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Kings Ruling

Chapter Text

Things were different now.

Before…everything, Damen’s life had been one where he took pleasure when and where he wanted. He had been a prince, young, confidant, even arrogant. Matters of the flesh had always been a simple exchange. Interest when it was piqued never suffered an impediment. With an almost imperceptible lift of his fingers, Damen was accorded privacy and access to the object of his desire, and the freedom to pursue matters to their natural conclusion. It was not in Damen’s nature to force himself on another, but then again he had never been denied.

He thought about that now. He turned it over in his mind.

He was experienced at intimacy, and well attuned to recognising mutual attraction. But how many of his sexual partners had played deference to his rank? He thought about his fellow fighters, the daughters from the local villages. And then there were the slaves. The casual ease that he would take slaves to slake his hungers. Akielon slaves were trained to be utterly compliant. In reality, they’d had no choice. Despite his efforts to rouse and please during those private moments, being a prince of the blood meant that it could never be a fair exchange. He felt some shame when he thought of it now, and recalled his own feelings of abject powerlessness as a slave.

It could not be refuted, Damen was forever altered. Despite seeming insurmountable odds, he and Laurent were together. The formerly fragile thing that existed between them had been allowed to grow and deepen.

He still held appreciation of a well-made form, the beauty of a face, the curve of a full breast. But having won the heart of the impenetrable citadel that was Laurent of Vere; Damen saw life and responsibility differently.

It was not just his attitude to slavery.

Now there was only one person who made his blood thrum beneath his skin. All it took was for his eyes to rest on that familiar, yellow cupped head or on the cool, ice chip blue of Laurent’s severe gaze. One person alone made his heart seize within his chest. Damen had been allowed inside, beyond those iron-willed defences, to witness Laurent’s private, sweeter side. It was a gift he prized above all others.

In traditional Akielon culture, virility was seen as a sign of strength and leadership. Achievement in battle and sports, frequent and enthusiastic bedding, these were to be admired. As a prince, Damen had excelled at all these physical pursuits. Before his deportation to Vere as a slave, the reputation of Prince Damianos, his preferences and tastes, were well known in the Akielon court.

Yet, since their first night together in Ravenel, Damen had lain with Laurent and no other.

As King of Akielos, Damen had banished slaves from his own retinue, ordering palace officials and kyroi throughout the lands to do the same. It was hoped that it would have a trickle down effect through his people. It had not been an easy transition. Minor nobility grumbled in private at the inconvenience and loss of power over those of lower standing. More surprising were the slaves who expressed their desire to continue submission, to serve as they had done before. Except now they did it for payment, for gifts. The term prostitution had entered the Akielon language where it had not existed before. Damen tried not to compare the changes of his former slaves to the pets of the Veretian court but the similarities were unmistakeable. At least they were not so gaudy and indulged. It was a point of difference he held onto.

*

It had been a satisfying day of training between the palace guard and a separate battalion of three hundred troops. These were soldiers handpicked to travel with Damen to Ravenel the following month. They had ridden to flat, grassy fields, several hours north from Ios. Jord and Pallas led a variety of strenuous drills. Damen rode alongside, participating and observing his men. The group worked until faces were mud splattered, skin shone slick with sweat, and muscles were heavy with fatigue.

In the early evening, and having returned to the palace, Damen now sat on a perfumed balcony. The ocean breeze carried hints of salt and of frangipani. Damen reclined on a cushioned bench, easing each of the muscles in his arms and back, feeling replete as he always did following hard physical exertion.

They mostly ruled side-by-side, but Laurent had been dealing with separate issues that day. A contingent of dignitaries from Fortaine had arrived two days prior, primarily to pay taxes and have grievances aired. Damen was grateful to have spent his time with fellow soldiers rather than having had to deal with the disputes and petty intrigues of court. Nor did he envy man or woman who attempted to procure from Laurent anything he wasn’t already prepared to give.

Nevertheless, Damen felt Laurent’s absence as a physical thing, and looked forward to their reunion later in the evening. For now, there was still work to do.

Damen reviewed the day’s accomplishments with Nikandros, the Kyros of Ios. They sat before the wide expanse of ocean, the sounds of crashing waves against the white cliffs a familiar comfort.

A young servant girl made the appropriate prostrations before placing wine and refreshments on the low table between them. The girl was no more than nineteen and she moved gracefully. She lit large, glass hurricane lamps before backing away with perfect form, her fair head bowed, a long, blonde coil over one shoulder. Servants in Damen and Laurent’s Akielon court were clothed in more than the gauzy, sheer silks of slaves, but not much more. The servant girl’s pleasing curves were noticeable beneath her white sheath. She stood against the wall of the balcony, waiting for a signal to serve, glancing toward the couches from time to time from beneath fronded lashes.

Damen took a deep draught of wine. It was one of his favourites, cool and refreshing and of very good quality. He said, “The Veretians performed well today with our guard. That early battle drill they demonstrated was incorporated easily with our own style.”

“Jord’s recommendation of Pallas to command the new battalion was wise,” Nikandros offered. “I had thought his looks and youth might be a problem, but the men respect him. His skill is matched by his honour.”

Damen nodded and stretched out his leg, easing a cramp. He made himself look toward the view, the oceanic one. He passed a hand across his face and raised his brows at his old friend. His voice lowered in the private space between them.

“Did you choose her to goad me? It isn’t going to work.”

Nikandros restrained a smile. “Exalted, have you some objection to being attended by beauty?” His expression clouded over. “It troubles me, how changed you are. It’s natural for you to desire her. He would under-”

“No.” The rough sound of Damen’s voice was louder than he intended.

Nikandros frowned into his cup but held his tongue.

Damen sighed. “Those desires are gone to me.”

Nikandros sat up, swinging his legs around so that he faced Damen. “Then let us not dwell on trivial matters. Hear this, Damianos.” Nikandros paused as though choosing his next words with care. He pounded a fist on his knee. “The dominance you have created through this merging of kingdoms makes our neighbours anxious. They need reassurance, demonstrations of peace.” He halted again, and swallowed as though it hurt. “An heir of diplomatic alliance would ease this transition.”

“This again,” Damen ground out the words with bitterness. “What would you have me do?”

“You know what is expected.” Nikandros stood and paced the length of the marbled balcony. His dark features familiar with strain. “Torgeir’s daughter, Freydis, is of marriageable age. Such an alliance would provide us with much goodwill.”

Damen heard the weariness in his own voice. “Torveld knows we are not a threat to Patras and he will counsel his brother as such. No.”

“What about Faustina of Aegina? The province is close enough to Patras that it would garner stability for the North.”

In horror. “Jokaste’s cousin?”

Nikandros rearranged his skirts and sat once more facing Damen. He spread his hands in a new gesture Damen recognised as common with the Veretians. Nikandros was spending too much time with Laurent. He wondered if they had been wrestling again.

Nikandros said, “It need only be a formality. Once an heir is secured, you could continue with him as before. You must see this.”

Pushing himself to stand, Damen strode to the balustrade, his hands curved over the railing, tightening until his knuckles were white. He cast his eyes to the horizon where the darkening sky met the ocean, shades of Tyrian purple and fire. He called to his mind the halcyon summer days in Lentos, the shared intimacies and the playfulness Laurent only ever allowed Damen to see. It had been the first days of them using the pronouns of us and we, referring to kingdoms and palaces and people as ours. It had been idyllic, almost a dream.

Damen had heard the palace talk. Despite the lore that had grown in the telling, of his honour, his leadership and bravery, unmatched as he was in battle, there were other rumours, treasonous whispers. Those who were foolish enough to allow such talk be made public were dealt with swiftly. There had been public executions. There was still work to be done, for both Damianos and Laurent, if they were truly to become unifiers of their new kingdom.

Damianos may be King Of Akielos but Laurent of Vere had changed him in ways that made his people wary. If this newly merged kingdom was to thrive, there were important demonstrations that needed to be made.

Damen said, “And Jokaste?”

Nikandros moved to stand alongside Damen, gazing at the horizon. “Our scouts have yet to find any reliable leads. Whomever is harbouring her, they keep her well hidden.”

“Have you let it be known I am not a threat, to her or the child?”

“You must understand her reticence. She says it is Kastor’s child.”

“Perhaps.”

The silence between them stretched.

Damen blurted, “I want to see him. He is family.” Damen turned and placed a hand on Nikandros’ shoulder. “And a potential heir.” At his Kyros's look of disbelief, he added, “He could be.” Realising he was grasping, Damen sighed. “I know. But find them for me.”

Nikandros clasped Damen’s hand with his own. “It will be done, Exalted.”

They turned outward and stood, shoulder to shoulder, the silence lengthened and with it they shed their official titles. They were just Damen and Nikandros, rather than king and kyros.

Damen’s voice lowered and he said, “It is a problem and I know I must face it. But it is a delicate matter. You must give me time to discuss it with him. It will not be an easy conversation.”

“All right,” said Nikandros. He tapped a balled fist on the balustrade. “But Damen,” years of friendship and shared experience stretched between them, “let it be soon.”

Chapter Text

Damen excused himself from Nikandros’s company and swept through the halls of the palace, his deep red cape an imposing swirl in his wake. He ignored the vistas of the ocean through marbled arches, the prostrations of servants and guards. Despite some weariness from the day, tightness had returned to his shoulders and his chest filled with unease. He made a turn down a long corridor and stalked toward the one place he relied upon to provide him with solace. 

He entered his private training area, and marched without hesitation to the rack on the far wall. Damen stared at it for a long moment, then curled each finger deliberately around the hilt of a heavy sword. The pommel was a gold lion’s head. It was the sword that his father, Theomedes, carried into battle.

Damen hefted the sword and exhaled. He let it settle in his mind that it was now he who was king, his father long gone. Then, drawing on a single-minded focus, he commenced his gruelling daily series of exercises. He turned, plunged and struck until his muscles loosened, until his body was oiled with sweat, until his mind emptied from his discussion with Nikandros and the nagging, persistent dread. 

He knew he was avoiding what had to be dealt with. 

Damen closed his eyes and summoned his worst nightmare; the Regent, facing him at the Kingsmeet, robed and powerful, Laurent on his knees before him. He let the anger build but not blind him as it had done that day. And then Damen’s imagination rewrote history. He lifted his sword and prepared to cleave the Regent in two. Sacrosanct laws be damned.

A thin, high voice called out, “Exalted!”

Damen, demonstrating the impeccable self-control he was lionised for, froze, mid strike, chest heaving. A servant appeared a short distance before him, a dark-haired youth, anxious, bowed. Damen lowered the sword, pointing the tip to the sawdust. His whole arm trembled with restraint. “What?” His voice gravel, barely held in check.

The servant, eyes downcast, cleared his throat, a tremor in his voice. “His Highness requests, most respectfully, that you retire to the royal chambers at your earliest convenience.”

Damen had exerted his body almost beyond its limits. He swayed and steadied his laboured breaths. His mind returned briefly to the present and he frowned. Laurent. He felt the familiar yearning but he could not yet go to him in this dangerous mood. He wiped the back of his hand across his brow and it came away wet. He flicked the sweat to the sawdust floor. “Tell his Highness that I will join him, shortly.”

Damen pivoted away, oblivious to the stuttering of the youth paying the appropriate respect to his king while beating the hastiest of exits. Damen's mind slipped effortlessly to the past. He lifted his sword and swung, delivering the killing blow, and annihilating the ghost of the Regent.

If only. It haunted Damen that he had never earned the satisfaction of taking the life of Laurent’s uncle. He felt, deep within him, that doing so would have righted some of the horrors that had been done to Laurent as an innocent. It was an impossible dream. Damen’s only true power was to look to the future and take every action to make their years together count.

Damen returned the sword to its holding place, sliding his thumb over the lion's head. As he strode out of the training area he realised his normal routine had failed to ease his mood or his mind. 

When he arrived at the royal baths he gestured with his hand and spoke a single word, “Leave.” Servants bowed and scurried.

Damen wanted no attendants. He didn’t want anyone to touch him. His unease had heightened, like a thousand needles pressed into his skin. He stripped, his sweat-drenched cotton slapping on the marble. He picked up a copper urn and tipped a rush of warm water over his body. He bent and unstoppered a coloured glass bottle, doused his hands and lathered his body and his hair. Then he sluiced down, pouring water from another urn to rinse until the marble flagstones were slick with soap. He called on every ounce of discipline to convince himself that he was washing away this uncomfortable feeling, returning to a better version of himself. He shook out his hair and grabbed one of the nearby soft towels. He used it to give himself a few cursory wipes before he discarded the towel with some force against a wall. 

He was disgusted with himself. It was fear keeping him from broaching this subject with Laurent. The thought of either of them being forced to mate like breeding stock…there had to be another way. They were happy, secure in their relationship. They were in complete accord. Well, most of the time they were in complete accord. Laurent could still be twisty and difficult unless his never-ending ideas and schemes went the way he intended. 

It kept things interesting. 

Something shifted inside Damen's chest. There was only one answer. With this realisation Damen was filled with urgency, an ache, to see Laurent, to be near him, confide in him, touch him. He chose to let his naked body dry on the short walk from the baths to the royal bedchambers. 

By the time he arrived at the marbled entrance only a few drips from the ends of his hair ran over his shoulders and chest. He entered the chambers.

Laurent turned at the noise, a metal goblet poised at his lips. He made a choked sound and placed the goblet with some force on a nearby table. A startling flush of colour stained his cheeks. With the back of his other hand he suppressed a cough before lowering that arm also to the table. His eyes narrowed and his composure returned. “I see you are bathed. Helpful.”

Damen looked about the room. He looked at Laurent and did a double take. Laurent was dressed from throat to toe in Veretian clothing. That wasn’t what made Damen look twice. Laurent was not clothed in his usual dark blue royal attire. His tightly laced jacket was made from heavy burgundy brocade. In place of the gold circlet at his forehead he wore a soft velvet cap that matched his jacket. It was reminiscent of the clothing of a respectable cloth merchant.

With his surprise came the thrill of anticipation at not being able to predict what Laurent was up to. The stress from Damen’s earlier worries dissipated as all his attention focused on Laurent. He schooled his features to be nonchalant, refusing to acknowledge the elephant in the room. “I trust matters went well with the dignitaries from Fortaine?”

“Nothing beyond my capabilities.” Laurent stood back from the table, watching Damen.

 Damen could not continue the facade. He broke into a smile, waving a hand up and down Laurent’s form. "Who are you meant to be tonight? Charls?”

“Perhaps.” Laurent returned with a long, cool look.

Damen felt warmth and sadness mingle in his response. “The time for charade is over for us, my love.”

Laurent bristled. “This isn’t a game.” Laurent gestured to the royal bed where servant clothing was laid out, waiting. “I’m afraid for the next few days you will no longer be my king. Lamen.”

Damen released a breath that was barely a laugh. “You cannot be serious.”

Laurent approached Damen. With one hand he smoothed long, pale fingers across the muscles of Damen's upper torso. The other hand cupped Damen’s genitals, a gentle massage, a light heft. The touch was familiar and welcome. Laurent tilted his face to kiss Damen’s lips, lingering for a moment. He exhaled and stepped back. “I wish we had time. Unfortunately we don’t. I have cleared everything with Nikandros. We have four days.” Laurent scrolled a look from Damen’s damp curled hair to his feet, pausing where he noticed that part of Damen responding to his earlier touch. His smile was rueful. “Much as it disappoints me to cover you up, I believe you will be more comfortable in the saddle if you are clothed.”

Perplexed and now somewhat roused, Damen couldn’t help reaching to pull him close once more. Laurent allowed it. Damen sighed in pleasure at their proximity but his voice was serious. “We cannot pursue such folly. There are matters of state we must address.” He bent his head to press a kiss along Laurent’s jaw and pulled back. Damen’s earlier unease returned in a rush. He pushed down the feeling in his chest and faced what had to be done. “In fact, there is a difficult matter I have been avoiding. I must address it with you now.”

Laurent’s blue eyes steeled. “It will have to wait.” A crease marred his fine brow. “You think this some mad scheme.” His warm palm pressed against Damen’s cheek. “I cannot explain further.” Laurent’s thumb traced Damen’s lower lip. “But I do not toy with you. We leave. Now. It is my hope we will return with something of immeasurable value. To us.” Damen’s hands tightened on the fabric of Laurent’s jacket, feeling the muscles shift beneath the velvet. It had a visceral effect on Damen whenever Laurent referred to them as us. 

Laurent's expression was wide eyed and serious. “My vagueness tonight is unavoidable, but…” He moved away from Damen’s embrace and walked to the royal bed. He picked up the shirt, offering it to Damen. “I will reveal more the moment I can. For now, I require your absolute trust. Do I have it?”

Damen had witnessed firsthand Laurent’s ascent to kingship. Their skills complemented each other but Laurent’s natural leanings toward intrigue, his ability to recognise subterfuge and deception in others would always be superior to Damen’s. Laurent took steps to halt and solve issues before they became problems. If Laurent wanted them to escape the palace with secrecy, in the dead of night and under disguise, he had good reason. Probably. It also meant that, for a few days at least, Damen could put off having the discussion with him regarding heirs and marriages of political alliance. If this expedition was important to Laurent, it was likely of vital importance to their kingdom and their people.

Frustrated yet helpless as always to Laurent’s bidding, Damen dressed in servant’s clothing and followed him out of their chambers. Only the tips of the familiar yellow hair were visible under the merchant’s cap. They wove through secret passages to a small courtyard where four horses awaited, two pack horses, one containing cloth and the other supplies. They rode out, heading north under a crescent moon and a sky full of stars, away from the salt tinged breeze of the ocean and the white cliffs.

Laurent was riding the horse that Damen had gifted to him that day in Lentos. Laurent had named the shining bay mare, Sedile, and he and the horse were besotted with each other. Whenever Sedile saw Laurent approach the royal stables, she preened, curving her long neck and nickering in delight. He visited her in secret, feeding her treats from the royal kitchens, pressing their faces together, whispering secrets, brushing her coat to a smooth shine when he believed the groomsmen skills inferior to his own. It was the only time Damen had witnessed Laurent become lovestruck by a female.

As king, Laurent was known to be harsh but fair. Within the court, those closer to both kings knew better than to risk Laurent's ire, lest they be on the receiving end of his acid tongue or downright filthy mouth. Damen observed these moments with some amusement. Privately, he alone was witness to Laurent’s softness, including his natural affinity with animals and children. It was evident early on, the way the hounds of Acquitart threw themselves on him in ecstatics. Later, the time Laurent spent patiently teaching coin tricks to the rescued child from the village near Marlas. It gave Damen a sense of affinity with Auguste because they were likely the only people in Laurent's life who knew of his true gentle ways.

Damen and Laurent travelled carefully through the night, stepping the horses around the odd bush or boulder, along a starlit path of hard dirt. The leather of Damen’s saddle creaked with his natural movements. Then Damen recalled something from Laurent’s earlier words, and bit back a smile. “You cleared it with Nikandros?”

“He was wise to accept the little I told him without comment or dispute. Judging from the purple of his complexion, it might have been difficult.” Laurent’s back was straight and he moved as one with his mount, conscience clear and untroubled. 

Damen shook his head in sympathy for his old friend.

Damen knew that Nikandros had grown to respect Laurent. But it was respect flavoured with exasperation. Since their first encounters at Fortaine and on the road to Ios, Laurent’s surprising actions had aged the Kyros of Ios beyond his years.

Laurent looked ahead as he answered, “Despite his continued frustration at my methods, he is our most loyal servant. He will keep Ios safe for the few days we need.”

Chapter Text

Damen and Laurent kept to a steady clip throughout the night. A few streaks of high, thin cloud made it seem like the moon and stars were chasing them across the landscape. Their mounts moved side-by-side and their legs sometimes brushed. The sturdy packhorses trailed behind, occasionally releasing loud blows of equine breath. The clop of hooves and the creak of leather carried through the mostly still air.

Damen’s stomach growled like a disgruntled mountain cat.

Laurent breathed the sigh of the long suffering and reached into one of his saddlebags. He tossed Damen a sweet roll. “There is never an end to it.”

“Thank you,” said Damen, taking a grateful bite. “I only had light refreshments with Nikandros.”

“Light refreshments.” The shake of Laurent's head was almost imperceptible.

It struck Damen that the responsibilities of kingship meant moments like this, together and alone without attendants, were rare. Even in the privacy of the royal chambers there were often servants taking care of some task or another. Out here there was only the two of them. They could say whatever was on their minds, but for the most part they rode in companionable silence. There was no one who Damen was more comfortable to spend time with and simply be. He enjoyed the opportunity to observe Laurent without scrutiny, marvel at the way the moonlight caught the marble of his cheek or the white tips of his hair, still visible beneath the velvet cap. It had been this way for over two years. Damen wondered if his eyes would always be drawn to him this way. What was between them felt indelible. 

With limited vision from the glow of the night sky, Damen was hyper aware of everything. “Charls,” he said with some urgency.

On instinct they both pulled on their reins, slowing to a walk. Laurent whispered, “What is it?” He bent sidelong in his saddle toward Damen.

Catching Laurent unawares, Damen met him halfway and kissed his mouth. Laurent’s breath caught and for a long moment their foreheads touched. Damen tasted Laurent’s exhale on his lips.

“Hmm,” said Laurent, narrowing his eyes. He straightened in his saddle and said, “You should keep your eyes on the road. You’ll lame your mount.” He pressed his heels into Sedile’s flank and trotted ahead, but then glanced back over his shoulder and smiled, teasing and light. Damen’s heart swelled and he urged his mount forward.

*

By late morning they arrived, dusty and tired at an inn at Sicyon. The structure of the building was similar to the inn at Mellos, a blocky Akielon style devoid of ornamentation, and thankfully without a garrison stationed next to it. The location had been carefully chosen. It was typical of Laurent to plan ahead, taking steps to avoid detection. 

Damen, in his role as servant, stabled the horses and, over the course of several trips, carried their belongings inside. Laurent approached the innkeeper, introducing himself as his now familiar pseudonym, Charls, the Veretian cloth merchant. The innkeeper’s name was Berius. He was a squat man in his forties. His appearance gave evidence of a hard life. He had lank grey hair, a bulbous nose, an indentation the shape of a large pebble on his forehead and only one ear. Berius’s spurious politeness barely masked his distaste as he beheld this fair, unblemished and refined guest.

By the end of their exchange, Laurent, with his exaggerated accent, and sincere merchant manner, had still managed to procure the best room. Of course. Weighed down on one of his journeys from the stables, Damen was stopped by Laurent who selected several bolts of cloth from his arms. He spread them across the innkeeper’s desk. “My good sir, inspect at your leisure. These fabrics were woven in Patras. Feel them. Thick. Luxurious. Yet hard-wearing. You won’t buy quality like this from Arsenios of Delpha.” He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “They could only enhance the ambience at such a respectable establishment. Excellent for drapery.” He spread his hands. “I would offer you my best price.” And lifted his pale brows. “Less ten per cent.” 

Damen kept his head bowed in deferential respect, but felt the familiar thrill of watching Laurent at play.

Berius, the innkeeper offered Charls and his servant, Lamen, a table downstairs close by the open fire and had his servants bring them food and drink. They ate their fill, a hot and hearty stew, breads dipped in spiced oils and jugs of cool water. Two oversized, shaggy-haired hounds lolled nearby on the stone floor, tails thumping and ears pricking at the sound of cutlery scraping plates, hopeful for titbits or scraps. 

Laurent said, “We should rest after we eat. Our first rendezvous is here, mid afternoon.”

Having worked himself to near exhaustion with drills the previous day and ridden throughout the night and half the morning, Damen stumbled as he followed Laurent up the stone stairs to their room. He shook his head to clear it, forcing himself to stay alert long enough to collapse on the hopefully clean bed. He was grateful to find that the room was indeed spotless and quite spacious. The bed was solid, curtained and large enough for both of them. An enormous wooden bath stood in one corner and servants came in behind them to fill it with warm water, leaving fresh buckets for rinsing. Damen began to draw the laces from his jacket.

“That colour green suits you,” said Laurent, watching him as he sometimes did.

Damen paused his undressing. “Shall I-”

“Take it off.”

Damen bit back a smile and continued to remove his jacket and then his shirt. It gave him pleasure to observe Laurent’s restrained but attentive reaction to his nakedness. Bare-chested, he sat on a chair, aware that Laurent was watching the shifting of his muscles as he removed dusty boots and pants. Comfortable in his nakedness, Damen waited on the chair and enjoyed watching Laurent likewise disrobe.

Laurent appeared unaffected by Damen’s gaze, but when he was bare, Damen noticed the first stirrings of arousal. Laurent took a step toward Damen, his musculature athletic and wonderfully appealing to Damen's eyes. “I think it should accommodate both of us,” he said, lifting his chin at the tub. “If you would prefer.”

Damen did prefer.

Seated in the tub they faced each other, soaped hands in the other’s hair and enjoyed the sensation of giving and receiving touch. Laurent’s long fingers were gentle but firm as they massaged Damen’s scalp. Damen gave himself over to pleasure, rolling his head on his shoulders. An unthinking sound of approval came from deep within Laurent’s chest when Damen’s hands moved lower to massage Laurent’s shoulders. Damen’s thumb sought out the thin ridge of Govett’s scar and then he delighted in the sensual feeling of soaped hands sliding over slick, wet skin.

Damen dunked himself to rinse and sat back, squeezing the ends of his hair and extending his arms along the edges of the tub. He waited for Laurent to do the same, and gave him a long, considered look. “I suppose at some point you will enlighten me as to our purpose this afternoon.”

There was a sudden movement and water sloshed on the floor. Laurent had pushed himself into Damen’s lap. They were chest-to-chest, hard evidence of their mutual arousal pressed between them. Damen shifted so that Laurent could move his thighs around Damen’s hips. Laurent twined his arms around Damen’s neck and when he spoke, his voice was soft. “I know you are wary. Our meeting may be difficult but it is my intent that it will also bring you joy. Soon.” Damen felt a little breathless at the sudden change in position and mood. “Kiss me,” said Laurent, pressing closer and breathing into Damen’s mouth. Damen obliged and deepened the kiss.

Later, they rested, too tired to do more than hold each other as they slept. Damen could forgive Laurent all the secrets in the world if he continued to wrap himself about him, just so. Damen lay on his back with Laurent sprawled above him, his blonde head resting below Damen’s chin and their arms and legs entwined. 

*

“This way,” Laurent was exasperated, untying and retying Damen’s laces in preparation for their meeting.

“I like it when you attend me,” said Damen.

Laurent muttered, “Shut up.” Damen did, restraining a smile.

Now that he was rested, Damen’s curiosity had returned with a ferocity that was getting the better of him. He realised there was no point in demanding Laurent tell him anything. Damn him. Anxiety and excitement curled hot in his belly. He walked ahead of Laurent as they descended the staircase, touching a knife he kept hidden in the folds of his jacket, senses alert.

She stood near the stone fireplace of the inn. Damen recognised her at once and stilled at the sight. She wore a heavy cloak of red so dark it was almost black. Two attendants flanked her, a servant and a woman of higher birth, judging from the quality of her attire.

As Damen and Laurent approached, she dropped the hood of the cloak, revealing long, braided hair, threaded with silver. She stared at Damen, her eyes were round in shock but underneath, something else. At first he thought it must have been due to his Veretian servant’s clothing. It had been almost two years since Damen had last seen her, kneeling beside his father’s sick bed, her face wet with tears. She was still a handsome woman, but she looked tired and her eyes darted around the room, wary of a possible trap.

Laurent bowed and took her by the elbow, indicating a private alcove where their party could retire.

Her eyes never left Damen. Her expression remained calm but her whispered words were laced with disgust. “You shame your father. How can you lie in the embrace of this Veretian and trust his deception?”

A single word fell from Damen's lips; the only thing he could trust himself to say. Her name. “Hypermenestra.”

The party sat on chairs in a casual arrangement, several low tables between them. Laurent began, his voice smooth. “Stay calm, madam. There are eyes upon us.” Laurent offered a benevolent smile, incongruous to her greeting. He opened a satchel and withdrew a selection of fabrics that he lay across one of the tables. He spoke pleasantly, “Perhaps if your son had not fallen into treasonous collusion with my uncle, we would not be here at all.”

“My son.” Seated, Hypermenestra’s bearing was elegant and proud. She stared at Damen, her eyes showing everything she felt.

A man and a young servant entered the alcove with trays of refreshments. The man looked like a much older version of Barius the innkeeper, although for all his wrinkles, he was in possession of two good ears and fewer scars. He and the servant placed jugs of water and wine, shallow cups and a platter of breads and fruit on the available tables. 

Laurent made a show of thanking them, commenting on the quality of the offerings. The rest of the party sat in tense silence, waiting for the servants to depart. 

Once they were beyond earshot, Hypermenestra spoke, low and harsh, “Kastor was tricked by The Regent but, Damianos, you slaughtered your own brother.”

Damen winced and made to reply. Laurent placed a warning hand on his arm. Then he leaned back in his chair, his smile benign. “Your son. The Regent was no longer in possession of his head so his treasonous trickery was absent when Kastor stuck his knife into the true King of Akielos. Damianos could do no more than bleed. I was the one who killed Kastor. I did it for the King, for Akielos and her people.”

Hypermenestra looked down, her hands full of fabric. They were shaking.

Damen could not understand why Laurent thought this meeting would bring him joy. It was a disaster, and it was about to fall apart, their cover blown.

Laurent was unruffled. “You were told, madam. Now,” he raised a brow in warning, “is not the time or place for this particular discussion.” His tone sharpened. “You kept your promise? He is with you?”

Eyes still downcast, Hypermenestra nodded. She appeared to be trying to regain her composure. After a long moment, she lifted her head. “Damianos. I knew you as a headstrong and arrogant youth, but show me now that you have a fraction of your father’s honour.” Her red rimmed eyes glittered with unshed tears. “Promise me no harm will come to him or his mother and you may see him.”

Chapter Text


 

Damen beheld the woman who had been his father’s mistress. Hypermenestra had always favoured Kastor, her own son, but she had been tolerant of Damen as a boy, even kind. Damen’s own mother had died while birthing him. Hypermenestra was the closest he’d known to a mother. Damen’s voice was low with shock. “You have Jokaste’s child?”

“Lamen,” warned Charls.

Hypermenestra repeated, “Your word, Exalted.”

Laurent’s withering look silenced her from speaking further.

Damen said, “You have it.” Then he turned to face Laurent, the hairs rising all over his body. Understanding dawned. “It was you. You have been protecting Jokaste all this time.”

Laurent placed his hand over Damen’s clenched fist. He squeezed once and drew away before it caught the attention of other patrons in the tavern, a silent warning not to betray their public ruse.

Laurent said, “I made the decision to secure her safety and that of the child while you were unconscious from the knife wound. It’s what you would have done.”

The breezy, confident way that Laurent acted as though he was dealing in absolutes. Damn him to hell. He was right, of course. But really. It took some effort for Damen to hold his tongue. He’d had Nikandros sending scouts searching for Jokaste and the child for months.

Hypermenestra signalled to her servant girl who bowed and left the room. A few moments later, she returned with another young woman, this one wearing blue robes, a wet nurse. In the wet nurse's arms was a sturdy toddler, struggling to be put down. The child had huge brown eyes, heavy lashes and darkly curling hair. The child’s skin was the colour of burnt honey. He looked like Kastor. He looked like Damen.

When Hypermenestra spoke again her voice was private. “His name is Honos. He is Kastor’s son.” 

Laurent observed everything, remaining silent. The child was lowered to the ground and his face broke apart in triumph at being granted his freedom. He ambled a few paces on chubby, unsteady legs. A thin line of drool ran from his chin to his shirt. Laurent bent low, extending his hand and the infant grasped his fingers, smiling. 

Damen expelled a sharp breath and something lurched in his chest. He couldn’t take his eyes off the child. Memories of his youth flooded his mind. He remembered the first time he’d caught his own reflection in the water of the baths. He said, “He looks as much like me as he resembles Kastor. You cannot know he is Kastor’s son with any certainty.”

“Jokaste knows.” Hypermenestra was emphatic. “She told me, when she lay with you, she took precautions.” Hypermenestra’s eyes passed possessively over the boy. The child, oblivious to the attention, was completely focused on Laurent. His small hands grasping in fascinated wonder, trying to touch the blonde tips of Laurent’s hair. They grinned at each other.

Hypermenestra continued, “Jokaste took no such precautions with Kastor.”

Damen passed a hand over his face. “It’s not enough,” he said. He studied the child’s features, searching to somehow find the truth of his existence. He had felt an instant familial pull, but how was he to tell if these feelings were parental or merely avuncular? He imagined it, returning to the capital with Honos. He could convince Nikandros to accept him. He could. Damen and Laurent would move forward, rule with this worry behind them. He would have family again. “He could be mine,” he said, uncertainty laced with a desperate desire for truth.

Hypermenestra held out her hands and Laurent released the boy, guiding him to step toward her. “He is not,” she said. “Honos is my grandson.” She lifted the child to her lap and he reached to play with a strand of bright gems around her throat, shoving one into his mouth. Hypermenestra removed the necklace and pushed a sweetmeat into Honos’s mouth. His eyes grew round as he worked his mouth and then, using his tongue, he pushed the half masticated food into his hand, dropping it further to the floor without ceremony. “You doubt the truth,” she said, meeting Damen’s eyes. “But I have proof. There is also this.” She pulled down the boy’s tunic to reveal his dimpled upper arm. A large, port wine stain, a birthmark, spread like a splotch of ink across his olive skin.

Damen shook his head. “I swam with Kastor as a boy. I wrestled with him. I have seen every inch of his body and he had no such mark.”

“You speak true. Kastor had no such mark.” Hypermenstra pulled down the sleeve of her robe to reveal her own upper arm and its matching stain. “But I do.”

*

They continued back and forth in quick but hushed conversation. 

The child sat on the floor and played with a tin cup, banging it on the stone and making unintelligible but loud conversation with himself. The hounds got up in disgust, shook themselves and moved outside. After a while, the child lost interest in the cup. He threw it across the room and began to whine. He spotted a bone that one of the dogs had been chewing on, got on all fours and crawled toward it. 

The wet nurse walked over and picked the child up off the floor. Honos wriggled and fought until the wet nurse sat down and settled him at her breast. He silenced at once and fed with enthusiasm, making sucking noises that, from time to time, made the wet nurse flinch. 

The elder version of Barius returned to replenish the jugs of water and wine. He stopped to comment about the child. “The little prince. He’s a healthy looking thing. How old is he?”

Hypermenestra answered, “He is halfway through his second year.”

The old man’s mouth fell open. “Gods. But he is enormous.” He nodded to the wet nurse. “Take care with how much you feed him or he will grow into a giant beast like this one.” He thumbed at Damen, unconcerned at causing offence due to Damen’s lower status within their party.

Damen ignored the jibe. 

Damen wanted the child. He felt it like an overwhelming pull, a deep longing for his own blood. He fought an irrational urge to take Honos and run, to keep him safe. Although at the present time, Honos didn’t appear in too much peril. In fact, Damen was hard pressed to think of a more contented looking child than the one with heavy lidded eyes, presently sucking from the breast of the wet nurse. The child released the nipple with a popping sound, his eyes closing and his head lolling backwards, dazed and punch drunk.

Damen’s impatience roiled his stomach as he waited for old Barius to depart the alcove. When he spoke there was no doubting the vehemence of his tone, “We take him with us to Ios. You can send for Jokaste. I will protect them.”

“Damen,” whispered Laurent.

“I knew it,” said Hypermenstra. Her lip curled in distaste and she indicated toward Laurent. “He promised.” She muttered under her breath, “Veretian lies.”

“What has he promised, madam?” said Damen. “And keep a civil tongue.”

Hypermenestra took a beat to calm. “If I were to bring him to you in secret, you would call off your Kyros and his search dogs. Jokaste and Honos would be free to live in safety and anonymity. She deserves that. You do not understand what she has sacrificed.”

“Don’t I?” said Damen. He felt the anger build within him, his manner changing and his natural dominance threatening the verisimilitude of their public display.

Laurent pushed on the wide arms of his chair and stood. He spoke in a voice that carried, “Come, Lamen.” He addressed Hypermenstra, “I have just the hand-woven silks that will be perfect for your purpose.” Laurent bowed with a very Veretian flourish. “My lady, enjoy the refreshments of the house and we shall return to you within moments. Prepare to be amazed.”

Damen swallowed the feeling that burned deep within him and followed Laurent out of the alcove. He pushed ahead of him on the stairs and stormed into the centre of their room. His skin felt hot, his clothing tight. He fought an urge to tear at the ridiculous Veretian laces. When Laurent latched the door, Damen wheeled on him, emotion overflowing, “He could be our heir. We cannot let her take him away.”

Laurent said nothing, just watched him. He removed the velvet hat and smoothed his mussed yellow hair.

Damen began pacing. Laurent was infuriating. Damen was King, King of Akielos and Vere. This problem had been vexing him for months…and Laurent had found the perfect solution. With one hand he presented to Damen, a child heir, a fait accompli, while at the same time, Laurent’s other hand was placing him beyond their reach. Why? 

Laurent. Laurent, the other King of Akielos and Vere. Damn him and damn his promises. 

Damen had not felt this level of powerlessness for a long time.

Damen said, “You promised? How could you think I would allow her to take him once I had seen him?” He stopped pacing and glared at Laurent, demanding a response.

Laurent sighed and rolled his shoulder as though loosening tight muscle. 

When he spoke, his voice calm, “He is not our solution.” He halted Damen’s instant rebuttal with a wave of his hand. “After Kastor’s betrayal and treason? The Kyroi would never accept his offspring. The child’s life would be in danger at Ios. And he is too far removed from your line. The bastard son of a bastard? I think not.”

All the items in the room changed shape as Damen’s head spun. He turned away from Laurent and strode to a small window, bracing his arms on either side and looking out. He forced himself to focus on what he could see rather than the pounding in his head. Shadows stretched on the ground from a copse of trees that stood just beyond the inn. The afternoon sun was lowering in the sky. A crow circled, a black silhouette in the distant blue and a fox skulked along the cover of the tree line. 

He spoke to the window. “Why did you allow me to see him?” Realisation dawned and he turned his head, looking back over his shoulder. “You were certain he was Kastor’s son.”

Laurent’s silence revealed this was the truth.

“Then why?” said Damen, bewildered.

Laurent took a step forward and Damen said, “No.” But he turned, facing him and leaving the window at his back.

Laurent stopped and said, “You needed to see him.” He took another tentative step, disregarding the dangerous look in Damen’s eyes. “When he is older, when we have secured an heir of our own. Perhaps then. We could arrange a role for him at court. I know,” In an act of bravery or possibly stupidity, Laurent moved closer, under Damen’s guard. He laid a hand on his arm. Damen released a shuddering breath and felt himself respond helplessly to Laurent’s touch.

Laurent said, “I know what family means to you.”

Damen’s breath caught at that admission. Laurent had no family left and he was showing Damen that he still had this one link to blood.

Laurent said, “We must protect him and that means keeping him away from Ios. For now.”

With Laurent’s hand on him, Damen’s anger loosened a notch but he could not shake his exasperation. He stared into the blue eyes and his words were full of painful honesty, “I cannot…I will not marry for political stability. I will not be made to breed like a dog.” His anguish crested. “As for you-”

Something broke inside him and he reached for Laurent. 

Their arms wound around each other, chests pressed close. Laurent’s body was warm comfort and he curled fingers into Damen’s hair. Laurent’s lips brushed Damen’s throat when he spoke, “I do not wish to cause you pain. I thought it would make you happy to see him. You know he is family. You know he is safe.” When Laurent pulled back to look into Damen’s eyes his expression was resolute. “We will find a way, my King. Trust me.”

They gazed at each other. “To have found the child at last…” Damen was grasping, struggling to let it go.

Laurent touched his face. “You know I am right, Damianos.” He reached up and pressed a soft kiss on Damen’s mouth. There was understanding in it and a touch of apology.

Damen’s sigh burned with regret and bitter acceptance, “I know you are right.” He slid fingers through Laurent’s soft hair, his thumb moving across the pale cheek. “We let him go.”

They stared at each other for another long moment. At last Laurent nodded and turned away. He placed the velvet cap back on his head and picked up a large bundle on a side table. He thrust the pile of silks into Damen’s arms. “Then, go downstairs my love, and say goodbye to your nephew.”

Damen stared at the cloth in his arms. Because it was right didn’t mean it was easy.

“Besides,” said Laurent. “We need to leave as soon as it is dark. This was not our only destination on this journey.”

Chapter Text

 

Despite the tension throughout their talks, the meeting with Hypermenestra ended amicably enough. She even conceded so far as to allow Damen a few moments alone with Honos.

The wet nurse handed the boy over without ceremony or instruction. Despite wearing clothes that marked him as a servant, Damen was a warrior soldier and king, quite unfamiliar with the ways of young children. He held the boy under the arms, slightly away from his body. Honos hung limply and Damen noted the rolls of fat on the child's thighs as he swung his legs back and forth. After a helpless glance at Laurent, he took the cue and sat on a bench, arranging Honos on his lap, laying him back across his forearms. The child’s skin was clammy and hot. He smelled like any active child who still fed from the breast, a mixture of sour and sweet scents. Damen studied the child, scrutinising him as he would a map, and found again features he recognised. Honos lay relaxed and peaceful, his head cradled in the cup of one of Damen’s large and calloused hands. Gazing into the child’s fathomless brown eyes, Damen's heart ached with a new emotion. He supposed this protective connection was a form of love. Those eyes and the way his hair curled, just so on his forehead, it reminded Damen of his brother and all that had been lost between them. He also saw echoes of himself, remembering the innocence and promise of childhood. All the while, the child stared back in open-mouthed wonder at the powerfully muscled man who held him with such gentleness.

Hypermenestra remained on edge the entire time, her eyes darting between Damen and Laurent, lingering with open dislike on Laurent, alert for signs of a Veretian double-cross.

At a signal from Hypermenestra, the wet nurse moved forward and gathered the child back into her arms. Damen stood, his arms heavy despite their emptiness, and he watched in silence as Hypermenestra and her party readied themselves to depart the inn with a child of Damen's blood.

"Thank you for your business, madam. I will send word when the silks from Toutaine become available." Laurent as Charls delivered his words with inure politeness and weighted meaning, yes madam, you, Jokaste and the child are safe, but you must remain accessible to us and stay within our good graces.

"Charls." Hypermenestra was unable to hide the sneer in her smile. She turned, sweeping her heavy skirts with a regal air out of the inn and toward her carriage.

Unable to bear the painful longing on Damen's face, Charls delivered sharp instruction his servant, Lamen. It was something of a relief for Damen to focus on a physical act, to engage his arms and back with loading up the horses and preparing for their own imminent departure from Sicyon.

“A merchant who rides through the night?” Barius didn’t hide the suspicious edge to his tone. He scratched the ragged flap of skin where his earlobe should have been. 

Laurent swept an ice chip gaze across the innkeeper’s desk and flipped him a gold coin that continued to spin in place for longer than seemed natural. “A profitable one who leaves the daylight hours for business.” His response wavered a fine line between cool dismissal and respectable politeness.

*

This time they rode hard, or as hard as darkness permitted without risk to the horses. 

They were forced to slow when they reached the narrow paths that wound through the rocky and fissured hills along the border, although by that time the dawn was breaking. The morning air moved with a refreshing nip across Damen's face, lifting his curls. He longed for his body to feel the breeze, but he was covered neck to toe by Veretian cloth and laces. He glimpsed streaks of grey cloud and bursts of fiery orange as the rising sun demanded attention, winking through the ancient tree branches of pine and oak, appearing and disappearing along the bends and twists on their trail. Laurent continued to lead, wending their way until they reached a forested valley.  No longer wearing the velvet cap, his fair hair was burnished gold as the sun broke free from the tree line and continued its ascent to command the day. 

On either side of the valley, the hills were divided by a deep spring that began its life from the peak of one of the icy mountain caps, melting and flowing, rushing in places, trickling in others, finding its way around or over boulders, rocks and fallen trees, eddying here and there, before reaching its downstream destination, the River Vitya.

“We should camp.” Those three words were the first Laurent had spoken in several hours. His thoughts had turned inward, either in contemplation or scheme.

Laurent led Sedile a short distance away to drink from the stream. He ran his hand along the mare’s neck, petting and communicating with her in their secret language. Damen recognised the signs in Laurent when he needed time to himself, so he turned his attention to unsaddling and watering his own horse and the packhorses.

Eventually Laurent wandered back to where Damen was setting up camp. He was carrying his bedroll. He surveyed the nearby ground with a calculated expression, finally choosing a spot he deemed suitable. It was cool and protected, shaded by a canopy of overhanging branches from several willow trees. Laurent got down on his hands and knees and cleared the ground of stones and other debris. He was fastidious about it, not satisfied until the ground was quite smooth. With great care, Laurent spread his bedroll on the cleared earth. During their time together on the road, Damen had never seen Laurent so fussy about sleeping rough. He wondered briefly about what might have brought this on, but shrugged it off. Who could make sense of the chameleon nature of this man? It was usually better to give Laurent time and space. He would open up and let Damen know what was bothering him eventually. Probably.

Not bothering with any other preparation, Damen let his own bedroll drop with a casual thud beside Laurent's.

Laurent ignored him. Laurent stood and walked back to his saddlebag, reaching in and fumbling for something. He returned with uncharacteristic stiffness, and slipped some smaller items that Damen couldn't make out beneath his bedding.

“I am going to bathe.” Laurent’s voice was without inflection as he looked across the water. “We need to reclaim our identities for our meeting later tonight.” He drew on the laces of his jacket, loosening it and revealing the white shirt beneath. “There is a pack with suitable Akielon garments for the Exalted.” He shrugged off the jacket and turned to face Damen, a challenging aspect to his look. The dappled light shone through the fine cotton of his shirt and Damen could see the well-balanced lines of Laurent’s body. 

“I am not a fool,” said Damen. “You think the Vaskians have a child of mine and that we can convince them to hand it over to us.” He threw a glance to the packhorses, their heavy loads now stacked on the ground. “I assume there is enough gold and silver amongst those cloth packages to equal the value of a child’s life?”

He wondered how extensive Laurent’s communications with the Vaskians had already been. How much did he know? For Laurent to give up so easily on Kastor’s son as heir, there must be a child. Damen’s child. He wasn’t sure how to feel about it.

Laurent reached behind his shoulder and drew the shirt over his head. He said, “Your concerns are my own. Did you think I would not notice how this has weighed on you? Let us see what might be achieved. Tonight.”

Bare-chested, Laurent walked back and sat down on his bedroll. He pulled off his boots and pants. Then, he reached for something in a fold of the bedroll and stood, striding into the water without hesitation.

With green mountains rising up close on either side of the pool and the riverbed covered in pebbles of black and grey, the overall setting was dark and closed-in, but in the centre of the pool the sun shone bright and the alabaster of Laurent’s skin and fair hair reflected, almost blinding. Laurent dove under the water and reappeared, lithe and graceful. He slicked his hair back, squeezing water from the tips. The sun caught the gold of his wrist cuff and Damen squinted from the glare. Laurent stood in the pool, fingers spread across the water's surface as though he was commanding the gentle ripples to smooth. The defined muscles of his upper back were on gleaming display. He was unaware of the effect he was causing. He looked like some sort of impossible creature from the ancient tales of Damen’s youth, a golden nymph.

Damen came back to himself.

It had been days since they had made love. They had bathed and slept together but there had only been kisses and touch. Not since the arrival of dignitaries from Fortaine. There really hadn’t been time to indulge.

After all their time together, Damen’s need for Laurent had not diminished. It had only intensified. Damen was more open about expressing what he felt or desired, but he knew this bright thing they shared was mutual. They craved each other. Before all others, they turned to each other for companionship and counsel. And then there was this primal attraction between them that was raw and true and more, because underneath it was trust and understanding and shared experience.

Now was not the time.

They needed to focus on the task at hand. The future of their unified kingdom was at stake. And while Laurent was not one to complain about rough living on the road, Damen knew he preferred the comforts of the palace.

Damen removed his clothing as fast as Veretian disrobing allowed and moved to the edge of the stream. The water was more bracing than he’d expected and he inhaled sharply before diving under. He broke the water’s surface, nearby where Laurent had started to bathe. The water was almost chest high. Damen planted his feet on the smooth pebbles, and their rounded edges clacked and shifted against each other under his weight. 

Laurent was rubbing a hard block of soap over his body with quick, efficient movements, turned away, ignoring Damen’s presence. Without checking its destination, he tossed the slippery block over his shoulder. Damen caught it with one hand, smiling. He used it to clean himself. As he did so, Damen watched the water beading on Laurent’s back. It gave his fine skin a luminescent quality and drew Damen, irresistibly. He placed a hand on one of Laurent’s hips and made to pull him close.

Laurent jerked violently at the touch. Startled, Damen paused and then turned Laurent slowly. Distorted beneath the water it was clear enough to see that Laurent was roused. It was incongruent to the stormy expression in his eyes. Damen felt a chill that had nothing to do with the temperature of the water.

“What is wrong?”

Unwilling or unable to articulate his distress, Laurent shook his head.

“Have I done something to offend?”

“No. I-”

“You don’t want my touch?”

Laurent released a quick breath. “Hardly.” He looked up into Damen’s eyes, conflicted swirls of blue in his own.

“Then what troubles you?” Damen could not help but place one of his hands on Laurent, cradling his jaw. His other hand still held the hard block of soap.

Laurent’s features twisted with his internal struggle. Then, a blurt, “There is something I want.” His eyes were fire.

“Tell me.”

Laurent moved forward, pushing his hardness against the smooth muscle of Damen’s belly. “To be your first.”

Damen dropped the soap. It floated to the pebbles on the riverbed, along with his stomach.

Laurent’s manner was nervy. He pressed his lips together, a semblance of cool control. Then, with a stiff formality that masked a part of him that was still young and vulnerable, he said, “Will you have me?”

Damen went very still. It had been an age since this subject had been broached, not since that night in Mellos at the inn.

He hadn’t thought of it often and on the very rare occasions he had imagined it, it had been in a setting reminiscent of a First Night. With blousy cotton and draped silk. With candles burning, fragrant oils and soft cushions beneath their bodies. He had not imagined it like this; gritty, outside, on hard dirt and stones beside a mountain pool. Intimacy between them had been so satisfying, or so he had thought, he had believed this aspect no longer held such importance for Laurent.

“You know it is difficult for me to ask. If you would deny me, tell me now and we will not speak of it again.”

Damen’s stomach tightened. He was unprepared. “I thought you would prefer this to happen at the palace. With comfort.”

“I-” Laurent stretched a palm across Damen’s belly. “I would prefer it with no servants attending,” his voice lowered with disarming honesty, “no palace whispers about our proclivities. Just us.”

Us. As usual the word made the inside of Damen’s chest swell with a primal intensity.

For a moment, a frustrated part of Damen wished Laurent had been so concerned with privacy on other occasions when the blonde fiend had beckoned servants to their chambers with no regard for Damen’s inflamed state.

Laurent said, “It is not in your nature to yearn for this. Perhaps it is not in mine. Unless we try…” how will we know, he left the words unsaid. Laurent’s hand slid over Damen's skin from his belly to his chest where it rested on the curved muscle. He flexed his fingers a little as though marvelling at the hard resistance of it. He lifted hopeful blue eyes to Damen’s brown. “What say you?”

This was Laurent. Laurent had shared every prickly part of himself and had taken up all the space in Damen’s heart. This was Laurent, who had allowed Damen, inside. He had allowed Damen inside his rigid defences, hundreds of times, in every sense, figurative and literal. How to deny him?

It was not taboo but it was truly not in Damen’s nature to want this. Before that night at Mellos the concept had not ever entered his consciousness.

Watching him closely, Laurent's pellucid eyes saw the truth and dimmed. 

Since their first meeting, Damen had seen Laurent regard him with disgust and hatred, and more recently with desire and love. He’d never before been the cause of Laurent’s disappointment or hurt. He could not bear it.

Damen pulled Laurent flush against him and bent his mouth to his ear. There was only one possible answer. “Yes.”

Laurent gripped the back of Damen's neck and held on for a long moment, neither of them moving, breathing roughened.

Then, Laurent reached for Damen’s hand and led them to the edge of the stream. They stood on the smooth pebbles, facing one another, water streaming from their bodies.

Laurent slid his hands from Damen’s wet hips, over his stomach and up to his arms, curving around his biceps, his look trailing his touch. Then he moved his hands further, to Damen’s neck, higher, to comb his hair back from his face and then letting his fingers tangle in the wet curls as he pulled him closer still.

They kissed. A stretch of time passed with them pressed together this way, hips rolling unconsciously, arousals duelling. The noonday sun began to warm and evaporate beads of moisture from their skin.

As though leading an infinitely slow dance, Laurent pushed Damen backward, step-by-step up the riverbank until Damen’s heel kicked a bedroll. They eased down, Damen lay on his back and Laurent knelt, straddled above him, the insides of his white thighs resting alongside Damen’s muscled brown. Damen insides fluttered with nerves but his body was primed, eager always for any shared closeness.

Laurent paused, as though summoning inner strength. For all his determination, his stomach was trembling.

Damen’s hands rested on Laurent’s hips. Being naked together, intimate like this, it was familiar. Yet, in this moment, for the first time ever, Damen was unsure how to act. He knew Laurent needed to lead. They looked at each other.

Laurent said, “You are comfortable? I made sure the ground was smooth.”

“Yes.”

“This is not…about taking.”

Offence rose unexpectedly. Hotly, “Has it ever been?”

“No, I…” Laurent flushed, hard. “You miss my meaning.” He leaned forward, his eyes full of apology. “I want you to know…what it is to feel, what I feel.” Laurent's eyes fluttered closed and he kissed him, impassioned. Damen gripped his sides and returned the kiss. He realised then. Because this was Laurent, over-observant, over-achieving Laurent, it was not going to be about Laurent seeking this new, never tried pleasure. Laurent was going to make it about Damen.

“I thought…this way would be best. So I can see you.”

“Yes.” Damen swallowed the lump in his throat.

Laurent stretched above him and they shared breath, soft kisses and hard, penetrating kisses, a wonderful back and forth of lips and tongue. Laurent was leading and despite the newness of it, Damen felt cherished. Between them, kissing was the most personal baring of one soul to another, more intimate even than consummation. Damen cupped Laurent's face. He raked his fingers through the soft, damp hair. His hands moved to Laurent's back, sliding over muscles as they bunched and released. Damen let his fingertips trail up and down each knobbly bone of Laurent's spine and flushed in delight when Laurent's skin broke out into gooseflesh.

Damen would have been happy to kiss Laurent forever. With a distant part of his mind he resolved that nothing else mattered. So long as they could be like this, in each other’s arms.

Laurent reached beneath his bedroll. He removed a small stone jar and unstoppered it, coating his fingers in oil.

Damen’s stomach visibly clenched.

“Relax,” said Laurent, his voice gentle. His eyes were very dark and his chest flushed. He shifted lower down Damen’s body, the slide of his tongue in his navel, the drift from the tips of blonde hair on his skin. There were two scars on Damen’s lower body. Kastor had delivered both of them on the point of a knife. The older, whiter scar had been inflicted when Damen was a boy. The more recent and jagged scar had happened on the day that Kastor died, moments before Laurent drove in the sword that killed him. Laurent lingered, softly kissing both scars, at first with apology and regret for what had been lost. Then something changed and the kisses became hot, sliding, a possessive a swirl of tongue, the nip of teeth. Damen squirmed and gave himself over to pleasure.

Laurent took Damen's cock in hand and Damen's skin pebbled in anticipation when he felt the puffs from Laurent's ragged breath. Then his hot, wet mouth was on the head, moving the way he knew Damen liked. Damen’s arm stretched above and behind. His palm hit the dry bark of a willow tree and he pushed against it, anchoring himself. His back arched. Laurent continued, slow, with no real intent other than an open mouthed pleasure and the slide of his hand. Damen thoughts spiralled, lost to sensation.

He came back to himself when Laurent was moving up his body, fingertips gliding along the underside of Damen’s outstretched arm. Laurent’s hot mouth was on one of Damen’s nipples and he bit down. Meanwhile, a single, oiled finger penetrated the entrance to Damen’s body.

This had only ever happened to Damen in the baths at Arles, when he was prepared for the ring. He remembered jerking violently against the wooden dock that restrained him. Damen shut his eyes tight, forcing the memory away. This was not the same. This touch was welcome. He would not taint this moment. Laurent had paused. Damen schooled his face to calm and opened his eyes, capturing Laurent's mouth and urging him on. Laurent had a palm pressed to Damen’s outstretched hand. Damen curled their fingers together.

With his other hand, Laurent was moving slowly, in and out. He added another oiled finger. Damen’s skin felt tight. He reminded himself to breathe. Laurent was watching his every reaction. He paused again. “Shall I slow?”

Damen lifted his shoulders from the ground and kissed him. “I will not break.”

He exhaled, forced all the muscles in his body to relax and just…submit. His thighs loosened and moved further apart.

Laurent continued, patient, until Damen’s body began to open for him. At last Laurent took his own cock, heavy and erect into his hand, coating it in more oil.

“You are going overboard,” said Damen although his heart swelled at the sweetness of the gesture.

Laurent positioned himself, leaning slightly forward while his other hand anchored on the bedroll above Damen’s shoulder. This was the man who owned Damen’s heart.

Laurent looked for assent in Damen’s eyes, finding it. He nudged forward, a hot, oiled rocking back and forth. Damen fought the urge to ask Laurent to stop. Laurent moved back…and pushed forward…and kept going. It was too much. A shaking breath ribboned out of Damen.

“I am inside you.” Damen could see the corded muscle straining Laurent’s neck, a tremor in his arms.

“Yes.”

They weren't moving, eyes on each other, breathing uneven. Laurent lifted the hand that was beside Damen’s shoulder and palmed his jaw, his thumb moving across Damen’s cheek. The touch was so gentle that Damen ached. He could feel his heart beating against his chest. Laurent’s voice broke a little. “Damen.”

Damen turned his face and kissed Laurent’s wrist where the pulse beat flew beneath Damen's lips. He noticed sweat beading on Laurent’s brow, the hair at his temples darkened with it, the rest in messy tendrils from the river water. He pulled Laurent forward by the neck until their foreheads touched. Laurent’s body, his skin, his touch, his smell was as familiar to him as his own. They had broken through this very last virgin part that existed for both of them. With each other.

Damen felt full. Stretched and raw. He lifted his hips, his mouth brushed Laurent’s ear and he whispered, rough-voiced, “Fuck me.”

Laurent responded with his own gutteral sound and pulled himself almost all the way out. Then, slowly, he entered again to the hilt, and began moving his hips back and forth with determined force. It was much too controlled for someone experiencing their first time, but this was Laurent. All the times he had been with Damen, enjoying their intimacy, he had been observing and learning, preparing for this.

They were moving. Together. It wasn’t the same. Except in a way it was. The two of them, connected. Damen palmed Laurent’s curves and urged him forward, drawing him in.

Laurent watched. His eyes alert to every response. For a brief second he shut his eyes and swore. When he opened them again, they were ablaze with desire, raw, exposed, nothing hidden.

With part of his mind Damen was aware of a few things beyond what was happening between them; willow branches swaying above, dappled light, a breeze cooling the sweat on his skin, the sound of water travelling over stones in the stream. Overlaying everything was Laurent’s vigilant attention to his body, his awareness of Damen, his relentless rhythm. This wasn’t how Damen thought it would be. As much as it was pleasurable, he feared he was going to disappoint Laurent. He would not be able reach completion like this.

What Damen had failed to consider was that Laurent knew explicitly what felt good when a man made love to another man. He lifted one of Damen’s thighs, made a deliberate change to the angle of his hips and thrust harder, deeper, all the while maintaining his immense control.

Damen’s moan was involuntary and low. He had never been touched in that deep place, had never known the pleasure that came from it. He spoke once, not recognising the sound of his own voice, “More.” Laurent gave it to him. Again and again, a scintilla of triumph. Then, when Damen thought he couldn’t take anymore, he crested. He made another, new sound, and it was happening, irrefutable proof, wet heat. Damen was releasing, undone.

As though a flag had been dropped, Laurent exhaled a shuddering breath and all self-restraint left his body. He released Damen’s thigh and leaned forward, thrusting with abandon. Damen watched him, Laurent’s colour was high and his breathing unchecked.

“No one,” Laurent panted, his ferocious control dissolved. “No one else will know this part of you.” His eyes looked down to where they were fucking and then flared, dark and glittering, on Damen’s own. “Say it.”

Laurent had a power over Damen that no man or woman could or would ever claim. “Only you,” Damen said, husky voiced. Laurent was glorious, uninhibited and fully alive, above him.

Laurent reared up, his hands pressing on Damen’s chest. A shard of sunlight hit, haloing the white tips of his hair, the pink shell of his ear. Laurent’s chest shone with the sweat of his work. He was trying to stave off reaching his peak but it was happening. Damen’s own climax had ebbed but at the first strong pulse from Laurent inside him, it echoed in a low throb from his own body.

Laurent collapsed his full weight on top of Damen. His body was trembling from exertion and climax. He breathed into Damen’s ear, and the whispered words were Akielon, “My love.”

They smelled together of river water, sweat and sex.

Damen wrapped his arms around Laurent’s slighter form and held him as tight as he dared. They stayed that way, chests pressed close and heartbeats pounding loud for each other until their breathing slowed and they were no longer joined. Then, he smoothed back the soft tendrils of damp hair that had fallen across Laurent’s forehead. He poured every bit of what welled inside him into his own words, answering in Veretian, “My life.”

Chapter Text


That afternoon, Laurent’s need for Damen was relentless. They drowsed briefly, but before too long, Laurent, his front to Damen's back began again, trailing open-mouthed kisses across Damen's shoulders. Laurent's arm which had been slung around Damen's waist, now drew Damen's hand behind and low, pressing to demonstrate Laurent's remarkably brief refractory period. The second time, Laurent was even more controlled and attentive of Damen’s pleasure. Perhaps it was the remoteness of the location, for Damen didn't recall Laurent ever being so free with his words, seeking responses, urging Damen with specific instruction, more, this way, again, making declarations of need and love. It allowed Damen to be more vocal in response. Intimacy between them had never been quite so wild, something that thrilled Damen as much as surprised him, to see Laurent react so, completely uninhibited.

Later, they went slower, an endless exploration, both of them giving and taking, wet, deep kisses and touch that was gentle and possessive. Laurent turned in Damen arms, stomach pressed to the bedroll, canting his hips. Now Damen was inside, his lips hot against Laurent’s neck, his front sliding against the smooth whiteness of Laurent’s back and his hand gripping and stroking in delicious rhythm. It took much longer, but he held off his own release until he felt Laurent spill over his hand.

Exhausted, at last they slept, entwined and replete for an hour or so, warmed by the heat of the day, and protected by the shade of the low hanging branches of the willows. When Damen woke, Laurent's head was on his chest. The afternoon sunlight bounced off the nearby pool, shining through Laurent's pale lashes, defining the sharp edge of his jaw. This sudden and desperate desire for repeated lovemaking had to be for a reason. This was Laurent after all. Damen's heart sunk thinking he might guess the reason behind it. He pushed the thought aside as Laurent began to stir, pressing his face into Damen's skin, making a small sound of pleasure, his hand smoothing over the planes of Damen’s chest. Laurent stretched like a cat and rolled. They lay side-by-side, gazing across the pool of water in companionable silence.

Laurent reached for Damen's hand, tangling their fingers, and said, “I did not keep the purpose of our journey a secret out of a lack of trust.”

“I know.”

“I wanted to protect you.”

“Yes.”

“I could not stand to witness your anguish. Your pain is my own.”

The tenderness of his admission pulled at Damen’s heart. He rolled onto his side and took Laurent’s mouth.

There was a period of soft, lingering kisses, then Laurent drew back, his fingers buried in the hair at Damen’s nape. Their faces were close and Laurent spoke into the pocket of air they shared for breath. “I promised to protect you. It is an oath that I intend to keep.” Laurent pulled a strand of Damen's hair from his forehead to curl around his finger. “I may not be able to do so without some sacrifice.”

Damen had been holding onto the naive hope that they could solve this problem without damage to the status quo of their relationship. It was unlikely that they would emerge from this nighttime meeting unscathed. But their connection was strong. Damen resolved it would sustain whatever they had to endure.

Becoming monogamous wasn’t something that had arisen from a clear intent. Damen still appreciated beauty in the male and female form. Despite his sexual history, Damen had experienced a number of firsts with Laurent. Jealousy was by far the number one new experience. It had happened when the slave, Isander, had attended Laurent at Marlas. Every attention bestowed by the slave to Laurent had been like a knife cut to Damen's insides. Another time, by candlelight, laying together in the inn at Mellos, Damen remembered raising Laurent's duty to marry a Patran princess or a daughter of the Empire and desperately wanting Laurent to denounce such a possibility. The pain of jealousy, thinking of Laurent sharing confidences, laying with another, belonging to another, it had been as sharp as it was distasteful and bitter.

Since the blossoming of his feelings, Damen’s desires for others had simply diminished. It was anathema to even contemplate indulging with another. But it was also impossible to deny a fundamental difference between them; Damen’s past was littered with many casual lovers.

Laurent's trust had been hard won. Laurent was incapable of opening himself to intimacy without it. Their relationship had journeyed far, from hatred to respect to friendship and now an all consuming love. Damen was inside Laurent’s confidence and heart, and he valued it for the impossible gift that it was.

If it came to it tonight, Damen knew, it was to him that the responsibility must fall. He was still capable of reducing sexual favours to a simple exchange. He was. For Laurent it would be an impossibility. Damen would do it for them and for the unification.

*

The afternoon sun had sunk behind the mountain range. The sky was darkening, sapphire tinged with fire across the peaks of the mountains. They bathed each other again in the river stream, washing away the marks of love, and dressed, resuming their royal identities for their rendezvous. Damen attended Laurent, enjoying the pull of the endless laces as he covered him up, protecting what was his to view and to enjoy.

"Tighter," said Laurent, teasing with an aloof air. Damen smiled and tugged as he was bid.

Damen wore a short cape of deep red with the lion pin at his shoulder. Laurent wore the gold circlet, his hair and paleness as always in sharp relief against the blue black of his fine clothing. They mounted their horses, Laurent leading as always. Damen shifted in his saddle. The sensation wasn't unpleasant, a kind of dull ache. A reminder of where Laurent had been. A reminder of where Damen would let him go again, should he so wish.

They traversed upward from their camp through to the next mountain range. Sensing something, Laurent pulled on Sedile's reins, just before clan scouts emerged by stealth from the shadows. They wore skins and furs and were armoured with bows, swords and knives.

This time both Laurent and Damen were given the respect of their rank and were allowed to keep their weapons but they were still required to be led to the camp, blindfolded.

Damen didn’t like it any more than he had the first time.

When the blindfolds were lowered, the scene that greeted them was familiar. Several lit fires, meats roasting, the beating of drums, warriors, a few males but mostly female, gathered in small groups. There was a sprinkling of leather-cured tents on the periphery of the camp. The largest of the fires was near Halvik who was ensconced on the fur wrapped and slightly elevated wooden dais. Even at a distance Damen noticed Halvik’s eyes narrow and then widen as she watched Laurent and Damen approach. She stood and prowled toward them. The months since their last meeting had not softened her hawk-like features or the shrewdness of her gaze.

“Ha!” said Halvik.

Laurent began in Vaskian but announced Damen's title in Veretian accented Akielon. “I present the Exalted, Damianos, King of Akielos.”

Instead of acknowledging or paying respect to Damen, Halvik cast her eyes up and down Laurent’s form. She snorted, adjusting the thick fur around her shoulders.

“Ha!” Halvik repeated and swept a slow circle around Damen, assessing him with her gimlet eyes. “So. You are King of Akielos.” She said it in Veretian.

Damen responded in kind. “Yes.”

Halvik turned her calculating gaze to Laurent. She continued to speak in halting Veretian. “There is much more to you than meets the eye, Laurent of Vere. Perhaps after all you do possess the qualities of a great warrior. You surely fuck one.”

Damen couldn’t stop the automatic curve of his hand on the hilt of his sword. He stilled, sensing a fierce side-eyed glance from Laurent.

“We come with respect and demand the same courtesy, madam,” said Laurent.

Laurent turned to Damen. “I will speak Veretian when I can, but Halvik’s Veretian is limited. I will need to negotiate in Vaskian.”

Damen swallowed, not liking the thought of being kept in the dark, but he nodded. He trusted Laurent. Most of the time he trusted Laurent. But he knew this was necessary, Damen's clan Vaskian had not improved, and he would struggle to keep up.

“Come,” said Halvik, lifting her chin to indicate the dais. The camp was busy, Vaskians around them attending to various tasks, yet Damen could feel many eyes upon them.

As before, there were no chairs or thrones. Damen and Laurent were required to arranged themselves on the dais in a casual sprawl. Laurent stretched out elegant as a cat, one leg raised, an insouciant wrist dangling atop his knee. Damen was not modest man, but he had history with this clan and did not he wish to put himself on display. He sat gingerly, using his cape to maintain modesty; his short skirt being unsuited to such a seating arrangement. He caught a few of the younger clan members eyeing his progress and whispering with disappointment to each other once he was seated.

Food was brought forward, simple and hearty. There was strong smelling roasted game and dark flatbreads. And drink. Damen peered into the cup and saw the familiar milky liquid, smelled the strength of the harsh alcohol. He took a tentative sip, not wishing a repeat performance in this camp. He glanced at Laurent with gathering amusement, ready to observe his cool dismissal at close range.

Laurent took the cup of hakesh and drained it. He held out his hand for a refill and polished that off as well. The third cup he held between his fingers and sipped. His normal fair complexion seemed to pale further and his eyes turned a little glassy.

Damen's unease grew. Laurent was nervous.

There was one distinct group of warriors gathered on thick furs nearby. They were trying not to be obvious, but they were paying close attention to what was taking place on the dais. They were of various shapes and sizes but two things they held in common. They they were all women and they were all young.

Damen noted movement on the opposite side of the dais. A new clanswoman strode across the camp to join this group of young women. She raised a brow at Halvik whose dark eyes glittered before she nodded. This woman was tall, perhaps only a little shorter than Damen. She was darker than most of the other clan members, almost as dark as an Akielon, and she was strong and muscled, clearly a powerful warrior. She sat with the group, her bearing proud. She stared, unflinching at the dais.

The other warriors were more surreptitious, casting only occasional glances, mostly at Damen, then turning and speaking to each other behind raised hands, hiding their words and their laughter.

With a small amount of dread, Damen wondered which of them would choose him for the traditional service. He would keep the thought impersonal, like that, to service, nothing more. He hoped it wasn’t going to be the enormous warrior.

While his attention was claimed by the young women, Damen realised he had not been listening to the exchange between Laurent and Halvik. They had been conversing in rapid clan Vaskian, so it was likely he couldn’t have followed anyway. The conversation broke, and with a sharp glance at Damen, Halvik switched to her halting Veretian, speaking so that Damen could understand.

“It matters not that he is King of Akielos. He was your slave that night. You offered his seed freely. We do not recognise any claim by him for the children.”

Laurent responded, also in Veretian. “We make no such claim on the girl. We understand and respect her value to the clan. We wish to discuss terms for the boy.”

“The runt?” said Halvik. She was incredulous. Clearly this was a battle she had not been expecting.

Damen’s thoughts swam. There were two children? A runt?

The conversation reverted to Vaskian. Halvik’s responses were harsh and guttural. She made jerky hand gestures, annoyed.

Damen’s eyes darted, searching the camp for children. His children. It was dangerous to think of them as such. He could not really afford to do so. It could jeopardise all that Laurent was trying to do. At any rate, he detected no evidence. Clan Vaskians lived simply but they were cunning. With the feeling that was growing inside him he knew they were wise to hide all children away. So long as he considered these offspring in the abstract, he would not go mad with desire for them. If he saw them, as he had seen Honos, it would be impossible for him to conceive leaving without them.

Damen heard his own breathing and forced himself to calm. How was Laurent going to negotiate for this boy and why was a child of Damen's blood called a runt?

Laurent had returned to Veretian. “You will allow me to explain this to the king? I will need to speak Akielon.”

Halvik, knowing full well that Damen spoke fluent Veretian, which she understood, lifted a brow. But after considering any potential danger, gave a single, curt nod.

Laurent spoke, low and fast. “Put the girl out of your mind. She is an impossibility. She is beyond value to this tribe.”

Damen pressed his lips together and closed his eyes. He knew this of these warrior women. With difficultly, he nodded once.

“The boy caught fever when he was only a few months old. He was weak for some time. They did not think he would survive. He has.” Laurent showed the barest hint of a smile as their eyes met. “He has his father’s determination.”

“And so?”

“If we both agree to the terms I have negotiated, we can have him.”

“Tell me,” said Damen.

Laurent drew a deep breath and shook his head. His accent was more pronounced and Damen considered how much hakesh Laurent had already consummed. He had little tolerance for alcohol, and Damen couldn't understand why Laurent would risk a clear head with the stakes so high. Was he medicating himself to deal with what was ahead? That thought built the dread in his belly.

Laurent said, “We take him and his mother to Ios. His mother will act as the first ambassador of the clans to Akielos and Vere.” Laurent’s words had begun to slur. He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth and took another draft from his cup. He blinked hard and continued. “We will actively mend relations with the clans going forward. We give Halvik all the gold and silver we have, plus…”

Halvik cut in, speaking Veretian, “The runt has no value as a warrior. If he survives to adulthood, he may have had merit to us as a breeder. We require recompense. Tonight.”

It was as Damen had feared. He glanced at the group of women; a number of them gazed back with expectant smiles.

“It won’t be like before,” Laurent said, blinking blearily in apology. “Once. Not in public. It can occur in a tent but there will be guards who will confirm that the servicing has taken place.” Laurent’s hand curved gently over Damen’s fist. He didn’t remember clenching his hand and forced himself to relax. “Only once, my love. And then it is done. We will be brought together for the remainder of the evening.” Emphatically, he said, “To a separate tent.”

Damen searched Laurent’s features. There were beads of sweat on his brow, his gaze febrile. During his negotiations he had finished the third cup of hakesh. It was a dangerous thing to have done, but perhaps this was what he needed to do to cope. Damen imagined he was not alone in his jealous thoughts.

Knowing Damen was about to lay with one of these women was clearly unbearable to Laurent. Damen’s heart sank, despairing at Laurent's anguish. Laurent still held Damen's hand which was gripping his sword, Damen placed his other hand on top. "It will mean nothing. I can do this. For us." His eyes swept the camp again. "But we should ask to see the child first."

Halvik made a sharp movement with her hand. Kashel, the first woman Damen had lain with from the clan that fated night, was brought forward from the shadows, a child in her arms. The child was several months younger than Honos, only maybe of walking age. Kashel, much unchanged from Damen’s hazy memories, gazed back at him, smiling shyly, a little proud. A long braid fell over her shoulder. The child was sleeping. His complexion was dark. He was bare-chested and Damen could count all his ribs. The bones on his wrists were sharp. There was mucus crusted around his nose.

The boy was Damen’s. He felt it with every beat of his heart.

“He looks weak, undernourished,” said Damen. “What guarantee have we that he will survive?”

“He is your only option,” snapped Halvik.

Kashel spoke and her voice was clear and determined. “He grows stronger every day. He will survive.”

“Look at the size of his hands and feet.” Laurent steadied himself on Damen's arm. “Oh, Damen.” Laurent's voice held uncharacteristic warmth, inappropriate to their public setting. Damen, nudged Laurent, a sharp reminder to focus.

Damen said, “What is his name?”

Halvik was dismissive, “You can name him whatever you like, if we let you have him.”

Kashel said, “I have named him, Radomir. Rad for joy and mir for peace and world. He is destined for great things. He is your son.”

The air stilled, the drums had silenced and the only sounds were the crackling of the fires, the hiss of fat dropping from the spit roasted meat to the embers.

Damen gathered his strength. He could feel all eyes and ears on him, waiting.

“Very well,” he said. “I agree to the terms. Let it be done.”

Things happened quickly after that. At another signal from Halvik, Kashel and Radomir retreated somewhere in the camp, away from what was about to take place.

The young warriors stood. Halvik, Laurent and Damen approached them. The air was thick with anticipation and primal lust. The drums began beating once more.

Damen became aware of the coupling fire to his far right, and the rhythmic movements already taking place.

Damen squared his shoulders and let his eyes pass over each of the women as they in turn assessed him. With the exception of the imposing warrior, he knew he could do this. Even if it was the giant, and he had a sickening feeling it might be, he’d manage it. None of the women were unappealing.

“The woman chooses.” Halvik confirmed.

Dame said, “So be it.”

To his enormous relief, a young woman of perhaps twenty, diminutive, with light brown hair, glanced at her companions, seeking their consent. She stepped forward and took Damen’s hand.

Damen steeled himself. This was really happening. He turned to Laurent, to offer some final comfort.

The giant, dark-haired warrior stepped forward and took Laurent by the hand.

Damen startled, violently. “What? No.”

Laurent's broken smile was one of apology, his face deathly white. His body lurched to one side and he leaned against the woman before straightening. “Once, Damianos. It’s not like it will be my first.” Up close, the woman was massive, bulkier in muscle than Laurent. Laurent was staring at Damen and he blinked, slow and heavy-lidded. “I promise I will return to you, shortly.”

The dark-haired giantess led Laurent away, into the shadows, toward her tent. Damen felt his hand tugged by the other woman, and he was taken, helplessly, in the opposite direction.

*

Later, Damen lay on his back, wearing only a Vaskian loincloth, his skin warmed by soft furs. His arm was pressed across his eyes.

He was wretched.

Not for himself. He had done what was required. He had not been rough, nor had he been particularly attentive. He had not lingered.

Once consummation had been confirmed, he had left the woman, lying on her back, legs raised in the air to hold in his seed. He was taken by the attending guards to a stream to bathe and then led to a private tent, lamp lit and glowing amber, to wait for Laurent.

Damen’s wretchedness was all to do with Laurent.

Laurent had known what likely awaited them in this camp. His earlier desire to take Damen rearranged itself in light of the events of the past half hour. He had made sure that Damen was his first, because he suspected he would face this, tonight.

Laurent had only ever been in one intimate relationship. Damen could not think of what had transpired between Laurent and his uncle as anything other than abuse. Laurent had no interest in women. It was impossible for Laurent to be easy with anyone, much less an unfamiliar lover. No wonder he had taken so much hakesh. Could he even be aroused by a woman? Damen was sickened by the thought that Laurent wouldn't be able to perform, yet felt no comfort when he considered that he would.

Where was he?

The minutes passed, each one an age, and Damen's morose thoughts only spiralled further.

Laurent, smaller in stature, had drunk more hakesh than Damen had that first time. Had it taken him to a point beyond abandonment?

Unwanted ideas crowded into Damen's mind. Next to his first experience of jealousy was now something new, a tiny seed of insecurity.

Would the influence of the hakesh give Laurent an abundance of desire? What if Laurent found this wholly new experience to be pleasurable? Would he wish to indulge this way with a woman again? Damen found that particular thought distasteful in the extreme. He didn’t like thinking about Laurent with a woman. He didn’t like thinking about Laurent with anyone.

Where was he?

Damen glanced around the tent. It was equipped for men’s pleasure, a familiar arrangement to their previous time with the Vaskians. He had never felt less amorous.

He wanted Laurent. He wanted to know he was all right. He wanted to know that their relationship had not been damaged by the events of this night.

The entrance to the tent opened. Laurent stood there, swaying slightly. He was frowning, squinting into the soft light.

Laurent’s eyes widened. “There you are,” he murmured. There was no indication that this was a welcome discovery.

It was always a shock to see Laurent's skin exposed. He too was dressed in a loincloth. His skin was slightly damp and his hair tousled with a faint curl. His paleness glowed gold in the lamplight, accentuating his slender but defined torso.

Damen’s breath caught. He didn’t know what to say. He wanted to ask…but he couldn’t bring himself to speak. His heart ached. He thought the easiest thing would be to draw Laurent down onto the furs and hold him. Reconnecting with touch would be easier than words.

Laurent made no move to enter the tent. He continued to stand, an expression of consternation marring his face.

Damen's unease intensified. Was Laurent having second thoughts about where to spend the night?

Then, Laurent did something unexpected. To say that Damen found it shocking would be an understatement.

Laurent grabbed hold of the pole at the entrance to the tent, steadying himself.

And then he giggled.

Chapter Text


 

Laurent lifted the flap of the loincloth revealing a stridently hardened cock. He was wide-eyed and grinning. “I mean,” he dropped the fabric back over himself and then swung it back and forth, his face turning to genuine puzzlement. “what application does this truly serve?”

After several attempts, Laurent unfastened the tie at the side and dropped the brief covering altogether.

“There,” he said, lifting his arm at a right angle, his fist clenched. “I have triumphed.” He was still standing at the entrance to the tent, unsteady, lush and quite magnificent.

“Come here.” Damen's voice was roughened.

Laurent took a step inside and fell gracelessly to his knees, sprawling on top of Damen. “Well, hello.” He nudged Damen's nose with his own, his mouth a hair's breath away.

Damen, who was not inflamed or drunk on hakesh, had managed to twist his body, avoiding painful injury from Laurent’s knee. Laurent’s skin felt chilled from the night air, clammy in his hands.

Damen spoke in a soft voice. Each word stabbed at his heart like the prick of a knife. “Are you alright?”

Laurent was staring at him, blinking, the whites of his eyes bloodshot. He patted Damen’s face as a blind man might, to learn the shape of it. His other hand curved over Damen’s shoulder, tracing muscle and bone before it moved with slow purpose across Damen’s chest. His eyebrows lifted. A shock of pale hair had fallen across his face.

“One thing is certain,” Laurent’s alcoholic breath wafted. “You, Damianos, are nothing like a woman.”

Damen felt a single, painful heartbeat. “Were you…were you able to…”

Laurent snorted. He dropped his head and smoothed his cheek across Damen’s chest. His breath was hot. Then he inhaled, pressing his nose into Damen’s sternum.

“They smell...different.” His words were muffled against Damen’s skin. His head shot up unexpectedly, and moved around, seemingly too heavy for his neck. "Women, I mean."

Then, Laurent ran his nose along the side of Damen’s neck, an upward trek. He nuzzled Damen’s jaw and into his hair. Damen held himself very still. “You smell so good, Damen.”

“Well…I’m glad.” Damen felt a flush over his whole body. There was some delight to be had in this unusual version of Laurent, but Damen couldn't shake the nagging worry about what had transpired with the giant woman. Was this horrible episode truly over?

Laurent’s arms gave out and he fell slack, his full, dead weight on top of Damen. Laurent's face was buried at the base of Damen’s neck. Breath puffed over Damen’s collarbone, a light snore.

Damen poked a gentle finger in Laurent’s rib. “Laurent?” No movement. He poked again, this time stronger. “Laurent?”

With a start, Laurent lifted his head, eyes widening, and a breathtaking smile split his face.

“My king.”

Laurent came back to life, running a hand over Damen’s pectoral muscle, pressing his lips to the firm surface. He softened his mouth ghosting across the skin, pressed firm again, a hint of teeth, the hot wetness of his tongue. Damen's nipples tightened and Laurent made a deeply appreciative noise.

Damen was conflicted. His body was helplessly beginning to yearn, but his mind was a jumble, needing answers and dreading what he might learn.

Laurent lifted his face again and said, “I mean, what even are you meant to do with breasts?” He rolled onto his back on the furs. Damen held his breath.

Laurent held his arms up, his hands opening and closing like he was picking fruit in an orchard. “They move around, Damen. One minute they’re here,” a swooping motion, “then they’re over there.” He gazed at his opened palms. “Hard to track. Soft.” He dropped his arms and looked up at the roof of the tent, making a sour face. “Not for me.”

Laurent lurched, an uncoordinated movement, and he was back onto his side, looking at Damen. He glanced down, noticing Damen’s loincloth and made a grunt of dislike. "This does not please me.”

Concentrating hard, his tongue between his teeth, Laurent undid the fastening with painstaking slowness, eventually leaving Damen exposed.

Laurent smiled in triumph. "We match."

Laurent began touching Damen, his hands drifting, eager. It was as though he was discovering Damen's body for the first time. It was exquisite. Damen tried to block everything, forget what had happened to both of them, and focus in the moment, on the feel of Laurent's hands.

Laurent stilled. Damen opened his eyes. Laurent's brow creased with discomfort, his mouth pressed tight. “I’m so hard, Damen." He drew Damen's hand downward. "Make me come.” It was uncharacteristic, like everything that had happened this evening, a plaintive command.

“Were you able to complete…with the woman?” Damen found he could barely breathe.

Laurent blinked. He snorted, a very un-Laurent like gesture. “Of course. But I won’t be doing that again." He bumped his forehead against Damen and exhaled emphatically. "Ever.” He began moving his lower half, thrusting against Damen’s hip. “Damen. Please.”

Damen exhaled and touched Laurent’s cheek, moving the yellow hair back from his face. His heart was aching. He was not to be comforted tonight. Laurent was in no fit state to discuss what had happened. But they were together and Laurent needed this. At least Damen could give him relief.

“With my mouth or my hand?”

Laurent gazed over Damen’s shoulder, his expression thoughtful, as though considering a complex conundrum. “Your hand.” He grabbed Damen by the back of the neck and pulled his face close. “I need you to kiss me.” 

*

Damen woke feeling the warmth from Laurent's skin along his side. When he turned to look, Laurent was on his back, massaging his temples with long, pale fingers. “It was necessary, but I may have imbibed beyond what would be considered wise.” Despite the thick croak of his voice, Laurent appeared clear-headed. “The aftermath of hakesh is as severe as Makedon’s griva,” he added with a sigh.

Damen pressed a kiss to Laurent’s hand. “I’m sorry you are suffering. And as back luck would have it, we have no iron tea at our disposal.”

Laurent made a pained sound. "There are some gaps in last night's memory. I assume I did not do or say anything unforgivable?" Laurent shifted toward Damen and they lay, gazing at one another. Damen smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring manner, but couldn't bring himself to speak. Eventually Laurent said, “We need to dress and claim Radomir and Kashel. Let’s take them home.”

“Which home?”

Laurent rolled his eyes. “Oh. That was a mistake.” He placed a hand over his face, blocking his vision and probably the light. “To our palace at Ios. For now.” He peaked at Damen between his fingers.

“Is there anything to drink that is not hakesh?”

Damen sat up and moved to the end of the tent where a stone jug held cool water. While Laurent struggled to push himself into a seated position among the furs, Damen poured water into a cup and handed it to him. Laurent took several deep draughts, swirling the water around in his mouth before he swallowed. He regarded Damen thoughtfully.

“Better. Thank you.” He placed the cup on the ground. “Now, come here.”

It was as though he knew Damen needed it. They lay back, Laurent opened his arms and delivered a fantastic, deep morning kiss. Damen returned it, wrapping his arms around Laurent, feeling them dissolve into each other.

“You still desire my kisses,” said Damen, hating the insecurity of his words but feeling partially restored from this closeness.

Laurent said, “Always.” And continued, languid and soft.

After a long period of reconnecting with their mouths, he paused, sensing Damen's unease. “What is it?”

Damen squeezed his eyes closed. He knew he shouldn’t but the words pushed out, beyond his control. “Was it-?”

Laurent place a hand against his mouth. “We aren’t going to talk about this.” Damen began to protest, Laurent interrupted, “No. It will only cause unnecessary pain, for both of us.”

Damen pressed his lips together and tried not to argue. It was difficult.

“Damen. The task is behind us, before us a kingdom…our life together and our son.”

They had a son. Damen’s heart sped up on hearing the word, knowing it was a reality.

Then, he remembered. Not only a son. A girl, a daughter. He drew on every inch of self-control. She did not belong to him. She would never be his. Perhaps one day…they would meet. Would they recognise each other?

Thoughts like this were not helpful.

Laurent was stroking Damen's cheeks with his thumbs. It brought Damen’s attention back to the tent. Laurent lay before him, fair and gold. He was always heartbreaking in the morning. Streaks of daylight through the tent flap burnishing his beauty. Despite Laurent’s obvious discomfort from the hakesh, his eyes were full of love, and his hands on Damen’s face were warm.

Laurent sighed. “If you promise you will stop being so morose, I will tell you one thing.”

Damen prepared himself, his stomach tightening. “Yes.”

“One thing, then we will not speak of it again.”

“You have my word.” Damen leaned his cheek on Laurent’s hand which was resting on top of his shoulder. He needed to hear this. Then he could move on.

Laurent drew in a deep breath and slowly released it before he spoke, each word slow and emphatic. “Yours is the only kiss I desire." They were sharing breath, lips dusting against each other. "Damen." The pale lashes swept closed. The vulnerable honesty of his next admission left Damen undone. "Yours is the only kiss I have ever known.”

*

The return journey was slower but the summer days were long and easy. They travelled through every one of the daylight hours, therefore covering more ground. Damen and Laurent were no longer wearing disguises, and had decided to camp, rather than risk staying at an inn. They stayed off the main roads to avoid detection.

Kashel and Radomir were kept out of sight in a small, covered wagon led by the original packhorses. Damen steered the wagon and Laurent rode alongside, a lead on Damen’s mount.

It was late afternoon. Shadows were lengthening and the light held that magical quality that only lasted for a few moments at the end of the day, enhancing the beauty of everything it touched, before it was extinguished by the night.

Damen heard rustling and movement behind him. He looked over his shoulder. The child was asleep in a pile of soft bedding and Kashel was working her way through the wagon to sit beside him. He shifted to one side on the rough wooden seat to make room. She smiled shyly and leaned forward, inhaling a deep lungful of fresh air.

Damen wondered about her. How unsettling, to have been thrust unexpectedly into this new life, uprooted from family and friends and everything familiar. In Akielos and Vere, in their courts, their ways of living, customs and language, even styles of dress would be nothing she was used to, having spent her life thus far in the wild, among the mountains. Despite the fact that he knew Kashel was an accomplished warrior; she still had the appearance of a young maiden.

Even more strange thoughts crowded Damen’s mind. He was sitting next to a woman whom he had once held in an intimate embrace, though he didn’t recall much from that night, thanks to the hakesh. They had created a child together. Yet, he felt nothing more than empathy and compassion for the situation she now found herself in. He wondered if they could grow to become friends.

Since their departure from the Vaskian camp, Laurent had been responsible for communicating with Kashel, using the tribal Vaskian that mostly eluded Damen. Exchanges between Kashel and Damen had been kept to a minimum, a few gestures here and there. He would ask Nikandros to arrange a tutor for her so that she could learn the Akielon language once they reached Ios.

Damen’s mind returned to a more familiar focus. His eyes were drawn, as they always were, to the bright head and striking profile, regal and aloof, trotting beside him. It wasn’t unusual for Laurent to feign indifference to Damen’s attentions and longing looks during the day. Warmth flooded Damen’s veins when he thought of the changes that came over Laurent when they were alone.

Together for all his days.

Then Kashel spoke and Damen was reminded again how appearances could be deceiving. Clearly Halvik had been almost as forward planning and calculating as Laurent. The words Kashel’s spoke were halting but pronounced in precise Akielon.

She said, “I have never ventured so far into Sicyon.”

Damen schooled himself not to react or appear surprised by Kashel’s sudden ability to converse in his own language. That Halvik had a political mind, and had prepared for a future that included dealings with Akielos when they never had before, merely showed that she was adaptive and shrewd.

He returned, also in his own language, “You are under the protection of kings and have nothing to fear.”

“My experience with Akielons has been limited, once in a battle on our borders…and once among the coupling fire.” Kashel stumbled a little over some words but she had been well coached. She smiled, realising that she had been understood.

Damen kept his focus on diplomatic reassurance. “As an ambassador to your people, you will be treated with respect in our court.”

Damen was holding the reins on the packhorses, his arms were bare and he wore the short skirt and long sandals. Cool fingers slid over his skin in a familiar manner. Kashel had shifted close to him on the bench and her voice lowered, “And by you?”

“Madam!” said Damen, unable to hide his affront. He glanced to his side and saw Laurent on horseback. Laurent’s limpid gaze rested on them both and his pale brows were raised as though to say, and so?

“The King and I,” he tilted his head toward Laurent, “are together.”

“Of course,” said Kashel, unfazed. “But surely the Exalted still enjoys the pleasures of women. You and I could produce more children, more heirs.”

Damen was not fooled by her supposed demure look. He wondered just how extensive Halvik’s instructions had been before she let Kashel depart the Vaskian camp. Continue to bed the Akielon King. It will gain Vask greater favour in our dealings with this new realm. He thought it was probably something like that.

Damen felt the prick of sweat on the back of his neck. He thought of a hundred responses but settled for the most pertinent. “No.”

“Whoa.” Laurent had grabbed the harness on the packhorse closest to him and pulled it to a sudden halt. “We camp here.” Damen looked at him, his face was bloodless.

The wagon lurched and stilled. One of the packhorses stamped a front hoof, the other switched its tail and shivered along its mane, dislodging flies. Dust swirled. No one spoke. 

Laurent dismounted with military precision. He strode to the opposite side of the wagon and thrust his gloved hand toward Kashel. Even Damen blanched at his withering stare.

Kashel stared at the proffered hand as though it was a viper about to strike. It might have been. She was not a lady or a maid requiring assistance to step down from a wagon. She'd probably been jumping on and off moving horses since she was a child. To reject the offer would be an offence. Trust Laurent to make an act of chivalry appear fraught with peril. After staring at his hand for a moment longer than was comfortable, Kashel jut her chin and acquiesced, accepting his assistance. She stepped down from the wagon without incident but her eyes remained wary.

There were sounds from the wagon, beneath the canvas. The child was stirring, but for the moment he was ignored.

Laurent and Kashel eyed each other. Laurent used his teeth to loosen his riding gloves by the fingertips, one by one, and yanked them off, snapping them over his sword belt.

“Madam,” Laurent spoke in a soft, measured tone but his words were delivered like smooth chips of ice. “We will keep you safe on this journey. You will be given a position of respect when we reach Ios.” Laurent put his hands behind his back and paced, a lethal prowl, circling. Damen noticed Kashel press her hand against something in her tunic. If it was a knife, he didn’t blame her.

“In Ios you will have your pick of Akielon lovers.” Laurent stopped and stood directly before her. “Bed as many as you like." He stepped forward and his voice dropped another register. The quieter Laurent got, the more lethal he appeared. From his perch on the wagon bench, Damen leaned closer to hear their voices.

Laurent said, "I do request that you keep your hands off mine.”

Kashel dropped her hand and bowed her head low, thoroughly chastened. “Your Highness. I meant no offence.”

Damen smiled to himself, feeling ridiculously happy.

"Are you waiting for a royal decree or do you also require assistance?" Laurent shot the words at Damen from over his shoulder as he swept past and climbed into the back of the wagon to settle the stirring child.

That night they camped by the River Vitya but situated much further downstream than on their outward journey. They were on the flat, where the tributary entered Sicyon.

Despite the frostiness of their earlier exchange, relations between Laurent and Kashel managed to be civil enough over a meal of dried meats and fruits. They drank cool water, there was no alcohol shared of any kind. The boy fed from the breast.

Thinking it might help, Damen raised the topic of horse breeds and Kashel and Laurent were off, often slipping into Vaskian, as they espoused the virtues of this breed or that and the best methods of training. Appearing more relaxed, Laurent began to ask questions about Radomir, his birth, his illness and his recovery. He was eager to learn every aspect of the boy’s short life.

Damen knew this was one of Laurent’s great skills; he asked questions from many sources, and more importantly, he listened. Then he acted from what he learned. It was likely that Radomir would be thriving with robust health in less than a month.

Laurent stretched and yawned. “We should sleep, we have an early start." He had been lounging, an elbow to the ground and a knee raised. Now he turned himself onto all fours and shuffled toward Damen. "Good evening…Lady Kashel.” He almost crawled into Damen’s lap, placing a deliberate kiss on his lips. “Shall we?”

Kashel bowed her head, restraining a smile at this display and bid a hasty good evening, retreating to the wagon to sleep with Radomir.

*

The stars were just beginning to fade when Damen woke in his bedroll. He turned over, patting the ground beside him. The bedding beside him was cool. Damen sat up, instantly alert.

Kashel was sitting at the back of the wagon, preparing for the day’s ride. She was braiding her hair and winding it around her head. Damen looked around for the child.

A thin band glowed on the horizon, burnt orange and fuchsia broken by streaks of dark cloud. Down by the riverbank with a long shadow stretched behind him, Laurent sat on a flat piece of rock that jutted over a clear pool. He was holding Radomir and he was dipping a cloth in the water, squeezing the excess and wiping the child’s body. The infant squealed each time the cool cloth touched his skin.

Damen smiled and felt the swelling of his heart. He stood, rubbed the sand from his eyes and wandered over, sitting down on the rock beside Laurent. He brushed his mouth across Laurent’s cheek, his eyes on Radomir, the unfolding of new emotion. His son.

Laurent was busy now, balancing the child to stand as he rubbed him dry with a towel. They both studied Radomir’s body. He was certainly thin but he was well made with long limbs and a barrel of a chest. His skin was beautiful, smooth, unmarred. Damen lifted his arm alongside the child’s; their tone matched, although Damen’s was a shade darker from exposure to the sun.

“Kashel needed a moment to dress and the child required cleaning,” Laurent spoke as though embarrassed at being caught doing a woman’s chores.

“You like him.” Damen leaned against Laurent.

“I will protect him as long as I live,” said Laurent, frowning. His cheeks darkened and he added, a little shy, “I will love him as I love you.” He rested the child on his lap and tickled his cheek with his finger. The child beamed. He had two small, perfectly white teeth on his lower jaw.

“He looks much like you.”

“Really?” Pleased.

“You know he does, Damen.” Laurent’s finger brushed the child’s cheek again, making him smile. “He even has your dimple.”

“I have a dimple?”

“In a few years, when he is old enough, I will teach him to ride.” The child began to drool and Laurent swiped at it with the cloth he was still holding. “You can teach him wrestling.”

The feeling that welled inside Damen needed physical expression. He leaned across and pressed a kiss to Laurent’s mouth. Leaning back, he held out his arms. “May I?”

“He is your blood,” said Laurent, although he appeared reluctant to hand over the boy.

Damen held Radomir as he had held Honos, resting along his forearms. Then he hooked him into one arm, pulling him close to his side. Damen was flooded with powerful emotions, a recognition of blood and a deep sense of responsibility and love. The desire to protect rocked him. He placed his palm on Radomir’s small belly in a gentle caress. “Fried honey pancakes were my favourite when I was a boy.” Damen’s son stared back, eyes round and blinking.

Damen said, “We will teach him honour and duty. We will leave him a legacy to continue.”

“I will be pleased enough to achieve honour.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Do you not think our fathers had the same dreams? Theomedes and Aleron had plans for heirs and kingdoms. They didn't turn out how they hoped. Today is a far cry from what they imagined when Auguste was born. Or you, or Kastor.”

“Or you.” Damen stared at the child. As usual, Laurent made him look at things from all angles. The future was full of potential and unknowns. “We do our best,” he said.

Laurent was staring at his hands. “Well,” He glanced up and the rising sun caught his pale lashes. “Your best should be more than enough.” Laurent's smile was one of such sweetness that Damen’s heart lurched at the sight of it.

Laurent said, “Every day with you is hope and happiness I did not see coming.” Before Damen could kiss him again, Laurent reached for the child, lifting him to his shoulder. “He’s going to be very handsome.” He grunted with feigned effort. “And a giant animal.”

Damen stood too, smiling.

Without warning a different emotion caught him, hard in the chest, robbing him of this moment, full of promise. “But just this child.”

“Damen,” said Laurent, a warning.

It still challenged him when he thought of the years ahead. “The girl. How can you dismiss her so easily? And you may have sired your own daughter last night and me another child. We just let them go?” He shook his head. “You once told me, you wanted your line to end with you. That hope is dashed. How can we leave these children all over our lands?”

Laurent’s blue eyes were clear, resolute. “The girl is the sacrifice we had to make. She will be well cared for among the Vaskians, and she is likely to make a great warrior. You know we have gained a great deal. Perhaps, one day…”

Laurent walked a few paces, patting Radomir on the back. He turned, glancing over his shoulder. “Besides, we took every precaution with those women. It is my strong belief there will be no more children from that night.”

Damen stilled. “What?”

Laurent sighed. “Paschal. I consulted him on the matter before I left. What a man might do to reduce the chance of siring. He believes the more a man climaxes in a day, the less potent his seed each time.”

Damen’s head swam. He wiped a hand over his face.

After a long, difficult pause. “Then, by the river…it wasn’t about me being your first?”

The flush that broke across Laurent’s face was startling. “Of course it was. It just…the repeated lovemaking had an…added benefit. Aside from the obvious.” His colour deepened further. “You know what we shared that day was true.”

Damen found he needed a moment to catch up. Laurent stood next to him, allowing it, silent as they gazed across the river. Radomir was pulling Laurent’s hair but he didn’t seem to mind.

Damen let this latest revelation settle on him. He rearranged everything that had happened between them over the last day and a half. Had it only been that long? On reflection he found that it diminished nothing, perhaps it even enhanced what had passed between them.

“The way your mind works.” Damen couldn’t hide his awe at the breadth of his lover’s planning. “And Nikandros, when you told him we were leaving Ios, did he know the intent of this expedition?”

“Not exactly.” The smallest apostrophe appeared beside Laurent’s mouth. “What will the Kyros make of it, do you think, when we return home with a half-Vaskian heir and a new ambassador from their tribes? Given his years of frustrated dealings with the Vaskians?”

Poor Nikandros, thought Damen.

A twig broke behind them and Kashel, dressed and prepared for the day, was approaching, watching them, cautious, assessing. The child let out an imperious squawk and reached for his mother. Laurent handed Radomir over, seeming unaffected and aloof, when Damen knew he was anything but.

Laurent spoke, polite but cool, “Let us not waste any more time. We need to reach Ios before dusk. There will be many people eager to meet you both. Our son, the prince, must be presented to his people.”

And they travelled home, to do their best.

Chapter Text


 

Several years later…

At the start of unification, the King of Vere, with wisdom that belied his youth, suggested each of the provinces be allowed to retain their customs and cultural heritage. There was free movement and trade across borders. Diversity was embraced and valued, along with the gaining of knowledge rather than fear of the unknown.

Annual festivals were held that showcased the best of both cultures in sports (of course), the arts, fashion and food. The peoples of Vere, Akielos and even Patras and Vask came to learn that they were alike in more ways than they were different.

Languages were retained but Akielon schools began teaching conversational Veretian and vice versa. Most children became bilingual and it spread throughout communities.

Within a few years, citizens of Akielos and Vere learned to live without war or mistrust, side-by-side.

The only major change to day-to-day life was the adoption of a new currency. The coins bore the profile of the heads of the two kings. They faced one another, demonstrating their harmony and their union. Damen’s profile was recognisable from his curls and classic Akielon nose and Laurent’s from his jawline and the soft wave of his hair.

Artists and sculptors were inspired. They created likenesses of their kings using oils and marble. Statues of Damen and Laurent appeared everywhere. Paintings of them too, always together, among their people or seated on thrones, riding at the head of their armies, their symbolic wrist cuffs on gleaming display. The period of their rule became known as the Reign of the Unifiers.

On this particular day, at dawn, before the battalion of the Kings’ Guard were due to depart Marlas, there had been the ceremonial Turning Of The Cloaks.

Marlas had reverted to Veretian land so when the kings visited, together or apart, they wore the blue and starburst on the outside of their cloaks. The ceremony occurred when the kings were about to move between traditional Veretian and Akielon lands. The ceremony itself was done with a certain visual flourish that Damen found quite Veretian, but never admitted out loud.

The cloaks of the Kings’ Guard were double-sided, a commission procured from the legitimate Veretian cloth merchant, Charls, some years prior. The quality and cut of the cloth was of the highest standard.

At the call from Commander Jord, and with precision and well-rehearsed movements, the soldiers placed their swords on the ground before them and touched a single knee to the stones.

And shouted, in unison, “For Vere.”

The cloaks were unbound and, as the soldiers stood, they wheeled the fabric about their shoulders. The cloaks spun, turning from the blue and starburst to deep red and gold lion, before settling around the shoulders of each member of the battalion. Then, with perfect timing, the soldiers dropped again to one knee, reclaiming their swords.

On standing, in unison, “For Akielos.”

And finally with swords held high, a battle cry that shook the ground, “To our kings!”

Damen watched the ceremony from the top of the stairs before the parade ground. The significance of this moment had a double meaning for him.

It had been a month of touring the border forts, observing and participating in tournaments and dispelling minor disputes.

It felt longer.

A month was a long time to be apart from Laurent. Damen carried him within, always. His voice spoke in his ear, reminding him to be shrewd, to look at people and issues sideways, as well as at face value. In the same way he knew his own voice reminded Laurent, in Damen's absence, to act with honorable intent.

Their mental connection was strong but it was not the same as whispered words in the dark or holding each other in their arms.

The battalion set out on horseback and by mid-morning of the following day they were at last approaching the outer city, moving to the first rises of the limestone cliffs toward the palace at Ios.

They paused, in the avenue of apricot and almond trees on the city outskirts, to allow the young prince to leave his mother’s side, step out from the royal wagon and join his father on a silver pony at the head of the troop.

Damen’s riding leathers felt warm and easy. The saddle beneath him creaked and the flags heralding the presence of one of the kings snapped and flared in the afternoon breeze. Damen's heart brimmed with anticipation.

The sound of several hundred hoof beats behind him became louder as the battalion moved from the earthen path, through the gates to the first cobblestones of the walled city.

Damen glanced down at his son. Prince Radomir was wearing a tiny version of the cape of the Kings’ Guard. The sight made Damen smile.

The sharp-eyed child saw his father notice him, and his chest swelled at being watched. It was his first time riding in front of a battalion with his father, the King.

Radomir knew that he was luckier than most children. He had a mother and two fathers - and they were both kings! No other man was as big as Father. Or as brave. Or had more muscles. Radomir sighed as he looked down at his own stick thin arms and legs. He ate constantly, longing to grow tall and strong like Father. They looked alike with their dark curls and brown eyes. Many people feared Father, King Damen he was called, but not Radomir. So long as he tried hard to listen and learn from his teachers, and be honourable in his dealings with others, Father was never cross. In fact, Father was endlessly patient with Radomir. At the end of each day he listened to Radomir's stories as though they were the most important thing. In their private chambers, Papa was happy to play at being Radomir's horse (one that never bucked), or a terrifying bear that Radomir attacked with his wooden sword. Of course Father always allowed Radomir to vanquish the bear.

Radomir's Papa, King Laurent, was something else. Papa and Radomir didn't look anything alike, but Radomir admired him so. Papa was pretty with elegant long limbs and his yellow hair. Although Radomir didn't say that out loud. Papa was the King too, after all. Papa was brim full of ideas and fun schemes for them both. He made up the best games, better than any of Radomir's friends. Most games ended with them both rolling on the floor, laughing. Papa also snuck Radomir the tastiest treats from the kitchens, showed him the secret passages in their different castles, and hidden places where he could spy on people without being watched. In the last year Radomir had begun having occasional night terrors, and the only way he could get back to sleep was if Papa lay down next to him and sang to him. The last four weeks had been hard. Radomir's heart hurt inside his chest. He missed Papa very badly. He was longing for his hugs, and to see the way his blue eyes crinkled when he laughed.

“Look at my seat, Father. It’s just how Papa taught me, isn’t it?”

“Just so, Mira.”

“He will be so proud, won’t he?”

“Surprised to see you riding at the head of the troop. And proud.”

The boy sat a little taller in his saddle, keeping his eyes to the front.

"And when we all go out, tomorrow or the next day, I can show him how fast I can ride on Gus." He risked a glance and a quick smile, looking up. "We go so fast together, don't we, Father?"

"Like the wind, Mira."

“I’ve missed Papa. Haven’t you missed him?”

Damen almost pulled on his reins as a torrent of thoughts of Laurent crowded into his mind. He missed him as though he had lost a limb or a vital organ. What he said to his young son was, “I have but you know you must observe protocol when you are presented.”

The prince nodded sagely. “I can only kiss his cheek and offer my knee. I mustn’t hug him until we are in our chambers.”

“That’s right.”

The child leaned sideways in his saddle. “But Father, I do so want to hug him.”

Of course, for most of the journey the child had ridden in the royal wagon with the Lady Kashel, his mother. He was only six years, but he was a bundle of vibrant energy and he had begged to be part of the formal procession, returning to the capital and officially welcomed by the King who currently resided at the palace.

As they progressed to the square, Damen spotted him. Laurent stood out, distinct and fair among the crowded dignitaries. He wore tight Veretian laces of Akielon red, a golden lion embroidered on his breast, his gold circlet caught the sun. Damen liked seeing him wear Akielon colours. He enjoyed a brief fantasy of how it would feel to draw on each of those laces, revealing white skin and firm muscle, in the privacy of their royal chambers.

Laurent held himself with typical regal aloofness, cool and untouchable. Only Damen could notice the tells heralding his eagerness for their return. Such as the rubbing of his thumb along the pads of his fingers. As they drew even closer, Damen saw the way Laurent’s eyes darted hungrily from Mira to Damen. He knew that Laurent was as desperate as he for the moment when they could be themselves, without the prying eyes of the court.

Damen swung down from his saddle and held his hand out to help his son. With typical stubbornness, the young prince ignored the assistance, swung his leg over his saddle and dropped lightly to the cobblestones, grinning with pride at his perfect execution. Damen remembered being young and wanting to show how capable he was in front of his own father and older brother.

They began the ascent, boots tapping on the marble steps to where Laurent and the other dignitaries waited. Damen’s breath caught before he formally kissed each pale cheek on the King of Vere’s face. The pads of his fingers dug into Laurent’s shoulders, letting him know. Laurent’s body was rigid, his expression impassive. But Damen knew better than anyone, the impossible self control Laurent was capable of in public.

“My King,” said the high, thin voice. Radomir bent his knee perfectly and Damen caught the faintest hint of a smile on Laurent’s face.

*

The night did not exhaust their need for one another. A month apart. Going forward there had to be a better way.

On waking, Damen was lying on his back with an arm around Laurent. Laurent was curled into his side, one of his legs thrown possessively across both of Damen's. Laurent stretched like a cat and pressed his face into Damen’s chest, inhaling.

“Good morning” Damen’s voice was deep and warm.

Laurent looked up. A faint flush dusted his cheeks, as though he was recalling a moment from their night together. “These absences. Waking without you in our bed is not ideal.”

“Not ideal.”

"I prefer when we start our days together." Laurent rolled so that they lay, belly to belly. He kissed Damen’s lips, slow, gentle and let his hands drift down Damen’s sides. “We have the morning. No official appointments until late this afternoon.”

Damen smiled and his mind spun with amorous possibility.

Laurent became rigid. “No. Wait-” The suddenness of it halted the progress of Damen's wandering hands.

Damen said, “What?”

Laurent released a breath and rolled onto his back, although not far enough away to dislodge Damen’s arm.

“Something has happened in my absence?”

“No.”

“So?" Damen felt mild alarm.

"Before we..." A blurt. “I need to discuss something.”

“Then do it.”

Laurent’s head turned away, his gaze travelling to the gauzy curtains that billowed before the marble balcony, his brown furrowed. It was unlike Laurent to avoid eye contact. “In all these years…” Laurent released another frustrated breath, uncharacteristically inelegant with his words, choosing and disregarding how he wanted to say it. “When you are away…" Another pause. Finally, "When we are apart…I realise that, before me, you had quite an appetite…for intimacy…with women as well as men. And this trip you were with Kashel-”

“Laurent.”

“The two of you get along well. And you have history.”

Exasperated. “One night. I was inflamed on hakesh if you recall. And acting on your instruction.”

Laurent said nothing.

“She is a useful ambassador, a caring mother. A friend.”

Laurent kept his lips pressed together and his eyes stayed on the view beyond the balcony.

“Kashel and I have not. Besides, Nikandros. Do I strike you as the sort of man to bed the lover of his oldest friend?”

Laurent was flushed. “No. That is not quite what I meant."

"Then speak plainly." The words came out harsher than he intended.

Laurent was twisted up in some internal struggle. He pushed himself into a sitting position, swinging his legs to the floor and facing away from Damen. His hands curved tight around the edge of the feather filled mattress. He pressed his palms flat and stood, pacing toward the balcony, grasping the thin fabric of the curtain draped on one side and twisting it in his fist.

From a blissful awakening full of promise, this sharp turn of events was quickly souring Damen's mood. Yet, he couldn't stop his eyes falling on the familiar, pale muscles of Laurent's back, his defined arms, the compact curves, the pale hair, a tousled mess from sleep and lovemaking. It drew him irresistibly. His feet, warm from their bed, chilled on the cool tiles until he reached Laurent. They stood side-by-side, staring out at the blue expanse of ocean beyond the white cliffs. Both naked, the crisp morning breeze made their skin pebble.

Laurent's voice was low and a little rough. "Given your past, it would not be unusual for you to want other lovers…the halls of Ios are full of those more than willing. I wanted you to know…I don’t need details, but I would be alright with-”

“Laurent.”

Damen reached for his hand, loosening Laurent's grip on the curtain. He curled their fingers together. "Come back to bed."

Laurent turned so that they were facing each other. He stared at the sun-browned skin of Damen's throat, refusing to make eye contact. Neither of them were even remotely roused. Damen tugged Laurent's hand into his, and with only mild reluctance, Laurent allowed himself to be led back to the bed. In silence they lay down together, still holding hands and staring at the domed ceiling of their bedroom.

Damen forced himself not to speak while he considered why Laurent was raising this now. What might it be like for Laurent, living in Ios in his absence? Laurent hadn't remained here alone for some years. Even though it had been years, Damen knew the court was still rife with whispered gossip of the exploits of the young, arrogant Prince Damianos. Something must have been said. Something that stuck. Something that hurt. Laurent gave the impression of being untouchable, impervious to any insult, any slight. But on this, on matters of the heart and intimacy, he was as fragile as the thinnest sheet of glass.

Damen knew he would need to choose his words with care. He turned to his side so that they were facing. He curled his fingers around the back of Laurent’s neck, his thumb stroking the still unmarred, fine skin.

“Laurent,” said Damen. “My youth is scattered with many people, men and women. I have been tempted by a fair face and seduced by a pleasing shape. I have been attracted to men who excelled at sports or those with admirable skill in battle. I spent time with men and women who possessed knowledge, wit or a challenging mind.” He bent his head and pressed a kiss along Laurent’s sharply defined jaw. “I sought pleasure where I might. I lusted and I bed many. It was a simple exchange.”

Laurent's eyes had fallen shut. Every muscle in his body was strained, taut, despite the gentling of Damen’s hands. Damen felt shock and anger when he noticed that Laurent's lashes were damp.

Damen said, “I never,” he pulled Laurent closer so that he could feel the honesty of his words. “I never had, nor could I imagine that there existed, the embodiment of all these desires in one person. Intimacy for me is no longer simple. It is entwined with everything I feel for you.”

Damen kissed Laurent on his pale, smooth brow. “I want for nothing.”

Damen looked down. A flush had spread from Laurent’s chest, up his neck and across his cheeks. His mouth, his beautiful, full mouth was held soft, lips slightly parted.

“So what you are saying is, I’m enough.”

A kingdom and this.

“I am fairly sure I just told you. Laurent, you are everything." He closed his own eyes and pressed his lips again to the smooth brow. They stayed that way, holding each other close for some time. Damen felt the unlocking of each of Laurent's muscles as they melted into each other, like steel into a furnace.

Eventually, Damen drew back, looking down at Laurent's upturned face and saw the smile that he knew was only his.

This had all been much too heavy for a long desired reunion. Damen decided to lighten the mood, teasing and soft. "But what of you? Do you have…other appetites beyond what I can offer?”

“Damen,” said Laurent, choked. Damen's heart broke apart. He wrapped his arms around Laurent's slighter form, drawing them together, and felt Laurent's grip around his waist, pulling them even closer. They drifted together into a light doze.

Later, they woke, facing each other. Laurent's direct gaze had returned, piercing Damen's heart as it always did. He could tell that Laurent's worries had been appeased, the familiar warmth and confidence had returned. Alongside it was a distinctive playful gleam. Laurent's tongue darted out to wet his lips. Damen’s heartbeat picked up as his eyes travelled.

“For me,” Laurent said and closed his eyes. “For me,” he repeated, and stopped. Then, alight with mischief. “It was always the muscles.”

“Why you…” Damen and felt the world spin as Laurent took the upper hold, pinning him to the royal bed in a practised move. They wrestled, each taking turns at gaining control and losing it. Breathless laughter.

Damen noticed the fine lines that had formed in the corners of Laurent’s eyes. Laurent was twenty-six, in his prime. He possessed a remarkable combination of masculinity and breathtaking beauty. But those fine lines; they had appeared after Damen, after Mira, from laughter that had been absent from Laurent’s life, before.

After a few moments, as was usually the case between them, the straining muscles relaxed and they folded into one another. Kisses became searing, deep, and the rocking between their bodies strode towards a more purposeful end.

“Damen,” said Laurent. All traces of teasing were gone. His eyes were wide and clear, no trace of guile. “Loving you is who I am.”

A short time later, Laurent had one hand fisted in the sheets, the lean muscles of his torso were held in delicious tension and his other hand was massaging Damen’s curls in an act of outright encouragement. Damen used his mouth and hands to get him good and worked up. Laurent tossed his head to one side and appeared to stop breathing. Damen progressed at a leisurely pace up his body, open-mouthed kisses and tongue exploring where he might. He stroked his own cock with oiled fingers and prepared to take him.

There was movement at the entrance to the royal chambers. A cough, then an unfamiliar and quavering voice.

Just once, no, thought Damen, uselessly.

“Yes,” said Laurent, exhaling in a rush. He turned his flushed face to the servant, who was new, Akielon, and blushing in furious modesty, staring at the marbled floor.

“Your Highness,” said the servant.

“Well, get on with it.”

“The p-prince. Prince Radomir requests an immediate audience with the King,”

Damen had pushed himself to one side and lay on his stomach. He propped his head onto his hand and regarded the servant. “Tell the little demon that the king will be with him presently.” He was more than annoyed at the interruption and its timing. “We are not due for wrestling practise until later today.”

In fact, Damen was not going to stop what he was planning to do to Laurent unless outright war was being declared on the border.

“Exalted,” continued the servant. “The prince requests an audience with His Highness…his other father.”

Damen lifted an exasperated brow at Laurent.

“It slipped my mind. In my excitement to see him, I may have mentioned something about a morning ride.”

“Y-yes, Your Highness. That is what the prince is waiting for.” The servant added under his breath, “He’s being quite demanding about it.”

“He gets that from you,” said Laurent.

Damen said, “Manipulating new servants to interrupt us against my explicit orders. That’s a Veretian move.”

Laurent ran fingers through his disordered hair. He sighed. Damen noticed that his colour was still high and despite feigning casual disregard in front of the servant, there was evidence to the contrary beneath the sheets. Laurent said, “I don’t know whether to be annoyed or impressed.” He raised his voice to the servant. “Where is the child’s mother?”

The servant stammered, “Lady Kashel is out. Riding for the day with the Kyros.”

“Well.” Laurent released a long breath. “I suppose there is nothing else for it.”

Damen said, “You would choose horse riding with a six year old over bed play with me?”

Laurent turned and spoke in a private voice. “I find it difficult to choose between you, my love. Is there a reason I cannot have both?” Laurent’s smile was Damen’s weakness. He didn’t think that would ever change.

Damen had one hand under the sheets and he let it wander until he located its target. He wrapped fingers around the hard length, circling the head with his thumb and pressing down.

Laurent closed his eyes and swallowed. His voice was a little rough, “Tell Prince Radomir to run the hounds twice around the parade ground and he will be joined for his ride by both his fathers shortly.”

The servant bowed and backed out with some urgency.

Damen said, “I’ve never seen you at the mercy of anyone the way you are with that boy."

“That’s because you do not pay attention to the way I look at you.” When he spoke to him like that, Damen’s heart still lurched in his chest. They kissed because they couldn’t help it. Even after years together, it was still one of their favourite things to do.

Laurent twined his arms around Damen’s neck. His eyes lit with playful challenge. “You will have to take me quick for a change.”

Damen said, “Luckily, you are not the only member of this family who enjoys some very fast riding. Your Highness.”

And he bent to his work with great industry.

 

~

Fin

~