Auguste came to the fight with the same expression as Damen: resigned dedication to the task at hand. Damen saw ragged tufts of hair from beneath the Prince's helm. Auguste, in mourning for his father killed on the battlefield, had hacked his golden hair off with a dagger.
The ground beneath their feet was packed earth, and the atmosphere around them still and silent. The soldiers, Veretian and Akielon both, had drawn back in a circle, forming an arena of sorts. Damen wiped sweat from his brow, and stepped to the edge of the ring, matching Auguste's steps exactly. Both men drew their weapons – long sword and shield for Auguste, short sword and dagger for Damen – and made their salute.
The minutes before the first clash lengthened, as Damen took in the man opposite him. He'd never been this close to any of the Veretian royal family. Now in the afternoon of a lengthy, bloody day, with fatigue and desperation weighing on his shoulders, he was surprised at the similarities between he and Auguste. They were of an age, if not of a size: Damen was by far the larger of the two, but Auguste, slender of frame, was surely going to make Damen dance for his supper in the hot sun. If he survived, Auguste was soon to be king, and Damen had been raised to the same. In other circumstances, they could have been allies.
Opposite him, Auguste shifted his weight with a clank, and the sunlight danced off the plated armour. "I don't suppose we could get on with killing each other? It's hot, and I've rather a lot to do today," he said, in a bored voice. His Akielon was carefully worded, a bluff of nonchalance. He'd had a good tutor, most likely a cultured man of letters.
Damen made an ironic, flamboyant bow. "Come on over, gorgeous. I've got a sword right here waiting for you." He used Veretian language learned on the battlefield and from camp followers. His words drew a horrified murmur from the crowd.
Auguste was not horrified. Auguste gave a barely audible snort of laughter, and waved his hand towards his men to settle them.
I don't want to kill him, Damen realised. He's clever and he's humane, and I want to spar with him across a negotiating table, not step over his body. All around them, men were dying over a matter of owning mere square miles of dirt. It was a hideous waste, and Damen felt the passion of battle go out of him. I am going to be a king, he thought, and I will not waste men's lives again.
He kept his sword low, and took a step forward. On the other side of the circle, Auguste cautiously did the same, until they were face to face in the centre.
"Shall we put a stop to this?" he said to the Prince, in better, more polite Veretian. "This war is two generations older than us, and I wonder if there might not be a better way to manage it."
Auguste watched him from behind a visor of steel; his eyes were blue and dark, creased at the corners from a lifetime of smiling, though he did not smile now. Sweat trickled from his temples, and Damen could see where it had soaked into the edges of the blue and gold surcoat. This would be the moment, Damen thought, where they were close enough that one could thrust his blade into the other and end the war. He held his breath and tried not to watch the shadows of crows circling above them. They had been still too long, and the carrion birds were gathering.
Then Auguste nodded, a swift, decisive gesture. "We'd best sheath at the same time, or they'll be counting the heartbeats between our movements and try to guess who surrendered first."
Damen felt his mouth pull up at one corner, a grim sort of smile, for a day of death coming finally to an end. "On three, then," he said, and started the count towards friendship.