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“Don’t look at me that way,” Nikandros grumbled, before flopping gracelessly into the chair opposite Laurent. “It isn’t as if I actually want your company.” Laurent lifted a brow and gestured to the door through which Nikandros had entered, uninvited.

“Luckily for us both, there is a solution close at hand,” Laurent replied calmly, taking a sip of his wine. He was alone in his and Damen’s chambers, and he would just as soon it stayed that way.

“I’m not allowed to leave.” Nikandros scowled, helping himself to Damen’s cup and taking liberties with Laurent’s wine jug.

“On the contrary, the King of Artes has just invited you to do so. I cannot imagine what further permission you might require.”

“Yes, well, the other King of Artes told me I couldn’t, and I like him better than you.” Nikandros paused, before smiling meanly. “And that one’s big enough to hurt me.”

Laurent let that lie for a moment, as he stared into the fire. It was burning merrily, and should have been comforting and cheerful, but tonight nothing would be lifting his spirits. He supposed he should have expected something like this. Damen would have planned for contingencies had he not been able to return in time. Laurent had been able to keep busy with court business during the daylight hours, but now there was nothing to distract him.

Nothing but Nikandros.

“Your company will do nothing to lift my spirits.”

“I told him you would say that,” Nikandros agreed, lifting his cup toward Laurent in acknowledgment.

“It is a pointless waste of both of our times to pretend otherwise,” Laurent continued. Nikandros nodded and swallowed, answering around another mouthful of wine.

“I told him you would say that too.”

“In fact, your being here is like to make my evening even worse.”

“My words to Damianos exactly!” Nikandros said with fervor, lifting his cup in a toast of agreement. By now Laurent felt as though he were in the midst of an impassioned political speech, and Nikandros his most ardent supporter.

“You’ll be staying then, I suppose?” Laurent sighed, reclining slightly on the low bench. He’d chosen the strictest possible lacings today, with the closure in the back. He’d felt the need to be contained, and curbed. He’d yet to call a servant to unlace him, so fully relaxing was out of the question.

“I’m afraid so,” Nikandros commiserated, draining the remainder of his first cup of wine and pouring himself another. He gestured to Laurent, who held out his cup.

“Thank you for the wine,” Laurent said icily.

“My pleasure,” Nikandros grinned.

“If your hope is to get me to the point of drunkenness where I faint from it and you can make your escape,” Laurent intoned, “you might begin by not halving my supply.”

“Ha!” Nikandros said, narrowing his eyes and nodding. “I admit to considering it, but then I recalled you and Makedon’s griva, and gave it up.”

“Just as well,” Laurent replied.

“Never fear, however,” Nikandros said. “I’ve arranged for two more skins to be delivered here with your supper.” He smiled proudly.

“They will be long in arriving, I’m afraid,” Laurent answered. “Since I left word that I would not be taking dinner this evening.”

Nikandros remained silent, merely looking at Laurent over the rim of his cup. Laurent sighed.

“I suppose they’ve received amended instructions in the meantime?” he asked, already knowing the answer.

“You didn’t expect me to go without any food tonight, did you?” Nikandros asked. His tone implied that Laurent’s hospitality left much to be desired.

“I wouldn’t dream of it.”

They drank for a while longer in more-or-less companionable silence. When a knock at the door roused Nikandros to his feet, Laurent took the opportunity to tug at his laces. He was still in the midst of it, arm twisted awkwardly behind his back, when Nikandros sent the servant away before Laurent could call out for her.

“Well, that’s unfortunate,” Laurent said.

“For whom?” Nikandros said, smirking at Laurent’s predicament.

“Attend me,” Laurent commanded in lieu of an answer, holding out his left wrist and contorting until his right arm behind him was free again. Nikandros gave him a long look, but made his way over to where Laurent stood without protest to begin picking clumsily at the laces.

“You’re even worse than he was when he began,” Laurent complained mildly.

“Disappointed you can’t get a rise out of me?” Nikandros remarked, tugging at the laces with a bit too much force.

“He warned you.” Laurent stated the words, for they were hardly in question.

“He said,” Nikandros paused to take up Laurent’s other wrist, going somewhat faster now the second time around, “that you might ask, and that I should consider it an honor.”

“Do you feel especially venerated now?”

“My fingertips are tingling with it,” Nikandros said dryly.

“That’s more likely the wine.” They didn’t speak again until Nikandros stepped behind Laurent to continue with the rear laces.

“If it means anything,” Nikandros said, “Damen really didn’t want to go. He was afraid this would happen.” His voice was softer now, as if kindness were less expensive to him when not looking Laurent in the eye. Laurent knew this, of course, but the chieftains from the Northern Steppes had finally expressed interest in trade routes, and Damen had been infinitely better suited to negotiating with the nomadic tribesmen.

“Do you plan to spend the evening repeating back to me everything Damianos said,” Laurent said, crisp and short as he stepped out of the newly-loosened shell of his jacket and away from Nikandros, “or could we return to getting drunk?”

“Yes, let’s do that,” Nikandros said with relief. They made plates for themselves from the tray, and Laurent took his and made his way over to sit on the rug in front of the fire. His shirt, newly freed, was slightly damp from being bound to his body all day, making him shiver as it dried. The warmth of the fire was welcome. Nikandros joined him with the tray; his own plate, the cups, and a newly filled wine jug were balanced on it.

Laurent ate more than he’d expected to, his appetite enhanced by the wine. When Nikandros got up to feed more logs to the fire, Laurent unlaced his boots, sticking his foot out when Nikandros turned around. Nikandros sighed, rolling his eyes, but complied, tugging ungently on each boot while Laurent reclined on his elbows.

“You know,” Laurent remarked casually, “in less kind kingdoms, with less generous monarchs, rolling one’s eyes back like that would result in their being put out with the nearest hot poker.” Nikandros snorted, folding himself cross-legged back to the floor.

“If you intend on demanding my help with your kind and generous trousers, I’d just as soon you go ahead and carry out that sentence now, please.” Laurent laughed lightly, and Nikandros looked momentarily pleased despite himself, before schooling his expression back to impassivity.

“He would have been twenty and nine, today,” Laurent said finally, after another log and the second jug of wine had been consumed. Nikandros rose, returning with the remaining skin of wine.

“The same as Damen,” Nikandros said, nodding as he settled on the rug. “I remember that.” He didn’t bother decanting it into the jug this time, merely unstoppering it and taking a drink before he passed it to Laurent.

Nikandros cleared his throat, pulling something from a pouch at his belt and tossing it into the flames before Laurent could see what he’d held. Burning a prized possession in memory was one of the many Akielon traditions for honoring the dead.

“Well?” Laurent drawled lazily. He was, quite possibly, close to drunkenness at this point. “How do I know if you’ve honored Auguste properly if you don’t tell me what it was?” Nikandros, flushed with wine, the heat of the fire, or Laurent's scrutiny, took a moment to reply.

“It was—a small horse. A carving my own brother gave to me,” he said grudgingly. “Akielon-made, so it was clearly of superior craftsmanship,” he said, with a challenging tilt of his chin.

“A quality horse would be appreciated by a soldier in the afterlife,” Laurent approved, lifting the wineskin in a silent toast of thanks. Nikandros eyed him suspiciously for a moment, before accepting the words on their face.

Laurent didn’t really believe in spiritual things, but Damen did, and over the last few years the thought and care Damen put into honoring Auguste had given Laurent comfort, even if the ritual itself didn’t. Damen had clearly beseeched Nikandros into standing in his stead, and Nikandros was doing his best. Laurent drank a second time from the wineskin, then passed it back.

“Would you care for a game of cards?” Laurent asked, eyes glittering.

“I only play for money,” Nikandros warned.

“I’m sure the treasury can cover my debts,” Laurent drawled, fishing a deck from the drawer of a nearby table.

“You’re already quite drunk,” Nikandros eyed Laurent as he stumbled back over to the fire.

“If you're afraid to play me, just speak plainly and we’ll go back to drinking.”

“I’ve heard you cheat,” Nikandros said.

“I do,” Laurent admitted. “The point in question is whether you are astute enough to spot me.”

“Deal the hand,” Nikandros ordered with narrowed gaze, pausing for a moment before continuing. “And tell me a story about Auguste,” he finished gruffly.

Another Akielon tradition.

“Well,” Laurent began, whisking the cards between them. “When I was a little boy, I had a pony…”