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Beyond The End of the Stars

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The weight of gold at Damen's neck did not weigh nearly as heavily on him as his thoughts weighed on his mind.

He was sitting on the edge of one of the campfires, turning his wrist idly and watching the light glint off the gold there. The sight of his slave cuffs still filled him with disgust and a dull, throbbing anger, but he caught himself entranced by the way the light played off them now, the smooth gold a bright contrast to his skin.

He had just left the tent after another taxing few hours of tactic discussion with Laurent. Damen had been frustrated and dancing on a very dangerous line with Laurent by the time Laurent had dismissed him. Instead of retreating to his pallet, Damen had stood and, when Laurent made no move to stop him, thrown the entrance flap to the side and left, barely restraining the impatience in his step.

Damen twisted his wrist again, the warm metal glowing slightly in the night, thinking back to their disastrous conversation.

"I will not take advice from a slave on how to command my men," Laurent had told him, his face expressionless as he had looked at Damen across the table. He had been draped casually in his seat, one leg drawn up onto the chair. His arm was braced on his raised knee, a goblet of water hanging from his fingertips. On anyone else, the pose would have suggested arrogance. A spoiled child playing at prince.

On Laurent, it went straight past arrogance and into pure disdain.

Damen had taken a deep breath in to stop himself from saying something that would have him back in chains. Helping him is your best path back to Ios, he had reminded himself. Get him safely to the border, and then he and the Regent can squabble their country into shreds if they want to.

After a few moments, during which Laurent's eyes never left his face, Damen had continued.

"Your men whisper behind your back. To them, you're almost not human. Cold, calculating, distant. How are they supposed to follow you if they don't even know you? You'll never have their loyalty this way."

Laurent's blue eyes had been like chips of ice as he looked at Damen, but his voice had been cool and collected as always when he spoke. "You stray very close to danger. You would do well to remember your place. I accept your advice because of your knowledge of these lands, nothing more. I know how to command my men."

"Then you are playing right into your uncle's plans! He knows you, he wants your men to feel no tie to you so that at the first sign of trouble, their allegiance will shift!" Damen had exclaimed, forgetting himself and slapping his hand down onto the table between them in anger. Damen saw a muscle clench in Laurent's jaw, but nothing else about his posture or expression changed.

Silence had stretched between them like spun glass, fragile and sharp. Laurent made no move to dispel it, wielding it as he would a weapon. Damen cursed himself for forgetting that he was not in one of his war councils, free to speak as he would. He wondered briefly if he would find himself again on the flogging post.

The silence had lasted an uncomfortable amount of time, and Damen knew it would be unwise to be the one to break it. He looked back at Laurent, meeting his cold gaze. It took all of his will not to look down. Finally, Laurent had leaned forward, placing the goblet on the table. His eyes were still on Damen as he said, "We are done here. I do not need your services tonight. You are dismissed."

Laurent's gaze had lowered once more to the map stretched in front of him, and when Damen had stood to leave, Laurent had given no indication that he was even aware of Damen's presence.

Now, sitting next to the dying embers of the fire as the night deepened, Damen knew he had touched a nerve. Laurent was not going to listen to his counsel. He rubbed his hand on his sore, tense neck, wondering why he even bothered.

Sighing, and hoping Laurent was already asleep in their tent, Damen stood to go to bed.

*****

The next night, Damen joined Jord at one of the campfires. Jord nodded to him as he sat, and a few other men greeted him lazily. Damen was still not accustomed to being treated as anything but a slave from Veretians, but it was nice to fall back into the casual company of men who had a common goal.

Jord silently offered him some of the camp wine. Damen took it gratefully. The wine was just as terrible as it had been on day one.

They both gazed at the fire, as the men around them exchanged profane stories and jokes. Damen drank his wine quickly, then accepted another cup from Jord.

"The Prince did not want your company tonight?" Jord asked, looking at Damen.

"I seem to have offered one too many opinions for his taste," Damen responded after taking a particularly large swig of wine, grimacing.

"Ah," said Jord sympathetically, though Damen caught a slight upturn at the corner of Jord's mouth when he said it. "His Highness ....does not always respond well to suggestions that imply he doesn't know precisely what he's doing."

"I've noticed," said Damen wryly. "His pride is too great to take advice that could help him, especially from a slave."

Jord was watching him thoughtfully. "He does not treat you as a slave," he finally said. "The Prince has always kept his own counsel, allowing no one close to his plans. But he spends every night, well into the morning, listening to you."

"Listening, but never actually following," Damen muttered. "He is too stubborn by half."

Jord was still watching him with interest, but he decided to let the subject lie. Content to sit in silence, they both gazed, mesmerized, at the flames.

Damen had expected Laurent to still be angry with him from their conversation last night, but Laurent had treated him with the same cool, detached command he always assumed, riding tall and straight at the head of their company, a golden figurehead leading them on. He had spoken to Damen as if nothing had happened.

Damen finished off his cup of wine, wondering if he would ever understand Laurent.

Jord interrupted his thoughts with a gentle nudge to his shoulder and a nod across the fire. Following his stare, it took Damen a few moments to register what he was looking at. The golden hair and fair skin was especially lovely in the firelight, and blue eyes met his own as Laurent settled onto a stump that served as a seat.

Laurent seemed impervious to the sudden cease in talking that his presence had inspired. His eyes stayed fixed on Damen. Damen didn't look away.

As the silence became tangible, Laurent moved his gaze to take in the other men. "By all means, continue. I did not come here to sit in silence."

No one knew quite how to break the awkward pause. Finally, clearing his throat, Jord spoke.

"We were discussing new exercises we could use in our training, Your Highness. Care to weigh in?"

Laurent's eyes sparked with amusement. "A group of men like this, tired after a long day's ride, and you're trying to tell me you were discussing work? Come, now. My delicate prince ears will not bleed at the sound of the word 'fuck'."

A much more stunned silence, following this. Lazar was the one to break it this time, glancing hesitantly at Laurent as he continued a story he had been in the middle of telling about a brothel, a chicken, and an accidental display of public nudity.

Slowly, the atmosphere of the fire returned to its previous quality, though no one forgot who was sitting with them. Laurent seemed content to listen, contributing nothing to the conversation, but Damen caught him smiling during some of the more ribald jokes.

Damen found that he couldn't seem to look away from Laurent. His gaze was drawn to the way the light hollowed a long shadow under his cheekbone, the way the dancing flames softened his features and bleached the color from him, rendering him entirely in whites and golds. Even his absurd Veretian laces looked less stiff and more elegant.

For just a moment, Damen could picture Laurent....softer. Not caught in a web of war and deceit. Not forced to lock every shred of emotion behind a tightly-held mask of steely indifference. Not constantly ripping people to shreds with his words, his only defense in a world looking to swallow him whole. It took very little effort for his imagination to replace this fire with another, lit in a hearth in a room swathed in silks. Laurent, relaxed in front of it, clothed in only a plain white shirt open at the throat, free from those wretched laces. Laurent, his face elegant and young, his hair impossibly golden, declaring more wealth than all the gaudy decorations of all the pets in Arles. Laurent, his face turning up to look at Damen, open and honest, his soft lips parting in a gentle smile...

A nudge to his ribs from Jord forced Damen out of his reverie, and, with a jolt, he realized Laurent's eyes were on him as well. If he hadn't had so much practice, Damen would have been unable to hold his level gaze. Flushing slightly, Damen wondered how long he had been staring at Laurent, and how long Laurent had been staring back.

This was ridiculous. He'd had too much wine, that was all. He forced himself to remember that every scar on his back had been administered under Laurent's unwavering command. He dropped his eyes from Laurent's stare to look at the fire. Another memory arose, unbidden--Laurent pressing a knife into his hand, the shock as Laurent's fingers wrapped around his own, guiding the knife to Laurent's ribs. I know exactly what it is to want to kill a man, and to wait, Laurent had said.

Damen found he no longer knew what he wanted from Laurent.

This was not a game he could play and win. He was still a slave in a rival country, no matter how boldly he spoke to Laurent, and he was under the command of the one person who would most like to kill him if he ever discovered who Damen truly was. There was no future for them that didn't end in bloodshed. And here he was, lost in daydreams because the Prince was fair and lovely.

Nikandros would have my throat if he knew, Damen thought to himself wryly. Luckily, by the time he knows I'm alive, I'll be long gone from Laurent.

Jord cleared his throat quietly, then said, "I believe the Prince requires your company." Damen glanced at Jord to find him with an annoyingly knowing smile on his face, though he was clearly trying to repress it.

Damen moved his glance over to Laurent, who had stood up and was waiting for him with raised eyebrows. The fire had gone quiet again, but not with the same discomfort that had signaled Laurent's arrival. Damen could already see new respect in the eyes of some of the men.

Sighing to himself, Damen arose to accompany Laurent back to the tent. Tomorrow night, he was only having one cup of wine.

*****

Back at the tent, Laurent gestured for Damen to take a seat. He sat across from him in his usual chair, draping across it like he had last night. He watched Damen across the table, not speaking. Damen tried to gauge any emotion from his face, but as usual, there was nothing but impassive elegance.

Damen spoke first. "What made you change your mind?"

Laurent regarded him with a long, searching look. Instead of answering Damen, he poured a cup of wine and set it in front of Damen, then poured a cup of water for himself. Damen looked down at the wine, then back up a Laurent.

"I think I've had enough wine," he said, forcing himself not to flush at the memory of his fireside thoughts.

Laurent's expression was amused. "Is that why you were staring at me the entire time?" he asked, without heat.

"I....I was merely surprised to see you there," said Damen, less successful at keeping emotion out of his voice. "You made your intentions to ignore my advice clear last night." Contrary to his previous statement, he took another sip of wine to have something to do with his hands.

"Would you like to gloat? Would you like to tell me that your plan worked exactly as you intended it? Maybe next time I'll throw in a story about how you fucked me. That is what soldiers talk about, is it not?" Laurent took a sip of water, then let the cup dangle from his long fingers as he watched Damen's response.

"I didn't...that isn't...you know very well that isn't what I meant," Damen said, cursing his inability to hide his reaction to Laurent's vulgarity. "It just helps them to see you there. Already talk will be spreading about it. The more they know you, the more they will be loyal to you."

Laurent looked at him, his gaze appraising. "Is that how you feel? Do you feel loyal? I had your back flayed open. I had you kneeling in chains at my feet. I would say that you have come to know me quite well. Tell me, is my personality one that inspires loyalty?"

Damen felt as if he had been dropped in a pit of snakes. He tread very carefully, for fear of making a misstep and being bitten. Slowly, choosing his words carefully, he said, "I have come to know you. You seem to care for no one. You do nothing that isn't a means to accomplish your ends. Every step is calculated, cruel, precise." He paused. Laurent's jaw was tense.

Damen continued. "You also bargained for the other slaves of Akielos, ensuring they were sent to Patras to be well taken care of. You care for Nicaise, and he cares for you. You treat your men well. In Nesson-Eloy, you gave us away for the fun of the chase." Another pause. Quieter: "You loved your brother."

Laurent hissed in a sharp intake of breath, as if Damen had slapped him. "That's enough," he said, and Damen was surprised to see a slight hint of color high on Laurent's cheeks. "You....don't speak of my brother again."

Damen knew he was on very dangerous ground, but he steeled himself and continued. His voice was low and gentle. "Your men say how frigid you are. You give them no reason to think differently. But I have seen otherwise. I have seen you laughing. I have seen that you care for this country. The only reason you appear cold and distant is because that's how you want to appear. It's just another piece in your game."

Laurent's chest was rising and falling rapidly, and though his posture had not changed, Damen could see the rigid set to his body, as if Laurent was forcing every muscle to stay completely still. "I said, that's enough."

This was the most reaction Damen had ever gotten out of Laurent, and he wanted more. He wanted to get behind those walls and see why they had been built in the first place.

Recklessly, though he knew he was courting the whipping post, Damen forged on. "You trust no one. Even men who would help you, even men who would follow you, even men who would love you." He paused a moment, knowing his next words were his most dangerous yet. "You don't have to do it alone."

Laurent had finally straightened in his chair, his knuckles white where they clenched around his cup. "I have only ever been alone," he spat. His eyes bored into Damen, a challenge and a threat. "Ever since Damianos of Akielos met my brother on the field at Marlas and cut him down, I have been alone." Damen's blood ran cold at those words. "Every time I have trusted, it has been used against me. You have seen it yourself. I am surrounded by deceit and betrayal. Why would I be so stupid as to make the same mistake again?"

Damen craved to know who he had ever trusted, what had happened that had betrayed that trust so. But he knew that he had pushed Laurent too far tonight. He would not ask. Not now.

In a very quiet voice, Damen asked, "Then why did you trust me? Why did you take my advice tonight?" Damen forced himself to meet Laurent's gaze when he said it. It was incredibly difficult to do so--Laurent may as well have been wielding knives instead of glances.

The moment stretched on painfully. Laurent took the time to calm his breath, to pull himself back from the emotion he had revealed. Finally, just as quietly, he said, "I don't know. I don't understand you."

In a night filled with surprises, this was the most shocking thing Damen had yet encountered. Laurent had acknowledged that he trusted Damen, at least a little bit, and also that he didn't know why. Damen was overtaken with a sudden urge to tell Laurent who he was, to have no more untruths between them. But to do so would be suicidal. Damen had killed the last person Laurent had ever trusted.

An unknown emotion was rising in Damen, uncomfortable and guilty, mixed confusingly with glee. Laurent trusted him. But Laurent trusted a lie. Damen was sickened by the thought of Laurent discovering that he had, once again, put his trust in someone who would betray him, who had already betrayed him, who was, in fact, his greatest enemy.

While Damen had struggled to find something to say to him, Laurent had risen, placing the cup of water on the table. He was once again contained, controlled, distant.

"That is all for tonight. I will need no further services from you."

Without glancing back at Damen, Laurent strode from the tent. Damen stayed awake for a long time, staring at the entrance to the tent, but he never heard Laurent come to bed.