A fight had again erupted at the alehouse. Off-duty patrolmen had arrived in time to meet the domestic workers contracted by the merchants of the village and sometimes palace staff, when there was need.
A worker had, apparently, expressed his distaste for palace work; claiming that the palace had not near the resources of many a cloth or spice salesman and paid workers poorly. A patrolman had taken this as slander.
Laurent, who had been sat by the oven, playing with the house cat took his exit. Twice now during previous brawls the light fingered child had emerged with enough coin to treat both himself and the cat to a rich lunch in the village. Unfortunately, he had worn proof of his venture when he returned home bedraggled and dirty and received a telling off stern enough that he feared another.
Upon his leaving Laurent heard a slurred call for ‘Delpha’ to be purged of the northern perverts. He sighed, disappointed. Clearly the alehouse was in for a long night, in an hour or so the room would have been easy pickings.
Tucked behind a tapestry depicting King Yrian’s triumph at the battle of 7 horses, Laurent watches. Auguste makes his apologies for their absent mother, lying ill in bed. His guests are two. A young man about Auguste’s age and another, older stand surrounded by a small party of royal servants and a compact guard.
They are Akielon. Laurent wonders that the drunk commoners may have their triumph at last. Perhaps these men have indeed arrived to purge Delfeur of Veretians. But the men smile politely at Auguste as they offer their thanks for his hospitality.
Auguste’s eyes flicker briefly to King Yrian’s frozen grimace and invites the guests to dine. Laurent scampers to the dining hall, finger combing his hair and frantically checking the fastenings on his shirt and shoes.
Laurent stood as the party entered after him.
“My brother, Laurent of Vere”
Laurent bowed his head to the men and walked to Auguste who knelt to embrace him and pluck a stray leaf from his collar.
Auguste rose. “Laurent, this is Kastor and Damianos, sons of King Theomedes of Akielos.”
The men bowed their heads in return. Laurent knew better than to ask after their purpose.
He had a good command of Akielon but he had learned it in the village and spoke only the low dialect with confidence. He spoke no more after greeting the men, leaving Auguste to struggle through the meal alone.
It was a surprise then, when conversation between Auguste and Damianos began to flow.
“How do you find Marlas?” enquired Kastor. Damianos visibly squirmed with discomfort.
Auguste did not flinch. “Very well.”
“It must be a departure from your home, and a culture shock for young Laurent.”
Auguste laid a hand on Laurent's shoulder, felt the tension there. He hesitated before speaking again, responses regarding the preferable climate of Delfeur and the adaptability of the young forming themselves in his mind.
Laurent spoke; “Despite the tragedy which preceded our arrival, Auguste, mother and I have found ourselves happily settled here.”
Auguste bit down on a proud smile. His brother looked to him for an encouraging nod.
“You speak Akielon well” was Damianos’ response.
“We have the privilege of living in a multicultural region.” Laurent looked into his lap shyly. He did not wish to speak any longer.
Auguste dismissed him after the main meal. Kneeling again to embrace his brother; he whispered “Stay in the palace. You are not to go to the village while our guests remain.”
Resisting the urge to pout, Laurent bowed politely and left. Once outside the hall he headed to the kitchens and brought tea and bread to his mother. She smiled a little when he entered and sat up in bed. They drank tea side-by-side, before Laurent kicked off his boots and climbed under the covers. His mother shifted to put her arm around him.
“Why do we host the Akielon mother?”
“They are here to see our strength, to assess us. We host them to control what they see. Tell me about them.”
The Akielons left the palace without purging the region of the Veretian perverts. Laurent was again free to roam the village and go riding with Auguste, who had promised to teach him how to make jumps on his pony. He hoped the Akielons would not return.
When the Akielons returned, Laurent was no longer a child, and Auguste and Damianos were in their manhood. In a year Auguste would be old enough to take the throne. The small family hidden away from Arles’ politics endeavoured not to dwell on the fact.
When Auguste greeted his brother prince the second time, it was not with feigned confidence. Five years had passed since the Regent’s most recent visit to Marlas. It had been thankfully brief, to the relief of Auguste and Queen Hennike who shared the burden of hosting while Laurent borrowed his mother’s sickbed. The palace felt lighter without the looming threat of their uncle’s visits and Delfeur, newly prosperous, had filled with Akielon refugees, glad for Auguste’s newly relaxed immigration laws.
A festival was held to welcome the Akielon royal party. A demonstration of Delfeur’s new wealth under Auguste’s rule, and a celebration of their enlarged military presence. Marlas’ guard was the special pride of Queen Hennike and her younger son. When Damianos was welcomed first to the castle it was by a guard generously made up of those who were once his countrymen.
The Veretian royal party was only slightly more populated for this second visit. Beside Auguste and Laurent in the Hall of Dux stood Dorthe; general commander of the Delfeurian troops and her daughter Amée; commander of the royal guard.
The queen remained in her chambers, resting.
The profoundly protracted and polite performance that was the appropriate welcome of one Crown-Prince to another - foregone at their previous meeting - finally ended, to the obvious relief of both.
Squires directed the party to the dining hall where Laurent found himself sat amongst the Akielon party, sending longing looks to the other end of the table where Auguste and Damianos had fallen into an easy discussion of sporting pursuits. The two princes got on well, Laurent could see.
A woman seated across from him turned to the man beside her to remark on Laurent’s beauty in Akielon, and the two chortled at the crude joke she received in reply. Laurent’s cheeks burned and he thought wistfully of Jehanne who at this time was likely in the bay, her small boat rocking gently as she fished, her dark hair braided messily and round face freckling in the sun.
He gathered his courage and beckoned a server to refill his cup and remain behind him.
To the man in front of him he said, in Veretian “Have you spent much time outside of Ios?”
“A little, why do you ask?” The man leaned forward and smiled.
“I noticed you impressive command of regional Akielon” said Laurent.
Turning to the man behind him he repeated the joke. More than one head had already turned to look down the table, and at Laurent’s words, all other chatter ceased.
“It is a Thracian turn of phrase is it not, Agates?”
“Yes.” replied the server.
“And in what context is it usually used?”
“Men often say this to describe their satisfaction with a bought whore.”
“Thank you Agates. You man refill this gentleman’s cup as it appears he desires it,” Laurent gestured to the Akielon opposite, “and return to the kitchens.”
The room remained silent. Out of the corner of his eye, Laurent chanced a look at Auguste and Damianos. The two shared eye contact and a mirrored twitch of the lips before exploding into laughter. Auguste laughed loudly, almost to the point of doubling over. Damianos wiped tears from his eyes as his laughter died down. He looked very beautiful when he smiled, wide and genuine.
When he recovered himself Auguste looked to the Akielon next to him and offered him a place at the other end of the table.
“Laurent come and sit, Damianos has been telling me about a game called the okton.”
Safely back beside his brother Laurent smiled and said “I have not heard of this sport” (a lie).
All at the table seemed uneasy, but the Akielon prince obligingly launched into a tale about watching Kastor in the okton as a boy. Laurent watched Damianos as he spoke and willed the tension out of his body. The prince was artless in his speech, describing his jealousy with honesty, but also humour. Laurent listened as eagerly as Auguste, albeit in a manner of greater subtlety.
Damianos’ face and eyes were lit with joy as he spoke, taking obvious pleasure when his audience laughed with him. A description of one competitor celebrating a victory before learning that the victory was not his startled a grin from Laurent. Damianos - also smiling - looked to him and met his eyes. He had a handsome face. Laurent felt warm all over.
That night, the two princes of Vere retired, and together walked directly to the queen’s chambers. Boots removed, the three sat atop the bed covers, playing cards held in their laps.
“The Akielons wish for friendship. For the first time in a long history, they are not lead by warlords.”
Hennike looked at her eldest son. “That may be the case. Certainly they wish for military support should the unrest worsen, particularly in the south.” She paused to play a card. “Slavery is barbaric. This anyone can see, perhaps even Theomedes - but he is too proud to keel to his people’s demands, and so their anger grows.”
The queen, winning the game, gathered up the deck and began to deal each of her sons a new hand. They played the next game in relative quiet. When the time came for Auguste to throw down his losing hand he said “I have something to show you.”
He left the room briefly and returned with a stack of papers. “Damianos began a correspondence with me this last spring.”
Laurent was shocked. From boyhood, Auguste had not once successfully concealed something from his family. It was the reason they lived in this quasi-banishment.
The letters spread out between the three of them, crinkling with every movement, Laurent and his mother read. The letters began superficially enough. Enquires after the health of Queen Hennike and the progress of Laurent’s studies were answered equally superficially by Auguste: the queen had regained some strength, Laurent was exceedingly clever though lacked discipline, and how is the hunting this season?
A few months in, Damianos’ concerns became apparent. Theomedes would not entertain the idea of revisiting the laws surrounding slavery, while Damianos was more circumspect. Why not sit down with the leaders of the campaign and discuss? There were several hints scattered throughout insinuating that Auguste, son of a king murdered by activists, may have an opinion to share.
Damianos’ worries regarding his father’s upcoming abdication were poorly disguised. Auguste had replied that to be his own king, Damianos must become secure his his own beliefs, whether they contradicted his father’s or not. More was said beyond this, so that all in all, Auguste had barely expressed an opinion at all.
“I think” said Auguste, when the letters were read and re-read and digested “that perhaps with a gentle nudge - or push, military action might be avoided altogether. The abolition of slavery may become a reality.”
Laurent swelled with admiration at his brother, at what he believed he could achieve, and saw the same emotion in his mother’s eyes.
A spear throwing tournament was to be held the following morning, proceeded by celebration of the sport and its champions and some general conviviality. Laurent, obliged to attend, observed Damianos, who seemed genuinely to enjoy the company of his brother and his brother likewise. The games and competitors were of excellent calibre, rousing the spirits of the crowd. The event would have been a total success were it not for the confusion of the Akielon crowd - enough Akielons competed on behalf of Delfeur that often cheering was halted mid-way and replaced by its opposite.
A winner finally declared, of which nationality he had no idea, Laurent was free to slip away unnoticed.
Jehanne sat with her toes in the water, Laurent behind her. Both were clad in the loose multicoloured garb favoured by the Veretian - Patran - Akielon amalgam that made up the common population of Delfeur. Yanking neatly at her hair and steadily ignoring her complaints, Laurent finished and scooted back to admire his handiwork.
“Now you wear you hair as does the Queen of Vere herself.”
Jehanne giggled and turned to face him. “I hope I’m not mistaken for your good lady mother at the fish market.”
She lay her head in Laurent’s lap and looked up at him. “And you are certain there is no Akielon princess for your brother to marry and have all this tidied up?”
Laurent had no chance to make a reply as Jehanne sat straight up with a small gasp, clapping her hands together in delight. He followed her gaze a little further down the beach. Two Akielon men, clearly military, had removed their chitons and waded into the water.
“They must be part of the royal guard! You never said the soldiers were so lovely Laurent.” Jehanne punctuated the statement with a slap against Laurent’s leg. “Any chance of getting me some palace work while they’re here?”
“I’d look into it if you had bathed someplace not the ocean once in your life and didn't stink of fish” came Laurent’s distracted reply, his eyes still fixed on the men.
Before he could stop her, Jehanne had put up a hand to wave at them, smiling sweetly as though she was not the same girl who had more than once thrown fish guts at the second heir to the throne of Vere and prince of Aquitart.
Laurent was frozen. He could only watch in despair as Prince Damianos in all his god-given glory jogged through the water toward a beckoning Jehanne, grinning. Jehanne who enjoyed the man’s focus, concealed her disappointment poorly when the second Akielon returned to him his chiton.
Making his ‘hellos’ to Jehanne, the prince was charming. And very gracious. Water ran down his chest and arms and glistened in the sunlight. Laurent used the precious few moments before his discovery to recover any small amount of composure.
“Laurent?!” came Damianos’ exclamation.
“You have me confused, I am not he” replied Laurent in low Akielon without inflection. “My name is Eleemon and this is my betrothed, Jehanne.”
“Damen. A pleasure to meet you both.”
Outside of ‘Damen’s’ line of vision, Jehanne pinched Laurent. “Eleemon jokes. We are not betrothed. I’m not promised to anyone at all.” Laurent felt a wave of something akin to jealousy as Damianos returned his gaze to his friend.
Rising, Damianos offered his hand to Laurent. “I’ve to head back to the castle. Eleemon, please allow me to walk you back to your home. I’m sure you have a mother - or brother - wondering where you are.”
Seconds away from causing serious insult to the prince of Akielos, Laurent bit his tongue and quickly kissed Jehanne on both cheeks, nodding when she mouthed “The prince?” Ignoring the outstretched hand, Laurent stood and and started to walk up the beach, shaking sand out of his clothes as he went.
Damianos was quickly in step with him. “Laurent, you must realise the danger you put yourself in, being here without protection.”
“I am my own protection. I train with Auguste daily and further, I am no fool.”
“That’s very well, but what would you do if recognised? You have no weapon.
“In my adolescence I too took foolish risks - ”
At this, Laurent could hear no more. “I can assure you that Auguste and the queen know very well where I spend my time. Damianos, you are a prince but you forget yourself. You do not speak to an insolent cousin nor brother in arms, you speak to a prince. As such, I will continue to traverse my home without fear of reproach.”
They walked in silence for some time, Laurent guiding them toward the north-east wing to the entrance he frequented. He realised with some surprise that they had been speaking Veretian.
“You consider Marlas your home?” questioned Damianos, carefully.
“Yes. Arles is for me a childhood memory.”
“Do you miss the palace? Surely you must look forward to your return.”
He spoke as though Auguste’s future was certain, as though the three of them would simply arrive at court in time for his brother’s birthday and see him made king. Laurent chose not to contradict him. They walked some more in silence.
“I want to…” Damianos paused and began again: “I apologise Laurent. I truly did not mean disrespect earlier. And I’m sorry to have interrupted you and your lover.”
The pleasure Laurent felt at hearing his name spoken in Damianos’ low, modulating voice disappeared as quickly as it appeared. Usually he did not think himself short-tempered, but he was unable to remove himself from the feeling of a twitching, vibrating panic in his gut.
“I hear your implication Damianos, again you are wrong. You believe you have interrupted a young boy in the midst of his first dalliance, perhaps you think you stirred up some jealousy -”
Thankfully they were now at the castle and could part ways. Laurent almost wanted Damianos to stay; to stumble over another apology, to take Laurent’s harsh words with the good humour that came so easily to him. Damianos smiled and jokingly wished him safe travel through the castle. Laurent flushed. “You speak Veretian very well” was all he could find to say.
Laurent was not given the privilege of dwelling on his confused feelings. His mind was otherwise engaged upon learning that the Regent had announced his intention to visit Marlas shortly after the departure of their Akielon guests. Laurent wondered his uncle did not desire to cross paths with the crown prince of Akielos to form an opinion, an alliance.
He could see that the news of the Regent’s coming had made iron his mother’s will to see Auguste take his throne. And yet, the prince barely in his manhood, his boy brother and their melancholic mother knew themselves to be woefully disadvantaged in this game, with so few cards to play they were as well to take up dice.
Auguste’s lauded rule in Delfeur and his mother’s distant but precise management of their military allowed them safety in their home, but only the support of a greater force - the support of a newly crowned King of Akielos, for example - could offer a chance to see their prince in the palace.
Damianos sat alone in the eastern garden. His legs spread, flowers piled between them and more in his hands. He worked slowly, gently binding two flowers at the stalk and carefully selecting the next from between his knees. Laurent moved quietly though the grass, Iris following a short distance behind him, eager for treats. He held out his hand, filled with sour berries for the bird to eat from.
Damianos looked up to offer greeting as Laurent had failed to do, but upon seeing the bird said instead; “What is that?”
“A peacock. They are native to Vask.”
“A gift from a diplomat?” Damianos flashed a quick smile, “An admirer?”
Laurent swallowed against the wave nausea sprung from the unwitting comment. “No. No, not an admirer. Iris was a gift from my uncle, intended for my mother. Unfortunately, she cares not for pets. He was half starved, dirty, aggressive when he arrived. Gone wild from the journey and confinement.”
“He seems fond of you” noticed Damianos.
Laurent smiled at him then turned back to the bird, cooing softly and stroking its long throat. “Show the future king of Akielos what you can do.”
The peacock opened his tail and Damianos stared with undisguised delight.
“He has no mate to show off for” said Laurent.
It was only then that Damianos looked properly at Laurent and noticed he was dressed commonly. Before he could make remark, Laurent tossed what seemed to be a pink bed sheet at him and said:
“Leave your flowers. Wear this.”
Damianos stood, baring himself to the gardens briefly before pulling his head through the pink sheet and and watching it fall down around him. Laurent, expecting questions or disagreements was surprised. He himself rose and fixed the clasps at Damianos’ hips to finish the outfit, his fingers briefly brushing against the bare skin there. He stood back.
Laurent lead, unwilling or unable to look at Damianos. The pink was a beautiful complement to the man’s dark skin.
The market was loud and busy. It stank. Laurent was able to slip lithely through the crowd, Damianos had more difficulty. Spotting Jehanne and her father at their stall, Laurent stopped to share a joke and ask after their sales. Continuing further to the boundary of the marketplace they came to a gazebo. Pulling back the thin, gauzy cloth hung from the roof as a curtain, Laurent directed Damianos inside.
Older men and women sat at the tables playing at checkers and gambling, some laughing or arguing together and often the both concurrently. Several looked up to greet Laurent as a grandparent might a favoured grandchild. None seemed tempted to prostrate or bow head, to give any acknowledgment that they welcomed a prince.
Laurent pulled up a stool at a game of cards and gestured for Damianos to do likewise. An elderly man dealt them in. To Laurent he said in Akielon “You come to ruin our fun young man. Your friend, does he wish to cheat old men also?” Damianos was shocked. Laurent laughed.
“I do not know the skill of this man. Don’t concern yourself however, there is only one winner in this game.”
After they had played a while, Laurent spoke again. “Before seeking refuge in Delfeur, Elipidios was a slave in a noble house in Sicyon.” Elipidios nodded his head to confirm this as truth. “If it would not trouble you Elipidios, I think my friend Damen would take great interest in hearing your story.” He looked around the table “All your stories. If you would wish to share.”
And so, slowly, the men and women began to speak. It validated them to speak of their history, and Damianos was an attentive listener. Laurent left them, allowing Damianos some privacy.
The next day Laurent concerned himself with his studies and later found himself sat away from Damianos at dinner. He wished he weren’t. It felt warm to be near to the prince.
The Akielon party rose early the next morning and rode for Ios.
Winter arrived with the Regent. The queen rose from her sickbed as Laurent returned to his. He made only one attempt to venture from his chambers, the decision proving a mistake when he met with the Regent’s newest pet, beautifully adorned, in a corridor. After that he could not be coaxed out for meals or exercise or lessons.
On the final night of the Regent’s visit, after a fine feast that was certainly beyond their means, Auguste came to see Laurent.
“Mother had to make her excuses for the dinner this evening. She has exhausted herself, and uncle’s presence makes her grief again raw.”
Laurent looked down to his lap, but Auguste ducked his own head to catch his brother’s gaze.
“You hold none of the blame. Our mother grieves for her husband and your childhood, the both stolen by that man.”
Laurent nodded. This was not often spoke of and Auguste’s earnest entreaties to him were almost painful.
“Unfortunately,” his brother continued, “her absence was exactly what the Regent needed. Our benevolent uncle sees that my sickly mother and brother require my attention and knows the cruelty of forcing me onto the throne so young, ripped from familial love and obligation. He has gifted us with men from his own regiment to serve in our household guard and keep our uncle abreast of any further assistance we may require of him.”
Auguste’s words, uncharacteristically bitter, stung almost as much as their message.
“We are to be prisoners, kept under his watch.” surmised Laurent.
“Yes. I am soon to be of age, so truly our sentence begins."
The year dragged. Laurent rotated the domestic staff and house guard to a pattern so complex that it was not at all discernible to any but him. In this he was fastidious. Fictional gossip was given leave to travel across fort and grounds so that its journey could be tracked. One of the Regents men was chosen to sample everything that left the kitchens.
Auguste and Laurent trained morning and night with the sword, and during the day Auguste ran drills with the army. The gardens were cleared so that he could oversee training exercises with hundreds of men and women at once. Amée and Dorthe moved through the lines of men constantly, correcting technique and yelling, if the mood struck them.
Laurent did not train with the men at this time. Not yet eighteen, his beauty was much remarked upon by the men and Auguste would not have them near him.
Rarely did the princes take a day of repose. The tension in the fort wore greatly on their mother who grew more poorly even into the warmer months.
Auguste’s correspondence with Damianos had grown sparse and sanitised. It was a pleasure then, to receive an invitation to his coronation from the man himself.
Their mother could not attend, nor could she rule Marlas in her sons’ absence. Laurent neared manhood, he now posed a real threat to the Regent’s hold on the throne, should the nation find itself in real need of a second heir. He was not safe without Auguste in Marlas, but they knew not how far their uncle’s influence reached. Auguste agonised. Was Laurent in more danger alone in a foreign city?
There was nothing for it. The coronation must be attended and the King’s favour secured. The brothers must be parted and Laurent would ride to Ios the next month.
The journey would take a week. As the date of his brother’s departure neared, Auguste checked and re-check the horses, the carriages, the staff, the guard. Laurent had not ever been separated from his mother and brother. While his brother fretted, he studied. Son and mother sat together in the Queen’s chambers poring over Damianos’ letters, accounts of acts of the Akielon court and military, and the royal line’s origin, culture, customs.
Laurent read over the few texts written in Akielon he could find, memorising the quirks of the language and grammatical rules and exceptions. He still ventured out into the city, though less often, and with an aim to speak to any he could find who had migrated from Ios.
He wanted to know the character of all those he would encounter. He heard from bed slaves and seamstresses and the bastard children who had grown up in the forgotten nooks and crannies of the castle.
The day for setting off came and passed and Laurent waited two days of the journey before finding himself alone and shaking with misery at the absence of his family. His mother had bid him farewell from her chambers and Auguste from the fort’s last outpost. Hennike had said nothing, she had not spoken in the last half year. Auguste had said much, very little of it comprehendible. Jehanne had waved as his carriage passed.
Laurent had no choice but to bear it.
He arrived in Ios on an over - hot afternoon. The sun bore down on him harshly, leaving him in incredible discomfort that he struggled to ignore. The King’s Hall was built and tiled with cool stone, and it was a relief to enter.
Theomedes and his son greeted him appropriately while the bastard stood back, almost indiscernible amongst the crowd of nobles and politicians. Nerves swelled up and threatened to overwhelm him as the King of Akiolos and king-to-be approached. Laurent resolutely looked ahead toward them, though he greatly wanted to look to Dorthe for reassurance.
Pleasantries dispensed with, Theomedes clapped Laurent on the shoulder and invited him to come take drink. Taking a breath to steady himself, he followed the men.
Looking around himself, Laurent realised he had expected the palace to look like Arles did in his childhood memory: all the rich colours of tapestries and jewels and pets, shimmering and beautiful. The craftsmanship and expense of the rooms he passed was evident, but it was calmer, quieter. A palace built for a city accosted by heat.
They entered a room set up as a lounge. Several slaves stood alert, ready to serve. Laurent knew he and his party would be offered ‘personal’ slaves. Some of the men had talked of it on the journey, wondering aloud what they would look like, the Veretians imagining them to resemble an nobleman’s pet. Two men in the guard had been slaves in great houses before fleeing to Delfeur.
All had been instructed to accept offers of slaves, so as not to offend their hosts.
It became clear, near to their arrival in Ios that all felt a great uncertainty. There were no pets in Marlas, it was to be a wholly new experience. Laurent had recited to them all he knew of a slave’s treatment so the should be able to behave appropriately in public spaces. In private he would leave them to their own discretion, adding that he expected that their special knowledge of slavery from the opposite perspective would ensure all parties their dignity.
The men took their seats on the low couches, and cups were handed to each.
“To King Damianos!” Theomedes cried, raising his cup, and the two princes did the same. The drink was cold and strong, pleasant after the journey. Damianos turned to Laurent, asking after his travel. Laurent responded that he was glad to have arrived.
To his father, Damianos said; “Laurent speaks Akielon beautifully. My past two visits to Marlas he surprised his guests with his command of the language, though he was the first time only a boy.”
Laurent took the compliment as gracefully as he was able. Damianos had grown. He was large even in comparison to the best of his guardsmen. He was handsome. Laurent wondered if he would have preferred to host Auguste to his younger brother. Likely so, but it was best not to dwell.
Every time Damianos glanced his way, let alone spoke directly to him, Laurent felt his pulse in his ears. He felt tired and flustered and excessively warm and was almost relieved to be lead into the throne room to be presented with a line up of slaves. he fantasised about choosing a man similar in look to Damianos to allow his partiality known, but quickly dismissed the idea.
Gaze gliding up and down the row, Laurent selected a woman a little older than he. She had dark Akielon skin, a straight Akielon nose, her hair wild and lovely. The men and women of his guard and staff made their selection also. Theomedes asked if they might want to rest, a clear second meaning behind his words.
Laurent was glad of the opportunity. For the first time in a little over a week he had a bed and sheets and curtains and no dirt or dry leaves or animal droppings anywhere at all. He rejoiced in this. The woman slave undressed him slowly, stumblingly, and Laurent did his best to offer encouragement.
“What is your name?”
“Exalted. I am named Koralia.”
Laurent told her it would please him to see her rested, quickly adding that he would not require her sexually during his stay. At this she bowed and moved to a chaise to lie. Laurent fell to the bed and was in sleep almost immediately. Though the sun told otherwise it felt like not time at all had passed when he woke to a knock at the door announcing that he should prepare for the meal.
Laurent was seated beside Damianos. He had expected more pleasantries, instead, Damianos said “I eagerly anticipate the joke you will no doubt make of at least one of our poor, unsuspecting courtiers while here.”
Naturally Laurent replied that he had no such intention.
“I think perhaps you enjoy for people to underestimate you Laurent.”
“And I think you misread my shy nature.”
At this, Damianos let out a snort of laughter. “Nevertheless, I will not underestimate you.”
Laurent looked at Damianos. The face looking back at him was earnest and lovely. He was suddenly determined that he would indeed surprise Damianos.
“I would speak with you on matters of policy this evening, if you would be so kind as to entertain me.”
Damianos agreed, of course.
Slaves were brought out to perform and Laurent kept his attention there, steadfastly not thinking about the proximity to Damianos’ large muscled thigh beside his, the heat of him, his laugh.
When they entered the room, Laurent was a little surprised to note that it was empty of slaves. He wondered did Damianos know how to pour his own drink.
“I was left with much to think on when I last departed Delfeur.”
Laurent said nothing, waiting for Damianos to show his hand.
“You will think me naive, or perhaps simply callous, but I had not imagined the private world of the slave to be such as it was described to me.”
Unable to help himself, Laurent said “You had not imagined anything at all.”
Damianos nodded. “True. And I did not wish to believe what I had heard. I am not so hard-head however to wilfully remain blind to the reality. Our people are unhappy. Our way of life is unsustainable.”
It occurred to Laurent that these were private thoughts, thoughts that Damianos had not before shared. He felt pleased.
Damianos had been moving as he spoke. Now he sat and looked at Laurent expectantly.
“Well?” asked Laurent. “What solutions have you considered?”
He was met with a sheepish smile. “I had hoped to ask your assistance in that regard. Unless the policy you wished to speak on was other than slavery?”
Laurent replied that he would like very much to do so, and that was the truth.
Laurent rose with the sun to inform Koralia that he would not be going down for breakfast.
He rose again at mid-morning and ate fruit in his bed. He was exhausted. He missed his mother. He missed Auguste. He missed Jehanne. He missed the smell of fish and the blood red poppies that grew in the valleys and Iris. He was unused to palace schedule as Marlas had none.
Having spoken with Damianos through the night several nights before, he had hoped to do the same again but had barely seen the man for longer than a minute uninterrupted since. He wanted to affirm a twin-ness of ideology with him, to broach the subject of support for Auguste, to be near him.
The new king of Akielos was to be crowned this eve and though he was not present, Laurent was certain the Regent would have eyes all around and fingers extended, ready to dig his claws in. The coronation ceremony would begin and end tonight, but adjacent celebrations would last a week. A week of Akielon courtesy and prostrating slaves and not a minute for himself.
A knock at the door. Koralia answered. Laurent expected his caller to be turned away, he was in bed clothes with fruit juice covering his hands. Instead he looked up to see Damianos. He froze, eyes wide and shocked. What to do with his hands? He offered hello in Veretian. Began again in Patran. Said nothing for moment. Then, angrily, and in Akielon, he asked Damianos what exactly he thought he was doing in his private chambers.
Damianos smiled and sat himself down on the bed, facing Laurent. “I missed you these past days. I wished we could speak again.”
“You have been understandably busy.”
“Did you miss my company also?”
The man before him was golden and muscled and he smiled at Laurent with simplicity and happiness and Laurent wanted…
“Auguste is the true heir of the Veretian throne.”
Damianos appeared understandably surprised at the turn the conversation had taken. “Yes.”
“He would make a fine king. He is kind, fair, intelligent. Leadership is his birthright, it flows through his veins.”
“He is of age and yet cannot ascend without support. If he voices a desire he puts all our lives at risk.”
“I would ask you to publicly support my brother.” Damianos made no immediate reply so he continued. “The alleigance of my nation to yours would -” He broke off. Damianos had said yes. His mouth and moved and he had said yes. Laurent felt severely, woefully underprepared for this outcome. He swallowed. “Good. Obviously we will have more to discuss at a later time.”
He wanted to stand and show Damianos out but he was pant-less, and trapped. He tried to calm his mind. As he exhaled quietly he did something very terrible. Mind calm for a brief moment, possibly lulled into a daze by the other man’s serene demeanour, he said “I missed your company also.”
Damianos grinned and stood. “Good.” Koralia opened the door for him as he left. Laurent wanted to scream.
The palace was full. Laurent took his seat in the throne room and scanned the men around him. He was to be here another fortnight, if not longer. An assassination attempt, especially on this day, would send a warning to Auguste and give his uncle a reason to break the tentative peace between nations. He was considering how he might go about assassinating himself while in Ios when the fanfare began.
Damianos stepped onto the dais alongside Theomedes who was to crown him. He was beautiful. Suddenly nervous that the king’s eyes might find his, Laurent looked to his lap. Damianos knelt and received his crown then stood and said some pretty, noble words. Laurent noticed watched all this take place only in the abstract. Hours after the event, it had fully struck him that the King of Akielos had told him that he believed Auguste to be the rightful heir. Had told him that he would pledge this publicly. That he missed Laurent’s company.
The first hour of celebration was long and tedious. Laurent wished to make an escape but found not the means to do so.
Hearing his name called, he sighed inwardly and turned toward the sound only to be directly assaulted by the King of Akielos. “This man,” Damianos was saying, his massive arms wrapping around Laurent “I’m sure has a wealth of tales for us that I will convince him to share: of traipsing about Marlas in disguise, gambling and seducing youths.” He laughed.
Laurent was manhandled into a seat, surrounded by a circle of flushed, merry faces. He looked at Damianos and felt a longing inside him, brutal and unfamiliar. He thought ‘I want this always.’ Since he may never be able to show Damianos the real beauty of his home, he took a deep breath and spoke of it.
The gardens at Ios were beautiful, as was the surrounding hunting ground and wilderness, and his mare rejoiced under him, her gallop light and free. After, taking such care to wash her down, speaking softly to her all the while, Laurent did not hear Damianos enter the stables.
“You have great skill with your horse.”
Laurent startled, though he did his best to hide it. Mentally he chided the horse for not warning him.
“At first I thought perhaps you did not want to ask for help lest the help you received was a slave, but I see that you are proficient in this,” a smile played on his lips “as in everything else.”
“Are you surprised?”
Damianos laughed. “Truthfully yes, though I promised I would not be.”
Laurent looked to the ground. “Anyone else should be embarrassed to see a prince acting thus. I never truly knew that before arriving here. We had stable hands for the military mounts but none in the royal stables for our own use. We could not afford it. I’m sure it is not so in Arles, but Marlas is no palace.”
Damianos came to stand beside the mare, feeding her carrots from his hand as Laurent continued thus. “I understand now your shock at seeing me dressed commonly ‘traipsing’ around the village and eating with men who once were slaves.”
“I wish to ask a question of you Laurent, but I do not wish to cause you discomfort.” Laurent raised an eyebrow at him, prompting him to continue. “Why were you taken to Marlas at all? Why do you believe would the Regent, power-hungry though he may be, would go so far as to make an attempt on Auguste’s life?”
Laurent moved to face away from Damianos. He lifted the mare’s back hoofed stared down it, the violent look in his eyes hidden from Damianos as he got to work. “When I was a boy my father and uncle had a dispute, the nature of which was personal, not political. Later, he was killed by a man who, when captured and questioned, named a woman known as Aalis Yourne. Yourne had been a virulent campaigner against the decadence of the court. This you know. She considered it wasteful as her town paid taxes and and received no protection from regular Vaskian raids. The man was believed, though of course Yourne denied it.”
He moved onto the next hoof. “The Regent ascended and we were sent to Delfeur. Likely he hoped the instability would worsen and that perhaps Theomedes would attempt to take it. My mother was deep in grief and did not contest. She wanted us far from his reach, though I am not sure such a place exists.”
Satisfied, Laurent stood and looked Damianos in the eye. “Why did you not question me when I told you I though my uncle a murderer, the night I arrived?”
“In Akielos, we think very lowly of men who behave such as he does. He makes lovers of children and so it is not such a stretch to believe he would make dead men of kings.
The next day, at breakfast, Damianos asked Laurent to accompany him riding. Laurent said “If I could make use of one of the palace horses, I rode my mare quite hard yesterday.” Damianos acquiesced and Laurent said “Thank you Damianos” and was asked to call him Damen. The butterflies in his stomach had completely ruined his appetite, and he found himself unlikely to regain it while ‘Damen’ sat across from him, smiling guilelessly. Laurent excused himself to bathe.
The day after, Damen invited Laurent to walk with him through the gardens. When Laurent remarked that he particularly like a small flower with delicate white petals, Damen knelt to pick some and decorated Laurent’s braid with them.
The day after was the finale ceremony of coronation. Laurent was bored. He sipped some kind of warm fruit drink intended for the children present and idly observed a great deal of merriment and back slapping. He spoke softly to Koralia beside him, so that when merriment came his way he was not at a loss for name or rank.
During a discussion of the importance of beginning a boy’s military training as early as possible, the hall quieted. Damen had climbed the dais and taken the throne. “His first pronouncement as king” Koralia whispered. “Usually merely a formality, though once or twice the new king has declared war or accused duplicity.”
Laurent thanked her. He had read of this; typically the king proclaimed Akielos to be the greatest of nations, and that a close friend was to take over as kyroi of so-and-so, and praise for all that had been done by the king previous, if the king previous was his father.
The speech began as expected.
Then: “Our nation is in a time of unrest.” The statement was wholly unexpected. Murmurs ceased. “Though difficult, we as leaders must address these issues head-on. We have seen the consequences of servile insurrection for our neighbours. I have concluded that ensure our future,” here he paused, “I will dissolve the contracts of all palace and municipal slaves.”
The crowd had clearly expected a statement to the opposite. Damianos continued, acknowledging that this was to be a great and difficult upheaval for the nation’s economic an social system, but did not make any attempt to explain himself.
“My second announcement will I hope be less controversial. A peaceful alliance between Akielos and Vere is to be established. I declare my support for King Auguste and urge the Regent of Vere to renounce the throne.”
Some more was said after this. Laurent was disinterested.
The speech concluded, Laurent found himself needing a release from the speculation and new attention on himself. Koralia was able to direct him to a small balcony, mostly shielded from inquisitive eyes. Alone at last, Laurent smiled. He was hysterical, delirious in his happiness. Turning to see Damen approaching him, he felt no desire to mellow his joy. He faced Damen, his eyes bright and young with delight.
Damen opened his mouth to speak but seemed to decide against it. He reached out a hand slowly and traced his index finger along Laurent’s cheekbone, his thumb still against his jaw. His touch was gentle, so gentle and Laurent struggled to keep his eyes open and trained on Damen’s. He felt buoyant with happiness and, for the first time in a long time, felt himself to be entirely within his own body, overcome with a sense of tranquility.
Damen’s face, partly obscured by shadow and his eyes gentle, so gentle - gazed back at Laurent.
“You may have a mutiny when you return” said Laurent. He was whispering.
“Indeed I may.”
Laurent thought he might not survive if this moment stretched out any longer. There was too much feeling, he couldn't contain it in himself. And then he had moved, or perhaps Damen, and their mouths met. They kissed and all that he felt seemed to burst from him. Not breaking their kiss, Damen brought his other hand to Laurent’s neck and shifted closer so that they were pressed against each other.
Damen pulled back to look at Laurent, breathing heavily. It was awful. Laurent’s hands that had rested lightly at Damen’s hips now awoke. His right gripped the chiton tightly, his left held Damen’s jaw. “Come back.”
This time, the kiss was not gentle. Laurent’s whole body was alight. He could feel every movement of Damen’s hands and tongue all the way down to his toes.
When they pulled apart a second time Laurent allowed it, though he kept a firm grip on Damen’s jaw.
Damen said “Auguste will be king at Arles.” He spoke quietly. Their faces were very close. “He will be a great leader. Our nations will be friends. Perhaps when that is done, I may ask the King of Vere if he approves of my paying court to his younger brother. And then, if the younger brother allows it,”
Laurent’s grip on Damen’s jaw loosened, then tightened. “No.”
Damen’s expression fell and he made to move back. Laurent moved with him.
“My brother will not be settled on the throne for at least a year yet.”
Damen’s eyebrows rose with slow comprehension.
“I will have had many suitors in that time.” Laurent paused. “As will you, Damianos, King of Akielos.”
Damen smiled. “Perhaps convention could be foregone in this instance. This night is already one of disruption to tradition.”
Laurent stepped forward and wrapped his arms around Damen’s middle, his face pressed against his chest. He placed light kiss there and closed his eyes. Right here, where he stood, it was warm, and quiet.