Laurent stared at the missive in his hand.
“What is this?” he asked.
Damen shifted closer, propped up on one elbow. He nuzzled Laurent’s shoulder, one large hand warm against Laurent’s bare hip. “It looks like a letter from Vask.”
“I meant why is it in my hands. Why is Vannes not dealing with it?” Laurent wasn’t annoyed enough to brush him away. Yet.
“Maybe she wanted you to see it directly,” Damen said.
Laurent shook his head and broke the wax seal on the letter. He read it, and frowned. “Why is Halvik sending for me and my slave?”
Damen hid a smile against Laurent’s shoulder. “I see she retains a high regard for me even after these past few years.”
“Why isn’t she going through the Empress with a traditional reqeust?” Laurent asked.
“Ask her yourself. Perhaps she was impressed with your handling of your uncle,” Damen said. He rested his cheek on Laurent’s shoulder and read the letter. “She wants your help negotiating with the Patrans. That seems rather ordinary.”
“Too ordinary,” Laurent said. “Vannes can handle this, why would Halvik send for me?”
“Maybe she just misses you,” Damen said. “And your remarkable personality.”
“I can still make you sleep on the couch,” Laurent said. “If we go, you are the one who will be in the loincloth, not me.”
“Perhaps we can give me a promotion,” Damen said, not rising to the bait. He rolled onto his back and tugged Laurent down with him.
“We need to respond to this.” Laurent let himself be pulled down against the cool sheets. “Can your kingdom afford to lose you for a few days?”
“I think Nikandros can manage things for that long,” Damen said. “Can you manage being saddled with me for a few extra days?”
Laurent said nothing, the missive gripped tightly in his hand. Damen’s joking tone hit too close to his heart for him to respond immediately. Here, lying in their shared bed at Damen’s mother’s summer home, it was easy to put from his mind that in a scarce few days he would be riding back to Vere, and Damen would return to Ios. Damen’s arm tightened around his shoulders.
“Ah. We will go to Vask,” Damen said. He pressed his lips to the top of Laurent’s head, a tender gesture that Laurent would never cease to adore. He guided Laurent over him. “Come here.”
Laurent followed willingly, and set the missive on the bedside table before turning his full attention to Damen.
Laurent decided that Damen could have a promotion for their visit. Damen rode beside him in common merchant’s clothing, still styled after Veretian clothing despite the slow but constant meshing of their cultures since the joining of their kingdoms. Laurent wore the dressings of his station, the King of Vere, though he had foregone his crown in deference to their task.
Negotiating a trade exchange and agreement.
They took only a small contingent with them, going into peaceful territory with the worst of their war several years behind them. Laurent kept his eyes on the landscape until he saw the smoke from fires drifting into the sky. Jord closed the distance between their horses and said, “Vannes is waiting.”
Laurent could see her, standing just on the outside of the campsite. Halvik stood beside her, arms folded over her chest, looking as imposing as ever. It still rankled Laurent that she stood taller than him, even at his age. He carefully schooled his expression as he dismounted, and strode towards the two women. Behind him, Jord and Damen also swung out of their saddles.
“Halvik,” Laurent said. He glanced at Vannes. “And Vannes.”
“I’m glad you could come on such short notice,” Vannes said. She let her eyes drift towards Damen, and if she was surprised to see him in merchant’s clothes, she gave nothing away. She let a sly smile flicker over her features. “And I see the slave has obtained some clothing. Shame.”
Damen rolled his eyes at her and moved to his position at Laurent’s back.
“I am glad you have arrived,” Halvik said. “The discussions will begin shortly. But first, we feast.”
The last time he had feasted with Halvik he had found himself enjoying the display of carnality much more than he had anticipated. Much, much more, considering how greatly he despised his uncle’s court entertainment and the cheap display of violence that pervaded it. To this day he was unsure if the joy had come from the pure pleasure of Halvik’s girls or Damen himself. He prefered not to know the answer.
Damen sat beside him this time, with Jord at their backs. Through the meal, Laurent watched Damen fend off advances from all sorts of women, some subtle, some much more overt. The overtures were so distracting that Laurent nearly missed two of the Patran pages slipping off into the darkness. He watched them go, noting that the direction seemed to be where the horses were being kept. There were quiet fields in that direction, where indiscretions could be entertained without prying eyes upon them.
It was far too late in the night when Laurent found himself under Damen’s arm, helping him towards their bedding. He let Damen tumble into a pile of furs, and Damen smiled up at him.
“I should not be helping my servant into his bed,” Laurent said. Damen laughed, and Laurent’ stomach turned over.
“You did such a good job of it,” Damen said. “Will you come to bed now?”
“I have matters to attend,” Laurent said. “Unlike drunken merchants.”
“Why did you dress me up in this if you weren’t going to unwrap me?” Damen asked, with a leer. “Laurent.”
“Go to sleep,” Laurent said, not willing to be swayed. Damen was loose and pliant against the furs, and Laurent wanted nothing more to sink down beside him and relish in his company. But he needed to pursue those two pages. If the Patrans had any leverage, he needed it for the discussions. “You’re unbearable when you’re drunk.”
“I am not drunk,” Damen said, letting his arms flop down on the furs beside him. “Fine. Go.”
Laurent sighed, and pushed out of the tent, leaving Damen to sleep off whatever he had imbibed at the dinner. The cold Vaskian night closed around him, and he tucked his arms close to his chest and made his way towards the horse pens.
He half expected to stumble over the pages, but he found no hint of life on his walk, and he found himself at the horse pens quicker than he had thought. He stood at the fencing, watching the horses sleep and graze, and kept an ear out for errant footsteps. He heard nothing, no whispering, no rustling of the tall grass. He was alone in this area.
It was nearly dawn when he made his way back to the tent he shared with Damen, and when he entered he disturbed the sleeping occupant. Damen rolled onto his side and blinked at Laurent. “Are you just getting back?”
“Yes,” Laurent said. He washed his face in the small basin provided them. Damen rose and wrapped his arms around Laurent’s waist, molding his body to Laurent’s.
“What’s wrong?” Damen asked, in the calm manner that cut through all of Laurent’s thundering thoughts.
“Two Patrans disappeared from the feast last night and I could find no trace of them,” Laurent found himself saying. “They went to the horse pens but when I got there they were gone.”
“Do not let it concern you,” Damen said. “We’re here for Halvik and to arrange a beneficial trade agreement. Not to catch some foreigners with their trousers down.”
Laurent hummed, relaxing in Damen’s arms. Damen held him for a moment longer, before releasing him and beginning his morning ablutions. Laurent watched him move, the fine muscles in his arms flexing and shifting as he donned his clothing and hid them away from view. Laurent pushed down his disappointment.
“What will you do today?” Laurent asked.
“Avoid more advances from willing women,” Damen said. He turned to Laurent with a smile. “I don’t think Halvik told them who I was.”
“Well, you are dressed as a common merchant,” Laurent said. “They probably think they have a chance.”
“They do not,” Damen said, his smile going warm and light. Laurent couldn’t look at it. He focused on the tray that had been left for their breakfast of bread and cheese. He broke off a piece of bread for himself. “Will you be with Halvik all day?”
“I believe that is the plan,” Laurent said. “Unless the discussions finish sooner.”
“I will see you tonight?” Damen asked. Laurent turned to him, finding yearning in his expression. “Will you come to bed tonight?”
“Yes,” Laurent said, wondering if Damen felt the same ache as he when they were apart. Surely a man surrounded by friends would have such an ache eased at times. He drew a breath. “I’m sorry. I--”
“Don’t,” Damen said. He held up a hand. “We both have duties. I understand. It makes me treasure what time we have together.”
Laurent had nothing to say, and picked at the bread in his hands. He chewed a bit of it, and then wrapped it in a cloth to take the rest with him. Before he left the tent, Damen slipped an arm around his waist. “Have good talks,” he said. He dropped a soft kiss against Laurent’s lips.
Laurent nodded, and left Damen to his own devices. The talks over breakfast were being held between Halvik and a Patran named Ahmed. Ahmed owned several horse farms spanning the nation of Patras, and Halvik wanted access to horses that could survive the Vaskian winters. Ahmed wanted free passage through the mountains for mining materials that were extremely valuable in Patras. To Laurent’s eyes, it was a simple matter that did not require a king’s eye.
As he sat down at the table with Halvik and Ahmed, he realised this was indeed the case. The talks seemed to be already in progress, and while he caught up with relative ease, he quickly understood that he was not needed here. His attention wandered to those gathered around the table, and he noticed the two Patrans who had wandered off the previous night.
As he watched, they exchanged a glance, and one slipped away, unnoticed by any of the others present. People were coming and going at all times, and one person disengaging from the talks did not warrant extra attention. Laurent couldn’t help but find his curiosity piqued, however, and excused himself from the table.
He fell in behind the Patran, who was snaking through the pitched tents towards the horse enclosure. After a few moments, Laurent was aware that someone was also following him. He quickly ducked into a tent to his right, and waited, his eyes on the slit between the tent flaps. A moment later, the second Patran strode up the path, his eyes searching. Searching for Laurent, most likely.
He walked past, and Laurent slipped out of the tent to follow. The Patrans met at the horse enclosure, and Laurent kept himself out of sight behind the last tent of the encampment. As he looked on, he saw the Patrans enter the enclosure, approach a horse, and fix a bridle over it’s head. They led the horse out, and one mounted up before taking off down the road that led out of the camp. Towards Patras.
Laurent frowned. Patrans running off with the very thing they were trying to bargain with? Something was amiss here.
He quietly made his way back to the trade discussion, and sat down in his seat beside Halvik. The discussion had digressed into a conversation about the weather and possible effects on the horse exchange during the snowy season.
Surreptitiously, he looked at the trade document in front of him. The initial exchange included a down payment of twenty horses, low and sturdy breeds made for cold winters. Laurent had counted nearly thirty in the enclosure, which had had assumed were from the Patran delegation.
He cast an eye at Ahmed. Could Ahmed have brought thieves into the negotiations? Thieves would only hinder discussions. Ahmed could not know what his pages were doing. The illegal horse trade was profitable, and ambitious young men sometimes turned towards it during economic downturns.
As he was thinking on what he had seen, he lifted his eyes and saw a familiar shadow through a tent wall, backlit by the lamp inside. The body was more familiar to him than his own, and Laurent leaned back in his chair to watch Damen move. It was one of his favourite pastimes.
He watched, and to his immense surprise, saw one of the errant Patran pages approach Damen in the tent. They huddled briefly, and then the Patran page left the tent not five minutes later. Laurent stared at the tent, trying to fit the pieces together. Damen knew the pages that were taking horses from the enclosure. Why? How did he even know such a common Patran? Akielos did not have dealings with Patras.
When the talks had finished for the day, another feast was held. Laurent sat beside Halvik, watching Damen interact with everyone around him. He gave no indication that he knew any of the Patrans. When the pages walked past him in plain site, he did not greet them or betray himself with that small press of his lips that signalled his lies. Laurent frowned.
When dinner had finished, Laurent found Damen waiting in their tent. Jord stood outside, guarding them. Damen smiled when Laurent entered the tent. “You came.”
“I said I would,” Laurent said. He shucked his outer jacket, unnecessary in the warmth and close space of the tent.
“You did,” Damen said. He reclined on the furs provided for their stay. The Vaskian climate necessitated him to wear more than he typically did for sleep. Which was to say he wore clothing. Laurent did not like it.
He moved to the bedside, biting down on the questions that begged to be voiced. When they had embarked on this… thing between them, Laurent had demanded the truth at all times from Damen, and Damen seemed to understand the importance of the requirement. Though Damen was nearly incapable of lying to begin with, to Laurent he was unendingly honest. This sudden facade rocked Laurent to his core, and he found himself unable to touch Damen as they lay side by side.
“Laurent?” Damen turned onto his side. He regarded Laurent with concern. “What is it?”
Feeling ill, as if his heart were trying to choke him, he carefully took a breath. Laurent asked, “Do you know any of the Patrans here?”
Damen frowned for a moment, and reached out to touch Laurent’s jaw. “You’re pale. What happened?”
“I followed two Patrans to the horse enclosure, where the down payment is being kept. They stole a horse from it, and then I saw one of them speaking with you today,” Laurent said. His voice did not break. He still had his dignity even as he held himself so tightly he felt he would break at the slightest touch.
Damen rubbed a hand over his face and sighed, not in exhaustion, but with exasperation. He let out a soft chuckle. He said, “I should have known this was a poor idea. Laurent, I was planning a surprise for you.”
Some of the tension released. “What?”
Damen sat up, his nightshirt pooling around him. “I wanted to surprise you with a gift while we were here. I didn’t mean to worry you. I’m sorry. I wasn’t- They didn’t steal that horse. I bought it. Laurent, come here.”
Laurent felt his resolve crumble, understanding deep in him that this was a very Damen-like thing to do. He sat up and moved into Damen’s lap, letting himself be pulled into a fierce embrace. He buried his face in Damen’s neck, soaking in the unique scent that was him, and letting himself be soothed. Damen’s hands roamed up and down his back, grounding him in his body. His racing thoughts of betrayal and deception calmed.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” Damen said. His words brushed over Laurent’s ear, soft and intimate and only for him to hear. “I didn’t think this through.”
“I didn’t know you knew any Patrans,” Laurent said, when he could find his voice.
“I’ve had dealings with them, now that we are one nation,” Damen said. He kept his arms around Laurent. “I thought you would enjoy your surprise. We can see it tomorrow, if you’d like. If you aren’t too busy with the talks.”
“They don’t need me here,” Laurent said. He drew back, peering at Damen. “Did you arrange to have us here to extend our time together?”
Damen blushed, in the dim light, and Laurent delighted in it. Damen’s fingers found Laurent’s hair. “Maybe.”
“Was it Vannes’ idea?”
“Will I absolve myself if I say yes?”
“Absolutely not,” Laurent said.
“You’re going to make me grovel, aren’t you?”
“I might. You are, after all, just a merchant here.” Laurent let his hands fall to the front of Damen’s night shirt. He gripped the soft cotton.
“I just wanted to make you smile,” Damen said. “I will be more forthright in the future.”
He cupped Laurent’s jaw and drew him in. The kiss soothed Laurent, and he let himself open to Damen as Damen tipped him over backwards against the furs.
The next morning, Vannes pouted when she realised Laurent had uncovered their exaggeration. She sat at the negotiation table with a Vaskian man and Vaskian woman on each arm and stared balefully up at Laurent. “I thought you could use a vacation. You’re always alone at the palace. This was a chance to get out amongst friends.”
“I’ll take it into consideration when your position comes up this year,” Laurent said, without inflection.
Vannes scowled and went back to the document she was reading over. Damen approached Laurent from behind and brushed his elbow. “Ready?”
“Lead the way,” Laurent said.
Damen took them out of the encampment and down the path a ways, where a small farm rested in the foothills of the mountains separating Vask and Vere. Roaming in the field was the horse Laurent had seen the Patrans take the morning before. He was gorgeous, a tall, proud Andalusian.
Damen followed Laurent as they approached the fence around the field, and the horse trotted over to them. Laurent held his hand out and the horse licked his palm, expecting a treat undoubtedly, and Laurent ran his free hand over the horse’s nose.