Laurent was not surprised when Nikandros turned up in the slave baths a quarter of an hour after the bells had begun to ring, at the head of a squadron of men from the former Regent’s Guard with their own hand-picked men from the wagon mission right behind him. The red uniforms of the Regent’s Guard still provked an almost bone-deep reaction in Laurent that he was very careful to hide; his time in their untender custody had not robbed that uniform of its power over him.
By this time Laurent had unlocked Damen’s cuff from the chain and had Damen’s head in his lap. He watched Nikandros assess the scene quickly, pausing for just a second longer than necessary on Kastor’s body, the bloody sword still lying next to it, before moving to Damen. “I’ll call the physician,” he said, and Pallas was dispatched to fetch Paschal.
The next twenty minutes were probably excruciatingly awkward by Akielon standards, but Laurent felt himself buoyed by everything that had happened already on this extraordinary day; although he kept his expression controlled, his thoughts kept flicking between his memories, each more vivid and unexpected than the last: Damen in chains, entering the hall, right when Laurent needed him; Damen looking into his eyes, proclaiming that he was honored to have been Laurent’s lover; Damen saying yes. His uncle, dead, and Kastor, dead, were also a distinct source of satisfaction.
Paschal, when he appeared, looked very disapproving, but Damen bore up under his ministrations and remonstrances almost cheerfully. By the time Paschal was done, a litter had been brought, and Nikandros, after a cool look from Laurent, ordered that Damen be conveyed to the Queen’s Suite. “The King’s chambers will need to be…cleaned,” he said in an undertone to Damen, who waved a hand. Nikandros’ eyes slid to Laurent, clearly wanting to ask where the King of Vere would be staying, but just as clearly unwilling to dare. He needn’t have bothered; given how things had gone when he’d done so earlier, Laurent had no intention of letting Damen out of his sight.
In the event they were forced to wait in an antechamber while palace slaves were found to give the rooms a very hasty airing-out; although the chambers had certainly not been left to rot, they had also gone unused since the death of Damen’s mother twenty-five years ago. Laurent requested paper, pens, and ink while they waited, and once Damen was installed on the bed, he sat down at the desk underneath the window and began to write.
The first set of orders he signed and sealed with the signet ring that had been given to him, still warm, from his uncle’s body; these he gave to Lazar, who was supplied with a joint Akielon-Veretian escort at Damen’s insistence, with Nikandros’ long-suffering acquisence. Laurent had to give the man credit; he clearly thought that Laurent was using Damen shamelessly, but he also clearly saw that the former members of the Regent’s Guard could not really be trusted at this juncture.
At the same time, Laurent thought, the sooner everyone started getting used to the sight of joint Akielon-Veretian administration, the better, and the plain truth was that the Akielon forces in Ios could be trusted even less than the Veretians. If that galled Nikandros, he was covering it well.
Laurent lifted a hand when Nikandros made as if to depart. Nikandros hesitated, looking between the two of them; as the presumptive kyros of Ios, there were many tasks that now required his personal direction, to say nothing of his uncontested status as the first of Damen’s counsellors.
“Damianos,” Laurent said, coming to sit on the edge of the bed, next to his injured side. “We must have the list.”
Damen nodded, but he shut his eyes. He had lost more blood than Laurent was comfortable with—although, he acknowledged to himself, when it came to Damen the amount of blood he was comfortable losing was precisely none—and he was very pale beneath his brown complexion. Paschal had ordered him to eat liver two meals a day for the next three days.
It gave Laurent no joy to ask him these questions in his current condition, but on this day of all days every hour was precious. The sooner the poisonous root that had been Kastor was extirpated from Akielos, the better.
“Adrastus,” Damen said at last, opening his eyes. “He knew, but I heard he was dead. Jokaste and—my brother, obviously, and his guard. There was a slave as well, but—“ He frowned. “Even if she’s still alive, she certainly had no choice.”
Nikandros was nodding. “I assumed as much. All of Kastor’s guard will be known as wanted men within the hour.”
“I want them brought to justice, old friend,” Damen said, regarding him squarely. “Not vengeance.” He was injured, tired, and in a fairly undignified position, half-sitting up on a low bed with the linen bedclothes pulled up to his waist, wearing a stained and torn chiton. But he was still very clearly a king, and Nikandros gave him a more than perfunctory bow.
“Exalted,” he said. With one final glance at Laurent, he left.
The two of them were now as alone as they were going to be. “You should go out there and be seen,” said Damen, looking at him. “You are king today as well.”
Laurent took a deep breath, steeling himself. “I never expected to be king.”
Damen reached over and took his hand. “I know,” he said, and Laurent allowed himself to forget to tell him not to move. Of course Damen knew. His perspicacity was such that it was sometimes difficult to recall that he didn’t always already know everything.
“You should rest,” he said instead, and Damen rolled his eyes.
“I will rest, provided you go out there and start finding out the lay of the land. We aren’t going to unify two kingdoms merely on the strength of our charming personalities.”
Laurent very deliberately raised his eyebrow. “Speak for yourself, my dear barbarian.” But he leaned over to kiss Damen’s forehead, and offered no resistance when Damen tilted his head back and kissed him on the mouth. It was gentle, with no particular goal in mind. The thought that he could have this for the rest of his days—that his days were not going to be cut off before he attained his twenty-first year—was dizzying, and Laurent let it go for almost too long. “Sleep,” he said against Damen’s lips when he did finally pull back.
“I’ll dream of you,” Damen said, unmistakably flirtatious; Laurent, rolling his eyes, forced himself to turn away, though not before he saw Damen register the flare of pleasure in his expression. It was unaccountable, how he somehow was always so transparent to him. But it was, secretly but undeniably, very pleasurable too: knowing him, Damen not only trusted him, but loved him.
It still didn’t seem real. Laurent reminded himself as he left the room, leaving the guards to take up their positions outside the door behind him, that the real work was only now beginning.
Damen dozed for the remainder of the afternoon, awoke viciously hungry around sunset, and was joined by Laurent and Nikandros for a dinner of lamb and leeks, with a side of liver for the King of Akielos. One of the subjects under discussion was what to do with Kastor’s body; Nikandros very clearly wanted it thrown out for the crows, and also very clearly wanted to know which of them had dealt the fatal blow. Damen would hear none of the former, and Laurent remained politely silent on the latter. When Nikandros tried to imply that perhaps the King of Vere should be set up in his own suite—there was nothing fine enough for a man of his rank, of course, but allowances for circumstances had to be made—and that perhaps the King of Vere should leave the room while the kyros of Ios discussed Akielon matters with his king, it was Damen’s turn to be politely deaf.
“I don’t have any clothes anyway,” Laurent said when Nikandros brought up the question of the rooms again, blinking his blue eyes up at him slowly. “A suite would be wasted on me.” Damen was unable to keep from laughing, which was deeply unfortunate because laughing was very painful.
“We should send for Charls the Veretian cloth merchant,” he said when Nikandros scowled. “I will buy you a wardrobe in the Akielon style for a—coronation present. You can even make a go of starting a fashion for sleeves.”
One corner of Laurent’s mouth curled up, and Damen smiled back, hoping he hadn’t seen how he’d nearly said “wedding present” instead.
Nikandros rolled his eyes. “Exalted.” This time he nodded to both of them before he left.
“He’s going to figure out that you’re baiting him eventually,” said Damen, settling back into the pillows, and secretly luxuriating in the fact that Laurent immediately stood to rearrange the cushions, making sure that he was perfectly comfortable.
“We have fifty years, if we’re fortunate,” Laurent said, adjusting one of the pillows minutely behind Damen’s torso. He was sitting on the side of the bed, quite close to Damen, subtly avoiding his eyes. “I would lay odds it will take at least five before the thought crosses his mind.”
He sat back, and then looked at Damen, drawing one leg up under him so he could perch close enough to feel his body heat through the bedclothes. It was a shame that that was his injured side. “Although I admit that Vannes being included in these deliberations henceforth will distract him with dislike.”
Vannes wouldn’t like it either, but that was equally beside the point. “Begin as we mean to go on,” Damen murmured, and Laurent nodded. His full mouth pinched a bit on one side. “Fifty years?” Damen said idly.
Laurent did no more than blink. “That is the—reasonable assumption,” he said after a breath. “Three score years and ten, plus a few more for absurd good health in your case.”
It was twice the span of Damen’s years so far; it was more than twice Laurent’s. Damen’s mind did not normally turn into such circles, and he saw, looking at Laurent, that his had not turned into this particular circle before either. “You didn’t plan for this,” Damen said, and Laurent’s mouth twisted. “You thought you were going to die,” Damen said steadily, and Laurent turned his face away.
“It seemed too much,” he said at last, “to expect you to save me once again.” Slowly, slowly, he turned back to face Damen, who reached out just as slowly and wove his fingers through Laurent’s. “But you did. You always do,” Laurent said, and Damen brought his hand to his lips.
“I always will,” he said into Laurent’s skin, and Laurent’s grip tightened. There was another silence, broken only by the sound of their breathing, and in Damen’s ears, the slow, quiet thump of his heart. “You told me you wouldn’t let the Regent hurt me,” Damen said, rubbing his thumb over Laurent’s knuckles. “Did you think your death wouldn’t do that?”
Laurent made a noise, little more than an unsteady exhalation of breath. He was tensing again. “I thought—you could handle him and Kastor, in the field,” he said at last. “In the end, you’d have held both countries. I could leave my realm in no better hands.”
“I’m not sure how effective I’d be in the field with a broken heart,” Damen said, keeping his tone light. He had not stopped his slow stroking of Laurent’s hand, even as Laurent’s body stiffened.
Damen watched Laurent weigh and discard several possible responses, shutting his eyes before opening them again to look at him. His grip on Damen’s hand tightened further, and Damen looked down at their fingers; Laurent’s knuckles were very nearly white.
“Do you remember, before we were captured by those clansmen?” Laurent asked at length. “When you asked me not to send you against Akielos.” Damen nodded. A good leader would not set a lesser loyalty against a greater; the lesser will break. “That was what I thought I was doing. But you upset all my plans, again.” He lifted his other hand to Damen’s face, tucked a lock of hair back behind his ear.
“You were willing to trade your kingdom to save me,” Damen said. “Could I do any less?” He marked Laurent’s eyes widening minutely, and followed up his advantage. “To get what you want, you have to know exactly what you are willing to give up for it.”
Laurent simply stared at him for the space of a breath, then two. Damen remembered his face earlier that day, when he had stood in chains before the Regent’s Council, and said No at the sight of the King of Akielos, captive again.
In the next instant Laurent acted, standing to put his hands on Damen’s shoulders and then straddle his thighs in the same movement. Damen barely registered that he was holding most of his weight off him before Laurent leaned in and kissed him.
The kiss started fierce but then turned gentle: they had all the time in the world, and in any case Damen was aware that Paschal had left stern instructions about undertaking any strenuous activity, which Laurent would be only too zealous in carrying out.
“It will be the work of a lifetime,” Laurent breathed against Damen’s lips when they did at last draw apart. Damen smiled: of course Laurent was four steps ahead.
“Then I suppose we’d best be crowned and married as soon as possible, so we can start doing it.”
Laurent settled a little more of his weight onto Damen’s thighs, his eyes widening slightly. Damen had thrown him off balance. “Unless your words about your line ending with you were a reference to the fact that you were planning on dying,” Damen said, and at that Laurent’s expression firmed.
“No,” he said; “I meant it.”
“Then you should marry me,” Damen said reasonably. “No chance of children.” Laurent continued to stare at him. “I said yes,” Damen reminded him, and Laurent took in a slow breath, visibly recovering himself, and leaned forward and kissed Damen again.
This time when they parted Laurent swung his leg up and off Damen’s, moving so that he now sat on Damen’s uninjured side. He kept one of his hands on Damen’s shoulder. “They’ll hate it,” he said, his gaze wandering out towards the window. Thanks to clever architecture, the queen’s suite had a nearly unimpeded view sweeping down the tiers of the white city to its blue harbor. The early autumn stars were visible now, the sky the same color as the wine-dark waves. “They’ll hate us.”
“They’ll get used to us,” Damen said firmly. “What they’ll hate is us freeing the slaves, and raising the minimum age of contract for pets.”
He had surprised Laurent again, but this one really ought not to have caught him unawares. “You would have made a good king, without me,” Laurent said softly. “Never doubt it.”
Damen felt his own pleasure at the compliment, knew it was on his face and in his voice when he said, “Perhaps. But together, we will be great.”
If Laurent replied, it was lost in the wave of sleep that rose up to claim him, dragging him under into a warm and comfortable darkness.
He awoke hours later to Laurent climbing into bed beside him, insinuating himself against his uninjured side, into Damen’s arms. Even half asleep, Damen knew better than to say anything. He turned his head to press his lips into Laurent’s bright hair once Laurent had settled his head on his shoulder, and let the comfort of Laurent’s warm presence send him to a deep and dreamless sleep.