. You know it. My uncle knows it.”

“Speaking of your uncle,” Damen said. “You're going to run out of paper soon if you don't stop writing so many letters.”

Laurent continued, undeterred. “I'll remember that you held me here. I'll remember how you hold your swords and ride your horses and how to chip away at your defences until there is nothing left.”

“Good for you,” Damen said. “When you're done with the academy, though, all you'll remember is how to follow orders.

-

 

The most promising trainee in Ios was ousted from his bunk so the Prince of Vere could pronounce it inadequate. Laurent was given the same basic supplies as the other trainees, the same living space, the same early morning wake up call. He refused to wear the uniform.

“I wouldn't be caught dead in a dress,” Laurent sneered.

“It is a chiton,” Damen said. “Also, it is practical. It's only going to get hotter here as the summer wears on.”

“I have suitable attire. Furthermore, it makes sense to train in the clothing you will fight in. “

“Very well,” said Damen. A compromise. Laurent had been quite reasonable about his relocation. Damen was certain once the boy was training in the mid-day sun, he would shed those ornate Veretian jackets and swap the long boots for open toed sandals. “But if you were right about training clothes, we'd all learn to swing wooden swords in battle armour.”

“Depends on the battle,” Laurent said. “I'll arrange my things now.”

“Your things can stay. The room is still yours.”

“Fine, I’ll go back to rub mint under my nose to mask the stink of Akielon sweat.”

“Do you sweat differently here than in Vere?” Damen asked. “Wait, are you even old enough for your sweat to smell?”

“That fact that you even wish to speak about this proves how right I am,” Laurent said. “See that I am --”

“Undisturbed, I know.” Damen wanted to talk to Jord anyway. “You've been told of your new location?”

“Yes, sir.” Jord, unlike Laurent, had made more concessions to the Ios climate. Damen couldn't remember the last time he'd seen him in the red livery. He wore plain clothing. The sunburst badge on his shoulder was the only that signified his role. “I'm not stranger to a training barracks. The instructor Nikolas has --”

“Nikandros,” Damen corrected. “You know him.”

Jord's eyes widened slightly. “I didn't know it was the same man, sir. He has given me a decent place to sleep and leave to practise. I've not had the chance here.”

“Right.” Damen should have thought of that. Couldn't have the prince's only guard getting rusty. “You know it will be different out there. Boys will take any change cut a royal down to size.” Damen remembered well

“He can handle himself.”

Damen glanced at the closed door again. “What does he do in there all the time?”

“Write a lot of letters. Throw orange seeds at the men in the garden,” Jord said. “And what boys that age usually do behind closed doors, I'd wager.”

Since he had initiated the conversation, Damen felt like he should wait with Jord. There were piles of letters on his desk that he did not want to read. A purchase order for new weaponry that he didn't want to be the one to sign final approval. If Jord wasn't Veretian, and therefore untrustworthy, Damen might like the man. You knew where you stood with soldiers.

“Aw,” said Laurent when he eventually re-emerged. “How cute.” He shoved a tote at Jord.

“Laurent,” Damen said. “What have you done to your hair?”

It was gone. His golden locks were roughly shorn to reveal pale scalp and emphasise the delicacy of his boyish face. He looked more street urchin than prince. He'd also swapped his jacket for one without sleeves and his pants were loose around his legs.

Laurent arched one brow. “It is clear that I have cut it.”

“Do you even have a razor?”

“No. I stole yours.” He strode ahead.

“Is that a Veretian thing?” Damen asked Jord. Mourning. Training. It had the smack of traditional symbolism.

“No,” said Jord.

-

 

Damen did not hover. He was not that invested in Laurent. He had palace business to attend to and wine to drink and girls to tumble. He did, however, request regular reports on the boy's progress.

Surprisingly, they were good. His fellow trainees were not easily shocked and most of them were well-versed in rough talk. Laurent fit right in, except he did not wish to fit in. According to Nikandros and his juniors, Laurent was compliant and quick. He cleaned without complaint. He worked with armour and supplies. He practised athletics and lifted weights and dove into the deep sea with the best of them. He even bore the cooking class without complaint. He was the model trainee soldier except for one crucial fact : he would not lift a sword.

No matter when the sword-training was scheduled, and it was of course a large part of the schedule, Laurent excused himself. With Theomedes permission, he was continuing his scholarly studies with a nervy professor sourced from the borderlands. He took lessons early, before training, and retired to his bunk to write essays while the other boys learned swordsmanship.

Damen went down to the barracks. The smell of sawdust, the sound of un-broken voices, the clash of wood all brought him back to his own youth, when things were simple.

“I think,” Nikandros said. “He may be afraid to show his lack of expertise. I suggested the guard, Ford -- ”

“Jord,” Damen corrected.

“ --take him aside from some basics but he, said he valued his fingers too much.”

“I see,” said Damen. He glanced out at the training ring, where dozens of sturdy Akielon boys learned the skills that would enable them to protect their country. Damen might even lead some of them someday. He might bury them, too.

Though he tried to be unobtrusive, just standing there made the boys stand taller and fight more aggressively.

“You should come by every day,” Nikandros said. “My job would be a lot easier.”

“If only I wasn't busy being prince.” But Damen wasn't much busy these days. Or, rather, he felt like he was doing busy work around Ios while his father tried to find him a role. There were jobs to be done around the country but just drawing up a travel schedule took three advisers. Damen wished sometimes he could just pick two good men and three good horses and go. “Speaking of princes...”

“He's there. Under the awning,” Nikandros said. Laurent sat in the shade with a book on his lap. If he noticed Damen's arrival, he didn't show it on his face. “Reading about plants. Do you think he's planning on poisoning you?”

“No. He would go for my father, first,” Damen said.

“He writes letters all the time.”

“They're monitored.”

“Damen, he's definitely plotting something.”

“Of course he is. Wouldn't you be if all your family were killed and you got sent to a foreign court?” Damen took Nikandros's practise sword and walked onto the sawdust. All the trainees dropped to their knees. He had been hoping for a little more informality than that. “Rise, valued soldiers-in-training,” Damen called. “Your work here is exemplary. You do your country a great honour with your dedication.”

There. That should do.

His father would say that.

His father would also probably say that they needed improvement before they were good enough to fight but, well, that was the whole point of them being at an elite training academy.

“You, boy.” Damen pointed with his borrowed practice sword. “Come and learn from the Prince of Akielos.”

Chapter Text

Damen had already noticed the aristocratic boy who stepped forward. He had brown hair, brown skin and he was the best swordsman on the practice field. He fought with the same even durability as Nikandros, who Damen would have called on if he had been more sure of the burns on his palms being healed.

“What is your name?” Damen asked.

“I am called Pallas,” he replied, with a slight burr to his Akielon that told Damen he had come from the North, possibly Sicyon, to train at Ios. “It is an honour to spar with you, Exalted.”

Damen went easy on him. He fell into the predictable rhythms he had learned as boy, before strength and counter-attack was part of fighting. Defensiveness was better when you were learning. Pallas knew his routines well his eagerness made up for lack of finesse. Damen was trying to assess the kindest way to get him down, when he misjudged an impact and split Pallas training sword into smithereens.

The crack echoed around the ring.

Laurent looked up.

“Well done,” Damen said and Pallas pinked like a brand new slave. “You have great potential. Work on your front guard.” Damen pointed at another boy at random. “Watch me,” he said. “If you keep your elbow down you have more control.”

It was child's play but it occupied Damen throughout the afternoon. Nikandros joined him, calling orders and keeping the soldiers in check. He mostly corrected posture and form.

“Remember,” Nikandros said, quietly, to Damen. “They won't all be as strong as you. They need to rely on balance, too.”

“I know that,” Damen said, just as the boy he was sparring with twisted badly and fell awkwardly on to his side. “I'll take a break.” At the edge of the training ring, a servant waited with cool water and towels. “Two cups,” Damen said and went to lean against the shelter where Laurent sat. He stood. Sighing, Laurent got to his feet. It was less a sign of respect than an unwillingness to allow such an obvious difference in their size.

“Hot?” Damen asked, as Laurent drank the water without saying anything.

“Yes. We are closer to the sun here. Would you like to borrow one of my astronomy books?”

“Not really,” Damen said.

“You'd rather show off that you knock down green boys.”

“That wasn't showing off.” Damen glanced at Laurent's book. Botany. A world away from the literature and pulp he had brought in his trunk. “Gardening more interesting than training?”

“I want some of those plants.” Laurent pointed at the sketch on the page. “Aloe vera. Can I ask you or do I need petition my uncle?”

“I'll talk to the garden keepers about your request,” Damen said. “Your hair is growing back.”

“My patience is dwindling.”

“Why don't you fight?” Damen asked. “Look, if it's a matter of inexperience don't feel bad. We all start at the bottom, even princes.”

Laurent shot him a disbelieving look. “I have nothing to prove here. I'm not going to play fight with some baby barbarian so you can feel you're teaching me something.”

“I'll make a bet with you, then. There must be something you want.”

“My brother breathing and the best berth on board a ship to Arles.”

“Something realistic,” Damen said. “Veretian books? A request for a companion? You did mention a friend in the court --”

“He was not my friend. Anyway, he grew up.” Laurent closed his book. “I want a horse. A good one, not one of those cliff climbing donkeys from around here. And I want to be able to ride it at least three times a week.”

“There aren't many runs inside the gates,” Damen said. Though there were paddocks at the stables.

“I'll find a way to improvise,” Laurent said. “Get me a horse that's mine and I'll fight.”

“No. Win a fight and I'll get you a horse.”

“Deal.” Laurent set down the book, carefully, and walked out to the training arena. He showed no care for the skirmishes happening all around. A glance was all it took to make strong, focused boys move out his way. He picked up the first practise sword he came across and pointed it at the boy Pallas. “You,” he said, in careful Akielon. “Let's duel.”

Damen did like it when a plan came together.

Pallas waited until both Nikandros and Damen nodded approval before holding his new practice sword in Laurent's direction. He had experience fighting. He was broad and strong and steady on his feet.

He didn't stand a chance against the Prince of Vere. Laurent held his sword differently to the Akielons. He wielded it like a lion wields his teeth. Here, they are part of me. Don't get in the way.

Akielon style was more about being yourself, separate from the sword. The sword was a vessel for your strength and honour.

Laurent may not have been partaking, but he had been watching. He guessed every one of Pallas's moves, stepping back, stepping back until Pallas faltered and then Laurent turned him around and drove him back across the sawdust.

The arena fell silent. Then it cleared and the other boys formed a circle as if it was a display match. Damen could see the hunger in them – here was the enemy prince, about to be cut down to size by their good friend Pallas. Here was a taste of the future, when they would be rallied north again to Delpha.

Damen hoped it was not a taste of the future.

Laurent was winning.

He feinted and dodged and struck a series of small but devastating blows. Laurent was fresh from resting. Pallas had already sparred with Prince Damianos and any number of fellow trainees. He tried. He was honourable.

Laurent was not. Damen saw the moment when Laurent leaned close enough to put his lips to Pallas's ear. He did not hear what he said, but he was sure it was crass and insulting. Pallas held his stance but a flicker of shock passed his face. Laurent used the distraction to stamp down hard on Pallas's foot and when he stepped back, Pallas was outside the ring and Laurent forced him onto his back.

“I yield,” Pallas said, even though his sword was still sure in his hands. He probably could have gotten back up.

“I know,” said Laurent and turned his back. “I fought at Sanpelier,” he said, loudly, in practiced Akielon. “When my brother and my father crushed your troops into the mud. I fought at Marlas, while you were all eating raisin bread at your mother's tables. Did you really think -” He looked directly at Damen. “That I couldn't fight?”

He threw down the sword and walked through the empty ring.

“I didn't think you couldn't, I thought you wouldn't,” Damen said. “But you did. And standing on his foot was dirty.”

“He shouldn't fight barefoot.”

“I bet you don't turn your back on a fighter in Vere,” Damen continued, though he really ought to have gone to Pallas. His toes were probably broken. A casualty of training.

“I'm not in Vere.”

“Not at the minute,” Damen said. “But you will be in the future, and you'll lead the whole corrupt place. And when I face you on the battlefield or in a war-room to parley, I don't want to have to go easy on you. Keep training. I'll see about your horse.”

“Fine. I won't go easy on you, either.”

Damen tried not to smile. “You're not bad for a thirteen year old.”

“I had the very best teacher,” Laurent said. “And I'm fourteen now.”

“I know. Your horse is a personal gift from the Crown Prince of Akielos to the Crown Prince of Vere. Her name is Kura.”

“I'm changing it,” Laurent snapped. But his mouth twitched, like he wanted to smile.

-

When Damen happened to be near the paddocks the following week, Laurent was coasting around the space with the tranquil grace of a calm sea. He did not see Damen. He had shaved his head again.

-

Damen left instructions for the boy's upkeep and told Nikandros to both keep a close eye on him and report any issues, but he did not see the need to say goodbye. The plans were finalised. The duties assigned. Damen took a portion of his company and rode out into Akielos. The people wanted to see their prince. He had to win them over so that when he ruled, he would never have to see them.

Damen felt like he was there to say, look I am not a complete failure.

He negotiated with a lord in Kesus for a better price on his grain. Well, negotiated was an embellishment. He looked at the man. He may have flexed his muscles. The price was lowered.

He stopped at a sprawling estate by the darker parts of the Ellosean sea, and collected two years' worth of taxes from a weasly landlord. A few miles away, he fired two agents on Theomedes own lands and had them sent to the local prison. He had his men enforce charters and break up brawls. He was invited to judge a tart contest (and was only mildly disappointed to be made taste seven million varieties of fruit pie) and a pig contest (where he just pointed at the fattest one.)

He clapped when children performed a skit for him and allowed one or two local girls into his bed.

He was bored.

There was a feast every year to mark Theomedes coronation. Damen, naturally, was required to attend. He galloped the road back to Ios.

“Father,” he said. “I feel I could serve Akielos better on patrol. Send me back to Delpha. Send me down to the bottom of the peninsula.”

“No,” Theomedes said. “Not at the minute.”

“I'm not a tax collector or a consort. There has to be more --”

“You are Prince Damianos. The people need to like you. And, we need their money. War is expensive. We have to pay off the last one before we can start anew.”

Damen wished his father had just told him that in the first place.

The academy took a break for the festival. The boys, soldiers now, performed parade and competed in the games. Laurent, naturally, was excused. He had gone back to his room in Damen's apartment.

“How is the cub?” Damen asked Jord, before he went into his room.

“Nipping less,” Jord replied. “If I may --”

“Speak.”

“The academy was a good idea. He did well.”

“I got the reports,” Damen said. “And his... mood?”

“Steadier,” Jord said. “There were a couple of bouts of sickness but nothing much.”

Damen would not concern himself with the exaggerated symptoms of a prince not used to discipline. He had seen plenty of soldiers feign illness and ignored it once, and expelled them on the second time.

He wasn't long in his rooms when Laurent burst through the door.

“You should knock,” Damen said.

“You have a lock,” Laurent replied.

“No welcome home?”

Laurent rolled his eyes. “Welcome back, Exalted.” The words couldn't have sounded less sincere if they were spoken by a parrot.

“Your hair is back,” Damen said. “You look -”

“What of the road?” Laurent interrupted. He surveyed the array of food left for Damen and snatched a plum. And most of the cured meats.

“Is is still there. Dusty this time of year.”

“Are there blockades of some sort? You were gone a long time.”

“It wasn't that long,” Damen said. “And no, all is clear.”

“My letters haven't been getting to me. I need new clothes. I haven't been getting anything.”

“Have you enquired?”

“Kastor said there was no issue but it doesn't make sense.” Laurent must have been really desperate to know if he asked Kastor.

“Leave it with me.”

-

Damen asked his servants, Oreste and made Oreste check with the palace post-master. The answers were all the same. The only letters that had come were from the Veretian Councillor Herode, and Laurent had recieved them. They came via ship. There was no delay.

Oreste made it seem like a good thing. If the Regent was too busy to write to the heir to the crown, Vere must be a very fractious place indeed. Veretian misfortune was a boon to Akielos.

Damen dreaded telling Laurent.

As it turns out, he didn't need to. Laurent asked with his eyes and Damen shook his head and then the door slammed. And slammed. And slammed.

-

Slaves and performers worked together to put on a great day-long show in tribute to Theomedes. Damen, who had seen quite enough bad plays while on the road, declined to attend. He made the excuse of overseeing the preparation for the next day's games and that was accepted without question. Everyone knew Prince Damianos was better suited to physical pursuits than the arts.

Damen knew that if arts were more entertaining, he might not have spent the day checking the equipment with Nikandros.

“Your charges are a credit to you,” Damen told his friend. “The parade was excellent. The lines were --”

“Sloppy. I hate to admit this, but they're better with Prince Laurent there. He binds them, somehow.”

“He's got his charms.”

“He binds them with a combined effort to be better than him.”

“That works, too.”

“Are you going to compete?”

“Of course.” Damen was itching to compete. He wanted the simple escape of sports well played and fairly won. He wanted to show his father, his city, that he was still the winning prince from the last games. “Are you?”

“Of course,” said Nikandros.

-

Normally, Akielons did not bother with the ostentation of a dais. Rulers did not need to raise themselves up when they made people kneel. But from a purely practical perspective, a platform was necessary for the King to observe the games held in his honour. Theomedes sat in the usual order – Damen to his right, Kastor to his left, Kastor pushed down to the end by two visiting kyroi and an ambassador from Patras.

Laurent was to Damen's right, laced tight in Veretian finery and wearing a simple gold circlet around his head.

“First time I've seen the crown prince in a crown,” Damen said.

“It's a little large. It might fall down over my eyes. Don't tell me if it does. I'll just be taking a nap.”

“This won't be boring.”

The jousts were intense! Damen sucked the air in through his teeth and leaned forward, elbows on his bare knees. Laurent scoffed. How did he not see how close that run was? The boy liked horses, liked danger. Where was the issue?

Javelin next, to let the ground settle. Wine was passed around. Laurent allowed the page to fill his cup and then placed it on the arm of Damen's chair rather than drink. The game-masters prepared the field. Pallas, the boy Damen had fought before, won his category.

Then archery. As sports go, it was less exciting but archers played a key role in any army and so it was treated with the gravitas it deserved.

“This is me,” Laurent said.

“Pardon?”

“I'm competing.” He dusted his hands. “King Theomedes approved. Aren't you going to wish me luck?”

Damen didn't need to. Laurent won. He won so spectacularly,splitting arrows, that the crowd forgot they hated him and applauded like he was a normal boy instead of their hated enemy.

“Well done,” Damen said.

“Thank you,” Laurent said, like for a moment he forgot to be hateful. “Aren't you doing anything?”

“The boys go first,” Damen said. “Men next.”

He stood on the dais, aware of the eyes of the crowd on him.

The compere announced the wrestling was about to start.

-

Damen disrobed, had his body oiled, and warmed up his muscles while one of the sentries beat one of Kastor's men. He smirked at Nikandros while one his trainees made an excellent effort to take down a soldier who had been their senior while they trained as boys.

He and Nikandros didn't wrestle for fun as adults but the spirit of their childhood lived on for the yearly games.

Theomedes joined him on the sidelines.

“I don't need luck, father.” Damen smiled.

“Schedule’s changed. You won't be fighting your friend. There's a lord's son for Sicyon for whom it would be an honour to fight the prince. It's time to build bridges, Damianos.”

Damen treated the Sicyon son with utmost respect when they met on the field. That was the linchpin of sports. He wrestled. He took no more advantage of the difference in size and strength than was necessary for the fight. He enjoyed it in the sense he was used to it, in the way he still enjoyed attention from an unskilled bed slave, but his heart wasn't in it. There was no spark, no spirit, none of the heart-racing joy of winning.

Of course he won. He bowed and helped the Sicyon son of the dirt and clapped him on the shoulder. While he was having the oil removed, Nikandros trounced Kastor.

That was fun.

Laurent was gone from the dais when they broke for luncheon.

-

The Okton was the last event. Because the field required the most preparation. Because it was the climax and highlight and everyone's favourite. Including Damen. He felt a flicker of excitement at the sight of the course and the targets.

“What's that?” Laurent demanded.

“The Okton.”

“You say it like it's meant to mean something to me.”

Damen explained the basics of the game. He used his hands. Possibly set out wine cups on the table to help Laurent visualise it.

Laurent's blue eyes flashed. “I want to play.”

“No.” Damen had trained for two seasons with the best masters before he was allowed compete.

“Why not?.”

“You're not trained. You're too young. You're not strong enough. Father.”

“Oh, yes. Run to daddy,” Laurent grumbled, poking around at Damen's plate until he found an untouched chicken drumstick.

“That does not help your case,” Damen said. “Father, tell him he can't take part in the Okton.”

“You may not take part in the Okton,” Theomdes said. “Your uncle wouldn't like it if the crown prince got skewered off his horse.”

Laurent's face turned to stone. He mumbled something Damen couldn't catch and sat back in his seat. The academy had been good for him. A year ago, he would have overturned the table.

“I'll teach you to wrestle if you like,” Damen offered.

“I'd rather wrestle a wild boar than take part,” Laurent said.

His wrestling had been soulless but Damen got the adrenaline-laced thrill of the chase from the Okton, the hoof-pounding, hair-raising, blood-pumping sheer and utter jubilation.

He won.

The only sourness to the event, other than Laurent's expression, was Nikandros's poor performance. His hands were healed. But his spear-throwing was not the same.

Damen was crowned and applauded and if he wasn't so large his fellow-players would have hoisted him onto his shoulders.

“Go on,” he said to Laurent, when he sat back beside the King. “Admit you enjoyed it.”

“It was adequate," Laurent said. "I suppose."

"I saw you watching me."

"I wasn't even here, then."

Damen paused. He peered down at the boy. “You can play when you're older,” he said.

-

There were celebrations. Music. Wine. Lots of wine. Slave girls and boys dancing, subtly, lovely, much more to his taste than the daytime follies. Food. Possibly not enough food.

Damen was quite drunk.

Everyone wanted to drink with the prince and who was he to disappoint them?

“What you don't understand,” he slurred to Nikandros, “Is my burden.”

Nikandros narrowed his eyes. He was quite drunk, too, and brave enough to laugh at Damen. Hurt, Damen laughed too and left the table. Adrastus, master of slaves, bowed to him as he passed. Not as as low as a slave. He was careful to make that distinction.

“Congratulations on the Okton, Exalted,” he said.

“Thank you,” Damen replied.

“If I may, Exalted, there is a girl I would like you to meet. She's been training all these months you've been gone. Her name is Lykaios.”

“I see,” said Damen. “Have I seen her before?” Meaning, have I bedded her before.

“No, Exalted. No-one has.”

A first night. For a slave, a first night means everything. For a girl who had been told she could have a first night with Prince Damianos, the anticipation and pressure would be immense. She would know him by reputation, perhaps slaves talked. He was kind. Kinder than his brother. She might have seen him win at the games.

Damen swallowed.

“I am very tired.” Damen said. “And I have drunk a lot of wine, most of it un-diluted. Out of respect for the tradition of First Night, I must decline tonight. But I would like to meet her tomorrow.”

-

It was probably for the best that Damen drank so much he only made it to his room under the supportive arm of one his guards. It wouldn't have been good to bring a soft new slave in and have them greeted with Laurent snoozing in the antechamber.

“Wrong room, kid,” Damen said.

“Mine is too noisy.”

Damen wasn't able to fight with him over this.

-

The next day, a prizegiving. They were jolly affairs. Perhaps the first since Damen had lost them Delpha. He was not able to drink or eat or chastise Laurent for quietly maintaining an unflattering running commentary about the prizewinners.

Later, though, the slave Lykaios was presented to him. She had milky skin and honey eyes and a lion pinned to her shoulder. She had been trained for him. She might as well have been made for him.

He offered his hand, helped her stand, and spoke gently until she managed a private smile. To a slave, a First Night means everything. Damen took his duty seriously. He started early, finished late, and because he was so glad of her touch and so much at the mercy of his instincts, it meant a lot to him too.

-

Damen woke to sunlight and the bonelessness of satiation, after a long night ensuring that Lykaios's First Night had been enjoyable for slave and prince. It had been a good night and Damen was loathe to let it go. He threw his forearm over his eyes and stretched out in the warmth of the bed.

“I ate your breakfast,” Laurent announced, from the archway that led to Damen's room. Damen refused to be annoyed this morning. He put his hands behind his head and looked at the boy.

“Call for more food,” Damen said.

Laurent huffed and went to the door. “I want to talk to you,” he said.

“I thought you were just admiring the view.” Damen sat up. “All right. Let's talk.”

“Get up.”

“No. Sit down if you want.” He could see Laurent weigh his options. Laurent could have sat cross-legged at the end of Damen's bend and not come within touching distance of him. Nikandros would have, when he was that age.

But Laurent was not Nikandros. He dragged a heavy couch from the sitting area, the one he had slept on before, and sat on it, directly across from Damen. “What's next?” he asked.

“There'll be a farewell for the bannermen and nobles who have come for the feast.”

“For me, I mean. I know I'm not going back to the academy.”

“Says who?”

“Everyone.”

“What do you want to do?”

“Return to Vere.”

“I'm not the one stopping you,” Damen said. “Look, don't worry about what's next. I'll arrange something for you. Was there anything else?”

“I don't like all these people in the palace.”

“I'm not about to kick them out.”

Laurent sighed. “What was the big deal with your slave girl? I heard the men talk about it.”

“First Night is an important right for slaves,” Damen explained. “It's... a culmination of their training. The first contact, first everything for them. And it's, I don't know, a promise for the future.”

“Oh,” said Laurent. “That sounds nice.”

“You never say anything sounds nice.”

“I was being sarcastic. What's nice about slavery?”

“You can train for next year's games if you want,” Damen said. “I'll help you.”

“I'm not wrestling. I made that clear.”

“The Okton. I know you want to.”

“No,” said Laurent. “There's no point.”

“You'll be older. I'm a Crown Prince, too, and no-one stops me.”

“No,” said Laurent. “No-one wants you dead.”

Damen's breakfast arrived. His bath. His fresh clothing. Laurent simply turned the couch so the back was to room. He sat there, facing the sea, with a book on his lap. Damen didn't tell him to leave.

-

“When does training recommence?” Damen asked Nikandros.

“Soon,” Nikandros said. “Is the princeling cramping your style? I hear he's in your rooms all the time.”

“Gossip, Nikandros. Really?”

“People talk, Damen.”

“I know.” But Laurent was a boy who kept turning up and Damen hadn't the heart to turn him away. Jord had told him of Laurent's devotion to Auguste and Damen hadn't been able to keep Auguste alive. If Laurent was looking for a substitute, he wasn't going to deny him.

Damen didn't tell Nikandros that Laurent had taken to sleeping on that couch by the window. And that Damen hadn't been able to ask the slave girl back (though she did attend him at the baths) but he had formed the habit of telling Laurent about his day and his time on the road and the hijinks he got up to at his age.

“I want you to take him out with you to Tachenos's estate,” Damen said. Training at the palace barracks had its limits. When the boys were not so green, they were brought outside the city walls to learn more about combat. There were wide open spaces where they could learn drills and lines and formations. There were mock battles and surprise challenges. The final steps to being a real soldier. The Kyros of Ios hosted the trainees every year and threw them a feast afterwards.

“I must state my objection,” Nikandros said. “Basics are one thing but we can't teach the enemy the traditional techniques of Akielon warfare.”

“The enemy has observed them and they have bested them. We were both at Delpha.” Damen noticed a hardness come to his voice. “Take the boy out with you. I'll send extra guards. And he can take his tutor. You can excuse him from anything you think he shouldn't know.”

“Very well,” Nikandros said, rising from the bench in the citrus-scented gardens. “And I'm still waiting to hear about your latest First Night.”

“Well,” Damen began. “She was very....flexible.”

-

Damen had been back barely a fortnight when Theomedes summoned him to his chambers.

“Son,” he said. “I have an assignment for you.”

Damen steeled himself for another tax expedition or pie contest. “Yes, father.”

“There's been an incident down the coast. Four of our vessels have been removed from our control.”

“Mutineers?”

“Pirates.”

A thrill went down Damen's spine. “It would be my honour to sort this.”

“I knew you'd say that. Look.” Theomedes pointed at a map. “Here is the situation.”

-

Akielos did not have a large naval fleet. As a country, they were not interested in exploration or conquering. They had quite enough to deal with one their own peninsula. But they had ships for defence, for transport, supplies.

After Delpha, Theomedes had moved half their fleet around towards Patras and brought the other half to the southernmost tip of Ios. It was a show of good faith to the Regent that their surrender was definite.

Damen hadn't paid attention.

No more busywork. A King could not know every inch of his country, but Damen's father had made it so that by the time Damen ascended he would know as much as possible. It was understandable. He did not have to toil the fields, but he would need some understanding of these day to day issues for when they boiled over into political problems.

They needed the money.

Also, it was a great sign of respect to farmers and kyroi and everyone in between when Prince Damianos was sent to deal with their issues.

Damen understood. He did. But deeper in him, some instinctual part that was immune to logic, saw these things as beneath him. Kastor should be sorting peasant disputes. Damen should be leading victories.

The waters down south were less sheltered from storms and more vulnerable to attack from other nations. And pirates. Wherever there were ships, there were pirates.

Damen took his best men and two former naval officers who didn't much want to be dragged from the comfort of court and made the short journey south. It was not a quick campaign. At sea, you couldn't just charge. You couldn't throw footsoldiers and mounted soldiers or any kind of soldiers at the enemy. You had to plot. You had to wait.

Damen had to learn things like co-ordinates and tides and whatever knots were. It had been a long time since anything related to warfare had been new to him, and it was both challenging and rewarding. He had to find more men, qualified men, to fight under him. They were rougher than ground soldiers and had mouth's that would make Laurent seem innocent. Much to his disgust, he even had to bribe a visiting merchant for intelligence. He had to recall the ships near Patras and send them out to the unowned waters of the Ellosean sea to make sure the pirates didn't simply sail their navy away. And there was the matter of the sailors still on board.

It was twisted and complicated and lengthy. Damen had pay to use the private vessels he couldn't commandeer. But they got out to the Akielon ships without injury. He climbed aboard.

He got his navy back.

He celebrated hard in the port taverns afterwards, of course, and rode home at his leisure stopping at the homes of old friends and, though it still felt weird, he held every baby shoved into his arms and smiled down at their innocent eyes.

-

Damen returned to Ios with the sun on his back, a gash in his thigh, faded bruises on his forehead and an immense feeling of pride. He hadn't had a victory since before Marlas. Success was a balm he hadn't known he needed until it happened. Damen couldn't wait to see his father.

But Kastor greeted him at the gates and rode beside him on the leaf-scattered journey back to the town. Kastor had been away, too, in Sicyon and he had a lot to say about the mood there. None of it good.

Inside the palace, Oreste informed Damen that Theomedes was busy with another tax issue and Damen, who had no desire to get drawn into bureaucracy, said he would wait until his father was free to meet with him.

He had the strongest instinct to go to his rooms and see if Laurent was still on couch facing the sea. Surely the trainees were back from the countryside by now. Back in the barracks.

Damen found Nikandros counting the small swords by the edge of the training arena. You had to do that to make sure none went missing. They weren't wooden any more.

At the sight of him, Nikandros dropped into a bow.

“Rise, friend,” Damen said. “I have missed you.”

“And you, Exalted. Welcome home.”

“How went the second stage of training?” Damen asked.

“Quite well,” Nikandros said.

Right. It was going to be like that. Damen bid the squires and servants in the vicinity to depart.

“Something wrong, Nikandros?”

Nikandros stepped away from the racks. “No. Sorry. I haven't even offered you my congratulations. The whole country is abuzz with news of your gallant actions at sea.”

Damen got the sad, distinct impression that Nikandros was being as discourteous as his training would allow him. “Thanks,” he said and where he would normally go onto to regale his friend with bloody tales of victory, he said nothing. “So..the manoeuvres?”

“I've been running those camps at Tachenos's estate for four years now and you've never asked me before.”

“You never had the Prince of Vere in your camp before,” Damen said.

“That was --” Nikandros paused to wipe his brow. “His highness performed admirably at the camp. Worked hard. Trained hard. Captured the flag, of course, in record time. Half the boys are in love with him.”

“You're holding back.”

“I'm waiting, Damianos.”

“What for?”

“For you to tell me I was right all along.”

“Nikandros, speak plainly. Has something happened to Laurent?” Damen's heartbeat got very fast. If anything had happened to that boy, Damen would have to act. He would not go easy.

“Oh,” said Nikandros. “I see. No-one has told you. I assumed your father just left the boring parts out.” Nikandros looked Damen in the eye, now. “The camp went well. The problems all occurred at the feast. On the last night, His Royal Highness, Prince Laurent of Vere took a dagger and shoved it into Tachenos's throat. He has killed the Kyros of Ios.”

Chapter Text

“Are you joking?” Damen said, flat. He would have heard. Kastor rode into the city with him and his brother would have relished the chance to gloat about Laurent's misdeeds. He would, Damen knew, also relish the chance to go to war again and the murder of a kyros, who were second in rank only to the royal family, was reason enough indeed.

“I wish I was,” Nikandros said. “The whole thing feels like a farce. Damen, it was eerie. He was completely calm – that tantrum-throwing boy doesn't exist anymore.”

“Thanks to your discipline,” Damen said, and he heard the shallow quality to his voice. “Did he give an explanation?”

“The guard, Jord, restrained him right away. Laurent said something about touching. He didn't want Jord to touch him. That's all he said. Nothing more.”

“How am I meant to deal with this?” Damen had a hopeful second where he imagined Nikandros already had. Technically, he was in charge when Laurent struck. Tachenos was such a frail old man. He used to take him roughly ten minutes to get out of a chair. He never stood a chance against a quick, skilled boy like Laurent. “Tell me he's not in the dungeons or --”

“House arrest. Fit for a prince. Your house to be exact,” Nikandros said. “I did try to get answers since but...”

“It's all right. I know how stubborn he can be.” Damen suddenly felt the tiredness of the journey back to Ios hit him like tsunami. “Ios has no kyros, now,” he said. Tachenos had no heirs, if Damen remembered right. His only son had died in a hunting accident years ago. He had a scatter of daughters after. Damen remembered some pleasant nights spent with one of them but when it was became clear marriage was not on the cards, Tachenos shipped her off to be married overseas.

“No,” said Nikandros. And it dawned on Damen why his friend had been so calm about Laurent killing the last one.

-

Damen's instincts drove him to seek answers from Laurent. Preferably, through the use of his fists. A good throttling might make him feel better. It might clear things up.

Then, he thought of the boy he left behind, reserved and lonely at the side of his bed, and simply couldn't believe he had killed in cold blood. Tachenos had to have...there had to be something. The only possible explanation Damen could find was that the former kyros had said something about Prince Auguste, or worse, had some involvement in his death. He might have grandsons in the army.

Laurent wasn't evil enough to kill a man for no reason, was he? No. That was the uncle, not the boy.

A boy, not a leader, would try to solve this physically while anger clouded his vision. Damen wanted to be a leader. He would wait. Anyway, Theomedes had summoned him, finished with his tax business. His father would not thank him for being late for a meeting because he was strangling the Prince of Vere. Laurent could wait. Theomedes could not.

The details of the naval mission had been well relayed to Theomedes but he still insisted on hearing it in person. When Damen had finished, he waited for the usual praise and recognition to come his way. Oddly, he found that his whole self craved to hear them. But his father just shuffled his papers and moved on.

“I suppose your protégé told you of his actions with Tachenos,” Theomedes said. Actions. Well, Akielons were economical with their words.

“I haven't seen him,” Damen replied. His father looked over the top of the scroll like he didn't believe Damen's words. “But Nikandros told me. Has he been punished?”

“How does one punish the Crown Prince of Vere for the murder of one your most loyal bannermen, your trusted kyros, a frail old man who hadn't seen attack in since my own father was alive.”

Damen took that to be a rhetorical question and not one of his father's tests of leadership. But his father remained silent and Damen got nervous. “Send him to a foreign country?”

Kastor snickered. “I suggest Vask. There's women there that would make the little bugger shit his pants.”

“Respect, please,” Theomedes said. “It's not up to us. Co-incidentally, Vere is sending an ambassador soon. One of the old king's most trusted advisers. Herode can decide.”

“Tachenos's people won't like that,” Damen said. Outside the city gates, the common folk loved the kyros almost as much as the king. That is why Theomedes kept him out there.

“I know. That's why they're getting a massive tax reduction, food supplies and the leadership of Nikandros during this difficult time.” Theomedes waved one of his men over to take the papers away.

“Will this Herode negotiate for the boys' return?” Damen wondered if Laurent's show of violence was simply to engineer his trip back to Arles. Certainly it was a grave enough insult.

“As I am not a seer, I cannot tell you. Dismissed.”

-

Damen spent a short two hours alone in his training ring before returning to his apartments. As expected, he hadn't taken more than three steps in the door when Laurent appeared behind him. He was back wearing high boots, which clattered so badly on the tiles, there was no way he could sneak up on anyone. He was a back in Veretian clothing, too, though not tied as tightly as before.

“What took you so long?” Laurent demanded.

“Pardon?”

“They've confined me to my room. Do you know how boring it is to be stuck alone with nothing but the sound of Akielon grunts for company?” Laurent brushed by Damen to help himself to the food he'd requested. Naturally, he took the plumpest sausage and wrapped it in the most evenly baked bread. “They said it's for my protection. I said, isn't that what Jord and those weedy soldiers you left behind are for?

Damen needed to sit. Those weedy soldiers were an elite few worthy of the prince's guard. “Probably it is for your protection. Tachenos has many friends in Ios City.”

Laurent did not react to Damen knowing of his crime. “Ios needs to be more careful,” he said.

“Why did you kill the old man?” Damen refused to get drawn into another convoluted conversation. Being to the point was a much better way to communicate.

“He annoyed me. But that doesn't matter.” Laurent replied, as he ripped into an orange. “I'm quite versed in the law you know. Many people saw me pick up the knife. More saw me stick it into his artery. I'm good at anatomy, too. I knew where to aim.” He bit down in a segment of orange and a little bit of juice sprayed out. “I was not drunk or out of my mind. I knew what I was doing. My guilt is clear.”

“In Akielos we don't just kill people for no reason,” Damen said, still staying calm. He felt very mature.

“No? Tell that to my brother. Wait, that's not possible.”

“Come on,” Damen said. “I know you are not so cruel. I can help you, if you let me.”

Laurent shrugged. “Maybe I wanted attention. Everyone's talking about your success on the high seas.”

“Are they?” Not to Damen, they hadn't.

“Oh, yes. Prince Damianos vs the Mutineers. Any day now, some ridiculous verse will be published about your glorious triumph.” Laurent was likely making fun of Damen, but Damen still felt a faint prickle of pride. “I'll have to hear the boy soldiers recite it from my window. Half of them are in love with you, you know? I tried to tell them you favour women but they still hope. Poor fools.”

“They weren't mutineers,” Damen said, after he called for more food. “That is not the Akielon way.”

“Then how did this great country lose control of four ships? Don't blame Vere. It probably wasn't us.”

“It was pirates.”

“Pirates?” Laurent leaned forward, mouth taut, cheeks puffed. “Were there many pirates?”

“A few,” Damen said. “Considerably fewer once I was finished with them.”

“Did they have a captain?”

“The captain was a woman,” Damen said, drawing up his chiton enough to show Laurent the wound on his leg. “She was aiming higher.”

Laurent laughed and the action shook his hair onto his forehead. “Then what happened?”

-

The arrival of Herode had clearly been in the making long before Damen was informed. “Did you know your father's old friend was coming?” he asked Laurent who was pretty much a permanent fixture in his rooms these days. A consequence of his house arrest. He ate Damen's food and re-arranged Damen's furniture and sneered at his slaves. He slept on the couch when Damen didn't object.

“Yes. He told me in a letter.”

“Ah. I forgot. You like to write letters. I'm sure your Veretian contacts value hearing about how poor my taste in furniture is,” Damen replied. Laurent had seen little else while his house arrest continued. The skills and knowledge he'd gained while working with Nikandros was not specific enough to be of any threat to Akielon security. “What is Herode like?”

“Fair,” said Laurent. “He was a great friend of my father's. Auguste used to go to him first, if he wanted to do something...that skirted close to the edge of protocol.”

“You know he will mete out your punishment.”

“Yes.”

“Will you tell me why you did it?”

“I already did. He annoyed me.”

Damen asked Jord the same question. Jord had already told Theomedes all he knew. “Tell me,” Damen said. “Please.”

“I honestly don't know,” Jord said. “The excursion went very well for the prince. He wouldn't even let me help build camp. Just left me standing there like a spare bollock. It was over. He was...”

“What?”

“He seemed happy,” Jord said, pensively. “Maybe that's why he did it.”

Damen didn't understand. Laurent had to have a better reason than that. It had to be ploy to get home. Maybe even a cry for attention. There had been little communication from the Regent to the heir. Perhaps Laurent had something to prove, to him and to the people of Akielos. Killing a kyros was quite the show of strength.

 

-

Herode was not the oldest man Damen had seen, but he was the oldest man Damen had seen who still carried himself like a man. In Akielos, where masculinity was highly valued and strength was measured in muscles and battles, ageing was hard. It was different for women, Damen figured. They could still nurture, even when they're bodies had passed their peak. But for men, they had to work ten times as hard to maintain the kind of strength that garnered respect or else they had to modestly succumb to losing value, the way a drunk at an inn will whittle away their dignity to earn a cup of ale. Their roles shifted. Older men, if they lived, became gentle scholars and kindly advisers and beleaguered fathers and grandfathers who played at wrangling children the way the most skilled dogmen let the animals play before they called them into line.

Herode was none of those things. He was stooped with age, yet he carried himself with the kind of confidence Damen would have seen in himself if he looked in a mirror. Perhaps it was a Veretian thing. The Regent had only played at bumbling. Damen couldn't imagine Laurent ever getting that old, let alone losing his intrinsic grace.

There was, naturally, a feast in Herode's honour. Drinks were flowing. Slaves were moving through the crowd like ribbons caught in a breeze. Now, people wanted to talk to Damen. Courtiers and generals were caught in the splendor of a royal reception and wanted the prince to buoy them along with new tales of triumph.

Laurent was little more than a flash of blond hair as he navigated his way through the crowd. Drinks had been flowing long enough for people to forget his crime against Tachenos and the way his country had humiliated theirs. They were charmed by him. Damen saw more than one courtier wear a chiton held together with needless loose laces instead of a traditional pin.

Theomedes had told Damen to go straight to Herode, like Damen would somehow forget how to be courteous to visitors.

“Councillor Herode,” he said, inclining his head and speaking Veretian. What more could anyone expect of a Prince? “Welcome to Akielos.”

“Thank you, Exalted,” Herode replied and he bowed too low for a man of his age.

“Please, Damianos is fine. How are you finding our country?”

“Warm,” Herode said and his eyes followed a passing court lady whose breasts bounced unrestrained beneath a very sheer, laced chiton. “Have you been to Vere? Aside from Delfeur, I mean.”

“I have not that pleasure.” He did not wish to ever have that pleasure. But he could do diplomacy. In the crowd he caught sight of Laurent standing among the fathers of the soldier boys he had trained with, making them all laugh heartily.

“How is our prince doing?”

“He's...adaptable,” Damen said. “But you would know. He writes to you, yes?”

“Not so much lately. He was not pleased when his requests for me take him home went denied. Of course, it was never my call.” Herode trained his gaze on Laurent, who was now explaining the delights of the buffet to two members of Herode's entourage. The Akielons were paying him more attention. Damen did not need to be able to hear to know they were the same Akielons traded in bringing rare foods to the city. “He seems to be enjoying court.”

“He's been confined to his room for a while now,” Damen said.

“When last I saw him, he was confined by choice with his nose in a book,” Herode said. “When he wasn't tugging on his brother's sleeve, of course. You should know, Damianos, that whatever people say about those two is not true. There was never anything untoward.”

“I do know that.” Damen hid his confusion and moved on. “Not training? He fights well.”

“Not for pleasure,” Herode said. “He has changed, here.”

“Come. Try the griva,” Theomedes called to Herode. “It's strong, I warn you.” Herode took a measure like it was sugar water. Damen slipped away, smiling. It was a party, after all. He signalled a servant to bring him the best wine and spoke to all the people who wanted to speak to him. It meant a lot to them, Damen knew. Especially the visitors from the outlying regions who would one day tell their grandchildren of the time they drank wine with Prince Damianos. Thankfully, they mostly wanted to talk about wrestling and women and Damen's recent high seas adventures and Damen could handle that. His father could handle the more serious topics.

Eventually, Damen made his way to Nikandros. Someone he actually wanted to speak to,

He even handed him his wine which was superior to the varieties flowing freely around the room.

“No shadow tonight?” Nikandros asked. “I hear you're quite inseparable.”

“He has nowhere else to go,” Damen said. “Nor do I want to talk about him. I hear you're off to Tachenos's estate again.”

“I was to go north,” Nikandros said, “With a company of my own. But your pup put paid to that. I suppose I'll cope. Has the punishment been decided yet? I cannot go without news of that.”

“It's up to Vere,” Damen said. “But it won't be severe. He's just a boy.”

Nikandros shook his head. “Those were not the actions of a boy. I saw him kill him in cold blood.”

“We've all killed.”

“In battle,” Nikandros said.

“What's this about a battle?” Kastor joined them, carrying his own bottle of wine. He did not offer any around. “There are raiders to the east again. Are you going?”

“No. I don't think so,” Damen said, taking some bread and olives from a passing servant. At the same moment, before he could put even one to his mouth, Laurent dashed by and snatched them from his hand.

“Can you send him?” Kastor asked. “If old Herode doesn't haul him home.”

“He's just a boy,” Damen said. “He can't go.”

“What were we doing at his age?” Kastor asked. Nikandros was serving at the Kingsmeet, Damen remembered. He was beating men ten years his senior in the arena. “Look around, brother. Watch the slaves blush and the courtiers flock. You're the only one here who still thinks Prince Laurent is a boy.”

-

At meal time, Damen returned to his father's table. Ordinarily, guilt niggled when he sat at his father's right and Kastor was moved further away depending on what kyroi or general or ambassador deserved more attention. Tonight, Damen did not feel that guilt.

“I'm sorry our conversation was cut short,” he said, politely, to Herode before they sat. Herode was placed at his father's left and Damen would not dare talk across the king at dinner.

“It's all right,” Herode replied. “I understand now.”

“The perils of griva?” Damen grinned.

“No, the change in Laurent.” Herode sat. Damen assumed Laurent would be seated beside his countryman but he plonked himself into the chair beside Damen.

“Is that appropriate?” Damen asked him, giving him a chance to move.

“Kastor assigned the seats,” Laurent said. That made sense. Without Laurent, it brought Kastor one seat closer to the king. “It wasn't my choice. I've seen enough of you lately.”

“I'll swap with Kastor if you want to talk to Herode.”

“We've spoken already,” Laurent said.

“Has he told you your punishment?”

“I'm here,” Laurent said. “Isn't that punishment enough?” He declined wine and turned his nose up at the first course. The fleshy shellfish was a local delicacy and Damen did not judge him too harshly. Herode praised it. Damen, who had quite enough of fish on his last mission, declined it more politely.

The soup next was spicy and rich with beans and sausage. It reminded Damen of when he was a boy, nurseries and campfires, tucked in with gusto.

“Is it nice?” Laurent said.

“You've had the soup before.”

“Mine is over-seasoned. Can we swap?” He switched the bowls before Damen could answer. A dark-haired table slave produced a new bowl for Damen. “Peasant food,” Laurent declared. But he ate it all.

“You've not much gotten the chance to dine with us,” Damen said.

“I've had chances. Not obligations,” Laurent replied. “Court is court is court no matter where you live. Except of course, the entertainments.”

“We have a good kithara troupe for later,” Theomedes interjected. Diplomacy. “What do you have in Vere?”

Laurent smirked. Herode looked down at his soup. “There are often....performances. Veretian tastes are different.”

“One time,” Laurent said, switching to Veretian and dropping his voice. “Two of Audin's pet's were tied to a cross and --”

“Your highness,” Herode interrupted. “Please forgive me. You know how age betrays the mind sometimes. I forgot to pass on your uncle's regards.”

Laurent set down his spoon. “All right.”

“Did you see much of Veretian court?” Damen asked Laurent as his father, wary, engaged Herode again. “You must have been young. And you say you were at Chastillon, Aqcuitart, Sanpellier and Marlas in the run up to the war.”

“Have you been studying out map?” Laurent said. Their bowls were cleared. “I am never as young as you think me, Prince Damianos. I was at those places. I hunted. I fought. And somehow found time to attend courtly entertainment. My father and August banned it,” he continued, and because Damen so rarely saw the boy talk about his brother he allowed Laurent to take the choice cut of meat that the serving boy had been bringing for him. “But I'm resourceful. I managed to sneak in. There was another boy. I can't remember his name now. He used to help me hide.”

“Kastor used to help me hide,” Damen said. At the mention of his name, Kastor looked up.

“Remember when you hid in the winery and the door accidentally got locked?”

“No,” Damen lied. “I imagine you saw all sorts of things in Vere's court.” He wanted to draw Laurent back out.

“You're probably not imaginative enough,” Laurent said, quietly. “We used to play a game. The boy and myself. We would take turns pointing out people in the court and guess their secrets. Do you want to play now?”

“I'm too old for games.”

“Oh, shut up. If you were in Vere, you wouldn't yet be old enough to ascend to the throne,” Laurent said. “I'll start.” He pointed at one of the local courtiers that he had so thoroughly charmed before the meal. “He wants to fuck me.”

“That's no secret. Apparently, half the men and girls here do.”

Laurent wrinkled his nose. “Yes, but he cries at night when he has to go to bed with his wife because there is no heir and he'd rather be with me. Or so I guess.” The courtier noticed Laurent's attention and quickly looked back to his wife.

Damen's turn. He nodded discreetly towards one of Herode's men. “He wants to vomit ever since the griva.”

“I should make sure he gets extra bloody meat,” Laurent said. “But that's not a secret. Pick someone else.”

Damen found a curvy nobleman's daughter to speculate about. “She is wondering if she can tempt one of Herode's men to the delights of opposite sex love.”

“Interesting,” Laurent said. “Have you noticed how it pains them to sit around Kastor?” Damen hadn't but glanced now to see one very pissed off brother among Herode's men. “But I am quite sure Herode's nephew, the sickly one, is self-loathingly attracted to Kastor despite his bastard status.”

“The general over there would hunt men for sport given the opportunity,” Damen said. He had to slouch in his chair and lean in towards Laurent just for him to be audible.

Laurent laughed. “Dark. For you.” He inclined his finger towards a stocky guildsman from Dice, who if Damen remembered correctly, liaised with the craft guilds in Ios to ensure standardisation among apprentices. Damen had spoken to him once, out of obligation, and the man purred out some platitude about Damen's physique. Basically, he was a wet rag in human form. “That one,” Laurent said. “Likes to put a tailed dildo up his hole and pretend to be a cat.”

Damen burst out laughing. It rolled up from his belly and sprang tears from his eyes. “Laurent,” he said, but the chastisement was lost to his mirth. Laurent just sipped some water. His outburst brought much attention on him. Thankfully, Damen was used to being looked at.

“I never knew the prince was such a comedian,” Theomedes said, smiling. “Perhaps he can entertain us some time.”Then, he dropped his voice to a growl. “For god's sake, Damen, stop playing. And speak Akielon.”

Damen composed himself. He was a prince. Laurent did not point at any more people. More meat was brought around. When Damen glanced out at the court, he noticed one a soldier from Tachenos's retuniue glaring at the table. It had to have been at Laurent, who had killed their lord. Oddly, Nikandros was looking too.

 

-

 

Nikandros did not say anything when Damen rejoined his table. He may have sometimes spoken more freely than others would, because of their friendship, but he would never speak out of turn in company. There were times when Damen was glad that he did not have to hear things he didn't want to. There were others times, like now, when the lack of words said more than anything.

Nikdandros was popular. Damen knew that. He ran successful campaigns and shepherded younger men into the rigours of soldierhood with more generosity than most. Theomedes liked him, too, perhaps because he was similar to his son, or because he had seen him grow up, or more likely because he did not let his defeats or his status define him. He just kept going. So Nikandros's table was always full. Soldiers who hero-worshipped him or their fathers who were grateful and any number of people who would never see a battlefield who just liked being around him.

It had taken a while for Damen to get to the table. The head of the carpenters guild had detained him with questions Damen did not really listen to. He also tried to extract Kastor from the bastard-hating Veretians but he would not meet his eye and Damen knew his brother would not thank him for calling him away openly.

“Should we hide the cutlery?” One of Nikandros's men joked, when Damen joined them. “The little prince might crawl out from under the table for a repeat performance. Oh, don't be so sour,” the soldier said to another guard. “Tachenos's days were well numbered.”

“Prince Laurent has gone to the kitchen's to inform the staff that they're food is not up to Veretian standards,” Damen said, smiling.

“You shouldn't --” Nikandros said, then stopped. Damen nodded his chin just enough to tell him to continue. The other men were all occupied by the performance taking place in the centre of the room. The slaves were excellent dancers and tonight's display was slow and quietly sensuous, as if designed to say look, Vere, we do not need to be blatant to be erotic. It conjured longing. “Tachenos's men are here. His wife, too. It is not prudent to disrespect them.”

“I know,” Damen said. Though he did not even know Tachenos had remarried. When Damen stood behind his father offering sympathies, he had seen only children. “Now, I know.”

“You should have at least shared the joke.”

“When I am king,” Damen said. “I hope you will be my best advisor.”

Nikandros smiled, wryly. “I hope your father stays king for a long time so.”

“Don't fancy keeping me out of trouble?”

“Something like that.” Nikandros waved over a wine bottle. Jessa, one of Damen's own slaves poured for Damen first, then Nikandros, and then the man across from Nikandros who Damen had never met before and, of course, would never be bold enough to speak to the king's son unbidden.

“Good wine,” Damen said, conversationally.

“Yes, Exalted.”

“Please, Damianos is fine. We're all friends and soldiers here.” Damen figured, by the way the man seemed to think the average wine as actually good and the way his eyes had widened when the serving girl leaned over to pour it, it was his first time in the palace. “What is your name?”

“Farren, sir.”

“Farren was at Sanpelier,” Nikandros said. “He was sentry at the Kingsmeet when I served there.” His way of saying, Damen you have met this man before.

Damen wondered what he had been doing that has stopped him remembering. Granted, he met a lot of men. Soldiers in armour tended to look the same. So did white-uniformed sentries.

“A guard of the Kingsmeet is always welcome at our table,” Damen said, kindly. Farren smiled. He had a nice smile. Warm and inviting. He was muscled in a wiry way, like he'd have to move for you to really appreciate it. His eyes were golden brown and so was his hair, shot through with lighter streaks.

“Farren's going to be my second when we ride out,” Nikandros said.

“You'll be in good hands,” Damen said to Farren. “Is this your first time at the palace?”

“Not at the palace, but at a palace function,” he replied. “It's....something.” His eyes followed a passing slave, who like them couldn't have been much more than twenty, with gold tipped hair that curled around a very symmetrical face.

Damen smiled. “There are many good things about the palace.” He was feeling generous, so he beckoned the boy over and bid him pour more wine for Farren. Jessa kept their glasses full. Lykaios, who had given Damen her First Night, brought candied pears and cool water. The room got warmer and the laughter got louder and Damen let the heat of it all soothe him inside. He listened while Nikandros told the group of the mischief he and Damen used to get up to. He added, when necessary, and he noticed that Farren did not laugh just because Damen was the one who told a story.

Nikandros was funnier. He had more time to hone his skills because people didn't laugh on command.

Damen had to excuse himself, because he had consumed a lot of liquid, and on his return he crossed paths with Laurent in conversation with a glamorous courtier with peacock feathers in her hair. Jord, of course, stood chaperone.

“Finished raising hell in the kitchens?” Damen asked, drawing Laurent away for a moment.

“For now,” he said. “Oh, look. That guildsman wants to talk to me again. If he purrs, I won't be held accountable for my actions.”

Damen was laughing again, heartily, but remembered the other reason he had come over here. He put a hand on Jord's shoulder. “Keep Laurent away tonight,” he told him.

Jord's eyes flickered to the slaves and revelry at Nikandros's table and gave a brief nod.

“Veretian again?” Nikandros said as people moved to let Damen sit back down. Jessa perched on one of his thighs.

“I'm too drunk to break down Akielon to his level,” Damen replied. “Oh, look. Lykaios is performing. Isn't she lovely?”

“Yes,” said Nikandros.

The soldier Farren only had eyes for the slave boy.

More wine. More laughing. More new stories and old reminiscing. More touching. Candlelight danced on the marble walls. Damen felt warm all over, glowing from the inside. When Lykaios rejoined them, and blushed hot at the praise for her poetry which had seemed more like a song, there wasn't very much room left around the table.

“It's too crowded,” Damen said. “We should go to my room. I've got some rum. I stole it from the pirates.”

Everyone laughed. Damen felt it was natural this time, and laughed too.

“Who are you asking?” Nikandros asked, quietly.

“You. Farren. My lovely Lykaios here.” Damen caressed the supple skin on the slave girl's thigh. “Your new friends.”

It took several attempts for Damen to get off the bench. Eventually Nikandros offered his arm and hefted him upwards and it was like all those younger years when they would have drank too much and swayed arm in arm, putting the world to rights, while they made the long journey to bed. Tonight, Nikandros walked him towards the door and then left Damen to fend for himself. Damen wasn't mad. Two gorgeous slave girls were waiting to drape themselves around Nikandros.

“Can you manage?” Farren asked.

“I'm the Prince of Akielos. I can do anything,” Damen said. Well, Jessa helped a little. Damen's apartment had a large, comfortable seating area separate to his sleeping quarters. And a changing area. And a bathing area. Basically, his rooms were large.

Akielons did not have sex in front of other people. Maybe they would ignore a servant so not to interrupt their work. Maybe soldiers would fuck in a bunk or beside a fire or behind a thin canvas when times, and other things, were hard. But it was still private. That was the respect they gave each other.

In Damen's room, Farren's boy, who was really their own age but Damen found it difficult to think of slaves as men, poured three cups of rum. He looked like he would fall to the ground in appreciation when Damen told him to pour for himself and the slave girls if they wished. Farren's boy, without raising his eyes or asking directly, showed Damen a small vial of pink liquid he kept in his pocket among other vials of oil.

Damen waved it away. “You ever take this, Farren?”

“A drop only for that one,” said Nikandros. “I am his superior. I'll take two.”

More laughter. Jessa sat back into Damen's lap. He spilled some rum with the impact and found himself licking her breasts clean with his tongue. Nikandros mouth was similarly occupied.

“Not joking now, Nik,” Damen called. Nikandros replied with a choice gesture from his fingers, and then were occupied too. Jessa writhed on top of Damen. Luckily, Damen was large that a slip of a girl would not obscure his view. Through the open, gauzy curtains he could still see the infinite sea, dark in the moonlight. He did not look. But he saw Nikandros peel away Lykaios's, who wore Damen's pin, clothing, saw the other girl go to her knees. In the corner, Farren's pupils were so wide his eyes were black instead of gold. He and the handsome slave were head to head, talking.

Damen kissed Jessa's neck with forced delicacy and met Farren's eyes. His slave boy had reached under his clothing. Damen grinned at him, then lifted Jessa up as if she weighed nothing, which to him, she did and carried her away to his bed.

She was sweet and pliant in his arms and Damen was drunk and a had less control of his body than usual, so they were a perfect combination. She sighed when he touched her. She kissed back so enthusiastically that he didn't need to second-guess if he was being a little sloppy. He lay back, let her on top, and let his hands slide over her silk-soft skin. Though the divide, he heard the sounds of fucking and it was all so pleasant, until Damen needed things to be more than pleasant and he was sure Jessa was sufficiently pleased and he turned her over and took her on his knees.

The rooms were separate. But still, he could see. The soldier Farren had his head thrown back and the slave boy was expertly swallowing the wet length of his cock. Damen gripped Jessa's hips. He closed his eyes and came, quite suddenly, with a babble of curses.

He let her rest. He needed more wine, which she would have gotten, but he knew she needed rest. Naked, he padded to the sitting area but when he got there, he gulped a whole jug of water instead. Farren had drawn his boy into an alcove. The sound still carried.

“Damen,” Nikandros said.

“You call my name in the throes of pleasure. I'm flattered.”

“Fuck off,” Nikandros said. “Have you met Aune?” He gestured at the girl to his right. Aune was caressing her own nipples, which seemed like a waste.

“Can't satisfy two?” Damen asked, walking towards them. “And you took the --” His voice was cut off, when Nikandros grabbed his head and guided it towards Aune.

It was a blur, in the sense that Damen was drunk on wine and sex and the warm air sea air blowing in the windows and caressing his skin. It was a blur in the sense that his hands were everywhere and there were capable lips all over his skin and his nerve endings were on fire and his brain didn't have to function further than chasing things that felt good.

Distantly, he was aware of Farren rejoining them, of Lykaios playing with a feather, of Jessa pouring more water, of the slave boy wiping the sweat from his face by the door. Damen caught Farren's eye, or tried to be, but the young soldier did not seem to be able to focus. He took his hand and put it on Aune's flat stomach and Farren focused.

Damen beckoned the slave boy over. He could see the surprise on his face. The slaves knew it was unlikely that any of the royal family would take a boy to their bed. Damen had only occasionally been with another man and they were never slaves.

“What is your name?”

“If it pleases you, call me Ramon,” he said.

“You had fun with Farren.”

“He was satisfied, I believe. Exalted.”

“I was,” confirmed Farren, who was soon to be satisfied again between Aune's thighs.

“He bid me leave, Exalted,” Ramon said, which was a slaves way of asking if he should stay. “Forgive me for not waiting for my prince's command.” His body was so still, like all of a sudden, Damen had control over whether or not he breathed. Damen could see how it would go. The submission. Perhaps the feeling, for a change, of muscular legs around him instead of soft ones.
“I am --” Ramon's skin went pink and that was nice, too. “Unsoiled. Your friend Farren preferred to take.”

interesting. Damen found it all interesting.

“There's a guard...somewhere,” Damen said. “His name is Jord. Tell him I sent you as a way of thanks.”

“Yes, Exalted.” Ramon bowed and left. Damen buried himself in Jessa, until that felt boring, and Farren was just there and he was more exciting.

-

He woke up alone, with his arm flung over his eyes to keep out the sunlight. The night came back in flashes of pleasure and Damen found himself smiling at memories that were so recent he could still taste them. Vaguely, he remembered Nikandros and Farren staggering away as first light washed across the room. He had dismissed the slaves, then, and once there was no-one around to witness it, he promptly passed out.

“There's paint on your chest,” Laurent announced.

Damen refused to open his eyes.

He should have told Jord to keep him out for the morning, too.

“Go away,” Damen said.

“You should have a servant open the window,” Laurent continued. Damen found the will to squint and saw Laurent leaning against the arch that led to his sleeping chamber. “What is that smell?” He pulled his lips back to sneer.

“Sex,” Damen said. “Quite a lot of it. Quite a few women. You'll find out when you're older.”

“Akielons are vile.”

“Veretians are deprived,” Damen said. He was strong enough to sit up now.

“Did you mean depraved?”

“No. Your countrymen have eliminated half their population for loving because of superstition. They are depriving themselves of things you can't imagine.” Damen found clothes. He went behind the screen to relieve his bladder because that was just polite.

“Your servants didn't bring breakfast. I told them to.” Laurent took a long look around the living area before climbing onto a high stool left their since Damen's post-voyage hair cut.

“Good choice,” Damen said. “We didn't use the stool. Much. And I told my servants to hold off on breakfast.”

“I'll eat it so,” Laurent said. His eyes zeroed in on the pink vial Ramon had left behind. Damen made a note to have it returned to him. He had no need for it, nor did he know how slaves got their supplies.

“That's not for you.” Damen picked it up.

“Yes, hide it. Don't let your reputation down.”

“It's an Akielon drug. You wouldn't find in Vere.”

“We might. Once there was an incident with two pets and an ornamental challis receptacle ...” Laurent trailed off. “Never mind. You're not in the laughing mood I see.”

“I'm not unhappy.”

“You will be once you know why I have summoned you. Herode is ready to parcel my punishment. A witness is required.”

A page brought breakfast. Damen slapped Laurent's hand away and made him wait until he had taken what he wanted from the cured meats and cheeses.

“Will you tell me why you did it?”

“I already did. He annoyed me.”

“Existence annoys you. The birds in the sky annoy you.”

“They wake me too early,” Laurent said, squeezing his own orange juice. “Why are you so concerned about why?”

“So I know how far I should go in my defence of your good character when we meet Herode,” Damen said.

Laurent chewed his bread, thoughtfully. “You're only meant to witness.”

“Kastor or my father or any number of advisers can witness.”

“Do not say this publicly,” Laurent said. “I'll deny it and you'll look like you're smitten with me like the rest of them. I've got already got two noblemen, a blushing little girl, a rich widow and a carpenter looking for leave to call on me.”

“You're too young.”

“I'm nearly sixteen.”

“You're on house arrest.”

“For now.”

Laurent was silent. Damen waited.

“I did not." Laurent said, "Necessarily see that pink stuff in Vere. I saw it in Akielos. When Tachenos tried to show me some local hospitality, or as he put it, take me on a tour of his personal library. In the dark. Alone."

“I see.” Damen digested that.

Damen's mind flashed back to the feast. The talk. The people who liked to think Laurent was a flirt but, in Damen's experience, he just found Laurent to be some combination of angry, antagonistic and clever in his conversations. The men and women who saw him, just saw him. The cut-glass beauty and the prospect of a challenge. He thought of the road to Ios, after Marlas, and his purported attempts with Nikandros. But that was different. Nikandros would never but he was also, young, safe, influential. And it had been all Laurent.

“I will not,” Laurent said. “Tolerate anyone touching me against my will.”

“You could have told me sooner.”

“I didn't tell anyone” Laurent said. “You should bathe. Herode has been waiting a while.”

“Herode can wait for princes,” Damen said.

Chapter Text

“Herode can wait for princes,” Damen said.

A rare, bright smile passed over Laurent's face and he looked very young, so young that Damen's gut twisted at the thought of anyone forcing their adult desires on him.

“That's what Auguste used to say,” Laurent replied and it was like he was struggling to revert his face back the careful blankness he had maintained while explaining himself. “He was better at fobbing Herode off than me. I should go.”

“Don't worry about ...” Damen said.

Laurent nodded, once, and left.

When Damen was washed and dressed and had deemed his brain sharp enough to deal with the troubles of court, he emerged from his room. His personal guards were waiting, as always, and they gave him the same sort of look he received when he won back those ships.

Jord was there, too, with a different look. “His highness is gone ahead with Herode's men.”

“Right.” Fellow Veretians. He would be safe with them. Probably.

“Prince Damianos, may I have a word?” Jord asked.

“Oh, you want to thank me.” Damen smiled.

Jord did not. “I want to note my appreciation but I prefer not to lie with Ramon.”

“Well, you were on duty. He could have gone to his knees for you.”

“I mean,” Jord said, carefully, head bowed. “I prefer when a man comes to be of his own free will.”

Damen thought that Jord would be in Ios a long time before he found a man willing to lie with a Veretian. But princes did not argue with soldiers. His father taught him that. He nodded and walked ahead.

-

Herode was waiting in room Damen's father kept for meeting with people he respected, but did not trust enough to let them near the Akielon scrolls and statute books that held this country together.

He bowed to Damen.

Damen nodded his head. He thought sometimes that being a prince was not unlike being a nodding dog. Except of course, for the respect. And the women. He smiled again at the memory of Aune and Jessa, together. Sweet Lykaios looking slightly overwhelmed.

“I hope you were not waiting too long,” Damen said. “I did not realise this was happening today. And I was tired after my travels.”

Laurent snorted.

“Not long at all,” Herode replied. “I've tasted your wine and your griva. I know what it can do to a head.”

Laurent snorted again. Damen felt like his country had been insulted.

“Do you need a handkerchief?” he asked Laurent. Beside his uncle's councillor, Laurent was the picture of obedience. Head low, eyes still and back straight. “No, let's get started.”

“The Regent has laid down what he feels are appropriate punishments for the Prince's ... lapse in judgement. He knows that this has been a traumatic time for the boy and, also --” Herode looked at the paper in front of him to let Damen know he was reading direct quotes. “He knows that the barbarian culture of Akielos has made his perspective on violence change.”

Damen snorted now. “Funny, I remember the Regent's men inflicting the lowest kind of violence to our people at Marlas. Would you like to go to the slave quarters and see the scars, Herode?”

“That won't be necessary, Prince Damianos, and --” He set down the paper. “From my own mouth, I want you to know that is not something Laurent's father or brother would have done. Regardless of the reports --”

“Can we get on with my punishment now?” Laurent asked, sounding bored and looking uneasy.

“The Regent has decreed that Laurent's income shall be reduced. He will not have access to the revenue from his holdings at Marches and Varennes.”

“I don't,” said Laurent. “Have them. I won't until I am sixteen.”

“You will not get them now until you are eighteen. Cheer up, your highness. You still get Acquitart at sixteen.”

“Is that it?” Damen asked. To him, it seemed fair. The Regent was a fair man, when he wanted to be.

“Prince Laurent must also make a public apology to the court for his insult to the country and to the widow, who will get six months proceeds from the mines at Varennes.”

He should have known there would be a sting in the tail. That would be humiliating for Laurent. And Damen had never seen him apologise.

“Fine,” said Laurent. “My uncle's word is law. I will obey.”

-

Naturally, a large proportion of the Akielon court wanted to witness the Prince of Vere publicly humiliated. Families who lost sons in the northern battles. People who looked at Laurent and did not see a boy far from home but the symbol of all there was to hate about Vere come to life.

It was standing room only. Damen stood behind his father. Laurent sat calmly on a plain chair while hungover courtiers filed in, bleary-eyed and still buzzing enough from the previous night's feast to be eager for more entertainment.

Laurent sat calmly until he got to his feet and began to converse with Herode's men. There were two guards and two assistants and Damen had not given any of them a passing thought. Well, other than to wonder if a strong gust of wind would blow them over. It made sense that Laurent wanted to speak with his fellow Veretians. Damen knew the boy wrote more letters than he received.

Damen could not here what Laurent was saying. But he could see Kastor clench his toes, his fists and finally his jaw.

“What were you saying about Kastor?” Damen leaned to ask Laurent when he returned to his chair.

“Hush. Your father is about to speak.”

Theomdes spoke about Akeilon affairs in general, finally mentioning Damen's last victory, alongside news of an improved harvest in Kesus and the marriage on one of the Kyros of Mellos sons to one of the Kyros of Sicyon's granddaughters. The mood shifted when he began to speak of Laurent's punishment. Like Damen, the restrictions on Laurent's lands meant little to the people of Ios. They wanted more. They wanted blood. Theomedes did not provide any context to the punishment. It was only when he brought up the subject of a public apology did the crowd show real interest.

“Where is Tachenos's wife?” Theomedes called. Damen had to school his face when a petite girl who looked no older than Laurent emerged from the crowd with her head held high. She must have been among the assembled family members he had spoken to before and he must have dismissed her as a daughter.

Laurent stood and, uncharacteristically, bowed. “I would speak to the lady in private, if Theomedes allows it. My guard can witness or Prince Damianos.”

Theomedes nodded but Herode shook his head. So Laurent extended his hand and invited the young Lady Tachenos to sit. Her eyes went wide but she walked into the space the royal family occupied. Laurent offered her his chair, and he went to his knees beside her. Damen count not catch what he said, nor what she replied.

Laurent stayed in a kneeling position when he turned back to the crowd. He spoke in clear, careful Akielon. He did not show the fluency he did with Damen, nor did he retain his soft Veretian accent. “My uncle instructed that I apologise to the Lady Tachenos for the death of her husband.”

“Murder!” came a voice from the crowd.

“Here, on my knees, I apologise,” Laurent continued. “I make no excuse. I simply say that I am sorry for her.”

“I accept,” the Lady Tachenos said. Her cheeks were flushed. Her hand twitched like she wanted to tell Laurent to rise but she knew she could not tell a prince to do anything. Maybe she was in love with him, too. Certainly, it would explain the dazed look in her eyes. She was closer to his age than her late husband's by at least forty years. Laurent reached for her hand and kissed the plain gold band she wore.

Damen readied himself to catch her if she fainted.

A ripple like rumbling thunder went through the crowd. The Prince of Vere on his knees was something they didn't know they wanted until they saw it.

“Thank you,” Laurent said. “And in the spirit of reparation, I will increase my uncle's offer of compensation to eighteen months instead of six.” He looked at Herode, who nodded. Theomedes was one of the few unaffected by Laurent's display. By rights, Laurent should apologise to him for killing one his people. If an Akielon had done it, he would rot in jails or hang from a noose.

Damen readied himself for Laurent to receive on his father's legendary dressing downs. But there was no need. Before Theomedes could speak again, Kastor punched Herode's sickly grandson right in the face. He went down. The assistant did, too, with a smooth uppercut from his brother. Damen reacted. Naturally, he went to Kastor's aid and shoved aside the Veretian guard who surged forward.

He wanted to draw his sword but he simply disarmed the guards instead. Kastor had been restrained by Theomedes' own men while the crowd crowed as if it was a display fight. Lady Tachenos had fled the stage.

“Stop,” said Theomedes, and everyone did. “This is a civilised society. We do not attack our invited guests.”

“Civilised guests do not insult their hosts,” Kastor replied, heated. Damen placed a reassuring hand on his brother's shoulder but Kastor shook him off.

“You know our beliefs,” Herode said, almost apologetically.

“Let us move this away from the court,” Damen said.

“No,” said Theomedes. “There is nothing to move. After all, my son Kastor could have drawn his sword. I would have under the same insults.”

Laurent's apology was forgotten. The crowd, disappointed at the lack of more entertainments dispersed, to nurse their hangovers elsewhere. Laurent sat down again and lazily extended one leg in front of him.

“First time kissing a woman?” Damen took his father's seat.

“Her hand was soft like a child. Disgusting. And she smelled like flowers, which, I suppose is better than the smell in your rooms this morning.” Theomedes had left his cup untouched. Laurent sniffed it, and finding the juice to his liking, took a sip. “Speaking of children. I thought you didn't allow that in Akielos. Lady Tachenos is barely of age.”

“I'm afraid barely is enough,” Damen said. “What did she say to you anyway?”

“Oh, she thanked me for killing her husband. Really, I did her a favour. Don't look at me like that. There's no-one around to hear,” Laurent said. “Herode doesn't count.”

“I'm going to see Nikandros,” Damen said.

“To compare notes?” Laurent smirked. “Am I allowed to move freely again now? The carpenter and the noblewoman really want to see me again.”

“Sure,” said Damen. “Jord and Leon will accompany you.”

“I would chaperone the prince, too.” Herode said. Damen figured it was to keep the precious prince from accidentally touching a woman's flesh or else out of desire to avoid his father and brother.

“I was counting on it,” said Laurent.

-

Damen meant to find Nikandros before he left but found himself in the training ring instead sweating out the alcohol and confusion and irritation in his body. Today was nothing. A punch. An apology. Nothing. He had seen Theomedes make men piss their pants for less than Laurent's crimes. The boy handled himself like a prince. That was to be expected.

But there was a great nothingness clouding around Damen. His father did not need his counsel. He did not yet think Damen needed to be negotiating and bargaining and charming Kyroi in the royal chambers. It left Damen with little to do but remember the defeat at Marlas, the smell of burning flesh, and the prospect of minor victories in his future. Damen did not want to be teased. He wanted the all encompassing climax of victory.

He went to his father. He needed something to do.

Damen expected to be sent to Sicyon instead of Nikandros. He would have settled for leading his company into the countryside to help teach provincial troops what to do. Patras was a surprise but one he bore gracefully. They were a similar people. A whole country of Patrans would be easier to make sense of than one Veretian princeling.

-

Patras shared but a sliver of border with Vere, and many years of friendship with Akielos, but Theomedes didn't want to take any chances. Torgiers and Theomdes had often hunted together in the woods near Aegina and people said, though never intentionally around Damen, that Theomedes used to take his mistress Hypermenestra there under the guise of diplomatic exchanges.

It was not a slight to Queen Egeria, for a king could to as he liked. It was a mark of respect to her that he kept his affairs hidden from her sight.

Damen would have liked to hear his mother's opinion on that, and many other things too, but it was never meant to be. So he travelled to Patras by ship, with just his personal guard and a handful of tokens, including the slave boy Ramon. Ramon tended to Damen's needs and Damen certainly considered having him tend further but there was never a moment that felt right and it wasn't nice to play with a gift before giving it to another.

Torgiers was congenial. His home was welcoming. His sons made excellent sparring partners and his daughter did not try to court Damen, preferring to court the obedience of falcons instead. The slaves were comely and well -trained. Ostensibly, Damen was there to befriend his future allies but really he reminded Torgiers of their countries' long history and counteract the Regent of Vere's effort towards friendship.

Bazal was too much like a land-locked Ios for Damen to really get the distraction craved. The highlight, apart from the comely slaves, was spending time with Torgiers younger brother Torveld, home in a brief break and who Damen knew and admired by reputation. He had achieved and maintained great success at the northern border between Patras and Vask. Damen was glad to learn all he could from Torveld's expertise because he knew that when he was king, he would have to fight back the same threats from Vere at Delpha and they would likely be led by Laurent.

“What is he like?” Torveld asked, when Damen mentioned this fact to him. “I hear his beauty would take your breath away.”

“He's not yet sixteen,” Damen said. “And his tongue would lash your skin away if he felt like showing off.”

“There are rumours,” Torveld said. “That he...and his brother.”

“I expected better of you,” Damen said. Torveld went back to business. He took Ramon back to the border when he left. Damen took his new skills in Patran hand-to-hand combat and how to deal with raiding parties and took the long way home through Sicyon. He joined with a small unit there and put Torveld's experience to use against some greedy Veretians. He joined a larger unit and reclaimed a bridge that made supply lines to Karthas more secure.

Damen took a long route through Akielos back to Ios. He spent a lot of time praising young soldiers and, again, holding babies. Everyone wanted the prince to hold their baby. Damen worried he would break said babies but didn't mind their warm milky smell.

Back at Ios, nothing had changed. Damen felt old. He wondered if this was his future – a life without significant changes and a view of the sea. The fashion had changed, he noticed, on his slow walk through Ios. He was a common enough sight in the city that people did not grind to halt when they saw him like they did in the outer-provinces. But they cheered. They bowed. A chubby boy rushed over to show him a knocking wooden toy but his red-faced mother dragged him away and told him to stop bothering Prince Damianos. Some of the townsfolk who made their living close to the castle were wearing laces on their chitons and many more were wearing sleeveless ornamental jackets over their shoulders in rich brocade too heavy for the heat.

If Damen wasn't so confident in his body, he would have felt under-dressed.

In the throne room, Theomedes was pleased with the letters he had gotten from Torgiers and nodded at the news of Damen's success in Sicyon, success that would not have been necessary if he hadn't let them lost at Marlas. That was all it took for his mood to sour, seasons of princely work to turn to dust in his mouth.

“And what of our charge?” Damen asked, meaning Laurent. “Did he finish his tenure in the training barracks?”

“A while ago,” Theomedes said. “He has petitioned me to hire him a chef that can cook to his Veretian standards. I think he just wants butter on everything. Possibly a deal with a dairy farmer. Who knows?”

“No murders this time?”

“Not that we know of.” Theomedes held his gift from Damen, a fine Patran dagger up to the sunlight, and admired the shine. “It's good to have you back, son. Now rest. You'll have duty again tomorrow.”

-

“Hello, neighbour.” Laurent was leaning against Damen's door. He had grown in height since Damen had seen him last. His face had changed, slightly, too. Something about the jaw. His golden hair fell loose past his chin. Over an unseen chiton, Laurent wore a floor-length sleeveless coat. Damen understood why the fashion in town had changed. “They've taken me from the barracks again. Just in time for your return.”

“The boys of your class have moved on. It would be cruel to the younger ones to leave you with them.”

“They've not gone far. But your father doesn't want me to learn any more Akielon army secrets. I didn't bother to tell him that 'smash and grab' are not that hard to pick up.”

“Good to see you, kid.” Damen sat on the familiar low couch in his sitting area and bit into a peach. Fruit was sweeter in Ios. The sea view was a balm to his eyes.

“That's what everyone says. Apparently, I'm really blossoming.” Laurent grabbed the peach when Damen poured himself some water. His luggage had been sent up ahead of him and Damen picked up the white-wrapped gift he'd brought for Laurent.

“Here,” he said. “I missed your fifteenth birthday.”

“By several months. Does this count for sixteen too?” Laurent said. “Good thing I'm not sensitive. I was sick, actually, on the day.” But he looked a little excited as he unfolded the cloth. Boys should be excited to receive gifts. Apathy was for men like Damen.

It was a dagger, similar to the one he had commissioned for Theomedes, but not quite as fine. Also, it was pointier.

Laurent turned it over in his hands. The metal gleamed. When the sunlight shone on the subtle engraving on the hilt, Laurent let out one small laugh.

“A cat.” he said, smiling still. His face looked so different when he smiled.

Damen shrugged. His household wore a lion pin. “Did you get anything else nice?”

“Kastor tried to give me a girl and nearly gave Jord a heart attack. She wasn't even pretty, objectively speaking,” Laurent replied. “Your father gave me a handshake. My uncle sent a new guard, in advance of me turning sixteen. Lazar, He's...my uncle's man.”

“What would you have gotten in Vere?”

“I'll never know,” Laurent said. “But don't worry about me. I've been quite enterprising in your absence.”

“Enterprising?” Damen repeated, flatly.

“For one thing, your kitchens are slowly becoming more efficient,” Laurent said. “But I've mostly been concentrating on my other businesses.”

“Businesses,” Damen said.

“Yes. Cloth. Some woodcraft.”

“You've become a ... merchant?”

“No,” Laurent replied. “Did you suffer some head injury in Patras? I've been collecting commission. Noble people are very interested in my fashion sense.”

“I'd noticed.”

“That's nothing, really. I'm sure you've experienced the same.”

Damen did remember winning a string bracelet in a wrestling match and wearing it on his wrist to gloat. It wasn't long before string bracelets were on so many wrists Kastor made Damen cut it off because it wasn't princely to be the same as everyone else.

“Such is the life of princes,” Damen said.

“I should get some heavily discounted clothing, once I can find good enough fabric and a decent tailor,” Laurent said. “I've outgrown nearly everything. This -” He wrinkled his nose and looked down at his ensemble. “Is a sample. In the meantime, my toy business is doing well.”

“Toy?”

“Wooden puzzles. I have the patent. A few of the guildsmen make them and I get the profits. Wood is cheap. They sell well,” Laurent said.

“The children of Ios are playing Veretian games?”

“No. Mine are better than what exists currently in Vere,” Laurent said. “So will you help me?”

“Sell children's toys?”

“I'm not a citizen. So your father's rules, which are frankly xenophobic, won't allow me to gain receipt of my not unsubstantial profit.”

“Have you asked him to make an exception?”

“I'm not paying Akielon taxes.” Laurent said taxes with more rancour than he said most curses. “Nor am I willing to have it go back to Vere and into my uncle's coffers until he releases my income. So if you would just accept the money into your account and allow me to access it.”

“No,” said Damen. Laurent's jaw twitched. “Cut me in as your partner and we'll work something out.”

“They won't let me keep the dagger, you know,” he said. “You should give it to Kastor or --”

“Keep it here,” Damen said. “Does the toy thing keep you busy?” Training was over. He was there wasn't much left to tutor him in. Before Damen left for Patras, Laurent had sewn the seeds of friendship with at least some courtiers and soldiers.

“Not really. I don't actually make them.”

“I mean with contacts. Or the boys you trained with.”

“Oh,” said Laurent. “No. I don't need Akielon friends. It doesn't make sense.”

“Friendship doesn't need to make sense.”

“No. Not when you're actually among friends.”

Damen's slave Lykaios appeared at the doorway. They moved so quietly. It was part of their training. The pale pink gauze that made up her clothing floated in the air as she gracefully went to her knees.

“That's your signal to leave,” Damen told Laurent. “I'll see you at dinner.”

 

-

At dinner, Laurent sat by Damen's side and kept up a running commentary of potential secrets of the people sitting around them. Damen got better at holding in his laughter. He ate a little. Laurent ate a lot. Mostly, what was intended for Damen.

“No complaints tonight?” Theomedes enquired in Laurent's direction.

“No. This is adequate.” Laurent scooped a spoon of honey-sweetened rice into his mouth. At that age, Damen had the appetite of an ox. He couldn't fault the boy's enthusiasm for food. “Have I leave to go to the henhouse? I want fresh eggs. They are very good, according to Nikandros, for building muscle.”

At sixteen, building muscle had been another obsession of Damen's. “I don't see why not. Jord can accompany you.”

“Jord does nights now. Lazar, days.”

“I suppose I should meet him.” Damen went with Laurent to the new Veretian guard after dinner. He was drinking ale behind the kitchens and contemplating the pot-washers as another would contemplate a fine sunrise. “Welcome to Ios, soldier,” he said. The sight of the regency red on Lazar's shoulder made Damen uncomfortable.

“Thank you,” Lazar said. “Don't worry. Your men have made my position here clear.”

“Good,” said Damen. “Prince Laurent says you are his uncle's man.”

“In Ios, I am the prince's man,” Lazar replied.

“Ah, a turncoat.”

“I prefer to think of it was having survival skills, your highness.”

“Were you sent here as promotion or punishment?” Damen pressed. He knew Jord had volunteered, because he did care for the prince or he would care for the wellbeing of any boy, and out of respect for Auguste. This Lazar was different. Perhaps more streetwise.

“I was promoted from my company, where I excelled because most of the men thought with their dicks, no offence your highness, to serve as the Regent's personal guard as the palace,” Lazar said, slowly. “But the hours didn't suit me.”

“The hours,” Damen said.

“He put me outside his door throughout the night. I did not like it there,” Lazar said, slower, as if Damen had a poor command of Veretian. “The Regent and his pets,” he said. “Were on the other side of the door.”

“I see,” said Damen. “Well, there are no pets in Akielos.”

“His highness has said I can mostly do days. He prefers Jord to me.”

“Can't imagine why,” Damen said, as Lazar let his gaze follow the path of the well-formed young man who had not adapted Laurent's fashion trend and wore a traditional chiton cut well above his knees.

Later, he walked into his rooms with Laurent. “What do we think of him?”

“I haven't decided yet,” Laurent said. “Oh, the couch is gone.”

“Jessa tripped over it. She hurt her leg quite badly.”

“Heavens. You may have to send her back now. Like a defective toy.” Laurent climbed onto the end of Damen's bed, still wearing his boots, and rested his chin on one knee. “Tell me about Patras. How was the food?”

Damen told Laurent all about his trip. It took a long time. Laurent kept coming back to hear more.

-
Damen looked for Laurent one bright afternoon and could not find him. He had an idea about going to the stables. Silly, really, as he had more important things to do. Now that he was back from Patras, Theomedes wanted Damen to spend more time observing the day to day running of the palace. Important work. But it involved reading letters and writing letters. Reading decrees and writing decrees. Columns and tallies of numbers that were never high enough. Damen was consistently drawn to the topic of Delpha. Theomedes kept shutting him down. It was in hand. Nikandros and Kastor were working well up there.

Theomedes and Damen needed to ensure the funds and the political stability necessary for a future northern campaign. Damen understood. He really, did. But his body craved the thrill of a battle. His mind was better occupied with tactics than legalities.

He needed fresh air.

“Where is the Prince of Vere?” Damen asked the guard standing duty at his apartments.

“In the kitchens. Again.”

Damen went down to the kitchens. He hadn't been there since he was a boy, and he and Nikandros would dash barefoot among the cooks and steal sweatmeats from the lowest shelves. Once or twice, during feasts in his honour, Damen had summoned the cooks up to his table to personally thank them. It felt like a grand gesture at the time.

He was almost twenty two. If he was here for a birthday feast, he would go down and thank them personally.

Laurent was sitting cross-legged with his boots on the counter. Lazar stood casually by the back door. The staff worked away as if Laurent's presence was familiar to them. They did not stay calm around Damen.

They collapsed like a bad souffle.

“Rise, please. I'm only here to speak with Prince Laurent.” But it was not that simple. The head cook wanted to thank him for the shipments he had sent from Patras. The pastry cook wanted him to taste the apple pie, the one he had loved as a child. The boy who tended the fires just wanted to touch the hem of his chiton. Damen went through the formalities of being admired before leaning on the counter beside Laurent. “And you dare call me barbaric,” he said. “When you've got your boots on the counter.”

A small flush shot up from Laurent's neck. “I sit here a lot. They should know not to put their food here.”

“Have you a new interest in the culinary arts?”

“No.”

“Then --”

“Chef!” Laurent called. “Tell Damianos of all the benefits I have brought to your kitchen.”

“He had made us very efficient, Exalted,” the cook replied, warily. “The food goes up hotter. The servers are quicker. It is an excellent arrangement.”

“What good news,” Damen said. “The Prince of Vere is such an asset to our palace. Laurent, walk with me.”

Laurent glanced at Lazar before climbing down from the counter. In the stairwell, Lazar jotted something in a notepad stashed in his clothing.

“Now tell me what you're really doing in the ktichen,” Damen said.

“Tell me why you're looking for me.”

“I'm gong to the stables. Join me if you want.”

Laurent did. He made fun of Damen's horse and, quite literally, rode circles around him in the paddock. Afterwards, he tended to his horse Kura with a tenderness Damen didn't know he was capable of. Damen left his to the stablehands.

-

At dinner, Damen brought up Laurent's keen interest in the kitchens to Theomedes.

“He's done well with the toys and the clothes,” Theomedes said. “If we leave him down there, our kitchens might start to turn a profit.”

“That would be nice,” Damen said. Money meant a better chance of protecting and expanding their country. He had heard that the rich Delphan soil was providing more food than the Veretians could eat.

“Next,” Laurent said. “Your man needs to address staffing.”

“Too many cooks spoil the broth, right?” said Damen.

“It's lax. The women send their sisters and children when they are sick or pregnant.”

“As long as they can peel and chop, what does it matter?” Theomedes said. He did not take kindly to anyone telling them what to do. When the servers brought around the apple pie, Laurent took the slice meant for Damen. He did it in full view of everyone, whereas his previous similar actions had been little messages saying look, you cannot stop me. Laurent was saying that to the whole court now.

“The pie is excellent,” Damen said, remembering the cook's kind words. “Perhaps more tomorrow.”

-

There was more pie the next day. It was presented personally to Prince Damianos by the pastry cook. It had am intricate lion backed into the butter crust.

“Wow,” said Damen, who saw no point in embellishment in any form but especially when it came to food.

“Clever,” said Laurent, who sounded like he was making fun of the whole country. The chef flushed. Cooks were always red so Damen knew Laurent's word stung.

“It is a great design,” Damen said, loudly. “We thank you for the effort.” He dropped his voice. “I know it will taste just as good.”

“I don't like pie,” said Theomedes. “Bring me some figs instead.”

Cooks did not serve. A boy ran for the figs. A freckly girl brought the pie to the serving station and began to cut. Her hands were shaking with the royal table. Poor mite. She brought the first slice to Damen, since Theomedes was not partaking. Damen smiled at her. She ran away.

“I'll take that one,” said Laurent. “I'd rather eat the lion's head than the tail.”

“No.” Damen took hold of the plate. Laurent was smart enough to know he would not win a tugging contest with Damen and pressed his lips together angrily instead. Behind them, there was a clatter. The pie hit the ground. The serving girl followed, purple with embarrassment, as Theomedes' server followed to admonish her. “No,” Damen said. “Accidents happen. Have them get something else for the rest of the table. I'm sure there is more pie.”

Chances were, the kitchen had baked several pies before deeming one suitable for the prince. It wasn't a big deal.

“You'll have to wait,” he said to Laurent.

“Let me have it,” Laurent said.

Damen stuck his fork into through the lion crust and the warm apple filling. He bared his teeth in a smile before shoving the forkful into his mouth.

He smelled it first. The scent of decay. It hit his tastebuds a moment later, the sickly, sweet rottenness of it.

He had already swallowed but the odour was still thick on his tongue.

“Before I say anything,” he said to Laurent. “Was it you?”

White-faced, Laurent shook his head. “I tried – I thought to--”

Damen kept hold of the fork. And the plate. He was sweating already. “Father,” he said. “Clear the room. Lock down the kitchen. I've been poisoned.”

Chapter Text

Theomedes pushed aside his figs so fast they shot off the table. “Can you stand?” he asked, as the guards drew close around them.

Damen shook his head. It would have been better to get away from the grand table at the top of the room but Damen knew he wouldn't make it.

“I need to be sick,” Damen said. The room was spinning. His stomach was contracting. He couldn't think. The pie. Laurent in the kitchens. Laurent continually stealing his food. A long game? A foreign plot? A crown prince for a crown prince? “It's the pie. Only me. Laurent didn't eat any.”

Theomedes stood. “Everyone out.”

It was a testament to his leadership that the room emptied in seconds. It was testament to Laurent's bravery that he stayed. Damen, when he was not in such dire straits, would thank his army training and too many nights of drinking throat-rasping wine and spirits for the strength that prevented him from vomiting in front of the entire Akielon court and two visitors from Patras.

Damen leaned forward and vomited onto the floor. And vomited. And vomited. He emptied his stomach, then its linings, then some blood.

“Here.” Laurent passed him water.

“Don't drink anything else,” Theomedes said. “The physician is coming.”

Laurent passed Damen a napkin instead. Damen wiped his mouth. He managed to pull himself upright.

“The girl,” Damen said.

“Apprehended. The whole damned kitchen is locked down.”

Damen's heartbeat was very fast. His body was on fire. “I need --”

“You'll be fine.” Laurent stood very close to Damen. His eyes were very bright, pink at the edges to make the blue stand out. “A little won't kill you. I promise. You are very large. It'll work through your system in no time.”

“You promise?” Theomedes said. “What did you do?”

“I didn't poison your son. I know this because it has happened to me. Many, many times.”

Theomedes did not reply. He dipped a cloth napkin in cold water and wiped Damen's brow. The action nearly floored Damen. His father had never been tender. Damen started to think Laurent was lying about the poison wearing off, except he would never have been that kind. Poison.

The physician came. He made Damen drink a foul concoction. He made him drink a second, when he vomited the first one up.

“Water is best,” said Laurent. “Later, a little milk.”

He was ignored.

Theomedes called back in his guards and had them prepare to round up the kitchen staff. “The penalty for an attempt on the life of the prince is death. They will all be executed.”

“Or,” Laurent said. “I could tell you who it was.”

“This is your doing? It would be just like a Veretian to poison himself in order to --” Oreste said.

“Do shut up,” Laurent said. He waved Lazar over. “Give him the notebook. We've been keeping track.”

Through his fever, Damen could see that Laurent and Lazar had indeed been keeping track. They had narrowed down who was working at each attempt to poison Laurent. They had narrowed it further to who had access to the food.

“So you know by who was working?” Oreste asked, skeptical.

“No, I know by who was not. They send substitutes, remember?” As Laurent spoke, the kitchen staff were being marched in at swordpoint. Some servers and cleaners and, oddly, some of Damen's own guard.

“This is too much,” Damen said. Theomedes was not a benevolent ruler. He was always keen to show force. But there was no conspiracy here. The cook had been so sweet about the pie. Some of the slaves and staff were weeping openly, not at their arrest, but at the sight of Prince Damianos unwell.

“The serving girl who dropped the pie,” Laurent continued. “Her mother sent her. She normally works these nights and she has not come. Girl, why did your mother not come?”

The girl was pushed forward. Theomedes raised his hand, just before the guards pushed her to her knees. She was already terrified. Her whole body shook. She could not speak for the cries that came from her mouth.

“Child, tell us.”

“I'm going to die anyway,” the girl choked out. “Mama's with the soldier.”

“What soldier?” Theomedes asked, as he despatched guards to find out.

“The palace soldier. One of our men,” she said.

Laurent stepped away from Damen. Lazar stepped in front of his prince.

“No,” Damen said. Or croaked, perhaps. His ears still felt water-logged. “That makes sense. Tell the girl she's not going to die.”

“Yes,” Theomedes agreed. “They would pose as one of us to make them co-operate.”

“Or one of yours has a personal vendetta against the prince,” said Lazar. Theomedes looked at him. Lazar looked back. “The boy isn't lying. He's been poisoned a lot. Might explain the mouth on him. But I witnessed the kitchens myself. There is a pattern.”

“We can wait.” Theomedes sat. Laurent sat again beside Damen. The kitchen staff waited, afraid to breathe. Damen lay his head on the table. He was so fevered, he thought he felt Laurent pat his back.

Theomedes men returned with a man in chains. He was indeed wearing an Akielon uniform. But his look was wrong. His accent was wrong. No-one knew him.

“Cells,” Theomedes said. “Let the interrogator figure it out. Kitchen staff, you will all lose two day's pay for your negligence.” He turned to Oreste. “Take note,” he said. “It will be a return to the old ways. From now on, there will be a taster at the royal table. We will draw up a rota from the staff's children. Dismissed.”

“Father,” Damen said, when the room was cleared again. “Don't --”

“Your men will help you to bed.”

“That's not --”

“We'll talk tomorrow, Damianos.”

Damen bore the indignity of being helped to bed because he was too weak to protest. It could happen to anyone, from alcohol or injury. But it felt different because of poison. You could choose to fight or choose to drink.

No-one chose poison.

Except Laurent. He had tried to eat the pie. Genuinely, tried. The previous night, the show of stealing Damen's slice had not been the show Damen assumed it to be. He wasn't showing off. He was showing his hand. The poisoner would know Laurent openly took Damen's food. If they tampered with the pie, made just for Prince Damianos, then the offence could not possibly be overlooked.

It was good strategy. Laurent had good tactics. It would have been better if he had just filled Damen in on his scheme, though.

The physician and his men watched him throughout the night. They did not believe Laurent when he told them it would wear off. They would not let him stay on the couch either and Damen was too weak to intervene there, too.

-

In the morning, his guard were still at the archway.

“Dismissed,” Damen said, immediately. They had been there too long. “Do the changeover. Get some rest.” He pulled himself up onto his elbows. “And let in the Prince of Vere.”

Laurent appeared immediately. “Here.” He put a cup of milk on the bedside table. “It does help. Even the physician agrees. Your father personally supervised the milking of the cow.”

“Sit,” Damen said.

“They keep taking away my couch.”

Damen inclined his head towards the end bed. It was a big bed. Laurent perched at the end before. So he shouldn't have been surprised when Laurent sat on the side, near Damen's elbow, and twisted his back so he could look down at him.

“How many times did it happen?”

“I didn't keep track at first,” Laurent said. “I thought it was one of you. Actually, Kastor to be specific or one of his men. And I didn't want to give him the satisfaction of knowing the impact it had on me,” Damen thought of the times Laurent refused to come out of his rooms. He sent away food. He stole so much of Damen's and ate it like a starving street urchin. He mentioned being sick on his last birthday. “Since I started tracking, less than a dozen. To be clear, I usually realised first.”

“That was bold of you, last night. Risky,” Damen said. “You've been spending so much time in the kitchens. Those botany books. Your --”

“General hatefulness, I know. I was tired of it, mostly. Also, I had finally whipped that chaotic kitchen into shape. Your father should pay for me for that.”

“You're a prince. Why do you keep talking about money?”

“Uncle gives me nothing. I'm not going to get anything from my lands. I have to be enterprising.”

“But...we provide.”

Laurent raised one pale eyebrow.

“Why didn't you tell me?” Damen said, and he wasn't talking about gold. Poison. It wasn't a game. Neither was neglect.

Laurent picked at the cotton sheet until a thread came loose. “I was waiting,” he said.

“Waiting.” Waiting. Fresh sickness churned inside Damen. He should have seen what was happening before his eyes. Stealing food. Trying to source his own eggs. Trying to navigate a foreign court all alone, especially when Damen and Nikandros were gone.

Damen had made promises – blood soaked to Auguste at the stream and guilt-drenched to himself and his father, the king, afterwards – that he would look after Laurent. But Damen had been alternately wallowing and acting with selfish abandonment to see what was happening right under his nose.

It was more than the poison. It was the too-small clothes. The stripping of his income in Vere. The fact that a prince had to make his own money. It was wrong, all wrong, and it was down to the rotten Regent who had burnt their slaves in Delpha.

Laurent had been waiting for Damen to notice and Damen had not. A thought came, unbidden, that if he ever met that Regent on a battlefield, he would take pleasure in striking him down.

“For me to notice,” Damen said. “I am sorry for not noticing.”

“Mostly to know what I was up against.”

“Do you know now?”

Laurent tore away the thread and wound it around his finger. “I'm not sure.”

“From now on,” Damen said. “If you need something, I will provide. Clothing. Food. Whatever it may be. Laurent, I'm a bit of an idiot sometimes. I'm not that much older than you. Don't be afraid to point things out.”

“You might change those horrendous drapes then, they hurt my eyes.”

“You've said that before.”

“You might listen now,” Laurent said.

“Do you know who it might have been?”

Laurent shook his head. “Lot's of people want to kill me. Take your pick.”

Later, when Lauren was gone to tend to his horse, Damen send a servant to the market for some of the sweets Laurent preferred. He told them to stop moving the couch by his bed.

-

Damen recovered quickly from the poison. It really had not been much. He did not often get succumb to sickness but the healthiest man was still susceptible to stomach illness. He could cope with a little poison.

The man did not talk and, of course, he was killed. His head was spiked outside the palace for the seabirds to nibble. Theomedes let the people think it was an amateur attempt on Damen's life rather than publicly acknowledge the repeated attempts to poison the Prince of Vere.

“You don't want word getting back to the uncle?” Damen asked.

“I don't want the people thinking they can access him.” Theomedes said. “Make sure the guards are up to scratch.”

“Who do you think did it?”

“Anyone. I don't care. He's a prince in a foreign court. I'm just surprised no-one went for him while he was in the academy.”

“Father. First Makedon's men. Now, this. Something is wrong --”

“Do you think,” Theomedes snapped. “That I don't know that? It's in hand. The poison doesn't matter. Remember the fire? Remember the war we lost? It could be anyone. Any number of people have reason enough to hate Vere. The other situation is improving. I've invited Meniados and his men to court. You claimed bridges in Sicyon, I heard. Now it's time to build them.”

“What can I do?”

“Ride out to meet the company and give them the benefit of your expertise.”

“I can do that.”

“Then you're going to take the boy away somewhere. I don't want him here at the same time as any man who wears a notched belt. Not after Tachenos.”

“Where?”

“The summer palace. He likes horses, right? The runs there might appeal to him.”

-

Riding out meant going half way across the country to meet with Sicyon soldiers, most of whom had seen Damen lose at Delpha and a lesser, but still substantial number of whom had been thrown out of his father's camp and did not return after the fires.

It was a challenge. Northern men had less love for the south and rougher manners. Damen felt a strange tug in his chest at the sight of the notched belts. For a moment, he was right back to that stream where no-one would listen to him and August of Vere was slain.

But Damen was not weak. He would not lose again. He was a good soldier and an even better commander. The men obeyed. He wore them down, built them up, then wore them down again until they would have rode into a burning forest if he raised his hand in that direction.

This was not some political move. It wasn't appeasement.

Akielos was preparing for war.

When the men were obedient and the generals faithful to the crown as much as their kyros, Damen oversaw the delivery of the shipment of weapons that he was meant to handover on his arrival. He did not bribe. He rewarded. He left a large company of decent, loyal behind to make sure the hard work continued.

-
Laurent did not murder anyone or start any secret businesses that took coin from the Akielon economy while he was away, so Damen offered to take him out of the city. Theomedes had suggested the summer palace and Damen could see the appeal. Laurent liked horses. He did not like the claustrophobic hear of the city, the noise and the confinement, and the summer stink of the air.

“Where?” Laurent asked, when Damen raised the topic of getting away. “North?”

“Absolutely not,” Damen said. “I need to narrow down my next assignment. But wherever it is, you can come with me. It's high time you got out from behind these walls.”

Kastor did not like the idea of the summer palace. “I'm going there once these meetings are finished,” he said. “While you've been playing nursemaid and war games in the woods, I've been in Sicyon making this happen.”

Damen started to feel like he should be in the meetings, too. But he never questioned his father. Kastor was his older brother. He would never rule but he had a valuable role to play within their family. If Theomedes thought he should be the one to carry out these tasks, it was only because they were beneath Damen.

“Of course,” Damen said. “I didn't think, brother. How was Sicyon?”

“The same as anywhere,” Kastor said.

Right. So much for a brotherly reunion. At least Theomedes had been pleased with his work with northern soldiers. He had him do the same with a troop come down from Dice before he was to depart the palace with Laurent. That was more difficult, because they lacked Makedon's discipline. But it was easier, because they weren't at Marlas or Sanpellier. Most of them hadn't been old enough to grow hairs under their arms when Damen was losing those wars. They had the kind of pure love boys had for princes before they knew princes were not infallible. It was heady and it was practical. They would follow him to battle some day. They may be struck down by Veretian trickery.

Finally, Damen left those Dicean soldiers with some more of his own men and returned to Ios. He'd figured out, while listening to campfire tales from Dicean boys, where to take Laurent, who by now was past sixteen and owed a suitable present.

Forget the summer palace. Damen was taking him south, down the port, to go hunting for smugglers and pirates.

-

Laurent was pleased at the prospect of the trip south. Damen could tell because he did not scowl at the guards when they checked him for weapons. Well, not much. He sent our his pack. He didn't call Damen's guards names in Veretian or his own in Akielon (which they could not understand) and was eerily polite to Kastor when he bid them farewell.

Damen had been concerned about the ride out of town. Laurent would never be safe in Akielos. The poison in the palace had been proof enough of that. But he hadn't needed to worry. Laurent appeared in one of his hybrid outfits that blended Veretian glamour with Akielos practicality. Because of his influence on fashion, Laurent could nearly blend in.

Except for the bright gold flop of hair on his head. It was long enough to knot into a neat bun at the nape of his neck.

“Wait,” Laurent said, and flipped a hood up to cover it. Damen could practically see the trend starting. “I think of everything. And I finally called in my debt with the tailors and cloth merchants.”

“Is it sufficient to get what you need?” Damen asked. In the back of his mind, he wondered what had become of his life that these were the kinds of questions he was asking. Just a couple of days ago, he'd been training men to stay in formation no matter how many of their fellow soldiers fell around them.

“Not really,” Laurent said. “But once you help me launder my proceeds, I'll be all right.”

“A prince would never do that,” Damen said. Or a prince would never admit to it in front of anyone else. He was working on it. Laurent wouldn't like his solution so he was also keeping it to himself.

Laurent swung onto his horse. Damen, already on horseback, made sure the men were ready to ride.

“Thank you,” Laurent said, quietly, in Veretian as they passed through the city gates. “I knew you wouldn't let my birthday pass without recognition.”

Damen nodded. What had Damen been doing at sixteen? Serving Akielos. Seconding for his father's favourite general. By seventeen he had proven himself enough to have commands of his own and the traditional lion pin pierced through his clothing.

At sixteen, Laurent should be learning to rule Vere.

Damen preferred to keep him here. He wasn't so bad, once you got to know him. But he would be bad, once he got back to that snakepit of a country. Maybe the Regent knew it too. Maybe that's why he hadn't sent for him yet.

-

The journey south was pleasant in the sense that the air was warm and the road was quiet and Damen could put everything out of his mind but the simple task of riding his horse. He wasn't like Laurent, who enjoyed riding for the sake of riding, and who Damen would see was just itching to dig his heels into his horse Kura and take off down the road. But since he had to get around, and couldn't, say, wield his sword to clear his mind on a leisurely trip to the port, riding was fine in its own way.

Laurent was quiet, too. That's always how it was with him. He would burst into frenzies of conversation and then retreat as if there was no-one in the land worthy of his conversation.

“I didn't know,” he said, pulling his horse just a little closer to Damen's. “That it could be nice.”

“What?”

“Akielos. I thought these dusty tracks and dried out groves would be a poor substitute for the richness of the runs around Arles and Chastillon. I used to go there a lot, you know, with Auguste and then --”

“Then you came here,” Damen supplied because he could see talking about his late brother upset Laurent.

“Oh. Yes. Anyway, it's not so bad here.” Laurent blinked, like maybe he couldn't believe he'd said something complimentary about Akielos. A change passed over his face and Damen prepared himself for a scathing continuation. Instead, Laurent pursed his lips and raised his chin. “Race you,” he said and pushed Kura into a cantor, then a gallop. Laughing, Damen followed suit and left the shocked guards and servants for dust.

Laurent flew over the tracks of the townlands. Damen caught up, easily. He knew these roads. He knew Laurent would push too quickly and tire out the horse.

“That was rude,” Damen called over the clatter of hooves. “You're meant to give warning.”

“This is the warning,” Laurent said and rode faster, out of earshot. Damen tried to catch up. He was a well-seasoned rider. But he was heavier and his horse was not attuned to his aids as Kura was to Laurent's. He pressed his stallion hard over the dirt, cracking his whip, as Laurent sailed over dips in the road as if they were fences. He was panting, sweating, so was the horse, and then Laurent came to a neat stop at no particular place on the road.

Damen slowed to a canter, then reined his horse in behind Laurent.

“Did you let me win?” Laurent demanded. His hood had fallen down around his shoulders. Beads of sweat popped out from his hairline.

“No,” Damen said. “I didn't.”

“We should let them catch up. The horses need water,” Laurent said.

“I think,” Damen said. “We might introduce horse-racing to the next celebratory games.”

-

Every nobleman in Akielos had chambers in their homes on the off-chance a member of the royal family would actually visit their home. Damen had stayed in any number of forts and estates and, once, a converted windmill when he travelled the country on official business. It wasn't his preference. He preferred the camaraderie of an army camp (thankfully, generals always wanted him to stay too) or even the rough charms of a travellers inn. It boosted their business which meant for taxes for the crown. Last time he came this far south, he took the nicest room in a not-nice inn by the docks where he could hear the whores at night and whelk women in the morning.

But Damen couldn't take the Crown Prince of Vere there. It had been arranged that they would take rooms at a minor lord's holiday villa on the high ground over looking the sea. Unfortunately for them, the minor lord was also there with his wife and various hangers-one who were hanging on harder now that Prince Damianos was in town.

It was annoying, sometimes, when people bowed. Damen would have preferred a simple hello. Laurent smirked. He liked the pomp and ceremony.

“Greetings, Exalted,” said Lord Ulbrecht. He nodded at Laurent. “Your highness.”

“To you, also,” Damen said. “This is a fine home.” It was an unusual house, more resembling steps of stairs than a usual domicile dwelling. He was being diplomatic.

“Thank you. It's small, of course, nothing like our estate in Kesus. But it's got a rustic charm.”

“Indeed,” said Laurent.

“Your father, King Theomedes has stayed here many times,” Ulbrecht continued. “In the same rooms on the top floor with --”

“With who?” Damen enquired. For a second, he was interested. He never knew his mother. But he always enjoyed tales from people who had known her.

“Lady Hypermenestra,” said Ulbrecht, reddening. The King's Mistress. Kastor's mother. Damen supposed it was decent of them to take their affairs away from Queen Egeria. But this was the second place he had heard they travelled to and he could suppress the dart of betrayal he felt on his mother's behalf.

“She always admired the view,” added Lady Ulbrecht.

Beside him, Damen was distracted by Laurent's shoulders shaking.

“I'm sorry,” he said in Veretian. “But Kastor's mother has the most ridiculous name.”

“The rooms,” Damen said to Ulbrecht. Damen was the crown prince. He could not be seen publicly laughing with Laurent like this, not matter how much he wanted to join in.

“Of course, Exalted.”

They king and his mistress had slept in adjoining rooms on the top floor. Now Damen and Laurent would and Damen could not articulate why that made him uneasy. He remained silent while Ulbrecht gave them a tour and keys. He insisted on showing Damen the twin balconies overlooking the bright blue sea. The home had been built like steps of high stairs, the lower floors all had unshaded outside areas to soak up the sun and watch the ships come in. Beneath there were wide terraces but the balconies in the royal residences were separated by a marble railing and two foot gap.

“This is very nice,” Damen said, politely, as Ulbrecht hovered and Laurent retired to his room. “Have you been made aware off the Veretian customs we reserve in respect to the crown prince?”

“We are no stranger to foreign guests at the port,” Ulbrecht said. “We shall treat him with the respect a prince deserves. Even one who --”

“No females on this floor,” Damen interrupted. “Staff, slaves, I'm afraid not even your wife.”

“Not even my daughter?”

“Especially not your daughter,” Damen said. He thought to tell the man that Veretians also found slaves offensive but he had pushed the matter far enough. This was Akielos. Laurent would have to cope.

“Of course, Exalted. I'll make the arrangements.”

-

Before Damen could embark on his actual work he had to endure a feast in his honour in Ulbrecht's back garden. It was a small affair, thankfully, and there weren't many high-ranking men near the port for him to be disturbed too much. He mostly had to sit there under torchlight and inhale the scent of the sea and the citrus candles.

The slaves were more noticeable in such a small space. They hard to contort their bodies more and suck in their breath harder to move between the cramped chairs and tables. Their gauzy clothing caught in splinters. Their bare skin was a playground for the bugs and they didn't even swat them away.

Damen was aware of the tension in Laurent beside him. Slavery was distasteful to Veretians. A stuffy garden party was probably not what the boy had imagined when Damen said they were leaving the city.

“Let's play a game,” he said to Laurent.

Laurent did not relax but he stopped pressing his wrists together. He looked around the assembled guests. “Ulbrecht's wife is imagining Lazar bending her over the table,” he said. Damen followed Laurent's gaze, to see that she was indeed looking at Lazar.

“That merchant is planning on copying the design on your jacket. I saw him sketching on a napkin.”

“That's not why he was sketching me,” Laurent said. “Stop being so pure-minded.”

Damen looked around again. “That slave girl wants nothing more than to kiss your boot.”

Laurent smirked. “Maybe I will let her. I hear accepting hospitality is an important part of Akeilon culture. Which one will you take? So not to offend the host.”

Damen took a drink of his wine and remembered the adjoining rooms. “I am here to work,” he said. Anyway, Damen had spent some very pleasant hours with Lykaios before they left the palace. He was far from sex-starved.

“Speaking of work. That clerk is sweating even more profusely than you people normally do. His secret is that he's skimming off the top of his collections and he thinks you're going to catch him.”

“Is that a guess or --”

“They underestimate my fluency in Akielon.”

“Because you keep speaking solely in Veretian,” Damen said. “But I thank you for your help.” He had been answering in Akielon the entire time. That's what his father would have wanted. He would have said more to Laurent but Ulbrecht was approaching with a young, uniformed port official. Damen could tell, even in darkness, or perhaps especially in the darkness, that the man was handsome.

“Exalted, may I please introduce you to Captain Andries,” Ulbrecht said, as the official bowed swiftly. “He shall assist you in whatever you need while you are here.”

“Would you like to join us?” Damen said.

“Forgive me, sir, I am on duty. I just wanted to make your acquaintance in advance,” Andries said. Damen could appreciate that.

“Good,” said Damen. “I will see you at the offices tomorrow.” Andries bowed again and left, under the not-so-watchful gaze of Lazar.

Ulbrecht lingered. “Is there anything I can to assist your business?”

“It is royal business,” Damen said. It was nothing, really. Smugglers faking royal seals to bring their wares into port and then selling them on the black market without declaring any revenue to the crown. “I was here not so long ago. Just tying up some loose ends.”

Ulbrecht nodded. “If I may, I have something for the Prince of Vere.”

“It better not be poison,” Laurent said, as the Lady Ulbrecht came forward with a slave boy. A pale, slender, handsome slave boy with gold paint around his brown eyes and a single gold chain that fell from a choker and wrapped around his waist. Laurent fell silent.

“We are aware of Veretian preferences,” Ulbrecht said to Laurent. “As we do not keep any male slaves in the house, we borrowed this one from a friend.”

“Like peasants and sugar,” Laurent muttered.

The slave kept his head lowered as he dropped to his knees. Damen went very still. He did not want the trouble of saving face after Laurent rejected this act of hospitality.

“That is generous,” Damen said as Laurent's eyes travelled the length and breadth of the slave boy.

“What is your name?” Laurent asked.

“He'll answer to whatever you please,” Ulbrecht said.

“What is your name?” Laurent repeated.

“I am called Xavier, your highness,” the slave boy said.

“Come,” Laurent said. “Attend me.” Xavier came around to their side of the table and sat on the grass between Damen and Laurent's chairs. While a table slave set down Damen's food with professional competency, Xavier served Laurent's with a sensual grace that put paid to any question of the nature of his slave training. “Don't look so shocked,” Laurent said in Veretian. “I do not want to offend our hosts. I plan on making this a long visit. And I don't want to be poisoned again. Who knows what exotic manner of drugs they can access down at the ports.”

Xavier's eyes flickered. Damen drank more wine.

“Prince Laurent is kinder than I expected,” said Lady Ulbrecht's wife.

“For a Veretian.”

“For someone who killed the Kyros of Ios with a dinner knife,” she said. Right. That was Laurent's last time being hosted outside of the palace.

“He won't kill anyone here,” Damen said. Probably.

“I'll be sure to miss any vital arteries,” Laurent called, finally in Akielon, while absently patting Xavier's dark hair. He even allowed the boy to serve him the first morsel of meat directly into his mouth before taking the fork back for himself. Kind, indeed.

“To be honest,” Lady Ulbrecht continued. “It was a bit of an effort to have the boy's master sent him here. I know I shouldn't say. No-one would ever deny Prince Damianos but --”

“I understand.”

“Xavier is new, you see,” she continued. “His last owner's were not so kind. His current owner took him from the bowels of a trading ship. He was in a bad way.”

Xavier bore being the topic of conversation with the submissiveness of a slave. Laurent looked with interest.

“I won't hurt him,” he said. “Xavier, where were you before Ios? I though Akielons don't hurt little boys.”

“Your highness, I am not a boy,” he replied. Damen looked sharply. That was not a slave response at all.

Laurent shrugged and broke a piece of bread with his fingertips. Casually, he held it towards Xavier and the boy ate from his fingers as a pet would.

Akielon slaves would never be so bold. Especially not on a first meeting with a master.

Laurent got a little bit whiter. Damen understood now.

“It was a Veretian vessel, I presume,” he said to Lady Ulbrecht. “Xavier was one of their pets.”

“Yes, that's the word. Ghastly business. No offence, Prince Laurent.”

Laurent had put down his knife and fork. That was good. No-one was going to get stabbed. “You were a pet and now you are a slave,” he said to Xavier. “What a step down.” Xavier did not respond. It was not his place. “Where in Vere did you reside?”

“Marches, mostly,” Xavier said, quietly. Lady Ulbrecht, sensing tension, wisely went to socialise at another table.

“How is the mood in Marches? Speak freely. I know it doesn't pain you as you act it does.”

“Laurent,” Damen said, and where he meant to sound sharp he was afraid he sounded worried.

“Better, your highness. The Regent is helping the people recover.”

“Recover?”

“From the loss of the King and Crown Prince and the instability of war,” Xavier said. Damen could see that he was nervous.

“Be more specific,” Laurent said. “Come on, pet. I know your type.”

“Xavier,” Damen said. “Can you play any instrument?”

“Pets in Vere have other talents,” Laurent snapped.

“Yes, Exalted. It's...I don't know the Akielon word. Like a kithara, but you use a bow?”

“Fiddle,” said Damen.

“Violin,” said Laurent.

“If you have the instrument with you, it would please us to here you perform.”

The boy bowed twice and went to retrieve it.

“He was given to me,” Laurent said.

“I outrank you,” Damen said. “And I'm not dealing with any more scandals.”

“I only wanted to hear the news from home.”

“Wait until you are in a better mood.”

Xavier's master had sent him to Ulbrecht with whatever might be required of a slave at a party for princes. He returned, showing the first flush of real slave shyness, with his glossy wooden fiddle under his arm. He went redder as Damen called for silence but relaxed once the first low note poured out from the strings. Damen expected something like the upbeat fiddle songs he had heard in taverns across the country. But Xavier played a slow haunting ballad that flowed through the garden like a river and drew drunken port residents under its surface.

The sketching merchant wiped his eyes. Lazar and Jord, at the boundaries, looked at the slave boy with unbridled appreciation. Laurent had gone very still.

“It must have been a long time since you heard music from home,” Damen said.

Laurent did not answer for a long time. “That was Auguste's favourite.”

When Xavier finished, he took a bow. A real slave would never do that. But the crowd was so enraptured they did not notice and then Damen called for an Akielon tune, to even things out and to take the haunted look from Laurent's face.

“If you wanted to make me be nicer, that was not the way to do it,” Laurent said but there was no bite to his voice.

“I don't want to make you do anything,” Damen said. Distantly, he remembered his father say something similar once, when Damen had thrown the kind of strop unique to adolescents. It was a warning. Do it yourself.

Laurent pressed his lips together, momentarily, and the made his expression blank as fresh banked sand. The music continued. Xavier played. Another slave joined in with a drum between her knees in another unslavelike fashion. Perhaps things were different this far south. Perhaps it was the sultry night, the bright stars in the cloudless sky, and the light breeze that made the hanging lamps bob back and forth in the breeze. They cast shadows. They made things soft.

“Auguste would have liked it here,” Laurent said, looking up at the sky. “He was the most relaxed commander-prince that ever existed.”

“Do you like it here?” Damen asked.

“I don't like anything.”

“I like it here,” Damen said.

Laurent turned, looked at Damen with his head cocked to one side, opened his mouth, closed it again. Damen did not push it.

People grew relaxed enough to approach Damen and Laurent's table, though they only spoke to Damen. Music rang out. Drinks flowed. Later, music slowed and people began to take their leave. Lord and Lady Ulbrecht tapped the same slave girl on her shoulder and retired to bed.

While Damen got caught up in hearing a drunken tale about rat catchers that he neither liked nor understood, he saw Laurent rise and tap the slave Xavier on the shoulder and lead him from the room.

Xavier was taller. It was obvious when they were both standing. It seemed incongruous to Damen that a slave could be taller than a prince. Laurent would not take a slave. But maybe he would take a former pet. He was old enough, really, at sixteen. He was old enough for a while.

Damen excused himself from the rat-catcher aficionados and left the party. He took the servants stairs up to the top floor, possible causing several minor heart attacks along the way. Laurent could do what he wanted. But Damen knew him. He worried for the boy Xavier, who had been mistreated before, and who had been the only Veretian that Laurent had met that he could possibly pay his anger at being abandoned to Akielos out upon.

It was there first night here. He couldn't have a death on his hands. If Xavier misinterpreted --there were a lot of dangers, all right.

That was all it was.

Chapter Text

Rather than endure twisting a locked door in front of Veretian guards, Damen went straight to his own room. The adjoining door was locked, too. But Laurent would have seen the twist of the handle, heard the creak of a rarely used mechanism. If Ulbrecht was the host he thought he was, he really should have made movement in and out of the royal quarters more discreet. Damen was ready to break the door down when he caught himself. Laurent knew he was there.

Unless Laurent hadn't heard it the door handle.

Unless he was truly occupied.

He was a lonely sixteen year old. It wouldn't be so strange to that he would want companionship. Someone to untie his Veretian laces. Someone to put out the fires in his mind.

Except Laurent's mind never stopped. And his voice drifted in through the shutters in rapid fire Veretian.

“I'll throw you off that balcony,” Laurent said. “Do you think anyone but your hero complex master would miss an untrained slave? You're nothing. You're worth nothing.”

Damen went out to the balcony. He didn't stop to think, to judge – he jumped across the empty space, the long way down, and landed squarely beside Laurent. Let him go, he should have said, but instead he grabbed Laurent's scrawny shoulder and shoved him back against the wall. A swash of white-wash paint dirtied his blue jacket.

“What do you think you're doing?” Damen said, too wound up to keep his voice down. Laurent would not be killing anyone on his watch.

“Oh, calm down. He's a slave from Vere. My uncle won't care. You father won't care.”

Xavier was trembling as the sea wind whipped the beauty from his flimsy garments and made them into something pathetic.

“Laurent, this is not why I took you from the palace. Calm down.”

“No, you needed me out of the way so your father could play nice with my brother's killer. I'm not stupid.”

“Makedon didn't kill your brother.”

“His men did,” Laurent said. “You were there. I'm meant to be the prince and this one won't even answer my questions. All I want is news of Vere that has been filtered through ten different palace officials before it reaches my desk.”

“Xavier, answer his questions,” Damen said. It simply wasn't acceptable for a slave to make those kinds of refusals to his betters. No-one could refuse a prince.

“There is talk, your highness,” Xavier said, voice shaking, accent thick. “Among the courtiers in Vere. About the late Prince Auguste and --”

“They're saying he ordered the fires,” Laurent interrupted.

“Oh.” Auguste was long dead when the fires were lit. It wasn't infeasible to think he had given the orders before his death. From a political standpoint, it even made sense. Give the late prince credit for the last winning strike against the Akielon invaders. Give him that glory and give the Regent a clean slate to start again on Laurent's behalf. “Well. That's not the worst thing in the world.”

“He wouldn't have hurt slaves like that,” Laurent said. There was still an edge to his voice and a sharpness to his posture that reminded Damen of a snake about to strike.

“When you are king you can clear his name,” Damen said. “Xavier, is that all?”

“Exalted, this one doesn't feel --”

“Cut the act,” Laurent said. “You were a pet. We both know you have know problem spewing dirty words and opinions.”

Xavier raised his head. “They are saying that the plan to send Prince Laurent to Akielos was already in place before his brother's death. They say Laurent had an....inappropriate attachment to his older brother. That it disgusted the late prince and --”

Damen flung his hand out. Not to hurt the slave but to impede the impact of Laurent's blow. He was fast and vicious but he could not get past the thick muscle of Damen's arm or the sure-footed stance that kept Laurent from doing permanent damage to the slave boy.

“Do not,” Damen spat, without looking at Xavier. “Insult the good name of Prince Laurent with those baseless accusations.”

“I'm just repeating what I heard.”

“Don't do that either,” Damen said. “Shut your mouth and remember your place or your master will hear about your disobedience.” Xavier went to his knees. Damen stared and the slave pressed his forehead to the tiled floor.

“I --” Laurent began. “I never--”

“Go inside,” Damen said. He was only a little surprised when Laurent hopped over to Damen's balcony instead of walking back into his own room. “Don't you move,” he said to Xavier, and left him outside. That's what Theomedes would do. No-one, not even a pet, would speak like that in front of Theomedes.

Figuring Laurent needed a moment, Damen went through Laurent's room and opened the door. He stepped into the hall and when Jord and Lazar snapped to attention, Damen leaned against the wall.

“Protecting his purity as well as everything else now,” Lazar said.

“Watch your mouth, soldier,” Damen said, but he didn't have the energy to put any threat behind it. “That slave was a pet once, in case you couldn't tell.”

“What a step down.”

“How so?” Damen demanded.

“Well, aside from the obvious,” Lazar said. “A pet like that wouldn't be long earning enough to buy out his contract. There's no way out of slavery.”

“Do you know of these rumours in Vere?” Damen asked.

“About the prince. There are too many to keep count,” Lazar said. “But I can imagine the one that would have him hiding.”

“Take the slave elsewhere,” Damen said. “Discreetly.”

Xavier looked so pathetically grateful to be lead away that Damen had to turn his head.

“Jord,” Damen said, when it was just the two of them in the corridor. “It's been a while.”

“I don't do as many nights now.”

“You knew Prince Auguste,” Damen said. “What --”

“Forgive me interrupting, your highness,” Jord said. “But I served under Auguste and he was the best man I've ever known. You'd look at him and know he was destined to do great things.”

Damen wondered if anyone ever looked at him and felt like that. They probably thought he was destined to break things.

Jord continued, “He was devoted to his brother. That's why I volunteered to be his guard. Those two loved each other. There was nothing but honest love.”

“I know,” Damen said. He pushed himself away from the wall and went back to his room. On a reclining couch, Laurent sat straight-backed with his knees pulled up to his chest. It was a warm night but he was still shivering. Quietly as he could, Damen secured all the doors and when he couldn't find a suitable blanket because there was really no need for blankets in the southernmost tip of Akielos, he draped one of his short red cloaks around Laurent's shoulders.

“Auguste would --” He let out a bitter breath of a laugh. “I was going to say Auguste would die if he saw me with Prince Damianos's cloak around my shoulders.”

“I doubt he had ever reason to think about that.” Damen sat on the edge of the couch.

“He thought about you. He followed your rise to become the star of the Akielon army. Damianos, undefeated in every game, leading campaigns at seventeen, jewel in his father's iron crown,” Laurent said. “Look, what Xavier said ---”

“There's no need.”

“Auguste would never. I was a boy. That would be incest.”

“Laurent, I know.”

“I used to sneak into his rooms when I was a child,” Laurent said. “Five, six, seven. I don't know. He always looked after me. Listened to my fairy stories and flights of fancy. Maybe I --”

“I think,” Damen said. “You were very lucky to have had a brother who cared so much about you. We were both at the stream -”

“Well, you would think I was lucky. Your brother is Kastor.”

Damen laughed a little and he watched Laurent slide back into the version of himself Laurent was comfortable with. “I never did sneak into Kastor's rooms. He actually would have thrown me from the balcony. I did sneak up on him once in my father's rooms. He was trying on his crown.”

“Is that allowed?”

“No but honestly, I think even the servants try it on. My father has little use for ornamentation. I think he gave me the lion pin just so he didn't have to wear it.”

“Once --” Laurent said and stopped himself.

“Tell me what's the most embarrassing thing you ever saw Auguste do,” Damen said.

“Nothing. He was the heir to the throne.”

“Everyone does stupid shit,” Damen said, leaning back on his elbows. “Dance around naked. Examine their moustache in the mirror. Sing bad songs at the top of their voice.”

Laurent laughed earnestly now. Which was, of course, Damen's intention.

“He used to watch the court ladies, I think. From his window. I didn't know then. I thought he just liked the gardens.”

“Everyone watches women. Even you.”

“I don't watch women,” Laurent said. “Sometimes I am simply overwhelmed by the amount of flesh you primitive people put on display. Anyway, it's different in Vere. You're only allowed to fuck the woman you marry. Auguste...I don't know. I wasn't watching. But it must have been difficult for him. He could have anything he wanted but that one thing.”

“Someone should tell you people that there are ways of preventing pregnancy.”

“I know there are.” Laurent went a little red. “But there can still be seed in --”

“The women here take --” Damen didn't actually know what they took. “A medicine. And there's a chart. I don't know. But think about it, you don't see any pregnant slaves.”

Laurent blinked three slow blinks. “I thought --”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Laurent.”

“In Vere, if an un-married woman gets pregnant and the father won't do the right thing people make sure there is no baby.” He looked down at the toe of his boots. “I bet you are thinking now about all the times I called your barbaric.”

“No, I'm not thinking about that,” Damen said. He straightened and began to untie his sandal. Laurent put his feet on the ground.

“I should --”

“You don't have to,” Damen said. But Laurent left, quietly, embarrassed still. He also left the adjoining door open.

-

 

In the morning, they went down to the customs house. This was the part of the plan Damen did not think through. There was no reason on earth why the Prince of Vere would accompany him on official business, yet here Laurent was behaving like nothing at all hadn't come within a hair's breadth of killing a slave boy the night before.

Still flanked by an unnecessarily large contingent of guards, making gnarled fishermen and rowdy fishwives bow just because he existed, Damen decided the Prince of Akielos did not need to justify his decisions to anyone. Laurent, wide-eyed, wove though the busy dock with none of the cool arrogance he usually displayed. The energy suited him. He sampled a mussel. He admired a tall ship, a pleasure yacht and an old dockhand's risque tattoos. He gave Damen a sly, sidelong glance, when Damen caught him looking at the overflowing bust of a daytime whore. He even produced one of his little wooden toys from his coat and tossed it to a barefoot boy stealing oranges from a bushel.

“If you want to explore, a guard can escort you,” Damen offered. This was meant to be a holiday of sorts. No-one had expressly told him not to let Laurent out of his sights.

“I don't think Theomedes would approve,” Laurent replied. “Anyway, I want to see what you do when you're not in the palace.”

“Mostly, I command armies.”

“I've seen that. You weren't so impressive.”

A clerk showed Damen through to the custom-master's office. “Great,” said Damen. An office.He had not considered this aspect of the task. There was a smuggler to be caught and he meant to catch him in person. With guards perhaps, maybe even through the use of an informant. He had made contacts the last time he was here.

He had not been expecting to come to face to face with his real nemesis – paperwork. That was for clerks and advisers. He was there to command and fight.

“You hardly expect me to go through all that?” Damen said to the clerk.

“No, Exalted,” the clerk said, rushed. “We have. Your father's men have. It's just...we can't find anything.”

“Perhaps the mind of the prince might offer some illumination,” Laurent said. Damen gave him a look.

“Right,” Damen said. “That will be all.”

Damen ignored the paperwork and called for the waiting harbour police and customs officers.

“Can I look?” Laurent asked, standing on his tiptoes to peer out the high windows.

“The sky is there for everyone.”

“I mean at the papers,” he said.

Damen hesitated. Chances were, Theomedes would not let a foreign prince rifle through official paperwork. There wasn't anything sensitive in the comings and goings of the merchant docks. Anything regarding the crown or the army had its own protocols. The clerk would probably raise an eyebrow. He had raised both at the sight of Laurent but, the again, Laurent did have that effect on people.

“Why not?” Damen said. “You're good at seeing patterns.”

“Am I?” Laurent made himself very comfortable on the customs-master's chair. “How do you figure?”

“Puzzles. Fashion. You have an analytical mind.” Damen pushed open the window, then. The room was hot. Laurent was going red. He spread out a map on a low coffee table and began instructing the local watchmen. They needed to step up their patrols. They needed to make sure the hauliers were not planting anything or taking bribes. Basically, they needed to do their jobs better and Prince Damianos's presence was the guarantee that would make that happen.

It took hours. The thing about a massive docklands was that there were so many places to hide. The men stressed this to Damen. He stressed right back that it was their duty to eliminate them.

“Where is the guard Andries?” Damen asked. The man who had greeted him the night before seemed like a reasonable sort.

“He works nights, mostly, Exalted. Prime crime time, really.”

“Right,” said Damen. “Then why don't your plans reflect that?”

It took until late afternoon to get anything that resembled a logical strategy. If these men were soldiers, their camps would be open season for enemies. Which is why, perhaps, they eked out a living down here instead.

“Take over,” Damen said, to his head guard. “Have someone in office prepare lunch for me and the Prince of Vere,” he said to his most junior guard. “Supervise. We'll take it outside.”

The fresh air made Damen feel like himself again. It made Laurent squint and wrinkle his nose. Considering the short notice, the clerks had prepared a nice spread in a small shaded area at the side of the building. Or, more likely, they had ten different options ready depending on what Prince Damianos would choose.

“What do you think of Akielon record-keeping?” Damen asked Laurent.

“The records are neat but some of the hand-writing is atrocious.”

“Do you see anything?”

“Nothing absolute, yet.” Laurent spread some soft cheese onto a piece of dried bread and popped a grape on top before eating it. “But I am sure there is something there.”

“How?”

“There's something everywhere.”

Damen sat with his back to the docklands. The area was cleared, of course, and people couldn't just wander up to the customs house for no reason. They wouldn't get past the guard. But people still had official business – paying charges and applying for licenses – regardless of whether or not the prince was in town. People looked. Such was the life of a prince. He preferred not to notice. Or for Laurent not to have his back to that many Akielons.

“Sickening,” he heard a woman say in Patran. There was no love between Vere and Patras and Damen was considering how long he would let this go on before he had his guard remove her. “That they can sit there, stuffing their faces, while people starve. Imagine the luxury of clicking your fingers and -”

Damen clicked his fingers. His guard escorted the woman away. He didn't know why he felt so hot, or why he had to put down his food. “Do you speak Patran?” he asked Laurent.

“Enough,” Laurent said. “You seem very shocked for one who spends so much time on the road.”

“No-one in Akielos would speak like that of me,” he said. “Present company excluded.”

-

The first day proved fruitless. Never mind. These things take time. Damen was just relieved that there was no guests at Ulbrechts house for the evening and he could use that garden space to practise with his sword. When he was a boy, Haemon his trainer used to make him practise daily so he would not lose his touch, so the movements would become as natural to his body as putting one foot in front of the other to walk. Damen never lost that habit, even now when it would have no detrimental effect on his skill.

Laurent had insisted on going down to the stables, accompanied by Jord and one of Damen's guards. Damen didn't particularly think he was going to run off but it was protocol. Also Jord had good Akielon and Laurent was quite fluent but he didn't think either of them spoke the kind of rough challenging language that was prevalent around the docks.

While he practised, he felt a familiar sensation on the back of his neck and turned around expecting to ask Laurent while he had returned so early. But it was not Laurent. He had gained an audience of Lord and Lady Ulbrecht, two of their household staff, and the officer called Andries. They all bowed. Damen caught a tiny look of amusement pass of his own guard's face.

“Forgive me, Exalted,” Ulbrecht said. “We found this officer waiting for you on the street. I did not know you were busy.”

“It's fine.” Damen passed his sword to his squire and wiped his face dry. “I will hear this officer's business alone,” he said.

“It is nothing urgent, Exalted,” Andries said as the garden emptied. “I just wanted you to know that we are already implementing your new policies at once. We've already apprehended five thieves.”

“But no smugglers,” Damen said, drinking down some water.

“Not yet.” Andries lowered his head. Damen felt a little guilty. The man clearly took his duty seriously and Damen should not have scolded him for not achieving instant success. He noticed him glance at the sword again.

“Do you spar?” Damen asked. It was a great honour for men to lose to him.

“Not anymore.” Andries took his hand from inside his cloak and to show he was missing two fingers. “I was in the army, briefly, Exalted. I am no shirker.”

“Were you in Delpha?” Damen asked, quietly.

“Supply lines out of Sicyon port, sir. I was young and I wasn't very good.”

“You could have continued that kind of duty afterwards,” Damen said. If the army turned its back on every healthy young man with a minor injury, they would soon run out of soldiers.

“I liked the sea air,” Andries said, a little balefully.

“It is something,” Damen said. “And of course, the crown values your service here too.”

“I'm finishing early tonight,” Andries said. Damen caught a taste of something in the words. Not an invitation. No-one would be that bold. But potential. “So I will be present at the docks and offices tomorrow if you should require my services.”

“Right,” said Damen. “Dismissed, officer.”

-

The following day, he and Laurent went down to the offices and did it all over again. Laurent combed through the papers, making notes and getting ink on his fingers, while Damen heard police reports and witness reports and suggestions from the officers on where to increase surveillance.

There was a lot of talking.

Damen glanced Laurent's way a couple of times. He gave no indication he was paying attention. Damen figured he was happy to let people think he couldn't understand them very well.

When Andries came, Damen walked down to the intake room with him, so he could see the procedure for all the items that came through without a courier. Sometimes, Andries explained, smugglers would send something small like a banned drug through as a kind of test to see if the officers would detect it. He looked down at the ground when he had to mention a drug. It was endearing.

Then he went back to work and there were more clerks in the office. Laurent opened his mouth a couple of times, like he wanted to say something, but was too proud to speak among all these lesser people.

Damen was just about to bid them all leave and send for lunch, when a red-faced young officer burst into the office.

“Exalted,” he said, breathless. “They have caught someone. They have caught a smuggler.”

-

Damen didn't doubt that this was anything more than an effort by the local guards to prove they weren't completely incompetent but he stood up all the same. He could do them the respect of witnessing their work. Theomedes wouldn't want him to be holed up in a stuff office when he could be out among the people, laying down the law.

He strapped on his sword, pulled on his cloak, and looked at Laurent who still had his brows furrowed behind the large desk. “Come on, then,” he said. Then to Jord, “Keep him back.” It would not do for the Akielon people to get any kind of impression that the Veretian prince was doling out any kind of justice here.

There was a large yard in front of the customs house, despite the fact that plots of land were at a premium this close to the docks. It was mostly kept empty. Today, under the blazing sun, quite a crowd had gathered – mostly guards and officials, along with a few workers who had gotten swept along in the tide of an arrest. In the centre of the crowd, there was a woman on a small platform. She wore a headscarf that was probably white once but now had the colour of a dirty stone. It had come undone, with the tight press of swords to her neck.

“What is happening?” Damen asked, as the guards bowed and forced anyone who didn't notice his arrival down to their knees.

“Exalted, we have caught this woman in an attempt to defraud the crowm,” said a guard with the mark of seniority on his shoulder.

“In what manner?” Damen sought out Andries, hoping him to be more reasonable, less caught in the triumph of catching someone. It was a good thing these men weren't soldiers. They'd be too busy celebrating every kill to do anything useful.

“Sir, she attempted to pass of a shipment of exotic fruit.” Andries said, looking down a piece of paper. “Bananas, I think they are called, as white onions.”

Damen tried to look serious. He tried not to look at Laurent, who would no doubt be snorting at the seriousness of this particular crime.

“White onions have lower import charges than these bananas,” Damen said.

“Considerably lower, Exalted.”

“And the consequence is...” Damen had no idea. He assumed some fine and a bill for the real taxes. Perhaps the shipment to be confiscated. He wouldn't mind trying some new fruit.

“Death, Exalted. For the crime of stealing from the crown.”

“Death.” Damen looked at the woman, faded and fragile on the wooden platform which, he realised, must be ready and rolled out when such an infringement occurred. Her face was lined. From sun or saltwater or age or stress. He didn't know.

Prince Damianos was here. If someone was going to be put to death for crimes against the crown, then he would have to do it. Damen had killed more times than he could count – in places where people signed up to be killed.

Something about this woman made him think she had only signed up to feed her family.

“Smuggling is a huge issue, Exalted,” Andries said. “It's important to set a strong example.”

“I did not ask for advice,” Damen said, so aware of all the eyes on him.

Laurent wriggled up to his elbow. “It is a smuggler, not the smuggler,” he said in Veretian.

“I'm aware,” Damen said. But that was the crux of it. This was not his mission. He knew that before Laurent spoke. His father would not dally – raise the sword and end the problem. Kastor, too. Probably even Nikandros, though he might feel badly afterwards. And all of a sudden, Damen was wondering what the golden Prince Auguste would have done.

Damen walked towards the woman, hopping up onto her guilty platform in one easy motion. He had a strange urge to fix her headscarf back around her face but kept his hand on his sword instead. This was Akielos. Women could go topless if they wished.

This woman was shaking. Her breaths were so rapid they weren't breaths at all, just impotent gasps of nothing.

“Breathe,” Damen said. “Tell me, do you deny this crime?”

She kept her head down. “My name is on the dockets. There is no denial.”

“Do you have a reason?”

“The crime remains, Exalted,” she said.

“Do you have children?”

“Four.”

“A husband?”

“No. He --” She hesitated.

“Speak,” Damen said.

“He fought at Sanpelier. He did not survive.”

“You receive a pension, though.” Damen felt the wrongness of his questions but couldn't hold them back.

“Yes, Exalted.”

Damen looked out at the crowd. He saw Laurent's piercing blue eyes, watching.

“We are merciful,” he announced. “The sentence is commuted. Take her away.”

He felt like he had done something honourable, until one of the market women, pushed forward to get closer to the sobbing woman who was probably her friend. “Don't worry,” she said. “We won't let the mites starve. I'll find --”

“The children will serve the crown as payment for the debt,” Damen interrupted, confusing everyone, who thought it was time for them to leave. “This is my pronouncement.”

He left the guards to their work and the women to their wailing and went back to the cool foyer of the customs house. The official Andries was looking at him with an expression Damen couldn't make out. Laurent was nowhere to be seen.

“Exalted,” Andries said. “The day is nearly over. It would honour the guard if you join us for a toast. It is our custom, excuse the pun, when we catch a criminal.”

Damen would have liked a drink. But he did not need to spend time with common guards to do so.

“If you were catching as many criminals as you should be,” Damen said, loud enough for everyone to hear. “Then I wouldn't be here and you lot would be permanently drunk. I decline but thank you for the offer.”

-

In the office, Laurent was back behind the desk. The guards were outside.

“Go on,” Damen said. “I can tell you want to say something.”

“It can wait.” Laurent made a note on a sheet. “I have never seen you rule before.”

“Disappointed? What would happen in Vere if someone defrauded the crown?”

“They would be killed. But I am not in Vere.”

“You think I was wrong. No, never mind. I don't care what you think.” Damen sank into one of the cushioned chairs by the window. As he did, he realised these were chairs meant for people waiting to speak to the customs-master. There was Laurent, skinny and young, behind his desk.

“I think you think you did right by those children,” Laurent said. “But you gave them a life sentence, too. They could be older. They could be wiley. There could be a girl who could whore or snag a husband. They could have gone to an orphanage, if they were orphans. They could --”

“Enough,” said Damen. “We're going back to the villa.”

“But --”

“No. I just missed a chance to swing my sword. Don't annoy me further, your highness.”

“Will you take these papers, please.” Laurent handed Damen a leather folder. “I think blood will pour from the clerk's eyes if I walk out of here with official documents.”

-

Back at Ulbrecht's, Damen trained in the garden and Laurent went to his room. He listened to the cicadas and in the distance the waves as he went through drill after drill. He was breathing hard and sweating hard by the time he was finished. He meant to bathe but Laurent came into his room, walking in that graceful noiseless way, before he could make use of the water.

“I think I've found something,” Laurent said. “But I'll tell you when you don't resemble a foaming horse.”

“Tell me now.” Damen stepped closer. Laurent stepped back.

“On the balcony,” Laurent said. “Where there's air.”

Damen could tell that Laurent was enjoying having knowledge that Damen did not, so he let him draw it out.

“The view is nice,” Laurent said, with his elbows on the railing.

“You can see the sea from the palace apartments at ho – Ios.”

“You can. My room overlooks a training yard. You can probably see Isthima on a clear day.”

“You spend enough time there. You can see it too.”

“Akielos does not monitor imports and exports from Isthima,” Laurent said.

“We are one country.”

“So shipments that come from Ithisma can pass freely.”

Damen leaned on the railing too. “What is that you know?”

Cargo could come from Isthima under the assumption that duties were paid there. Perhaps a fake seal. Perhaps just plain boldness made it happen. Then, once in Akielos proper, it could change hands and go to the black market. An excellent source of black market goods. Laurent was sure of it. He was also sure, that the shipments came so regularly there was no obvious pattern.

Except, there was a pattern. If you had the mind of a snake. There would be a decoy. An arrest. A death, usually, when Damen wasn't around. A guards' celebration of a job well done. An illegal shipment would come in and it would get out of the port and that was that.

Damen said, “Show me.”

Laurent's research was meticulous. The proof was there in dates and times, if you believed his theory in the first place.

“There are lots of ways to look at it,” Laurent said. “I think you would like to think the guards are merely predictable.”

“I think it is too shaky for me to take this to a guard,” Damen said. So he sent his own best guard to talk to the woman with the headscarf and finally took his bath. The water was cold by now.

All the guard could report was that the woman had never done this before but a man from Isthima approached her and she took the deal.

“I think,” Damen said to Laurent. “That you and I are going to do some surveillance. And if you are pulling my leg, I will remove your baby finger.”

-

Laurent was uncharacteristically enthusiastic about Damen's decision. He was less enthusiastic about Damen's direction to dress in regular Akielon clothes. If he could do it for the academy, he could do it for one dark night by the docks.

“The boots and cloak stay,” Laurent insisted, referring to his hooded riding cloak and wide, short boots he sometimes wore when the tall ones were impractical.

“Fine,” said Damen. Laurent needed to cover his head. Damen removed his lion pin and dressed plainly. They took no guard and Laurent grew jumpy. This was the boy who barely saw the outside of Arles before the Akielon northern invasion and hardly saw the outside of Damen's apartments since. “Are you afraid?”

“Not of you,” Laurent snapped. That was not what Damen meant. Princes didn't need to fear anything. Laurent was well-trained and not so skinny now. He wasn't even so boyish now, if you bothered to look. “Can I have a weapon?” he asked.

“That would be illegal,” Damen said.

“You don't want to end up like that pathetic kryos?”

“You'd never get close enough.” Damen gave Laurent a little shove as they walked over the cobbles away from Ulbrech's house. “It won't be necessary. This is strictly a reconnaissance mission.”

They had narrowed it down to the far left of the pier. It was one of the places Damen had instructed the posting of more guards. In the distance, Damen could see the requisite men shuffling from foot to foot watching the horizon.

“Put your arm around me,” Laurent said.

“No,” said Damen, trying to make sense of what he just heard.

“So they don't notice us.”

“I'll tell them to leave. I am --”

“On a secret mission. If you don't pretend to be some random brute who's spent his monthly wages on the most expensive boywhore he has ever laid his eyes on then they will tell us to leave.”

“No.”

“Fine.” Laurent wormed his way under Damen's cloak and wrapped his surprisingly strong arms around Damen's waist.

“What – get off me!”

“You are a terrible actor.” Laurent continued to walk. Damen had to go along or they would both trip. “Look, I'll keep talking to make you feel better. Remember that this is all an act. I would, in actuality, rather lick a cow's anus than willingly get close to the --”

“Yes, yes, the cloying sweat of an Akielon barbarian. You are such a sweet talker.”

“That's what you're paying me for,” said Laurent and pushed Damen behind a crate. “They'll be gone soon. There aren't enough men for a permanent watch.”

“But I ordered --”

“You ordered more watches,” Laurent said. His arms were still around Damen's waist. Damen felt like if he breathed too deeply, he would snap them. “I can see from here. They are walking away. We have maybe an hour before they come back. If we know that, so does your smuggler.”

An hour. Damen could do an hour of whatever bizarre turn this night had just taken. He had only meant to fulfill his orders and give Laurent a little taste of life. He had not anticipated any of this.

As soon as the guards shuffled off, Laurent pulled himself away. Damen took a flask from his cloak.

“Drink?” he offered, once he had swallowed a warm mouthful.

“No,” Laurent said, coldly.

They waited. There was only the stars to light the darkness and they had to be quiet. It was a long almost hour until light footsteps reached Damen's ears. Laurent's head snapped up, his eyes flashed. Damen had to put his arm in front of him to stop him stepping out behind the crate.

So much for Nikandros's training. Patience was important for these kinds of tasks. Laurent was bouncing on the balls of his feet as they watched a slight young man, with a dark cloak over his clothes and a striped scarf around his neck flit through the Isthiman cargo and come to a stop in front of an indistinct wooden unit.

Quick as a cat, the smuggler stamped a symbol on the flaking wood that was the royal seal.

That was proof of Laurent's theory. Now they had evidence to lay a better trap for the next date on the calendar and catch this criminal with a full contingent of port police. Damen felt a smile spread across his face, then felt it disappear as quickly as Laurent darted around him and ran towards the smuggler.

“Stop,” Damen hissed but the footsteps alone made the smuggler take off. Feeling rather like a dog chasing a cat chasing a mouse, he had no choice but to give chase too. He didn't say anything, when he should have said stop in the name of the king because ever since Marlas he had a fear of being disobeyed. The ran. They ran past crates, past cargo, feet slapping over damp ground. Laurent was fast and light. Damen was taller and faster. They ran. The smuggler ran as if his life depended on it, leading them a merry dance through shipments of spices and food. He dug his knife into a sack and grain spread all over making a slippy path for them to pass over.

Laurent struggled in his boots. Damen paused for him to catch up.

“We should split up,” Laurent said.

“No.” Damen and Laurent chased the smuggler to the edge of the dock and watched him slip neatly over the edge. There was no splash, just a crash against wood. Without pausing, Laurent jumped too and, again, Damen followed. Ahead, the smuggler was jumping from boat to boat as a leapfrog would over lilypads. They followed. There was only a limited number of boats. The chase had an upcoming, inevitable end. Even in the darkness, Damen could see Laurent's eyes flash brighter than any jewel. There was a larger gap between the next two boats, and the smuggler almost lost his footing. One leg into the water.

Damen went first, as he righted himself, and reached back to help Laurent across. There was only one more boat.

They had him cornered.

No. There were two more boats. The one they were about to reach and another, hidden under a pier, a pointy raceable thing, that their target launched without looking back.

Damen swore. The boat he stood on felt very wobbly now. These were rowboats for messengers. A crib would have more substance.

“Come on,” Laurent said and untied the rope from the mooring.

Damen found himself rowing. He had the strength for it. Laurent was kneeling at the very edge of the boat, watching the smugglers slice through the sea into the night. Damen was strong but the smuggler's boar was built for speed. He quickly disappeared from view, blending into the darkness where the sky and sea became one.

Damen stopped rowing.

“I'm not going any further in this rickety thing,” he said.

Laurent turned around, his hood down, hair whipped through with wind, and a face transformed by exhilaration. Panting, he threw himself to the floor of the boat and looked up at the sky. To Damen's utter surprise, Laurent was laughing.

“We never had a chance of catching him in this thing,” Laurent said.

“Then why – never mind.”

“I'll tell you,” Laurent said. “Look at how big everything is here.” With one fine-boned wrist, he gestured his hand towards the expanse of sea and sky and stars. It was quiet but for the gentle lapping over the waves. The port felt very far away, the palace unimaginable. “Besides,” he said, quietly, still amused. “It's the game I like.”

Chapter Text

Damen looked up at the stars and let the rowboat bob for a little while before turning them back towards shore. He assiduously looked at the stars and not at the starry-eyed young man splayed on the bottom of the creaky boat. Laurent was changed here out on the open water and Damen saw the luster of the person he would have been if his life was confined to the palace at Ios.

In the moonlight, his boyish enthusiasm was rare, gleaming and sad. It was meant for another life, with someone other than Damen to share it.

Damen turned the boat around.

“Can I help?” Laurent asked.

“I can manage.”

But Laurent wedged himself onto the bench beside Damen and took one of the oars. They fell into a rhythm more quickly than Damen expected.

“Thank you,” Laurent said in soft, courtly Veretian and kept his eyes on the oar. Damen knew he did not want an answer as well as he knew he was not thanking him for making room on the bench.

They reached the mooring with a little difficulty. Getting to the shore was one thing. Slipping back into a designated space took a little more finesse than either of them had. They got there. Laurent dropped the oar and stood and stepped, awkwardly, on some tarp on the floor of the boat Damen reached to steady him but that only unsteadied him further and somehow, Laurent slipped backwards, lost his balance, and tipped out of the boat.

“Laurent!” Damen had to stay very still or overturn the boat altogether. He looked into water, saw nothing but ripples. “Laurent!” he said again. There were all sorts of rocks and structures here in the place where boats were stored. Could he swim? He could. Nikandros had said. But what if he hit his head?

Damen shed his cloak, cast off his sword and jumped into the water. The temperature was a cold shock. But there was so much shade here, it probably never felt the heat of the sun. Damen felt around the seaweed as he stuck his head under the black water. It would be so easy to get tangled in seaweed like that. Damen should have given Laurent a knife. It was only his training that forced him not to panic.

Strong, methodical, he searched the water. He pushed down, then went back up for air. At the very moment he broke the surface, a soaking wet Laurent did too. There was a moment where they floated and looked at each other.

“I can swim,” Laurent said, the way another person might say fuck you. He flicked his wet hair from his face and went over to the mooring. He hauled himself onto dry land Damen reclaimed his sword and cloak and followed. Laurent stripped off his jacket and emptied sea water from his boots. On anyone else, his chiton would have been transparent but Laurent had wound the fabric more times than anyone else would, and it just clung to him in heavy white drapes.

“Here,” Damen said, holding out his cloak. There was a strange atmosphere of shared embarrassment and mutual irritation. “You'll catch your death.”

“I am not so delicate, unlike your clothing,” Laurent said. “And I would rather die of cold than wear Akielon colours.”

Damen did not point out that Laurent had worn them before, just a couple of nights ago. He drew it around his shoulders and walked away from the shore. Away from the breeze, they would both dry quickly. They hadn't made it more than a few steps when the guard Damen had ordered returned to to their jobs.

“You there,” a guard called. “What are you doing? This land belongs to the King.”

“I,” said Damen. “Am the Crown Prince of Akielos and you are in my way. The smuggler was just here. Find the crate with the fresh fake royal seal and deal with it. I'm going to bed.” He did not pause to see them react. But one aimed his lamp at a very wet, angry Laurent.

“I,” said Laurent. “am very much not in the mood.”

-

Damen sent a messenger boy ahead to tell the Ulbrecht's staff to light a fire and draw hot water for Prince Damianos. When he and Laurent, ignoring Lazar's mirth, got to their rooms they found that there was a fire and hot water only for Prince Damianos.

“Make use of it,” said Damen. He changed quickly and went out to the balcony. He waited there until Laurent made enough noise in the room for him to know he could return without offending his modesty further. Laurent was in a long Veretian sleep shirt and on his feet were a pair of pale woolen socks that made Damen inexplicably sad inside. Laurent folded a sheet and wrapped it around his shoulders as a lady would a shawl. Damen sat by the fire.

After a minute of fiddling with cushions and inspecting at least twelve pieces of fruit, Laurent sat beside him.

“You're quiet,” Damen said.

“Your skills of observance are truly remarkable tonight,” Laurent said. “Will you hear your official coming down the path? Those idiot patrolmen will surely report this to him.”

“I'm not dealing with any more of this tonight,” Damen said. “I don't care who comes by.”

“I had fun,” Laurent said. “And that was wrong.”

“Because stripey scarf got away?”

“Because I'm not meant to be happy here. Ever. My brother is dead and I am exiled. It is an insult to Vere for me to go on jaunts with you.”

“Yet here we are,” said Damen. “Oh, look. My flask did not let in any sea water. Do you want some?”

“No,” said Laurent. “Thank you.”

“How did you think you would be at sixteen?”

“Running around after Auguste. Visting my lands at Varennes and Marches and the kindly caretaker at Acquitart. Coming out of the tents are the fires. Training, even. A military career is perfect for a second son. No-one will care if you die but your father will prouder than if you stay at home reading books.” He looked at Damen. “You were leading armies at sixteen.”

“Seventeen,” said Damen. “At sixteen I was only second in command.”

“Will there be some grand ceremony for your twenty-first,” Laurent asked. “A hundred nude wrestlers. Three hundred archers. Countless slaves.”

“You would have noticed if that happened,” Damen said. “I've been twenty one a while now.” He knew that in Vere, twenty one was the age of ascension. In Akielos, you were expected to be an adult for a long time before that age.

“Your father didn't do anything.”

“I got a letter written by his own hand, some aged wine picked by Oreste and an idea of a hunting break at Heston's estate once things have calmed down.”

“Oh,” said Laurent. “I didn't know. I'm going to get my book.” Damen was going to get into bed. The night had made him weary. He felt all of his years. Laurent's childish enjoyment of the chase could only sustain Damen so long. This was another failure. He didn't catch the smuggler. If the smuggler was smart, he would not come back.

Laurent, when he returned, ignored the fading fire. He sat, above the covers, on the very edge of Damen's bed. If Damen tugged the sheet the tiniest amount, he could have sent Laurent toppling to the floor.

“You bring books on a trip,” Damen said, with his hands behind his head.

“Just one,” said Laurent. “It's a collection of Veretian folk tales. The kind the common folk tell to children in the hopes they will learn how to be men.”

“Fairy stories.”

“Monsters, gods and myths.” Laurent pressed the open book against his knees, like he didn't want Damen to see the cover. “It's quite good. Would you like to hear one? I would say you could borrow it but -”

“I'm not a bookish type.”

“It's written in the northern dialect. I'm not sure you would understand.”

“All right,” said Damen. “Listen, you did well figuring out the date pattern with the smuggler.”

“Yes,” said Laurent. “I am very smart. Now be quiet and let me read.”

-

Damen woke to the curtains ruffling in the breeze, a knock on the door and Laurent still lying at the edge of the bed. Still above the covers, ankles crossed, book on his lap as if any moment he would pick it up and continue on the word he last left off. He looked, for all the world, like a reposing corpse except his chest was rising and falling ever so slightly and there was a faint pinkness to his pale cheeks.

“Prince Damianos, I am sorry but --” The knocking grew more insistent. Lazily, Damen poked Laurent in the shoulder and smiled as he bolted upward, the bounced over to the wooden chair by the window, with his sheet-shawl still around his shoulders.

“Come in,” Damen called. Laurent drew his knees up to his chest. It was just his servant with breakfast. Perhaps his guard with news of their discovery last night.

Both of those people streamed in. Along with a very red-faced Ulbrecht and a face Damen did not ever really think he would see again.

“Hello,” he said, to the lady pirate Galenne, who he had the pleasure of winning against the last time he was at the dock. She wore boots as tall as Laurent's, trousers tight as Laurent's, with a rustic leather jacket over the top. She looked at Damen like he was a pig on a spit.

“Exalted, forgive me. She barged right in. I told her no women on this floor --”

“It's fine. You may leave,” Damen said. “Galenne, to what do I owe this unexpected visit?”

Galenne surveyed the room. There was nothing of value within stealing distance, he thought. At least nothing that belonged to him. If she wanted to steal Ulbrecht's crockery, Damen wasn't going to fight too much.

“Ah,” she said, casting an appraising look at Laurent. “A bed boy. I'm surprised.”

“I'm not a fucking bed boy,” Laurent snapped.

“That mouth does nothing to cast doubt on my assumption, boy.”

Laurent surveyed Galenne right back. “Clan or court,” he asked. “I know a Vaskian woman when I see one.”

“If I were clan or court, I wouldn't out at sea,” she replied.

Damen cleared his throat. “Is this a social call?”

“Here.” She dropped a heavy rubber stamp and a familiar striped scarf onto Damen's bare chest. He got out of bed. Laurent looked out to sea. “Ah, he really isn't a bed boy,” she said, while Damen pulled a loose chiton around himself.

“Tell me you're really not the smuggler,” Laurent said.

“Pssht. Smuggling is cowardly. If I want to steal from the crown, I just go ahead and take,” she replied. “The smuggler operates in my waters. He will no longer operate. There is your proof.”

“Or he'll need a new scarf and a forger to make him a new stamp,” Damen said. This was too convenient. “And they are my waters.”

“Perhaps,” she said. “Consider this a promise. You can confront me when I next see you, Prince Damianos. I remember your promise.” With that, she swept out of the room. When the door was open, Damen could see at least ten other people assembled in the hallway. With a look, Damen bid Jord see Laurent fully clothed and quite bewildered on a stiff wooden chair. The door closed and Damen sat back down.

“You left that part of your naval victory out,” Laurent said, popping a mint leaf into his mouth.

“No. I told you. I negotiated for the return of the boats with captain who was a lady.”

“I know Vaskians, my naive barbarian,” Laurent said. “I know they want to breed with warrior men to create warrior babies. I know that that ... woman.”

“Galenne,” Damen supplied.

“Galenne would probably like to stop pirating and produce in a few years.”

“She has promised her former tribe,” Damen said, flatly.

“And you have promised to oblige. Oh, my. What will your future wife say? What will your father say?”

“They wouldn't believe you.”

“No? I'm good at telling stories.”

Damen glanced at Laurent's still-open book. “I'll allow you that.”

-

Laurent chose to stay behind while Damen went down to the custom house. That was fine. Damen needed to be the one to explain their discoveries to the officials. Even if the words did stick in his throat a little. He wasn't one to take credit for someone else's work. Not that it mattered here. All that mattered was the guards understood that there had been progress and also that they needed to work harder.

Damen spoke like he imagined his father would speak to the assembled guards and officers. He thought how he would tell Theomedes about Laurent's excellent research when they returned. He thought, then, about how Theomedes would treat men who allowed this kind of thing to go on under their noses. These guards should have been more vigilant. The clerks and officials should have seen the patterns.

He docked all their pay, put them all on probation, and promised he would be back to monitor the situation when in reality he would just send some man who was not needed elsewhere.

He bid the clerk stay behind. “What was actually in the crate?” Damen asked. He assumed it was some potent drug, perhaps a valuable mineral.

“Mostly grain, Exalted,” the clerk replied, nervous. “Low value. But it adds up over time.”

“Grain. Where is the market for smuggled grain?” Damen considered if the grain, and indeed the pirate, all might be part of some larger decoy.

“North, I believe. Where....”

“Speak.”

“There are shortages. Soldiers and lords get first priority.”

“Of course they do,” Damen snapped. “That will be all.”

-

It took less time than anticipated to solve the smuggling problem and the Sicyons were most likely still in Ios. Damen could try entertain Laurent a while longer. Perhaps a ferry to Isthima. A visit to the ruins of the old empire. Markets. Stables. He didn't doubt that Laurent would find entertainment in any of the low brow places along the port. He could stay in the adjoining room and work through his little book of myths.

But that was not their life. Damen was not trying to impress a visiting royal on behalf of his country. Laurent lived in his palace. It would just be odd to linger too much.

“Done?” Laurent asked, on Damen's balcony that afternoon.

“Mostly. Loose ends to be tied. Courtesies to be paid. I really should monitor a while longer to make sure there aren't any other crooks waiting to step in.”

“You should fire some guards, if you really want them to work harder.”

“I docked them and put them on probation.”

“That's one way to do it.” Laurent leaned against the railings again. “When do we leave?”

“I'm not sure,” Damen said. “But – we won't rush back, all right?”

“All right,” said Laurent.

-

 

Damen really did have to talk to people and monitor people over the coming days. Some things he could delegate, like the work at the customs house. Some things he could not, like drinking punch with Lady Ulbrecht and her assembly of ladies. They had a lot to say about Ios fashion, which was Laurent's impact, and was making it's way through the land. Later, they cleared the solar attached to the lady's rooms which were directly beneath Damen's so he could meet with a man his father had sent to examine the forged seal.

At least, it was everyone's hope it was that it was forged. It was unthinkable that someone would have stolen it but not impossible. The man who dealt with these things for the crown was, as far as Damen knew, plucked from a prison and made to put his skills to work in reverse. Damen wanted to ask him about prison conditions but talked about jousting instead while one of his guards fetched the seal from his room.

It was not hard to talk to rough-natured men. They got to the point more quickly, anyway. He took one astute look at the stamp and pronounced it a very good counterfeit, but counterfeit all the same. Damen suggested he teach his technique to some of the guard and then talked about jousting some more.

He was ready to retire back to his rooms, when Ulbrecht's staff brought another visitor – the official Andries who looked drawn and dark-eyed and still very handsome. While he bowed, and apologised once more for his men's failure with the smuggler, Damen remembered his promise to himself take someone to bed once the task was complete.

“I'm sure you did all you could,” Damen said. “And we have put the appropriate measures into place to make sure it won't happen again. Would you like some wine? Or punch? The punch is left since the ladies but it's not bad, if you like sweet things.” He smiled in a way that felt un-natural, then felt more natural when Andries smiled back.

“Thank you, Exalted. It would be an honour. And I am not on duty for a while yet.”

Damen nodded. Andries poured his own punch.

“There are lovely views here,” Damen remarked.

“Yes,” said Andries. “I do like watching the boats come home.” He stood. Damen knew it would be too much too soon to tell him to sit. He stood beside him. Andries looked away. That was normal. A rank thing. On the table was the rubber stamp, and, ludicrously the striped scarf that his guard had brought too because they were wrapped up together beside Damen's bed. Andries looked at it and the colour drained from his face so rapidly that Damen steeled himself for another bout of apologies. Sorries did not make for fun seduction.

“Spot the difference,” said Damen. “The expert showed me the ways it was inaccurate. Can you tell?”

Andries took a step closer to the table. He picked up the scarf and held it like it was precious. “Pardon me, Exalted,” he stammered. “What did you say?”

“The stamp,” Damen said. “It was fake.”

“Does -- “

“The scarf was, I don't know, evidence. The smuggler will not be back. Andries, are you all right?”

He put down the scarf. “Yes, thank you, Exalted.”

“You may call me Damianos.”

“How do you know the smuggler won't be back? I didn't hear of any arrests. Has – the water? A body?”

“I'm taking it on faith,” Damen admitted. “Well and the word of one I shouldn't trust.”

“The word of one you shouldn't trust,” Andries echoed. “Yes.” He spun around. “If I am being impertinent, I will accept your punishment unequivocally, sir.” He stepped closer, making his meaning clear. “Am I – do you wish to?”

“I would like to,” said Damen. He put his warm hand on Andries neck and felt the speeding pulse flicker. “There is no rush.”

“I have duty. I want to. But I have duty,” he replied. Damen moved his hand around to the back of his neck. It was sweat-damp and slick. Gently, Damen pulled him closer. Before he could press his lips, just a tease, against Andries's mouth, he said. “Can we be quick?”

Damen kissed him hard, muscle firm against muscle. If that's what he wanted, that's what Damen would give. It made sense. He could hardly take the man up to his bed with Laurent lurking about. Andries kissed back, desperately, and said now, said quick, said hard. Damen reached under his clothes, found him only half-roused and jerked him with a kind of practised efficiency that he would not normally employ with a lover. He was ready. The skin and the grunts and the knowledge that he could push Andries and would not break him had him ready.

He emptied an oil lamp, pushed aside Andries uniform, and bent him over a table right in front of the solar's wall of windows. They fucked, looking out to sea, and Damen was rough because Andries wanted it but he was the one with who was left bright red scrapes on his thighs.

After, he helped Andries right his clothing. He kissed him sweetly on the nape of his neck, while Andries kept his eyes down.

“Every time I come down here,” Damen said, smiling. “I leave with a wound in my leg.”

“I should --”

“Halt, soldier. Is something wrong?”

“I can't be late. I'm on probation,” Andries said, his voice high. “Sir, Exalted. I – I know you are a good man.”

When he was gone, and Damen re-tied his clothing he saw that Andries had taken the scarf with him. Wearily, he left the solar. A slave slipped in behind him to clean the punch bowl, the broken flower pots, the discarded rag. There was more a mess than Damen realised.

He didn't acknowledge his guard outside or Laurent's guard on the top floor. He just wanted....he didn't know what he wanted. Maybe to hear a story.

Laurent was waiting, coiled like a snake, when Damen walked through the door. “How could you?” he hissed. “How could you do that right there?”

Damen looked past him, out the window, remembered the house was built like steps of stairs.

He was, briefly, speechless. Laurent seethed at him; radiated hate more pungent than any scorned lover.

“I --” he started, then stopped. “I don't have to explain--”

“No, that must be nice,” Laurent said. “No explanations. No-one to answer to. Running around down here while your father and your brother do your work.”

“This has nothing to do with my family,” Damen said.

“Do you know,” Laurent said. “That the locals had a pool going? I heard them all discussing it at the customs house. Who could get the prince into bed.”

“None of them tried very hard. We must be paying them too much.” Damen heard himself mimic someone who was icier than him when he was actually burning with flaming embarrassment.

“Why do you think they invited you to celebrate?” Laurent asked. “Oh, you poor fool.”

“I'm not normally like that,” Damen said, thinking of what it must have looked like -- physical and emotionless. “It's not normally – for me. I don't...”

“Fucking. That's how it was. That's how it is. I'm aware of the mechanics--”

“He asked for it like that!” Damen startled. He didn't know why his voice had gotten loud or how he had ended up standing so close to Laurent, looking down at his blazing blue eyes, feeling very much like he could close could them with a smack.

Laurent raised his chin, almost close enough to touch Damen's chest. “Don't lie to yourself.”

“I think he was the smugglers lover,” Damen said, wearily.

“Ah. Perfect. Did you enjoy punishing him?”

“I wouldn't --”

“Do you see now why he wanted to be around you?”

“Enough.”

“He fools you. Fools your father, your crown and your country and you fuck him and you make me watch!”

The fight went out of Damen. The words were a slap. Not because of the savageness with which they were delivered, or the emptiness that had been spreading since downstairs, or even the absolute ridiculousness that he was having a nonsensical stand up fight with the Prince of Vere about it. All of a sudden he saw himself through his father's eyes and knew his father would not like what he had seen.

Damen sat on the edge of his bed. He closed his eyes.

“I have never,” he said. “Made you do anything.”

-

Laurent was the picture of politeness during their last dinner with the Ulbrechts. He walked contentedly beside Damen when they returned to their rooms, as if he had tamped down all that boyish rage and sewn in tight behind his Veretian laces.

“I think,” Laurent said, outside his door. “I should apologise for my outburst.”

“You should,” Damen said.

Laurent said nothing and went into his room. Damen went into his. His guard followed. His servant lit the candles, enquired about the fire, brought some sticky treats while Damen gave instructions to his men for their journey back to the palace. There would be no ferry trips or market excursions. He would not rush home but he would go back in a timely manner. There was work to be done. He had to learn how to do that work.

Damen was twenty one. A man for several years. When he looked at himself he only saw a portion of himself, the prospect of what he could be. He was given corners of maps and portions of duties. He was going to be the King. He had to learn how to see the whole picture.

His men were gone when Laurent padded through the adjoining door.

“I thought you might lock it.”

“I didn't want you jumping over balconies.” Damen bit into a chewy concoction of sugared nuts and dried cherries which stuck to his lips and flaked onto his chin. These were the kinds of things princes had to do alone. No-one would take you seriously with half a sweetened almond in your evening stubble. “And I'm still waiting on that apology.”

“Would you like to hear another of these stories?” Laurent didn't wait for an answer. With the seriousness of a scholar, he swung onto the edge of Damen's bed. He read. Damen allowed himself to be soothed like that.

Later, Laurent set the open book down on his chest and his voice took on a new quality, nothing like the sure, eager tone he favoured while reading. “I didn't,” he began. And stopped.

“Is this the apology?” Damen asked, half-smiling despite himself.

“You got that already,” Laurent said. “No, I just --”

Damen waited. Words usually came so easy to Laurent. But this felt different, like when he was fixated on his brother or when he was troubled. Damen waited. He would not push him.

“All your slaves are women,” Laurent said. “I thought it was the Akielon custom that you only bed women.”

Damen processed that. Traditionally, yes, in his country men lay with women. But there was no stigma attached to sleeping with a member of your own sex. Damen was the crown prince. He could do as he liked. If he wanted an entirely male household, that would be fine. He thought, then, of Laurent's clear distaste for what Damen viewed as traditional, natural practice. In Vere, Laurent would have only male lovers. Perhaps he didn't know that was an option here. But when he mentioned, Auguste's preferences, he gave no indication of him having any of his own.

Damen had been viewing Laurent as a child, when that was no longer the case; as someone who treated sex like an outdoorsy boy would react to being brought inside and forced into formal clothing.

“Generally,” Damen began. “I do not discuss who I take to bed with you or anyone else.”

“Other than Nikandros,” Laurent said. “And you didn't take the guard to bed. Is that how it is with men for you?”

“Generally,” Damen continued as if Laurent had not spoken. He was no longer willing to entertain insolence from his Veretian companion. “I do prefer to lie with women. But sometimes, men.”

“When women are lacking.”

“When there is a man I prefer,” Damen said. “Laurent, you can meet people. Slaves. Courtiers. Your old classmates --”

Laurent snorted. “Thank you but no.” He picked back up the book but did not begin reading. “What was it about him – the guard who loves criminals?”

Damen considered that, thinking also how these were the kinds of conversations Laurent would have with his brother if Damen had been able to keep him alive. Andries was attractive, not as fair as Damen would have picked if describing his ideal partner, but that sort of colouring was quite rare in Akielos. Andries was, if you didn't know about his lover, was the steady, strong, similar-age sort that Damen should be tumbling. He was alive – out in the real world and smelling like work and sea air. He was there.

“What is it about anyone?” Damen replied. “They spark something and they are there.”

Laurent, satisfied by that vague answer, went back to reading.

-

Chapter Text

It was a leisurely ride back to the palace. If Laurent saw a field he liked the look of, Damen approved him to go riding in it. They veered west, to see the ruins of an old mausoleum and camped in the shadows of history for a night. The lay traps for rabbits and set their fire themselves. Damen dismissed the guard and allowed Laurent so practice swordsmanship with Jord, wooden swords only. He called them back and they took turns with throwing knives and a chalk target on an ancient tree.

“I know you're stalling,” Laurent said.

“You only think you do,” Damen said. He had confirmed that their return was all right with his father. If he was stalling, it was for his own sake. He looked at the crumbling ruins, the kind that had been scattered all around Marlas, and felt a strange pull in chest. “It's hard to believe both our lands were once part of the same empire,” he said.

“Is it?” Laurent said, and threw his knife dead in the centre of the target.

-

Inside the palace, Damen did not wait to be summoned. He went straight to his father. “I want,” he said. “for you to trust me to do more.”

Theomedes sighed. “You have to work at that.”

“I do work. I should have been here to treat with the Sicyons.”

“If that was true, son, then you would have asked how it went the instant you got back. All is well, by the way. We are friends again.”

“Good.”

“It was always going to be that way. The north is hungry and their troops were detained since your training camp earlier this year. We have all our kyroi back.”

“I am glad we are united,” Damen said, evenly. “But this is what I don't understand. Why not tell me these things?”

“I am King. Not you,” Theomedes snapped. “I have tried to hard to give you what you want before you are so caught up in ruling that Akielos's needs surmount all of yours. You are bored, I give you tasks. You want to be a soldier, I send you soldiering. You are listless, I send you to play in Patras. You want to command men, I give you the hardest men to command. And still it is not enough.”

“Father,” Damen began. “I did not --” Though he saw the truth of it as clear as cloudless skies. His father did do all those things. His father knew that he had carried the pain of losing like a vain man refuses to give up a rotten tooth and tried to make him feel better, tried to keep him away from the north where his loss would hurt the most.

“Furthermore.” Theomedes cut him off. “You have to know the other reasons for not keeping you in my confidence about these sensitive matters.”

“I know,” Damen said. “Marlas. I will carry it with me forever. It was a bad decision to stop the fighting when – but I want to be better.”

“Oh, son. That is not it. I told you to look out for the boy, and you did. But he is not a playmate or a model to mould,” Theomedes said. Damen blinked, quite rapidly. “You let him under your skin after I warned you time and again not to trust Veretians.”

“Father, it is not --”

“He sleeps in your room.”

“He was being poisoned.”

“You drank his poison, Damianos.” Theomedes looked him straight in the eye and all Damen could see were the lines on his face and how little his father understood. “You gallivant with him, speaking his language and laughing at his crude jokes. Years ago, I witnessed him try to tempt men with his looks and charms and I never thought you would fall. Just tell me you're not --”

“Please,” said Damen. “Don't even think I would.” He didn't even consider it. But as his father spoke, he thought of Andries and Laurent watching and then the way his sunlight caught his hair on the ride back to Ios. This is what he knew in that top-floor room in the villa when he made the decision to stop acting so immature. “I accept your reasoning. I know I can improve. Please let me.”

“Son, that is all I want for you.”

In a satchel, Damen had a report from the port and then his own hastily scribbled outline of the patterns Laurent had found. He did not give them to his father. Laurent could speak for himself.

-

Laurent did speak for himself, Damen learned. He petitioned Theomedes directly to be allowed spend some time shadowing the king while he ruled. Not in the great hall, where Damen would sit beside his father. Laurent may observe from the crowd but they all knew he would not. But, perhaps, occasionally in his offices or at meetings that were private but not confidential.

“You'll never see anything that will benefit your country,” Damen told him.

“Perhaps not,” Laurent replied. “But I need to learn to rule. No-one ever taught me in Arles.”

“You want to learn from my father.” Damen was a little pleased.

“Learn what not to do.”

Damen had decided that he needed to keep his distance from the young Veretian prince. It was nothing personal against Laurent. But his father was right. He did have to stop acting like a youth and return to acting like a man, as he did before Marlas. That was all. It was nothing to do with the top floor room in the villa, nothing to with those stories and lies.

As it turned out, Damen didn't really need to try that hard to avoid Laurent. The boy was busy. He had a very exact routine that he went through every day as precise as a sun dial. He went riding. He exercised. He still worked with his tutor. He sometimes observed Theomedes. He other times observed the clerks and the advisers and the servant-masters. He was quite serious about learning, Damen realised as he was trying to be serious about learning from his father. There were things that were fine – audiences in the Great Hall, for example. Damen had been witnessing them since before he could talk. Planning with generals was fine. Overseeing palace security was fine. Other things, less fine. For example, Theomedes was trying to make sure every Akielon had enough to eat and that wasn't happening. They got word of a slaves being mistreated in Aegina. There was conflict to the North still – clashes and skirmishes and, oddly, raids of a type none had seen before.

In the high heat of the afternoon, Damen was glad to retreat to his apartments and let his mind empty of figures and hard decisions. Sometimes he went to the baths with the lovely slave Lykaios. Sometimes he sparred with new recruits. But mostly, he went to his rooms. He sat on the couch and watched the waves crashed and mostly Laurent would join him and review his lessons or scribble on a scroll.

“Why do you still have a tutor?” Damen asked. Laurent was well sixteen now, well past the age where boys needed lessons. It rang a bell that maybe girls took lessons longer, because they had to learn how to be ladies and run homes. But boys didn't.

“Same reason you're hanging on your father's every word. To learn.”

“All right.”

“It's a compromise, if you must know. For every thirty minutes of topics I want to learn about, I have to do ninety minutes of statistics, mathematics and economy. Also morality and philosophy. I think my uncle thought he would bore me to death but it's actually interesting, in its own way. It will make my decision making more efficient when I rule.”

“All right,” said Damen. He didn't like it when Laurent spoke about his uncle, rare as it was. Vere was another world except it wasn't. It was much a part of Laurent as Akielos was a part of Damen. “Do you hear much from your uncle?”

“You see the letters.”

“Not personally.”

Laurent turned his head. “No, not much. He is still angry about my actions with the kyroi. My mistake, I see now, was explaining why.”

Damen didn't see. He didn't say anything. “That's not mathematics.” He nodded at the book in Laurent's pale hands.

“No, it's, well, I suppose it's one of those morality lessons.”

“What's it about?”

“I'm too busy to read you a story.”

“A summary will do.”

“I suppose,” Laurent said. “It's about perspective. And how it changes.”

Before he could say more, there was a knock at the door. “Prince Damianos, your brother is here.”

“Well don't make him stand in the hallway,” Damen said, rising. “Kastor, my brother. Welcome home. How was the summer palace?”

Kastor did not, as Damen expected, offer his hand. He came to a stop and looked around the room. “What a scene of domesticity,” he said, looking at Laurent.

“Oh wind your neck in,” Damen said. “He's been here years now. What do you expect? Sit. Tell me of your trip. I will send for more food.”

Kastor sat on the opposite couch. He probably thought he was taking Damen's seat but Damen never sat with his back to the door. Laurent pulled his knees up to his chest when Damen sat back at the end of the couch they both sat on.

“The palace was as it always was,” Kastor said. “How was the port? I hear your smuggler has not been back.”

“No,” said Damen. He had read the reports, too. It hadn't been that long but it was positive. He tried not to think about the fact it was less to do with him and more to do with his father's renewed friendship with Meniados. “Actually, I wanted to speak to you about something. A trip to Heston's with father. Perhaps next month. Before you are redeployed.”

“With father.”

“For father.”

“I'll see,” said Kastor. “It's been a while.” He looked at Laurent. “Just family, I assume.”

“Yes,” said Damen.

“Laurent,” Kastor said. “You can relax. I'm not going to make the hair fall from your head just by sitting here.” Ah, the old Veretian distaste for bastardry.

“Thank you,” said Laurent. “I am aware that the folk takes of our country do not have a basis in practical reality. In fact, they were distilled to that form to make the common people adhere to Veretian rules and prevent the parcelling out of land, the ruination of estates and, I suppose, savage men breeding get on ones they should not.”

“Savage? I thought that only existed this side of the border.”

“Savagery can exist wherever men are not brought in line,” Laurent said. “There was a case once, where a man impregnated his own daughter near Chastillon. All three were killed as a result and as an example.”

“Sounds like the savagery came from the top,” Kastor said. Damen was feeling like he had lost control of his apartments. He had never been in control of the conversation because he was trying to please his father and reclaim something with his brother that was not there any more. “Incest is highly punishable in your region, too, I hear.”

“In every region,” Damen interrupted as a swatch of scarlet shot up from Laurent's loosened collar. “So, Kastor. Heston's?”

“I said yes.”

“I can't remember the last time we went anywhere as a family. Isthima, that time, for the anniversary.”

Kastor deigned to smile. “And father tried --”

Damen laughed. “Those urchins. And they made --

“He had to stand there shuffling while the kryros presented at least twelve daughters,” Kastor said.
They were both laughing now. Laurent had relaxed, slightly, watching them as one would watch animals behind a cage. Kastor took wine and a cup of chilled soup when the servants returned. He stretched one arm along the back of his couch. “Did you try anything strange down at the port, Laurent?”

“Something raw in a shell,” Laurent said, carefully.

Kastor laughed again. “Hard to swallow, right?”

Damen was quite surprised. This is how it could be, he realised. Relaxed with his brother if only he made the effort. Kastor looked around the room. How long had it been since he had visited Damen like this? Perhaps, never. Damen remembered thinking Kastor was annoyed that Damen got the best living quarters.

“What is that?” Kastor asked, zeroing in on the small golden Patran dagger on one of the low tables. It didn't stand out at all among the other decor because Damen's taste in interior design generally revolved around displaying weaponry.

“Don't quote me on this,” said Laurent. “But it appears to be a knife.”

“I can see that,” said Kastor. “Father has one just like it.”

“I had them made in Patras.”

“I see. One of the king and one for the heir.”

“No,” said Laurent. Damen felt a spike of panic. “One for his father and one for his brother. I was jealous, I remember.”

“Because you think you are entitled to a gift?”

“Because I'm not allowed have weapons.”

“Kastor, it is yours if you want it,” said Damen.

“What need have I for a flimsy decorative dagger?” Kastor asked. “Father uses his to open letters. Speaking of letters, I would like to speak to my brother in private.” Laurent rose without being asked and left. “Does he really sleep in your room?”

“No.”

“In Ulbrecht's?”

“Kastor, really. You've been spying on me.” Damen was very tired of... all of this. “What are you implying? Do you think I'm sleeping with him? He's a boy.”

“He's not a boy. And the whole fucking country wants to lie with him. There's a pool going among the courtiers. It's becoming very lucrative.”

“That's enough, Kastor,” Damen said. “He is not --”

“He is exactly your type, brother.”

“He is the Prince of Vere. His people are snakes. I wouldn't go near him, Kastor. It would be like bathing in venom.” Damen tasted venomlike bile in the back of this throat as the door re-opened.

“I forgot my book,” Laurent said in Veretian. “Excuse me.”

Damen wanted to jump up, explain himself, but he planted his feet on the floor. A test of endurance, some test he hadn't known Kastor had set. They made plans to go to Heston's. That meant Damen had passed. No-one ever said ruling was easy.

-

Laurent kept coming across in the afternoons, the evenings, the nights as if nothing had been said that time with Kastor. Because, practically, nothing had been said. Akielons hated Veretians and the feeling was mutual. Laurent had always been blatant and creative with expressing his adamantine dislike of Damen's people. There was no reason anything should be different.

If anything, Laurent grew bolder. He never knocked. He dismissed slaves and servants like they were his. Once, Damen had been lying on his back in the early dawn while a pretty slave girl with breasts that moved most hypnotically bounced in his lap and Laurent walked in, gave him a cool look, and sat on the balcony until Damen was finished. There may have been another time, when Damen was very drunk and Laurent was very asleep on the couch, that Damen drew the slave who had come to undress him out of the bedroom, behind the privacy screen, and pushed him to his knees.

Damen had been serious about learning and taking more responsibility. He was working for hard with his father. He needed relief. This day, he was in standing looking out at the sea, with Lykaios putting all her training and experience to practice on her knees in front of him, when Laurent strolled in at, well, the crucial moment.

“Shut the door!” Damen pulled away and, well, Lykaios's pretty face bore the marks of his orgasm.

“You should have swallowed,” Laurent told her. “It's rude to pull away like that.”

“It's rude,” Damen said, covering himself. “To waltz in here without knocking.”

“What you want to do,” Laurent continued addressing Lykaios as if Damen had not spoken. “Is watch for the signs he's about to come, stay very still and pretend you're somewhere else.”

She hung her head. Her face didn't even twitch as Damen's seed dripped. Any kind of...correction from one her social better would shame the poor girl. Damen was torn between comforting her and throttling Laurent, who was casually strolling through the room. He picked up a cloth, as one would pluck a grape from a vine, and to Damen's surprise, brusquely wiped the girl's face. That's not how it worked. Slaves cleaned masters.

“You may leave,” Damen said. It was kinder to remove her from Laurent's game. “You honour me with your service.”

“Don't look so scandalised,” Laurent said. “You use them for a purpose, then act surprised when the mechanics of it come into play,”

“That is not why I look surprised. We're going to have to have a conversation about boundaries.”

“Lately it bothered you.”

“I know you probably didn't realise what was happening --”

“Oh, I knew.” Laurent leaned against a desk. “You are a man who's never been told in his life to keep his voice down.” He lowered his the timber of his voice, not the volume, in some rough impression of Damen. “Look at that armour. Did you see me win? Oh, Nikandros, did you see how pink her nipples and pu --”

“Shut up,” Damen said.

“Come on. It's not like I've never seen someone get their cock sucked before.” Laurent almost said it fondly.

“How old are you now?”

“Sixteen,” he said. “And a half.”

“Right. Have you been on the receiving end yet?” Damen leaned forward. If Laurent thought he could shock Damen in the bedroom, he would shock right back. “The guards say you're frigid.”

“They say you're an ox in human form.”

Damen laughed. “Wine?”

“No, thank you.” Laurent did help himself to the crustiest slice of bread. He had never stopped stealing Damen's food. Damen poured his own wine. “You know, I can lend you a book if you are looking for a way to amuse yourself.”

“Girls are more fun.”

“Just girls?”

“Alternatively, I suggest exercise.”

“That's practical. Not amusing,” Laurent said.

“Well there are countless slaves whose lives would be complete if they could only serve the Crown Prince of Vere,” Damen said. “And don't get me started on the courtiers.”

“Hmm.” Laurent tore his slice of bread into crumbs. “Do you know who I was thinking of? That boy from the port.”

“Xavier?”

“Andries.”

“You wanted him?”

“Don't be absurd. I was wondering...do you ever think of what made him want you to fuck him?”

“I am very attractive,” Damen said.

“For an ox,” Laurent said. “I was thinking if it was self-loathing or guilt or --”

“I do think about it,” Damen said, though honestly he did not think of it frequently. It occasionally niggled in an abstract way, like a memory of a sad song. “I hope he has found peace.”

“Do you find peace in slave girls?”

“Sometimes,” Damen admitted. “Come on. My father is holding meetings.”

 

Dealings with city and kyroi representatives were among the few things Theomedes allowed Laurent to observe. Kastor suggested they put him on watchtower duty. Damen vetoed, because he knew someone would push Laurent off. Laurent's presence made the representatives angry or jumpy and both of those mindsets were advantageous to Theomedes. He always ruled best when he had angry men to be angrier than. Naturally, Laurent was excused when they spoke of the north. Meniados deferred most of his decision-making to the general Makedon. It was hard for Damen to think of the notched belts and the men who cost them the way. Laurent would only see his slain brother. Makedon's reports were still on the table when Damen and Laurent joined Theomedes for his next set of meetings.

“That's not for your eyes,” Theomedes said to Laurent. The unusual attacks in Eastern Sicyon were distracting Makedon from his more pressing work like beating Veretians, which was definitely not for Laurent's eyes.

“I am sorry,” Laurent said sweetly. Then he glared at Kastor. He insulted Akielon record-keeping and the fact that he was still unable to access his profits from the puzzles.

“There is a solution,” Theomedes said.

“Yes. Tax. My uncle would never forgive me if I paid Akielon taxes.”

“That money will never leave Akielos, boy,” said Kastor.

“I don't care. I wish to spend it in Akielos. On clothing and books and maybe a second horse.” Laurent's voice was very calm which Damen knew was worse than for him to show anger.

“I told you already,” Damen said. “Just ask if --” He stopped. This was the wrong place. And princes shouldn't have to ask.

-

“I have been thinking,” Laurent said, the next time he sauntered into Damen's rooms. “That I might take you up on your offer.”

“The Summer Palace?”

“A slave.” Laurent gave him a look that would wither fruit.

“The girl you...cleaned is very sweet,” Damen said. She would be ideal for a boy like Laurent, who for all his posturing had to be inexperienced with men and admitted to being completely inexperienced with women. “Or a boy, perhaps?”

“Auguste liked women,” Laurent said. “He told me I would grow into it.”

“You are sixteen now,” Damen said. Nearly seventeen, really. He also wondered why so many of his conversations had come to revolved around the Prince of Vere's sex life. Or lack thereof. “I thought it was taboo in Vere.”

“It is.” Laurent said. “He did like girls though. Only. I think. No matter what anyone says.”

“All right.”

“In Acquitart we used to go into the woods to hunt. We went there one time, after his victory at the border at our lands in Varennes.” Laurent had a tendency to talk about Auguste's achievements like the entire world should know of them. Auguste won a battle. The sun rises in the east. Auguste could beat any man at jousting. The tides came in with the moon. “We had...neighbours who were Vaskian clanswomen. Have you met a one? They make your lady pirate look positively tame.”

“I have not had that pleasure.”

Laurent looked at Damen speculatively. “Actually, it probably would be a pleasure to a brute such as yourself. They'd probably wrestle before they mount if you asked nicely.”

“Intriguing,” Damen said.

“They have....a practise. A coupling fire. Obviously, I was not interested.”

“How old were you?”

“I told them our family did not produce girls but they didn't care. Auguste owed them and --”

“He provided,” Damen said, not unappreciative. He had a similar deal with the pirate Galenne after all. No wonder Laurent knew the terms that day. “How many?”

Laurent snorted. “I didn't watch. That would be – he was my brother.”

“I'll take you to the slave quarters soon,” Damen said. “If you behave yourself during my father's meetings.”

-

Laurent called Kastor an imbecile on the next day. In Veretian. So only the royals could understand. He said the family of the old kyros he had killed outside Ios were better off without him in front of several members of the dead man's household. He said the Dicean Kyros smelled like rotten fish. He purposely spilled a glass of pomegranate juice on an important agricultural contract just before the King could sign his name.

“If you're afraid of our agreement,” Damen said, quietly, while a servant was cleaning the spill and Theomedes was changing his clothing. “Just say.”

“I'm not afraid of that,” Laurent hissed.

“What are you two whispering about,” Kastor asked.

“Nothing,” Damen said.

“I was just pointing out the mistake in this clause here.” Laurent rested on finger on the sodden scroll. “I'm certain the... what is the term? Farmer? Meant to have his people write annually not bi-annually. It must be hard, out there in the provinces, without access to education.”

“Let me see that.” Theomedes practically pushed Laurent out of the way. “Edgar?” He said, to the kyros' man at court.

“I'll change it immediately,” the man stammered.

Laurent crossed his leg and shifted towards Damen. “I hope you warned the slave master.”

-

It most certainly wasn't an unusual thing to ... guide a friend along the road to, well, sex. Not that the Veretian Prince was Damen's friend. But he had shared with Nikandros. He had pointed some fellow soldiers in the right direction over the years. But it certainly felt strange to Damen to accompany Laurent, who was tightly laced in tight Veretian clothing again, down to the viewing room. No-one had done this for him, because he not needed them too. But maybe if Auguste had not died, he would have pressed some wine into Laurent's hand and sent him though a set of curtains.

“You need to have your tailor make new clothes,” Damen said to Laurent. “That jacket is very tight.” Laurent had to keep his arms straight by his side as he walked to keep the back from splitting. He had grown. His hair was longer, still, so unlike the Akielon style.

“The tailors here are rubbish,” he replied. “I'll write to Arles and arrange it.”

“Write to him much, lately?” Damen couldn't resist asking.

“You would know as well as me.” Laurent blew some hair from his face.

“You could also do with a haircut,” Damen said. “It will get in your way.” No matter how pretty it was, long hair wasn't practical.

Laurent gave him a speculative look and tossed his hair over his shoulder. “What am I to expect in here?”

“The fairest people in all the land.”

“Impossible. I haven't gone in yet.”

Damen had told Adrastus to gather a selection of experienced slaves for Laurent's inspection. He didn't know his tastes, so better to keep it varied. He did know how vulnerable new slaves were, so he would save them the ordeal of Laurent so early in their career.

Akielos was a hot country. The people were used to sweat and steam. Nudity was nothing here. Still, the warmth of the airless viewing room was enough to change a mood with one breath. The slaves Adrastus had assembled were kneeling obediently on white marble. They were more clothed than the average courtier in summer but the fabric was to a purpose and that purpose was titillation. Fabric sheer enough to show the outline of a pierced nipple. Skirts that were little more than strips tied at the waist, highlighting curves and enough skin to make Damen forget this was not about him.

He winked at Lykaois. He patted the head of a lovely, slender boy with a slick of black hair tied at the crown of his head. The heels of Laurent's boots knocked against the marble as he walked through the room.

“Well?” Damen said.

Laurent's face betrayed nothing. “It's hard to judge by the tops of their heads.”

“Look up,” Damen said. Then, to Laurent. “You have to instruct them. No embellishment. Just speak.”

“I don't like paint,” Laurent said. He walked along the row of hopeful slaves, pausing at a dark-skinned woman with curly hair puffed all around her face. She was taller and broader than most palace slaves. Objectively gorgeous. Nikandros would lose his head for a woman like this. “We – I would like this one cleaned up and sent to my rooms tonight.”

“Make sure she knows how to deal with those laces,” Damen said to Adrastus and followed Laurent out. “Excited?”

“Do shut up.”

-

Damen was considerate. He made sure Jord and Lazar had the night off. He explained to Laurent that pregnancy was not a concern. He offered him wine.

“I don't want wine,” Laurent said. “I want to do it here.”

“Here. In my room.”

“The view is better.”

“Trust me, you won't be looking out the window,” Damen said.

“I'm not meant to be alone with women,” Laurent said. “You know that. Come on, this is not strange to you. I have been here while you fucked. You have shared with your friends.”

“You want me to chaperone.” Damen poured a glass of undiluted wine.

“I have never – with a woman. I have never seen seen it,” Laurent said.

“This is Akielos. I had not seen it before my first time either,” Damen offered. “I figured it out, eventually. There was a lot of fumbling first. Wait, you have seen me. You're not so innocent”

“I didn't look,” Laurent spat. “Nor did I ever say I was innocent. I already sent word to have her brought here.”

“That causes different kinds of talk. I gave your guard that night off.”

“They are not the ones who report to my uncle.”

“No gossip leaves my quarters,” Damen said. He had the feeling of being backed into a corner with no way out. “Laurent, do you see what you are asking of me?”

“I do,” said Laurent.

Damen would have to have a conversation with himself about boundaries. Tomorrow. For now, he would go along with this. Point the boy who was not a boy any more in the right direction and excuse himself. He had done more with other men. Shared more with Nikandros without even blinking. There were precious few years between them. If they were soldiers together, they would not be treated any differently. When Damen was Laurent's age, just a short while ago, no-one ever treated him as anything less than a man, an equal, except crown princes had no equals. Here, they were princes together Still, he had the hazy sensation of being in a waking dream when the slave girl was brought into the room. She knelt on the floor and the contrast of the white marble against her brown skin was enough to make Damen interested. She was wrapped like a present in pale green gauze that glinted gold like Laurent's hair.

She didn't move.

Laurent didn't move.

Damen wondered if he should have told him a bit more about how to instruct bed slaves. But Laurent had never shown any inability to tell people what to do before.

“I don't need to remind you,” Damen said to the slave girl. “That this is completely private.” He said it for Laurent's benefit. Slaves did not talk out of turn.

“Yes, Exalted,” she replied, steadily. Damen appreciated that.

“What is your name?” Laurent asked.

“Diana, if it pleases you, your highness.”

“Diana.” Laurent swilled the word in his mouth and then, extended his leg in her direction. “Come. Attend me.”

Damen stood to one side while Diana, on her knees, undertook the arduous talk of unlacing Laurent's clothing. Her fingers were nimble. Her face serene. Her mouth was parted, slightly, suggestively. Jacket first. That took the longest. Then, with that lovely face almost to the floor, she began to remove his boots. Laurent's breath hitched, when her cheek rubbed the leather stretched around his calf. Damen noticed. It was the first sign that Laurent was affected by any of this.

He allowed her to open the front of his fine white shirt. He stopped her at the waist of his trousers and rubbed his palm against her curly hair. She nuzzled her cheek against his thigh, let out a little sigh of enjoyment.

“Please sit down,” Laurent said. Diana did not move because slaves never heard the word please in this context. He looked at Damen. “You're making me nervous just standing there.”

Damen sat at the end of the couch where he always sat, spread his knees as he always did in his rooms. He was close enough to touch Diana, too. He restrained himself.

“You should kiss her,” he told Laurent in Veretian.

“I didn't ask for instruction.”

“But do you want it?”

“Perhaps your country's famed training is what is lacking,” Laurent said. “Shouldn't this one be sucking my cock by now?”

“Tell her to,” Damen said. “If that's what you want.”

Laurent put two fingers on Diana's shoulder and then tapped the same two fingers against the couch. She sat on her knees there, between Damen and Laurent.

“What would you do?” Laurent asked.

“Kiss her,” Damen said. Laurent didn't move. His breaths were coming shallow to his chest. Damen knew Laurent liked a challenge, liked a game. He shifted, slightly, so he was facing towards Laurent. He drew Diana back against his chest. Slowly, he ran his hand from her hip, over her breasts, up to her neck. Laurent watched. Damen turned her head to the side and kissed her full lips. She responded, sweetly, as slaves always did.

Damen pulled back, a little, as if to say see. Laurent just watched. Damen kissed her again, opened her mouth and explored with his tongue. The angle was a little awkward but the effect was the same. Diana kissed back, pressed her curves back against Damen. Pleasant. He hadn't anticipated this rousing but he was man. It felt good.

“Kiss her,” he said to Laurent. Take over. Laurent leaned over Diana. His eyes were darkened, slightly.

“Remove this,” he said. She peeled away her sheer clothing. “Lean back,” he said.

She was already as close to Damen as she could get. Laurent waited. Damen shifted, and then she was between his legs, her hair soft against his chest. His clothing came a little undone in the movement. He waited for Laurent to kiss her. While he waited, he cupped one of her full breasts.

Laurent, on his knees now, so Damen and Diana were both looking up at him, stretched one pale hand out and touched the other with the side of his baby finger. Curiously, he rubbed his thumb where she was most reactive and she let out a pleasing little whimper.

“Kiss her,” Damen said. He wondered if Laurent just liked it slow, or was drawing it out, or was caught up in what must feel very taboo to him. Laurent looked Damen dead in the eye and kissed Diana's neck. Her head fell to one side. No other part of Laurent's body touched her. He held himself away, even pushed her knees together towards the back of the sofa so he could lean his weight there. Damen was large enough to bend down and kiss her lips again. He needed something to do while Laurent kissed her neck sharply enough to make her gasp. He pinched one nipple. Damen caressed the other. He didn't mean for his hand to wander but then, for a second, there was soft blond hair under his fingers.

Laurent wrenched himself away.

Panting, he sat at the other end of the sofa. Damen had crossed a boundary then tore the wall down behind him.

“Tell her I want her mouth on me,” Laurent said.

“Tell her yourself.”

Laurent pointed at the floor at his feet, where Diana had been already. He dropped a cushion. She climbed off Damen and sank to her knees. This was normal. This was how people started. Who wouldn't want a girl with lips like that to wrap them around --

Damen stopped himself. This was where he should leave. Order Lykaios to meet him in the baths. Tease Laurent about this tomorrow. He was going to leave. Made that obvious.

He glanced at Laurent. He was breathing fast. His eyes were dark. There was something on his face Damen couldn't read as Diana put her hands under his loosened shirt and to the front of his trousers.

“Wait,” Laurent said in Veretian. Then again in Akielon.

“I won't go if --” Damen started to say.

“No,” said Lauren. “I've changed my mind. Diana, fuck the Prince of Akielos.” With that, Laurent stood. He stepped past the slave girl, picked up his boots and left Damen's room.

Chapter Text

Damen watched Laurent, a young man trailing laces, doing something most young men never did by leaving this opportunity, as he left and Damen felt like he had made some catastrophic mistake by encouraging this. On the floor, confusion and rejection spread across Diana's face. It hurt her. For a slave to be turned away like that meant only one thing to them – that they had failed to satisfy their master. It was a huge embarrassment, one Damen wished to save her from. Another mistake. This was his fault. He shouldn't have let Laurent do this, not like that.

It was all wrong.

Like every slave, Diana was obedient. Laurent told her, in less pleasant terms, to oblige Damen so she shuffled over to his spot on the couch. She put her hand under his clothing. Damen was more aroused than he would have imagined from such a strange, brief encounter. He didn't want to offend her. He wanted simplicity and the reprieve that would come from her mouth around his cock. She touched him. Her skin was soft. She lowered her head and all Damen could see was Laurent.

Not like that.

No, the way he fled. The calmness. The laces of his shirt trailing behind him, the stockinged feet padding on marble floor.

Damen put a stilling hand on Diana's shoulder. “Not tonight,” he said. “You may leave.”

He didn't wait for her to go to cross the corridor to Laurent's rooms. His guards did not blink at the sight of a half-dressed Prince Damianos barge into Laurent's room in his bare feet. He hoped they did not react to Laurent.

“That was fast,” Laurent said. Damen had to follow the sound of his voice to locate him. The room was dark. Laurent was sitting on the floor, knees to his chest, back to the base of his bed.

“You know better to underestimate me like that.”

“I thought my earlier presence might have sped things up.”

“Don't offend me like that,” Damen said. He went to the mantle and lit three fat candles. Enough light to make things less unreal. He realised, once the flame burst, that he had never been in Laurent's room before. Why would he? Laurent was forever coming to him or else demanding to be left alone. This space was smaller than Damen's. There was no real separation between the sleeping and living areas. Dust was thick on the surfaces Damen could see. There was a pile of bedding by the door. At least ten cups on a table meant for two. A desk overflowing with papers, weighted down by some of Laurent's puzzles. Damen walked by it, saw the name Auguste, and did not look any longer.

The bed was neatly made. There were three pairs of polished boots by the wall. Five evenly piled books on a locker.

Damen sat on the woven rug, meant to save your feet from the cold floor, and leaned against Laurent's bed too.

“I'm not much of a housekeeper,” Laurent said.

“Me neither. We are princes. That's why we have servants.”

“I don't let them in,” Laurent said. “Just to deliver things, collect the laundry. You can't trust anyone in a foreign palace.”

“You can trust me,” Damen said.

“If you say so.”

“You abhor slavery. Why did you set that up if you weren't really interested?”

“She was pretty, I thought --” Laurent gave a little shake of his head. “You didn't think she was pretty?”

“All our slaves are gorgeous. That is not the point. If you want a woman--”

“It had to be someone that would never speak, not even if my uncle tortured it out of them,” he said, all in a rush. “And in case you haven't noticed no-one in this country actually likes me.”

Except Damen. But that wasn't what Laurent meant. “I have it on good authority that a large proportion of the population wants to bed you.”

“That is not the same as like. Anyway, it doesn't matter. Auguste was wrong. I didn't grow into it.”

“You don't like women.”

“Evidently.”

“Why -” Damen stopped. He had a fair idea of why Laurent tried. He also saw that at least some part of Laurent had been turned on by what had happened across in his rooms. He didn't need to want to sink into a woman to be intrigued by a sexual act. “We have male slaves. Perhaps...”

“No. You said yourself. I abhor slavery.”

“Maybe you'll...”

“Do stop,” Laurent said and he sounded so weary that Damen did. “I can't talk about this with you. You're not even dressed.”

“So what? This is Akielos.”

“Please get dressed.”

“I'm not leaving you just yet,” Damen said. “And you don't have anything here but those dirty sheets that would fit me.”

Laurent pushed up off the floor and went to the curtained off alcove where, Damen assumed, he stored his clothes. There was no way Damen was putting on one of those ostentatious jackets no matter how much Laurent's prim sensibilities were offended by a little show of skin. Silently, with a face made of stone, Laurent returned with a dark blue bundle that made Damen's heart give a little start.

It was Auguste's starbust cloak. In the dim candlelight, the brilliant gold embroidery hardly shone but somehow it beamed out at Damen.

Gruffly, Laurent draped it around Damen's bare shoulders. Damen had done something similar for him once.

“Your uncle would die if he saw me wearing this,” Damen said, as Laurent sat back down.

“Good,” said Laurent. “He took my lands, my money and my throne.”

“What would Auguste think?”

“I don't know. I don't know anything.” Laurent sounded like he might cry, except Damen knew he hadn't done that since he was thirteen years old and possibly never would again. So Damen stretched his arm out along the side of Laurent's mattress taking the cloak with him. He wrapped his arm, and of course the starburst cloak, around Laurent's shoulders and pulled him close enough that they were both beneath the soft blue fabric. He waited, expecting Laurent to jerk away, but instead felt a little shuddering breath as Laurent kind of surrendered against him.

“I'm not right,” Laurent said. “I see it now. I saw it always but --”

“There's nothing wrong with you. What are you talking about?” Damen said.

“This. Everything. My uncle --”

“What does he have to do with anything? You haven't seen him since he left you in an enemy war tent at the age of thirteen.”

Laurent went still. “I know that.”

“Is this about those rumours?” Damen's mouth fell open. “Your uncle is behind them.” The Regent did not care to have an upstart nephew reclaiming his place at the head of the country. He kept the boy away. He took his income. He tarnished his reputation. No wonder Laurent was fanatical about avoiding rumours of any involvement with the opposite sex, when bastardy was the most reviled thing possible in Vere.

“He probably likes the weight of the crown,” Laurent said. “Who wouldn't? He has left me here a very long time.”

“I think,” Damen said. “You might be better off. At the stream, Auguste said --”

“Please,” Laurent said. “I am very tired.”

“All right,” Damen said. “But, I am thinking --”

“Don't strain yourself.”

“If I was sent to Arles when I was your age, I would have a lot of confusion too.”

“Really? I think you would have won display fights, taught everyone a thing or two about soldiering and possibly tempted by brother to the delights of same-sex sex.”

Damen smiled. “Well, that too.”

He sat with Laurent, skin to skin, until the candles burned out.

-

At the next meeting Laurent attended, he stood over Theomedes and pressed the nib of an inky quill into the map of Akielos.

“I know the nature of those raids. Someone has given the Vaskian clans leave to go through Delfeur to attack your Sicyon villages,” he said.

“There are plenty of border lords still pissed off about the war,” Kastor said.

“True,” said Laurent. “But I don't think they are the type to treat with clansmen. I've heard my uncle has been to my fort in Acquitart recently. The caretaker there is very loyal.”

“Laurent,” Damen said, a warning. “Just because you are angry--”

“Let him speak,” Theomedes said.

“That is all I have to say currently.” Laurent let the quill fall. The feather was grey. The nib pointed north.

“Veretian infidelity,” Kastor said. “The boy turns his back on his uncle. Why should we believe him?”

“This is cause for war, Laurent,” Damen said. “What are you doing?”

“Does your uncle want another war?” Theomedes demanded.

“I don't know,” Laurent said. “All I know is he doesn't want me in Arles. This is just a theory. Speculation. An educated guess. Call it what you want. But be wary.”

“It's not cause for war,” Theomedes said. “There is no proof. But, Laurent, I thank you for your input.”

Laurent nodded. He did not look like a boy in that marble office in the palace in Ios. Not anymore.

It was days later when Theomedes allowed Laurent access his profits unimpeded. It surprised everyone but Damen when he really did just order clothing and books and put most of the rest back into his business. He donated the remainder to an orphanage outside the city.

“I think,” Laurent said, “I might like to go back down to the slave quarters.”

“To look for one you want?” Damen said. “I can talk to the master. There are ones still in training. They can find one to your physical type and train him to your specifications.”

“I'm not so cruel as to inflict my specifications onto another human being. Given free rein, I might choose to hurt someone,” Laurent said. “But I will look. I want to talk to them.”

“If you find one you like?”

“I prefer for things to happen organically.”

-

Laurent was almost seventeen. When he wasn't slavishly following his routine, or becoming less antagonistic and more helpful in Theomedes' meetings, he could be found in the shade in the slave gardens. Never alone. Sometimes with Damen, who just wanted to satisfy his curiosity. Other times with Jord and Lazar, who were utterly unfazed by their prince but often quite entranced by their surroundings. He spoke to the slaves. He listened. He sat on the grass and showed them his puzzles. He scribbled on a lattice table and read under a myrtle tree. Damen realised early on that he was not going to terrify the slaves to death and mostly left him to his own devices. It seemed to him that Laurent just needed to be around people who would not judge him and could not gossip about him.

Anyway, Damen had his own work to do. Northern tensions were growing more fractious by the day. Nikandros had lead three successful battles against Veretian armies who had strayed into Sicyon territories and was on his way back to Ios for rest and to give his account in person to Theomedes. Ios still had no Kyros. Supplies, soldiers and civilians were being moved across the big ink-stained map of Akielos on the King's desk. The whole country felt like a rope pulled taut, about to snap, and Damen was fighting against his instincts – which were to take up his sword, march through the country and finish this thing with Vere once and for all.

He thought that maybe that was what Laurent wanted, too. Go to war. Get it done. Free him from this limbo here in Ios. A young man, a future king, should not be chatting with slaves and riding his horse in circles. He should be on his own throne.

-

It had been a long time since Damen had seen Nikandros. Too long. But, really, if it had only been a month he would have still greeted him on the steps and pulled him in for a hug before he got the chance to bow.

“Welcome home,” Damen said, clapping his friend on the back.

“I cannot tell you how good it is to see these seas again,” Nikandros replied.

“Just the seas?”

“The cliffs, the palace, the fish stalls. My old friend Prince Damianos.”

Damen raised his hand at the crowd who had gathered for a glimpse of the prince. There were cheers that felt like they should be for someone else and then he and Nikandros went inside the palace. Nikandros bowed, then.

“I should have done that on the steps,” he said.

It meant more to Damen that he did it where no-one could see. “How are things in the North?”

“Tense,” Nikandros said. “If we don't have men, the clans and Veretians go raiding. When we do have men, the Veretians gather on their borders goading us.”

“You should be proud of your success,” Damen said. “I heard about the battles you won. I am proud of you.”

“Skirmishes,” Nikandros replied. “But thank you, Exalted. My grip has never quite been the same since the fire.”

It occurred to Damen then, that he wasn't the only young soldier who felt the loss at Marlas deep in his bones. Nikandros had been there, too. He was the shining star, second only to Damen, and he had been in charge of the camp when the Veretians lay their coward fires.

“Come,” said Damen. “My father waits in the great hall. And you should see the slave girl I earmarked for you.” Diana.

Theomedes greeted Nikandros not like he was Damen's friend, or the son of his friend, but with the all the respect of a returning hero. Jealousy prickled under Damen's skin, illogical and ugly, as Nikandros made his obiesance to the king.

“You will be glad to have your friend back,” Laurent said, quietly, from his preferred spot beside his guard, near the door, at the side of the throne.

“Yes,” said Damen. “But --”

“Damianos,” Theomedes beckoned him over. “We must toast Nikandros before we get back to work.”

“Yes, father.” Damen let the earthy wine settle on his tongue before he swallowed it down. The guards blocked his view of Laurent and then Damen had to ask himself why he was even looking for him.

“I'll send for Adrastus. Nikandros is to have one of the slaves in training for First Night. One of ours," Theomedes said.

“Congratulations,” Damen said to Nikandros. “Father, send the message with Lazar. He and Laurent will probably go down shortly.” His father was speaking to another of the commanders who came back with Nikandros. The man had stopped, briefly, to greet his family before being brought before the king. But Theomedes gave Damen an odd look. “I'm not going today,” Damen said.

“Why would you be in the gardens there?” Nikandros asked.

“I – it's a long story.”

Theomedes summoned Laurent, which was insulting. It was insulting enough to make a personal royal guard into a messenger but Damen thought it made sense to give them something to do while their prince was listening to slaves learn poetry. The rest of the men were sent on ahead to Theomedes' private office.

“Speaking of slaves, I'm going to need a full explanation regarding your activities in the slave quarters. Adrastus is growing distressed.” The King leveled a look at Laurent.

“Why?” Damen snapped his head up. “What happened?”

“I would hope,” Theomedes said. “That you would know.”

“I know that the Prince of Vere goes there. I do not know why Adrastus is distressed. Nor did I know you cared about that slave master's well-being all of a sudden.”

“Don't disrespect me, Damianos,” his father said. Boomed, actually. Damen winced. His father never raised his voice, because he never needed to raise his voice. This was anger.

“I'm sorry,” Damen said, automatically. He glanced around to try figure what it was he was meant to be sorry about. Laurent refused to meet his eyes. But that did not narrow it down much. When he got him alone, he was going to kill Laurent for putting him in the position. “If it's about Veretian etiquette, do not worry, father. There is nothing untoward in Laurent's conduct. I supervise.”

Damen, naturally, did not mention how he also attempted to supervise something he should never have entertained. Diana.

“You supervise?”

“I can explain.” Laurent said. The sound of his voice was enough to make Theomedes level another bone chilling book at him. Laurent leveled one right back. And his blue eyes were a lot more piercing.

“I'm aware of the Veretian customs,” Damen said. “Regarding....bastardy. So I make sure he's not alone.”

“Their bigotry is not relevant, now,” Theomedes said. “Are you telling me you've been present all this time while Laurent is in the gardens?”

“Yes, father.” Well, sometimes he sent Jord and Lazar or his own guard.

“Why didn't you stop him?”

“They were only talking.”

“Were you listening?”

“No,” Damen said. He'd mostly enjoyed the serenity. That was probably a mistake.

“What did you think he was doing?”

Damen hesitated. He had assumed Laurent was attempting to make himself comfortable with sex. Learning from the pleasure slaves. Or even just talking to a woman. He'd been so constrained here in Ios. He'd not gotten the chance to move past the crude thirteen year old who thought sex was a shocking thing.

“I thought it was to do with those puzzles. They were looking at them. And practising Akielon.”

“Well, it wasn't,” Theomedes said. “Laurent here has been sewing seeds of discontent and upsetting the slaves.” Damen knew his father was thinking of the cruelty Vere had inflicted upon their slaves at Marlas.

“All I've done,” said Laurent. “Is speak with them. Suggest minor things that might make their submission easier.”

“Do you know more than the slave master Adrastus, now?”

“I don't think I should answer that,” Laurent said. “And please don't be hasty. I did improve your kitchens. Damianos had no part in this.”

“Laurent, what have you done?” Damen asked. It was an effort to be calm. All those sweet slaves. All their training to be submissive. Telling them to behave differently would be like telling Damen he couldn't wield a sword any longer.

“I merely made suggestions.”

“Such as?”

“Colour codes, for example. They could wear a certain colour to let their --” Laurent sniffed like he smelled something bad. “-- masters know what they feel like or what they prefer.”

“Laurent, a good master will pick up on his slaves preferences and needs. They are not treated badly.”

“Also, some communication tips,” Laurent continued. “The males and females are kept separate, as you know.”

“You have a problem with that now?” Theomedes asked, sceptically.

“They could learn from each other,” Laurent continued. “In an appropriate manner. I'm not trying to break their chains. Consider it more of a....” He searched for a word. Perhaps his Akielon did not stretch that far. Perhaps there simply wasn't a word. Damen waited. Even Theomedes waited. “A union,” Laurent said. “A slave union.”

For perhaps the first time in his life, Damen saw his that his father was speechless.

“Contain this,” he said to Damen. Then, to his servant. “Fetch me some iron tea.”

-

Tonight, there would be a feast. Wine. Griva. Fucking. But for now, Theomedes took his son and his advisers and his commanders to his office. Things were tense here, too.

“I don't believe,” Nikandros said, carefully. “That war is inevitable. But it is clear that the situation in the north is not sustainable. Meniados is ailing. Makedon is, well, thriving. He is making most decisions there lately.” Damen read this as a warning. Makedon was war hungry. He was also the least controllable general in the land. And the one person the Veretians would love to conquer.

“Speaking from the heart,” Theomedes said. “I would rather a fast war than a slow picking away at our province like this. But we will consider every option.”

“A fast war is only good it it's won,” Damen said.

“Do you think we won't win?” Nikandros asked. We, meaning Akielos. Not like his father, for whom we meant only himself the king.

“I did not say that,” Damen replied.

“The Damiaonos I used to know would never say that,” Nikandros said.

“Respect, please,” Theomedes said.

Nikandros flushed and hung his head.“I am sorry, Exalted. Damianos. I am too used to rough camp talk.”

“I do not think we will lose,” Damen said. “I never intend to lose another war. But I do think it will not be fast. I do think that the Regent is more dangerous than we know.”

“He seemed very reasonable when I treated with him,” Nikandros said.

“Yes, tell me about that,” Theomedes said. Damen felt himself blink. It was another of those moments where he reverted back to an eager child, running around after his father and brother and watching them say things in looks he could never understand. It hurt more now, that his dear friend, who ran barefoot with him around Ios, dust caked up to their shins, was the one putting him in that place. What was the point of those months in offices and throne rooms, learning to lead when he could have been up North battling, if his father still kept things from him?

His ears felt water-logged as Nikandros recounted his parley with the Regent near Karthas. Somewhere in the part of his heart that was not hurting, Damen registered that this was major for his friend. Nikandros treated on behalf of the King. He faced the man who, despite rumours to the contrary, laid the traps that thwarted them at Marlas. He was the reason Nikandros was resigned to talking more than fighting. How did he keep his hands off him?

The Veretians planned on laying booby traps to keep back the Akielons. That didn't surprise Damen. Veretian trickery. But the Regent came all the way down from Arles to talk to the Akielon representative. He seemed reasonable. He was trying hard to put his country back together after the loss of most of their royal family. He agreed to halt the traps. What a coup for Nikandros.

“Did you ask him about the Vaskian raids?” Damen asked.

“No. But I must say, Exalted, your hunch about them being the perpetrators really helped our efforts in the east. The guards there know what they're dealing with now.”

“That was lucky,” Damen said.

“Careful,” Theomedes warned. “You sound like someone else, son. I think we've covered enough for now. Dismissed. We'll talk later.”

Damen wanted to stay behind and ask his father why he had been left in the dark again. He wanted to press home the idea that they could not trust the Regent. How did they not see that? But he could not contradict an order. Especially when he had so much to prove.

“I am sure you want a moment to rest,” Damen said to Nikandros, when he really wanted to ask more questions about the north and the Regent. “Perhaps we can meet to spar later, for old time's sake.”

“Absolutely.” Nikandros grinned and for a second, Damen felt like it was actually the old times. “You're probably rusty. I might actually have a chance.”

-

They met on the sawdust, under the low late afternoon sun. It was like all the other times, except somehow, it was different. They were older. They had done things separately, but that was nothing new either. Nikandros went to the Kingsmeet. Nikandros led the academies. Damen was meant to lead men. But nothing since Marlas had seemed that remarkable, except sometimes the golden-haired Prince of Vere.

They bowed. They smiled. They fought. They fell back into an easy rhythm – half practise and half challenge. They knew each other so long, so well, that there was no need to leave room for ego or pride. In many ways, Damen had the bond with Nikandros that he would have liked to have had with Kastor. He was not fortunate enough, he thought, as he dodged a high-handed blow from Nikandros, to have the kind of easy equality that Laurent had once with Auguste.

It was distraction enough for Nikandros to push him back to the edge of arena. Damen recovered easily. He glanced around and caught a glimpse of Laurent with his bright blond hair and night-sky blue jacket loitering by the fence. He launched a series of blows against Nikandros that nearly knocked his friend off his feet. He saw the flash on Nikandros's serious face, the wrinkle on his straight nose, as he adjusted his grip on his sword.

It didn't make sense. His hands healed well. But it would have been enough to take the winning advantage. It was too early for that. Damen went several more rounds before he disarmed Nikandros.

“Do you yield?” he asked, smiling.

“Yes, Damianos,” Nikandros said and he did not wait for Damen to extend his hand before he hauled himself to his feet. “Why did you go easy on me?” he hissed. “For the benefit of your audience. I've seen him fight. He wouldn't do it.”

“No. I --”

“Hello, Nikandros.” Laurent strolled over. “I hear you met with my uncle. How was he?”

“Well, your highness,” Nikandros said.

“You never called me that when you running me through drills,” Laurent said. “Did he ask about me?”

“No. I am not someone he would ask about family,” Nikandros said. “I was but an emissary.”

“I see. What of his guard? Did you meet any?”

“None that I can recall. There is so much Regency Red at the border the liveries all look the same. Your uncle only had a small guard while we spoke. It was a relaxed affair. He even had, I don't know, a cousin? A boy child about eleven in the tent. He ate sweetmeats.”

Damen could see Laurent looking strangely at his sword. “We can talk more at the dinner. Nikandros will join our table, Laurent.”

“That's a while away yet,” Laurent replied. “Perhaps my old teacher will do me the honour of a little match first.”

“Why not?” Nikandros said.

“Wooden swords only,” Damen said. “Those are the rules for this imp.” He did not stay to watch because Lykaios was waiting in the baths for him. Because he didn't want Nikandros to see him fret.

-

There was a dinner, of course. With Damen to his father's right side, then Nikandros the returning hero, then Laurent who kept leaning on his chair and trying to make Damen laugh behind Nikandros's back.

Damen mostly resisted.

There was talk of battles of years gone by and fights Theomedes fought with Nikandros's father as his General and Damen was smiling along with them and Laurent did not interfere. He retired before the entertainments. Nikandros left with a willowy slave to have her First Night and Damen called on Lykaios and her sweet, familiar charms.

In the wee hours of the morning, there was a knock on his door. “Come in,” he called, expecting a guard or even Nikandros. But it was Laurent, in embroidered slippers and swishing bedjacket that he had tailored to fit neatly from his shoulders to his waist, who walked into Damen's room. That was not unusual.

He just never normally knocked.

“No orgy tonight?” he asked, archly, as he sat on the couch by Damen's bed. Damen had ordered his staff to stop moving it. Lykaios or Jessa or any other girl he took to his bed could navigate around it.

Damen stretched, allowed himself that simple pleasure of rolling muscles and the slide of the cotton sheet, and looked at Laurent from the corner of his eye. “Why, were you jealous?”

“Of what exactly?”

Damen said, “There are boys, too, you know.”

“I didn't come here to talk about boys,” Laurent said, crossing his legs. “I've been thinking about the situation in Sicyon and Delpha.” Damen smiled at Laurent's use of the Akielon name. “Are you sex drunk? Drunk-drunk? I can try and find another time when you are not surrounded by --”

“Tell me.”

“This goes no further,” Laurent said.

“Nothing that happens in this room goes beyond it.”

“I have seen men like this before,” he said. “In rooms in Arles and Chastillon and Marlas.”

“Were you in the room or hiding behind velvet curtains?”

“Can you please be serious?”

Damen got the same feeling as when his father chastised him. “Yes,” he said.

“I am not some boy from a nursery no matter how much it pleases you to --”

“That does not please me. What are you talking about?” Damen sat up now, knees bent, face confused.

“My point is,” Laurent continued, after a moment. “Is that you are all hungry for war. I see it. Men are like that. And you, still smarting from what happened before, are starving.”

“You don't want revenge on your brother's killers?”

“They are dead,” Laurent said. “Do you think if you kill my uncle and every general north of the border you will wash away that dirty feeling of defeat. It won't work.”

“Your counsel, then, is for me to pretend the Veretians are not breaking our supply routes and turning loose Vaskians and trampling over borders? Of course it is.”

“You want war but the country still suffers from the last one. Will the kyros want it? There are an odd number now. What if your father doesn't get the majority. What if -”

“Get to the point,” Damen said.

“You want war because my uncle wants you to want war,” Laurent said, leaning close enough to touch the mattress. “Think about suits him. He was never like my father or Auguste. He never saw the value in grand battles and just victories. Instability is a lot more beneficial to the Regent than war can ever be.”

Damen was caught. A trap. A web. He couldn't make sense of Laurent's advice nor his motivations. He was rightful heir and he was acting like the Regent had the say in all of this. Damen didn't know if Laurent wanted a war or not. Damen felt like he didn't know anything but the fall of sheets on his naked body and Laurent's impenetrable blue eyes, gazing, just inches from his face and the fact that lamps were seconds from going out.

“You're almost seventeen,” Damen said. “You'll be the one making the choices soon.”

“I am seventeen. Did I forget to tell you?” Laurent asked. “Vere is not Akielos. You were commanding armies. I am here.”

“Here,” Damen echoed. Here. Trying to attack from the rear, perhaps. There was another knock on the door. “Yes?” Damen called, and his voice sounded distant to his ears.

“Only me.” Nikandros.

“Come in.”

Laurent sat back against the couch, casual and relaxed in his bedclothes that concealed more than the rumpled, paint-stained chiton Nikandros had wrapped around him. If he was surprised to find Damen awake and Laurent sitting on the couch as if was about to order some tea, Nikandros did not show. But he loose-limbed from wine and glass-eyed from sex. He had the manner of a man who had been very thoroughly satisfied.

“Couldn't have found a clean garment?” Laurent asked.

“Didn't care to,” Nikandros replied. “I've been too long at army standards. It's nice to relax every now and then. It's only for the benefit of your Veretian guards I dressed at all. Didn't want them fainting out there.”

“Have you met Lazar?” Damen said. “He would not faint.”

Nikandros stood at the end of Damen's bed with a cup of water loose down by his side. He could sit beside Laurent. He could drag in another chair. He looked at Damen. “May I sit, Damianos?”

“By all means.”

Nikandros flopped backwards onto the end of Damen's bed. Laurent regarded him one would a particularly dense donkey. It was not, or at least it had not been once, unusual for Nikandros to seek out Damen after a night of excess and dissect it over breakfast or more excess. It had, however, been quite a while since Nikandros had been boyish enough to be so easy around Damen.

Damen poked him with his foot. “First Night's can be heady.”

“Really?” said Laurent. “Were you a virgin until now Nikandros?”

“Hush, little prince,” Nikandros said. “Don't spoil my mood. She was the sweetest girl. Very flexible.”

“There is a new instructor in the gardens,” Damen said. “Who teaches these poses that are meditation of sorts in the east.”

“I instigated her role,” Laurent said. “Tell me, Nikandros, did you hold her legs up so you could --”

“That's enough,” Damen said, not unkindly. “You know how it is. First Night is sacred.”

“I'm going back to bed. You too can discuss your toys in peace.”

“Why was he even here?” Nikandros said.

“He had to wait until Lykaios was gone.”

“Good. Good. I knew not to --” Nikandros ran his hand over his face. “I am glad to be back in the palace, you know.”

“Tell me about your night,” Damen said.

“Well,” Nikandros began. “Your father should not be so harsh regarding Laurent's activities in the slave gardens if that's the results he yields.”

 

-

Damen went to see his father in his rooms not long after sunrise. He knew it was Theomedes habit to take exercise early and clear his mind for the day ahead.

“Damen!” Theomedes put down his juice. “Sit.” The servants brought food for Damen. “This is unusual.”

Was it? Well, yes. Damen wasn't going to go chasing his father down without being summoned. He was too old for that. But the castle was so busy and this was a most sensitive matter.

“I was hoping to speak in private,” Damen said. Theomedes cleared the room. “There are a couple of matters, actually.”

“Go on,” said his father. “What has Laurent of Vere done now?”

“It's nothing to do with him,” Damen said. “For once. It's actually, well. I think I should go North. To Sicyon. I want to force those Veretian bastards back.”

“The soldiers are all true born. But, yes, I think you may do that soon. I will consider your request. And the other matter?”

“Ios has no Kryos.”

“That has been the case for a while now, son.”

“Unusual that it has taken so long to appoint a new one,” Damen said.

“Out of respect to Tachenos's family, I delayed,” Theomedes said. “Also, the appointment of a kyros is is a large undertaking. There would be ceremonies and feasts. Those things are expensive. We need to spend prudently at present.”

“Do you have anyone in mind?”

“Do you?”

“Nikandros is the obvious candidate,” Damen said. As he spoke, it dawned on him that this was not news to his father. That for all he knew the decision was made and that was the reason Nikandros was back in Ios. “He is loyal and brave and intelligent and --”

“It warms me more than you know to hear you speak so highly of your friend, Damen. I hear every thing you are saying and it is not wrong. And I am sure, in future, it would be a most beneficial arrangement for you to have Nikandros so close to your throne.” Theomedes set aside his bowl of oats and berries. “But it is not the right choice at the moment. Nikandros has much more to give as a soldier. And I think, candidly, that he needs to learn that for himself. His hands are slightly weakened. That makes him perhaps the sixth best fighter in Akielos instead of the second.”

“Third,” said Damen. “Don't discount Kastor.”

“Believe me, I don't.”

“You have someone else in mind for the role.”

“We will make the decision that is best for Akielos.”

“I see.” Someone who could bring gold and men to strengthen Theomedes grip on the country.

“Laurent and Nikandros sparred yesterday.”

“I allowed it.”

“Laurent almost won,” Theomedes said. “A green boy with a wooden sword who hardly trained in two years. He is only sixteen. He will be king someday soon. There is no rush to war, my son.”

“He is seventeen now,” said Damen, and he decided not to bring up what Laurent said about his uncle and instability. “Don't you think it's odd the Regent hasn't sent for him?”

“Yes, of course. He says he wants to make sure Vere has a strong council and general stability before he brings the wayward prince back.”

“Do you believe him?”

“I don't believe anything Veretians say,” said Theomedes. “But I think that boy is less a threat here than in Vere. And I think, honestly, once a man gets a taste of ruling it would be hard to give it up. Anyway, I have extended an invitation to court.”

“To the Regent?” Damen thought he might have to go down to the port again. He would be hard pressed to see the man who set those fires and not cut off his head.

“He is sending an ambassador. Someone new.”

-

Damen still had sawdust sticking to the sweat on his back when Laurent cornered him in the hallway.

“I'm going to the baths,” Damen said, meaning don't bother me.

“Alone?”

“It seems you are tagging along.”

“Is your slave waiting?”

“Not the one you mean.” Of course there would be a slave. To wash him. To dry him. To pick the dirt from under his nails and scrape the stubble from his chin. Laurent fell into step beside him. “I'll be done by the time you get those laces opened.”

Not that Damen really expected Laurent to join him in the baths. Certainly, they were large enough. The deep white tubs could hold several people and usually did, unless royalty was around. Damen liked the way the drips echoed and the steam lingered and he could spread out his whole body in the hot water. He had a bath in his rooms, of course, and it was fit for a prince. The servants had a system where it was filled without delay. But it was impossible to move in it without walloping some appendage off the copper.

“You are filthy and I am very proficient at laces,” Laurent said. “But I have already bathed, thank you.”

“Pity,” Damen said, off-handedly.

“Is it?”

“You've been in Ios a long time and you're still so...”

“Dignified.”

“Prudish.”

“Reserved.”

“Uptight.”

Laurent laughed. “Not always,” he said. “Did you talk to your father?”

“I always talk to my father.“You cannot know of all our private conversations,” Damen said. “I am the Crown Prince and he is the King and --”

“I am but a lowly frigid enemy fosterling,” Laurent supplied. They were in the ante-chamber to the baths now and Damen, for once, felt strange about disrobing. A slave stepped forward to assist with the great task of unpinning the single pin that held his clothes together. “Go,” he said. “I'll follow you in.”

The bath slave brushed the dirt from Damen's skin, soaped and rinsed his hair, and offered his hand so Damen did not slip on the wet tiles – which was such a tender gesture that Damen took it, even though he had not slipped since he was maybe four years old. Damen sat into the scented water. He waited. He did not think Laurent would actually come in, unless perhaps, he was politely waiting for Damen to be clean before he clacked his black boots into the bath room and continued berating him from the one of the painted benches.

He did not think, and yet, it happened. Laurent, with a towel around his waist, strolled in as if he was always walking around in states of undress. He was the same shade of cream all down his torso. The only slight distinctions where a few fine gold hairs and the pale pink of his nipples.

In deference to Laurent's general attitude to nudity, Damen looked away when he shed his towel and lowered himself into the water.

“You call me prudish,” Laurent said, sounding oddly pleased, and flicked some perfumed water in Damen's direction. Damen never looked for anything but plain hot water in his baths, though he knew there were oils and scents and extracts other people enjoyed. This particular addition had the effect of fogging the water. Damen could not see anything beyond the surface but vague shapes and shadows.

That was a fact. He was not looking.

“Did you request the oils?” Damen asked, grinning. With one hand, he dismissed the attendants. There was no danger here. None, anywhere really for Damen. Laurent's reputation could withstand this. They were both male. Damen did not care much for his as he knew he was doing nothing wrong.

“I have friends among the slaves.”

“You don't need to be their friend to tell them what to do.”

“True. True. They know we are dear friends and I would know when Prince Damianos felt like eschewing his usual preference for plain unscented water, which, by the way is one of the most boring things I have ever learned about you.”

“I am a man of simple tastes.” Damen spread his arms out along the rim of the marble bath.

“I know,” Laurent said. “This is normal for you, yes? To bathe after training. Sometimes with your opponent. A wrestler, perhaps. Or your friends.”

“Yes. It is just bathing.”

“We have baths in Arles like this.” Laurent looked around. “Well, they are better decorated but the act of bathing is the same. I have done with before." He looked around again.

“I have often sat like this with Kastor.”

“Goodness. It's a wonder the water didn't turn to slime.”

Damen let out a laugh, just to be nice. “This is normal.”

“Yes, normal.” Laurent trailed his finger along the cloudy surface of the water. “And warmer than the last time I was submerged alongside you in the dirty docks down south. You know, in Arles we have natural hot springs. We don't need those ugly aqueducts. The water flows naturally beneath the ground.”

“Convenient,” Damen said. He did not think the aqueducts were ugly. They were a testament to the skill and simplicity of Akielon architecture. Everything had a purpose.

“There are places,” Laurent said, eyes lowered like a slave. “Outside the city. Around the runs at Chastillon where there are hot springs among the evergreen trees. It's nice, I've heard, to sit in them under the stars while the snow falls.”

“That does sound nice,” Damen said, honestly. “You've never --”

“Someone promised me once but --” Laurent shook his head. “When I am King, and you are still a Prince, I will invite you to Vere to return all your hospitality.”

“Can I bring Kastor and Nikandros?” Damen laughed and splashed Laurent's arm.

“No wonder I'm never nice. You ruin everything.”

“Yes, I am a terrible friend.”

“Are we friends?”

“I do not spend this much time with people who are not my friends,” Damen said.

“You didn't give me anything for my birthday this year,” Laurent said.

The steam caught in Damen's throat. It made things hard to breathe. “Was there something you wanted?”

“Yes,” said Laurent. “I want some slaves.”

“Slaves? More than one. To what purpose?”

“The general purpose of a bed slave.”

“I see. Boys?”

“Young men. Diana, if you can spare her. But that's just for my own amusement.”

Damen felt the heat of the water go to his brain. “I'll think about it.”

“Fine. Don't take too long. I want to experience on of those fabled First Nights for myself.

-

Theomedes quizzed Laurent on how to receive an ambassador from Vere. It seemed superfluous to Damen. That councillor Herode had not been unhappy with any of their efforts on his previous visit. But, Theomedes explained, Herode was a visitor regarding Laurent. This new person was to be an actual ambassador. He was a lord near Delpha in famed Fortaine, knew plenty about Akielon ways, and would be the go-between in a series of talks between Theomedes and the Regent before Laurent came of age.

It was no brief thing to arrange a state visit, when the possibility of war hung like bait between their countries. Laurent answered Theomedes questions about etiquette thoroughly. Damen started to wonder if perhaps his father was trying to see if Laurent would let something slip about his uncle's plans. He did say something about instability. Theomedes nodded and went back to asking about protocol.

Damen's mind drifted. Genuinely, alongside with his own plans to go North soon, he had been considering Laurent's request. Knowing his distaste for slavery, he couldn't help but think Laurent would just take some slaves in order to set them free. Damen didn't know how his mind worked. He knew that Laurent was lonely. He knew he wanted more for him.

“I do not know this man,” Laurent said. “He was never part of my father's council. Fortaine is far from Arles.”

“What man?” Damen asked.

“The ambassador that is coming,” Laurent said. “He is called Guion. And he is bringing his son.”

-

Chapter Text

Visits took time to arrange.

Damen had too much blood pumping in his veins and the palace walls were feeling very close to his skin. He had been here too long. He needed to be here when Guion came. He still needed to figure out if he was actually going to give Laurent those slaves. Of course, at seventeen Laurent did not need Damen's leave to take anyone to bed. He had many rules to obey within the palace but Akielons did not interfere with sex.

“I'm still thinking,” Damen told Laurent, as he prepared to leave Ios.

“Does it always take you so long?”

“Taking a long time isn't normally a complaint,” Damen replied, grinning. Laurent rolled his eyes. “I wish you would tell me what you want with them.”

“Maybe I just fancy the idea of a harem.”

“Or you want to set them free.”

“I would set them all free. But I am aware of my limits, here.”

“Hence your little endeavour in the slave gardens. I know there's no badness, by the way,” Damen said. “I know you want to help.”

“It's not so little,” Laurent replied, examining every peach in the bowl on Damen's table until he found the juiciest one. Damen snatched it from him. “Yesterday, one young man was brave enough to tell me his favourite colour.”

“What did he say?”

“Gold, for his cuffs,” Laurent admitted, twisting his lips. “It's a slow process.”

“I'm still thinking,” Damen said, again.

“Will you definitely be back before my uncle's ambassador comes?” Laurent asked. He was busy inspecting the grapes now. The grapes the servants made sure were clean and unblemished before they came near the prince's room.

“Yes. My father demands it.” Damen would be mere weeks in Sicyon.

“Good,” said Laurent. “I mean, yes, good. It's been a long time since I've seen anyone from Vere. I may need you to remind me they can't be trusted. Wait, don't move.”

Damen went still. Laurent sprang off his chair and ran across to his room. He returned with a package under his arm, wrapped in brown paper, tied with brown string.

“This is for you,” he said. “You know, it's very hard to find fine wrapping paper in Akielos. I could have waited but...you are leaving and --” He threw it at Damen. Literally, threw it like it was on fire. Damen had good reflexes. He caught the package, easily.

“May I open it?”

“Do what you want. You're the Crown Prince of Akielos.”

“I could open it on the road, if you prefer.”

“I refer to my previous statement.”

Damen tore open the package. Laurent called him a brute. The paper fell to the floor and Damen was holding a book bound in very fine calfskin bleached and dyed a muted gold. It had no title on the cover. Damen opened it with unusually delicate fingers. His heart was beating fast for no reason at all and when glanced at Laurent, he thought he saw a tremor beneath the pale skin on his neck.

It was a collection of Veretian folk takes – monsters, myths and gods -- on the finest paper Damen had seen outside of an official royal document, translated into perfect Akielon and written in looping familiar writing.

“Laurent,” Damen said.

“Well, you liked them. You got nothing of significance for a birthday that is very significant in my country and --”

“Another has passed since then,” Damen said.

“It took some time. I'm very busy with my studies and my business and helping your father,” Laurent said. “I had to go through several drafts, to get the nuances right.” His cheeks were very pink now.

“Laurent,” Damen said. “Thank you.” He took a step forward, then another. He made himself consider his actions. If Nikandros or Kastor or his father had given him such a thoughtful gift, he would hug them without thinking. But Laurent was not like that. Tactile. Open. Carefully, Damen set the book down. He raised his hands, palm open, fingers spread. As a king would great another king. They used one hand in formal settings. Damen held up two and Laurent mirrored him so quickly Damen wondered if it was an unconscious action.

Their palms touched. Fingers clasped. Damen felt like a squeeze from his hand could break Laurent's fingers. His skin was very warm. He thought of his father, as he leaned down towards Laurent's bowed head. Then he didn't think of anything, and simply pressed a kiss against Laurent's brow.

-

True to his word, he was not gone long. It took five days for his men, some of whom had served the city guard and some of whom had been reclaimed from other squadrons, to join with Nikandros and Makedon in Sicyon.

Damen relished the ride north, with good men at his back and the feel of leather on his skin. At the northern camp, he breathed in the woodsmoke and the clash of metal and the camaraderie in the air. It had been too long. He hadn't allowed himself to realise how much he missed soldiering until he was back among them. Because there would be a day, perhaps soon, when he would be sat on a throne signing documents when he would be better at charging a horse into battle.

He belonged here.

He caught himself thinking, as Nikandros personally escorted him to his tent, that Laurent would like this, too.

When Vere unlawfully claimed Delpha lines had been drawn on a map and lines had been chalked in the fields. Unfortunately, these lines did not always co-ordinate. As with any border, there were always volleys back and forth. It even happened between Akielos and Patras and those two countries could not have been better friends. But in the aftermath of the failed Akielon attempt to take Delpa back, the volleys that once felt like children pushing and shoving over a ball, were growing uglier by the day.

The Veretians in Delpha were emboldened by the loss. The Sicyons were weakened by defeat. Hardly a day went by when there wasn't a dispute over an acre or a bridge or watering hole. The Akielon soldiers were there to keep the peace as much as to make sure Vere did not push too far.

Damen nearly willed them to push. He was ready to push back.

He didn't expect the flood of memory that came with the glimpse of flags across the flat field that was both the border and a no man's land. They weren't even the same colour. Regency Red, Nikandros had called it. At Marlas, they had been starbursts.

“I know,” said Nikandros. “Makes you want to go over and tear them all down.”

Behind them, there was a gasp disguised as a cough. Most of the soldiers here were afraid to breathe too loudly in Prince Damianos's presence. It would shock them completely to hear Nikandros's familiarity.

What should Damen want? Was it right to want the opposite of what the Regent of Vere wanted? He didn't even know what that was.

“Someday,” Damen said.

“Yes. Defeat is temporary.” Nikandros echoed the King. “And, I have heard from our spies that the starburst flies in villages. The common folk don't want war.”

“They assume Laurent doesn't want war.”

“They don't want another royal death. Both brothers were beloved there and they think perhaps your father would kill him.” Nikandros couldn't keep the disbelief from his face.

“He would.” Theomedes would do whatever was necessary for Akielos. Maybe the Regent wanted instability instead of war to keep his nephew safe. Maybe when Laurent took the throne, the war would come and Damen would face him on a battle field the way he never got to face Auguste.

“You wouldn't allow him,” Nikandros said. “That might --”

“Come back to bite me on the ass? I am aware of that.” Damen grinned at his friend. “Tell me. What else do they say about him here? I know about Auguste, the fire --”

“He is under your thrall but young enough to relearn the Veretian standards,” Nikandros said, smiling too. “He cavorts with slaves. He has his own harem. He refuses to come home. He is impotent. He is a spy. He is a collaborator. He is building his strength and learning fifteen different sword-fighting techniques to come back to Vere and lead them into victory. His beauty would make men weep. His hair is spun gold and his tongue is forked. Can we move on now?”

“Show me the plans,” Damen said.

“We've been waiting on you to make the plans.”

The issue was a simple one. The Veretians in Delpha had claimed a stretch of river as their own. Something to do with irrigation. Damen didn't care. It belonged to Akielos. It sprang in Patras and ran into the Ellosean sea. It was on their side of the border. And it was, crucially, a supply route from the sea. A boat launched from Ios, a barge up the river, were quicker than wagons and men.

Damen was going to take it back. His instinct was too storm across and cut down any one who got in his way. But the river was too deep. He considered launching a steady stream of arrows and catapulted rocks but that was just so unsophisticated. So he gathered boulders. He built a dam. And when the occupying Veretians tried to counteract their plans, then he got to cut people down.

It wasn't glorious. It was the kind of tactical victory that made the lives easier of the men up here and showed the Veretians the Akielons were not as dumb as they thought. It was the kind of thing his father did all the time.

Damen was rather pleased with himself.

More Veretians came to retaliate. He was pleased then, too, to ride his horse and let his men who were so strong and so well-trained, beat them all back. He may have pushed them further into Delpha than he needed to. The army livestock needed more room for grazing.

And, as promised, he made it back to Ios before the Ambassador Guion's arrival. Just.

“You are like a dog who needs to be let out to play or it starts to tear apart the furnishings,” Laurent said by way of greeting. “And I am waiting on my answer.”

“I am still thinking,” Damen said, and then he was thinking about holding Laurent's hands in his before he left. “And I am nothing like a dog. Unlike you, I do not bite.”

When his father congratulated him on a job well done, Damen tried not to act like a dog getting petted by his master. The praise meant a lot to him. They talked in terms of locations and routes – nothing of the lives lost on the Veretian side. They were soldiers. That was what happened. These were the same things they were going to hammer out with Guion. A hill. A village. A stretch of road, a field and river and bridge. These were things that men died for. These were things that made countries.

A set of guards arrived first. Protocol. They were just securing the ambassador's rooms and making sure the passage to Ios was safe. They were brought to the throne room to bow to their prince. Laurent should have been used to it. He grew up with it. But Damen saw a brief burst of uncertainty on his face when the men's heads were bent too low to notice it.

In Veretian, he enquired about their journey and welcomed them to Ios. He asked one man where he was from and said it was a place he knew well, and that was all it took for them to look at the prince like guards should look at princes.

He was going to be fine when he got home.

Damen kept thinking about how this very visit could be the thing that sent him home. Laurent was a bargaining chip. They all knew it.

That night, earlier than usual, Laurent came to Damen's door. He knocked. He even waited to be admitted and stood awkwardly by the wall rather than throw himself onto the couch.

“I shall have to visit less while the Veretians are in the palace,” he said.

“All right,” said Damen.

“Definitely, I cannot sleep here.”

“All right.” Damen set down his cup beside the book on the table. Laurent's book. “I'll survive.”

“I --” Laurent stopped. He pressed his wrists together. “I came in here while you were gone.”

“I left the book behind so it didn't get damaged,” Damen said. “I am very much enjoying it.”

“When Guion comes, he will say bad things about me.”

“I won't listen,” said Damen. He had most likely heard them all at the border anyway. The thing he couldn't say was that none of those people knew Laurent. He thought that maybe he was the only person in the world who actually did.

-

They greeted Guion on the steps. Theomedes first, then Damen, then Laurent. Damen paid close attention to Guion's reaction to Laurent. He was sufficiently respectful. In fact, he was respectful of everything. He knew all the protocols for greeting royals. He admired the palace on the cliffs and seemed like he meant it. That would not be difficult. It was a sight to behold. Guion came with a small guard, a clerk, an advisor and a pouty mouthed youth he introduced as his youngest son, Aimeric.

Shyly, Aimeric greeted Theomedes and Damen in mangled Akielon. Damen tried not smile at his accent.

“You should greet your prince first,” Damen said, in Veretian, and Aimeric bowed to Laurent. They were about the same age. Maybe if Laurent had stayed in Vere, they would have been friends. To Damen's eyes, the greeting seemed perfunctory at best. Maybe he was nervous. Maybe he believed the lies.

“It is good to see my countrymen,” Laurent said, politely. “I am sure you want to get out of the sun.”

Theomedes took them to the great hall. Guion gushed about the marble. Laurent remained tight-lipped, white-faced, poised.

“First time to Akielos?” Damen asked Aimeric, to be polite.

“Yes. It is so obvious? I have never really been outside Fortaine before. I am so grateful the Regent allowed Father to take me on this trip.”

“It is good for a young man to travel,” Damen said.

“No better way to travel than to join the army,” Theomedes said, conversationally.

“Aimeric intends to,” Guion said. “In time.”

Damen thought his time was about three years ago.

“There might,” Aimeric said, quietly, proudly. “Be a spot for me in the king's guard.”

Laurent whipped around. “What King? I have never met you before. When I am king I will require guards who know one end of a sword from another.”

Aimeric flinched as if he had been slapped. Damen nodded. Strength was important. To every royal.

“Forgive me, your highness. I did not mean --” He looked to his father for guidance. Guion said nothing. “I was confused. I meant the Regent's Guard.”

Laurent did not respond. Damen suppressed the urge to say something to make the boy feel better.

“That was a little mean,” he whispered in Akielon. “He could have been a friend.”

“No. He couldn't.”

There were things all members of both royal factions needed to be present for. Damen sat on his chair beside his father's throne and went through the motions of ceremony. He sat alongside his father in meetings that made his head spin. He spoke up for Laurent's financial status and Guion stammered that family matters were outside of his remit. He was here to talk about rivers and hills and fields and things that could ease tensions in the north. Finally, there were things Damen was discreetly expected to leave the room for – his father was king and he would always do some things alone.

Laurent was long gone. To the stables. Perhaps a meeting with his tutor or his business contacts. Considering the tense way he held himself in Guion's presence, Damen guessed the stables.

He was on his way to his training arena when pretty little Aimeric pushed off the marble column he was leaning against in one of the long hallways and gave Damen a shy smile.

“Good afternoon, your highness,” he said, with the easy confidence of an aristocrat who didn't think they had to be greeted first.

“Exalted,” corrected a member of Damen's guard. “This is Akielos.”

“I'm sorry. I don't understand.”

“Damianos is fine.” Anything to prevent a diplomatic incident. “Your father will most likely be a while, Aimeric.”

“Actually, I was hoping to catch you.” Bold, indeed. “I would love to see more of Ios.”

For another prince, he would do it. He had done it for Laurent. For a soldier. If his father instructed it. But he could not, would not, play tour guide to a spoiled lord's son from Vere.

“You have a guard. The streets are safe to explore.” If the city dwellers could accept Laurent running around, they could definitely deal with Aimeric.

“That's what he said.”

“Who?”

“Laurent.”

“Prince Laurent,” Damen said.

“Yes, of course. I am sorry.” Aimeric trotted along beside him. “I'm not used to being outside Fortaine. Are you going to the practise arena? I would love to see a real winner in action. I hear --”

Damen gritted his teeth. If he had been at Marlas and Sanpelier like Laurent, he would have seen plenty of action. “I am going to the baths.”

Aimeric's eyes lightened. “Are they marble too?”

“I don't require company,” Damen said. Somehow, he found himself undertaking his plans in reverse. Baths first. Swords later. Maybe it would be better. His neck ached, not from anything physical, just the tension of sitting in pointless meetings. This Guion had the decision making skills of a dead bird and little to no authority to make any real choices. This visit was already a waste of time. At best, it would provide an opening for further negotiation. At worst, it was a distraction or nothing more than more proof that the Regent was reasonable. Reasonable and false. They were talking to the monkey while the organ grinder was designing puzzles and revolutionising their slave quarters.

He cleared the baths. The attendant came back. “Forgive me, Exalted. The other prince refuses to leave.”

“Kastor?” Damen didn't even know he was in town.

“The Veretian Prince.”

“Oh. That's fine.” He bid his guard not to let anyone else in. He walked towards a rather uncomfortable looking Jord and Lazar. “Both of you?”

“Prince Laurent has requested it while the ambassador is here,” Lazar said. “Better than talking to those pansy guards he totes around.”

“Have you met Aimeric?” Damen asked.

“No,” said Jord.

“I saw him,” Lazar said. “The kind of aristocrat you'd like to show the rougher side of life.”

They weren't Damen's guard. He had no reason to reprimand them. But it made him send Jord, not Lazar, to show Aimeric the delights of Ios.

“I half-expected to see Aimeric tugging on your coat-tails,” Laurent said, when Damen sank into the hot perfumed water.

“I have no coat,” Damen said. Laurent saw him walk in here naked. He saw him see. “But it wasn't for lack of effort on his part.”

“He asked me to take him riding. I would never be so cruel to the horses.”

“He is young. Smitten.”

“Don't be absurd.”

“Smitten in the way boys are when they see something they want to emulate. Kastor calls it hero worship.” Kastor actively encouraged it. “He's been sheltered and pampered. It doesn't make for a winning personality.”

“Ah, that must be what happened to me.”

“I don't think you were so sheltered.”

“Well.” Laurent huffed and it could have been a smile or a sneer on his face. The steam obscured things. “I applaud your honesty. You don't fill me with false platitudes about my personality.”

Damen rolled his neck. “I don't mind your personality.”

“No?”

“No. I don't mind spiders, snakes or roaches either. Don't get too carried away.”

“Did he say anything bad about me yet?”

Damen considered that. “He told my father, all things considered, you were not entirely unpleasant.”

“Aimeric hates me.”

“He sucks up to you now.”

“I can tell he hates me. He believes the lies.”

“Why do you hate him?”

“He believes the lies.”

-

More meetings. A long debate about cross-pollination that made Damen crave a bee sting just to liven things up. More negotiations. Despite his ego making him think otherwise, Laurent was really not a topic at all. The Regent acted like there was no heir. Laurent had four more years before he would take the throne. That was nothing, really, in the histories of kingdoms.

Guion wanted a promise that Theomedes would withdraw troops from near the Sicyon border. But those were Makedon's men. That was their home. And it would make them vulnerable. Guion said as long as they were there, the Regent would have no choice but to keep men on his side. Which was fine, as long as they stayed on their side. Then the debates started again about where the boundaries of each side actually were.

Damen found it hard to stay awake. It was Theomedes who brought Laurent in for these talks. Not for his opinion. Damen thought it was just his father being fair – the young prince needed to learn. Laurent took it seriously. You could tell by the way he sat, the way he listened, the notes he made and consulted before he spoke. And when he spoke, he always had something of value to say.

Damen doodled a cat chasing a mouse. Then he added a mosquito. Laurent kicked him under the table. He only had anything to contribute when they spoke of military matters. But war was a dirty word in these meetings. They boiled down to those fabled rivers and hills and fields. Then again, that's what made a war. You just had to add blood.

Days ran into each other. Meetings with Guion. The absence of Laurent. Something about the way the boy Aimeric minced around, goading people and wooing them. Aimeric was everything Laurent of Vere could be, if he stayed in Vere, and when he was in a mood. And Aimeric was also everything that Vere was to Laurent – he looked at his prince like he was the brightest and the filthiest thing in the world. The rumours had done their job.

At the end of the pointless days of meetings, there was a farewell feast. Good food. Dilligent poison tasters. Refined entertainment. To no-one's surprise, once the Veretians actually saw some Akielon slaves they managed to set aside their distaste for the institution. Men were like that. Weak. Damen and Laurent could not make snide remarks in Veretian with their guests at table. Laurent was the picture of politeness, engaged with Theomedes and Guion and a story about getting a better price for his wood supplies. Theomedes appreciated strength. Guion appreciated a Veretian getting one over an Akielon. Damen spoke cordially with Aimeric, who mostly gushed about Jord's skill with a sword and his ability to haggle with the market sellers and the fact he had not lost his Veretian manners despite all these years in a barbarian environment, no offence.

None taken. Damen had been called worse by people whose opinion mattered more. As the night wore on, Guion had Aimeric escorted away to his rooms. The lad was old enough to stay. Nothing explicit happened at these feasts. But the Guion was being fed candied almonds by a slave boy and Damen understood why. Laurent left. He didn't need to stay any longer. Lots of people left. Damen rose, bid his tablemates goodnight, and tapped the slave Lykaios on the shoulder almost as an afterthought. He hadn't planned on company, tonight, but he didn't want there to be talk.

In his apartment, which tonight was only guarded by Akielons because it seemed fair to give Jord and Lazar some time to spend with their countrymen and Damen's personal guard who would guard Laurent because Damen required it and because they guarded anyone who needed guarding and they had grown to like the strange foreign prince, Damen bid Lykaios wait in the hall.

Laurent was waiting on his couch by the bed, as Damen had half-expected him to be.

“Taking risks?”

“It's their last night here. I'm feeling bold.” He looked past Damen. “Alone?”

“Lykaios is outside.”

“Those floors can be cold.”

“I didn't want to send her to wait in your room.” Damen sank onto his bed. He rested his feet on the couch. “I'm learning to be a good diplomat.”

“When I am king, I'll put you to the test.” Laurent smiled. Helplessly, Damen smiled back. Laurent pulled one of his knees up so his boot rested on the seat. Damen's foot slipped. These sandals had no grip. It was resting, now, against the inside of Laurent's knee. “So,” Laurent said. “Are you going to give me my slaves?”

“Convince me,” Damen said.

“I wouldn't mistreat them,” Laurent said, carefully. “Or make them do anything they found distasteful. I just ... I want it. I don't often ask for anything. I make my own way most of the time.”

“You abhor slavery.”

“It still exists. I also hate tomatoes but they show up on my dinner plate and I manage not to starve.”

“You are starving now?”

Laurent tilted his head. “Peckish.”

“Why else?”

“Sex isn't motivation enough for Prince Damianos?”

“For me, yes. But you are more complicated, Laurent of Vere.”

“And Acquitart. Everyone forgets Acquitart.” Laurent's lips were full from thinking. He looked Damen right in the eye and didn't break his gaze. “I have...a theory. I wish to examine it further. I've been reading a lot about the study of the human mind, lately. Philosophy. Behaviour. That kind of thing.”

“In the slave gardens.”

“Among other places. It's interesting to me to see how behaviour can be modified, minds can be moulded. And if I have closer access to slaves, I can see more.”

“You want them for research purposes?” Damen said, flatly.

“Partly.” Laurent smirked. “Not to mention, that no-one hears more than a slave. Apparently, some of you Akielons even continue mating while one of them is in the room.”

“Who do you wish to spy on?”

“No-one. Yet.”H is eyes were very dark. Damen kept noticing these things. He felt like his own eyes were darkened, too. His blood rushed at a new temperature. Damen was a man, like other men. He had eyes and desires and Laurent was a man too now, and he was very very attractive. “Did you not see my notes about the training though?” Laurent asked, blind to Damen's realisation.

“Notes?”

“I had books here. No, I moved them when Guion arrived. You really never looked?”

“Why would I look at your private notes?”

“Wait. I'll grab them. It really is very interesting. Could benefit you, too, soldier and commander. We're both going to lead some day.” Laurent walked out of Damen's room, lighter on his feet than usual. Damen, a little dazed, ran his hands through his hair. This was....new.

Not necessarily wrong. He was twenty two and Laurent seventeen. That wasn't anything major. They were friends. Men. Future Kings of rival countries but that hardly seemed to matter now. The candles were brighter. The waves crashed louder. Damen's chest expanded and took on a new shape, a shape it had never held before.

Damen held onto the almost-present memory of Laurent dashing off to retrieve his notes - this clever, bright-eyed prince excited about a new theory, eager to share new ideas, showing an enthusiastic side that no-one else ever saw. Laurent, so sharp and so vulnerable. Laurent, who kept coming back to his bedroom. Laurent, who sometimes seemed too beautiful and clever to exist in this world – he belonged to ancient times and other places – but he was here, with Damen, and he was making this world gleam in brand new colours.

Damen ran his fingers through his messy hair. Re-ordered his breathing. Focused. Tried to focus. Thought about all the ways Laurent was open with him and closed off with everyone else. The book. Auguste's cloak. The baths. Damen thought, he comes to my room every single night.

Then, he heard the scream.

Chapter Text

Then, he heard the scream.

Sword in hand, Damen was out the door in seconds. In the corridor – chaos. A thunderclap clattered inside his head. Chaos like Marlas when the men wouldn't obey.

“Halt,” he said, and half the men did. His men. The other half were in Akielon uniform, too. Attacking. An ambush. Subterfuge. And in the middle, Laurent wide-eyed, restrained by a soldier. Lykaios slumped on the ground, an oozing wound on the side of her head. Damen was a soldier. A commander. “Take the attackers,” he said to his men. “Unhand the Prince of Vere.”

The Akielon soldier did not let go of Laurent.

So Damen killed him.

It was normal. Soldiers had to obey leaders. Everyone had to obey the prince. As the man slumped, Laurent took his sword and then they fought. Damen felt like Auguste, fighting to keep the young prince alive, because as soon as he stepped into the corridor he knew that Laurent was the object of the attack. They fought. It was confusing, because of the uniforms, but it wasn't confusing because Damen's men would never raise an eyebrow let alone a sword to him. The space was narrow. That wasn't ideal. But it didn't take long. There was never any doubt in Damen's mind about how this would go.

There were no more men for him to kill. Of his guard, two out of four remained standing. One rushed to his fallen comrade. The other to Lykaios. Breathing hard, Damen glanced to Laurent who was, infuriatingly composed. Not a hair out of place. The sword in his hand relaxed.

“Sixteen,” he said. “Sixteen dead men to try to kill me.”

“Sixteen to try get past me,” Damen answered.

It felt so much like Marlas he couldn't think. Akielon soldiers. Sent by his father? Kastor? They only fought to get past him, not wound him. He should have let them by. Laurent had killed some, too. Had he been left out of some major Akielon decision again. Had things soured so much so shortly at the feast.

“Exalted,” said one of his guard. “We must inform --”

“Wait,” said Laurent. “Wait. This isn't mutiny. These are Veretians. I was the target.”

Damen realised the truth of it. Akielons wouldn't --- not again. Vere would. While the palace was distracted. “An Akielon would not have hurt the slave. She would have been quiet no matter what.”

“She was hurt. I told her to scream,” Laurent said. “They were waiting for me.”

“Seal the apartments,” Damen said. “Send for a physician privately. No-one is informed without my direction.” He bid his men to take the injured guard and Lykaios to a rarely-used reception room by the apartment entrance.

For discretion's sake, he began to haul the still-warm corpses into his room. Their blood trailed wet on the marble. Laurent, who was not as strong, helped without hesitation.

“Don't look at me like that,” he said. “You know I don't mind blood.”

“What are your theories on this one?”

“Opportunists. Guion or my uncle.” Laurent hooked his arms around a dead man's neck. “Or the entire population of Akielos and some of Vere who think I am a twisted little boy. I will need time to narrow it down.” He dropped the corpse as footsteps echoed at the end of the hall, away from the door, from someone who was already inside. “Wait. No, I won't. Hello, Aimeric.”

Aimeric surged forward, skidding on blood. “You,” he spat. “How are you still alive?”

“I have a knack for survival.”

Damen drew his sword. He didn't want to kill a Veretian aristocrat but he would if the boy didn't stay back from Laurent.

“I'll kill you myself,” Aimeric said. If he didn't look like a boy throwing a tantrum, Damen would have rushed forward. Anyway, he was Laurent's subject not his, and Laurent observed Aimeric with cool disregard. “

“That is treason.”

“I have an official order,” Aimeric said.

“To kill me.” Laurent still appeared to be very calm. But Damen could see something flicker in his eyes, something like hurt. “Oh, I see. From my uncle. Go ahead. Try. Do you really think he can protect you here?”

“I will be rewarded. He promised.” Aimeric drew a dagger from the under his jacket. A fine gold-dipped dagger, engraved with the imprint of a cat. He thrust it forward. He was never going to make contact. Damen stopped, disarmed and restrained him before his elbow was fully extended. He held Aimeric's arms behind his back. It was only the strange expression in Laurent's eyes that stopped Damen pushing Aimeric's face to the floor.

“You're going to die for that,” Damen told Aimeric, who struggled in vain against Damen's immovable grip.

“Wait,” said Laurent. Deliberately, he picked up the dagger. It was his, after all. And Aimeric had stolen it. Aimeric had somehow been here before.

Oh. Jord.

Of course.

“Aimeric, Aimeric,” Laurent said. He touched him under the chin to draw up his unrepentant face. “Aimeric who never left Fortaine. Aimeric with the pretty, pouty lips. I could cut them off, you know.” Caress-soft, he pressed the blade to Aimeric's mouth.

“You're just as twisted as he said,” Aimeric hissed.

Laurent shrugged as he turned the dagger around and drew it along the skin just below his sharp collar bone. Blood bloomed through his jacket. Aimeric struggled. Damen forced him down and pressed his knee into the boy's back.

“What are you doing?” Damen asked. He was witness. That was enough. Aimeric had been the one to mastermind this and his mind was not one for mastery. “Laurent!”

“Make sure the rest of the corpses are hidden,” Laurent said. “Guards!” Damen's one remaining guard came out of the reception room. “All right, Guard. Singular,” Laurent amended. “Send for a Veretian soldier and Councilor Guion. His son just tried to kill me. That is all that happened here.”

-

Laurent said nothing but go along with this, as they gathered in the Great Hall which still bore the alcohol and people scent of the feast. The night guards assembled quickly, along with a slightly drunken and then immediately sober Lazar.

“Your highness,” he said. “I have failed.”

“Lighten up. You were off duty,” Laurent replied. “Restrain Aimeric before he dies just from being touched by an Akielon.”

“Laurent.” Damen took him by the elbow, which was as much force or contact as this public setting would allow. “Explain.”

“No.”

“If you want me to lie to my father --”

“It can't get out. Any of it. Me in your room. The female slave in the hall. The attempt on my life.”

“If your uncle--”

“Aimeric won't talk. He will have it covered. It will look like Akielos. He even had your dagger.” Laurent stopped talking as more men filed in. Guion. Theomedes. Oreste. The ones who had a duty to be here. Most people in the palace were too drunk. Guion's mouth fell open at the sight of his son on his knees in the hall. “Looks like the father wasn't in on it,” Laurent observed.

Damen had to go to his own father. Protocol. Guidance.

“Damianos, what has happened?” Theomedes asked.

“Aimeric attacked Laurent with a knife. I saw it.”

“What did Laurent do?”

“Do?”

“Come on, son. We know how he can provoke people.”

“I don't fully understand it,” Damen said. “Aimeric seems unhinged. Jealous. He has...heard a lot of negative things about his prince. May I be excused?”

“No. This is Veretian business.”

“It happened in my apartment.”

“Stay here, please.”

Damen stayed.

Laurent, off to the side of throne, addressed Guion. “Your son sneaked into my personal residence and attacked me with a knife. Remind me, because I have been away so long, what is the penalty for attacking the only surviving member of the royal family with a deadly weapon in Vere?”

“Death, your highness.”

“Death.” Laurent cocked his head. “Aimeric, do you have any explanation? Were you...confused? Misinformed?”

“Everyone knows he has been corrupted!” Aimeric said. Laurent raised a hand to stop Lazar shutting Aimeric up. “He sleeps in the Akielon prince's apartments.”

“I sleep in the only residence assigned to crown princes,” Laurent said. “It just so happens there are two of us in the palace in Ios. I have done so since I was fourteen. Where was I when you came across me?”

“The hallway between the rooms,” Aimeric said.

“The hallway that leads to every room.” Laurent looked around. “Guion, see that all your men are accounted for. Your son already went astray. What were you doing there, Aimeric?”

“I wanted to --”

“Yes?”

“Laugh all you want. This was for the good of Vere and someday you will see --”

“Guion, I think your son is quite mad. I see now why he as never left Fortaine.”

Damen glanced at his father. “This is turning into a spectacle.” For whatever reason, Laurent did not want it known that the Regent was behind the attack and Damen did not think it was to protect anyone's reputation.

“I'm not mad,” Aimeric replied. His words rang clear through the cavernous throne room. Guion was busy counting his small retinue of men. “I'm not. This was --”

“Tell us,” said Laurent. “Put me out of my misery.”

“You know!”

“I am merciful,” Laurent said, to the Veretians and to Guion. “I will commute his death sentence. These are the qualities I have learned in Akielos. The boy is young.”

“We're the same age!”

Damen didn't like to hear that. He didn't like seeing Aimeric and Laurent look at each other tie each other up in lies that only protected the Regent. Laurent had blood. What had Aimeric?

“Instead, Aimeric will be flogged.” Cool as ever, Laurent appraised the room. “There is no cross but the columns will do. Theomedes, do I have your permission?”

Theomedes nodded.

“Father,” Damen said and he could not say anything more. Flogging was not uncommon. Damen had never ordered it or experienced it personally, but it happened every day in the army to keep men in line. Men who fought under the blazing sun. Men who broke rules and committed heinous crimes. Aimeric, the pretty aristocrat with the unblemished skin, had likely never been in a fight at all until he charged at Laurent.

Laurent had cut himself.

“I'm not afraid,” Aimeric said, as he was dragged to the column. “Father, look. I am not afraid. Tell him I was not afraid.”

“Wait,” said Laurent. “Undress him. There will only be .... thirteen lashes. I want to make it count.”

Lazar did not bother with the finagles of Veretian laces. He sliced through the jacket, the fine undershirt and bared Aimeric's skinny ribs to the room. Damen could see the ridges of his spine and at his neck, a fine silver chain. Laurent stepped closer, touching distance, and snatched the necklace from Aimeric. His mouth moved, very close to Aimeric's ear, before he shoved the tangled chain into the pocket of his trousers. Aimeric shuddered, those notches of his spine rippled like buoys floating in the sea.

“Later,” Theomedes said. “You are going to tell me what this is really about.”

“I did not lie about the attack by Aimeric,” Damen replied, as Aimeric was tied to the column. Guion looked on, pale but obedient. He could have offered to take the whipping on his son's behalf. Protocol. Lazar stayed close, ready to dole out the punishment.

“You have been drinking,” Laurent said. “Where is my guard Jord? He has been loyal all these years. Someone fetch him.”

“I am here.” Jord walked into the hall. He looked at Aimeric as he spoke. “Your highness.” Jord was sober. Jord's lips were still puffy. Not from sleep. “I don't --”

“Take the whip,” Laurent said. “Thirteen lashes for the man who tried to stab the Crown Prince of Vere. It is a kind punishment, as you well know.”

Laurent was seventeen, and terrifying.

Jord's hand shook slightly as he took hold of the whip. His face was drawn. Damen thought Jord might faint. When the whip cracked the air, it was nearly a struggle for Damen himself not to flinch. Years of soldiering and watching his father rule were the things that kept him still.

“One,” said Laurent. He didn't look. He leaned against another column and allowed a medic to bandage his knife wound. Guion looked. Theomedes looked, impassive. Damen felt his head spin. Aimeric and Laurent were the same age. The same lies. A second lash and Damen was grinding his teeth. He had killed ten men upstairs without batting an eyelash.

A third and Aimeric was not brave. He cried out when the whip snapped and Jord stepped back before it made contact. Damen put one foot forward. His father put warning hand on his arm. Jord didn't miss again. Because he could not move, Damen sent a guard to summon Lazar who came quickly like he wanted to move away from the violence.

“What did Laurent say to Aimeric?” Damen asked.

Four. Five lashes. Aimeric sobbing openly. Guion's eyes were red.

“That Aimeric shouldn't take it personally,” Lazar said. Six lashes. “That he was just one in a long line and it wasn't his fault.”

“When you left Vere,” Damen began.

“I've never seen the ambassador's son before,” Lazar said, quickly.

“But...the night shift.” Damen had to put his hand on the back of his father's chair to remain upright. The seventh lash and an ear-splitting scream. The skin was well split, too.

“Pets. Very young pets.” Eight. A whimper

“Thank you,” he said to Lazar. Wrong. All wrong. “Jord will need you in a minute, soldier.”

“Damianos. Stand up.” His father looked at him. “Have you been poisoned again?”

“I might be sick,” Damen said.

“Not. Here.” Nine.

Damen gritted his teeth. Ten. No. He had to be wrong. It couldn't be that. Aimeric was Laurent's age. Old enough. Now. But, the necklace. The lies. That strange behaviour. The intense personal quality to the rumours. Eleven. Twelve. Damen's teeth would be dust soon. Aimeric's back was ribbons. Thirteen.

Jord dropped the whip. Laurent left the room without a backwards glance.

Damen pushed away from the throne to follow.

“Wait,” said Theomedes. “Don't go after him.”

“But --” Damen couldn't say he needs me so he said, “I'm going to help Aimeric down. Can I explain after?”

“Fine.”

Guion and Jord were already untying the ropes. Foolishly. They were the only thing keeping the boy upright. He was crying the way a child cries – simply to express something, and thin rivulets of blood trailed down his courtier's clothing onto the marble floor. How had Damen just earlier thought wars were only fought on battlefields? The ropes came away. Instinctively, Damen caught the boy.

“I can support my son,” Guion said, primly. Right. They hated Akielons. Damen still held on until Aimeric was safely secured in by Guion and his guard. Jord was shoved aside. Damen put a steadying hand on Jord's shoulder.

“I didn't --” Jord said. “I don't know what happened.” But his face showed otherwise. He did know. He let his head get turned by a pretty son of a lord and that was the thing that lead Aimeric to Damen's apartments and then to the whip.

“You are still off duty,” Damen said. “Both of you.”

Damen was never off duty. He summoned his guard, ordered them to remain silent until he said otherwise. There was clean-up to do. The guard who was hurt would be fine. A flesh wound, only.

Next, he sought out Lykaios who had been moved to the slave quarters. She was sleeping. Neither the palace nor the slave physician could be sure, but her head wound was cleaned and bandaged and she had woken enough to worry for the princes. Adrastus seemed more concerned about having to shear her hair and Damen was suddenly concerned with punching the slave master between the eyes.

The night wore on like the lashes did. Damen thought about Laurent, so beautiful, so capable of ugliness. How young he was when they brought him to Ios. The horror on Auguste's face by the stream while he was dying. Take him, he said. The attackers were all dead by then.

His father, next. Theomedes would not tolerate disrespect. He waited in his sitting room in his apartments, the equivalent of the room Damen had sent his injured guard and slave to just so he could talk to Laurent in peace. He hadn't seen Laurent since the great hall. For all Damen knew, he could have been attacked again. Duty meant walking away from people.

“Explain,” Theomedes said. “Don't make me ask your guard.”

“There was an attack in my apartments,” Damen said. “Veretians dressed as Akielon soldiers. That's how they got past the usual patrols. They attacked my men, a slave girl and tried to kill Laurent. We stopped them.”

“Any casualties?”

“All of them. None of us,” Damen said. “The boy Aimeric knew. He engineered it, somehow. He came along to survey his handiwork and attacked Laurent with a dagger he had stolen from my room. You saw the rest.”

Theomedes processed this. “Why the secrecy?”

“Because it looked like it was our men,” Damen said. “And I don't think Laurent actually wanted to kill Aimeric.”

“You just went along with it.”

“Clearly.”

“Damianos.”

“Sorry, father. I made the decision. A --”

“All right,” Theomedes said. “Decisions. You are well entitled to make decisions about an attack in your personal apartments.” There was a weight in Damen's chest. He wanted to ask his father about his...suspicions that were really realisations. But he couldn't betray Laurent. He had other, earlier, softer realisations weighing on his mind. “Tell me this, were you really in the hall when Aimeric came along?”

“Yes. And before that, too. Laurent wanted to show me a book. He likes books and – they were waiting.”

“It's good that you look out for him,” Theomedes said. “It's good to have that ability. Like Kastor used to look out for you. But he is not your brother.”

“I know that.”

“And he will rule your enemy. He will be your enemy.”

“The Regent sent the assassins,” Damen said.

“I assumed.”

“Why do you think he left him here?”

I will be in Fortaine.

“Suits his political machinations.” Theomedes sighed. “I know you are...fond of him. But he is not your responsibility.”

“Seventeen is very young,” Damen said. Too young. For him. For killing.

“You were commanding at seventeen.”

“I had my father and my brother and a country,” Damen said. “He has no-one. How old was my mother when she came here?”

“Egeria was sixteen. Nineteen when we married. It was a long courtship.”

“Because of her age?”

“Because of me. I was half blind and half delusional. But it worked out. We had you,” Theomedes said. “We were a good marriage. You will make a good marriage some day. Good heirs. Put those protective instincts to their highest purpose.”

Damen nodded. He almost always agreed with his father. “I'm going to see Aimeric,” he said.

“All right,” said Theomedes. “I was dreading it.”

If Damen's father thought he was going to see Aimeric out of duty to the crown, Damen wasn't going to correct him. He made his way to the guest rooms with the heaviest lead in his feet. His bones were weary to their marrow. His brain was mired in fog. The Veretian guards did not protest when he tried to enter the sickroom. Damen was wondering how he could get rid of Guion but Guion was not there.

“The Councillor is making arrangements for the passage home to Fortaine,” explained an attendant holding a bowl of bloody water outside the boy's door.

“Not Arles?”

“No. Not at this time of year, your highness. No-one but the physician has been in.”

“I won't be long.” Damen pushed open the door. Aimeric lay on his stomach, candle light bathing his youthful face, a sheet covering his modesty. If it wasn't for the open wounds, he'd be the picture of eroticism for lots of men. Damen felt disgusting for even noticing.

Aimeric was conscious. He did not turn his head. The flogging would not knock a man out for a long period. Drugs would. His eyelids flickered enough to give Damen a very brief sneer. Only slightly drugged, then. Enough to dull the pain or perhaps to stop him squirming while the wounds were treated. The things about lashes is that they were so thin that all you could do was clean and bandage them. Nothing more.

“Are you awake?” Damen asked.

“It is difficult to sleep when your back's been torn open.” Aimeric was clutching something. Damen noticed as he walked closer to the bed. He saw the glint of silver trailing from his palm. “That's mine,” he said when Damen grabbed it, but he could not stop him. A silver pendant, rimmed with a cluster of tiny red gemstone. Nothing expensive. A trinket, really.

“Cute,” Damen said. “I gave something similar to a girl from Mellos when I was fourteen.”

Aimeric turned his head. For one lash, the whip had landed closer to his neck than his back. Turning his head made Aimeric cry out. A flash came to Damen's foggy mind. Aimeric lying in that same position, crying out the same way for another reason. Something shifted in the vision and Aimeric's hair was blond.

“What did the Regent promise you?” Damen asked. “A position in his guard? A third son of a lord could get that anyway with a little hard work.”

“I don't have to talk to you,” Aimeric said. “Laurent sent his brute to do his dirty work. You're wasting your time.”

“Laurent doesn't know I am here,” Damen said. “Have you really never been outside Fortaine before?”

“My inexperience amuses you.”

“Not in the slightest. So...the Regent wrote to you and asked you to worm your way into my apartments while his nephew was attacked? Just randomly. Come on, don't deny it Aimeric. You were there. You're just lucky the whole court doesn't know.”

“He doesn't write to me. He's so busy cleaning up after Laurent. He came to Fortaine on his way back from the border last year.”

“That was the first time you met him? Odd to gain such trust so quickly.”

“He was there before. When I turned thirteen.” Aimeric glanced at the necklace. “I don't care what you think. I don't care what the liar prince says. I know --”

“What do you know, Aimeric?”

“Thirteen is old enough. I'm going to Arles. I'm going to --”

“You're going back to Fortaine,” Damen said. “But, listen, you don't have to. You can stay in Ios.”

Aimeric laughed and it sounded worse than his sobs in the great hall. “You don't know anything. I'm going to Arles. I'm going to see court and all the performances. We're all going to laugh at you, the stupid barbarian prince, too stupid to see that his country is going to crumble and Laurent is here feeding his uncle everything he needs.”

Damen went to the door. This was wrong. All wrong. He shouldn't be talking to this boy. He should... he should go back to his apartments.

“I am sorry,” he said to Aimeric.

“You will be.”

Damen thought that maybe Aimeric was right. Laurent was scheming all along. Secrets and lies. Spying. They knew about the spying. Damen had laughed about the spying. Nikandros and Kastor and Theomedes all warned him about Laurent, about Veretians. His head spun. Maybe they were right.

Maybe all those warnings made the Regent right and arrested Laurent as he was in by the stream, in the warfield tent, that scared and alone thirteen year old boy who clung to viciousness as his only weapon.

Nothing was right, tonight. Ruefully, Damen thought of his own ignorance. How stupid he had been to think a shallow epiphany about his regard for Laurent would be the most startling thing that happened tonight.

What a long night it had been. Damen's legs were heavy as boulders as he finally made his way back to his apartment via the service halls. He didn't want to see anyone. He didn't think that no-one would be about the main halls but that the slave corridors were already bustling with people starting their day's work. Laurent would have thought of that.

He had to go see Laurent. He should have ignored his father for once and gone straight to him before Aimeric had really began to bleed. But he couldn't. He delayed. He went, instead, after acquiring a flask of strong base wine, to the quarters that housed Laurent's personal guard.

Lazar, sober now, was alert outside the room as if it was the prince's room.

“Your highness,” he said, boldly. “If this is punishment for...”

“It's not,” Damen said. “I'm just checking in.” He was aware of the incongruity of it – a prince going out of his way to check in on a foreign soldier, one who had just spectacularly failed in his duty – but it was the right thing to do in a night full of wrong things. Jord was a good man. Damen respected him. “Neither of you are my men to punish, as you well know.”

“I thought you might be acting on behalf of the prince.”

“No,” Damen said. “No. Just on my own behalf. I'm always on duty.”

Lazar opened the door, which saved Damen the indignity of knocking on a door in his own apartment and saved Jord the indignity of him walking right in. Damen had never been here before. Why would he? But the room was a sad little shock to him – two foreign soldiers forced to make their own space in a corner of a foreign palace. There were tall cups in the Veretian style. A heavier blanket. An un-made bed.

Jord was sitting on the un-made bed. It was not soldier standards from a man who generally radiated steady soldier standards. Another sad shock. Jord braced his shoulders, tried to stand, put his hands behind his back so Damen wouldn't see them shake.

“At ease,” Damen said. “Here.” He handed Jord the flask. “It's good for shock.”

Jord took a long swig. “Sir,” he began. Army habits. “I accept whatever...consequence I face for my failure to --”

“Jord, you've had your consequences.” The whip was as much for Jord as Aimeric. Surely he knew Laurent well enough to realise that.

“I'm not trying to be insolent,” Jord continued. “I just...was it planned? Did you know?”

“Know? Neither of knew anything until there was slaughter in my corridor,” Damen said, shocked.
Laurent could be calculating. Damen was no stranger to strategic thinking. The poison plot was still fresh in their minds. But he would never -- “Jord, no. None of this was planned by anyone but Aimeric.”

The name made Jord flinch. “That makes sense. I never should have had my head turned.”

“It wasn't your fault,” Damen said. “There's no failure in not seeing badness. I've been to see him.”

“I'm surprised you could leave his side.”

“Aimeric, I mean.”

“They wouldn't let me in,” Jord said. He took another long gulp. The flask was light in his hands now.

“He will recover, of course. We both know lashes, especially so few, are recoverable,” Damen said. “He is...don't be too hard on him in your thoughts. He was convinced he was doing the right thing. And,” Damen added. “I did meet him, too. Don't be hard on yourself. I'm sure he did everything he could to--”

“Stop,” said Jord. “It wasn't like that. I'm not some green, easily flattered desperate thing unable to say no to a pretty young thing like Aimeric. He was annoying and petty and I thought to myself, I can be different.”

“You don't have to explain.”

“I thought,” Jord continued. “being direct is sometimes the kindest thing you can do for a person. Men should be like that. You should know where you stand. I thought, if Prince Damianos can be direct and considerate with Prince Laurent, I can do that with this visiting aristocrat. I can shape--”

“Enough,” Damen said, with more anger in his voice than he intended. Jord shrank. He closed his eyes and Damen was compelled to offer explanations that were not right for his title. He thought, is that what people think I am doing? Shaping the bright young prince into something suitable for me? He always let Laurent be.

“Forgive me,” said Jord. “This is stronger than what I am used to. I know better than to compare myself to a prince.”

Damen did not set him straight.

Pink streaks of dawn streamed down the long marble corridor that just a few hours ago had been awash with deep red blood. Damen came to Laurent's door and hesitated. Should he knock? Should he wait for Laurent to pad across to his room as he almost always did? There weren't any right answers. He allowed himself one calming breath and walked into the room.

In Damen's mind, it should have been bathed in darkness but of course the sun was rising here too. He could see that it was cluttered, clean, neat, still. He saw Laurent, back to the door, curled up in ball on top of his sheets. Laurent, who was always had the poise of a statue even when he raged, shuddered a little and didn't even turn his head. Like Aimeric.

Like Aimeric.

Chapter Text

Laurent did not turn his head.

“Took you long enough,” he said, blithely, bitterly. “Let me guess. You had to dissect it all without your father. No, you smoothed it out with Guion so he didn't take some strip of road back.”

“May I lie down?” Damen asked.

“You're the Crown Prince of Akielos. These are your apartments.”

“May I lie down?” Damen repeated.

“Suit yourself.”

Damen lowered himself onto the bed with as much distance from Laurent's curved back as he could allow without falling off the edge. The frame creaked. The mattress felt like it was filled with stones. “It's been a long night,” Damen said. “I am tired. I'm not quite sure if there are still several dead Veretians in my bedchamber.”

Laurent did not move. His hair was matted, slightly frizzy. His hands were fists in front of his chest. “Sleep, then,” he said. “You sleep easily, I know.” This was not an unusual set up for them – they often lay in the same space. They had been closer than this, too. But Damen felt a weight of unsureness pressing against his chest. He didn't know where to start. He felt like he should refrain from touching Laurent, then hated that he felt that way.

“Ah,” Laurent said.

“Ah?”

“You are changed inside. It was only a matter of time.”

“I have something to tell you,” Damen said.

“Let me guess. I'm good at guessing secrets. You're sending me back to my uncle. My viciousness has shocked you, or at least, that's what you're telling yourself.”

“That's not it.”

“Your father wishes to bargain with me now and you know you won't win the arguments after my cruel display in the hall.”

“No.” Damen wished he had the disposition to be soothing. Women could do that. Maybe if he had known a mother, he would have been able to learn. Laurent's skin was red and his lips were cracked. “It's about what we were talking about earlier,” he said. “You can have your slaves.”

Laurent froze, then whirled around. His hair really was quite a state. Damen might have smiled, in another circumstance. Laurent still had his fists clenched tight.

“Don't trick me,” Laurent said. “I – not you.”

“I don't trick you,” Damen said. “I was always going to do it.” Now, more than ever. He couldn't say why. He thought maybe Laurent needed it. It would maybe change things for him, and consequently for them. Laurent had been so young when he came here. Damen had spent so much time with him. He didn't want to be like....to be the one who shaped him when Laurent should be shaping himself.

If Laurent wanted a bedslave, who was Damen to prevent that? That's how it should be, really. Someone with no ulterior motive. Someone sweet, uncomplicated, young, unconnected. Someone without the power to take advantage.

“Even now?”

“Yes,” Damen said. Then because it felt too raw to look into Laurent's red-rimmed blue eyes, he glanced downwards at the crumpled sheet and saw a thin river of blood stream down Laurent's right wrist and onto the bed. Instinct trumped logic. He grabbed hold of Laurent's arm to check the source.

“Stop.” Laurent pulled away. Damen was stronger. He couldn't see the source of the blood. He couldn't let go until he knew Laurent was all right. But Laurent would not open his fist until Damen pried his blood-stuck fingers apart and there, against his palm was a red ruby pendant held so tightly it had sliced right into his skin. It had been around his neck when Auguste died.

He held it like Aimeric. Like Aimeric. There was no more hoping for Damen.

Damen pulled back then. Laurent turned the colour of the blood and he turned his back on Damen.

“Why didn't you tell me?” Damen asked. There. That was one of things that was niggled. “You could have told me.”

Over his bony, shaking shoulder Laurent gave Damen a look that would turn the warmest Akielon waters to ice. Damen had seen it before, back when he didn't see the poison, and Laurent had silently said why didn't you notice?

The signs were there. Damen had not let himself see them. He could not fathom the thought of such heinous actions - poison, assassins, abuse, neglect -- acted out between family members.

He had to fix this. He went to his knees behind where Laurent sat at the edge of the bed. “You don't...it's all right.”

“All right?” Laurent let out a hiss of a laugh. “All right? What part of this is all right?”

“I have been to see Aimeric,” Damen said.

“Wanted all the gory details to relay to your father?”

“Laurent.”

“I am,” Laurent ground out. “Nothing like Aimeric. You heard him. Poor deluded fool. I am not like that. Not now. Not since I was a --”

“A boy,” Damen said.

“Yes, I was a boy when my uncle took me to his bed. Does that sicken you?” He didn't give Damen room to answer. “My father's brother. Two second sons, misunderstood. You said it yourself, incest is abhorrent in every culture.”

“Laurent.”

“You must have guessed deep down. Everyone wants to fuck me and you always keep me at arm's length.”

“Laurent, stop!”

“Touched a nerve?”

Damen, if he was in capable of logic, would not have touched Laurent. He would have sat back on his heels and waited. But his mind was in a mist that could not be cleared. He thought it would never clear until he ran a sword through the Regent's heart. In the mist, he grabbed hold of Laurent. His shoulders were so slight beneath his hands – sweat-damp and trembling with exertion or exhaustion. He forced Laurent to look at him, because of the mist, when he should have gently climbed down from the bed and went to his knees and begged him to look.

“Fuck that,” Damen said. “Fuck all of that. Do you even hear yourself? You were a boy. You were a boy. He tried to kill you again tonight and you were just a boy.”

“I'm seventeen now.”

“Boys never know they're boys,” Damen said. “When I was thirteen I thought I was the best fuck in Ios. Trust me, I was not. When I was seventeen, I was leading armies --”

“Really? You never mentioned that before.”

“I lead them, because they were so well-trained and the battles were always going to be easily won,” Damen continued. “When I was nineteen, I thought Vere could be trusted. I am twenty-two, and I thought I couldn't be shocked.”

“It doesn't comfort me to think that I was manipulated. That my mind was so weak it could be bent like that,” Laurent said. “I have weighed all the option, believe me.”

“You are the most intelligent person I know.”

“You do live in Ios. The bar is not set high.”

“Laurent, I won't push you. Talk if you want. Say nothing if that's better. Just...don't punish yourself. And please, throw that ugly necklace in the sea.” Damen lay back down against Laurent's pillow. It was damp. There was saltiness in the back of Damen's throat like the spray of the sea and something else, nicer, that he could not let himself savour.

“That is my side,” Laurent said. Damen pushed over in the bed. “I am sure your men have removed those dead bodies.” Damen shrugged. Laurent put his feet back on the bed. Eventually, he lay down again with his back turned to Damen again. “Are you really not moving?”

“No.”

“Why?”

“I prefer to stay,” Damen said.

-

Damen, who generally thought that men who lay in bed in the morning unless perhaps they were newly wed or in the company of a very fine companion were in the same category as cowards and thieves, stayed in Laurent's bed as the sun climbed to its highest point in the sky. He'd often skipped a night's sleep all together rather than waste a day. He slept a little. He wasn't sure if Laurent did. Once Damen had established he wasn't leaving Laurent took up the same straight, still pose he generally favoured in sleep. He never threw his limbs about or cuddled against his companion for warmth. Damen wondered if there was some tragic reason for that and then he wondered if his newfound knowledge of Laurent's past would now colour everything he saw in him. Damen didn't want to think like that.

“Are you awake?”

“I am now.” Laurent shifted on the mattress. Damen really did have the lumpy side. “I have been all along. Am I disturbing you? There's a perfectly silent room across the hall. You won't have to hear the yard there, either, and it's corpse free. I helped remove them last night, after I spoke with the guards. I didn't actually spent the entire night sobbing here.”

Damen sat up. “If you're awake, let's go down to the training arena. You fought well last night but you can be better. No more wooden swords.”

“Doesn't that go against the rules?”

“Fuck the rules. It wasn't Theomedes who suggested that aspect of your punishment. Get up. We're going to fight.”

-

Damen had never actually sparred with Laurent. He supposed it seemed wrong – rival princes fighting. Like he was conjuring up a vision that didn't need to happen for years yet. Also, he thought he might hurt the boy, when he was a boy.

“How old are you now?”

“You ask me that too frequently. You should see a physician,” Laurent replied. “You know I will be eighteen in a few months.”

Eighteen was an age where the Regent could send for Laurent to come home. Eighteen was an age where Laurent could pack up and go of his own volition.

“All right,” Damen said. He tossed Laurent a proper sword. Nothing too heavy. “Let's get to work.”

They started easily. Testing. Prodding. Warming up. Laurent had been practicing with wooden swords again for a while now. More than Damen knew.

“Who spars with you?”

“Jord, mostly. He's better than Lazar.”

“Have you seen him?”

“I think it better he doesn't see me,” Laurent said. “He requested leave. I denied it.”

“He's been here a long time,” Damen said.

“So have I.” Laurent pushed back. Real fighting. It was familiar because he'd trained under Nikandros here at the palace academy. It was familiar because Damen had once fought beside a very similar swordsman beside a stream in Delpha. It made sense. Laurent worshipped his brother. They probably had the same trainer, as Haemon had trained Damen and Kastor and Nikandros.

It was still a little shock to see Laurent, taller now, broader, wield a sword like his dead brother.

“You fight like Auguste,” Damen said, easily blocking a series of sharp thrusts.

“No. He was better at this stuff.”

“Stuff?”

“Being a future king,” Laurent said. “He never would have let...” Pausing his speech, Laurent unleashed a particularly fierce blow. Damen blocked it, but he felt it in his bones.

“You didn't let...”

“You don't know that.” Laurent stopped, again, this time to tie his hair back with a strip of leather.

“I told you it would get in the way,” Damen said. “And, please, don't say things like that.”

“It makes you uneasy? My heart bleeds.”

“It wasn't your fault.”

Laurent struck out with his sword. “I know that,” he said. “I know that.” The metal clashed. “But that doesn't stop the looks.”

“What looks?” Damen forced Laurent back towards the centre of the arena.

“Look, then. Auguste. At the stream. He...suspected.” Laurent's words were coming laboured now. He wasn't exerted, not really. He was fit. This was something else. Anger. Frustration.

“He would never look at you differently.”

“He did!” Laurent lashed out with his sword. “You saw.”

“Laurent,” Damen said. “That wasn't about you and you know it.”

“Someday, some second, you'll wear the same look.”

“If I do, it won't be about you.”

Laurent stood back, shifted positions. Damen didn't wait for him to get comfortable. He attacked. Laurent blocked him. Laurent held himself like a dancer and used balance instead of strength to fend Damen off. He shifted again, mimicked Damen's style, but of course he was not strong enough to defeat him that way. But he would be stronger than lots of other people. Just not Damen.

“I think,” Damen said. “I might learn from you.”

“Like an elephant doing ballet,” Lauren said, and shifted to some hybrid of the two styles – Veretian and Akielon, Auguste and Damen – and raised his sword again. He couldn't get Damen down. But he held his own.

“Can we --” Laurent began. “Again?”

“Tomorrow,” Damen said, wiping sweat from his face. At the edge of the ring, he could see one of his father's men come to fetch him. “See you tonight.”

-

“The Veretians are gone,” Theomedes said.

“Except one.”

“Yes. Real swords again, Damianos?”

“He was attacked last night. I would have had to disarm one of my own men for him if I didn't get the attackers down so quickly.”

“For a Veretian? And you were always going to get the attackers down so quickly. They've been disposed of, by the way.”

“I know. I'm sorry. I should have done it.”

“No. Your men did it,” Theomedes said. “Remember. You lead. They follow.” Now that the pointless diplomatic mission was complete, palace business returned to normal. Already local officials were assembling eager to meet with the King. Damen heard them gather. He looked down at his father's desk where there was still a detailed map of the entire land spread open.

Damen kept looking at it. The border. Those rivers, hills and fields that now seemed like markers of the human body and the human mind. Homes and livelihoods and points of pride.
“I think,” Damen said. “We should go to war.”

“You do,” said Theomedes. “I've been aware of that for a while.”

“Today I think it more than ever.”

“What has changed?”

Damen inhaled and exhaled. Everything and nothing had changed. He could tell his father about the Regent and his father would hate him too. It was enough to remove him from his role. Not enough to go to war. And not what Laurent wanted.

“They took something they had no right to.” Damen pointed at Delpha.

But he did not care about the lands. He cared about what happened at Marlas.

More than that, he cared about what had happened before he had ever met Laurent or given him a second thought. Laurent, the clever boy who adored his brother. Laurent, who had been twisted and abused for someone else's vile desires. Aimeric, who could have been killed here if Laurent had not saw clearly enough to hurt him instead.

Himself, who would never know what would have happened if there had been no assassins and Laurent hadn't bid Lykaios to scream.

Damen, more than anything in the world, more than he wanted to see what it would be like to feel Laurent's lips against his, wanted to kill the Regent. If Aleron and Auguste could fall during a war with Akielos, he saw no reason why he couldn't cut the rotten Regent down.

-
Damen went back to the slave quarters. First, to check on Lykaios who was awake and mortified. Her hair, it seemed, was the source of her embarrassment. Damen was gently reassuring. She was still beautiful. She had done nothing wrong. Kindly, he leaned close enough to take her hand. He had every part of her body before. She knew he would never harm her. But she flinched and Damen saw that it was the steel of his sword so close to her body that had altered her usual perfect submission.

Lykaios, who had been hurt, and did not cry out until Laurent told her to. Like a good slave. Damen would never not feel guilty for leaving her alone in the cold hallway.

“Rest,” he said and went to find Adrastus. “I require some slaves.”

“Yes, Exalted. The Prince of Vere has made that clear,” Adrastus said.

“I wish to see them first.”

Adrastus hesitated in the manner of a man trying to work up the courage to say no to his prince. “Exalted, these boys....they are very vulnerable.”

“You think I would allow mistreatment?”

“No, of course not! Please, I will explain. They are training still. They have been training for your specific use. And your brother. If they were to be brought to you now, without warning, it could deeply upset them.”

“You train boys for me?” Damen never used to care for slave boys. He still didn't really. It was different with men. He liked them for who they were not because they existed to please him. He relished the physicality of it. There had been a gladiator one time and if the bed wasn't marble they would have broken it. “For Kastor?”

There had been a slave, he remembered, and Laurent asleep two walls away. Had that been enough to make Adrustus train boys? Damen felt his skin grow hot.

“Just in case, Exalted. He is not the first. But he is very lovely.”

“How much longer?”

“I couldn't say. These matters are so delicate.”

“Make it quick,” Damen said, and left.

-

He tried very hard to cycle back to the way he was before the attack. Before Aimeric. He tried to see Laurent as he had then – a friend, a companion, someone his body didn't sing for.

Damen was disciplined. He was an army man. He was used to bowing to duty and he saw no greater duty than treating Laurent with all the respect and courtesy he deserved.

So he mostly managed to be normal. He ignored the goosebumps that sprang wild on his skin when Laurent's foot brushed his in the baths. He ignored the catch in his chest when Laurent smiled over the top of his book. He tried not to touch him any more or any less than he would have before the light around Laurent changed. He would not do anything slyly for his own gratification.

But Laurent kept coming to his rooms and Damen had to sternly tell himself that it was for Laurent's own protection.

They trained every day on the sawdust. Sometimes hard, and Laurent drew upon some deep-seeded fury and training was a challenge. Sometimes softer, playful, cantering, nearly dancing.

“Are you injured?” Damen asked, studiously observing Laurent's stance one day under the fading afternoon sun. It would be typical of him to hide some strain in order to keep up with Damen.

“No,” said Laurent. “You're not that good.”

“Yes, I am,” Damen replies.

“So am I,” Laurent said. “Don't let Nikandros hear you infer otherwise.” Laurent had excellent swordsmanship long before he left Vere. Everything he had learned in the academy under Nikandros's tutelage had basically been a bonus.

“Your form is off,” Damen said. “Why are you favouring your left?”

“I'm not.”

“You are.”

“That's just how I stand.”

Damen could not hide the annoyance on his face. “You have perfect posture, Laurent. If you're hurt --” He was standing right beside Laurent now and he ran his hands over his shoulder and neck, probing, to see if Laurent would reveal a weakness somewhere.

“I'm not hurt,” Laurent said. Damen saw his throat flex; felt his muscles tense. “I didn't realise --”

Gently, Damen nudged Laurent's shoulders back to the correct position. He moved his hands down Laurent's sweat-damp cotton training shirt, noted and discarded the fact his hands fit so neatly at Laurent's hips, and adjusted his stance. The whole time his hands were on Laurent, Damen found that he was unable to breathe. He wondered if Laurent could hear how loud his heart was beating.

“Like this,” Damen murmured. He had really intended to speak clearly. “Stand like this.”

Laurent succumbed to the guidance, shifted his hips, stood straighter, swallowed. Damen had to move.

It took him too long to move.

-

“You're planning another war against my uncle,” Laurent said, nonchalant, as he picked raisins from warm bread several nights after Damen had first broached the idea with his father. “Were you ever going to tell me? I won't write to him and spoil the surprise. Don't worry about that.”

“The first war was not against your uncle,” Damen said. “That was my father, and he challenged your father and your brother.”

“That's not an answer.”

“Yes, those are my plans.” Damen knocked the bread from Laurent's hands and ignored the outrage on his lovely face at the insult. “Stop. There's plain bread if you don't like raisins.”

“All right, nag,” Laurent said. He left the couch to examine the contents of the table. “You got licorice. It will turn your teeth black.”

“So will red wine. It's worth it,” Damen replied. Lately, he had been craving sugary things and longer hours in the training arena. He had not been interested in taking slaves and none of the people in, well, the world compared to Laurent or sparked any kind of attraction in him. He told himself the two things were not related. “There are jellies, too. The disgusting perfume ones you like.”

“They're not perfume. They're delicious.” Laurent returned with sugar-dusted jellies that Damen had requested from the market. “So...war.”

“Yes,” said Damen. “You know how volatile things are at the border. It was inevitable.”

“Nothing is inevitable. There are always choices.”

“This is my choice.”

“Why?” Laurent demanded.

“You know why.”

“Still smarting from your last defeat?”

“No,” said Damen. “It's not that.”

Laurent ate four jellies before he spoke again. “Thank you,” he said.

-

Theomedes was not adverse to the idea of war but the kyroi might be. Luckily, Theomedes had already invited them all for upcoming celebration games in his honour. It gave Damen time to work on his plans. He had a lot of plans. He could make it work. He could win the kyroi round. The only thing he couldn't do was perform alchemy. War was expensive. If they raised taxes much more, the kyroi would protest and protesting kyroi would not vote in their favour.

The accounts swam in front of Damen's eyes in the dim lamp light. The moon outside was high. Frustrated, Damen tossed the gold logs aside.

“I have a suggestion,” Laurent said, putting his book down onto Damen's bed. Since the attack, he behaved exactly the same as he had before. He came here every night. He had long outgrown the couch and waited, reading, until Damen drifted off to make the tiny leap from the couch to the bed. He was not a cuddler or one to flail about in his sleep. He was always gone in the morning.

“I'm all ears,” Damen said. “You're better at this stuff than me.” The fact that he should not be letting the Prince of Vere know about the financial state of Akielos did not give him pause.

“What if I was to make you a partner in my business like you suggested before.”

“I think,” Damen said. “That we already have a controversial partnership. My father wouldn't like it. Your uncle would retaliate.” Laurent nodded. It was surprising to Damen how little his face changed at mention of the uncle. But Laurent had a lot of practise at non-reaction. “I know why you are supporting this war effort but outside of these rooms it will look like you've betrayed your crown.”

“Enlighten me.”

“I'm just the dumb brute doing you dirty work. Disposing of your usurper. The throne will rescind to its rightful owner, after, and we will have Delpha. We will have peace.”

“Do you really think that?”

“No. But my brother will. Maybe the kyroi.” Damen turned on his side. So he could look at Laurent. He could see the sea. “Those slaves,” he said. “They are trained especially for me. They're very expensive.”

“I know. That's part of why I want them.”

“Diana, too. And Lykaios needs to come into my household. She's still jumpy, I hear.”

“Well she can't be that expensive now,” Laurent said. “But I suppose I am partly responsible. I'll buy them off you. That will go a long way towards funding your war effort.”

“I might just squander the gold on gambling and women.”

“That's a risk I'm willing to take.”

Damen sat up, sat forward. He searched Laurent's expression. “You hate slavery. You hate the thought of buying people.”

“There's something I hate more.” Laurent's mouth flickered briefly into a smile. “And you were giving them to me anyway.”

-

Chapter Text

Damen had plenty of princely skills. People liked him. He was good a protecting people, at fighting, at looking at maps and charts and field reports alongside his father and easily seeing the best plan of action. He was good at commanding people. He was good at sex (but, as much as it strangely pleased the general population that their prince was virile and considerate, that wasn't really a requirement of a good prince.)

Damen was not so good with money. Mostly because it had never been a concern of his before. His transaction with Laurent had helped, of course, and the donation of Prince Damianos's personal funds would go a long way towards making the kyroi and the populace support him.

He was, categorically, lacking in the skills necessary to send coded messages filled with loaded promises and probing questions out to the nobility in order to get them on his side. These things had to be done in private. So Damen had taken to drafting and re-drafting letters at his desk late into the evening.

“I nearly feel annoyed,” Laurent called, from the couch. “You have taken my seat.” Until lately, Laurent had been the only one to make any real use of Damen's expensive desk. Damen had preferred to dictate messages to an assistant rather than write them himself.

“You have taken over so many of mine,” Damen replied. “The couch. The right side of my bed. And there is a perfectly good desk across the hall.”

“Use some of that bestial strength to drag it across,” Laurent said.

Damen did not respond. He could already hear the familiar sound of Laurent setting down his book, the rustling of his dressing gown around his legs, the pad of his slippers and then creak of the wood as he leaned against the desk.

“I can't write while you sit there.” If Damen moved his hand, he'd come into contact with Laurent's hip.

“You haven't scratched that nib in at least ten minutes.” Laurent peered down at the papers on Damen's desk. Another new habit. It simply wasn't acceptable for the Crown Prince of Akielos to be showing the Crown Prince of Vere the inner-workings of the Akielon war campaign, so they had to be discreet even in the privacy of their apartment.

Damen was good at many princely things. But Laurent was better at deciphering courtly language and wording calls to war and debt reminders than him. Laurent helped. In truth, his mere presence was a help but in practical terms he was gifted when it came to words.

“Torgiers of Patras declines our invite,” Damen said. “So there goes my chance of appealing to him in person.”

“A slight?” Laurent's brows furrowed a little.

“No, Akielos and Patras are still friends. His brother Torveld comes instead.” It was common for second sons to travel instead of the king. Safer. It was generally a compliment to the country, except when the country was trying to acquire allies for an upcoming war. “So I must find a way to ask Torgiers in a letter instead.”

“Patran ways are similar to Akielon ways, yes? Begin like this.” Laurent called out a perfectly balanced request. Damen transcribed it. “Please be aware,” Laurent continued. “That we have a pest in our palace. They call him Laurent and men will lose their minds when they clasp eyes on – why have you stopped writing?” Damen responded by elbowing Laurent in the thigh. “I was just making sure you were paying attention.”

“I'll have to re-write it now.”

“You were always going to.” That was true, also. Damen would re-write the letter, adding some personal conversation and making sure it sounded sufficiently Akielon for no-one to suspect Laurent had any role in it. “What else?”

“That's enough for tonight. My eyes ache. You can read a legend to me if --”

Laurent yanked another letter from the pile. “I see my name.”

“That's only Nikandros.” Damen did not bother taking the letter back. No more secrets.

“Pen pals? How cute.”

“Not hardly,” Damen said. In truth, he and Nikandros rarely corresponded unless it was for official business. Theirs was not that kind of friendship. When they were apart, they did not need to communicate. When they were re-united, they could continue as if they had never been apart. Perhaps, in another life, Damen would have enjoyed a listening ear for his problems. But princes could not be so open. And Nikandros did not well blend the royal formal and the friendship familiar in his writing, and after an awkward response to a question about opportunities for romantic liasions at the Kingsmeet, Damen knew not to bother.

“You have spies, too,” Laurent said, when he replaced the letter face down.

“And their intelligence should please you,” Damen said. Nikandros had confirmed what first came to light on Damen's last mission to the border . The starburst flew throughout the south of Vere. The people loved their absent prince, lit candles to light his way home, and despaired at the thought of a war that could put him in danger.

“You are the only one who thinks any of that is about me,” Laurent said. “The love is for my brother. I'm the leftover, at best.”

“They love their prince. How could --” Damen stopped himself. Laurent would not appreciate sentimentality from him. “I thought you liked having your ego flattered.”

“Depends on who is doing the flattering. Mainly, this tells me I need to be very careful here. War might be popular on your side, but invasion will never be popular in Vere. If those candle-lighting peasants knew....”

“No-one will know,” Damen promised.

“Secrets are rather my forte.” Laurent quenched the lamp. “Come on, then. I'll read you a story.”

-

 

It struck Damen as odd that while he watered the seeds of war, he kept thinking about Laurent's slaves. His slaves. They had to be his before he could sell them. They had to be his to come to his apartments on a permanent basis and bear his pin and have a First Night with capital letters. But, really, there wasn't much of a distinction. He and Laurent were like that now. A pair accepted. It made Damen think of how his father and his mistress were viewed. It was not really a pleasant association.

The slave boys could be good for Laurent. Laurent deserved someone sweet, someone gentle, someone who would not judge. These boy slaves would be all that and more. It made sense.

It made Damen jealous. Perhaps he delayed their acquisition longer than strictly necessary.

But, mostly, it made sense. The slaves-in-training for Damen and Kastor were the most beautiful, the most talented, the most attractive. Because beauty and attraction were not the same thing. It made sense that the Crown Prince of Vere would receive slaves of their stature. Damen didn't mind. He outranked Kastor.

He didn't know why Laurent wanted two. Perhaps the second boy was purely to annoy Kastor. Perhaps he thought Damen might like to partake.

“What do you know of their training?” Laurent asked Damen at dinner while table attendant cut up their syruped pears.

“Considerably less than you, my scholar,” Damen replied. “It is sacred.”

“They're not even allowed to masturbate while they wear the training silks,” Laurent said. From Damen's other side, Theomedes gave Laurent a Look. Akielon and Veretian sensibilities would never align on matters of dinner table conversation. “Or touch each other as friends.”

“I've seen them lounge in the gardens. They use each other as cushions.”

“They have the finest cushions in the palace. They crave human contact.”

“They get plenty once the silks come off.”

“Yes,” said Laurent. “That's all part of it. Anticipation. Denial etc etc”

“Your theories?”

“Theories. Basic human decency. Call it what you will.” Laurent looked around the room again. They were dining the great hall because people were starting to arrive for the games. Not the nobles or the kyroi. Once the upper ranks got here, the people currently in the hall would be in the yards and the taverns. Theomedes always honoured the builders and the wranglers and the trainers before and after the nobles came and went. “What do you think their secrets are?”

“Who? The man from Thrace who makes the arrows. I think he has never had such rich food and he's already concerned about the thin walls in his lodgings.”

“The slaves.” Laurent pointed at a kithara player with tumbling curls so black they shone blue against the white marble column. “That one.”

“She would rather play a different song?”

“Yes, good guess. The master says the boys are almost ready. I think it would be best to take them into the household before the games begin.”

“Almost is not sufficient. They are vulnerable.” Damen heard himself echo the master in the gardens.

“Not in this instance,” Laurent said. “I promise. But, to appease you, we'll forgo the traditional presentation. We will start them slow. Ease them into it, before the real crowds arrive for the games.”

-

If Damen had seen these two boys before, he couldn't remember it. Most likely, he hadn't. Adrastus would have kept them away from their intended master in the palace. He would have noticed their striking beauty. It was immediately apparent, that boy with the fairer hair had been chosen for Damen.

They had been brought to Laurent's rooms, as requested. They were polished, primped,buffed and dressed in the flimsiest of garments. Damen felt if he breathed in their direction, their clothes would come clean off.

That was the intent, of course.

Two boys. Young men, really, but boyish in their features and their status. They knelt on the carpet in Laurent's room, heads bowed, cuffs gleaming, backs rising and falling in twin gentle breaths. One had curly dark hair that framed a classically gorgeous face. The other, fairer. Hair like wheat, still several shades darker than Laurent's. Skin like milk. He was trembling. Boys like these, prized slaves, their entire lives had lead up to the moment when they were prostrated on the floor in front of two crown princes. Damen wondered what had lead to this moment – their childhood, their training, if there was some kind of send off among the other trainees before they were brought to the palace proper. Laurent would know. But he couldn't ask just now.

It was the biggest kind of tribute – their whole lives dedicated to the simplest service. Damen felt an ache in his gut. He wished Laurent had not just assumed he would be here. He wished Laurent had not wanted this at all. He wished he could stop thinking about Aimeric and the whip. Lykaios, who had not screamed and trembled when Damen wore his soldier's uniform and jumped when a draft made a door slam shut.

“Rise,” Laurent said. This was his show, after all. Plain speaking was the way to address bed slaves. They boys rose like mirror images. “Be at ease. There is no need to be fearful.” He paused and popped a piece of rose jelly into his mouth.

Perhaps they were. Perhaps they were scared of the physical aspect. Their training would have been theoretical above practical. More likely, they were just overwhelmed with the prospect of what was about to happen. Damen before battle. Damen, in the future, before he would be crowned king.

“Tell Damianos-Exalted your names,” Laurent continued, using the form of address a slave would. It sent a strange thrill down Damen's spine to hear him speak like that. Evidently, Laurent already knew them. He had hand-picked them.

“I am Kallias,” said the one with the darker hair. “He is Erasmus.” Kallias glanced at Erasmus. Damen saw a glimpse of something in his errant look. Concern? He should have kept his eyes down.

“Erasmus,” Damen said, briefly resting his hand on the boy's wheaten hair. “Kallias.” He touched the dark curls. Protocol. “Welcome to my household. We recognise your service here. You will be under our protection.”

Lykaios. He pushed her from his mind.

“As you know,” Laurent stood beside Damen. The sight of the boots made Erasmus gulp. “I am from Vere. There is no equivalent there of First Night. Perhaps, you could remind me. Kallias.”

“Laurent,” Damen said. He didn't want the boys to die of terror.

“Yes, your highness,” Kallias said. “It would be my honour to remind you. Here, in Akielos, a few lucky slaves are born with the make-up that could make them appealing to the kings and kyroi and princes above us. We receive the best training. The best treatment. Our young lives are spent learning all that is known of their desires so we best serve them.”

“Could you give us an example?” Laurent said. “Erasmus?”

“This one has learned,” he replied, voice barely a whisper. “Damianos's favourite battle songs so that I may perform if he wishes. I can now if --”

“Hush, don't be forward,” Kallias interrupted. “I am sorry, Exalted, your highness. Erasmus took the silks much later and he hasn't been here so long.”

“It's fine.” Damen touched his head again. It seemed to sooth him. “What of you, Kallias?”

“I was meant for Kastor, so I have had less time to learn Prince Laurent's tastes,” Kallias admitted. Nothing was known of Prince Laurent's taste except that maybe he didn't have any. “But --” He switched to thick, halting Veretian. “I live to serve. I strive to learn.”

Who knew if that impressed Laurent? It definitely impressed poor Erasmus. It was written all over his face.

“How nice,” Laurent said, impassively. “Now tell me about First Night instead of party tricks. Turn. Face each other. For courage.” Erasmus and Kassias complied, of course. “You learn from stories and books, I know. And it is forbidden to touch, except for on the cheek. Show me.”

Kassias leaned forward and pressed his cheek against Erasmus. The touch was nothing, really, but it was a testament to Erasmus's training that kept he remained steady. Damen could see the deprivation these trainees endured. The nervous anticipation, And all for First Night. What a pressure. Of course, they didn't move again until Laurent, with a small frown, waved them apart.

“On First Night,” Laurent said. “You are to kiss and touch and feel for the very first time. With someone great, someone worthy of that experience. You are to have your body revered. You are to have your extensive training put into practise.” He stepped back. “Well, go ahead. This is my command.”

Confusion was little more than widening of the eyes, a look at exchanged for comfort or direction between them. This was cruel to the slaves. Not on a First Night. Not when they had been promised something so different.

“What are you doing? This isn't Vere,” Damen said to Laurent in rapid Veretian. “We don't watch. We don't make people perform like this.”

“Give me some credit,” Laurent replied in Akielon. “Right. I'll be more direct. Kassias, I want you to kiss Erasmus on the lips like you always wanted. I want you to taste every inch of his mouth, then his body. Use your hands everywhere. Explore. Suck his cock. Erasmus, reciprocate. Fuck each other, if you wish. Use the bed. Use the furs. Hold each and talk if you want. But just...enjoy it.” He stepped backwards as he spoke, all the way to the door.

Damen was a little stunned. “You heard the prince,” he said. “This is our command.” He followed Laurent to the door. Laurent never let anyone be alone in his room.

“You have the night,” Laurent said to Erasmus and Kassias. “We are just over there if you need anything.” He shut the door. He left the slaves to do as they pleased. “I ruined it with that last line, didn't I?”

“I'm afraid so,” Damen said, ignoring the guards. “Princes don't make those kinds of offers. They don't do that when they should having First Nights either.” His brain was tired. He went straight to his bed and threw himself down.

“You told me once that to a slave a First Night means everything,” Laurent said, settling onto the couch with his feet raised on the marble base of Damen's bed. “I was never going to take it from them. They love each other, you know? I saw it in the garden. I know, eventually, they may serve. They may even want to. But --”

“You're a romantic,” Damen said. It pleased him to say it. To have found some tangible sweetness in Laurent that wasn't dependant on four different filters to feel real. To know something about him that no-one else did.

“You're a cross between a water buffalo and a meat pie.” Laurent poured two cups of water. “Great. I'm stuck here. I should have brought my slippers.”

“You're always here. You never do anything without thinking it through,” Damen said. Without thinking, he sat forward and put his hands on Laurent's ankle.

“What are you doing?” Laurent stuttered.

“Helping,” Damen replied. He was strong. He wanted Laurent to relax. So he helped him take of his boots. No big deal. There weren't any servants about. And they were less easy to slip on and off than sandals. It really wasn't a big deal. He was just there. It was like...checking Nikandros's equipment when he was checking his own. He didn't know why Laurent's cheeks flushed and his mouth formed a small circle of shock. “Now. Stop complaining.” He dropped the boots on the floor.

“Why would you do that? You're a prince.”

“Why not?” Damen replied. He didn't want to think about it. Laurent pressed his lips into a thin line. “Tell me why else you want them.”

“Must I explain everything? Consider this, my Akielon bison, who else overhears as much as a slave?”

“Spying again? Laurent, I'm disappointed. You're really very poor at it.”

“Precautionary measure, purely. And since you're so well informed about my spying you will know I haven't sent anything of use in a few years now.”

“What you sent before that wasn't of use either,” Damen said.

“You have to take what victories you can,” Laurent said. There was a silence. Not unusual. Not uncomfortable. Just there. Damen listened to the ocean. He wondered if Erasmus and Kallias had recovered from the shock yet. They'd be loyal for life if Laurent's assessment was correct. “Have you ever done it?” Laurent asked, then.

“Spying? I rarely go un-noticed. Too bulky”

“First Night.”

“You know I have. Remember Lykaios.” There were others. Jessa, who due to some major transgression didn't get to keep the pin. Nell who often bathed him now. Another whose name he couldn't remember. Kastor wanted her. Damen wanted to please his brother.

“Right. Only girls. You like men when they fight you.”

“Sometimes,” Damen said. “Why do you ask?”

“It doesn't matter.”

“You don't say things that don't matter.”

“I suppose I was ... curious,” Laurent admitted.

“You want me to tell you what it would be like,” Damen said. Laurent found a very interesting patch of white marble, the same as the rest of the white marble, to examine. “I will if you lie down beside me.”

Slowly, Laurent lowered himself onto Damen's bed. It wasn't the first time but he carried himself like it was. Damen couldn't remember if he had ever invited Laurent before. Not that it mattered. They were not the kind of people who depended on invitations to go where they wanted to go.

Laurent carefully placed his slender body on the bed, ankles crossed, arms folded across his stomach.

“Take off your jacket.”

“Could you not have said that before I sat down?” Huffing, Laurent deftly unlaced his jacket. “Why are you ordering me around anyway?”

“I simply made a suggestion,” Damen replied. “Relax.” Or course, telling someone to relax usually had the exact opposite effect. Laurent, when he lay back down, was stiff as a corpse. So Damen poked him in the ribs until he squirmed into something resembling a human being. “You always stay so far away. Nikandros plopped down on the bed like he owned it.”

Laurent made the concession of turning to lie on his side. A little victory. “Are you stalling?”

“No. Believe me, there are few topics I am better versed in.”

“That's not really something to boast about.”

Damen laughed. There weren't many people in existence who would insult Damianos of Akielos. It was refreshing. He stretched out in his bed, sat up, spread out his arm, so he was looking down at Laurent. It did funny things to his chest to look down at him like that. Laurent was nearly eighteen. Damen was already wondering what he could to mark the occasion, as he would mostly likely be away fighting a war for him when it happened.

A throne of his own would have to be a sufficient gift.

“First Night is special for lots of reasons,” Damen began. “It represents, I suppose, an exchange. A recognition that a slave has trained so hard and dedicated the whole of their young life to preparing for service. You have to cherish that.”

Laurent yawned. “What exactly do you think I've been doing in the slave gardens? I know the theories. Tell me how it would be with you or pass me my book.”

Damen smacked Laurent's shoulder with the book before he spoke again. “I wouldn't drink anything more than one glass of wine. I might offer one to the slave, if they seemed especially nervous. I would be kind. I know you have seen... I know you think I am selfish in that regard but I assure you that is not the case. That's not me. There's no rush. There's no outside influence. It's just here.”

“Here.” Laurent shifted a little on the mattress. Closer, maybe.

“With the windows open, so you could feel the breeze. There's the salt in the air and beneath that, the scent of the citrus. It's not too hot. Summer is over,” Damen said. “I would sit. You would kneel and --”

“The slave, you mean.”

“Yes, the slave would kneel. The slave would put their cheek on my knee and I would play with their hair. I'd caress his face. He'd press his whole body against my leg and I'd get a little hard and, Laurent is this what you meant?”

“Yes,” he said. “But...skip ahead.”

“I'd be hard but, despite assumptions otherwise, it really wouldn't be about me. I can come whenever I want. The slave never has. Imagine that.” Damen gave a little shake of his head. “I'd bid him stand. He'd be a little unsteady, so I'd take his hand. He'd put his whole weight on my arm. I caress his face again, and kiss him. Are you surprised? I love kissing. Slaves do, too. Standing, you can just kiss. It's simple. We'd still be kissing when I take off his clothes. Just a tug. Then I’d let him remove mine.”

“You should see,” Laurent said. “How many hours they spend practising taking off those simple garments. Perhaps that's why we don't have slaves in Vere.”

“For all the practise,” Damen said. “He would still fumble. It's natural. I would never tell anyone but I would still have to console him. A few more kisses. Holding, maybe. Slaves like to be held. Are you listening?” Laurent had closed his eyes. Damen expected a fake snore at any moment. He didn't know what Laurent wanted but he knew himself – he couldn't spew profanities and filthy scenarios at the drop of a hat.

“Yes,” Laurent said.

“I'd take his hand again,” Damen said. “I'd lead you to the bed --”

“Stop,” said Laurent.

“I meant him.”

“No, I know. I have just changed my mind.”

“All right,” Damen said. More quiet. “Do you think it's like that for them?”

“Kallias and Erasmus. I hope it's better,” Laurent replied. “Every one deserves that.”

“You did. You do.”

“I don't want to talk about that.”

Damen felt the urge to withdraw his own limbs in case they actually brushed against Laurent. Instead, he unpinned his clothes and pulled the sheets up over his body. The chiton didn't fall away until he was covered.

“Why do you stay so far away?” he asked.

“You never invite me closer.”

“I'm a little chilly tonight.”

“I am not a bedwarmer,” Laurent snapped. “And I am sure Nikandros doesn't get much closer.”

“He has. Oh, not like that. When there's been slaves.” Damen waited. Waited. He almost started to think about the things that held Laurent back and then, begrudgingly, Laurent slid closer. He was almost close enough for a gust of wind to make his hair tickle Damen's bicep. “We've been closer.”

“Before.”

“Before what?”

“Just before.” Laurent's eyes were closed. His face was calm and unreadable.

"This is before," Damen said. His voice was raw. His chest was tight. Laurent's eyes opened, a flash of blue light so raw and alive that Damen felt his dreams take shape long before he slept.

-

Chapter Text

The palace at Ios sparked to life in a way it hard only flinted at occasionally in the years since Marlas, reverting to the radiant place Damen recalled from his boyhood. Ios became a micro chasm of all the glories Akielos had to offer. He wanted to take Laurent by the arm and show him all the little miracles happening, as people laughed and market traders ate like merchants and eager young boys clambered to compete in the games.

But he didn't. Much. Damen was conflicted about leading Laurent anywhere now, even though Laurent was a man grown and more than capable of digging his heels in if he didn't want to move. He may have suggested they take Kallias and Erasmus out into the city so they could see more of the world. He may have veered off route after they had visited the stables one day (and Laurent vetoed as many horses as he could participation in the okton. It wasn't just dangerous for the men) in order to show him the divers who practised on the cliffs.

They had appearances to maintain.

The summer feast was not just an ordinary celebration, though the celebration was important in order to show the people just why Akielos was worth fighting for and didn't their exiled brethren in Delpha deserve the same joys? It was, more crucially, a summit of all the kyroi which would hopefully result in their approval of Damen's plan for war.

It was quite an ambitious plan. A war that would definitely be won. A country whole again.

A direct path to the Regent.

The Games meant the seas and roads were flush with messengers. Damen was quite certain the messages he and Laurent flung out into the world would not be intercepted. They had his seal. A man would face certain death if he tried to open them.

The city was a breathing entity as Damen and Laurent went down to the port to welcome Torveld of Patras off his ship in person. Protocol. Preparations. Princes greeting princes. It was the right thing to do for Damen, though not required of Laurent. Not that Damen objected to his company. There was something enjoyable about walking out with Laurent. The streets were so busy, and the people loved to see the princes, so they had to walk very close surrounded by their guard. It was very noisy, too, and so alive.

“My caretaker has replied,” Laurent informed Damen. Ah, the reason for accompanying him. Secret words could be spoken and swallowed up by the city din. “Acquitart is ready.”

“You're sure about this?”

Laurent continued as if Damen had not spoken. “My uncle also wrote to wish me an early happy birthday. But you would have seen that. He hopes I am not too miserable down here in the sun. I used to burn quite badly as a child, you know. Anyway, yes, I am sure.”

“Does no-one wonder why you're still here?” Damen spoke Veretian.

“Yes. Rumours abound. Your father holds me hostage, which will be official story once you strike out by the way. Alternatively, I have been bewitched by the Akielon prince and won't leave his side. My uncle feels terribly guilty. He knows how attachments can form when boys of an impressionable age are left in the care of one older person.” A tiny twist of Laurent's lips was the only thing that betrayed any aversion for what he had just said. Damen, on the other hand, felt the words like a slap. “It's a good thing you don't actually like me,” Laurent continued. “What did you say to Kastor? It would be like sticking your cock in a pool of venom.”

“I was not so vulgar.” Damen said. “Hush. Torveld is here already.”

“What's he like?”

Damen thought of the last time he had seen Torveld of Patras. He had been the first one to bring the nasty rumours about Laurent and Auguste to Damen's attention.

“Fine,” said Damen. “An accomplished soldier. If he annoys you, don't kill him.”

Fraternal pleasantries exchanged under the hot sun. A wave crested up onto the jetty, splashing cool water onto the feet and legs of everyone who stood there. Pleasant, when your legs were bare and your toes were exposed. Damen and Torveld took it for that natural refreshment it was. Laurent bit back a yelp and dodged the wave and Damen had to try very hard to keep his laughter in check. That's how it always was with Laurent – a stab and a tickle. Damen, still reeling from the implication from the Regent, was utterly charmed by a silly antic.

Torveld appeared equally charmed. “The rumours don't do him justice,” he said, while Laurent distributed some of his puzzles to swarming barefoot children.

“We don't entertain rumours in Ios,” Damen said.

“I only meant a compliment,” Torveld said, evenly. He was more experienced diplomat than Damen.

“Let us go to the palace,” Damen said. “A litter awaits if you --”

“I would rather walk. But some of my people may wish to avail of it.” Torveld waved his assistant and slaves on ahead. Damen recognised the boy Ramon, who was no longer a boy at all, and would have liked to said hello. But Ramon was too well trained to raise his head. “You know,” Torveld continued. “Many of my fellow passengers expected my niece to travel with me me.”

“All your family was invited,” Damen said. “Laurent, we're leaving.” Laurent had extracted himself from the children and stopped to unleash his considerable charms on one Torveld's generals. “Careful,” Damen muttered. “You're not the prince they're meant to love.”

“I don't remember you and my niece spending much time together in Bazel on your last visit,” Torveld said.

“Not very much,” Damen said, aware now of new implications and Laurent's amused gaze. There were few reasons why a king would ask his brother to hand deliver a personal letter to a neighbour prince. Marriage was one of them. Well, better this than the Regent's rumours. From what Damen remembered, the Patran princess was robustly beautiful and more interested in falconry and theatre than she had been in courting a visiting Crown Prince. He had respected that, at the time. “She showed me her broadwing collection.”

Torveld nodded and finally handed over the a sealed letter from King Torgiers. There were plenty of Patran Princesses but none more independent than Torgiers daughter. She would not be hurt when she realised the rumours of a courtship with Prince Damianos came to nothing.

“It's a good thing your skin is so dark,” Laurent muttered, while Torveld was distracted. “I can tell you're blushing.”

“I'm not going to marry a Patran princess,” Damen replied, rather stupidly, he realised once the words were out. “And don't be jealous that I get to hide my embarrassment.” Laurent's fair skin bloomed pink, often. It was one of Damen's favourite colours, now.

“Do you have many nieces, Torveld?” Laurent asked. “What about your nephews?”

Torveld had a lot of nieces and nephews. Laurent teased information out of him about them the entire walk back. Torveld, a single man, liked to talk about his family. Laurent liked games that were not played on a field. Damen had the feeling one was happening in front of him and he didn't know the rules.

-

Later, Damen opened the letter in his room, with Laurent looking over his shoulder. Literally. Laurent, maybe buoyed on my Kallias and Erasmus's presence and attentions, maybe relaxed since the night he finally slept a little bit closer to Damen, was more open these days. He had one hand braced on the back of Damen's chair and his cheek was within touching distance of Damen's.

Slaves, Damen had learned, were only permitted to touch cheek to cheek before their First Night.

Damen read better Patran than Laurent. He finished faster and turned his face so fast they were nose to nose. “Torgiers declines,” he said, slumping on the chair.

“Any chance he misunderstood and doesn't want to wed his only daughter to a barbarian?”

“Unfortunately, no.”

Laurent offered a conciliatory look and leaned against the desk. “How close are the brothers?”

“They are brothers.”

“Just say if you don't know,” he replied. “Appeal to Torveld. He could convince Torgiers.”

“I'll try.” Damen sighed. “I really thought everything was coming together.”

“Well, if you strain your ears you'll see that Kallias and Erasmus are.”

“We're going to have to talk to them about discretion again soon.” Kallias and Erasmus were impeccably trained as slaves but utterly overwhelmed by freedom to fuck as they pleased. They were sex-drunk and deliriously happy. It was actually rather sweet.

“I told them to be vocal,” Laurent said. “I tire of people thinking I am impotent. Kallias's Veretian is improving.” No-one in the palace would guess the slaves were alone. It simply wouldn't occur to anyone that they could enjoy each other freely. “Diana is teaching Jord and Lazar to play cards. They are teaching her and Lykaios self-defence, which you should really observe, because they are both afraid to touch the women.”

Damen laughed, twisting around in his chair. He felt lighter already, just because of Laurent's presence.

 

“It will be more difficult once Nikandros and Kastor return,” he said.

“I can be discreet.”

“I mean,” Damen said. “That they see things in me other people don't.”

“Yes. I know. I can be discreet.” Laurent lowered his eyes. “I wanted to say, I didn't meant to unsettle you earlier. I know how difficult it is to be at the receiving end of one my uncle's campaigns.”

“Oh. No. That's not why I was unsettled. At least...it's nothing I've not had implied before. It just sounded different coming from you.”

“I'm good at delivering pain.”

“Laurent.”

“I won't say it again.”

-

Kastor and Nikandros arrived on horseback. It surprised Damen that they arrived together. There was no love lost there but, then again, there really was only one road back to Ios and the games were due to start in just two days. He met them at the steps, then accompanied them to the great hall where they could speak with his father and the kyroi. A year ago, it probably would have bothered Damen that all these men, who were all older than him, had things to talk about that did not include him.

Not today. For one thing, he was learning the art of delegation. A prince does not need to see ever speck of grain that goes into his bread. Another, he had not actually been north in a while and so of course there were things Kastor and Nikandros knew that he did not. Kastor was his father's son, too, and Damen did not want to be like those prejudiced Veretians and assume he had more right to his father's attention just because he was born within wedlock. He had a crown. That was enough. And, lastly, he was quite sure this was a test of sorts for Nikandros. Ios still had no Kyros and Damen had not seen any better alternative.

He stood behind his father and only spoke when called on. Protocol. He ignored the twist in his chest when Torveld and Laurent diplomatically excused themselves, two foreign princes, and focused on the matters in front of him. Delpha. Ruling.

Later, he walked with Nikandros out to the training arena. They weren't going to fight. It was just a natural route for them to walk. Damen had trained early that morning Haemon, for old time's sake, and later with Laurent, and then thought that maybe he trained with Haemon to learn something.

“You are changed, Damen,” Nikandros said. He was, too, to be back to familiar names. Maybe Damen had proved himself with the river. “And I am afraid to ask why.”

“For too long I let the loss at Marlas cloud my ... cloud me,” Damen said. “I have gotten over it. I hope you will stand by me when I take my proposal to the kyroi.”

“Where else would I stand?” Nikandros and Damen walked around the edge of the training arena the way ladies walked the edges of gardens. The young men who practised all worked a little harder in the presence of two great warriors. “I hear the Prince of Vere has steel swords again now.”

“Yes. People kept trying to kill him. A whole host of assassins in my colours waited right outside my bedroom door for him.”

“He is still in your room, then.”

“We are not lovers.” Damen just said it. The truth. “Wait until you see his slaves.”

“Once the rumours started coming down from Delpha, I knew they were not true,” Nikandros said. “But that doesn't mean ...”

“You think I am swayed by unrequited lust?”

“No, Damen. I think you do not have to be fucking someone to care deeply about them. And he knows that, too.”

“Is that such a bad thing?” Damen asks.

“No,” Nikandros said. “Unless you decide to care about a viper. Speaking of poisonous things, have you spoken of your plans to Kastor?”

“As much as letters will allow.”

“He may oppose you.”

“I know.”

-

The thing about feasts is that the more they occured the less eventful they feel. The great hall would be packed and Damen, to escape the sounds of Erasmus and Kallias and the fact that Laurent was also in his room, popped down to over see the arrangements. With all the royals, kyroi, and countless nobles and warriors, in attendance it was quite the exercise in diplomacy to avoid insulting anyone with their place. Poor Kastor would be shoved to the edge again.

Damen walked around his father's table looking for a solution. Oreste was there, too. Delegation.

“If only,” he said. “Akielons were narrower. We would fit more around a table.”

Boot steps, which sounded different to sandalled footsteps, rang out behind Damen.

“If only,” Laurent said. “You didn't insist on leaving room for slaves between every person.”

“Does that mean yours won't be serving at table, your highness?” Oreste asked. “Perhaps they are too exhausted.”

“Don't let the master hear you doubt their training. Kallias will serve me. Erasmus will serve Damianos.” Laurent looked at the table again. “You know, in Vere we seat people at both sides. It makes sense.”

Oreste seemed to finally see something in Veretian culture he could appreciate.

“Thanks for that. If there is someone sat opposite me I'll actually have to talk to them.”

“The horror.” Laurent fell into step beside him. “You need to talk to Torveld more anyway.”

“I am used to conversing with you.”

“I'll visit you after dinner to make up for it. Why are you giving me one of your I want to fight someone looks?”

“You know Diana was going to serve me.” Damen had to dredge that up.

“She is occupied. Lykaios is not ready. And you may of course have a table servant but then what would people say about us?”

“They're already saying we share them. I'm going to bathe before dinner. Care to join me?”

“I can't,” Laurent said. “I've got a meeting.”

-

The Kyros of Aegina, a man who Damen was not sure wanted a war, was given the seat opposite Damen. Which meant Damen had to be cautious of his conversation. No whispers or games with Laurent. Conversation was perfectly normal. Courteous. Nikandros, who was also on the other side of the table, had stories enough of battles and soldier high-jinks to keep them all entertained. The slaves served. Laurent was perfectly polite to his tablemates. He received the slaves attentions like he had done so all his life. And every now and then, he would drop a blade of conflict into he conversation, enough to remind them of his Veretian nature. He once, he said, threw a pony into the path of a boar in order to slow it enough to take it down.

Laurent loved horses. He wasn't old enough to hunt last time he was in Vere. But the kyroi shuddered all the same. Damen thought maybe Laurent made a game of scaring them.

Torveld was sitting opposite Laurent. Equal seats for two foreign princes. “Are there any runs around here?” he asked. “Hunting is the best sport.”

“Don't let any of the athletes hear you say that,” Laurent replied. “I'm afraid there aren't even tracks for riding.”

“What a pity,” Torveld said. “I'd love the chance to ride with you.”

Damen downed his wine. “You could try the cliffs,” he said. “Some of the locals are very skilled with donkeys on them.”

“I don't recommend it, your highness,” Nikandros said. “I got bucked off an ass last time I did, and a toothless fisherman trotted on by.”

“What will you compete in, Laurent?” Kastor asked.

“Spear throwing, obviously,” Laurent replied. “To keep my hunting skills sharp. Unfortunately, we never got the horse-racing portion off the ground and I am still banned from the okton. But there is some display riding. Even the ladies can compete.”

“No wrestling?”

“I prefer my ribs without cracks and my lungs without punctures,” Laurent replied, as the fish course was brought out. Kallias spooned Laurent's fillet onto his plate with perfect grace, then began to remove the bones. Erasmus was doing the same for Damen, but his hands were not so nimble. He was distracted, it seemed, by a lock of dark hair the fell onto Kallias's forehead which of course Kallias would not move until his task was complete.

They really were in love. Damen felt for Erasmus, even though he knew just a couple of hours ago, they were expressing their love loudly in Laurent's bed. It was like that, when it was new – you could not get enough. Gently, Damen placed his hand on the back of Eramus's neck.

“I know,” he quietly said. “That it is difficult. Take heart, Erasmus. It's just a short while.”

Erasmus was the colour of the wine, but he managed to focus on his task. Damen kept his hand on his warm, damp neck and let him cut his food and then feed him a little. It was normal, with slaves. He thought Erasmus needed it. He did not acknowledge Nikandros who was looking or Laurent who was carving his butter-soft fish with the tenacity of a warfield surgeon with a limbsaw.

“Be nice,” Laurent muttered to Damen, as he reached for the pepper.

“You don't even know how to be nice,” Damen replied.

“Will you joust?” Kastor asked Laurent. Back to the games.

“No.”

“Will you duel?”

“I'm not allowed. There is the matter of the dead kyroi.” Laurent swept a small smile around the table of living kyroi.

“You should duel Damen. I hear you practise together,” Kastor said.

“No,” said Damen, abruptly. “I'm not duelling either. Unless Nikandros requests it?” Nikandros would not because he still believed his grip weakened. But they had often challenged each other in the past.

“We are like brothers, Prince Damianos and I.” To prove it Laurent raised his hand in the kind of royal gesture shared between princes of equal rank. Damen copied him. A mirror image. Briefly, their palms pressed together and then Laurent went back to his fish. Damen's heart did a funny little twist.“We do not fight to win.”

“Brothers,” Kastor repeated. “We used to fight to win, Damen.”

“Since I was a child,” Damen replied, distantly. He had the scar to prove it.

“But you are interested in other things with brothers, Laurent.”

Laurent paled. His knuckles were white around his flat fish knife. If they were eating steak, Kastor might be in real trouble. Damen tried to dredge up words to salvage this conversation but found none. As the silence stretched, he reached under the table and placed his hand on Laurent's knee.

“My brother is almost five years dead,” Laurent replied. “I'm afraid the only thing I can be interested is honouring his memory.”

“Or were you talking about your brother, Kastor?” Damen asked. “Do you think I'm after the Veretian prince. Do I have to set you straight again?”

Torveld let out an awkward laugh and asked Nikandros about the wine. Nikandros replied and Laurent said something about Veretian wine and Damen finally took his hand off Laurent's knee. Erasmus brought him one of the cool towels for wiping your hands and face between courses. A perfectly capable slave. If he wasn't so naturally obedient, Damen would have thought Erasmus gave him a knowing look. Damen was drawn into polite conversation with the Aegian kyros about a new armour design. That was positive.

“Game.” Damen said to Laurent. “Pick one.” No-one was paying them attention now.

“Here. So much for good behaviour.” Laurent took a cursive glance around the room as if he hadn't already assessed it ten times before the first course. “The Kyros of Kesus is fond of challis. He hasn't heard a word your father said this whole meal. Gift him more if you want to keep him on your side at meetings.”

“You guessed that?”

“He asked Lazar if he could get him some.” Laurent caught Nikandros eye across the table. “Do they have challis at the border?” Damen startled a little. This was their game. Nikandros startled a little, too.

“Yes,” he said. “On the Veretian side.” Nikandros looked to the side. Damen knew his lying face well.

“I bet it made its way across sometimes,” he said. Then to Laurent, “What is challis?” Laurent and Nikandros laughed and Damen only minded a little bit.

“I'll tell you when you're older,” Nikandros said.

“It's a drug of sorts.”

“Like --”

“Not like,” Laurent interrupted. “All right. Your turn.” Nikandros was drawn back into conversation with the Dicean general sitting beside him about the virtues of a particular camp follower.

Damen glanced around. “Lazar is going to cause havoc among the visiting competitors.”

“That's not a secret.”

“I'm not as good at this as you,” Damen said, while the slaves set small pots of venison stew in front of them. They all lifted the lids at the same time as if they had co-ordinated it. Probably, they had. The thought made Damen ache a little. “Thank you,” he said to Erasmus. Which wasn't normal etiquette. “You do us proud,” he added, then to no-one in particular said. “It's his first time serving table. He and Kallias are personal slaves.”

Laurent reached for the salt and briefly touched Damen's hand. He was aware of some flurry of activity across the table.

“Exalted,” said the Kyros of Aegina. “May I present the Lady Jokaste? She has travelled down with my retinue this week.”

Damen raised his head to see a willow blonde noble woman standing behind the kyros. She was noticeably pretty, very blonde, very fair. A bit like a watered down version of Laurent. She dropped into an elegant curtsy, the kind of thing girls probably practised. Her dress was carefully dyed the same shade as her eyes.

“Hello,” he said. “We hope you enjoy your stay in Ios.”

“Thank you, Exalted. I intend to,” she replied and her voice lacked the shake people normally spoke with when meeting the prince for the first time. She skirted the edge of confidence and presumption. She was pretty enough to have caught the whole table's attention. It wasn't unusual for an ambitious lady to approach the royal table like this but Damen felt terribly aware of all the eyes on him. He remembered that Erasmus had been chosen for Damen for his looks. As if fair hair was all it took to catch Prince Damianos's attention.

Damen nodded and continued his conversation with Laurent. “You pick for me next time,” he said.

“For the game?”

“What else?”

“Not her. A blind man could see her secrets.” Laurent replied. “And I'm not talking about how see-through her dress was.”

“I didn't notice.” It was warm in the Great Hall with all the people. That's why Laurent was pink and Damen needed another cool towel.

-

The Games took place over several days. In the early portions, the royals took turns observing while the youth competitors gained their places in the finals. Damen often felt like he was the only one who actually enjoyed watching the games. He left the dais to shout encouragement from the sidelines while the kyroi spoke about trade and politics and family news in the shade. Damen wasn't cut out for the flattery and small talk. They would respect his plan when they met later in the week or they would not. Listening to a ten minute description of the way one man's grandson ate his breakfast cereal would not make a difference to that.

When the temperatures rose too high, they broke for the afternoon to the shade of the palace or for the men who lived far from the coast to enjoy the novelty of dipping their feet in the sea.

Damen had retreated to his room, alone, alone except for Lykaios waving a cooling fan behind him during one such break when Laurent burst in looking so alarmed Damen thought there had been another attack on his life. He was on his feet, weapon in hand, before he could think.

“Laurent,” he said. “Where?”

“My room! No not like that.” He blocked the door. “Sit. Not like that.” Damen sat. “Put down your sword. Lykaios, no, it's all right. The only thing in danger was my reputation.”

Lykaios had dropped the fan. Her hands were shaking.

“There's no danger,” Damen said. “Relax. Take some water. Laurent, what happened?”

“That Jokaste woman was in my room!” Laurent spat the words out. “Practically naked.”

“Women often go topless in high summer.”

“Women don't go in to my room at all. It's against the rules and --” Laurent stopped. “Great. A security problem along with everyone else. Do you think my uncle sent her? Our colouring is similar enough that any child could pass ...Why are you smiling?”

“We will deal with the guard later,” Damen said. “I am smiling because I think she just fancied you.”

“Don't be ridiculous.”

“You saw her approach me. That takes guts. If one Crown Prince turns her down, why not move on to another.”

“But --” Laurent sank into the seat beside Damen. Right beside Damen. “Everyone knows I don't fuck women.”

“You don't fuck anyone,” Damen replied. Laurent looked at him, a little wide-eyed. “Unless...”

“Even I'm not cruel enough to tear the lovebirds apart. It's a good thing they weren't there when she snuck in.”

“Indeed. What did she say to you? Did she beg you to ravish her.”

“Shut up.” Laurent snapped. “She minced around, casual as can be, talking about jellies.”

“A woman like Jokaste doesn't want anything casual,” Damen said. “She wants to be a queen.”

“That is ridiculous.”

“Maybe she did her research.” Damen put his arm around Lauren's neck and then messed up his blond hair with his fist. “You are rather vain. Perhaps she thought you'd like it with a mirror image. Narcissism at its height.”

“Shut up,” Laurent said. “That is not what I would like.”

-

The games continued. Damen enjoyed them. He enjoyed having his brother and Nikandros back in the palace. He did his best to plant the right seeds regarding his plans for war but it was all delicate. Damen was decidedly indelicate and hoped guidance to the younger competitors and good sportsmanship would go a long way towards gaining support.

“Did you talk to Torveld?” Laurent demanded, in Veretian, after Jord had won three rounds of shortsword. “You need to do it before you make your presentation.”

“I tried,” Damen said. “He spent thirty minutes telling me how relieved he was to have a break away from his own border conflict, ten minutes admiring his new slave Aden and ten minutes asking about you.”

“About me? Maybe I can convince him.”

Damen grabbed Laurent's arm. “Don't you dare. You cannot be associated with any of this and you know it.”

“You're going to owe me ten sols when Lazar wins,” Laurent replied, loudly. “I know what I'm doing.”

He sat beside Torveld and bid Kallias to bring fresh iced fruit for both of them. Damen hardly concentrated on Lazar's impressive win and he still had to hand over the silver.

“Hard luck, Exalted,” Jokaste called, flitting past in a sheer white dress. Damen wanted to reprimand her for entering his apartment without permission but he'd already called enough undue attention to himself for one day.

-

During the games, meals were light and healthy and alcohol was scarce in deference to the needs of the competitors. At each meal, a different kyroi or noble or merchant who would be vital for the war effort was seated across from Damen and he was obliged to do his best to win them over. Mostly, it worked. He already had the advantage of being a beloved prince. Also, Nikandros sat with him and shored his arguments when he floundered or when grew distracted by Laurent. Or, more accurately, Torveld's clear admiration of Laurent.

Damen had arranged for a slave being trained for the King to be given to the Patran prince and he was still subtly pursuing Laurent. Torveld was not an inappropriate man. He knew how to conduct himself. But Damen still didn't like it.

“The games are nearly over,” Laurent said, quietly, while he waved away some wine. “You have to approach him for assistance.”

“I know what I'm doing,” Damen replied.

“Do you?” Nikandros asked.

Damen did not wave away the wine.

After the light meal, there were light entertainments, and some of the guests took a walk among the gardens. When Laurent offered to show Torveld the sculptures, Damen pushed his chair back automatically.

“Good idea,” he said.

“Ask him,” Laurent whispered.

“I was thinking,” Torveld announced, oblivious, “That maybe I could see where those puzzles are produced before I return to Patras.”

“Anyone can direct you to the woodshop,” Damen said.

“Perhaps Laurent could show me,” Torveld said. “It's such a fascinating enterprise. Perhaps one that could be extended to Patras.”

“Veretians and Patrans do not normally trade,” Laurent said.

“That can always change,” Torveld replied.

Damen's light dinner threatened to come back up.

“It is technically an Akielon operation,” he said.

Torveld was not listening. “So would you like to show me tomorrow, Laurent?” he asked

Damen did not like the familiar address. It was not wrong. They were both princes. But he didn't like it. “We have plans,” Damen blurted, without thinking.

“The next day,” Torveld said.

“No,” said Damen. “It's not possible.”

Laurent observed them with more interest than he had shown any of the games. “I regret,” he said. “That I have a full calendar these next few days. Please excuse me.” He turned heel, clipped away, and Damen could tell by the set of his shoulders that Laurent of Vere was going to be angry at him later.

“Torveld,” Damen said, once they were away from the crowds. He ignored Torveld's mournful look as Laurent disappeared from view. “I wish to --”

“There's no proposal regarding my niece is there?” Torveld said.

“No.”

“But there's talk of war.”

“Yes,” Damen said. “Torgiers refused my proposal in that matter.”

“So you have come to the younger brother instead,” Torveld said. “You're not doing a very good job of flattering me, Damianos.”

“I don't flatter. I have a good proposal. Will you hear it?”

“I will,” said Torveld.

-

“He said no.” Damen marched into his room, knowing Laurent would be waiting.

“Of course he did. You treated him like something you would scrape from the bottom of your sandal, you idiot,” Laurent replied, tossing his book aside. There was blue fire in his eyes. Damen hoped there were no weapons about. “What exactly did you think you were doing down there?”

“Asking him. Like you suggested.”

“Don't be obtuse,” Laurent said. “Unlike the rest of this palace, I won't pretend to find you endearing when you're being a buffoon. You have no right to speak for me like that. I can go where I want.”

“I know --” Damen sat on the couch, knees turned towards Laurent, leaning close. He stretched his arm along the back and his hand nearly touched Laurent's neck. His hear raced. The open windows did nothing to cool the heated room.

“I'm nearly eighteen. I'm a man. I'm a Crown Prince just like you.”

“I know that,” Damen said.

“You don't own me. I'm not a slave. You don't --”

“I'm sorry,” Damen said. Shouted, maybe. He had leaned even closer, knees touching, his knuckles brushed Laurent's hair. “You're right. I'm sorry. But I was thinking of you. If any of your input leaks if could be catastrophic for your reputation in Vere.”

“That's nice.” Defiant, Laurent raised his chin. “Now, the truth.”

“Torveld looks at you like a lion looks at a gazelle.”

“So? He's not the first person who wants to fuck me and he won't be the last.”

“It's different,” Damen said, imploringly.

“You said, Laurent you can meet people. You said, ,Laurent take a slave. Now you're acting like some fair maiden's father over some middle-aged Patran prince.”

“I am not --” Damen caught himself. “He is a prince. You know it's different.”

Laurent put his feet on the base of the bed. Relaxed, maybe. “I really was trying to help, you idiot.”

Damen leaned back against the couch. The fabric was cool against his back. “We'll find another way,” he said.

“You have one more shot and then I'll teach you how to blackmail,” Laurent said. “I'm expecting word from Vask any day now.”

-

On the final day of the games, all the royals and kyroi gathered on the dais. It made for a rather tight squeeze. Damen didn't mind. He made a different kind of game of it – where Laurent expelled more effort into avoiding accidentally brushing against any exposed skin and Damen tried not to laugh. Then he kindly let a kyros have his seat beside Theomedes and reclined on one of the couches. Laurent wouldn't touch his skin either but he wouldn't do his spine damage to avoid it.

“Are you going to wrestle?” Laurent asked.

“Only if one of the lads does well enough to challenge me. That boy you beat at the academy has already won too events.”

“Aah, Pallas. Shall I tell you what I said to make him lose?”

“No. I play fair,” Damen replied. “Shall I tell you who let Jokaste into your room? My guards are finished investigating.”

“Lazar. He's lucky I didn't flog him.”

“Why didn't you?”

“It made Jord laugh,” Laurent replied. “I'll flog you if you ever repeat that.”

“My, my. What an interesting conversation.” The lady in question floated up beside them like flotsam from the sea. Truly, the dais was quite full and there weren't many other places to stand.

“In Vere,” Laurent said, without looking in Jokaste's direction. “People do not talk to princes without being invited. Nor do they go into chambers where they have not been invited. It's called trespass. We'd put you in the stocks for it.”

“But this is Akielos, your highness,” Jokaste replied.

“In Akielos,” Damen said. “The customs are the same in that regard. Laurent, javelin is next. Aren't you competing?” Languidly, Laurent rose from the couch and clipped his way off the dais. “You may sit, Lady Jokaste,” Damen said. She sat with the same measured poise she spoke and curtsied. Again, Damen was aware of being observed. On the field, the targets were being laid out. A servant brought wine. Diana stepped closer with the fan.

“Thank you,” Jokaste said to Damen when Erasmus poured wine for them both. “For allowing me to sit. It is very hot and --- No, I shouldn't say.”

“Go ahead.”

“It is rare to see you without the Veretian Prince.”

“Not really,” said Damen. “My friends and family, not to mention my bedslaves, see me all the time. But you know more about the Veretian prince than you admit. I am sure you know enough of their customs to know your actions in our apartments were completely unacceptable. Do not test the limits of palace hospitality again. You won't like the consequences.” There. Theomedes would be proud.

Jokaste smiled in the benign way ladies were trained to smile. “I understand,” she said.

Damen went to check the equipment for the next event, as was his habit since childhood. Nikandros joined him. The both happened to be on the sidelines to cheer Laurent on. He had already won at archery and the equestrian display that had been introduced in lieu of racing.

Out of all the competitors, he was the one who earned enough to challenge Prince Damianos to a wrestling match. Nikandros knew it, too, and threw back his head and laughed.

Laurent didn't even stay on the dais for the wrestling matches. Damen personally crowned the winner but kept his clothes on this time. He had won his duel and joined the discus last minute when it became clear to him that Lazar might win and beat him easily. It wasn't really fair for the royals to take part in every event. Damen had to give the rest a chance.

They broke for the afternoon, because of the heat and because Damen decided the glare could be a problem for the okton. It was the last event of the games and, generally, the most anticipated. Damen almost felt sorry for the runners who would compete before it in the footrace over the sand that ringed the field. Considering the skill of the other vents Running Very Fast just didn't have the same draw.

He used the spare time to duck down to the market. Not a very princely thing to do but he wanted to get a personal gift for some of the winners. He was still on the charm offensive. He brought his guard and his slave Erasmus. They had come before with Laurent and Kallias, too, and while Laurent bargained like a seasoned seller at a sweetmeat stall Kallias had gotten quite overwhelmed and they had all left. It was odd, really. Kallias had the appearance of being very self-assured but that little snippet of world outside the palace was too much. Erasmus, who was sweetly shy at all times, looked at the colours and pace of the market like he wanted to be absorbed by it.

Damen bid his squire to purchase some ornate bottles of a local liqueur made from black cherries and stopped at the stall of the same seller Laurent had near reduced to tears to get some of that rose jelly he ate and then complained about the powdery sugar on the pages of his books as if he hadn't been the one to put it there. Damen had a personal philosophy that food and flora did not mix so it wasn't something he normally ordered. But it was right there and he couldn't remember if Laurent had actually purchased some or just enjoyed tormenting the seller the last time. It wasn't a big deal. Erasmus carried it back to the palace. He had nearly fainted with delight when Damen told him take a square for himself. He didn't take it. Just the notion that he could was enough to make him happy.

The courtyard was quite empty, because of the heat, but a lone figure waited for Damen. He smiled at the sight of bright blond hair and then realised it was Jokaste.

“Prince Damianos,” she said, demurely, and showing no sign that the last words they exchanged were not pleasant. Tenacious.

“Lady Jokaste,” he replied, evenly. “Are you not very hot out here.”

“I like the solitude,” she replied. “But I am going inside now.”

What a coincidence. Princes could do what they wanted but Damen was not rude enough to stride off ahead and make a lady walk alone. Jokaste fell into an easy step beside Damen. She was tall enough to keep up easily.

“Looking forward to the rest of the games?” Damen asked, conversationally.

“Yes, Exalted. Your reputation at the okton is such that the entire populace looks forward to the games.”

“It should be a good match.”

“Is the Prince of Vere competing?”

“No.”

“He seems...capable.”

“We prefer him alive,” Damen said. “And that cannot be guaranteed on the okton course.”

“I see.” Jokaste glanced at Damen's packages. “Rose delight. Have you a sweet tooth, Exalted?”

“Sometimes,” Damen replied. Jokaste had been in Laurent's room. He did keep food there. In fact, he sometimes hoarded things he acquired himself which made Damen feel so guilty he didn't like to think about so he just warned Laurent about vermin instead. “Do you?”

“Sometimes.” Jokaste smiled. She was prettier when her face was still. “It depends on where it comes from.”

Damen couldn't shake the feeling that he was being toyed with. Jokaste was the bravest lady to have been presented to court in a long time. He knew her game, to a point. In the past, he might have played it. But he had war to make happen and an okton to race and, all right, yes, a prince to protect. There was nothing going on between him and Laurent. He was exercising a great deal of self control to maintain that status. An Akielon war had to be for Akielos and not due to the charming young man in Damen's bed (who he absolutely wasn't fucking, no matter what people thought, no matter what Jokaste was implying in a way that was as barely-there as her clothing.)

Damen handed aside the rest of his packages to offer Jokaste his arm.

When they returned to the arena, there were very few pairs of eyes that did not land on them. Damen bore the attention, finding that it was one of the rare time such attention made him uncomfortable. It was the princely thing to – offer his arm to a pretty noblewoman. Certainly, it had been a long time and he had never been shy about pursuing women before. This was the kind of thing that was meant to happen at games.

Jokaste had an edge to her and Damen intended to smooth out any potential trouble that could cause him or Laurent.

Damen could play these kind of games. He just normally chose not to play them. He preferred plain speaking and honesty. But there were times they could not be avoided. He really did need to keep the nobility on his side and as sad as it seemed to him, the nobility really did want their prince to marry well. They wanted lots of legitimate heirs to wipe away the long years of uncertainty and fear before he came along.

Everyone loved a good romance.

So he wasn't surprised at the sighs from the crowds and the murmurs from the dais when he arrived back with Jokaste on his arm. His father raised one eyebrow. Nikandros, two. Kastor squinted. Laurent did nothing at all. Impassive. Princely. He waited the right amount of time to politely excuse himself from Torveld's company.

Chivalrously, Damen deposited Jokaste on a shaded soft chair near the kyroi from Aegina and Dice. He bid Diana serve her wine. He declined. Not before the okton. He left Jokaste to her prized position on the dais to see what refreshments were on offer.

After a moment, Laurent stood beside him and bid Kallias to shell some pistachio nuts. Erasmus poured two cups of peach juice.

“All right,” Laurent said to Damen. “We'll call it a draw.”

“What do --”

“You know what I mean.”

“Firstly,” Damen began, switching to Veretian. “If I'm playing a game, it's only because I'm learning from you.”

“Revenge?”

“Insurance.”

“The field is not even,” Laurent said. “I would never --” He meant with Torveld. “But you would --” He meant with Jokaste. Theoretically, yes, Damen would sleep with Jokaste. In another life, he would have lost his mind for a woman like Jokaste.

“That doesn't matter,” Damen said. “Don't you see, Laurent? We're on the same team.”

Chapter Text

Games first. War later. The final events were happening. Then celebration. Then Damen just had to convince the most powerful men in Akielos (his family excluded) to support his call to war against Vere.

To reclaim their land.

For Laurent.

It was little wonder Damen wanted to enjoy the final portion of sports before the work began.

When Damen was a boy, he often sat at the edge of the dais with his feet dangling down towards the sand, air on his toes, chin resting on one of the wooden slats keeping the platform together. There was a little girl who used to play in the palace, a daughter of one of the cooks, who used to sneak under the dais and pull at his and Nikandros's legs to make them yelp. If she was there now, she'd be tasting the food for poison. The Regent did that. Damen wondered whatever happened to her. He couldn't even remember her name.

The dais was very packed before the racing.

So Damen recalled that boyhood habit and sat on the edge. His feet hung lower now. He didn't need to peek between any rails. As soon as he sat, Nikandros joined him. Damen glanced over his shoulder and that was all it took to have Laurent walking over rather like he had ice on the bottom of his shoes.

“Sit,” Damen said. Laurent looked dubious.

“You're in everyone's way now,” Nikandros said. Laurent sat.

He swung his legs and his boot briefly swiped the bare skin on Damen's leg. “This is so childish,” he said.

“I know,” Damen said. “We used to sit like this when were kids. Me, Nikandros and Kastor.” He looked for Kastor to see that Kastor was sitting near the kyros of Aegina (and Jokaste) and squinting again. “The view is better.”

“That's not how views work,” Laurent said. “They get worse the lower down you go.”

“Don't expect him to understand,” Nikandros said. “He spent his school days fantasising about ball games.”

“Thank you, I understand physics,” Damen said. “I'm telling you, the perspective is better here.”

“I thought you just wanted to escape Lady Jokaste.” Nikandros shoved him, gently, so not incite and of the guards or nobles to defend their prince. Damen didn't mind. It had the effect of his body being pushed against Laurent's for a second.

“You didn't look like you wanted to escape when you walked in,” Laurent said, matching Nikandros's teasing tone exactly. “Is that where you spent the break?”

“With Jokaste? Please,” Damen said. He wanted to say about the market and the jelly but he couldn't. “She waylaid me on my errands. Hush. The races are starting.”

“You don't need to be quiet to watch a race,” Nikandros pointed out

“Yes and once they leave the starting point we may as well be watching ants until they loop around again,” Laurent pointed out. Right. Damen had forgotten it was a long distance event.

“Stop pointing things out to me.” Damen wanted to watch, not because he particularly cared about a footrace, but to be decent to the competitors. If Prince Damianos took an interest, they would follow suit. And it actually was fun. The runners had different body types to most of the other event's competitors. Leaner and longer. They probably didn't excel at much else but this was their chance to fly faster than the wind. “Pick one to make it more interesting. Winner gets --”

“A future favour,” Laurent said.

“Deal.”

They all picked one at random to win and cheered them on and then so did everyone else on the dais. Once they launched, and ran out of sight, Laurent enquired why they didn't arrange entertainment while they could not see the racers and if not entertainment some of those glass things the ship captains have to make it more interesting.

“It is sports,” Nikandros said. “That is the point. Also, we don't need constant entertainment.”

“And those glass things are very expensive. Just pointing that out,” Damen said.

“In Arles, at court,” Laurent said. “You could sit like this for some pointless game and your pet could be down on the ground there sucking your cock.” His tone was so matter of fact that Damen burst out laughing. This was either another attempt to be shocking or an effort to befriend Nikandros. It did seem like Laurent thought all he and Damen spoke about was sex and fighting.

“That's one way to liven things up,” Nikandros said and he was laughing, too. “And I'll remember that the next time you denounce slavery. At least we are discreet.”

“Pets are paid. It's one of the few opportunities for social advancement.”

“If you're too lazy for hard work and too weak for the army,” said Nikandros.

“Or too clever.” Laurent leaned forward and slyly smiled. “What is the point of you barbarians wearing skirts all the time if you don't take advantage of their...ease of access?”

The runners looped by, kicking up dust. Damen peered over the rail to the sandy ground.

“To me,” he said. “It sounds like an excellent opportunity to get sand in places you really don't want sand.”

Laurent laughed. Nikandros, too. And they were laughing and laughing even though it wasn't that funny and then the runners looped around again. Damen shouted and Nikandros bellowed and Laurent even managed an angry hiss when another racer edged to close to his chosen competitor. It was fun, in it's own way. And behind them, Damen could feel the nobility enjoy their enjoyment – look at our prince, laughing like a boy, with his noble friend and the Prince of Vere who is usually as impassive as an iceberg.

Damen wasn't an actor. He was enjoying being a spectator. But it was as his father said – the games were about showing people the glory of Akielos. He was showing them, look how it can be with us and Vere and all we have to do is win a war first.

Next, the okton.

Damen won.

Easily.

The instant the final spear flew from his hands, he glanced at the dais and there was Laurent, not cheering, not really, but his hands clasped tight in front of his face, thumbs pressed against his teeth, concealing a smile and his blue eyes brighter than anything else.

After the games, there were celebrations. Lots of wine. Not enough food. Tomorrow, there would be a formal prizegiving where Theomedes and Damen would hand out prizes and the kyroi would reward the winners from their region. But on the day of the games, when the nobility had been drinking since early morning, formality could wait. Damen distributed his personal gifts to the winners and gave coins to his staff as tokens of appreciation. He caught Laurent watching him do this like it wasn't his usual habit.

“I went to the market,” Damen said, resting on his elbow on one of the long couches.

“How plebian.”

“I got you some of that rose sweet you like.”

Laurent's cheeks went the colour of roses. “Why?”

“I saw it.”

“Where is it?”

“I'm not sure, to be honest. Shall I get one of my men to get it? Don't worry. They know the protocol with our food now.”

“Later,” Laurent said. There was more wine, poured impeccably by Erasmus and Kallias. Mostly water for Laurent until Kastor insisted on toasting his wins. Kastor toasted the visitors, too, making eye contact with Jokaste. Damen asked her about poems from her region and bid Erasmus to say one and he did so, beautifully, and Laurent sent Kallias for water because his brown eyes were full of water. When they left the dais in the darkness for the casual meal in the hall, meat circling on spits and flat breads as big as tables, Damen offered Jokaste his arm.

Games.

“I'm learning,” he said in Veretian to Laurent as they passed him by. Laurent was telling one of the kyroi's wives about his puzzles and how her children might like them. At least Damen thought he was. There was distance enough between Laurent and the lady that she was more likely just smiling and nodding rather than ask a prince to repeat himself.

“He is in business?” Jokaste asked, surprised.

“He is very...enterprising,” Damen replied. “Do you actually like that poetry?”

“I like battle songs.”

“So do I.” In the hall, Jokaste was absorbed into a cluster of ladies waiting to hear about her day on the dais. Laurent was sitting stiffly with Theomedes and some men from Sicyon, including the General Makedon who arrived late because of his duty. Damen re-lived the okton with other competitors and ate with his hands. More wine. Some of that liqueur. He wasn't entirely sure Laurent wouldn't see the notched belts and commit regicide just to get in spitting distance of Makedon but he seemed perfectly well behaved. Kallias was beside him and when Damen caught Laurent's eye, Kallias was putting a grape between Laurent's teeth. More wine.

When Damen tapped Erasmus on the shoulder to retire, he also needed some help standing up. He could feel the enjoyment from the crowd at this, too – here is our prince, drunk and victory-high and swaying from the feast with the perfect slave who was picked from the vine especially for him.

Damen was feeling the influence of the alcohol but he still managed to catch Jokaste's eye on the way out. She and her ladies had been joined by Kastor and his men. A good time for all.

Erasmus stayed with Damen, bearing some of his weight on his lithe body, until Damen was deposited on his crisp white bed.

“Can I do anything else, Exalted?” Erasmus asked, eyes on the floor, once had lit the lamps and drawn the curtains and brought water to the bedside locker. Because he was a slave, impeccably trained and possessing a natural sensuality, the words were loaded. Damen let the notion beat a fleeting path through his mind. Fair Erasmus between his sheets. There had been a lot of wine. Erasmus had been trained for this. Damen almost thought the boy really wanted it. Then he remembered Kallias.

“Fetch Laurent,” Damen said. “If he is available.”

Laurent bound into the room, bed-robe swishing around bare legs, quite a few minutes later. Damen had almost nodded off. “You know,” he said. “I am not a dog to come when you bid.”

“Do I disturb you?”

“No.” Laurent neatly sat on Damen's bed. “I am in a good mood today.”

“Oh, dear. Who did you kill?”

“No-one, yet. Our old friend Makedon had a letter for me.” He dropped it onto Damen's bare chest. “Another piece of the puzzle falls into place.”

The words blurred before Damen's eyes. Wine and weak lamplight. But he forced himself to make sense of the code. “This is good,” he said. “More strength to my proposal.”

Laurent hid it along with the others in Damen's Akielon book of Veretian folk tales.

“I spoke with him,” Laurent said, seriously. “Makedon. He laughs at everything.”

“Did he --” Damen had a terrible vision of Makeon laughing inappropriately at what had happened at Marlas. He had once before. Makedon was a seasoned general, a man used to brutality and also being in charge. He would not take kindly to a pampered princeling.

Damen wasn't sure if Makedon had witnessed any of Laurent's victories at the games but he definitely had reason to dislike Veretians.

“Nothing happened,” Laurent said. “Well, he and Torveld got into some drinking competition. He swore to me he had no hand in what happened to Auguste. It was ... good to know he still remembered, considered it.”

“He has honour,” Damen said. “Beneath the aggression.”

“He's helped to get us another advantage,” Laurent said. “You, I mean. Akielos. I shall have a disadvantage after.”

“After,” said Damen. He had his ideas of after. They got him through hard days and other kinds of hardness.

“How much did you drink tonight?” Laurent asked. “Or did Lazar get you challis too? Your eyes are...”

“You understand, don't you?” Damen interrupted. “After. Now. This is for you.”

“No, it's not. You have to do this for Akielos. If I benefit, it's just a happy coincidence.” Laurent inspected the contents of the low bedside table. “I'm being nice with that assessment, by the way. I do remember the blow to your ego back then.”

“No,” said Damen. “It's for you.”

“Are these for me?” Laurent held up the paper sack of rose sweets Damen had innocently bought in the market. Nothing looked innocent in wine-soaked lamp light. Laurent shrugged off his robe and returned to the bed in only his night shirt which was still more substantial than much of Damen's day wear. These nights, he wasn't quite so remote when he slept alongside Damen.

Laurent used both hands to peel back the paper.

“You look like a hamster,” Damen said.

Laurent, for less than a blink, pulled back his lips and pushed out his teeth. “Better than a snake,” he said, then, composed himself again. “But nowhere near as strong as any of my comparisons.” He popped a whole square of the pink delicacy past his pink lips and there was a second, longer than a blink, when he closed his eyes and enjoyed the sweetness melting on his tongue. “Care to try?”

“You know my thoughts on flora and food,” Damen said “Unless...”

“Yes, yes, unless it's dire straits and only then perhaps a nettle or a dandelion.” Laurent sucked some powdered sugar from his finger, then dusted it up again taking another sweet. “These are quite different than that, I assure you.”

“I'll take your word for it.”

Laurent inched closer. “They're very sweet.”

Damen's head spun. “So is fruit. It's more nutritious, too and --”

“Try some,” Laurent said, again. Before Damen could protest further, Laurent's fingers were at his lips. He traced the outline of Damen's mouth with sugar and then, briefly, slipped his index finger into Damen's open mouth and dotted the sugar against the very tip of his tongue.

“There was no jelly there,” Damen managed to husk out. He was very very conscious of the fall of the sheet and if it would conceal the hardness of his cock. Erections happened. He was a young man. He and Laurent often shared a bed and a bath. They saw things. More accurately, Laurent saw things and showed no hint that he did and Damen saw nothing and looked for traces some of the time and steadfastly did not look the rest of the time.

“It was just a hint,” Laurent said. “Since you are so closed-minded.”

-
The prizegiving happened in the early afternoon in order to accommodate over-indulgence. Damen, who didn't believe in lying under a hangover, had two training sessions, some gentle exercise, and a couple of hours spent rehearsing what he would say to the kyroi about the war over him by the time they gathered in the hall to hand out the prizes.

Damen thought they should do this out on the field out of respect for the games themselves. His father disagreed, so it happened in the hall which again bore no trace of any revelry. It was a simple ceremony. He always tried to say a kind word to every winner. Sometimes, he tried to say a kind word to the losers, too, but that often just exacerbated their shame. Some games could be tricky.

It wasn't unusual for the royals to call upon a pretty young lady to help with the prizegiving. Damen often picked at random. He never paid attention when his father did, because there were things a person never wanted to associate with their parent. Today, Kastor called on Jokaste. Unsurprising. She was the most beautiful woman in the room.

(Laurent was the most beautiful person.)

Damen got a little warm when the thought crossed his mind and he remembered the taste of powdered sugar. Gracefully, Jokaste joined them at the top of the room. She smiled at the winners, who would possibly now remember her beauty brighter than the joy of being praised by the princes, and handed Kastor, Damen and Theomedes the prizes. It was tradition that they presented the prizes for their favoured events. Young Pallas was the only who appeared unaffected by her presence.

Damen had gotten leafy laurels for his wins yesterday. Princes did not need need further praise.

“Where is your prize, Exalted?” Jokaste asked Damen.

“My life is my prize,” he replied.

“Sometimes,” Kastor said, “We get other kinds of prizes. Practical ones.”

“He means a kiss,” Theomedes explained and Kastor shrugged. Jokaste pressed a playful kiss to Kastor's cheek.

“And you, Prince Damianos?” Jokaste said. Damen knew he should accept a kiss, too. It wasn't a big deal. He had received similar kisses from dozens of noble ladies aged between fifteen and seventy five. Games. Another one of those situations where he was unusually aware of eyes on him. He did not look at Laurent. He did look at Kastor.

Damen took Jokaste's hand and pressed a kiss to the soft perfumed skin above her knuckles. “As a thank you for your assistance,” he said. “And as a premature thank you for my next request – Can you sing Lady Jokaste?”

“A little,” she replied. Her eye twitched a little. Damen hazarded that all young ladies were taught to sing. If they couldn't they were taught other talents like instruments and verse. She would have mentioned one of them, if she couldn't sing.

“We would love to hear one of those songs we spoke about,” Damen said, looking right into her cool blue eyes.

“It would be my honour,” she replied. Then there was silence and Jokaste launched into the ballad of the first games. Her voice was high and practised. Her talent was not natural but worked at but the impact on the hall was well the same. All the people who hadn't gotten close enough to be bewitched by her beauty were put under the spell of her song. It would be talked about in years to come and if Jokaste had her way, it would be remembered as the first time the court came to know their future Queen.

Damen knew differently, of course. He would never marry Jokaste, not in this life, where she was so perfectly blonde and beautiful that she would always remind of him of an impression of Laurent, who would be by then reigning in Vere.

“What is it you said you were learning?” Laurent asked, as they exited the hall. “I didn't catch it yesterday. How to make your older brother dislike you even more?”

“Kastor loves me.”

“Doesn't mean he likes you.”

“I'm learning how to put puzzles together, Laurent.”

“I thought it was just playing them.” He let out a little huff. “Stop changing the rules,” he said. “It is not fair.”

“You do not care about fair play.” Damen remembered, again, the taste of powdered sugar. Games. Jealousy. Torveld. Jokaste.

“I do when it puts me at a disadvantage. Have you said goodbye to Torveld? He leaves soon.”

“He already gave his answer.” Damen did not care to be rejected twice. But he was learning to be a good prince and that meant being a good diplomat so he sought Torveld out one of the terraces, where Torveld was doing nothing but looking out to see. “I have come to wish you well on your journey home,” Damen said.

“Why do I feel like one of the losing competitors whose hands you shook?” Torveld replied and he did not sound unfriendly.

“We are not competitors,” Damen said. He had behaved badly. He should apologise. But it was never a competition because Laurent was not some prize to be won. Damen and Torveld were not the kind of low-brow bored nobility who placed unsuccessful bets on whether or not they could get the golden prince into bed.

“No, I would wager no-one is your competitor.” He faced Damen. “But I would shake your hand. I have enjoyed my stay here very much. Good people, good food.”

“A very good slave who is going to return with you to Patras.” The slave Aden, who Kallias and Erasmus implied would be better off away from the palace for the sake of the other slaves, had been trained for the King and was a very valuable departing gift.

“Yes, back to my camp at the border,” Torveld said. “Damianos, princes are not meant to get old. Be glad you have the crown in your future. Military success and bowing to an older brother are a poor substitute for this.” He inclined one hand and gestured to the whole city, the palace and the sea.

“This?”

“Would you prefer a prince who comes to you freely or a slave who has no real choice?” Torveld ask. “A man like me, beating back his brother's enemies, has little chance of real love in cold mountain camps. Perhaps I wouldn't anyway. Second sons who prefer men are not normally so lucky.”

“A princes rarely have someone to talk to,” Damen said. “That much I understand, Torveld. I am honoured you would talk to me.”

“Tell me the truth then. Are you and he lovers?”

“We are not.”

“But you do love him.”

“He has been in Ios a long time,” Damen said. “And I know that I am lucky.”

“Yes.” Torveld look at the sea again. “After your war, you will come back to this. Tell me another truth, do you really need Delpha so badly?”

“I need to win this war,” Damen said.

“I cannot over-rule my brother. I'm not like yours,” Torveld said. “But maybe I'm an old fool. Maybe if you help as promised I can leave those mountain borders. I accept your proposal, Damianos. You have my help, in its limited form.”

“Thank you,” said Damen, simple and honest. “And, Torveld, I am sorry for being an ass to you.”

“I would use the term disrespectful but that works, too.” Torveld laughed. “It's probably for the best that none of this was about a proposal to a Patran princess. I would hate to see what Laurent would try on one of my nieces to get them out of the picture.”

-

Late afternoon brought a meeting between the king and the kyroi. Naturally, the crown prince's presence was required. Damen was surprised to see Kastor and Nikandros there too. It made sense, in a way. Kastor was a prince and he and Nikandros had the most experience in the north. Still, they had to sit through several hours of unrelated business before Damen could broach the subject of war. That made less sense to him. Why did trade agreements and marriage contracts matter before the matter of the country who was picking at their edges like a vulture picks at bones.

Theomedes brought up the north, letting Meniados and Nikandros take the lead in the conversation. The questioned remained : what could be done?

Damen rose, he looked at his father and said, simply. “I'm taking us to war.”

That's when the real talking started – men and money and obstacles and deaths and what if, what if, what if. Damen had answers, carefully prepared answers for all their questions, but he let them talk first. He had learned that sometimes that was men wanted to do – speak and be heard. When they had finished, Damen asked if they would listen to him. He was ready.

“Oh,” said Theomedes. “It is getting late. Damianos, we will conclude this in the morning.”

Games. Damen was getting better all the time at hiding his reactions. He was perfectly serene as the men left and his father bid him stay behind.

“You better be sure of this,” Theomedes said. “Taking a country to war is no easy weight to bear. Even for one as strong as you.”

“It is the right thing to do for our country, Father. That was our land. We need it for food and we need the win. It has to be now.”

“Why?”

Damen thought, I need to kill the Regent and make Vere safe before Laurent goes home.

He would lead a campaign right up to Arles for the chance to kill that sad excuse for a man.

“It is the right time. It's been too long since Marlas. Our troops are trained, replenished and ready. The lands we have won't bear food forever. I need --”

“Son, you need a victory. But know that if you need a victory to rule well then you are not the ruler I thought you would be.”

“It's not just that.”

“Do you wish to have it done before Laurent goes home?”

“Yes, in a way.”

“If you wait until he is King our countries could be friends. It's just three more years.”

Damen thought, he will never be king while the Regent lives. Even if he is crowned, he will be the same scared boy we met at Marlas.

“He won't give us Delpha.”

“No. But...he might negotiate. With you.”

Damen thought, I will never use our closeness against him but he might and that would hurt like a kiss from a knife.

“He wouldn't,” Damen said. “He wants...”

“Damianos, is he privy to your plans?” Theomedes interrupted.

“Partly.”

“He will tell --”

“He will tell what I tell him to only,” Damen replied. Along with some of his suggestions about brand new weapons and fighting techniques that were better suited to fiction. In another life, Laurent could have written books of his own. “I promise.”

Theomedes looked troubled. There were creases deeper than Damen had ever seen in his father's forehead. War. Games. Sons. They all did that.

“Damen, I hope your faith is not misplaced. I remember the last time we trusted Veretians.”

“You think I have forgotten? That wasn't him. He was a child. He was --” Damen caught himself.

“If we had rat problem,” Theomedes said. “Would we catch them ourselves or get some cats? I am as aware of you of the Regent's comfort on the throne. He writes to me personally, you know.” Damen hadn't known. “He asks about the boy.” Damen felt sick at the thought. “He wants --”

“He is a rat. We are the lions.”

“What is Laurent?”

Damen thought, everything.

-

Laurent demanded to know how the meeting went. Damen regaled him with news of the engagement between the kyros of Dice's son and the kyros of Kesus's grand-daughter until Laurent threw the nearest object (an orange) directly at Damen's head.

Damen caught it, of course, and threw it right back in one smooth motion. Laurent caught it, picked up a second, and a third and juggled them like an expert.

“I'm not even going to ask,” Damen said, a little dazed.

Laurent grinned. “If you're good, I'll teach you. Those big hands should do quite nicely.”

That did nothing to decrease Damen's dazedness. “Torveld changed his mind before he departed.” he said.

“I know. He told me if I ever changed my mind that I knew where he was,” Laurent replied. “Tell me about the meeting, now”

“We barely touched on the subject,” he admitted. “My father wanted to clarify some things and then we recommence tomorrow.”

“I see.” Laurent put two of the oranges back and peeled the third. “He thinks I am influencing you unduly.”

Damen furrowed his brows. “I'm not sure. Really, what kind of crown prince would convince another to go to war against his country?”

“A devious one.” Laurent handed Damen an orange segment. “This was never my idea.”

“I know.”

“I hope you also know your father left you the night to continue your arguments,” he said. “Be on your best behaviour tonight. No wine. You've got kyroi to charm. Tell me, should I be sweet or should I be bratty? I think they need to hate me tonight.”

-

At the final feast Laurent was the prettiest, politest monster you'd ever laid your eyes on. The edges he had shown in jest the previous nights were sharpened to a knifepoint. He smiled at nobility and insulted them so subtly they walked away with the impression of humiliation and no real slight they could lay their fingers on. His clothing was finer, darker and glitzier than usual. He sneered at Akielon fashions, even the ones he had directly influenced, and sent away so much food Theomedes got two tasters up from the kitchens instead of just one.

He was saying, I am Vere and you can hate me. I deserve it.

Meanwhile, Damen ramped up his earlier offensive as high as it would go. He was finished being charming. He was here to be strong, be direct and make the people he spoke to love him for it. He assured nobility they would all be treated well during wartime, which really meant he was telling them they would not suffer like the poor. He assured them they would all be treated the same, which meant they would all be treated differently in different ways. He told one widowed lord's wife that he would allow her keep her sons at home and he told the same sons, one who had done came third in the archery games, that their dedication to Akielos would be honoured by the crown. Laurent challenged the same son to a duel and Damen had to send Nikandros to intervene.

War. Games. Sending boys to their deaths. This is what he would do Akielos, and for Laurent.

“What caused the personality change?” Nikandros asked, when he had stopped Laurent verbally eviscerating a potential soldier. “I was almost starting to like him.”

“I told him to be bratty,” Damen said. “You were at the meeting today, weren't you?”

Nikandros shook his head and before he could say more, Kallias brought Damen water and then offered to carry said water up to the dinner table. All those games and the meal hadn't even started yet. Damen estimated he had gotten to three kyroi, the ones who were most opposed, but he dare not neglect the ones who were most in favour in case they pulled away out of sheer jealousy.

“He warned me,” Kallias said, quietly, in Veretian. “I warn you.”

“What?” Damen asked but Kallias slipped away in that slave invisible way because the kyros of Aegina had joined Damen at the table with talk of Patran princesses and Akielon ladies and Damen had to remember another game he was playing. During dinner, Laurent spoke to one of the kyroi Damen had not yet gotten to, praising the excess of Vere to the austere man so thoroughly he definitely would give Damen support.

There were dogs that caught rats, too.

Laurent had very sharp teeth.

At the second last course, Kallias dropped Laurent's dirty fork right onto Laurent's pristine jacket. Erasmus was the one who gasped. Such gaffes were rare, because slaves were so well-trained, but not uncommon because slaves got nervous and men got drunk and talked with their hands. They happened. The proper reaction was not to notice, or if necessary, reassure the slave.

Laurent had his left elbow on the table. He turned his head, placed his chin on his fist, and levelled a look at Kallias that would make anyone's stomach sink. “Do you think,” he said. “That I put on this coat this evening for you to splatter sauce all over it?”

“I am --” Kallias began.

“That's right,” Laurent said. “I forgot. You slaves aren't capable of thinking at all. Remove that, you brainless cu--”

“Enough,” Damen cut across just as Erasmus started to step forward and Kallias's chin started to tremble. Warning. Games. War. But this Damen's proposal, Damen's county. He pushed back his chair and grabbed Laurent's elbow. The fork fell to the floor. Laurent's elbow shifted, and he sent the rest of the silverware clattering to the ground. “Excuse me,” Damen said to his tablemates. As he hauled Laurent to his feet, he pretended not to notice Nikandros hiding a smile behind his wine cup, his father's contemplation or Kastor's glare.

Damen dragged Laurent out to the foyer, shoved him onto the first couch he came across and dismissed the nearest guards.

“Well,” Laurent said, smoothing his ruffled hair. “I did not expect you to manhandle me.”

“I'm not going to apologise.”

“I didn't say I didn't like it.”

Damen threw his hands up in frustration. He couldn't think when Laurent behaved like this.

“Oh, calm down,” Laurent said, as Damen paced. “I thought you liked games now.”

“That is not the point.” Damen sat down. “Don't throw me like a dice, Laurent. This is too important.”

“This?” Laurent clasped his hands and raised them in front of his mouth.

“The kyroi,” Damen said.

“That helped you with the kyroi. And, it got you out of there. Here comes Kallias with dessert. We can eat in private. He can have some, too.”

Dessert was berries, dipped in cream. Damen wolfed his so not to have to watch Laurent bring each red berry to his mouth with the manner of one trying to seduce a berry.

Or a man.

He was probably as flushed as a berry when he made eye contact with Laurent. By the door, Erasmus and Kallias were gleefully sharing the same dessert.

“What do you think of the paint?” Laurent asked, when he sent the slaves away with the empty crystal bowls. “On the slaves?”

Damen shrugged. “I don't think of it.”

“It would rub off, don't you think? On sheets. On skin.”

“Yes. It does.”

“If one of them sucked your cock, would they leave paint behind?”

“They would clean it after.”

“Yes,” said Laurent. “I know. Kallias and Erasmus rub it all over each other, I suppose. They probably don't know what paint came from what body when they are ... finished.”

“I --” Damen heard the breathlessness to his own voice. War. Games. Seductions. “They probably apply it to each other to start with,” he said. “Maybe assign a colour and see where it ends up.”

Laurent's eyes danced. “If they weren't so pathetically cute I'd play that game with them.”

“Cute? Have you been poisoned again?”

“Shut up. You think so, too.”

“Are you so sure of what I'm thinking?”

“No,” said Laurent. “Not in the slightest. I had a whole train of thought and you interrupted me.”

“Paint.”

“Women don't wear paint.”

“Female slaves do.”

“On nobility, it is considered vulgar. It is the same in Vere, except for pets of course,” Laurent said. “But I have heard that some women cheat. They add gold-dust to their body oil and rub it on the places they want you to look.”

“What a waste,” said Damen. “If you want to look, you don't need any gold to draw the eye.”

Laurent opened his mouth, then closed it again once the foyer doors opened. “Oh, look. Lady Jokaste,” he said, the same way someone might say oh look, rain, when the dark clouds have already rolled across the sky.

“Forgive me, your highnesses,” she said, casually and deliberately joining the honorifics. A well born lady knew better etiquette than that. “The hall was hot and I needed air.”

“I'm going to flay Lazar,” Laurent muttered. He must have ordered the hall kept clear.

“You would think a Veretian would be more in touch with your ways,” Damen answered in Veretian, too. “He was your uncle's man.”

“He just likes to annoy me, I think. I hope.”

“Lady Jokaste,” Damen said. Manners. “The gardens are cooler if you are over-heated.”

“I do not know my way around the palace, yet.”

“Oh, sit down,” said Laurent, back to Akielon. “We both know you came out here to see what we were doing? What was your guess? Fucking or fighting? Or did you think I'd be alone and you could tarnish my reputation again?”

Because Jokaste did not flinch at Laurent's cursing, Damen did not bother to reprimand him. Jokaste smoothly sat on the low couch, ankles crossed, the movement making her skirt fall open. Damen smirked when he saw a sheen shine up her leg. Laurent smirked back and gave a pointed look at her oiled collarbone.

“My,” she said. “I feel quite on display. Perhaps the rumours that you no longer indulge in women are incorrect.”

“What was it,” Damen asked her, deferring to Laurent's earlier question. “Did you think you would find?”

“Perhaps I thought I would be followed,” she said. “And I had no designs otherwise. I am sure crown princes do not conduct their personal affairs in public.”

“But you are sure there are some,” Laurent said. “Shall I tell you what we were actually doing?”

“Plotting something world-changing?”

“Playing a game,” Damen supplied, “We've been playing it for years.”

“It's a guessing game,” said Laurent. “You pick someone in the crowd and guess their darkest secret.”

“But there is no-one here but us,” Jokaste said.

“And ten guards,” Damen said. “And a room inside full of the same people we have all been seeing for many many days now.”

“And I think you are very observant, Jokaste.”

“I feel rather on display again,” she said. “All right. I'll bite. The champion wrestler from yesterday is fantasising about your Veretian guard. He wishes he could lose a match against him.”

“Not bad,” said Laurent. “Your handmaiden is plotting to run away with one of the archers.”

“Good guess,” said Jokaste.

“Not a guess,” Laurent said. He looked at Damen, who did not know how to follow those guesses.

“I think,” Damen said. “That you don't plan on leaving here after the games, Lady Jokaste.”

“That's not so dark,” she said. “You must know darker things than that.”

Damen was glad of the practice at keeping his face neutral. “I am particular about the people I share them with.”

“I see,” said Jokaste. “I shall have to prove myself so.”

“Is it common for ladies to paint themselves with oil in your region?” Laurent asked, then, innocently.

“My skin gets dry,” Jokaste replied. Damen almost felt bad for her when she closed her skirt across her legs.

“In Vere,” Laurent continued. “There is a festival in spring called Sucres and we celebrate all the sweet things in life. The chefs make sculptures from boiled sugar as intricate as a beehive.”

“Sounds sticky,” Jokaste said.

“The young ladies, who are looking for husbands or perhaps just to seduce one of their fellow ladies, dust powdered sugar right along their collar bones.” Laurent traced his collarbone, over his thick jacket, with his index finger. “If you're lucky, they allow you to lick it off.” Damen tasted phantom sugar on his tongue. Not licking his lips was difficult. “Pets, of course, dust it in more interesting places. May I?” With a quick glance around, Laurent ran his finger over Jokaste's collar bone as a castle-master would inspect the work of a cleaning maid and came away with the tip his finger coated in oil. “

Damen had a whole host of new fantasies to suppress. What was Laurent doing?

“Is there a point to this?” Jokaste asked.

“Just something to consider,” Laurent said, before turning his attention back to Damen. “You do like hearing about Veretian traditions, my curious barbarian.”

“Yes,” said Damen. “My mercurial serpent.”

“That's better than a hamster,” Laurent said.

“Here is my guess,” Jokaste said, exhaling like a bored school child. “You are both carrying secrets and that is why you play at finding others. Yours --” She pointed at Damen. “Is to do with pride and integrity and yours --” She pointed at Laurent. “Is to do with fear and shame. If I cared enough, I could find them out. But I care more about me, if I am completely honest, so I shall give you some answers for free. The king is afraid of getting old. Nikandros is more ambitious than you realise and Kastor is consumed with jealousy.”

“None of those things,” Laurent said, in that ultra-calm way that made Damen worry. “Are the surprises you think they are. I am quite sure you have been banking on Kastor's jealousy for a while now. You want Prince Damianos to escort you back inside to make his brother want you. If you can't be a queen, you'll settle for a bastard's whore.”

“Laurent,” Damen said.

“The good news is,” Laurent continued. “I admire your game playing. We shall both walk you inside. It may make everyone hate you, I'm afraid. We do look alike and the people vacillate daily over how they feel about me.”

“But it may,” Damen interjected. “Make your apparent value rise. You and Laurent do look alike. The men may find something appealing in that. We do fight, so perhaps the court will think we are quarrelling over you.”

“It's a gamble.” Laurent rose. “But I do like games.”

“Winners always do.” Jokaste allowed Laurent to take her hand. “What do I get from this other than the prospect of people thinking you two share me like you do your slaves?”

“The chance to make my brother jealous,” Damen said, offering his arm. “You want him to want you.”

“What do you get out of this?” she asked.

“Games,” Laurent said. “I'm sorry. I did not realise you were dense.”

It worked. Kastor wanted Jokaste more than ever, Damen could tell. It was a challenge now, as winning over the kyroi was a challenge to him. Kastor wanted to win something against his brother who won the biggest competition as an accident of birth.

“What do you get?” Laurent asked Damen as the feast wound down.

Damen thought, ensuring your reputation and being left alone and letting Kastor think he has won something that I wanted.

War. Seduction. Games. Sugar.

It was never about Jokaste. Everything was only ever about Damen and Laurent. The real prize, Damen knew, was the confirmation of Laurent's jealousy.

“Are you dense?” Damen asked. “I just wanted you to see it was a game.”

Chapter Text

Damen, being completely sober and very aware of Laurent in his bed, was having trouble getting to sleep. It was new. He always slept easily. Laurent had been coming into his room for a very long time. But even someone as guileless as Damen could see the shifts occurring. He fought it in himself because he didn't want to be dishonourable. He had never really seen it in Laurent before because maybe he didn't let himself see it.

He only saw him as the boy he used to be and the Veretian ruler he could be and sometimes, though he would never say it, as the mixed-up victim his uncle had made him be.

But the signs were there. People got crushes. People got crushes on Damen all the time. If he acted on every crush, he'd never get out of bed. Such was the life of princes. Laurent had opportunity to go elsewhere. Kallias. Erasmus. Even Torveld, perish the thought. The boys in the academy. Half the bloody palace would jump at the chance to bed the Prince of Vere.

Laurent never took those chances.

Damen had this fear that he was somehow taking Laurent over. Not that Laurent's mind was easily bent to anyone else's will. But he was younger and he was vulnerable in his own deadly way and Damen didn't want to do anything wrong. He wanted to be safe for Laurent. He wanted to be kind and trustworthy and never push or take advantage.

But Laurent kept climbing into his bed.

He kept sidling closer across the mattress.

Damen was twenty three and human and had the most beautiful person he would ever see in this life literally breathing on the back of his neck. He knew exactly why he shouldn't turn around. He knew that there was a chance this was all part of Laurent's game to have Damen fight the war against his uncle. But Damen trusted his instincts. There was something purer here between them than manipulation.

Also, he didn't care.

He would do whatever it took to kill the Regent. He would do it even if Laurent hated him.

He was thinking, maybe if I turn around Laurent's eyes will reveal what I should do.

He was thinking, it's just bodies doing what bodies are meant to do.

He was thinking, what if I kiss him and see what happens.

But something new happened. Laurent was closer and Damen felt the feather light brush of a finger on his spine. He meant to not react. Maybe Laurent thought he was sleeping. But his body betrayed him and he sucked in a sharp breath the instant Laurent made contact.

Laurent withdrew and Damen was thinking back over all their years together, the times they had touched, and it had almost always been him.

(Sugar nonwithstanding.)

“No,” Damen said.

“I'm sorry. I-- No, that's worse,” Laurent said. “I didn't think you were sleeping. I wouldn't....if you were sleeping.”

“I meant,” Damen said. “I don't mind. Don't move.”

“Do you say that because you feel sorry for me?”

“No,” Damen said. “Keep going. I should warn you, though, I am ticklish.”

“So are gorillas,” Laurent said. “I read it in a book about explorers. Though, how the explorers found out is anyone's guess.” Damen closed his eyes and Laurent touched him again. He started at the base of Damen's neck where he circled the first point of his spine. Then, he ran his finger in a smooth line all down the centre of Damen's back.

“Just one finger?” Damen asked. “A lot of people would find that disappointing.”

Laurent snorted and used his his whole hand to examine Damen's whole back – muscles, bones and skin. He touched softly at first then with more force. He spread out his fingers against Damen's deltoids and then brought them back to his neck and, briefly, into his hair before pulling away again.

“What are you thinking?” Damen asked, thinking he himself sounded like a lovesick maiden.

“I'm thinking three different things. I will tell you two.”

“All right.”

“I'm thinking about Aimeric. I hope his back recovered. Then, well, I wonder if he touched Jord like this.”

“Probably.” Jord was much shorter than Damen and not nearly as muscular. But he was solid and strong. Aimeric, unless he was completely driven by his false quest, was probably fascinated. “Is that the two things?”

“No. Only one of them. The second was, well, a question I am not sure I want the answer to. So don't tell me. But I will tell you. Actually, no, I have one question and then I will tell you.”

“All right,” Damen said, though Laurent was making very much sense.

“Were you toying with Jokaste all along.”

“No.”

“Oh.”

“I mean,” Damen said. “I paid her no more heed than anyone else until she became a bother and she became a bother by crawling into your bedroom. So I wanted her to leave us alone and I had to be a little bit sneaky to make that happen.”

“Oh.”

“The thought?”

“I was wondering why you keep letting me in here.”

“Laurent,” Damen said.

“Don't answer.”

“I am lucky,” Damen said, carefully. “In the sense that I have never much had to do things I did not like. So, I tend to only do things that I like.”

“Is that a riddle or nonsense?”

“Truth,” said Damen. “If you are beside me, it is because I like having you there. That's all. Now let me sleep. I have to start a war tomorrow.”

-

Laurent was never there in the mornings. Damen was an early riser but Laurent slept lightly. Most likely, he sprang out of bed once Damen stirred and went back to his own room to avoid embarrassment or the attentions of Damen's attendants or maybe just his cheerful whistling. Laurent could be quite the grouch, even when he re-appeared fully dressed in restrictive Veretian garments to eat half of Damen's breakfast.

“Who dressed you?” Laurent demanded.

“Are you being figurative or literal?”

“As if any insult of mine would be so weak.”

“I dressed myself. I am a very capable person,” Damen said. Lykaios came to attend him but instead Damen had her make him come. He thought about the wrong things, like blonde hair and pale legs entwined with his, and after felt so sick of himself that he couldn't let her dress him, too. Damen liked his bedslaves and he liked his servants. But it seemed wrong to blur the roles.

“I dress myself, too, you know,” Laurent said.

“All those laces.”

“All these laces,” he replied. “You look surprised.”

“I never thought,” Damen said. “I mean, I knew but I never thought.”

“You do that a lot, my blind barbarian,” Laurent said. “Anyway, here.” He threw a balled-red bundle at Damen's head. Or tried to. Damen had good reflexes.

“What's this?” Damen shook out the garment to see a short red cloak, the kind he sometimes pinned over his chiton when he was off army duty but on royal duty.

“A cloak. You have many of them, do you not? My tailor made it.”

“Oh,” said Damen. “Thank --”

“If you want to be taken seriously, you should show less skin than a whore in a brothel window,” Laurent said. Brusquely, he fixed the cloak around Damen's shoulders. Damen couldn't stop looking at Laurent's lips.

“For someone who is so good with laces, this seems alien to you.”

“Shut up,” Laurent said. Then, he stepped back. “Good luck. If you feel like you're struggling just pretend you're talking to me.”

“How would that help?”

“You can drum up the appropriate amount of disdain and absurd duty.”

-

Damen walked into the meeting room like he owned the place. If the Crown Prince of Akielos couldn't drum up that much authority, well what was the point in even existing?

“Father. Kastor.” he said. “My brothers of Akielos,” he said, addressing the kyroi and Nikandros. “Tell me what you want.”

Damen could tell this was not the statement they had been expecting. He did have a speech, honestly, but it was better to get the detractions out of the way first. The men looked back at him, unsure of what to say or how to begin.

“I,” said Kastor. “Want to get out of here before noon. I've got plans.” With Jokaste.

“Stop wasting time then,” Damen said. “Anyone else? Should I tell you? We all want the same things. We want peace for our countrymen at the border. We want to stop raising our sons for wars. We want food for all our plates and we want our country whole again. I want to make that happen.” He stood over the grand map spread across the table; looked down at the rivers, hills and fields that made Akielos which weren't really the things that made Akielos at all. “But,” Damen said. “I am a realist. We lost at Marlas. Our weakest suffered at the hands on the Regent. Our loveliest, most innocent, softest slaves scarred and burned. We have never taken a Veretian fort. So, I say, with advance apologies for my language – Fuck Vere, fuck the missed victory, fuck the Regent and fuck their forts.”

Damen drew a diagonal line through the map on the table. He wanted Delpha. All of Delpha. But life didn't happen like that. He wanted Laurent, all of Laurent, and he couldn't have him. Laurent wanted his brother alive and well and he couldn't have that.

Akielos would take back Delpha. Mostly. They would leave them the western corner with Marlas and Fortaine and maybe even Ravenel. Forts were a construct. Akielos wanted hearts and land. If the Veretians came out, they would fight but Damen was fairly certain the Regent wasn't much good at rallying cries.

They would take Delpha, with a slight triangle missing.

They would re-draw the map.

His father was impassive. Nikandros was wide-eyed, proud. The kyroi were a little bit shocked and a little bit exultant.

“You would settle,” Kastor asked. “For less than everything.”

“Yes,” said Damen. For Akielos and for Laurent. He didn't need the whole of Delpha to get to the Regent. He just needed a path. “It makes the most sense. No-one here can tell me it doesn't.”

“Their forts are their strategic strong point,” said Makedon. “We've never...”

“I'm aware of that, General,” Damen said. “Which is why I don't give a fuck about them. Let the Veretians cower behind their impenetrable walls. Let them fight with lies and fire. We fight with integrity.”

“And muscle,” Nikandros said. “Quite a lot of muscle.”

“The forts give them somewhere to retreat,” Makedon said. “We will have nowhere.”

“We will have Delpha,” said Damen. “Our men are ready. Vere will have never had a fight like this.”

“Vere has had access to the inner-workings of our future king for several years now,” Kastor said. “I must state my strong objections. If you want to stop sending sons to war, stop brewing wars. What is there to say that Veretian pup won't send word of all this to his uncle and decimate us like ants at a picnic.”

“Kastor,” Damen said. “You don't kill ants at picnics, do you? That is cruel.”

“See? He's even talking like that pup now.”

“Sons,” Theomedes said.

“I fight no-one's war but ours,” Damen said. “And we have an advantage that we have never had before. The Veretian army have no chance against our attack. I haven't gotten to the best part yet. We don't just attack from the south. We march from Patras, from Vask and --” He paused, let the momentum build. “from Acquitart. Our troops are already in position.”

Among the kyroi, pandemonium. Theomedes was still impassive. Kastor swore and Nikandros looked like he might burst out of his clothing with pride.

“It's a trap,” Kastor said. “Our men leave our borders and they die.”

“I have made arrangements with King Torgiers and his brother Torveld to guarantee us safe passage, and a small amount of assistance,” Damen said. “I have also arranged with Empress and some clans in Vask to allow us safe passage.”

“What did you do to arrange this?” Theomedes asked. Damen could also tell it vexed his father to have to ask.

“I have promised Patras assistance in future in securing their borders against the Vaskian raiders.”

“And what did you promise Vask?”

“I did not make the promise,” Damen admitted. “Laurent of Vere has promised them assistance when he ascends. There may have been some bribery.”

“That is dishonourable,” said the kyros of Dice. Nikandros looked less proud.

“See?” said Kastor.

“It is less than ideal,” said Damen. “But it does give us a nice advantage. Some troops will come straight from Vask. Some via Acquitart.”

“Damianos,” Theomedes said and everyone went quiet. “Those troops may never leave Vere.”

“They will,” said Damen. “Trust me.”

“It is not you, Exalted,” said one brave kyroi. Ah, the one Laurent scared at the dinner table. “That does not have our trust.”

“Laurent will honour this,” Damen said. “There is no dispute about that. This is our best shot, brothers. An attack with four prongs. No army could withstand that.”

“Laurent can't just hand you Delpha,” said Nikandros. “His country would never forgive him.”

“They will never know,” Damen said. “Come on. We all know the Regent in Vere does not want Laurent on the throne. He doesn't want war, either. He prefers to have us squabbling like children and scrabbling for food. He will lose. We will get Delpha. And whatever happens to Laurent after that is none of my concern.”

There. He said it. He hoped he sounded convincing.

Their faces suggested otherwise.

“I know,” Damen continued. “You think me besotted with the boy. Yes, we are friendly. We have been thrown together these four years. And when I am King of Akielos and he is King of Vere, I want our countries to be friends. It was one country, once. But I am not staking my claim on his well-being. And I am not resisting our best opportunity on the chance he might have to work a bit harder. We all know he already has his work cut out for him up there.”

“Ah,” said Kastor. “You have something on him. What is it? There are so many rumours about him. It's the brother thing isn't --”

“Enough,” said Damen. “That is my proposal. No-one here has a better one. Take it to a vote.”

The kyroi looked around nervously. Leaders of provinces and none of them wanted to be the first to raise their hand. Damen looked at the map. The force of his hand had torn it to a jagged edge where he had drawn the line. Ants at a picnic. That's what people were when men like him made decisions.

He felt the weight very heavy on his head.

“We shall recess,” said Theomedes. “We all need time to consider. Damianos, you are excused while we deliberate. Kastor and Nikandros, too, but be available for the decision later.” He walked them to the door. Boys sent away while men talked. Protocol. Probably.

“Father,” Damen said, quietly, when his brother and best friend were out of ear shot. “Does it always feel so cruel to make these kinds of choices?”

His father blinked and Damen noticed the lines all around his eyes. “You don't know how it pleases me that you asked,” he said, and closed the door.

Damen had ants on his skin. He took to the training arena alone but found that a few wields of his sword did nothing to relieve the itch and threw it to one side, frustrated. He thought of the baths, then thought, no he should be clothed and ready when his father called him back. He thought of a slave, perhaps even Kallias, to lose his mind inside of a body. He thought of Kastor and Jokaste, though if she was as clever as she seemed she would not be too free with her love too early. She had ambitions, after all.

Laurent. Laurent. Laurent was nowhere to be found.

Damen had just gotten to his room and shed his soft red cloak when there was a commotion in the hall. His heart gave a start and adrenaline and soldier instincts kicked in. He would not allow another attack. He would not allow a hair on Laurent's head to be touched. Sword drawn, he rushed to the hall to find the heavy-footed soldiers of his father's personal guard and the very shocked face of his father.

“Stop,” he said, and every soldier, even Jord and Lazar, went to their knees. Laurent's door opened and a pair of wide blue eyes peered out. “Damianos,” he said. “These Veretians and Akielons do not react well to intruders. Please tell them to not be so hasty in future.”

“Father,” Damen said. “I'm afraid I'm the one who insists on their vigilance. No-one comes here any more without my permission. And you are almost hidden by your men. This is safe, you know.”

“I am safe everywhere in my palace,” Theomedes said. “I just wish to speak to my son in privacy. Laurent, too. Come on.” He walked into Damen's room like he owned the place and Damen felt rather like a naughty dog tripping over prostrate men as he followed with Laurent.

Theomedes had never come to these rooms, not even to give Damen the apartment of his own when he was a boy of fifteen and finished training and jealous of Nikandros gone to the Kingsmeet. It had been heady, then, to have this space and fill with with naked women and empty bottles. Damen had been gone a lot in the proceeding years and he never was one for decor or objects. The rooms were just as they had been before they were his. Probably the same as when they had belonged to Theomedes when he was the crown prince.

“You haven't changed a thing,” Theomedes said as he sat in the best chair, the one Kastor had taken. Damen's father rarely bothered with casual conversation. Everything meant something. Damen wondered what his father saw when he looked around. If he saw the touches of Laurent everywhere – the bowl of oranges that was always full and his slippers under the bed and the Akielon book of Veretian folktales the sole book on Damen's bedside table – and if he judged them.

“I think,” said Laurent. “That is because I tell your son constantly how to improve the design and that makes him stubborn enough to never touch anything.”

“I don't like false talk of decorations,” said Damen. “You both know why. Father, what can I do for you?”

“Have your servant get me a drink, first of all,” said Theomedes. Damen walked over to the always stocked table to pour some wine. “Did you not bathe today?”

“Excuse me?” Damen wondered if he had misheard. He spun around and instead of looking at his father, he looked at Laurent whose face was blank but his eyes were slightly sparkling.

“There's slave paint on your back,” Theomedes said. He wasn't looking at Damen or Laurent but at the bed that was unusually unmade and the smudges of paint on the sheets. Embarrassed, because for all that Akielon was an open society he still didn't like the idea of his father knowing anything about his sex life, Damen put his cloak back on.

“Do you need help?” Laurent asked.

“You've done enough,” Damen said. What Laurent had done, other than confuse him, was make sure Theomedes thought Damen was bedding slaves and not princes. Which would have been less annoying if there was actually something to hide. Or if Laurent had brought him in on his plans (which, yes, Damen would have scuppered but that was not the point.) His cheeks heated.

He had thought Laurent just wanted to touch his skin.

He had a lot to learn about games.

“You look like your tiny brain is about to burst out of your skull, barbarian,” Laurent said.

“I speak Veretian,” Theomedes said, in Veretian. “And I did not come here to listen to squabbles. I get quite enough of that with Kastor and Damianos, I don't need it from foreigners too.”

“Sorry, your majesty,” Laurent said.

“Father, I am sorry for any disrespect,” said Damen. “Tell me what I can do for you. This is about Kastor?”

“Yes, in a way. Son, I am glad he disagreed with you. Someone has to. And he had a point with the Veretian assistance in your proposed campaign.”

“It is not Vere. It is just me,” said Laurent.

“You will be Vere in a few short years. Perhaps, soon. Your uncle may call you back if war starts.”

“Only to put me on the front lines. Don't worry. I plan to be a coward.”

“We are not worried about you,” said Theomedes. “Damianos has made that clear. Akielos is our only priority.”

“Ouch,” said Laurent.

“Damianos, I want to know why Laurent had agreed to help you like this.”

“Like he said, we are like brothers. It suits us both to get this done now.”

“Suits you to hand over Delpha?” Theomedes said to Laurent, who gave a little shrug.

“I'm not handing over anything. I have no control over Prince Damianos's actions. All I know is that he is going to send word so anyone who wishes to repatriate further north can do so.”

“You're lying,” said Theomedes. “Veretians always lie. What does he have on you? I don't think you are the kind of future king who would sacrifice his lands so easily. You've spent too much time in my palace for that.”

“I don't,” said Damen. “Have anything on him. This is a pragmatic decision. Nothing more.”

“Laurent?”

“I – I don't,” Laurent stammered. “Maybe, but--”

“What are you doing?” Damen asked. “There's nothing.”

“There's one thing,” Laurent said to Theomedes. “But your son is too honourable to use it against me. I, however, am under no such illusions. It is there. I will comply.”

“There is nothing,” Damen said again. “The arrangement is political above all.”

“Nothing is ever just political,” Theomedes said. “But I will accept this for now. Damianos, we meet for the vote before dinner.”

“Do I have your vote?”

“Kyroi vote, not kings,” he said. “But you are my son.”

“He means,” Laurent said, helpfully. “You always have it.” Then, he snorted. “Akielons.”

Damen, being polite, escorted his father to the door and all those fractious servants. He blocked Laurent from leaving. “There is nothing,” he said, again, to Laurent.

“There would be anything,” Laurent said. “To make this happen.”

“Do you ever do anything without an ulterior motive? The paint. The cloak. I thought – it doesn't matter.”

“I come here every night. I'm going to the baths now. You should wash away that paint on your back.”

-

In the milky bathwater, with only steam between them, Laurent sat on the same bench as Damen. Normally, he sat so far away their feet wouldn't touch if they both stretched out. Damen had checked. It used to be more fun to tease Laurent.

Now, it felt like Laurent was teasing him.

“They're going to vote in my favour,” Damen said.

“Yes.”

“You're helping us go to war with your country, Laurent. There's no going back from that.”

“I don't want to go back,” he said and Damen's breath caught in his chest. “To how it was,” Laurent continued. “I go back on my terms and that means my uncle gone and the country done with this ridiculous tension. We may win. We may lose. It will be done.”

“If you had a picnic and along came some ants, what would you do?”

Damen was thinking, these are real people. Please see that these are real people

“I would make sure,” Laurent said. “That my servants chose a spot free from ants. Usually, you just need them to bring a table.” As he spoke, he crossed his legs. His foot brushed Damen's shin. He left it there, resting, as is Damen's calf muscles were his own personal footrest. “I am aware of the hardship it will bring, my noble barbarian. I am aware.”

“I know,” said Damen. Laurent cared for slaves and treated horses better than he treated most people. He had to know of the consequences. He had seen them himself at Marlas. In the baths, with nothing between them but themselves, Damen found himself lost in Laurent's eyes. He was so lovely, so dangerous, and the only person in the palace that didn't answer to his father or cower at the fact he was born royal. They were both born royal.

It would be so easy to close the distance. A kiss. Just a taste to see how Laurent, teasing and manipulating Laurent, would react. He might be horrified of course. He showed his fair share of contempt for Akielons. He might not be horrified.

He might allow it, for a second, allow Damen the honour of a kiss. Then he might bolt, as he had with Diana. Or he might continue, because once had been taught that was the way to proceed.

Damen, who led armies and fought battles, couldn't do anything but look into Laurent's eyes. Laurent's lip twitched. He closed his eyes.

“It's all right,” he said. “I understand.”

“No,” Damen said. “It's not --” Laurent hadn't moved his foot. Damen couldn't let him withdraw, not here, where it was true. He glanced down at the marble bench under the milky water. “May I?” he said. Laurent blinked, nodded, and Damen took his hand in his. He felt like he could break his fingers if he held too hard and he had all these swirling, steaming emotions that made him want to grip with all his might. “Don't tell Nikandros,” Damen said. “But you are my best friend. You're the truest person in my life.”

“I play games with you all the time.”

“I like them,” Damen said. “Laurent, so much is changing. We are going to both be kings and we have to be so careful and I want so much for you outside of these walls and --”

“It was kinder, I think,” Laurent interrupted. “When you said that I was poison. I don't want to talk about this any longer.”

“All right.”

“You haven't let go of my hand.”

“You haven't moved your foot.”

“Did you know --” Laurent lightly changed the subject and not the position of his foot. Damen chose to lower their hands, still joined, to where they couldn't be seen.

“Is this going to be a fact about Vere?” Damen teased. He bumped his shoulder against Laurent.

“No. It's about Akielos. Please let go of my hand,” he said. Damen did as asked, and he felt very shaky. The steam did that sometimes. “Grab the pitcher,” Laurent continued. “And a cloth.”

Damen did as asked, leaving the water to do so. Because Laurent insisted on milk and oil in the water, the attendants kept clean water on hand for rinsing. Very practical. Laurent watched him walk naked on the tiles to retrieve them as a slave would retrieve them. Damen, who had no qualms about nudity, felt very exposed. Such a feeling should have bothered him, but there were some gazes you didn't mind being exposed under.

“Sit back down,” Laurent said. “No, not like that. Turn around. Pass me the cloth. You still have paint on your back. I didn't know it contained some kind of grease.” Unhurriedly, Laurent wiped away the paint he had smeared on Damen's back. There couldn't have been that much. Damen remembered oh so clearly the tentative touches of the night before. His body sang with them. But Laurent spent a long time wiping the damp cloth. He had to kneel on the bench to reach. “I was trying to ask you if you knew Erasmus has been trained especially for you.”

“I had heard,” Damen said.

“If you knew,” Laurent continued. “The particulars of his training. He knows all your tastes, at least all the ones that are public. Your favourite songs. Foods. The way you like to fuck. For so much of that boy's life, before you even knew he existed, Erasmus was thinking of you. It was like he was made for you. And now, he has been given relative freedom. He thanks his lucky stars just to be able to kiss his friend Kallias. He cries when he comes with him.”

“Laurent,” Damen said. “That is private. What did you want the pitcher for?”

“Rinse my hair for me. Listen to me, first. Erasmus craves you so badly it hurts his soul. Your country made him for you and then I told him not to bother. Could you imagine if your father told you that you couldn't be a prince. It's the same.”

Damen, without ceremony, dumped the water of Laurent's head. “It is not the same.”

Laurent shook his blond hair away from his face.

“You look like a golden retriever,” Damen said.

“A better comparison,” Laurent nodded, approvingly. “And it is the same. This place makes it the same. I'm eighteen, now,” he said. “You have to give me something before you leave.”

Chapter Text

The kyroi voted in Damen's favour. Theomedes reminded them their input was only a courtesy but he was glad they were all in the same frame of mind. Just like that, Prince Damianos was leading his country to war.

First, a strategy meeting that lasted well into the night. Nikandros by his side, making all the best suggestions. Kastor, sulking, disappearing early to chase Jokaste around the palace. There was also the memory of Laurent's touch in the bath, the contradiction of his words and his actions, and the strange servile pleasure Damen had taken in doing as Laurent asked him. It wasn't strange because Laurent was his only equal. Who could command you but an equal?

The kyroi were talking army supply contracts and Theomedes looked on, knowing and almost proud, and all Damen could think about was how he had towelled off Laurent's hair when they got out of the baths.

“We should break for the night,” Damen said. “Father?”

“Yes, son. We will reconvene tomorrow.” Theomedes words made tired men out of the kyroi. They leaned back against their chairs, rolling shoulders, and calling for their servants and slaves. Nikandros, younger than them all but Damen, was the only one bright-eyed and fuelled rather than tired by the plans for war.

“Damen, shall we drink?” he asked. “You need to make up for last night.”

Damen wanted a drink. He deserved one. But he was suddenly afraid to bring Nikandros to his rooms in case Laurent was already asleep there. And he couldn't take his old friend to one of the outer, never-used rooms because that would be a slight on their friendship.

“One,” Damen said. “Let's sit in the gardens. I need some air.” Under the starry sky, they shared some wine and because the prospect of war hung so heavy in the night air Damen and Nikandros talked of simpler things instead.

“Kastor is pursuing Jokaste like a boy eager to fuck for the first time,” said Nikandros.

“I'm not sure that eagerness ever goes away,” said Damen. “But I am aware of Kastor's interest.” A slight raise of his cup was all it took for Nikandros to know he was both aware and in approval.

“I thought so. You and Laurent played him. But not her.”

“She is cunning,” Damen said. “She couldn't get a future king so she settled for an illegitimate prince. She nearly gave poor Laurent a heart attack when she tried to seduce him.”

“Are you sure she settled?”

“For now,” Damen said. “She thinks herself a kingmaker, I believe. But she will have to live with disappointment.”

“A year or two ago, you would have abandoned me for her in this moment. She's just your type.”

“Honestly,” said Damen. “How are people so sure of what I want from a partner? Am I so predictable?”

“Yes.” Nikandros laughed and took a sip of wine. “But I see you are focused on war at present. That is good. Your cloak slipped a little at the meeting, so I know you take pleasure with your slaves. Don't look at me like that. I was standing behind you, remember? Only kyroi get seats.”

“Right. That was unintentional on my part.”

“Who – Oh. Laurent's part. Are you ever going to tell me? You used to tell me about all your conquests, Damen.”

“We are not lovers. Honestly, I don't know what we are. Allies, perhaps.”

“He says brothers.”

“He lies to most people,” Damen said. “I know you think him twisted and dangerous but --”

“No,” said Nikandros. “Not really. Not, I think he was a boy in Vere and a man in Akielos. And while I do not consider my friend and prince the best judge of character, I have seen enough of him to know he's not the worst.”

“High praise.” Damen raised his cup and the clink rang out in the darkness.

-

He was right not to invite Nikandros to his room. Laurent was waiting. It was long past midnight and he was sitting straight-backed on the couch in his polished black boots and a jacket consisting mostly of interminable laces. Beside him, kneeling on the floor, was Erasmus. Cuffed. Collared. Chained. His dark blond hair glinted gold. So did the tips of his lashes.

He was a fantasy Damen never knew he had come to life.

Laurent was holding Erasmus by a leash.

War. Games. Seduction.

Damen caught his breath. He locked the door.

“Don't say anything,” Laurent said. “Listen, first. Erasmus?” He gave a tiny tug on the leash and Erasmus raised his head.

“Exalted,” Erasmus said. “I --” His voice was a quaver. His skin was pink.

“It's all right.” Then, to Damen. “We're still working on him vocalising his wants. Slaves, as you know, are so well trained they struggle with their own opinions and desires.”

“Tell me what you want,” Damen said.

“Me or him?” Laurent asked, raising one golden eyebrow.

“Erasmus.”

“Exalted,” he said again. “In the training gardens, this one was trained only for you. I knew the chances you would choose me were slim, and I dared not get my hopes up, but every thing I learned, I learned for you. I --”

“What about Kallias?” Damen asked.

“He understands what I want. He thinks...” Erasmus looked around, like even voicing thoughts was dangerous. It wasn't. It was forbidden. “He says things that are so sweet I cry. That my heart is made for him, even when my body craves another. He thinks, I can, if I can only --”

“Give him this,” Laurent interrupted, looking at Damen. “If you give him this, Erasmus can be satisfied.”

“What would satisfy you?” Damen stood over Erasmus now. He fingered his dark blond hair and looked only at Laurent. Games. Damen was twenty three and not immune to games.

“To please you, Exalted.”

The moment stretched out long and airless. Games. Choices. Damen had sent Erasmus away before. He had kept his desires tamped down as if secured with damned Veretian laces. Damen wanted Laurent. He couldn't have him. Here was Laurent, with a boy on a chain, who did want him.

“I suppose,” Damen said to Laurent. “That you want to stick around.”

“Nothing I haven't seen before.”

“You didn't ask me about the meeting.” Veretian, now.

“You are sober. You didn't break anything or kick anything on the way here. I know how it went.”

“I'm going to war,” Damen said.

“Yes.”

“I'm leaving here. You.”

“Yes.”

“I'm doing this for you. You asked me to give you something.”

“Which thing?” The war or Erasmus.

“Everything,” Damen admitted, helpless. He sat where he always sat on the end of the couch where Laurent liked to sit. There was not much of a backrest at this side, even though Laurent was the one who sat straight-backed and Damen preferred to lounge. Erasmus on his knees between him. It was natural for Damen to stroke his hair. It was natural for Erasmus to sigh with his whole body and lean into the touch.

“He wants to use his mouth,” Laurent said. “Will you let him?”

“You can't be where I can touch you or see you,” Damen said. The words only real when he said them. They were doing this. He was doing this. It wasn't like before, with Diana, there was so much more between them now.

Laurent stood, still holding the gold leash attached to the gold collar. He walked around to the back of the couch and stood directly behind Damen. “Turn around, slave,” he said to Erasmus. “Get closer to Prince Damianos.”

Erasmus turned. Damen stroked his hair again and drew his head to his thighs.

“Rest,” Damen said. Erasmus pressed his cheek against Damen's leg. Damen kept rubbing his hair. He leaned back and his head rested against Laurent's body. He was surprisingly solid under the fine clothes. Laurent drew the lead taut against Damen's chest. The precious metal biting against Damen's nipple. Everything Laurent did was deliberate. Right down to the way he entwined his fingers in Damen's hair. “Will I find paint in my hair in the morning?” Damen asked.

“Not unless Erasmus gets luckier than his wildest dreams,” Laurent replied. “You can't touch me. You said nothing about me touching you. I hope, dear brute, you are cannier than that when it comes to war room negotiations.”

“As long as you're not there.”

“Do you want this?” Laurent asked, fingers tightening to a tug in Damen's hair. He tipped Damen's head backwards to look into his eyes. Damen knew what Laurent must see – his mouth open, his eyes hooded with lust, the swell of his cock under his clothing, Erasmus eagerly nuzzling his cheek against Damen's muscled thighs. Damen wanted Laurent. He had to keep reminding himself he could not have Laurent. They were the future leaders of warring countries and his job was to look after Laurent's future, not to lie with him.

“Yes,” said Damen.

“I'd never make anyone do anything they didn't want to do.”

“I know,” said Damen. Laurent's gaze was too piercing. Damen had to close his eyes.

“Proceed, slave,” Laurent said to Erasmus. Then, to Damen. “You did tell me you have to be direct with them.”

With all the grace of the finest, softest bed slave Erasmus pushed Damen's clothing out of the way. As expected, his eyes got very wide to see Damen exposed. That happened with new people, especially sweet inexperienced people like Erasmus. Behind his head, Laurent's muscles contracted.

“You have seen me roused before,” Damen said. Veretian to each other. Akielon to Erasmus. He said that in Veretian. He did not say that he was little more than half hard. They would see that for themselves.

“Not from this angle,” Laurent replied. Damen pushed forward his hips so he was slumped on the seat. Erasmus, being well trained, knew this sign well. He pressed wet kisses all along Damen's inner thigh. He rubbed his nose against Damen's skin. “Slowly,” Laurent told Erasmus. “You've been waiting for this for so long. Do you want to rush it or savour it?”

“Savour,” Erasmus whispered.

“Close your eyes,” Laurent said to Damen. “Just feel.”

Damen felt kisses everywhere but the part of him that ached most for contact. He felt Erasmus tentatively touch his thighs, his hip bones, the firm muscles of his lower abdomen.

“Touch me,” Damen said. A direct command. Akielon. Erasmus wrapped one hand around his cock, fondled him with the other. As Damen exhaled, Laurent's arm came across his chest. The laces pressed into his skin. His hand was sure on Damen's shoulder and Damen opened his eyes, briefly, to see the gold leash wrapped around Laurent's own wrist.

“Slowly,” Laurent commanded Erasmus.

“Faster,” said Damen. “What did you learn of me in training?”

“That --” Erasmus's breath breezed soft against Damen's cock. If he thrust his hips, he'd touch his mouth. “That you like it to be, um, direct, Exalted. Straightforward.”

Damen smiled a bitter smile. Laurent held him tighter. Nothing about this was straightforward.

“Use your tongue,” Laurent said. “Directly on his cock.”

Erasmus licked. Damen closed his eyes and felt the sure, wet swipe of a tongue around the head and then up and down, up and down, until he was undulating his hips to match the movement.

Damen considered himself a considerate lover. He was still caressing Erasmus's hair and resisted the urge to thrust into his mouth. He brought his other hand up from where it was clenched on the couch and put it on top of Laurent's hand on his shoulder.

“That's good,” Damen said to Erasmus. “You're so good.”

Erasmus increased his attentions.

“Slow down,” warned Laurent. “Just the tip. Taste it.”

Erasmus flicked the point of his tongue against Damen. After, he pulled back and licked his own lips. Training. Seduction. Games.

“More,” said Damen. “That's it. Take me in your mouth. Good boy.”

Erasmus took as much as he could into his mouth. He was good. Sweetly, enthusiastically good at sucking cock. Damen held his hand lightly against the side of Erasmus's face, not pushing, not pressing, just touching and letting him know he appreciated his effort. His other hand, across his chest, was tightly entwined with Laurent's.

Damen bit his lip. With his eyes closed, and a narrow hand in his, and the smell of oranges and ink in his nose, he could almost pretend it was a prince not a slave on his knees. Erasmus pushed down so far he almost gagged.

“No,” said Damen. “Easy. Easy.”

“Squeeze the base,” Laurent said. “That's it. Make it last. Tease him, there, like that, at the slit.”

His tongue was tensed and pointed again, a sure but unsubstantial pressure. He used it like a workman's tool, licking straining skin while both his soft hands cupped and twisted where his mouth did not reach.

Damen groaned. He bucked his hips and Erasmus went down on him again, as far as he could, with the gentle, diligent devotion of a slave. Erasmus knew what he had been trained to know and none of Laurent's tormenting suggestions were part of that knowledge. Damen gave himself over to sensation, the hot slide of a mouth up and down, the brush of honey-gold hair against his pelvis, the attentions of artful hands, the delicious sensation of suction. He felt the warm pleasure and the stiff Veretian laces and the friction of the chain. Laurent, holding him tightly, touching him openly. Softly saying there and more in Akielon.

When orgasm took Damen, bright and intense, the word he said was Laurent.

Erasmus was trained in the art of fellatio. He kept Damen in his mouth, drawing out every last drop of pleasure and seed until Damen pressed his hand to Erasmus's face to draw him away. He didn't let go of Laurent's hand. He couldn't. Just opening his eyes was effort enough.

“Erasmus,” he said, because he knew the slave needed praise. “You were wonderful. Your training does you proud.”

“How do you feel?” Laurent asked him.

“Me?” Erasmus said.

“Yes.”

“Speak openly,” Damen added.

“I ... my body is roused and ...the trainer .... I thought...”

“Push that aside. What are you feeling?” Laurent pressed.

“I want to be with Kallias.”

“Then go.” Laurent handed Erasmus the leash. “Have fun,” he called, naughtily, as Erasmus scurried away. Removing his hand from Damen's had been necessary to pass over the leash. With the slave gone, Damen was very aware of Laurent standing a fraction away from him, distance there now, and the way he was exposed. Laurent stepped back. Damen fixed his clothing while Laurent fussed with a towel and some water. He returned with a damp cloth folded between his fingers. “You don't need this,” he said. “Erasmus swallowed everything you gave him. He's probably kissing Kallias right now and they both taste like you.”

Impulsively, Damen stood up and stumbled towards the bed, tugging Laurent by the wrist. His inhibitions were lowest after sex. It was always his way. Laurent switched between cool repression and hot titillation without issue.

“I need to lie down,” he said. “I need you to lie down with me.”

“I'm fully dressed.”

“If you give me a minute, I’ll help you undress.”

“That's not necessary.” Laurent pulled off his own boots and unlaced his own laces. He shrugged off his jacket, shucked his trousers, and lay on his stomach on the bed.

“You're hard,” said Damen.

“Are you blessed with the gift of sight now ?” Laurent's voice was haughty but his cheeks were scarlet. “Because you cannot see that part of me.”

“I know more than I see.”

“Doubtful,” Laurent replied. “Furthermore, I do not know why you sound both surprised and pleased. The rumours aren't true. I am not impotent. I am a healthy young man who is not immune to witnessing a sex act at close enough distance to have felt your body seize up when you came.”

“Does it bother you?”

“The rumours? Not especially. That one is --”

“Being turned on.”

“It feels...how it feels. You're a man. You know.”

“Don't you want to do something about it?” Damen rolled closer to Laurent. “You're so still.”

“Should I hump the bed like a dog in heat?” Laurent asked. “Believe me, this is not the first time I have been in this particular scenario.”

“Well, I've never had my dick sucked by proxy before,” Damen said.

“I've never .... been an instructor.”

“Will you touch yourself when I fall asleep?”

“No.”

“Will you do it while I'm awake?” Damen didn't know where the words came from. Where any of this sex stuff came from. Except, of course, he did. They had been inching towards it for years. He'd be going soon. Laurent was eighteen now. “There was a boy in my year of the academy who used to rub himself against his cot every night. It never occurred to him to use his hand.”

“Or another boy.” Laurent's hips shifted, a little, just a little, against the sheets. “I am not a boy,” he said. “I am a man, as you are a man. I do not need a lesson in self-pleasure.”

“I did not need you to instruct my slave --”

“Actually, he's mine. That was a gift,” Laurent said. “You said my name.”

“I know.”

“You came in his mouth and you said my name.”

“I know,” said Damen. “Would you do the same?”

“Come in a slaves mouth? Doubtful.”

“Say my name.”

“No.” Laurent's voice went flat. He face turned sour. Damen felt the awful pang of rejection flip inside his stomach. “You look disappointed. I don't know why.”

“Are you still hard?”

“Yes.”

“Will you come tonight? I want that for you. Even if it's nothing to do with me.”

“Who else – no, not that. Yes, sometimes, things come to mind but --” Laurent trailed off. “I'm not so aroused now.”

“Laurent, Laurent. You confuse me so much.”

“With Diana,” Laurent said, all in a rush. “Remember how you held her? I could...if you would.”

Damen sat back against the headboard and spread apart his knees. Laurent looked everywhere but at him as he shifted on the bed. Positions reversed. His head against Damen's chest now.

“Don't watch,” Laurent said. “Don't touch me.”

“Can I touch your hair? Have I ever told you --”

“You like blond hair. They know from here to Patras.”

“How much I love your hair,” Damen continued.

“Oh. Yes. All right.” Laurent tilted his neck and Damen ran his fingers through soft, golden hair. “That's nice. And you --” He twisted. “Keep your eyes closed. But --” He moved Damen's arm across his chest. “Like that, is fine.” He said nothing more. Damen kept his eyes shut. He listened to the quiet friction of hand on flesh, a sound every man knows, and felt Laurent's chest rise and fall under his arm and the slight movement of the mattress and then, as his thumb grazed Laurent's earlobe, without a noise or a grunt or a jerk, Damen knew that Laurent came.

He loosened his hold on Laurent's chest.

“See? I know things,” he said, smiling, ignoring the stirrings that came from having Laurent between his legs and staying very still until Laurent cleaned himself down and came back to bed. “I still want to hold you, if you'd let me.”

“I think that would be acceptable.” Laurent's voice was very small and when he allowed himself to be folded back into Damen's arms, he was just a movement shy of shaking. “I've ... this is new.”

“This is good,” said Damen. “I like this with you.” Gently, he touched Laurent's hair again and when Laurent didn't protest, he played with it between his fingers. It felt a profound thing to touch the silken locks freely. It felt like his body was newly strong just because Laurent's was curled against it. “In the morning, don't have disappeared on me.”

"I'm not the one who leaves," Laurent said, meaning the palace. Meaning them.

"I know that," Damen said. "But I've always come back."

"Wars are different," Laurent said. "People die. Even people who think they are invincible."

"I don't think that," Damen said. "You know I haven't thought like that since before we met. I'll come back. Or --"

"Or?"

"You'll come to meet me. I'll take you home, when it's over."

"Over," Laurent said. "It's hardly even started."

"I know that, too. I am sorry." He took his hand from Laurent's hair and placed it against the side of his cheek. Laurent leaned into the touch and Damen waited for some kind of response. None came. Laurent let out a long, low breath that reformed his face briefly into something tragic rather than the maddeningly marvelous it truly was. Just briefly. He closed his eyes, softened his lips, and said no more.

Chapter Text

Damen always woke up early. Bright Ios mornings and a lifetime of training did that to a person. He had a strange sleep where he was restful and restless. When his eyes opened, he smiled to see that Laurent was indeed still there. He was awake, too, lying still and looking like perhaps he might bolt from the bed at any second.

“You stayed,” Damen said.

“You asked,” Laurent said. “I'm starting to regret it. You've got worse breath than a diseased donkey.” Damen smiled and breathed all over Laurent's face until he squirmed and he smiled through his displeasure. “Animal,” Laurent said.

“May I?” Damen asked, then he brushed some hair out of Laurent's eyes. “Better,” he said and Laurent, oddly shy, looked away.

“You never dawdle in bed.”

“You're normally gone in the morning. I'm a social creature, I think. And I’ve got a long day of war talk ahead of me. I prefer it here.”

“Me or a war-room full of ageing kyroi. I'm so flattered.”

“Laurent,” Damen said. “About last night..”

“No good conversation ever started that way. It's fine,” he said. “It's daylight. That was darkness and --”

“Don't interrupt me.”

“You don't outrank me.”

“I'm afraid I do. This my country,” Damen said. “Listen, I don't want to push you. I know that I am not what you want and this is not where you want to be --”

“You really don't know anything, you donkey.”

“Laurent, stop. I just...I want to say that you can talk about things with me if --”

“No. I have to interrupt you. Whatever things you mean have no place here. I'm not some innocent who needs a guiding hand through life,” Laurent said. “I'm a person like you. I'm a man like you. Fine, I may have some .. unusual circumstances in my past but, really, it wasn't that bad.”

“Not that bad? What would be worse than --”

“I got out,” Laurent said, in a voice that would heed no argument. “Don't you see? I got to leave. You brought me here and showed me another life. I was young, perhaps too young to really understand, or for the scars to go that deep. Can you imagine how different things could be? I do. A lot. If you hadn't been at the stream both my brother and I would be dead. If you hadn't brought me here, I would have been alone in Vere. With my uncle. My brother and my father loved me. They protected me until the war. It wasn't that bad. It wasn't that many times. And I am more than that.”

“Oh,” said Damen.

“Oh?”

“Yes, oh. I am hearing you. I understand.”

“Hear this,” Laurent continued. “I am more than what happened to me years ago. I have a whole life that does not include that. It was just a few ...It doesn't matter the way you think it does. I appreciate your noble intentions but they can stop now. Please, can they stop now?”

Damen heard him. He absorbed the words; let them soak into the mechanics of his mind.

“All right,” he said. “Come here.”

“I--”

“You're too far away. Just let me hold you for a few more minutes.”

Laurent slid closer, under Damen's outstretched arm, and put his head on Damen's chest. He almost seemed to relax. Until there was a knock on the door.

“Stay,” Damen said. And Laurent did, while one of Damen's servants came in.

“Excuse me, Exalted,” he said. “Nikandros is demanding entry.”

“Let him in then.” Damen had insisted on very tight controls of who entered his apartments. But they did not apply to Nikandros. “Laurent, don't--” But Laurent was already disentangling himself. He did not, however, leave the bed. Games. Progress. Maybe just that getting out from under the sheets would lead to more embarrassment than staying under them.

“Damen!” Nikandros bellowed. “Do you want to – oh.”

“Hello,” Laurent said.

“I cannot keep up,” Nikandros said. Damen took a second to enjoy the confusion.

“It's simple,” said Laurent. “People keep trying to kill me. What better guard dog is there than Damianos of Akielos?”

“In Akielos, we don't call our crown prince a dog,” Nikandros said.

“He doesn't mind it,” Laurent replied, then looked at Damen. “Remember the leash?”

“Play nice,” Damen warned. He had no shyness about getting out bed. “We're going to have breakfast here. Laurent, when you slink off to get your robe tell the servant to send enough for three.”

“I only came to ask you to go to the baths before the meetings,” Nikandros said.

“I want to train first,” Damen said. “But, yes, we will.”

“We?”

“Don't push me, Nikandros.”
They had breakfast. Laurent was mostly polite and Damen mostly found his sarcastic remarks funny anyway. Nikandros wavered openly between finding them funny, too, and then holding himself back. Laurent excused himself to 'work' while Nikandros and Damen did some basic sword drills and then some weights because they still showed off to each other. Work could mean Laurent napping, over-seeing his puzzle empire, barking orders at tailors or tending to the well-being of the palace slaves. Nikandros thought it meant filling Vere in on Damen's plans for war.

“It doesn't,” Damen said.

“And you know this...”

“I know him. I trust him on this matter.” Every matter, really.

After training, bathing.

Damen was only slightly surprised that Laurent was there before him. The water was clear. The attendants they usually dismissed waited by the walls. Laurent kept up a steady stream of chat about improving standards in the stables while Nikandros and Damen made their way to the water. He talked more, when he was nervous. But he had asked, basically, to be treated like a man and that meant casual bathing with friends.

Still, Damen sat between Laurent and Nikandros like a barrier. It's not that he was jealous. He just wanted Laurent to be more comfortable while he soaked in clear water and opined about the best horse feed. Nikandros also had opinions about horse feed. It was not, for Damen, the most scintillating conversation but he was pleased it was happening. He was also pleased about his seating choice when Kastor strolled in, too.

“Ah,” Kastor said. “I almost feel like I should be jealous. Here you all are.”

“Join us,” Damen said, shifting closer to Laurent. “And I think you have no reason to be jealous. How's Jokaste?”

Kastor smirked. “Sleeping.”

“So late? How lazy,” Laurent said.

“She is tired,” Kastor said. “Not that it's any of your business.”

“From listening to you complain?”

“Play nice,” Damen said, again. “It may be a long time before we're all together again.”

“Because we all four spend so much time together currently?” Laurent asked.

“Enough,” Damen said. Games. Wars. Excluding his father, these were the three most important men in his life. He was allowed to appreciate these moments.

“Sorry,” Laurent said, in Veretian, a word simple enough the less fluent Kastor and Nikandros to understand.

“Anyway,” said Kastor. “Laurent and I might finally get to know each other now you're not here, Damen.”

“Are you staying?” Nikandros asked. They would all soon go to the Kingsmeet and then to North to seal Akielos's fate.

“Yes. Father asked me to. We're hardly going to leave the palace wide open to the Prince of Vere,” Kastor said. “And I have other ... interests here now.”

“Interests,” Damen said. “So much for duty. Please remember your duty to keep Prince Laurent safe in my absence.”

“I think he can fend for himself,” Kastor said.

“Are there baths like this in Vere?” Nikandros asked Laurent. Ever the peacekeeper.

“They are not so plain,” Laurent said. “And the water springs from a natural place in the ground. But, yes, a bath is a bath.”

“Did you go to them with your brother?” Kastor asked. Damen clenched his fists beneath the water.

“As you are now? Yes,” said Laurent. “My father. The court. Even my uncle. You can write and ask him about it.”

“Why would I write to the Regent?”

“You seem very acquainted with what he was to say,” Laurent replied. “Although, really, my uncle didn't spend much time in Arles before he became regent. Looking back, I don't think my father approved of him very much. So it was me, Auguste, soldiers, our father, councillors and courtiers in the baths at various times. Scandalising stuff. So different to Akielos.”

“Nikandros,” Damen said. “Remember when you were...oh, fifteen, sixteen? Home from the Kingsmeet for the festivals and --”

“I drank too much --”

“And took too many drugs,” Kastor interjected.

“I didn't know that at the time,” Nikandros said.

“What happened?” Laurent asked. So Damen gladly recounted the time Nikandros was drunk, high and allowed to bathe with the king and the kyroi for the first time. It did not reflect well on Nikandros. Then Laurent contributed a colourful version of Auguste and Vaskian women, without ever naming his brother, and mostly focusing on the how he had to carry him home in the morning and the baths were such a happy place it was hard for Damen to believe had a war to plan.

-

War planning was difficult. Even with the ground work long laid, Damen had to over see logistics and technicalities. A taste of kingship. All these decisions. All these lives. It was confidential so Theomedes said none of the documents could leave the meeting rooms. But once Theomedes was gone, Damen would take them to his rooms and Laurent would look over his shoulder and point out potential dangers and discrepencies.

“Have you told your uncle?” Damen asked him.

“We are not currently in contact. He will hear nothing from me.”

“Just, I would understand if you had to tell them some things. For later.”

“I have not.” Laurent was standing over Damen at his desk. Then, his hands were on the back of Damen's neck, not rubbing, not really, but not still either. “You won't be able to lead armies if your muscles are damaged from hunching like a primate. Posture is very important, you know.”

“Yes, sir,” Damen teased, straightening his back.

“You're tense.”

“We will probably go to the Kingsmeet tomorrow.”

“Should I call for a slave?” Laurent teased, now.

“Don't even think about it,” Damen warned. “Unless you want to for yourself. Is Kallias craving like poor Erasmus?”

“Kallias was trained for Kastor. So he is definitely not,” Laurent replied.

“And you?”

“I don't want Kallias.” Laurent had stopped the movement on Damen's neck. His hand went to the front of Damen's throat like the ghost of a collar, a mark of ownership maybe.

“What do you want?”

“I--” Laurent said. “I don't know.”

“Do you want to come?”

“I am a man.”

“So, yes?”

“Yes.”

“Go to the bed,” Damen said. “Take off your robe. Let me hold you.”

“I'm not the one who is so tense,” Laurent said. But the robe was sliding off his slender shoulders and his feet were moving to the bed. “You can keep your eyes open this time, if you want.”

“I want --” Damen stopped himself. He wanted more than was fair to take on the eve of war. He shed his chiton. He let Laurent see his want. “Will you say my name this time?”

“No.”

“I might say yours.”

“Good.” Laurent levelled a contemplative look at Damen. “Do you want me to instruct you?”

“That's not necessary.”

“You never make yourself come. You have a constant stream of lovers between these sheets.” Laurent slipped under said sheets. Damen kicked them down to the bottom of the bed. Laurent had agreed, after all. He had shown Damen his exquisitely shaped body, the flawless skin and the lean muscles, in the baths before. Damen didn't look but he saw. Now, Laurent was flushing pink all over and he was stroking himself to hardness between his elegant white hand. His cock was just as appealing as the rest of him. Damen felt oafish and clumsy, blindly fisting his own cock without any finesse or technique.

“Not so much these days,” Damen said. “You're here.”

“So I am,” said Laurent. His eyes were on Damen, on the rhythmless movement of his hand. “Slower,” he said. “Press your thumb into the slit.”

“I think --” Damen said.

“Don't think,” Laurent interrupted. “Don't think. Just feel. I feel everything. There.” He licked his lips. “Like that. Just like that.” Damen watched Laurent. He copied Laurent's movements, as frustratingly slow and austere as they were. Laurent watched him. Mirror images.

“I do think,” Damen said. “I think about you. How it could be--”

“Don't,” said Laurent. “You're leaving tomorrow. Don't tease me.”

“You're unimaginable,” Damen said. He had to talk, had to let the words out, or he would lose his mind. It was like that for him. He wasn't as good at holding himself back as Laurent. “Don't give me that look. You are. You're the most beautiful person I will ever know. All laced up in your fancy coats, now, naked, leaking onto your own hand.”

Laurent's breath stuttered. His muscles contracted. He liked this, Damen realised. He kept talking. He told Laurent how pleasing his body was, how perfectly suited to him his cock was, how he wanted nothing more than to see him come for him.

“For you?” Laurent looked Damen straight in the eye. Was that the wrong thing to say? Damen didn't know.

“For me.”

Laurent did. He came, with a little sigh, and a screwed up face and seed dripping through his fingers. It was too much for Damen. He reached out, driven past reason, took Laurent's sticky hand in his and used the other to pump himself to completion. It shouldn't have been so strong for him. Boyish masturbating stopped being exciting ten years ago. He had so many more experiences since.

But it was so strong, his mind was gone to pieces. To share something so simple with Laurent. To start at the beginning of experience and experimentation. For Laurent to let him see that.

“Are you trying to glue us together?” Laurent asked, a note of amusement in his voice. Damen was still gripping Laurent's hand, come cooling between them.

“There's an idea,” Damen said. But he remembered what Laurent liked and let him go so he could clean himself and then Laurent towelled down Damen's skin. “You're so sweet,” Damen said.

“Fuck off,” said Laurent, smiling. “I am poison. You said it yourself.”

“I did? Oh, to Kastor. Don't pay any heed of what I say to him.” Damen grabbed Laurent's forearm and pulled him half on top of him. “You're rather petite, too. Luckily. We can lie like this quite comfortably.”

“I am above average height and have several more years to grow. Also, you are massive. There's no comparison.”

“Grow?” Damen fiddled with Laurent's hair. “I like how you grow.”

“You confuse me so much,” Laurent said. “You say Veretians are twisted but I can't make sense of anything you say.”

“ So ask me.”

“You hold me and act like you care--”

“It's not an act.”

“When you have never even given me leave to call you by your name.”

The breath left Damen's lungs. Words died on his lips and his heart gave a very peculiar sort of quiver. A million conversations, a thousand occasions came back to him. Had Laurent been waiting all this time to be told what Damen thought he knew? He recalled Laurent trying to get his attention down at the port, in training, talking about him in front of other people, throwing colourful insults his way.

“Before I even knew my own name,” Damen said, carefully. “The whole country did. Laurent, I am sorry. I didn't realise. You've never needed my permission.”

“In Vere, we don't just call royalty by their first names without being told.”

“This is Akielos,” Damen smoothed Laurent's hair. He tipped his chin up so he could see his blue eyes. “You could have just called me Exalted.”

“Again, I say, fuck off.”

“The people call me Damianos, the king's son. When I was a little boy, Kastor and my father called me Damen. It's reserved, really, for intimates.”

“I've heard it.”

“You can call me Damen,” he said. “When I asked you if you would say my name when you came, that's what I imagined.”

“Damen.” Laurent's accent made it sound different to the way anyone else had ever said it. Lyrical. Sensual. He spoke like his early days in Akielos, when he still called the country Achelos, and Damen used to think his tongue was too pointy for their language. “I'll consider it,” he said, sounding every inch the prince. “Damen. Damianos.”

“Stop. You're getting me worked up again.”

“Egotistical brute.”

“Poisonous snake,” Damen replied and hugged Laurent as tight as he could. Words fought to be freed from his brain. His throat tightened for want of speaking. His lips begged to touch Laurent's. But Laurent closed his eyes and kind of nuzzled against Damen's chest. He looked so content, so peaceful, perhaps the most peaceful Damen had ever seen and Damen just couldn't do anything to disturb that.

-

 

Damen planned as much as he could and after that he had to trust that the training and the ranks and the army's devotion of Akielos would be enough to make everything work. War was no simple thing. Just getting everyone where they were meant to be was complicated. If Damen had his way, he would have ridden ahead with just a few men and some fast horses and overseen everything up North.

But Damen was the crown prince and this was his war, so before it started, he had to go to the Kingsmeet and swear on the sacred stones. Ios was thronged. All the people wanted to catch a glimpse of Theomedes, Damianos and the various kyroi as they departed the capital. There was an expectation that the people would be introduced to their new kyros of Ios but war took precedent. So they just...looked. From the top of the steps, Damen couldn't make out any of their faces.

Kastor and Laurent had come to see them off. Protocol. Kastor bowed to their father and nodded to Damen. For brothers, an embrace would be acceptable but apparently they weren't those kinds of brothers any more. Anyway, Kastor had Jokaste on his arm. The people wanted to see her, too. It was time on of the king's sons continued the line. Kastor was older than Damen. A bastard heir was better than no heir at all.

If Damen didn't come back from war, the throne would not lie empty.

He allowed Jokaste, still entwined with Kastor, to kiss his cheek. Jokaste was the daughter of a minor lord from Aegina. Her father hadn't the funds to come to the games. He probably called in every favour he had with the kyros to get him to present his daughter. For Jokaste, a match with Kastor was a high leap indeed.

“Thank you,” she said.

“It's just a kiss,” he replied and turned to Laurent. Of course, they'd said a goodbye of sorts in private. Damen had left him many times before and Laurent was not prone to needless sentiment. But, still, he wished for privacy. An embrace would not be acceptable, not when Damen was off to start a war on Laurent's county. He had to wait while Laurent said goodbye to the kyroi and his father. Damen could no longer keep track of who loved and hated the Prince of Vere. He thought, perhaps, now that war was declared they had all began to pity him.

What was acceptable?

Laurent was the picture of princely decorum, head held high and the rarely worn gold circlet gleaming on his head. He'd already gone down the steps and handed out a few puzzles, so Damen was not the only one looking on him with adoration.

Masked adoration, rather. His father was here. Kastor. Laurent said that it did no good for people to know what you care about. They'd only hold it against you. But Damen thought that maybe if all of Ios knew how much he, the strong crown prince, felt for Laurent they would all band together to keep him safe in his absence.

“Try not to die,” Laurent said, acerbic as a lemon, which wasn't so bad because that reminded Damen of his hair.

“Try not to kill anyone,” Damen replied. Then, he raised his hand as Laurent had done once. Protocol. A perfectly acceptable way for two princes to touch. For a moment, Laurent did not move and Damen worried he would leave him standing like a fool but then Laurent copied him. Mirror images. Damen had stood on a lower step so it was possible for to look into each other's eyes without anyone straining their neck. Palms touched. Fingers entwined. Wordlessly, Laurent stared at Damen.

Politically, it made sense for the future. Damen was showing all these people, kyroi and commoners, our quarrel is with the Regent of Vere not this golden boy.

Really, he just wanted to touch Laurent one more time.

“I should,” Damen began. He should go. He should let go. Instead, he dropped his voice and though no-one was close enough to hear he switched his language. “I'm sorry,” he said. “I should have kissed you when I had the chance.”

Laurent did not react except for Damen could feel his pulse quicken where their hands touched.

“Don't believe what you hear up there,” Laurent blurted, then looked around quickly. He composed himself. “Good luck,” he said. “Damianos.”

-

It wasn't a long journey to the Kingsmeet but it felt like it to Damen. Ceremony and protocols. What a waste of time. The point was, of course, to make the war feel so true and proper to the kyroi and the people that they could nearly believe it was written in their destiny all along. Also, though he didn't say it aloud, Theomedes arranged this so if things went badly again the blame would be absolved. There was no faith more powerful than the ancient right of the kings. If it began here at the Kingsmeet and the kyroi all swore on it at the Kingsmeet, then whatever happened was the thing that was meant to happen.

It seemed a little contradictory to pledge a war in place of immense peace but Damen kept his mouth shut. He sat in the hallowed hall while kyroi and generals bowed to him and pledged their devotion to his crown and his cause.

“It's probably best Kastor stayed behind,” Nikandros said, as he rose. He was one of the last people to approach, because his status was relatively low. “He would possibly break the ancient laws if he saw you like this.”

“What do you mean?”

“Just..you know how it bothers him to see you take control. A reminder of what he will never have.”

Kastor was moody, sure. But he had made his peace with Damen's inheritance. He was nine when Damen was born. Children just accepted things. Theomedes was still king and would be for quite a while yet. The people bowed to him before Theomedes directed them to Damen. It was natural for things to happen like this. Damen couldn't, after all, just pop up from behind his father when he died and take over. It was a gradual thing.

“I am sure he is fine,” Damen replied, as his father gave him a look to hurry them along. There were a couple of minor lords waiting to take the pledge.

“Don't be sure,” Nikandros said, bowing once more before he left. Damen sat while the men that lead his country bowed at his feet and felt rather like a child trying on his father's clothes. The pledges were made. The scrolls were signed. The appropriate respect was paid. Then, Theomedes raised a toast. To Akielos. To the crown. The best wine was for him. Kastor had sent it as a gift, since he could not be here in person.

-
Damen wished there was some device that could get him to the front lines of the battle that hadn't started yet in the blink of an eye. The world didn't work like that. It was eight, nine days to the North. Longer, perhaps, with the size of the caravan they were travelling in. Supplies. Soldiers. Slaves. It snaked through Akielos – gaining men along the way, sending others off to take their assigned positions – with Damen at the head.

His own head didn't get to go to that mental space where he focused on nothing but movement. He had to work – oversee and listen and talk and, to his bewilderment, a scribe to track all his movements who rode pillion with a very irritated guard. Someday, the scribe said, epics would be written about the glory of Prince Damianos.

Damen, saddlesore and stinking and desperately missing his white bed and his blond bedfellow, simply snorted.

He also made sure his personal guard watched the scribe at all times. In case of spying. He had the whole troop on red alert for spies, rats and infiltrators. The Regent could be anywhere. He was already under Damen's skin.

Damen was counting on winning the battles. That was a given. Once the Veretian army came down south, his armies were ready to come at them from every direction. If they came east, he was ready for that too. Don't break the lines. Follow the command. Fight. Fight. Fight. His army was steady, strong and ready. They had to be good enough to being the Regent out from behind his forts so Damen could kill him.

It had to happen. He and Laurent had already put out the rumours that Theomedes was keeping him hostage in Ios now. Theomedes ruled by strength and so would overlook that particular dishonour. But Vere would not take kindly to a prince who sat out a war, so it had to be over quickly.

After, Akielos would have Delpha and Laurent would have his throne.

Damen would have....victory.

That was something.

And a friend in Vere who wanted peace. The end of fighting. Maybe, if it was appropriate, Damen could visit Laurent in Arles to foster harmony between their kingdoms. After. So much could happen after.

“Sol for your thoughts?” Nikandros pulled his horse alongside Damen and, thankfully, pushed the scribe and the guards back a little. “We have a few more days on the road. Too much time for thinking.”

“You don't want to know.”

“If it's a blond kryos-killer, maybe not.”

“Do you really think Kastor is so envious of me?”

“I do,” Nikandros said. “I know it pains you to hear it but it is true, Damen. You need to be warier of him.”

“Envy is just a feeling. It doesn't mean he would ever do anything.”

“What other reason is there to do anything?” Nikandros asked. Damen had answers – duty, honour, family, duty, love – but he couldn't get them past his lips. He acted because of all those things, certainly. He did not act when he wanted to because of those things. But here he was, marching men to war, and all he was feeling was wanting to kill the Regent. “We're leaving soon, my men and I,” Nikandros continued.

“My father's wishes.” Damen had wanted Nikandros to fight by his side but Theomedes said, due to his strength as a leader, they should split and Nikandros could support him from behind if need be.

“It makes sense. I'm not the fighter I used to be. I'll serve you better from the wings.”

“I suppose,” Damen said. “But if I send for you --”

“I'll be there.”

-

Camps. Riding. Monotony. Nikandros left. The men, strong trustworthy men, who remained were Damen's loyal soldiers. They were not his friends. Even when he was friendly, they were skittery. Aristocrats like the boy Pallas Laurent had beaten at the academy, who should have been accustomed to the company of royalty, were so busy behaving they forgot how to be.

They passed easily through Sicyon, into Delpha. They were expected. Some had fled. Those who remained posed no threat. The meat of the fighting would be, as Damen hoped, in the north-east, where they would have their reinforcements waiting. In the five years since Marlas, the army had swelled like the wildest wave. They were hungry, strong, ready. There were so many of them, Vere hadn't a chance. Empty villages. Fertile fields. Here and there, Damen caught a glimpse of the sunburst flag and it made his insides clench. There were people who were loyal to Laurent. People who loved their golden prince. People who hadn't bowed to the Regent. That was good. Except Damen had chased them right to the Regents stronghold. Maybe they would love him, if he fed them and kept their babies alive. Maybe they would hate Laurent for not being here.

In the heart of Delpha, Damen felt a ripple in the ranks behind him. An attack? Already. It was not his way. Battles were fought on battlefields not on the move. But they were prepared for this. Rogue Vaskians. Sly Veretians. It didn't matter. Hold the lines. Do your job. Push them back.

An outrider kicked up dirt to give Damen the report.

“Exalted,” he said, breathless. “Nothing to trouble you. It's at the very back of the caravan.”

The slaves were at the very back of the caravan.

Damen was in another place, just for a moment, where the smell of raw flesh pricked his nostrils. Then another, with the lovely Erasmus on his knees for him.

Nothing.

They were not nothing.

“Take over,” Damen said to his captain. “Pallas, you're second.” He broke his rules. He broke the lines and galloped like a scout in the wrong direction, back to the end of the line. The outrider remained. He would be rewarded. He shouted at Damen what had happened – a small squad of Veretian men, perhaps border guards, had cut off one slave wagon from the group. They was some confusion among the next column, for they were only horsehands and messengers and cooks, and definitely not fighters and they were afraid to break Prince Damianos's orders to hold the lines, always keep moving. Damen gestured for a squadron to leave the formation and follow him back. It was just as the outrider had said, separate from the caravan, a slave wagon was surrounded by a small group of Veretian soldiers.

The wagon was still closed. As Damen flew forward, he could see the men were making some kind of sport out of shaking it back and forth.

One man, presumably a Veretian commander, rode towards Damen.

“Slaves are valuable, I hear. Will you ransom?”

“Not with you.” Damen drove his sword through the man without stopping. The others stopped playing. Not that it mattered. He took down three before his men behind took down the rest.

“Exalted, will we take prisoners?”

There weren't exactly many men left to take.

“One, for information,” Damen said. “No ransom. Signal the scouts. Check the woods to see if there are more. Throw the bodies into the trees.”

It wasn't much of a fight. The Veretians were easily destroyed and Damen waited, alert, in case of more men and for the bodies to be removed before he approached the wagon's door. There was, to his surprise, one Veretian soldier skewered through the slats on the door with his own blade. Damen dragged the body off the sword and tossed it on the pile. The riders returned. No more men.

“This is Damianos, the king's son,” he called, as he slid across the latch. “The danger is gone. Do not be afraid.”

He opened the door and the slaves were all on their knees. Except for one, at the very back of the wagon. He just bowed his dark head. Well, it was cramped and they were shaken.

“Come out,” he said, offering his own hand to help them and seeing the flood of conflict among them to accept help from the prince when they should be the ones assisting him. These were the loveliest of slaves – trained for bedding and bathing and perhaps to serve him at dinner if there would ever be that kind of dinner during war. All the way from the palace just in case Damianos wanted someone to pop grapes into his mouth.

It was his duty to help them, to make them feel safe, to mutter small reassurances about their looks and their obedience and their graceful service as they emerged.

The last one out was the one who didn't kneel. He had oak-dark hair shorn short around the sides and longer on the top to cover his face. The slave took Damen's offered hand without any hesitation or awe as the other slaves would. He raised his head, a movement extrinsic to any slave, and Damen found himself looking into a pair of piercing blue eyes.

“Laurent,” Damen said. “What have you done to your hair?”

Chapter Text

“This one,” Laurent said in thick halting Akielon. “Is a slave from Patras. A gift from the princess for Prince Damianos.”

“What --” Damen wondered if his men would judge him if he shoved the slave back into the broken wagon. “I--” His mind was blank. Nothing. There was nothing there but shock. And then, from somewhere so deep it didn't register, laughter bubbled up inside him. “You --”

“Oh dear,” said Laurent, in Patran now. “Can this one do anything to alleviate the prince's brain troubles?”

“Stop.” Damen had to bite the inside of his cheek to stop himself laughing. This was not the time for games. “Sort this,” he said to the nearest soldier. “This one is coming with me to the front.”

“You are pleased with your Patran gift?” Laurent asked.

“I will murder my Patran gift if it doesn't stop parroting on.”

“Perhaps Patran slaves are less submissive than Akielons.”

“Perhaps they can't ride horses, either.” Revenge. Damen took the reins back from the apprentice who had taken them.

“Pillion.” Laurent shrugged. “Not ideal but acceptable.”

“Side-saddle,” Damen said. “Stop shrugging. You'll give yourself away. You're a gift of a slave? No-one would send me anything but a virgin. Front or back?”

“Back.” Laurent allowed Damen to help him up and slipped his arms tight around his waist. Closer was easier on the horse. He pressed his cheek to Damen's back. “It's good to see you again.”

“I wish I could say I felt otherwise. How long have you been back there?”

“A late arrival. It took a little time to the get hair right and tan my skin,” Laurent said, still speaking Patran. Damen hadn't even known Laurent could speak any Patran. Torveld. The slave gardens. Did Laurent do anything without ten different underlying reasons? “And to convince Jord and Lazar this was a good idea.”

“You didn't give them the slip?”

“Your food hasn't been worse than usual lately?”

“You're in Vere,” Damen said. “How does it feel?” Laurent did not respond. “If you wanted to get back so badly, to Acquitart or further, you should have just asked and I would have brought you.”

“I didn't. Not like that,” Laurent said. “I'm just...here. I can help you.”

“You shouldn't help me.”

“But you've helped me so much,” Laurent said. “And, honestly, I don't like that palace without you. Your brother wants to kill me and I'm quite sure Jokaste still wants to marry me.”

“He's meant to be looking out for you,” Damen said. “He probably has search parties out already.”

“I doubt that,” said Laurent. “Besides, this slave has heard Prince Laurent of Vere was sent to the summer palace for his own protection and to prevent any spying. A blond boy in fine clothes was seen in the company of the prince's personal harem en route. There, he is rumoured to have sequestered himself in a private room to pray for Vere's victory.”

“Do --” Never mind. Poor Erasmus. Damen hoped he would enjoy some pampering. “My father won't accept lies so easily.”

“I didn't see him.”

“If you have an ulterior motive, tell me now. If you lie, I'll return my gift.”

“I don't lie to you,” Laurent said. “I...it's not wrong to want to be part of things, is it? This is what my life should be all along.”

-

They made camp at dusk and the scouts brought news of a small Veretian camp relatively close by. Nothing big enough to be a threat. But enough to increase patrols and make the men jumpy. It wouldn't be long now. They were well in Veretian territory. Most likely, the Regent was drawing them in so they were too far gone to retreat when battles began. There was no point in sending a messenger. If the soldiers were any good, they would know they were there. They would fight or they would flee.

Damen listened to reports (the other companies had successfully acquired the strategic points Damen had instructed them to acquire.) Roads and fields and rivers and bridges. Back to Akielos. War in incremental chunks. The point was to stop the Regent gaining traction if he came at them from the west. But the meaning was the same. Everything they passed, they took. That was the point, too. Damen gave orders and praised slaves and men and finally retreated to his tent, where a blue-eyed false slave was waiting on his knees.

“Your form is good,” Damen said. “But there's too much fire in your eyes.”

“Some things you can't put out.” Laurent stayed on the ground while Damen sat on the large wooden chair left for him. War, for princes, meant there were at least four chairs grand enough for your status and large enough for your stature in the camp. “Shall I attend you, Exalted?”

Damen had dismissed his servants and squires for the night. His guard outside the door were chosen for their discretion and incompetence with languages. (An unkind man might say they struggled enough with their native tongue let alone a foreign language.)

Exalted. The effect was lessened, because of the Patran, but Damen still felt his head get a little light at Laurent's use of the honorific. He could only focus on the golden cuffs and collar, the kind only bedslaves wore, and that did not help him focus at all.

“No,” said Damen. “Unless you want to.”

Laurent rolled his eyes, rose from the ground, and shook off all the airs of slavery that had kept his body curled inward. He strode toward Damen and helped himself to a soft raisin bun on the table. There was a flicker of movement, then, at the flap of the tent. They both knew Laurent was standing proud over Damen in a way a slave never would.

Without blinking Laurent curled onto Damen's lap, slave soft again, as one last man came with reports for Damen. Pallas, actually. Laurent's old opponent and rising star of the Akielon army.

Damen received Pallas's report, which came direct from Makedon, and so was worthy of the interruption with Laurent's face pressed against his chest. The closeness was so familiar and so new that it was hard to take in the information. Once Pallas was gone, Laurent did not move.

“Comfy?” Damen asked.

“You're larger than most pallets.”

“About what I said on the steps...”

“You met this one in Delpha. It must have been someone else on the steps.”

“Yes, perhaps. He was not as pretty as you.” Damen's thumb brushed Laurent's lips. “Got a mouth like a harlot and a brain made of blades.”

“I hear all the men and women in the land want to fuck him.”

“I think they just like his hair.” Damen ran his fingers over the rough scalp where Laurent had shaved away his golden locks. “I love his hair.”

“Without it?”

“The eyes are pretty nice, too. Face. Body. The mind, though, it's a trap. ”

“There is no motive other than the one we share,” Laurent said.

“Victory for Akielos.”

“Justice.”

“I'm tired,” Damen said. “I haven't slept well on the road.”

“Imagine that,” said Laurent, smiling softly. The dark hair made his face his face a places of shadows. The golden prince reshaped into a wraith. “I wonder if I can't guess what's been missing.”

-

They sent the small Veretian force a warning which was really an invite to fight. The scouts, who were often really spies, reported dissension among the troops. They did not have a strong leader. For their sake, it made sense to retreat. Damen liked pushing them back but he did not like the thought of a massive army waiting once they got to the old border, which was really the real border and the new border.

Fighting was honourable. Maybe there was a shred of honour among these Delphan men who once had Akeilos in their hearts. They came to fight Damen's army. Unfortunately for them, they lost. The same thing was happening in spurts and flurries all through the province. That's how wars were permanently won. The little battles all added up.

“Congratulations,” Laurent said, flatly, when Damen returned to the tent. It was a new camp. Same tent. Same personal slave he had ordered to be guarded like a crown jewel. Damen had been grinning at some joke a guard made as he walked in. Victory did that – made you smile. But it was Veretian blood splatted on his leathers and skin and sword.

“I am sorry.”

“No, you're not.”

“Don't argue, slave.” Damen smiled, gently, but Laurent was in no mood to fall into that game. Who could blame him? If the roles were reversed, Damen would not be jolly. “Listen,” he said, “I can be sorry for this situation, for loss of life, and still want this. It's part of --”

“I don't care. Did you see the flags as we journeyed? Starbursts. I haven't seen one in so long.”

“Not even the cloak?”

“My view was...compromised,” Laurent responded. Damen divested himself of his weapons. His armour was outside with the squires. He just had to take off his soldier clothes. He could do it himself, but Laurent worked the straps free for him. Damen thought he probably just wanted something to do with his hands while he spoke. “I forgot what it felt like. To be loved, even in the abstract sense, and I liked it. That makes me weak, I know.”

“That's not weak,” Damen said.

“I want it back,” Laurent said. “Even if it makes rumours true, I want it back.”

“It's yours,” said Damen. That was the thing – he was doing all this to give it Laurent. Akielos would gain a province and Vere would lose one. Damen would lose...he hadn't the words for what he would lose.

Laurent would have his throne.

That's what mattered.

“Should I pretend to sleep while you're servants attend you?” Laurent changed the subject. “Maybe I can help.”

“That's not necessary.”

“What...what if I wanted to help?”

“You'd give yourself away.”

“If there was no-one else here, then.” Laurent pressed his lips together. “Send for water. I'm not sleeping beside you while you're filthy like that.”

When the water came, Damen planned on sluicing himself down and collapsing into bed. But Laurent had other ideas.

“Don't move,” he said. “Don't touch me.” He unwound the last layers of Damen's clothing and, starting at his shoulders, began to clean away the battle. Breathing was difficult. Laurent moved more boldly than real slaves. But he had the body language, averted eyes and gentle touches, all correct. “Don't worry yourself, either,” he said. “I chose this.”

“What should I call you?” Damen asked.

“Laurent is not that uncommon a name.” He poured warm water down Damen's back.

“You're the only one I know. Perhaps a shortened version. Laur? No, too similar. How about Runt?”

“Auguste used to call me that sometimes. He made it sound kind.” His hands were near Damen's buttocks now. Swiftly, he passed over them and worked on his legs.

“I'll keep thinking, so. How about...Lamen?”

“That's ridiculous. I'm embarrassed for you right now.”

“Lolo?”

“Sure, if I happened to be a clown.” Lauren was at Damen's ankles but Damen was feeling him everywhere. When he glanced down, he was struck by the wrongness of it all. A prince shouldn't be there. Even by choice. Damen could clean himself. So he sluiced the rest of the water, which had mercifully gone cold, over his front and roughly rubbed a towel over his body.

“Bed,” Damen said.

“Is that a command?”

“It's that or a pallet.”

“I can try harder,” Laurent said. “I'm actually quite good at pretend games.”

“I don't want you to pretend anything.”

-

Damen slept with Laurent in his arms and they pressed on in the morning. The scouts returned. The Veretian army was waiting for them.

It was time.

Damen didn't take part in the first battle. That was the plan, but as he wore tracks into the dirt beneath the war tent he couldn't remember why he had agreed to that. He was not a coward. But this was just the warm-up. Akielos won. His men returned triumphant. Pallas was so overjoyed with success he went all down the lines, right to the cooks, celebrating. Of course, it was just a warm up for Vere, too.

“Is he there? The Regent?” Damen asked only one question about the battle. He listened of course, to the reports of Veretian techniques and flaws.

“He did not fight, Exalted, and our spies did not see him.”

Damen went down the line to the cooks himself and hauled Jord away from pot-washing duties, away from the men, into the trees. They couldn't be overheard.

“Hello,” he said. “We haven't spoken in a while.”

“Nothing changes does it, though?” Jord looked around the war camp. “Tastes the same and smells the same, even if the tent fabric is different.”

“I know,” said Damen. Because he missed Nikandros and Kastor and Theomedes and, yes, there were seasoned men on this field but they didn't get things like he did. Marlas. Auguste. Haunting things. “You should know I can't guarantee your safety now, since you're not technically here. You know how men get in war. There's a soldier here somewhere who might lose a friend and here your accent.”

“I can look after myself.”

“You're meant to look after the prince.”

“He can, too.” Jord sighed. The whipping had made him bitter and Damen was nearly engulfed with regret for not seeking him out sooner. They had nearly been friendly, once, and the Aimeric thing had ended that. Damen didn't even know if Jord knew the truth of the matter. “But my loyalties remain.”

“Even after he made you whip your lover.”

“Lover? What's that? I had a quick fling with a traitor aristocrat.”

“You are sure he was a traitor.”

“Yes.”

“I have a mission for you,” Damen said. “You need to find out the Regent's whereabouts. And you need to be discreet.”

“He won't give you an advantage. There'll be a hundred decoys. The army is probably ripping retired men from their beds right now if they have the same build and the ability to grow a beard. I hardly ever saw him before all this. I was the lowest ranking of Prince Auguste's men.”

Damen considered that. “Actually, I have two missions. Find out who is still loyal to Auguste and who is to the Regent. Find out where he is is. I will reward you.”

“The first is the most doable.”

“I think,” Damen said, remembering awful confessions and Nikandros's report of his meeting with the Regent. “That there will be a boy with the Regent wherever he is. Young. Too young. He might even look like Aimeric.”

In the moonlight, Jord went bone white. “The only time I saw him in person was at court,” he said. “He had a pet who wasn't allowed go to the parties. He was too young. I'll get you your information.”

-

“I sent your guard Jord away,” Damen told Lauren in the privacy of his sleeping tent. “To spy.”

“He's not yours to send.”

“I thought we were past mine and yours,” Damen said. “Anyway, he's helping. Anyway, I'm tired. Lie down with me.”

“You don't look tired.”

“I'm tired in advance of all that's about to happen. There are so many people here, willing to die.”

“Well, I'm not and neither are you. They all feel the same.”

“It's going to get so much worse.”

“You are not alone,” Laurent said. “Remember that, too.” He stepped away from Damen to and began to straighten the cups on the side-table so they were all facing the same way. “I used to feel very alone,” he said. “Before us. When I was a boy, when the war started and my father and brother left and ...after, in Ios. I know what it is to feel alone better than you do. So, don't worry. I'm not going to let that happen to you.”

Damen had lots of things to say – that he was older and stronger and he didn't need a boy who was pretending to be a slave to look after him – but those sentences got swallowed back down every time he tried to get them past his lips.

“You are a gift,” he said.

“Yes.” Laurent offered a smile that was both coy and cheeky. “From Patras. Are you hungry? I hear that slaves in Akielos feed their masters. In Vere, it's the other way around.”

Images danced in Damen's head. Laurent with a pet. If he remained in Vere, surely he would have some pretty thing dancing attention on him. That was far as he would let himself think. The other possibilities were enough to make him dizzy. Laurent was playing. He liked games, especially when a game would further his personal goals.

“Have you eaten?” Laurent asked.

“Earlier. The stew was over-salted.”

“These pears are perfectly ripened.” Laurent speared one with a small paring knife and offered it to Damen. “Would you like one?”

“Why not?” Damen aimed for casual, princely, masterful. All the things he should be. But at best, his words sounded goofy and at worst like a particularly irksome brat. He was no great actor. But he was not immune to games so he smiled and sat back against his headboard with his hands behind his head. A signal. Laurent was just as likely as to drop the the sticky pear onto his chest as feed him.

But Damen wasn't really surprised when Laurent deftly sliced away a morsel of the pear and held to his mouth on the blade of the knife.

“Slaves in Akielos use their hands,” Damen said.

“This one is not worthy.”

“You are too good, you mean.”

Laurent fed himself a slice of pear and then, with his slender fingers, offered a sticky chunk of pear to Damen by pressing it right to his lips. The fruit was fresh and sweet against his tongue, like a first taste of something forbidden, and since they were still playing and Damen was a prince, he took the delicious liberty of swiping his tongue against the tips of Laurent's finger, where the juice had left its trace.

“All right. That's enough.” said Laurent. “Even animals can feed themselves.”
-

Damen led the next charge. His men fought bravely. Their lines held strong against wave after wave of Veretian boy soldiers. Even if they were men, they were all boys once. He wanted to call out alien commands like don't try to kill them but that's not how battles worked. You had to let the training take over. You had to make it impersonal. You had to win.

When he went back to his tent, he couldn't speak to Laurent. He normally was the one doing the holding, but somehow his head wound up pressed against Laurent's chest and he had to keep telling himself it was worth it and when he felt Laurent's heartbeat in his ears, it felt like it was.

The pressed on. They won the next battle. And the next. All along Delpha, Damen's men were winning. It wasn't part of the plan but Nikandros took Ravenel. An impenetrable Veretian fort. Damen was as jealous as he had been when Nikandros went to the Kingsmeet to serve. His father said Akielos would never take a fort like that. But when the battle was over, it was there for the taking.

“He doesn't care about any of them,” Laurent said. “That's the difference. He will throw every person in Vere at you to get what he wants.”

“He'll be the only one left,” Damen said. He hated the taste of the words. The truth of them. “We have losses, too. Injuries. I want it done.”

He had one more trick up his sleeve. It was not an Akielon tactic. The Regent wouldn't predict it. Damen would not choose to do it, except there was actually very little he wouldn't do to put his blade through the Regent's throat. He didn't even tell Laurent but that was a private kindness.

In the dark, like a coward, he had the Veretian horses poisoned. All of them. All their water and food. Perhaps some men, too. Collateral damage. The Regent would have to treat now. He couldn't send footsoldiers to fight mounted men. Treat. Get close enough for Damen to kill him. Get it done.

“Where were you?” Laurent asked, sleepily and painfully boyish, when Damen came back to the tent.

“You don't want to know.”

“I only ask questions I want answers to.”

“We've poisoned the horses,” Damen admitted. “All of them.”

Laurent pressed his hand to his mouth like he was keeping loud words inside. Slaves couldn't shout. The guard were right outside. Not that he needed to speak. Damen saw the horror in his eyes.

“You think I hate you,” he said. “But you're going to hate yourself tomorrow.”

-

Tomorrow, the Regent sent footsoldiers to fight mounted men. Damen saw them quiver like an archer's string. He saw piss leak from armour. Slender, smaller Veretian men sent to fight barbarians on horseback. They held the lines. The arrows flew. It was like putting your knife through butter on a hot summer's day.

“Fall back,” he shouted, in Veretian, across the no-man's land. “You can't win this.”

But whatever was waiting for them at home was worse. They held their lines, too.

“Dismount,” he instructed his men. “We are men. We fight like men.”

Hand to hand, foot to foot, Damen's squad still won. It was different with your feet on the ground. You remembered you were a person, not just a soldier. You remembered the ants. He lost more men than ever before but it was a drop in the ocean compared to the Veretian losses.

“Do you want to hear something you're not going to like?” Laurent asked, back in the tent, while he stripped Damen of his armour and wiped the sweat from his brow. He tutted at the graze on Damen's forearm and held a cold stone to the ache in his lower back. “Remember, Akielons don't mistreat their slaves.”

“Go on.”

“I stole a dead soldier's uniform and snuck to the other side.”

Damen went very still. Akielons did not mistreat slaves. So he wouldn't shout at Laurent. But that was never the point. The thought of Laurent across the enemy lines, unprotected, had turned him to ice.

Damen said. “They're your people.”

“I had to see for myself.”

“Your uncle?”

Laurent went still. He stopped attending Damen. He even stopped breathing.

“The horses,” he said. “There were so many. A sea of dead horses. Sweat dried white like the tip of a wave. Flies buzzing. Birds circling.They can't even use them for meat.”

Damen had to sit. He sank onto the edge of his bed and like a mirror image, Laurent sank too, except he was on his knees on the floor. Then Damen forgot how to be angry. He had probably forgotten once the battle was over. Because Laurent was on his knees, in front of him, and it wasn't like that because Laurent buried his face against Damen's lap and Damen could feel tears soak through his clothes.

He hadn't the strength to gather Laurent into his arms nor the words to make any of this better. So he looked at nothing and rubbed Laurent's head and let him cry.

“See?” Laurent choked. “I am so weak. It changed....it's ...I didn't see it before. And that's not even the thing you won't want to hear.”

“Believe me, it is.”

“I know the Veretian army,” he said. “The men they've sent so far aren't the first choices, the ones you send to win and then you send the weaklings. They are the weaklings. The men beyond the lines are strong and capable. The war has hardly begun.”

“Yes,” said Damen. “I thought that was the case. I'm calling our reinforcements.”

He didn't want to leave the bed, the tent or Laurent but the messages had to be sent and he was the only one with the codewords. He sent dozens of men, good men, knowing that they would count it a win if one got the messages through. There was no battle highs this night. There was just tiredness and contemplation in the camp. Then, ahead, a flurry of activity that had Damen's sword drawn and his feet moving. A red sigil. A riderless horse. Perhaps, if he let himself hope, the opportunity to treat.

The arrival of the horse sent a shockwave through the camp. The memory of the fire would never be quenched. Damen's men had caught it by its loose reins and they all stood around and stared. It was fine horse. Too fine for battle. The kind of glossy, elegant horse nobles trotted around castles on. There was no note. If it was message, Damen couldn't parse it.

“An escapee,” guessed a guard. “Perhaps it missed the poison.”

“Perhaps it is the poison. Don't touch it.”

Damen saw it then, too late, because Laurent back in the guise of a Patran slave had joined the fray. A flash of red around the horse's neck. A ruby necklace. That was the message.

“He knows I am here,” Laurent said. “That used to be my horse.”

Chapter Text

Damen took control. He sent the horse to the stables and ordered his poorly trained Patran slave back to his tent immediately. His men were more spooked than the horse and Damen had to be strong, had to order them back to their stations, order them to rest because the next battle would be biggest one.

Laurent was pacing the small space when Damen returned. If there was someone nearby to kill, he would probably have gladly done the honours. His expression was murderous.

“When I was little, Auguste used to take me hunting in Chastillon regularly. We used to race. He broke that horse in and gave it to me for my birthday. My uncle knows I am here.”

No mention of the necklace.

“There are always spies,” Damen said. “And you did sneak out...”

“I am disguised. It's more than that. I think...he knows I would be with you.”

“I'm going to kill him,” Damen said. “Focus on that. Just that.”

“When he is dead, what will remain?”

“Your country. Your people. You.” Me.

Laurent shook off his Patran cloak, revealing the slick of darkened hair, and the heavy gold collar and cuffs. His face was painted. Even his lashes and brows were tinted to match his new hair. He looked past Damen, to the polished mirror that Damen looked in only to make sure his uniform was correct, because soldiers had to have correct uniforms.

“I used to think about disappearing,” Laurent said. “Sometimes, I still do. I could make a new life somewhere else. Most people in Vere don't care about me or know me. I don't know if I want to go back to that life. The court at Arles is...something and I was kept so sheltered when Auguste and my father were alive. I shudder to think about what really happens.”

“You could do that,” Damen said. The water in his tent was cold when he dipped in the cloth. Laurent was very warm when he brought the cloth to his face. “I would probably hunt you down until you told me to go away but you could do it. Or you could stay with me in Akielos. We could stop pretending to have separate rooms and you could give your uncle what he wants.”

“I will never give him that,” Laurent said.

“I know.” Damen cleaned the salt-stains and paint from Laurent's cheeks. He couldn't wash the redness away. “I wouldn't really want you to. And, also, I think, your brother would not want you to and there is no stronger motivation than that.” Laurent flinched a little, as often happened when the topic of Auguste was raised. “Come on, pretend slave. Let us rest.”

The fear remained : if the Regent knew Laurent was here, and the Regent wanted to eliminate him from the line of succession, what better chance would have to do it but during war?

How had Damen ever laughed when he took him from that slave wagon?

 

-

When no attempts were made to breach the Akielon lines, Damen started to believe that Laurent's assessment of the Regent's theory was correct. His uncle, he made clear, was not a man inclined to traditional warfare. The fires at Marlas. The assassination attempts at midnight. Even the poison pie. Perhaps all he intended with the horse was to spook Damen.

Wars were not the same as training. Damen's men were good and loyal but the reality of these rough campaigns stretched their training thin. He could see, when they thought he could not see, the exhaustion and the doubt and the frustration kick in. As much as it was his job to fight, he was Prince Damianos and he was obliged to rally the men, to praise them, to remind them of what they were fighting for.

He found new inspiration. Once, he would have spoken of the glories of Akielos and honouring his father. Now, it was easier to talk of personal motivations. For many men here, patriotism was an abstract concept. But they could all understand love.

They could understand fear.

When Damen ordered extra guards for the slaves, especially his gifted Patran slave, the men who would rather be in the thick of the fighting did not protest. Not when the memory of the fires was invoked.

Laurent was capable of defending himself. He and Damen had spent countless hours training to make sure that he could. But the fear lingered that something would happen while Damen was not there. He did not vocalise it. Laurent, even disguised as a slave, did not appreciate being babied.

But the war couldn't last much longer. It wasn't safe.

Wars were not fast. It took time to cut men down. It had taken five years to build these armies, make these plans, and if it looked like it came down to two groups of men facing each other on a battlefield then you really didn't know anything about war.

The better Veretians came and Damen fought them back. Veretians attacked from the west and other Akielons fought them back. It took so long. A waste of life because you couldn't get out of the way of a sword fast enough. A waste of a life waiting for swords to be raised.

Certain death, if you had a beard and a certain build, and the Regent had deemed you a worthy decoy on the field. He was toying with Damen.

But Damen still had to check. Even when he knew in his heard that wicked man was not man enough to come onto the battlefield, he still had to check. And when he saw the wrong face beneath the helm, he was still the Akielon Commander-Prince and he could not let that man continue to be as he was before.

There were moments when it seemed like Damen's army was not wily enough for Veretian tactics, Veretian slyness, Veretian slaughter, and those moments which were really days and days, made Damen so afraid he shook when Laurent held him at night even though the battles were long over. But he was strong and he taught himself to be a good soldier and his men streamed from Vask, from Patras and won. Akielons could be sly, too. The Veretian side was almost decimated. It was almost over. The Regent had recalled the last of his troops from the Northern borders and the defensive forts and even the city gates all through the country.

It was down to this last battle.

Laurent was right about him throwing everything at this war. Perhaps the Regent thought Damen would not stop at Delpha, would not stop when he cut him down, and would march his barbarian men right through Vere until Arles was his, too. If that's what it took to give Laurent back his life, he would do it. But Theomedes had only sanctioned Delpha and Damen was obedient.

There would be one more battle and then there would be no-one left for Damen's army to fight.

Dawn broke like a blink; night subsumed into day like the final preparations and those brief snatched moments with Laurent never happened. One moment the dew was so thick you could taste and then it was gone, the fog cleared away. A squire should have done it, but Damen let Laurent help him put on his armour. He had to sit, so Laurent didn't have to strain too much around his neck and his head. Damen's mind was somewhere else, where tactics and formations mattered more than feeling.

Laurent, who normally babbled when he was nervous, did not make a sound. Before Damen rose from the stool, Laurent dropped his head as a slave would and kissed Damen's forehead, like he had done once or like a parent might do for luck.

“I'll be with you,” he said, adjusting the armour one last time. If Damen wasn't so convinced of Laurent's lack of sentimentality, he would nearly have thought Laurent lingered at his heart when he checked the straps, there.

On the way to his horse, Damen was intercepted by a dirty man in a cook's uniform.

“Stay away from the prince,” barked one of the guards.

“Leave him,” said Damen. “You're back, Jord.” There. It was definitely the last swell of this fight. Perhaps Jord's return boded well for Akielos. He was back to the winning side. “Report.”

“There are six near identical tents to the left of the command centre. A decoy in each. A boy in the one with the skylight. I heard,” Jord said. “This one likes painting.”

“Thank you.”

“I'll tell the rest to his highness when I see him. There are many men loyal to him and many more who will hate the Regent after this victory. I'll write them down, before I forget.”

“Good work,” Damen said.

The final battle was always the bloodiest. Damen knew this as he mounted his horse and went to the head of the Akielon army. It was a good army. The fought with honour and might. They obeyed their superiors and their skills were honed to a knife point. They held their lines. They broke other men. They had learned the complications Veretians could bring and held tight so those cowardly tactics would not overcome them.

Vere had learned, too. They saved their stronger men for the final battle and the gained some small victories against some small Akielon squadrons. Damen was distracted when the lancer beside him was felled and Pallas lost his weapon and a Veretian general got close enough to slice make contact with his armour. It was good armour. The impact was only a jolt but before Damen could eliminate the general, he saw the man hit the ground.

Pallas got his sword back quickly, he thought. And wielded his sword at the soldier who had knocked down the lancer before he could glance at Pallas.

But it was not Pallas. Damen should have known it was not Pallas.

There was Laurent, resplendent in Akeilon armour, expertly put on of course, right down to the leather skirts. His face was covered. His grip on the borrowed sword was sure. But Damen knew the shape of him by a glance and knew intimately the expansion that happened in his chest when Laurent was near.

“I do hate to be left behind,” Laurent said. And wielded his sword. And aided Damen, in that precise but languorous style, that was half Auguste, a quarter Nikandros, and a quarter Damen, and held the lines and broke wave after wave of his own men. “These are the Regents most loyal men,” he called, following the severing of two Veretian heads. “Mine are beyond. Can you see them? They flank the troops come from Acquitart.”

On the crest of the hill, Damen saw sunburst banners and Akielon warriors. The men that marched for Damen were surrounded by men that marched for Laurent, the rightful heir to Vere. They did not protect the Akielon soldiers in any larger way than than pretending to be the first ones to reach them and not trying very hard to break them. It was the final push. With Laurent by his side, and his last reinforcements come to his aid, Damen wielded his sword and ended this war. He fought with the might of thunder and knowing that these men were no ordinary soldiers but loyalists to the wicked Regent conjured a new violent energy within him.

At his right, Laurent fought like lightning flashed.

He was a bright, unpredictable thing cutting down every red-liveried soldier who tried to get close to him and some who got too close to Damen.

“Damianos,” he shouted, in warning, when a desperate soldier threw a dagger at his head. His armour protected and he was already moving to knock it away and cut the man down. But, all the same, even at this moment, it was nice to hear Laurent say his name.

There was no sign of the Regent. Decoys were dismissed with a slight shake of Laurent's head and dispatched, where possible, with a non-fatal wound.

Battle raged. There was no air, no wind, no chirping of birds. Just fighting and grunting and the clash of swords and then there was a moment, where no-one else was coming for them, and the Akielons looked around, stunned, still fevered to fight and not yet high on victory. There were Veretian men left. Sunburst men and wounded men and men who knew they could not win but also could not flee.

Opportunity.

“Hold the lines,” Damen instructed his captain. “Assume nothing.” Their force was unbreakable. The battle was won in every real way but there was a chance the Regent had something more up his sleeve. There was always a chance. No-one here would dare question their prince but Damen could see on the faces on his men that they did not like him breaking his own rules. But this was his chance. He had to take it. He pressed his heels to his horse and galloped through the bloodbath straight to the Veretian camp.

He didn't need to look back to know Laurent was following. This was his fight, really. He was unrecognisable as his real self with his hair dyed and dressed in Akeilon battle armour. Anyone would just presume he was Damen's second, a younger man learning the art of war. But Damen worried, still, just in case. His army had done such a thorough job of trouncing the Veretian troops, no-one tried to stop him as he tore through the camp. He skidded to a stop at the tent with the skylight and jumped down from his horse.

Laurent followed.

Two guards at the entrance to the tent made a cross of their spears to block Damen. Fools. He tore the spears away with his bare hand and despatched them, too. He marched into the tent like he had an army at his back though all he had in this sickeningly indulgent space, draped with silks and scented with sugar and turpentine, was Laurent.

In the back, by the bed, behind some gauzy drapes, was a boy in bed clothes with paint on his fingers. He jumped at the intrusion and hid, ridiculously, behind a cushion.

“Where is he?” Damen demanded. “Where is the Regent?”

“He is gone,” Laurent said. “I can tell.”

“No --” Damen could not let those words be real. His brain couldn't process. He couldn't be gone. The Regent had to die here. “You. Boy. Where is the Regent?” He switched to Veretian, raised his sword, pushed it through the cushion and stopped just at the boy's skin.

“Don't torture him. He won't know,” Laurent said in perfectly unaccented Akielon. “Look how old he is. The Regent left him behind.”

Old? He was no more than sixteen.

Damen's insides turned in a way that none of the blood and gore of the battlefield had managed to cause in him.

“I won't hurt you,” Damen said to the boy. “I'm not here for you. Tell me where he has gone.”

“Arles,” said the boy. “It was unsafe for him to stay with the battle coming to an end. Vere needs a leader, especially with the traitor prince under the spell of those barbarians. Laurent refuses to come home, refuses to fight. He lounges in the filthy Ios palace with a harem of slaves while his country suffers and his remaining land is over-run with --”

“Enough,” Damen said. He had not asked for a judgement on Laurent's character.

But the boy continued. “The Regent is a better ruler than the prince could ever be. He cares about his nephew, even though Laurent throws everything back in his face. Look.” He pointed at a sealed missive among the sketches and paintings on the large table. This one likes to paint. Damen thought he saw a sketch of a bearded face and a parted mouth and his stomach lurched again. “He expected you. One of you. Damianos. Nikandros. Kastor. You are all the same. That letter is yours.”

Damen tore the seal apart and read : To ensure my nephew Laurent's safety, I order a ceasefire and the withdrawal of my troops from the unlawfully occupied lands in Delfeur. In the words of Theomedes of Akielos, everything is temporary, even defeat. My nephew will sit on a throne again soon. The Regent of Vere.

How kind of him to order a ceasefire after the battle was won and his army was depleted. Laurent skimmed the note over his shoulder and snorted.

“This has gone to the generals, too?” Damen asked the boy, who shrugged. He clearly knew nothing of war or soldiering. So it was up to Damen to go to the exit of the tent and find a messenger to bring the Regent's word to his people. Finally, they could know they would not be punished for retreat.

“He's not coming back, you know,” Laurent was saying to the boy when Damen returned. Casually, he leafed through the sketches. “You are not joining him in Arles either.”

“I am. There's an art school there and --”

“No,” said Laurent and dumped all the boy's sketches in the fire. The boy let out a pitiful cry and Laurent just continued. “You are small enough to ride pillion or hide in a wagon. You are clearly well-born enough to be able to ride a horse. He chose to leave you hear on this blood-soaked wasteland. What do you think a gang of marauding sex-starved soldiers, high on victory or bitter with defeat, would do to a pretty thing like you?”

“There are guards at the door --”

“We still got in, my prince and I,” Laurent said. “Have you ever even held a sword?”

“Stop,” Damen said in Akielon and all he could think about was Aimeric's back and the fact that Laurent might give himself away.

“I volunteered to stay behind. It was my idea!”

“He planted it like a seed.”

“No,” said the boy. “I know that I am old enough to... stay behind. I offered. My .... friend Nicaise was here, too, and he is only eleven. He couldn't stay. I couldn't--”

“You gave some poor boy to the Regent in the hopes of retaining favour?” Laurent asked, flat and vicious.

“No-one gives anything to the Regent. He simply takes,” the boy replies. “I did my best to keep Nicaise safe and --”

“That's enough,” Laurent said. “You are not devoid of honour or intelligence, I see. But you will be waiting for a very long time if you think you mean anything to that man. Disappear. Give yourself a new name and a new identity. Make a living drawing sketches on the side of the road. Find a squadron in need of a squire. There are lots of empty roles, at the moment. Use your brain. If you really want to make something of yourself, go to the starburst banners. He'll never find you there.”

“Who are you?” The boy squinted tear-filled eyes at Laurent.

“In Akielos,” Damen said to him. “We don't rape boys and abandon them among enemies. I am Prince Damianos and I am giving you a chance.”

“We do kidnap boys,” Laurent said. “You heard about the Crown Prince. Perhaps we can take you to Ios, too.”

“I'd rather die.”

“You might, yet. Hurry. Pack your supplies. They are very fine brushes,” Laurent said. “Don't waste what is valuable because of disappointment.”

-

Disappointment. Wars, even wars that were won, were always disappointments. They destroyed the Veretian army and all their tactics worked. They possessed the land but they had nothing formal signed to make it Akielon. Damen had the land, had won the war, but he went back to his camp feeling like he didn't have very much at all. With the frenzy of fighting over, he had to send Laurent away before anyone could recognise him. Back to the tent. Back to wait. Damen still had work to do. Bodies to bury. Men to praise and bolster and reassure that yes, they could still serve with only two fingers on their right hand and half a left ear.

Stripped of most of his armour, he even helped the surviving Veretians remove their dead and tend their wounded. That was the kind of thing a prince should do. He could see the shift occur – once fighting was over, there were no more sides, and a soldier was a soldier was a soldier. He needed everyone to see that. Also, he needed to eavesdrop among the defeated army. Most of the survivors and the helpers wore the starburst badge and they wished their prince was here to lead them now.

Laurent, if he was anything like his brother Auguste or this Damianos who had fostered him, would not retreat as his uncle had. He had to have a plan. He would not desert his people.

When Damen finally returned to him, Laurent was back in slave garments and exposed cuffs and he was waiting on his knees on the floor of the tent.

“Rise,” Damen said, back to Patran.

“There have been many men here, Exalted, and they wish to see good behaviour from your Patran bed slave,” Laurent said. Damen could see how the tent had been cleaned and prepared for celebration. New bedding. Fine food and wine so rich he could smell it from across the room. “They brought a girl, too. Blonde because they know you prefer it to this one's oil slick hair and pale scalp and flat chest. It would have been her First Night. She was trembling.”

“Have you stashed her beneath the bed?”

“I sent her away. Damianos-Exalted said Pallas could have her as a reward.”

“Pallas doesn't like women.”

“I know that,” Laurent said. He hadn't gotten up so Damen crouched in front of him. “Really?” He wrinkled his nose. “In a skirt?”

“There's my boy.” Damen tried to quash down his own misery so he could console Laurent. “Have faith,” he said. “This is just the beginning. We have Delpha.”

“You have Delpha.”

“You should have heard the men talk about the great Prince Laurent. They await his return. The Regent has never been less popular.”

“Here, among the commoners and the men I kept alive. Among the court and the council, Laurent is less than dirt.”

“Funny. In this tent he is greater than the sun and the ocean and every star in the sky.”

“Damen,” Laurent said, shock making breath of his voice. Then, “Forgive me, Exalted. I do not mean to speak out of turn. May I attend you?”

“My servants already have. I did not want to come to my pristine Patran bed slave with blood on my hands.” Damen made himself play along. Laurent was vulnerable. Laurent was reeling from the Regent being gone and that poor, replaceable boy with the sketches. It had registered with Damen long ago that Laurent found some comfort in these pretend games. “Would you sit with me?”

“Princes do not ask.”

“This one does.” Damen lowered himself onto the small seat at the end of his bed that had no other name but a love seat. It was only when he sat, that he realised how tired he was. He was large and the couch was small and Laurent had to curl himself around Damen to fit. Not that Damen minded. There was the hugest sense of reassurance in the warmth of his body, the familiar pressure of his knee against his leg and his scent, beyond the paint and dye and sweat, of soap and oranges. Damen ran his hands through Laurent's hair. “I trust you are not injured.”

“The slave never left this tent,” he said. “You are sore, though. I can tell. Perhaps a massage?”

“No,” said Damen. “I am sorry but...I can't pretend. Please, I am so sorry. I couldn't kill him for you.”

In his familiar, inflectionless voice : “You know, I never really believed you would. You are are best fighter I have ever seen but none of us are a match for him. He plans for everything. There's already something up his sleeve, I'm sure. My uncle is the marionette master and we don't even know he's pulling our strings until we are moving.”

“He's nothing. We're closer to home than you've ever been. Delpha is won. We can get you support here. Spread the right rumours. My duty to my father is done. I can help you get the crown back we can go to --”

“No, it's too dangerous. Here maybe or Acquitart. But in the heart of Vere. No. He could hurt...You really don't know what my uncle could do.”

“Fuck your uncle,” Damen said.

“Yes,” said Laurent, caustic as acid. “I did. That's the point. If people knew...”

“You were a child!”

“I was a child when Auguste died and they still believed the lies.”

“We have a chance here,” Damen insisted, then stopped, when there was movement at the entry to the tent and a knock on the post he had placed there expressly for people to knock on. A slave could have stayed as Laurent was but he went to his knees and pressed his face into the couch. Damen stood, heart-pounding, remembering another time he had thought there was peace in the night during conflict and worrying for the way men could be after war. His men were good. But men could always be surprising. He really didn't want his words to that arty boy to be lies. “Yes?”

“Forgive me, Exalted,” his guard called, peering inside. “I know you said not to be disturbed but there is a visitor here for you.”

“Who?”

“Me,” said Nikandros. First, a perfunctory bow for the benefit of the gaping guard and the prostrate Patran slave and then he threw his arms around his friend. “Damianos, you have done it. We have Delpha.”

“And more,” Damen said. “Ravenel is beyond the lines we drew on maps in Ios. Your victory there is one of the history books. Who will hold it in your absence, friend?”

“My very capable men and few confused Veretians,” he replied. “We deserve it. They still have the whole pocket around Marlas.”

“For now.” Damen smiled. “My father said we would never take one of their forts.” At the mention of the king, Nikandros's face changed. “What is it?”

“I came to celebrate or to support, whatever was necessary,” Nikandros said. “But I intercepted a messenger on the way. Damen, perhaps you should send the slave away.”

“He stays. Tell me now,” Damen ordered. Glancing at Laurent, he could see a new tension in his back. “Rise, slave. Nikandros can know.”

Laurent rose and sprawled deliberately on the loveseat they had just occupied. “Hello, Nikandros,” he said. “Did you miss me?”

Nikandros had long grown used to Laurent's ways. He did not react.

“Your father is ill,” Nikandros said, quietly, handing Damen a coded, sealed message. “No-one knows. But you must return at once.”

“No. He was fine when I left. This could...”

“Damen,” Nikandros said. “You must go home.”

“But...” Damen took a moment, a tiny moment, to remember that he was a victor and he had been about to push further into Vere to give Laurent back his throne. His plan had worked. They had been so close. He plans for everything. The moment ended. “Right. Send in my guards. We need to only fresh horses to get back and a small guard. Nikandros, Ravenel will have to spare you. These lines have to hold. And --” His father was sick. He had to go home. He had to give more orders but they wouldn't come to mind. His father was sick.

“Damianos will be accompanied by a skeleton guard and his Patran bed slave. The captain stays,” Laurent said. “There is a physician called Paschal in the Veretian camp. You might remember him from the fire. Have him kidnapped. He will come, too, to Ios. Send Lazar, if you can pull the worst camp cook out of your best Akielon protégé. Damianos will ride on the horse that wandered in. It's a very good horse. Give the ruby around its neck to the physician. Nikandros, are you getting this?”

“Yes, your...yes.”

“We leave at first light,” Laurent said.

“Now.” Damen remembered how to to speak.

“Dawn,” Laurent insisted. “Or else you leave on a litter.”

“All right, Commander. Is there anything else you bid me to do?”

“Sleep. Nikandros and I can take care of everything.”

“Damen, we will,” said Nikandros and even through his shock Damen registered a look of annoyance on Laurent's face. “I'll make the arrangements. I took an untakeable fort, I can have a physician kidnapped.”

“You're never going to stop boasting about that, are you?”

“Not until I have a better achievement to boast about.”

“Like the baths when you were sixteen?” Laurent asked, raising one tinted eyebrow. “Have someone trustworthy go with Lazar. It need not be kidnap, really, Just...the ruby should do it. If not, lie. Tell him there's a serving boy with a prolapse. He knows how men can be, especially after war.”

Nikandros bowed and turned to leave. There was starkness on his face that contrasted with the outside sounds of revelry and the just felt feeling of victory and hope. Damen had thought, if he could win Delpha he could win anything.

But now, that thought shrank away to nothing.

“My father is sick,” Damen said. “What if ...”

“No,” said Laurent. “None of that. Rest. You will be back in Ios soon and you will see your father be well. I know it.”

Chapter Text

His father was sick. He was almost home but his father was sick. His father was sick enough to call him back from war. No matter what way Damen looked at it, there was nothing good about this situation. The victories at Delpha shrank to nothing. The familiar sight of the palace on the cliffs did not warm his heart as it usually did.

“It will be all right,” said Laurent, who was still pretending to be a poorly-trained Patran slave, as they approached the palace. He had said it so many times on the long journey home, the words had lost all meaning. The only other thing he did, beside serve Damen as a slave would and growl like a slave never would at anyone who dared approach them, was chatter nonsense as they travelled. He had read a lot of books, heard a lot of gossip, and witnessed more scandal before the age of thirteen than most Akielons would in their whole lives.

“We don't know that,” Damen answered, still speaking Patran. “You thought your father and your brother would be all right and look what happened.”

Laurent flinched. “That was different. It was so quick. And Paschal is an excellent physician.”

“We have plenty of physicians in Ios.”

“A second opinion never hurts.” They were too close to the palace and the bustle of the traders and the travellers to say much more. It would not serve in Laurent's favour to say any more here. He might be recognised. And if his suspicions were correct, well people would be very angry at the Veretian prince, who as far as anyone knew, had been in the country this whole time.

Laurent was quite convinced Theomedes had been poisoned. His uncle plans for everything, he said. Nothing like the death of a king to disrupt the war effort and it did always suit his plans to have instability rather than the end to fighting.

Damen was less inclined to believe Laurent's suspicions. No-one would get close enough to the king to make him sick. He had tasters and servants and countless trusted guards. When Laurent had first broached the subject, in a dank inn in Mellos where they had snatched four hours of sleep while a storm raged outside, Damen had ordered him away as if he was really a slave.

“You can't come in with me in disguise,” Damen said, rather than argue again.

“I know.”

“I don't want to see you again until that dye is gone from your hair and those cuffs are gone from your body.”

“You won't,” Laurent said and with no more than a curt nod, melted away with Lazar and Jord.

Damen supposed there was a servant entrance they would use to re-enter the palace. He didn't think too much about it because the sentries and the townspeople were noticing his arrival. Prince Damianos, who had led their army to victory and taken back their land in the north, was home and there was much celebrations to be had. Because he was prince and they loved him, Damen held his reins in one hand and used the other to touch the hands and heads that thronged towards him. He absorbed their praise and the joy like it was the current to take him on the last push home. Inside he was thinking, the king is sick. How can you celebrate?

But he accepted the adoration and even caught himself smiling at one small boy, no more than seven, who marched along beside his guards as if he was one himself.

Life was a complicated thing. Sadness and joy so often overlapped. Who was he to judge?

It did, however, come as surprise that Kastor met him on the steps. Damen had assumed his brother would not leave their father's side during his illness but Kastor stood proud, in a white chiton that gleamed compared to Damen's road-grubby leathers, on the palace steps.

Damen thought, he looks like he owns the place and then pushed that aside too. Kastor was trying to be strong in the face of sadness. They were brothers. Damen would not allow petty rivalries or assumptions to come between them when their father needed them most.

“Kastor.” Instinctively, he embraced his brother and felt him stiffen at the touch. Well, Damen had forgotten they weren't really those kinds of brothers. “Sorry. It's been a long journey. How is father? I must see him immediately.”

“He is unchanged,”Kastor replied. “You have time to wash and put on fresh clothing.”

“No. We go now,” Damen said. He walked, and servants and guards dropped to their knees in his path. He waited, but Kastor did not welcome him home or congratulate him on taking Delpha or do anything at all but look at Paschal the physician with unbridled contempt. Well, Kastor had borne the weight of this issue alone. Damen was home now. He would relieve him. As he walked, he demanded reports and barked orders and steeled himself for what would await in his father's rooms.

Which, as it turned it out, was a whole lot of clueless physicians, fretting servants and distraught slaves. Beyond the churchlike murmurs, the medicinal mint smell, and the hiss of brewing tonics was Theomedes, sleeping soundly as a child.

“Out,” Damen said. “Everyone out.” After so long at the head of his army, it was a small shock that it took them time to shuffle away. They all wanted instruction beyond being told to leave. These people, so-called professionals, craved praise like a slave with submission in their bones. Damen was a prince, a conqueror, and he was terrified of losing the only parent he had ever known.

Another time, he would reassure them he knew they were doing all they could. But for now, he just wanted to see the King.

But the King was unconscious, resting under a sleeping draft, and would be for some time. So Damen had to sit on the backless chair by his father's bed. He had to wait.

While he waited, he heard Kastor's account of the illness which Kastor gave as dispassionately as a steward. It was not that he didn't care about Theomedes. He simply disliked reporting to Damen. So Damen tried to mollify him by saying he didn't trust anyone else but Kastor grew more tight-lipped and said Oreste could fill him in. He had to check on Jokaste. She was sick, too.

“I'm going to be a father,” Kastor said. “Jokaste carries my child. We will wed when...”

“Congratulations,” Damen said. “Please pass my good wishes on to Jokaste. I hope the child looks more like her than you.” Trying for brotherly affection and just sounding flat.

“I'm going to continue the line,” Kastor said.

Damen thought, we do not share the same line, but said nothing. “Father will be proud. Will you send in Oreste as you leave?”

Damen did not care for Oreste one way or another but his father trusted the man and for that Damen would listen. He said Theomedes fell ill on the way back from Kingsmeet and insisted no-one know of his sickness lest it affect the war effort. No-one thought it would last this long. Kastor had done all he could. Even Lady Jokaste helped. They called every physician, tried every known remedy, but Theomedes kept getting weaker. The doctor's reports confirmed all this, as did the testimonies of the palace staff.

Damen, who had commanded armies at seventeen and saw clean lines and strategy where other people saw chaos and confusion, felt very very helpless reading the vague reports and hearing the painful rattle in his father's chest. He waited. His slave Lykaios, recalled along with the rest of Laurent's world-renowned harem, was admitted and she sponged away the dirt on Damen's skin and dressed him in fresh clothes. It was practical. And there was no taboo against this kind of nudity in Akielos. But it felt disrespectful to his father to stand unclothed and Damen's skin was still damp when he wrapped the soft clean chiton over his body. His body that had snatched lives as if they were ripened fruit on the vine while he warred all over the land. Perhaps this was his punishment.

“What do you wish to say?” He asked Lykaios, because he could by the way she lingered that she had words bubbling up her throat.

“This is a private time, Exalted. This one's words are--”

“Welcome,” Damen interjected.

“I – The slaves are all relieved you are home safely.”

“The slaves and I are in agreement on that.”

“The stories of your successes reached even us,” she continued. “It was like hearing an ancient tale. What an honour it is to serve our hero.”

“Thank you,” Damen said and his voice was hoarse. “Would you..” He gestured towards his father, who had beads of sweat on his forehead.

“It is my honour to serve the king.” Lykaios wiped Theomedes fevered head with cool water. Slaves were good at that kind of thing, Damen thought. He never would have known to wipe the skin under his father's chin the same way. There was some commotion at the entryway, then, that had him barrelling to his feet. Finally, people to shout at.

“Do not behave in ways that would disturb my father,” he snarled.

“Exalted, this Veretian begged entry,” explained the guard. Behind him, a red-faced Paschal stood carrying a leather apothecary bag. If that wasn't enough to indicate his profession in the respected field of medicine, he had a floor length gown covering his clothing and a floppy hat like a loaf of poorly-risen bread coving his head.

“Yes,” Damen said. “I have brought him to treat the king. Step aside.” On the journey south, Damen had been too busy worrying and sending orders back up the lines to Delpha to pay this Paschal much attention. But he had come without complaint and stressed, again and again, that his priority as a physician was treating sickness regardless of the nationality or lifestyle of the patient.

Laurent trusted him. That was enough for Damen.

And no-one Kastor had summoned had done any good.

Damen tried not to hang over Paschal's shoulder while he examined Theomedes and perused the record of treatment and symptoms left by the copious previous physicians. Paschal had a habit, which was perhaps a kindness to Damen, of muttering his observations aloud. It did not feel kind to hear phrases like fluid in the lungs, reduced kidney function, bacteria in the gut, rash along the nerves spoken about your father the king, but Damen bore them well. He was a commander. He was good at hiding his emotions, packing them away into a trunk so small it would only house a grain of sand, and leaving them their until a better time came and he could allow himself to feel again.

“Certainly,” Paschal said. “These treatments make sense.” He waved his hands at the tubs and tubes left on the sideboard. “But they alleviate symptoms, they don't treat the cause.”

“What is your diagnosis of the cause?” Damen asked.

“Your highness, I have seen this before once or twice. In Vere.”

“Go on.”

Paschal's mouth twitched approximately twelve times before he spoke again. “I am sorry to say, your highness, that it looks like your father has been poisoned.”

Shock and surprise were not the same thing. Surprise was unexpected, a friend at your door. Shock was plunging into winter waves and the icy water over-taking your body. There had been poison in the palace before. The Regent planned for everything. Laurent had been convinced. But the words, still, were a shock. They made Damen splinter like his strong body was not enough to contain the anger and frustration that whirled up inside him. There was no way to put them back together until he destroyed the cause, and that was not an option, here in his father's sick room.

He had to make himself very still, very calm, and try not to break anything.

“I don't -” he began and stopped. This was not a place for talking. This doctor was not a man for talking to. Later, when it was over, he might tell Laurent or Kastor or Nikandros his thoughts. Damen thought, I don't understand why that man just can't let us be. If there is a devil in this world, it is the Regent.

Damen thought, again and again, I am going to kill him.

“Your highness, your father is waking,” Paschal said. “May I?”

“May you what?” Damen spat. “Your kind did this. What do you want to do?”

“He needs fluids, your highness. Something to help with the breathing and the fever. Your own physician can supervise, of course.”

Except Damen did not have a physician. He was never sick. And he did not know who among the men in the palace could be trusted and who was responsible. This Paschal could slip his father a killing poison and it would all be Damen's fault.

“I will administer fluids. I will clean him,” Damen said. “Ask for the advisor Oreste at the door. Kastor, if he is not there. They can assign someone to supervise.”

Damen was done talking to lessers. His father was waking. Eagerly, boyishly, Damen awaited his father's return to consciousness. He watched the flutter of eyelids and listened to the changing of breaths. He waited for his father to see him, to know that he was there, but when Theomedes came to his eyes were unfocused and his voice was a moan that called for Damen's mother.

“Father,” Damen said. “I am here.” He was glad of his natural strength when it came to helping his father sit up in the bed. He felt the weight only in his heart.

“Damianos. Of course you are here.” His eyes closed again. His lungs rattled. Damen waited, unsure of what he was actually waiting for. In his heart, he wanted acknowledgement more than what he had been offered. A word of praise or relief. Anything. But Theomedes was stoic and strong. The only relief he showed, was when Damen had his slave Lykaios bring water to the king's lips. “Delpha is won?”

“Delpha is won, father.”

Theomedes nodded. “I never doubted it would be. You have done well, Damianos.” The words caused a wellspring of joy to burst inside of Damen. His father was speaking. His father was proud of him. What more could he want? Other than a dead Regent and a cure, of course. “Where is your shadow?” Theomedes tried to lift his head to look around Damen but he wasn't quite strong enough. “Where is Nikandros?”

“Someone had to hold the lines,” Damen said, cheerfully, while he worried about his father's question. Shadow? “He even took a fort, you know.”

“Fetch the boy,” Theomedes said.

“Who?”

“The princeling.”

Damen bid a servant to find Laurent, who appeared much sooner than Damen anticipated. The cuffs were gone. He was laced back into Veretian finery. The dye was stripped from his hair and the burst of blond was as welcome to Damen's eyes as the sun rise after a dark night.

“Exalted,” Laurent said to Theomedes, bowing low. Damen thought, my father must be really sick for Laurent to be so respectful. “I do not wish to disturb you.”

“I sent for you. No need to for useless manners now, Laurent.”

“This physician Paschal is more capable, Exalted. He will help.”

Theomedes shook his head. He must not want to talk about doctors. “Come here. I want to tell you something important. At least, to you it will be important.”

Gingerly, Laurent picked his way to Theomedes bed. Damen was glad he had helped his father sit up. It was more dignified for both of them. Still, his heart gave a funny twist at the wrongness of the sight. A king should receive people from a throne not a sickbed. Laurent should never be summoned to anyone's bed.

Laurent bent down, stiff as a board, and Damen politely turned away while his father spoke quietly in his ear. He could not make out the words. But when Laurent stood up again, his jaw was clamped tight.

“Thank you,” Laurent said, stiffly. He was not used to saying those particular words together much. “That-- thank you. Damen?” Theomedes shifted his eyes a little at the use of the name. “Can I speak to you alone? I mean, Exalted, can you excuse us?”

“Go.” Theomedes closed his eyes again. Maybe the rare sight of a flustered Laurent exhausted him as much as it was overwhelming Damen.

“I need to stay with him.”

“I need to show you something.”

“If I may,” Paschal interjected. “This would be a good time for me to treat the king. You may want to step outside anyway. This girl can help.” He glanced at Lykaios, who nearly fainted from the assumption that she was capable of such an act.

“I said I would do it,” Damen replied. “Laurent, they will blame us if anything happens after bringing this man here.”

“Your brother is just outside. Working, I believe.”

“Damen, this is important,” Laurent said. The way he kept saying Damen's name was too persuasive. Damen followed him out of his father's rooms, up stairs he hadn't walked upon since he had achieved his boyhood goal of exploring every inch of the palace, until they emerged into fresh sea air. Damen hadn't appreciated the simple relief of having clean salt in his lungs until this moment under the late afternoon sky. He breathed. He allowed himself a moment to believe the only reason Laurent dragged him up to one of the watchtowers was to let him breathe.

Just a moment.

“All right,” Damen said. “Tell me the bad news.”

“Not going to pass remark on my hair first? I thought you preferred this.”

“Please. My father is sick.”

“The good news is, he's going to get better,” Laurent said. “It is poison. Paschal reckons it was a slow dose, perhaps an ongoing administration, and simply removing everyone else will be beneficial.”

“That's good news.”

“Comparatively speaking.” Laurent drew two letters from the inside of his jacket. “Here. Read these.”

Damen grabbed them. The words swam in front of his eyes. The cipher was not the issue. The content was the painful thing.

The Regent had a plan. While Damen was fighting for scraps of land in Delpha, the Regent was launching something bigger right here in Ios – a plot to remove King Theomedes from the throne. He did only ever want instability.

That was one thing.

But the other letter, in Laurent's familiar cursive, was the one that felt like a knife in the back.

“You agreed with him?” Damen demanded, incredulous.

“It wasn't— Look, I am showing you now. I never agreed. I had to --”

Damen thrust the letter in Laurent's face. It was that or his fist. “Your words are clear, Laurent. Yes, uncle, it is a wonderful idea to remove Theomedes the barbarian--”

“Stop,” Laurent said. “I had to agree. I thought it was test of my loyalty. I thought if I did not I would never get the proof. I had no idea he would manage if I was not here to help. I didn't know he would get past the guards.”

“You could have told me,” Damen said. “At any time, you could have told me.”

“I did tell you it was poison. I brought Paschal.”

A fog came down over Damen. “He could be killing my father right now.”

“No. He is a good physician. He has a code.”

“You still should have told me. Laurent, you can't expect me to understand when you only give me half the information.”

“Maybe if you weren't so blind,” Laurent shouted. The waves were loud. He had to shout.

“You are very stupid to insult me right now. I have never been more tempted to hurt you.”

“Do it. I don't care. You have your proof and your antidote. Hurt me. I have done all I can.”

Damen caught hold of Laurent's shoulders and even through his anger, he found himself careful not to hurt him. “Why do you keep acting like you're alone in this?”

Laurent's mouth opened. And closed. And opened again. “You should let go. I still have to tell you the bad news and I would rather not end this day on the bottom of those cliffs.”

“Don't push me,” Damen said. He loosened his grip but he did not quite take his hands away from Laurent. Their time under false pretences, with a collar on Laurent's neck, had spoiled him. It was natural, now, for Damen to touch him without thinking.

“That's what I was going to say,” Laurent said, handing Damen a long scope like the sentries and lookouts sometimes used on duty. “Here. See for yourself. In the bay, there are three ships. No, there.” He turned Damen to the left, so he was looking west. “See?”

“Akielon ships.”

“Not really. They are false flags. Those ships are full of Veretian soldiers. They are waiting.”

“Waiting,” Damen repeated. Flatly. “For my father to die. And then what? Storm the castle? I am here. I would be king.”

“For me, I think,” Laurent said. “My instruction. Look at the letters again. My uncle believes you would not be a problem.”

“I --” The word sounded weak and tasted bitter. It would be we, when Damen ascended.

“He believes that this play for your throne is the kind of gift you give a mistress you want to keep quiet,” Laurent continued. “He would keep my throne in Vere. I would wield my considerable influence over you to take your throne in Akielos. Ambition does not stop when you have one thing you want. Ambition grows. It destroys.”

Damen had not the means to respond to this revelation. He had hardly the strength to keep his temper in check.

“I won't,” he said. “Let it destroy anyone here.” Still, promises were one thing. He needed proof.

“I have brought some measure of proof.” Laurent signalled through the doorway. “You remember the lady pirate Galenne?”

“Pirate will do,” Galenne said, striding past some very confused guards in boots that came up to her thighs. “No need for the qualifier. Damianos. Laurent. What odd games you boys play.”

“This is not a game,” Laurent said, sternly.

Damen was quite in shock still and, in the back of his bewildered mind, he was contemplating that Galenne may want to call in her debt and for the first time in his life he may not be able to perform.

“What do you know?” Damen said, when he wanted to ask why are you in my territory and why are you in communication with Laurent?

“You've got pests in your bay, it is true,” she said. “A few hundred of them, to be exact. Right under your nose.”

Damen lifted his chin, he squared his shoulders, he straightened his spine. “Sink them,” he told Galenne and started walking. He was a commander. He was a prince. He could not be skulking on battlements with Laurent when there was work to be done. “I will pay you in coin and give what help you need. The men won't be much. Much of the army was destroyed in Delpha and the rest recalled.”

“Trust me, I will have seen worse than these. You can keep your coin if I can keep the bounty."

“Damen,” Laurent said.

“This is not up for compromise. You never had a problem killing your countrymen before.”

Laurent schooled his face and offered his elbow, some perverse version of a suitor offering his arm to a lady. The pieces fell into place. They were about to fall into step beside Damen's guards. So Damen roughly took hold of Laurent's arm and dragged him along the floors so fast his boots slipped and slid without purchase.

Vere had done poisoned their King. Laurent had given them proof. Vere had an army in their bay.

Laurent had been treated with all the courtesy his title deserved all the years he had been in Ios. But now Damen had to treat him roughly. For his own protection. To treat the situation with the gravitas it deserved. War. Games. Protocols.

“Sink the ships,” Damen repeated, remembering his father's swift actions when he had been poisoned with the pie. He barked orders at the guards next. “Close the gates. No-one gets in or out. Keep everyone but me from my father's rooms. No exceptions. No-one breathes the same air as him without my say so. Round up all the men, women and children who have treated my father and bring them to the dungeons. No exceptions.”

They had almost reached the bottom of the winding stairs. The guard went first. Laurent faked a stumble to hold Damen back.

“Make it hurt,” he said. “Make them believe you.”

“What?”

“There can be no rumours, idiot. Hit me,” Laurent hissed. “He plans for everything. You know what they say about us. The last thing you need is people thinking you were in on it.”

Damen would never hurt his family. His father. It was unimaginable.

But the Regent was capable of all sorts of unimaginable things. A lie like that was the least of them.

“Laurent,” Damen said, helpless.

In the shadows of the curving staircase, no-one else could see them. Damen made a fist and drew it back. His other hand was gentle on the back of Laurent's neck when Damen punched him in the jaw. He held back, of course, but Laurent's head was still thrown backwards. He could have stayed on his feet but he let himself crumble to the steps. Damen crouched down after him as a reflection follows in a mirror. In the flickering lamplight, Damen could see the bruising impact of the punch on Laurent's fine skin and the first drops of blood spill from the side of his mouth.

It couldn't be just this – schemes and betrayals and the threat of the Regent hanging like storm clouds.

Damen didn't think. He didn't warn in Akielon fashion. His mind was breaking apart and his heart was desperately clinging onto the only sure thing in his life.

His hair fell onto his forehead. He braced his arms on the cold steps either side of Laurent. There was no time but he moved slowly enough to give Laurent time to move, to withdraw at he had done so often while he pretended to be slave. Damen knew how it looked, sensed the apparent inequality, in how it would appear to an outsider. His strength. His size. His anger. None of that mattered.

He tried to convey what he felt with his eyes. Laurent's blue eyes were wide, knowing, and Damen thought that he maybe didn't even need to try communicate anything now. Laurent knew. He knew.

So Damen kissed him hard on the mouth, that sweet vicious mouth. He felt Laurent's lithe body bend beneath him and the tiny moment of surprise that made Laurent suck air in through his nose. Then, Laurent pressed his lips back against Damen's as a fire kisses what it is about to destroy. It was a hungry, clumsy thing, this kissing. Contact replaced air in order of what was necessary for the body to function. The word was reduced to Laurent's parted lips, his soft mouth, the raw joy that rose because he was just as hungry and willing as Damen.

It couldn't last. Not now. There were guards around the corner. His father was sick. This was still before.

Reluctant, heartsick, Damen pulled away. There was a moment of gazing, eyes saying what words could not, and then it was back to being princes of enemy countries.

The guard was already turning back as Damen hauled Laurent to his feet and shoved him forward. “Chain the Prince of Vere,” Damen said. “Take him to his rooms. Guard them with his men. If anyone but me goes near him, I will have your heads.”

They took Laurent away. Damen went to his father's empty rooms to await their fate, which he had decided could only be positive. Theomedes would be healed. Damen would cleave him back from the jaws of death with his own bare hands if necessary.

“You can go,” Damen told Kastor. His brother deserved a break. Damen needed to be alone.

Kastor cocked his head. He did not enquire about the change in order or what had caused it. He gave Damen a long look that made him feel about eight years old and said, not unkindly, “You have blood on your lip.”

Chapter Text

The night was long with waiting but what could Damen do but wait. He made the orders. He had to follow through. Paschal said that the absence of further ingestion should be enough to turn the tide of sickness. Damen had to believe that.

“What about an antidote?”

“Until your interrogations yield results, it is too risky.”

“You are an educated man. Take an educated guess,” Damen said. “Does the Regent favour any particular poison?”

“I am not in a position to know. Physicians save, as far as I am concerned. They do not harm.”

Damen waited. He sent his guard to his own rooms to retrieve his pack, which had his most necessary belongings. He also bid them to check on Laurent. It made sense. Anyway, it hadn't been Damen who put him in that room all those years ago.

Being a prince who could own anything in the kingdom simply by looking at it, Damen had never much bothered with possessions. What was one thing when you could seize all of the things?

But Damen was a soldier. If he had not been born a prince, he would have still become a soldier and fought for what was right and protected those who could not protect themselves. Soldiers were prepared. They kept their kit in reaching distance at all times. They wore the big things – weapons and armour – on their bodies but the littler, equally vital things stayed in their packs. A skin for water or wine. Bandages and rubbing alcohol. Needles, thread and leather straps. These things could save your life as much as a weapon.

Most people kept personal tokens buried there, too. A lock of a loved one's hair. An item of jewellery. Damen had noticed quite a few soldiers with Laurent's wooden puzzles. Anyway, he was no exception to this brand of sentimentality. Before he left for war, when he thought he was leaving Laurent behind, he had wrapped up his Akielon book of Veretian folk tales and slipped it in the safest place in the pack. But the book Damen laid his hand on now was not that one. It was a book he had given once, a gift that had no thought except that he wanted to do something nice. Laurent's botany book. No longer in his possession. He had put it among Damen's belongings and placed his collar and one of his cuffs between the pages.

A particular page. A poison and an antidote. The poison bearing plant grew everywhere. The antidote only grew in Vere.

“Paschal!” Damen yelled and shoved the book under the physician's nose.

“Oh.” He blinked. “Yes. Yes. Of course.”

“Can you do this? Can you get it?”

“Yes.”

Waiting got longer. Night to day and back again. Every second was a lifetime while Paschal mixed precisely the right quantities required to save Theomedes life. They needed time to ferment. Theomedes slept soundly, mostly. When he stirred, Damen did his best to make him comfortable. In other families, when the father was not the king, it probably felt different. The son would know he had been tended to as a squealing child in a similar manner. But Damen knew his father had never wiped his face when he was child. Kings didn't certain things. When Damen became king, he hoped he would be different.

He thought of Laurent, collared and cuffed, willingly serving and aiding him at the front.

Damen would definitely be different.

He used this endless waiting time to hear reports and make decisions about the people he had taken into custody. It was easier to dismiss the possibility of the slaves and servants involved in wrongdoing than it was the soldiers and doctors. The ones who were most offended at being asked, he decided, were the most suspicious. At the mention of one of the visiting physician's names, Paschal's eyes went very hard beneath the rim of his silly hat.

“That one was turned off by two masters when I was doing my apprenticeship,” he said.

“Pay him special attention,” Damen told the guard. He had sent one of his men and one of his father's to interrogate the prisoners. Laurent, he thought, would have suspected them to but Damen knew how his father ruled. His men would not betray him.

The illness had first struck on the way back from the Kingsmeet. Opportunity. Someone took the chance to prolong it. Damen would have whoever it was hung from the palace walls.

Later. When his father was well. When his warrior, ruler body had overcome the dishonest poison in his veins, Theomedes would want to destroy them himself. It was his right. Damen would wait. He would not deny his father that.

He told no-one of Laurent's letters. They were like the kiss. No-one else would understand.

Paschal administered the antidote with warnings it may make the king appear sicker before it worked. That Damen should brace himself and have help on hand. But Damen did not need help with matters of love. He cared for his father's sick body without any thought to himself.

He waited.

Damen did not notice his father stir, and for that he felt ashamed. He thought if it was Laurent, he would have noticed the slightest change in his breathing. But by his father's sickbed, he was so consumed with selfish worries – weakness and responsibility and acceptance and being played and being poisoned and being king – that he didn't hear the change in breathing, the shift on the soft mattress.

The room smelled sick. There was no denying it.

Damen had managed to notice that.

“Father,” he said, the word the sound of a choke, when he finally noticed the open brown eyes. He didn't know how long his father had been looking at him with his head in his hands. Would never know. “What can I do for you?”

“Water,” Theomedes rasped. Damen poured it himself. He propped his father's frail body up with his own arms and brought the cup to his father's lips. The first drink made him cough and Damen had to wipe his mouth, steady his body, and get him to sip the next drink. Damen was no stranger to giving orders but the words still felt clumsy in his mouth.

He was not used to caring for another (except maybe Laurent) or a slave and that was just performance, mostly.

But he had meant what his declaration. No-one else would treat or touch his father, until Damen could ensure his safety. Servants could be threatened and men could be bought and slaves...what did he really know of slaves?

“You shouldn't--” Theomedes said. “Royalty shouldn't.”

“Family should,” Damen replied. He had sponged his father's skin and cleaned his bed and mixed his medicine while he was too sick to know. Perhaps he would never know. “I have sent everyone else away. How do you feel?”

“Weak,” his father replied. “I am only saying that because you have sent everyone away. Come here. Let me see you.” His fever had broken. His breathing was stronger. There had been no more stomach episodes. Damen could wait a moment or two before summoning Paschal.

His father was weak. Damen went to his knees beside the bed. No-one had ever told him how uncomfortable marble floors were in that position. There was a rug, once, for slaves and cold winter feet but it had to be thrown away.

“I never congratulated you,” Theomedes said. “You have done me proud in Delpha.”

“Thank you,” Damen said, head bowed.

“Do you feel proud?”

“I should get the doctor.”

“Son, answer me.”

“I am glad for our country,” Damen said, carefully. “I am glad Marlas will not be my legacy. But I don't feel...anything good. It was not the success I had hoped for.”

“What more could you want?”

“The Regent is still alive.” Damen steeled himself. “Father, we have reason to believe your illness was not...natural. Poison. Since our return, and the removal of all the physicians and attendants and ...everyone, you have improved.”

“Is it just a suspicion?”

“No,” said Damen. “We have no poison, no proof from the men, though they have all been imprisoned but I have letters. The Regent wrote Laurent a letter. Are you well enough to read?”

“My own death plot? Yes.”

Damen held the letter up for his father to read. Then the second, where Laurent agreed.

“Where is the little prince? Did he run away again?”

“He is here,” said Damen. “He was with me all along. He gave me the proof. He brought the doctor. And I have him in chains.”

“You had to.”

“I had to order the sinking of three Veretian ships in our bay. Soldiers. Waiting for you to die.”

“I am not dead, though,” Theomedes said. “My son has saved me. Kastor looked after me. You have saved me. And you are both going to achieve so much more. Look what you have done as a young prince. I cannot wait to see what you will do as King. Don't look so distressed, my boy. This is not the first plot against me.”

Damen took the letters back and bowed his head again. When his father touched his hair, he felt it right in his heart. “I wish --” He said, and then he could not say any more.

“Did I ever tell you how much I love you hair?” Theomedes asked. No, he hadn't. He was not a man for affection at all and he praised strength and determination, not the physical attributes beyond a person's control. “You were born with a bramble of brown curls, just like your mother's. Mine was always straight, not that there's much left now. It's been cropped close all my life. But your mother had the wildest hair. And when you were a baby, and she was gone, I remember holding you to my chest and feeling it on my skin.”

Damen gave himself over to the story, the love, the soft sure touch from his father – such a rare paternal show of affection.

“You're going to be a grandfather. Kastor and Jokaste.” Damen didn't know he said that except that his father deserved to hold another person of his blood in his life and for all that he was the heir, he couldn't see himself continuing the line any time soon. Perhaps ever.

“They told me,” Theomedes said. “But they are not here. When you were a little boy your tutors and your nursemaids always wanted to cut your hair. I fired one, when they did it behind my back. You used to hide behind it. You used to get sweetmeats stuck in it and scream when they tried to wash it out.”

“I don't remember that,” Damen said. He half-remembered running barefoot after Kastor and playing games with Nikandros with his hair in his eyes. He never knew his father hand a hand in it.

“You were a child. And when you asked, you got it cut.” Theomedes withdrew his hand. “You can't keep them all out forever, Damen. A king never belongs to just himself or his family. Oreste can come in. A slave to wash me.”

“My slave Lykaios is waiting for you.”

“A bed slave? I am not that --”

“She is very caring. She has been injured. This suits her, now.”

“You should go,” Theomedes said, not unkindly.

“I have all matters in hand. We await reports from the bay, the physician has engaged a local apothecary for secondary analysis and --”

“Son, you are not King yet. Go where you want to go. See who you want.”

Laurent.

“I trust him,” Damen said.

“I trust you,” his father said, and his eyes were closing again. “I remember what he said about instability. That Regent is power hungry. Go see the prince, if you wish.”

The king closed his eyes.

“I love him,” Damen said, eventually, but his father had gone back to sleep.
-

Damen remembered another night, where he had been afraid to open Laurent's door, as he bid the guards step aside. Again, he steeled himself and stepped over the threshold. Laurent might hate him now. But he was safe.

He made a sorry sight in the moonlight. No-one had lit candles. No-one ever lit the fire. Laurent was sitting, straight-backed and patient, on the cold floor with his hands chained above his head.

“Hello, captor,” Laurent said. “We're really making all the rumours true lately, aren't we?” Damen went back into caring mode. Light. Water. Heat. Practical things. “Cat got your tongue?”

“I'm formulating an apology,” Damen said.

“Don't bother yourself. We do what we need to do,” Laurent said, and his voice held not even the slightest hint of anger. “How is your father?”

“Alive,” Damen said. “Talking.”

“Plotting to kill me?”

“Not currently. He is asleep. Not at all, really.”

“You didn't tell him?”

“I showed him the letters. I told him you showed them to me.” There were no more chores for Damen to do. “Drink,” he said.

“I've had water. My chains are not that short.”

“I can't release you yet.”

“I know. Pity I took off the cuffs. My wrists wouldn't be so sore if not for these manacles.”

“A virgin in his teen years? You should be used to sore wrists.”

“I am not a virgin,” Laurent said. “I'm going to stand up. Don't mistake if for an imminent attack on your fragile body.” He took hold of the chains and used them to leverage himself to his feet with the grace of a trapeze artist. Laurent probably could have done a full flip, if he felt like showing off. “I am glad my predicament amuses you.”

“May I?” Damen asked. When Laurent nodded, Damen pressed his palm against his cheek. For all his bravado, the skin was warm and clammy from sweat. “I wish it was different,” he said. “When I left for war, I had this entire...fantasy about how it would be when I returned.”

“Tell me about it. This position is not ideal for reading and I do like to hear stories.”

“You would be waiting in my room.”

“Ah, like a pampered mistress,” Laurent said. “Hidden away from the action to wait for her man to return.”

“Like someone,” Damen said. “That I wanted very badly to keep safe. Fine, you'd be working on your puzzle empire or some grand espionage scheme that when I returned. You'd have taken off your coat and rolled up your sleeves and you'd pretend not to hear me come in but I'd see the colour rise in your face.” He felt new heat beneath his fingertips. If he could look anywhere but Laurent's eyes, he would probably see the blush spread. “I would say Laurent and you would push your hair back and say Damen and I would be so glad to see you I would forget the rest of the plan.”

“Stop,” Laurent said. “I was wrong. I don't want to hear this. We are not those people. We don't get first kisses overlooking the sea. I finally get a kiss from you when my mouth is too swollen to feel it.”

“You could have had one any time on the road.”

“That wasn't real either.” Laurent threw the words like a punch. His chains rattled. “You liked to pretend I was a slave.”

“This is real,” Damen said. He still had his hand on Laurent's face. He rubbed his thumb over Laurent's mouth and the cut there. “This is real. All of it.” War. Games. Seduction.

“Yes,” Laurent said. “My uncle thought you had already seduced me. That I could use it to my advantage to take your throne.”

“I don't want to hear about your uncle right now,” Damen said. “And I know you felt it. You felt that kiss in your bones.”

“Did I?” Laurent closed his eyes. “Perhaps. I have nothing to compare it to.”

Laurent was a boy, not yet nineteen, who cried when horses died and killed men in cold blood, and did not seem to care about being chained up in enemy territory. But the admission, to Damen, who he could tell anything to, that he had never had a kiss before sent him retreating back into himself like shellfish protecting its delicate flesh.

Damen had bid him kiss a slave girl's neck and held his hand while a slave boy sucked his own cock and watched his face while he came and he had never thought about this. Laurent was young when he came to Ios but not too young to have those curious, probing kisses kids had.

“If you're weren't in chains,” Damen said. “I would say you should have told me. But it would be wrong of me to deprive you of the opportunity to hit me in the face for saying it.”

“My legs are free. I could kick you in the balls.” Laurent opened his eyes and a sheepish smile passed across his face. “But I won't.”

“What if I kiss you? Would you allow me that tonight?”

“I am in chains.”

“Do you want me to kiss you?”

Laurent nodded. “For longer than you know.”

“Can it be now?” Damen asked. “It's been a when rather than an if for a long time. I know it's not the ideal scenario but--”

“This is what we are,” Laurent said. “But don't unless...not just because you pity me.”

“It's not that. It's never that.” Damen, all of a sudden, felt very shy. He was not the inexperienced one but he he might as well have been with the way his pulse was racing. He put his palm against Laurent's cheek again and just looked into those blue eyes. They were very dark and very guarded and for a second Damen doubted himself. He remembered, then, Laurent's pride and the ways he closed himself off when he felt vulnerable.

Damen could be careful with precious things. Slowly, gently, he pressed his lips to Laurent's forehead.

“That's not—”

Damen put his finger against Laurent's mouth. “Hush,” he said, and kissed his cheeks, the tip of his nose, the soft skin beside his mouth. He kissed Laurent's earlobe, then lightly sucked it between his lips, and felt Laurent's breath shudder against him. Damen brought his mouth to Laurent's and let it hover there for a second, looking into his eyes again to gauge his reaction.

Laurent was chained but he was not immobile. With a sound close to growl, and sheer annoyance on his perfect face, he was the one who closed that tiny chasm of space and pressed their lips together. Damen smiled at the forwardness of it, from the boy who spent years without addressing him because he had never told him to use his given name, and the smiled harder because this was happening – he was finally kissing Laurent.

His mouth rested against Laurent's like he had finally came home. He was smiling. Laurent was flushed pink and glaring slightly. Then, that annoyance melted away. The storm went out of his eyes and his lips were a precise pressure, both unsure and demanding at the same time, pressed against Damen's mouth.

Damen kissed back, eventually, when he was ready committing this to memory. He kissed Laurent in soft, closed-mouthed increments. He slid his palm away from Laurent's cheek, around to the back of his head to feel his hair in his fingers and tilt his head back just enough to change the angle of Laurent's mouth. The angles of Damen's brain were changing, reshaping, with every little kiss. This was happening. This was finally happening.

He had to open his mouth. He had to taste Laurent's lips and feel the shape of them under his tongue. The chains rattled. Laurent lurched forward, pressed himself to Damen, hooking his foot around Damen's calf. The leather of his boot was warm and soft against his skin. Laurent's tongue was hot and sharp when he flicked it against Damen's mouth.

“Snake,” Damen murmured, pulling away to trail kisses along to Laurent's jaw to his ear. Laurent was in chains but he was steady on his feet. Foot. He only had one on the ground. Still, he rocked with the rhythm of crashing wave, back and forth with the rhythm of their kisses like it was too much for him to stay in one place.

“Barbarian. Come back here.”

Damen did as he was told. His mouth with pressed to Laurent's again, open and hungry and wanting. His lips were swollen. His tongue was probing. Kissing Laurent was the most essential thing in the world. His whole body was on fire from kissing, just kissing, this beautiful delicate boy.

Laurent was all sharp edges but he gasped and panted when Damen kisses turned slow and soft and that's how Damen knew those were the kind of kissed he liked best. He slowed himself down. Really, he had to slow himself down. His body was on fire. His chiton was tented from the heaviness of his cock and not since he was an untouched lad had he felt like he might embarrass himself from kissing, just kissing.

Through the headiness, Damen was aware of so many things. This was finally happening. There were guards outside the door and his father was sick and his country was recovering from a war that had been won but never officially ended. Laurent was in chains. His knuckles were white from gripping those chains and for a second, Damen imagined those knuckles gripped in his hair or tight around his cock. He slowed even more. He registered that the tension had left Laurent's eyes and turned them wild, but it remained in his chest and his shoulders. He remembered the things he knew and he didn't want to push this but when he pulled his body back, leaving his mouth in place, Laurent would not allow him.

Laurent had hooked him.

He gripped the chains and pulled himself up off the ground and wrapped his legs around Damen's waist. Damen lost his breath. Dazed, his arms went instinctively to Laurent's backside to help hold him up. The weight was nothing to Damen. It was the joyful triumph on Laurent's face combined with the way he dug the heels of his boots into the backs of his thighs that made Damen weak. He never imagined himself looking up at Laurent. He didn't think he had ever looked up at at anyone to kiss them before.

Laurent was in chains yet he kissed Damen with new dominance. He could move his hand enough to grip his shoulders and Damen felt the bite of metal along with Laurent's nails. He kissed Damen slowly, as if they had all the time in the world, and pressed himself against his front. Veretian clothes were tight and constrained but Damen knew enough of instinctual pleasure seeking to know that Laurent was finding relief in the pressure of pressing himself to him. His eyes were closed. His mouth fell open when Damen pressed kisses like a column of marching soldiers up and down his throat. There was no real relief for Damen in this position but he found himself flexing his hips to meet Laurent's movements anyway.

“Damen,” he said, at the flicker of Damen's tongue at his pulsepoint. “Damen,” he said, gasping, as Damen's grip on his backside grew tighter. “I--”

“Yes,” said Damen in Veretian. He said it again in Akielon and Patran as Laurent rubbed himself against him and kissed him with abandon, swallowing up his words.

“No,” said Laurent, slowing, and pulling his lips away. “No, wait. Stop.”

Damen stopped. He let go of Laurent and let his boots hit the ground. Probably, he thought, he should wrench himself away and let whatever hesitance had reared inside Laurent play out with him alone. But he couldn't. He needed to be there.

“Are you all right?”

“Yes, yes, don't look at me like that. Come back, please.”

“I didn't go anywhere.”

“Oh. So, I see.”

Damen put both his hands on either side of Laurent's face. “Talk to me,” he said. “I just...I only want you to feel good with me.” Laurent had come with him before. He knew he had some issues with control but, surely, it was different with him. The fighting, the bathing, the slave play, sleeping, everything. Damen wasn't someone Laurent ever needed to be hidden around.

“I'm not a boy,” Laurent said. “I'm not going to break apart if you touch me too strongly.”

“I would not have kissed you or fought with you if I thought you were a boy.”

“I'm not going come in my pants just because I like you how you kiss me.”

Damen couldn't stop the grin. “You like how I kiss you?”

“Shut up. You know I do.” Laurent looked at the floor. “I like it very much.”

“Me too,” said Damen. “And, if you allow, me I think I can open some of those Veretian laces. If you allow me to touch you, we can see if you could come under my hand.”

“Damen.” Laurent's voice went very deep.

“Or if you allow me to use my mouth --”

“Stop. Don't talk to me like you're a slave.”

“I'm not. I am...hopeless, I think.”

“I'm in chains.”

“I'm strong. I can hold you up. I can move the bed. I --” Damen stopped talking. Laurent's jaw was no longer the slack, pliant thing it had been while they kissed. It was taut, tense, and where his collar had fallen open Damen could see, beneath damp overfine skin, that the sinews of Laurent's neck were strained too. “Tell me what you want,” he said. It was important, he felt, for Laurent to make all the choices.

Laurent was silent for a long time. “My feet hurt,” he eventually said. “Will you take off my boots?”

Immediately, Damen crouched in front of Laurent. His chiton fell open and up around his thighs.

“Oh my,” Laurent said and Damen's skin got hotter and he couldn't quite tell if Laurent was teasing in a good way or a bad. Damen remembered how gentle and attentive Laurent had been during the warring, when he had cuffs on his wrists. He could still feel by the throb of his blood how the slide of boot leather against his skin had summoned the potential for new pleasure and fresh fantasies within him.

At twenty three, Damen had thought he knew all his bedding preferences but Laurent reformed everything about him.

Damen's hands were too large, too calloused, too used to taking, to be that gentle with Laurent. But what he lacked in finesse he made up for in reverence, recalling all the ways he liked slaves to be, and with his eyes half closed, Damen braced Laurent's foot on his own bare knee and worked his ankle free from the leather.

He pulled it away from Laurent's foot and followed the path it left exposed with his hand surely skimming Laurent's calf. If he had allowed himself to drink at all since they returned to Ios, Damen might have pressed his rough cheek against Laurent's slender ankle. But this was already mind-bendingly subversive. He removed the other boot. He stayed on his knees and he was so close to the juncture of Laurent's thighs and the tightly laced Veretian pants.

“I want --” Damen began.

“It's the touching--” Laurent said.

“I'll --” He didn't even know what he was going to say. I won't touch you? He wanted to touch every last inch of Laurent's skin, even the parts that were inside him, until Laurent fell into the kind of oblivion where only touch mattered. “You decide,” he said. “You tell me. I'll keep my hands behind my back if you want.”

“That would make opening the laces difficult.” Laurent let out a breathy hint of a laugh.

“But not impossible.” Damen grinned up at Laurent. More looking up. Games. Seduction. Laurent liked games because they were easier than life. He said himself, he felt everything. That had to wear you down. You had to escape sometimes.

“Is this how you imagined it?”

“You know it's not. Nothing ever is --”Damen was cut off by the sound of a guard knocking at the door. Neither princes nor kings ever belonged to just themselves. He stood very quickly.

“Answer it or they'll storm in to save you from me.”

“My men would never think you could hurt me.” Damen fixed his clothing and did his best to will away his erection. Knocking and interruptions helped. So did recognising the guards' voices. Not just his. Some of his father's me too. “What happened?” He threw the door open. No, nothing could have happened to Theomedes in such a short time. “Is my father --”

“The king is well,” the guard replied. “Exalted, the sea mission was a success. The ships are going down.”

“Good. Is that all?”

The guards looked at each other. It was not all. “Exalted, ships sink slowly. Some of the men will be able to swim and some of the local sailors have a code and --”

Damen understood. Veretians, who were waiting to take this city, were drowning in the Ellosean sea. If he went to the towers, he could probably seem it with his own eyes. War made men into trapped rats, sometimes. They were men whose only crime had been to obey they orders of their ruler.

“Save who you can without unduly risking Akielon lives. Round them up. We'll keep them.”

Damen's men were well trained enough not to question them with anything more than their body language. They understood the urgency of the command.

“Fond of keeping Veretians, aren't you?” Laurent said. “Perhaps you will replace me with some burly--”

“Would you rather I let your people die?” Damen spun around. “Don't you know you are not replaceable?”

“I was only – never mind, what are you going to do with them?”

“Lock them up. Put them to work. Send their heads to your uncle.”

“He won't care.”

“I know that. We fought together, remember?” Damen ran his hands through his hair. “I'm sorry. I have to go. Erasmus will attend you and --” He hefted Laurent's bed towards him until Laurent had to jump onto it or get crushed by it. “You'll be more comfortable now?”

“Go. Don't worry about me.”

“Oh, Laurent,” Damen said. “Don't you know that's impossible?”

-

Chapter Text

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.

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.

Chapter Text

Damen didn't worry about knocking on Laurent's door now. Nor did he wait for an answer. Payback. Eagerness. Opening locks. Climbing over battlements. He pushed open the door and Laurent was not there and a great crack started to form in his chest. In a haze, Damen dashed to his own room and there was Laurent, working at his desk.

“Busy?” he asked, casually, when Laurent's head snapped up.

“Not especially. But you looked shocked. Has something happened?”

“No,” said Damen. “No.” Nothing but the reformation of that crack in his chest. The sight of Laurent healed it, sealed it, and made him see things differently. Laurent had been climbing over battlements all these years. Damen was the one behind the fort. He stood behind Laurent and just...looked.

“Now you look peculiar.” Laurent set down his papers.

“Sorry,” Damen said. “These are peculiar days. Where are your chains?”

Laurent swung around to sit sideways, revealing manacles around his ankles that were attached to the leg of the desk. “Unless I want to take a marble desk with me, I'm quite secure,” he said. “Is it insensitive? At least this way I can make use of the pot without needing assistance.”

“You didn't ask for assistance before.”

“No, I held it in. I'm remarkably self-controlled,” Laurent said. “Damen, my barbarian. Always talking about things one really should not.”

“Let me take them off you.” Damen went to his knees to unlock the restraints. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Laurent reach towards him and then pull himself back. “Go on,” Damen said and his heart felt too big for his chest when Laurent simply brushed a curl away from his forehead. Rising, he took Laurent's left hand in his. “Let's go out to the balcony,” he said and kept hold of Laurent's hand as they stepped outside.

“How was the...” Laurent trailed off. “Forgive me. I don't know if the tradition has an official name.”

“It was quiet,” Damen said. “Hollow.” He looked out to the sea. Today, it was not clear enough to see Isthima. The sea was dull, calm, lifeless. Gulls cut ugly screeches across the sky.

“You don't want to talk about it,” Laurent said.

“There is nothing left to say about Kastor.”

Laurent stepped right up to the railing and his hand slipped out of Damen's. It was not a rejection. They were past that. He was just getting closer to the edge. Back turned, Laurent sucked in great mouthfuls of sea air. Damen watched the tension rise and then deplete from his shoulders. He stepped forward, soft in his leather sandals, and came to stand behind Laurent. One hand, Damen put on Laurent's back. The other on his narrow waist. Damen just stood, holding onto Laurent, and it felt like he was the one being held.

After a little while, he tucked a strand of hair behind Laurent's ear. The lock, which was blond again now, was not as soft as it would have been once. The dying would do that. Damen supposed, as he grazed his thumb along Laurent's pulsepoint, that nothing in this world was as soft as it once was. He leaned down a little, a pressed a kiss to the skin he had just touched, and delighted in the way Laurent's breath caught in his throat.

“May I kiss you?” Damen said.

“You just did.”

“That's not an answer.”

“You don't need to ask every single time. I thought --” Laurent stumbled over the word when Damen, briefly, sucked delicate skin between his lips. “We established this new stage in our – relationship that is past negotiation but --”

He stopped talking when Damen turned him around, bent his knees so he was not towering over Laurent, and prevented him from talking by covering his mouth with his own. It was gentle thing, a promise, a soft probing thing, that Damen kept his eyes open for so he could Laurent's reaction and the assent in his eyes.

“I feel,” Damen said, pulling back. “That I have not treated you with the grace you deserve.”

“I disagree.” Laurent cupped the back of Damen's neck to prove his point.

“I ruined our first kiss.”

“By hitting me first. Don't worry. I've had worse.”

“Then the chains. I'm not good a holding myself back, you know.” Damen proved his point by pausing to tug at Laurent's bottom lip with his teeth.

“Animal,” Laurent said. “No, do continue.”

“In a moment,” Damen said. “I wish it could have been --”

“Different, yes. You've said.”

“No, sweeter. Softer. I don't know. You deserve that.”

“You are that. You went to war for me.”

“War is not sweet.”

Laurent exhaled. He smoothed Damen's hair. “Very well. Let's play this out. You have looked after me all these years. You bought me gifts – books, horses, sweets, slaves. You took me on adventures and laughed at my stupid jokes and rude comments. You are the only person since Auguste who has been kind to me.”

“That's different,” Damen said. “I would have done those things anyway.”

“I know,” Laurent said. “So do these things now.”

So Damen kissed him again. He ignored the twinge in his thighs at the awkwardness of keeping his knees bent, because it was very important not to make his height a threat. He kept his mouth closed until he felt the parting of Laurent's lips, a slight movement as instinctual as covering your head from the rain, and reacted to it in turn with a parting of his own and the darting of his tongue too quick for Laurent to catch. Laurent opened his mouth wider, tilted his head slightly for a better angle, and kissed him deeply bringing their mouths together again and again and again until there was nothing between them, not even air.

Damen wasn't sure how he ended up pressed against the wall of the palace, stone cool against his bare shoulders, with Laurent pressed tight against his front. He wasn't sure if it was him making little noises from his lungs or was it Laurent. He just knew this is how it should be, kissing with the salt air whipping all around them, and no-one in sight and no-one able to see them. He had one hand on the back of his neck, mussing the hair there. He had the other wherever he felt like. He couldn't settle. There were so many places on Laurent's back, his chest, his waist where he just fit.

“Is that what you meant by grace?” Laurent murmured, as the shifting of his hips against Damen's made its inevitable impact.

“No,” said Damen. Reluctantly, he disentangled himself from Laurent. He took hold of his hand again and led him back inside. There was a moment when Laurent's still darkened eyes flashed towards the bed, where they had slept innocently and not so innocently, and Damen wasn't quite sure the flash was a positive one. So he poured them cool water, peeled an orange and split it in half.

“Teasing is not graceful, either,” Laurent said.

“I don't tease. There is no rush, Laurent.”

“No? My uncle would say otherwise.” The words rang out like a toneless bell. The lovely flushed drained from Laurent's face. “I meant,” he said. “That there is a deadline. We are going to Arles soon.”

“We still have time. Arles is not the end of the world, either. If this were a traditional courtship, you would make me go slow,” Damen said, casual again, despite the pain in his chest. It wasn't the mention of the uncle. It was the way Laurent reshaped himself afterwards. “You don't play the whole hand at once.”

“You are so sure you'd be the one doing the courting,” Laurent said. “Damen, I am not made of glass.”

“Take me to bed then,” Damen said, teasing now in earnest, but also mindful of the times Laurent had initiated sexual talk and sexual situations and then fled from them.

“In the middle of the day? We've got a throne to get back.”

-

Because princes were still human, there was an interval of eating and regrouping. Because Damen and Laurent were still princes, they had to see to work things. There was always work to do. Damen had the pretence of a sick father and a struggling country. Laurent had the pretence of being prisoner and also had to keep his guard in line, keep the new men on side, and keep the rumour mill turning. Damen didn't give it too much thought. His mind was full.

The thing he knew for sure, was that a sizeable Veretian company was very grateful their prince had begged to spare their lives. Another portion of the army was working well with the Akielons in Delpha. Laurent was not unsupported.

Damen did not need support now. He needed to delegate. If he went around showing his strength to everyone, it would dilute the impact.

“Will you show me what you're working on?” he asked Laurent, after a series of messages had been sent back and forth between Laurent and Theomedes. Speaking face to face would have been quicker but who was he to doubt a current and future king?

“Getting my house in order,” Laurent replied. “Don't worry about it.”

“But I do worry about you,” Damen said. “Incessantly. You have to let me in, Laurent. No more cooking up wild plans and telling me about them later. No more keeping your cards so close to your chest even you struggle to see.”

“It's Veretian stuff.”

“You think I would use it against you?” Damen couldn't keep the hurt from his voice. “After all--”

“I think you could,” Laurent said. “As I could you. But that is not the point. It's boring. Layered letters and reading between the lines and who owes who a favour and who will do me a favour if I will do them in future. You don't care about this stuff.”

“I do,” Damen said. “And, if you want my help in Vere I need to know it. Show me.”

And Laurent did. Lists. Hierarchies. Debts. Loyalty. His faction. His uncles faction. Those who were loyal to the starburst. Those who could be bought. Those who would have to be eliminated.
The light went low and the stars came out and, perhaps for the first time, Laurent shared with Damen these secret things that kept him awake at night, the things that made him prince and soon would make him king. His country of snakes and his brilliant mind, wrangling them from afar.

Later, Laurent's pulled his collar away from his neck and Damen had a lovely memory of running his lips at that same swatch of skin.

“May I?” Damen asked, and he lifted Laurent's wrist on to the arm of the chair. He touched the tight laces.

“I'll get ready for bed later.”

“There's no need to be so constrained here. With me.”

Laurent, when he wasn't masquerading as a slave, dressed in sharp-shouldered, tapered-waisted, ornate Veretian jackets. When people looked at him, they saw the hair first. Clothes second. Face last. They did not see the body, or really the person. Every outfit he wore, from the moderations he made for sport and training, to the luxurious bedclothes was as deliberate as a defensive chess move. He kept himself apart. For all the time he spent in Damen's room, reading or just being, he never appeared with the layers peeled back.

“If you wish,” Laurent replied, after a long moment. Damen started at his wrists, revealing wave-crest white skin patterned with blue veins. He noticed a shiver when he traced his thumb along the bloodline. Smiling, he moved onto the laces at Laurent's collar. The air changed, swelled, as Damen began the important work of freeing Laurent from his clothing.

“Complicated,” he said, as his fingers got trapped in a knot.

“For some,” Laurent replied.

“Good practise for me,” Damen said. “For the future. When we're...together.”

“Aren't we together now?” Laurent's voice was so small that Damen stumbled.

Before he answered, Damen let Laurent see that he was smiling. “You've been in Ios all these years. You know we are not as candid as Veretians.”

“Just say fucking, if that's what you mean.”

“That's not what I mean.” Damen pulled away the final lace, parted the jacket, revealed the fine white shirt underneath. “When we make love, I don't want to embarrass myself by tripping over one of these things.” He flicked a trailing string against Laurent for emphasis and delighted in the small smile that played on his pink lips. He was a little bit pink at the opening of his shirt and underneath the fabric, Damen could see the outline of taut, pink nipples.

He couldn't resist running his hands along Laurent's chest, noting the contrast of his hands to Laurent's sun-shy skin. Pleased with the way Laurent breathed, Damen then couldn't resist tweaking his thumb of one of Laurent's nipples. It made him gasp, then grin.

“Buffoon,” Laurent said as Damen hung his jacket over the back of the chair. “Send for food. I'm hungry.”

“I'm not your servant.”

“First of all,” Laurent said, leaving the desk to recline on the couch. “You owe me. Look at all I did for you in Delpha. Second of all, do you want me to go out to your guards in my undershirt and have them get one of the servants and a taster and maybe the cook and --”

“All right.” Damen knew when he had been defeated. He sent for the food. Granted, Laurent had worn slave garments and bathed with him and slept beside him and engaged in some unconventional sex games but he never presented himself like this – a young man, stripped of his outer garments, the shoulder of his shirt threatening to slip at any moment, relaxed and open and sharing his private plans.

That was not something Damen was willing to share.

He sat, on the couch as always, but perhaps closer than he usually placed himself. He was large. The couch was small. It amused Damen to spread out his arm along the back of the couch until it came to rest along Laurent's shoulder. It pleased him to wrap his arm around Laurent and pull him closer. For a moment, Laurent held himself stiffly as if he did not know what to do. Only a moment. Then, he relaxed into Damen.

“You're very lovely like this,” Damen said.

“Shut up. You've seen me wear less. Nothing, in fact.”

“You're lovely like that, too,” Damen said, lightly running his nails back and forth over Laurent's collar bone. “But this, I don't know. To see you so relaxed and for you to share those things --it moves something in me.”

Laurent arched one brow and gave a pointed look at Damen's lap. “Is that all it takes? Me without my jacket. I would have taken it off years ago if that was the case.”

“You know what I mean.” Damen poked Laurent's ribcage, where he knew from sparring he would react. “Wait, how many years ago? You hated me for a long time.”

“No. Not you. Even when I wanted to, I couldn't,” Laurent admitted. “Don't lose the run of yourself. You had very little competition here.”

“How long?” Damen pressed, and he ticked Laurent until he was squirming beside him like a fish on a dock.

“Feels like forever,” Laurent muttered. “I heard about you long before we met. Of course, I decided then you were a pea-brained animal. Then – you don't get praise enough, Damen? You want to drag this from me too?”

“Yes,” said Damen, grinning. “You never tell me more than you want to.”

“You made me promise not hide.” Laurent played with his trailing laces. His skin was very warm. “You were kind to me. And you were....capable and fair. You were different. And, then, well, you are very attractive. I am still embarrassed on my own behalf for the first time I saw you wrestle,” he admitted. “I know what Jord used to think of me in that room all the time. Let's just say that was the first time I made a rumour true.”

Damen was pleased. Ridiculously pleased. He kissed the top of Laurent's head and pulled him closer to his body. Deeper, an old fear resurfaced. That he had been too much of a presence, too much of an influence, and all those times he had taken himself away from the palace to work had not been distance enough. But he had to push them away. There was not that much of a difference between their ages. Laurent had fought the same battles as Damen when he was just thirteen. Damen never saw him as anything but a child when he was one.

“I didn't know,” Damen admitted.

“You would have dismissed it as a boyhood crush. Another one of your legions of admirers,” Laurent said.

“I would have,” Damen said.”I would never --”

“I know. You've always felt very safe to me,” Laurent said. “And the other boys. That's why everyone loves you.”

“Obviously,” Damen began, because he owed Laurent honesty. “I have cared for you for a long time. But for me, it was, when Aimeric was here. That night --”

“The night of my assassination attempt? You hid it well.”

“I killed all those men for you.”

“There's the Damianos I know. Courtship via swift death for those who would threaten me.” Laurent smiled, but his eyes were tight, and Damen wondered if he was thinking of the revelations that came after that night and if that was one more thing his uncle had tainted. Laurent had been nearly seventeen. Young. Not too young for Damen. Not too young to know what he wanted.

Damen was glad of the knock on the door, the arrival of the food, except it was not delivered by a servant.

“Nikandros,” Laurent said, shrugging into his jacket. “Have you been demoted?”

“Shall I take this meal away?”

“Don't you dare,” said Damen, waving the servants who trailed Nikandros into the room. “My stomach thinks my throat's been cut.”

“Classy joke,” Laurent said. “Will you join us?”

Damen heard us, and smiled hard while they waited for food to be set out. Three settings.

“No chains?” Nikandros nodded towards Laurent. “The servants will talk.”

Laurent frowned. “He's right. Kallias and Erasmus should be doing this kind of thing.”

Damen preferred servants. Lately, he preferred servants and squires for those basic duties. He kept thinking of Laurent pretending to be a slave and, then, all of Laurent's discourse as to why slavery was wrong.

“I've been with your army,” Nikandros said to Laurent. “They are decent enough, given the circumstances.”

“A few near-drowned soldiers hardly constitutes an army,” Laurent replied.

“True. That's why I've come. They are good but they are not enough. I want you to know that, if it comes to it, and your efforts in Vere are not successful you have my support.”

“Oh.” Laurent's face faltered, just for a second, like he didn't know how to react. “Well, I would hope so. You are actually obliged to follow your prince.”

Damen nodded, unwilling to involve himself in this conversation. Partly, he was enjoying that they were getting on. Partly, he was enjoying seeing Laurent come into his own when it came to negotiations. Partly, hugely, he was just sad there wasn't a fourth place around the table. That he hadn't seen, until it was too late, the depths of his brother's misery.

“I have a large command at my disposal in Delpha,” Nikandros said. “Good, loyal men. Damen, you remember Farren my second in command.”

“Not really,” Damen muttered, and found a smudge on his cup to wipe away. Laurent gave him a probing look.

“My point is, that if it comes down to it, I will support you in a fight against the Regent. If he does not hand you back your crown, and your tactics are unsuccessful, we will fight.”

“There won't be a fight,” Damen said. “Fighting is over. We don't want that.” That was the point of the war he just won. The fighting was done by the time Laurent ascended and they would never have to be enemies.

“The Regent may disagree,” Nikandros said.

“Why do you say this now?” Laurent demanded.

“You didn't plan this when you chose me for Delpha? As kyros, I would do that.” Nikandros replied.

“That's not why I insisted on that.”

“No-one care about me choosing your for Ios, then,” Damen said, trying not to sulk. He wanted his best friend as his closest advisor. There were other men who could lead Dekpha.

“Were you just being difficult?” Nikandros asked.

“There's more,” Laurent said, as if Damen had never spoken. Nikandros paid a great deal of attention to spearing a chunk of meat from his plate. “What's your real reason?”

“When we took Ravenel,” Nikandros said. “It was brutal. Bloody. The lord there, Touars, was no stranger to warfare. He went to the dungeons when it was done.”

“Not the gallows?”

“He has a son,” Nikandros continued. “He complied, for the boy. He didn't know we wouldn't hurt the child. We sent him to Arles. It seemed like the right thing at the time.”

“I see,” said Laurent. “And your perspective has changed.”

“This isn't--” Damen began.

“Yes. I overheard you in the tent at Delpha. My perspective changed. I remember you as a boy on the road and --”

“That's enough,” Laurent said. “I see.” He took a long drink of water. “It's for the best, really, that you're choosing Delpha. I have a history of killing the kyros of Ios. Damen would be very angry at me if I killed you.”

“I'm angry now that you disobeyed me,” Damen said.

“It's just one boy,” Nikandros said. “I spoke to that Orlant and the physician. I know there are pets but -- we fight for stupid things, sometimes, and I want to maybe fight for pure things too.”

“If it comes to a fight, I will win,” Damen said.

“I hadn't thought of it as that kind of fighting,” Laurent said. “Vere is depleted. I would have your men, perhaps some Vaskian mercenaries, perhaps my mother's people would show support. They withdrew, before, but this is different.”

“You've been in touch with them?”

“A little,” Laurent said. “In the same way I was in touch with the lady pirate Galenne.”

“You two have so much you don't tell me,” Nikandros muttered.

“Not that much,” Damen said, and impulsively, knocking over the salt cellar, he grabbed hold of Laurent's hand.

He just held Laurent's hand.

And Laurent flushed. Damen imagined he had gone pink right to the tips of his toes.

“You said you were not lovers,” Nikandros said, righting the salt cellar.

“I prefer not use such narrow definitions,” Laurent replied.

Nikandros laughed. “Good for you, kid. And don't forget I used to be your teacher. I can still make you obey my punishments.”

“Will you bring slavery to Delpha?” Laurent asked, then. “Those lands have been free for almost a hundred years. I would hate to --”

“No,” said Damen. “He won't.”

“I suppose I won't,” Nikandros replied. “If my king commands it.”

“I'm not king yet,” Damen said. “But when I am, things will change.” Laurent sighed and rolled his eyes. “What?” Damen demanded. “I am trying to do the right thing. I am trying to do what you want and --”

“I know,” Laurent said. “You Akielons have corrupted me with all this sentiment. Doing things from the heart instead of what makes for the best strategy. If you're serious about making real changes regarding the slave culture, it's going to be huge financial strain. I'm going to have to agree with your father about the reparations.” He looked so thoroughly horrified at the thought of doing the right thing, that Damen felt his lips curl upwards at the edges.

Now it was Nikandros who snorted.

“Have some wine,” Nikandros advised. “It helps make difficult decision easier.”

“How wise,” Laurent replied. “Damen had a lucky escape by you not taking the kyros seat in Ios.”

“He wouldn't listen to me anyway,” Nikandros said.

Laurent did not drink usually. The thought of paying back Akielos for the occupation must have really gotten to him. Because he shrugged one shoulder and took a delicate sip of Damen's wine.

“You can have your own cup,” Damen said.

“I prefer to share.”

“Still on poison watch?” Nikandros said.

“No,” said Laurent. “Pour us some more.”

Damen was not surprised when Nikandros obeyed. He was learning. Laurent had a way of making people do what they wanted. Later, when the dinner was eaten and the wine bottles were empty Damen walked Nikandros to the door of his apartments.

“I owe you so much,” he said. “I can't --”

“Damen, we have a lifetime of hard decisions ahead of us,” Nikandros replied. “For now, let us do good things and be good friends.”

-

Damen had left the door to his bedroom ajar. When he returned, Laurent was idling by the doorway.

“Oh,” he said. “How remiss of you, Prince Damianos. That scoundrel Prince of Vere could have escaped through those open doors.”

“He knows that I would find him,” Damen said. “I'm an excellent hunter.”

Lazily, Laurent stepped around Damen. His eyes danced like starlight reflected in darkest water. Games. Laurent liked games. Damen did, too, with him. He stepped away from the door. Waited. Struggled to keep his face straight.

Laurent bounded. Damen let him make it to the threshold before wrapping one arm around his waist and pulling him back.

“Stop,” Damen said, voice rough against Laurent's ear. “Do you want to bring the guards in?”

Laurent struggled, twisting like a trapped snake in Damen's grasp. Damen didn't mind. He was stronger. The sensation was not unpleasant. Laurent tried to use his elbows to push release Damen's grip, but Damen just held him tighter. He didn't think Laurent minded.

One last effort, Laurent tried to stamp on Damen's foot but Damen knew his tricks and, after stepping away, used his grip on Laurent's torso and the pressure of his knees to lift him off the ground.

“Put me down,” Laurent said, shocked, as Damen assessed the best way to carry him. “I am – Put me down. You can't just haul the Prince of Vere around as if he was a sack of grain.”

“Watch me,” Damen said, hoisting Laurent upwards to his shoulders. “I bet you regret not taking me up on my offer of wrestling lessons. You would have broken those moves.”

“Brute. Animal. Uncouth...animal,” Laurent ranted as Damen easily made the short walk to the bed.

“You love it.” Damen grinned and, without ceremony, dumped Laurent onto the bed. He bounced on the mattress, limbs flopping, hair falling into his face.

“I suppose you better kiss me,” Laurent said, feigning boredom. “To make up for that.”

“I intend to.” Damen didn't hesitate to embrace Laurent and kiss him firmly on his open, wine-stained mouth. Laurent arched upwards to match Damen kiss for kiss. His lips tasted like the rich wine and sugar-dusted fruit they had both just eaten and there was something heart-warming about that.

Leaning was awkward, so when Laurent pulled Damen so he was lying down on top of him, legs entwined, chest to chest, face to face, Damen relaxed into this new, comfortable position. He kissed Laurent slower now, and took joy in the sweet way Laurent responded to that. Laurent was sensitive to tenderness. Damen was sensitive to watching Laurent let himself go in his arms.

He kissed his throat. He pushed open the unlaced jacket to kiss his sharp collarbone. He pushed open the shirt and kissed the cleft of his ribcage. Laurent raised his knee, hooked his ankle around Damen's leg, and Damen grinned against Laurent's soft skin when a swipe of his tongue made Laurent flex his hips.

“I could kiss you all over,” Damen said and applied his mouth to one of Laurent's nipples. He was rewarded by a change in Laurent's breathing and the feeling of his fingers tangling in his hair. After a lovely moment of that, Laurent's fingers tugged a little and Damen was looking into his blue eyes again.

“What you said to Nikadros,” Laurent began. “You didn't have to --”

“I wanted to.” Damen bumped the tip of his nose against Laurent's. “I am not ashamed.”

“But, technically, we are not...that.”

“What?” Damen let more of his weight rest on Laurent. He took his bottom lip between his mouth and lightly suckled.

“Lovers,” Laurent said, more than a little breathless. He turned his head away. Damen took the opportunity to kiss Laurent's neck again.

“I'm not big on technicalities,” Damen replied. “We are...” He kissed the centre of Laurent's chin. “Kissers? Friends who do ...” Purposefully, he pressed his hips to Laurent's. “Do this?”

“Kissers? That's the best you can come up with?”

“I'm distracted,” Damen said. “Laurent, I don't mind.”

“But you are hot for this.” He moved his own body to show he could feel how Damen was turned on. “You want sex. I'm not afraid of sex. I just. Not yet.”

“That's fine. I'm roused, so what? Not even princes get to come every time they get hard.”

“You would get nothing done,” Lauren said, smiling a little. “I'm not afraid of sex. I'm not afraid of you.”

“Good.”

“It truly doesn't bother you to ... delay?”

“No,” Damen said. “Because I have been thinking. If things were different. I know you don't like this but...well, listen. What if you were someone else? A Princess sent for a potential betrothal. No-one would judge a princess --”

“I'm going to stop you,” Laurent said. “Comparing me to a princess is not as compelling an argument as you seem to believe it to be.”

“There is more to you,” Damen said, trying to find the right words to explain this. “Or, indeed, any of us, than sex. Than the way we are expected to behave. Come on, you know this. I don't expect you to be rampantly trying to bed me all of a sudden. Knowing you, you're probably concocting a million different plans and --”

“On the contrary, I cannot think of anything when you make love to me with your words like this.”

“And I was feeling ineloquent.” Damen had to kiss Laurent. Just had to. “If things were different, and I could have courted you, if I had been sent to Arles on a diplomatic mission and met the most gorgeous prince in all the land in the library or stables, I wouldn't expect you to drop your trousers after a few kisses.”

“I would like more than a few. And no more princess talk, please. It's already a sore point for me.”

“Noted.” Damen started things off with a deep, probing kiss. “Why is it a sore point?”

“You prefer women.”

“I prefer you.” So Damen continued his one-man exploration mission of Laurent's body. He kissed every inch of his torso. He trailed his lips from shoulder to wrist, to the tips of each of his fingers and back up along the underside of Laurent's arm until he brushed fine gold hair with his nose. “May I?” He traced the back of his hand along the waistband of Laurent's trousers.

Jaw clenched, Laurent nodded.

Damen was gentle, careful to lift the tight fabric away from his body, as he unlaced the fastening. When the join fell open, he lightly kissed Laurent's hipbone and then made his way down, mouth open of fine material, until he came to the boots and yanked them off. While Damen did that, Laurent, to his surprise, shoved his trousers down over his thighs. He closed his eyes, turned his head, didn't look at his own arousal so neither did Damen.

He darted his tongue into the crease at the back of Laurent's knee. He mouthed kisses down the firm, twitching calf muscles and all along his ankles, the top of his foot and each of his toes.

“Even your feet are unblemished,” Damen said, raising his head. “It's not fair.”

Laurent opened his eyes, suppressed a smile. “I pay a barber to keep them in order. He'll give you a good deal, I am sure.”

“A good deal,” Damen repeated and kissed his way back up Laurent's leg, all along his thigh. “So...,” he said, pausing where he could see Laurent's physical eagerness. “Kissing? I want to taste you --”

“Why?” Laurent sounded confused.

“You've seen it. You know why.”

“But...you? Why you?”

“Should I summon Erasmus?”

“Shut up,” Laurent said, affectionately, and touched Damen's shoulder, drawing him back up to the pillow. “You would do that?”

“I said I wanted to kiss you all over.”

“I don't want to do that.”

“All right.”

“I mean--” Laurent sat up. He raked his hand through his hair. “Can I? Kissing?”

“All right,” Damen said. Though, in all honesty, he wasn't sure what he was agreeing to. When Laurent tugged the lion pin away from his shoulder, he found he didn't care. Laurent was looking down at him now and his fingers were very soft, very proprietary, very erotic as he ran them over the planes of Damen's upper body. He pinched one brown nipple. Almost aimlessly, he played with the dark hair that dusted the centre of Damen's chest.

There was no kissing but the precise press of Laurent's lips to his. Touching was enough. Laurent seemed to marvel in simply having Damen's flesh at the mercy of his hands.

“I used to hate this,” he said, casually. “You.”

Maybe marvelling was the wrong word.

“Ouch,” said Damen.

“Even when I knew, when I admitted the longing to myself,” he continued, taking hold of Damen's bicep and seeing how far he could wrap his hand which wasn't very far at all. “I hated all this powerful muscle, masculine physique, hair, strength. Stupid scars. Stupid skin that got more perfectly coloured in the sun instead of burning to a crisp.” He smiled, and traced his thumb over Damen's lips.

Damen couldn't resist sucking on it for a second.

“My ego couldn't take it,” Laurent admitted. “You are so strong and so...” His eyes trailed downwards. “Large. It's hard for anyone to go through adolescence around that. Sculptors would die for the chance to capture your form.”

Damen was, ridiculously, pleased.

“You hid it well,” he said, settling back against the pillow. Laurent settled, too, with his head on Damen's abdomen. Enough. “And you should have seen me when I was the age you were when you came here. I was....gangly,” he said and felt the breath of Laurent laughing against his skin. “I didn't know what to do with my limbs. I was constantly breaking things, bruising myself. I overheard one of the courtiers saying it was past time I grew into my ears. I had to give up wrestling for months because of all the unfortunate erections.”

Laurent laughed properly now. Damen wanted to freeze that moment, preserve it in memory, because there was no sound more lovely. Because he couldn't do anything but hope to remember it, he combed his fingers through Laurent's hair.

“You're good at that,” Laurent said. “Touching. It feels...you're good.”

“I'm good at most things I turn my hand to.”

“I used to braid my horses mane,” Laurent said. “The one you...the one Auguste was riding that day. I always liked horses. You know that. Auguste and the horseman used to say, if you're going to ride a horse you need to look after it,” he continued and Damen was so content to listen he could burst. “I don't know if you know this, but when I was a child, some people perceived me as bratty. They thought it was some great life lesson to make me muck out the stalls and groom the horses but I didn't mind. Horses are good. Even when...anyway, I was kid then. Before anything. I started to braid my horse's mane and his tail, too. Complicated things, worse than any of these Veretian laces.”

“I bet,” Damen said, terribly conscious of not shifting the mood. “You even used ribbons. Blue ribbons.”

“Gold,” Laurent said. “Blue would have clashed with his coat. Honestly, Damen. Have you learned nothing from me?”

Damen laughed. He had thought, not so long ago, that he would never feel like laughing again.

He said, “I learn from you every single day.”

Chapter Text

Visits, as Damen knew, took time. Complicated visits, intended to result in a dead Regent and a new king in Vere, took planning. Damen went through all of Laurent's carefully charted plans with a fine tooth comb. Unfortunately, they were not plans at all. He had a solid record of supporters, enemies and potentials either way. He had some ammunition. He had Damen. He had the hope that enough of the council were intrinsically loyal to the starburst and the rest would baulk at the cowardly actions with the poison.

“I hope it is enough,” Damen said to his father, who was eating candied peaches and pretending to be at death's door in his private chambers. Deception was so unlike Theomedes, yet here he was, going along with Laurent's plans.

“You make it enough,” Theomedes replied.

“If it's not, I will support him.”

“You would go to war for him.”

Damen already had. “Yes. It would be right. Nikandros agrees.”

“In that case, son, make sure whatever you do in Arles is enough,” Theomedes said, firmly, wiping sugar from his fingers.

“Is it difficult?” Damen asked.

“Court politics? You are no stranger to --”

“No,” Damen interrupted, then flushed and dropped his head. He should not have interrupted his father. “I mean, this. Pretending to be sick.”

“I have been king for a long time,” Theomedes said. “I have lost many people. Except for you. So, no, right now it is not difficult to sit here and eat sweets and listen to that sweet boy you sent up recite our poetry.”

Damen ran into Paschal and his new assistant Lykaios in the ante-chambers of his father's quarters. Paschal was still pretending to treat the mysterious illness and had to keep up appearances. As a slave, Lykaios did not have appearances to keep up. However, it would be noticed that her garments were grimy, beneath her standing, and she would be embarrassed for it.

“She's learning how to treat infected wounds,” Pashcal explained, with an apologetic glance at the stains on her skirts.

“Perhaps an apron would be useful in future,” Damen said. “And one of your novelty hats. Lykaios, I am sure you don't want dirt in those lovely curls.” Lykaios kept her gaze lowered. “Tell me,” he said to her. “Is this too much for your sensibilities?”

Slaves like her were sheltered and pampered. They did not see, let alone treat, infected wounds. Granted, she had assisted the treatment of his father but that was different. She was part of Damen's household. It was a great honour to serve the king. For all Damen knew, the owner of the infected wound was a lowly soldier.

“No, Exalted,” she replied, soft as a feather. “I --”

“Speak,” he said.

“I like it. I want to learn more. Making people well, healing and treating, it is a noble cause the likes of which I never imagined,” she said and all of her skin was blood-red now.

A lump came to Damen's throat. Noble. He had thought serving him in bed was a great use of her life. No wonder Laurent despised the Akielon practise of slavery.

It was despicable.

“I understand,” Damen said.

“Do you remember Jessa, Exalted?” Lykaios continued, fighting through her clear discomfort to get these words out.

“Of course,” Damen said. He remembered most people he took to bed.

“When her leg wound got infected, she was afraid to show the palace physician. I would have liked to be able to help her. And my old friend, Ellana, after the fire. It is right, that I be able to help our own, I think,” she said.

“I agree,” said Damen and now he was the one forcing out words past the lump in his throat and the toxic taste of shame in his mouth. “Lykaios, I support your training. Paschal, anything she needs in this work to become a nurse will be provided by me personally.”

“That is generous,” Paschal said. “But if you give Lykaios permission to stay under my apprenticeship, she will become a physician not a nurse.”

Damen blinked. “Yes,” he said. “All right.” Why not? These days, he felt like anything could happen. “But I am not sure she can come to Arles.”

“No, me neither. Lykaios, would you excuse us?” Paschal said. “It is my understanding, your highness, that you intend to help Prince Laurent reclaim his throne.”

“I intend to enter negotiations regarding Delpha,” Damen said.

“Of course.” Paschal nodded. “But, if I may, I want to remind you that I was King Aleron's physician before he died and --”

“Now you serve the Regent.”

“Physicians work,” Paschal said. “I did not stay for love of that man, believe me.”

“Why did you stay?” Damen asked.

Paschal looked away. “Men like me, every man who is not you or the Prince of Vere, are all working under massive limitations,” he said. “I found something I could do that made a small bit of difference and I seized it.”

Damen's mind whirled. His hand, all of a sudden, was on the hilt of his sword. His other arm shoved Paschal against the wall and he silenced any protest with the press of his hand against the physician's windpipe.
“When you came to camp, after the fire,” Damen spat. “Why did you want to examine Laurent?”

“I – I didn't. Not really. It was just --” Paschal clamped his jaw shut. “We have a code. Physicians. We keep confidences.”

“You keep that pervert's secrets,” Damen said and his hand tightened. “He was a child.”

“They're all children,” Paschal said. “I do not have any power over what is done to them, not really, only after. I can only help after.”

“You disgust me,” Damen said, jerking his hand away before he did something he regretted. “I could have you killed.”

“You could,” Paschal croaked. “Believe me, though, you are not the only one who is disgusted.”

-

 

“I think,” Laurent said, later. “You are not prepared for Arles.”

Damen stretched his arms out behind his back. The muscles ached, a little. He had exerted himself to work out that frustration of his talk with Paschal. He had spent a solid two hours in the training ring that afternoon when he would rather have been bathing with Laurent or talking with Laurent or kissing Laurent or, if Laurent was not available, sitting and learning from his father. He had a new appreciation for his father's presence in his life. That was the kind of preparation Damen liked best. The kind that reminded him he was strong enough to beat anything. He had won Delpha, saved his father, survived his brother. When he was a child his father had insisted he learn the Veretian language and protocols, though it was more for war than putting a prince back on the throne.

Theomedes had always said, you don't trust Veretians. You fight them. Damen couldn't imagine anything worse than fighting Laurent. He knew that his father was allowing this mission only because it suited his interests to beat the Regent and to have a friend on the throne. Akielos would gain from Laurent's ascension. They already had. If the Regent had known the asset Laurent would be, he never would have sent him to Ios.

“Are you going to criticise my clothing again?” Damen asked. “Don't think I'm not aware of you adding to my trunks.”

“You will thank me when you get there and you don't wind up showing more skin than a pet.” Laurent looked down his nose at Damen. “Where are you going?”

“Bed.”

“Oh.” Laurent followed, robe swishing around his legs. “Damen, listen to me. Arles is nothing like Ios.”

“I've seen sketches. The ornamentation everywhere must make you dizzy.”

“The people are nothing like here,” Laurent continued, neatly folding himself onto the opposite side of the bed to Damen. He sat straight-backed and crossed his feet at the ankles. “They say one thing and mean fifty others. They will shock you. They will...I don't know how I will be there. It's been so long. I will probably shock you.”

“You've been shocking me since the stream near the Artesian ruins.” Damen shed his chiton and threw himself onto the bed. The impact made Laurent bounce a little on the mattress and the speed at which he composed himself and wiped the smile away made Damen see that he was feeling very serious. Damen didn't want to be serious because that led to thoughts of a lonely return to Ios or the lonely dawn walk he had made for Kastor. “All right,” he said. “Tell me.”

“I have been writing home again, as you know,” Laurent said. “Both to my supporters and my uncle's faction. It's serving to remind me of how to deal with these people. You can read the letters, of course. It might help you, too, to prepare. The pets will shock you, I think. My uncle's latest is very young. He grows bolder. He encourages all sorts of debauchery to to make his own proclivities less noticeable. The display fights end in rape now. In my father's day, it was mostly simulation.”

“It shocks me that these people can castigate and slander you and indulge in such hedonism themselves.”

“Crown sanctioned hedonism is fine,” Laurent said. “If I had a pet, that would be fine. Instead I have...”

“An Akielon harem and inappropriate infatuations,” Damen interrupted. “According to the rumours. Oh, and me.”

“My barbarian lover. We're not making all the rumours true.”

“I am not ashamed,” Damen said. “I keep quiet for your sake only. In Arles, I will follow your lead.”

“Like a pet,” Laurent said, smiling.

“Or a slave. I could stretch the collar and cuffs out.”

“He's going to goad you,” Laurent said. “Arles will never be as corrupt and you will want to save them all. You can't, of course. You must keep your temper. When that doesn't work, he will get personal to push you. Then, most likely, he will try to make you ashamed. Shame makes men do things they would never normally do.”

“I'll be a lamb. I promise.” Damen meant it. He was too old to let temper and pride get in the way of getting Laurent's throne back for him. “I know the manner of man I am dealing with in the Regent. There is nothing he can say to me to push me over the edge.”

“I hope you can say the same of me,” Laurent said. “I don't know how I will be there. It's been a long time since I've seen my uncle and I fear --”

“Don't be afraid,” Damen said, reaching across the bed to rest his hand against Laurent's hip. “Not here.”

“There'll be none of that in Arles.” Laurent looked down at Damen's hand. It seemed now very large against Laurent's side and Damen could feel the tension simmer under Laurent's skin.

“We're still in Ios.” Damen rolled onto his front and looked up at Laurent.

“And, yet, I am still afraid.”

“I think,” Damen said. “You are not well prepared.”

“Nonsense. I have had many years of practise. When I should have been learning how to hide these feelings and shape them into the need for revenge, I was...distracted.”

“Really?”

“You are rather distracting. All those muscles and inviting smiles.”

“You weren't that distracted. You fight well. You plan well. You see plots I would never see and deal with them well. And there is the matter of the murdered kyros.”

“So you do think me well prepared?” Laurent uncrossed his ankles, tucked one leg underneath him, pulled the other up to his chin and slumped, a little, on the fine white sheets.

“In a sense,” Damen replied. “Because all your preparations pushed you back to Arles alone, I think, and you never allowed yourself to see the other option. You won't be facing your uncle alone, Laurent. Or his wicked court and corrupt council and lies upon lies. I will be with you.”

“You have your own agenda.”

“You are my agenda. My father's aims are a happy accident.”

“My dear prince,” Laurent said. “That is very stupid. You have to put your crown first.”

“Not until I wear it.” Damen was well aware of how foolish he sounded. He was a prince. It was in his blood. There was nothing he would not do for Akielos. But still. In his bed, with Laurent, there was nothing he wouldn't do for the blushing Prince of Vere. There weren't many things he wouldn't do just to bring colour to Laurent's cheeks. “Come here,” Damen said and wrapped his hand around Laurent's wrist. “I want to kiss you.”

Laurent flushed pomegranate pink. “Very well,” he said. “But you have to come here.”

Damen was on his stomach, which was not ideal for kissing, so he pushed himself onto his knees. Facing Laurent now, he brushed a lock of hair away from his face and them smiled, ridiculously, when it slipped right back down again. Laurent smiled back. It was a hopeless, artless thing. Gazing. Smiling. Alone, again, with no sound but the Ellosean sea through the open windows.

“Do you always drag this out?” Laurent asked.

“Yes. Unless urgency is important. But it's not now, is it?”

“I suppose not.” Laurent, however, looked doubtful.

“Do you feel urgent?” Damen leaned close enough for their noses to touch. His knees were spread either side of Laurent's legs which were still acting like a barrier. While Laurent considered the question, Damen parted his lips (noticed Laurent looking) and because Laurent still looked so sadly serious, he licked the side of his face as a puppy would.

It worked. Laurent laughed and pretended to bat him away.

“One cannot feel urgent,” Laurent said. “Your grammar is appalling. But, if you're angling for flattery, I will admit that I do feel some sense of...something when we are like this.”

“Something,” Damen repeated. “Your articulation is appalling. Are you trying to say you're turned on by me?”

“If you need me to say it, you shouldn't look so pleased with yourself. I realise --” He said the word like it was stone in his mouth. “That I have not your experience or your ease with other people but that is not something we can change.”

“Isn't it?” Damen said. Smiling, kindly, because he felt in his bones that Laurent thought there was some kind of imbalance between them and the last thing Damen wanted was to make him feel anyway small. “I think we can change things.” He pressed a needy kiss to Laurent's mouth. “I think,” he said. “That you should not underestimate the affect you have on me.”

“Because I am your type.”

“Lose the last word,” Damen said and kissed Laurent again. It was still a novel thing, to feel those lips against his. To feel them move, respond was a wondrous thing. Laurent kissed with complete seriousness. You could nearly see him make the choice to open his mouth. You could definitely see the small surprise at the sweep of tongue against his. Damen revelled in it, all of it. To be able to kiss Laurent and see him react, thaw and then begin to burn from the simple act of kissing was a feeling like no other.

Damen had one hand at the back of Laurent's neck, where if he hadn't shorn his hair so short, it would have found purchase in soft blond locks. His other hand was at Laurent's hip. Boundaries. Touching, Laurent had said was difficult. They fought, trained, bathed and slept together but it was too much for Laurent to touch with abandon. Tentatively, Laurent ran his fingers along Damen's arm. He spread them our on Damen's bicep, then move them up to Damen's neck where he held him quite possessively.

There was no pressure but it sent Damen all off balance. He tipped Laurent's head back to he could kiss him deeper and the grip on his hip wasn't enough – he had to move his hand to the small of Laurent's back and pull him closer. It left Laurent at an awkward angle but Laurent was awkward angles in general when it came to kissing and touching. He could wield a sword like a dancer and ride a horse like he was part of the animal but this kind of activity had him all fingers and thumbs. Anyway, it was nothing to Damen to support his weight.

“Is this how you are?” Laurent asked, breathless, while Damen planted kisses beneath his ear. “Bending me like a sapling in the wind. Showing off your strength.”

“I'm not showing off yet,” Damen replied. But just in case Laurent didn't like being held like that, Damen let go and, still kissing, arranged them both on the bed so Laurent was supported by the mattress and he could hold himself above him on his elbows. Another person would have used this position to explore his back or hold his hips, but Laurent extended his arms and pressed the backs of his hands against the pillow above his head.

Damen trailed damp kisses from Laurent's mouth to to his collarbone, pushing aside his robe to gain better access. Laurent closed his eyes and turned his head to the side, accepting this and offering more skin for Damen to taste. He was very quiet, very controlled, but Damen could feel the fluttering of his pulse beneath his tongue. When he raised Laurent's leg up around his hip, he felt it quicken like a bird about to take flight. The robe had fallen open and the sleepshirt beneath was thin. Damen could also feel, hot and insistent, Laurent's arousal against his own thigh.

He kept hold of Laurent's leg, enjoying the solidness of the muscle under his fingers. If you didn't get close to Laurent, you would think him a frail thing. No-one but Damen got close to Laurent.

Damen tipped Laurent's chin toward him, smiled, and quite deliberately ground his hips between Laurent's legs.

“Oh,” said Laurent.

“Oh?” Damen pressed again and kissed his open mouth. There was a glorious, hungry meeting of tongues that halted the movement or maybe spurred it. Damen wasn't quite sure.

“You're very aware of what you want, aren't you?”

“Don't tell me you're not.” Damen spread his hand where it was holding Laurent's thigh. A little closer and he'd be touching him.

“Not really.” Laurent turned his head to the side again.

“You like this.” Damen kissed Laurent's neck, slow as his own arousal would allow him, and slide his hips against him again. It was a base, guileless movement. But it was effective. And Damen remembered how Laurent had kissed him while he was chained. “Would you rather we reverse positions? There is no right and wrong here.”

“Easy for you to say. Easy to play the man than roll over.”

“We are only kissing,” Damen said.

“And rubbing cocks.” Laurent shifted his hips upwards to prove his point. “Do you know what I am thinking of?”

Damen pulled back so he could look him in the eye. “Me, I hope.”

“That harbour guard. Andries. You just took and --”

“I told you already. He wanted it. That's not how I normally make love.”

“I know. The slaves are all very complimentary. Damianos is so generous. Damianos is so intuitive. Damianos makes you forget your name. What if I don't want that?”

“I think,” Damen said, forcing the words past his own small embarrassment where they could reach Laurent's doubt. “That you can have whatever you want from me. You know, the first time I was ever with someone it was incredibly clumsy.”

“Well, I am very graceful.”

“We're just kissing. You asked for kissing, remember?” Damen kissed Laurent softly on the lips. “You start with kissing. There is no rush.”

“We leave for Arles soon.”

“There is no rush,” Damen repeated with a slow roll of his hips that thankfully elicited a gasp from Laurent. Slowly, he kissed his mouth, his neck, the sliver of skin where his sleepshirt had fallen open. He grazed his thumb over and back on the fabric above Laurent's taut nipples and allowed himself the slow pleasure of pressing his hardness to Laurent and feeling the press back.

“Wait,” said Laurent. “I feel --” Damen knew by the insistent way Laurent moved his hips and the shallowness of his breaths that Laurent was getting close, that he could come like this, from slow kisses and soft sure movements.

“Feel it,” Damen said.

But Laurent stopped. He gritted his teeth and stilled his body. Even the tips of ears were red with the effort. Damen stopped, too, waited while Laurent denied himself this pleasure.

“Please get off me,” he said, in a the smallest voice Damen had ever heard. Damen rolled away, horrified. “No. Not like that. Just --” Laurent held up on finger. “Can it be like before? When you held me?”

“If it needs to be. But I would like to look at your face. I would like to see that you are all right.”

“I'm not some slave on First Night.”

Damen thought aren't you but wisely kept quiet on that front. “I want to see you come. You allowed me that before.”

Laurent threw one arm over his eyes. “It's so much. I can't think when you look at me with those ridiculous soulful brown eyes.”

“You don't need to think.” Damen sat back against the headboard as he had when they played silly games. “But you don't need to play either.” He did not open his legs for Laurent to slide in, even thought the prospect of Laurent's back to his chest and his curves against his cock was heady in its own right. “Come here.”

Head lowered, clothes askew, Laurent swung one leg across Damen and faced him sitting in his lap. He could reach past and hold the headboard but he chose to hold Damen's shoulders. His eyes were very dark and his cheeks glowed with pink exertion and the sheen of perspiration. Deliberately, he untied his robe and pushed it down his shoulders. His sleep shirt was up around the tops of his thighs.

“Kiss me,” Damen said and Laurent tilted his head and did as asked. Seriously. Carefully. Almost chastely, except he was very hard against Damen's stomach. “Can I?” Damen put his hands on Laurent's buttocks and Laurent nodded and then Laurent cursed, as Damen spread out his fingers and helped Laurent's blind movements become sure thrusts. “Can I?” Damen asked again, slipping one hand between their bodies. “Laurent, can I touch you? I want so badly to touch you.”

Laurent nodded and Damen kissed his neck and took the hot silk of Laurent's arousal in hand. For himself, he would have held tight and moved fast but for Laurent he moved slowly, twisted his wrist and pressed his thumb against the head. Laurent bit his lip and threw back his head and while Damen kissed just below his ear, he spilled into his hand.

I did that, Damen thought, and it was nearly enough to distract himself from the drum-beat throb of his own arousal. He wanted to do that for Laurent again and again until Laurent would beg for Damen to reach his own satisfaction within him.

But, before Laurent had stopped twitching, he raised his head and gave Damen a wicked grin.

“Your turn,” he said. Damen blinked and Laurent grabbed his ankle and lay him flat on the bed. There were no soft kisses or gentle reassurance. He looked at Damen's exposed, needy body as a patron would look at a sculpture. Absently, Damen wiped his hand on the sheet and Laurent wrinkled his nose. “Animal,” he said.

“Next time I'll lick it off.”

“Oh, I --” Laurent looked a little dazed.

“You don't have to --” Damen said.

“I am aware of that.” Laurent glared, for a moment only, and then wrapped on hand around Damen's cock. He held him loosely, like he wasn't quite sure what to do, and Damen's hips jerked of their own accord. It had been a long time for him. He had been a long time craving Laurent's touch. “All right. I get the message.”

Laurent tightened his grip and slid his hand up and down, up and down.

“You're too far away,” Damen said. “Come down here and kiss me.”

“As you wish.” In one elegant motion, Laurent lay on his side and looked Damen in the eyes. He didn't stop moving his hand and Damen couldn't stop looking into his endless blue eyes. The world was gone, barren, the only thing that existed was the touch of his and the looking, the intimate looking, that was nearly something more than kissing.

Damen knew that Laurent had...ideas about touching and he didn't want to disturb them. But he was consumed with this touching, these new, ancient things that were finally happening, so he took his hands from the crumpled sheets. One, he buried in Laurent's golden hair. The other he wrapped around his hand on his cock and guided, moved, until he was babbling Laurent's name and a thousand other prayers. Climax came in a gentle explosion that Damen felt in every part of his body, but mostly he felt it in non-physical ways, raw and alive. He threw back his head, smiled wide, and his come was seeping through both of their fingers.

Arles felt very far away

Chapter Text

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.

Hopefully.

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.”

“I see.”

“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.

“Excuse me?”

“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?”

“But --”

“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.”

“No.”

“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 --”

“What?”

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